Lesson 3: “I Had Seen a Vision”
This addendum accompanies Lesson 3 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.
This lesson is about Joseph Smith’s First Vision. It’s a difficult topic to summarize, both because there has been so much written about it, and because many people have very strong feelings about it (both positive and negative). Its story evolved over time, and its role within the LDS church has evolved as well. It makes us deal with an egregious case of church leaders covering up an account that challenged the church’s narrative. Through that more recently-discovered account, however, I have been surprised both to find myself feeling more in common with Joseph and having more hope for my own relationship to God. I hope that comes through here.
The Church’s Understanding of the First Vision is Contested, and Still Developing
The Joseph Smith Papers site lists four first-hand accounts of the First Vision, with a couple of those having differently-edited early versions. It also lists second-hand accounts from five other people who heard the story from Joseph.1 The various accounts agree on Joseph being troubled, going into the wilderness to pray for answers, and having a life-changing vision. They disagree on the number of beings that Joseph saw (“two personages” vs just “the Lord”), Joseph’s age at the time of the vision (anywhere from 14 to 18), and the motivations for Joseph’s prayer (“to obtain mercy” vs “to know which of all the sects was right”), among other things.
One of the most contested facts around the vision is its date. Most accounts put the vision several years later than the 1820 date in the official account. Researchers have also looked for historical records about large religious revivals in the area of Palmyra, and found the best candidates for the revivals discussed in Joseph’s story to have occurred around 1823.2 Most arguments about the date, however, have occurred in the context of either defending or attacking the official (1838) account. BYU historian Marvin Hill observed the misguidedness of this tendency:
It seems to me that everybody has approached the issue from the wrong end, by starting with the 1838 official version, when the account which should be under consideration is that of 1832. Merely on the face of it, the 1832 version stands a better chance of being more accurate and unembellished than does the 1838 account, which was intended as a public statement, streamlined for publication. When Joseph dictated his 1838 version (if he did, in fact, actually dictate it), he was aware of what had been previously published by Oliver Cowdery, and aware of his stature as the prophet of a new and important religious movement. It would be natural for him to smooth out the story, making it more logical and compelling than perhaps it first seemed in 1820.3
As Hill observes, there are several reasons for a historian to prefer the 1832 account. It is written in Joseph’s own handwriting, rather than dictated to a scribe or paraphrased by another author. It was written closer in time to the events it describes than any other account. And it was written privately, reducing any motivation to alter or embellish the story to better serve the church’s interests.
Though increasingly preferred by historians, the 1832 First Vision account is still little-known among church members. The church’s official account is still the one from 1838, and it has not traditionally acknowledged any other account in its curriculum or conferences. The church broke with this tradition in 2013 when it officially acknowledged the issue by publishing its unattributed “First Vision Accounts” essay on lds.org.4 It summarizes the first-hand accounts and downplays differences, insisting that “[the] various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail”. It then refutes critics who have claimed that discrepancies between the accounts discredit Joseph’s story of the First Vision altogether.
It Takes Great Courage to Confront Facts That Threaten Our Identities
The church’s reaction to the issue of the various accounts shows how its doctrines and leaders have matured over time. The 1832 account’s discovery, concealment, and eventual release illustrate these things vividly.
For the first several decades of the church, the First Vision did not occupy the central place in the church’s teachings that it has today. An account of it did not appear in print until 1840, ten years after the church was founded.5 Even after that, it did not get much attention right away. From BYU historian James Allen:
It is worth noting that Joseph Smith himself never used the First Vision to illustrate his own expanded teachings about God. It appears, in fact, that he seldom referred to it at all, except in private conversation, even after it was published. But the fact that it was published provided a ready tool that his followers would later use in every conceivable way to teach about the God that he defined for them in Nauvoo. With the opportunity finally there, it may seem surprising that more Mormon writers did not rush in with enthusiasm between 1840 and 1880 to use the vision as a proof-text for Mormon doctrine. But they did not. Only a few, in fact, referred to it at all during this forty years.6
Those few early writers who referred to the First Vision tended to do so as evidence of Joseph’s prophetic calling. In the 1880s, however, George Q. Cannon began the tradition of using the vision as proof of God and Jesus being separate physical beings:
But all this was swept away in one moment by the appearance of the Almighty Himself— by the appearance of God, the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ, to the boy Joseph…. In one moment all this darkness disappeared, and once more there was a man found on the earth, embodied in the flesh, who had seen God, who had seen Jesus, and who could describe the personality of both. Faith was again restored to the earth, the true faith and the true knowledge concerning our Creator…. This revelation dissipated all misconceptions and all false ideas, and removed the uncertainty that had existed respecting these matters. The Father came accompanied by the Son, thus showing that there were two personages of the Godhead, two presiding personages whom we worship and to whom we look, the one the Father and the other the Son. Joseph saw that the Father had a form; that He had a head; that He had arms; that He had limbs; that He had feet; that He had a face and a tongue with which to express His thoughts; for He said unto Joseph: “This is my beloved Son” — pointing to the Son — “hear Him.”7
This brought the vision new importance in Mormon doctrine. Not only did it recount the prophetic calling of the church’s founder, but also resolved disagreements about the nature of God that had persisted for centuries outside the church and decades within it.
