A Documented History of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Posted: April 1, 2013 in First Vision, Fred Anson, Mormon Studies, Sandra Tanner

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

INTRODUCTION
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).

Stained glass depiction of the first vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., completed in 1913 by an unknown artist (Museum of Church History and Art).

OVERVIEW TIMELINE
The Evolution of the First Vision story

1820-1838
For 18 years the First Vision was of “angels”

1838-1890
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”

DETAILED TIMELINE
1820
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.

1827
Jun.
 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.

Autumn
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 .

1830
Mar.
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.

Oct.
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

1832
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)

1832-34
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

LdS President (March 1, 1807 – September 2, 1898) Wilford Woodruff’s copy of The Book of Commandments

1833
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.

1834-36
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.

1835
Aug. 17
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.

Nov. 9
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.

Nov. 14
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.”

1837
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

Title page from an open 1835 edition of Doctrine And Covenants

1838
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.

1839
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.

1840
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)

1842
Mar. 1
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 )

Mar. 15
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)

1843
Apr. 2
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?

Jun. 11
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. [16]]
(see Joseph Smith Papers)

Aug. 21
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, [3]. 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 [1992], 1:181-182; also see Joseph Smith Papers)

1844
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)

May 24
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. [23]]
(Joseph Smith Papers)

1845
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

Brigham Young, Second LdS Church President

1852
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.

1854
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)

1855
Feb. 18
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)

Feb. 25
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

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

1857
Nov. 8
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)

1859
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.

1860
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.”

1863
Mar. 1
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)

Nov. 15
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)

1864
Nov. 15
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)

1869
Jun. 20
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 was a leader in the Latter Day Saint movement and an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles

Dec. 19
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)

1871
Mar. 19
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)

Dec. 10
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)

1874
Jun. 23
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)

Sept. 20
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)

1876
Dec. 31
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)

1879
Mar. 2
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)

Dec. 7
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)

1880
Jan. 4
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)

Sept. 18
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)

1882
Oct. 29
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)

1883
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)

1884
Jan. 13
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)

Jan. 28
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.

An 1893 engraving of Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates and other artifacts from the angel Moroni.

1888
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.”

CONCLUSION
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?

NOTES
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

Comments
  1. Ann Jones says:

    Ah, the opus of my sweet buddy, Danny!! He has never gotten an answer from anyone proving that Smith told the story of the first vision when it happened, or even within a few years. Heavy hitting stuff.

    Like

  2. Daisy says:

    Fred Thankyou for this reminder … It really helps to ‘revise’ the facts and remember that leaving the Mormon fold was the right thing to do

    Like

    • fredwanson says:

      Well, I’m not sure if you’re referring to the LdS Church revising the facts about the First Vision or my revision of an earlier work on the First Vision (the CRC article to be specific) on the First Vision, but thank you.

      And, of course, the REAL thanks needs to go to Sandra Tanner whose original research on the subject was the basis for both the Christian Research & Counsel and the Institute for Religious Research articles and the baseline that I drew from for this revision of the CRC article.

      Like

  3. If your issue is things were written down many years after the fact and that different versions of events existed then you have to discount the whole New Testament, since all of it was written down and or published decades after the events occurred. Just something to keep in mind.

    For the record this is one of the weakest compilations against the First Vision I have ever seen. And let’s not even get started about the number of doctrinal inaccuracy it contains, or missing context.

    It doesn’t even take too careful a reading of the Book of Mormon to see Modalism isn’t taught but it does take more than just lifting select passages out of context that supposedly based upon personal interpretation support your premise, but the text as a whole does not support modalism.

    Lastly the “revisions” that occurred in 1837, do not demonstrate a change in theology, that is an assumption and your part, but rather a clarification of what the intended message should be.

    Like

    • @Andrew Sargent
      Thank you for your response.

      YOU WROTE
      If your issue is things were written down many years after the fact and that different versions of events existed …

      RESPONSE
      I thought that the conclusion statement was clear enough:

      “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.”

