Part 2: Multiple Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
The narrative that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints teaches to it’s members is that when Joseph was a young man there was a religious excitement and fervor near where he lived and that he was wrestling with which religious group was right. Joseph came across James 1:5 in the bible and this scripture had a deep impact on him. This consequently led him, at age 14, to go into a grove of trees on a clear spring morning in 1820 near his home. In the grove he knelt and pleaded in fervent prayer to know which church was true. After a short altercation with the Satan, adversary, Joseph saw a pillar of light, and in that light, descended two personages, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. They spoke to him and informed him that none of the churches on the earth were true and that the creeds of those churches were an abomination to God, and forbade him to join any of them. All of this was recorded in what is the “official” 1838 account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Any differences in other accounts are ignored or considered inconsequential. Even the existence of the other accounts at all is not widely spoken of in church meetings or lessons.
In actuality, there are four separate firsthand accounts recorded (1), not to mention several second and third-hand accounts. These firsthand accounts were written long after this seemingly important event and years apart from each other. While this is considered an essential part of the foundational narrative of the Church today, most early members were completely unaware of it. (2)
The LDS church tries to minimize the differences between versions by suggesting two main reconciliations. The first is to simply state that the differences are not as serious as critics purports. (3) The second expands on the first with explanations for the differences. Explanations include false memories, differing audiences, and varying levels of comfortability sharing his experience over time. (4) Ultimately, the LDS church focuses on the 1838 account as the most accurate and authoritative description of the event.
As late as 1851, church publications such as the “Times and Seasons” testified that the angel that visited Joseph was Nephi, rather than Moroni.
However, it is impossible to ignore that these accounts contradict each other in obvious irreconcilable ways. Joseph’s environment, his motives, his experience, and even which personages appeared (In some God does not appear but Angels do, in others only God appears and Jesus is absent, etc.) are all dramatically different in the four accounts. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote and published a history of the Mormon church to describe the foundational events leading to its origin. However, Joseph Smith recorded a different first vision story than the “official” one later published in 1842. In Joseph Smith’s 1835 published history of the church, he claimed that his first spiritual experience was in 1823 after a religious revival in Palmyra that same year. Smith testified that he prayed while in bed one night, to discover if God existed. He said he was visited by an angelic messenger (Nephi not Moroni). As late as 1851, church publications such as the “Times and Seasons” testified that the angel that visited Joseph was Nephi, rather than Moroni. These contradictions and Joseph’s late sharing of this experience confirm that Joseph altered the telling of his experience to match his changing theology (5) and to establish his credibility in the midst of criticism that he had fallen; that in the end, his story of a spiritual experience in a grove is fiction (6)
- 1854 – “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.” – Apostle Orson Hyde (7)
- 1855 – “The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith Jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.” – Brigham Young (8)
- “That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, 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 was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world,… This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel;…” – Wilford Woodruff (9)
- “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.” – Apostle Heber C. Kimball, speaking Nov. 8th, 1857, was clearly unaware of a “First Vision” where Smith saw God and Christ (10)
This begs the question: Why doesn’t the First Vision play an important role in Mormon history until the 1880s? It was scarcely mentioned before then but now is considered to be the most important event in almost 2,000 years. The ‘Joseph Smith History’ in the Pearl of Great Price was written by a scribe in 1838, James Mulholland, and remained unpublished until 1842. Oddly, the “official” story was unknown to Smith’s family, church leaders and members until nearly a half century later. The earliest version of the first vision story in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting is not considered “official.” Church leaders led members to believe that Smith did not offer different accounts, until critics discovered them and forced the church’s hand.
The most damming evidence is that reason the 1832 account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand didn’t surface until later was that Joseph Fielding Smith, then the LDS Church Historian, upon reading the journal entry and how it contradicted the account the church officially used, decided to cut it out from Joseph Smith’s journal and keep it in his personal office vault, withholding it from the public. On the Joseph Smith Papers website the scanned in original journal pages can be seen crudely taped back in. (11)
2 – http://www.jamesjudithmcconkie.com/uploads/3/8/0/8/38081735/
3 – https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V38N02_13.pdf
4 – https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V26N04_19.pdf
5 – https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/The_First_Vision.pdf
6 – https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/volume-12-number-1-2011/seekers-guide-historical-accounts-joseph-smiths-first-vision
7 – General Conference Address, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p.335
8 – (Journal of Discourses 2:170-171)
9 – (Journal of Discourses, Vol.2, pp.196-197)
10 – (Journal of Discourses, vol.6, p.29)
11 – http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/1
Resources for Further Research
https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng&old=true http://www.mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2016/06/premium-first-vision-founding-event-restoration/ http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision http://www.mormonthink.com/firstvisionweb.htm http://www.jamesjudithmcconkie.com/uploads/3/8/0/8/38081735/dialogue_larson_another_look_at_joseph_s mith%27s_first_vision_(2).pdf http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith%27s_First_Vision/Accounts https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vision https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/exploring-first-vision/1-earliest-documented-accounts-joseph-smith-s-first-vision http://www.mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2016/06/premium-first-vision-founding-event-restoration/
adapted from: Mormon Primer and Mormon Think