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 unprovable, 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 retold 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.
For a look at other historical issues related to Mormonism, please click here.