First Vision


First Vision

The First Vision (also called the grove experience) is a religious belief held by many members of the Latter Day Saint movement (commonly called Mormonism) that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to the fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr. in a wooded area (now called the "Sacred Grove") near Palmyra, New York in the early spring of 1820.

Interpretations of the event vary among Latter Day Saint denominations, but most teach that the vision inaugurated the Latter Day Saint movement and laid a foundation for the restoration of the lost doctrines and authority of primitive Christianity, thus ending the Great Apostasy. The vision also serves modern members of the LDS Church as the basis for distinctive theological concepts such as the belief that the Father and the Son are separate beings, each with a glorified body of flesh and bone. [ [http://lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b3bc55cbf541229058520974e44916a0/?vgnextoid=32c41b08f338c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=9c529207f7c20110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&hideNav=1 Lesson 3: "I Had Seen a Vision", Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 11] ; Kurt Widmer, "Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1833-1915" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), 92: "The concepts of the apostasy of Christianity, God having a body of flesh and bone, the existence of a plurality of Gods, and the divine call of Joseph Smith as Prophet all have their foundation in the First Vision story."]

There is little evidence that Joseph Smith wrote about the First Vision for at least a decade after it was said to have occurred, but several accounts were recorded during the decade following the organization of the church in 1830. Joseph Smith wrote the first known account in 1832. The 1838 version was first published in a missionary publication of the church in 1840 and was included in the original 1851 edition of the "Pearl of Great Price", eventually canonized by the LDS Church in 1880. [lds|Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith - History|js_h|1|5-26 [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/gs/p/16?sr=1 LDS Church Guide to the Scriptures: Pearl of Great Price] [http://en.fairmormon.org/index.php/Seldom_mentioned_in_LDS_publications_before_1877_%28long%29 www.fairwiki.org - historical timeline of First Vision presentation] ]

Most members of the Latter Day Saint movement hold the First Vision to have been an authentic theophany that ushered in the restoration of the New Testament-era Christian church. Skeptics offer alternative explanations for the story in its various versions, including the possibility that Joseph Smith fabricated the story or was deceived.

Historical context

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith, Jr., was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, to Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths were a farming family who moved several times because of crop failures and ill-fated business ventures. In 1816 the family arrived in western New York, where they continued to farm just outside the border of the town of Palmyra. [Harv|Smith|1832|p=1]

mith family religious beliefs

Like many other Americans living on the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Smith family accepted the veracity of visions, dreams, and other communications with God. [Harv|Quinn|1998] In 1811, Joseph Smith, Jr.'s maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, described a series of visions and voices from God that resulted in his conversion to Christianity at the age of seventy-six. ["About midnight I saw a light about a foot from my face as bright as fire; the doors were all shut and no one stirring in the house. I thought by this that I had but a few moments to live, and oh what distress I was in....Another night soon after, I saw another light as bright as the first, at a small distance from my face, and I thought I had but a few moments to live. And not sleeping nights and reading, all day I was in misery; well you may think I was in distress, soul and body. At another time in the dead of the night I was called by my Christian name; I arise up to answer to my name. The doors all being shut and the house still, I thought the Lord called, and I had but a moment to live."Harv|Mack|1811|p=25]

Between 1811 and 1819, Joseph, Sr., reported seven visions, [Harv|Smith|1853|pp=56, 58-59, 70–72, 74] which, according to his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, occurred when he was "much excited upon the subject of religion." The visions confirmed to Joseph, Sr., the correctness of his refusal to join any organized religious group and led him to believe that he would be properly guided to his own salvation. [Joseph Smith, Sr.'s second vision as reported by Lucy Mack Smith exhibits many similarities to a dream given in the early chapters of the "Book of Mormon". Harv|Bushman|2005|p=36] Before Joseph Smith, Jr., was born, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, prayed in a grove about her husband's repudiation of evangelical religion [Harv|Bushman|2005|p=26] and that night had a vision in her sleep, which she interpreted as a prophecy that Joseph, Sr., would later accept the "pure and undefiled Gospel of the Son of God." [Harv|Smith|1853|pp=55-56Harv|Quinn|1998]

Joseph was also exposed to the intense revivalism of his era. During the Second Great Awakening, numerous revivals occurred in many communities in the northeastern United States and were often reported in the "Palmyra Register", a local paper read by the Smith family. [Harv|Turner|1852|p=214] In the Palmyra area itself, the only large multi-denominational revivals occurred in 1816-1817 and 1824-1825. [Harv|Bushman|2005|p=36, 46; Dan Vogel, "Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 26, 58-60. "Indeed, it was the revival of 1824-25, his family's conversion, and his mother's pressure that caused [Smith] so much pain and suffering rather than the revival of 1817 or the one he 'remembered' for 1820."] In the intervening years, there were Methodist revivals, at least within twenty road miles of Palmyra; and more than sixty years later a newspaper editor in Lyons, New York, recalled "various religious awakenings in the neighborhood." [Harv|Mather|1880|pp=198–199Harv|Roberts|1902.]

