“Historical analysis of Joseph Smith’s earliest religious experiences
raises the larger question of what documentation can reasonably be
expected for such events. A few writers on this subject virtually claim that
one could not accept the vision if it were not headlined by the regional
press in the spring of 1820. But that is projecting twentieth century journalism
onto the patterns of another age, for precious little local news
reached the columns of the country newspaper of Joseph Smith’s youth.
A more realistic criterion is the outside publicity given the rise of Christianity.
Contemporary mention of this obscure religious reform is absent
until it became an influential force, and at that point comment emerges in
Roman sources. Non-Mormon references to the First Vision follow this
parallel. The earliest known newspaper allusion is a reaction to the first
great success of Latter-day Saint proselyting, the Ohio-Missouri mission.
“Our Painesville correspondent” forwarded a report of the 1830 preaching
of “Cowdery and his friends” in Ohio: “Smith (they affirmed), had seen
God frequently and personally.”88
At the peak of his career in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith was a creative religious
innovator, but every important First Vision account antedates that
period. The visions of the 1820’s were historically recorded in the 1830’s,
with the first detailed account of the First Vision framed in 1831–32, about
a decade after the event. This compares favorably to the best parallel, the
New Testament record of Christian revelations. For instance, Paul’s first
vision occurred about A.D. 33, but his only detailed descriptions are
speeches given in the period A.D. 58–60, also the earliest date for the composition of Acts, in which these speeches and Luke’s historical account of
Paul’s vision appear.
In present terms, many readers of this article in 1969 remember very well certain episodes of December 7, 1941 (a quarter of a century ago), because of their aroused emotions on “a day that will live in infamy.” Some twenty years after the death of his brother Alvin, Joseph Smith said that the vivid memories of that event had not left him.89 The First Vision, an experience of greater emotional impact, was entered in the early ledger book after about half that time. This paper has shown that Joseph Smith’s memory is basically accurate for the external events of his early life.
Although not commenting upon the circumstances of the First Vision,
Joseph Smith’s father alluded to the experience itself. The occasion was a
formal gathering of the entire Smith family and a few trusted Church leaders
in 1834 to receive their blessings from the appointed patriarch of the
Church. The meeting was opened by brief observations of the sixty-threeyear-old leader, surveying his personal and family history. He recalled that
the Lord had “often” given him “visions” and “dreams,” a supporting statement
for the seven related in detail by his wife, the last of which is dated
1819 by her. He reviewed God’s favor on the family in their “many afflictions,”
mentioning specifically the tragedies of the “untimely birth” of a
son (about 1797), the death of another child “in his infancy” (1810), and
the 1823 death of Alvin, “taken from us in the vigor of life, in the bloom of
youth.”90 Obviously, Joseph Sr. was voicing the personal convictions and
traditions of an entire household. After a prayer, the initial blessing was
given to his prophet-son.
The opening words of Joseph Smith, Sr., summarized the spiritual career of the twenty-eight-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr., as then accepted by those who knew him most intimately: The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens; thou hast heard his voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth.91
In a series of revelations given “from time to time,” the initial experience
mentioned is not the coming of an angel, but an incident in which the
youth is addressed personally by God from the heavens.92 Thus the patriarch
spontaneously gives the same sequence for the First Vision as found in
the writings of his wife and prophet-son.
To recapitulate, the reality of the First Vision has recently been challenged
on the ground that no revivals are found in the village of Palmyra in
the years immediately surrounding Joseph Smith’s date of 1820. But a
study of the leading non-Mormon recollection of the Prophet’s early religious
investigations makes this line of investigation largely irrelevant.
Orsamus Turner, printer’s apprentice in Palmyra until about 1820, recalled
young Joseph’s “catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away
down in the woods…” Thus the “religious excitement” that the Prophet
identifies as preceding his First Vision must be seen in a rural setting, what
a contemporary minister of the Genesee Conference termed “forest gatherings.”93
The documented camp meeting near Palmyra in 1820 is no doubt
typical of many others not noted in the press. But a constellation of
Methodist preachers comprising all circuits of western New York gathered
in their annual meeting at nearby Phelps in 1819. The impact of their public
preaching is measured by the description of the “crowds which gathered
from far and near” for the conference of the previous year.94
A careful study of the quality of recollection found in the writings of
William Smith and Oliver Cowdery render them not prime sources for
the First Vision itself. This means in essence that recent challenges to the
Prophet’s first religious experience have set up the problem with improper
sources and have attempted a solution by studying only one type of revival
in an unduly restricted locality. When the personal recollections that reach
back to 1820 are isolated, the few Mormon and non-Mormon sources that
qualify are in basic agreement. Though scornful of Mormon claims and
preoccupied with money-digging gossip, Orsamus Turner and Pomeroy
Tucker agree that Joseph Smith loosely affiliated with Methodism but
shortly announced a negative evaluation of all Christian churches. A study
of Turner’s early life, combined with the shortness of Joseph Smith’s
Methodist association indicated in Tucker, requires a date of approximately
1820 for these events.
