By Eric Johnson
Beginning in December 2013, the LDS Church began publishing a series of essays meant to explain hard teachings (for a list of other articles and podcasts from MRM, go here). The entire article on the “First Vision Accounts” is underlined here, with my scattered commentary throughout.
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 recorded that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a grove of trees near his parents’ home in western New York State when he was about 14 years old. Concerned by his sins and unsure which spiritual path to follow, Joseph sought guidance by attending meetings, reading scripture, and praying. In answer, he received a heavenly manifestation.
First of all, the first sentence makes it appear that Joseph Smith “recorded” an appearance he had with God the Father and Jesus in 1820. This is not true, as we will discuss later. In fact, the first recorded instance from Joseph’s pen doesn’t come until 1832–an account given in his diary–and this only mentions the “Lord,” not God the Father. (See chart on the bottom for more details.)
We must also explain that what we call the “First Vision account” is based solely on Joseph Smith’s personal testimony. Indeed, there were no other witnesses to the event that he claimed to have experienced. Allow me to borrow heavily from the book Answering Mormons’ Questions that Bill McKeever and I wrote in 2013 to provide more analysis.
When most people hear the word vision, they think of a person having a mystical experience, seeing something only in his or her mind. It is something seen by the imagination and not experienced empirically through any of the five senses. However, in what has been called the First Vision, it is assumed that the teenaged Joseph Smith was allowed to see God in the actual body of flesh that Mormon leaders say He possesses.
For instance, President Ezra Taft Benson declared,
The first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith is bedrock theology to the Church. The adversary knows this and has attacked Joseph Smith’s credibility from the day he announced the visitation of the Father and the Son. You should always bear testimony to the truth of the First Vision. Joseph Smith did see the Father and the Son. They conversed with him as he said they did. Any leader who, without reservation, cannot declare his testimony that God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith can never be a true leader, a true shepherd. If we do not accept this truth—if we have not received a witness about this great revelation—we cannot inspire faith in those whom we lead . . . Some of our own members have attempted to interpret the experiences of Joseph Smith and his revelations. They say that it really is not important whether or not Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. What matters, they claim, is that he thought he did. That is preposterous! (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 101. Also see Church History in the Fulness of Times Teacher Manual)
Listen to the ultimatum given by fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1961:
I would like to say that this cause is either true or false. Either this is the kingdom of God, or it is a sham and a delusion. Either Joseph talked with the Father and the Son, or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in blasphemy (Conference Reports, October 1961, 116).
In a conference message given in 2002, President Hinckley reaffirmed his position when he said,
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… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church. (“The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, 80. Ellipses mine).
He added this four years later:
There’s no other event in all recorded history that compares with it, not even at the baptism of the Savior. (“Testimony of the First Vision,” Church News, July 1, 2006, 2.)
According to one church manual,
For your testimony of the restored gospel to be complete, it must include a testimony of Joseph Smith’s divine mission. The truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the truthfulness of the First Vision and the other revelations the Lord gave to the Prophet Joseph. (True to the Faith, 90).
Seventy F. Burton Howard wrote,
Our own personal salvation depends upon whether we accept and have a testimony of what Joseph Smith saw and heard in the spring of 1820. (Quoted in “One’s Salvation Rests on Belief in First Vision,” Church News, May 7, 2005, 7)
For Christians, the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as described in 1 Corinthians 15 is the cornerstone of the faith, for as verse 14 puts it, “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
Let’s be very clear from the outset that the event called the First Vision must be a historical event for the story of Mormonism. If it’s not, then the Mormon’s belief system is a lie. The same goes for the Book of Mormon. While some Mormons might like to spiritualize certain events and allow for a fudge factor, they must understand that the historicity of these two events cannot be tampered with or even minimized. These are key, yea central, to the very belief system in Mormonism. It’s like the resurrection for the Christian, as it also can’t be spiritualized away. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” Even the very belief of the Christian depends on the historicity of the resurrection, for Paul explained in Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The official story begins with what Smith called a “religious excitement” that took place in the Palmyra, New York, area where he lived in 1820. In the first chapter of Joseph Smith—History, found in the Pearl of Great Price, he gave several details regarding this revival:
- Great multitudes were added to the churches involved (v. 5).
- Participating denominations included the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches (v. 5).
- The religious excitement resulted in “confusion and strife” among the groups involved (vv. 8–9).
