For a response to LDS.org's First Vision essay, please use the table of contents to the right.
The First Vision is the foundational event of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, occurring in the spring of 1820, when Joseph Smith was a teen. At the time, religious revivals were occurring in the area, and Joseph could not tell which church was true. While reading in the Bible, young Joseph was impressed by the scripture in James 1:5, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…" He decided to pray and ask God which church he should join. As a result of his prayer, Joseph saw God and Jesus Christ, who told him not to join any of the churches.
Overview of LDS position
Not only was this a pivotal event in teaching the world that none of the churches were true, therby establishing the need to restore God's true Church, it helps members understand the actual nature of God: God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ are two separate personages. It also shows an example of how God can be approached in prayer, and shows that He does answer, when asked with a sincere heart.
Overview of Critics' position
Was this a real, physical event? Or was this a vision in the same sense that Lehi saw a vision of the tree of life, in a dream? The first written version of the account by Joseph was not given until 12 years after it supposedly took place. When he first penned the account, Joseph only mentioned one person visiting him, which is no small detail to be mistaken about. There are now known at least nine different accounts given by Joseph Smith relating the First Vision with varying degrees of changes and circumstances. If this vision was so important, why are there discrepancies and why did it take so long to write?
As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith's First Vision in any published material in the 1830's, it was left out of the first publication of the Church's history written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. It was also left out of the Book of Commandments (the precursor to the Doctrine & Covenants) and the general church membership did not receive information about the First Vision until the 1840's and even then, the story did not hold the prominent place in Mormon thought that it does today.
- Joseph Smith—History, Pearl of Great Price. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1
- The Personal Nature of God and the Godhead, "The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and the Creation," Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch. Ensign, January 1989. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1989/01/the-restoration-of-major-doctrines-through-joseph-smith-the-godhead-mankind-and-the-creation
- Elder Orson Pratt reported the following in a pamphlet published in 1840 titled, "An interesting account of several remarkable visions": ". . . When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and, immediately, his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision." As found in the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual - Religion 327. http://www.ldsces.org/manuals/pearl-of-great-price-student-manual/pgp-4-jsh-11.asp
- Joseph Smith's Letterbook 1. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letterbook-1&p=9
- Nine versions listed in the official "Joseph Smith Papers" http://josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision A chart with comparisons of nine versions of the First Vision. http://www.annuitech.com/ms/ftp/Jim/ComparisonChart.pdf
- The Significance of Joseph Smith’'s First Vision, James B. Allen, Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young Univ. http://www.mormonismi.net/pdf/significance_1stvision_allen.pdf
Response to LDS.org Essay
What many members don't know
Visions common in early 1800s
Joseph was not persecuted
Multiple 1st Vision versions
No large religious revival
Why the 1823 prayer?
Why tried to join Methodists?
BOM published before Vision?
Nature of Godhead changed
Grant Palmer Presentation
Do the details matter?
Nature of the visions
The Joseph Smith Story
All creeds an abomination?
LDS church's responses
MormonThink's Response to the LDS Church's November 2013 First Vision Essay
Our readers have asked for a response to the church's essay called First Vision Accounts that appeared in the topics section of the LDS.org website in November 2013. Overall, this essay failed to explain in detail the controversial issues of greatest concern to investigators and members.
Below we present the problematic issues largely as they originally appeared on the MormonThink website, yet updated to respond to new material, in the hope that they will be addressed by the church.
Questions repeated in this response are those scholars, investigators, critics and current members most frequently ask about the First Vision narratives. As ever, our intention in addressing them is not take a derogatory position. Rather, our goal is to present the historical inconsistencies, gaps, and contradictions concerning First Vision narratives that we believe every member and investigator should know about. With that in mind, our objective here is to ask the same kinds of searching questions about Mormon doctrinal history that Mormons might ask Catholics or Baptists about their respective faiths.
Speaking at the LDS Conference in October, 2002, President Gordon B. Hinckley declared that
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/10/the-marvelous-foundation-of-our-faith)
What members are taught
The church repeated briefly in their essay their official position: Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, wrote that in the spring of 1820, when he was fourteen years old, there was a significant revival in his neighborhood. He recalled that "Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist." His mother, two brothers and his sister joined the Presbyterian Church. After reading the Bible Smith went out into the woods to pray about which church he should join. In answer to this prayer God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him as two separate beings.
They told him not to join any of the churches, "for they were all wrong and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt" (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:5-19).
Joseph later stated that he was persecuted for telling others about his vision.
Links recording official church version:
Overview of Investigators' Questions
The official account was written in 1838 and published in 1842 for the first time – 22 years after it occurred. Questions not addressed in the church's essay still remain.
- Why did church leaders keep information about the other contradictory accounts (1832 and 1835) from its members and investigators for over a century?
- Did Joseph Smith even have a vision?
- If so, was this a real, physical event? Or was this a vision in the same sense that Smith's father dreamed about the tree of life, in a dream? http://www.centerplace.org/history/misc/jsp.htm#14
- The first written version of the account by Joseph was not recorded until 12 years after he said it took place in 1832. Joseph only mentioned one person visiting him. Failing to recall that God the Father and the Son and multitudes of angels were present, prompts questions as to why he did not mention them. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letterbook-1&p=9
- The 1832 account is similar to common Christian epiphanies described by many others during Smith's day, including children.
- The 1835 accounts feature "many angels" in addition to God and Jesus. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/journal-1835-1836&p=25
- We know of at least nine different accountsoffered by J Smith differing substantially from one another. If the first vision is the foundation on which Mormonism is built, why are there major discrepancies and why did it take so long to write? Most assume that the most important news about God and Christ would be written and published immediately to the world. (Nine versions listed in the official "Joseph Smith Papers" http://josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision A chart with comparisons of nine versions of the First Vision. http://www.annuitech.com/ms/ftp/Jim/ComparisonChart.pdf
- It appears as if Joseph's beliefs about the godhead began as Trinitarian and then shifted several times later in life, as demonstrated by later accounts of the first vision since his earliest talked about only one being.
- In the 1834-35 church history, as well as Lucy Mack's original biography, Nephi is named as the angel who appeared to Joseph in his bedroom to tell him where plates of gold were hidden. After Joseph's death, Moroni was inserted. Why? (see more)
- If Joseph was told that all other churches were wrong and he should join none of them, why did he try to join the Methodist church? http://www.fullerconsideration.com/sources.php?cat=HP-JMC
- If Joseph had a vision of God and Jesus in 1820 why did he mention in 1823 that he prayed to know if God existed? http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/7160
- Do Smith's more elaborate accounts really correspond to his attempts to re-establish his authority with members of the church?
- How could Smith remember more precise details many more years later than the original vision?
- Is there evidence that Joseph was mistaken or did not tell the truth about a revival in 1820?
These questions and others not addressed in the church's official essay are covered throughout the rest of this First Vision page. Use the table of contents to the right to navigate.
Scientific literature on memory and recall
The church's essay did not address well known facts about human recall as it relates to Joseph Smith's first vision stories.
The science related to memory and recall is relevant to Joseph Smith's first vision claims. Memories are reconstructive and subject to confabulations. Replicated studies show that after the fact, people create particulars and shape them to fit a story line. We add details that never happened if experiences are not recorded immediately. We consistently spin the stories of our lives rather than recall events correctly. And the confabulations always are designed to make ourselves look better. These are established facts.
We create memories so we can justify past behavior and portray our lives in a positive light. Repeated studies agree that if people only imagine having an experience, they are likely to report that it actually happened, especially if they did not record actual details of the experience immediately. With each successive reconstruction of the past, our memories migrate further and further from the truth.
Self-serving memory distortion is “getting what you want by revisiting what you had.” When humans visually imagine past events it generates neural activity in regions of the brain that ultimately create false memories about those events. Those with vivid imaginations constantly confabulate when they recall past experiences. When we cannot recall details, or we wish to impress others, the brain is designed to fill in the blanks with inaccurate information.
In case some wonder, Joseph did not exhibit characteristics associated with photographic memory, or hyperthymestic syndrome (also hyperthymesia and autobiographical memory). This syndrome causes affected individuals to spend more time thinking about past incidents and they can recollect every activity that happened on a particular day for decades into the past. Only a handful of people in the world possess this rare disorder. Though it is often portrayed in TV and movies as an aid to crime solving, there is no evidence that photographic memory is common in the general population.
Most are not aware that they are reconstructing a past life that never occurred, but some do it intentionally. Both cases are on vivid display at high school reunions.
Church leaders and loyal members ask the public to believe that Joseph Smith had a vision in 1820. He did not write down any facts about it until 12 years after it allegedly happened. He re-told a number of different first vision stories over a period of 22 years that contradict, add details, and exaggerate his original story. His conflicting stories bear the marks of a retroactively amended and embellished experience, to those not emotionally invested and spiritually committed to believing in Smith as a divine prophet.
Anne E. Wilson and Michael Ross (2001), “From Chump to Champ: People's Appraisals of Their Earlier and Present Selves,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, pp. 572-584.
Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson (2003), “Autobiographical Memory and Conceptions of Self: Getting Better All the Time,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, pp. 66-69.)
(Barbara Tversky and Elizabeth J. Marsh (2000), “Biases Retellings of Events Yield Biased Memories,” Cognitive Psychology, 40, pp. 1-38;
Elizabeth J. Marsh and Barbara Tversky (2004), “Spinning the Stories of Our Lives,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, pp. 491-503.)
Carol Tavris and Elliot Araonson (2007), Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, pp. 68-96.
Brian Gonsalves, Paul J. Reber, Darren R. Gitelman, et al. (2004), “Neural Evidence that Vivid Imagining Can Lead to False Remembering.” Psychological Science, 15, pp. 655-660.
Elizabeth F. Loftus (2004), “Memories of Things Unseen.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, pp. 145-147;
Elizabeth F. Loftus (2001), Imagining the Past, in Psychologist, 14 (British Psychological Society), pp. 584-587;
Maryanne Garry, Charles Manning, Elizabeth Loftus, and Steven J. Sherman (1996), “Imagination Inflation: Imagining a Childhood Event Inflates Confidence That It Occurred,” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 3, pp. 208-214
Giuliana Mazzoni and Amina Memon (2003), “Imagination Can Create False Autobiographical Memories,” Psychological Science, 14, pp. 186-188.
Parker ES, Cahill L, McGaugh JL (February 2006). "A case of unusual autobiographical remembering.". Neurocase 12 (1): 35-49
Scott O. Lilienfeld, Stevn Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry L. Beyerstein, (2010), 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, United Kingdom, pp. 65-82.
SKEPTOID EPISODE #446- The Fallibility of Memory
First Vision facts that many LDS members may not know
The November 2013 church essay did not explain why church leaders withheld knowledge about contradictory first vision accounts stories from its members and investigators for over a century.
Scholars have found no evidence to support the belief that the church's official First Vision story was taught to members during J Smith's lifetime. Unrelated fragments of some spiritual encounter was recorded in other places, but not the complete first vision story with all the details that make Mormonism unique. It is also absent from the core Church documents such as the Book of Commandments that recorded early revelations and visions. James B. Allen, who served as assistant church historian, acknowledged that the story of the first vision "was not given general circulation in the 1830's. Dr. Allen wrote that. . .
...none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830's, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision...." Dr. Allen goes on to state that in the 1830's "the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966, pages 29-45.
As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith's first vision in any published material in the 1830's. Joseph Smith's history, which was begun in 1838, was not published until it ran serially in the Times and Seasons in 1842. The famous "Wentworth Letter," which contained a much less detailed account of the vision, appeared March 1, 1842, in the same periodical. Introductory material to the Book of Mormon, as well as publicity about it, told of Joseph Smith's obtaining the gold plates and of angelic visitations, but nothing was printed that remotely suggested earlier visitations.
In 1833 the Church published the Book of Commandments, forerunner to the present Doctrine and Covenants, and again no reference was made to Joseph's first vision, although several references were made to the Book of Mormon and the circumstances of its origin.
The first regular periodical to be published by the Church was The Evening and Morning Star, but its pages reveal no effort to tell the story of the first vision to its readers. Nor do the pages of the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, printed in Kirtland, Ohio, from October, 1834, to September, 1836. In this newspaper Oliver Cowdery, who was second only to Joseph Smith in the early organization of the Church, published a series of letters dealing with the origin of the Church. These letters were written with the approval of Joseph Smith, but they contained no mention of any vision prior to those connected with the Book of Mormon.
In 1835 the Doctrine and Covenants was printed at Kirtland, Ohio, and its preface declared that it contained "the leading items of religion which we have professed to believe." Included in the book were the "Lectures on Faith," a series of seven lectures which had been prepared for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland in 1834-35. It is interesting to note that, in demonstrating the doctrine that the Godhead consists of two separate personages, no mention was made of Joseph Smith having seen them, nor was any reference made to the first vision in any part of the publication.
