One of the foundational claims of the L-dS Church is that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to a young Joseph Smith, in a sacred grove. This First Vision of Joseph’s, opened a new era of God’s work among mankind. It is proof that God once again calls prophets who speak for God and that God has a living prophet among us today.
This is the narrative that has been presented to investigators and members of the L-dS Church for decades.
However, there is a problem. There isn’t only one first vision; or rather there isn’t only one telling of it. Both Joseph Smith and others recounted the vision several times; and each account is a bit different. But waits? If Joseph has such an amazing experience as God the Father appearing to him, should he have every detail right every time he told it? Wouldn’t every excruciating detail be burned into his memory with such strength that he would have no problem recalling everything?
For me, it’s not enough to just take what I read online at face value. I need to look at original source material. That’s why the other day I decided to take another look at the different account of the first vision given by Joseph Smith. I did so a few years ago and so I thought it was time to refresh my memory.
To give you a list here are the accounts that Joseph directly had a part in telling:
There are differences in each of these accounts. For example in the 1832 account Joseph Smith says that is was because he mourned for his sins that he went and prayed in the sacred grove. But in the 1838 account he says it was because he wanted to know which church was correct.
This news has been devastating to many members of the church. Why are there these differences? If Joseph Smith was recalling an actual event shouldn’t he be able to keep his story straight? Maybe he just made it up later to support his claims. Do these differing accounts prove Joseph Smith was a liar?!
To examine these questions we first need to look at some of our fundamental assumptions. These assumptions stem from how the L-dS Church has presented the First Vision.
First, the L-dS Church seems to overstate the importance of the first Vision has to, not only the Church, but also to Joseph Smith. The first vision is presented as an essential first step in “restoring the Church.”
See this quote from Gordon B. Hinckley: “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.”
If the First Vision was that important you would think that it would have played a more significant role in Joseph’s life. But it seems clear from the evidence that it wasn’t as significant to Joseph as we make it out to be.
As pointed out by MormonThink, visions of God or Jesus were common in the 1800’s. Things that are common, tend to not be that significant. We can catch a glimpse of how Joseph may have viewed this vision in the document “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” written in 1830. This account is given as a preface for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It states:
“For after that it truly was manifested unto the first elder that he had received remission of his sins, he was entangled a gain in the vanities of the world, but after truly repenting, God visited him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness…”
Here we see that Joseph (the First Elder) had a manifestation that he had received a remission of his sins prior to the Book of Mormon coming forth. This is very vague, just hinting at something. I don’t know what Joseph was thinking, but to me it’s as if he views this visionary experience that happened tenish years ago as a preface to the actual work, rather than the beginning. Almost as if he was saying, “oh yeah, there was that vision thing I had where my sins were forgiven.”
I think we do a huge disservice to ourselves and other by ascribing more significance to the First Vision that it apparently had to Joseph. In making it the ultimate first step, without which everything is false, we are the ones making the mistake.
Second, the L-dS Church presents the First Vision as a physical occurrence. According to the L-dS narrative God the Father and Jesus both literally appeared before Joseph Smith. They were physically present. There is a reason for this. The L-dS Church teaches that God the Father is a person of flesh and bone. Him appearing physically is used as a point of evidence for this teaching. Having God appear to Joseph as a vision rather than a literal being decreases the points of evidence for this teaching.
The problem with this is that is misrepresents the nature of visions. According to my understanding visions are like dreams. They occur mentally, not physically. I believe that anyone walking into the woods at that time would have only seen a young Joseph staring up at the trees. They would not have seen God or Jesus. Just a boy, in the woods, by himself. Joseph on the other hand would have been seeing his vision. That’s because the vision was happening in his mind.
Let’s look a bit more at the differences presented in these accounts. I’m sure many of you have seen this little infographic.
Look at all the contradictions, it’s so damning. And to top it off this is only a small sample. There are 10 versions that evolved over time!
But let’s look at this a little closer. Of the ten versions mentioned, there are six that Joseph Smith was directly involved in. I listed these earlier. Two of them were identical and excluding the 1830 “inkling”; that leaves five versions of the First vision that joseph was directly involved in telling.
