The 1838 Account of the First Vision–The Great Mormon Theophany

By far, the most well-known and oft-quoted account of the First Vision is the 1838 “Official History” account, which is readily accessible in the Latter-day Saint volume of scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price. This narrative was first written in 1838 to “disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts” concerning Joseph Smith and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a response to “the many reports which have been put in circulations… which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against” the Church (JS-H 1:1). The next year, starting on 11 June 1839, Joseph Smith and James Mulholland began producing the manuscript of the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which would be completed later by others, edited by B.H. Roberts and finally published in six volumes between 1902 and 1912. The narrative of the First Vision that had been written in 1838 was incorporated into this history and was first printed in Nauvoo in 1842 (see Jessee 6-7).

The 1838 Account is the Most Famous version of the First Vision story

The 1838 Account is the Most Famous version of the First Vision story

An excerpt from this account, as printed in the Pearl of Great Price today is as follows:

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist. For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.

I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia. During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description,standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My BelovedSon. Hear Him! My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but theirhearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines thecommandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?

Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them. I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me. It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself. However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise. So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation. I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned—that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but to continue as I was until further directed. I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided (JS-H 1:5-26).

A page from the 1839 manuscript for the History of the Church

A page from the 1839 manuscript for the History of the Church

Church historian Steven C. Harper noted that this account is the official account for good reasons: “It’s by far the most full, the most complete, the most definitive. It’s definitely the one to have in the cannon, although I hope folks won’t be bashful about reading the others as well—there’s no problem reading the others, we can get a fuller, flushed out picture from that” (Harper and Topp). It is the most definitive and well-rounded of the accounts, though not perfect in its details. It took a lot of practice and preparation, but Joseph seemed satisfied with this account.

This was not the first attempt Joseph made to record his history, hence the other accounts we have of the First Vision. Steven C. Harper noted that one reason why Joseph made several attempts at recording his history, particularly noting the First Vision accounts:

I don’t know for sure, but I think he probably, in later years, isn’t very satisfied with [the 1832 account]. At least 3 different times in the 1830s, he starts to keep another history, and each time gets a little more elaborate, a little more sophisticated. He gets good help from the literary people around him and so by the time he writes that one that we’re most familiar with, I think that he thinks of that as his best product, like we might write an essay for a college class—we might put it through two or three versions before we’re real satisfied with it, and since he was going to sent that one out to the world… I think that he definitely got that one the most definitive, the most complete (Harper and Topp).

As previously mentioned, this account was initially published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons in 1842. It was the second account that Joseph himself had published—the Wentworth letter had been published in the same organ shortly before the serial publication of the History of the Church. It was also the third account to be published in general, with Orson Pratt’s missionary tract having been published previously. Later, in 1851, Apostle Franklin D. Richards—who presided over the British mission, where there were over 32,000 Mormons—published a compilation of several revelations and texts of scriptures by the Prophet Joseph Smith—including selections from his official history—and called this collection the Pearl of Great Price. The purpose of the compilation, he said, was to be “a source of much instruction and edification to many thousands of the Saints.” Later, on 10 October 1880, this compilation was accepted as a standard work of the Church by action of the First Presidency and the general conference of the Saints (The Pearl of Great Price 2). Although this volume has gone through several editions and revisions since that time, the Joseph Smith History, with its excerpts from the first five chapters of the History of the Church, has constantly remained a part of the volume.

1 First Vision

Discrepancies

            The descriptions, details and discrepancies present in this account are interesting to note. I have discussed the details of the Satanic attack previously, but there are other potential problems as well. One of the most conspicuous internal inconsistency is the fact that Joseph states that prior to the vision he, “often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” while he later states that at the time of the vision, “it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.” The standard Mormon explanation is that Joseph probably considered the idea in his mind, but refused to accept it in his heart, thus allowing him to intellectually consider that they were all wrong, but not believe it at heart. That explanation is complicated, however, by the fact that in the 1832 account Joseph wrote that he was convinced that all the sects were wrong prior to the Sacred Grove experience, stating that he “became convicted… that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament” (Jessee 3). Most likely, the statement that it had never entered his heart was truly just a slip of the mind on Joseph’s part as he was attempting to portray his struggle and desires. Those familiar with the process of record making shouldn’t be too concerned when there are some inaccuracies in the works that we accept as scriptures—they were, after all, prepared by imperfect men with limited literary skill and memory. The Bible—though accepted by many as infallible—has discrepancies in the multiple accounts of the morning of Christ’s resurrection or Paul’s vision of Christ, for example (see Backman). It was due to this sort of thing that Brigham Young once stated that, “I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain certain doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities” (JD 2:314). That principle applies not only to revelations, but to scriptural history as well, since the mental capacity of those recording both revelation and history is the factor in questions.

Another minor problem is found in Joseph’s statement that, “men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me” adding that it was odd that he seemed “to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling.” It has been noted that similar visions were commonplace in western New York in this period; that the Palmyra newspapers made no mention of Joseph’s vision; and that close relatives such as Joseph’s mother and younger brother ignored it or confused it with the visit of Moroni. All of this seems to indicate that Joseph did not receive the immediate, intense persecution or wide-spread attention that the 1838 text suggests. It is likely that the Methodist minister did indeed react poorly, that any religious groups he told his beliefs to would be similar in reaction, and maybe even his family ignored or rejected his statements, feeling—like their neighbor—that Joseph’s words were “the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy” (cited in Madsen 10). Those occurrences would have stung the youth, and that deep-set hurt combined with the culmination of nearly ten years of being pursued, reviled, threatened, and driven from place to place—from the experiences of keeping the gold plates safe to the Missouri persecutions—by the time he produced his history is probably what led to his statement of being persecuted by all the religious groups of the time, including the “great ones of the most popular sects of the day.”

A third set of discrepancies stands in the chronology that Joseph gives of events. Much dispute has been given to the accuracy of Joseph’s date and location for the religious excitement that led to the vision. It is not the present author’s intent to give a thorough analysis of that discussion, though it may be noted that Marvin Hill’s article—cited below—does provide a good overview of the subject. In Hill’s analysis, there are some difficulties with the 1838 account’s accuracy—particularly when it comes to placing Lucy’s conversion to the Presbyterian church before the First Vision, as is done in the 1838 account:

The religious turmoil described by Joseph which led to some family members joining the Presbyterians and to much sectarian bitterness does not fit well into the 1820 context …. For one thing, it seems unlikely there could have been heavy sectarian strife in 1820 and then a joint revival where all was harmony in 1824. In addition… Lucy Mack Smith said the revival where she became interested in a particular sect came after Alvin’s death, thus almost certainly in early 1824.

Indicating the angel had told Joseph of the plates prior to the revival, Lucy added that for a long time after Alvin’s death the family could not bear any talk about the golden plates, for the subject had been of great interest to him, and any reference to the plates stirred sorrowful memories. She said she attended the revival with hope of gaining solace for Alvin’s loss. Such detail gives validity to Lucy’s chronology. She would not have been likely to make up such a reaction for herself or the family, nor mistake the time when it happened. I am persuaded Lucy joined the Presbyterians in 1824 (46-47).

The central argument over chronology, however, has been about the existence of a revival or religious excitement close enough to Joseph to have impacted his life by 1820. Reverend Wesley P. Walters has contended that contemporary records do not show evidence of such a revival in Palmyra in 1820—the closest one he accepts as plausible took place in 1824—and thus the vision could not have happened. Mormon scholars—such as Milton V. Backman, Jr. and Richard Lyman Bushman—have contended that there was indeed a revival in 1819 nearby that could have sparked Joseph’s interest. In addition, they have pointed out that Joseph probably had a larger area in mind than a 20-mile radius around his home in speaking of the “region of country” that the revivals took place in and that there was indeed a “religious excitement” (which they point out is different than a full-scale revival) in Palmyra that was strong enough to cause several conversions in 1820. Marvin Hill states that Walters does make some good points, but errs in assuming that an 1824 revival destroys the credibility of Joseph’s whole story. He goes on to state that:

An 1824 revival creates problems for the 1838 account, not that of 1832. Walters overlooks the fact that Joseph said nothing in his 1832 account about a revival prompting his prayer…. Not only does this account ignore the revival, so too does the 1835 account… Neither did Lucy Mack Smith mention a revival when she described Joseph’s first vision…. This vision occurred during the third year after their move to Manchester, Lucy said, which would have been in 1820….

At any rate, if Joseph Smith in 1838 read back into 1820 some details of a revival which occurred in 1824, there is no reason to conclude that he invented his religious experiences…. If he had been stirred by some local revivals earlier, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, then it was not so hard to confuse some of the details. Revivals had been a key factor in his religious experience (Hill 47-50).

Thus, Joseph may have confused some of the details surrounding the experience while writing his polished 1838 account, nearly twenty years after the event, blending revivals and that took place in 1824 and 1819. That does not, however, invalidate his experience of the entire account. To claim that it does is to use a logical fallacy known as negative proof. As David Hackett Fischer defined it, negative proof is “an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence. It occurs whenever a historian declares that ‘there is no evidence that X is the case,’ and then proceeds to affirm or assume that not-X is the case” (cited in Harper 24). Walters stated, in essence, that a lack of evidence for a Palmyra revival was proof that the First Vision did not occur. Though Joseph spoke of two events in connection with each other, the absence of a revival in Palmyra immediately before the vision would have taken place doesn’t mean that Joseph wasn’t faced with religious questions in a charged atmosphere or that he didn’t have a vision in 1820. It just means that there may be details he confused while writing about the background of his vision twenty years after the fact.

From the evidence we have, it seems most likely that Lucy Mack Smith converted to the Presbyterian Church during revivals around 1824. That does not, however, invalidate the whole of the First Vision experience.

From the evidence we have, it seems most likely that Lucy Mack Smith converted to the Presbyterian Church during revivals around 1824. That does not, however, invalidate the whole of the First Vision experience.