By far the best independent source on Joseph’s early personal life is his mother, who confirms the religious excitement about 1819 “in the surrounding country,” relates his vision, describes his ostracism afterwards, and emphasizes that his conviction that the churches were wrong prevented his following the majority of the adults of his family in participation in the local revivals of 1824–25.
Beyond these historical details, it is most impressive that both parents express acceptance of the First Vision. An exacting study of existing recollections of the early 1820 period leaves the distinct impression that Joseph Smith is more accurate on his early history than any of his current critics.
Jeff at Latter-day Saints Q & A shares this presentation:
Richard Lloyd Anderson, Harvard-trained attorney and Berkeley PhD shares his insight. BYU devotional given in 1983:
“I have spent half of my time studying the sources of the life of Joseph Smith, and the other half studying the words of Christ and the New Testament prophets. I find it hard to believe in the biblical prophets without also accepting Joseph Smith and those called after him. The same reasons that lead a thinking person to accept Peter and Paul as Christ’s servants should also lead that person to accept Joseph Smith as commissioned by Christ.
Here I am going to take Paul as an example because we know more about his life than that of any other New Testament prophet. His main strengths as a prophet are also those of Joseph Smith.
If you forget some comparisons, please remember the principle—that the leading evidences that Paul is a true prophet also support Joseph Smith as called of God. Remembering that fundamental proposition, you can reconstruct this talk anytime with you own examples. Proof of the mission of any true prophet gives the format for identifying a later true prophet.”
Another BYU devotional. This one from Truman G. Madsen in 1978:
This portion of his talk shares the memory of an acquaintance of Joseph. She was present when an area church leader visiting her family twice. Each time the churchman discouraged this person’s father from allowing Joseph to have such good relations with his family.
Critics claim Joseph didn’t share his vision with others till 1832. Simply not true.
“The enemies of Joseph Smith have made out over and over that he was shiftless, lazy, indolent, that he never did a day’s work in his life.10 But a document exists that contains reported recollections about Joseph Smith as recorded by Martha Cox.
One of these comes from a woman, identified as Mrs. Palmer, who knew him in his early life when she was a child.11 As a girl—years younger than him, apparently—she watched him with others of the boys working on her father’s farm. Far from his being indolent, the truth is that, according to this account, her father hired Joseph because he was such a good worker.12
Another reason was that Joseph was able to get the other boys to work. The suspicion is that he did that by the deft use of his fists. It is my belief that one of the feelings he had of unworthiness, one of the things for which he asked forgiveness (and his account shows that he did pray for forgiveness prior to the visitations of Moroni), was this physical propensity.
He was so strong, so muscular, so physically able, that that was one way he had of solving problems. This troubled him. He did not feel it was consonant with the divine commission he had received.13
Mrs. Palmer’s account speaks of “the excitement stirred up among some of the people over [Joseph’s] first vision.” A churchman, she recalls, came to her father “to remonstrate against his allowing such close friendship between his family” and the boy Joseph. But the father, pleased with Joseph’s work on his farm, was determined to keep him on.
Of the vision, he said that it was “the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy.” Later, the daughter reports, Joseph claimed to have had another vision; and this time it led to the production of a book. The churchman came again, and at this point the girl’s father turned against Joseph. But, she adds significantly, by then it was too late. Joseph Smith had a following.14″
Insight into Joseph’s style:
Joseph personally wrote very little. Instead, he used many scribes:
Sandra Tanner, one of the LDS Church’s biggest critics, has been asked many times over the years why she left Mormonism. Of course, each time she shares a slightly different version. Years apart, and depending on the context, Sandra’s stories are slightly different. We wouldn’t expect anything else.
A friend of mine — who has studied ex-Mormons for decades — told me he had seen a list of Sandra Tanner’s many and various deconversion stories. Do these unique deconversion stories — some short, some long, some very detailed, some with dates, some with key details absent — prove Sandra was lying?
