The First Vision of Joseph Smith is told today as an original exact story detailing the unique experience that sets the foundation for Mormonism and the restoration movement. We’ve discussed that even though one version of the story is canonized in Joseph Smith History as the “official” version, there are multiple versions of the first vision. Multiple versions of the vision which show important differences and evolution in the story. The story was not actually part of the founding of the church but has been retrofitted into the story shared by missionaries all over the world.
According to the official first vision, there is much Mormon fanfare and celebration that Joseph Smith saw something in the sacred grove that no one else in history saw. “Oh, how lovely was the morning! Radiant beamed the sun above.” He saw God the Father and Jesus Christ! “While appeared two heav’nly beings, God the Father and the Son!” How unique an experience, right!?
The narrative continues to describe the persecution Joseph suffered for claiming to have seen God. But there is really no evidence for him sharing the story or for his persecution because of it.
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.Fawn Brodie
No Man Knows My History, p.24-25
Any persecution he faced was due to his treasure digging! He even was taken to court over it. Looking at the whole story, it seems undeniable to state that the first vision was an afterthought or at least a fish story that became more exaggerated with each telling since the first accounts detail angels and then seeing the Lord and then finally God the father and the Son.
James B. Allen, former BYU Professor and Assistant Church HistorianThere is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision…The fact 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 is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days.
Where did the first vision ideas and developments come from? The experience of seeing God as part of a personal conversion was actually fairly commonplace in New England and the upstate New York burned-over district of Joseph’s upbringing. Here are a few examples of strikingly similar “first visions”. All of which were reported widely and publicly before Joseph even put his to paper.
Other First Visions
Here are a few examples that Joseph likely would have heard of and could easily have been influenced by. He lived in the area and these experiences were published in newspapers and discussed by those seeking religious enlightenment. Many of the phrases could even be mistaken by members today to be part of Joseph’s famed First Vision. It might have been influenced by any number of these other recorded experiences which are presented in chronological order to when they were reported (and remember Joseph’s vision was NOT found to be reported anywhere at the time it reportedly happened).
Norris Stearns, 1815
Norris Stearns, in 1815 in Leyden, Massachusetts (90 miles from Sharon, Vermont, the birthplace of Joseph Smith in 1805), claimed he saw a vision. In his theophany, he saw light “gradually increased” until it was “above the brightness of the sun” and then he “saw two spirits… One was God my maker, almost in bodily shape like a man… below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man.” The experience is from an illiterate youth, claiming to be a prophet of God.
The story is more similar to the 1838 version than what Joseph Smith first wrote in 1832. Borrowing someone else’s experience and making it his own is the best explanation of why Joseph Smith’s 1832 version is so different from his 1838 version.
At length, as I lay apparently upon the brink of eternal woe, seeing nothing but death before me, suddenly there came a sweet flow of the love of God to my soul, which gradually increased. At the same time, there appeared a small gleam of light in the room, above the brightness of the sun, then at his meridian, which grew brighter and brighter: As this light and love increased, my sins began to separate, and the Mountain removed towards the east. At length, being in an ecstasy of joy, I turned to the other side of the bed, (whether in the body or out I cannot tell, God knoweth) there 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
The Religious Experience of Norris Stearns Written by Divine Command, page 12
Elias Smith, 1816
Elias Smith, went to the woods too, but not intending to pray, he ended up falling under a log and then being stuck had an experience seeing light from heaven and the throne of God and the Lamb.
Not long after these things passed through my mind, I went into the woods one morning after a stick of timber; after taking it on my shoulder to bring it to the house, as I walked along on large log that lay above the snow, my foot slipped and I fell partly under the log, the timber fell one end on the log and the other on the snow, and held me, as that I found it difficult at first to rise from the situation I was then in. While in this situation, a light appeared to shine from heaven, not only into my head, but into my heart. This was something very strange to me, and what I had never experienced before. My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb, and while thus gloriously led, what appeared to my understanding was expressed in Rev. xiv. 1. “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.” 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. My mind was calm and at peace with God through the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. The view of the Lamb on mount Sion gave my joy unspeakable and full of glory. It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation, as every thing earthly was gone from me for some time.Elias Smith
The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travel, and Sufferings of Elias Smith, pp.58-59
Charles Finney, 1821
Charles Grandison Finney claimed a similar experience of going to the woods to pray. He states“I turned and bent my course toward the woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayers to God…I crept into this place and knelt down for prayer.” But as he attempts to pray he heard a nearby rustling in the leaves, and is suddenly dumb with a “binding upon my soul” and “a great sinking and discouragement came over me”. Then he remembers a scripture stating “seek and find me”, very similar to the “ask and it shall be given” of James 1:5 and he pledges his heart to God. He doesn’t report having seen God, but he does hear his voice, and the build-up and drama regarding hearing a noise and having a feeling like a binding on his soul are very similar to that of Joseph Smith’s official account.
