Joseph Smith’s first vision is among the first lessons missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach to potential converts. Professing faith in the first vision is necessary before one can be baptized into the LDS Church.
According to the story, due to the recent conversion of his mother, two brothers and one sister to the Presbyterian faith, and the confusion in Smith’s mind over which church he should join, a fourteen year old Joseph Smith walks out to the woods early one morning to pray. While praying, a pillar of light descends upon him and God the Father and His beloved Son appear.
The Father pointing to the Son said,
“This is My Beloved Son Hear Him.”
Joseph Smith asked which church he should join, and the Son answered,
“… join none of them, for they were all wrong.”
As important as the first vision is today, in promoting and defending the LDS Faith, one might expect to see an early history of the LDS Church proclaiming it to the world. At the very least, one might expect to see the first vision included in early Church publications. This was not the case. Not one LDS publication in the 1830s included the first vision story, even though there were several which could have:
● The Evening and Morning Star — first church magazine, printed from 1832-1834.
● The Book of Commandments, which was the forerunner to the Doctrine and Covenants — first published in 1833.
● Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, printed from 1834 to 1836.
● The Doctrine and Covenants, which contained the Lectures on Faith — 1835.
● Voice of Warning, published in 1837 — church pamphlet used by missionaries.
● Times and Seasons, church magazine — first published in November 1839
Not one newspaper or any pro or anti-Mormon media-sources from 1820 when the vision supposedly occurred, throughout the next decade, and beyond, mentioned one word about what is now called Joseph Smith’s first vision.
LDS Church assistant historian James B. Allen wrote,
“…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 is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966).
In 1838, what would become the official first vision account was written; it was published in the church magazine Times and Seasons in 1842, which is over two decades after the first vision supposedly occurred. Why Smith’s bedroom vision of an angel telling him about golden plates was well-known throughout the 1830s, and yet Smith’s vision of him seeing God in the flesh was unheard of during the same time-period is a problem for the LDS Church.
With the help of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery published this account:
“… One Mr. Lane, a presiding Elder of the Methodist church, visited Palmyra, and vicinity… There was a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion, and much enquiry for the word of life. Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. … Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony which had previously characterized the moves and exhortations of the old professors, and a cry — I am right — your are wrong — was introduced in their stead. In this general strife for followers, his mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians.” (Messenger and Advocate, December, 1834, p. 42)
Oliver Cowdery continues this narrative in the next issue of the Messenger and Advocate; on pages 78-79 he wrote:
“You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our brother J. Smith Jr.’s age — that was an error in the type — it should have been in the 17th.”
Joseph Smith’s age during “the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity” is very important; if he was in his 17th year when the religious excitement in Palmyra took place, then his age is at odds with the official first vision story, because it was also religious excitement in Palmyra which Mr. Lane was involved in, that supposedly led Joseph Smith to go to the sacred grove and pray.
The Most Glaring First Vision Problem:
On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, Joseph Smith had once claimed that he was in his bedroom, while seeking
“… the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him …” (Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, vol.1, p.78)
This is the bomb that blows the lid off of any claim that Joseph Smith was visited by God in 1820. Because if God revealed Himself to Joseph Smith in 1820, as the later-dated first vision story maintains, then Joseph Smith would have known beyond any doubt that a Supreme-being did exist three years before his 1823 bedroom vision supposedly took place.
Looking at the “official” first vision story below; one can see the same unique details between it and the bedroom vision story recorded in the earlier Mormon publication: the Messenger and Advocate, December, 1834. Both stories spell out religious excitement which resulted in the same four Smith family members converting to the Presbyterian faith:
Sacred Grove Vision:
The following account became the official first vision story, which is considered LDS scripture; it’s found in the Pearl of Great Price, and Joseph Smith History, 1:7-20. It was penned in 1838 and published in Times and Seasons, March 15, 1842, vol. 3, no. 10)
Verse (7) I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My 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.
