Our whole strength rests on the valid­i­ty of that [First] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most impor­tant and won­der­ful work under the heav­ens.” – Gor­don B. Hinck­ley, The Mar­velous Foun­da­tion of Our Faith

1. Ver­sions: The Church acknowl­edges there are at least nine dif­fer­ent First Vision accounts by Joseph Smith, although the fol­low­ing five are the most wide­ly-known accounts:

2. Sum­ma­ry of First Vision accounts:

  • 1832 Account

Joseph first hand-wrote the First Vision sto­ry in 1832. This ver­sion tells the sto­ry of a trou­bled young man who despairs of “the wicked­ness and abom­i­na­tions and the dark­ness which per­vad­ed the minds of mankind.” Joseph claims that before vis­it­ing the grove, he had con­clud­ed that the world “had apo­s­ta­tised from the true and liv­ing faith” and that “there was no soci­ety or denom­i­na­tion built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as record­ed in the New Tes­ta­ment.” Based on his read­ing of the Bible—although with­out men­tion­ing any par­tic­u­lar­ly inspir­ing text—Joseph decides to pray to God for guid­ance and for­give­ness. This ver­sion of the sto­ry cli­max­es with an encounter with one divine being, iden­ti­fied as “the Lord,” but makes no men­tion of two sep­a­rate per­son­ages. The Lord tells Joseph that his sins are for­giv­en and then con­firms Joseph’s ear­li­er sus­pi­cions about the cor­rup­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty. The vision abrupt­ly clos­es, and Joseph notes that “none would believe my heav­en­ly vision.”

  • 1835 Accounts

On Novem­ber 9, 1835, three years after Joseph’s hand-writ­ten first ver­sion account, Joseph pro­vid­ed anoth­er account. Joseph said that as a young man—“about 14”—he’d been per­plexed by the diver­si­ty of reli­gious views that exist­ed in his neigh­bor­hood. Based on two spe­cif­ic bib­li­cal pas­sages— Matthew 7:7 and James 1:5—he had sought God’s guid­ance. When telling the sto­ry, Joseph added a dra­mat­ic detail that he had not includ­ed in the 1830 or 1832 versions—an encounter with an invis­i­ble, malev­o­lent force imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing his con­ver­sa­tion with God. First, he report­ed, his tongue became swollen, pre­vent­ing him from pray­ing aloud, and then he heard foot­steps approach­ing. Hop­ing to find the source of the foot­falls, he turned but saw no one. At pre­cise­ly that instant, a “pil­lar of fire” descend­ed, in which a divine being was vis­i­ble. This being did not speak, but soon anoth­er being appeared who told Joseph that his sins were for­giv­en and “tes­ti­fied that Jesus Christ is the son of God.” Besides the two per­son­ages, Joseph claimed that he also saw “many angels” on this occa­sion.

Notably, Joseph does not iden­ti­fy the per­son­ages in the vision or claim that they were God and Jesus. In fact, Joseph seems to indi­cate that these per­son­ages may have been angels, as his Novem­ber 14, 1835 account states that “I received the first vis­i­ta­tion of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old,” but makes no men­tion of God or Jesus.

  • 1838 Account

Joseph Smith dic­tat­ed the most detailed vari­ant of the First Vision in 1838. This ver­sion even­tu­al­ly became the canon­i­cal sto­ry includ­ed in the Pearl of Great Price.

Joseph’s motive for recount­ing his sto­ry was essen­tial­ly defen­sive. He said he was attempt­ing to counter the false rumors being spread about him and his church. This account is quite detailed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the atten­tion it gives to the reli­gious ten­sions that per­me­at­ed Joseph’s environment—especially the atmos­phere in the home he shared with his par­ents and sib­lings.

Joseph reports that revivals repeat­ed­ly swept through his home region pri­or to his vision. Sev­er­al mem­bers of Joseph’s fam­i­ly, includ­ing his moth­er, had joined the Pres­by­ter­ian Church. With a father dis­in­ter­est­ed in orga­nized reli­gion, and fac­ing a rift between his own pre­ferred denom­i­na­tion (Method­ism) and that favored by his moth­er and sib­lings, young Joseph felt a keen sense of anx­i­ety and even cri­sis con­cern­ing which denom­i­na­tion to join. Joseph recounts in this ver­sion that a spe­cif­ic scrip­tur­al text, James 1:5, struck his heart with unprece­dent­ed force and led him to seek God’s will on the mat­ter.

