In the LDS church I heard about the First Vision on many occasions and came to understand the significance of that event. It was a parting of the heavens and God was speaking to his children again. It was revolutionary and ushered in a new dispensation. I was told it was everything you could ever imagine. The thing I wasn’t told though was that the early church either never knew about the First Vision or they didn’t really give it much thought. I also was never told that there are at least 4 different accounts of the First Vision with each shedding a different light on the church of the time.
In the LDS church, the First Vision is of monumental importance. It is the foundation for which everything else the church does rests. The thinking is very simply that Joseph was called by God to start a church. The current LDS Church is that church which Joseph started, therefore everything the LDS church does is approved by God. That is certainly a very simplified view of the current stance however it is not very far off. The LDS church, in its brief overview article describing the First Vision, even describes it as “the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ“. I find this slightly strange considering God has done many amazing things in history and is prophesied to do many more amazing things in the near future.
Joseph Fielding Smith in his book Doctrines of Salvation wrote:
Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph Smith was a deceiver, who willfully attempted to mislead the people, then he should be exposed.Joseph Fielding Smith – Doctrines of Salvation page 116
President Hinckley even took that one step further by stating:
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. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.President Hinkley
I understand why President Hinkley and President Smith would say that and I understand what they were meaning. However, the dichotomy between the enlightened believers and the rest of the world is a recipe for disaster. Of course, visions from God are important and of course God’s work is important. However, shouldn’t the fruits of the church be a witness of divine origins itself or is the First Vision the only things that matters for the church?
Nature of Visions
I am in no way questioning the vision or the importance of visions in general. I am simply attempting to highlight that our understanding of the way God works today, or how prophets operate, is fundamentally different from the way that God actually works. To be clear I do believe Joseph had a vision and was called to a great work. I believe he also has a great work ahead of him. I just think that visions are far more common than most people think. God uses everyone, in whatever capacity they are willing, to further his work. The world uses large complicated systems to enact change while God uses “small and simple things” to enact his work.
If we look at visions that people recorded, then we can see that many share remarkable similarities with Joseph Smith’s recorded First Vision experience. Of these visions there are 16 that share many similarities with the First Vision itself. These were recorded in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s and certainly helped stoke the religious fervor of the time. Therefore, making Joseph’s vision not particularly unusual. Of course, some of these could be completely false or exaggerated, however I think it is wrong to claim they are all false or exaggerated except Joseph’s First Vision experience.
When I served my mission, “back in the day” as my kids say, we had the 6 discussions which we were required to memorize with the first being about Joseph and the First Vision. We were to share the oft used quote from the 1838 account and then ask the investigator how they felt about it. Almost always they wouldn’t know what to say and then we would progress through the scripted lesson.
The early church though didn’t use the First Vision for missionary work at all. It wasn’t seen as an effective tool for missionaries when the Book of Mormon itself was a vastly better tool. Why relate a story of a vision, when visions were common, and you had a copy of the Book of Mormon they could actually read themselves? In fact, the First Vision wasn’t even published the first time until 1839 when Orson Pratt published it in a proselyting pamphlet he made during his mission to Scotland. The first time it was published in the United States was in the March 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons. Therefore, for almost the entire history of the church, while Joseph was alive, the First Vision wasn’t seen as significant enough to actually be published.
It is also insightful to consider that there were a significant amount of people speaking and writing against the early church yet not a single person mentioned the First Vision until it was actually published. Therefore, it is almost guaranteed that most members of the church didn’t even know it happened. I certainly don’t think anything was being hidden. I just don’t think the First Vision mattered as much as we claim it does today. If it was widespread knowledge, then it would certainly have been ridiculed by someone which would show today through historical accounts.
As was mentioned earlier, there are 4 main accounts of the First Vision and each one is different in key ways. This fact has been used by many as an argument against Joseph Smith and the First Vision itself. However, it is fundamentally misunderstanding how human memory works and how events are related to different people.
