First Vision

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The First Vision of Joseph Smith is recognized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) as the starting event of their religious movement. According to the standard narrative of this event, Joseph Smith, while a young boy of 14, became concerned about his salvation and religious truth. While seeking God in the woods in the spring of 1820, a heavenly being (or beings) appeared to him and declared that God was going to inaugurate the “restitution of all things.” This vision, on April 6, 1820, is considered the foundation of the LDS church, so that LDS President Gordon Hinckley declared at the October 1998 Church Conference, “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision . . . Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration.”[1]

The first published account of Smith’s vision was composed in 1838 or 1839 and then printed in the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842.[2] It was canonized in The Pearl of Great Price in 1880. In the canonical version Smith relates that when he was 15,[3] there was a revival of religion in his neighborhood that resulted in his mother, sister, and two brothers joining the Presbyterian denomination. Smith was undecided about which church to join, and so he went into the words to pray. He was then overcome by “thick darkness,” after which a pillar of light appeared and “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” appeared above him. “One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is my Beloved Son, Hear Him!” After composing himself, Smith asked the personages which sect was right so that he could join it, to which the Personage replied that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and Smith was forbidden to join any of them. Smith claimed that he returned home and began to share what he learned in this vision, which resulted in his experiencing “great persecution.”[4]

Historical Problems

Historians have pointed out some problems that historical records of the time present to this account, in addition to the wrong age the account gives for Smith.

  1. The official account speaks of a revival in the area in 1820, while historical records indicated a revival in the area occurring between 1824 and 1825. Examination of the church role records for the year 1820 showed that the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches showed either losses or only modest gains of a handful of people that year, not the massive numbers expected from a revival.[5] In the 1824 revival, approximately 300 people joined the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches.
  2. There are no records from the period of 1820 to 1838 of Smith sharing this record with anyone, despite his stating that his relating the vision brought him “great persecution.” This lack of any attestation from contemporary sources is pointed out not only by Fawn Brodie, an apostate who wrote an extensive history of early Mormonism,[6] but also by LDS scholar James Allen.[7] Similarly, LDS scholar Steven C. Harper wrote, “There is no evidence in the historical record that Joseph Smith told anyone but the minister of his vision for at least a decade.”[8]
  3. Smith was still involved in the occult practice of looking into a peep-stone in order to find hidden treasure in 1825; there had been no reformation in his life at this point.[9]
  4. In March 1826, Smith was arrested in Bainbridge, New York and charged with being “a disorderly person and an impostor” because of his occult practices in looking for buried treasure. There are official court records of his conviction.[10]
  5. In 1828, Smith applied for membership in the Methodist Church. His wife Emma was already a member of the church; both circumstances cannot be reconciled with the warning he supposedly received from divine beings in 1820 that the creeds of all denominations were “an abomination” and he was not to join any of them. In response to Smith’s request for church membership, Emma’s cousin Joseph Lewis raised an objection to allowing Smith’s name to be added to the church rolls on the grounds of Smith’s dealing in magic, the occult, and money-digging:
    I [Joseph Lewis], with Joshua McKune, a local preacher at that time, I think in June, 1828, heard on Saturday, that Joe Smith had joined the church on Wednesday afternoon, (as it was customary in those days to have circuit preaching at my father’s house on week-day). We thought it was a disgrace to the church to have a practicing necromancer, a dealer in enchantments and bleeding ghosts, in it. So on Sunday we went to father’s, the place of meeting that day, and got there in season to see Smith and talked with him some time in father’s shop before the meeting. Told him that his occupation, habits, and moral character were at variance with the discipline, that his name would be a disgrace to the church, that there should have been recantation, confession and at least promised reformation—that he could that day publicly ask that his name be stricken from the class book, or stand an investigation. He chose the former, and did that very day make the request that his name be taken off the class book.[11]

Various Versions of the First Vision

1832 Version: Only Jesus appears. In 1965, Mormon scholar Paul Cheesman finished his Master’s thesis at Brigham Young University entitled An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions. This contained an account, written in 1832 in Joseph Smith’s handwriting, of the First Vision.[12] The 1832 account had been suppressed for over 130 years because of its divergences from the official or canonical version, which was written six years later and then published in 1842. The handwritten account contradicts the “canonical” account found in the Pearl of Great Price in giving the age of Joseph as 15, whereas he would have been 15 if the “vision” occurred in 1820. More seriously, in the 1832 account only Jesus was said to have appeared.

1835 Version: a “messenger” appears. The Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate stated that it would give “a full history of the rise of the church” (Vol. 1, p. 13). On page 42 of the same volume it was said that it would contain “a correct statement of events.” In the February 1835 issue Oliver Cowdery told how Joseph Smith made his first contact with God: A “messenger” appeared to him in his bedroom. There is no mention of the Father or the Son.