Indeed, the religious excitement mentioned did not take place until 1824! (To support this point, we recommend reading Walters’ The Palymra Revival and Mormon Origins, a booklet available at MRM. Here is a shorter article on this topic.) This may not seem too important, but if the revival mentioned by Smith actually did take place in 1824 and not 1820, the visitation by the angel Moroni in 1823 would become Smith’s “first vision.” Let’s deal with this issue later on in this review.
It was the “war of words and tumults of opinions” among the participating denominations that caused Smith to pray and ask God for a solution to his religious confusion. In verse 15 of the first chapter of Joseph Smith—History, Smith explained that he went out to some woods near his home. There, he says
I . . . began to offer up the desires of my heart to God” when “I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me.
In verses 16–17, he continued,
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
Smith was then told that the churches “were all wrong” and
their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,’ they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof (v. 19).
Isn’t it interesting how the information provided to Joseph Smith is conveniently ignored in this essay. Yet it was the words that Smith supposedly received from God Himself that caused LDS leaders to severely criticize the 19th century Christians. For example:
Second President Brigham Young:
The people called Christians are shrouded in ignorance, and read the Scriptures with darkened understandings (October 8, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:333).
Should you ask why we differ from other Christians, as they are called, it is simply because they are not Christians as the New Testament defines Christianity (July 8, 1863, Journal of Discourses, 10:230).
Third President John Taylor:
What does the Christian world know about God? Nothing; yet these very men assume the right and power to tell others what they shall not believe in. Why so far as the things of God are concerned, they are the veriest of fools; they know neither God nor the things of God (May 6, 1870, Journal of Discourses 13:225).
Sixth President Joseph F. Smith:
…for I contend that the Latter-day Saints are the only good and true Christians, that I know anything about in the world. There are a good many people who profess to be Christians, but they are not founded on the foundation that Jesus Christ himself has laid (Joseph F. Smith, November 2, 1891, [Stake conference message], Collected Discourses, 2:305. Ellipses mine).
The idea amongst LDS leaders continued throughout the 20th century. For instance, listen to what Apostle Bruce R. McConkie had to say on the subject:
That portion of the world in which so-called Christianity prevails — as distinguished from heathen or Mohammedan lands — is called Christendom. The term also applies to the whole body of supposed Christian believers; as now constituted this body is properly termed apostate Christendom (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 131).
Is it any wonder that the Lord of heaven, as he stood by his Father’s side on that glorious day in 1820, speaking of all the churches in all Christendom, told young Joseph “that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, p. 117).
False creeds make false churches. There is no salvation in believing a lie. Every informed, inspired, and discerning person is revolted by the absurdities and scripture-defying pronouncements in the creeds of Christendom, whose chief function is to define and set forth the nature and kind of Being that God is (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary 1:30. Footnote 2).
Some might argue that Bruce McConkie was stating nothing more than his personal opinion. First of all, it must be understood that McConkie was an apostle of the LDS Church. If he was saying outlandish things, why did none of the Brethren publicly rebuke him? The material quoted above comes from books he had written, including one called “Mormon Doctrine.” His position in the church typically far outweighs any of his critics today! (In fact, I’ve never read or listened to a general authority from apostle up that ever publicly criticized McConkie. (For more on this topic, see here.) In addition, there are a number of additional quotes we could pull up to show that this idea of the apostasy of the Christian church was not just limited to McConkie. See here.
Joseph shared and documented the First Vision, as it came to be known, on multiple occasions; he wrote or assigned scribes to write four different accounts of the vision. Joseph Smith published two accounts of the First Vision during his lifetime. The first of these, known today as Joseph Smith—History, was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price and thus became the best known account. The two unpublished accounts, recorded in Joseph Smith’s earliest autobiography and a later journal, were generally forgotten until historians working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rediscovered and published them in the 1960s. Since that time, these documents have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues. In addition to the firsthand accounts, there are also five descriptions of Joseph Smith’s vision recorded by his contemporaries.
