by Sharon Lindbloom
20 September 2023
Church News, a weekly publication by and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, recently noted, “The gospel Restoration [Mormonism] started on Sept. 21, 1823, when a heavenly messenger appeared to Joseph Smith and said: ‘My name is Moroni. Let’s get to work’” (as paraphrased by LDS church historian Kyle McKay in Church News, 9/17/2023, “Church marks 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith, Moroni’s visit and the gold plates”).
The official account of this event is found in the LDS church’s scripture, Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1:27-54. As the story goes, 17-year-old Joseph was weighed down by his sins (which he identified as “levity” and associating with “jovial” people, actions inconsistent with being a person “called of God”). One night in his bed, Joseph prayed for forgiveness and a “divine manifestation” that would assure him of his standing before God. In answer to his prayer, an angel appeared before him. Joseph said the angel
“…called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues…” (JS–H 1:33)
According to the official story, September 21, 2023, is the 200th anniversary of this event. The LDS church is marking the milestone anniversary with a special celebratory meeting at the Joseph Smith Farm in Palmyra, New York. But, historically speaking, this week’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Moroni’s visit is unwarranted for a couple of reasons.
One problem is the dating of the event. Joseph Smith and his contemporaries provided a lot of information regarding the Smith family history, things like Joseph’s age during noteworthy incidents, locations where the family lived, when they bought certain properties, incidents surrounding when Joseph’s brother Alvin died, which churches were involved in the revival that sparked Joseph’s first prayer, and the names of the reverends that participated. When examining all this information provided by family narratives with tax records, property assessment records, Methodist and Presbyterian church records, and local newspaper reports, it becomes clear that the angel’s visit to Joseph Smith’s bedroom could not have happened before September 21, 1825. The LDS church’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of this supposed event is at least two years too early. (For more specific information regarding the dating problems, see Marvin W. Cowan, Mormon Claims Answered, “The 1820 Revival and Joseph Smith’s First Vision”)
Another problem with celebrating Moroni’s visit is found in the way Joseph Smith changed the story when he wrote his 1838 “official version” of the church’s history. Previous to the “official” account, Joseph had identified his angelic visitor as Moroni, but in 1838 he wrote, “He called me by name and said…that his name was Nephi…”
This account was published in the church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, in 1842. The story was also published in England, in the LDS periodical Millennial Star, a few months later, retaining the angel’s name as Nephi. In the years that followed until his death (1844), Joseph never suggested that this published name was in error. The 1851 edition of the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price also identified the angel as Nephi.
Joseph Smith’s eyewitness testimony of being visited by the angel Nephi stood until the Pearl of Great Price was reprinted in 1878. In that edition, published 34 years after Joseph Smith’s death, someone changed the name of the angel from Nephi to Moroni. And that is how it remains: “He called me by name, and said unto me…that his name was Moroni.” (For more information see Salt Lake City Messenger #71, “Problems All Over”)
These problems with misnaming and misdating Joseph’s angelic visitation are profoundly important, going way beyond concerns for the church’s 200th anniversary celebration. These historical problems spill over into other areas, causing problems for the story of Joseph’s First Vision and everything that followed. Past LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said,
“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, 227)
Joseph Smith pronounced himself a prophet and told amazing stories of visions, visitations, and revelations. But these stories don’t hold up under scrutiny. The late Wesley Walters, a Christian noted for his research of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and related LDS historical claims found that
“The historical facts completely discredit Joseph Smith’s First Vision story.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1969, 59-100)
Thus, in President Hinckley’s words, those who are trusting in Mormonism and the LDS church are, tragically, “involved in a great sham.”
Friends, though Joseph Smith has shown himself to be untrustworthy, changing his stories and his revelations on a whim for his own glory, God remains true. If you are tangled up in the great sham that is Mormonism, I invite you to break free and find eternal hope in God.
“What if some were unfaithful?
Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?
By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar…”
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