Today’s church narrative tells the story of a young rambunctious yet spiritual lad of 14 who is stressed about which church to join and is absorbed in the words of the Bible. He finds the passage that if he lacks wisdom, he should pray (James 1:5). He resolves to pray and the heavens are opened. He sees God the Father and Jesus Christ, as two beings in a pillar of light. He is taught many things and when he asks which church to join, is told to join none of them. Joseph is later visited by angels and taken to the Gold Plates, which he translates into the Book of Mormon. He organizes (or restores) the True Church of God on earth and becomes the prophet of God on earth, like a modern-day Moses or Abraham. As he matures in life he is persecuted for claiming visions from God and angels until he is eventually martyred and the church migrates further west for safety from religious persecution and establishes Utah settlements.
How does this white-washed narrative stand up to examination and comparison to contemporary documents and real history rather than a correlated narrative the church has created for the specific purpose (not of telling the truth, but) of promoting faith in the church.
The church claims that the First Vision is the cornerstone to the foundation of the church and that without it the church is a sham. Joseph’s own mother, in her memoirs, does not even mention the first vision. Apostles later inserted the official version into her book to correct this glaring omission. Is this a simple oversight?
Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches of Joseph
Can we trust what Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith says in her memoirs? According to the church historians who work with the Joseph Smith Paper’s project, she is a trustworthy and invaluable resource.
Her narrative history of Smith family, published as Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, 1853, has been an invaluable resource for study of JS and early church.Biography: Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith Papers
She includes some surprising notes about Joseph. For example, she states that at 18 years old, Joseph “had never read the Bible through in his life”.
1 presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth all seated in a circle father mother sons and daughters and giving the most profound attention to a boy eighteen years of age who had never read the Bible through in his life…
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode ; their cities, their buildings, with every particular ; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the prophet, and his progenitors for many generations, by Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet, 1853, Page 84
Lucy Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.’s own mother states that as an eighteen-year-old, he began telling the family about his visions and revelations. She considers this remarkable because he “had never read the Bible through in his life”. But, telling stories as an eighteen-year-old is quite different than the official first vision stories the church narrative claims that he told his family immediately about his visions when they occurred as a fourteen-year-old. This seems like a very large part of the story of his upbringing that if we look closely, is completely skipped in his mother’s version.
She also relates stories of Joseph being very imaginative and entertaining the whole family with stories of the native Americans as if he’d lived among them. Mormons revere “Mother Smith” as she’s fondly called as she was the founder’s own mother and followed him in his religious endeavors (as did the whole family).
First Vision as Essential Cornerstone
What do we learn from Lucy Mack Smith about Joseph’s early stories and experiences that the church declares essential to the faith today? Specifically, what does Joseph’s mother say about the First Vision? For example here is an emphatic statement from President Gordon B. Hinckley referring to the first vision as essential and as a cornerstone of the faith. Hinckley even lists this first vision as more essential than the Book of Mormon, it’s only second to Jesus himself.
We have basic cornerstones on which this great latter-day Church has been established by the Lord and built, “fitly framed together.”
They are absolutely fundamental to this work—the very foundation, anchors on which it stands. I should like to speak briefly of these four essential cornerstones which anchor The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I mention first the chief cornerstone, whom we recognize and honor as the Lord Jesus Christ. The second is the vision given the Prophet Joseph Smith when the Father and the Son appeared to him. The third is the Book of Mormon, which speaks as a voice from the dust with the words of ancient prophets declaring the divinity and reality of the Savior of mankind. The fourth is the priesthood with all of its powers and authority, whereby men act in the name of God in administering the affairs of His kingdom….
The second cornerstone is the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The year was 1820; the season, spring. The boy with questions walked into the grove of his father’s farm. There, finding himself alone, he pleaded in prayer for that wisdom which James promised would be given liberally to those who ask of God in faith. There, in circumstances which he has described in much detail, he beheld the Father and the Son, the great God of the universe and the risen Lord, both of whom spoke to him.
This transcendent experience opened the marvelous work of restoration. It lifted the curtain on the long-promised dispensation of the fulness of times.
