As originally published by Christian Research & Counsel and based on “Evolution of the First Vision and Teaching on God in Early Mormonism” by Sandra Tanner. This edition is a reformat and expansion of the original article by Fred W. Anson
Concerning Joseph Smith’s “First Vision”, seeing God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ together, Mormon prophet and 15th President of the LdS Church, Gordon B. Hinckley said:
“…this is the pivotal thing of our story. Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its roots in the First Vision of the boy prophet. Without it we would not have anything much to say…
This becomes the hinge pin on which the whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is that simple.”
(“Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley“, p.227)
From the above quote, it is obvious that the history of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is of paramount importance.
For that reason the following documented accounts, beginning in the year 1820, have been compiled to enable the reader to determine how, and when, the First Vision actually came about.
Stained glass depiction of the first vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., completed in 1913 by an unknown artist (Museum of Church History and Art).
The Evolution of the First Vision story
For 18 years the First Vision was of “angels”
First Vision of “angels” persisted in spite of the change to a vision of “God the Father and his Son” in 1842.
1890 (approx.) – today
First Vision of “God the Father and his Son”
There are no known references to the First Vision recorded in the year 1820. In fact, until the year 1838, there was no mention of Joseph having seen God the Father and his Son in any newspaper or contemporary writing, including Latter-day Saint (LdS) Church publications; not even in the diaries and journals of Joseph’s closest friends and church leaders, like Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, George A. Smith, George Q. Cannon and Oliver Cowdery.
Nor was there any mention of a vision of the Father and Son in the writings of any ofJoseph’s many enemies of the period between 1820 and 1840. There is also no evidence that Joseph Smith taught that God and Jesus were separate deities with bodies prior to 1838.
Account of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Joseph Smith, Jr., given to Willard Chase, as related in his 1833 affidavit as published by Eber D. Howe in “Mormonism Unvailed”, 1834, pp.240-248. The value of this account, while from a non-Mormon source, is the early date and the parallels it contains to the Autumn 1827 account that follows which was given by Martin Harris. Both Chase and Harris were among the earliest people to hear the story from Joseph Smith and his family, and both place the discovery of a gold book within the context of money-digging.
Account of Martin Harris given to the Rev. John A. Clark, as related in his 1842 book “Gleanings by the Way”, W.J. & J.K. Simon, pp. 222ff. [Microfilm copy].
The value of this account also is its early date, being related to Clark while he was a pastor in Palmyra in 1827. It contains many similarities to Harris 1859 testimony, demonstrating that Harris was consistent in what he related about Mormon origins. Like other early accounts, this one ties the discovery of a Golden Bible to Joseph’s prior practice of money-digging .
The Book of Mormon is published teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God (i.e. 2 Nephi 31:21; Mormon 7:7; Mosiah 15:1-5; 3 Nephi 11:27) and that Father and Son are same person (i.e. Ether 3:14). This is validated further reiterated by the title page which says:
“…to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
The Book of Mormon also teaches that God is a spirit (Alma 18:26-28; 22:8-11). There is no teaching in the Book of Mormon that Father has a physical body.
Essentially the Book of Mormon teaches Modalism (also known as “Sabellianism“): that is that there are three modes or expressions of one god.
Interview of Joseph Smith by Peter Bauder, recounted by Bauder in his book “The Kingdom and the Gospel of Jesus Christ”, printed in 1834, pp. 36-38 (See “Early Mormon Documents, vol.1“, compiled by Dan Vogel, Signature Books, 1996, pp. 16-17). Joseph Smith could give Bauder no “christian experience”, ie. no conversion experience or manifestation of saving grace in his life
In Joseph’s handwritten first draft of his history, only Jesus is mentioned as appearing.
(“The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith“, compiled by Dean Jessee, Deseret Book, 2002, pp. 10-11; also see The Joseph Smith Papers)
The Evening and Morning Star periodical, a major LdS publication, contains no mention ofJoseph’s having seen the Father and the Son.
