Joseph Smith's changing view of God as seen in his First Vision accounts
(Outline of a lecture given at the Salt Lake City Library, Nov. 6, 2013, at 7:00 pm)
by Grant H. Palmer
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.