Joseph’s Timing in Writing

            This discussion brings to a head another question about the First Vision accounts: Why did it take so long for Joseph to write about or publish an account of the event? If the vision did occur in 1820, then it was twelve years after the event before Joseph attempted to write about it and twenty two years before he published an account of the theophany. Why wait so long if this was indeed the beginning of Joseph’s career?

Anti-Mormon authors have harped on this particular point, saying that the delay equates to forgery of the past to fit what Joseph was attempting to portraying himself as. For example, in No Man Knows My History, Fawn M. Brodie initially wrote that Joseph concocted the vision in the wake of the 1837 banking crisis, “when the need arose for a magnificent tradition” (25). In the second edition—after the discovery of the 1832 and 1835 accounts—Brodie merely changed the date to fit the discovered accounts, stating that, “It may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition” (25).

How have Mormons responded to this theory? A survey of apologetic and scholarly work by LDS believers reveals five general responses: that delay in recording does not equate to forging the story later on; that Joseph’s culture did not encourage immediately recording experiences of the sort; that the initial criticism Joseph received for relating the vision would have made him a bit gun shy about sharing the experience; that Joseph felt it was too sacred to share with the world; and that the culture within Mormonism made the publication of an account of the First Vision unlikely during the 1830s. Now, let us look at each of these responses in detail:

1)      Delay in recording does not equate to forging the story later on.

Apostle John A. Widtsoe wrote,

Because this “first vision” was not published by the prophet in printed form until after the prophet began his “history,” in 1838 the conclusion has been offered that the whole story is a fabrication; that it did not occur; that it was invented to bolster up the Prophet’s claims to revelation. It is much the same as to say that the doings of Jesus are fiction because the gospels recounting them were not written until after the death of Jesus, or that Abraham Lincoln was not a rail-splitter because the story of his youth was not printed until he was a mature man. It is a new and astonishing historical dictum (118).

BYU professor Richard Lloyd Anderson has concurred with this point of view, adding that:

Famous people who write their life’s history usually have no diary of their early years, and Joseph Smith was intellectually mature at age thirty-two when he remembered his prayer in the grove at fourteen. As a comparison, there was no narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s youth when he became a serious candidate for United States president at age fifty. He then helped to produce campaign biographies that gave an overview of his teenage years on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana. They reliably survey his daily life and education then, just as the Prophet responsibly recalls his early life and religious experiences in 1838 (Anderson 10).

Thus, Joseph Smith’s accounts—though written later in life—can be considered relatively accurate. As discussed above, some inaccuracies seem to have crept into Joseph’s memory, but he would have remembered the general experience well enough for it to be considered valid overall.

2)      Joseph’s culture did not encourage immediately recording experiences of the sort.

It is realistic to expect that Joseph would not have written the history at first, since journal writing was not expected or encouraged in the rural New York of the 1820s. Historian Milton V. Backman, Jr. wrote:

Why would Joseph have been keeping a diary at a time when other members of his family and nearly all farmers in his economic class in western New York did not? The poverty of his family prevented him from attending school as frequently as other children, and his continual labor in the fields was not conducive to advanced learning, let alone diary-keeping. Social historians have long understood that there are few writings from the childhood and youth of even the most prominent elites who lived before 1900.… It was not until the late nineteenth century that it became a middle class fashion to write detailed letters and keep diaries.

Thus, considering the culture he lived in, it is unlikely that Joseph would have a journal or made a record of the event immediately after it occurred.

3)      The initial criticism Joseph received for relating the vision would have made him a bit gun shy about sharing the experience

It is quite likely that Joseph didn’t feel comfortable talking about or recording the experience after its initial reception in the community. In the 1838 account, Joseph does discuss the negative reaction of the Methodist minister and—perhaps—some other members of the community. Such a reaction would have discouraged further discussion of his experience for the time being. James B. Allen wrote,

The young prophet said that he had been severely rebuffed the first time he told the story in 1820; and since it represented one of his most profound spiritual experiences, he could well have decided to circulate it only privately until he could feel certain that in relating it he would not receive again the general ridicule of friends (The Significance 34).

Joseph did indeed have excuses for not writing or publishing about the First Vision year after the event.

Joseph did indeed have excuses for not writing or publishing about the First Vision until years after the event.

4)      Joseph felt the First Vision was too sacred to share with the world

A similar—and perhaps not completely separate—point that has been made is that the First Vision was such a sacred experience that Joseph probably didn’t feel comfortable with the public knowing about it. After all, Christ himself taught his disciples to “give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matt 7:6). The fear was that if the experience was shared, it wouldn’t be taken seriously or even have been used against Mormons—much like it was when Joseph shared the experience with the Methodist minister.

Hugh Nibley, a Mormon apologist, spoke of this argument in this manner:

One may ask, why should Joseph Smith have waited so long to tell his story officially? From his own explanation it is apparent that he would not have told it publicly at all had he not been “induced” to do so by all the scandal stories that were circulating. It was a rule among those possessing the gospel in ancient times that the greater teachings be not publicly divulged. Even at the risk of serious misunderstanding and persecution, the early Christians and the Jewish sectaries before them would not reveal the secrets of their religion to the world; and the constant charge against the Mormons, and especially against Joseph Smith, from the beginning was that they clothed their affairs and doings in secrecy…. Silence in the record is not a proof of ignorance or lack of interest by the writers; the holiest things were not meant for general distribution….

The writer’s great-grandfather, a Jew, one day after he had given Joseph Smith a lesson in German and Hebrew asked him about certain particulars of the first vision. In reply he was told some remarkable things, which he wrote down in his journal that very day. But in the ensuing forty years of his life, during which he had many children and grandchildren and preached many sermons, Brother Neibaur seems never once to have referred to the wonderful things the Prophet told him—it was quite by accident that the writer discovered them in his journal. Why was the talkative old man so close-lipped on the one thing that could have made him famous? Because it was a sacred and privileged communication; it was never published to the world and never should be (Nibley 522).

5)      The culture within Mormonism made the publication of an account of the First Vision unlikely during the 1830s.

There were a few quirks to the culture of the Mormons in the 1830s that would have made creating a record of the event inadvisable. James B. Allen has written extensively on this subject, stating that:

There were at least two factors within the Mormon community of the 1830s that helped make it unnecessary or even inappropriate to lay out the vision as precisely as became the practice in the 1840s and thereafter, or to use it for the didactic purposes that are common today. One was a conscious effort among Mormon founders to avoid creeds and dogma. To the degree that the First Vision could lend itself to creating or supporting even a loose creedal statement about the personal characteristics of God, it simply would not have fit the rather open attitude toward doctrine that characterized the early years of the church….

[The Second Factor] was the general perception of God which, in the 1830s at least, was different in several respects from the doctrines advanced by Joseph Smith in the 1840s and built upon in later years by other church leaders….

What did the Mormons believe about the nature and character of God in the 1830s?…. Perhaps the most significant observation to be made about the pre-Nauvoo concept of God held by ordinary Mormons is that it was not radically different from some other Christian perceptions, and that the newly-converted Saint probably did not need to change his image of God very much just because he had become a Mormon. There may, in fact, have been several concepts of God within the popular Mormon community.

This does not mean that some Mormons did not believe in a corporeal God — only that there was still no creedal statement to that effect and that there was room for diversity of belief…. But this and other ideas about God had not yet found their way into the Mormon press and their profound significance was certainly not a part of the general Mormon consciousness (Emergence 46-48).

Thus, due to an aversion to creeds and allowance of diversity in opinions about the nature of God and other doctrines, creating an account that could perceived as a creedal statement about the nature of God as Joseph would later define it would have been improper and perhaps even disturbing to the Saints during the 1830s.

Overall, we can trust Joseph Smith’s experience as the profound prophetic call he claimed it was. Although he waited many years to record it and seems to have made some errors in his reports, there were reasons for the delay and the details he got right seem to far outweigh his mistakes.

The First Vision was not only Joseph Smith's theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany

The First Vision was not only Joseph Smith’s theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany

The Great Mormon Theophany

The 1838 account marked a full transition from the personal, inward conversion experience detailed in the 1832 account and partly in the 1835 account to the founding story of an entire church and people. As two English professors from BYU put it, “by the time Joseph Smith dictated the 1838 version of the First Vision, the transition from plow-boy to prophet was complete. This account of the original theophany thus takes on a significance far different from the earlier versions” (Lambert and Cacroft 37). They then went on to point out the significance of this account in the Mormon psyche:

The First Vision’s larger setting in the “Joseph Smith Story” has become a matter of deep significance for Mormons as they reiterate the well-known story in Church services and in missionary discussions. For while the First Vision is an important matter itself, its telling almost always anticipates the recounting of the appearances of several other heavenly messengers. Thus the appearances of the Angel Moroni and John the Baptist are also fundamental, well-known, and important parts of the account, and together form a recital so familiar as almost to shape a litany which could be repeated in concert by most gatherings of Mormons. It gathers up in itself the essential beginnings not just of the theology, the literature, and the authority, but of the whole religious movement. It reiterates in a profound way the origins not just of another church or even another movement, but of a whole new religious tradition.

The Joseph Smith Story in it completeness is, then, not just a series of interesting episodes in our historical literature. It has come to function on a deeper level of our collective psyche as the true narrative of the sacred origins of this last dispensation (Lambert and Cacroft 39-40).

The authors of the above-cited article continue on, speaking of how this experience has come to not only function as the founding story of Mormonism, but also a sacred story that can be repeated in a small way in the individual lives of believers—what some would term a religious myth:

Furthermore, the story is a narrative, the acceptance or “knowing” of which is a mark of true initiation into the fold of the church, and an experience which can be, in essence, repeated “in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or reenacted.”…

[This] helps explain the important function and form of the canonized Joseph Smith 2 in the Pearl of Great Price, with its narrative series of epiphanies and persecutions. The 1838 version thus becomes at once a paradigm of the religious experience by which one may confirm the reality of the new dispensation, and a religious experience itself. The proper telling and hearing of the narrative allow one, in a sense, to “relive” for himself the sacred origins of his faith….