LdS President (March 1, 1807 – September 2, 1898) Wilford Woodruff’s copy of The Book of Commandments
The Book of Commandments, a chronology of revelations from God to Joseph Smith was published. This would have been a natural place to include Joseph’s first revelation. But there is no mention of the First Vision.
The Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate claimed that it would be “a full history of therise of the church” (Vol. 1, p.13) and on page 42 of the same volume we read 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. No mention of the Father and the Son.
Doctrine and Covenants, a revision of the Book of Commandments was first introduced to the church body in a general conference on August 17, 1835. At the end of the conference, the church “by a unanimous vote” agreed to accept the compilation as “the doctrine and covenants of their faith” and to make arrangements for its printing. Later in 1835 the book was printed and published under the title “Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God”.
Ironically, God the Father is portrayed, not as having a physical body but, as “being a personage of spirit” in contrast to the Son who was “a personage of tabernacle” (body). (D&C, 1835, p. 53) This, in spite of the official First Vision which depicts the Father as a physical being.
Joseph related his first vision to a Jewish minister. When he went into the grove to pray, two personages appeared. The second one “testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He “saw many angels in this vision.”
(“The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith“, pp.104-5; also see The Joseph Smith Papers)
Also in “An American Prophet’s Record”, p. 51. This account appeared in the serial printing of Smith’s history in the Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 396.This account has been deleted from the “History of the Church”, Vol. 2, p.304.
Joseph told his story to Erastus Holmes:
“…I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old…”
(“The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith“, p.113, Also in “An American Prophet’s Record”, p. 59)
This account has been changed in the “History of the Church”, Vol.2, p.312. It now reads “my first vision” instead of “visitation of angels.”
Changes relating to the godhead were made in the second edition of the Book of Mormon. The phrase “the son of ” was added to several verses to distinguish between the Father and Son. (i.e. 1 Nephi 11:18, 21, 32 and 1 Nephi 13:40)
Title page from an open 1835 edition of Doctrine And Covenants
Joseph Smith wrote that:
“I continued to pursue my vocation in life until the twenty-first of September one thousand eight hundred and twenty three [1820-1823. That’s three years since the First Vision, according to the official version.], all the time suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision.”
(“Pearl of Great Price”, Joseph Smith History 1:27; also see Joseph Smith Papers [Draft 2] [Draft 3] [fair copy])
Yet, the LdS Messenger and Advocate, 1834-36, which was to be “a full history of the rise of the church,” was silent on Joseph’s having seen the Father and the Son in a vision.
Joseph receives a revelation from God proclaiming “a time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods they shall be manifest.” (D&C 121:28) In light of the official version of the First Vision, Joseph should have been aware of more than one God since 1820, making this an unnecessary revelation.
Orson Pratt published a booklet titled, “An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions”. He related that when Smith was “about fourteen or fifteen years old” he was praying in the woods when “two glorious personages” appeared. There was no indication that they were the Father and Son.
(also see Joseph Smith Papers)
In a letter from Joseph Smith to John Wentworth, “Two glorious personages” appeared and informed him that none of the churches “was acknowledged of God.” There was no indication that they were the Father and Son.
(Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, no.9, p.707; also see Joseph Smith Papers )
Joseph’s 1838-39 version of the First Vision was published for the first time. Two personages appeared. One pointed to the other and said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”
(Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, no. 10, p. 748)
Smith dictated section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which taught that God and Jesus both have bodies but not the Holy Ghost. If Joseph Smith had actually been teaching since 1820 that God had a body why did he need this revelation?
Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843. Following an 11 June 1843 public church meeting at which Joseph Smith spoke of his earliest vision, Levi Richards included an account of it in his diary. The account doesn’t include most of the key elements of the official version and seems to be describing something more like a private prayer session than the ecstatic vision experience that most other accounts describe.
“Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same— saying that when he was a youth he began to think about these these things but could not find out which of all the sects were right— he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right— re received for answer that none of them were right, that they were all wrong, & that the Everlasting covena[n]t was broken= he said he understoood the fulness of the Gospel from beginning to end— & could Teach it & also the order of the priesthood in all its ram ifications= Earth & hell had opposed him & tryed to destroy him— but they had not done it= & they <never would>” [p. ]
(see Joseph Smith Papers)
Interview, JS by David Nye White, Nauvoo, IL, 21 Aug. 1843; in David Nye White, “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 15 Sept. 1843, . In August 1843, David Nye White, editor of the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, interviewed Joseph Smith in his home as part of a two-day stop in Nauvoo, Illinois. His news article included an account of Joseph Smith’s first vision. The key excerpt reads as follows:
“…Speaking of revelations, he stated that when he was in a “quandary,” he asked the Lord for a revelation, and when he could not get it, he “followed the dictates of his own judgment, which were as good as a revelation to him; but he never gave anything to his people as revelation, unless it was a revelation, and the Lord did reveal himself to him.” Running on in his valluble style, he said: “The world persecutes me, it has always persecuted me. The people at Carthage, in a public meeting lately, said, ‘as for Joe, he’s a fool, but he’s got Some smart men about him.’ I’m glad they give me so much credit. It is not every fool that has sense enough to get smart men about him. The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it. He revealed himself first to me when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy. I will tell you about it. There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious and was desirous to know what Church to join. While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament promiscuously on these words, in James, ‘Ask of the Lord who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not [James 1:5].’ I just determined I’d ask him. I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘0 Lord, what Church shall I join?’ Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and first personage said to the second, “Behold my beloved Son, hear him.” I then, addressed this second person, saying, “0 Lord, what Church shall I join.” He replied, “don’t join any of them, they are all corrupt.” The vision then vanished and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back; and it was some time before my strength returned. When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since. They thought to put me down, but they hav’nt succeeded, and they can’t do it…”
(Joseph Smith Jr. interviewed by David Nye White on August 29, 1843, originally published in “The Prairies, Nauvoo, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, etc.,” The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, Sept. 15, 1843; reprinted in The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, 2 vols. [1989–92], 1:444.; reprinted in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel , 1:181-182; also see Joseph Smith Papers)
In an account in “An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States”, edited by Daniel Rupp. Joseph Smith wrote the chapter on Mormonism and included a First Vision narrative. In this account: He states that he began reflecting on the importance of being prepared for the future state, but upon inquiring found a great conflict of religious opinion; There is no mention of a revival; His age is 14-years – putting the event at 1820; He had a vision of two personages – unidentified; He was told that all churches are wrong and that he was to join none of them, and; He was told that a future revelation would teach him of the fullness of the gospel.
(contained in, New Mormon Studies CD-ROM, Smith Research Associates)
Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844. On 24 May 1844, German immigrant and church member Alexander Neibaur visited Joseph Smith in his home and heard him relate the circumstances of his earliest visionary experience:
“Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival Meeting his Mother & Br & Sister got Religion, he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing, opened his Bible the first Passage that struck him was if any man lack Wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all Men liberallity & upbraidet not went into the Wood to pray kneelt himself down his tongue was closet cleavet to his roof— could utter not a word, felt easier after a while= saw a fire towards heaven came near & nearer saw a personage in the fire light complexion blue eyes a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear after a w[h]ile a other person came to the side of the first Mr Smith then asked must I join the Methodist Church= No= they are not my People, th all have gone astray there is none that doeth good no not one, but this is my Beloved son harken ye him, the fire drew nigher Rested upon the tree enveloped him” [p. ]
(Joseph Smith Papers)
In the first draft of her autobiography, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Smith, 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 simply inserted Joseph’s account from Times and Seasons.