This essay makes a major mistake in assuming that the differing accounts of the First Vision lend credence, not doubt, about the historicity of this event. Yet if the First Vision plays such a major role in Mormonism’s history, why is there no mention of it in the early years of the church among the writings of LDS leaders or members, including Joseph Smith himself? Mormon historian James B. Allen concedes that the First Vision narrative, as understood by modern LDS members, is suspiciously absent for much of Mormonism’s early history. He wrote,
According to Joseph Smith, he told the story of the vision immediately after it happened in the early spring of 1820. As a result, he said, he received immediate criticism in the community. There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision. The interest, rather, was in the Book of Mormon and the various angelic visitations connected with its origin. (“The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, autumn 1966, 30)
Allen continued to say
that 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 is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days.( Ibid., 30-31)
If the First Vision story were actually being circulated, Smith’s detractors would have found this to be a lightning rod for criticism. Yet Allen stated that
the earliest anti-Mormon literature attacked the Book of Mormon and the character of Joseph Smith but never mentioned the first Vision. (Ibid., 31)
Smith’s critics included Alexander Campbell, E. D. Howe, Ezra Booth, John Corrill, and J. B. Turner. Allen went on to say,
Not until 1843, when the New York Spectator printed a reporter’s account of an interview with Joseph Smith, did a non-Mormon source publish any reference to the story of the first vision. In 1844 I. Daniel Rupp published An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States, and this work contained an account of the vision provided by Joseph Smith himself. It seems probable; however, that as far as non-Mormons were concerned there was little, if any, awareness of it in the 1830’s. (Ibid)
Allen explained how it was not until 1842 that a detailed account of the First Vision was printed in a Mormon publication.
The Times and Seasons began publication in 1839, but, as indicated above, the story of the vision was not told in its pages until 1842. From all this it would appear that the general church membership did not receive information about the first vision until the 1840’s and that the story certainly did not hold the prominent place in Mormon thought that it does today. (Ibid., 32. The 1842 report of the First vision can be found in Times and Seasons, April 1, 1842, 3:743)
As to why this story is missing, Allen suggests that Smith may have felt “experiences such as these should be kept from the general public because of their extremely sacred nature.”(Ibid., 34) If so, should it be assumed that everyone who allegedly knew of this story had the will to set aside its evangelistic capabilities when speaking to a skeptical prospective convert? Is this even remotely reasonable when one considers that Smith’s encounter has profound importance in bolstering Mormonism’s current view of the Godhead? Consider also that such “sacredness” didn’t seem to prohibit the LDS Church from eventually using this narrative as a missionary tool.
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.
Passages from the Bible are included here, such as Paul encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus or what took place at the Mount of Transfiguration. In a subtle way, the author is utilizing the mentality many Mormons have about God’s Word (i.e., Article 8, saying the Bible is “true as far as it is translated correctly”). For the “multiple scriptural accounts” of what happened to Paul, I have had a number of Mormons point out the contradiction between the two accounts found in Acts 9 and 22. Yet the two accounts go together very well. One Internet commentator explained it this way:
The Greek word for “hear” in both Acts 9:7 and 22:9 is akouo. It is the usual word meaning “to hear” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985). And the same word is used for “voice” in both verses, phone. The same resource defines it as “a sound” and explains it can be used of the voice of God, Christ, angels, humans and even things like the wind. Therefore, researching the original language doesn’t always immediately resolve the seeming Bible contradiction. Did Paul’s associates hear the voice from heaven? Did they understand the words Jesus spoke to Paul?
Vine’s does note, however, that in “Acts 9:7, ‘hearing the voice,’ the noun ‘voice’ is in the partitive genitive case [i.e., hearing (something) of], whereas 22:9, ‘they heard not the voice,’ the construction is with the accusative. This removes the idea of any contradiction. The former indicates a ‘hearing’ of the sound, the latter indicates the meaning or message of the voice (this they did not hear)” (“Hear, Hearing”).
But you don’t have to be an expert in Greek grammar to solve the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Do you know what the best interpreter of the Bible is? The Bible itself! We should allow the context to help us determine the meaning. It is unmistakably plain that Paul heard and understood the words, because he responded and acted upon the words.
The solution to the apparent contradiction comes from Paul. He said the people with him “did not hear the voice” that spoke to him. The only way for the two accounts to make sense is that the associates heard only a sound, while Paul heard distinct words.
Matthew Henry in his commentary adds the following: “They heard a voice, but saw no man; they heard Paul speak, but saw not him to whom he spoke, nor heard distinctly what was said to him: which reconciles it with what is said of this matter, Act 22:9, where it is said, They saw the light and were afraid (which they might do and yet see no man in the light, as Paul did), and that they heard not the voice of him that spoke to Paul, so as to understand what he said, though they did hear a confused noise.”
The NKJV Study Bible notes:
“The men who had accompanied Paul heard the sound but could not understand the words that were being spoken to Paul” (2007, comments on Acts 22:9).