The first important missionary pamphlet of the Church was the Voice of Warning, published in 1837 by Parley P. Pratt. The book contains long sections on items important to missionaries of the 1830's, such as fulfillment of prophecy, the Book of Mormon, external evidence of the book's authenticity, the resurrection, and the nature of revelation, but nothing, again, on the first vision.
The Times and Seasons began publication in 1839, but, as indicated above, the story of the vision was not told in its pages until 1842. From all this it would appear that the general church membership did not receive information about the first vision until the 1840's and that the story certainly did not hold the prominent place in Mormon thought that it does today.
- Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966,Vol.1, No.3, pp.29 - 45.
The church essay did not address why (1) Joseph Smith did not use the first vision to teach members about the nature of God, and why (2) the Moroni visit was hailed by church leaders as the actual first vision in the first official history.
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. More on this topic found under the heading: Summary of Joseph Smith's Early Visions.
The "official" version has different dates, locations, visitors and purposes for Smith's first spiritual experience. See: http://mit.irr.org/changing-first-vision-accounts-1834-35-first-vision-account-in-messenger-and-advocate
Remarks by early family, church leaders point out that they were taught a different first vision story from Joseph Smith.
"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, General Conference Address, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p.335
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." (Journal of Discourses 2:170-171)
It is certain Young is speaking of the First Vision for he says the angel told Smith to join no church for they were all wrong. This is the very question the official version of the story states Smith asked of the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove.
Apostle Wilford Woodruff declared:
"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;..." (Journal of Discourses, Vol.2, pp.196-197)
Church Apostle Heber C. Kimball, speaking Nov. 8th, 1857, was unaware of a vision where Smith 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)
Church Apostle John Taylor in a sermon March 1, 1863:
"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 in a religious point of view." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10, p.127)
Church Apostle George A. Smith, Nov. 15th, 1863:
"When Joseph Smith was about fourteen or fifteen years old,...he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and 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)
Apostle George A. Smith explaining Smith's first vision as he understood it:
"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 June 20, 1869 )
When the early church leaders referred to the first vision, they were describing the visit of the angel Nephi / Moroni.
Fawn M. Brodie was one of the first to cast serious doubt upon the authenticity of Joseph Smith's story of the first vision:
The description of the vision was first published by Orson Pratt in his Remarkable Visions in 1840, twenty years after it was supposed to have occurred. Between 1820 and 1840 Joseph's friends were writing long panegyrics; his enemies were defaming him in an unceasing stream of affidavits and pamphlets, and Joseph himself was dictating several volumes of Bible-flavored prose. But no one in this long period even intimated that he had heard the story of the two gods. At least, no such intimation has survived in print or manuscript.... The first published Mormon history, begun with Joseph's collaboration in 1834 by Oliver Cowdery, ignored it altogether ... Joseph's own description of the first vision was not published until 1842, twenty-two years after the memorable event....
If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph's home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family. The awesome vision he described in later years may have been the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1834 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging (No Man Knows My History, New York, 1957, pp.24-25).
The Book of Commandments emphasizes that it was the Book of Mormon - not the first vision known to the church today - that constituted Joseph's "call to his holy work" (24:7-11/D&C 20:6-11). Consistent with this passage are Joseph's 1832 and Oliver Cowdery's 1835 reports that cite an angel, later identified as Moroni, who called Joseph to the work, rather than Jesus in the first vision.
Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins pp. 239.
The Book of Commandments emphasizes that it was the Book of Mormon - not the first vision known to the church today - that constituted Joseph's "call to his holy work" (24:7-11/D&C 20:6-11). Consistent with this passage are Joseph's 1832 and Oliver Cowdery's 1835 reports that cite an angel, later identified as Moroni, who called Joseph to the work, rather than Jesus in the first vision.
Joseph's mother, was unacquainted with a vision of the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove. In her unpublished history, she traced the origin of Mormonism to a late-night bedroom visit by an angel. According to her, the angel told him "there is not a true church on Earth, No, not one" (First draft of Lucy Smith's History
, p. 46, LDS Church archives).
A reasonable question the church's essay did not address is, “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.
Visions in the early 1800s were common
In modern times if someone said they had a vision it would seem extraordinary, or more likely not believable. However in the early 1800s having visions wasn't perceived to be all that uncommon. Even Joseph Smith's father claimed to have had a vision - namely the Tree of Life vision. People believed in magic, seer stones, divining rods, etc. and people claiming to have visions weren't seen as all that strange. Like much of Joseph's work, the first vision is strikingly similar to someone else's story. The following are accounts of visions similar to Joseph's First Vision. Note: All of these accounts appeared in print before Joseph's First Vision was published.
"I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them. One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a cloud. In looking steadfastly to discern features, I could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place. Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man---His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining. His Father's will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love."
Norris Stearns, experienced the vision and published it in 1815, in Greenfield, Massachusetts---not far from where the Joseph Smith Senior family lived in Vermont.
The most intriguing aspect of Stearns' "vision," is how he described the Father and the Son as two separate, distinct, human-like personages. LDS leaders have insisted separate beings in the godhead was one of the "truths" that had been lost from the world until Joseph Smith's First Vision. It was a major point in the late apostle Hugh B. Brown's 1950's sermon "Profile of a Prophet." Joseph could have been inspired by Stearns, or some other contemporary source.
Pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman's comments
Pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman, was intrigued by the similarities of literary voice and tone between Joseph's account of the First Vision and Norris Stearns' vision saying "That voice suited Joseph perfectly, and he adopted it as his own with immense success in his simple narrative of innocence overtaken by divinity". books.google.com
In 1816 a minister by the name of Elias Smith published a book in which he told of his conversion. Notice how similar it is to Joseph Smith's first account:
... I went into the woods ... a light appeared from heaven.... My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb.... The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly.... It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation ... (The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816, pp.58-59).
Alexander Campbell wrote the following on March 1, 1824, concerning a "revival in the state of New York:
Enthusiasm flourishes.... This man was regenerated when asleep, by a vision of the night. That man heard a voice in the woods, saying,
'Thy sins be forgiven thee.' A third saw his Savior descending to the tops of the trees at noon day" (The Christian Baptist, Vol. 1, pp.148-49).
Asa Wild claimed to have a revelation which is very similar to the story Joseph Smith published. It was published in the Wayne Sentinel (the paper to which the family of Joseph Smith apparently subscribed) on October 22, 1823:
It seemed as if my mind ... was struck motionless, as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah. He then spake ... He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt....
Meridian Magazine published an article by LDS historian Richard Bushman giving another person's account of a vision which is remarkably similar to Joseph's First Vision but it occurred four years before Joseph's. The article was abridged by Meridian but a link to the full article, is here:
https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/37.1BushmanVisionary-9cd0cd1c-99a2-4419-8c8b-8aeb612f1e84.pdf (PDF file)
According to the article Solomon Chamberlain was on a quest for the true religion and gave the following account
QUOTE (Meridian Magazine @)
Dissatisfied with the religions he had tried, Chamberlin prayed for further guidance, and in 1816, according to his account, "the Lord revealed to me in a vision of the night an angel," whom Chamberlin asked about the right way. The angel told him that the churches were corrupt and that God would soon raise up an apostolic church. Chamberlin printed up an account of his visions and was still distributing them and looking for the apostolic church when he stopped in Palmyra.
Joseph Smith offered several different accounts of his first vision, one in which it was an 'angel' who communicated with Joseph, another in which it was Christ alone, and the official canonized version, which included both the Father and the Son. All of these accounts were recorded some time after the establishment of the Church. The account of Solomon Chamberlain, as offered by Bushman above, is so similar to Joseph's, particularly his earliest version that honest seekers wonder if Joseph relied on it.
In approximately 1832-33 a then 9 year-old Mormon boy, James G. Marsh, had a vision of God, whom he talked to "face to face" and saw Jesus "coming in his glory." It should be noted that as of July 1838, when the obituary was written, there was no published account of Joseph Smith seeing God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ. What was to become the "official" account, often called the 1838 account, was begun by James Mullholland on September 3, 1838—two months after Marsh's obituary.
See The Joseph Smith Papers for a timeline of the drafts and writing of the History: http://josephsmithpapers.org/article/?target=X8895&loc=front. It should be noted that Mullholland used as some of his materials work that Joseph Smith Sidney Rigdon penned—which material has been lost. The material for the First Vision account is found in "Draft 2",; and it is surmised that the material for this was in the missing Smith/Rigdon draft. Two dates put the beginning of the missing draft in 1838, with one of the dates narrowing it down to May 2, 1838—five days before Marsh's death.
Joseph Smith was the editor of the Elders Journal when the boy's obituary appeared:
Elder's Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Far West, Missouri, July 1838
Vol.1, No.3, p.48
DIED on the 7th of May last, James G. Marsh, second son of Thomas B. Marsh, aged 14 years, 11 months and seven days.
From early infancy he manifested a love and reverence towards his Heavenly Father, while his parents diligently taught him the first principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And having a thirst for knowledge and a love of good principles, he eagerly embraced the gospel, and was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, early in the spring of 1832, being between eight and nine years of age.
His great love of knowledge led him to take hold of every opportunity to read the most useful books, and as he was a lover of the gospel, he made himself well acquainted with the sacred writings, and even at this early age, he had become well skilled in profane as well as sacred history.
It seems that the Lord had respect unto this lover of righteousness, for when he was but about nine years of age, he had a remarkable vision, in which he talked with the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory.
Elders' Journal, July 1838 - the Joseph Smith Papers
The church's essay did not explain why shortly after the child's vision was published, Joseph Smith's secretary penned the Father and Son first vision story (1838) that was published in 1842. The essay also did not explain why only after the Marsh boy's account of seeing both the Father and the Son, did this same information appear for the first time in yet another first vision story of Smith's.
The following is an interesting article on the first vision which is remarkably similar to the account of an evangelist, Charles G. Finney.
Piecing Together the First Vision
by Paul Derengowski
Anyone familiar with the beginnings of Mormonism is aware of the great importance that Mormons place upon the foundational experiences of their first president and prophet Joseph Smith. In fact, the whole Mormon belief structure rises or falls on his testimony: one's salvation hinges upon the reception or rejection of it. There is no middle ground. The question arises, however, about whether Joseph Smith's spiritual experience, known as his "First Vision," was truly that unique. The unusual religious experiences common in his day convinces objective readers of the non-originality of his story. This is especially true when one examines the striking parallels between Smith's First Vision and the conversion experience of the well-known lawyer-turned-evangelist, Charles G. Finney.
PARALLEL #1: SPIRITUAL STRAITS
Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805. Later, his family moved to Palmyra, New York, in the western part of that state. "Central and Western New York in the early nineteenth century was a 'boom' country with all the characteristics of the recently settled and rapidly expanding community." With that expansion of new settlements the atmosphere was fertile for religious revival. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were only a few of the more established denominations vying for the souls of men during the excitement of settling the new territory.
It was during the religious fervor of the day that Joseph Smith became perplexed concerning his spiritual destiny. Viewing all the religious competition of the day confused him. He did not know which denomination to join. Therefore, upon reading James 1:5 he set out to ask God which denomination was correct and with which one he should align himself. This supposedly occurred in the spring of 1820. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley p. Walters, however, report that newspaper accounts, religious periodicals, church records, and personal narratives show no signs of a revival in Palmyra in 1820; the closest date for a revival was 1824-25. This greatly increases the likelihood that Smith's story was modeled after Finney's.
Charles G. Finney, on the other hand, was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut in 1792. As a youth his parents also moved to Central New York where he grew to maturity. Although he spent time in service in the local Presbyterian Church as a choir director, Finney did not trust ministerial advice, much less God Himself. In fact, he often scoffed at the dogmas and practices of those who claimed to be Christians. However, at the age of 29 he began to experience serious spiritual despair that culminated in a need to personally seek the face of God. This occurred in October of 1821, while he was serving his apprenticeship in Adams, New York.
PARALLEL #2: GRAPHIC GROVES
One clear, spring morning, Joseph Smith journeyed west of his parents' farm into a "beautiful grove" to petition God regarding his dilemma. After "having looked around...and finding [himself] alone, [he] kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of [his] heart to God." It was supposedly the first time in young Joseph's life that he had ever endeavored to "attempt to pray vocally."
Similarly, Charles Finney knew of a "grove of woods" that lay north of Adams. He set forth one morning for work and was compelled that he must accept God or die. He "turned and bent [his] course for that grove of woods, feeling that [he] must be alone and away from all human eyes, so that [he] could pour out [his] prayer to God."