(First draft of Lucy Smith’s family history, p.46, Church Archives; “Early Mormon Documents”, Vol. 1, p.289-290)
Brigham Young, Second LdS Church President
On April 9th, 1852 Mormon Prophet Brigham Young muddies the nature of God – and thus the First Vision – waters even further by preaching his first Adam-God sermon. This sermon is recorded in “The Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 1, pp.46-53. According to the doctrine, Adam was once a mortal man who became resurrected and exalted. From another plane, Adam brought Eve, one of his wives, with him to the earth, where they became mortal by eating the fruit of the Garden of Eden. After bearing mortal children and establishing the human race, they returned to their heavenly thrones where Adam serves as the god of this world. Later, as Young is generally understood to have taught, Adam returned to the earth to become the literal father of Jesus. Young held to this doctrine the rest of his life, dying in 1877. Some of the brethren continued to believe the Adam-God doctrine for years afterward.
Brigham Young never once mentioned the First Vision of God the Father and his Son in his 30 years of preaching as President of the Church.
Speaking at the April Conference, Apostle Orson Hyde stated:
“Some one may say, ‘If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Saviour come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?’ Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else.”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 6, p.335)
LdS President Brigham Young taught:
“…The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven…But He did send His angel to…Joseph Smith jun…and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 2, p.171)
Apostle Wilford Woodruff preached:
“That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for…is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God…The angel taught Joseph Smith those principles which are necessary for the salvation of the world…He told him the Gospel wasnot among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 2, pp.196-197)
Heber Chase Kimball (June 14, 1801 – June 22, 1868) was a leader in the early Latter Day Saint movement. He served as one of the original twelve apostles in the early Mormon church, and as first counselor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1847 until his death
LdS Apostle Heber C. Kimball seemed to be oblivious to any vision where Joseph saw God and Christ:
“Do you suppose that God in person called upon Joseph Smith, our Prophet? God called upon him; but God did not come himself and call, but he sent Peter to do it. Do you not see? He sent Peter and sent Moroni to Joseph, and told him that he had got the plates.”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 6, p.29)
Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, New York: Published by Joel Tiffany, vol. v.—12, pp. 163-170. This account is included because the source, Martin Harris, was a close associate of Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon, and one of the earliest non-family members to be introduced to Joseph’s claims. His recollections are largely uninfluenced by later published accounts of Joseph Smith and therefore likely to reflect the earliest details provided to him by Joseph Smith and his family.
In this account: The plates were found in the context of money-digging; there’s no mention of a revival; Joseph Smith is 21-years old (placing the event at 1827); and Joseph Smith retrieves plates while out with his wife but hides them in the woods. It’s also important to note that Joseph’s family corroborated this story to Martin Harris.
John Hyde, a former Mormon, is a good example of the confusion regarding who appeared to Smith. In his book, “Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs”, p. 199, he related:
“1820…April….He [Joseph] asserts that God the Father and Jesus Christ came to him from the heavens.” However, on p.240 he states “Joseph Smith, born in 1805, sees an angel in 1820, who tells him his sins are forgiven.”