This event occurred in Adams, New York, around 100 miles around Lake Ontario from Palmyra and Hill Cumorah. Charles Finney later became a renowned Presbyterian minister and leader in the Second Great Awakening. He is also a young son in a farming family of the area and born in 1792 and so was only nine years older than Joseph. He was best known as a passionate revivalist preacher from 1825 to 1835 in the Burned-over District in Upstate New York, so potentially Joseph would have heard him preach and he may have shared his conversion story over the pulpit.
North of the village, and over a hill, lay a piece of woods, in which I was in the almost daily habit of walking, more or less, when it was pleasant weather. It was now October, and the time was past for my frequent walks there. Nevertheless, instead of going to the office, I turned and bent my course toward the woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.
But still my pride must show itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. Yet probably there was not a person on earth that would have suspected such a thing, had he seen me going. But so great was my pride, and so much was I possessed with the fear of man, that I recollect that I skulked along under the fence, till I got so far out of sight that no one from the village could see me. I then penetrated into the woods, I should think, a quarter of a mile, went over on the other side of the hill, and found a place where some large trees had fallen across each other, leaving an open place between. There I saw I could make a kind of closet. I crept into this place and knelt down for prayer. As I turned to go up into the woods, I recollect to have said, “I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there.” I recollect repeating this as I went up: ;”I will give my heart to God before I ever come down again.”
But when I attempted to pray I found that my heart would not pray. I had supposed that if I could only be where I could speak aloud, without being overheard, I could pray freely. But lo! when I came to try, I was dumb; that is, I had nothing to say to God; or at least I could say but a few words, and those without heart. In attempting to pray I would hear a rustling in the leaves, as I thought, and would stop and look up to see if somebody were not coming. This I did several times.
Finally I found myself verging fast to despair. I said to myself, “I cannot pray. My heart is dead to God, and will not pray.” I then reproached myself for having promised to give my heart to God before I left the woods. When I came to try, I found I could not give my heart to God. My inward soul hung back, and there was no going out of my heart to God. I began to feel deeply that it was too late; that it must be that I was given up of God and was past hope.
The thought was pressing me of the rashness of my promise, that I would give my heart to God that day or die in the attempt. It seemed to me as if that was binding upon my soul; and yet I was going to break my vow. A great sinking and discouragement came over me, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.
Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. “What!” I said, “such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!” The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.
Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: “Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God’s veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God’s word, and God’s voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, “Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me.Charles G. Finney
Memoirs of Revival of Religion, Ch. 2
Asa Wild, 1823
Asa Wild also has a vision and revelation in New York in 1823 in which he says God visited him and told him that “every denomination of professing Christians had become extremely corrupt”. This experience was publicized in multiple papers of the time.
Remarkable Vision and Revelation: as seen and received by Asa Wild, of Amsterdam, (N. Y.)
Having a number of months enjoyed an unusual degree of the light of God’s countenance, and having been much favoured of the Lord in many respects, and after having enjoyed the sweetest, and most ravishing communions with Him; the Lord in his boundless goodness was pleased to communicate the following Revelation, having in the first place presented me with a very glorious Vision, in which I saw the same things:
In the first place I observe that my mind had been brought into the most profound stillness, and awe; realizing in a remarkable manner the majesty, greatness and glory, of that Being before whom all nations are as the drop of the bucket. It seemed as if my mind, though active in its very nature, had lost all its activity, and was struck motionless, as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah. He then spake to the following ourport; and in such a manner as I could not describe if I should attempt. — He told me that the Millennium state of the world is about to take place; that in seven years literally, there would scarce a sinner be found on earth; that the earth itself, as well as the souls and bodies of its inhabitants, should be redeemed, as before the fall, and become as the garden of Eden. He told me that all of the most dreadful and terrible judgments spoken in the blessed scriptures were to be executed within that time, that more than two thirds of the inhabitants of the world would be destroyed by these judgments; some of which are the following — wars, massacres, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, civil, political and ecclesiastical commotions; and above all, various and dreadful judgments executed immediately by God, through the instrumentality of the Ministers of the Millennial dispensation which is to exceed in glory every other dispensation; a short description of which may be seen in the last chapter of Isaiah, and in other places. He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt; many of which had never had any true faith at all; but are guided only by depraved reason, refusing the teaching of the spirit [illegible lines]… which alone can teach us the true meaning [illegible lines]… He told me further, that he had raised up, and was now raising up, that class of persons signified by the angel mentioned by the Revelator XIV. 6, 7, which flew in the midst of heaven; having the everlasting gospel to preach, that these persons are of an inferior [social] class, and small learning; that they were rejected by every denomination as a body; but soon, God will open their way, by miracles, judgments, &c. that they will have higher authority, greater power, superior inspiration, and a greater degree of holiness than was ever experienced before [illegible lines] … divine grace and glory
Furthermore he said that all the different denominations of professing christians constituted the New Testament Babylon; and that he should deal with them according to what is written of IT, in the book of Revelation: that he is about to call out all his sincere children who are mourning in Zion, from oppression and tyranny of the mother of harlots; and that the severest judgments will be inflicted on the professors of religion; which will immediately commence in Amsterdam, and has already commenced in different parts of the world, and even in this country. And though their operations at first are gradual, and under cover, yet it will soon be generally seen that it is the immediate execution of divine vengeance upon an ungodly world.