      Or, if you prefer a second opinion:

      “All these variations – particularly in the accounts that came directly from Joseph Smith himself – lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the official version of Joseph Smith’s “first vision” is, at best, unreliable. Though unproveable, Joseph may have had some kind of a vision in his younger years that he expanded upon and/or changed the details of each time he re-told it. Eventually the story was developed into the heart-rending official version that the LDS Church publishes today as fact, though it clearly is not.”
      (Lane Thuet, “Which First Vision Account Should We Believe?; http://www.mrm.org/first-vision )

      And it’s that’s not clear, perhaps this graphic representation of the core issue discussed in this article may prove instructive:

      (source: http://www.mormoninfographics.com/2012/09/joseph-smiths-first-vision-and-his.html )

      Short version: The issue isn’t the interim, or duration between versions, the issues are: a) The inconsistency and blatant contradictions between First Vision accounts – most especially Smith’s; b) The irrelevancy – or outright absence – of the First Vision in Mormon Theology until much later (around 1880 according to scholars though this wasn’t explicitly stated in article), and; c) The tight correlation between the shifting First Vision accounts and the evolution of Mormon godhead theology.

      These variables could cause one to easily conclude that the First Vision was a mere contrivance reflective of whatever Mormon doctrinal emphasis was in vogue at any given time in later Mormonism and not an actual, historical event.

      YOU WROTE
      It doesn’t even take too careful a reading of the Book of Mormon to see Modalism isn’t taught but it does take more than just lifting select passages out of context that supposedly based upon personal interpretation support your premise, but the text as a whole does not support modalism.

      RESPONSE
      You’re correct in that the Book of Mormon teaches BOTH modalism AND Trinitarianism. It is self contradictory and at odds with itself in it’s view of God. Never-the-less the Book of Mormon does indeed teach modalism.

      BOOK OF MORMON MODALISM:
      The original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon states that God the Father and Jesus Christ are the same person:
      (note: click here http://www.inephi.com/Search.htm for a photo facsimile copy of the 1830 Book of Mormon)

      1 Nephi 11:21
      “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!

      1 Nephi 11:32
      “the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people, yea, the Everlasting God was judged of the world.“

      1 Nephi 13:40
      “that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world.“

      And, in regard to the current Book of Mormon, as Ron Huggins points out:

      One of the most explicit passages on the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Book of Mormon takes place in the context of the interrogation of Amulek by Zeezrom:

      And Zeezrom saith unto him, Thou sayest there is a true and a living God?

      And Amulek saith, Yea, there is a true and living God.

      Now Zeezrom saith, Is there more than one God?

      And he answereth No….

      And Zeezrom saith again: Who is he that shall come? Is it the Son of God?

      And he said unto him, Yea….

      Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?

      And Amulek saith unto him, Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of Heaven and of Earth, and all things which in them is; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last; and he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else….
      (Alma 11:26-40)

      When the brother of Jared saw the finger of the Lord in the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Lord whose finger it was said of himself: “I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14). He goes on almost immediately afterward to say: “Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created, in the beginning, after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit, will I appear unto my people in the flesh.” (Ether 3:15-16). Jesus becomes the Father and the Son in the fullest sense only at the incarnation. The key passage explaining this comes from Abinadi’s speech at Mosiah 15:1-4:

      …God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people; and because he dwelleth in flesh, he shall be called the Son of God: and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son; the Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son: and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of Heaven and of Earth. (bolding added)

      While on earth Jesus does not cease to be God the Father: “I am he that gave the law, and I am he which covenanted with my people Israel” (3 Nephi 15:5).
      (Ronald V. Huggins, B.F.A., Th.D., “Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism?”; http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-modalism-sabellian-sequentialism-or-swedenborgian-expansionism )

      These are just a few example of the modalism in the Book of Mormon – past and present. There’s more – as this white paper by R.L. Pratt demonstrates:
      http://www.mormonthink.com/backup/sabellianism.pdf

      BOOK OF MORMON TRINITARIANISM
      Mormon 7:7
      And he hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end.

      2 Nephi 31:21
      And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.

      3 Nephi 11:27
      And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.

      2 Nephi 2:14
      And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God [notice: singular not plural], and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.

      Jacob 4:9
      For behold, by the power of his word man came upon the face of the earth, which earth was created by the power of his word. Wherefore, if God [again, notice: singular not plural] being able to speak and the world was, and to speak and man was created, O then, why not able to command the earth, or the workmanship of his hands upon the face of it, according to his will and pleasure?