Some might argue that this apparent contradiction shows the book of Acts might not be genuine. To the contrary, writes A. Robertson in Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, “It is one of the evidences of the genuineness of this report of Paul’s speech that Luke did not try to smooth out apparent discrepancies in details between the words of Paul and his own record already in ch. 9” (1927, comments on Acts 22:9).
That is, if Acts was not genuinely inspired, someone attempting to pass it off as such would have attempted to make the distinction plainer by choosing different words. Not fearing any contradiction, Luke used the same words, knowing that the reader would realize what sense the author meant by the words in each context by comparing the accounts.
“Mystery” solved! There is no Bible contradiction between Acts 9 and 22 in the descriptions of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
To think that Luke, the writer of both accounts, would have contradicted himself in the same book just seems outlandish.
When we look at the different versions of the First Vision, there is no “consistent story” being told; the differing accounts are not just based on nuances of “emphasis and detail.” In fact, it is very clear to me that the unattributed writer of this essay knew better than to infer that the different accounts easily mesh together.
Accounts of the First Vision
Each account of the First Vision by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries has its own history and context that influenced how the event was recalled, communicated, and recorded. These accounts are discussed below.
1832 Account. The earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, is found in a short, unpublished autobiography Joseph Smith produced in the second half of 1832. In the account, Joseph Smith described his consciousness of his own sins and his frustration at being unable to find a church that matched the one he had read about in the New Testament and that would lead him to redemption. He emphasized Jesus Christ’s Atonement and the personal redemption it offered. He wrote that “the Lord” appeared and forgave him of his sins. As a result of the vision, Joseph experienced joy and love, though, as he noted, he could find no one who believed his account.
For a list of the different accounts and narratives regarding the First Vision, I have included a chart at the bottom of this article giving a comparison. This comes from Richard Abanes’s book One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church.
According to Utah Lighthouse Ministry, here are the facts of this account:
- It was written down in Joseph Smith’s own hand.
- Smith started serious study of the scriptures at age 12
- He determined all churches were wrong
- At age 15 (in his 16th year) he went into the grove and had a vision of the Saviour
- His sins were forgiven, yet he reverted back to old ways
- At age 17 he again prayed and an angel appeared, telling him about the plates and announced that he was forgiven of his sins.
- Smith dictated D&C 84, stating that no man can see the face of God without the priesthood.
Problems: While Smith does claim to have a vision of Jesus, God the Father is apparently AWOL. And while Smith comes up with the idea that the Christian churches “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.”(Joseph Smith’s 1832-34 Diary, 5), this message was something he concluded and thus not a revelation given by God. The angel referred to in this account appears to be the same as the official 1833 visit from Moroni, a seeming conflation of the two different stories. In addition, Smith says the event took place in the “16th year of my age,” meaning this must have been 1821 and not 1820. The theme of Smith’s sins being forgiven don’t play a role in the later versions. There is no mention of a revival in New York, something that was emphasized in the official version. Missing completely is the phrase “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” All of the major components of the official version are mysteriously missing.
Even if it were possible for Smith to see God, Doctrine and Covenants 84:21–22 explains that the priesthood would have been needed in order for Smith to see Him:
“And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.”
Melvin J. Petersen, who taught church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, acknowledged that Smith had no such priesthood in 1820, the year he claimed to have seen God. However, he pointed to John 1:18 of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible to support the idea that Smith saw God, which reads, “No man hath seen God at any time, except he hath bourne record of the Son.”(A Sure Foundation, 79)
In noting this dilemma, Brigham Young University professor Charles R. Harrell states,
“Explanations about how Joseph 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 it with him from the preexistence.” Harrell goes on to say, “According to Joseph Fielding Smith, since the priesthood wasn’t yet on the earth, young Joseph was exempt from this requirement.”(This is My Doctrine, 146, n. 65)
The essay skips the 1834 account, which came about when Oliver Cowdery, with the help of Joseph Smith, published the first history of Mormonism in the LDS paper Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, Vol. 1, No. 3.)
- Story beings with angel vision in the bedroom in 1823.
- Joseph Smith was 14 (in his 15th year) telling of a revival in the area.
- Mr. Lane, of the Methodist Church is introduced, the leader of a great revival.
- Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches.
- During this revival his mother, Smith’s sister and two brothers joined the Presbyterians.
- On page 78 Cowdery corrected Smith’s age, stating Smith would have been in his 17th year (16) not his 15th year (14) and placed the date at “1823.”