The Joseph Smith Story, as Mormons have canonized it, is repeated, not as an aesthetic or historical artifact, but as a kinetic experience, meant to bring about either a religious reinforcement or a spiritual reformation in the life of the narrator as well as the listener. Its present shape and form make clear that it is not just a fantastic part of a remarkable religious history. It is, in the best sense of that word, a religious myth functioning to identify and mold a remarkable religious tradition (Lambert and Cacroft 40, 42).

Thus, the First Vision—particularly as it has come down to us in the Pearl of Great Price—has come to function as the founding story of Mormonism and an experience all Mormons are expected to share in, one way or another. Although there are some discrepancies between the histories given in the accounts, they can be trusted as a true experience that shaped not only Joseph Smith’s life, but the lives of millions of others. In this way, as James B. Allen wrote, the Frist Vision “was, indeed, not just Joseph Smith’s theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany” (Emergence 61).

Stained Glass Window of the First Vision, Zwickau, Germany. Image courtesy LDS.org

Stained Glass Window of the First Vision, Zwickau, Germany.
Image courtesy LDS.org



Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

—        “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.

—         “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 1, No 3 (Autumn 1966), 29-45.

Anderson, Richard L. “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision.” Ensign April 1996, p. 10-21.

Backman, Milton V., Jr. “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.” Ensign Jan 1985. Web. 15 May 2013.

Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.

—        No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Harper, Steven C. “Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol 2 (2012), 17-33.

Harper, Steven and Brent L. Topp. “Historical Accounts of the First Vision.” Past Impressions. The Mormon Channel. Web. 22 May 2013.

Hill, Marvin S. “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2001), 35-53.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” BYU Studies Vol. 9, no. 3 (1969).

Lambert, Neal E. and Richard H. Cacroft. “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980): 31-42.

Madsen, Truman G. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989.

Nibley, Hugh. “Censoring Joseph Smith’s Story,” Improvement Era (July, 1961), 490-492, 522-528.

The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000.

Widstoe, John A. Gospel Interpretations. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947.

The 1835 Accounts of the First Vision: Angels and Demons

Not long after the discovery of the 1832 account of the First Vision, an 1835 account came to light as well. This document was discovered by a member of the staff at the Church Historian’s office in the back of the Manuscript History, covering a journal entry for November 9th, 1835. Curiously, though much of the entry for that day and the particular event were included in the main portion of the history—and ultimately in the printed History of the Church—the section about the First Vision was omitted and placed in the back of the volume, up-side-down. This seems to indicate that the document was part of a journal that was used to create the Manuscript History, but was not intended to be used in the finished history (Allen The Significance 35-36).

Joseph Smith's First Vision in the Restoration video.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the Restoration video.

This account came into being as part of Joseph’s attempts at recording his history as it progressed. Rather than writing in a journal himself, he often had a scribe take notes from his day. This was an entry—recorded by Warren A. Cowdery in third person singular—recording an interview with a man who called himself Joshua the Jewish minister, who would later turn out to be Robert Matthews. The record is as follows:

Monday Nov. 9th…. While sitting in his house this morning between the hours of ten an eleven a man came in and introduced himself to him calling himself Joshua the Jewish Minister. His appearance was something singular, having a beard about three inches in length which is quite grey, his hair was also long and considerably silvered with age. He had the appearance of a man about 50 or 55 years old. He was tall and straight, slender frame, blue eyes, thin visage, and fair complexion. He wore a green frock coat and pantaloons of the same color. He had on a black fur hat with a narrow brim. When speaking he frequently shuts his eyes and exhibits a kind of scowl upon his countenance. He (Joseph) made some inquiry after his name, but received no definite answer. The conversation soon turned upon the subject of Religion, and after the subject of this narrative had made some remarks concerning the bible, he commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, which were nearly as follows. Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with un-speakable joy. 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. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication (Jessee 5-6).

A page from the 1835 account

A page from the 1835 account

On November 14, 1835, five days after the foregoing narrative, the journal also recorded the visit of Erastus Holmes of Newbury, Ohio, who inquired of Joseph Smith about the establishment of the Church and was given,

A brief relation of his experience while in his youthful days, say from the age of six years up to the time he received the first visitation of Angels which was when he was about 14 years old. He also gave him an account of the revelation he afterward received concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon…” (Jessee 6).

These two accounts (the second being so brief that it is often not considered a proper account of the Vision) are important in helping us understand the First Vision as well as how Joseph spoke of it. We learn that by 1835, Joseph was willing to speak of the experience when he was asked about it. We also see a sort of transition occurring in the way he narrated the event, as it is stylistically somewhere between the 1832 born-again account and the 1838 official history. Instead of florid vocabulary of the 1832 account, this retelling has spare, confident prose aimed at his concern with the “different systems” of religion in the world, much the 1838 account. This account, however, lacks the focus of the official 1838 account, since it ends with the message of forgiveness instead of the problem of corrupt religions (see Lambert and Cracroft 37). Thus, it serves as a bridge between how Joseph spoke of his experience in 1832 and 1838.

Of Demons

The reports vary in the details of the demonic attack on Joseph immediately before the vision occurred.

The reports vary in the details of the demonic attack on Joseph immediately before the vision occurred.

Emerging for the first time in the 1835 account is the demonic struggle that plays a central role in the 1838 account. There are several interesting details found here, such as the sound of someone walking and a description of how it felt to have his tongue bound. Yet, there are difficulties which emerge in comparing every account of the attack. As Richard P. Howard—an RLDS historian—observed, “This [the demonic attack] is one of the most varied and problematic aspects of the First Vision, for we have extremes form the sheer terror of Joseph on the brink of total destruction as he struggles to pray to the total lack of a reference to such an experience” (An Analysis 110). The silences in some accounts are not as difficult to reconcile as the descriptions of the event that are given—silence is more an indicator of lack of focus on that aspect of the event than ignorance. LDS missionaries today are even encouraged to exclude the demonic attack when recounting the First Vision to keep the focus on the message and magnitude of the event.

When comparing accounts that do mention the assault, we find some slight discrepancies. In the “official” 1838 account, we have Joseph describing the experience dramatically, writing that,

I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction…—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being (JS-H 1:15-16).

In that account, we get a sense of mortal peril, even though he only specifically mentions being unable to speak and thick darkness gathering around him.

In other accounts, though, the description is less dramatic, focusing on his inability to speak and distractions rather than being overpowered. Note that in the 1835 account that he describes it merely as feeling as though his tongue is swollen and there are distracting sounds around him. Orson Pratt wrote that, “At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray” (Cheesman 115). In this case, the struggle with evil is internal more than external—a battle with temptation and mental darkness rather than a power which nearly destroys him. Orson Hyde, added to this narrative, filling in more details as he understood them. He wrote:

At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavoured to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength (Cheesman 159).

Here we see the internal struggle again—this time with distracting thoughts and doubts—and the “dark clouds” are in his heart more than his surroundings. Finally, Alexander Neibaur described the event as follows: “Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself Down, his tongue was closet cleaveh to his roof—could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile” (Allen Eight 12). All other accounts are silent on the subject.

The description of how “felt easier after awhile” and how he “called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength” after being delivered from the darkness may also seem to contradict the 1838 account at first glance, since Joseph reports there that he was delivered from this enemy immediately after he saw the pillar of light (see JS-H 1:17) and then goes right into describing the vision itself, with no mention of praying in-between. A closer examination, however, leaves room for Joseph to pray. In most of the accounts, Joseph reports that the light “descended gradually” (JS-H 1:16) in one way or another. In looking at all the accounts, it seems that it was indeed a gradual descent, which would have left time for him to pray between the appearance of the pillar and the opening of the vision itself. In fact, Orson Pratt records that after Joseph “saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above” he did indeed “continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him.” Further, Pratt added that it was only “when it [the pillar] came upon him” that “his mind was caught away… and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision” (Cheesman 115). If—as the Prophet described in 1838—he was delivered as soon as the light appeared, that would explain how he “felt easier” and the “darkness gave way” allowing him to complete his prayer while the light continued to descend slowly towards him prior to the vision.

The view the present author gains from the combined accounts is that the struggle with the powers of darkness wasn’t a mortal struggle with Satan, but rather, when Joseph went to the grove, he was assaulted by the Devil internally by distracted thoughts and mental darkness and that he was somehow unable to talk, though whether physical paralysis or internal pressure caused the muteness is unclear. When the pillar of light or fire appeared above him, the assault ended and Joseph was freed to finish his prayer, which he did while the pillar descended towards him, and the vision opened after the light came down upon him.

Of Angels

First Vision

Returning to the 1835 account, the most unique note we are given is that Joseph reports that he “saw many angels in this vision” in addition to the two main Personages. Truman G. Madsen noted this, commenting that:

Some critics have pointed out that the Prophet spoke of the visit of angles in connection with the first vision. Some have theorized that he began by asserting that he saw an angel and ended by embellishing it with the claim that he saw the Father and the Son. The truth is that, having described all that we are familiar with about the visitation of the Father and the Son, he says in the closing words of the 1835 account, “I saw many angels in this vision.” It is an enforced either-or to saw that he either saw the Father and the Son or saw angels. What he saw was both (13-14).