There’s one more version I want to throw out. Look at the 1835 account(the November 14th Journal entry). According to this inforgraphic Joseph smith didn’t see any personages, there was no pillar of fire, no sins forgiven, nothing. Just a bunch of angels. Joseph Smith must really have been making up the whole thing to get the story that wrong. Let’s look at the text of this account:
“A Gentleman called this afternoon by the name of Erastus Holmes of Newbury, Clermont Co. Ohio, he called to make inquiry about the establishment of the Church of the latter-day Saints and to be instructed more perfectly in our doctrine &c I commenced and gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from 6, years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years old and also the visitations that I received afterward, concerning the book of Mormon, and a short account of the rise and progress of the church, up to this, date he listened very attentively and seemed highly gratified, and intends to unite with the Church he is a very candid man indeed and I am much pleased with him.”
Wait…where was it? Where was this damning contradictory First Vision account that Joseph Smith the liar made up? Let me point it out to you:
“the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years”
That’s it?! That’s only seventeen words, there’s hardly any information there. That’s because, for those of you who don’t know, this is something called a summary. What’s a summary you ask? Why it’s when you take many words and make them into few words while still conveying the same general meaning. You see, when Joseph Smith said he told about the time he received the first visitation of angels; he wasn’t saying he only saw angels he was summarizing what he has told the man.
Why was he summarizing when he could have included the entire experience in excruciating detail for 21st century netizens? Because Joseph had already written the first vision fourteen pages earlier in this same journal. Even if we take these seventeen words as a definitive description (meaning Joseph told different version of the story that didn’t allow for pillars of light/fire, personages, etc. and ONLY allowed angels, as suggested in the infographic); it defies logic that Joseph couldn’t keep that story straight with one he told only five days earlier on November 9th! Even I can recall some of the details of impromptu bedtime stories I tell my daughters a week later. To believe that the Nov 9th 1835 account suggests a completely different version is laughable.
But this infographic makes it look like it was a completely different contradictory version. Why? Because it looks more damning with all those red x’s.
Since one of the five versions of the first vision is a one line summary lets exclude it too. That leaves us with four firsthand accounts: the 1832, the 1835(Nov 9th), the 1838 (official), and the 1842 (Wentworth).
So let’s look at some of the details
1832 – Concerned with welfare of his soul, studies the scriptures, found denominations were not agreeable to the scriptures, concerned with contentions of the world, found that mankind has apostatized from the faith, mourned for his sins and the sins of the world.
1835 – Wondering about the subject of religion, who was right and who was wrong,.
1838 – Excitement about religion, confusion and strife among denominations, wondering who was right and who was wrong.
1842 – Societies(groups) had different plans, didn’t think God could be the author of so much confusion.
I don’t know about you, but all of those motivations sound very similar. They are certainly expressed in different ways, but pretty much center around the concept of, concern for standing before God motivated by confusion about religion.
1832 – “The Lord”
1835 – Two personages. First one personage, then another shortly after the first appeared. Many angels.
1838 – Two personages, one identified that other saying, “this is my beloved Son, hear him.”
1842 – Two identical personages
Again, none of these are really contradictory. The 1832 certainly says, “the Lord.” But it doesn’t say ONLY the Lord. And if the personages in the other accounts are the same and there is no indication they are not, they we could reasonably conclude that they are God the Father and the Son. If they are, couldn’t the descriptor, “the Lord” apply as well in the other three accounts? I think so.
1832 – Pillar of light.
1835 – Pillar of fire/flame.
1838 – Pillar of light.
1842 – Surrounded by a brilliant light.
I’m going to be honest. I think you’re just nitpicking if you think these things are describe something different each time.
1832 – Sins are forgiven, keep my commandments, I am the Lord, world has turned from the gospel, they draw near with lips but hearts are far, anger kindled against the inhabitants of the earth, bring to pass that which has been spoken of by the prophets.
1835 – Sins forgiven, testified that Jesus is the Son of god.
1838 – Told that one of the personages is “my beloved Son,” told not to join the churches, their creeds are an abomination, their professors are all corrupt, they draw near with lips but hearts are far, many other things.
1842 – All religious denominations are believing incorrect doctrines, none of them are acknowledged by God, commanded to “go not after them,” the fullness of the gospel should be made known in the future.
