“First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topics Essays (2016)
“First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topics Essays
Joseph Smith recorded that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a grove of trees near his parents’ home in western New York State when he was about 14 years old. Concerned by his sins and unsure which spiritual path to follow, Joseph sought guidance by attending meetings, reading scripture, and praying. In answer, he received a heavenly manifestation. Joseph shared and documented the First Vision, as it came to be known, on multiple occasions; he wrote or assigned scribes to write four different accounts of the vision.
Joseph Smith published two accounts of the First Vision during his lifetime. The first of these, known today as Joseph Smith—History, was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price and thus became the best known account. The two unpublished accounts, recorded in Joseph Smith’s earliest autobiography and a later journal, were generally forgotten until historians working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rediscovered and published them in the 1960s. Since that time, these documents have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues.1 In addition to the firsthand accounts, there are also five descriptions of Joseph Smith’s vision recorded by his contemporaries.2
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration.3 Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.
Each account of the First Vision by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries has its own history and context that influenced how the event was recalled, communicated, and recorded. These accounts are discussed below.
1832 Account. The earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, is found in a short, unpublished autobiography Joseph Smith produced in the second half of 1832. In the account, Joseph Smith described his consciousness of his own sins and his frustration at being unable to find a church that matched the one he had read about in the New Testament and that would lead him to redemption. He emphasized Jesus Christ’s Atonement and the personal redemption it offered. He wrote that “the Lord” appeared and forgave him of his sins. As a result of the vision, Joseph experienced joy and love, though, as he noted, he could find no one who believed his account. Read the 1832 account here.
1835 Account. In the fall of 1835, Joseph Smith recounted his First Vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. The retelling, recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe Warren Parrish, emphasizes his attempt to discover which church was right, the opposition he felt as he prayed, and the appearance of one divine personage who was followed shortly by another. This account also notes the appearance of angels in the vision. Read the 1835 account here.
1838 Account. The narration of the First Vision best known to Latter-day Saints today is the 1838 account. First published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois, the account was part of a longer history dictated by Joseph Smith between periods of intense opposition. Whereas the 1832 account emphasizes the more personal story of Joseph Smith as a young man seeking forgiveness, the 1838 account focuses on the vision as the beginning of the “rise and progress of the Church.” Like the 1835 account, the central question of the narrative is which church is right. Read the 1838 account here.
1842 Account. Written in response to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth’s request for information about the Latter-day Saints, this account was printed in the Times and Seasons in 1842. (The “Wentworth letter,” as it is commonly known, is also the source for the Articles of Faith.)4 The account, intended for publication to an audience unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs, is concise and straightforward. As with earlier accounts, Joseph Smith noted the confusion he experienced and the appearance of two personages in answer to his prayer. The following year, Joseph Smith sent this account with minor modifications to a historian named Israel Daniel Rupp, who published it as a chapter in his book, He Pasa Ekklesia [The Whole Church]: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States.5 Read the 1842 account here.
Secondhand Accounts. Besides these accounts from Joseph Smith himself, five accounts were written by contemporaries who heard Joseph Smith speak about the vision. Read these accounts here.
The variety and number of accounts of the First Vision have led some critics to question whether Joseph Smith’s descriptions match the reality of his experience. Two arguments are frequently made against his credibility: the first questions Joseph Smith’s memory of the events; the second questions whether he embellished elements of the story over time.
Memory. One argument regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision alleges that historical evidence does not support Joseph Smith’s description of religious revival in Palmyra, New York, and its vicinity in 1820. Some argue that this undermines both Joseph’s claim of unusual religious fervor and the account of the vision itself.
Documentary evidence, however, supports Joseph Smith’s statements regarding the revivals. The region where he lived became famous for its religious fervor and was unquestionably one of the hotbeds of religious revivals. Historians refer to the region as “the burned-over district” because preachers wore out the land holding camp revivals and seeking converts during the early 1800s.6 In June 1818, for example, a Methodist camp meeting took place in Palmyra, and the following summer, Methodists assembled again at Vienna (now Phelps), New York, 15 miles from the Smith family farm. The journals of an itinerant Methodist preacher document much religious excitement in Joseph’s geographic area in 1819 and 1820. They report that Reverend George Lane, a revivalist Methodist minister, was in that region in both years, speaking “on Gods method in bringing about Reformations.”7 This historical evidence is consistent with Joseph’s description. He said that the unusual religious excitement in his district or region “commenced with the Methodists.” Indeed, Joseph stated that he became “somewhat partial” to Methodism.8
Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.9
There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence. A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness.10 Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”11
Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.”12 The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.
Joseph Smith testified repeatedly that he experienced a remarkable vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Neither the truth of the First Vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone. Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true. If the seeker asks with the real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest. In this way, every person can know that Joseph Smith spoke honestly when he declared, “I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”13