The first thing to note about human memory is that it is fundamentally an unreliable source of information. In 1977, a study, by Brown and Kulik, was conducted on long term memory and concluded that significant events in a person’s life can be recorded in memory for a long time however ancillary details are quite often misremembered. This is referred to as flashbulb memory and characterized by an event that is unexpected and traumatic to some degree. These memories are more deeply planted than other memories and so can be recalled for longer periods of time.
Since the mind doesn’t store the ancillary details as deeply then when recalling the event, the information is often pieced together in different ways. For instance, in a flashbulb memory you might vividly remember certain details, but recount the wrong time, place, or setting. You certainly wouldn’t think you were wrong because that is your memory. This could change with every retelling based on current circumstances. However, the study did conclude that if the event is significant enough then the major details of the retelling will almost always align with others who also experienced the event. This is why when police get eyewitness testimony, they almost always ignore the specific details and focus on the general narrative instead.
Another thing to note is that if someone is sharing an experience or describing something then they are going to tailor it to the audience. For instance, I absolutely love computer science and software development in general. It is amazing to me that I can build incredibly complex systems based on a specific sequence of very simple instructions.
When my young children ask what I do for work, I tell them that I type stuff for my boss. When my older children ask me, I tell them that I tell computers how to do certain tasks. However, when talking to people that know more specifics then of course I can speak at a higher level than I could otherwise. I would geek out about machine learning, algorithms, cryptography, and distributed computing. However, these topics are of no interest to most people so why would I mention them in general? Therefore, we would expect Joseph to do the same with the First Vision. Every retelling was for a specific audience and therefore that knowledge should be included in our understanding of the account.
1832 Account History
We have 4 accounts of the First Vision. These were written in 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842. The 1838 is published in the Doctrine and Covenants therefore it is the most familiar to an LDS audience. Of the 4 accounts, the 1832 account is the only one written by Joseph in his own handwriting. It is the most personal and written more like a journal entry than the general retelling of an event. Before looking at the 1832 account itself however it would be helpful to go into a little bit of history concerning the document.
When Brigham Young was moving west then all church records were put into boxes and moved in a fairly quick manner. These boxes were then unloaded and, in some cases, shuffled from place to place and mostly ignored. They were certainly important however no one wanted to go through 1000’s of pages of records to see how important.
The Joseph Smith Papers project has a very academic description of this however, Joseph Fielding Smith was called as church historian in 1921 and he started going through these long-forgotten boxes. In one of the boxes, he discovered a personal journal from Joseph Smith titled Letterbook 1 which detailed the 1832 account in Joseph’s own handwriting. This account was so scandalous to him that he literally cut out the 3 physical pages and put them in his personal office safe. This was even though many documents already existed in a secure area of the archives where individuals needed very high-level permission to even enter.
In 1950 Levi Young, who was the President of the First Quorum of Seventies, requested access to the journal and was denied access by Joseph Fielding Smith. Levi Young appealed the decision to the First Presidency and was granted access to the book only after being sworn to secrecy. In 1952 Levi Young was interviewed and described the account as a “strange account of the first vision” however wouldn’t dare to say anything more. Levi Young died in 1963 and word of this “strange account” started to get around.
Due to increased scrutiny Joseph Fielding Smith literally taped the pages back together using standard office tape, which can be seen in the images, and opened the journal up for public access. The first to access this journal was a BYU student named Paul Cheesman who used the journal as part of his 1965 master’s thesis. Therefore, these pages were actively hidden for more than 40 years and very easily could have been destroyed in the process, accidently or purposely. That same journal still has 8 physical pages that are missing with no one indicating they know anything about their location. It boggles my mind how Joseph Fielding Smith thought cutting out the pages was a good idea. Shortly after this he became president of the church, therefore no one could do anything about it since he was the top authority.
The decision to remove this account from the journal was almost certainly motivated by the fact that Joseph Fielding Smith was on the committee that decided to remove the Lectures on Faith from the canon of scriptures in 1921. He saw this 1832 account as challenging his view of God and so it must be removed and hidden. It would have been a better approach to ask God what he wanted to have happen.
After much ado we can finally start to consider the actual 1832 account. The account starts off with a very helpful list of the high-level points which we can consider individually. This list seems to follow a chronological order which is helpful to consider their individual meaning.
