First Vision

Since the early twentieth century, LDS leaders have emphasized the First Vision as the foundational event of the Restoration. In 1971 Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in Doctrines of Salvation: “Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph Smith was a deceiver, who willfully attempted to mislead the people, then he should be exposed.” [1]

40 years later, in 2002, Gordon B. Hinckley similarly argued that “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.” [2] But the truth of the traditional Sunday School narrative of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the simple fourteen-year-old farm boy who reads James 1:5 and goes to ask God which church to join is highly dubious.

Despite the fact that Smith said he was persecuted by those around him for speaking about the vision, no family or friends of Smith mentioned the First Vision until two decades later. To the contrary, it seems that early backlash against Smith stemmed more from the family’s unpaid debts and treasure digging venture rather than any spiritual experiences. Not until many generations later did the vision narrative become common knowledge central to the LDS faith. 

There are problems with many of the historical details surrounding the various accounts of the Vision, making it difficult to know precisely in which year it occurred, though the LDS Church claims it was 1820. Additionally, there are concerning differences in the multiple accounts of the First Vision regarding the nature of God in a traditional Trinitarian Christian view, the motives compelling Smith to pray in the Sacred Grove, and the events of the experience itself from appearances by angels and Satan.

CONTEMPORARY WRITINGS


Former assistant Church Historian, James B. Allen, observed, “None of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision…the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it.” [3] In 1839, Orson Pratt created a proselytizing pamphlet in Scotland, which became the first ever published account of the First Vision, though it was not circulated in the U.S. The story of the First Vision was presented to U.S. members in the Times and Seasons in March 1842. Of the numerous church-sponsored publications, as well as publications critical of the Mormons, none mentioned the First Vision.

Among church leaders, the earliest discussions of Joseph Smith’s visionary encounter feature an angel, not God the Father and Jesus Christ. The account of Joseph’s younger brother, William, provides an illustration. William recalled, “While engaged in prayer a light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees… An angel then appeared to him [Joseph Smith, Jr.] and conversed with him upon many things. He told him that none of the sects were right; but that if he was faithful in keeping the commandments he should receive, the true way should be made known to him; that his sins were forgiven, etc. The next day… the angel again appeared to him, and told him to call his father’s house together and communicate to them the visions he had received… After we were all gathered, he arose and told us how the angel appeared to him; what he had told him… and that the angel had also given him a short account of the inhabitants who formerly resided upon this continent, a full history of whom he said was engraved on some plates which were hidden, and which the angel promised to show him… All of us, therefore, believed him, and anxiously awaited the result of his visit to the hill Cumorah, in search of the plates containing the record of which the angel told him.” [4]

While it is possible that William was confusing two separate accounts of events, one the story of the First Vision and the other the story of the angel Moroni who brought the gold plates to Smith to translate some years later, it is concerning that there is no account of two heavenly beings appearing, but only of an angel. It also seems strange that William’s account (and Smith’s own first account of the First Vision) focus on his forgiveness rather than the need to create a new church.

The LDS Church admits that there are differences in such accounts of the First Vision, but claims that these differences are of the kind that would naturally occur as someone reconsiders the meaning of an event as true doctrine unfolds. But the confusion in early accounts of the First Vision (as well as changes to the original text of The Book of Mormon) indicate that Smith was still holding firmly to a Trinitarian Christian view of a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as physically one. If Smith had seen two separate beings of the godhood, would this not be a distinct part of his account of his experience, precisely because it was so different from other Christian ideas of God? Would he forget seeing two beings and talk of only one? 

HISTORICAL PROBLEMS


Joseph Smith tells us in his history that the reason that he was propelled to study the New Testament and to wonder about which church to join was because of “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” [5] He dates this in the year 1820. But it is difficult to verify this date according to other accounts of the same events. Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy, dated the Palmyra revivals after Alvin’s death in 1823—during the time she began seeking comfort in the religious community.