Of course not! The same must be said for Joseph. However, LDS critics are not nearly as consistent.
An anonymous letter (in favor of the LDS Church) in response to the Tanners’ book, “Mormonism–Shadow or Reality.”
Commenting on the differences between the various accounts of the First Vision, one non-LDS scholar commented as follows:
For example, in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event.
And despite the contradictions, key elements abide. In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain all of from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.”
(Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 171, comment in square brackets added for clarification)
A few personal thoughts about claimed conflict or tension between Joseph’s 1832 and 1838 accounts. Joseph said Lord twice in his 1832 journal. Joseph said separate beings in 1838 account.
All the Father did was introduce. Nothing is contradictory in the 1832 account. It’s true, details are lacking. Clarification is lacking. I wish it was more obvious. But it does not contradict later accounts that provided additional details. 1838 was meant to be the published account, as part of the History of the Church.
I’ve become a better, clearer writer after years living with my wife. She’s a super writer. I must have been a horrible writer in high school (which Joseph didn’t have) and early at BYU.
By the way, Joseph usually wrote several drafts before publishing future revelations. His 1832 journal account surely isn’t the polished work he (and future scholars and members) later wished it would have been, since critics now closely scrutinize it.
When my wife will edit my writing, I now try to make everything painfully obvious, so my wife won’t ask a bazillion questions about who and what. Many such details are often completely unclear in every rough draft, as was JS’s 1832 journal account of his vision.
My wife edits everything that important audiences might see. Everything. Because I can’t anticipate what isn’t clear. Joseph made similar errors, in my view.
Why so many accounts?
Did Joseph change his story?
Why weren’t the accounts identical?
Why don’t more Latter-day Saints know about the various accounts?
Conclusion on First Vision issues:
Critics claim Joseph didn’t report on the First Vision till his first written account in 1832. Not true. At least one account in the area newspaper (in 1831) reported that Joseph had seen God. 4 witnesses were aware of this 1831 account.
Short introduction about Joseph’s First Vision accounts written by himself or his scribes during his lifetime:
A graphical comparison of the details of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision.
Short introduction about accounts written by others during Joseph’s lifetime:
Short introduction with a focus on the familiar 1838 account:
Joseph’s First Vision may be the most well-documented theophany in history. Five of the eight documents are unique with three being copies of previous ones. Five other known writers documented the event in Joseph’s lifetime. Joseph published two known accounts in 1839 and 1842.
Scholars would be thrilled to have that much direct and indirect documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and Paul on the road to Damascus.
Speaking of Paul, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote about the many parallels between Paul’s and Joseph’s accounts here.
Both gave their accounts at different times, in different settings, with differing details. Complementary accounts, not obvious fraud.
Both can still be considered prophets. Worth reading.
Couple background videos about Joseph’s First Vision:
Joseph provided accounts throughout his life and many written accounts. Below is a graphic published in the Improvement Era in 1970. The same information was published in BYU Studies in 1969.
Richard Anderson wrote of the First Vision and details surrounding Joseph’s accounts in the April 1996 Ensign. Click here.
Some claim the Church wasn’t transparent on this topic. But above we can read the Improvement Era publication in 1970, listen to a BYU devotional in 1983, and a detailed Ensign article in 1996. That’s not typical of an institution hiding this information.
Matthew Grow shares his insight in Rome in 2016:
Ron Barney was the executive director of the Mormon History Association when he gave this talk:
Joseph’s story got abroad in the early days. He published his account to put an end to rumors and falsehoods. Joseph was never eager to share the First Vision. This may seem strange with us. But this is consistent with how he handled many other events.
For example, Joseph didn’t tell his father of his nightly Moroni visitations until Moroni told him to do so (the next day, after Joseph collapsed crossing the fence). Joseph likely wouldn’t have told anyone — and followed this pattern with his 1st Vision — unless instructed by the angel.
Joseph was religiously private. Joseph hesitated giving details about the translation of the Book of Mormon when asked for particulars by Hyrum. Joseph tried to teach church leaders to keep sacred experiences sacred. Joseph taught in 1835 before the Kirtland Temple dedication, “If God gives you a manifestation, keep it to yourself.”
