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The First Vision: Key to Truth? A Review of Seventy Richard J. Maynes’ June 2017 Ensign article

By Eric Johnson

There are two cornerstone events in the history of the Mormon religion that are as important as the literal resurrection of Jesus is to Christianity. Remember how the apostle Paul testified to the historicity of the raising of Jesus from the dead? He claimed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

The apostle then added in verses 13-19:

 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

The claims of Christianity center around this historical event. Either the resurrection occurred, or it did not. If it did, then Christianity is based on truth. If it did not, then it is false and those who believe in Christianity are, as Paul said, to be pitied. Each person must make a conclusion and determine if this is a historic or fictional event.

At the beginning of the article, I had said that there are two historical events in Mormonism that, if not true, would negate the claims made by the leaders of this religion. What are they? Answer: The Book of Mormon and the First Vision. As far as Joseph Smith seeing God the Father and Jesus, fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley explained,

That becomes the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 227).

Hinckley also told a General Conference audience,

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, p. 116).

What an admission! According to this important leader, Mormonism is true if Smith did see God. If he was lying, then Mormonism is “involved in a great sham” and “blasphemy.” This is serious business!

Over the last few years, scholars hired by the Mormon Church have worked overtime defending both accounts. Gospel Topic essays on these historical events are published on the website. We have reviewed these here:

1.       Book of Mormon Translation (originally posted 12/30/2013)
2.      First Vision Accounts (originally posted 11/20/2013)

In the past year, I have observed more discussion of the First Vision by Mormon bloggers, apologists and leaders than any other period of history that I can remember–and I have seriously studied this topic since the 1980s. Could it be that this event is Mormonism’s most exposed underbelly? Kill it and this faith becomes a fairy tale. While I’m sure there is a temptation by the leadership to turn the First Vision into a “spiritual” event, this cannot happen without consequences, as attested to by President Hinckley. Perhaps this is a reason why this historical event is vigorously defended by both leaders and LDS apologists.

A Review of “The First Vision: Key to Truth”

Richard J. Maynes, who is a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, wrote an article (“The First Vision: Key to Truth”) in the June 2017 issue of the Ensign magazine, an official church publication. (See pages 61-65.) This article was taken from “a worldwide devotional for young adults, ‘The Truth Restored,’ delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on May 1, 2016.” There is an artist’s rendering of the First Vision printed on pages  60 and 64. (The picture to the right is what is found on page 60.) I must admit that I have never seen God the Father and Jesus portrayed by a Mormon artist as so young . . . and beardless!

In the following review, I will publish Maynes’ piece word for word, in bold print, while including my commentary following his words.

The Restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the latter days was foreseen and predicted by prophets throughout history. The Restoration, therefore, should not come as a surprise to those who study the scriptures. Dozens of prophetic statements throughout the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon clearly predict and point toward the Restoration of the gospel.

In a footnote at the end of this paragraph, Maynes provides more than a dozen biblical and Book of Mormon passages. A quick glance through these passages reveal that the verses have been taken out of context to support the prejudiced conclusion (they “clearly predict and point toward the Restoration of the gospel”). Let’s consider each of the biblical passages that were utilized.

·         Deuteronomy 4:27-31: This is a prophecy regarding the forthcoming Assyrian (destruction of Israel in 722 B.C.) and Babylonian (destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.) captivities, with the final fulfillment scheduled for the dispersion of Israel after Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. It has nothing to do with a restoration after that time.

·         Isaiah chapters 60-62: There’s nothing like picking three or four chapters from a book of the Bible and make it work in your favor. Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:17-21, saying that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus did not quote the next part of the verse, which says “and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is because that part wasn’t fulfilled until A.D. 70 when temple was destroyed and the Jews were dispersed. These chapters have nothing to do with a “restoration.”

·         Jeremiah chapters 30-33: These chapters also deal with Israel and Judah, with a reference in chapter 33 (“covenant with David”) as an obvious reference to the Davidic messiah, which Christians believe is Jesus.

·         Ezekiel 37:15-28: This passage concerning “sticks” has been oft-used by Mormons to support the Book of Mormon. For a refutation, check out Ezekiel 37:15-20: Books or Sticks.

