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
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 In her unpublished account, she traces the origin of Mormonism to a bedroom visit by an angel.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 referred to by Lucy Smith 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.