- Firstly he receiving the testimony from on high
This is almost certainly a reference to the First Vision itself. Joseph received his initial testimony from this divine encounter and it was certainly from on high as it states.
- Secondly the ministering of Angels
This is very likely an indication of the angelic visitations prior to the organization of the church. Joseph had many angelic encounters during his preparation period. This period was absolutely essential to prepare Joseph for the ultimate role he would play in founding the church and coming to learn more about God’s work for him personally.
- Thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of angels to administer the letter of the Gospel
It is important to consider that this point actually describes more than one angel that gave Joseph the “holy Priesthood … to administer the letter of the Gospel”. In the church we think of a single angel, who was John the Baptist restoring the Aaronic priesthood therefore what could Joseph mean in this case?
D&C 107 tell us what the Aaronic Priesthood is starting in verse 20:
The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.D&C 107:20
Therefore, this bullet point seems to be pertaining only to the Aaronic priesthood. It may be a shock to some, however I previously have shown how Peter, James, and John restored the office of Apostle which is not part of the Melchizedek Priesthood. According to D&C 20:38, an apostle is an elder and not a high priest. Therefore, apostles are part of the lower priesthood which fits this bullet point exactly. Thus, it appears that John the Baptist, and Peter, James, and John are the angels that this item is referring to. If you haven’t seen my video or read my article on this then I would highly encourage you to do so it is called, “Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood“.
- Fourthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood … power and ordinance from on high to preach the Gospel
This has to be the Morley farm conference which God asked for in D&C 44. I previously showed how the Melchizedek Priesthood was received during the conference and not from Peter, James, and John according to the LDS version of events. Joseph himself even said this about the conference:
On the 6th of June, the Elders from the various parts of the country where they were laboring, came in; and the conference before appointed, convened in Kirtland; and the Lord displayed His power to the most perfect satisfaction of the Saints. The man of sin was revealed, and the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.Joseph Smith
I also showed several similar accounts from others that describe the Melchizedek priesthood as being given for the “first time“. This of course is not possible according to the LDS version of events however those that wrote the accounts mentioned the conference as being the source of the event and not Peter, James, and John. Thus, the high Priesthood was received which gave Joseph the ability to administer in the spiritual aspects of the gospel.
- The Keys of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him
This follows very closely with Matthew 16:18-19:
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.Matthew 16:18-19
From an LDS perspective this sounds very much like a temple marriage however as I have shown in my article and video titled, “Sealed to God or Man?“, the sealing power is being sealed to God not sealed to a spouse. It is also interesting to consider this account was written 4 years before the LDS church claims Elijah appeared to Joseph and gave him the sealing power. Therefore, how could Joseph have the sealing power before he had the sealing power?
Another scripture to consider is D&C 65:2 which states:
The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earthD&C 65:2
This section was received on October 30th, 1831 which of course was also before Elijah appeared in the Kirtland temple which was in 1836. Therefore, as of at least late 1831, Joseph already had the “keys of the kingdom” which was defined as the true sealing power of God. This is the same power that Nephi was given in Helaman 10 and which all true servants of God possess.
This is again confirmed in D&C 81 which was a revelation given to Frederick G. Williams who was Joseph’s counselor by revelation. This revelation was given on March 15th 1832 and again confirms Joseph’s status as of early 1832.
Listen to the voice of him who speaketh, to the word of the Lord your God, and hearken to the calling wherewith you are called, even to be a high priest in my church, and a counselor unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun.; unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High PriesthoodD&C 81:1-2
This makes it clear that the keys are an aspect of the “Presidency of the High Priesthood” which is not the same as the President of the church. They are 2 fundamentally different roles. However, in the modern LDS Church they have unnecessarily been merged together into one role.
- And the continuation of the blessings of God to him
This last bullet point is a general summation of God’s continued working with Joseph and the church. There is not much specifically to discuss, but it is important to note D&C 1 was received on November 1st, 1831 which states that God was well pleased with the church collectively. Therefore this 1832 accounts continues with that sentiment.