- During this religious excitement Smith prayed to know “if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.”
- His prayer was answered on Sept. 21, 1823, when a “messenger” appeared to him in his bedroom “to deliver a special message, and to witness to him that his sins were forgiven, and that his prayers were heard;…”
Problems: There was no mention in Cowdery’s history of a vision prior to the angel coming to Smith’s bedroom. The age of Smith is also contradicted, first being reported as 14 and then later as 17. As far as Smith’s prayer, it seemed that this given mainly to determine whether or not God existed, not an attempt to determine which church was true (and the assumption that there indeed was a God).
1835 Account. In the fall of 1835, Joseph Smith recounted his First Vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. The retelling, recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe Warren Parrish, emphasizes his attempt to discover which church was right, the opposition he felt as he prayed, and the appearance of one divine personage who was followed shortly by another. This account also notes the appearance of angels in the vision.
Joseph related his first vision to two different men. Both accounts relate seeing angels but not God or Jesus.
- The Nov. 9, 1835 Account (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, pp. 75-76, 1984 ed., p. 105 in the 2002 edition. Also in An American Prophet’s Record, p. 51. This account appeared in the serial printing of Smith’s history in the Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 396. Even though the History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 304 includes some details of the conversation Smith had with Joshua the Jewish minister, the details of the First Vision are not included.)
- Smith related his story to Joshua a Jewish minister
- He didn’t know which of the “different systems taught the children of men” was right
- There is no mention of a revival
- Smith went into the “silent grove” to pray, prompted by both Matthew 7:7 and James 1:5
- Smith hears a “noise” behind him like a person walking towards him, with no mention of “some power which entirely overcame” him, prohibiting him from speaking
- No mention of thick darkness that gathered around him
- “A pillar of fire” appears above his head
- A personage appears in this “pillar of flame” that was “spread all around, and yet nothing consumed”
- “Another personage appeared like unto the first” who told Smith that his sins were forgiven and “testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”
- He “saw many angels in this vision”
- At age 17 he “saw another vision of angels“—one told him about the plates
- The Nov. 14, 1835 Account (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 84, also An American Prophet’s Record, p. 59) Smith related his story to Erastus Holmes:
- “…I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old…”
- He later received the vision regarding the plates
- This same account was later printed in the Deseret News, May 29, 1852. This entry has been changed in the History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 312. It now reads “my first vision” instead of “visitation of angels.”
- Various articles that attacked Joseph Smith’s claims never raised the issue of the first vision or that he claimed to see God. “Campbell and others before 1835 objected principally to claims of authority, modern revelation, miracles, and communitarianism but not to the doctrines of God and man.” (Sunstone, July/Aug. 1980, p. 27)
- Smith began studying Hebrew. This eventually impacted his teaching on Elohim and plural gods.
Problems: Again, if the “personages” were God the Father and Jesus, why does it say “angels” in this account? This was conveniently changed in the History of the Church to eliminate “visitation of angels.” As mentioned earlier, Smith’s critics would have gone after the idea that God the Father was present at the First Vision. The silence of the critics shows that this was not a part of the First Vision at this time.
1838 Account. The narration of the First Vision best known to Latter-day Saints today is the 1838 account. First published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois, the account was part of a longer history dictated by Joseph Smith between periods of intense opposition. Whereas the 1832 account emphasizes the more personal story of Joseph Smith as a young man seeking forgiveness, the 1838 account focuses on the vision as the beginning of the “rise and progress of the Church.” Like the 1835 account, the central question of the narrative is which church is right.
The 1838-39 account was not published until 1842 (Times and Seasons, Nauvoo, Ill., March 15, 1842, Vol. 3, No. 10, pp. 727-728; pp. 748-749; pp. 753).
1842 Account. Written in response to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth’s request for information about the Latter-day Saints, this account was printed in the Times and Seasons in 1842. (The “Wentworth letter,” as it is commonly known, is also the source for the Articles of Faith.) The account, intended for publication to an audience unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs, is concise and straightforward. As with earlier accounts, Joseph Smith noted the confusion he experienced and the appearance of two personages in answer to his prayer. The following year, Joseph Smith sent this account with minor modifications to a historian named Israel Daniel Rupp, who published it as a chapter in his book, He Pasa Ekklesia [The Whole Church]: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States.
- At about 14 Smith started wondering which church was right.
- He went into the grove to pray.