PARALLEL #3: PARALYZED PRAYERS
Not long after Joseph began his petition "the enemy" subdued him. He could not speak, for his tongue had been bound. Hearing noises in the woods near him, Smith assumed that other persons were walking around in his presence. He tried several times to make his requests known to God, but without success. The young inquirer despairingly supposed that he was "doomed to destruction." He had never before encountered such supernatural strength.
In like manner, Charles Finney determined to give his heart to God, but upon making his petition he found that he could not pray. When he attempted to pray he became "dumb," having "nothing to say to God." Rustling of leaves nearby led him to believe that other individuals were in his presence. Ultimately that thought led him to such a sense of conviction of personal wickedness that it took possession of him. Charles attempted to pray several times without success, leading him to the verge of despair. He recollected that "a great sinking and discouragement came over me at this point, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees."
PARALLEL #4: LOFTY LUMINARIES
Upon deliverance from the clutches of the enemy, Joseph witnessed a pillar of light descending upon him until it enveloped him. He became filled with the "spirit of God," causing him also to be "filled...with unspeakable joy." At this time both God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, of which Joseph petitioned them "which of all sects were right - and which I should join." He was admonished that he should join none of them, for they were all wrong! The experience lasted "one brief hour."
Charles envisioned a light also, but it was scripturally caused. Reflecting upon Jeremiah 29:12-13, the passage "seemed to drop into [his] mind with a flood of light." With that he was convinced that he could perform his vow of accepting God that day. In the midst of such spiritual ecstasy he left the woods and returned to the village. After dinner Charles wished to "pour out [his] whole soul to God." He retired to the Counsel room of his law practice, where it was dark, but "it appeared to [him] as if it was perfectly light." In that "lighted" room he came face to face [emphasis his] with Jesus Christ. No words were exchanged, but Finney "fell down at his feet and poured out [his] soul to him." Shortly thereafter, Charles received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost, which he characterized as a "wave of electricity" or "waves of love." The event lasted until late in the evening.
PARALLEL #5: REJECTED REPORTS
Joseph shared his visionary experience with those whom God had previously denounced as "wrong" and "corrupt." To his surprise he was treated lightly and with great contempt. Although only a boy of young age, he soon found that his visions and revelations were not welcomed, and that "men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against [him]," creating "bitter persecution." Being satisfied in mind that he had seen a vision, however, Smith endured, thereafter translating the Book of Mormon and starting the Mormon Church.
Charles, too, endured persecution for sharing his experience. Certain young men in his neighborhood had been warned to avoid him, for he "was a very careless young man about religion." To associate with Finney was tantamount to diverting oneself away from conversion. The neighborhood's opinions caused him to doubt his own eternal security. He perceived that others thought of him as possibly delusional or even "crazy." Nevertheless, after falling asleep the day of his conversion, and then awaking, he experienced "the great flow of the love of God" in his heart. Finney even visited Joseph Smith's community in 1831.
The role that Joseph Smith plays in Mormonism cannot be underestimated. His character is central to the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the salvation of its members. Important is his testimony regarding what he saw on a spring, New York morning in 1820. At first glance his experience seems extraordinary. However, upon further review, similar experiences shared by others of his the day, coupled with chronological problems, seem to negate the uniqueness of Joseph Smith's testimony. More important, the parallelism between Smith's testimony and Charles G. Finney's prior written declaration seems also to negate Smith's story as original.
Did Joseph Smith really see anything? Only God knows for sure. Yet, based on the above, one conclusion at which readers could arrive is that Joseph Smith did not see anything at all. More than likely, he culled from the experiences of others, Charles Finney specifically, editing and reshaping them to form his own First Vision.
The story Joseph Smith penned in the early 1830s is not much different than the visions related by others. See this side-by-side comparison of these Visions with Joseph's First Vision:
This website lists the above accounts and others.
16 Precedents to Joseph Smith's First Vision
Joseph was not persecuted
The church essay did not provide documentation of Smith's claims of persecution.
Besides the logical inconsistencies in first vision stories, scholars can find no evidence that Smith was persecuted after he claimed to have seen a vision.
Joseph stated in the Joseph Smith History – Pearl of Great Price:
- "Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
- "I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects-all united to persecute me.
- "It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and dreviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself."
Joseph claimed that the neighborhood knew about the vision and persecuted him for it. But evidence indicates that his own family did not know about the vision. If Joseph's story had actually occurred and excited persecution, family members did not talk or write about it in memoirs. The question arises from reasonable investigators, “How could Smith's family be unaware of his vision while neighbors were persecuting him for it”?
Historical documents indicate that Joseph was persecuted for engaging in a confidence scheme using a magic rock-in-a-hat to reveal where buried treasure lay beneath the earth's surface, and later, in 1827, using that same rock-in-the-hat to locate golden plates buried near his home.
No one, in New York or Pennsylvania recalled "great persecution" or that Joseph claimed to have had a vision, including his family.
There are several different versions of the First Vision
The church essay did not provide evidence why Joseph Smith re-worked and altered his first vision story from 1832 until 1838.
Many people record important events in their lives when they happen in letters, diaries, and conversation. This way they can remember where they were when their first child was born; or when they received their patriarchal blessing; or their wedding night. Skepticism from investigators is triggered because Joseph Smith shared the 1820 vision story with no one, and did not consistently recall critical facts correctly. The story also grew and evolved into a grander and more impressive vision than the one he originally reported.
In Joseph Smith's first handwritten testimony of the 1820 first vision written in 1832, he states that he already knew all other churches were false before he prayed.
by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.
See: 1832 First Vision
Yet in the "official" story written years later by a scribe, Smith is quoted as saying (emphasis added):
"I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, 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."
Examining the different versions of the first vision story, a pattern of contradictions and evolution, not a pattern of mere elaboration on a single original experience emerges.
Joseph Smith did not write the "official" version of the first vision
Issues related to authorship of the first vision were not sufficiently addressed by the church's essay on the first vision, except to claim that the stories were consistent.
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.
Read all the accounts:
- 1827 - Account of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Joseph Smith, Jr., given to Willard Chase, as related in his 1833 affidavit.
- 1827 - Account by Martin Harris given to Rev. John Clark, as published in his book Gleanings by the Way, printed in 1842, pp. 222-229.
- 1830 - 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.
- 1832 - Earliest known attempt at an 'official' recounting of the 'First Vision, from History, 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp.2,3, in the handwriting of Joseph Smith.
- 1834-35 - Oliver Cowdery, with Joseph Smith's help, published the first history of Mormonism in the LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, vol.1, no.3
- 1835 - Account given by Joseph Smith to Joshua the Jewish minister, Joseph Smith Diary, Nov. 9, 1835.
- 1835 - Account given by Joseph Smith to Erastus Holmes on November 14, 1835, originally published in the Deseret News of Saturday May 29, 1852.
- 1838 - This account became the official version, now part of Mormon Scripture in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith - History, 1:7-20. Though written in 1838, it was not published until 1842 in Times and Season, March 15, 1842, vol. 3, no. 10, pp. 727-728, 748-749, 753.
- 1844 - 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.
- 1859 - Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, New York: Published by Joel Tiffany, vol. v.-12, pp. 163-170.
Changing First Vision Accounts: Conclusion
Joseph did not tell a consistent story, but changed key elements over the years.
- The date of the vision and his age varies - from 1823 (age 16), to 1821 (age 15), to 1820 (age 14)
- The reason or motive for seeking divine help changes - from (1) no motive (a spirit appears with the news of gold plates),(2) Bible reading and conviction of sins, (3) a revival, and (4)a desire to know if God existed.
- Who appeared to him? – (1) a spirit, (2)an angel,(3) two angels,(4) Jesus, (5)many angels, and finally, (6) the Father and the Son.
Also common elements from early accounts raise questions about what appears to be a gradual evolution of Joseph Smith's first vision story. Did Joseph begin to include a "Christian experience" in the telling of his story because Bauder noticed it was lacking? The earliest accounts given to Chase and Harris do not include this.
There is a noticeable shift in the context of finding the gold plates, from a 17 year-old money-digger to a 14 year-old spiritual seeker. Is this an attempt to put his story into a more socially acceptable context? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as time went on, Joseph omitted uncomfortable but historically correct events, and then replaced them with fictitious elements in order to make his story more socially acceptable and spiritually compelling.
“Misleading” or related synonyms are the words heard most, when investigators learn that facts are deliberately withheld by the LDS church. The spirit of full disclosure is not an option or going the extra mile. It is the minimum standard expected of an institution claiming to represent God's will and his moral truths to the rest of the world.
- adapted from Joel B. Groat
The church essay did not include a prominent general authority's surprise when he learned of Smith's 1832 first vision account. It validates doubts and questions that investigators and loyal members have, often discounted or mocked by church leaders.
S. Dilworth Young was a senior member of the First Council of the Seventy, and one of the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is apparent from this Improvement Era excerpt below, that Young was surprised to learn of Joseph's evolving accounts about the first vision and seems to indicate that Brother Young was somewhat distressed upon learning about it. (emphasis added)
This statement is from the June 1957 Improvement Era
I cannot remember the time when I have not heard the story,.concerning the coming of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
I am concerned however with one item which has recently been called to my attention on this matter. There appears to be going about our communities some writing to the effect that the Prophet Joseph Smith evolved his doctrine from what might have been a vision, in which he is supposed to have said that he saw an angel, instead of the Father and the Son. According to this theory, by the time he was inspired to write the occurrence in 1838, he had come to the conclusion that there were two beings.
This rather shocked me. I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How them could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately? Improvement Era, June 1957, p 436
Oliver Cowdery's account in the 1834 "Messenger and Advocate" stated that the "first vision" occurred in 1823. He did not report an 1820 vision, indicating that Cowdery was unaware of the 1820 experience. Cowdery's account also reported that Smith's interest in religion was sparked by the preaching of Methodist elder George Lane, rather than Smith's version, that claimed that he was inspired by reading in the Bible at age 14. Cowdery also stated that the date of the "religious excitement in Palmyra and vicinity" was in Smith's "17th year," which would have been 1823, rather than 1820.
Joseph's brother William gave an account of the event more similar to Cowdery's than to Joseph's:
In 1822 and 1823, the people in our neighborhood were very much stirred up with regard to religious matters by the preaching of a Mr. [George] Lane, an elder of the Methodist Church.....The consequences [of this growing religious revival] was that my mother, my brothers Hyrum and Samuel, older than I, joined the Presbyterian Church. Joseph, then being about seventeen years of age , had become seriously inclined, although not 'brought out', as the phrase was, began to reflect and inquire, which of all these sects was right.....He continued in secret to call upon the Lord for a full manifestation of his will, the assurance that he was accepted of him, and that he might have an understanding of the path of obedience.
At length he determined to call upon the Lord until he should get a manifestation from him. He accordingly went out into the woods and falling upon his knees called for a long time upon the Lord for knowledge. While engaging in prayer a light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees where he was.....An angel then appeared to him and conversed with him upon many things. He told him that none of the sects were right; but that if he was faithful in keeping the commandments he should receive, the true way should be made known unto him; that his sins were forgiven, etc.....he.....told us.....that the angel had also given him a sort account of the inhabitants who formerly resided upon this continent, a full history of whom he said was engraved on some plates which were hidden, and which the angel promised to show him.....
Note that William's and Cowdery's accounts both testify that the preaching of George Lane was Joseph's motivation to seek "inspiration." That creates a problem for Smith's claim that the first vision occurred in 1820, because Reverend Lane did not preach in the area until 1824. Joseph claimed that local ministers "persecuted" him, leading some to question whether a minister would appeal to Joseph as a man worthy of respect.
Note also how William's account co-mingles elements of the alleged "first vision" with those of "Moroni's visit" of 1823. That same contradiction also occurred in Lucy Mack Smith's original manuscript of her "Biographical Sketches":
One evening we were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousand opinions in existence as to the truth contained in scripture......After we ceased conversation he [Joseph] went to bed and was pondering in his mind which of the churches were the true way but he had not laid there long till he saw a bright light enter the room where he lay. He looked up and saw an angel of the Lord standing by him. The angel spoke, I perceive that you are enquiring in your mind which is the true church. There is not a true church on earth." (This original version was deleted by Brigham Young when Lucy's book was ordered recalled and re-published, obviously because Lucy's version contradicted Smith's 1842 "official version.)
To see Lucy's original book as she wrote it: http://www.utlm.org/booklist/titles/lucysbook_xb184.htm
All of the contradictions, originating in accounts from Smith and his closest family and friends, indicate to reasonable investigators, that the best sources for facts about Mormon origins has not been church leaders, members or church curriculum. And that of course, leads investigators and doubting members to believe that Smith may have invented the "first vision" story, probably around 1832 when he wrote his original version of it. And then the story changed with each re-telling, to meet Smith's need to reestablish his authority with the Mormon faithful. Or so it has been suggested by some historians.
