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Do the First Vision accounts coincide?

By Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever

Mormons are taught that, as a fourteen-year-old young man, Joseph Smith was visited by both God the Father and Jesus Christ during the spring of 1820. This visitation is known in Mormonism as the First Vision. According to the official LDS version, Smith was perplexed by the behavior of certain Christians in the area where he lived. He stated that, in 1820, there was a “religious excitement on the subject of religion,” and that this revival ended with the various Christian denominations quarreling over where the converts would attend church (Joseph Smith–History 1:5).

Because of the “confusion and strife among the different denominations,” as verse 8 put it, Smith wondered who was right and who was wrong. It was while reading James 1:5 that he decided to pray about the matter. He proceeded to kneel down and pray among some nearby trees at a place that is known today as the Sacred Grove; it was here Smith claimed to have been visited by two personages. When he asked the personages “which of all the sects was right,” Smith said he was told that they were all wrong, that their creeds were an abomination in God’s sight, and that all the professors of those creeds were corrupt. There is little question that this statement was a direct assault on all of Christianity, not just the small congregations in the Palmyra area (New York) where Smith lived, which is what some Mormons have been led to believe.

The reason the aforementioned account has been referred to as the “official” version is because this is not the only description of the story. Thus, the question remains: If any of the accounts should be believed, which should it be? To say the first vision story is just “another” event within the history of Mormonism is an understatement. According to sixth President Joseph F. Smith,

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, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom—not the kingdom of man—never more to cease nor to be overturned (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 14).

As seventh president Heber J. Grant put it,

Either Joseph Smith did see God and did converse with Him, and God Himself did introduce Jesus Christ to the boy Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ did tell Joseph Smith that he would be the instrument in the hands of God of establishing again upon the earth the true gospel of Jesus Christ—or Mormonism, so-called, is a myth. And Mormonism is not a myth! (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, p. 16).

Other church manuals agree. For instance:

For centuries the world was in spiritual darkness because of the rejection of the Lord’s Apostles. Except for a few glimmers of light, such as those seen by the Reformers, the heavens were closed. A young boy’s experience in a grove in upstate New York in the spring of 1820 changed all of this. A day of spiritual enlightenment dawned (Church History in the Fulness of Times: Religion 341-43, p. 29).

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).

This vision is significant to a Mormon for a number of reasons. First, it has been used to support the notion that God the Father and Jesus Christ, as two separate and distinct personages, are also two distinct and separate gods. And two, it gives the Mormon justification to believe Christianity had fallen into a complete apostasy and needed to be restored to earth. Why are there so many different accounts of this story? Many early Mormon leaders gave conflicting versions of Smith’s experience. For instance, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, said the young Smith was visited by an angel:

The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek, the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus Christ (Journal of Discourses 2:171).

Some Mormons may assert that Young was referring to Smith’s visitation by the angel Moroni in 1823; this is doubtful since Smith never asked Moroni which of the churches was right during this supposed visitation. In fact, there would have been no reason to have asked such a question since this was answered in the Sacred Grove three years earlier.

George A. Smith, first counselor to Brigham Young, said Joseph Smith was not visited by either the Father and/or the Son or by an individual angel. Rather, Smith was visited by a multitude of angels:

Joseph Smith had attended these meetings, and when this result was reached he saw clearly that something was wrong … he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministrations of angels, the true condition of the world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong, they had all gone astray…. (Journal of Discourses 12:334)

Clouding the issue even further is the fact that both Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde claimed Smith was visited by two identical personages, neither of which is described as being God the Father or Jesus Christ. Mormon author Milton V. Backman stated that Pratt’s account is the “first known publication of the First Vision” (Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, p. 170). Pratt said Smith “saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness.” Hyde gives a similar account but adds that the personages told Smith that “the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing” (Ibid., pp. 172, 175). The use of the third person shows it was not the Lord who showed up.

Joseph Smith’s 1832 diary also conflicts with the official account found in modern editions of the Pearl of Great Price. Backman stated that this is the earliest known account of Smith’s account (Ibid., p. 155.) In this narrative, Smith claims 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 his 1832 diary account, reprinted as closely to the original as possible, 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).

It is interesting to note in this version how Smith never said that he was visited by God the Father. While he does mention 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. Despite these inconsistencies, the LDS Church took it upon itself to promote an account that was written eighteen years after the fact.

A close examination of the official account leaves a number of unanswered questions. For instance, 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.

Joseph Smith claimed the confusion that ended the 1820 revival caused him to wonder if all the parties involved were wrong; he claimed later that it never entered into his heart that all the sects were wrong (Joseph Smith History 1:18). While Smith wrote that this “religious excitement” caused “great multitudes” to be added to the churches, the statistics of that time do not support this claim. Research performed by the late Christian pastor/researcher Wesley Walters shows there was no revival at all in Palmyra, N.Y. in 1820. 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 (New Light on Mormon Origins, p. 12). The official LDS account states that Smith was visited on September 23, 1823, by an angel named Moroni, yet in his 1832 diary he claims this event took place on September 22, 1822.

Even the name of the angel has gone through a revision. In the official account, Smith says it was an angel named 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).

Indeed, to place one’s trust in the First Vision account as offered by the LDS Church is to depend on a story that has no substance in historical fact. The evidence is that Smith never saw God the Father or Jesus, meaning that one of the foundational pillars of Mormonism fails.

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