- “Two glorious personages” appeared and informed him that none of the churches “was acknowledged of God.”
- He was told not to join any of them but wait for further revelation.
- In 1823 an angel appeared to tell him about the plates
- When he was in his 15th year (age 14) his mother, sister, and two brothers joined the Presbyterian Church due to a revival in the neighborhood. The revival started with the Methodists and soon spread to the Presbyterians and Baptists.
- Joseph went into the grove to ask God which church to join “for at this time it had never entered my heart that all were wrong.” Two beings appeared. One spoke, pointed to the other being and said “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”
- He was told to join none of the churches “for they were all wrong…all their creeds were an abomination in his sight;…”
- On Sept. 21st, 1823 he again prayed and the angel “Nephi” appeared to him to tell him of the plates (“Nephi” was later changed to “Moroni” in the History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 11).
Problems: As documented above, there are too many differences between the 1832/35 accounts and what we find in 1838/42. And to make a mistake of the angel’s name (“Nephi” vs. “Moroni”) is major! All in all, these differences risk the integrity of Smith’s story. As Wesley Walters explains:
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.
Despite the fact that this 1838/42 version of the First Vision remains the “official” account believed by Mormons today, I find it interesting that the story wasn’t more consistently told by Mormonism’s early leaders. For example, consider how Orson Pratt gave a lecture in the late 1830s where he declared that the personages “declared themselves to be angels” (Sermon recorded by William I. Appleby, “Biography and Journal of William I. Appleby. Elder in the Church of Latter Day Saints,” 1838, 30-33).
Consistency in the First Vision story should be expected if this really was a historical fact. As Walters writes:
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.)
We must also consider the odd references made by mid-19th century leaders who did not seem to hold to the 1838 account, as they believed that angels were a part of the First Vision:
- Orson Hyde (1854): “Some one may say, ‘If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Saviour 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.” (Journal of Discourses 6:335)
- Brigham Young (1855): “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 religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong.”(Journal of Discourses 2:171, 1855)
- Wilford Woodruff (1855): “That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, . . . The angel taught Joseph Smith those principles which are necessary for the salvation of 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, . . . This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel;. . . (Journal of Discourses 2:196-97).
- John Taylor (1863): “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 . . . 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.”(Ibid., 10:127 (1863); 20:167 (1879))
- George A. Smith (1863): “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,—they had all gone astray, transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant, and that the Lord was about to restore the priesthood and establish His Church, which would be the only true and living Church on the face of the whole earth.”(Ibid., 12:334, 1863)
It is curious why LDS leaders did not specifically emphasize Smith seeing both God the Father and Jesus until the official account was canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. With the leadership obviously tiring from wrangling with governmental authorities on the topic of plural marriage, perhaps a unified starting point was needed in the LDS movement. As LDS writer James B. Allen wrote:
The time was ready–made for the outpouring of a new identity with the founding prophet–new reminders to the Saints of what their heritage really was, and of what Joseph Smith’s testimony really meant to them personally. The First Vision was a natural tool for such a purpose, and a new generation of writers could hardly fail to use it. (“Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7:53 (1980)).
The vision and its attendant uses quickly began to appear in lesson manuals, augmenting the Mormon awareness of its transcendent importance. In 1899 the Young Man’s Mutual Improvement Association used it to demonstrate that it had ushered in the “Dispensation of the Fulness of Times.” The vision was thus replacing the angel in Mormon thought as the implementing factor in the restoration. . . . At the beginning of the twentieth century the First Vision also took a permanent place in the missionary literature of the Church. . . . The Sacred Grove [in New York] was acquired by the church in this period, and pilgrimages to the grove became sacred experiences for many Mormons. . . . By the beginning of the twentieth century, belief in the First Vision was fundamental to the faith of the Latter-day Saints.” (Ibid, pp. 56-57. These quotes come from the Salt Lake Messenger, No. 122, May 2014, p. 17)
Today it would be hard to find a Latter-day Saint who couldn’t recite, in detail, every nuance about the First Vision, as it is crucial to any testimony. It is not a rare occurrence to hear the First Vision recited at general conference or explained in any teaching manual.
Secondhand Accounts. Besides these accounts from Joseph Smith himself, five accounts were written by contemporaries who heard Joseph Smith speak about the vision.
All five accounts given in the link come after the 1830s, two decades after the event took place. At first impression, the “secondhand accounts” sounds impressive. But the reality is, these accounts are late and should not be considered definitive, by any stretch of the imagination.
