Joseph Smith's First Vision: Fact or Fiction?
To hear a 10-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on this topic originally broadcast in June 2014, click the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10
Joseph Smith's First Vision: Fact or Fiction?
By Wesley Walters
The well-publicized story of Joseph Smith's First Vision is not a true account of the origin of the Latter-day Saint movement. The facts are decided against it! First, the historical evidence shows that Joseph Smith, Jr. could not have been stirred by an 1820 revival, to ask which church was true. Second, early Mormon statements do not support his claim that in 1820 he learned through a visitation of the Father and the Son that all existing churches were wrong. Third, the details known about Joseph's early life contradict his assertion that in 1820 he had such a divine visitation and was persecuted by the community for telling such a story.
No 1820 Revival
First, his neighborhood in 1820 experienced no revival such as he described, in which "great multitudes" joined the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The Presbyterian records for the Palmyra Presbyterian Church show that it experienced no revival in 1820. (See Geneva Presbytery "Records," Presbyterian Historical Society.) The local Baptist church gained only six on profession of faith the entire year ("Records for the First Baptist Church in Palmyra," American Baptist Historical Society) while the Methodists actually lost members that year as well as the preceding and following years (Minutes of the Annual Conference).
Joseph Smith claimed that his mother, sister and two brothers were led to join the local Presbyterian Church as a result of that 1820 revival. However, four years before he made this claim, his own church paper had stated that the revival in which his family had been led to join the Presbyterian Church took place in 1823 (Messenger & Advocate I, pp. 42, 78). In fact, that account says it was the same 1823 revival that led him to go to his bedroom (not to a sacred grove) and pray "if a Supreme being did exist" and to know that "he was accepted of him." An angel (not a deity) is then reported to have appeared and told him of his forgiveness and of the gold plates.
Joseph's mother, likewise, knew nothing of an 1820 vision. In her unpublished account, she traces the origin of Mormonism to a bedroom visit by an angel. Joseph at the time had been "pondering which of the churches were the true one." The angel told him "there is not a true church on Earth. No not one" (First draft of "Lucy Smith's History," LDS Church Archives).
Furthermore, she tells us that the revival which led her joining the church took place following the death of her son, Alvin. Alvin died Nov. 19, 1823, and following that painful loss she reports that, "about this time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest, flocked to the meeting house to see if there was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our over-charged feelings" (p. 55-56).
She adds that although her husband would only attend the first meetings, he had no objection to her or the children "going or becoming church members." There is plenty of additional evidence that the revival Lucy Smith refers to did occur during the winter of 1824-25. It was reported in at least a dozen newspapers and religious periodicals. The church records show outstanding increases due to the reception of new converts. The Baptist church received 94, the Presbyterian 99, while the Methodist work grew by 208. No such revival bringing in "great multitudes" occurred in 1820.
It is clear that the revival Joseph Smith, Jr. described did not occur in 1820, but in 1824. Joseph Smith arbitrarily moved that revival back four years to 1820 and made it fit a First Vision story that neither his mother nor other close associates had heard of in those early days. The historical facts completely discredit Joseph Smith's First Vision story. (For further details, see "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought" Spring 1969, pp. 59-100.)
Bible Reading Vs. Revelations
Furthermore, about 1832 Joseph Smith, Jr. began an account of the origin of the Mormon Church (the only one written in his own hand) that contradicts the official First Vision story he dictated some six years later. The account was never finished. (See the text in BYU Studies, Spring 1969, pp. 278ff.)
In this version Joseph presents himself between the ages of 12 and 15 as being a committed and perceptive reader of the Bible. He claims that his study of the Scriptures led him to understand that all of the denominations were wrong. He wrote: "By searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament."
Six years later, when he set forth his official First Vision story, he decided that he never had reached the firm conclusion that all churches were wrong from his study of the Bible. Instead, he claimed that it was during a vision of the Father and the Son that he first learned this information. He presented this as coming as a great surprise, for he added parenthetically -- "for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong." That statement even contradicted what Joseph had said a few paragraphs earlier in the same account. There he claimed that "I often said to myself ...Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together?" Although the former statement appears in the original manuscript (see BYU Studies above, pg. 290), such a serious contradiction could not be allowed to stand, and after Joseph's death the embarrassing words were edited out.