The concern that Madsen is addressing is one that arises from several other places. Looking at the second, brief account above, Joseph refers to the First Vision as “the first visitation of Angels,” and many of the apostles would refer to the First Vision in similar terms over the years. For example, George A. Smith taught in 1863 that, “When Joseph Smith was about fourteen or fifteen years old,… he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right…” (JD 12:333-334). Orson Pratt said in 1869 that “an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him;… This young man, some four years afterwards, was visited again by a holy angel” (JD 13:65-66). William Smith—the Prophet’s brother and a leader in the RLDS community—wrote a memoir wherein he seems to have combined the First Vision with the visit from Moroni, speaking of one angel appearing in the grove and telling him the message of the Churches being wrong, and then jumps to Joseph telling the family the story, as he did with the Moroni experience (see Cheesman 170-171). Further, in most accounts, Joseph refers to the visitors as “Personages”, identifying Christ as one of them in two of the four accounts directly written by himself (the 1832 and the 1838 accounts) and God the Father is only identified the second of those two—the 1838 account. Of the five contemporary accounts, only the David Nye White and Alexander Neibaur accounts (both recorded after the 1838 account was published) identify the Personages.

The accounts have left room for confusion over how many personages Joseph was visited by in the vision as well as their nature.

The accounts have left room for confusion over how many personages Joseph was visited by in the vision as well as their nature.

The interesting thing is that most of the apostles cited above referred to the visitors as God and Christ in different moments—often citing the 1838 account. For example, Orson Pratt said in 1880 that “in the spring of 1820, before Joseph Smith was of the age of fifteen….in answer to his prayers, there was the manifestation of two of the great personages in the heavens—not angels, not messengers, but two persons that hold the keys of authority over all the creations of the universe. Who were they? God the Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (JD 21:208). All of this has led to some to state that there was some confusion over who appeared to Joseph in 1820. Why would apostles and even Joseph himself refer to the personages in the vision as angels when they identified them as God the Father and Jesus Christ?

Mormon historian Milton V. Backman has offered his explanation as to why it was so:

Apparently, in his discussions with some nonmembers, the Prophet hesitated to identify the personages who had appeared to him.

Following his sacred experience of 1820 the young prophet was persecuted for telling others that he had seen a vision and was visited by two glorious personages. Recognizing that many would not accept nor appreciate this sacred experience, Joseph Smith was cautious about that which he related to others. Summaries of this event addressed to nonmembers and related before and after the Prophet had identified the personages do not always mention that the Father or the Son appeared.

Moreover, a similar pattern of expression is found in the Old Testament where God and Angel are used interchangeably. (See Gen. 48:15–16.) In this vein, the Prophet taught others that the resurrected Christ was an angel. One kind of being in heaven, he said, is an angel or personage who is resurrected with a body of flesh and bones. Early Latter-day Saint leaders who knew that Christ had instructed Joseph during his vision of 1820 sometimes declared that an angel told Joseph Smith not to join any of the churches. In their sermons, these same leaders used the term Lord to identify the Father and Son and used the words Lord, Christ, personage, messenger, and angel interchangeably (Backman).

Thus, during the 1800s, it seems that there wasn’t the same line of demarcation between the use of the word angel and the persons we associate as God or Christ that there is today. Angel was used as a general term for a heavenly visitor, even if that visitor was the Lord himself. Also, at times it was simply easier to refer to the celestial beings who visited Joseph in the grove as angels or personages rather than identifying them as Jesus Christ and God the Father to make the account more palatable to mainstream Christians. Further, according to the 1835 account, there were angels in addition to God the Father and Jesus Christ present during the First Vision. That being said, it would be understandable for Joseph and his successors to refer to the event as the ministration of angels or that angels delivered the message of the First Vision to him.

The Emergence of a Fundamental

Stained Glass--JMH

            Another interesting note from the 1835 account is that the First Vision was told as a part of “a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” Today, the significance of the First Vision has overshadowed the visits of Moroni and the translation of the Book of Mormon as the founding story of Mormonism. In the time of Joseph Smith—and indeed up to about the 1800s—it seems that the opposite was true.

In fact, at first, it seems that the First Vision was hardly spoken of at all. Historian James B. Allen noted that,

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 (Significance 30-31).

No 1830s publications mentioned the subject in detail. The closest references we get are brief mentions in two 1830 and 1831 revelations that are now part of the Doctrine and Covenants of an event where Joseph “received a remission of his sins” (D&C 20:5) and a time where the Lord “called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven” (D&C 1:17), but the specifics are not mentioned. Although we know that Joseph spoke of the event in private and made a few private records of the vision, the first published account was Orson Pratt’s Several Remarkable Visions published in 1840, and Joseph Smith’s 1838 and 1842 accounts—both published in 1842 in the Nauvoo publication the Times and Seasons for the first time. 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.

No non-Mormon publications spoke of the subject until after accounts had been published in the  Times and Seasons in Nauvoo, the New York Spectator, and in Daniel Rupp’s An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States during the years 1842-44. During the 1830s, the public image of the Mormons centered on such things as the Book of Mormon, missionary zeal, and the concept of Zion in Missouri (see Allen Significance 31-32). It would make sense that if the First Vision was not being attacked by non-Mormons, it probably wasn’t a focus for the Mormons either.

Instead, the visit from Moroni seems to have stood as the primary founding story of the Church for a number of years. Even after the accounts of the First Vision were published, the Book of Mormon continued to hold a greater sway in the Church. “The major use made of the vision over the next several years,” James B. Allen noted, “was simply to illustrate, for the benefit of the Saints, the initial historic authority and calling of Joseph Smith” (Emergence 53). In the RLDS Church, Richard P. Howard noted that as late as 1891-1919 “five writers…  stressed the idea that the important founding events in the restoration of the gospel were the angelic visitations to Joseph Smith from 1823 to 1827 resulting in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” adding that, “These writers did not mention the First Vision in their explanations of the origin of the church” (Joseph Smith 26).  Why would the Book of Mormon hold so much more importance? James B. Allen noted one particular reason:

This event, after all, was depicted from the beginning as fulfilling the prophecy in Revelation 14:6, where John declared: “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth.”… Since much, if not most, of this early doctrinal material was published in works intended for non-Mormon consumption, it may be that the emphasis continued to be placed on the angel and the Book of Mormon because that fulfilled biblical prophecy, while the First Vision took a back seat in the literature only because it did not fulfill the prophecy.

There were exceptions, but they were in literature designed more specifically for the Saints. In 1849 Orson Pratt referred briefly to the vision in a Millennial Star article to demonstrate that the Father and the Son were two distinct persons — the first such doctrinal use we have discovered so far (Emergence 52).

The visit of Moroni and the translation of the Book of Mormon seem to have overshadowed the First Vision in Mormon thought for a long time.

The visit of Moroni and the translation of the Book of Mormon seem to have overshadowed the First Vision in Mormon thought for a long time.
Painting by C.C.A. Christensen

Another reason for the focus on the Book of Mormon is that the First Vision wasn’t as far removed from the experiences of contemporary Americans with visions and born again accounts. The production of the Book of Mormon as a new volume of scripture, however, was something quite different from the mainstream. As historian Richard Lyman Bushman noted, “If Joseph initially understood the First Vision as his conversion, similar to thousands of other evangelical conversions, this vision [of Moroni] wrenched Joseph out of any ordinary track” (44).

Finally, the Book of Mormon was far more tangible than a vision. A missionary could hand a copy of the Book of Mormon to a potential convert, talk about it, and give them a chance to investigate for themselves much easier than they could talk about a vision they rarely heard of themselves.

We begin to see an emergence of the First Vision during the 1840s. Five accounts were published of the vision between 1840 and Joseph’s death in 1844—missionary tracts by Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, the history of the Church and the Wentworth letter by Joseph Smith, and a newspaper article in the New York Spectator. After Joseph’s death, John Taylor and Lorenzo Snow also published paraphrases of the First Vision in their own missionary tracts in France and Italy. Many of these various accounts were republished, most notably Joseph Smith’s official history account in Willard Richard’s Pearl of Great Price—a booklet published in England to make some important revelations and writings more available to the Church abroad. Discussion of the First Vision occurred from time to time, with Orson Pratt and John Taylor referring to the event the most. More often than not—with one notable exception—the First Vision was used to affirm Joseph’s prophetic call rather than to teach doctrine.[1]

Then, during the 1880s, a change began to occur. The First Vision was spoken of more and used to define LDS doctrine. This occurred not long after the Pearl of Great Price was canonized as scripture, but other changes and challenges helped to prompt a shift in focus. As James B. Allen observed,

In the 1880s appeared a second generation of church writers and theologians…. These people, moreover, were going through a period of intensive religious crisis, as new federal laws stepped up anti-polygamy prosecution and seemed to challenge the very existence of the church. The time was readymade for the outpouring of a new identity with the founding prophet — new reminders to the Saints of what their heritage really was, and of what Joseph Smith’s testimony really meant to them personally. The First Vision was a natural tool for such a purpose, and a new generation of writers could hardly fail to use it (Emergence 53).

George Q. Cannon, for example, began to use the First Vision to teach about the nature of God. While doing so, however, he and other teachers in the Church began to shift future generations’ view of what the circumstances surrounding the vision were. James B. Allen wrote about these changes:

As they began to use Joseph Smith’s first religious experience for various instructional purposes, Mormon teachers and writers were also creating certain secondary but highly significant historical perceptions in the minds of the Latter-day Saints. There was no intent to distort or mislead, but what happened was only one example of a very natural intellectual process that helps explain the emergence of at least some basic community perceptions. It seems to be a truism that whenever great events take place, second and third generation expounders tend to build a kind of mythology around them by presuming corollary historical interpretations that often have little basis in fact…. [This] created an atmosphere in which other historical inferences easily could be drawn. These included the ideas that (1) over the centuries considerable “rubbish concerning religion” had accumulated that only revelation could correct; (2) most, if not all, Christians believed in the traditional trinitarian concept of God; (3) the Christian world denied the concept of continuing revelation; (4) Joseph Smith told the story of his vision widely, and (5) he continued to be persecuted or publicly ridiculed for it, even to the time of his death. Such historical interpretation, much of it misleading, soon dominated popular Mormon thought. The challenge for individual believers, including Mormon historians, would be to separate the essential truths of the vision experience from corollaries that may not be so essential to the faith (Emergence 57-58).