      Testimony of Three Witnesses
      Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.

      Again, this is just a toe in the water, nothing more – there’s a lot more where this came from. For example, this article is an excellent summary: http://blog.mrm.org/2011/06/what-happened-to-the-trinity-in-mormonism/

      YOU WROTE
      Lastly the “revisions” that occurred in 1837, do not demonstrate a change in theology, that is an assumption and your part, but rather a clarification of what the intended message should be.

      MY RESPONSE
      Respectfully Mr. Sargent, this is nonsense.

      The historical record shows clearly that there were radical changes in Mormon Godhead Doctrine during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and continuing into the early 20th Century where it was settled and finalized by the 1916 “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” (see https://www.lds.org/ensign/2002/04/the-father-and-the-son?lang=eng ). The evolving and conflicting First Vision accounts are just one of many evidences of Smith’s changing view of God (BTW, the changes by Brigham Young that resulted in the need for the 1916 statement are outside the scope of this discussion). Simply put, the First Vision account changed as Smith’s godhead theology did.

      However, since you seem to doubt my assertions in this regard I would ask you to consider this from an LdS Scholar and BYU Professor:

      It would have been almost inconceivable to the earliest Mormon converts that God would have flesh and bones, a characteristic universally associated with mortality and denigrated for its corruption and imperfection. Indeed, as late as 1840, Mormon elder Samuel Bennett argued that “God is a Spirit” with “body and parts . . . however small the tenuity may be.” In an 1840 reply to a Pennsylvania man who accused Mormonism of corporealizing God, Elder Erastus Snow corrected the antagonist stating, “What Mormon, understanding our doctrines, ever said that God the Father had flesh and bones?” Quoting from the Lectures on Faith where God the Father is described as “a personage of spirit, glory and power,” Snow challenged, “Does it necessarily follow that because God is a spirit, possessing universal knowledge, that spirit has no form, shape, or bodily appearance as you would have it?” In the same year (1840) Apostle Parley P. Pratt commented, “Whoever reads our books, or hears us preach, knows that we believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as one God. That the Son has flesh and bones, and the Father is a spirit. . . . [A] personage of Spirit has its organized formation, its body and parts, its individual identity, its eyes, mouth, ears, &c., and that it is in the image or likeness of the temporal body, although not composed of such gross materials as flesh and bones.” The idea of a human body being created after the image of God the Father’s physical body doesn’t explicitly appear in LDS teachings until 1841 when Joseph began teaching that God the Father has a physical body.

      Many Latter-day Saints today assume that Joseph’s First Vision provided ample evidence to early Saints that God is a personage of flesh and bones; the Prophet’s 1832 account, however, related only that he “saw the Lord.” It wasn’t until 1838 that he provided more detail to include the Father and the Son, and even then, there is no indication that Joseph thought of them both as having bodies of flesh and bones. Nauvoo Period “By 1841,” observes LDS historian Richard L. Bushman, Joseph “had moved from a traditional Christian belief in God as pure spirit to a belief in his corporeality.” It appears that the Prophet first ascribed corporeality to God in 1841 when he declared, “That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones.” On April 2, 1843 he reaffirmed, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22). This bold new doctrine would fit in nicely with Joseph’s subsequent teachings on God’s progression through mortality and resurrection as well as the human potential to become like God after a physical resurrection.
      (Charles R. Harrell, (2011-08-02). “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Part 1) (Kindle Locations 3751-3784). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition)

      Again, this is just a sample, I could provide several pages of citations from other Latter-day Saint scholars affirming this thesis. However, for the sake of time and space I will just direct the interested reader to these resources where they will find ample validation of this fact:

      Grant Palmer, “Joseph Smith’s changing view of God as seen in his First Vision accounts” (Outline of a lecture given at the Salt Lake City Library, Nov. 6, 2013, at 7:00 pm); http://mormonthink.com/grant12.htm

      Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology” Sunstone 5:4 (July-August 1980); https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/115-6-15-29.pdf

      Marvin S. Hill, “The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in New England and New York”, BYU Studies, Spring 1969; http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/byustudies/id/58

      I hope that this helps clarify. And, again, thank you for your comment.