·         Amos 9:11: This verse is cited by James at the Jerusalem Council to show that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised for salvation. In other words, the Gentiles would share in the promises given to the Jews.

·         Malachi 3:1: Jesus said in Matthew 11:7-10 that John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy, as he was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. Once more, it has nothing to do with the need for a restoration or the need for the Mormon Church.

·         Matthew 17:11: “Elijah” cited here is another reference to John the Baptist.

·         Mark 9:12: Still another reference to John the Baptist.

·         Acts 3:19-21: This passage references Jesus, not the coming of a restoration after Jesus.

·         Romans 11:25-27: “The fulness of the Gentiles” took place in Acts 10 and the second Pentecost.

·         Ephesians 1:9-10: This reference has eschatological reference and, once more, does not offer support for the need of a restoration.

·         2 Thessalonians 2:1-3: A reference to the Antichrist who is future and has thus not yet been revealed.

·         Revelation 14:6: Check out this article: Revelation 14:6-7: Moroni delivering the Book of Mormon?

Needless to say, these references are not as overwhelming as some faithful Mormons might think. Perhaps Maynes could have taken just one or two of these verses and given an better idea of why these support his case. What he has done is not proper biblical interpretation, which is called exegesis (literally, interpreting “out of” the verses). Rather, these are a perfect example of eisegesis (literally, interpreting “into” the passage based on one’s presuppositions.)

In the late 1790s, approximately 2,400 years after King Nebuchadnezzar saw in a dream that “the God of heaven [shall] set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44), a decades-long series of religious revivals began in the United States. These revivals are known by historians as part of the Second Great Awakening. It was through these revival meetings’ competing notions of salvation that Joseph Smith and his family navigated their religious commitment.

Joseph was greatly influenced by the teachings and discussions of his father, who searched for but could not find among the revivalist sects any that were organized like the ancient order of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Joseph would listen and ponder during family Bible study. By the age of 12, he began to worry about his sins and the welfare of his immortal soul, which led him to search the scriptures for himself.

As he searched, he decided to “do as James directs, that is, ask of God” (Joseph Smith—History 1:13; see also James 1:5). The subsequent appearance of God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to Joseph ushered in the dispensation of the fulness of times.

If James 1:5 really was used by Smith to “ask of God,” then he misused it. (I am of the opinion that he did not come up with his “First Vision” story until a decade after it supposedly took place.) Here are two articles for further information on this topic:

James 1:5: Praying for truth (short)
Does James 1:5 Teach about Praying for a Testimony? (CRI article)

Four Accounts

The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote or dictated four known accounts of his First Vision. Additionally, his contemporaries recorded their memories of what they heard Joseph say about the vision; five such accounts are known. It is a blessing to have these records.

To say it’s a “blessing” to have multiple yet contradictory accounts of the First Vision is what is known as “spin.” I guess it would be “a blessing to have these records” for someone who wants evidence against this event. I would think the church leaders would just want the available information to go away so the followers could remain ignorant about it.

They make Joseph’s First Vision the best-documented vision in history.

Another spin move. Are we really supposed to believe that the First Vision is “the best-documented vision in history”? Seriously? A number of people who once lived as faithful Latter-day Saints have left Mormonism because they thought this was the least documented and most contradictory vision in history. I guess it’s based on one’s perspective.

I encourage you to visit to learn more about the accounts and see how they work together to paint a more complete picture.

The Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts” states: “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.”

At one point, I can agree that some variances within the different accounts of an event can be acceptable. For instance, the Gospel accounts provide different perspectives on the same stories. Some skeptics would say that these are “contradictions.” However, such a conclusion is a leap. As an example, one account of the resurrection of Jesus says there were two angels at the tomb while another reports that there was only one. Which is it? The difference can be reconciled when we understand that, while there may have been two angels at the tomb, the other account did not say there was only one angel. Rather, the account emphasized the one angel who spoke and ignored the second angel. We can understand this when we say we went to the store with our children Julie and Sally, both who fought while in line. The infant Tommy is not mentioned. It cannot be shown that the person who told the story contradicted himself because he only mentioned two of the three children. However, as I will show below, the different First Vision accounts involve more than “apparent” contradictions and will prove to be much more troublesome to reconcile.