Whatever the case of historic inaccuracies, the First Vision was becoming a fundamental part of the faith of Latter-day Saints. By 1920, the centennial anniversary of the vision, the theophany was memorialized in music, verse, dramatic representations, and articles in the Church’s official publication. In 1938, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. of the First Presidency told religious educators that the second of two essentials in Mormon belief was “that the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods,” and, according to President Clark, “no teacher who does not have a real testimony… of the divine mission of Joseph Smith—including in all its reality the First Vision—has any place in the Church school system” (cited in Allen Emergence 57). By 1978, one general authority stated that “the First Vision is the very foundation of this Church, and it is my conviction that each member of this Church performs his duty in direct relation to his personal testimony and faith in the First Vision” (cited in Allen Emergence 57)—a thought echoed by President Gordon B. Hinckley on many occasions. Today, the Vision is held by Latter-day Saints as a cornerstone of their faith—essential to belief in the Church as a whole.

joseph_smith Our Heritage 

 

Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

—        “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.

—        “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 1, No 3 (Autumn 1966), 29-45.

Backman, Milton V., Jr. “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.” Ensign Jan 1985. Web. 15 May 2013.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Cheesman, Paul. An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions. MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 1965. Web. 20 May 2013.

Howard, Richard P. “An Analysis of Six Contemporary Accounts Touching Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Restoration Studies I, 95-117. Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1980.

—           “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: The RLDS Tradition.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980) 23-29.

Lambert, Neal E. and Richard H. Cacroft. “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980): 31-42.

Madsen, Truman G. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989.


[1] That exception was an article by Orson Pratt establishing the nature of God during the 1850s.

The 1832 Account of the First Vision: Joseph Smith’s Born Again Account

In 1965, Paul Cheesman published his master’s thesis for religious education at BYU with the intent “to analyze as objectively as possible the various sources [of Joseph Smith’s early visions] and to suggest possible reasons for some of the problems and conflicts” (Cheesman 2). This marked the beginning of a new era of analyzing the First Vision for two important reasons: First, it was among the earliest attempts at analyzing the First Vision and Moroni’s visions by pro-Mormon scholars after the publication of No Man Knows My History. Second—and more notable to the present discussion—the thesis “presented a gentle surprise to Mormon scholars when [it included]… a heretofore unknown description of Joseph Smith’s First Vision” (Allen 5).

Minerva Teichert's First Vision painting

Minerva Teichert’s First Vision painting

According to historian James B. Allen,

What made the new discovery significant was the fact that most writers had supposed that the Manuscript History of Joseph Smith, formally begun in 1838, was the place where the Prophet first committed his remarkable experience to writing. Paul Cheesman’s find demonstrated that the story of the First Vision had been dictated as early as 1831-32….

Because of the absence of the vision from early publications, one hostile writer suggested in 1945 that Joseph Smith did not even “make up” the story until 1835 or later. Nevertheless, it can now be demonstrated that the Prophet described his experience to friends and acquaintances at least as early as 1831-32, and that he continued to do so in varying detail until the year of his death (5).

As a result of this discovery, historians both within and without of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a new interest in Joseph Smith’s story.

This account of the vision was a part of a six-page attempt at recording the history of the Church that has been dated by historian Dean C. Jessee as having been written between the summer of 1831 and November of 1832 (Jessee 2). It was written partly in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams (scribe to the prophet and a member of the First Presidency) and partly in the handwriting of Joseph Smith himself, marking it as the only account of the First Vision that Joseph wrote by his own hand. Church historian Steven C. Harper has described it as “the most raw of all the accounts,” stating that, “it’s Joseph dumping his consciousness onto the page.” Yet, he goes on to say that, “It is my favorite of the accounts… because I think it gets me most close to the young Joseph” (Harper & Topp).

A page of the 1832 Account

A page of the 1832 Account

As it has come down to us, the account is as follows:

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand /firstly/ he receiving the testamony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel – the Law and commandments as they were given unto him – and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God confered upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him &c——– I was born in the town of Charon in the /State/ Of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December A D 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in /the/ christian religion at the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Siegnior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the Support of a large Family having nine children and as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the Support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading and writing and the ground /rules/ of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements. At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to Searching the Scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly far I discovered that /they did not adorn/ instead Of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that Sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickeness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mand /mankind/ did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the Strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created him /them/ and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man Said the /it is a/ fool /that/ Saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclained all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be fron all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and that /that/ being Seeketh such to worship him as worship him inspirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy forthere was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in /the/ attitude of calling upon the Lord /in the 16th year of my age/ a pillar 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 that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life /behold/ the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not /my/ commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which /hath/ been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud /clothed/ in the glory of my Father and my Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevenly vision (Jessee 3-4).[1]

As previously mentioned, this account is the roughest of all of the First Vision accounts available—there is little punctuation, phrasing is a bit awkward at times, and the spelling is poor. Yet, it is one of the most emotional and detailed accounts of the vision available. There are several unique aspects shared in this account that are found nowhere else. As summarized by historian Milton V. Backman, Jr.:

The 1832 account is the only known recital of the First Vision in which Joseph told of (a) his prolonged quest for religious truth, (b) his earnest desire to secure a forgiveness of sins, (c) his utmost concern because of the sins of mankind, (d) his learning about the nature of the Atonement and the reality of the Second Coming, and (e) his rejoicing following his spiritual experience.

On the flip side, although this account is one of the most detailed descriptions of the vision that Joseph Smith left, it does have a few gaps in the narrative given in the other accounts. The most notable items that are lacking are the Satanic opposition and language that makes it clear that two personages appeared to Joseph in the grove. Anti-Mormon publications have noted these silences as well as a few discrepancies that exist between this account and the others, such as the age Joseph was when the vision takes place (16th year rather than 14 years old). Anti-Mormon writers Jerald and Sandra Turner even went as far as to say in 1968 that, “a careful examination of this document reveals that the reason church leaders have ‘never published or referred’ to it that it contains irreconcilable differences with the official account” (Tanner and Tanner 153).

Did Joseph believe two personages appeared to him, or one?

Did Joseph believe two personages appeared to him, or one?

In the Tanners’ assessment of this account, they hit upon the fact that Joseph doesn’t make it clear that two personages appeared, even declaring that, “Certainly this history refutes the story that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820” (Cited in Hill 40). Yet, explanations have been offered by Mormon scholars. First, as stated by historian Richard L. Anderson,

The biggest trap is comparing description in one report with silence in another. By assuming that what is not said is not known, some come up with arbitrary theories of an evolution in the Prophet’s story. Yet we often omit parts of an episode because of the chance of the moment, not having time to tell everything, or deliberately stressing only a part of the original event in a particular situation. This means that any First Vision account contains some fraction of the whole experience (12).

Thus, the fact that Joseph did not mention the appearance of the Father in this one account doesn’t mean that it did not happen—only that it wasn’t his focus in writing this particular account. Notably, the same thought may be applied to explain why Joseph didn’t speak of the demonic opposition he faced. Even still, the Tanners have expressed doubts about this explanation:

This explanation… does not seem reasonable…. While it is true that many people have to “write and rewrite until their ideas are clearly expressed,” we do not feel that Joseph Smith could have left out the most important part of the story by accident. If God the Father had actually appeared in this vision, Joseph Smith certainly would have included this information in his first account. It is absolutely impossible for us to believe that Joseph Smith would not have mentioned the Father if He had actually appeared (Tanner and Tanner 153-154).

Another explanation is the distinct possibility that he did actually mean to state that he saw God the Father in this account, but his words were poorly chosen. He wrote, “the /Lord/ opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying… behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world.” Since the term “Lord” has been used to refer to both God the Father and Christ the Son, Joseph may have meant that God the Father (the first time Lord is used above) opened the heavens to him and he saw Christ the Son (the second time the word Lord is used), who then spoke to him. Although the 1838 account doesn’t make the details clear other accounts actually give us a sense of time lapse between the appearances of the two personages. In 1835, for example, Joseph said that, “A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with un-speakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame…. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee” (Jessee 6, emphasis added). The German immigrant Alexander Neibaur’s journal tells us that in 1844 Joseph said that during the vision, he “saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire…. After a while a other person came to the side of the first” (Allen 12). Thirdly, David Nye White recorded in 1843 that Joseph Smith told him, “Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, Behold my beloved Son, hear him” (White). We get from these three accounts—especially the last one—a sense of God the Father coming to Joseph first, then introducing the Son who appeared after. Perhaps, then, this was the idea Joseph was attempting to communicate in 1832 when he wrote, “the /Lord/ opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord.”

First VIsion statue

Another problem that anti-Mormon writers have expressed about this account is the age that Joseph Smith said he had the vision. In this account, he says that, “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul” and that he called “upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age” (meaning 15 years old). Meanwhile in the 1835 account, he said that he was “about 14” when he began to reflect upon the importance of his future state and in 1838 he wrote that it was in the spring of 1820, which would have made him 14. Notably, in an earlier draft of that same 1838 account, he wrote that he “only between fourteen and fifteen years of age or thereabouts.” Note that in both the 1832 and 1835 accounts he uses the word “about” along with the age he claims he became concerned with his salvation and that in the initial draft of the 1838 account he adds “or thereabouts”, indicating that he did not intend the validity of his accounts to hinge on exact dates. As James B. Allen wrote,

What all of this seems to suggest is that Joseph Smith’s main interest, as far as time is concerned, was merely to explain that these things happened in his early teens. But it would not be inconsistent with any of the accounts to suggest that he became involved in the religious excitement of the time during the summer or fall of 1819, while he was still 13 years old; that his concern worked on him for many months; and that it was, indeed, sometime in the spring of the following year that he finally decided to pray. If in his preliminary effort to record the story in 1831-32 he said he was 15 instead of 14 when the vision occurred, he simply made a slight correction in his more carefully prepared history (Allen 7).