The vision itself would at least be vaguely familiar to anyone with a knowledge of the 1838 account. We can consider some of the notable points, however, won’t go into as much depth as we previously have done.
Joseph describes how as he searched the scriptures, he was convinced that he needed to repent and turn to God. It was the scriptures that acted as a guide for him and not the teachings of men. He mentioned also how the accounts in the scriptures seemed to differ greatly from what he saw in the churches of his time and society in general.
My mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.Joseph Smith
In the most recent LDS General Conference, we were taught that in the church we should focus on the words of the leaders of the church and shouldn’t concern ourselves with the scriptures themselves. This is the exact opposite of what Joseph did. He focused on the words of the scriptures and not the living leaders of his time.
Joseph continued his account by describing God as follows:
My heart exclaimed all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power … who fills eternity who was and is and will be from all eternity to eternityJoseph Smith
This of course is the exact God that is described in Lecture 5, which is also the God described in the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The God the LDS church describes doesn’t match this description since that individual is on a pathway of ascension and certainly not from “all eternity to eternity” unless of course you redefine eternity.
Joseph continues with his account with the actual visitation of God.
I was filled with the Spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. And he spake unto me saying:Joseph Smith
Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. … I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold the world lies in sin and at this time and none does good, no not one.
In this account Joseph describes how he saw the Lord who was crucified therefore according to our understanding this would be Jesus or more specifically Jehovah which I showed previously was Jesus in the flesh. The account doesn’t mention 2 people like the later accounts do, which of course doesn’t mean there were not 2 people. However, Joseph specifically mentions the Lord only.
It is also interesting to note that God is saying that we must believe on him to have eternal life. Of course, this means far more than just saying a prayer or similar. However, there is no mention of a Covenant Path that the LDS church claims is essential to return to God.
It is a little harsh that God says that no one was doing good considering I am sure many people were doing what we would consider to be good things. However, it is important to keep in mind that good to us is not the same things as good is to God. Is it good to help someone? Of course. However, is it good to help someone in a way that doesn’t bring them closer to God? No not really. Therefore, God is essentially saying that no one is really drawing closer to him, and it was deeply concerning to him. No one could be defined as his people and that was an evil state to be in.
The 1835 account is a much shorter account that was written in response to a visit from a charlatan who went by the name of Joshua the Jewish Minister or Prophet Matthias. It was at this time that the church had rejected the higher laws from God and failed to live the law of consecration. God even specifically calls the leaders to repentance in a December 5th, 1834, revelation:
Verily, condemnation rests upon you, who are appointed to lead my Church, and to be saviors of men: and also upon the church: And there must needs be a repentance and a reformation among you, in all thingsCondemnation revelation
It was at this same time Joseph Smith Sr was ordained to be the Patriarch of the church signifying a change in standing before God. It is very interesting to note that God starts calling the church, “those who call themselves after my name” instead of “my people” as he previously did.
This account starts off very similarly to the 1832 account which we will not go over. However, the first notable difference is the introduction of a contrarian force that didn’t want him to pray. This description is not very specific and essentially just mentions he was startled because he thought someone was there, however upon finding no one there he continued to pray and was successful.
After resuming his prayer, he was then visited by God and shortly another personage appeared along with many angels. This account is not specific in who each individual is or what they were doing. It just mentions them and mentions that one addressed him. It is somewhat confusing at times however scripturally an angel could be mentioning a visit from Christ or a servant of God such as in Revelation 1:1-5 where John mentions an angel in verse 1 and then Christ in verse 5. In Revelations 22:8-9 John attempts to worship this angel however is told not to since the angel was not God, but a fellow servant. This angel then continues to speak in first person as if he was God. When reading the text, we sometimes put meanings there that don’t belong, and I think this is one of them. We are interpreting the 1835 account according to our later understanding from the 1838 account.
As mentioned previously the 1838 account is the one that most people are familiar with since it was added to the Pearl of Great Price and canonized as scripture. As of 1838, the church had rejected the higher laws of God and started to retaliate against some of the persecution it was facing. This ultimately led to the 1838 Missouri war which culminated with Joseph in prison and multiple cities like Gallatin, MO attacked and looted by members of the church.