Much more the Lord revealed, but forbids my relating it in this way. But this, I have written and published, by the express and immediate command of God: the truth and reality of which, I know with the most absolute certainty. — Though I have ever been the most backward to believe things of this nature; having been brought up in the Calvinistic system, and having had a thorough understanding of the same, and was fully established in the belief of it for several years after I experienced the love of God in my heart: but finding the Calvinists did not understand the glorious depths of holiness, and conformity to the divine character in heart and practice, which I saw was our privilege and duty I joined the Methodist Church, which I found had much clearer and more scriptural views on these and some other points than the Calvinists; though I soon saw that they as a body, were very corrupt, having departed much from their primitive purity and holiness. I also saw that their first founders did not travel into all that was their privilege; and that vastly greater depths of holiness might have been experienced even by them. Yet I thank God for what light I have received through their instrumentality, but know that much greater and more glorious light is about to burst upon the world.”Asa Wild, 1823
Amsterdam, October, 1823.
Prognostication of Asa Wild
There are multiple other stories with certain similarities, we have Solomon Chamberlin who visited the Smith home and shared his own story which was similar to Joseph’s. There are also similar stories from Billy Hibbard and John S Thompson.
Joseph Smith, 1820? 1832? 1838? 1842?
The alleged vision occurred in the spring of 1820, but the official version was not published until 1838, eighteen years later. But there are other versions in 1832 (twelve years after), two in 1835 (15 years after), the official version of 1838, and then another in 1842 (twenty-two years after).
And so on. Joseph Smith was a sponge and an adept remixer. At first, Joseph seems original, but looking deeper it’s hard to find many original thoughts from Joseph, even in the first vision. The fact that the vision accounts from Joseph that we do have develop into the official story over decades and then aren’t even known among the church members until decades more, the fact that there are very similar first vision accounts actually published in the same time period by others (and not Joseph Smith), strongly suggests that the experience was not real but constructed retroactively. It was introduced late in the founding of the church and was not the catalyst the church teaches it was. It doesn’t have the theological significance Mormon leaders and scholars want to give it, which includes clarifying the nature of the Godhead for Mormons and the authority and calling of Joseph Smith. The pillar the church props itself on, namely the first vision, is no foundation to stand on and as Gordon B Hinckley said, without the first vision the whole church crumbles and the work is a fraud!
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.Gordon B. Hinckley
Many First Visions, But None for Joseph Smith
So, what’s the point? These types of visions were commonly shared events in the area and time that Joseph grew up. There were many visions shared and published.
Joseph’s vision was not shared or published until many years later (10-18 years depending on the version), his story changed over time if we compare the different versions of the story, and the vision he did write about is closely modeled after these other visions he would have heard about before recording his own. Did Joseph have a first vision? Did he share it with anyone at the time? There is no evidence to show that he did. Did these other visions give him the idea, concept, and even wording? The way the first vision is revered today, it’s made to be unique and extremely significant/important to the world and to every member’s individual testimony. President Hinckley even said that if the vision didn’t happen, then “this work is a fraud”.
Some suggest that they were common then because God was restoring the Gospel, suggesting that Norris Stearns and/or Charles Finney were potential “leads” for Him to call as a prophet and restore his church, but they just didn’t pan out or listen to him enough. Or that they were preparing the way for Joseph? Or some other apologetic nonsense. But, there are piles of evidence showing Joseph’s vision didn’t really happen, that Joseph was influenced by other contemporary visions, and retrofit his story to reestablish authority over his church. What is only the conclusion that reconciles us with the facts of history?
- Joseph Smith and “The” “First” “Vision”
- Misleading Mormon Thoughts On The First Vision Since 1970
- Church as transparent as it knows how to be
- Hinckley ‘That’s where we fall’
- Mormon Binary Thinking and The Great Sham