Joseph Smith’s First Vision: The Facts

1. Can we agree that LDS members are taught the following?:
The First Vision was the significant ushering event surrounding the organization of the LDS Church.
Joseph Smith and the church learned from the vision that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings.
Joseph was told he should not join any of the existing churches.

Many members feel that the the First Vision as described in the official 1838 account that is in the current LDS scriptures, is the most significant event in the last 2,000 years and bear their testimony of the church around this amazing vision. (i.e. “I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and he DID see God the Father and Jesus Christ as a young boy in the sacred grove”).

However, if you know to look for it and seek it out, the LDS church (at LDS.org) admits that there were multiple First Vision accounts and tries to explain why they are different from each other here.

2. Whether or not there are reasons as to why the different accounts disagree, can we also admit that the First Vision did not hold the same significance to early church members as it does to current church members as discussed below?:
The Significance of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Mormon Thought
by James B. Allen
JAMES B. ALLEN, Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University, is the author of articles on Mormon and Utah history and on teaching religion which have appeared in the Utah Historical Quarterly and the Improvement Era. Before taking a position at BYU he was an L. D. S. Institute teacher for nine years; he is currently serving as Bishop of the BYU Sixteenth Ward.

According to Joseph Smith, he told the story of the vision immediately after it happened in the early spring of 1820. As a result, he said, he received immediate criticism in the community. There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the 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. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision. The interest, rather, was in the Book of Mormon and the various angelic visitations connected with its origin.——————————————————————————————————————————————————p.30 – p.31The fact that 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. In February, 1830, for example, a farmer who lived about fifty miles from Palmyra, New York, wrote a letter describing the religious fervor in western New York and particularly the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. No mention was made, however, of the idea that Joseph Smith had beheld Deity. The earliest anti-Mormon literature attacked the Book of Mormon and the character of Joseph Smith but never mentioned the first Vision. Alexander Campbell, who had some reason to be especially bitter against the Mormons because of the conversion of Sidney Rigdon in 1830, published one of the first scathing denunciations of Joseph Smith in 1832. It was entitled Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon. It contained no mention of the first vision. In 1834 E. D. Howe published Mormonism Unvailed [sic], which contained considerable damaging material against Joseph Smith, including letters of the Mormon apostate Ezra Booth, but again no mention of the first vision. In 1839 John Corrill, another Mormon apostate, published a history of the Mormons, but he made no reference at all to Joseph Smith’s claim to having conversed with the members of the Godhead. In 1842 J. B. Turner published Mormonism in All Ages, which included one of the most bitter denunciations of the Mormon prophet yet printed, but even at this late date no mention was made of the first vision. Apparently not until 1843, when the New York Spectator printed a reporter’s account of an interview with Joseph Smith, did a non-Mormon source publish any reference to the story of the first vision.3 In 1844 I. Daniel Rupp published An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States, and this work contained an account of the vision provided by Joseph Smith himself. After this time non-Mormon sources began to refer to the story. It seems probable, however, that as far as non-Mormons were concerned there was little, if any, awareness of it in the 1830’s. The popular image of Mormon belief centered around such things as the Book of Mormon, the missionary zeal, and the concept of Zion in Missouri.———————————————————————————————————————————-
p.31 – p.32 As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith’s first vision in any published material in the 1830’s.

p.44 – p.45 When it was first told, the story of the vision was used primarily to demonstrate the concept that Joseph Smith had been visited by Deity and that he had been told that all contemporary churches were wrong. After Joseph’s death, however, members of the Church gradually began to appreciate its usefulness for other purposes. By the 1880’s, if not earlier, it was being used in sermons as support for the Mormon doctrine of God, although Joseph Smith himself never used the story for that purpose.

