The First Vision


Unknown to many LDS believers is the fact that there were at least four recorded versions of The First Vision.  This is not particularly troublesome unless the accounts are mutually exclusive.  The First Vision is said to have occurred in 1820.  But Joseph Smith wrote the first account in 1832, two years after the organization of the church.  The official account that appears in the Pearl of Great Price was not written until 1838. In fact, there is little evidence that Joseph Smith ever discussed the First Vision prior to 1830. 

Church historian, James B. Allen states that “The fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830s, 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.”  Limited circulation indeed!  Perhaps no circulation.  

This fact raises some important questions.  One may postulate that this is because it was a sacred experience.  I have certain personal experiences that I do not discuss openly.  However, you would expect that if the Book of Mormon were coming forth, translation were underway, and a church were being organized, Joseph would record or at least discuss this seminal event within ten years of its occurrence.  I am willing to withhold judgment on that issue for now.  But there is some evidence that he made the story up as he went along.

In 1832, the first recorded version was written in Joseph’s own handwriting.  This account is now found in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, edited by Dean C. Jesse (Deseret Book).  I include the full text of the account.

“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest [p. 1] with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons30 for he was God for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and [p. 2] marvilous even in the likeness of him who created him <them> and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said the <it is a> fool <that> saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and that <that> being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness…”

“…and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and 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 <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which <hath> been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud <clothed> in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart…”

“…but after many days [p. 3] I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul31 and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions32 and it came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them and he revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of33 of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments & revelations and it was on the 22d day of Sept. AD 1822 and thus he appeared unto me three times in one night and once on the next day and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me and straightway made three attempts to get them and then being excedingly frightened34 I supposed it had been a dreem of Vision but when I considred I knew that it was not therefore I cried unto the Lord in the agony of my soul why can I not obtain them behold the angel appeared unto me again and said unto me you have not kept the commandments of the Lord which I gave unto you therefore you cannot now obtain them for the time is not yet fulfilled therefore thou wast left unto temptation that thou mightest be made acquainted with the power of the advisary therefore repent and call on the Lord thou shalt be forgiven and in his own due time thou shalt obtain them…”

The first observation is that Joseph Smith was not a skilled or learned writer.  This selection, originally written in his own handwriting, makes it fairly obvious that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon.  The second observation is that this account does not mention the power of darkness that engulfed him, or the presence of God the Father.  It does refer to the fact that the “whole world lieth in sin”, implying that none of the current churches are true.  Another issue is his age at the time.  He states that the vision occurred in “the sixteenth year of my age” and not in his 14th year.

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery recorded a version in the Messenger and Advocate.  Cowdery records that the religious confusion led Smith to pray in his bedroom in his “17th year”, late on the night of September 23, 1823.  According to Cowdery, Joseph Smith wanted to know which of the competing denominations was correct and whether "a Supreme being did exist." In response, an angel appeared and granted him forgiveness of his sins. The remainder of the story roughly parallels Smith's later description of a visit by the angel Morni in 1823 who told him about the Golden Plates.

In this version of the “first vision”, Cowdery seems to have missed the real first vision altogether.  He also misses the date of the second vision by a year and a day.  Although his motivations for praying are roughly the same, the details of the first vision seem to be confused with the appearance of Moroni.  Oliver Cowdery was the “second elder” of the church and was recording early church history for the membership of the church.  It seems unlikely that he would not have understood that there were two distinct experiences unless that history were being fabricated in real time. 

On November 9, 1835, Joseph Smith recorded an account of the first vision in his personal diary.  This is recorded in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.  The text of that account follows.

