The First Vision is a foundational event in the history and theology of the Church. It refers to an experience Joseph Smith claimed to have had as a young man. In the spring of 1820, he seeks guidance and religious truth. In later accounts, he described going into a grove of trees and praying to know which church to join. He reported experiencing a vision in which he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. During this vision, Joseph Smith claimed to have been told not to join any existing church as they were all in error, and that through him, a restoration of the true gospel and church would take place. This event marked the beginning of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and his eventual role in founding the LDS Church.
The details of the First Vision were recorded in different accounts provided by Joseph Smith himself and others close to him. These accounts vary, such as the number of beings appearing to him and the specific wording of their message, and the accounts are all at least a decade after the alleged vision. These differing accounts have been the subject of scholarly study and discussion among historians.
Since the 1880s, when one account was canonized, the event has been emphasized in Church teachings, and it continues to be revered by members of the faith as a pivotal moment in the history of the church. What does it mean that the story wasn’t widely known for nearly a full lifetime? The church didn’t teach about this first vision until many years had passed and no one even knew about the vision for at least a decade, and not until the church had already been established. Is it revisionist history or untold personal experience? Was it original? Were there outside influences and reasons the story of the vision was shared? Was the vision simply to give credence to Joseph’s self-proclaimed prophetic calling?
All good questions. Looking at the timeline can shine a pillar of light on the subject.
Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son…
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”First Vision Accounts, Gospel Topic Essay
So the church agrees that an argument against the vision is that Joseph embellishes his account. They follow quickly with an apologetic explanation of how Joseph referencing “the Lord” in his first account actually IS referencing two personages… even though that’s not what it says. This feels like an exercise in doublethink and requires some real mental gymnastics to get behind. Yes, the phrasing could mean two Lords, but it’s not written in a way to distinguish. The sermons and even the early versions of the Book of Mormon project a view of the Godhead as the Trinity. Changes to the Book of Mormon and Lectures on Faith and “revlations” all change or show evidence that Joseph’s idea of the Godhead went from a singular person to two: God the Father and God the Son being different and distinct beings. They don’t want readers to realize that not just the first vision story, but also the doctrine of the Godhead changed over time. How could the early doctrine be worded in every instance to show that the Father and the Son were one and the same if Joseph saw them both in his very first vision?
The essay attempts to account for the fact that just Joseph embellished the story, but it doesn’t address the fact that The Church also embellishes the first vision account over time. No one seems to have heard of the vision and there are virtually no references to it for a long time. There are no official references in sermons by Joseph during his presidency, no references during Brigham Young’s presidency, and finally near the end of John Taylor’s presidency the Joseph Smith History is canonized and we begin seeing reference to the first vision as the spark that leads to the foundation (or restoration) of the church. See the evidence in this timeline:
- 1815 – Norris Stearns publishes a very similar vision in a pamphlet claiming to be called as a prophet as a teenage boy. Less than 100 miles from Joseph Smith’s birthplace.
- 1820 – Charles Finney publishes another similar first vision account. Less than 100 miles from Hill Cumorah.
- 1820 – A day in the spring – Alleged time for the first vision.
- 1829 – The Smith family wrote many letters to family members promoting the Book of Mormon, yet none mentioned a first vision or visitation from God.
- 1832 – First-time pen was set to paper to recount the story, though it was never shared and then was hidden because it was strange until nearly forcibly exposed by the Tanners.
- 1832 – Delusions, Analysis of Book of Mormon, by Alexander Campbell, did not mention or criticize Smith’s vision.
- 1834 – Mormonism Unvailed, a comprehensive anti-Mormon manifesto containing numerous sworn affidavits from Smith’s neighbors and associates is published. It contains no mention of any vision.
- 1835 – Joseph Smith worked directly with Oliver Cowdery to produce an account of early church beginnings for publication in the Messenger and Advocate paper, yet it too contained no mention of any vision.
- 1835 – The earliest version of the D&C contains the Lectures of Faith, which described God as a spirit only, and no mention of Joseph having seen either God or Jesus.
- 1835 – The first edition Book of Mormon included a decidedly trinitarian view of God, which directly conflicts with God and Jesus appearing in separate corporeal forms. The 1835 Book of Mormon was edited to separate God and Jesus, arguably for this reason.
- 1835 – Joseph tells of his “first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old” to Erastus Holmes and records it in his diary.
- 1837 – Parley P. Pratt published A Voice of Warning, a 200-page missionary pamphlet to promote the restoration and communicate the most important aspects of Mormonism, it failed to mention a vision.
- 1838 – Joseph gives an account of the First Vision in Manuscript History of the Church. This version is later canonized in Joseph Smith History as the official account (but not until 1880).
- 1840 – Orson Pratt, on his mission, published a 32 page pamphlet in Edinburgh, Scotland called A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. It is the first published account of the first vision, but not widely circulated. Two personages mentioned.
- 1842 – Orson Hyde, on his mission, published a pamphlet in Frankfurt, Germany called Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry out of the Wilderness). It is mainly a translation of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account.
- 1842 – The Wentworth Letter is sent which contains an account of the first vision.
- 1842 – The Times and Seasons publishes the 1838 first vision account. This is later republished in the Millenial Star and other places (and inserted into Lucy Mack Smith’s book).
- 1844 – Joseph Smith is killed in Carthage Jail after destroying the printing press responsible for the Nauvoo Expositor.
- 1853 – Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, published Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith. This is where we first learn of Joseph Smith’s heroic childhood leg operation, Joseph Senior’s 7 visions, and 2 of her own. There was no mention of any first vision of Joseph Smith. This absence is troubling when contrasted with Lucy’s lengthy stories about the angel and the plates. Recognizing the omission, Orson Pratt later places the canonized vision story into her book word for word. The manuscript for this publication only mentions an angelic visitation in his room which resembles the official visit of Moroni.
- 1854 – A Voice of Warning, Parley P. Pratt, 4th edition, contained no mention of the First Vision.
- 1855 – Brigham Young mentions that “the Lord sent forth His angel to reveal the truths of heaven” and does not mention the first vision.
- 1855 – Wilford Woodruff recounts the gospel was restored by “the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven”.
- 1863 – Heber C Kimball states “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”
- 1863 – John Taylor asks “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…”
- 1863 – Georga A Smith recounts a first vision story but only mentions a “ministration of angels” and “the holy angel appeared”.
- 1874 – Orson Pratt recalls “two glorious personages standing before him in the midst of this light. One of these personages, pointing to the other, said – ‘Behold my beloved Son, hear ye him.'”. This is the first time a church leader mentions to a congregation the first vision and the description includes two personages in the vision as God the Father and His Son.
- 1877 – Brigham Young dies.
- 1879 – John Taylor recalls “None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it.”
- 1879 – John Taylor recalls later the same year a first vision story which changes angels he references earlier in the year to God the Father and the Son: “the Lord revealed himself to him together with his Son Jesus, and, pointing to the latter, said: ‘This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!'”
- 1880 – 1838 version canonized in scripture as part of The Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price (October 10, 1880). Same date John Taylor is sustained as president of the church.
- 1930-1935 – The 1832 account of the first vision is removed (excised) from the JS letterbook and placed in a safe, presumably by Joseph Fielding Smith.
- 1964 – First time the 1832 account is publicly available.
- 1965 – 1832 account reattached (taped) into the letterbook.
- 1970 – First time the church published anything admitting to multiple accounts of the First Vision, in a single apologetic article in the Ensign.
- 2002 – President Hinckley proclaims “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 … upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church”
- 2008 – Joseph Smith Papers Project published Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 containing the 1832 first vision account.
- 2015 – First Vision Gospel Topic Essay published.
- 2018 – Ballard claims the church has never hidden anything, they are as transparent as they know how to be, his only proof is referencing an article from 50 years ago.
There were multiple contemporary accounts of other people having visions very similar to Joseph Smith’s reported First Vision. These accounts were widely known and published. These examples all occurred in the vicinity of Joseph Smith’s upbringing and it is likely he would have heard of them. Many, many contemporary records do not mention the first vision which do mention all of the other events of Joseph’s early life.
There are accounts of the “visitations” Joseph had. An angel came to tell him about the gold plates for example. These stories have been a part of the story from the beginning, in contrast to the first vision, which was not.
The first vision story was virtually non-existent in the early church. The first time it was written was 1832, twelve years after it is reported to have happened. This account differs from the official version in that Joseph doesn’t see God and Jesus, he was 16 years old and he had already concluded that there was no true church on the face of the earth. This account was forgotten, and then later hidden. It was found by church leaders and removed from a journal and hidden away for decades because it was strange and didn’t match the official version. It remained hidden until relentless historians exposed it.
Even after Joseph’s death, church leaders did not mention the visit of God and Jesus to Joseph for over 30 years. They did mention very similar accounts of the first vision consistently, but they all only referenced angelic messengers and some specifically point out that it was not God.
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 … upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this churchThe Marvelous Foundation of our Faith, Ensign, November 2002, p80
Gordon B Hinckley, Church President
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.
- Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? – Book that first published the 1832 first vision account.
- Mother Knows Best – Joseph Smith’s Mother on The First Vision
- Misleading Mormon Thoughts On The First Vision Since 1970
- Was it the Angel Moroni or Nephi? Both? Neither?
- Joseph Smith and “The” “First” “Vision”
- Other First Visions, Which are Not of This Fold