Monday, April 6, 2015

The First Vision of Joseph Smith--and Its Various Versions

Joseph Smith's First Vision, 1913, artist unknown, stained glass window

In Mormon folklore, today is the 195th anniversary of Joseph Smith experiencing what the Latter-day Saints know as the First Vision, the occasion when Joseph Smith received a visitation of the Father and the Son in response to Joseph’s first vocal prayer. (In reality, no one knows the precise date of the First Vision; Joseph Smith merely stated that it occurred “early in the spring” of 1820.)

The First Vision is crucial to the Latter-day Saint faith for several reasons:
  • It is the foundation of the claim that God commissioned the LDS Church because other Christian churches were not commissioned by the Lord, or had departed from His ways.
  • It is the foundation for the LDS sense of the Godhead as being composed of three separate Personages, rather than the three-in-one Persons of traditional Christianity.
  • It is the foundation for the LDS claim that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.

If the First Vision happened, in the way that Joseph Smith said it did, then the LDS Church is what it says it is: the Restored Church of the living God. If the First Vision did not happen—that is, if it were a fabrication, or some kind of hallucination or delusion, of Joseph Smith’s—then the LDS Church is an extremely well-meaning sham.

The stakes are high with the First Vision.

All the more important it is, then, to deal with the claims that some have made, to the effect that the existence of different versions of the First Vision, each differing from the others in certain details, suggests that Joseph Smith essentially made up the First Vision out of whole cloth.

I have studied this matter for some time, consulting such sources as Joseph Smith’s own writings, not only in the LDS Standard Works but in other collections, including some not published by the LDS Church at all. I have also studied the works of historians, such as Richard Bushman’s excellent, readable, and comprehensive biography, Joseph Smith—Rough Stone Rolling. And this is what I have concluded.

I simply do not see a problem here at all.

Sure, Joseph Smith states in one account that he met one Personage, and in another that he met two such Personages. Angels work into some accounts, and not others. As I have come to understand it, these are not mutually contradictory accounts, but simply reflect a different emphasis in what Joseph Smith wished to convey at different times.

It is important to understand, as Dr. Bushman points out, that the First Vision was not “the First Vision” to Joseph Smith: it was a deeply personal experience, the meaning of which changed for him as he matured. At first, what impressed him most was the forgiveness of his sins by Jesus. Later, as he came to bear the burdens of Church leadership, he came to put less emphasis on the meaning of the vision for his personal life, and more on what it meant for the Church and its message to the world.

Is this not a very human thing? In my own life, I have come to understand the significance of different events—struggles, successes, relationships, even the meaning of an entire marriage—differently, as I have matured and gained perspective. One should not expect this to be any different for Joseph Smith, who emphasized repeatedly that he was a man, and a prophet only when acting as such. If anything, to me, this maturing perspective argues for the reality of the First Vision, and the truth of Joseph Smith’s narratives thereof.

I would invite readers to peruse the different versions of the First Vision for themselves. There are links to them within an essay published on the Church’s website.

Of course, all that this blog entry does is deal with an objection to the First Vision. The real issue is, did it really happen? And for that, I suggest that readers do what Joseph Smith did, and what I did myself to learn of the truth of this experience: seek personal revelation through prayer.


Readers are welcome to comment on this post, below.

I invite you to become a “follower” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner of this page, to be informed of future posts.

I discuss the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in my book, The Rise of the Mormons, and I discuss another important issue in my book, Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood of God (both available here.)
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Mark Koltko-Rivera’s LDS bio.

[The photo of the 1913 stained glass window, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” artist unknown, was obtained from the official LDS website. Being a reproduction of an artwork over a century old, it is in the public domain.]

Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Great and thoughtful post. It's great that we have access to all these versions of the First Vision whereas decades ago it would have been much more difficult to find and read them. A few comments:

    "As I have come to understand it, these are not mutually contradictory accounts, but simply reflect a different emphasis in what Joseph Smith wished to convey at different times."

    I'm sure you recognize that this is a speculative explanation and lacking JS's own commentary, we can't know for sure if that's what was happening. Another explanation could possibly be that it was an evolving story used to bolster JS's claims that he was indeed a prophet and not just another visionary lunatic.

    It seems to me that there is a great focus on the primary First Vision accounts and the secondary accounts and historical record get glossed over. What do you make of the earliest manuscript of Lucy Mack Smith's memoirs, which entirely omits the First Vision story and instead indicates that Moroni's first visitation was Joseph's "first vision"? What is your thought on all of William Smith's recollections throughout his life that agree with his mother's account? What about Oliver Cowdery's entire omission of the First Vision story when he explained the origin of Mormonism in the Messenger & Advocate in 1835?

  2. Interesting viewpoint. I think it can be helpful to look at the First Vision with the idea of Joseph's understanding maturing over time.

  3. Thank you Will Roberts, and Jess, for your thoughts on this post.

    Will, as I researched this matter, I was very surprised to learn in Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith that the young Joseph did not share knowledge of the First Vision openly with all members of his family. He did not share it with his mother at all, at the time, and only shared Moroni's visit with his father on explicit command by Moroni. I think that neither Lucy Mack Smith nor William Smith were told about the First Vision until years after the event, and likely long after the visit of Moroni. Learning about the First Vision long after they learned about Moroni's visit, it would be natural for Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith to emphasize Moroni's visit. Similarly, I have no evidence that Joseph Smith shared knowledge of the First Vision with Oliver Cowdery for some time after the translation of the Book of Mormon.