This ver­sion tells of Joseph’s trek to the grove and, like the 1835 account, men­tions an over­pow­er­ing evil pres­ence that binds his tongue. Joseph does not men­tion shad­owy foot­steps in this 1838 account, but he describes being vio­lent­ly “seized” by “some actu­al being from the unseen world” who refus­es to relin­quish him until the appear­ance of a pil­lar of light dis­pels it. The pil­lar con­tains two divine fig­ures, one of whom intro­duces the oth­er as “My Beloved Son” and enjoins Joseph to “hear him!” The mes­sage Jesus deliv­ers in this ver­sion of the sto­ry con­veys dis­dain for Chris­ten­dom, its creeds, said to be an “abom­i­na­tion,” and its “pro­fes­sors,” said to be “cor­rupt.” Joseph is instruct­ed to avoid all exist­ing church­es because they have no spir­i­tu­al author­i­ty. Joseph recounts that he was also told “many oth­er things,” which he was for­bid­den to write. He con­cludes by recall­ing that his eager recita­tion of these events drew the ire of the local “pro­fes­sors” of reli­gion and incit­ed a wave of “per­se­cu­tion” against him.

  • 1842 Account

In 1842, Joseph respond­ed to Chica­go news­pa­per edi­tor John Wentworth’s request for infor­ma­tion about the Mor­mon faith. In most respects, the Went­worth Letter’s ver­sion of the First Vision is a faith­ful abbre­vi­a­tion of the 1838 account. The most sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence is Joseph’s claim that, in addi­tion to being told to join no exist­ing sect, he was promised that “the full­ness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”

3. Dif­fer­ences Among the Accounts: Joseph’s var­i­ous First Vision accounts con­tain sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences. For exam­ple:

  • Per­haps the biggest prob­lem is Joseph’s descrip­tion of who actu­al­ly appeared to him dur­ing the vision. His 1832 account states that he was vis­it­ed by “the Lord” but makes no men­tion of two sep­a­rate per­son­ages. Joseph’s Novem­ber 9, 1835 account states that “a per­son­age appeared in the midst of this pil­lar of flame” and, there­after, “anoth­er per­son­age appeared like unto the first.” Joseph does not iden­ti­fy these per­son­ages. How­ev­er, Joseph sug­gests that these per­son­ages were angels, as his Novem­ber 14, 1835 accounts states that “I received the first vis­i­ta­tion of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old.” Joseph’s 1838 account, for the first time, explic­it­ly men­tions the appear­ance of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
  • Joseph’s moti­va­tion in going to the grove changes among the var­i­ous accounts. In one account he states he prayed for a for­give­ness of his sins and makes no men­tion of being told that none of the church­es on earth were true. In oth­er accounts, he says he prayed due to the rival-like atmos­phere, or because he desired to know if God exist­ed. Yet in oth­er accounts, Joseph claims he prayed to know which church to join.

For exam­ple, in the 1832 account, Joseph said that before pray­ing he knew that there was no true or liv­ing church upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Tes­ta­ment. His pri­ma­ry pur­pose in going to pray was to seek for­give­ness of his sins. How­ev­er, in the offi­cial 1838 account, Joseph con­tra­dicts his 1832 account, stat­ing his “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 … (for at this time it had nev­er entered into my heart that all were wrong).”

  • Joseph’s broth­er, William Smith, and his moth­er, Lucy Mack Smith, both stat­ed that the Smith fam­i­ly joined the Pres­by­ter­ian Church after Alvin’s death in Novem­ber 1823. This is sig­nif­i­cant, as it seems sus­pi­cious that Joseph and his fam­i­ly would join the Pres­by­ter­ian church three years after Joseph claimed that God and Jesus told him that all of the church­es on earth were “an abom­i­na­tion” and untrue.
  • The his­tor­i­cal record shows there was a revival in Palmyra in 1817 and 1824, but not in 1820.
  • Joseph con­tin­ued to hold and teach a Trini­tar­i­an view of the God­head, as shown pre­vi­ous­ly with the Book of Mor­mon, even after the First Vision. Why would he hold such a view if he saw that the Father and Son as sep­a­rate embod­ied beings?