Precisely when these revival periods occurred is an important question, as Smith’s 1838-39 account states that “great multitudes” joined the various churches. Reverend Wesley P. Walters concurred, pointing to contemporary records that state 1824 as the date of the revival Joseph Smith referred to, not 1820. [6] Oliver Cowdery, likewise, places the revival in 1823 and, according to Walters, “makes no reference to any vision occurring in 1820.” [7] Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, kept a personal journal. Though she frequently elaborated on mundane things, such as being offended when a gathering of local ladies criticized her modest log cabin, she recorded no mention of her son’s visitation with God.

The Church remains unaware of the date of Smith’s foundational vision. Smith did not identify the 1820 date for his vision until he dictated his history eighteen years later. Indeed, in earlier retellings, Smith vacillates on his age being between fourteen and sixteen. One historian suggested that he may have relied upon the affidavits in Mormonism Unvailed to narrow down a year and season only, an argument bolstered by the conflicting ages he provided. The affidavits of his Palmyra neighbors consistently affirm that the Smith family was deeply engaged in treasure-digging in 1820. [8]

Perhaps it does not matter if the year of the First Vision is 1820 or 1824 or any of the years between, though it seems strange that Smith would be so lax in his dates. It leads to questions about what other details may be unreliable in this account.

VISIONS OF THE DAY


It is important to realize how similar Smith’s accounts are in both specifics and generalities to other accounts of supernatural religious experiences during the same time period. Nearly all American conversion experiences of the day mention angelic ministration or visions of Deity. The LDS Church would argue that Smith’s vision was the only “true” one. Historical facts suggest that the vision occurred in a specific religious context and that it may have a different, less literal meaning than has been attributed to it.

The “Burned-over District” often referred to in Joseph Smith’s history is the western and central regions of New York in the early nineteenth century. Numerous revivals and religious movements sprang up in America during what historians now call the Second Great Awakening, many claiming visions of divine beings. Mysticism, speaking in tongues, falling down, bodily shaking and visions were regular occurrences. A number of these new religious groups, now called “restorationists,” similarly believed that their churches were the restored church of Jesus Christ.

In 1816, reverend Elias Smith published his vision, stating, “I went into the woods . . . a light appeared to shine from heaven.” [9] In 1821, Charles Finney recorded, “An overwhelming sense of my wickedness . . . took such powerful possession of me.” [10] In 1829, Solomon Chamberlain recounted a visionary experience he had in 1816, stating, “He said not one of us was right; but that the Lord would in his own due time raise up a church.” [11]

John Samuel Thompson, a teacher at the Palmyra Academy, declared in 1825, Jesus appeared “in a glare of brightness exceeding tenfold the brilliancy of the meridian [noonday] sun.” The Lord told him, “I commission you to go and tell mankind that I am come; and bid every man to shout victory.” [12]

The accounts of 16 similar visionaries predating Smith’s illustrate a common theme in language and circumstance, even referring to the woods, a dark grove, descriptions of divine beings as being physically embodied and “above the brightness of the sun,” forgiven sins, and the corruption of all churches. Even Joseph Smith Sr. reported at least seven significant visions, five of which Lucy Smith summarized in her memoirs.

After reading these accounts of other visions, an unbiased observer would likely wonder if Smith was influenced by other accounts of great visions, even if he truly had his own. And if that was so, and he borrowed language from others, and struggled later to remember the specifics, such an observer might logically conclude that whatever experience Smith had has been obscured by history—or that there was never such a vision at all.

MULTIPLE ACCOUNTS


Over time, there came to be 4 primary First Vision versions, each providing conflicting details, each increasingly complex and impressive—perhaps embellishments as Smith began to use the stories to bolster his claims of special authority from God for his new religion. There are also eight to ten second-hand versions of lesser importance. One might expect variations in telling stories to different groups of people, but not the fundamental aspects. Yet even in the first-hand accounts credited to Smith, details such as his age, who appeared, and even his stated motivations for seeking the Lord are inconsistent.

It is interesting to note that Smith’s first dictated and first published version of his vision experience is almost entirely omitted from LDS dialogue. Located today in D&C 20, Joseph created it for the purpose of running his newly formed church. It was post-dated two years after it was dictated and wasn’t published until the 1833 Book of Commandments, but a June 1830 dictation is reasonable. “God ministered unto him through an angel” cannot be interpreted to mean that God and Jesus appeared to him in the sacred grove.