Apostle John Taylor explained in a sermon:
“How did this state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith and manifested unto him in vision the true position of the world…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 10, p.127)
LdS Apostle George A. Smith preached:
“When Joseph Smith was about fourteen or fifteen years old…the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 12, pp.333-334)
A year later, Apostle Smith seemed to be describing the vision in a more traditional way:
“When the Lord appeared to Joseph Smith…He [Joseph] thus describes the incident: ‘In the spring of 1820…I saw a pillar of light…I saw two personages…This is my beloved son, hear him.’”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 11, pp.1-2)
Apostle Smith again referred to Smith’s First Vision as being of a single angel:
“He sought the Lord by day and by night, and was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, of his first inquiries was, ‘Which of the denominations of Christians in the vicinity was right?’“
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 13, p.77-78)
Orson Pratt was a leader in the Latter Day Saint movement and an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles
Orson Pratt later teaches a narrative that conflates the prevailing single angel narrative with the two personage narrative he published in 1840:
“This was the condition of mankind before this Church arose, forty years ago. By and by an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and, in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him; that through his faith, prayers, and sincere repentance he had beheld a supernatural vision, that he had seen a pillar of fire descend from Heaven, and saw two glorious personages clothed upon with this pillar of fire, whose countenance shone like the sun at noonday; that he heard one of these personages say, pointing to the other, “This is my beloved Son, hear ye him.” This occurred before this young man was fifteen years of age; and it was a startling announcement to make in the midst of a generation so completely given up to the traditions of their fathers; and when this was proclaimed by this young, unlettered boy to the priests and the religious societies in the State of New York, they laughed him to scorn.”(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol.13, pp.65-66)
Orson Pratt reverts to the two personage narrative again:
“He went out to pray, being then a little over fourteen years of age…He saw in this light two glorious personages, one of whom spoke to him…saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear ye him.’”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 14, pp.140-141)
Although, as noted previously, the two personages in Orson Pratt’s most recent sermons could be interpreted as either angels or God, his sermon on Dec. 10 of that same year he clearly identified the messenger as an angel (singular) in direct contradiction with the majority of his prior addresses and his own 1840 published account:
‘Here was Joseph Smith, a boy, his very youth ought to testify in his favor, for when the Lord first revealed himself to that little boy, he was only between fourteen and fifteen years of age. Now, can we imagine or suppose that a great impostor could be made out of a youth of that age, and one that could reveal the doctrine of Christ as he has revealed it to this generation? Would he stand forth and bear testimony that he had seen with his own eyes a messenger of light and glory, and that he heard the words of his mouth as they dropped from his lips and had received a message from the Most High, at that early age? And then, after having declared it, to have the finger of scorn pointed at him, with exclamations, “There goes the visionary boy! No visions in our day, no angels come in our day, no more revelation to be given in our day! Why he is deluded, he is a fanatic;” and to have this scorn and derision and still continue to testify, in the face and eyes of all this, while hated and derided by his neighbors, that God had sent his angel from heaven.’
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 14, p.262-263)
President Brigham Young was still identifying the personages as messengers rather than God and Christ:
“Do we believe that the Lord sent his messengers to Joseph Smith, and commanded him to refrain from joining any Christian church…informing him that the Lord was about to establish his kingdom on the earth… Yes, this is all correct.”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 18, p.239)
Orson Pratt, in contradiction to his December 19, 1871 address, reverts back to two personage version again, preaching:
“Joseph Smith…was a boy about fourteen years of age at the time the Lord first revealed himself…to him…he saw nothing excepting the light and two glorious personages…One of these personages, pointing to the other, said—’Behold my beloved Son, hear ye him.’
After this, power was given to Mr. Smith to speak, and…he said that he desired to know which was the true Church…immediately after receiving it, he began to relate it to some of his nearest friends, and he was told by some of the ministers who came to him to enquire about it, that there was no such thing as the visitation of heavenly messengers, that God gave no new revelation…he knew that he had seen this light, that he had beheld these two personages, and that he had heard the voice of one of them…and he continued to testify that God had made himself manifest to him…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 17, pp.278-280)
Apostle John Taylor identifies the personages as the Father and the Son in the First Vision as follows:
“…the Father and the Son appeared to him, arrayed in glory… ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…’”
(“Journal of Discourses,” Vol. 18, pp.325-326)
