Joseph Smith and “The” “First” “Vision”

Was the first vision a “vision”? Was it the “first” one? Which one is “The” first vision? There are so many different accounts. The gospel topic essay mentions some of the main versions, but they also gloss over the differences and dismiss them all. The First Vision is a total misnomer and can be completely debunked with some simple reading and thinking. Something the church does not want members to do, they do everything they can to keep members from looking at the accounts. They first tried to hide them, and then they dismiss them by saying “we’ve always been honest and transparent about these accounts, and they all tell the same consistent story anyways, so don’t worry, trust us”.

The church will continue to bury honest discussions about "The" "First" "Vision" in dishonest apologetics. One version of Joseph Smiths first vision in stained glass. “Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in the Palmyra Temple, created by Tom Holdman.
The church will continue to bury honest discussions about “The” “First” “Vision” in dishonest apologetics. One version of Joseph Smith’s first vision as stained glass: “Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in the Palmyra Temple, created by Tom Holdman.

The canonized version of the story is that Joseph Smith “lacked wisdom” in which church was true, so he read James 1:5 and goes to ask God. He goes into the woods to pray out loud, and after being nearly overcome by some invisible devil, a pillar of light descends upon him. In this pillar of light, he sees two personages standing above him in the air. One of them, pointing to the other, says “This is my Beloved Son, hear him”. This was a visitation of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in person to the young Joseph Smith when several months before his 15th birthday. In recent lessons and talks, this proves the Godhead to be what Mormon doctrine explains it to be, it cements Joseph’s calling and is the primary content of the first discussion missionaries used to convert new members. But this isn’t the only story and all these points are contested by earlier written versions of the story. They differ in Joseph’s motivation to go pray, in who visits him, and what that may mean.

Church Finally Admits There Are Multiple First Vision Accounts

The church still today loves to minimize these differences whenever it is forced to discuss the fact that there are multiple versions. They like to sweep it under the rug and disingenuously claim they have never hidden the fact that there are different accounts at all. A recent article from Deseret news does this here, pointing out that the by far most familiar retelling is the canonized version… I wonder why this could be, it’s the only version the church wants us to know about! They were forced to admit the existence of these multiple accounts, but there was a day when they completely denied it all. This is all swept under the rug, because yesterday’s anti-mormon lies are today’s gospel topic essays!

Two accounts of the First Vision, which is when he prayed in a grove of trees about which church to join and Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, were published during Joseph’s lifetime. One, generally known today as Joseph Smith — History, was canonized as a part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880 and is, accordingly, by far the most familiar retelling among church members.

Two other accounts, recorded in Joseph’s earliest autobiography as well as in a later journal, were essentially lost and forgotten until the 1960s, when historians working for the LDS Church rediscovered them and very quickly published them. Since that time, these various narratives of the First Vision have been extensively discussed by Latter-day Saint leaders and scholars, not only in academic journals and books published by Brigham Young University and other church-affiliated presses but — beginning at least with James Allen’s April 1970 article on the subject in the Improvement Era — in the church’s official magazines.

They then mention only two other accounts, claiming they were “lost and forgotten until the 1960s when church histories working for the church rediscovered them and quickly published them”. Is this honest? Hardly. The historians they mention are the Tanners who got wind of an account and practically forced the church to admit it and then the church published it to avoid more scandal. The account was in fact cut out of Joseph’s journal and placed in the church’s safe by Joseph Fielding Smith. Apparently, he read the version and thought it was dangerous to the testimonies of the church so he hid it. The article and every time the church mentions the multiple different accounts of the first vision like to then point out that waaay back in 1970 there was that one article that talked about these (and summarily dismissed the differences too) so that proves that we’ve never hidden anything, ever.