1835 Version as told to Erastus Holmes: only angels. Smith said: “I received the first visitation of Angels when I was about 14 years old.”[13]. Also, “Most of the accounts of the First Vision prior to 1875 described the appearance of either one or more angels, but rarely God and Jesus.”[14]

1842, account in Times and Seasons: Two personages, Father and Son. One pointed to the other and said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”[15] This eventually became the official version.

1845, Lucy Smith: An angel. In the first draft of her autobiography, Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, remembered Mormonism starting with a visit, in 1823, by “an angel” who told him “. . . there is not a true church on the Earth.” Later, in the published version, she said nothing about her own recollection of the vision but was persuaded to use instead Joseph’s account from Times and Seasons.[16]

The Theory That There Was No First Vision

The problems that historians see with the canonical account of the First Vision, listed above, may be summarized as follows: 1) No written contemporary records of the account before 1832; 2) Three contradictory versions of whom was seen in the account, especially significant considering the importance of a person supposedly seeing God in the flesh; 3) No indication of any change in Smith’s behavior that would be expected from a spiritual experience of this magnitude, as evidenced by his still dabbling in the occult in 1825 and again in 1826, the latter attested by court records; 4) The records of his attempt to join the Methodist Church in 1828, although the main message he supposedly received in the First Vision was that all denominations were corrupt and he was to join none of them.

In order to make sense of these problems with the traditional account of the First Vision, non-Mormon historians discount its historicity. If the event never happened, then every one of the problems just listed finds a solution. Further, those familiar with the history of the time point to another event on which Joseph Smith modeled his narrative: the account given by evangelist Charles G. Finney relating the spiritual experience he had while seeking God in the woods near Adams, New York on October 10, 1821. Finney began his evangelistic career in 1825. In 1830-31 he led a revival meetings in Rochester, New York, that was described by a pastor from New York City as follows: "The whole community was stirred. Religion was the topic of conversation in the house, in the shop, in the office and on the street. The only theater in the city was converted into a livery stable; the only circus into a soap and candle factory. Grog shops were closed; the Sabbath was honored; the sanctuaries were thronged with happy worshippers; a new impulse was given to every philanthropic enterprise; the fountains of benevolence were opened, and men lived to good."[17]

The publicity that Finney was receiving throughout New York and elsewhere was surely known among the band of followers of the new prophet who had based his claim to authority on the publication of a new “Bible” in 1830. Palmyra, which was the Smith family home starting in 1816, and where young Joseph claimed he found the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, is only 20 miles from Rochester. The fame of Charles Finney had surely reached that town. Was this leader of a new religious movement to be outdone by an evangelist who was accepted by the traditional churches, churches that did not accept Joseph Smith’s claims to be a prophet? The theory that Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” was a fabrication therefore not only explains the various problematic circumstances surrounding its history, but also finds a motive for the invention of the account: it copied the conversion experience of Charles Finney as he earnestly sought the Lord in a forest setting just a few years before. Joseph Smith was not to be outdone by an evangelist who was preaching the traditional Gospel to people who had no need of a new revelation, but who were finding their lives transformed by the old message of salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The prophet who was bringing a new message for the latter days must have a similar experience, even if it took him a while to determine just exactly what should take place in that experience, and which heavenly beings were involved.

Resources

References

  1. Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking About Us?” The Ensign (November 1998): 70–71.
  2. Hugh Nibley, "Censoring the Joseph Smith Story," in The Improvement Era (Salt Lake City: Mutual Improvement Associations), 64:490.
  3. According to the date of his birth, he was only 14; later in the account he makes the same mistake, saying that he was “an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age.”
  4. Account of First Vision 1.7–22.
  5. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), pp. 17–25.
  6. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945 ed.), p. 24.
  7. James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn 1966): p. 33.
  8. Steven C. Harper First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 11. This statement must be qualified by saying that the only record of recounting the vision to a minister comes from Smith’s later writings, not from any contemporary record.
  9. Tiffany’s Monthly, NY (August 1859), pp. 165–65.
  10. Marquardt and Walters, Inventing Mormonism, p. 70.
  11. The Amboy Journal, (June 11, 1879): p. 1; also Early Mormon Documents, vol. 4, pp. 309–10, as cited in “The First Vision 200 Years Later,” p. 6.
  12. Joseph Smith, Jr., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled by Dean Jesse (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), pp. 10-11.
  13. Smith, Personal Writings, p. 113. This account has been changed in the History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 312, to read “my first vision” instead of “visitation of Angels.”
  14. The First Vision 200 Years Later, p. 3.
  15. Times and Seasons, Vol.3, no. 10, p. 748.
  16. First draft of Lucy Smith’s family history, p. 46, Church Archives; Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, pp. 289-90.
  17. Eddie Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2002), p. 26.