“…we soon commenced talking upon the subject of religion and after I had made some remarks concerning the bible I commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon, as follows being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bow[e]d down before the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find and again, if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men libarally and upbradeth not; information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord for the first time, in the place above stated or in other words I made a fruitless attempt to p[r]ay, my toung seemed to be swolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me, I strove again to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprung up on my feet, and [p. 23] and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking, I kneeled again my mouth was opened and my toung liberated, and I called on the Lord in mighty prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; <and I saw many angels in this vision> I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication;…”

“…When I was about 17 years old I saw another vision of angels in the night season after I had retired to bed I had not been a sleep, when but was meditating upon my past life and experience, I was verry concious that I had not kept the commandments, and I repented hartily for all my sins and transgression, and humbled myself before Him <whose eyes are over all things>, all at once the room was iluminated above the brightness of the sun an angel appeared before me, his hands and feet were naked pure and white, and he stood between the floors of the room, clothed with in purity inexpressible, he said unto me I am a messenger sent from God, be faithful and keep his commandments in all things, he told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham he explained many things of the prophesies to [p. 24] me, one I will mention which is this in Malachi 4 chapt. behold the day of the Lord cometh &c. also that the Urim and Thumim, was hid up with the record, and that God would give me powre to translate it, with the assistance of this instrument he then gradually vanished out of my sight, or the vision closed, while meditating on what I had seen, the angel appeard to me again and related the same things and much more, also the third time bearing the same tidings, and departed; during the time I was in this vision I did not realize any thing else around me except what was shown me in this communication: after the vision had all passed, I found that it was nearly day-light, the family soon arose, I got up also: on that day while in the field at work with my Father he asked me if I was sick I replyed, I had but little strenght, he told me to go to the house, I started and went part way and was finally deprived deprived of my strength and fell, but how long I remained I do not know; the Angel came to me again and commanded me to go and tell my Father, what I had seen and heard, I did so, he wept and told me that it was a vision from God to attend to it I went and found the place, where the plates were, according to the direction of the Angel, also saw them, and the angel as before; the powers of darkness strove hard against me. I called on God, the Angel told me that the reason why I could not obtain the plates at this time was because I was under transgression, but to come again in one year from that time, I did so, but did not obtain them [p. 25] also the third and the fourth year, at which time I obtained them, and translated them into the english language, by the gift and power of God and have been preaching it ever since.”

This account mentions two beings but does not identify them as God the Father and Jesus Christ but the beings do testify that Jesus is the Christ.  He also states that he saw many angels.  This account places his age at “about 14 years old.”  Interestingly, this account refers to the sound of footsteps behind him and the report of a swollen tongue, which are new details.  It does not, however, discuss the spirit of darkness or impending doom referred to in the later account.  It also says nothing about condemnation of churches of the time.

In 1838, Smith recorded the version of the First Vision that is now the official version in the Pearl of Great Price.  The text is included below.

“…While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

  12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

  13 At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.

  14 So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

  15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

  16 But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

  17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

  18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.

  19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

  20 He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home.”

This version is very familiar to LDS people because it is the version in our scripture.  We are to believe that this version is the standard by which other versions are compared.  There are a few inconsistencies including dates, omission of details and so forth.  But for me the biggest problem arises in the fundamental essence of the experience; namely, who appeared. 

Small details aside, it is very hard for me to imagine that the primary detail of who visited was ever in doubt.  Furthermore, if Joseph Smith had been visited by Jesus Christ and God the Father in 1820, why is there no mention of it in any journal or letter until 1830.  Even Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother never mentions any visitation of any kind before the Moroni visit of 1823.  I have often wondered why the exact date of the First Vision was never recorded.  You would think that an event of such magnitude would etch the date into ones mind.  Not so with Joseph Smith.  One explanation might be that he did not conceive of the experience until later and had to fabricate in retrospect.

Why would Joseph Smith change the story of the first vision in 1838?  Grant Palmer, a controversial LDS historian and author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, has noted that Joseph Smith had a clear motive.  At the time there was open dissent against Smith's leadership and many of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and some 300 members had left the church. Palmer argues that Smith "fearing the unraveling of the church," wrote a new "more impressive version of his epiphany" in which Smith claimed that his original call had come from God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than from an angel.