There are other contradictions which cast doubt on the "first vision," such as the some of the Smith family joining the Presbyterian church AFTER God has supposedly told Joseph that all churches were corrupt; Cowdery's statement that Smith had wondered, several years after the alleged "first vision," as to whether "a Supreme Being did exist"; and the fact that as late as 1851, church publications such as the "Times and Seasons" were calling the angel that visited Joseph "Nephi," rather than Moroni. Since Joseph Smith was the editor of the "Times and Seasons," it seems incredible that he would allow his own paper to misstate the name of the angel, and not issue a correction.
Adapted from Ex-Mormon LDS critic Randy Jordan
Comparison Chart of the First Vision
Click here for a PDF comparison chart of the details of six accounts of the First Vision: http://www.annuitech.com/ms/ftp/Jim/ComparisonChart.pdf
Here is a comparison of nine different accounts from an apologist's site: http://www.josephsmithforum.org/doc/comparison-of-9-first-vision-accounts/
The following is provided by Mormon Infographics. Click on the image to see it full size. For more information, view the Mormon Infographics' website: Joseph Smith's First Vision and His Conflicting Accounts.
There was no revival where Joseph lived in 1820
According to the church essay a minister passed through Smith's community and this confirms the revival in 1820 Smith mentioned in his last version of the first vision. Since Joseph claimed that the revival is what motivated him pray for wisdom, it is necessary to find evidence to confirm his story.
According to the historical evidence Joseph Smith could not have been stirred by an 1820 revival to ask which church was true, since there was no revival in 1820 anywhere near Manchester, New York, where he was living. A revival as described by Joseph Smith did occur there beginning in the spring of 1824. However, this then seriously disrupts Joseph's later version of his story, because there is not enough time between the First vision and the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon for all the events described in the First Vision story to occur.
A young Joseph, an amazing vision, the birth of Mormonism - all started with a great revival according to the fully evolved story. Joseph Smith described the revival that took place in his boyhood town of Palmyra, New York:
There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religions. It commenced with the Methodist, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country... . great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir ... Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist (Pearl of Great Price / Joseph Smith History 1:5).
Curious investigators and historians wonder if there evidence of an 1820 revival in the historical record? The church essay did not provide any. Protestant church records for the years immediately before and after a revival, ought to show an increase in church memberships telling us when it took place. Local newspapers and denominational publications would be keen to publish events as exciting as successful revivals.
Authors Michael Marquardt and Wesley Walters set out to locate the revival cited by Joseph Smith. They found membership records, minutes of church meetings and newspaper accounts.
Using Joseph Smith's story as a guide, the authors meticulously combed early sources including: church conference reports, newspapers and church periodicals, presbytery records and published interviews. But an examination of these sources for 1820-21 showed nothing that fit Joseph's description.
There were no significant gains in church membership in Palmyra during 1820-21. In 1820, "the first Baptized Church in Palmyra" received eight (8) people through profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church added 14 members, and the Methodist circuit lost six (6) members, (Inventing Mormonism, pp. 17-18). A revival like the one Joseph described would have had a greater impact.
Marquardt and Walters found multiple sources that revealed evidence of a great religious excitement, with big gains in church membership for all the denominations mentioned by Joseph. It started in the fall of 1824 and continued into the spring of 1825. For the year ending September 1825, the Baptist church recorded 94 admitted on profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church reported 99 new members and the Methodist circuit showed an increase of 208 (p. 27). These facts fit Joseph's description, but not his date for the event.
Two more details from Joseph Smith's family pointed to 1824 as the actual date for the revival. The first comes from Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. She wrote her own history, later published by the LDS publisher, Bookcraft (History of Joseph Smith By His Mother). In her preliminary manuscript she recounted the great sorrow their family experienced when Joseph's oldest brother, Alvin, died suddenly - a victim of frontier medicine. Lucy wrote,
we all wept with one accord our irretrievable loss and it seemed as though we could not be comforted because he was not. About that time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest flocked to the meeting house to see if their [sic] was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings (p. 55).
A revival after Alvin's death matches the 1824 date, because Alvin died in November 1823.
The second detail was Joseph Smith's statement that the revival took place "sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester" (PGP/JS History 1:5). Research into existing tax records and property assessments indicate the most likely date for the Smith family's move onto their Manchester farm was 1822. A revival occurring in the second year after 1822 also fits the 1824 revival date (Inventing, pp. 7-8).
The evidence indicates that the actual date for the revival mentioned by Joseph Smith is 1824 rather than 1820.
So does it matter that Joseph's chronology is off by four years? It turns out to be critical. The revival sets in motion a series of events that, like dominoes, fall in a particular order.
Here is the traditional chronology based on Joseph's story found in the Pearl of Great Price. An 1820 revival caused a 14 year old Joseph to read the Bible and ponder and then pray. That led to the first vision in 1820. Joseph claimed that three years after the first vision (1823) an angel (often identified as Nephi) appeared in his bedroom and told him about gold plates. In 1827, Joseph claimed he took the plates home. Joseph then began to produce the Book of Mormon and had it printed by April, 1830.
The 1824 date for the revival does not fit the time frame. Some investigators wonder if the revival had little to do with a first vision story. Or the events leading to the writing of the Book of Mormon are different than what Joseph claimed. Either way, honest investigators are left with serious problems that challenge the authenticity of Joseph's story published in 1842.
Note: The church's November 2013 essay and FAIR (an unofficial apologist LDS site) claim that there was a revival in 1820. They use the term revival loosely to help convince investigators that Smith's claims are correct. An ad in the newspaper for a church camp meeting is not a revival that causes the “religious excitement” that Smith described.
For excellent and well documented information we refer readers to Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (1994), by H. Michael Marquardt and
Wesley P. Walters. Available online
Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (1994), by H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters. Available online
Joseph's Smith's Experience of a Methodist "Camp Meeting" Michael Quinn
What is a Revival? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 41, No. 4, pp 8-10, Dan Vogel (PDF)
Joseph Smith knew God existed in 1820, but he prayed in 1823 to find out "if a Supreme being did exist."
In the first history of Mormonism from 1835 written under Joseph Smith's direction, it says that the night of September 1823 Joseph Smith began praying in his bed to learn "the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him." (LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Feb. 1835). It makes no sense for him to ask if God existed, if Smith had already seen God face-to-face some three years earlier, and knew he existed.
God the Father and Jesus told Joseph Smith in 1820 that all churches were an abomination, and to join none of them; but he tried to join the Methodist church in June of 1828.
The LDS Church essay did not address this contradiction in Smith's first vision accounts.
Records show that in June 1828, Joseph Smith applied for membership in his wife's Methodist Church. He also joined Methodist classes taught there. (The Amboy Journal, Amboy, IL, details Smith's 1828 activity in the Methodist Church. April 30, 1879 p. 1; May 21, 1879 p.1; June 11, 1879, p.1; July 2, 1879 p.1.)
Evidence that the Book of Mormon was published before the First Vision story?
The LDS church essay did not address this information in Smith's first vision stories.
Numerous changes to the first edition of the Book of Mormon were made in the 2nd edition in 1837. LDS leaders teach members that only punctuation and grammar corrections were made. But of the nearly 4,000 alterations, some of them had to do with Joseph's evolving belief about the nature of God. Notice how these verses changed from Jesus-was-God-the-Father, to Jesus-is-the-Son-of-God-and-not-the-Father. (emphasis added)
Original 1830 Text
Current, Altered Text http://scriptures.lds.org/en/1_ne/11/18,19,20,21 (Highlighted portion)
1 Nephi 3, p. 25* And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh
* The 1830 text did not have verse divisions.
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God.
1 Nephi 3, p. 25 And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, even the Eternal Father!
1 Nephi 11:21 And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, even the Son of the Eternal Father!
1 Nephi 3, p. 26 And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world.
1 Nephi 11:32 And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the Everlasting God, was judged of the world.
1 Nephi 3, p. 32 These last records ... shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world.
1 Nephi 13:40 These last records ...shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world.
Investigators believe that the evidence clearly shows that Joseph changed his belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ were one being to the belief that they were two beings. Then, he then revised the Book of Mormon in 1837 to support his new idea.
Joseph would not have published a book in 1830, confirming his belief in One God (Protestant concept of the Trinity) if he already knew from a vision in 1820, that there were three separate gods constituting the Godhead.
Joseph did not change all the Protestant Trinitarian verses in the 1837 revision of the Book of Mormon however.
Ether 3:14 "Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light... they shall become my sons and my daughters."
Mosiah 15: 1, 2, 5 "And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that 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... And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation..."
Alma 11: 26-31
26 And Zeezrom said unto him: Thou sayest there is a true and living God?
27 And Amulek said: Yea, there is a true and living God.
28 Now Zeezrom said: Is there more than one God?
29 And he answered, No.
30 Now Zeezrom said unto him again: How knowest thou these things?
31 And he said: An angel hath made them known unto me.
Alma 11: 44
Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but everything shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil.
2 Ne. 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.
Morm. 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.
Declaration of the Three Witnesses: "And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen."
LDS Apologists claim that since Christ represents the Father, he speaks in the name of the Father, as if He were the Father. That is not what the Book of Mormon claims. It uses phraseology that Protestant Trinitarians use.
Joseph’s doctrine of the Godhead changed
The LDS Church's essay did not address the evolution of the godhead doctrine by Joseph Smith. Evidence that it occurred is reflected in his teachings and revelations. We thank utlm.org for the following.
When Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830, his views concerning God were similar to those held by Christian ministers of his day. Although Smith believed that there was only one God when he "translated" the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, he later decided that there were two Gods and eventually concluded that there were many Gods.
The fact that Joseph Smith's first written account of the First Vision only mentioned one personage is consistent with what he believed about God when he dictated the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, proclaimed that Christ was God Himself manifest in the flesh:
"And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that 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... And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation..." (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 15: 1, 2, 5)
The Book of Mormon tells of a visitation of the Father and the Son to the "brother of Jared," but the account is not speaking of two separate personages. Only one personage appears, and this personage says:
"Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light... they shall become my sons and my daughters." (Ether 3:14)
Mormon scholar Melodie Moench Charles acknowledges that it is difficult to reconcile the teachings regarding God found in the Book of Mormon with the present teachings of the church. She argues, in fact, that at least some of the teachings of the Book of Mormon regarding God go even beyond the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in emphasizing the oneness of God:
"Recently when I was teaching the Book of Mormon in an adult Sunday school class we discussed Mosiah 15.... I said that I saw no good way to reconcile Abinadadi's [sic] words with the current Mormon belief that God and his son Jesus Christ are separate and distinct beings. I suggested that perhaps Abinadi's understanding was incomplete.
"The class response included defenses of revelation and prophets... and accusations that I was crossing the line of propriety and wisdom to suggest that a prophet could teach incorrect doctrines about God. Some people appreciated a public acknowledgment of an obvious difference between Book of Mormon doctrine and current church doctrine. A few friends said things like, 'I don't care what they say about you. I've wondered about that passage for a long time, and I'm glad somebody pointed out that it's not what we teach today.' But many class members thought the lesson inappropriate and upsetting, and soon I was demoted to teaching nursery....
"When we explore what the Book of Mormon says, its christology or doctrines concerning Christ differ from the christology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since at least the 1840s....
"Book of Mormon people asserted that the Father and Christ (and the Holy Ghost) were one God. When Zeezrom asks Amulek, 'Is there more than one God?' Amulek, who learned his information from an angel, answers, 'No' (Alma 11: 28-29). At least five times in 3 Nephi, Jesus says that he and the Father are one. Emphasizing that oneness with a singular verb, Nephi, Amulek, and Mormon refer to 'the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God' (2 Ne. 31: 21; Alma 11: 44; Morm. 7: 7, emphasis added).
"This is common trinitarian formula....
"In isolation the Book of Mormon's 'which is one God' statements sound like orthodox trinitarianism, but in context they resemble a theology rejected by orthodoxy since at least 215 C.E., the heresy of modalism (also known as Sabellianism). Modalists believed that for God to have three separate identities or personalities compromised the oneness of God. Therefore, as Sabellius taught, 'there is only one undivided Spirit; the Father is not one thing and the Son another, but... both are one and the same' (Lonergan 1976, 38). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three labels for the different functions which the one God performed.... The Book of Mormon often makes no distinction between Christ and God the Father. For example, Jesus in 3 Nephi talked about covenants which his father made with the Israelites, and yet beyond anything he claimed in the New Testament he also claimed that he was the God of Israel who gave them the law and covenanted with them...
"The Book of Mormon melds together the identity and function of Christ and God. Because Book of Mormon authors saw Christ and his Father as one God who manifested himself in different ways, it made no difference whether they called their god the Father or the Son. They taught that Jesus Christ was not only the one who atoned for their sins but was also the god they were to worship. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Israel and the Book of Mormon people....