Even without those words, however, the 1838 official account is in conflict with the 1832 version. In the 1832 account it is his Bible reading that stirs him to seek God, while in the 1838 story it is a non-existent revival that motivates him.
In the 1832 version he claims to have seen only Christ, while in the 1838 rendition both the Father and the Son appear. In the 1832 account he already knows all the churches are wrong, while in the 1838 story it is the dual deities who first inform him of this. Different people may have different views of the same event, but when one person tells contradictory stories about an event, he completely loses his credibility.
Persecution Vs. Acceptance
The 1838 First Vision story not only runs into trouble with Joseph's earlier 1832 version, but it is also contradicted by what we know about his early years in Palmyra. In his official version Joseph claims he was persecuted by all the churches in his area "because I continued to affirm I had seen a vision." However, Orsemus Turner, an apprentice printer in Palmyra until 1822, was in the same juvenile debating club with Joseph Smith. He recalled that Joseph "after catching a spark of Methodism ...became a very passable exhorter in evening meetings" (History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, 1851, p. 214). Thus, instead of being opposed and persecuted as his 1838 account claims, young Joseph was welcomed and allowed to exhort during the Methodist's evening preaching. Furthermore, no one, either Mormon or non-Mormon, seems ever to have heard of Joseph's encounter with two divine Personages until after 1838. (See this admission in Dialogue, Autumn 1966, pp. 30-31; Saints Herald, June 29, 1959, pg. 21.)
From all available lines of evidence, therefore, Joseph's First Vision story appears to be a fabrication. There was no revival [as described by Smith] anywhere in the Palmyra area in 1820. Joseph was welcomed, not persecuted, by the Methodists. His 1832 account represents him as perceiving from his personal Bible study that all the churches were apostate, while his 1838 account said it "never entered into my heart that all were wrong." His 1832 version claimed only a vision of Christ, while the 1838 story transformed this into the Father and the Son. No one ever heard such a story until after he dictated it in 1838. In the light of such strong contradictory evidence, the First Vision story must be regarded as only the invention of Joseph Smith's highly imaginative mind. The facts and Joseph's words discredit it.
Which First Vision Account Should We Believe?
By Lane Thuet
According to LDS scripture, when Joseph Smith was 15 years old, he was confused as to which church was true. He claimed this confusion was sparked by an 1820 religious revival in his neighborhood. His heart was powerfully impressed one night when he read James 1:5, and subsequently he went into the woods near his house to pray that God would tell him which of all the Christian sects was right. As he began to pray, he claimed that he was nearly overcome by "some power" of "astonishing influence" that prevented him from speaking. As he called out to God, he was miraculously delivered by two beings who identified themselves as Jesus Christ and God the Father. Joseph Smith claimed that he was told the following: "I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt" (Joseph Smith – History 1:19).
This story is referred to in the LDS Church as the "First Vision." It was this vision that ultimately led Joseph Smith to organize what is today known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whenever LDS missionaries meet with potential converts, their message always includes the "First Vision" story. This vision is obviously the cornerstone upon which the LDS Church is built. In fact, the ninth president of the Mormon Church, David O. McKay, said that "the appearing of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith is the foundation of the Church." (Gospel Ideals, p. 85). Preston Nibley, a descendant of an early LDS apostle, once wrote that "Joseph Smith lived a little more than twenty-four years after this first vision. During this time he told but one story..." (Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 30).
So important is this vision that it is published as scripture to the Mormon people in a book known as The Pearl of Great Price. This official version was taken from the early LDS publication Times and Seasons, which originally published it on April 1, 1842 (pp. 748-749). Joseph Smith wrote this account of the vision in 1838, 18 years after it supposedly happened.
However, contrary to what Mr. Nibley claimed, this is not the only version Joseph ever told. In 1965, a BYU student named Paul Cheesman found a different version of the first vision. He noted that the accounts differed in significant details. This led others to start looking into the matter, and a surprising detail came to light. There are at least nine different versions of this first vision, each of which differs in the more significant parts of the story. Here is a brief look at them, starting with the latest known account, and working back to the earliest one.