Again with these accounts there seems to be a common thread running through them. And there is no case where there is any direct contradiction. You can only find contradiction if you assume that each account contains all that was said and nothing more. The 1835 account does stand out. However is should be noted that this part of the account is only seventeen words long. So it is clearly a summarization.
Hopefully, by now you will agree with me that the infographic was made in such a way as to play up the differences. I think it is clear that these much disparaged “differences” are not anything that can’t be attributed to retelling the same event in different ways at different times.
With all this information in hand I’m going to ask you, have you ever told something that happened to you, but summarized it, or left out parts based on who you are talking to?
I have. When people ask how my wife and I met on my mission and later got married I will usually tell them this:
“I was serving in the Sto. Domingo branch and [my would-be wife] was serving in the District Relief society presidency in another city. One day she came to visit our branch and that was when I first saw her. I only saw her occasionally after that. However, before I went home a member gave me her phone number. After a few months I called her, and the rest is history.”
Even if you asked if I had any spiritual experiences about her I might still only tell you the version above. But I would tell a different version of the story depending on if I thought I should share it with you. That version would go something like this:
“I was serving in the Sto. Domingo branch and [my would-be wife] was serving in the District Relief society presidency in another city. One day she came to visit our branch and that was when I first saw her. It was so weird because at the moment I first saw her, I heard a voice behind me say that she’s the one I’m supposed to marry. I looked behind me thinking it was my companion playing a joke, but nobody was there. I only saw her occasionally after that. However, before I went home I asked a member for her phone number. After a few months I called her, and the rest is history.”
Would you really need to draw up charts with little checkmarks; saying that in one story I said I asked for the phone number, in the other he said it was the member who gave it to him. Or that in one said I had a spiritual experience and the other is didn’t. Of course not, that’s just dumb. We all would understand that I’m just telling different parts of the story based on what I think should be included.
So how come we are willing to give any regular person a pass for summarizing and not sharing all the details every time, but not Joseph Smith?
The truth of the matter is that there aren’t nearly as many contradictions in the first vision accounts as people want you to think. In fact, if we allow the accounts to inform each other, they flow together very well. There really aren’t any major contradictions. There are only contradictions if you view what Joseph told in each account as exactly what was in Joseph’s mind every time. I think human experience tells us that that is not the way we tell and retell stories.
To experiment with this, I set out to make a unified version of the First vision. I gathered all the firsthand accounts and meshed them created one account. My criteria was that I wanted to use as much original wording as possible, I wanted to keep the order of things intact, and I wanted things to make sense as a story. The biggest issue is that some accounts are told in different narrative styles. In one account Joseph may reflect on something which is mentioned earlier in another account. Despite this, the accounts seem to follow each other and mesh very well. I was surprised how easy it actually was. I didn’t need to leave out any details. The story doesn’t require fantastic rationalizations, like Judas hanging himself and then the rope breaking so he fell and burst asunder. It actually flows pretty well. The only issue I didn’t check for was theological correctness. For example, if God the Father would say, “Joseph my son.”
So without further adieu here is my version of the complete first vision:
(I’ve corrected spelling and text I’ve added is bold)
At about the age of twelve years, my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness respecting the subject of religion, and became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the well fare of my immortal Soul; which led me to searching the scriptures. Believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God. Thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my Soul.
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 divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind. But though my feelings were deep and often pungent, still I kept myself aloof from all those parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit, looking at the different systems taught the children of men. But in process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them.
When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon inquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; because so great was 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.
If I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.
My mind at different times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult was so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists, and Methodists, and used all their powers of either reason, or 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 to establish their own tenets, and disprove all others.
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? I knew not who was right or who was wrong, and considering it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences; my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord, but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament, and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God.
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 unto all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him.” 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 had would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passage so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the bible. 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.
Being thus perplexed in mind and in accordance with this my determination, to ask of God, I retired to a secret place in a silent grove to make the attempt; under a realizing sense that he had said (if the bible be true) “ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find,” and again believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it I retired to the woods.
It was on the morning of a beautiful clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. For I had looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth, in majesty and in the strength of beauty. Whose power and intelligence in governing the things, which are so exceeding great and marvelous, even in the likeness of him who created them. And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, “well hath the wise man said, ‘it is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.’“ My heart exclaimed, “all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power. A being who maketh Laws, and decreeth, 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 called upon the Lord for the first time, in the place above stated, or in other words I made a fruitless attempt to pray.