The family also practiced a form of folk magic, [Harv|Quinn|1998|p=xx-xxi A 1985 memorandum sent from the headquarter of the LDS Church Educational System to regional and local administrators read, "Even if the [Mark Hofmann] letters were to be unauthentic, such issues as Joseph Smith's involvement in treasure-seeking and folk magic remain. Ample evidence exists for both of these, even without the letters."] which, although not uncommon in this time and place, was criticized by many contemporary Protestants "as either fraudulent illusion or the workings of the Devil." [Keith Thomas, "Religion and the Decline of Magic" (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 256.] Both Joseph Smith, Sr. and at least two of his sons worked at "money digging," using seer stones in (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to locate lost items and buried treasure. [Harvnb|Smith|1838a|pp=42–43 (admitting that he was what he called a "money digger," but saying that it "was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it"). "Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints",1: 43 (July 1838). For a discussion of Joseph Smith's money-digging activities by a sympathetic academic biographer, see Richard L. Bushman, "" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 48-49.] In a draft of her memoirs, Lucy Mack Smith referred to folk magic:

I shall change my theme for the present, but let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circles or soothsaying, to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of and the welfare of our souls. [Lucy Smith "Preliminary Manuscript," LDS Church Archives, in "EMD", 1: 285]
D. Michael Quinn has written that Lucy Mack Smith viewed these magical practices as "part of her family's religious quest" while denying that they prevented "family members from accomplishing other, equally important work." [D. Michael Quinn, "Early Mormonism and the Magic World View" ((Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 55: "Joseph Smith's mother did not deny her family participation in occult activities but simply affirmed that these did not prevent family members from accomplishing other, equally important work." In a note at "EMD" 1: 285 (n. 84), Dan Vogel argues that this sentence from the draft may have been excised from the 1853 edition of Lucy Mack Smith's memoirs because of its allusion to folk magic, "which was a sensitive subject for those not wishing to give credence to claims made in affidavits collected in 1833 by Philastus Hurlbut."] Quinn also notes that the Smith family "participated in a wide range of magic practices, and Smith's first vision occurred within the context of his family's treasure quest." [Harv|Quinn|1998|p=31. Michael Coe, professor emeritus of Anthropology at Yale, has called Joseph Smith "a great religious leader...one of the greatest people who ever lived" because like a shaman, like "magicians doing magic," he began by faking his visions but ended up convincing himself (as well as others) that they were true. [http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/coe.html Coe interview on PBS "The Mormons."] ] Jan Shipps notes that while Joseph Smith's "religious claims were rejected by many of the persons who had known him in the 1820s because they remembered him as a practitioner of the magic arts," others of his earliest followers were attracted to his claims "for precisely the same reason." [Harv|Shipps|1985|p=18.]

Richard Bushman has called the spiritual tradition of the Smith family "a religious melee." Joseph Smith, Sr., insisted on morning and evening prayers, but he was spiritually adrift. "If there was a personal motive for Joseph Smith Jr.'s revelations, it was to satisfy his family's religious want and, above all, to meet the need of his oft-defeated, unmoored father." [Harv|Bushman|pp=25-27] No members of the Smith family were church members in 1820, the reported date of the First Vision. [Harv|Quinn|1998|p=322. Quinn calls the Smiths "unchurched Christians" who "possessed seer stones, a dagger for drawing the required circles, as well as magic parchments to ward off thieves and communicate with good spirits to help find treasures."]

The vision

Dating the First Vision

Smith said that his First Vision occurred in the early 1820s, when he was in his early teens [ [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/1/5 Joseph Smith-History 1: 5] .] but his accounts mention different dates within that period. In 1832, Joseph wrote that the vision had occurred "in the 16th year of [his] age" (about 1821), after he became concerned about religious matters beginning in his "twelfth year" (about 1817). [Harv|Smith|1832|p=3] In a later account Smith said the vision took place "early in the spring of 1820" after an "unusual excitement on the subject of religion" ending during his 15th year (1820). [Harv|Roberts |1902|loc=vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 7]

According to non-Mormon critics, H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, there is no evidence that large multi-denominational revivals took place in the immediate Palmyra area between 1819 and 1820, the period specified by Smith in the canonized account of the First Vision. Joseph's statement that "great multitudes" joined the various religious denominations "in the neighborhood where I lived," is not borne out by the surviving documents. Neither the Presbyterian, Baptist, nor Methodist churches in Palmyra experienced any remarkable religious outpouring. The Methodist circuit in the area even showed net losses from 1819 to 1821. "Denominational magazines of that day were full of reports of revivals, some even devoting separate sections to them." While these magazines covered the 1816-17 and the 1824-25 revivals in the Palmyra area, there is "not a single mention of any revival taking place in the Palmyra area" in 1819-20. [H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, "Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and Historical Record" (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 15-41. The quotations are from an earlier version of this study, Wesley P. Walters, "New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival," [http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/dialogue&CISOPTR=5163&REC=13 "Dialogue" 4 (Spring 1969)] , 66-67.]

