The Telling of the First Vision

Last Sunday, our ward Relief Society had a lesson on the accounts of the First Vision. I wasn’t there, obviously, but it was reported to me that the discussion was interesting and helpful, but also left a few questions on the table. Additionally, the Church just released a new video of the First Vision that combines elements of the various accounts into a harmonized story of that event. And President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles combined to talk with youth about Joseph Smith at the site of the First Vision in New York this last Saturday. All that made me think it would probably be good to share some things I have learned about it, beyond the few comments I made in an earlier post.

The Firsthand Accounts

FirstVision.pngMany know that Joseph Smith left behind four (or five; see [1]) accounts of the vision he experienced in the grove behind his family’s log home in 1820. The Church has a useful topics page about it, and the Joseph Smith Papers website includes an excellent page that lists not only Joseph Smith’s accounts but others written in his lifetime by people who heard it from him. Here is a summary but I encourage you to click all the links and read them for yourself.

1832

FirstVision1832.pngJoseph Smith’s first known attempt to record the experience was when he started writing his own history in 1832. This is the only version that is written in Joseph’s own handwriting; the others are written by scribes. I like this one because it is very personal and very expressive of his earliest thinking back of the experience, only twelve years after it happened and when the Church was relatively new. Some of the highlights for me include:

  • FirstVisionRaines.pngHe says that he was about twelve when he first started getting serious about religion.
  • He is concerned “for the well fare of [his] immortal Soul” and “convicted of my sins.” Indeed, more than in any other account, we see from this one that his main motivation in going to pray was to obtain forgiveness of sins and knowledge of how to be saved.
  • He is also concerned about “the sittuation of the world of mankind,” the wickedness and abominations and darkness all around him, and “felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”
  • He shows a poetic side, considering the sun, moon, and stars, animals, fish, and man, all of which led him to think of God and his power: “<it is a> fool <that> saith in his heart there is no God.”
  • Addressing Joseph’s chief concern, the first thing the Lord said to him was, “Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee.”
  • After the vision, Joseph recorded that his “soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.”

1835

FirstVision1835.pngWhile entertaining a man at his home, the Prophet recounted to him some of his early experiences. Warren Parrish copied this account into Joseph Smith’s journal for 9-11 November 1835. It was also included in his history, 1834-1836, 9 November 1835. This is the shortest version of the four. Some highlights of this version include:

  • FirstVisionRane2.pngJoseph Smith considered it very important that he “should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences,” which is what drove him to pray in the grove.
  • Other scriptures besides James 1:5 influenced his decision, including “ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find” (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:9).
  • While trying to pray, he could not because his “toung seemed to be swolen in [his] mouth.”
  • He heard a noise behind him like someone walking and jumped up, but saw no one.
  • He first saw one personage in a pillar of fire, and then “another personage soon appeard.”
  • As with the 1832 account, he was first told that his sins were forgiven.
  • Besides the Father and the Son, he “saw many angels in this vision.”

1838

FirstVision1838.pngThis account is the one that was published in the Pearl of Great Price, today called Joseph Smith—History. This history was recorded in three drafts, with much of Draft 1 now lost. The version in the Pearl of Great Price comes from Draft 2. This is the longest version of the experience and was recorded shortly after Joseph’s experiences in Liberty and other jails in Missouri, which certainly impacted how he expressed himself. Some unique things of this account include:

  • Discussion of the various churches involved in young Joseph’s confusion (Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist are mentioned by name), with him being “somewhat partial to the Methodist sect” and other members of his family joining the Presbyterian church.
  • He gives the time of day as morning and that it was a clear, spring day in 1820.
  • He writes of “thick darkness” gathering around him as he prayed, making him feel “doomed to sudden destruction” in the “power of some actual being from the unseen world.”
  • The first personage to speak introduced the other, saying, “This is my beloved Son, Hear him.”
  • It had never entered into his heart that all the churches might be wrong until he was told so in the grove.
  • After the vision, he found himself lying on his back, looking up.
  • He shared his vision with a Methodist minister who treated his account “with great contempt, saying it was all of the Devil” and he should speak of it no more.