For more than a century and a half, enemies, critics, and some would-be scholars have worn out their lives trying to disprove the validity of that vision. Of course they cannot understand it. The things of God are understood by the Spirit of God. There had been nothing of comparable magnitude since the Son of God walked the earth in mortality. Without it as a foundation stone for our faith and organization, we have nothing. With it, we have everything.
Much has been written, much will be written, in an effort to explain it away. The finite mind cannot comprehend it. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit, experienced by countless numbers of people all through the years since it happened, bears witness that it is true, that it happened as Joseph Smith said it happened, that it was as real as the sunrise over Palmyra, that it is an essential foundation stone, a cornerstone, without which the Church could not be “fitly framed together.”President Gordon B. Hinckley, Four Cornerstones of Faith, First Presidency Message, February 2004
Today we have leaders and curriculum which makes the first vision story paramount. Missionaries memorize the passages from the canonized version of the story and include it in their first conversations with anyone who will listen. Multiple paintings and church movies have depicted the occurrence as if it were always a part of the church. The problem is, it wasn’t. Church leaders either don’t know or don’t want members to know that the story wasn’t really a part of the church’s founding story. It was added later. When the members joined in the first meeting of the church and it was officially established in 1830, no one had heard of the first vision. They want us to believe the church narrative has been fairly consistent and correctly portrays the events of the church being founded chronologically, or at the very least the events actually happened.
Lucy Mack Smith on the First Vision
In the same book Joseph’s mother, she doesn’t relate how she received the story of the first vision. The story doesn’t exist in her words, But it is inserted into the published book – it’s copied word for word from the official first vision story as found in the Times and Seasons. It even shows the reference to the Times and Seasons when Orson Pratt had the book published in England. It states that the “following extract from [Joseph’s] history will show, more clearly than I can express, the state of his feelings, and the result of his reflections.” Though in no other place in her Biographical sketches does Lucy Mack Smith omit her own expressions and feelings in favor of an official version. This is a considerable quotation spanning 8 full pages to tell the official first vision story as well as the official angel visitation story, though here the angel is referenced as Nephi and not the accepted Moroni. Omitting the quoted sections, there are a couple paragraphs using Lucy’s own voice to introduce the quoted segments. We can see these did not origniate with her and were used to make it seem that she referenced the official First Vision account and even that she preferred it to anything she had to say. The truth is though, that she had nothing to say about it because she didn’t know anything about it – as in it didn’t happen in her version of the narrative.
While these things were going forward, Joseph’s mind became considerably troubled with regard to religion ; and the following extract from his history will show, more clearly than I can express, the state of his feelings, and the result of his reflections on this occasion : —
[Omitting here the multi-page direct quote from page 74 to 78 of the first vision story from the Times and Seasons Publication – which became (after editing) the canonized Joseph Smith History] Times and Seasons, vol, iii., p. 727. Supp to Mil. Star, vol. xiv, p, 2.
From this time until the twenty-first of September, 1823, Joseph continued, as usual, to labour with his father, and nothing during this interval occurred of very great importance — though he suffered, as one would naturally suppose, every kind of opposition and persecution from the different orders of religionists.
On the evening of the twenty-first of September, he retired to his bed in quite a serious and contemplative state of mind. He shortly betook himself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God, for a manifestation of his standing before him, and while thus engaged he received the following vision ; —
[Omitting here the multi-page direct quote from page 78 to 81 of Joseph’s angel visitation story from the Times and Seasons Publication – which, again, became (after editing) the canonized Joseph Smith History] Times and Seasons, vol, iii., p. 729. Supp to Mil. Star, vol. xiv, p, 4.
When the angel ascended the second time, he left Joseph overwhelmed with astonishment, yet gave him but a short time to contemplate the things which he had told him before he made his reappearance, ami rehearsed the same things over, adding a few words of caution and instruction, thus : that he must beware of covetousness, and he must not suppose the Record was to be brought forth with the view of getting gain, for this was not the case, but that it was to bring forth light and intelligence, which had for a long time been lost to the world ; and that when he went to get the plates, he must be on his guard, or his mind would be filled with darkness. The angel then told him to tell his father all which he had both seen and heard.Biographical sketches of Joseph Smith the prophet, and his progenitors for many generations, by Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet, 1853, Page 74-81
Orson Pratt was on a mission in England and printed this in Liverpool in 1853. Later when Brigham Young saw it he declared it to be unreliable and tried to have it destroyed! But again, today’s scholars with the Joseph Smith Papers project have praised Lucy’s work as an “invaluable resource”. In publishing the memoirs Orson noticed the omission of this important story and included the version he had access to so naysayers couldn’t point out that she hadn’t mentioned it. Believers now say she simply forgot about it, but also that the story is essential to Mormonism, so which is it: forgettable or essential? True or retroactively added.