Arguments Regarding the Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
The variety and number of accounts of the First Vision have led some critics to question whether Joseph Smith’s descriptions match the reality of his experience. Two arguments are frequently made against his credibility: the first questions Joseph Smith’s memory of the events; the second questions whether he embellished elements of the story over time.
Memory. One argument regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision alleges that historical evidence does not support Joseph Smith’s description of religious revival in Palmyra, New York, and its vicinity in 1820. Some argue that this undermines both Joseph’s claim of unusual religious fervor and the account of the vision itself.
Documentary evidence, however, supports Joseph Smith’s statements regarding the revivals. The region where he lived became famous for its religious fervor and was unquestionably one of the hotbeds of religious revivals. Historians refer to the region as “the burned-over district” because preachers wore out the land holding camp revivals and seeking converts during the early 1800s. In June 1818, for example, a Methodist camp meeting took place in Palmyra, and the following summer, Methodists assembled again at Vienna (now Phelps), New York, 15 miles from the Smith family farm. The journals of an itinerant Methodist preacher document much religious excitement in Joseph’s geographic area in 1819 and 1820. They report that Reverend George Lane, a revivalist Methodist minister, was in that region in both years, speaking “on Gods method in bringing about Reformations.” This historical evidence is consistent with Joseph’s description. He said that the unusual religious excitement in his district or region “commenced with the Methodists.” Indeed, Joseph stated that he became “somewhat partial” to Methodism.
According to Walters,
the “documentary evidence” shows there was no 1820 revival as described by Smith, in which “great multitudes” joined the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The Methodists actually lost members in 1819 and the following years (Minutes of the Annual Conference). And isn’t it odd that the article says how Smith “became ‘somewhat partial’ to Methodism” if Joseph Smith-History is true?
Meanwhile, 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)
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 mentions occurred 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.)
To see Walters’ article, see our website.
By listing the years 1819 and 1820, the LDS writers give the impression that George Lane was participating the revival that Smiths describes in 1820. However, this is not the case at all, as Lane was still employed in Susquehanna District in central Pennsylvanian during that time. While he may have visited this are, this doesn’t mean anything.
Referring to the Christian ministers that were supposedly heading the revivals, Walters also writes in the booklet The Palymra Revival and Mormon Origins:
The records, however, of both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, to which Mr. Stockton and Mr. Lane respectively belonged, make it clear that neither of these men were assigned to the Palymra area until 1824. . . . In the summer of 1819 Rev. Lane, whom Mormon writers have correctly have identified as Rev. George Lane, was assigned to serve the Susquehanna District in central Pennsylvania, over 150 miles from Palymra. He served this area for five years and not until July of 1824 did he receive an appointment to serve as Presiding Elder of the Ontario District in which Palymra is located. This post he held only until January of 1825 when ill health in his family forced him to leave the ministry for a while. Any revival, therefore, in which both Lane and Stockton shared, as the accounts of Oliver Cowdery and William Smith both indicate, has to fall in the latter half of the year 1824, and not in the year 1820. (pp. 12-13)
Walters did some research of original resources and came across Lane’s personal account of the Palymra revival, written during the time of the revival and printed a few months later. He writes, “Lane’s account give us not only the year, 1824, but even the month and date. . . . ’25th and 26th of September,’ 1824. ” (pp. 13-14)
There is no evidence that there were any revivals whatsoever in Palymra in 1820. Walters explains:
The Presbyterian Church in Palmyra certainly experienced not awakening that year. Rev. James Hotchkin’s history records revivals for that church as occurring in the years 1817, 1824, 1829, etc., but nothing for the year 1820. . . . The Baptist church records also show clearly that they had no revival in 1820, for the Palymra congregation gained only six by baptism, while the neighbouring Baptist churches of Lyons, Canandaigua, and Farmington showed net losses of four, five, and nine respectively. . . .The Methodist figures, though referring to the entire circuit, give the same results, for they show net losses of twenty-three for 1820, six for 1820 and forty for 1821. . . This hardly fits Joseph Smith’s description of “great multitudes” being added to the churches of the area. In fact, the Mormon Prophet could hardly have picked a poorer year in which to place his revival, so far as the Methodists were concerned. (pp. 18-19).