There are sev­er­al charts com­par­ing the var­i­ous first vision accounts. Per­haps the best chart is com­piled by Richard P. Howard, an his­to­ri­an emer­i­tus of Com­mu­ni­ty of Christ and pio­neer­ing schol­ar in Mor­mon his­to­ry. Howard’s chart com­pares details from six of the first vision accounts. Anoth­er, more sim­plis­tic chart (com­par­ing only four of the accounts) can be found below.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-jBH02l7Cwok/Uk2OceT6bBI/AAAAAAAAAm4/aLu16P7EHrQ/s1600/First+Vision+v3.png

4. Joseph Nev­er Men­tioned Vision Until Years Lat­er: No one, includ­ing Joseph Smith’s fam­i­ly mem­bers, ever heard about the First Vision for over 12 years after it sup­pos­ed­ly occurred. There are no accounts in the news­pa­pers, by neigh­bors, preach­ers, or even by mem­bers of Joseph’s own fam­i­ly. The first and ear­li­est writ­ten account of the First Vision in Joseph Smith’s jour­nal was writ­ten in 1832, 12 years after the spring of 1820, and that account did not even men­tion the pres­ence of God. There is no record of a First Vision pri­or to that point.

Espe­cial­ly trou­bling is that the First Vision is not men­tioned in either the offi­cial his­to­ry of the church writ­ten in 1835 by Oliv­er Cow­dery and Joseph Smith, or by Joseph’s own moth­er, Lucy Mack Smith, in the orig­i­nal ver­sion of her bio­graph­i­cal sketch of Joseph. The First Vision was not taught in church until 22 years after it occurred.

More­over, most Church mem­bers did not know about the First Vision until 1842, and even then it wasn’t regard­ed as very impor­tant. It is absent from ear­ly, fun­da­men­tal Church doc­u­ments like the Book of Com­mand­ments, which, at the time of pub­li­ca­tion, con­tained near­ly every revealed doc­trine and major his­tor­i­cal account rel­e­vant to the Church. One would nat­u­ral­ly expect the First Vision, the event that sparked Mor­monism, to be includ­ed in the Book of Com­mand­ments.

James B. Allen, who served as assis­tant church his­to­ri­an, frankly admit­ted that the First Vision “was not giv­en gen­er­al cir­cu­la­tion in the 1830’s” and indi­cat­ed that the First Vision either nev­er real­ly hap­pened or occurred very dif­fer­ent­ly than what LDS lead­ers teach. (Dia­logue: A Jour­nal of Mor­mon Thought, Autumn 1966, p.33). In fact, Dr. Allen made a num­ber of star­tling con­ces­sions in his inter­view with Dia­logue, Vol.1, No.3, p. 31 — p.32. For exam­ple:

  • [N]one of the avail­able con­tem­po­rary writ­ings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the pub­li­ca­tions of the Church in that decade, and no con­tem­po­rary jour­nal or cor­re­spon­dence yet dis­cov­ered men­tions the sto­ry of the first vision.…” Dr. Allen also stat­ed that in the 1830’s “the gen­er­al mem­ber­ship of the Church knew lit­tle, if any­thing, about it.” Dia­logue, Autumn 1966, pages 29–45.

  • 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. Joseph Smith’s his­to­ry, which was begun in 1838, was not pub­lished until it ran seri­al­ly in the Times and Sea­sons in 1842. The famous ‘Went­worth Let­ter,’ which con­tained a much less detailed account of the vision, appeared March 1, 1842, in the same peri­od­i­cal. Intro­duc­to­ry mate­r­i­al to the Book of Mor­mon, as well as pub­lic­i­ty about it, told of Joseph Smith’s obtain­ing the gold plates and of angel­ic vis­i­ta­tions, but noth­ing was print­ed that remote­ly sug­gest­ed ear­li­er vis­i­ta­tions.”

  • In 1833 the Church pub­lished the Book of Com­mand­ments, fore­run­ner to the present Doc­trine and Covenants, and again no ref­er­ence was made to Joseph’s first vision, although sev­er­al ref­er­ences were made to the Book of Mor­mon and the cir­cum­stances of its ori­gin.”

  • The first reg­u­lar peri­od­i­cal to be pub­lished by the Church was The Evening and Morn­ing Star, but its pages reveal no effort to tell the sto­ry of the first vision to its read­ers. Nor do the pages of the Lat­ter-day Saints Mes­sen­ger and Advo­cate, print­ed in Kirt­land, Ohio, from Octo­ber, 1834, to Sep­tem­ber, 1836. In this news­pa­per Oliv­er Cow­dery, who was sec­ond only to Joseph Smith in the ear­ly orga­ni­za­tion of the Church, pub­lished a series of let­ters deal­ing with the ori­gin of the Church. These let­ters were writ­ten with the approval of Joseph Smith, but they con­tained no men­tion of any vision pri­or to those con­nect­ed with the Book of Mor­mon.