Of interest is the history of the Smith family.  The following is directly adapted from Wikepedia but clearly outlines the spiritual environment in which Joseph Smith was raised.

Like many other Americans living on the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Smith family accepted the veracity of visions, dreams, and other communications with God.  In 1811, Joseph Smith, Jr.'s maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, described a series of visions and voices from God that resulted in his conversion to Christianity at the age of seventy-six.

Between 1811 and 1819, Joseph, Sr., reported seven visions, which, according to his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, occurred when he was "much excited upon the subject of religion." The visions confirmed to Joseph, Sr., the correctness of his refusal to join any organized religious group and led him to believe that he would be properly guided to his own salvation. Before Joseph Smith, Jr., was born, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, prayed in a grove about her husband's repudiation of evangelical religion and that night had a vision in her sleep, which she interpreted as a prophecy that Joseph, Sr., would later accept the "pure and undefiled Gospel of the Son of God."

Joseph was also exposed to the intense revivalism of his era. During the Second Great Awakening, numerous revivals occurred in many communities in the northeastern United States and were often reported in the Palmyra Register, a local paper read by the Smith family.  In the Palmyra area itself, the only large multi-denominational revivals occurred in 1816-1817 and 1824-1825.  In the intervening years, there were Methodist revivals, at least within twenty road miles of Palmyra; and more than sixty years later a newspaper editor in Lyons, New York, recalled "various religious awakenings in the neighborhood."

The family also practiced a form of folk magic, which, although not uncommon in this time and place, was criticized by many contemporary Protestants "as either fraudulent illusion or the workings of the Devil.”  Both Joseph Smith, Sr. and at least two of his sons worked at "money digging," using seer stones in (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to locate lost items and buried treasure.  In a draft of her memoirs, Lucy Mack Smith referred to folk magic:

I shall change my theme for the present, but let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circles or soothsaying, to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of and the welfare of our souls.

D. Michael Quinn has written that Lucy Mack Smith viewed these magical practices as "part of her family's religious quest" while denying that they prevented "family members from accomplishing other, equally important work.”  Quinn also notes that the Smith family "participated in a wide range of magic practices, and Smith's first vision occurred within the context of his family's treasure quest.”  Jan Shipps notes that while Joseph Smith's "religious claims were rejected by many of the persons who had known him in the 1820s because they remembered him as a practitioner of the magic arts," others of his earliest followers were attracted to his claims "for precisely the same reason.”

Richard Bushman has called the spiritual tradition of the Smith family "a religious melee." Joseph Smith, Sr., insisted on morning and evening prayers, but he was spiritually adrift. "If there was a personal motive for Joseph Smith Jr.'s revelations, it was to satisfy his family's religious want and, above all, to meet the need of his oft-defeated, unmoored father.”  No members of the Smith family were church members in 1820, the reported date of the First Vision.

These observations suggest to me that because visions and dreams were not uncommon in the time and in the Smith family, for Joseph to claim The First Vision or the visitation of the angel Moroni would not be out of the realm of accepted possibility.  In fact, not only were they not unusual, they were not even original.  Just like the elements of the story of Jesus were borrowed from existing Pagan traditions, elements of the story of Joseph Smith were borrowed from existing family traditions.

Conclusion:  In the end, I am left then with the same fundamental question.  Did this event really happen?  I don’t think so.  Joseph had many sources of strong motivation; from family spiritual tradition, to financial desperation, to local notoriety, to power.  Furthermore, the only reason I give the First Vision more than a first look is because I was born a Mormon.  Any supernatural appearance in any other church is easily dismissed as nonsense.  I am given to determine the likelihood of truth or falsehood based on my own experience.  I have never met a credible prophet outside the LDS church (although I have met many deluded and mentally ill ones).  On the other hand I have known of scores of false prophets who prey on the faithful for gain.  The probabilities do not bode well for Joseph Smith.

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