They completely ignore that one of the first vision accounts was cut out of Joseph Smith’s journal and hidden in a safe for decades. This version of the first vision was not published until 1965. Presumably, this is why the church published an article in 1970 trying to diffuse the confusion as to why there was an earlier account of the first vision and why it was hidden. They also completely ignore and dismiss the contents and real differences in the multiple first visions. They want members to be appeased that yes, there are multiple accounts and we know about them. Experts have looked at them and we’ve all agreed that they don’t differ in any troubling ways, so no need to look. Just trust us because we’re as transparent as we know how to be, don’t research, and give brother Joseph a break. Don’t listen to those lazy learners who actually read things. Even the title of the Deseret news article quoted above is dismissive: “The Supposed Scandal of Multiple First Vision Accounts”. Well, let’s actually look at these accounts. Are they different? What do the differences mean? Are they significant?

So many first visions of Joseph Smith
So many first visions of Joseph Smith
Comparing early accounts of the first vision - chart by Richard P Howard
Comparing early accounts of the first vision – chart by Richard P Howard

The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail.

First Vision Accounts, Gospel Topic Essay

The Different Accounts Do Not Tell a Consistent Story

The accounts do not tell a “consistent story” because they literally evolve from Jesus and God being one being to Jesus and God being separate beings. They show that the mormon doctrine evolved as much as the stories. This doctrine evolution can also be seen in the changes to the Book of Mormon text which are explained away as clerical editorial and punctuation issues. The only consistent story would be Joseph Smith said he prayed and then he saw something. That is the length of the consistencies.

Earlier accounts don’t say that he saw two personages, though some say angels (plural), I think we can all agree that God the Father and God the Son are more than just angels. An early account even says he saw a salamander, so which is it? These are not consistent.

Earlier accounts state emphatically that Joseph had already decided by his biblical study that there were no true churches, while in the official version “it had never entered into [his] heart that all were wrong”. In other accounts, he’s simply seeking forgiveness of his sins, not which church to join. The later versions are written when it makes sense that he’s looking to “redefine” the origin story of the church and Joseph is needing to cement his own authority during the Kirkland bank scandal days and members are leaving the church, so it’s time for him to skip town (again).

The church likes to make much of the persecution Joseph and the church suffered because of this account. But there is no contemporary evidence that Joseph shared the story with anyone. He was persecuted for treasure digging and for his actions with women, his destroying a printing press, his stealing money via a fake bank, and his intentions to start a theocratic state.

“The” “First” “Vision”

“The” First vision has many accounts and different tellings. These differences are more than just minor details. The multiple accounts do not tell a story that is consistent with the dominant correlated church narrative. The consistent story that might tell is Joseph prayed and then he saw stuff. Accounts of visions were much more common in Joseph’s day, but the church likes to make a big deal that this happened to him, but it did seem to happen to many others around him. Was he being original or trying to stake his claim? He was in fact an expert at telling fanciful stories and getting others to believe them. He did this all growing up and was even paid money to do it as a treasure digger. Is this any different? But we can call it “The” first vision.

It’s called the “First” vision? It’s a wonder that it can be the first, because there are so many visions Joseph talked about, and we are to believe they are all telling one consistent story. But really it’s just the “first” version of a vision that the church decided to canonize. This was done much after Joseph Smith, in 1880, nearly 40 years after his death. What about the first time Joseph saw a vision of hidden treasure and had people digging for it? What about the visions he saw of the treasure slipping away beyond reach once the digging approached the treasure? Are these before the experience(s) of the “sacred” grove?

The First “Vision”? What is a vision? It’s something seen in a dream, trance, or ecstasy (especially a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation). So is a vision something we literally see? No. Lehi’s dream is also called a vision, as is much of Revelations and Isaiah. So how would the contents of the vision be something we can use to determine the very nature of God? We can’t. It’s just a vision, and depending on which version is true (if any), we can’t really learn too much other than what Joseph experienced. It’s not called the first visitation, or that one time Joseph spoke to God face-to-face. It’s called a vision, something that even in the church is accepted as something that didn’t take place in the real physical world.

So, was it a vision? Which one is the one? Was it first? We’ll never know because the church will continue to bury honest discussions about it in dishonest apologetics. Even though expert historians admit that the dominant church history narrative is not true. Don’t take my word for it, read the links below and decide for yourself!

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