1832 Account

First, the 1832 account is the earliest detailed written account of the First Vision. It is part of a six-page autobiography, most of which is in Joseph’s hand. This document has been in the Church’s possession since it was written. After the pioneers’ trek West, it remained packed in a trunk for several years and was generally unknown until it was published in a master’s thesis in 1965. It has since been published repeatedly, including on and in The Joseph Smith Papers.

In this document, Joseph relates distress at not knowing where to find the Savior’s forgiveness. He testifies, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” Some have interpreted this statement to mean that Joseph referred to the appearance of only one divine being, but when read in light of the other documents, this phrase can be understood to mean that God the Father opened the heavens and revealed His Son, Jesus Christ, to Joseph.

(See the original 1832 diary account here.)

This is the first mention of a “First Vision” in any account, twelve years after the event supposedly happened. It has been admitted by one LDS researcher that “none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade. . . mentioned the story of the first vision.” In fact, in the 1830’s “the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it.” (“The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn 1966), p. 33) . Check out this article regarding the Slow Entrance to the First Vision.

In his 1832 diary, Smith wrote:

… and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filld with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son Thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments … behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world…. (Joseph Smith’s 1832 Account of His Early Life, p. 7).

In this narrative, Smith claimed to have been sixteen years old instead of fifteen. If the Palmyra revival actually took place in the spring of 1820, Smith would have been fourteen and a half years old. Oliver Cowdery states in the Times and Seasons 2:241 that Smith was seventeen at the time and that the date was 1823.

In this account Smith never said that he was visited by God the Father, which the article does admit. Did Smith simply omit this fact? Or could it be that this part of the story hadn’t been quite developed yet?

No matter which way the Mormon apologist wants to turn, there is a major problem with the idea that there was a revival taking place in Palmyra in 1820. Research performed by the late Christian pastor/researcher Wesley Walters shows that there was no revival at all in Palmyra, N.Y. that year. The Presbyterian church records give no indication of an 1820 revival while the Baptist church in Palmyra showed an increase of only six members. Walters stated that the Methodist Church, “though referring to the entire circuit,” showed a net loss of six members in 1820 (Palmyra Revival and Mormon Origins, p. 12). (See here for more information by Walters. To order the booklet Palmyra Revival and Mormon Origins, click here.)

The official LDS account states that Smith was visited by the angel Moroni on September 23, 1823, yet in his 1832 diary Smith claims this event took place on September 22, 1822. And to be even more confusing, Oliver Cowdery wrote in 1834 that September 23, 1823 was the date for the First Vision, a date that is now associated with Smith meeting the angel Moroni! In fact, Cowedery never insinuated or stated that Smith had ever had an earlier vision before this. He also said that Smith was in his 17th year, not his 15th year. (Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, Vol. 1, No. 3).

Even the name of the angel has gone through a revision. In the official account, Smith says it was Moroni who visited him, yet Smith changed the name of this angel as late as 1842. Both the Times and Seasons 3:753 and the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price quote Smith as saying the name of the angel was Nephi, not Moroni. It was this angel who supposedly appeared to Smith in 1823 and told him about the gold plates, which contained a record of the former inhabitants of the American continent. These were said to have been hidden in a hill not far from the Smith farm (Joseph Smith History 1:34).

The official account has been changed over the years in an apparent attempt to clear up several inconsistencies. For example, in versions printed before 1981, Smith claimed that his brother Alvin “died November 19th, 1824, in the 27th year of his age” (Joseph Smith 2, 1:4; 1977 edition). However, Smith’s personal account was modified more than a century after Joseph Smith died. Editions printed after 1981 state that Alvin died “November 19th, 1823, in the 26th year of his age.” Both accounts disagree with Alvin’s headstone, which is still located in a small graveyard in Palmyra. The headstone concurs with the post-1981 editions regarding the date of his death.