This would remain the situation until some point in the 1930s or 1940s, when church historian Joseph Fielding Smith or one of his two senior aides were going through the LDS church archives and came across a ledger book from the early days of the church. The first three leaves of the ledger book (containing six pages of double-sided writing) were a journal entry from Joseph Smith, in his own handwriting, with some additional dictation written by Frederick G. Williams. The journal entry contained a previously-unknown account of the First Vision. It contradicted the official account in some important details. Researcher Stan Larson summarized the differences this way in a recent paper:
Immediately of interest to even the casual reader is the fact that Joseph never mentions seeing God the Father in his extraordinary vision. He says he “saw the Lord” and further affirms that this is Jesus Christ, since the personage tells him “I was crucifyed for the world.” While Joseph says he “was filled with the spirit of God,” he does not claim to have seen God as a separate personage introducing his Son. Additionally, there is no description here of Satan trying to bind him in darkness and prevent the prayer. Joseph makes no reference to his mission of restoration. His sins are forgiven, and the Lord announces that his anger is kindled against a wicked world, but there is no indication that Joseph can expect a prophetic calling.8
LDS scholars have taken a range of approaches to dealing with the discrepancy in the number of personages appearing in the 1832 account. At least ten such writers, as well as the official Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual, have avoided mentioning the issue. Some have argued (unsuccessfully in Larson’s view) that “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord” actually refers to two separate Lords. The church’s “First Vision Accounts” essay also presents this argument. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman notes the discrepancy without attempting to resolve it.9
Joseph Fielding Smith seems to have been threatened by the contents of the 1832 account. Instead of publicly announcing the momentous discovery, he had the three leaves removed from the ledger book (perhaps roughly, given that one of the sheets had a corner torn off that was then bound with cellophane tape). The leaves were then placed into Smith’s personal safe.
In the years following, one of the people made aware of the 1832 account was Levi Edgar Young, senior president of the First Council of the Seventy. He was shown the pages by Joseph Fielding Smith sometime in the 1940s or 1950s. Young told his story to amateur historian LaMar Peterson, but asked that it be kept secret until after Young’s death. In his notes from the meeting with Elder Young, Peterson wrote “Was told not to copy or tell what they contained. Said it was a ‘strange’ account of the First Vision. Was put back in vault. remains unused, unknown.” Peterson later wrote:
The most noteworthy [meetings with LDS General Authorities] were six sessions in which my wife and I spent with Levi Edgar Young in 1952. He was forthright in discussing Mormon problems in history and theology, but always in loyal church terms. … He told us of a “strange account” (Young’s own term) of the First Vision, which he thought was written in Joseph’s own hand and which had been concealed for 120 years in a locked vault. He declined to tell us details, but stated that it did not agree entirely with the official version. Jesus was the center of the vision, but God was not mentioned. I respected Young’s wish that the information be withheld until after his death.10
After Levi Young’s death in 1963, Peterson told antagonistic researchers Jerald and Sandra Tanner about the existence of the secret 1832 account. Their request to see the account was denied, but appears to have prompted Joseph Fielding Smith, then president of the church, to return the account to the church archives, where it was finally transcribed and published by both Mormon and non-Mormon historians.11
Given this history, the 1832 account is both a great boon and a great challenge. To historians it is a godsend, shedding much additional light on one of the founding events of Mormonism. It is valuable for devotional purposes as well, as it contains four times as many words from Jesus as the 1838 account.12 LDS historian Richard Bushman has noted how its intimate, unpolished language makes it uniquely approachable and convincing among the various accounts:
I am very much impressed by Joseph Smith’s 1832 History account of his early visions. This is the one partially written in his own hand and the rest dictated to Frederick G. Williams. I think it is more revealing than the official account presumably written in 1838 and contained in the Pearl of Great Price. We don’t know who wrote the 1838 account. Joseph’s journal indicates that he, Sidney Rigdon, and George Robinson collaborated on beginning the history in late April, but we don’t know who actually drafted the history. It is a polished narrative but unlike anything Joseph ever wrote himself. The 1832 history we know is his because of the handwriting. It comes rushing forth from Joseph’s mind in a gush of words that seem artless and uncalculated, a flood of raw experience. I think this account has the marks of an authentic visionary experience. There is the distance from God, the perplexity and yearning for answers, and then the experience itself which brings intense joy, followed by fear and anxiety. Can he deal with the powerful force he has encountered? Is he worthy and able? It is a classic announcement of a prophet’s call, and I find it entirely believable.13
For church leaders, however, the 1832 account is deeply problematic. It casts doubt on the church’s claim that Joseph saw God and Christ as separate physical beings. It introduces the possibility that Joseph’s vision was not a prophetic call, but rather a conversion narrative typical of his time and place.14 Perhaps even more importantly, the church’s concealment of the account and later reluctance to acknowledge it have undermined many members’ trust in church leaders.