April 3, 1836: Savior appeared to Joseph and Oliver. They received keys from Moses, Elias, and Elijah. Elder Pratt included this (Joseph Smith’s) journal entry into D&C 110, but not until 1876. But most don’t realize the Joseph discreetly kept the record of the event to himself. Joseph told few if any of the full scope.
Oliver was also disinclined to speak of the awesome 1836 event. Oliver had already shown this behavior: visited by the Savior in 1829 and shown the plates in a vision, Oliver shared this to virtually no one.
Not until November 1852 was this account published in the Deseret News. This was entirely consistent with Joseph. He shared little.
Matthew 17 contains the Transfiguration. Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to tell no man. This type of event was not to be spread abroad.
According to Hugh Nibley: “From his own account [in the 1838-39 account of the First Vision] it is apparent that he would not have told it publicly at all had he not been “induced” to do so by all the scandal stories that were circulating. It was a rule among those possessing the Gospel in ancient times that the greater teachings not be publicly divulged.”
Likewise, no narrative exists from Joseph or Oliver relative to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The record shows Joseph and Oliver discussed it, but determined sharing was not appropriate.
Steven Harper: Four Accounts and Three Critiques of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Joseph Factual and interpretive (what vision meant over time) memory plays a role in Joseph’s individual accounts.
Criticisms that Steven Harper addresses:
1) Critics — from the first minister to today’s critics — denounced Joseph’s First Vision a priori. It just couldn’t have happened. Reasonable people know this, they say. This view is from a skeptical interpretation or hermeneutic. Latter-day Saints tend to have a hermeneutic of trust.
2) Joseph didn’t share First Vision story till 1840. False: written accounts exist from 1832. Other details were shared by others in 1820 and certainly before 1840. Critics’ methods assume how a person, such as Joseph, must have acted if the accounts were true. Joseph was criticized and persecuted. He didn’t share this story much in the early years.
A few days after Joseph’s vision, Joseph shared his story with the Methodist minister (who had been involved in the area’s religious upheavals). This minister showed great contempt. Joseph said in his 1832 account that “he could find no one” who would believe.
3) No revivals in Palmyra in 1820. Perhaps true, but you can’t prove a negative. But Joseph talked about the activity across the “district” and didn’t specify 1820. Many camp meetings were held in Manchester and the area in years around and including 1820. Joseph was factually accurate when you read the text of Joseph’s own report.
Brett McDonald also created a video, explaining the historical evidence behind the First Vision (from start till 43:00).
Joseph saw God and Jesus (2 unique individuals) in 1820. At the outset and for a variety of reasons (mostly persecution), Joseph told few people about this event. But Joseph shared much, much more than critics want to acknowledge. And he was consistent in his accounts of the vision.
Brian Hales shares information to rebut the CES Letter — the latest aggregated tract critical of LDS truth claims.
Brian Hales points out in the above video (starting at 4:25) that Joseph (w/ Sydney Rigdon) saw “the plain separateness of” God and Jesus, as they saw the 3 degrees of glory in vision (D&C 76). Their joint vision occurred on February 16, 1832. This vision occurred around 6 months before Joseph personally penned his first account of the 1st Vision.
Joseph did not hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead when he wrote his first account in the summer of 1832. How could he? Joseph saw God and Jesus separately several months before on 2/16/1832 recorded in D&C 76. He was neither a Trinitarian in 1832 — at the time Joseph recorded his First Vision story — nor earlier. The historical record is clear on the basis of recorded visions.
Critics assert that Joseph didn’t tell others about his first vision for years. And that his accounts weren’t consistent. The research shows otherwise.
Consider this timeline from the YouTube video below:
This speaker, Matthew Brown, at the 2004 FAIR Mormon conference showed below that Joseph did share his 1st Vision account with many others than the Methodist minister. The entire video is good. The first vision discussion starts at 18:40.
At 20:50 of the below video Matthew Brown points out that Joseph’s father and mother reported (verbally and in print) that Joseph was mistreated and persecuted in 1820 (after his first visitation from heaven took place) by religionists.
At 21: 09: A non-Mormon Smith neighbor is also quoted in 1820 who witnessed a religionist’s reaction. This religionist was a Presbyterian minister instructed the non-Mormon neighbor’s father to not allow his son to associate with the Smith boy. The minister continued, saying that Joseph “must be put down or else he would someday convince others to follow after him.” Not persecution? Would you have wanted to share your first vision with lots of folks after that?
These above accounts aren’t in alignment with many LDS critics’ claims. Critics claim that the 1st Vision didn’t exist until 1838, and wasn’t generally known by Latter-day Saints till 1840.