This account beautifully emphasizes the Savior’s Atonement and the personal redemption He offered to Joseph. It says, in part: “The Lord … spake unto me saying, ‘Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. … I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life.’” Joseph testified that he experienced joy and love but could find no one who believed. “My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me, but [I] could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.”

According to the 1832 diary, the original intention of Smith’s prayer was to determine if his sins had been forgiven. This is completely missed in the official account. Was Joseph Smith more concerned about having his sins forgiven? Or was he more concerned about determining which church was true? The 1832 diary account makes it appear that he was convinced that all the churches were wrong before he had his encounter with “the Lord.” He was told in this vision, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” If God had forgiven Smith’s sins, then Smith received what he was looking for. Instead, the official account says that all of the churches were “wrong” and that their “creeds” were an “abomination.” This also would complete the motivation for why he went to the Sacred Grove in the first place.

Another point is that the official account has Smith saying that he “could find none that would believe the heavenly vision.” According to the Gospel Topics essay on this issue, “Joseph shared and documented the First Vision, as it came to be known, on multiple occasions.” Yet there are no outside accounts of the First Vision until 1840. As the LDS historian Richard Bushman wrote in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, “At first, Joseph was reluctant to talk about his vision. Most early converts probably never heard about the 1820 vision.” (p. 39) NonMormon researcher Jan Shipps adds that there is no information available until 1842 (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, p. 30).

If Smith really did go around telling people about “the heavenly vision,” and if he was persecuted for telling others as Joseph Smith-History 1:20 explains, the absence of independent accounts of this story is strange, especially since the official account says that he was persecuted for talking about His encounter with God the Father and Jesus.

Consider the resurrection account from 1 Corinthians 15. In modern versions, verses 3-6 are set apart from the rest of the text. This is because most scholars believe that Paul was citing an ancient hymn that would have gone back to within a year or two after the resurrection. These are not Paul’s words but his citation from earlier Christians. Writing in A.D. 55, Paul encouraged any Doubting Thomases to talk to one of the more than 500 witnesses to verify the story. No legendary material could creep in if a person could actually interact with a living witness. (Otherwise, if the resurrection developed over time, why would Paul have even brought this subject up? It would make no sense to bring this up!)

Let’s review the strikes against the official LDS version of the First Vision:

·         First mention of this vision doesn’t come until 12 years after the fact (the 1832 Smith diary account).

·         It took more than two decades for the official version to be determined.

·         Today’s official account begins with the Father speaking (“This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!”). Since the Father and the Son are different persons, it seems strange to ignore the Father in any account (1832 Smith diary).

·         No evidence from the 1820s that Smith was persecuted in the early years for telling the story to others. Not a mention in a journal? Not a mention in a newspaper? Somebody from that time period  surely would have written something down, especially if there was the harassment as claimed by Smith..

·         Historical records show that no Christian revival took place in Palymra in 1820. It wasn’t until 1824 that this happened, or one year after Moroni supposedly spoke to Joseph Smith in his bedroom.

·         According to Smith’s diary, Joseph was motivated to pray in the Sacred Grove to receive forgiveness of his sins. He was not seeking the answer to which church was true. In fact, he had already held at this time that the churches were wrong. Why did this completely different motivation for praying get scuttled in the official account? The general rule of thumb in biblical criticism is to accept the earliest manuscripts as most reliable and accurate because they are closest to the action. If this is a general rule, then it doesn’t make sense that it is missing.

·         While Smith does mention in his 1832 journal that there were certain people who drew near to God with their lips while their hearts remained far from Him, he was not told that all the churches were wrong, that their creeds were an abomination, and that their professors were corrupt. The idea of a Great Apostasy is missing in the earliest early account.

·         According to D&C 84, which was composed in 1832, nobody is able to see the face of God without the priesthood. Yet Joseph Smith saw God in the First Vision without the priesthood. Since Smith claimed to have seen God, this would appear to be a contradiction from what he was told by God after the creation of the church.