1842

FirstVision1842.pngThe final firsthand account is part of the well-known Wentworth letter, written to John Wentworth of Chicago in behalf of his friend, George Barstow, who was writing a history of New Hampshire. Barstow ended up cutting the content of his book off at 1819, so in the end used none of Joseph Smith’s story. But the letter was published in the Church newspaper Times and Seasons in Nauvoo, making it generally available. The better-known section of the Wentworth letter are the Articles of Faith at the end of the Pearl of Great Price. Many of the expressions in this account show a dependence on Orson Pratt’s 1840 account of the First Vision published in Scotland (below). Some interesting things from this account include:

  • SacredGrove1907Joseph Smith reasoned that “God could not be the author of so much confusion,” and that “if God had a church it would not be split up into factions” that disagreed fundamentally about salvific doctrines.
  • The two personages Joseph saw in vision “exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.”
  • He received a promised that “the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known” to him.

Accounts Written by Contemporaries

There are at least five accounts recorded and even published in Joseph Smith’s lifetime by people who heard him tell the story.

Orson Pratt (1840)

FirstVisionRichards.pngPratt was actually the first to publish an account of the First Vision, as a pamphlet in 1840 in Scotland. It is a well-written and polished account, though very similar to Joseph’s earlier records in flow and story. Some interesting details include that when the light first appeared, it “seemed to be at a considerable distance,” then descended gradually on him as he continued praying. He expected the leaves and trees to be consumed by it but when they did not burst into flames, it gave him hope to “endure its presence.” The light “produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system,” and he lost track of the environment around him, solely focused on the vision.

Orson Hyde (1842)

First published in German in Frankfurt, Germany, Hyde was reliant on Pratt’s 1840 text for his own publication. In his version, he recounts that during the prayer in the grove, Satan “filled [Joseph’s] mind with doubts and brought to mind all manner of inappropriate images” to stop him from praying with success.

Levi Richards (1843)

On 11 June 1843, Levi Richards heard Joseph Smith tell the story of the First Vision in a sermon and recorded a summary of it in his journal. While he records no unique information, the account substantiates other tellings of the event.

David Nye White (1843)

A newspaper reporter interviewed Joseph Smith in August 1843 and published his account of the interview, including the First Vision. Quoting the Prophet, White provides the interesting detail that Joseph went into the woods “where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work” (a detail reflected in the new video referenced above). Joseph prayer was, “‘O Lord, what Church shall I join.'” As White summarized it, the Lord simply answered him, “don’t join any of them, they are all corrupt,” and the vision ended, leaving Joseph on his back, exhausted.

Alexander Neibaur (1844)

A German convert, Neibaur visited with Joseph Smith on 24 May 1844 and recorded Joseph’s account of the First Vision in his journal. He said that as Joseph attended revival meetings with his family, “he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing.” While praying, he saw “a fire towards heaven came near & nearer saw a personage in the fire.” He described the personage as “light complexion blue eyes a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear [bare].” He wrote that “after a w[h]ile a other person came.” Joseph asked if he should join the Methodist Church but was told no, “they are not my People.” After the vision, he tried to stand up “but felt uncomen feeble.”

Some Questions

FirstVisionWilson.pngThese multiple accounts have been known for many years. I first encountered them in college in the early 1980s, taking a Church History class. I found them fascinating and helpful in seeing the First Vision in new and richer ways. But some people, who have only known the 1838 Pearl of Great Price account, have questions when they first learn of other versions. This was apparently the case in our ward Relief Society lesson last Sunday. Questions are great and can lead to new understanding and insight. I will offer answers to a few of them below.

However, critics of the Church have focused on some of the details in an attempt to discredit the experience. They are looking for anything they might consider “sensational” or nitpick on specific words, rather than approaching this in an honest, scholarly way. They do not use accepted, historical methods for interpreting documents and events. As Harper has written, “Each of the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision has its own history. Each was created in circumstances that determined how it was remembered and communicated and thus how it was transmitted to us. Each account has gaps and omissions. Each adds detail and richness.”[2] As with other critical efforts, their dishonest approaches don’t enlighten or help the seeker of truth but ignore key elements that aid in understanding. I have included additional references at the end for those who wish to dive even deeper.

So, here are some honest questions with my best answers.

Why do the accounts differ?

A few years ago, I donated a kidney to my friend, Bill (stay with me, I promise it relates). After I recovered, I was invited to tell my story to a number of groups at schools, businesses, family gatherings, etc. I did it because I thought people should understand the importance and safety of donating a kidney to someone in need. I told my story at least a couple hundred times. After I had done this many times, Bill happened to be available and decided to go with me. We didn’t plan ahead much, just thought we’d tell the story together. But as Bill began to tell it, he remembered things happening at different times and places and in different ways than I did. He remembered conversations that I didn’t. I corrected him once and he said, ‘No, that’s not how it was.’ Other things he said, I immediately recognized were correct and now remembered them, even though I had completely forgotten about them in my own recounting. I thought, wait, didn’t we go this whole very significant life event together? Why don’t we remember it the same?

