By Sharon Lindbloom
21 March 2017
The LDS Church released a new video of Joseph Smith’s First Vision a few weeks ago (an explanation of this Vision can be found here). “Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision” begins with the explanation that, as there are “at least nine accounts” of this visionary experience recorded by Joseph Smith and “some of his closest friends,” the new video “draws upon all” of them. I watched with interest to see what “additional perspectives and insights” the video would portray, and I wondered how this presentation would manage to incorporate all the contradictory facts contained in nine First Vision accounts.
Of course, “Ask of God” does not attempt to reconcile the conflicting elements of the First Vision story and therefore does not contradict the official First Vision story as canonized in the LDS Scripture, Pearl of Great Price.
But to fair, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to produce a video that portrays these disparate facts as Joseph Smith and his close friends reported them. In nine First Vision accounts written down in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the vision was variously described as Joseph Smith seeing:
- “the Lord,” [i.e., Jesus Christ) -1832
- “many angels,” -November 9, 1835
- “a personage… [soon followed by] another personage,” testifying that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” -November 9, 1835 (Personages arriving one at a time are also found in the August 1843 and May 1844 versions)
- “the first visitation of angels,” -November 14, 1835 (wording subsequently changed to “my first vision” in History of the Church 2:312)
- “two glorious [unidentified] personages” who looked alike -September 1840; June 1841; and July 1843
- “two Personages” identified as Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ via the quoted words, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” -Mid-1842 and subsequent accounts (except the July 1843 version, see above)
The new LDS video does not make any attempt to limit its portrayal of the vision to the one being recorded in Joseph Smith’s earliest account, nor to incorporate the “many angels” that Joseph Smith described in the next two retellings of the story. Rather, the video sticks with what has become the official version, written between 1838 and 1841, and published in 1842. (Because of the ambiguity in dating the origin of the official First Vision story, for this article I will use its publication date.)
Similarly, the message Joseph claims to have received from the heavenly being/s varied in the different versions. In several of the earliest accounts (1832, 1835, and 1840) Joseph said he was told that his sins were forgiven. That message of personal forgiveness disappeared from the story after 1840, but it is included in the “Ask of God” video.
The 1840 version of the First Vision related that, according to the heavenly beings, all churches were believing incorrect doctrines and were not “acknowledged by God.” This important message, the very basis for the Restoration (i.e., the LDS Church), was absent from the earliest versions of the story. While it is found in all later retellings, it is largely missing from the “Ask of God” video.
In the video, Joseph Smith is told that the world was lying in sin; people had turned away from the gospel and didn’t keep the commandments; they gave lip-service to Christ but didn’t love Him. In all of this the video quotes from the 1832 version of the Vision; this message that Joseph said he received imparted nothing more than what the Bible says about the condition of fallen humankind. This has always been and continues to be part of the evangelistic message proclaimed by Christians everywhere. It doesn’t even hint at the current Mormon doctrine that says the Christian churches of Joseph Smith’s day “were all wrong…that all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight…that those professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19).
This full-scale apostasy of Christianity is the primary message of the official version of the First Vision; it is the bedrock reason for the existence of Mormonism. This message had a late entrance into the First Vision story, but it was prominently featured in every version of the story from 1840 onward. The “Ask of God” video merely nods at this declaration of apostasy with a brief quote from the official version of the Vision: “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness but they deny the power thereof.” That’s it. No highlight of wholesale error and no call-out of the abominable creeds; just a description of wayward, sinful people who didn’t fully understand the gospel. This soft presentation of the revelation/vision Joseph Smith claimed he received hardly justifies Mormonism’s full dismissal of what LDS apostle Bruce McConkie referred to as “so-called Christianity” (Mormon Doctrine, 525). As articulated by LDS Seventy and Historian B.H. Roberts (1888-1933),
“Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” (History of the Church 1:XL)
The “Ask of God” video leaves a “complete apostasy” of Christianity out of the picture. It does, however, include one of the heavenly beings telling Joseph Smith that he must “go not after them” — an equivalent to the official version’s revelation that Joseph “must join none” of the Christian churches, having been twice “forbade” to do so by Jesus Christ.
(An interesting side note: In the 1832 version of the First Vision Joseph Smith said that “by searching the scriptures” he had discovered for himself 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament,” while in the official version of the story Joseph says that such questions could not be settled “by an appeal to the Bible.” It’s also noteworthy that in the official version Joseph further contradicts his 1832 account when he says, “It had never entered into my heart that all [churches] were wrong” Joseph Smith–History 1:18.)
The “Ask of God” video also portrays Joseph receiving a promise that “At a future time the complete truth of the gospel will be revealed to you.” This divine declaration is the Mormon Church’s basis for asserting that Joseph Smith is God’s appointed prophet for these latter days, leading to the declaration that he “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (Doctrine & Covenants 135:3).
Even so, this important element of the First Vision also did not appear in the story until 1840. It was subsequently included in four of the nine versions of the First Vision but, interestingly, it is not found in the official version.
The seventh prophet and president of the LDS Church, Heber J. Grant, taught,
“Either Joseph Smith did see God and did converse with Him, and God Himself did introduce Jesus Christ to the boy Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ did tell Joseph Smith that he would be the instrument in the hands of God of establishing again upon the earth the true gospel of Jesus Christ—or Mormonism, so-called, is a myth. And Mormonism is not a myth!” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, 16)
Considering President Grant’s criteria for determining the validity of Mormonism, look at these nine versions of the First Vision.
- Did Joseph see God and converse with Him? Not necessarily, according to the 1835, 1840 and 1841 versions of the First Vision.
- Did God introduce Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith? Not according to the 1832, 1835, 1840 and 1841 versions.
- Did Jesus tell Joseph Smith that he was to be an instrument in the hands of God to re-establish the true gospel on earth–or at least tell Joseph that the true gospel would later be revealed to him? Not according to the 1832, 1835, 1842 (official version), 1843 and 1844 versions.
Is Mormonism a myth? Using President Grant’s criteria, people investigating Joseph Smith and his claims during the first 20 years of Mormon history would have had to conclude yes, Mormonism is a myth.
The “Ask of God” video “draws upon all of the written First Vision accounts” by using fragmented phrases from each, but it does next to nothing to “provide additional perspectives and insights” into this foundational and imperative experience that is the basis of Mormonism. In fact, the video keeps well-hidden the shaky foundation on which Mormonism stands.
Many more First Vision discrepancies could and should be examined. The LDS Church addresses some of them in a Gospel Topics essay at lds.org. I recommend investigators also include Eric Johnson’s detailed response to the Mormon Church’s essay in their research.