1835 Account

Next, the 1835 account is Joseph’s description of his vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835. It was recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe. It was not included in early editions of Joseph’s history and was first published in BYU Studies in the 1960s. In this account, Joseph testifies that God appeared to him first, and then he saw the Savior as well: “I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; it presently rested down upon me and filled me with joy unspeakable. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first. He said unto me, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee.’” In this account, Joseph also noted, “I saw many angels in this vision.”

Here again is an account of a “personage” saying that “thy sins are forgiven thee.” As Maynes points out, there are “many angels” in Smith’s vision. This would seem to be a major fact that ought to have been included, yet it is remarkably missing in the official First Vision account.

There was a second 1835 account that was given to Erastus Holmes on November 14, 1835. It too mentioned “many angels.” On May 29, 1852, the official LDS Church publication Deseret News quoted Smith as saying that he “received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old.” Later, History of the Church 2:312 changed this to “…I received my first vision which was when I was about 14 years old…” Nothing like cooking the history books!

1838 Account

The 1838 account is the best-known account and comes from Joseph’s Manuscript History. The first draft was written after Joseph fled Kirtland early in 1838, and the second draft was prepared shortly after his escape from Missouri in 1839. So it was written in the context of great opposition. It was first published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois. It was also included in the Pearl of Great Price in 1851, which was originally a pamphlet for British Saints. It was canonized as scripture in 1880.

Multiple drafts of this account have been published in The Joseph Smith Papers. Like the 1835 account, the central question of this account is which church is right. As a history of the Church, and not just of Joseph, this account “focuses on the vision as the beginning of the ‘rise and progress of the Church.’” Therefore, it doesn’t include the information about the personal forgiveness mentioned in the previous two accounts.

With a wave of the proverbial hand, Maynes attempts to minimize the motivation of “personal forgiveness mentioned in the previous two accounts.” He says that this account “focuses on the vision as the beginning of the ‘rise and progress of the Church.’” How should this change the motivation Smith supposedly had? Regardless of the purpose for compiling the details of the First Vision, there is a huge difference between praying for forgiveness of sins or praying about which church is true. These are two different motivations. Maynes wants to sweep this problem under the rug with a single sentence.

1842 Account

And finally, the 1842 account is in response to a request for information from John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat. Joseph wrote him a letter that included not only the Articles of Faith but also a description of his First Vision. The letter was published in the Times and Seasons in 1842. With Joseph’s permission, it was published again in 1844 by historian Israel Daniel Rupp in his book about Christian denominations in the United States. This account was intended for an audience unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs. It was written during a welcomed lull in the opposition the Prophet faced.

As with other accounts, Joseph noted the confusion he had experienced and the appearance of two personages in answer to his prayer: “I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”

Maynes makes it appear that the accounts are easily reconciled. Consider the differences with this and the other eight accounts:

·          “Smith’s confusion” apparently about which church to join. Original confusion was about sins needing forgiveness (Smith’s 1832 diary, Smith’s 1835 diary, Orson Pratt’s 1840 book titled Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. In Orson Hyde’s June 1841 book titled A Cry from the Wilderness, there was no specific message, and in Alexander Neibaur’s May 24, 1844 journal, it specifically mentioned that the Methodist churches are wrong.

·         Smith was told all denominations were believing in wrong doctrine. This idea is not found in Smith’s 1832 and 1835 diaries

·         Reference to a revival. No reference to a revival can be found in Smith’s 1832 and 1835 diaries, the 1843 letter from Smith to Daniel Rupp (as published in Rupp’s 1844 book An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States), Pratt’s 1840 book, or Hyde’s 1841 book

·         No mention is made of sins being forgiven in this account. Yet this plays a prominent role in both journal entries by Smith in 1832 and 1835 as well as Pratt’s 1840 account.

It is a blessing to have these accounts of Joseph’s First Vision.

Again, I don’t believe that these different accounts are a “blessing” to those who want to propagate the official LDS version. For an event that supposedly took place in 1820—one as important as the First Vision, which is the cornerstone of this religion—the silence for at least 12 years is strange. Then, as the accounts begin to build steam in 1835 through the time of Smith’s death in 1844, enough differences between the accounts are recorded that would cause doubt that the First Vision was a historical event. When compared with the account from 1 Corinthians 15 and how the resurrection story stayed the same over the years, this lack of consistency in the First Vision accounts is problematic for the objective observer.

