The 1832 First Vision account was suppressed between 11 and ~30 years

The evidence

LaMar Petersen, an ama­teur Mor­mon his­to­ri­an, met with Levi Young (senior Pres­i­dent of the First Coun­cil of the Sev­en­ty) on Feb­ru­ary 3, 1953, and took these notes:

His curios­i­ty was excit­ed when read­ing in Roberts’ Doc. His­to­ry ref­er­ence to “doc­u­ments from which these writ­ings were com­piled.” Asked to see them. TOLD TO GET HIGHER PERMISSION. Obtained that per­mis­sion. Exam­ined doc­u­ments. Writ­ten, he thought, about 1837 or 1838. Was told NOT TO COPY OR TELL WHAT THEY CONTAINED. Said it was a “STRANGE” account of the First Vision. Was put back in vault. REMAINS UNUSED, UNKNOWN.

The “strange” account referred to is the the 1832 First Vision account (the iden­ti­ty of the doc­u­ment he saw is beyond dis­pute, as will be obvi­ous from the fol­low­ing sequence of events).

LaMar Petersen lat­er recount­ed:

… He told us of a “strange account” (Young’s own term) of the First Vision, which he thought was writ­ten in Joseph’s own hand and which had been con­cealed for 120 years in a locked vault. He declined to tell us details, but stat­ed that it did not agree entire­ly with the off­cial ver­sion. Jesus was the cen­ter of the vision, but God was not men­tioned. I respect­ed Young’s wish that the infor­ma­tion be with­held until after his death.

After Levi Young’s death in Decem­ber, 1963, Petersen men­tioned the account to Jer­ald and San­dra Tan­ner. They wrote to Joseph Field­ing Smith ask­ing to see the “strange account”, but he refused to let them see it. About that time, the three excised pieces were returned to the jour­nal, and an LDS grad­u­ate stu­dent, Paul R. Cheese­man, was grant­ed access to the jour­nal and made a tran­script of the account (which tran­script was then pub­lished by the Tan­ners in 1964 and Cheese­man in 1965).

What can be surmised with virtual certainty

  • The 1832 First vision account was kept in a safe for many years.
  • LDS lead­ers knew what was con­tained in it, at least as ear­ly as 1953 and pos­si­bly as ear­ly as 1935, about the ear­li­est the account could have been excised from the jour­nal in which it was found.1
  • LDS lead­ers for­bid peo­ple from copy­ing the account or talk­ing about it (although they grant­ed access to at least one LDS his­to­ri­an [Petersen] to pri­vate­ly see it).
  • LDS lead­ers sup­pressed2 the account from at least 1953 until 1964.

Why not an earlier dating?

We know that Levi Edgar Young was shown the account before LaMar Petersen. Stan Lar­son, prob­a­bly infer­ring from the Petersen account, sur­mis­es:

Some time dur­ing the 1940s or ear­ly 1950s, Joseph Field­ing Smith showed Levi Edgar Young (who was then the senior pres­i­dent of the First Coun­cil of the Sev­en­ty) this 1832 account of the First Vision.

The state­ment is giv­en the fol­low­ing foot­note:

  1. When Joseph Field­ing Smith became pres­i­dent of the LDS Church in 1970, the per­son­al safe in his office was moved into the First Presidency’s walk-in vault. The exact time that the 1832 account was put into the Joseph Field­ing Smith office safe and the date that he showed the his­to­ry to Levi Edgar Young would prob­a­bly be found in the Joseph Field­ing Smith Col­lec­tion, cat­a­logued as Ms 4250 at the Church His­to­ry Library Archives. On Decem­ber 11, 2012 the writer sent to Richard E. Tur­ley a writ­ten request for per­mis­sion to read the diaries (either pho­to­copies or micro­film) of Joseph Field­ing Smith from 1930 to 1954, but this request was denied. (empha­sis added)

So, dat­ing exact­ly when Joseph Field­ing Smith put the doc­u­ment in the vault and dat­ing when he showed the doc­u­ment to Levi Edgar Young are cur­rent­ly unknown because the the LDS Church won’t allow his­to­ri­ans to read Joseph Field­ing Smith’s diaries from the time peri­od.

If Joseph Field­ing Smith under­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of the doc­u­ment when he excised it (which seems high­ly prob­a­ble), then the sup­pres­sion of the doc­u­ment began any­where from the 1930s until 1964. If we assume the mid 1930’s for the date of wide­spread use of cel­lo­phane tape (say 1934) then we can brack­et the time of sup­pres­sion: The 1832 First Vision account was sup­pressed some­where between 11 and about 30 years.

Additional reflections

One is left to won­der how much longer the account would have been sup­pressed if Petersen had not men­tioned the account to the Tan­ners and the Tan­ners pres­sured lead­ers to release it.

Even with it’s pub­li­ca­tion by the Tan­ners in 1964 it would be anoth­er 6 years before the Church acknowl­edged the sub­stance of the 1832 First Vision account in offi­cial mate­r­i­al.3


Ref­er­ences:


  1. The three leaves con­tain­ing the “strange” first vision account had been excised from the orig­i­nal jour­nal. The man­ner in which the exci­sion was per­formed (i.e., the type of tape used to repair parts of the slop­py exci­sion) means that the exci­sion had to have tak­en place after 1930 (since that is when cel­lo­phane tape was invent­ed), so like­ly some­time after 1935 when cel­lo­phane tape was in wide­spread use. In addi­tion, the exci­sion did not fol­low common/good archival pro­to­col (i.e., no notes as to why or when the pages were excised). The exci­sion is fur­ther evi­dence that LDS lead­ers knew that the account was sig­nif­i­cant and took delib­er­ate steps to avoid it being leaked. In my view, though, the exci­sion sim­ply cor­rob­o­rates the suppression–the sup­pres­sion is clear­ly estab­lished by LaMar Petersen’s notes from 1953.

  2. I’m defin­ing sup­pres­sion in this fash­ion: Church lead­ers clear­ly knew what the doc­u­ment was and that it was sig­nif­i­cant, and they took delib­er­ate steps to avoid that infor­ma­tion being leaked to the pub­lic.

  3. As far as I am aware, the first men­tion of the idea that Joseph told an account of a sin­gle vis­i­tor (i.e., the sub­stance of the 1832 account) is in James Allen’s April 1970 Improve­ment Era Arti­cle enti­tled “Eight Con­tem­po­rary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision — What Do We Learn from Them?”

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