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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 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).
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.
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.
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.