Further, it has been noted that the “in the 16th year of my age” comment was actually an insertion, written in by Frederick G. Williams—not Joseph Smith—which could be another explanation for the discrepancy, since Williams wasn’t present with Joseph when the vision occurred (Dodge and Harper 5).

When studying this account, it must be kept in mind that it was essentially a rough draft of an aborted attempt at recording his history. Before he sat down to write the official history of the Church five years later, Joseph got help from the more literary-minded people around him and gained some education—such as with the school of the elders—leading to more polished results. For the time being, however, he seems to have sat down and wrote with what skills he had at the time.

An interesting note on his writing style is that he seems to have borrowed extensively from the religious “born-again” accounts that were common in his day. BYU English professors Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cacroft noted that,

When Joseph Smith, Jr., began to shape his recollections of his momentous vision into a narrative that would effectively impart his otherworldly experience to his hard-handed New York neighbors, it is natural that he would turn to a traditional form of spiritual autobiography familiar to him and those around him In the several religious revivals in which Joseph and his neighbors had participated, they doubtless heard many accounts of the conversion of souls who had strayed, but who through grace were “born again” (33).

Conversion narratives of this sort have been around since at least the time of Paul and became popular by the seventeenth century. Lambert and Cacroft went on to note the general template of these “born again” accounts:

The sinner, wallowing in the slough of innate depravity, becomes intensely aware of his wickedness; he enters into a period of self-detestation; miserable, he turns for solace to prayer and study of the Holy Writ but generally encounters some kind of satanic opposition; after a period of sincere prayer, however, often in a woods or other secluded spot, he enjoys a supernatural epiphany during which he sees or senses the presence of Christ, obtains forgiveness for his sins, and undergoes a marvelous spiritual change; this experience awakens in him a sensitivity for the presence of God not only in himself but in all outward nature; he is then led to proclaim to others his conversion and his new-found witness for Christ; and, though he still falters from time to time, his ministry begins (33-34).

St. Paul's conversion

St. Paul’s conversion

Typical, perhaps, of this sort of literature is a pamphlet written by a man named Solomon Chamberlin (who would join the Church later on) . A comparison of excerpts from this account with Joseph’s account is as follows:

Part of account Joseph Smith Solomon Chamberlin
The sinner, wallowing in the slough of innate depravity, becomes intensely aware of his wickedness At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal… my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins… and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world My mind was impressed like this, “be ye also ready for in such an hour as you think not the son of man cometh,” and it may be thy turn next. I began to feel awful on account of my sins; I thought I should die and go to hell; I began to promise the Lord if he would spare me a little longer I would lead a better life
He enters into a period of self-detestation Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickeness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind Those promises were soon broken, and I again fell into bad company and became worse than ever. Thus I went on with a high hand and an out stretched arm, drinking, fighting swearing, pursuing my way down to hell… and became noted for wickedness.
3) Miserable, he turns for solace to prayer and study of the Holy Writ Which led me to Searching the Scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God I began to consider on my past life and give way to conviction. I felt the need of religion, and having Christ for my friend; I began to cry “God be merciful to me a sinner, save Lord or I perish.”… under my dreadful load I went till heard of a Methodist prayer meeting… which I attended
4) But generally encounters some kind of satanic opposition Not present in this account, but is in later accounts. For example, “I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” (JS-H 1:15). I never had prayerd in public in my life, but the devil told me that I could not pray correct, and I should make many blunders, but blunder or not, I thought, I will pray if the devil be at my elbow…. Satan… personate[d] himself in the person of Christ and pressed my mind with these words! You aught to be as willing to go home without the blessing as you are to receive it here!… And while standing between hope & despair I saw my supposed Saviour to be Satan, who had transformed himself into an Angel of light; but he disapappeared in an instant.
5) After a period of sincere prayer, however, often in a woods or other secluded spot, he enjoys a supernatural epiphany during which he sees or senses the presence of Christ, obtains forgiveness for his sins, and undergoes a marvelous spiritual change Therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in /the/ attitude of calling upon the Lord a pillar of 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 that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life /behold/ the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not /my/ commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me Thus I began to vent my feelings to God and cry with a loud voice… and I felt a peace of mind. Soon after… I received a clear witness of what God, had done for my poor soul…. The blessed son of God stood close by me and said, give your case to me…. Hope sprung up and I cried Lord Jesus, live or die, dam’d or saved, all I have and am is thine– I give it thee! That moment the light and love of God broke into my soul by the power of the Holy Ghost, and I felt a change to go all over me, and through soul and body; I felt such humility as I never felt before, and love to all mankind
This experience awakens in him a sensitivity for the presence of God not only in himself but in all outward nature “My Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me.” As for the nature part, earlier in the account, he notes that, “I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the Strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created  /them/ and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man Said the /it is a/ fool /that/ Saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclained all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant power a being” Thus I went home rejoicing & my peace became as a river.
He is then led to proclaim to others his conversion and his new-found witness for Christ; and, though he still falters from time to time, his ministry begins Could find none that would believe the hevenly vision Many refreshing seasons have I enjoyed from the presence of God, even up to this this day; and now I feel wholly given up to follow the lamb of God withersoever he shall be pleased to lead me (Porter 131-137).

Other examples of these sorts of conversion stories may be given; many even including appearances of Christ and/or the Father to the individual (see Jones 107). Charles Grandison Finney, for example, stole into the woods near Adams, New York in 1821 to pray privately for forgiveness and afterwards in his law office had a vision of the Savior: “It seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face,” he wrote (cited in Bushman Visionary 185). Evangelical religions—particularly Methodists—emphasized that “true religion… could—and in some instances, should—include visions, revelation, and other manifestation of the miraculous” (Jones 98). Although Mormons may—at times—feel threatened by the idea that other people wrote about visions and experiences similar to the one Joseph had in the Sacred Grove, it has been observed that there was indeed a visionary culture—that is, a group of people who believed the heavens sometimes opened to human view—present in the United States during the early 1800s, as expressed in pamphlets and religious autobiographies of the time (see Bushman Visionary 185).

That being the case, why—then—was Joseph’s message rejected? Why did a Methodist minister treat the account, “not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days” (JS-H 1:21) when his religion had largely built its success on belief in visionary experiences? An obvious answer lies in the burden of his message—that the creeds and sects of the day “were all wrong and… all their creeds were an abomination in his [Christ’s] sight” (JS-H 1:19)—not a popular missive for a minister. A deeper answer, however, goes back in time, long before the events of 1820.

Methodist

When the Enlightenment developed momentum in the early eighteenth century, writers at the upper levels of society cast doubts upon magic, dreams and visions, labeling them as superstition. Belief in such things was left for credulous and ignorant common people. The pressure of the rationalist atmosphere this attitude created for the educated and “respectable” portions of society caused many to deny visionary experiences. Charles G. Finney—mentioned above for seeing Christ—serves as an example in this regard as well, since he later called his visionary experience “a mental state” rather than an actual occurrence to protect his credibility (Bushman Visionary 185-186).

It was within this climate that a significant shift in Methodist attitude towards the acceptance of dreams and visions took place about the time Joseph Smith was participating in religious excitement and revivals (see Jones 112). The popularity that Methodism had achieved by accepting visions and supernatural experiences caused it turn away from such expressions of faith as it sought to become a more respectable religion. As Church historian Steven C. Harper penned,

Methodism was tending away from the kind of spiritual experiences Joseph described and toward presumably more respectable, reasonable religion. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had worried that Methodists would multiply exponentially in number only to become “a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” And Methodism indeed grew abundantly because it took the claims of people like Joseph so seriously. Its preachers encouraged personal conversions that included intimate experiences with God like visions and revelations. But then, as Wesley had worried, Methodism became less welcoming to such manifestations. As Joseph was coming of age, Methodism was becoming embarrassed by what respectable people regarded as its emotional excesses. Methodism had risen to meet the needs of the many people who could not find a church that took their spiritual experiences seriously. But with Methodism’s phenomenal growth came a shift from the margin to the mainstream (Harper 19-21).

Richard Lyman Bushman has added, speaking of the attitude of the clergy by the time Joseph experienced the First Vision,

Standing on the margins of the evangelical churches, Joseph may not have recognized the ill repute of visionaries. The preacher reacted quickly and negatively, not because of the strangeness of Joseph’s story but because of its familiarity… The only acceptable message from heaven was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph’s report of God’s rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical (Rough Stone 40-41).

If Joseph’s story was indeed “all too familiar” for his time and place, where does that put the young prophet? Mormons might feel threatened by the suggestion of other visionary experiences because many of those visions would be regarded as invalid or incorrect by their standards. The fact that an almost double-standard approach of accepting the visions of Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church while rejecting similar stories by contemporary non-members can and has been used to attempt to invalidate the First Vision. Yet, there seems to have been something special about Joseph’s experience. What made his vision so significant?

Richard L. Anderson has written that,

All visions are not made in heaven…. Books downgrading Joseph Smith tend to equate the First Vision with private revelations of forgiveness that are sometimes recorded in nineteenth-century memoirs. Many of these are night dreams or daytime prayers followed by the qualifaction “I thought I saw.”… Yet of the purportedly similar experiences that have been listed from Joseph Smith’s culture, none reach the combination of daylight directness and global message that Joseph Smith relates (15).

Indeed, that daylight directness was probably another reason why the story ruffled the feathers of the Methodist minister. Joseph upheld in his later years that “it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a vision…. I had actually seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me” (JS-H 1:24-25). Meanwhile—as Dr. Anderson mentioned—Methodists and other contemporary Christians were more used to phrases such as “by faith, I saw…” or affirmation that the vision was a dream or mental state of some sort (Jones 113). When Joseph spoke unequivocally of seeing the Father and the Son, he upset people who were used to less literal experiences.