p.45 In conclusion, this demonstrates the need for new approaches to Mormon history by sympathetic Mormon historians. Can we fully understand our heritage without understanding the gradual development of ideas, and the use of those ideas, in our history? It has been demonstrated that an understanding of the story of Joseph Smith’s vision dawned only gradually upon the membership of the Church during his lifetime, and that new and important uses were made of the story after his death. In what other respects has the Mormon mind been modified since the 1830’s? What forces and events have led church leaders to place special emphasis on special ideas in given periods of time? What new ideas have become part of the Mormon tradition since the exodus from Nauvoo, or even in the twentieth century; what old ideas have been submerged, if not forgotten; and what ideas have remained constant through the years? In short, the writing of Mormon history has only begun. As in the case of other institutions and movements, there is still room in Mormonism for fresh historical scholarship–not necessarily for the apologist…”See full account here.————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
3. 1832  is the earliest known attempt at an ‘official’ recounting of the ‘First Vision, from History, 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp.2,3, in the handwriting of Joseph Smith (See An American Prophet’s Record, edited by Scott Faulring, Signature Books, 1989, p.5; The Personal  Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled by Dean Jessee, Deseret Book, 1984, pp. 5-6; Early Mormon Documents, vol.1, compiled by Dan Vogel, Signature Books, 1996, pp. 26-31—————————————————————————————————————————————–
Can we agree that Joseph wrote this first official account 12 years after the event and in this account he related that he had already decided that none of the church’s were true before seeing God which he describes as one personage – The Lord. ”

Official Account: “… thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation 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 exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ … “…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…

Can we agree that (later) in the “official” account (inside LDS scriptures) written in 1838 by a scribe, it has Joseph Smith saying: “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.”  Even if the first story was for a different audience, this is still a direct contradiction. The latter sounding more authoritative than the first.

4. Can we agree that in modern times if someone said they had a vision it would seem extraordinary, or more likely not believable. However in the early 1800s having visions wasn’t perceived to be all that uncommon. Even Joseph Smith’s father claimed to have had a vision – namely the Tree of Life vision. People believed in magic, seer stones, divining rods, etc. and people claiming to have visions weren’t seen as all that strange. Like much of Joseph’s work, the first vision is strikingly similar to someone else’s story. Link here to read simliar documented visions from that time period- many who lived nearby. 

5. Can we agree that Jesus Christ and God the Father told Joseph Smith in 1820 that all churches were an abomination, yet he joined  the Methodist church in June of 1828 anyway. He also joined Methodist classes taught there. (The Amboy  Journal,  Amboy, IL, details Smith’s activity in the Methodist Church in 1828. April 30, 1879 p. 1; May 21, 1879 p.1;  June 11,  1879, p.1; July 2, 1879 p.1.)

 6. Can we agree that originally the Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures  on Faith, accepted as doctrine by Joseph Smith in 1835. The Fifth Lecture on Faith (I think these lectures were  actually part of the D & C until the church removed them in 1920) specifically states that the Father is a spirit, that  only Jesus has a body, and that the Holy Ghost is the Mind of the Father and the Son. Joseph Smith and Sidney  Rigdon promoted this as doctrine in 1835. Yet the whole foundation of the church rests on the reality of the  1820 first vision that proves a different Godhead.
 
http://www.centerplace.org/hs/dc/lectures.htm   

 7.  Can we agree that LDS members are not taught or exposed in todays church gospel doctrine classes or through todays church manuals about the  different versions of the First Vision or that it wasn’t a significant event to early church members? Even in classes  that specifically teach early church history it is not included. This could be considered dishonest or trying to hide  things. I only learned about this by accident when I was 20 years old and not from church. It is understandable perhaps that it isn’t taught in gospel essentials for new members, but for everyone else it doesn’t  make sense, why it isn’t taught except that the church doesn’t want you to learn about it because it threatens the  validity of the church/ people’s testimonies. Also, even though the church and FAIR concede that there are several versions of the First Vision they do not make the documents public anywhere on the Internet.

 8. Can we agree that it is true that there are many (Oliver Cowdery, William Smith, Lucy Smith, etc.) second hand accounts of the first vision  which say the personage that was seen was an angel and not God? It is up for debate whether or not this is a significant error on their part if  indeed they were told it was God the Father and Jesus Christ. Source.   Another Source. 

Note also how William’s account co-mingles elements of the alleged “first vision” with those of ” Moroni’s visit” of 1823.  That same contradiction also occurred in Lucy Mack Smith’s original manuscript of her “Biographical Sketches”:

“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 truth 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 way but he had not laid there long till he saw a bright light enter the room where he lay.  He looked up and saw an angel of the Lord standing 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.”

To see Lucy’s original book as she wrote it:  http://www.utlm.org/booklist/titles/lucysbook_xb184.htm

It’s also sold at Amazon here.

 Conclusion, we can agree that the First Vision wasn’t common knowledge in the early church for several years  because Joseph didn’t mention it much. Whether or not it is reasonable for a prophet/leader of a church to not  speak much about seeing and speaking to God and Jesus for a full decade or more and then all of a sudden talk about it at length is up for debate.

Please tell me where you disagree with  anything I have said and why.

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