Version 9. On May 24, 1844, Alexander Niebaur wrote the first vision in his journal as Joseph Smith told it to him. In this account, most of the details are the same as the official version, except that Joseph was not told that all of the Christian sects were wrong. Instead, he was specifically told that the Methodists were not God's people.
Version 8. In 1843, Joseph Smith gave an interview to the Pittsburgh Gazette, which was reprinted in the New York Observer on Sept. 23, 1843. In this version, Joseph said he was 14 years old, and there was no mention of any dark power trying to overcome him.
Version 7. This is the officially accepted version of the first vision, published in Times and Seasons on April 1, 1842.
Version 6. On March 1, 1842, the Times and Seasons published contents of a letter written by Joseph Smith to John Wentworth. This was published one full month before the account that is accepted as the official version today. In this one, Joseph Smith did not give his age. He mentioned no evil power overcoming him, and he said two personages visited him, though he never identifies them. It is significant that he did not mention the evil power that played so prominently in the story and also that he omitted that the personages visiting him were supposedly God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Version 5. In 1841, Joseph Smith's brother William Smith told the story to James Murdock. This account is published in A New Witness For Christ In America (2:414-415). This account lists Joseph as being 17 years old when he received the vision, and rather than God and Jesus appearing to him, William states that it was only a "glorious angel." Admittedly, this account is third hand, and William could certainly have been mistaken about Joseph's age. But it is not likely that he would forget that God Himself and Jesus Christ visited his brother, unless he was never told that to begin with.
Usually we dismiss third-hand accounts in our research, believing them to usually be very unreliable. However, this account is substantiated by other sources. For example, in the early LDS publication Times and Seasons for December 15, 1840 (Vol.2 pg. 241), Oliver Cowdery stated specifically that Joseph Smith, Jr. was 17 at the time of the first vision - specifically placing the year of the vision in 1823. And in at least seven other places in the Journal of Discourses, early LDS leaders shared that it was only an unidentified angel that visited Joseph, not God and Jesus (2:171, 196, 197; 10:127; 13:78, 324; 20:167).
Brigham Young even stated specifically that the Lord did not visit young Joseph. In reference to this vision he said "The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven...But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun...and informed him that he should not join any of the religions of the day, for they were all wrong;..." (Journal of Discourses 2:171).
William Smith's account was also printed in part in the RLDS Church publication The Saints Herald (Vol. 31 No. 40, page 643, 6/8/1884). No correction or retraction of the information published there was ever printed. We must keep in mind that both the LDS and RLDS (now known as the Community of Christ) share the same history for the first several years of Mormonism's existence. Contradictions regarding Smith's Vision would affect the credibility of both groups.
Finally, this account is also worthy of special consideration because it was first brought to light by a Mormon researcher from the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. As mentioned earlier, Paul Cheesman wrote his master's thesis in 1965 entitled "An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith's Early Visions." In that study he discusses this differing account of the first vision in detail. It was subsequently discussed by LDS scholars in the publication Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought for Autumn 1966. None of these researchers and scholars dismissed the account as mere gossip; rather they discussed it as a valid account worthy of consideration. There is no reason, then, for us not to consider it as well.
Version 4. In 1837, William Appleby recorded the vision story as given by Orson Pratt in his diary. In this version, the revival was not until 1822, Joseph was 17 again, and the visitors were not God and Jesus but beings who identified themselves only as angels who claimed to have forgiven Joseph's sins. Again, this is a third-hand account, but the most important details of the vision are left out or completely different.
The differing details of this vision account have been verified by other statements of LDS leaders throughout the early years of the LDS Church. George A. Smith and Orson Hyde both stated that Joseph was visited not by God but by angels (Journal of Discourses 6:335; 12:334). This corroborative information makes this third-hand account worthy of our consideration. In addition, the discourses and statements of the early LDS apostles and prophets, as published in many books by the LDS Church, were mainly recorded from the diaries and journals of the early Mormons. The LDS Church considers these third-hand accounts to be valid enough to accept for "inspirational" material. It would be inconsistent for the Mormons to accept only those accounts that support their teachings and to disregard those accounts with which they disagree. Since Orson Pratt was a first-hand witness to the early events of Mormonism and to the life of Joseph Smith, Jr., his version of the events are of significant importance for consideration – even when recorded in a listener's journal.