Verse (8) During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; …so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. (1838 Joseph Smith History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapter 1)
As spelled out in the story, because of Smith’s great uneasiness over the religious strife of 1820, the conversion of his mother, two brothers and one sister to the Presbyterian faith that same year, and his desire to know what church to join, Joseph Smith goes out into the woods kneels among a grove of trees and prays. In this sacred grove, Joseph experiences the first vision in which he sees the Father and His beloved Son. The Son tells Joseph not to join any church. The rest is history.
Let’s do some math:
● In the account published in 1834 of the bedroom vision, religious excitement led four Smith family members to join the Presbyterian faith in 1823.
● In the account published in 1842 of the sacred grove vision (the first vision), religious excitement led four Smith family members to join the Presbyterian faith in 1820.
Obviously, if Joseph’s,
“mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians“
in 1823, then they had not already joined the Presbyterian Church in 1820, as recorded in the later-dated official first vision story.
The one consistent element in those vastly different vision accounts is the description of a revival and the conversion of Joseph Smith’s mother Lucy Smith, and three of her children to the Presbyterian faith.
Lucy Smith’s History:
Smith’s mother had her own perspective on these events. On the left is Lucy’s hand written first draft: On the right is the 1853 published edition:
Alvin’s death is mentioned in the right-hand column, in the opening verse. Lucy’s son Alvin died on the 19th of November, 1823. Therefore, this section in Lucy’s biography describes a time shortly after November 19th 1823.
Some of the most telling details in Lucy’s first draft never made it into print. For example, by looking at the column on the right, the following conversation from the column on the left is missing:
“[Lucy’s Husband]… did not object to myself and such as the children as chose to go or to become church members if we wished.”
Also, some of Lucy’s words in the first draft have been crossed out and in places her text had been reworded with notes in the margin; this is typical with a hand written manuscript. However, what is not clear is who crossed out Lucy’s words?
By the time this work was published it went through a filter; apparently the history that didn’t look good was filtered out. Then, official LDS Church history was inserted including the first vision story from the History of the Church Volume I. Lucy had failed to include one word about the first vision in her first draft which speaks volumes as to its rightful place in her work.
Shortly after Alvin’s death, Lucy was considering becoming a member in the local church, along with some of her children. Because Alvin had just died, this would indicate that Lucy considered joining the local church in either late 1823, or, in early 1824.
Note: in the column on the right, Lucy’s account of a great revival is missing.
That great revival has all the markings of the revival spelled out in the official version of the first vision story. Lucy’s dialog of a revival after Alvin’s death would have no doubt caused people much confusion on the subject of the first vision. Is that why her words were crossed out?
Lucy had written,
“[We] … flocked to the meeting house to see if their (sic) was a word of comfort for us…”
Because of Alvin’s recent death, Lucy along with other members of her family were looking for a word of comfort. They chose to go to the meeting house, or in other words; to the local church. Therefore, let’s contrast Lucy’s words about her and her family seeking a word of comfort among the local religious crowd in 1823 – 1824 with what her son Joseph wrote about that same religious crowd, years later:
Account of Joseph Smith’s Persecution:
Verse (22) I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age , and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
Verse (23) It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.
Verse (25) …I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.
Verse (27) I continued to pursue my common vocations in life until the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three, all the time suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision. (History of the Church, Vol. 1:1)
Lucy did not mention anything about Joseph going through years of severe persecution in the first draft of her history. Her desire to fellowship with people in the local church during the early to mid 1820s is at odds with her son’s supposed persecution during that same time-period. If all the sects really were persecuting her son Joseph during this time, how could Lucy have felt comfortable associating with any of them?
Records indicate that Joseph’s mother Lucy did end up joining the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, along with Joseph’s brothers Hyrum, Samuel Harrison and his sister Sophronia. That Presbyterian Church was the “meeting house” spoken of by Lucy in her history:
“For a time, Lucy affiliated with a Presbyterian church in Palmyra, though she was excommunicated for nonattendance the month before the LDS Church was organized.” (BYU Studies, Smith, Lucy Mack, by Anderson, Richard Lloyd/The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan, 1992)
To get a glimpse into the LDS Church’s true foundation one must continue to dispel the fog. What needs to fade away completely is any notion that the revival Joseph Smith spoke of in the first vision story took place in Smith’s neighborhood in 1820. A revival in that area is documented in the local New York newspapers; it took place in 1824.