Worth noting, is how the Church refers to the event as a vision, rather than a visitation, which is relevant in relation to other foundational experiences which were experienced only in the mind of the beholder. Further, many have questioned the role of the Holy Ghost in this episode, as stated in John 14:26 and countless official LDS instruction, is to “bring all things to your remembrance.”

CLICK HEREFIRST VISION COMPARISON TABLE

Comparison of First Vision narratives

 

THE VARIOUS VERSIONS


The 1832 Version

Joseph Smith’s very brief 1832 account is the only version partially written in his own hand, with the remainder dictated to Frederick G. Williams. Smith recorded “…calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me…and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy Sins are forgiven thee…”

Important details of this account:

  • Smith’s mind became “seriously impressed at age 12 with the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures.”
  • No mention of Satan or seeing God, only “The Lord.”
  • No mention of other churches being corrupt.
  • “16th year of my age” would make Joseph fifteen or sixteen at the time, so 1821, not 1820.
  • Contradicts the 1838 version regarding what Smith knew and when: “my mind became exceedingly distressed…and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the lord, that man had apostatized from true and living faith and that there was no society or denomination that was built upon gospel of Christ as recorded in new testament.”

    Some scholars of Mormonism nuance these two mentions of “the Lord” as indication of two separate divine beings, attempting to accord the 1832 account with later accounts. However, evidence suggests that Joseph Smith held trinitarian views at the time of this writing. [13] A more reasonable explanation is that Joseph Smith used common evangelical beliefs in his description of the Lord, who would have been Jesus Christ and not a being distinct from “God the Father.”

Two 1835 Versions

An excerpt from the best-known 1835 account is:

“A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication…” [14] (See the full 1835 vision accounts HERE)

Important details of this account:

  • Two personages are mentioned, one followed by another, contradicting the 1838 version.
  • Many angels are mentioned.
  • Smith’s age is reported to be “about 14” at the time of the vision.

1838/39 Version

Joseph’s journal indicates that he, Sidney Rigdon, and George Robinson collaborated on beginning his history in late April. We do not know who actually wrote this narrative, as it is unlike anything Joseph ever wrote himself. It increasingly incorporates King James Bible material. “They draw near to me to with their lips but their hearts are far from me” is a loose quote from Isaiah 29:13. “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men” is a quote from Matthew 15:9. The wording “having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof” is a quote from 2 Timothy 3:5. (See the full 1838 vision account HERE)

This most important change in this version is its contradiction of the 1832 account, suggesting “it had never entered into my heart” that no church was true, until he was told such in the vision. Smith states “My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right, for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong and which I should join.” [15]

Important details of this account:

  • Smith’s age is reported to be 15 at the time of the vision.

1842 Official LDS Version – The Wentworth Letter

Joseph Smith’s letter to John Wentworth was published in Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842. This is the first published account of the first vision in the U.S. It is also the first time the Church officially stated that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. (See the 1842 account HERE)

Important details of this account:

  • Joseph Smith was fourteen years old.
  • He went specifically to ask which church he should join.
  • Two personages appeared
  • Satan tried to stop him from praying
  • No angels
  • He was told to join no church because they were all wrong

Smith’s Letterbook 1 – cellophane tape reaffixes the pages

JOSEPH FIELDING SMITH


The LDS Church claims that the previously unknown accounts of the First Vision were “forgotten” by members until historians found them in the 1960s. This is an obfuscation of the truth, which is that Joseph Fielding Smith, the Church Historian and a descendant of Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother, deliberately withheld this information from public view.

Brigham Young abruptly led the Saints out of Nauvoo through Iowa with boxes of records in tow. Letterbook 1, containing Joseph’s earliest first vision account (the 1832 account), was in one of the boxes. In 1921, Joseph Fielding Smith was called as Church Historian and discovered Letterbook 1 sometime between 1921–1935. Joseph Fielding Smith removed three pages from Letterbook 1 that contained Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of his vision. By this point, a restricted section already existed in the Church’s archives, prohibiting anyone from entering without special permission. However, Joseph Fielding Smith kept the pages within his private safe, the contents of which eventually became part of the First Presidency Vault.

