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Crash Course Mormonism: First Vision

By Eric Johnson

The First Vision is a crucial event that must be historical if Mormonism should be considered a true religion. According to LDS Church teaching, founder Joseph Smith, Jr.  was 14 years old in the spring of 1820 when a Christian revival took place in the area of upstate New York where he lived during the Second Great Awakening. Smith said that he read James 1:5 and prayed about which of all the churches were true since he felt the different denominations contradicted each other. He went by himself into the woods (known as the Sacred Grove) near his home in Palmyra and prayed about which church/denomination was true. According to the account that is recorded in Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, Smith was overwhelmed by a dark spirit that make him “ready to sink into despair” (JSH 1:16). Then, all of a sudden, he “saw a pillar of light exactly over (his) head” that was as bright at the sun as he was delivered from the enemy he had experienced.

In verse 17, Smith said that he “saw two Personages . . . standing above me in the air.” One was God the Father who spoke and said, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Referring to his request about which church was true, God told Smith in verse 19 that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination in his [God’s] sight” because the Christianity’s pastors “were all corrupt.” This is because “their hearts are far from me, (for) they teach for doctrines the commandments of man.” Verse 20 explains how God told Smith not to join any of the denominational churches as well as “many other things” that he could not record.

How important is this event in Mormonism?

According to Mormonism, there was a “Great Apostasy” that took place soon after the death of Jesus’s disciples, thereby causing all priesthood authority to be completely lost. If there had been no such apostasy, then any of the other Christian churches could have laid  claim to this authority. The historical authenticity of the First Vision has been heralded by LDS leaders throughout the years, including fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley. Among other things, Hinckley said,

There is no middle ground. Joseph Smith talked with the Father and the Son or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then we are embraced in a great fraud, a terrible fraud (“Counsel from the Prophet,” Church News, 4/27/96, 4).

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, p. 80. Ellipsis mine).

A church manual explains the importance of this event:

The First Vision was a pivotal event in the rise of the kingdom of God on the earth in the last days. Joseph Smith, although only an unlettered youth, learned profound truths that have become the foundation of the faith of the Latter-day Saints. He had actually seen and spoken with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (Church History in the Fulness of Times: Religion 341-43, p. 35).

What does Christianity teach?

If God the Father and Jesus really did appear to Joseph Smith and told him that all of the Christian churches and their teachings were wrong, then modern-day Evangelical Christianity is false. Period and end of story. After all, if those Christians in 1820 were not correct in their truth claims (i.e., the nature of God being spirit and not flesh, the reliability of the Bible, and salvation that comes grace and not by what we do, among many other doctrines), then 21st century Christians are making the same error(s). God’s judgment for the 19th century pastors would thereby extend to the pastors of the 21st century.

When we take a closer look at the details of the First Vision, however, there are a number of problems. For example, here are five issues:

  • Joseph Smith claimed that He was able to see God the Father and live, yet the Bible says that this is impossible. Click here.
  • There is no attestation in the 1820s that Smith ever referenced any personal encounter with God. In fact, the first time Smith ever mentions this event is in his personal journal dated 1832, 12 years after the time he supposedly had this encounter with God and Jesus. Click here and here.
  • Despite the fact that Smith claimed to have been widely persecuted for saying he saw God, there is no evidence from Smith or his persecutors that such harassment or violence ever took place.
  • There was no revival in Palmyra in 1820. Rather, a revival similar to what Smith described took place in 1824, which would have been four years later. It would have even been a year after the time that Moroni (Book of Mormon) supposedly appeared to Smith, which would then make this encounter with the angel the “First Vision.”
  • There were nine different versions of the First Vision account recorded from 1832 to 1838, all of which contradict each other in the details details. Instead of being  a historical event, the First Vision is a compilation of the different accounts. Click here and here.

If these points are true, it appears that the First Vision account is more of a legend that grew over time rather than a historical event. There are too many loose ends and problematic issues. Latter-day Saints are free to believe anything they want, but just because they are sincere about their belief in the First Vision does not make this event true.

Other articles to consider

Test your Understanding

  1. Who of the following was NOT at the Sacred Grove on that spring day in 1820?

A) Joseph Smith     B) Moroni      C) God the Father     D) Jesus    E) All were present that day

     2. Which Bible verse did Joseph Smith use to pray about which of all the churches were true?

A) John 3:16       B) Moroni 10:4       C) James 1:5      D) Romans 3:23

     3. Which LDS scripture describes Joseph Smith’s First Vision?

A) Pearl of Great Price     B) Journal of Discourses       C) Doctrine and Covenants        D) Book of Mormon

    4. Of the following, which is most true?

A) If the First Vision is not a historical event, Mormonism could still be true.

B) If the First Vision is a historical event, Evangelical/Biblical Christianity could still be true.

          C) If the First Vision is a historical event, then the Great Apostasy cannot be true.

D) If the First Vision is a historical event, then Joseph Smith really is a true prophet of God who personally communicated with God Himself.

    5. Which of the following is NOT a reason to refute the historicity of the First Vision?

A) There were nine competing versions of the First Vision.

B) The revival in Smith’s area took place in 1820, not 1824.

C) There is no mention of the First Vision until 1832, many years after this supposed event.

D) There were no witnesses, so Joseph Smith must be believed for this story to be true.

Answers to the quiz

  1. B
  2. C
  3. A
  4. D
  5. B

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