Yet John Taylor, 3-years later, reverts to the earlier narrative stating that they were angels:
“…Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right…the angel merely told him to join none of them…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 20, p.167)
However, later that same day, he declares that the Father and Son appeared to Joseph in direct contradiction to his earlier address:
”When the Father and the Son and Moroni and others came to Joseph Smith, he had a priesthood conferred upon him…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 20, p.257)
John Taylor declared:
“the Lord revealed himself to [Joseph] together with his Son Jesus, and, pointing to the latter, said: ‘This is my beloved Son, hear him.’”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 21, p.161; see also p.65 for a similar message)
A little less than a month after his Dec. 7, 1879 John Taylor seems to contradict himself again regarding God’s true nature preaching :
“…the Lord appeared unto Joseph Smith, both the Father and the Son, the Father pointing to the Son said, ‘this is my beloved Son…'”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 21, p. 65)
Orson Pratt gave his most specific identification of the personages the Father and the Son:
“…in the spring of 1820…in answer to his prayers, there was the manifestation of two of the great personages in the heavens—not angels, not messengers, but two persons that hold the keys of authority over all the creations of the universe. Who were they? God the Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ…”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 21, p.308)
Apostle George Q. Cannon seemed to start Joseph’s call with the vision of Moroni. He did mention that Joseph saw Jesus and God but did not put those experiences in the framework of the first vision:
“He [Joseph] was visited constantly by angels; and the Son of God Himself condescended to come and minister unto him, the Father having also shown Himself unto him; and these various angels, the heads of dispensations, having also ministered unto him. Moroni, in the beginning, as you know, to prepare him for his mission, came and ministered and talked to him from time to time…”
(Journal of Discourses, Vol. 23, p.362)
Former Apostle, William Smith, Joseph’s brother, remembered the vision as happening in 1823. He wrote that Joseph went into the woods to pray about which church to join:
“An angel then appeared to him…He told him that none of the sects were right…”
(“William Smith on Mormonism“, by William Smith, 1883, Herald Steam Book, Iowa, pp.5-10, as printed in New Mormon Studies CD-ROM)
Apostle George Teasdale understood the First Vision to be “a vision of the Father and the Son.”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 25, p.13 & 18)
B.H. Roberts related:
“In the Spring of 1820, Joseph Smith…was praying in the woods to the Father. He saw a pillar of light descending from heaven…In the midst of this glorious light stood two personages… ‘This is my beloved son; hear yehim.’–…for the Father had revealed the Son to him.”
(“Journal of Discourses”, Vol. 25, p.138)
An 1893 engraving of Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates and other artifacts from the angel Moroni.
LdS assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson still had the understanding that the first vision was one of angels. He published an account of the First Vision in the paper “The Historical Record”, Jan. 1888, pp.353-357.
This account is taken from the Times and Seasons account with Jenson’s comments summarizing the experience, “The angel again forbade Joseph to join any of these churches…” Jenson then reverted Smith’s narrative, “Many other things did he (the angel) say unto me which I cannot write at this time.” Note that Jenson adds the clarifying words “the angel.” When Jenson’s paper was reprinted a couple of years later this account had been changed in two places. At the spots where he identified the being as an “angel” it was changed to “the Holy Being” and “the Christ.”
Thus we see that the details of the First Vision vary in the different accounts. Early LdS leaders usually thought of the vision as one of angels, not God. They did not appeal to the first vision to establish their teaching that God has a body.
These historical records of the First Vision leave us with more questions than answers:
• If Joseph Smith’s claim to a vision in 1820 had resulted in the kind of public persecution he described, why did the story go completely unnoticed by the public media, and remain absent from the official literature of the LdS Church for 22 years?
• Why is there no mention of the 1820 appearance of the Father and the Son in all of Brigham Young’s sermons?
• If Brigham Young believed Joseph’s revised First Vision of the Father and the Son, why wouldhe continue to tell the story of a First Vision wherein the Lord sent his angels to tell Joseph not to join any of the churches?
• Why did it take more than 50 years for the revised First Vision, adding the Father and the Son, to replace the original First Vision of angels as the church’s standard teaching?
• If President Hinkley’s statement is true — ”If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is that simple.” — are we gambling with our family’s eternal destiny by not carefully examining the documented history of the First Vision story?
The original version of this publication that this article has expanded on can be found here: http://crcmin.org/pdfs/brochures/FirstVisionE.pdf
Research and portions of text:
Utah Lighthouse Ministry http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/firstvision.htm
The Institute for Religious Research http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-changing-first-vision-accounts
The Joseph Smith Papers http://josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision