Last Update: 8/2013
Joseph Smith History: The First Vision
The First Vision as claimed by Joseph Smith is really the birth and foundation that Mormonism rests upon. A quick summary of the story is as follows: Due to all the religious excitement caused from the revivals in his area in 1820, a 14 year old Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray about which of all the denominations of churches was right. This is when Joseph Smith claims God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him and commanded him to join none of them because all the churches were wrong and their creeds were an abomination in God's sight.
Three years later in 1823, Joseph Smith is supposedly visited by the angel Moroni, who after visitations over the next few years, eventually led Joseph Smith to the location of the buried gold plates that contained the "Reformed Egyptian" writings of what would become the Book of Mormon.
The First Vision account told by Joseph Smith is a story that most LDS missionaries attempt to memorize so that they can tell it to prospective converts without even reading it. This makes the story all the more powerful as the missionaries communicate it as strong as they bear their testimonies. However, no matter how amazing this story sounds, it does not necessarily make it true. Below, I will examine the historical veracity of the First Vision evidences to verify that this was a real, actual event and not just an amazing story.
Former LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following regarding the importance of the First Vision: “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. ... Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life” ("What Are People Asking About Us?," Ensign, November 1998, pp. 70-71).
Hinckley also stated, "If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple" (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 1997, p. 227).
Hinckley also stated, “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [First] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens. I knew a so-called intellectual who said the Church was trapped by its own history. My response was that without that history we have nothing. The truth of that unique, singular, and remarkable event [The First Vision] is the pivotal substance of our faith” (Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith," Ensign, November 2002).
If the First Vision did not occur then the LDS church is a fraud according to prophet Gordon B. Hinckley (It's interesting that he does not present the vision as a certain historical event by saying "if" given he is a "prophet"). It does not matter if you still get a warm and fuzzy feeling or a spiritual witness that the church is true; if this First Vision did not happen, then the entire LDS church is false. Please take the time to read and study the evidence I present here, because your eternity is at stake.
There are many issues with the official version of the First Vision that I will cover below that will cast significant doubt as to whether the First Vision actually occurred.
Given the preeminent importance and focus in today's LDS church on the First Vision account, one would expect the Book of Commandments (now known as the Doctrine and Covenants), which was published in 1833, to contain Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision. However, it is not to be found within its pages. This is the single most important event within the church and is what every missionary recites to potential converts, so why would this be missing from the Book of Commandments? The importance placed on this crowning event within Mormonism suggests that it should be one of the very first writings necessary within the Book of Commandments. As you continue to read, I will attempt to cast some light onto why this First Vision account is distinctly missing.
The version that is canonized by the LDS church today is very different from the many versions (as many as 12 documented) that were told by Joseph Smith.Three of the most significant versions are easily comparable and even documented by the LDS church (1832 version in the Dec. 1984 Ensign; 1835 version from History of the Church, vol. 2 pg. 304, 312; 1842 canonized version in the History of Joseph Smith). These three are the 1832 handwritten version by Joseph Smith, the 1835 diary version, and today’s official version, which was published in 1842, a full 22 years after the account supposedly occurred. The 1832 version is the earliest known and is still a full 12 years after the account supposedly occurred.
Joseph Smith's 1832 Handwritten Version
The differences in the accounts are major which you should not expect with such a powerful claim to have been visited with and spoken to by God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Here are some points that are contradictory from each of the three versions. I will use the year to denote which version.
|First Vision Description||1832||1835||1842|
|Who appeared to Joseph||Jesus Christ only||Angels; One testifies of Jesus Christ||God the Father and Jesus Christ|
|Age at visitation||In his 16th year (15)||About 14 years old||In his 16th year (15)|
|Location of visitation||No mention||A silent grove||The woods|
|Revivals occurring||No mention||No mention||The revivals made Joseph curious as to which church was true|
|Joseph heard noises||No mention||Heard a noise behind him like someone walking towards him||No mention|
|Motivation for praying|
Did not pray as Joseph already
knew all the churches were wrong by searching the scriptures
|Prayed because he did not know who was right and who was wrong|
Prayed to know which church to join because at that time it had never entered his heart that all were wrong
|Seized by dark force||No mention||No mention|
Joseph was seized up by some power that had come over him
|Joseph had difficulty praying||No mention||Struggles to pray and after hearing the noises he is able to pray|
The dark force has an amazing force over him that it binds his tongue so that he could not speak
|Joseph's sins forgiven|
The Lord (Jesus) spoke to
Joseph and said his sins
|One of the angels told Joseph his sins were forgiven||No mention|
As you can see, there are many differences in the First Vision accounts given by Joseph Smith. Joseph does not consistently tell who, what, why, where or when surrounding the events of the First Vision accounts. These differences are defended by LDS apologists as being “complementary” to each other. I am sorry, but these are in no way complementary, but utterly contradictory. If you are visited by and communicate with God the Father and Jesus Christ, that would be burned into your memory and should have no issue at all remembering that both of them were a part of the vision no matter the circumstances surrounding future communication of the First Vision.
Another issue with regards to the validity of the First Vision has to do with the first “anti-Mormon” books, Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon, written in 1832 by Alexander Campbell and Mormonism Unvailed [sic], written in 1834 by E.D. Howe. These two books cover many of the issues and errors in the birth and early years of the LDS church and do not even mention the First Vision story, yet went into details on issues that would have been much less significant than the First Vision. The likely reason that it was not presented in these books is that the First Vision did not occur. The same failure to mention anything regarding the First Vision account could be said for other writings such as Mormon apostate John Corrill, who in 1839 published a history Mormonism and J.B. Turner, who in 1842 published Mormonism in All Ages.
Just to make sure you are getting an "objective" side on the matter, lifelong LDS church member, historian (LDS Assistant Church Historian), CES worker and BYU teacher James B. Allen in the Autumn of 1966 wrote and article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought entitled "The Significance of Joseph Smith's 'First Vision' in Mormon Thought" that covered some of the issues (pp. 29-45). He stated:
"According to Joseph Smith, he told the story of the vision immediately after it happened in the early spring of 1820. ... There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830's Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. ... Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision. ... 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 ... As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith's first vision in any published material in the 1830's. ... the general church membership did not receive information about the first vision until the 1840's... To summarize ... the story of Joseph Smith's first vision was not given general circulation in the 1830's. Neither Mormon nor non-Mormon publications made reference to it, and it is evident that the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it."
You may at this point be asking yourself: Well if an LDS Church Historian knows about all these issues with the First Vision and probably much more, why would they still continue to be a member of the LDS Church? You have to remember that someone like this is being paid by the LDS church (BYU) and has family, friends and colleagues who are all members of the church. If someone like this were to leave, they would not only lose their job or pension, but likely their friends, colleagues and maybe their family. They would be branded as a traitor by the church, ruining their personal and professional reputation. They may even have to leave the city and everything they know to start over. This is not all though as any family they have employed by the church would also be at risk of losing their careers as well because of the actions of their family member. There is a huge incentive for people who know the truth to stay in the church because many people faced with those consequences do chose to stay.
Grant Palmer points out in his book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins that "we might expect that after the church's organization in early 1830, Joseph would cite the first vision as the source of his call since it came directly from Jesus Christ. He does not. Even in his 1832 and 1835 narratives, he does not yet mention the appearance of God the Father, his divine commission to open the last dispensation, or his appointment as the prophet of the Restoration. These omissions are peculiar. In 1832 Joseph is privately chronicling his experiences in his own journal. After twelve years of reflection, to then omit the role his 1820 vision played in the Restoration--to see it as a personal conversion [seeking personal forgiveness of sins as was common with Protestant contemporaries] rather than as the beginning of a new dispensation--suggests that when he rewrote his history in 1838, he reinterpreted his experience to satisfy institutional needs" (Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, p. 240).
Evidence Proving the 1820 revival was really 1824-25
I would also highly recommend reading an excerpt from a book written by James R. White called Letters to a Mormon Elder that discusses many of the irreconcilable issues surrounding the 1820 date given for the First Vision (pp. 88-106). There is verifiable and factual evidence presented here in historical documents that prove the revivals Joseph Smith claims took place in 1819-20, which Smith describes perfectly, actually took place in the fall off 1824 through the early spring of 1825. You can read this chapter excerpt by selecting letter #6 “Latter-day Revelation and the First Vision,” then begin reading at the “First Vision” title about 1/3 of the way down the page. This book is in no way “anti-Mormon” as it mainly consists of letters to a Mormon Elder that are objective and respectful in discussing the issues and difficulties with Mormon doctrines and what the bible has to say regarding these doctrines.
Some of his examples include:
1. In the beginning of Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision in the Pearl of Great Price, he says, “in about four years after my father's arrival in Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester in the same county of Ontario.” Joseph also included his sister Lucy, who was born in Palmyra on July 18, 1821. Smith the goes straight into describing the revivals as he writes they began “some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester.” Well if Lucy was born in 1821 in Palmyra and assume they immediately moved into Manchester with the revivals taking place about two years after the move, then the date of the revivals is sometime in 1823 to 1824 at the earliest.
2. Dr. White points out, “… taken from your own Doctrine and Covenants, 84:21-22. We read,
21 And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
22 For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.
This section in the D & C; is dated September 22 and 23, 1832, the same time period as the handwritten account we examined above. … He asserts that it is impossible for a man who does not have the priesthood to see the face of God, that is, the Father, and live to tell about it. Now, hasn't this passage ever struck you as being a little strange? According to LDS teaching, Joseph Smith ‘received the priesthood’ in 1829, yet, he supposedly saw God the Father in 1820, nine years earlier! … You must accept that either (1) D & C; 84:21-22 is wrong (and therefore Smith is not a true prophet), or (2) Smith did not see God the Father in 1820 (and therefore Smith is not a true prophet), or (3) Smith did not claim to have seen God the Father until later, and the result is still the same -- making up stories as you go along does not qualify one as a prophet, either. … There simply is no reference in any writing -- Mormon or otherwise -- prior to the mid -- 1830s that clearly, unambiguously refers to the First Vision event and the supposed sighting of God the Father and Jesus Christ as two separate and distinct individuals. Smith was still a monotheist at this point -- he had not developed the ideas that come out so clearly in the King Follet discourse.”
3. Both Oliver Cowdery and William Smith mention a Methodist Minister named Reverend Lane, who was a major contributor in the revivals. The problem is that records show that Reverend Lane was assigned to the Palmyra area in July of 1824 and was gone by January 1825, which again, perfectly matches with the revivals having taken place in 1824-25.
4. Dr. White says, “William Smith also mentions a Presbyterian minister who took part in the revivals as well Reverend Stockton. William Smith's account is most important, as it also relates the fact that Joseph Smith, Sr., did not like Reverend Stockton, and resisted his pleas that he and his family join the Presbyterian Church. It seems that Stockton had preached Alvin Smith's funeral, and had suggested (at least to Joseph Smith, Sr.'s mind) that Alvin had gone to hell because he did not belong to any church. Why is this important? Because Alvin Smith died November 19, 1823 -- again showing that the revivals had to take place after this point in time. Since both Stockton and Lane are mentioned, and Lane was only in Palmyra from July 1824 to January 1825, and Stockton was serving as pastor of the church at Skaneateles, New York, until June of 1822, and then was officially installed at the church in the Palmyra area in February of 1824, any revival in which both ministers were involved would have to have taken place in the fall of 1824 and would have continued on into the spring of 1825.”
5. The handwritten account of the revivals from Reverend Lane himself, which match Joseph Smith's description of them perfectly, prove these revivals took place beginning in September of 1824 and concluded in 1825. He, just like Smith, states that it involved the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists.
Suggesting the First Vision is based off an 1820 religious revival completely contradicts the local Palmyra/Manchester newspaper records, the membership records of the denominations participating in the revival. In fact, these local records and newspaper articles do cover the revivals that occurred from the fall of 1824 to the spring of 1825 perfectly matching Joseph Smith's description of the revivals. Why would the local newspapers report on the revivals of 1816-17 and 1824-25, but completely overlook the type of revivals that Smith describes that supposedly occurred in 1820? The memberships of all three denominations grew considerably in the revivals of 1824-25, but were down for the supposed revivals in 1820. I would say this was hardly a revival that Joseph Smith seems to describe.
Another example showing the revivals occurred in 1824-25 is from Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith. Joseph states in the Joseph Smith--History 1:7 that in his 15th year (about 1820) that his "father's family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia." It is a fact acknowledged by many, even pro-LDS such as BYU professor of History Marvin S. Hill, that Lucy joined the Presbyterian church after the death of her son Alvin Smith, which as you recall occurred November 19, 1823. This lines up perfectly with her joining the Presbyterian church in 1824, during the revivals, where she remained an active member until 1828 (Marvin Hill, "The First Vision Controversy", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, p. 45).
Other evidence Dr. White points out that proves the revivals took place in 1824-25 is the road-tax records showing that the Smiths' moved from Palmyra to Manchester in 1822, which would put the revivals in 1824 since they broke out about two years after this move occurred according to Joseph Smith's account. Next would be the tax records on the 100 acres of land that the Smiths purchased in Manchester showing a significant assessment increase in 1823, which coincides with the building of a home over the previous year on the land. Again, this would place the revivals in 1824-25.
Dr. White then summarizes the surmounting evidence by stating,
“Land assessment records, road-tax records, records of "warning out," weather information, Lucy Mack Smith's own writings, church records, newspaper accounts, eyewitness accounts from the leading minister involved in the revivals -- all pointing to the same conclusion. Joseph Smith fabricated the story years later, and, to make "room" for the First Vision without getting rid of Moroni and the golden plates, he "changes history" and pushes events back by four years. But, history has caught up with Joseph Smith.
When we put it all together, it is clear that the Smith family lived in Norwich, Vermont, in 1816. Joseph Smith, Sr., headed to New York prior to the rest of the family, arriving in 1817. In late 1819 or early 1820 the rest of the family arrived as well. They lived in Palmyra until 1822, when they moved to Manchester. Two years later there was a revival in the area, which extended into the spring of 1825. This is the revival spoken of by William Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and, aside from simply the error in the date, Joseph Smith himself.
You can see, immediately, some of the major problems this creates with LDS history. First, the 1820 date is a part of the canonized Scripture of the LDS Church -- if the date is wrong, so is LDS "revelation." Secondly, if the revivals do not take place until 1824, and the first "spring day" that Smith can go into the woods to pray is in the spring of 1825, what happens to the "second vision" that supposedly takes place on September 21, 1823? Further, Smith says that he is undergoing this terrible persecution in 1820, yet, if no revivals have taken place, is he not lying about this "persecution"? It would seem so.”
Why was the 1838 First Vision version so much more spectacular?
Why was the 1838 First Vision version (similar to the 1842 published version) so much more spectacular than the 1832 and 1835 documented First Vision versions of Joseph Smith? Grant Palmer, in his book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, points to a “leadership crisis” that started in Kirtland in late 1837 and ran into 1838. He recounts that Maverick G. Williams, a counselor in the First Presidency, walked away from the faith in November 1837. Over the next few months, Martin Harris, one of the three original witnesses was excommunicated along with John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses.
In March 1838 is when the snowball of apostasy really began to ramp up. Martin Harris had publicly declared that not a single witness (of the eleven) to the golden plates had actually physically seen them with their “natural eyes.” Mr. Palmer then states that “His testimony triggered a discussion led by Warren Parrish. As a result, Apostles John F. Boynton, Luke Johnson, and other church members renounced the Book of Mormon.”
Mr. Palmer, quoting George A. Smith from the Journal of Discourses, “further recalled that about ‘thirty … prominent Elders’ … including Apostles Lyman Johnson, William McLellin, and others ‘renounced the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.’”
The minutes of a church conference held at Far West, Missouri, on April 7th and under the leadership of Joseph Smith reveal that “five apostles were said to be out of harmony with the church.”
Within the next two weeks “Apostles Luke S. Johnson, Lyman E. Johnson, and John F. Boynton were excommunicated or left the church. McLellin followed shortly thereafter. … Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were also excommunicated on 12-13 April, and Hiram Page and Jacob Whitmer left the church as well.”
Regarding this period of crisis in the church, LDS Church Historian Dean Jessee stated, “During this time of apostasy, approximately three hundred left the Church, representing about 15 percent of the Kirtland membership” (Dean Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:217n2).
Mr. Palmer then provides a summary of what likely led to the more spectacular revised First Vision version of 1838. He states, “Economic disillusionment over the failure of the Kirtland Anti-Safety Society may have fueled the dissent, but doctrinal disillusionment stemming from Harris’s statements and the subsequent debate over the Book of Mormon continued to smolder long afterwards.
Within a month of Harris’s comments, three of the apostles no longer believed in the Book of Mormon and two more were out of favor with the church. All three witnesses to the Book of Mormon and three of the eight had defected. The entire Whitmer clan had left the church. All this must have caused considerable anxiety and cognitive dissonance within the community.
Fearing the possible unraveling of the church, Joseph Smith took to reestablishing his authority. During this week of 7-13 of April, he contemplated rewriting his history. On April 26 he renamed the church. The next day he started dictating a new first vision narrative. He began by attacking those who were circulating unsavory ‘reports’, then told a revised and more impressive version of his epiphany (JS—History 1:1). He announced that his initial calling had not come from an angel in 1823, as he had said for over a decade, but from God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820 (JS—History 1:19, 28). The earlier date established his mission independent of the troubling questions and former witnesses associated with the Book of Mormon. Like the 1834-35 priesthood restoration recitals, the first vision version of April 1838 added significant material that bolstered his authority during a time of crisis” (Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp. 245-251).
Following the death of Joseph Smith in June 1844, James Strange was one of the several leaders of the church vying for control and professed that he was to be the next prophet, seer and revelator. Like Joseph, James alleged that he had been visited by an angel. The angel provided a Urim and Thummim that was to reveal records of an ancient people. James had four witnesses dig up the plates who all testified seeing and examining them. The characters written upon the plates were in an unknown language. James Strange then translated the records which was called The Book of the Law of the Lord. There was an official signed testimony letter drafted by the seven witnesses, two of which were former members of the LDS church. It reads almost exactly like the testimony of the eight witnesses for the Book of Mormon. Does this story sound familiar?
Interestingly, David, Jacob and John Whitmer, Martin Harris, William Smith, Hiram Page, Lucy Smith and many others all became members in 1846 of this new LDS splinter group, the Strangites. (Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp. 208-211).
Consistency in who was sent
If the First Vision is the one of the most important events in the LDS church, why then do the LDS prophets and apostles consistently state from the 1850’s to the late 1880’s an “angel” or “angels” appeared to Joseph Smith in their discourses?
Here are several examples:
“... so it was in the advent of this new dispensation....The messenger did not come to an eminent divine...The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven,...But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day...” ( Brigham Young, 1855, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 171).
“That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God,... The angel taught Joseph Smith those principles which are necessary for the salvation of the world;... He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world,... This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel..." (Wilford Woodruff, 1855, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, pp. 196-197).
“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, but he sent Peter to do it. Do you not see? He sent Peter and sent Moroni to Joseph, and told him that he had got the plates” (Heber C. Kimball, 1857, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p. 29).
“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 the true position of the world in a religious point of view” (John Taylor, 1863, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10, p. 127).
“When Joseph Smith was about fourteen or fifteen years old,...he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong...” (George A. Smith, 1863, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, pp. 333-334).
“He sought the Lord by day and by night, and was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, of his first inquiries was, 'Which of the denominations of Christians in the vicinity was right?’“ (George A. Smith, 1869, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, p. 77-78 June 20, 1869).
“By and by an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and, in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him;... This young man, some four years afterwards, was visited again by a holy angel” (Orson Pratt, 1869, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, pp. 65-66)
“Do we believe that the Lord sent his messengers to Joseph Smith, and commanded him to refrain from joining any Christian church, and to refrain from the wickedness he saw in the churches, and finally delivered to him a message informing him that the Lord was about to establish his kingdom on the earth, and led him on step by step until he gave him the revelation concerning the plates? Yes, this is all correct” (Brigham Young, 1874, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 18, p. 239).
“...Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right...the angel merely told him to join none of them..." (John Taylor, 1879, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 20, p. 167).
For another detailed and objective account of the First Vision issues with LDS church and LDS apologists’ responses, please visit MormonThink.com.
THE CROSS UNVEILED