"Like the Book of Mormon, Mormonism before 1835 was largely modalistic, making no explicit distinction between the identities of the Father and the Son. Yet Mormonism gradually began to distinguish among different beings in the Godhead. This means the christology of the Book of Mormon differs significantly from the christology of the Mormon church after the 1840s....
"The current theology that most Mormons read back into the Book of Mormon is tritheism: belief in three Gods. Joseph Smith and the church only gradually came to understand the Godhead in this way. When he translated the Book of Mormon, Smith apparently envisioned God as modalists did: he accepted Christ and Christ's father as one God. In his first written account of his 'first vision' in 1832 Smith told of seeing 'the Lord' -- one being....
"Later, in 1844, Smith said, 'I have always declared God to be a distinct personage -- Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and or Spirit, and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods'... Mormon history does not support Smith's claim about what he taught earlier. Documents from early Mormonism reflect that Smith went from belief in one god to belief in two and later three gods forming one godhead....
"Book of Mormon theology is generally modalistic. In the Book of Mormon, God and Jesus Christ are not distinct beings." (New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, pages 82, 96-99, 103-104, 110)
When all the evidence is carefully examined it becomes obvious that Joseph Smith interpolated his later view regarding God the Father into his story of the First Vision. Consequently, Mormons who are not acquainted with the evidence still rely on the later account to prove that God the Father is an exalted man.
In addition, Joseph Smith's 1835-36 diary contains other accounts of his First Vision which tend to add to the confusion. For instance, in one account Joseph Smith told Erastus Holmes regarding his "juvenile years, say from 6 years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old." (An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, page 59)
Mormon leaders were apparently embarrassed that Smith spoke of angels but neglected to mention either the Father or the Son in this account! Therefore, in the published History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 312, the statement has been changed to read: "...I received my first vision, which was when I was about fourteen years old..." Another account in the same diary (page 51) has Joseph Smith saying that he "saw many angels in this vision." (For a thorough examination of the many conflicting statements in Joseph Smith's accounts of the First Vision see our book, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? pp. 143-153)
Marvin S. Hill, professor of American history at the church's Brigham Young University, tried to defend the idea that Joseph Smith had an important religious experience in the grove, but he had to admit that Joseph Smith's official 1838 account has some real problems. He, in fact, suggested that the 1832 account of the vision was probably more accurate than the official account and that Joseph Smith may have changed his theological views concerning God:
"It seems to me that everybody has approached the issue from the wrong end, by starting with the 1838 official version when the account they should be considering is that of 1832. Merely on the face of it, the 1832 version stands a better chance of being more accurate and unembellished than the 1838 account... I am inclined to agree that the religious turmoil that Joseph described which led to some family members joining the Presbyterians and to much sectarian bitterness does not fit well into the 1820 context detailed by Backman. For one thing, it does not seem likely that there could have been heavy sectarian strife in 1820 and then a joint revival where all was harmony in 1824. In addition, as Walters notes, Lucy Mack Smith [Joseph Smith's mother] said the revival where she became interested in a particular sect came after Alvin's death, thus almost certainly in early 1824.... An 1824 revival creates problems for the 1838 account, not that of 1832....
"At any rate, if Joseph Smith in 1838 read back into 1820 some details of a revival that occurred in 1824, there is no reason to conclude that he invented his religious experiences....
"Giving priority to the 1832 account also makes it more understandable why Oliver Cowdery got his story tangled.... If initially Joseph said one personage came to him in 1820, it became easier for Oliver Cowdery to confuse this visit with the coming of Moroni than it would have been a few years later when Joseph taught emphatically that there were three separate personages in the Godhead.
"The Tanners make much of the argument that Joseph Smith changed his view of the Godhead. There is a good deal of evidence that his understanding grew on many points of theology... If, as the Tanners argue, Joseph grew in his understanding of the nature of the Godhead, this does not provide evidence of his disingenuousness...
"It seems to me that if the Latter-day Saints can accept the idea that Joseph gained his full understanding of the nature of God only after a period of time, instead of its emerging fullblown in 1820, then most of the difficulties with chronology can be resolved... As James Allen shows, Joseph never cited his vision with respect to the nature of the Godhead. This use of the vision came long afterward." (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1982, pp. 39-41)
Since the Mormon Church canonized the 1838 account of the First Vision in the Pearl of Great Price (one of the four standard works of the church), it seems very doubtful that the church will follow Professor Hill's suggestion about giving "priority to the 1832 account" of the vision. In any case, Thomas G. Alexander, who is also a professor of American history at BYU, agrees that a theological shift in Joseph Smith's view concerning the Godhead caused him to change his story from one to two personages:
"One of the barriers to understanding Mormon theology is the underlying assumption by most Latter-day Saints that doctrine develops consistently, that ideas build cumulatively on each other. As a result, older revelations are usually interpreted by referring to current doctrinal positions. This type of interpretation may produce systematic theology and may satisfy those trying to understand and internalize the current doctrine, but it is bad history since it leaves an unwarranted impression of continuity and consistency....
"The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus Christ (see Abinadi's sermon to King Noah in Mos. 13-14).... there is little evidence that early church doctrine specifically differentiated between Christ and God. Indeed, this distinction was probably considered unnecessary since the early discussion also seems to have supported trinitarian doctrine. Joseph Smith's 1832 account of his first vision spoke only of one personage and did not make the explicit separation of God and Christ found in the 1838 version. The Book of Mormon declared that Mary 'is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,' which was changed in 1837 to 'mother of the Son of God.' Abinadi's sermon in the Book of Mormon explored the relationship between God and Christ...
"The 'Lectures on Faith' differentiated between the Father and Son more explicitly, but even they did not define a materialistic, tritheistic godhead. In announcing the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, which included the lectures, the Messenger and Advocate commented that it trusted the volume would give 'the churches abroad... a perfect understanding of the doctrine believed by this society.' The lectures declared that 'there are two personages who constitute the great matchless, governing and supreme power over all things -- by whom all things were created and made.' They are 'the Father being a personage of spirit' and 'the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather man was formed after his likeness, and in his image.' The 'Articles and Covenants' called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost 'one God' rather than 'Godhead,' a term Mormons use today to separate themselves from trinitarians.
"The doctrine of the Holy Ghost in these early sources is even more striking compared to our point of view today. The 'Lectures on Faith' defined the Holy Ghost as the mind of the Father and the Son, a member of the Godhead but not a personage, who binds the Father and Son together (D&C [i.e., Doctrine and Covenants], 1835 ed., 53-54). This view of the Holy Ghost likely reinforced trinitarian doctrine by explaining how personal beings like the Father and Son become one god through the noncorporeal presence of a shared mind." (Line Upon Line, edited by Gary James Bergera, 1989, pages 53-55)
The LDS church essay did not address the contradictory descriptions of God related to his changing first vision stories.
Originally the Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures on Faith, put forth as doctrine by Joseph Smith in 1835. The lectures were removed in the 20th century. The Fifth Lecture on Faith specifically states that the Father is a spirit, that only Jesus has a body, and that the Holy Ghost is the Mind of the Father and the Son. If Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon declared this to be doctrine in 1835, it undercuts the two first vision stories (1832 and 1838).
Most church members are unaware that Smith changed his views about the nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost. This is a fundamental doctrine but not shared with members or investigators in any approved church curriculum. Smith's claims to have seen and conversed with the Father and the Son clash with his early beliefs about a Trinitarian God and his original first vision story.
Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible (JST), also reveal his early monotheistic beliefs. He consciously attempted to remove all references to a plurality of gods from the King James Bible. For example, he revised Jesus' teaching in Luke 10:22, that "no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it."
These observations provide significant insight into Book of Mormon passages which identify Jesus Christ as "God Himself," the "Holy One of Israel," the "Lord Omnipotent," the "Father of heaven and earth" who revealed himself to Moses and many of the ancient patriarchs.
Joseph's early theology is reflected in his translation of the Book of Mormon. Similarly, some of Joseph Smith's early revelations freely switch the role of the God of Israel from the Son to the Father.
In the "Lectures on Faith, fifth lecture, Joseph Smith defined the Godhead as consisting of two personages: the Father, a personage of spirit, and the Son, a personage of tabernacle. The Holy Ghost was not considered to be a personage, but rather was defined as the "mind" of the Father and the Son. And Joseph Smith originally taught that God did not possess a body.
In a 1980 Sunstone article: "The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology", Thomas G. Alexander attempts to track these changes in the nature and concept of God in the LDS Church over the last 180 years. Click here for some excerpts from his article: The Nature of God in the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith's changing view of God as seen in his First Vision accounts by Grant Palmer
Without belaboring one issue, readers may find this information interesting.
Outline of a lecture given at the Salt Lake City Library, Nov. 6, 2013 by Grant H. Palmer, author of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.
Youtube video presentation: "Joseph Smith's changing view of God" with Grant Palmer
I. Brief overview of Smith's 1832, 1835, and 1838 accounts of his 1820 First Vision:
- All three accounts came across the plains with the pioneers to Salt Lake City in 1847.
- 1832 account: It was written by Joseph Smith in his letterbook by his own hand.
- 1835 account: It was recited by Smith to a stranger named Robert Matthews [a.k.a. Joshua the Jewish minister, also Matthias the Prophet], a New York con man with a criminal record, although Smith didn't know it at the time. It was written by scribe Warren Parrish. Both the 1832 and 1835 were rediscovered in church archives in 1965.
- 1838-1839 official account: It was dictated to George W. Robinson by Smith, copied in 1839 by James Mulholland, canonized in 1880, and is now in the Pearl of Great Price.
II. Why the 1832 account of the First Vision best fits the historical record:
- There is no mention of a religious revival in this account—the extensive Palmyra, New York revival occurred in 1824, not 1820.
- There is no persecution in this account—the vision was not mentioned by friends, family, institutions, or enemies. It is likely that the vision was unremarkably similar to many other epiphanies of that era and no one took notice of it.
- There is no instruction to not join the churches in this account—thus Smith family members join the Presbyterian Church, and Joseph tries to join the Methodists.
- There is no call from God to the work in this account—Smith's “call to his holy work” came in 1823 from an angel (Book of Commandments 24: 6-7, 10; cf. D&C 20:5-8, 11).
- Jesus only appears in this account. Joseph Smith in 1832 believed God and Christ to be the same being—and only one God appears to him.
III. Joseph Smith believed in one God from 1829-1834:
- Book of Mormon (1829–1830): In 2 Nephi 31:21 (also in the “Testimony of Three Witnesses”) we read, “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God.” In the 1830 edition, we read In 1 Nephi 11: 16, 18, 21, 32; 13:40: “Knowest thou the condescension of God? … [Mary] is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh. … The Lamb of God, yea even the Eternal Father …. was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world [crucified]. … The Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world.”
In Mosiah 7:27; 13:34, Abinadi informs us “that Christ was the God, the Father of all things” and “that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood”; also “that God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man.” In Mosiah 16: 15, Abinadi's doctrine is summarized: “Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, which is the very Eternal Father.” In Alma 11:28-29, 38-39, 44, we learn: “Now Zeezrom saith, Is there more than one God? And he [Amulek] answereth No … 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. … Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.”
In 3 Nephi 11:27, 36; 28:10, we read “that the Father, and the Son, and Holy Ghost are one” in thought and purpose. In Mormon 7:7, we read: “The Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which is one God.” In Mormon 9:12, we read: “Because of the fall of man came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son.” In Ether 3:14 and 4:12 we read, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.” And again, “He that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father.”
- Book of Commandments 24:18 (1833) reads: “Which Father and Son and Holy Ghost is one God” (cf. with Doctrine and Covenants 20: 28).In The Evening and Morning Star, vol.1,July 1832, 2 we read: “God and Christ is the judge of all” (cf. D&C 76:68).
- Book of Moses: In the Pearl of Great Price in Moses 1:6, 20; 7:11, 35 (June–Dec. 1830), we read: “The Savior, he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God besides me, and. … this one God only will I worship.” And “the Father, and the Son, which is full of grace and truth.” And again, “Behold I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name also” (cf. Book of Moses 6:57).
- Bible, the Joseph Smith Translation (1830-1833): In KJV Luke 10:22, reads: “No man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.” JST Luke 10:23 reads, “No man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it” (also cf. KJV Matt. 11:27 with JST Matt. 11:28). In 1 Timothy 2:4, Smith expands the verse to clarify that the Father and Son “is one God.”
- In Joseph Smith's November 1832 First Vision account, one God appears and forgives his sins.
QUESTION: Since Joseph Smith believed God and Christ to be the same being, as shown in A through E—between 1829-1834—how many Gods would you expect to appear in his 1832 First Vision account?; or find in the Book of Moses, in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, in the Book of Commandments, and in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon?