FirstVisionStainedGlass.pngMany factors impact how we remember an event in our lives. Our minds are not video cameras, recording every detail and preserving it perfectly. We interpret our memories over time and apply meaning to them in the context of additional experiences. We see the impact of the event on our lives from the perspective of many years. We put it in the context of our current activities and priorities. That does not change the historical event but it is exactly how we process memories over time.

Additionally, we all know that we share memories differently, depending on who the audience is. The core story remains the same, but we share varying details at different times and under different circumstances. When I talked to high school kids about my kidney donation, I breezed through the surgery and recovery part because that wasn’t important to the message I was trying to deliver. But when I talked with potential kidney donors whose surgery was coming soon, we spent significant time on that, because that was very important to them. So it was with Joseph Smith. As he wrote or spoke about his vision, he did it in a way that was best for that audience. He shared details that were most appropriate for that telling, leaving some things out, including others.

Interpretive memory played a role as well. His earliest accounts emphasize the personal nature of the experience, but with the later accounts he clearly began to see the First Vision as a step in his prophetic calling and the restoration of the Church. When he wrote about it in 1838, it was right after some of the worst persecution he had suffered in his life, which colored how he told the story, using strong language about other faiths. When he told it again in 1842, when he was living in relative peace in Nauvoo and had experienced Christian charity from the people of Illinois. With much of the events of Missouri behind him, the language in 1842 is gentler, lacking the sense of people out to get him that is present in 1838. A careful reading of the accounts shows that he presents facts (things that happened to him) and interpretation (how he felt about those events and how they impacted him subsequently) intermingled in the retelling of the story, which is exactly how we all share our memories. We make sense of our memories by putting them in the context of our lives before and subsequent to the memory.

Joseph also displays the common experience of remembering the most when emotions were highest. Details fall away quickly for us with daily activities, which is why we often cannot remember things like what we had for dinner a couple days ago. But when strong emotions are involved, we tend to vividly remember certain details associated with those emotions. Joseph’s accounts display this when he speaks of distress, uneasiness, serious reflection, strife, grief, mourning, joy, and more. The emotion of his reaction to James 1:5 helped that scripture be forever associated with the event in his mind.

Why didn’t Joseph Smith write this down sooner?

As the Joseph Smith Papers edited note, “No JS documents created before the fall of 1827 have survived.”[3] In other words, Joseph Smith doesn’t appear to have written much of anything until he started the translation of the Book of Mormon. Even then, he didn’t write things, his scribes did. Other than a few lines he wrote in the Book of Mormon manuscript, the earliest document we have in his handwriting is a copy of a letter from Oliver Cowdery, written 6 November 1829. And the earliest document in his own handwriting that he authored? His 1832 account of the First Vision, which seems to have been motivated by a command from the Lord to write a history (D&C 85:1-2).[4]

FirstVisionBedard.pngCritics call out this delay in writing it down and pick up on Fawn Brodie’s thinking that the First Vision was a later creation, something he concocted to make his story more credible.[5] It is true, as Richard Bushman noted, that “Joseph was reluctant to talk about his vision. Most early converts probably never heard about the 1820 vision.” But neither did they hear about Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John. The first printing of the Book of Mormon made no mention of Moroni or how Joseph got the plates, just that they were “found in the township of Manchester.”

This may be due to several factors. First, when Joseph did share his 1820 experience, he recorded that he was told that “it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days” (JS-H 1:21). Any fourteen-year-old would react negatively to such a strong condemnation and likely stop sharing. Also, when Moroni came, Joseph was cautioned not to proclaim his experiences, likely to avoid attention and persecution.[6] Another factor is the personal nature of the vision. As noted above, Joseph initially saw the vision as part of his personal conversation and journey and not necessarily relating to later efforts to translate the Book of Mormon and organize the Church. Over time, he seems to have interpreted it in that larger context of his life and calling, which is how we portray it today. But as a personal religious experience, he may have been more reluctant to share it early on, and instead focused on the Book of Mormon as the beginning of his ministry.