  • In 1835 the Doc­trine and Covenants was print­ed at Kirt­land, Ohio, and its pref­ace declared that it con­tained ‘the lead­ing items of reli­gion which we have pro­fessed to believe.’ Includ­ed in the book were the ‘Lec­tures on Faith,’ a series of sev­en lec­tures which had been pre­pared for the School of the Prophets in Kirt­land in 1834–35. It is inter­est­ing to note that, in demon­strat­ing the doc­trine that the God­head con­sists of two sep­a­rate per­son­ages, no men­tion was made of Joseph Smith hav­ing seen them, nor was any ref­er­ence made to the first vision in any part of the pub­li­ca­tion.”

  • The first impor­tant mis­sion­ary pam­phlet of the Church was the Voice of Warn­ing, pub­lished in 1837 by Par­ley P. Pratt. The book con­tains long sec­tions on items impor­tant to mis­sion­ar­ies of the 1830’s, such as ful­fill­ment of prophe­cy, the Book of Mor­mon, exter­nal evi­dence of the book’s authen­tic­i­ty, the res­ur­rec­tion, and the nature of rev­e­la­tion, but noth­ing, again, on the first vision.”

  • The Times and Sea­sons began pub­li­ca­tion in 1839, but, as indi­cat­ed above, the sto­ry of the vision was not told in its pages until 1842. From all this it would appear that the gen­er­al church mem­ber­ship did not receive infor­ma­tion about the first vision until the 1840’s and that the sto­ry cer­tain­ly did not hold the promi­nent place in Mor­mon thought that it does today.”

5. Joseph Enhanced First Vision Account to Stave off Lead­er­ship Cri­sis: As doc­u­ment­ed by Grant Palmer in An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, the his­tor­i­cal record sug­gests that Joseph had impor­tant per­son­al con­sid­er­a­tions in chang­ing and bol­ster­ing the var­i­ous first vision accounts. As pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, pri­or to 1838, Joseph was rather vague in his descrip­tion of the first vision. How­ev­er, a lead­er­ship cri­sis began in Kirt­land on Novem­ber 7, 1837. Fred­er­ick G. Williams, a coun­selor in the First Pres­i­den­cy, left the church. (Joseph Field Smith, Essen­tials in Church His­to­ry, p. 204, 689.) Dur­ing the last week of Decem­ber 1837, Mar­tin Har­ris, one of the three wit­ness­es, was excom­mu­ni­cat­ed. On March 10, 1838, John Whit­mer, one of the eight wit­ness­es to the Book of Mor­mon, was excom­mu­ni­cat­ed. On March 25, Mar­tin Har­ris told a pub­lic meet­ing that none of the wit­ness­es had phys­i­cal­ly seen or han­dled the plates; they had not seen the plates with their “nat­ur­al eyes.” (Stephen Bur­nett to Lyman E. John­son, April 15, 1838, Joseph Smith Let­ter­book, 2: 64–66, LDS archives.) His admis­sion (which is dis­cussed in the Wit­ness­es sec­tion of this doc­u­ment) trig­gered a dis­cus­sion among church lead­ers as to future of the Church. Short­ly there­after, Apos­tles John F. Boyn­ton, Luke John­son, and oth­er church mem­bers “renounced the Book of Mor­mon.” (Bur­nett to John­son, April 15, 1838.)

George Albert Smith attend­ed this last dis­cus­sion or meet­ing and wrote, on March 30, 1838: “Last Sab­bath a divi­sion arose among the Par­rish par­ty about the Book of Mor­mon. John Boy­ing­ton, W. Par­rish, Luke John­son and oth­ers, said it was non­sense.” (George A. Smith to Josi­ah Flem­ming, March 30, 1838, Jour­nal His­to­ry of the Church.) George Albert Smith fur­ther recalled that about “thir­ty … promi­nent Elders” belong­ing to the Par­rish group, includ­ing Apos­tles Lyman John­son, William McLellin, and oth­ers “renounce[d] the Book of Mor­mon and Joseph Smith.” (George A. Smith, Jour­nal of Dis­cours­es, 7:115.) By April 7, 1838, when a church con­fer­ence was held at Far West under Joseph’s direc­tion, five apos­tles were said to be out of har­mo­ny with the church, includ­ing William Smith, William E. McLellin, Luke John­son, Lyman John­son, and John F. Boyn­ton.

On April 13, 1838, Apos­tles Luke John­son, Lyman E. John­son, and John F. Boyn­ton were excom­mu­ni­cat­ed or left the church. William McLellin fol­lowed short­ly there­after. They were the first four apos­tles to leave, and three of them – Boyn­ton and the John­son broth­ers – no longer believed in the divine author­i­ty of the Book of Mor­mon. Oliv­er Cow­dery and David Whit­mer were excom­mu­ni­cat­ed on April 12–13, 1838, and Hiram Page and Jacob Whit­mer (also wit­ness­es to the Book of Mor­mon) left the church as well. By the fall of 1838, Apos­tles Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Hyde had defect­ed.