Further facts (at 22:10 in video): Joseph’s own town newspaper published in 1830 that Joseph Smith had seen God personally.
Missionaries from 1830 on taught that Joseph saw God and Jesus (as separate beings) in a grove of trees in 1820. The phrase, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”, was generally known.
Was Joseph’s experience known only to a few individuals? No! The opposite is true. In 1831 Joseph told a crowd of over 200 people about his earliest manifestation. And in 1834 he related it in a midst of many large congregations.
In addition to clarifying who knew about the First Vision before 1840, Matthew Brown shares much about the misconceptions regarding Joseph’s early days and ministry. So, watch the entire video…
Did early LDS leaders misunderstand the First Vision, as critics suggest? Nope.
Early friends and associates of the prophet were familiar with Joseph’s First Vision story. Read the link below:
“Use this handy chart. The First Vision Accounts are numbered 1-8. If it’s not on the list (for example, Cowdery’s 1834-35 letters to the editor, which is a Book of Mormon origin story) it’s not a FV account. Antis like to throw those in to make the differences seem larger than they are. Letters A-P are the various story points.
1) Letter Book, 1831-32, Joseph Smith 2) Jewish Minister, 1835, Joseph Smith 3) Official Version, 1838-39, Joseph Smith 4) Pratt tract, 1840, Orson Pratt 5) Hyde tract, 1842, Orson Hyde 6) Wentworth letter, 1842, Joseph Smith 7) N.Y. Spectator, 1843, Joseph Smith 8) Neibaur diary, 1844, Alexander Neibaur
A) Religious excitement: 3,8 B) JS’s concern for his soul: 1,4,5,6,8 C) Disillusionment w/existing churches: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 D) Which church was right: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 E) JS searches the scriptures: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 F) JS prays: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 G) Strange force of opposition: 2,3,4,5,8 H) Appearance of light: 1,2,3,4,7,8 I) Appearance of Deity: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 J) Two personages: 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 K) Forgiveness of sins: 1,2,4 L) Testimony of Jesus: 1,2,3,7 M) Join no church: 1,3,4,5,6,7,8 N) Gospel to be restored: 4,5,6 O) JS filled with love: 1 P) Unsuccessful in getting others to believe:1,3,8
With respect to the age question, every FV account which mentions age (as originally written) has him at 14 years old. The only outlier is the 1831-32 Letter Book account – which has him at 15 in an inclusion – which was added after the fact, in somebody else’s handwriting.”
Lots of publications on this topic. The Church was not hiding this.
Detailed information about the First Vision, including historical confirmations of details in Joseph’s accounts, are given in the following works as cited by M. Roper:
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 373-404.
Richard L. Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 82-93.
Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 43-64.
Peter Crawley, “A Comment on Joseph Smith’s Account of His First Vision and the 1820 Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (Spring 1971): 106-7.
Marvin Hill, “The First Vision: A Critique and Reconciliation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 31-46.
Paul R. Cheesman, The Keystone of Mormonism: Early Visions of Joseph Smith (Provo: Eagle Systems International, 1988), 20-37.
Other useful works include:
James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision – What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era, Vol. 73, April 1970, pp. 4-13.
James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue, Vol. 1, Autumn 1966, pp. 29-45.
James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7, 1980, pp. 43-61.
Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Confirming Witnesses of the First Vision,” Ensign, Vol. 16, No. 1, Jan. 1986, pp. 32-37.
Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, Vol. 15, No. 1, Jan. 1985, pp. 8-17.
Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977.
Richard Lyman Bushman is a stake patriarch, in addition to being a world-class scholar. He currently serving as the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University.
He is also a general editor of the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project. Bushman sat down with host Blair Hodges for an extended two-part interview. Part one discusses Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. We discuss polygamy, seer stones, gold plates, and other Joseph Smith-related questions.
A. William Lund, former Assistant Historian of the Church, gave this speech in 1951 at BYU. Brother Lund worked at and was associated with the Church Historians Office from 1908 till his death in 1971.
When Brother Lund came to work at the Historian’s Office there were many veteran members of the Church who personally recalled experiences in Nauvoo and early Utah. He enjoyed talking with them, as well as visitors who streamed past his desk for more than the next sixty years.
This link shares more about the extraordinary life of A. William Lund: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/03/in-memoriam-a-william-lund-18861971?lang=eng