      Like

  4. Susan Grape says:

    Andrew I appreciate your comments concerning CRC’s tract, “A Documented History of Joseph Smith’s First Vision”, which this article is partially based on. As one who is part of the CRC ministry I would like to comment.

    You said:

    “If your issue is things were written down many years after the fact and that different versions of events existed then you have to discount the whole New Testament, since all of it was written down and or published decades after the events occurred.”

    First, it is true, the gospels, especially the synoptic ones, have some differences, but not contradictions. For example, the order of when an event happened may be different, sometimes one writer added in more detail or a different detail. That does not mean someone corrupted that particular story; it was just added information. That’s what makes the NT reliable. Today, if three witnesses testified about what they saw concerning an accident, they wouldn’t have all described it exactly the same way, but their testimonies would have agreed about the accident as a whole. If they all said the exact same words, in the exact same order, in the exact same way, those witnesses would be suspected of intentionally altering the truth.

    Second, the epistles were not written decades after the issues these writers addressed, but when the issues were happening; however, the gospels were. It does not matter that gospels were written later, because the eye witnesses of those events took action to record them AFTER the fact so that the first and second generation of believers who did not see Christ would know what He did. This is different than what happened in the earliest years of Mormon history. The early leaders of your church recorded things AS they happened which the volumes of your church history verify. That is why it is such a glaring inconsistency. Why was the most important event not recorded from the start, like how the church became a formal church at the Peter Whitmer farm was? And, why a few years later, was there a huge discrepancy of who actually visited Joseph? Was it angel(s), the Father? Jesus? the Father and Jesus? Those are major, significant contractions.

    You said:

    “For the record this is one of the weakest compilations against the First Vision I have ever seen. And let’s not even get started about the number of doctrinal inaccuracy it contains, or missing context.”

    You then point out a small portion of this lengthy article concerning the Book of Mormon teaching Modalism, something that is relevant to this article, but is not the main theme of the article, IMO, a rabbit trail. Contrary to your viewpoint, the Book of Mormon does describe God as being Modalistic. Another example of this is Mosiah 15:1-4. It describes the Father and the Son as the same being—the same person (vv. 2-3) with the same flesh as well as the same God (v. 4). That is not lifting certain verses out of context. That is what that passage teaches.

    Finally, if you are going to state that these are ”weak compilations” concerning the first vision, then I (we) challenge you to please, tell us exactly what is weak, and why it’s weak, with references, for your sake and ours.

    Like

  5. In her classic work, “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle”, Latter-day Saint scholar Kathleen Flake explains how the First Vision transitioned from being a secondary narrative in 19th Century Mormonism to it’s master narrative in the early 20th Century. The first excerpt provides historical context for the shift, the second explains how, when and why the shift occurred at all.

    “A foundational restoration of Christ’s church from apostasy, a base of continuing revelation from heaven, and an assertion of Joseph Smith’s revelatory power and divine authority bestowed to those that follow-were low-were the core elements of Latter-day Saint doctrine and continued to frame the church’s identity within twentieth-century American denominationalism. nationalism. In place of its nineteenth-century emphasis on theocratic and familial kingdom-building, the L.D.S. Church was prepared by crisis to return to less grandiose but still large claims regarding restoration of the primitive church, divine sponsorship, and living prophets. These principles constituted the generative and, hence, nonnegotiable core of Mormonism. They were carved in stone both literally on the surface of the Joseph Smith monument [comemorating his birth at his birthplace in S. Royalton, Vermont] and figuratively in terms of the church’s identity…

    Notions of restored truth, authority, and order, based in models both of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament apostolic witness, constitute the creative material out of which the L.D.S. Church has adapted itself over time. Moreover, they define the outside limit of what may be changed. They comprise both the boundary and content of Latter-day Saint identity in a sense of separateness from non-Mormons and sameness of being Mormon. Everything else is relatively fungible, making the church extraordinarily adaptable and identifiable at the same time. Indeed, Joseph F. Smith’s efforts to adapt the church to the Progressive Era’s demand for change demonstrate clearly that the ideals of revealed knowledge and restored authority constitute the creative and untouchable core of Latter-day Saint belief and identity.