Accord­ing to Dean C. Jessee, “Dur­ing this time of apos­ta­sy, approx­i­mate­ly three hun­dred left the Church, rep­re­sent­ing about 15 per­cent of the Kirt­land mem­ber­ship.” (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2: 217 n. 2.) Eco­nom­ic dis­il­lu­sion­ment over the fail­ure of the Kirt­land Anti-Safe­ty Soci­ety may have fueled the dis­sent, but doc­tri­nal dis­il­lu­sion­ment stem­ming from Mar­tin Har­ris’ state­ments and the sub­se­quent debate over the Book of Mor­mon smol­dered long after­wards.

With­in a month after Mar­tin Har­ris’ admit­ted that the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es had not phys­i­cal­ly seen the plates, three apos­tles no longer believed in the Book of Mor­mon and two more were out of favor with the church. All three Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es and three of the eight wit­ness­es had defect­ed. The entire Whit­mer clan had left the church. All of this must have caused con­sid­er­able anx­i­ety and cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance with­in the LDS com­mu­ni­ty. Fear­ing the pos­si­ble unrav­el­ing of the church, Joseph Smith took to reestab­lish­ing his author­i­ty. Dur­ing the week of April 7–13, 1838, he con­tem­plat­ed re-writ­ing his his­to­ry. (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2: 226–27.) On April 26, he renamed the church. The next day, he start­ed dic­tat­ing a new first vision nar­ra­tive. Id. at 232–33; D&C 115: 3–4.

Joseph began his 1838 account by attack­ing those who were cir­cu­lat­ing unsa­vory “reports” regard­ing “the rise and progress of the Church,” and then told a revised and more impres­sive ver­sion of his vision. (JS-His­to­ry 1:1.) He announced that his ini­tial call­ing had not come from an angel in 1823, as he had claimed for over a decade, but from God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820. (JS-His­to­ry 1:28.) This ear­li­er date estab­lished his mis­sion inde­pen­dent of the trou­bling ques­tions and for­mer wit­ness­es asso­ci­at­ed with the Book of Mor­mon. Like the 1834–35 priest­hood restora­tion recitals (dis­cussed here­after), Joseph’s April 1838 first vision account added sig­nif­i­cant mate­r­i­al that bol­stered his author­i­ty dur­ing a time of cri­sis.

6. Joseph Smith Taught Trin­i­ty Fol­low­ing First Vision: The his­tor­i­cal record estab­lish­es that Joseph Smith held a Trini­tar­i­an view of the God­head long after the First Vision, which doesn’t seem pos­si­ble if he, in fact, saw God and Jesus. Con­sid­er an out­line of a lec­ture Grant Palmer pre­sent­ed on Novem­ber 6, 2013 dis­cussing Joseph Smith’s chang­ing view of God as seen in his First Vision accounts. The lec­ture presents com­pelling evi­dence that Joseph Smith believed the fol­low­ing:

  • Joseph Smith believed in one God from 1829–1834.
  • Joseph Smith believed in two sep­a­rate Gods from 1835–1839.
  • Joseph Smith believed in a plu­ral­i­ty of Gods from 1839–1844.

Over­all, the lec­ture per­sua­sive­ly presents evi­dence of the fol­low­ing:

  • Joseph Smith wrote pseude­pigrapha, in that he false­ly attrib­uted his view of the God­head to Bib­li­cal prophets. In fact, Joseph altered past scrip­ture to reflect his own chang­ing view of God.
  • Joseph, by impos­ing his own view of God (and oth­er beliefs) upon past eras of scrip­ture and upon his own first vision accounts, val­i­dates that one can­not trust what Smith altered in the writ­ings of past prophets—or his own.
  • Joseph, by mate­ri­al­ly chang­ing his First Vision sto­ry, reveals the pat­tern of con­duct that he applied to all four of his foun­da­tion­al visions, each of which are dis­cussed in this doc­u­ment and include (1) obtain­ing the gold plates from Moroni; (2) the priest­hood restora­tion, and (3) the First Vision. All fol­low the embell­ished pat­tern of becom­ing more phys­i­cal, impres­sive, unique, and mirac­u­lous as time went on.
Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church, Part 5 — Book of Mor­monLeav­ing the Church, Part 7 — Priest­hood Restora­tion »

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