How can one reconcile Joseph Smith’s various and differing first vision accounts; and the fact that no one, including Joseph Smith’s family members or the Saints, had ever heard about the ‘First Vision’ for twelve to twenty-two years after he had said it occurred?
“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.”
Gordon B. Hinckley,
The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith
I agree with President Hinckley concerning the significance of the first vision. It answers many questions about God and His Divine personality and his interest in the welfare of His sons and daughters.
But there are issues with this purported event. Why are there various and differing first vision accounts? Considering the momentous nature of this event why is it that no one – including Joseph Smith’s family members or the Saints – had ever heard about the First Vision for twelve to twenty-two years after he said it occurred? Even in the “History of the Church,” written by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith in 1834, no mention was made of it.
The official 1838 account of this first vision found in Mormon Scripture was not recorded by Joseph Smith until 1838, 18 years after the event. Before this time, but still, more than 12 years after this event supposedly took place, other accounts of Joseph’s visionary experience were recorded. These earlier accounts contained significant differences from the official first vision account and often conflict with it.
1832 account, Sins forgiven, saw Jesus Christ, told all churches wrong.
The following is the earliest and first known recounting of the “First Vision.” It was written by Joseph Smith in his journal.
“…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 attitude of calling upon the Lorda 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 opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucified (sic) for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside (sic) from the gospel and keep not 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 thir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which 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 in the glory of my Father.”1
1834 account – Two years later another version was given to a‘Jewish Minister,’ in this rendition, Joseph’s sins were forgiven. He saw personages, a pillar of fire, and hosts of angels.
“…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 … 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 … I called on the Lord in mightly (sic) prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon me, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard (sic) 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; 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 …”2
1835 account, In this version his sins were again forgiven, he saw Jesus Christ, and was told all churches were wrong.
“…I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me, strove again to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprung up on my feet, and 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 my head, and filled me with joy unspeakable, a personage appeard (sic) in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard (sic) like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed (sic) unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; I was about 14. years old when I received this first communication;” 3
1834 – 1835 account– With Oliver Cowdery’s help, A revival stirred in him a desire to know that God existed. This one at age 17, he was in his bedroom when he had a vision of an angel, again sins were forgiven. He was told that the Lord would do a work through him and he was told about gold plates and their location.
“… On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind … all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind of messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God. “… While continuing in prayer for a manifestation in some way that his sins were forgiven; endeavoring to exercise faith in the scriptures, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a purer and far more glorious appearance and brightness burst into the room … It is no easy task to describe the appearance of a messenger from the skies … But it may be well to relate the particulars as far as given — The stature of this personage was a little above the common size of men in this age; his garment was perfectly white, and had the appearance of being without seam. Though fear was banished from his heart, yet his surprise was no less when he heard him declare himself to be a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord, to deliver a special message, and to witness to him that his sins were forgiven, and that his prayers were heard;” 4
1838 account, Joseph said his object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the churches was right. This contradicts his 1832 rendition in which he says it was to seek forgiveness for his sins:
“After I had retired into 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 upon by some power which entirely overcame me and such 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. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized (sic) 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 a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being. Just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gracefully gradually untill it fell upon me. 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 spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) “This is my beloved Son, Hear him.”
My object in going to enquire 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. 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 to 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. He again forbade me to join with any of them and many other thing[s] did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again I found myself lying on back looking up into Heaven.”
This official version, now part of Mormon Scripture in the Pearl of Great Price, was written in 1838, but not published until 1842.
His motives: for seeking divine help – Bible reading and conviction of sins, a revival, a desire to know if God exists, wanting to know which church was true.
Who appears:– a spirit, an angel, two angels, host of angels, Jesus, the Father and the Son.
The Exciting Revival:Joseph’s dating of the revival that prompts his actions is wrong. The historical record shows that there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820. There was one in 1817, and there was another in 1824.
If there is one of Smith’s renditions of the ‘First Vision’ that best fits the historical record, it is the 1832 account. Why?
His age:The 1832 account states Joseph was 15 years old when he had the vision in 1821 while the other reports state he was 14 years old as well as 17 years old in 1820.
Because there was no mention of any religious revival. That actually occurred in 1824, not in 1820. Secondly, there was no mention of persecution which obviously would also be incorrect as no one was told of the vision, including his family for at least twelve years.
There was also no injunction to not join any other church – family member subsequently joined the Presbyterian Church, and Joseph himself tried to join the Methodists. Also, there was no call to the holy work;” and Jesus alone appears to Joseph, reflecting that at the time Smith believed that God and Christ were the same being—and only one God appears to him.
1Joseph Smith’s History, Summer 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp.2,3
in the handwriting of Joseph Smith
2Joseph Smith’s History, November 9, 1835, Joseph Smith Letterbook
3 Joseph Smith’s History, November 1835
4Joseph Smith’s History, November 1835