Let’s do some math:
The LDS Church was organized on April 6th 1830, if Lucy was excommunicated the month before, this would mean that she was still a member in good standing up until about March, 1830. Church records indicate that she was in attendance as late as 1828.
One might wonder why Lucy and the other family members joined the local church and continued to be members year after year? Did they not believe Joseph’s story about the Son telling him,
“… join none of them, [churches] for they were all wrong.”
Here is one way this question has been answered at Brigham Young University:
“The Prophet does not suggest that he confided his first vision to his family, and his mother reports only that she had early knowledge that an angel later revealed the Book of Mormon.” (BYU Studies, Smith, Lucy Mack, by Anderson, Richard Lloyd/The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan, 1992)
Lucy and the rest of the Smith family not hearing about Joseph Smith’s first vision during their years with the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra makes more sense than the story of Joseph suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because he continued to affirm that he had seen a vision:
“It appears that prior to this time [Moroni’s visit of the evening of September 21, 1823] Joseph had not related to his family his initial visionary experience of some three and one half years earlier in which he saw both God the Father, and Jesus Christ. It would also appear from the published text of an interview by Rev. Murdock that [Joseph’s brother] William was unaware of Joseph’s first vision as distinct from his visitation by the angel Moroni, as late as 1841.” (THE WILLIAM SMITH ACCOUNTS of JOSEPH SMITH’S FIRST VISION by Elden J. Watson © copyright 1999 Elden J. Watson)
Today, LDS theologians claim that Joseph Smith discussed what was to become the ‘first vision,’
“only privately with a few trusted friends during the Church’s first decade.” (Mormon Publications: 19th and 20th Centuries / A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church. Volume One, 1830-1847. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, , Item 82, p. 127-29.)
Brigham Young University historian and LDS bishop, James B. Allen said,
“There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830s Joseph Smith was telling the [first vision] story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it.” (The Significance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Thought, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966, p. 30).
Obviously, these last statements are in complete disagreement with Joseph Smith’s 1838 first vision story.
Lucy Smith’s History Continued:
According to Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Smith, the first vision Joseph told her and the other family members about was his 1823 bedroom vision:
“One evening we were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousand opinions in existence as to the truths contained in scripture. … After we ceased conversation he (Joseph) went to bed and was pondering in his mind which of the churches were the true one… he had not laid there long till he saw a bright light entered the room… an angel of the Lord stood by him. The angel spoke I perceive that you are enquiring in your mind which is the true church there is not a true church on Earth No not one” (First draft of Lucy Smith’s History, p. 46, LDS Church Archives/Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, p. 289-290).
The angel went on to tell Joseph about the golden plates,
“Joseph there is a record for you and you must get it one day… the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars—<of cement> then the angel left him…”
● Lucy claimed this angelic vision happened in 1823, in Smith’s room at night.
● Oliver Cowdery wrote of an angelic vision occurring in 1823, in Smith’s room at night.
● In the History of the Church there is account of an angelic vision occurring in 1823, in Smith’s room at night.
The year 1823 is well established as the time an angel appeared in Joseph Smith’s room telling him about the golden plates. Yet there is something very troubling about Lucy’s account of this 1823 room vision. It sounds a lot like Joseph’s later-dated first vision story. Because the angel perceived that Joseph was enquiring in his mind,
“…which is the true church…”
Then the angel told Smith,
“there is not a true church on Earth No not one.”
It’s worth mentioning that in 1853, when Lucy Smith’s history was published:
● The angel had told Joseph something completely different!
● The dialog of the angel telling Joseph that there was not a true church on earth had been deleted!
The Son’s message to Joseph Smith in ‘1820’ is basically the same as the angel’s message in ‘1823,’
● In 1820 the Son said: “…join none of them, for they were all wrong.”
● In 1823 the angel said: “there is not a true church on Earth, No not one.” (First draft of Lucy Smith’s History, p. 46).