Version 3. In 1835, Joseph Smith dictated his own account of the first vision for his personal diary. There is some question among scholars, even those who are LDS, as to who the scribe was for this part of the diary. Some believe it was Warren Parrish, but others believe it was Warren Cowdery. Regardless of which man physically wrote the account, the fact is that it appears in the official diary of the Prophet, and this journal entry is accepted as accurate and valid. In this account, which was first published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (VI, No.1, pg. 87), the evil power is mentioned for the very first time. In all previous published accounts (listed below), no evil power was ever mentioned by Joseph. Also, he does not claim that the messengers were God and Jesus, just that many angels visited him. That seems to be a very curious omission.
Version 2. In February 1835, the LDS publication Messenger and Advocate recorded the account of the vision that Joseph Smith gave to Oliver Cowdery. In this account, Joseph was 17 years old, the revival is in 1823, and no mention is made of James 1:5. Instead, Joseph claimed he had been wondering if there was a God and if his sins could be forgiven. His only reason for praying was to ask if God did exist. After "11 or 12 hours" in prayer, he was visited by "a messenger from God" who forgave Joseph's sins. While this vision is given in the Messenger and Advocate as the first vision of Joseph Smith, this story was later revised and published as a second vision from the angel Moroni preparatory to giving Joseph Smith the golden plates.
It should be noted that this account was printed not only in an LDS publication but also during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. No statements by Joseph against the accuracy of this account have been found, indicating his approval of the information given. It was also a second-hand account given by Oliver Cowdery, a witness to many of the key events in LDS history. The same account was also copied unchanged into Joseph Smith's Manuscript History of the Church and subsequently into the LDS publication Times and Seasons. Since it was copied into so many LDS publications and records without any changes, the account must have been considered accurate and valid to Joseph Smith at that time. This adds quite a bit of significance to the differing details of this version.
Version 1. The earliest known account of the first vision was written in 1831-32 in Joseph Smith's own handwriting. This was the version made public by Paul Cheesman in 1965, published later that same year by Jerald and Sandra Tanner in Joseph Smith's Strange Account of the First Vision. This account had been in the hands of LDS leaders for over 130 years, hidden away in their vaults – presumably because it differs so greatly from the official version. In this account, Smith claimed to be 16 years old and that he already knew that all churches were wrong from reading the Bible. Joseph sought forgiveness, and it was Jesus alone who visited him and forgave his sins.
We are left, then, with various differing stories of this important event. Joseph never did tell "but one story" of the first vision; he told several, as already shown by the various published statements of early LDS leaders. There is no way to tell, then, if any of the details of the vision really happened. Was it one angel or several who visited Joseph? What was the identity of the heavenly visitor to Joseph – Jesus and God, Jesus alone, Peter (JD 6:29), Nephi (Times & Seasons 3:753; 1851 PoGP, pg.41; Millennial Star 3:53, 71), or Moroni?
Was he 14, 15, 16 or 17 years old when it happened? Was his reason for praying to get forgiveness, to determine if there was a God or to find out which religion was correct? Was he overcome by a dark and evil power or wasn't he?
All these variations – particularly in the accounts that came directly from Joseph Smith himself – lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the official version of Joseph Smith's "first vision" is, at best, unreliable. Though unproveable, Joseph may have had some kind of a vision in his younger years that he expanded upon and/or changed the details of each time he re-told it. Eventually the story was developed into the heart-rending official version that the LDS Church publishes today as fact, though it clearly is not.
- Two-part audio podcast, go here and here.
- Which First Vision Account Should We Believe?
- Of Visions and Stories: The Distinctive Problems with Joseph Smith's First Vision, by Roger N. Overton
- New Light on Joseph Smith's First Vision (Off Site)
- Joseph Smith's Changing First Vision Accounts (Off Site)
- Concerning those “Abominable” Creeds, by Bridget Jack Jeffries
- "Explanations about how Joseph Smith could have seen God before being ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood or having received its ordinances have been varied. Early Mormon brethren who confronted this issue concluded that Joseph did hold the priesthood having, in some sense, brought with him from the preexistence. . . According to Joseph Fielding Smith, since the priesthood wasn't yet on the earth, young Joseph was exempt from this requirement" (Charles R. Harrell, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, p. 146, footnote 65).