Though the aging Lucy Smith stayed behind in the removal from Nauvoo, her family story remained of great interest to the Saints. Many times before that final public commentary, Lucy had responded to invitations to speak of her son Joseph’s early religious experiences. To save her lungs, she said, and at the invitation of the Twelve, she invited Martha Jane Knowlton Coray to record her memoirs. Lucy’s dictations during the winter of 1844–45 resulted what is now called the preliminary manuscript of her history.2 From this 214-page manuscript, Coray and her husband, Howard, one of the Prophet’s former scribes, trimmed perhaps 10 percent and added material from Joseph’s own history published not long before in the Times and Seasons.The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, By Glen M. Leonard,
Mormon writers have always depended on the book by Joseph Smith’s mother to prove that the First Vision actually occurred. Dr. Clandestine says that “when Lucy Mack Smith came to the early visions of her son Joseph Smith, she (or her ghost writers, Howard and Marthy Coray) simply quoted from the published version in the Times and Seasons” (Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Distorted View of Mormonism, p. 20). The fact that Mrs. Smith’s book used Joseph Smith’s official account of the First Vision has convinced many Mormons that she knew no other story. Wesley P. Walters, however, has recently examined a “preliminary draft” of Lucy Smith’s manuscript in the Church Historical Department. Instead of a vision of the Father and Son in the woods, Joseph Smith’s mother reports that it was an angel who appeared to Joseph Smith in his bedroom and told him all churches were wrong. We feel that this manuscript destroys the value of Lucy Smith’s book as evidence for the First Vision.Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? By Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Page 162-C
In her Preliminary Manuscript, Lucy Mack Smith actually does record the events of Joseph’s vision in her own words. This section is what is replaced by the official first vision accounts. Looking at the manuscript though, Joseph’s own mother and one of his closest and greatest supporters knew nothing of the first vision in her recollections, even after his death. In this space she does recount a vision that sounds like a combination of today’s accepted First Vision account and the angelic visitation to Joseph’s room by an angel (Moroni, or was it Nephi, at this point, it was still an unnamed or unspecified angel). Her account is as follows (as found in a footnote for a faithful unofficial church magazine article):
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 truths contained in scripture. Joseph never said many words upon any subject but always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature. After we ceased conversation, he went to bed and was pondering in his mind which of the churches was the true one. But he had not lain 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 inquiring in your mind which is the true church. There is not a true church on earth-no, not one-and has not been since Peter took the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood after the order of God into the kingdom of heaven. The churches that are now upon the earth are all man-made churches. There is a record for you, Joseph, but you cannot get it until you learn to keep the commandments of God, for it is not to get gain, but it is to bring forth that light and intelligence which has been long lost in the earth. Now, Joseph, beware or when you go to get the plates, your mind will be filled with darkness and all manner of evil will rush into your mind to prevent you from keeping the commandments of God. You must tell your father of this, for he will believe every word you say. The record is on a side of the hill of Cumorah, three miles from this place. Remove the grass and moss, and you will find the record under it, lying on four pillars of cement.’Joseph Smith’s First Vision From his Mother’s Perspective, By Scot and Maurine Proctor · April 17, 2017, Meridian Magazine – As referenced in a footnote.
So the section where Lucy Mack Smith discusses Joseph’s first visions and visitations. After a family discussion about the number of churches, Joseph goes to bed and an angel visits him in his room, tells him the churches are all false and man-made, and then tells him of a record on plates in the side of the Hill Cumorah which he should retrieve. This is so very different than what Elder Pratt inserts into the book!
No Contemporary Affects of the First Vision on the Smith Family
Had there been a first vision, Joseph and his family didn’t seem to heed the words of the Lord. There is not much contemporary mention or evidence of Joseph’s First Vision being a part of the story of Mormonism until years, no, multiple decades later. There is no mention of the first vision as is reported by the church’s correlated narrative today. The canonized story we have today was written twenty-two years after the memorable vision was to have taken place.