    We 21st century members of the Church learn about Joseph's experiences in chronological order. But the earliest members of the Church did not. You may want to see more in the Bushman biography on this point.

    1. I have read Rough Stone Rolling and probably everything Bushman has to say on the issue. He is unable to address a number of the issues that the historical record reflects. He even goes so far as to say that JS made mistakes in his 1838 First Vision account as the discrepancies cannot be resolved.

      The further problem you have with these second hand accounts is that they sound like the First Vision story to a point, but then they derail and turn into the Moroni story. For example, in 1841, William Smith says:

      "About the year 1823, there was a revival of religion in that region, and Joseph was one of several hopeful converts. The others were joining, some one church, and some another, in that vicinity, but Joseph hesitated between the different denominations. While his mind was perplexed with this subject he prayed for divine direction, and afterwards was awaked one night by an extraordinary vision. The glory of the Lord filled the chamber with a dazzling light, and a glorious angel appeared to him and told him that he was a chosen vessel of the Lord to make known true religion. The next day he went into the field, but he was unable to work, his mind being oppressed by the remembrance of the vision. He returned to the house, and soon after sent for his father and brothers from the field; and then, in the presence of the family - my informant one of them - he related all that had occurred."

      How could William be so confused? How did his mom tell such a similar story to this? Why are they all placing the revival years later? Additionally, church records from the 1820s indicate that there was no serious religious excitement in 1820, but rather the said revival was going on in 1824-25, which is closer to William, Lucy, and Oliver's stories.

      There's a serious problem here that faithful historians haven't been able to adequately answer.

    2. Will, as I understand it, the historical record indicates that there was indeed such revival activity in the 1816-1818 period. Joseph Smith did not say that there was a revival, say, the month that he went into the woods to inquire of God. Revivals have reverberations for what would seem to 21st century readers to be long periods of time. In our day, with our 24-hour global news cycle and frequent innovations in entertainment, two or three years is "forever." In the 1810s, not so much. An event like a revival would stick in the mind for some time.

      There certainly were revivals years later. Since, as the record appears to show, neither William Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, nor Oliver Cowdery heard of the First Vision until long after they heard about the visit of Moroni (which the Smiths learned about almost immediately after it happened), a certain amount of conflation is perfectly understandable.

  4. Bringing the revival JS referred to in his writings back to 1816-ish is problematic for several reasons.

    One is that it trashes the timeline of the 1838 account. JS said they moved to Palmyra when he was about 10, then 4 years later moved to Manchester, then in the second year of living in Manchester there was religious excitement. Simple math on that gets you to 1822, although you could make the argument for +/- 2 years from there (or so). No way can you get to anything before 1820 for the revival in that account.

    Another is that William Smith and Oliver Cowdery both mention Methodist Reverend George Lane in connection with the revival. Rev. Lane was active in Palmyra in 1824, not in 1816/17. The same is true for Rev. Benjamin Stockton, whom JS Sr. didn't like because he had suggested that Alvin had gone to hell for not being baptized before he died, indicating they heard him preach sometime after Alvin's November 1823 passing.

    The problem with the conflation of the secondary accounts is that these people all got their stories from the same source, and they all tell roughly the same story. The person who is most out of sync is JS himself when he writes the First Vision story several different times. None of his stories match the earlier story he told with rather large discrepancies as I've pointed out.

    The timeline is a huge mess no matter which way you try and look at it. Someone's story isn't correct and I have a pretty good bet on who wasn't telling it correctly.

    1. Will, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. Again, the original post is focused on the existence of several accounts of the First Vision, rather than the timing of that vision, so let me say that I don't consider this matter to have weight against my main thesis.

      As far as the timeline is concerned, I have not made that a subject of detailed study. However, I do have my own approach to that issue:

      I simply don't care.

      The earliest account that we have of the First Vision is the account that Joseph Smith wrote in 1832. (Readers will find it at the link in the original post for the words "links to them within an essay.") Consider this sequence of events:

      --> Spring 1820: Joseph Smith's written statements say that he had the First Vision at this time. JS is a little over 14 years old.

      --> Spring 1824: The time you seem to suggest that JS told people that he had the First Vision, based on when Rev. Lane was active in Palmyra. JS is a little over 18 years old.

      --> Later 1832: Joseph Smith produces the first written account of the First Vision. JS is almost 27 years old.

      Now, to the 21st century reader in the industrialized West, it might seem strange to be four years off in remembering when something happened in your life. But Joseph Smith was not a 21st century person; he was an early-to-mid 19th century one. And that is highly relevant to this discussion.

      JS never went to high school or college, and so those "markers" of experience did not exist for him. The few years from 1827 to 1832 were by far the most eventful of his life, encompassing his elopement with Emma, the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the founding of the Church, and the removal of the Church from New York to Kirtland, Ohio.

      With all this having happened in the span of six years, by the time JS wrote about the First Vision in 1832, I would not be surprised if he was off in his chronology about an event that had happened at least 8 years previously, and perhaps even longer.

      In my former practice as a psychotherapist, I found that even urbane, educated, sophisticated people had all sorts of difficulties getting the chronology of their lives straight. I can only imagine that this kind of difficulty would be even more marked for people of the early 19th century, who generally led less 'documented' lives.

      So, no, it means next to nothing to me that Joseph Smith might have been off in his chronology--whether he was wrong in his narrations to Oliver Cowdery and others, or in his writings. Such discrepancies are just all too human a thing to do to have much meaning for me.


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