To hear a 10-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on the First Vision Accounts (Gospel Topics Essay), click on the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 (June 2-13, 2014)
When addressing the subject of Joseph Smith’s personal encounter with God the Father and Jesus Christ, Gordon B. Hinckley, the fifteenth president of the LDS Church, stated, “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, p.2). This event, known to Mormons as the “First Vision,” is one of the most extraordinary tales told by Mormonism’s founder. However, if this event plays such a major role in Mormonism’s history, why do we find no mention of it among the writings of early LDS leaders or members, including Joseph Smith?
Rather than explain what I mean by asking the above question, I will allow Mormon historian James B. Allen to give a rundown on the facts surrounding the First Vision and its suspicious absence in the story of the LDS Church for at least its first two decades of existence. In an article titled “The significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought” that was published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn 1966, 30-32), Mr. Allen 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 fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, 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. In February, 1830, for example, a farmer who lived about fifty miles from Palmyra, New York, wrote a letter describing the religious fervor in western New York and particularly the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. No mention was made, however, of the idea that Joseph Smith had beheld Deity. The earliest anti-Mormon literature attacked the Book of Mormon and the character of Joseph Smith but never mentioned the First Vision. Alexander Campbell, who had some reason to be especially bitter against the Mormons because of the conversion of Sidney Rigdon in 1830, published one of the first scathing denunciations of Joseph Smith in 1832. It was entitled Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon. It contained no mention of the first vision. In 1834 E. D. Howe published Mormonism Unvailed [sic], which contained considerable damaging material against Joseph Smith, including letters of the Mormon apostate Ezra Booth, but again no mention of the first vision. In 1839 John Corrill, another Mormon apostate, published a history of the Mormons, but he made no reference at all to Joseph Smith’s claim to having conversed with the members of the Godhead. In 1842 J. B. Turner published Mormonism in All Ages, which included one of the most bitter denunciations of the Mormon prophet yet printed, but even at this late date no mention was made of the first vision. Apparently 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. After this time non-Mormon sources began to refer to the story. It seems probable, however, that as far as non-Mormons were concerned there was little, if any, awareness of it in the 1830’s. The popular image of Mormon belief centered around such things as the Book of Mormon, the missionary zeal, and the concept of Zion in Missouri.
“As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith’s first vision in any published material in the 1830’s. Joseph Smith’s history, which was begun in 1838, was not published until it ran serially in the Times and Seasons in 1842. The famous “Wentworth Letter,” which contained a much less detailed account of the vision, appeared March 1, 1842, in the same periodical. Introductory material to the Book of Mormon, as well as publicity about it, told of Joseph Smith’s obtaining the gold plates and of angelic visitations, but nothing was printed that remotely suggested earlier visitations. In 1833 the Church published the Book of Commandments, forerunner to the present Doctrine and Covenants, and again no reference was made to Joseph’s first vision, although several references were made to the Book of Mormon and the circumstances of its origin. The first regular periodical to be published by the Church was The Evening and Morning Star, but its pages reveal no effort to tell the story of the first vision to its readers. Nor do the pages of the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, printed in Kirtland, Ohio, from October, 1834, to September, 1836. In this newspaper Oliver Cowdery, who was second only to Joseph Smith in the early organization of the Church, published a series of letters dealing with the origin of the Church. These letters were written with the approval of Joseph Smith, but they contained no mention of any vision prior to those connected with the Book of Mormon. In 1835 the Doctrine and Covenants was printed at Kirtland, Ohio, and its preface declared that it contained ‘the leading items of religion which we have professed to believe.’ Included in the book were the ‘Lectures on Faith,’ a series of seven lectures which had been prepared for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland in 1834-35. It is interesting to note that, in demonstrating the doctrine that the Godhead consists of two separate personages, no mention was made of Joseph Smith having seen them, nor was any reference made to the first vision in any part of the 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.”
Allen offers several suggestions as to why this story is suspiciously missing. One explanation he proffers is that Smith may have felt that “experiences such as these should be kept from the general public because of their extremely sacred nature.” However, despite Allen’s admission that “no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision,” he believes that Smith did relate this story in private conversations. If so, are we to assume 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.
One obvious conclusion is that this event never happened and that Smith later conjured up the notion as an attempt to give his “prophetic calling” some credibility. Mormons, however, will be hard-pressed to accept such an explanation, for in doing so they lend credence to an ultimatum given by 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 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).