That loss of trust is the great tragedy of this story. Once lost, such trust is extremely difficult to regain. Though it would have caused confusion and controversy, Joseph Fielding Smith should have made the 1832 account public when it was first discovered, with it then being integrated into church teachings in the years thereafter. Instead we are dealing with it today, as the account is finally, tentatively, being introduced into the curriculum. Perhaps the level of confusion is the same today as it would have been in the 1930s, but teaching it back then would have spared many members from having to ask the unsettling question “Why wasn’t I told about this before?” Some problems, though unpleasant to deal with, just get worse the longer you let them fester.
We can learn from Joseph Fielding Smith’s mistake. We can ask God for the courage to confront and acknowledge difficult facts in our business dealings, personal relationships, and religious life. Dealing with difficult things directly and honestly will help us keep our consciences clear and reputations intact.
Joseph Set an Example of Sincere Seeking After God
The complete 1832 account of the First Vision is included below. I have added punctuation and paragraph breaks for ease of reading, and fixed obvious errors in spelling and grammar. You can read the account in its original form on the Joseph Smith Papers website.15
I was born in the town of Sharon in the State of Vermont, North America, on the twenty-third day of December AD 1805 of goodly parents who spared no pains to instruct me in the Christian religion. At the age of about ten years my father, Joseph Smith Senior, moved to Palmyra, Ontario County in the state of New York. And being in indigent circumstances, they were obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family, having nine children. And as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family, therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say I was merely instructed in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.
At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to all the important concerns for the welfare 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. My mind became 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, today, and forever, that we was no respecter of persons, for he was God. For I 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 marvellous, 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 decreeeth 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 cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom the I could go and obtain mercy.
And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness. And while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord, in the 16th year of my age, a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me, and I was filled with the spirit of God. And the Lord opened the heavens upon me, and I saw the Lord, and he spake unto me, saying “Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. 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. 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. 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.”
And my soul was filled with love 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.
I find kinship with Joseph in this account. As it was for Joseph, it has been “grief to my soul” to see church leaders fail to live up to the teachings of Jesus. Like Joseph, I have walked in nature and felt overwhelming awe as I’ve seen animals in the wild or the stars in the sky. Like Joseph, I have “felt to mourn for my own sins”. And like Joseph, I have gone to the wilderness to pray. I have not seen Jesus as Joseph did, but I have been filled with the Spirit and seen wonderful things that I ponder in my heart.
All of us can do these things. It is less important that we be sure what Joseph saw than that we do what Joseph did. He avoided following teachers of religion that prioritized correct beliefs and practices over personal connection to God. He engaged with the religious communities around him, but also scrutinized them carefully before making commitments. He trusted his own conscience and understanding of the scriptures. He spent time in nature and marvelled at God’s creations. He looked inward, saw his weaknesses, and wanted to be better. Ultimately, he asked God to lead him, and exercised faith by following the answers he received. We can do likewise, whether those answers come as dramatic visions or subtle promptings.
- Mormon Sunday School Podcast, Doctrine & Covenants Lesson 3: The First Vision.
Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Jan. 5 2017.↩
Hill, Marvin S. The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation Dialogue Vol. 34 No. 1. pp. 36-42.↩
Allen, James B., Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought, Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980) pp. 43–61.↩
Allen, pp. 51-52.↩
Editorial in Juvenile Instructor, July 15, 1880, p. 16, as quoted in Allen p. 54.↩
Larson pp. 49-54↩
Petersen, LaMar. The Creation of the Book of Mormon: A Historical Inquiry, Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press, 2000, as quoted in Larson p. 42.↩
Larson, pp. 42-43.↩
Larson, p. 47.↩
Jones, Christopher C. The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision Journal of Mormon History Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring 2011 p. 95.↩