IV. Joseph Smith's one God becomes two separate Gods from 1835-1839:
- The Lectures on Faith (compiled by Smith in January 1835, and included in the Sept. 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, until 1921), number five, instruct us that in the Godhead: “There are two personages … the Father and the Son … the Father being a personage of spirit … the Son … a personage of tabernacle. … [Christ] received a fullness of the glory of the Father, possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit … and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one” (all emphasis in the outline are mine).
- In the September 1835 Doctrine and Covenants 20:28, we now also read: “Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God” (cf. with Book of Commandments 24:18). And D&C 76:68 has now been changed to read: “God and Christ are the judge of all” (cf. The Evening & Morning Star, July 1832, in Kirtland reprint, Feb. 1835).
- In the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, we now also readin 1 Nephi 11: 16, 18, 21, 32; 13:40, that Mary “is the mother of the Son of God. … Yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father. … The Lamb of God was taken by the people; yea the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world. … The Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world.” In Mormon 7:7, it now says: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which are one God” (cf. these verses with the 1830 ed. of the Book of Mormon, pages 25-26, 32, 531). Only a few godhead alterations were continued beyond 1 Nephi.
- In Smith's November 1835 First Vision account, we now read that one Personage appears, and then a second Personage joins Him. One speaks and forgives his sins.
- In Smith's 1838-1839 First Vision account, we now clearly read that two separate Gods (Father and Son) appear at the same time and both speak to him.
QUESTION: From 1835-1839, we see Joseph Smith's one God become two Gods, and then become separate beings—so how many separate Gods would you expect to appear in his 1835 and 1838-1839 First Vision accounts?
V. Joseph Smith believed in a plurality of Gods from 1839-1844:
- In March 1839, we first read of the plurality of Gods in D&C 121:32: “According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was.”
- In the March 1842 Book of Abraham, chapters four and five, almost every verse of these creation chapters state, “The Gods” said, or pronounced, ordered, called, organized or prepared.
- In the May 1842 Endowment, a plurality of Gods is taught during the creation period.
- In July 1843, we read in Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20 that temple goers are promised in the marriage ceremony: “They shall pass by the angels, and the Gods. … Then shall they be gods, because they have no end. … They shall be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject to them.”
QUESTION: Since Joseph Smith believed in a plurality of Gods as shown in A through D in this section—between 1839-1844—how many Gods would you expect to find in the Book of Abraham?; in the temple endowment, and in the temple marriage ceremony?
VI. Apologist observations on why there are important differences in Smith's three accounts of his First Vision:
- Memory changes over time and that, they say, is why there are important differences in the First Vision. (If God appeared to me, I would be very sure whether one or two Gods appeared, and what happened; also I would have written it down immediately).
- The Apostle Paul's three accounts of his vision in Acts 9, 22, 26, show slight differences. (But Smith's accounts reveal major omissions and theological contradictions, see outline, II).
- The accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision are different in important ways because he is tailoring the information for different audiences. (But Smith's audience in his 1832 account is written in his private letterbook. After twelve years of reflection on his vision, Smith's failure to mention that God appeared, along with Jesus in his letterbook, is inexplicable. It's like not introducing one of your parents at a small dinner party).
- Joseph Smith's 1832 account, they say, is about his personal view of the vision, hence he leaves out God and talks only about Jesus appearing and forgiving him his sins. The 1838-1839 account, they say, better reflects his full story including the truth that God and Christ are separate beings. (This speculation is unfounded for several reasons [see outline, II & III)—one is that ALL Smith's writings during 1829-1834 teach one God).
- Joseph Smith's view of God, they say, evolved “line upon line, precept upon precept.” (This teaches that “the unchangeable God”—changes his form and hence is deceptive).
VII. What does the information in this outline indicate?
- Joseph Smith is writing pseudepigrapha—i.e., writings that are falsely attributed to Biblical prophets. Smith altered past scripture to reflect his own changing view of God.
- Smith, by imposing his own view of God (and other beliefs) upon past eras of scripture and upon his own first vision accounts, validates that one cannot trust what Smith has altered in the writings of past prophets—or his own.
- Smith, by materially changing his first vision story, reveals the pattern he applied to all four of his foundational visions—especially the angel gold plates saga, the priesthood restoration, and the first vision. All follow the embellished pattern of becoming more physical, impressive, unique, and miraculous (the last two during times of crisis), as time went on.
- See Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 235-258.
- See Palmer, An Insider's View, 11-12, 21, 121-23, and 236-37 for many of these citations.
Youtube video presentation: "Joseph Smith's changing view of God" with Grant Palmer
The November 2013 essay on the First Vision by the LDS Church Leaders did not include information to help investigators answer questions related to the first vision and a contradiction with priesthood doctrines introduced by Smith via revelation.
In 1832 Joseph Smith revealed that a man could not see God without the Mormon Priesthood. This revelation is currently Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Verses 21-22:
And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.
"The Father and the Son appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith before the Church was organized and the priesthood restored to the earth" (Doctrines of Salvation, by Joseph Fielding Smith, vol. 1, p.4).
Investigators ask why Smith's 1838 story claimed that he saw God the Father, after God told him six years earlier, that “no man can see the face of God. . .” without the Mormon priesthood.
Joseph was not the first to declare that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings as stated by an LDS prophet
The LDS Church's November 2013 essay on the First Vision did not include questions that have been asked since the 1960s about Smith's ability to rely on existing ideas and present them as his own original thoughts, via his revelations.
In the book 'Answers to Gospel Questions' by the 10th president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith was asked,
What evidences have we to substantiate the first vision of Joseph Smith to prove the truth of his story and that he was not deceived or a deceiver?
President Smith said that when Joseph declared that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings it was,
. . .too revolutionary of an idea and conflicted with all of the religious creeds, Catholic and Protestant in the world. The Nicene Creed held almost universal sway throughout the Christian world.
President Smith argued that the idea of the Father and the Son as separate beings was unheard of, and so revolutionary that Joseph could not have fabricated his vision.
Joseph was not the first person to propose that God the Father and Jesus Christ were separate beings. This issue was debated as early as the 4th century. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea was organized to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria about the nature of Jesus and the Father.
The Trinitarian (all gods in one) doctrine was an effort to impose orthodoxy at a time when a variety of beliefs existed about the nature of the godhood. If the doctrine had been clear from the beginning the Nicene effort would not have been necessary.
These questions were also debated during the revivals of 1824. Theologians, pastors, and religious adherents were discussing religious issues, and conflicting interpretations of the Bible.
Alexander Campbell noticed that Smith borrowed heavily from 19th century religious debates. His review of the Book of Mormon noted that it contained most of the popular theological issues known to Smith and everyone else interested in the subject, including disagreements about the nature of God and Jesus.
Kabbalah also teaches there are three separate personalities, or emanations which present themselves in different forms. http://gnosis.org/jskabb1.htm Part 3 offers the full explanation. The Mormon Historical Society gave this the award for the best new research paper in 1995.
Anyone who reads the Bible can interpret it and conclude that God the Father and Jesus are separate beings. Some Protestants and Catholics, believe that God and Jesus are two different people. This interpretation is not unique to Mormonism and did not originate with Smith.
Hundreds of millions of Catholics and Protestants support the idea of the Trinity; that God is a spirit and all three members of the godhead are really the same god but able to manifest himself as different individuals.
Read Catholic Encyclopedia: The dogma of the Trinity
Smith's ideas about God in the Book of Mormon reflect the Trinitarian view, and among other things included God is a spirit. His views evolved and he adopted an anthropomorphic view; that God the Father and the resurrected Jesus had bodies of "flesh and bone".
Another example of Joseph being credited as the originator of new theological ideas is Smith's doctrine that heaven is divided into three degrees of glory (Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants).
But this innovation was advocated in 1784, by Emanuel Swedenborg
who wrote a book called Heaven and Hell and Its Wonders
. He described his visions of the afterlife. Swedenborg insisted: "There are three heavens,"
described as "entirely distinct from each other." He called the highest heaven "the Celestial Kingdom," and stated that the inhabitants of the three heavens corresponded to the "sun, moon and stars." Those who have read Swedenborg's writings wonder if Smith borrowed from him.
Do the details of the First Vision matter?
Some of the LDS faithful wonder if the details of the First Vision are important.
The 10th president of the church Joseph Fielding Smith:
It is well-known that the truth or falsity of a story lies mainly in the details.There are some details connected with the vision given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, which may appear to many as insignificant, and by many members of the Church are overlooked, yet they are of vital and of overwhelming importance. Answers to Gospel Questions, Joseph Fielding Smith, vol IIIch 14,page 56.
Joseph Fielding Smith published these remarks before the 1832 account of the First Vision was made public. This was also before the other details, such as the 1820 revival described by Joseph, lack of evidence that Joseph told anyone about the vision, etc. were researched and made public.
List of Joseph Smith's First Vision Stories
The LDS Church's November 2013 essay did not list a comprehensive list of Smith's various first vision stories, to compare them for consistency. We offer them here from James Whitefield's book The Mormon Delusion.
LDS Church Claimed Event Dates:
1820 Spring. Supposed date of the "First Vision" of God the Father & Jesus Christ.
1823 21st - 22nd September. Dates of the first Moroni / Nephi visions or dreams.
1827 22nd September. Date of Moroni / Nephi delivering up gold plates to Smith.
Six times Nephi was listed as the angel who visited Smith and told him where gold plates were hidden. Twice, Moroni is listed as that angel. During his lifetime, though Joseph edited the written histories of the church he never changed the name Nephi to Moroni. That was done after his death most likely to avoid embarrassing questions about Smith's inability to tell a consistent story.
Willard Chase and Rev. Clark and other accounts indicate the date they learned of the vision. No record of any account of any vision, first or otherwise, (other than scant references to them) was available in written or published form prior to the year 1832, when Smith himself wrote his first account. This was twelve years after the first vision, nine years after the first Moroni / Nephi visions and five years after the plates were supposedly obtained. More accounts exist.
Each account is annotated with what was reportedly seen and the medium.
F = akin to the First Vision. M = akin to the Moroni / Nephi Visions or dreams.
1827 M Willard Chase affidavit of 1833 (A spirit in a vision)
1827 M Rev. John A. Clark. Account of Martin Harris published 1842 (Angel in a dream)
1828-9 M Cousin of Emma Smith quoting Joseph Smith in a letter (Ghost in a dream) 1
1829 M Martin Harris quoted in Rochester Gem (Spirit in a dream) 2
1829 M August. Palmyra Freeman. Joseph Smith (Spirit of the Almighty in a dream) 3
1830 M Peter Bauder Interview with Joseph Smith published 1842 (Unidentified Angel)
1830 M Fayette Lapham interview with Joseph Smith Snr. (Dream about a treasure) 4
1830 M 26 November Parley P. Pratt. Letter from Amherst (Angel of light in a dream) 5
1830 M 9 Dec. Ohio Star reporting Oliver Cowdery & Peter Whitmer (Spirit in a dream) 6
1832 F 20 July - 27 November. A History of the Life of Joseph Smith (The Lord)
1832 M 20 July - 27 November. A History of the Life of Joseph Smith (Unidentified Angel*)
1834-5 M Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery & Joseph Smith (Personage, Messenger)
1835 M Apr. Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery & Joseph Smith (Angel Moroni)
1835 F 9th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Joshua, Jewish Minister (Many Angels)
1835 M 9th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Joshua, Jewish Minister (Unidentified Angel)
1835 F 14th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Erastus Holmes (Vision of Angels)
1838 F Joseph Smith History (Official) Account pub. 1842 (assumed God & Jesus Christ)
1838 M Joseph Smith History Account (Angel Nephi) altered after Smith's death to Moroni.
1838 M July. Joseph Smith - Elder's Journal Vol 1 No. 3 P 43. (Angel Moroni)
1840 F Orson Pratt Account (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 F Orson Hyde Account (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 M April. Times and Seasons. Joseph Smith. (Angel Nephi)
1842 F 1st Mar Wentworth Letter. Times & Seasons 1842 (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 M 1st Mar Wentworth Letter, Times and Seasons (Unidentified Angel)
1842 M August. Latter Day Saints Millennial Star" published in England (Angel Nephi)
1842 M Editorial. Latter Day Saints Millennial Star" published in England (Angel Nephi)
1842 M Martin Harris - Gleanings p 226 (Angel of God in a dream)
1843 F 23 Sept New York Spectator - Joseph Smith (Assumed to be God and Jesus Christ)
1844 F Account written by Joseph Smith (Two Unidentified Personages)
1844 M Account written by Joseph Smith (Unidentified Angel)
1845 M Lucy Mack Smith - Biography (Unidentified Angel)
1851 M Pearl of Great Price. Joseph Smith. Handwritten copies & 1st Edition (Angel Nephi)
1853 M Lucy Mack Smith - History of Joseph Smith (Angel Nephi)
1859 M August. Martin Harris account in Tiffany's Monthly, (Unidentified Angel)
1884 F William Smith sermon. The Saints Herald. (Unidentified Personage)
A concise summary:
Ten (10) accounts refer to a First Vision, but Smith did not tell a consistent story about the spiritual visitors.