Like the individual New Testament Gospels that together more completely describe Christ’s life and ministry, each of the accounts describing Joseph’s First Vision adds unique detail and perspective to the total experience. Together they tell Joseph’s consistent, harmonious story. They all emphasize that there was confusion and strife among Christian churches;

This is not a “consistent, harmonious story.” The different accounts show major problems of consistency.

that Joseph desired to know which, if any, was right;

Not true. In the early versions, Smith wanted to find out if his sins could be forgiven.

that he searched the scriptures and prayed;

Not true. Reading the Bible (James 1:5) did not play a role in the early versions. And besides that, he took that verse out of context.

that a light descended from heaven;

This one is true for all the accounts.

and that divine beings appeared and answered his prayer.

It was just “the Lord” in Smith’s 1832 diary.

“I Could Not Deny It”

The canonized 1838 version of Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision is the most powerful learning experience anyone on earth could have. This experience changed Joseph’s life, it has changed my life, and I know it has or will change your life as you go to the Lord for confirmation of its reality.

What if this story never happened? What if this story morphed into existence? Then, regardless of whether it “changed” Smith’s or Maynes’ life doesn’t matter any more than if the Qur’an, the Vedas, or the Tripitaka changed other people’s lives. Fictional books can be powerful and still have an effect even if they are not historically true.

As stated in the document “First Vision Accounts,” found on “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 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’ [Joseph Smith—History 1:25].”

If the story is not consistent and did not belong to earliest Mormonism, then why should modern people consider his story to be true?

According to President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), “The greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high, was the coming of the Father and of the Son to that boy Joseph Smith.”

It could be the “greatest event” or the “greatest hoax.”

Truths from the First Vision

It is an amazing and enlightening experience to analyze what we learn from this sacred, awe-inspiring experience. I would like to share a sampling of truths we learn from Joseph Smith’s First Vision regarding the eternal nature of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ; the reality of Satan; the struggle between good and evil; and other important aspects of the great plan of salvation.

Maynes concludes his article by listing 21 points that he feels can be learned from the First Vision.

We learn that the scriptures are true and can be taken literally and applied in our lives.

In Mormonism, “scriptures” refers to four books as well as current teaching from the leadership. I’m not sure how the First Vision supports that these scriptures “are true and can be taken literally.” It seems like grandstanding to me.

We learn that pondering the scriptures brings power and insight.

How? If the official account is true, then Smith took James 1:5 out of context. How can interpreting a verse out of context bring “power and insight”?

We learn that knowledge alone isn’t enough; acting on what we know results in God’s blessings.

Yet isn’t “knowledge” exactly what Smith received when he was told that none of the churches are true? (He wanted to “know” which church was true.) James 1:5 is not an instruction about knowledge but rather “wisdom,” which is something that seems to be missed by faithful Mormons.

We learn to put our trust in God and look to Him for answers to life’s most important questions and not to put our trust in man.

For Mormonism to be true, a person must place all “trust in man,” including Joseph Smith and the general authorities of the church.

We learn that prayers are answered according to our unwavering faith and according to Heavenly Father’s will.

How does the First Vision help with this? Originally, Smith inquired about the forgiveness of his sins, and he was supposedly told that he was forgiven. However, Mormons reading the official account think he was praying about which of the churches were true. Which prayer given by Smith was true: the earlier account or the later account?

We learn the reality of Satan’s existence and that he has actual power to influence the physical world, including us.

Not sure how the First Vision can teach about Satan’s existence or his power.

We learn that Satan’s power is limited and superseded by God’s power.

Again, I’m not sure how this is true.

We learn that Satan will stop at nothing to destroy the work of God and that Satan must have known the importance of Joseph Smith in his role as the prophet of the Restoration.

But wasn’t the First Vision successful? Didn’t this lead to the revealing of the Book of Mormon, the return of the priesthood in 1829, and the founding of the church in 1830? Although there was some opposition, for the most part, the events necessary to restore biblical Christianity (according to Mormonism) all came to fruition. If Satan knew the importance of Smith’s “role as the prophet of the Restoration,” it seemed like he would have tried harder to not allow these things to happen.