We can only speculate as to why Joseph Fielding Smith excised and shielded the 1832 account from view. Some speculate that it owed to the sacred nature of the document—an account of the First Vision in Smith’s own writing. It is also reasonable to argue that Joseph Fielding Smith deliberately buried the document due to its contradictory details with the official account and that he, at least, found the differences troubling.

Joseph Fielding Smith was regularly protective of his family lineage and relation to Joseph Smith. He is on record as having disavowed the Book of Mormon’s now officially validated method of seer stone dictation as “all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that the use of such a (seer) stone was made in that translation.” [16]

In 1950, Levi Young, president of First Quorum of Seventies, requested access to the journal, which Joseph Fielding Smith denied. Levi went over his head and obtained clearance, gaining access to the private safe only after promising not to tell anyone or copy anything. In 1952, Lamar Peterson, an amateur historian, interviewed Levi Young when he mentioned a “strange account of the first vision,” but said it needed to remain confidential. Peterson maintained confidentiality until Levi’s death in 1963, at which time Lamar informed Gerald and Sandra Tanner who began writing about the enigmatic document.

As public pressure escalated, Joseph Fielding Smith taped the pages back into the journal and reluctantly made the archive available to BYU student Paul Cheesman, who included it in his 1965 master’s thesis.

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CHURCH REMAINED UNAWARE OF FIRST VISION


Church leaders and members rarely discussed the First Vision in the nineteenth-century church. Statements from prophets, apostles, and various leaders demonstrate their belief that God did not come down, or that Joseph saw an angel. Particularly telling is that none of the anti-Mormon publications of the day even mentioned the First Vision, let alone criticized it, reinforcing the fact that no one heard of it until decades later.

The rise of the First Vision narrative to prominence within the LDS Church coincided with a period of cultural renewal in the early 1900s, as polygamy was reluctantly exterminated by Federal intervention and the series of manifestos by the Church. The Reed Smoot hearings, which extended from 1903 to 1907, focused a national spotlight upon various peculiarities of Mormonism and accelerated the Church’s desire to reinvent its religious identity. From this period forward, the vision story became a uniting force among members, helping to distinguish themselves as a unique people.

1829 – The Smith family wrote many letters to family members promoting the Book of Mormon, yet none mentioned a first vision or visitation from God.

1832 – Delusions, Analysis of Book of Mormon, by Alexander Campbell, did not mention or criticize Smith’s vision.

1834 – Mormonism Unvailed, a comprehensive anti-Mormon manifesto containing numerous sworn affidavits from Smith’s neighbors and associates, contained no mention of any vision.

1835 – Joseph Smith worked directly with Oliver Cowdery to produce an account of early church beginnings for publication in the Messenger and Advocate paper, yet it too contained no mention of any vision.

1835 – The earliest version of the D&C contains the Lectures of Faith, which described God as a spirit only, and no mention of Joseph having seen either God or Jesus.

1835 – The first edition Book of Mormon included a decidedly trinitarian view of God, which directly conflicts with God and Jesus appearing in separate corporeal form. The 1835 Book of Mormon was edited to separate God and Jesus, arguably for this reason.

1837 – Parley P. Pratt published A Voice of Warning, a 200 page missionary pamphlet to promote the restoration and communicate the most important aspects Mormonism, yet it failed to mention a vision.

1842 – Mormonism in All Ages, J.B Tanner, also failed to mention or criticize Smith’s vision.

1853 – Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, published Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith. This is where we first learn of Joseph Smith’s heroic childhood leg operation, Joseph Senior’s 7 visions and 2 of her own. There was no mention of any first vision. This absence is troubling when contrasted against Lucy’s lengthy stories about the angel and the plates. Recognizing the omission, Orson Pratt later placed the canonized vision story into her book word for word.

1854 – A Voice of Warning, Parley P. Pratt, 4th edition, contained no mention of the First Vision.

1883 – “He accordingly went out into the woods and falling upon his knees called for a long time upon the Lord for wisdom and knowledge. While engaged in prayer a light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees where he was. It appeared like fire. But to his great astonishment, did not burn the trees. An angel then appeared to him and conversed with him upon many things.  He told him that none of the sects were right…” [17]

PROPHETS SPEAK OF AN ANGEL


Church leaders and members rarely discussed the First Vision in the nineteenth-century church. Statements from prophets, apostles, and various leaders demonstrate their belief that God did not come down, but rather that Joseph saw an angel, though these stories are often confused with the account of the angel – later identified as Moroni or sometimes Nephi. Smith’s own family and closest associates were surprised as the story emerged and evolved many years later. Slowly, the first vision story begin to overtake the prior narrative of seeing an angel.

Here are some pertinent quotes about the First Vision and the “angel” who appeared to Joseph Smith. Many of the original source materials remain publicly available, confirming the Church’s alteration of various documents to align with the official narrative.

Joseph Smith “…I received the first visitation of Angels when I was about 14 years old…” [18] Note: this entry was altered in the History of the Church, Inquiries by Erastus Holmes, vol 2, ch 23, 312 to now read “my first vision” instead of “visitation of Angels.”

“The angel again forbade Joseph to join any of these churches, and he promised that the true and everlasting Gospel should be revealed to him at some future time.  Joseph continues: ‘Many other things did he (the angel) say unto me which I cannot write at this time’ “. [19] Note: The Church altered the first reference of the angel to “the Holy Being”; the second reference was changed to “the Christ”.

Brigham Young - “The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven … but He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong.” [20]

“Do we believe that the Lord sent his messengers to Joseph Smith, and commanded him to refrain from joining any Christian church, and to refrain from the wickedness he saw in the churches, and finally delivered to him a message informing him that the Lord was about to establish his kingdom on the earth…” [21]

Wilford Woodruff - “The same organization and Gospel that Christ died for … is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world … He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world.” [22]

“How did it [Mormonism] commence? It commenced by an angel of God flying through the midst of heaven and visiting a young man named Joseph Smith in the year 1827. … The Lord heard his prayer and sent His angel to him, who informed him that all the sects were wrong.” [23]

Orson Hyde - “Some one may say, ‘If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Savior come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?’ Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else.” [24]

Heber C. Kimball – “Do you suppose that God in person called upon Joseph Smith our prophet? God called upon him, but God did not come himself and call. But he sent Peter to do it. Do you not see, he sent Peter and he sent Moroni to Joseph and told him that he had got the plates.” [25]

George A. Smith - “…he [Joseph Smith] went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong.” [26]

“[Joseph] was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, one of the first inquiries was ‘Which of the denominations of Christians in the vicinity was right?'” [27]

John Taylor – “How did this state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith and manifested unto him in vision the true position of the world in a religious point of view.” [28]

“None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right. What, none of them? No. We will not stop to argue that question; the angel merely told him to join none of them that none of them were right.” [29]

George Q. Cannon -“But suppose that the statement that Joseph Smith says the angel made to him should be true-that there was no church upon the face of the earth whom God recognized as His, and whose acts He acknowledged-suppose this were true…” [30]

CONCLUSION


Evidence has yet to surface to support the notion that early church leaders were aware of, or taught, the first vision the way members understand it today. The evolution of the first-vision narrative during Smith’s lifetime, its further evolution after his death, and the deliberate covering up of conflicting details by 20th century prophets and apostles invites questions about the reliability of the first vision as a historical occurrence. Some have suggested that the differences arose based on the intended audiences, but do not explain the complete absence of the story for the first decade and a half of the early church.

As modern prophets have instructed, “our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision.” If the first vision occurred differently than the canonized narrative, or perhaps did not occur at all, upon what divine basis does the foundation of Mormonism stand? If Joseph Smith’s multiple first-vision accounts wouldn’t stand up to the most basic rules of evidence, should they form the pillars of belief in the Church’s doctrine, scripture, and theology today? The historicity of the first vision has caused many to question other aspects of church history as well.

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