Richard Abanes writes in his book One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church:
Significantly, according to Joseph, Sr., it also was in 1824 that Joseph, Jr. “was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.” Three years earlier (c. 1821) Joseph apparently had caught a “spark of Methodism” in a camp meeting and at that time became an exhorter for those meetings. Then, as late as June 1828, he sought membership with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Harmony, Pennsylvania, possibly in response to his first child being “still-born and very much deformed.” So, not only was there no 1820 revival, but when a revival did hit the Palmyra-Manchester region in 1824, Joseph and his family were drawn into Christendom’s churches–in direct opposition to what God had supposedly said to Joseph back in 1820. (p. 18)
Abanes also points out that there were no publications from the area where Smith lived making references to Smith having visions. He writes,
Neither can any eye-witnesses he found who remember Jospeh talking about visions before 1827/28. This complete absence of negative publicity and eye-witness testimony seems to indicate that “no one at that time and for a long time thereafter was aware that he was supposed to have had the vision.” In other words, Smith’s “persecution” seems to have been non-existent as well, and so was probably added in order to give the event drama and substance when it was invented many years later. (pp. 18-19)
We must also wonder why Smith’s 1823 vision of Moroni was known as early as 1829 but the “first” vision was hardly discussed until the 1840s. Abanes makes a good point when he writes,
Mormon writers for many years continued to cite Joseph’s 1823 vision of Moroni as his very first religious experience, never bothering to mention today’s official 1820 First Vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Mormonism’s earliest years saw the two separate visions actually blended, in many instances, into a single episode. (p. 22)
Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.
There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence. A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness. Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.” The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.
If there were two personages all along, only mentioning one (in the previous account) is not necessarily a contradiction. After all, where there are two, there will always be one. This is not the point. Rather, it’s what type of being the personages are: angels or God(s). The “Saviour” is mentioned in the 1832 account, but God the Father is left out. To not even make a reference to the most important Being and His appearance in 1820 until almost two decades later is unfathomable.
The writer of the essay wants people to think that the differences between the versions should be easily acceptable. Are they? Let’s put ourselves into the shoes of Joseph Smith. If you had the type of experience as described in Joseph Smith-History 1 that changes your life forever, would you wait until 1832 to write it down? And then, when you do so twelve years later, you don’t get the details exactly right? And wouldn’t you tell everyone–friends, family, neighbors, and ???–this good news. While the reports from the second-hand sources might differ, wouldn’t we think the general story should be somewhat close? And then would those succeeding you confuse “angels” with God the Father and Jesus? No, there are just too many problems to accept the essay as presented by the LDS Church.
Compare the four Gospel accounts. The same basic story of Jesus is there, including the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. While there are different perspectives, there are no contradictions/problems as we get in the First Vision. In fact, most scholars believe that the short creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 was developed within three years after Jesus was resurrected. The event was a foundation upon which the early apostles built their faith .
Again, the way the “first vision” is portrayed in 1832 more than a decade after the event supposedly took place seems to be a different story than what is explained in the 1838/42 official version. When a legend is built, details get subtracted or added. Anyone who didn’t know the previous stories could be oblivious to the problems. Those who investigate scams understand this. When we look closer at the First Vision as it is presented by the Mormon leadership, it appears that a scam has been perpetuated upon the more than 15 million LDS followers.
Joseph Smith testified repeatedly that he experienced a remarkable vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Neither the truth of the First Vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone. Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true. If the seeker asks with the real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest. In this way, every person can know that Joseph Smith spoke honestly when he declared, “I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”
Going back to the old emotional standby (“ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true” and having “real intent”) is not going to help make something true. While we can’t empirically prove that Joseph Smith is lying, history says that the First Vision could not be true. Regardless of one’s feelings and personal testimony, the way for a person to “know that Joseph Smith spoke honestly” is to consider the details as included in this review. Is there a chance Smith was visited by God the Father and Jesus? Yes. But that’s not the right question. Rather, we should ask, “Is it likely that this took place?” And with the evidence,the answer is definitely no.
Once again, it all boils down to this: Joseph Smith must be believed as a reliable witness, for there were no witnesses to this event. In essence, in order to accept this account, one must put complete faith and trust in Joseph Smith and him alone! If the First Vision never happened and Joseph Smith later conjured up the notion in an attempt to give his story some credibility, it creates a major problem because it calls into question his calling as a prophet and his integrity as a whole.
Below: A list of the different First Vision accounts, as illustrated in Richard Abanes’ fine book One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church (pp. 16-17):
For more responses to the Gospel Topics Essays, click here.