Finally, just because there is nothing written before 1832 doesn’t mean he wasn’t talking about it. In other words, a lack of documentation doesn’t mean that Joseph didn’t quietly share his experience with those closest to him. It is referenced in a section of a revelation that may have been from as early as the summer of 1829 (D&C 20:5). He just doesn’t appear to have talked about it publicly or broadly until that first account in 1832.

Why does the 1832 account say he was 16 years old?

Critics like this one but it’s a non-issue for anyone that looks carefully at the document. The 1832 account says that Joseph labored with his questions about salvation “from the age of twelve years to fifteen.” That aligns with other, later accounts, which has the vision in his fifteen year. Then later as he was describing his prayer, he wrote, “while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord a pillar of fire light…” That’s what Joseph wrote himself. At an unknown time later, Frederick G. Williams, Joseph’s scribe, inserted after “the Lord” above the line “<in the 16th year of my age>.” We don’t know why Williams added that. All other accounts that mention an age or date agree that he was 14 and it was 1820. Williams’ edit is simply not relevant to Joseph’s personal dating of the experience.

1832 age insertion

Just what did he see in the vision?

Some like to emphasize the small differences in the language in the accounts about what Joseph saw during the First Vision. Here’s what they say specifically about this:

  • 1832: “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me”
  • 1835: “A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame . . . Another personage soon appeared like unto the first . . . I saw many angels in this vision”[7]
  • 1838: “I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air”
  • 1842: “I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness”

As with the age, the only real issue is again with the language of the 1832 account, which says, “I saw the Lord.” But this does not exclude a second person being there, any more than saying I spoke to one person makes it impossible that anyone else was in the room. Additionally, a careful reading of the account allows for two to be there: first “the <Lord>” (person #1) opened the heavens and then “the Lord” (potentially person #2) spoke to him. Since it was common to refer to both the Father and the Son as “the Lord,” it is no stretch to say that he meant both were there.

The Blessing of Multiple Accounts

Each of these accounts adds to our knowledge of that event, as can be seen by reading them or even the short notes about them above. We understand that Joseph’s quest to know which church to join was driven not just by wanting to be in the right social group but by a deep desire for personal salvation for himself and the whole world. How else could he know how to be saved? The marvelous details of how the light came down and enveloped the environment, then fell on him, how the Father appeared first and how he looked, how when Jesus spoke to Joseph that he emphasized forgiveness of sins first, and how the experience left Joseph exhausted but full of joy and love are things we would not know if he had only written the 1838 account.

Joseph-Smiths-First-Vision-William-Hill-LDS-55-1394-new.jpgThe various accounts are consistent in the fundamental historical facts they relate. He was anxious about his own salvation and wanted to know what teachings were true. He was motivated by study of the Bible to pray for help, feeling there was no other route to the truth he sought. He went to the woods to be alone and there had an amazing experience that he described in different ways but consistently as brighter than the sun and glorious. He saw two people who both spoke to him. He was given direction to join no church but to wait patiently for more to come.

This consistency supports the truth of the experience even as the differences speak to the typical way we relate past experiences over time. The differences enrich the story, help us better understand Joseph Smith and this early event in his life, and ultimately help us see how God works with us and how we process spiritual experiences. I am grateful that the First Vision was documented by Joseph Smith and others on multiple occasions.

Further Reading

Besides the links above and all the Joseph Smith Papers book (which I reference above by the standard abbreviations), I would also suggest:

  • Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012.
  • Steven C. Harper, “Remembering the First Vision,” in Laura Hales, A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History. Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016).
  • Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Random House, 2005.
  • Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009.
  • Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980.

Notes

[1] Steve Harper documents a fifth account in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 32, given on 14 November 1835. Joseph Smith’s journal for that day records that he shared an account of his vision with a visitor from another county in Ohio, Erastus Holmes. That journal entry says, “I commenced and gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from 6, years old up to time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old and also the the visitations that I received afterward, concerning the book of Mormon” (14 November 1835, Saturday, Journal, 1835-1836, in JSP, J1:100). While it is a potential fifth account, it provides so little information that it is not typically included.

[2] Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 32.

[3] JSP, D1:3.

[4] See http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/documents-in-joseph-smiths-handwriting for a full list of documents written in Joseph’s hand.

[5] Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 21-25. She summed up her view on p. 25: “The awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging.”

[6] Luck Mack Smith, The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 111.

[7] The second 1835 account that is very short says, “I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14.” This echoes the other 1835 account that he saw “many angels” in the vision.

Images from the Church History Museum First Vision collection.

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