The divine visitations to Joseph Smith are very important to Mormons because they are central to Joseph's claim of prophetic status. Joseph's successors have continued to claim a prophetic mantle and the current presidency of the church and its twelve apostles are all sustained by the church members as prophets, seers and revelators. The apostles also claim the role as special witness of Jesus Christ.
Their is an aura of reverence and secrecy surrounding those claims. I can never recall a modern church leader claiming to have seen God face to face as a man, but church members assume that they have. Part of the belief is that it is too sacred to speak about. But the assumption is there and it is carefully cultivated. After all, if an apostle's faith is no different than a rank and file member's, then what makes his witness "special"? The "special" aspect is assumed by most members to be a personal visit by Jesus that allows them to proclaim his divinity with a certainty denied to those that must live by faith.
If you read the above church article you'll see how carefully the apostles choose their language to give the impression that their knowledge is different than that of a normal member. This is how Howard Hunter describes the role of the ancient apostles:
It is very clear from this quote that the function of an apostle was to be an actual eye witness of the resurrected Lord to those who have not actually seen him. Note that the Mormon church claims to have apostles that fulfill the same role. By implication the reader is left to assume that the modern apostles are also literal witnesses who have "handled the Lord's hands and feet." But note the careful way he states this.
These twelve Apostles served a vital function in the Lord’s plan. They were special witnesses of the Savior’s divinity and of his literal resurrection. Not only did they know him during his mortal ministry, but they communed with him after his resurrection. The resurrected Redeemer appeared in the midst of his disciples in the upper room. They handled the Lord’s hands and feet and learned that Jesus was not merely a spirit but a resurrected being with flesh and bones. (See Luke 24:38, 39.)These Apostles knew of the Lord’s divinity and of his resurrection with a certainty beyond all disputation. With this knowledge, born of experience and confirmed by the Holy Ghost, they were commanded to “be witnesses unto [Christ] both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
In our day the Lord has again called Apostles. These Apostles have been ordained as special witnesses of Christ in all the world. They know of the reality of Christ and his redemption with a certainty born of the Spirit.Note that here he uses the cryptic statement, "with a certainty born of the Spirit." Church members are taught that mortals cannot bear the presence of God except through the power of the Spirit. So what does he mean? He quickly follows with a quote from Joseph Smith,
“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice beating record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father.” (D&C 76:22–23.)Are you following his logic? It's seems pretty clear that he's making the claim that he, as a modern apostle, follows the pattern and has had a similar experience to Joseph Smith and the ancient apostles. Here's his special witness:
The Prophet’s witness, born of experience and of the Spirit, has been proclaimed throughout the world, and the Holy Ghost has confirmed the truthfulness of that witness in the hearts of millions who have received the word with gladness. The pattern for proving spiritual things has been reestablished in our day. And an unbroken chain of succession has ensured that the apostolic calling has been with us continually since it was restored to Joseph Smith.
As an ordained Apostle and special witness of Christ, I give to you my solemn witness that Jesus Christ is in fact the Son of God.
The resurrected Lord has continued his ministry of salvation by appearing, from time to time, to mortal men chosen by God to be his witnesses, and by revealing his will through the Holy Ghost.
It is by the power of the Holy Ghost that I bear my witness. I know of Christ’s reality as if I had seen with my eyes and heard with my ears. I know also that the Holy Spirit will confirm the truthfulness of my witness in the hearts of all those who listen with an ear of faith.
Parse the words carefully and note the "as if." As a faithful member would this increase or decrease your belief that the apostles have actually seen Jesus Christ? Everything leading up to this point is carefully constructed to give that impression, but he comes just short of making the claim. Many members would claim that he's too humble or that the experience is too sacred.
The only reason I bring it up is that he gave this talk on October 30, 1983 and only a little over a month later, while in the Missionary Training Center, I heard this same man during the Church's Christmas Devotional Broadcast explicitly state that he had never seen Jesus Christ and that his "special" witness was a spiritual witness that he felt was stronger than if he'd actually seen him. Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't seem like that is the impression he was trying to give or that apostles continue to try to give today.
So, I'll give him credit for actually publicly answering the question although I can't find any transcripts of that talk.
I'll also close by noting that just a few short years later this man became the president and prophet of the church. So, unless something changed in those years it's probable that the Mormon church is led by prophets that have never seen God despite the fact that they allow the perception to exist that they have.
Is it just me, or is that dishonest?