Shortly before this account was given, Joseph started to separate his understanding of God into 2 entities which today we call the Father and the Son. This is very evident in his 1837 changes to the Book of Mormon which included added “the Son of” in a few key places. For instance, 1 Nephi 13:40 originally read that “the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father”, however he updated it to instead read, “the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father”. This change can be easily overlooked however it has massive implications.
This account puts much more emphasis on the role Satan played in trying to get Joseph not the pray. Joseph mentions Satan as being a very active force that tried to destroy Joseph and prevent the vision from happening. It was only when Joseph cried to God that he was delivered from this evil power. The 1832 account didn’t mention this at all while the 1835 account significantly downplayed this part of the experience.
The account continues by clearly declaring that 2 personages appeared and addressed Joseph. We don’t get many specifics as far as these individuals are concerned, however one appears to be the Father and the other is called the Son. This separation between God is certainly unambiguous, in the account, and is what most of us in the LDS church grew up understanding. I however have shown previously how the Father and the Son are 2 parts of the same entity. One is certainly not in training to assume the role of the other. Many might be confused by 2 personages appearing and assert that they must be different however that is not necessarily the case.
After the remarkable vision, this account continues, in some detail, to describe the persecution that Joseph faced regarding the vision and many of the experiences that led to the founding of the church. The previous accounts don’t go into nearly as much detail concerning Joseph’s activities after the vision.
The 1842 account is the final one that we have and was written during the height of the Nauvoo era of the church. It was written to be published in, the Chicago Democrat, which was a leading newspaper of the time and read by non-members of the church. This is evident in that Joseph makes a logical case as to why he would want to approach God in the first place. The 1838 account goes into some detail about the religious confusion of the time, however the 1842 account explains this more fully.
This account totally omits any reference to Satan or an evil force that tried to stop Joseph. The vision itself is also barely acknowledged with very little detail other than it happened. The 2 personages are mentioned such that they “exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness”. I don’t want to get caught up on this, however even twins don’t exactly resemble each other. However, if God had a spirit entity and a physical entity then you would expect them to resemble each other exactly.
After the vision, Joseph describes in great detail his activities, the activities of the church, and the many persecutions they experienced. Since this record was to be read by non-members then it makes sense why so much detail was included. This was Joseph’s chance to make a strong case for Mormonism and to humanize the converts so there was not such much animosity.
The account concludes with the articles of faith that we know today and memorize as children. It is helpful to note that article of faith #4 was actually changed in 1902 to give the impression that there are other ordinances beyond faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the holy ghost. The original text defined these 4 as the only ordinances of the church with no indication there were any others. It might seem strange to refer to faith and repentance as an ordinance. However, in 1842 when this was written, the word ordinance simply meant a rule or a ceremony. Thus, faith and repentance certainly are the foundational ordinances of the Gospel.
This has been a long ride which I hope has been informative. The First Vision is truly a remarkable experience which helped usher in Joseph’s prophetic mission. I can’t imagine having an experience like that and then going back to a mostly mundane life. From that point on I would want to continually be in the presence of God. Certainly, we can all seek God more fully, however the cares of the world seem to drown out the quite voice of God.
As was mentioned, many people put a lot of emphasis on the fact that there are 4 accounts which all differ in some ways. This actually is to be expected for a real experience. If Joseph related the experience in the same way in 4 different settings, then it would actually strongly suggest it was a rehearsed and memorized presentation. Thus, this is actually evidence for the authenticity of the experience.
Going through the accounts from 1832 to 1842 show clearly a change in the church and the understanding of God. The accounts correlate remarkably well with the state of the church and offer a further evidence of the spiritual rise and fall of the people. In section 4 of the Book of Commandments, which today is D&C 5, God tells the people that he will establish his church among them if they let him. God warns, very clearly though, that if they reject him and his laws then they will be turned over to Satan. This is exactly what the church did. They rejected the higher laws of God and instead sought the lower cares of Babylon. When Zion is established, we will be given another chance to follow God and can’t afford to make the same mistakes that the early church did.