    Joseph Smith claimed to have received many revelations, all of which were to varying degrees indices of his prophetic calling among his followers and were mined for theological significance according to the needs of each successive generation. This is especially true of what is called “the First Vision,” which occurred in 1820 when concerns caused by competitive revivalism motivated the fourteen-year-old Smith to try to choose a church. Relying on biblical injunction to pray for wisdom, Smith retired to the woods to ask “which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) -and which I should join.” The canonized account of the vision states that two divine personages ages appeared to Smith and identified themselves as God and Jesus Christ and “answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.” Two definitive doctrines of Mormonism made their first appearance in this vision. Of greatest import in the nineteenth century was the instruction not to join any of the existing churches. This private message to Smith of Christian apostasy was publicly elaborated ten years later through the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon. The second doctrine is implicit in the description of God and the Son as “personages,” which marked an immediate and radical break with traditional Christian creeds. Yet, if noted at all by the church’s early critics, the Latter-day Saints’ belief in a godhead of three separate personages was considered only one among many unpleasantly distinctive elements of Mormonism and secondary in concern to Mormonism’s new scripture, priesthood hierarchy, economic communalism, temple building, modern revelation, and of course, plural marriage.”
    (Kathleen Flake, “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle”, Kindle Locations 1497-1511; http://smile.amazon.com/Politics-American-Religious-Identity-Seating-ebook/dp/B00ZDQWZA4)

    “Many factors contributed to the relative lack of interest in the First Vision by believers and nonbelievers. Most have been identified by Latter-day day Saint scholars in a variety of articles attempting to validate the historicity of the event or its relationship to developments in Latter-day Saint doctrine. Though these studies disagree on the theological implications of the First Vision, what matters for our purposes is that all agree, in the words of James Allen, author of the most extensive study, that “the weight of evidence would suggest that it [the First Vision] was not a matter of common knowledge, even among church members, in the earliest years of Mormon History.” Allen further concludes that this oversight continued until 1883 when the First Vision was first employed to teach the Latter-day Saint doctrine of deity. Even here, however, Allen can only characterize the 1883 sermon as having “implied” that a major purpose of the vision was to “restore a true knowledge of God.” While appreciation for Smith’s First Vision continued to grow in the last decade of the nineteenth century, not until the early twentieth century did it move to the fore of Latter-day Saint self-representation. As Allen’s research makes apparent, the turning point in the status of the First Vision occurred during the administration of Joseph F. Smith and was contemporaneous with the Smoot hearing and its immediate aftermath. The story was first used in Sunday school texts in 1905, in priesthood instructional manuals in 1909, as a separate missionary tract in 1910, and in histories of the church in 1912. Moreover, the Smith family farm in Palmyra, New York, was purchased by church members in 1907 and passed into church ownership in 1916. A grove of trees on the site where the young prophet is assumed to have received his First Vision became an increasingly popular pilgrimage site, culminating in centennial celebrations in 1920. By midcentury, Smith’s account of his theophany was denominated “The Joseph Smith Story.” Eventually it would be granted the status of “the beginning point, the fountainhead, of the restoration of the gospel in this dispensation.” In the First Vision, Joseph F. Smith had found a marker of Latter-day Saint identity whose pedigree was as great as-and would be made greater than-that of plural marriage for the twentieth-century Latter-day Saints.

    The First Vision contained the elements necessary to fill the historical, scriptural, and theological void left by the abandonment of plural marriage. To the extent that plural marriage had captured the Latter-day Saints’ loyalties as Smith’s last revelation, the First Vision, as its referent indicates, was equally appealing. It also, like polygamy, was both a historical torical event and an idea that could be characterized as attracting persecution. Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints had not endeared themselves to their neighbors by claiming to be the only true church in a religiously plural society. Moreover, though it was not of as much note as the Book of Mormon or other doctrines, the Latter-day Saints’ rejection of Trinitarianism appears to have been a source of some antagonism. Joseph Smith’s mother remembered several confrontations with representatives of evangelical Protestantism over her son’s claims to revelation, noting “the Methodists also come, and they rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith comes in contact with this principle. Whether the Methodists knew this from accounts of Smith’s theophany did not matter to the twentieth-century Latter-day Saints. They believed it to be so.