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. After I had retired into the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me and finding myself alone, I bowed down before the Lord and began to to call upon the Lord and 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 overcome me, and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue, so that I could not speak. For my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth.
I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me, I strove again to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprung up on my feet, and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.
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 upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to any 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, I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue liberated, and I called on the Lord in mighty prayer, and therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness.
Just at this moment of great alarm, while fervently engaged in calling upon the Lord, my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision:
I saw a pillar of light, as if fire, above the brightness of the sun at noon day, had appeared exactly above my head and descended gradually from above until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light had presently rested upon my head, I was filled with joy unspeakable through the spirit of God; and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. For a personage appeared in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, and another personage soon appeared like unto the first, and I saw many Angels. I saw these two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day(whose brightness and glory defy all description), standing above me in the air.
One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, saying, “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; and said, (pointing to the other,) “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”
And he said unto me, “Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.”
Now 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.
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. He said, “Behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrine the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to their ungodliness, and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles. Behold and lo I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.”
They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me. And many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time.
When I came to myself again I found myself laying on my back, looking up into heaven. My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the heavenly vision, nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart but after many days I fell into transgressions, was entangled again in the vanities of the world, and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul. And there were many things which transpired that cannot be written.
As a follow up to this I will be posting an analysis showing where I drew from each account and how much.
Some questions answered:
Why are there multiple versions of the First Vision?
Because Joseph Smith told the account multiple times.
Why do some of the accounts differ?
Probably because Joseph Smith told it slightly differently each time. He may have included and excluded pieces depending on who he was talking to.
Doesn’t that prove he was lying and couldn’t keep his story straight?
Not any more than it proves you lie when you tell a story differently and may or may not include certain details depending on who you’re talking to.
Are there any firsthand accounts that directly contradict each other?
No. Some accounts may leave out elements or state things in a different way, but that is not the same as a contradiction.
But didn’t Joseph say he saw only the Lord in one account and two personages (God and Jesus) in another account?
He didn’t say he ONLY saw the Lord. He just said he saw the Lord. I would say that seeing God, or Jesus, or both would qualify as having seen “the Lord.” Perhaps, he decided to exclude some of the details in that account, just like he did many others.
Isn’t it a contradiction when Joseph Smith said, “Who of all these parties are right? Or, are they all wrong together?” then later said “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong” in the same document, not to mention in other accounts he had already concluded that the other churches had apostatized?!
Possibly, people make mistakes all the time. However to me it reads as if Joseph Smith is waxing philosophical or just basing things on his own studies in his statements pre-vision. Then later he is saying something like, “Woah, it’s really official, they are all wrong.” I know that explanation won’t satisfy everybody. But to be honest I don’t have an issue with either keeping that parenthetical or chalking it up to an authorship issue and throwing it out. Is this possible error proof that Joseph Smith lied? Hardly.
Why didn’t you talk about Joseph’s age? It’s all over the place in the different accounts.
The accounts don’t really differ that much. The age is cited as between a range of fourteen and sixteen. You’re assuming this event was much more significant to Joseph Smith then the evidence indicates it was. Ten years later he probably had a hard time remembering exactly what year it was.
Why did Joseph Smith join the Methodist Church in 1828 after he was told not to in the vision?
I don’t know Joseph Smith’s motivations so I can’t answer why. Though this would not be inconsistent with the first vision account, because Joseph Smith himself admitted that he fell into transgressions, was entangled in the vanities of the world, and sinned in many things. It would be folly to assume Joseph Smith perfectly kept all of God’s commandments when the man himself admitted that he didn’t.
Doesn’t the fact that there are no records of the first vision until ten or twelve years after it supposedly happened mean that Joseph Smith made it up?
Not necessarily, it just may mean that this vision wasn’t as significant to Joseph Smith as the L-dS Church makes it out to be. Evidence indicates that the vision prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon was much more significant to him.
You’re just ignoring that facts and twisting things to support your own conclusions!
Not any more than you are.
Joseph Smith was a filthy liar, scumbag, pedophile; I just know it!
Boo hoo, go cry in your pillow.