Yet, does it make any sense that in 1823, Joseph Smith would be,
“enquiring in… [his] mind which is the true church” (First draft of Lucy Smith’s History, p. 46)
if he had already been enlightened on this subject three years earlier:
“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.” (Joseph Smith History of the Church, Volume 1:18)
This is one more indication that the official first vision story is a later invention, in which Joseph Smith used some of the same details found in his original 1823 vision account, then separated the two stories and backdated his later version to the year 1820.
Other articles of interest:
■ Joseph Smith Stone In Hat Routine — Rich Kelsey
■ LDS Urim and Thummim — Rich Kelsey
1. “The story is an essential part of the first lesson given by Mormon missionaries to prospective converts, and its acceptance is necessary before baptism” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn, 1966, p.29).
2. Joseph Smith History of the Church, Volume One, 1:17
3. Joseph Smith History of the Church, Volume One, 1:19
4. “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.” (Ensign Magazine, Nov. 1998, pp. 70-71)
5. The Wayne Sentinel was a weekly newspaper published in Palmyra, New York beginning in 1823, and continuing at least until 1863. In the late 1820s, the newspaper was one of the first media sources to report on the spiritual claims that were made by Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Latter-Day Saint movement. On 26 June 1829, the Sentinel reported on local rumors of a “Golden Bible” and reproduced the text of the title page of the Book of Mormon, which was not published until March 1830. The Wayne Sentinel was published in Palmyra by E. B. Grandin.
6. “I continued to pursue my common vocations in life until the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three, all the time suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision.” (Joseph Smith History of the Church, Vol. 1, 1:27)
7. FIRST VISION:
1838 Joseph Smith History — This account became the official version, it is now considered Mormon Scripture; it’s found in the Pearl of Great Price, and Joseph Smith — History, 1:7-20. It was penned in 1838 and published in Times and Seasons, March 15, 1842, vol. 3, no. 10:
Verse (7) I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My 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.
Verse (8) During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
Verse (9) My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
Verse (10) In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
Verse (11) 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.
Verse (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.
Verse (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.
Verse (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.
Verse (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.
Verse (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.
Verse (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!
Verse (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.
Verse (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.”
Verse (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…
8. (Messenger and Advocate, December, 1834, p. 42)
10. “The project, which began in the winter of 1844-45, ended almost exactly a year later with the creation of two finished manuscripts (in addition to the rough draft). One of the finished manuscripts stayed in Nauvoo with Lucy and eventually came into possession of Orson Pratt, an LDS apostle, who took it with him to England and published it in 1853. It generated considerable controversy; and Brigham Young, twelve years after the fact, ordered the Saints to deliver up their copies to be destroyed.” (The Textual History of Lucy’s Book , Introduction, (A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson© 2001 by Signature Books Publishing).
11. “Lucy’s book has a very complicated documentary history. In any given passage,… it is not always immediately clear if we are listening to Lucy’s voice or to that of Martha Jane Coray, Howard Coray…” Textual History, Lucy’s Book A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson © 2001 by Signature Books Publishing, LLC).
12. “Membership of Certain of Joseph Smith’s Family in the Western Presbyterian Church of Palmyra.” (Backman, Milton V., Jr., and James B. Allen, BYU Studies 10 (Summer 1970): 482-84)
13. (Joseph Smith History of the Church, Volume One, 1:19)
14. “I continued to pursue my common vocations in life until the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three, all the time suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision.” (History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapter 1:27)
15. (First draft of Lucy Smith’s History, p. 46, LDS Church Archives/Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, p. 290)
16. According to Wesley P. Walters, “Wheat harvest in New York state fell during the latter part of July (whether one planted winter wheat or spring wheat). By contracting for the property sometime after mid-July the harvest for that year was over and the first wheat harvest for the Smiths would fall in the summer of 1821. Accordingly, the third harvest brings us to the summer of 1823” (Vogel 1:289).
17. (Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, vol.1, p.78)
18. (First draft of Lucy Smith’s History, p. 46, LDS Church Archives/Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, p. 289-290).
19. “…He called me by name, and said unto me me [sic] that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi; that God had a work for me to do, and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues; or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people…” (Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations, Lucy Mack Smith, Coray/Pratt 1853, Chapter 18).
20 (Joseph Smith History of the Church, Volume One, 1:19)