Stained glass window in Salt Lake City.

Stained glass window in Salt Lake City.

As for the global message of Joseph Smith, Richard Lyman Bushman has commented that,

Focusing on the differences rather than the similarities, we see the limited force of the visionary writings. The narratives of dreams and miraculous appearances did not imply the construction of any institutional forms; they did not propose doctrine; they did not proclaim commandments. They were apocalyptic warnings, visions of worldly wickedness and onrushing doom. In a sense, they were titillations of the religious sensibilities that impose no obligations beyond a general revulsion against sin and responsiveness to divine purpose. The visionary writings were a later version of the Puritan preoccupation with wonders. They inspired awe at the presence of invisible powers made visible but were an occasion to marvel rather than to act.

Joseph Smith’s revelations by contrast radically redirected people’s lives. His writings became authoritative statements of doctrine of and the divine will. They implied an ecclesiastical polity and a reorganization of society. Out of a few verses in the Doctrine and Covenants, a new economic order emerged. Moved by the revelations, people went on missions to distant places, migrated to Missouri, paid tithing, underwent life-threatening persecutions, built cities. The revelations formed a new society created in the name of God. Joseph’s words were read as divine commandments with immediate implications for the conduct of life….

Perhaps the most important difference between Joseph and the visionaries was the way Joseph first presented himself to the world. In the early years, the key formal statements… played down visionary experiences…. Judging from the written record, the First Vision story was little known in the early years…. Instead of impressing his followers with the miraculous visions he had seen, he recruited them to carry the gospel to the world (Visionary 193-194, 196).

The largest thing separating Joseph’s experience from the visionaries of his day was the fact that he focused on revelations that applied to everyday life and the institution he eventually set up rather than miraculous visions.

In summary, the earliest known account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision was written by Joseph himself around 1832. It was rediscovered in 1965, launching a new era of research about the First Vision. Notably, in this account, there are a few possible discrepancies with later accounts of the event that have been commented upon. This account was written in the style of a born again narrative common for the time, yet stands apart in important ways. He was rejected because of the literalness of his vision and a shift away from accepting such experiences that occurred in formal religions. Further, he was separated from the visionary culture of the day by a reluctance to speak of his visions and the life-changing effects of his revelations and the church he would establish. This account gives us an important glimpse into Joseph’s mind. Soon, however, other accounts would immerge to shed greater light on the subject of the First Vision.

 first-vision-128369-gallery ldsorg

Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

Anderson, Richard L. “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision.” Ensign April 1996, p. 10-21.

Backman, Milton V., Jr. “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.” Ensign Jan 1985. Web. 15 May 2013.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith.” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997-1998), 183-204.

Cheesman, Paul. An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions. MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 1965. Print.

Dodge, Samuel Alonzo and Steven C. Harper, eds. Exploring the First Vision. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2012. Print.

Harper, Steven C. “Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 2 (2012) 17-33.

Harper, Steven and Brent L. Topp. “Historical Accounts of the First Vision.” Past Impressions. The Mormon Channel. Web. 22 May 2013.

Hill, Marvin S. “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2001), 35-53.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” BYU Studies Vol. 9, no. 3 (1969).

Jones, Christopher C. “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Spring 2011), 88-114.

Lambert, Neal E. and Richard H. Cacroft. “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980): 31-42.

Porter, Larry C. “Solomon Chamberlin’s Missing Pamphlet: Dreams, Visions, and Angelic Ministrations.” BYU Studies 37, no. 2 (1997-98), 113-140.

Tanner, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. The Changing World of Mormonism, revised edition. 2009. Web. 28 May 2013.

David Nye White, “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 14 Sept. 1843.


[1] Slashes indicate insertions.

The First Vision: The Great Curtain-raiser on the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times

The First Vision…is the pivotal thing of our story. Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its root in the First Vision of the boy prophet.… This was the great curtain-raiser on the dispensation of the fullness of times…. [It also] becomes the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision is 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…. That is the great keystone of our faith and our testimony (Hinckley 226-227).

Walter Rane's First Vision Painting

Walter Rane’s First Vision Painting

Gordon B. Hinckley—fifteenth prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made the statements above as he was testifying of the First Vision. To the Latter-day Saints, the First Vision is, as Joseph F. Smith said, “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” (Smith 495). What was this vision and why is it such an important event in the Latter-day Saints? Allow me to explain.

The Vision

During the first half of the nineteenth century there was an intense religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening that took place in America. This movement was a enthusiastic effort to restore righteousness and religious zeal in America, characterized by circuit-riding preachers, fiery-tongued evangelists, new grass-roots religious movements, and fervent emotionalism. As this movement worked its course in the six decades leading up to the Civil War, sporadic spiritual revivals erupted throughout the United States, causing an increase in active Christian church membership. The ecclesiastical storm center of this movement was western New York—an area that was in an almost constant state of revivalism. Revivals were so habitual in this region that historians have labeled it the “Burned-over District.”

One household from the Burned-over District that would be deeply affected by the effects of the Second Great Awakening was the Smith family of Manchester, New York. Sometime after moving to the area in the winter of 1816-1817, the Smiths began to attend the revival meetings that took place. During this time, various faiths such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians vied for converts to their particular interpretation of Christianity. It was in the midst of this “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” that their third son, Joseph, began to seriously think about his faith (JS-H 1:5).

A revival meeting in the Second Great Awakening

A revival meeting in the Second Great Awakening

This Joseph—writing of this time of his life at a later date—stated that, “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul” (Jessee 3), and “began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state” (Teachings 438). His mind was “called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness” as he pondered the problem of salvation. He went to the meetings of the different religions in the area as often as he could to investigate their beliefs, but could not bring himself to join with any them (JS-H 1:8). The problem—according to him—was that, “Looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences” (Jessee 6).

Perplexed, young Joseph turned to the Bible in an attempt to find answers. Of this experience he wrote, “Thus applying myself to them [the scriptures] and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn… their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that Sacred depository.” Particularly troubling to him was the fact that, “when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions” (JS-H 1:6). Further, he recalled that, “I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection.” To his mind, this could not be correct: “considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed” (Teachings 438).

Joseph Smith studied the Bible to find an answer to his questions.

Joseph Smith studied the Bible to find an answer to his questions. Image courtesy LDS.org

Even still, he came close to settling upon one religion. He wrote, “In the process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them” (JS-H 1:8). One neighbor recalled that Joseph caught “a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road”—quite possibly at the Genessee Conference of July 1819, where over 100 Methodist ministers gathered for business and preaching for a whole month—and became a “very passable exhorter in evening meetings” (Anderson 4-5). Another neighbor reminisced that, “At one time he joined the probationary class of the Methodist Church in Palmyra, and made some active demonstrations of engagedness” but went on to say that Joseph’s “assumed convictions were insufficiently grounded or abiding to carry him along to the saving point of conversion, and he soon withdrew from the class” (Anderson 7). According to what Joseph told a friend in 1844, he “wanted to get religion too, wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing” (cited in Allen 12).

All this, he says,

Was a grief to my soul[.] Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind… [and] my mind became exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world (Jessee 3).

He continued,

While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (JS-H 1:11).

This was, as his associate Orson Pratt would say, “cheering information to him; tidings that gave him great joy. It was like a light shining forth in a dark place, to guide him to the path in which he should walk” (Pratt). He “reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God” he did (JS-H 1:12), and felt that, “Information was what I most desired at this time” (Jessee 6). Ultimately, he “came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is ask of God. I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God’” (JS-H 1:13).

With this resolution in mind, Joseph went to the woods near his father’s home, noting that, “It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt” (JS-H 1:14). He had at least three serious questions on his mind as knelt to pray: 1) he was concerned for his own salvation and sought forgiveness of sins; 2) he was concerned for the welfare of mankind in general; and 3) he wanted to know which, if any of the churches were right and which he should join.

The Sacred Grove--the most likely location of Joseph's prayer and vision. Image courtesy LDS.org

The Sacred Grove–the most likely location of Joseph’s prayer and vision. Image courtesy LDS.org

At first, he made “a fruitless attempt to pray”, for his tongue “seemed to be swoolen in [his] mouth, so that [he] could not utter” (Jessee 6) and he felt as though he had been “seized upon by some power which entirely overcame” him (JS-H 1:15). Unwanted and distracting thoughts ran through his mind—doubts and “inappropriate images to prevent him from obtaining the object of his endeavors” (Hyde). He even heard sounds like someone walking towards him that caused him to spring upon his feet to look around, but he saw nothing “that was calculated to produce the noise of walking” (Jessee 6).

During this struggle, “thick darkness” or a “dark cloud” (Hyde) seemed to gather around him and he felt that he was “doomed to sudden destruction” and must abandon himself “to the power of some actual being from the unseen world.” He exerted all of his powers to call upon God for deliverance “out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon” him, and it was at that dark moment that he saw a pillar of light or fire—shining with a brilliance above the brightness of the sun—appear exactly over his head. With its appearance, he found himself delivered from the enemy that had bound him (JS-H 1:1-17).

This pillar of light descended gradually, coming from a “considerable distance.” While it descended, Joseph continued to pray, and, as Orson Pratt wrote,

As it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence (Pratt).

When the fiery pillar finally reached the ground, Joseph recalled that it, “rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy” (Jessee 6). “My mind,” he wrote, “was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision” (Teachings 438).

In this vision, one personage initially appeared, and, “after a while a other person came to the side of the first” (Allen 12). These two personages “exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon day” (Teachings 438). The first personage called Joseph by name and introduced the second personage, stating that “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS-H 1:17).