2 refer to Angels or many angels. (Both by Joseph Smith)
1 refers to 1 unidentified personage. (William Smith)
4 refer to 2 unidentified personages. (Two by Joseph Smith)
1 refers to The Lord alone, assumed to be Jesus Christ. (Joseph Smith)
2 refer to 2 personages, assumed to be God and Jesus Christ. (Joseph Smith)
25 accounts refer to angelic visitations. Of these 8 are specifically dreams:
1 refers to a dream about treasure.
1 refers to an unidentified ghost in a dream.
3 refer to an unidentified spirit or spirit of the almighty in a dream.
3 refer to an unidentified angel (or angel of light or of God) in a dream.
1 refers to an unidentified spirit in a vision.
7 refer to an unidentified angel. (*One angel says Moroni is someone else).
1 refers to an unidentified personage or messenger.
2 refer to the angel Moroni. (Cowdery & Smith 1835 & 1838)
6 refer to the angel Nephi. (1838 onward, 4 Smith, 1 quoting him & 1 Lucy Mack)
As listed above, some confusion existed in the minds of Cowdery and Smith. Nephi is identified in six (6) records as the angel who visited Joseph and told him where the plates were by Smith, Cowdery and Lucy Smith. In two documents Moroni is identified as the angel who visited Smith.
References to the early vision accounts appear in the works cited below.
- Mormon History, A New Chapter. Joseph & Hiel Lewis. Photocopy of letter fd 8, box 149. H. Michael Marquardt papers, Manuscripts Division, J. Willard Marriot Library, University of Utah. Also: Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel. Vol 2.
- "A Golden Bible" Report in Rochester Gem, 5 September 1829 quoting Martin Harris. Also similar report from the Palmyra Freeman August 1829. See: A New Witness for Christ in America. Zion's printing and Publishing 1951. Copies available online. Google "Rochester Gem 1929". See Uncle Dale's Old Mormon Articles.
- The Palmyra Freeman. 11th August 1829. Niagara Courier. 27th August 1829. Available online: Google: "Palmyra Freeman 1829" See Uncle Dale's Old Mormon Articles.
- Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogal. Part 1. C. Joseph Smith Senior Collection. 1. Joseph Smith Snr., Interview with Fayette Lapham. 1830. "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His account of Finding the Sacred Plates." Historical Magazine (2nd Series) 7. May 1870. 305 - 309.
Parley P Pratt referenced in a Letter from Amherst, Beware of Impostors" dated 26 Nov 1830, printed in the "Painesville Telegraph" and quoted in "The Reflector" Palmyra, 14 Feb 1831. Copy available on line. Google "The Reflector 1831" See Uncle Dale's Old Mormon Articles.
See also: Early Mormonism: Correspondence and A New History, Dale Morgan, Signature Books, 1986.
- The Golden Bible, Article in the Ohio Star, 9 December 1830. Copy available on line. Google " Ohio Star 1830". See Uncle Dale's Old Mormon Articles.
Extract from "The Mormon Delusion"
Copyright © 2006 James I Whitefield.
All rights reserved. Used with permission by MormonThink.
This material is available for personal use only and may not be copied, reproduced, shared or disseminated in any manner, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of the author. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The First Vision - The Joseph Smith Story by Jim Whitefield
Jim Whitefield, author of the very popular series, The Mormon Delusion, has provided this insightful essay on the First Vision from his book series.
The First Vision - The Joseph Smith Story by Jim Whitefield (the page is sometimes slow, be patient)
Was the First Vision an "Out-of-Body" experience?
Some researchers believe that Joseph had an 'out-of-body' experience which he interpreted as The First Vision. For more information on this theory, please read this very interesting 2006 article by Robert Bushman, former supervising linguist in the Translation Department of the LDS Church: The “First Vision” of Joseph Smith as “out-of-body experience” and what that means about the First Vision (2006) (PDF)
Robert Bushman's out-of-body experience (OBE) biblography (over 2000 references) - archived web page.
All creeds an abomination
The LDS Church's November 2013 essay did not discuss Jesus's message to Smith that all Christian churches were “all wrong” and “were an abomination in his sight.”
In the LDS scripture, Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History
1:5-19, we learn that after God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph Smith, Joseph asked God what church he should join. Joseph relates God's response in verse 19:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
Investigators considering baptism into the LDS Church, as well as members whose friends and relatives may belong to other Christian churches, are sometimes confused and conflicted by Smith's claim. They admire their friends and relatives' spirituality and goodness. Did Jesus really tell Smith those things?
The Book of Mormon in Moroni 7:16 seems to indicate that everything that invites people to do good is from Christ:
16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
17 But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.
Sidney Rigdon was a protestant minister before converting and many converts today are good Christians who convert to Mormonism. A question some have asked is, “Were Sidney and I regarded as corrupt as well as every other religious leader at the time or even today”?
Responses to these issues by the LDS church
Well meaning, LDS members, acting without authority from church leaders, consider the role of LDS apologist to be a noble activity. Some of the popular efforts appear here. The official church magazine, the Ensign, has also offered answers from time to time to members with questions about the first vision stories.
1) Member response to Joseph not telling anyone about the First Vision for 22 Years
From LDS apologist Jeff Lindsay's web site
Other critical publications of the era referred to claims by Joseph and others of angelic visions, and of personal conversations with Christ or with God Almighty. These stories were circulated long before modern anti-Mormon writers say that Joseph first came up with the idea. One example comes from an 1829 anti-Mormon satire by Abner Cole, who wrote a series of articles called "The Book of Pukei" for a Palmyra newspaper. The satire poked fun at many aspects of the Book of Mormon, including the first vision. The satire is evidence that Joseph's first vision story was known and talked about in 1829 (Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, p. 160). http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_first_vision.shtml
Response to Jeff Lindsay
Pointing out obvious contradictions and asking “why” does not make one an anti-Mormon. An unfortunate and unchristian tendency present in nearly all LDS apologetic literature is to label all who ask difficult and honest questions about obvious problems, as anti-Mormon. This is unfortunate and says more about the church and the apologist than those with reasonable questions and doubts.
Mormon apologists consistently cite works assuming that few if any faithful LDS members will check their references. The Book of Pukei is clearly referring to the Angel Moroni story and not the First Vision of God and Jesus. We understand that unofficial apologists may make mistakes from time to time. But if it's deliberate dishonesty, it can only reflect poorly on the church's reputation, and create mistrust. The whole world can see their work on the internet.
Read the original "The Book of Pukei" satire for yourself:
Chapter 1 (click on the link to "RF Jun 12 '30")
Chapter 2 (click on the link to "RF Jul 07 '30")
The July 7th 1830 Reflector published satire directed at Joseph Smith's "first vision”
- And the prophet answered and said, -- "Behold! hath not the mantle of Walters the magician fallen upon me, and I am not able to do before you my people great wonders, and shew you, at a more proper season, where the Nephites hid their treasures? -- for lo! yesternight stood before me in the wilderness of Manchester, the spirit, who, from the begining, has had in keeping all the treasures, hidden in the bowels of the earth,
- And he said unto me, Joseph, thou son of Joseph, hold up thine head; do the crimes done in thy body fill thee with shame? -- hold up thine face and let the light of mine countenance shine upon thee -- thou, and all thy father's household, have served me faithfully, according to the best of their knowledge and abilities -- I am the spirit that walketh in darkness, and will shew thee great signs and wonders."
- And I looked, and behold a little old man stood before me, clad, as I supposed, in Egyptian raiment, except his Indian blanket, and moccasins -- his beard of silver white, hung far below his knees. On his head was an old fashioned military half cocked hat, such as was worn in the days of the patriarch Moses -- his speech was sweeter than molasses, and his words were the reformed Egyptian.
- And he again said unto me, "Joseph, thou who hast been surnamed the ignoramus, knowest thou not, that great signs and wonders are to be done by thine hands? knowest thou not, that I have been sent unto thee by MORMON, the great apostle to the Nephites -- Mormon who was chief among the [lost] ten tribes of Israel?
- Knowest thou not that this same apostle to the nephites conducted that pious people, who could not abide the wickedness of their brethren, to these happy shores in bark canoes, where after fighting with their brethren the Lamanites, a few hundred years, became wicked themselves, when God sent the small pox among them, which killed two thirds of them, and turned the rest into Indians?
This is clearly a parody of the angel-Moroni-dream story and the golden treasure, and not the God-and-Jesus First Vision story.
Here is another reference some LDS apologists claim was a description of Smith's visit with God. It too refers to the Moroni dream story and not a Jesus-and-God First Vision.
THE PALMYRA FREEMAN
Palmyra, NY, August, 1829.
In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith, of Manchester, Ontario county, reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty, and informed that in a certain hill in that town, was deposited this Golden Bible, containing an ancient record of a divine nature and origin. After having been thrice thus visited, as he states, he proceeded to the spot, and after having penetrating "mother earth" a short distance, the Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles! He had directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, "under no less penalty" than instant death!
2) Member response to the different versions of the First Vision
See the January 1985 issue of The Ensign on the church's web site.
Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision by Milton V. Backman, Jr.
Church Essay November 2013
The Church included a section on the First Vision in the topical guide of the LDS.org website discussing just one problem of the First Vision, the various accounts of the First Vision.
During a 10-year period (1832–42), Joseph Smith wrote or dictated at least four accounts of the First Vision. These accounts are similar in many ways, but they include some differences in emphasis and detail. These differences are complementary. Together, his accounts provide a more complete record of what occurred. The 1838 account found in the Pearl of Great Price is the primary source referred to in the Church...
First Vision Accounts
Interview with two LDS Apostles and Steve Benson
During a personal interview with Steve Benson (President Ezra Taft Benson's grandson), Apostle Dallin Oaks (Apostle Neal Maxwell was also present) stated the following in response to a question about the conflicting accounts of the First Vision.
Oaks said that he didn't believe the various accounts of the First Vision contradicted one another. Rather, he explained, they merely emphasized different aspects of the First Vision which were important to Joseph Smith "in his process of development" at the time he relayed them. Oaks said that we needed to keep in mind the context, circumstances and audiences to whom Joseph Smith was speaking.
WHY IS NOT THE CHURCH HONEST WITH ITS HISTORY, IN NOT PUTTING INTO ITS MANUALS AND TEACHING MATERIALS ALL OF THE DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE FIRST VISION, SO THAT MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH DO NOT HIT UPON THEM ON THEIR OWN, ARE THUS CONFUSED AND DO NOT HAVE THE BENEFIT OF HAVING OBTAINED THIS KNOWLEDGE THROUGH OFFICIAL CHURCH CHANNELS?
Oaks said the decision not to do so was "a judgment call." He said, "We can keep things simple or we can lay out all the details and complexities." Oaks compared the Mormon Church's public presentation of the First Vision to what I did for a living, saying, "It's kind of like drawing cartoons. You keep the cartoons simple." I replied, "All my cartoons are simple because that's all I'm capable of doing-drawing simple cartoons." Oaks responded, "That's what makes them so beautiful." Maxwell made a similar analogy between the Church's decision to keep the account of the First Vision uncomplicated and the drawing of cartoons.
WHY IS THE CHURCH NOT HONEST WITH ITS HISTORY, SPECIFICALLY WITH REGARD TO THE PUBLISHED ACCOUNT IN THE DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS OF JOSEPH SMITH'S VISION OF ALVIN SMITH IN THE CELESTIAL KINGDOM, IN WHICH HIS WITNESS OF EXCOMMUNICATED MEMBERS OF THE QUORUM OF THE TWELVE DWELLING IN THE HIGHEST DEGREE OF GLORY IS EDITED OUT?
Oaks and Maxwell replied that it was possibly left out because it had already been published in The Doctrine and Covenants as an example of an offering of hope for mercy.
LDS Scholar Hugh Nibley
Hugh Nibley, in his "Censoring the Joseph Smith Story", tried to explain such inconsistencies in Smith's different first vision stories with this:
If William Smith and Oliver Cowdery give confusing accounts of the first vision, we must remember that the Prophet knew from the first that those men were not to be trusted with too much information.
