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