We learn that we can overcome Satan by calling upon God and putting our complete faith and trust in Him.

How does the First Vision help with this?

We learn that where there is light, darkness must depart.

I think these points have gotten a bit out of hand.

We learn that God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are two separate and distinct beings, resembling each other in features and likeness.

Do God the Father and Jesus look like each other? Am I supposed to believe this just because Smith said so?

We learn that we are created in God’s image.

This was not revealed by the First Vision, as the three monotheistic religions all teach that humans are made in God’s image (Latin: Imago Dei).. Genesis 1:26-27 says,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

We learn that Christ is risen.

And the Bible never taught this? Indeed, as cited above, 1 Corinthians 15 attests to this fact. Again, this is not new information for those who believe that the Bible is true.

We learn that God knows us personally and is aware of our needs and concerns. He called Joseph by name.

As far as the first part, Christians have always realized “that God knows us personally and is aware of our needs and concerns.” God calling Joseph by his name is something Mormons will have to take by faith, but the Bible does say that God knows people, even the hairs on their head (Luke 12:7).

We learn of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus defers to His Father, and the Father communicates with mortals here upon the earth through His Son.

Christians believe that Jesus submitted Himself, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11).

We learn that Jesus Christ is beloved of His Father by the Father’s designating Jesus as His Beloved Son.

And was this not communicated well enough at the baptism of Jesus when the Father said, “This is my Son with whom I’m well pleased”?

We learn that the true Church of Jesus Christ as He originally organized it was not found upon the earth at the time of Joseph Smith, confirming the reality of the Great Apostasy foretold by Paul the Apostle.

Think about how insulting such a statement is. Millions of Christians do not belong to the “restored” (LDS) church and link their authority to the Bible prior to the time of the “Great Apostasy.” If the Great Apostasy is true, then Evangelical Christianity has no authority and is wrong. Although many Latter-day Saints take a post-modern “we’re all Christians” approach, I don’t think many  understand how degrading the First Vision really is for Christians. After all, if God really spoke to Him as Smith said He did, then we remain in apostasy.

We learn that when we care enough to desire God’s input in our life, He will reveal a refining course for us. At Joseph’s time all the denominations and sects were wrong.

Here’s the caveat: “At Joseph’s time all the denominations and sects were wrong.” The implication is that the denominations and sects are not wrong today. But how can that be since Christianity would still have to lack the authority that was returned only to Smith and passed down through the chains of the Mormon Church? I find this statement to be disingenuous.

We learn that every dispensation of time receives the visions, blessings, and glories of God.

But visions, blessings, and glories are reserved only for Mormons after the dispensation beginning in 1830.

We learn insight into how God chooses His prophets.

Did Thomas S. Monson see God in the same way Joseph Smith did before he became a prophet? He must have, or how do we get “insight into how God chooses His prophets.” The implication given in this simplistic point is that prophets experience God in a literal fashion.

We learn that God chooses the pure in heart who are righteous and have righteous desires to do His work, confirming the teaching from the Bible that God looks upon the heart and does not choose based on outward appearance or social status or standing (see 1 Samuel 16:7).

According to the earliest accounts, Smith was so concerned about his sins that he was seeking to have them forgiven. Was Joseph Smith “pure in heart”? Was he really righteous? Or was he a sinner just like anyone else? He certainly was arrogant and boastful, which the Bible says are sins.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision is the key to unlocking many truths that had been hidden for centuries. Let us not forget or take for granted the many precious truths we have learned from the First Vision.

I go back to what Gordon B. Hinckley said. Either the First Vision story is true or false. Just as it appeared with the Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision, this article printed in the June 2017 Ensign appears to be an attempt at damage control. The faithful will no doubt be convinced and they are safe in the Mormon flock. For others, however, the cat has been let out of the bag and there is no retrieval. I predict the inconsistency in the First Vision accounts will continue to haunt the growth/retention of numbers for many years to come.

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