Response to Hugh Nibley
Cowdery was trustworthy enough to have been allegedly, (1) led to Smith by God and (2) help him translate gold plates; (3) trustworthy enough to be one of the "three witnesses", and (4) to enjoy the presence of an angel show him gold plates; (5) trustworthy enough to, along with Smith, receive the two priesthoods from angels; (6) trustworthy enough to be named the "second elder of the church" and co-president, upon its founding; and (7) trustworthy enough for Smith to instruct him to write the first history of the church.
Joseph Smith's brother William was trustworthy enough to be called as one of the twelve apostles, who are/were sustained as prophets, seers, revelators and "special witnesses of Jesus Christ."
Smith never hinted that the first vision was too sacred to be kept secret and Nibley knew it. He offers no valid data to support his unsupported speculation.
Compare the 1832 story written by Joseph with the 1838 story considered the official one.
3) Member response to Joseph tried to join the Methodist Church after being told the other churches were an abomination.
LDS Believers sometimes speculate. . .
Since there was no correct church currently on the earth, and since Joseph had not yet officially established the LDS Church, maybe he wanted to be affiliated with some Christian organization. Joseph may have wanted the fellowship with members of the Methodist Church while not really accepting their doctrine. He was a member only briefly.
Reference: Actual discussion held in Sunday School class attended by several of the MormonThink contributors.
Smith contradicted himself regarding a fundamental claim. There is no data to support members' speculation. It is just as easy to believe, as some have suggested, that Smith was not honest, and God never told him that all other churches were an abomination; and to avoid joining with them.
Others also question why several members of Joseph's family would join protestant churches after God said they were an abomination and “all wrong.”
The November 2013 essay on the first vision was an attempt to defend the contradictions and perceived evolving stories circulated by Joseph Smith.
First Vision Was Incidental not Fundamental. It is clear that in the early days of the church, the leadership emphasized certain missionary tools: the Bible as a source for proof-texts, and angelic visits. Not on the first vision published in 1842. The First Vision was not well known among leaders or members as a teaching tool until the late 1800s. This contradicts statements by LDS leaders that the first vision is and has been the foundation of the LDS church.
Science of Human Recall. Decades of replicated research tells us that if we wait to record our experiences we forget, fill in the details with artificial information and otherwise confabulate, to create false memories. The false memories flow in one direction - to add to our personal stature and importance. There is no evidence that Smith enjoyed super human powers related to memory. (Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry L. Beyerstein, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2010, pp. 65-82)
Smith's Claims Raise Suspicion. Claims Joseph made have been researched and Joseph's story becomes more suspect with every new contradiction or elaboration discovered. Cumulatively they paint a story that undercuts the official Mormon story.
First Vision Stories Appear to Contradict Other Versions and Evolve. If Joseph reported different ages and dates for his vision experience as an error of memory; and maybe backdated the revival issues to make the circumstances surrounding his vision sound more meaningful and impressive. This still does not adequately explain all of the contradictions and evidence of evolving stories.
Christ, An Angel, Many Angels, God, God and Christ. Elder Oaks suggested that Smith related first vision details depending upon his audience. This will not do. To tell one audience that he only saw Jesus, and another audience that only angels appeared; and a different audience that God the Father, Jesus, and angels appeared, and a host of other contradictions is invites skepticism instead of faith.
First Vision as Teaching Tool Defining God and Jesus as Separate, Anthropomorphic Beings. A fundamental Mormon doctrine is that the first vision established for certain that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings. It does not fit then, that Smith would leave this important fact out of his first story, and dictate this fundamental fact to one scribe but not to another one.
Joseph Was Afraid to Share the Truth God Commanded Him to Share. Some members have suggested Joseph was afraid to tell people that Heavenly Father and Jesus were separate entities. This is inconsistent with D&C 60:2, a revelation to Smith about courage to preach the truth.
But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine danger is kindled against them.
Angel Nephi / Moroni as First Vision Angelic Visitor. There is no evidence that Joseph told anyone before about 1835, including his family, about the first vision story we know today. There is evidence that he told many about the Angel Moroni visit, and it often seems conflated with, or a substitution of, the first vision story we know today. It is confusing and suspicious that it was not mentioned in either the History of the Church written in 1835 by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith (Messenger and Advocate Vol 1) or by Joseph's own mother, Lucy Mack Smith, in the original version of her biographical sketch of Joseph . And in those accounts (6 of them) Nephi is declared to be the angelic visitor who told Smith about plates of gold.
"Letter III" (December 1834) to WW Phelps, Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp 41-42 http://www.centerplace.org/history/ma/v1n03.htm, and "Letter No. 4," Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1 No. 5, p 65 http://www.centerplace.org/history/ma/v1n05.htm)
Lucy's Book, Chapt. 3. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=9209 Search on that page for the phrase "but what was my joy" and you will see Lucy's description of Joseph's "first vision" (which might be a mashup of the first vision and Moroni's visit because she says, "But what was my joy and astonishment to hear my own son though a boy of 14 declare that he had been visited by an angel from Heaven..."
Accounts Written Closer to the Event are Most Accurate. The 1832 version, written by himself, is likely more accurate than a later version (1838), written by a scribe, according to the science. In addition, if Smith “imagined” an inflated version of his original vision evidence tells us that he likely confabulated. This appears to be exactly what happened.
God, Jesus, and Revivals. To offer another insight, it is strange that Joseph could recall the precise date of the first visit by Moroni (September 21, 1823), yet could not recall the date of his vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ; nor could he remember the date of religious excitement in his community.
Motivation for Evolving and Contradictory Versions. One of the best critical summaries and perhaps most plausible explanations for the various issues surrounding Joseph's First Vision, can be found in the last chapter of former LDS Church Education System teacher Grant Palmer's book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins. After presenting an impressive series of well-documented arguments against the traditional version we've all been taught in the church, the author proposes a plausible explanation:
After a mass exodus of high-ranking church leaders including several apostles, all three special witnesses of the BOM and three of the eight witnesses to the BOM, Joseph took to reestablishing his authority. He made many changes to the church including changing the name of the church. He began by attacking those who were circulating unsavory "reports" regarding "the rise and progress of the Church", then told a revised and more impressive version of his epiphany.
He announced that his initial calling had not come from an angel in 1823, as he had said for over a decade, but from God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820. The earlier date established his mission independent of the troubling questions and former witnesses associated with the Book of Mormon. Like the priesthood restoration recitals, the first vision version of April 1838 added significant material that bolstered his authority during a time of crisis.
When missionaries teach investigators the first vision story, they are unaware of the contradictions and so are investigators unless they fact check.
The grandest, most impressive founding event of the LDS church ought to be clear, consistent and easier to defend. Instead the story and apologetic attempt to defend it is riddled with contradictions and holes. These only raise more serious questions.
Members try to answer investigators' questions about this event. The shallow, evasive explanations provided by church leaders and curriculum materials, leave them skeptical and unsatisfied, despite how often much they are encouraged to “just have faith.”
Essay - Joseph Smith Sabellianism and Mormon Belief
The link to the following essay by R. L. Pratt is an interesting read on how the Book of Mormon undermines the First-Vision. The essay summarizes the issues nicely, citing many LDS documents in support of its argument. Here are a few of the issues covered:
1) The Book of Mormon (1830) teaches that God the Father, and the Son Jesus Christ, are merely one-and-the-same person. Yet, had Joseph Smith's First Vision (1820) been a real event, he would have known without any doubt from his own personal experience, that the Father and the Son were two separate individual persons. Joseph never seemed to notice this contradiction. Why not?
This paper explains.
2) Sabellianism is a useful term when dealing with the Book of Mormon. That term simply refers to any theology which holds that the Father and the Son are one-and-the-same person. It is easy to distinguish Sabellianism from Trinitarianism, as this paper demonstrates.
3) Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Elohim was thought to be a name synonymous with Jehovah. But in 1916, Church authorities issued out a Doctrinal Exposition saying in effect that Elohim was actually an altogether different person; a higher-yet god.....a god above Jehovah! Thus, at the stroke of a pen, Elohim suddenly became the new Supreme Being. Why did Church authorities do this? What pressures drove them to undertake this rash act of theological revisionism?
4) Many people are not aware of just how the names of Elohim and Jehovah appeared in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. (Some Mormons are not even aware that in Hebrew, the first line of Genesis I contains the word "Elohim", i.e. "In the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth.")
Read this paper to learn a number of relevant facts about how these names occurred in the ancient scriptures according to modern day scholars.
5) It is preposterous, not to say repugnant, to imagine Jesus Christ being on the American continent slaying the wicked, while at the very same time he is in Jerusalem hanging on the cross, praying: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do!" Read the addendum to see how 3 Nephi presents this.
Joseph Smith Sabellianism and Mormon Belief (Please give the page a few seconds to load.)
(If the link will not load, you can access an archived backup essay here)
Challenge from a critic
The Baura Challenge
I, Baura Kale, will give $1000 (USD) to anyone who can show that Joseph Smith even CLAIMED that he saw God, the Father and Jesus Christ as separate personages when he was a teenager and that they told him to join none of the then-existing churches. Note that I'm not asking that anyone prove that the First Vision actually happened, just that JS CLAIMED that it happened.
The kicker is that I will only accept sources that were in existence BEFORE 1835. With all the newspaper accounts, Church publications (including a history of the beginnings of Mormonism written by Oliver Cowdery who was working in close association with JS), journals, letters, missionary pamphlets, broadsides etc. that were in print, all the sermons published and even books written about Mormonism, one of which included affidavits from dozens of JS's Palmyra neighbors, surely there MUST be some record of it in the pre-1835 documents. That's a full 14 years after it supposedly happened.
I will not accept what JS LATER claimed to have happened to him way back in 1820; I will not accept a "testimony" that the First Vision is true; I will not accept a remembrance from some Mormon in the 1890s saying he remembers JS talking about the FV back in 1834. I will only accept documentary evidence that was in existence before 1835. Find that and you get the thousand bucks.
Feel free to forward my challenge to any TBMs you might know. I've posted THE BAURA CHALLENGE many times here and have yet to have anyone come up with an attempt to meet it. Surely if JS told people and got in trouble for telling as it says in the PoGP there would be SOME record of it in the mountains of documents pertaining to early Mormonism pre 1835, right?
Remember: God the Father and Jesus Christ as separate personages appearing and telling teenage JS not to join any of the existing churches. Find ANY mention of that by ANYONE before 1835 and you get a cool thousand bucks. email@example.com
Editor comment: This challenge has been on the Internet for years and to our knowledge no one has attempted to claim it. He has actually upped the bounty since this was written to $2,000.
How do we know that it wasn't Satan (if he exists) that appeared to Joseph? Please read this insightful essay by Richard Packham to see how Satan can appear as a Heavenly Being as described by Joseph Smith: How can we know when information is from Satan?
First Vision Timeline
This website has a historical recap of the First Vision Timeline
Ending summary by critics
Mormon church leaders teach that Joseph had a vision in 1820 and that it has always been the central part of the LDS faith. It teaches a simple, plain truth that God the Father and Jesus Christ were separate beings. But this was not understood by church members during Smith's lifetime. And as indicated earlier leaders knew little if anything about the “official” account of the first vision story.
The church leaders and apologists accuse those who raise reasonable problems with the first vision stories of anti-Mormonism. The latest essay by the church leaders (November 2013) and other written church publications gloss over, ignore and otherwise offer evasive answers to legitimate questions about Smith's contradictions. Pointing them out does not make any one anti-anything, except anti-dishonest.
Joseph recounted how the visitation of the angel Moroni happened on September 21, 1823. A reasonable (not anti) question is, “How is it that JS could remember the precise date of the angel's visit in 1823, but could not remember the precise date of God's appearance to him in 1820”?
There are so many questions and problems surrounding Smith and his various stories about a first vision.
From all available lines of evidence, therefore, Joseph's 1838 official rendition of his First Vision story appears to be myth not history:
- There was no revival anywhere in the Palmyra-Manchester, New York area in 1820.
- The events as told by Joseph Smith will not fit into the time period between the 1824 revival and the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon.
- Joseph was welcomed, not persecuted by the Methodists.
- In his 1832 account Joseph said it was by personal Bible study that he determined all the churches were apostate, while in his 1838 account he said it "never entered into my heart that all were wrong."
- In his 1832 version Joseph claimed to see only a vision of Christ and in his 1835 version Joseph told of the visit of an angel, while in the 1838 story the message came from the Father and the Son.
- No one knew of today's version of the First Vision until after Joseph dictated it in 1838, and no published source mentions it until 1842 (Ibid., pp. 30ff).
The conflicts and contradictions brought to light by the preceding historical evidence demonstrate that the First Vision story, as presented by the Mormon church today, must be regarded as the invention of Joseph Smith's highly imaginative mind. The historical facts and Joseph's own words discredit it.
Adapted from Wesley Walters
Supporting the critics
Lucy Smith's writings
Supporting the church
Other LDS Sources
New Order Mormon Information on the First Vision (neutral)