If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed inFawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, New York, 1957, pp. 24-25
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.
The contemporary record contains no mention of this first vision from himself, his family, his own mother who dictated a detailed history, any early church members, supporters, or detractors. The official story even claims that he was persecuted for sharing details of his vision. The first vision story was published in the Times and Seasons and then the Millenial Star, and then forgotten until decades later when it became more mainstream. See the timeline of the first vision to see how long it was from when it was published to when it became a core part of church narrrative.
So, not only does the contemporary record contain no mention of this “chief cornerstone” of the church foundation, but contemporary evidence suggests it didn’t happen either. For example, in the celebrated vision Joseph is told not to join any other churches because they are abominations to God. But in the contemporary record not only do his close family members join one of these churches, so does Joseph himself! If the First Vision had occurred as reported by Joseph and today’s church, one would have to expect him to follow this simple guidance directly from God. Years after the first vision though, his own mother and brothers join the Presbyterian church, and Joseph is not only involved with the Methodist congregation but he joins the Baptist denomination.
In 1820, when he was fourteen years old, Joseph was supposed to have experienced what came to be known as his “first” vision. Several years later, he dictated an account of the vision to one of his scribes, and it was subsequently published in the Times and Seasons (a Mormon periodical) in 1842…
In his narrative of the 1820 vision, Joseph maintained that the Lord had told him not to join any of the “sects,” for they were all an “abomination” to Him. If Joseph did have that vision, then his mother and the two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, apparently did not agree with the Lord; they not only join the Presbyterian Church, they remained active in it until–as the “session Records” of the church show–about September of the year 1928, when they began to “neglect worship and the sacreament of the Lord’s supper.”
If the Lord did tell Joseph that all the sects were an “abomination,” the rest of the family surely would have had reservations about joining an institution that was so harshly condemned in a divine visitation. The apparent disregard of these family members for the sentiments of the Lord is heightened by the fact that they remained active in the church until September of 1828 — a full year after Joseph supposedly received the gold plates that would bring the “true” church of God to the world. It is also curious that they remained active in one of the “sects” that, according to Joseph when he dictated his “history” several years later, so viciously “persecuted” him for his telling the story of the first vision. The facts, then, seem to indicate that Joseph did not convey to his family a divinely revealed message that would have inhibited them from joining the Presbyterian Church or from remaining members in it as long as they did.David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon, pages 28-29
So as the church stands firmly on the narrative of Joseph Smith’s first vision and states that without this story “we have nothing” and ‘the church could not be “fitly framed together,”‘ we have a serious gap from when the alleged vision occurred, no mention of the vision by his mother in her memoirs (though church leaders were quick to insert the official story so no one could say she “missed” it), and in fact she does detail that the first visitation Joseph has was after a family discussion about each church being false, and it’s an angel who appears. Then we have the evidence that the family continues to attend these false churches and join them after the alleged first vision, so they essentially disregard the counsel Joseph would have received directly from God in a vision. This all places serious doubt on the story of the first vision, which in retrospect seems to be reshaping the foundation of the church with faith-promoting lies (even if well-intentioned). As church leaders today have stated multiple times, if the first vision isn’t real, the church becomes much less valid. The church has been involved in multiple coverups in order to maintain the narrative of the first vision. From Joseph Fielding Smith hiding the strange version of the story from the world, to Orson Pratt inserting it into Lucy’s book, these are all important facts to consider carefully as we decide if we can choose to believe the narrative the church peddles, and as we decide if knowing the truth about the church.
Was the first vision story important to your testimony, faith, and conviction in the truthfulness of the church? Did you ever know that parts of the story had been hidden? Did you know that Joseph’s mother said nothing about the first vision? That the first vision took decades to write down and then decades more to be accepted into church history? Is it surprising that it would be considered an essential cornerstone of the church today even though it has all the issues and compelling reasons to doubt the story? Join the other brave ex-Mormons and share the story of your own Mormon faith deconstruction at wasmormon.org!
- Timeline of the First Vision Story and Development
- Joseph Smith and “The” “First” “Vision”