    Joseph F. Smith made the connection explicit between the vision and persecution, “The greatest crime that Joseph Smith was guilty of was the crime of confessing … that he saw those Heavenly Beings…. That is the worst crime he committed, and the world has held it against him…. He suffered persecution all the days of his life on earth because he declared it was true.” From here it was a small step to finding in the First Vision a source of the Latter-day Saints’ continuing identity with their forebears. In 1909, still feeling the aftershocks of the Smoot hearing, Joseph F. told the Latter-day Saints, “From the day that the Prophet Joseph Smith first declared his vision until now, the enemy of all righteousness … the enemy to direct revelation from God and to the inspirations that come from the heavens to man has been arrayed against this work.” New emphasis on the First Vision maintained a sense of religious difference and, as such, provided the equally necessary sense of internal cohesiveness and historical continuity in terms of persecution.

    Significantly, however, the First Vision changed the arena of confrontation over differences from social action to theological belief, a necessity created not only by the experience of persecution but by Supreme Court law. In Reynolds v. U.S., the Court made clear that the Constitution protected only differences in religious thought, not religiously motivated actions that compete with social mores. New emphasis on the First Vision successfully refrained the Latter-day Saints’ necessary sense of otherness to fit safely within the politics of American religion. Jan Shipps, however, rightly warns students of Mormonism that “when Mormon history begins with the First Vision, the result tends to be an account of a religious movement which, even as it differs dramatically on basic theological and doctrinal nal issues from other sects and churches, is analytically yet one more subdivision division of Christianity inaugurated through the efforts of a charismatic leader.” As we shall see in Chapter 6, this is exactly what the Senate panel was asking the church to become. For now, it is sufficient to note that unlike Joseph Smith’s last vision, his first one placed his followers at odds only with other churches, not the state, and shifted the battle from issues of public morality to theological tenets.

    Finally, like plural marriage, the First Vision could be formalized as doctrine fundamental to the faith. An account of it had been added to the church’s scriptural canon in 188o on a motion of Joseph F. Smith, then counselor in the church’s presidency. Thus this first revelation to Joseph Smith was susceptible to a role as formal and central as his last. Moreover, in 1902 under the direction of Joseph F. Smith, the text of Joseph Smith’s autobiography was divided into chapters and verses and integrated by reference to the rest of Latter-day Saint scripture. This gave Joseph Smith’s First Vision a status equal to that of the visions of biblical and Book of Mormon prophets. The formalization of Smith’s First Vision and its placement at the core of Latter-day Saint identity is neatly summarized by an apostle called to fill one of the vacancies created by the dismissal of Taylor and Cowley: “One outstandingly distinguishing feature of this Church is divine authority by direct revelation. The appearing of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith is the foundation of this Church. Therein lies the secret of its strength and vitality…. That one revelation answers all the queries of science regarding God and his divine personality. Don’t you see what that means? What God is, is answered. His relation to his children is clear. His interest in humanity through authority delegated to man is apparent. The future of the work is assured.”

    The “assurance” provided by the First Vision was in no small part due to its synthesis of those ideas so necessary to Latter-day Saint faith: an immanent God, modern revelation, and divine imprimatur for ecclesiastical cal authority. Notwithstanding such extravagant endorsement of the First Vision’s theological substance, however, the significance to the church of Smith’s account of his early experiences is not adequately understood if it is seen merely as a container for Latter-day Saint theology. In the twentieth-century Smith’s autobiography could only be appreciated as a narrative, even a story of origins or a myth with the capacity to order the reader’s experience of time. The Latter-day Saints had a particular need for order during Joseph F. Smith’s administration, and so it was that during these years Smith’s autobiography emerged not only as a source of doctrine but as the modern L.D.S. Church’s master narrative.”
    (Kathleen Flake, “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle”, Kindle Locations 1489-1560; http://smile.amazon.com/Politics-American-Religious-Identity-Seating-ebook/dp/B00ZDQWZA4)

    Like

  6. […] happened; an abundance of evidence that it was contrived embellished by Joseph Smith over time (see “A Documented History of Joseph Smith’s First Vision”); and the fact that it contradicts the Book of Mormon and the Bible in regard to the nature of God […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s