First Vision

The official version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision states that in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus after overcoming Satan’s attempt to destroy him. Yet, it seems hardly a family member, neighbor, newspaper, clergy, early Mormon convert or detractor was aware of this event until nearly two decades later. Early backlash against Joseph stemmed more from the family’s unpaid debts and treasure digging ventures, not from a visionary encounter.

See the chronology for a fuller understanding of events in contexts. 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.

IMPORTANCE OF THE FIRST VISION


Since the early twentieth century, LDS leaders have emphasized the First Vision as the foundational event of the Restoration. The following quotes demonstrate the vital role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the modern church:

Joseph Fielding Smith: “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; his claims should be refuted, and his doctrines shown to be false, for the doctrines of an impostor cannot be made to harmonize in all particulars with divine truth. If his claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect. The doctrines of false teachers will not stand the test when tried by the accepted standards of measurement, the scriptures.” [1]

Gordon B. Hinckley “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. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.” [2]

LDS leaders have long understood the vulnerability of the First Vision. In 1969, Lauritz G. Petersen, Research Supervisor at the LDS Church History Division, cautioned Dean Jesse, then the leading expert on the Joseph Smith documents, “You have published photographs which I have been instructed not to talk about.” [3]

SMITH’S SILENCE


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.” [4]

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.” [5]

PALMYRA REVIVAL


Joseph’s mother, Lucy, dated the Palmyra revivals after Alvin’s death in 1823—during the time she began seeking comfort in the religious community. The revival periods are 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 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.

Joseph did not identify the 1820 date for his vision until he dictated his history eighteen years later. Indeed, in earlier retellings, Joseph 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]

VISIONS WERE COMMON


Judged by modern standards, visions may seem extraordinary, but they were more common during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Believers of all denominational stripes experienced visions during this revivalist period. Mysticism, speaking in tongues, falling down, shaking, and visions were common occurrences at large revivals such as the Cain Ridge Revival of 1801. Even Joseph Smith Sr. reported at least seven significant visions, five of which Lucy Smith summarized in her memoirs.

The Burned-over District refers to thewesternandcentralregions ofNew Yorkin the early nineteenth century, where revivals and the formation of new religious movements took place. Numerous religious movements sprang up in America during what historians now call the Second Great Awakening, many claiming visions of divine beings. A number of these new religious groups, now called “restorationists,” 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.

EMBELLISHED VISIONS


Over time, there came to be 4 primary first-hand vision versions, each providing conflicting details, each increasingly complex and impressive. There are also eight to ten second-hand versions of lesser importance. But even in the accounts credited to Joseph, details such as his age, who appeared, and even his stated motivations for seeking the Lord are inconsistent.

Joseph’s earliest attempt to record his history in 1832 contains a brief, firsthand account of his vision experience, perhaps dictated to or amended by Frederick G. Williams, which mentions seeing “the Lord . . . in the sixteenth year of my age.” The revelation continues that “the Lord” opened the heavens, and then again that Joseph Smith saw the “Lord.” Some scholars of Mormonism nuance these two mentions of “the Lord” as indication of two 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.

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…”

  • 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.
  • 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.”

Two 1835 Versions

See the 1835 vision accounts HERE

“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]

  • 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

See the 1838 vision account HERE

This version contradicts the 1832 account, suggesting “it had never entered into my heart” that no church was true, until he was told such in the vision. Joseph 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]

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.

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

1842 Official LDS Version – The Wentworth Letter

See the 1842 account HERE

Joseph’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.

Smith’s Letterbook 1 – cellophane tape reaffixes the pages

JOSEPH FIELDING SMITH


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. Others suggest that Joseph Fielding Smith deliberately buried the document due to its contradictory details with the official account.

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 VIRST 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.

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.

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…” [16]

PROPHETS SPEAK OF AN ANGEL


Joseph Smith “…I received the first visitation of Angels when I was about 14 years old…” [17] 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’ “. [18] 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.” [19]

“Do we believe that theLord 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…” [20]

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.” [21]

“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.” [22]

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.” [23]

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.” [24]

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.” [25]

“[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?'” [26]

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.” [27]

“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.” [28]

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…” [29]

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