First Vision

The official narrative of Joseph Smith’s First Vision that the LDS Church promotes states that in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus, after overcoming Satan’s attempt to destroy him. However, it seems hardly a family member, neighbor, newspaper, clergy, early Mormon convert or even anti-Mormon detractor heard about such this event until nearly two decades later. Whatever early persecution Joseph endured seemed to stem more from the family’s unpaid debts and treasure digging ventures, not from discussion of his visionary encounter.

This is one topic where the chronology proves helpful. 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 U.S. The vision story was first presented to U.S. members in Times and Seasons in March 1842. Numerous Church sponsored and anti-Mormon publications were printed during the intervening decades, yet not a single one mentioned any vision.

IMPORTANCE OF THE FIRST VISION


“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.” (The Mormons, Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, PBS, April 2007)

“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” (Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith 1954, vol 1, 188).

“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” (The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith, Gordon B. Hinckley, October 2002).

LDS leaders have long understood how vulnerable they are on the first vision topic. In 1969, Dean Jesse of the Church Historian’s Office, and the leading expert on Joseph Smith documents, was chastised for writing about the first vision. He was told “You have published photographs which I have been instructed not to talk about” (Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History, 80).

SMITH’S SILENCE


No one knows the date of Smith’s foundational vision. “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” (Dialogue, James B. Allen/Assistant Church Historian, Autumn 1966, 29-45).

Only many years later did Joseph proclaim to have been visited by God and Jesus; and not until many years after that did the first vision story begin to overtake prior story of seeing an angel. William Smith’s account helps to illustrate how his family and closest associates were familiar only with Joseph’s talk of an angel. Of the first vision, William said, “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” (William Smith [Joseph’s brother], William Smith on Mormonism, 8-10).

Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, dates her mentioned revivals to after Alvin’s death in 1823, as she sought comfort in the community. The death of her oldest son is not something a mother confuses. The revival periods are an important question for some, as Smith’s 1838-39 account states that “great multitudes” joined the various churches.

Lucy Smith regularly kept a personal journal. Though she regularly 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 in 1838 – 18 years later. Some scholars have 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 in earlier accounts. The affidavits of his Palmyra neighbors consistently affirm that the Smith family was engaged in treasure-digging in 1820 (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 141).

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. Denominations of all stripes were experiencing regular visions during this revivalist period. Mysticism, speaking in tongues, falling down, shaking and visions were regular occurrences. 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 the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the  Second Great Awakening  took place. Numerous religious movements sprang up in America, most claiming visions of God, each coincidentally incorporated Christ in their name, each claiming to be His restored church. Nearly all American conversion experiences mention angelic ministration or visions of Deity.

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

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” (1826, Christian Guide, 71).

Explore the accounts of 16 similar visionaries who’s experiences predate Smith’s. Notice how strikingly similar many are, even referring to the woods, a dark grove, above the brightness of the sun, bodily shape like a man, sins forgiven, all churches corrupt, etc.

While seeing God was common, necromancy was not. Communicating with the dead, especially in order to locate objects or predict future events, was generally discredited.

EMBELLISHED VISIONS


Over time, there came to be 4 primary first-hand vision versions; each providing conflicting details, each increasingly impressive, more physical, more miraculous than the previous. There are also 8-10 second-hand versions of lesser importance. Joseph’s age, who appeared, even his thoughts and stated motivations preceding the event are inconsistent.

Joseph’s personal journal contains a brief hand written draft of his first vision experience, dated 1832, which mentions seeing only “the Lord…in the sixteenth year of my age.” The journal makes no mention of God or battling Satan. As Joseph did not share a vision experience with anyone, the draft remained unknown.

Numerous early Prophets and Apostles are documented in LDS records up to the late 1800’s as having clearly referred only to an angel or angels, even stating that God did not come down.

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. Historians believe this to be the most credible version, as it was closest to the reported event.

“…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…” (The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Dean C. Jesse, BYU Studies, 9:280, 1969, Kirtland Letterbook 1829-1835).

  • 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.” There was no mention of God or Satan, only The Lord.
  • There is no mention of other churches being corrupt.
  • Smith stated in the “16th year of my age,” which would have made him fifteen or sixteen at the time.
  • This first and only version in Smith’s own hand contradicts the 1838 version regarding what he 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

“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…” (The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Dean C. Jesse, BYU Studies, 9:284).

See the 1835 vision accounts HERE

  • Now there are two personages, but one followed by another, conflicting with the 1838 version.
  • Many angels are mentioned.
  • Smith said he was about 14 years old at the time of the vision.

1838/39 Version

See the 1838 vision account HERE

  • Smith’s age is reported to be 15.
  • This version states “it had never entered into my heart” that no church was true, until he was told such in the vision, contradicting the 1832 version, wherein he said he already learned that by studying.  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.” (Joseph Smith History)
  • Joseph’s journal indicates that he, Sidney Rigdon, and George Robinson collaborated on beginning the history in late April, but we do not know who actually wrote this narrative, as it is unlike anything Joseph ever wrote himself.
  • This version 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.

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 led the Saints rather abruptly out of Nauvoo toward Salt Lake, with boxes of records in tow. Letterbook 1, containing Joseph’s original first vision account, was in one of the boxes. Joseph Fielding Smith was called as Church Historian in 1921, leading to his discovery of the journal sometime between 1921 – 1935, nearly 100 years after it was written.

Potentially recognizing the seriousness of the problem posed by the 1832 vision account, Joseph Fielding Smith cut 3 pages out of Letterbook 1. A restricted section already existed in the Church’s archives, prohibiting anyone from entering without special permission – which Joseph Fielding Smith rarely granted. Joseph Fielding kept the pages within his private safe, the contents of which became part of the first presidency vault.

In 1950, Levi Young, President of 1st Quorum of 70’s, requested access to the journal, which Joseph Fielding Smith promptly denied. Levi went over his head, 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, was interviewing Levi Young when he mentioned a “strange account of the first vision,” but said it needed to remain confidential. Peterson retained the confidence until Levi’s death, at which time he informed Gerald and Sandra Tanner, who began writing about the elusive document. As public pressure escalated, Joseph Fielding Smith seemingly 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


However difficult to reconcile, Joseph’s first vision was simply not being talked about in the 19th century church. Clearly worded statements from prophets, apostles and various leaders indicate how they believed God did not come down, or that Joseph only saw an angel. Particularly telling is the fact that none of the abundant anti-Mormon publications of the day attacked or even mentioned the first vision, 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…” (William Smith On Mormonism, William Smith, 1883, 5).

PROPHETS SPEAK OF AN ANGEL


Joseph Smith “…I received the first visitation of Angels when I was about 14 years old…” (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith,1835, 84). 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’ “(Church Historical Record, vol. 7, Jan., 1888). 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 Hisangel 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” (Journal of Discourses, 1855, vol 2, 171).

“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…” (Journal of Discourses, vol 18, 239).

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” (Journal of Discourses, 1855, vol 2, 196).

“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” (Journal of Discourses, 1869, vol 13, 324).

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 theangelswas committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else” (Journal of Discourses, 1854, vol 6, 335).

Heber C. Kimball – “Do you suppose that God in person called on 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”(Journal of Discourses, 1857, vol 6, 29).

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”(Journal of Discourses, 1863, vol 12, 334).

“[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?'”(Journal of Discourses, George A. Smith, 1869, vol 13, 78)

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”(Journal of Discourses, 1863, vol 10, 127).

“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” (Journal of Discourses, 1879, vol 20, 158-171).

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…” (Journal of Discourses, 1889, vol 24, 135).

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