First Vision

This second personage then spoke to the youth, 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 that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life” (Jessee 4). This answered one of his major concerns—that of his own salvation and forgiveness of sins—but he still wanted to know which church to join and was concerned about the welfare of mankind in general. “Therefore,” he later wrote, “No sooner… did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right… and which I should join” (JS-H 1:18). Alexander Neibaur recalled that Joseph asked a more specific question: “Must I join the Methodist Church[?]” (Allen 12). That question was answered by the personage who said, “No, they are not my People, have gone astray” (Allen 12), and the answer to the general question according to Joseph was that, “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong” (JS-H 1:19).

The Lord went on to explain that, “all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as His Church and kingdom” (Teachings 438) and that “the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not <my> commandments” (Jessee 4). He also said that, “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’” (JS-H 1:19). As for how the Lord felt about this condition, he stated, “mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which [hath] been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles” and that, “behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud<clothed> in the glory of my Father” (Jessee 4). Joseph received a second admonition to “join with any of them [the churches of the day]” (JS-H 1:20). He did, however, receive a promise that, “the fullness of the Gospel should at some future time be made known unto me” (Teachings  438) and was told “many other things” which he was unable to write (JS-H 1:20).

When the vision closed and he came to, he found himself lying on his back (JS-H 1:20), and “felt uncomen feeble” (Allen 12). He made his way home, and when his mother asked what was the matter, he brushed off her concern, saying “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off” but added, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (JS-H 1:20). We do not know how much he shared about the experience at first, though by one account, we are told that he withdrew from the Methodist class, stating that “all sectarianism was fallacious, all the churches on a false foundation” (Anderson 7).[1] He also discussed the vision with at least one Methodist minister—a common thing to do for someone who was recently “reborn” so as to test the validity of their conversion—and was shocked by the response: “He treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles and that there would never be any more of them” (JS-H 1:21). Joseph may have told a few others, but, “soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among the professors of religion” (JS-H 1:22). Even so, he continued to uphold that, “it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision… I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me… and I could not deny it” (JS-H 1:24-25).

First Vision Stained Glass

Significance

Why, then, was this experience so significant? The answer lies in the life of Joseph Smith. Starting from this experience as well as several visits from angels that would follow in future years, Joseph began to proclaim that he was a prophet and apostle of God, much like the Biblical servants of the Lord such as Noah, Moses, Peter, and Paul had been. He spent his life establishing and guiding the Mormon community. According to one topical reference book that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a few years ago, Joseph’s accomplishments included “bringing forth the Book of Mormon, restoring the priesthood, revealing precious gospel truths, organizing the true Church of Jesus Christ, and establishing temple work” (True 89).

The book went on to state that, “For your testimony of the restored gospel to be complete it must include a testimony of Joseph Smith’s divine mission. The truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the truthfulness of the First Vision and the other revelations the Lord gave to the Prophet Joseph” (True 90). This becomes important when one considers what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims to be–the only Church acknowledged by God as His Church and Kingdom on the earth today. In the First Vision, the Lord had told Joseph that there was no church that He acknowledged because they believed in incorrect doctrines and denied the power of godliness. Joseph was to be called to the ministry as a means of rectifying the situation. As one later revelation said: “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments” (D&C 1:17). The life work summarized above were the efforts made to rectify the situation and the organization that Joseph started carries on in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, which claims to be—as the same revelation states—“the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30).

The First Vision is significant as the starting point of Joseph Smith's prophetic career.

The First Vision is significant as the starting point of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career.
Image courtesy LDS.org

The First Vision’s role in this claim is that it served as Joseph Smith’s initial prophetic calling and authorization. It outlined the situation that his life was to be spent trying to fix. It was, as Gordon B. Hinckley said, “the great curtain-raiser on the dispensation of the fullness of times.” If what Joseph said happened in the First Vision is true, then all that came after has a good foundation. If it is false, then the Church is—at least in part—a sham. That is why President Hinckley also called the First Vision experience “the great keystone of our faith and our testimony.”

Obviously, then, most writing that has been done about the First Vision has been done in a highly-charged and—at times—polemic atmosphere. Mormon authors and scholars have their belief system in jeopardy and write to defend the event. Non-Mormons and ex-Mormons strike against the vision to support their own worldview. In a sense, Mormons should at least understand (though not necessarily agree) when a member of another faith attacks the First Vision, since the message of that event is an assault on their way of life and belief system as well. As for ex-Mormons, the position of the First Vision is very much like Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s assessment of the Book of Mormon, that, “if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit” (Holland). For example, Fawn M. Brodie—author of No Man Knows My History—spoke privately to Dale Morgan, her closest adviser, of her need to assert her independence from her former faith. She called it a “compulsion to liberate myself wholly from Mormonism” (Harper 22). Her book—which still stands among the most effective attacks on the First Vision and the life of Joseph Smith—was the result of that compulsion.

No Man Knows my History

Ex-Mormons such as Fawn Brodie and the Tanners have written about the First Vision as part of their attempts to invalidate their former faith.

This atmosphere has—at times—resulted in intellectual lockjaw for both sides of the argument. Yet, overall the discussion has resulted in a deeper understanding of the event. Ultimately it is impossible to say for certain with empirical evidence that the vision happened, since Joseph was the only person this side of the veil that was present for the event. At best, we may only say that it seems either likely or unlikely that he was telling the truth of what happened in that Grove. We can, however, look at what we do know of the events to try and piece together what led Joseph to pray, what he claimed happened, and how that claim has affected his followers over the years.

In his writing, Joseph left us four or five accounts his vision and there are five accounts left to us by contemporaries that heard the Prophet relate the story in person. These accounts have only gradually been discovered and new questions have appeared with each discovery. The most widely-known Joseph Smith account of the First Vision was the 1838 “official” account printed in the Pearl of Great Price, but there are also the 1832 account written as part of an early attempt at recording Church history, two 1835 journal entries that records Joseph telling the First Vision to visitors, and a brief summary of the event found in the 1842 Wentworth letter. In addition, there are accounts found in missionary tracts by Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, a newspaper editorial by David Nye White, a journal entry about public sermon in Nauvoo by Levi Richards and another journal entry by Alexander Neibaur recording a private discussion with Joseph in 1844. Each of these accounts has unique details and sometimes there is a bit of dissonance—especially at first glance—between the accounts. There is also, however, a fair amount of unanimity of details as well between all ten retellings.

The discrepancies between the accounts, however, have left room for attempts to invalidate the experience as a whole or to at least escape the burden of the vision’s message. Specific examples of this will be given and responded to throughout this series. Another interesting side effect of the emphasis placed on the First Vision by the Church and the existence of multiple accounts is that it can cause some faithful Latter-day Saints to become uncomfortable in their beliefs. Some people have expressed disenchantment with the Church upon finding out that there are multiple accounts, concerned that they haven’t heard of them before. About such people, historian Dean C. Jessee has said, “I think they’d be okay if they were a little more inclined to read” (Harper and Topp). The fact of the matter is that the Church has published many of the accounts at various times and through various means and that it allows other groups to publish the accounts as well. Emphasis is placed upon the official, canonized account found in the Pearl of Great Price, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the other accounts haven’t been made available. For example, in a BYU Studies volume published in 1969, the entire issue was dedicated to research about the setting and accounts of the First Vision, with the 1832 and 1835 accounts published therein. Several articles have appeared in the official Church periodicals—The Improvement Era and the Ensign—over the years that discuss and quote from the various accounts, and in recent times, the accounts have been published an placed online by the Joseph Smith Papers project. Also, in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith book that served as the curriculum manual for the Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood organizations in the Church for 2007-2008, two accounts were published in full with a third one published in part. More recently, as part of what I’m assuming is the Answers to Gospel Questions set that the Church has been threatening to do something with for years, a page has been added to LDS.org that addresses the various accounts of the First Vision. Other examples may be cited, but the point is that the Church has made them accessible to anyone who cares to look.

Joseph Smith Papers

The Joseph Smith Papers–one of many places the First Vision accounts have been published.

With that availability in mind, why is it important for Mormons to study these accounts? James B. Allen answered that question in an Improvement Era article written in 1970. He stated that,

We believe that Joseph Smith was telling the truth each time he related his experience, and that the scribes recorded his ideas as accurately as possible. Thus, a study of the combined accounts presents some fascinating new insights into the experience and personal development of the young prophet. Not only do we discover more details about what may have happened both before and after he entered the Sacred Grove, but we also gain valuable insight into how these events affected him personally and helped him in his spiritual growth (8).

The purpose—then—of these posts is to present every known account of the First Vision and a survey of the scholarly work and discussion surrounding them. Each account written by Joseph Smith will be shown, the unique aspects and controversial moments examined for each, and at least one subject of scholarly debate will be presented for each account. Contemporary and later accounts will also be presented as a part of this series with some discussion of their significance as well. The hope is that a deeper appreciation and understanding of the First Vision will be gained through these posts, since it is the great curtain-raiser of this dispensation.

Statue of the First Vision found in the LDS Conference Center in SLC, UT.

Statue of the First Vision found in the LDS Conference Center in SLC, UT.

Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

Anderson, Richard Lloyd. “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences.” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969).

Harper, Steven C. “Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 2 (2012) 17-33.

Harper, Steven and Brent L. Topp. “Historical Accounts of the First Vision.” Past Impressions. The Mormon Channel. Web. 22 May 2013.

Hinckley, Gordon B. Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1997.

Holland, Jeffrey R. “Safety for the Soul.” Conference Report October 2009. Web. 1 June 2013.

Howard, Richard P. “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: The RLDS Tradition.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980) 23-29.

Hyde, Orson. A Cry in the Wilderness, A Voice From the Dust of the Earth, trans. Justus Ernst. Frankfurt: 1842.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” BYU Studies Vol. 9, no. 3 (1969).

Pratt, Orson. Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1940, pp. 3-6.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007.

True to the Faith. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004.

Smith, Joseph F. Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1939.


[1] This account—written in a negative tone also added that Joseph said “the Bible [was] a fable.” The author spoke of the Smiths as “unqualified atheists,” and may have added the last bit to emphasize that point (Anderson 9).