By Eric Johnson
Do you believe in the official “First Vision” account of God the Father and Jesus appearing to Joseph Smith, Jr. in the spring of 1820? Do you believe it was a historical event? Most Latter-day Saints can answer “yes” to both questions. It’s important, they say. The account is emphasized in the church from Primary on, as many Saints have no trouble reciting this cornerstone story word-for-word and believing in it with all their hearts.
The event is important to the leaders of the church as well. In fact, the event was emphasized throughout the April 2020 General Conference as the bicentennial was celebrated. In his opening message, President Russell M. Nelson stated,
This year, we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the most significant events in the history of the world–namely, the appearance of God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith. During that singular vision, God the Father pointed to Jesus Christ and said: “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Ensign, May 2020, p. 7).
Recent presidents of the church insist that the First Vision is one of the most important historical events of all time! Consider these quotes from presidents serving for more than three decades in the 20th and 21st centuries:
Joseph Smith’s first vision restored knowledge of God. Of all the great events of the century, none compared with the first vision of Joseph Smith (Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 428).
The first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith is bedrock theology to the Church (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014, p. 105).
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 (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, p. 80. Ellipsis mine).
In other words, these leaders are saying that if this event did not take place, then the religion falls apart and should be considered a “fraud” –at the General Conference in October 1961, Hinckley even said the Saints would be involved in “blasphemy” if the event was merely existential and not historical. It would be akin to Christianity being shown false if it could be proven that the historical resurrection of Jesus never took place.
With that said, let’s consider 8 questions that every Latter-day Saint ought to answer in order to have a rational belief in the First Vision:
1. Why did Joseph Smith never mention anything about the First Vision until 1832 (his private diary)–12 years after this event supposedly took place–and yet his account contradicts the later official version created in 1838? Click here.
2. Why is there is no historical evidence–whether oral tradition or other written sources–that Joseph Smith was ever persecuted for his testimony of the First Vision, despite his claim that he was (Joseph Smith-History 1:21ff)? Click here.
3. How do you account for the fact that the local “revivals” of the Christian churches actually took place in 1824, not 1820? Wouldn’t this mean that the appearance of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith that supposedly took place in 1823 should be considered the authentic “First Vision”? Click here and here. Listen to a Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast here.
5. Why did Joseph’s mother apparently not know about the First Vision? As reported by Wesley Walters in citing the first draft of “Lucy Smith’s History,” an unpublished account found in the LDS Church Archives, 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.”
6. There are 9 different accounts of the First Vision, each which add different details that contradict the others. Why were there so many versions? And why did the story change so often? (If the event really happened, we can allow for perspective differences but not outright contradictions between the accounts!) Click here, here, and here.
7. Why is there complete silence on the First Vision from Smith’s early critics? For instance, critic Alexander Campbell never mentions this even in his 1831 critique, while critic E.D. Howe doesn’t mention the First Vision even once in his critical 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed. It would seem this event would have been an easy target that would have been aimed at by Howe and other critics of the Mormon story. After all, the Book of Mormon was a topic heavily criticized by these men and many others, yet there is no First Vision critique from opponents until years later.
We encourage the Latter-day Saint to consider these questions, do the research, and if reasonable answers can be found, hold fast to the First Vision as historical truth. If reasonable answers cannot be found, though, then the religion is, according to President Hinckley, a “fraud” and a “sham.” See for yourself.
“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).
“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).
If you would like to talk personally with us, either asking questions or providing your opinion, then would you consider contacting us at [email protected]. We are friendly and would love to have an intelligent dialogue on this or related topics.
For more information:
- Check out another article, 10 reasons on the First Vision
- See Sandra Tanner’s Salt Lake Messenger, “The First Vision: 200 Years Later,” June 2020.
- Listen to these Viewpoint on Mormonism podcasts on this important issue:
- Eight First Vision Truths March 23-27, 2020 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
- MRM founder Bill McKeever interviewed on his chapter in Sharing the Good News with Mormons Part 1 Part 2 April 24-25, 2018
- Maynes and the First Vision, June 6-10, 2016, Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
- First Vision Accounts (Gospel Topics Essay) Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 June 2-13, 2014
- The First Vision and the Resurrection (Rob Bowman) April 22, 2014
- Finally, we highly recommend the Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Vision by scholar Dr. Robert Bowman. You can purchase the book here.