Mormon apologists, such as Milton Backman, argue that religious outbreaks occurred within a larger fifty-mile radius of Joseph's home. ["Church records, newspapers, religious journals, and other contemporary sources clearly reveal that great awakenings occurred in more than fifty western New York towns or villages during the revival of 1819–1820." "Primary sources also specify that great multitudes joined the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Calvinist Baptist societies in the region of country where Joseph Smith lived..." Milton V. Backman, Jr., [https://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/PDFSRC/9.3Backman.pdf "Awakenings in the Burned - over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision" (BYU Studies, 1969)] , 11.] But these apologists for the Mormon position tend to treat Joseph words "whole district of country" as if they referred to "some kind of statewide revival, without notice of the fact that he is talking about a revival that commenced with the Methodists 'in the place where we lived' and then "'became" general among all the sects in that region of country.'" [Walters, 68.] Others move backward in time and use local Methodist camp meetings as the spark that ignited Smith's religious quest in 1820. For instance, D. Michael Quinn notes a Methodist camp meeting in Palmyra in June 1818. [E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D.D. (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1880), pp 21-22 as quoted in Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist "Camp-Meeting" in 1820, by D. Michael Quinn, 20 December 2006] In 1819, a large Methodist conference was held in the town of Vienna (now Phelps), about fifteen miles from Palmyra, but there is no indication that there were any revival meetings held in conjunction with it. [Harv|Porter|1969|p=330; Walters, 68.]

In Smith's 1838 narrative, his family's decision to join the Presbyterian Church occurs prior to his First Vision. [ [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/1/5-6#1 Joseph Smith-History 1: 5-6] ] But Lucy Mack Smith said that she and some of her children sought comfort in the church after the death of her oldest son, Alvin, in November 1823, which if her memory was correct, would place the date of the first vision no earlier than 1824. [ After Alvin died, Lucy, "who was especially vulnerable, was aroused by the revival that invaded and fragmented Palmyra Village in the spring of 1824. Lucy said that soon after Alvin's death, Palmyra experienced 'a great revival in religion, and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject, and we among the rest flocked to meeting house to see if there was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our over charged feelings.' She eventually decided to join the Presbyterian church."Harv|Vogel|2004|p=58 Marvin Hill has written, "I am inclined to agree that the religious turmoil that Joseph described which led to some family members joining the Presbyterians and to much sectarian bitterness does not fit well into the 1820 context detailed by Backman....Indicating that the angel had told Joseph of the plates prior to the revival, Lucy added that for a long time after Alvin's death the family could not bear nay talk about the golden plates, for the subject had been one of great interest to him and any reference to the plates stirred sorrowful memories. She said she attended the revival with hope of gaining solace for Alvin's loss. That kind of detail is just the sort that gives validity to Lucy's chronology. She would not have been likely to make up such a reaction for herself or the family nor mistake the time when it happened. I am persuaded that it was 1824 when Lucy joined the Presbyterians." Harv|Hill|1982|p=39] In 1845, Lucy recalled that she tried to persuade her "husband to join with them as I wished to do so myself." ["EMD", 1: 307 (1845).] Her three oldest children Hyrum, Samuel, and Sophronia also joined the Presbyterian church, but "the two Josephs resisted her enthusiasm." [Harv|Vogel|2004|p=58.] Wesley Walters argues that "Smith's family could not have joined the Presbyterian Church in 1820 as a result of revival in the area, and then joined the same church again in 1823 as a result of another revival." [Walters, 62.] D. Michael Quinn says that Smith's account is a conflation of events over several years, a typical biographical device for streamlining the narrative. [ [http://www.dialoguejournal.com/content/?p=35D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's "Experience" of a Methodist 'Camp-Meeting' in 1820] , "Dialogue Paperless", 20 December 2006. ]

Local moves of the Smith family have also been used in attempts to identify the date of the vision. In 1838 Joseph Smith wrote that the First Vision occurred in "the second year after our removal to Manchester." [ [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/1/5 "Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet"] : History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, verse 5.] The evidence for the date of this move has been interpreted by believers as supporting 1820 and by non-believers as supporting 1824. [Manchester land assessment records show an increase in assessed value of the Smith property in 1823. Because the tax assessment of the Smiths' Manchester land rose in 1823, critics argue that the Smiths completed their Manchester cabin in 1822, which suggests an approximate date of 1824 for the First Vision. Joseph Smith, Sr. was first taxed for Manchester land in 1820. In 1821 and 1822, the land was valued at $700, but in 1823, the property was assessed at $1000, which may indicate "that the Smiths had completed construction of their cabin and cleared a significant portion of their land" (Vogel, "EMD", 3: 443–44). In response, some Mormon apologists argue that in 1818, the Smiths mistakenly constructed a cabin 59 feet north of the actual property line (which would have been in Palmyra rather than Manchester) and the 1823 increase in the property assessment was related to the completion of a wood frame home on the Manchester side of the Palmyra-Manchester township line. The latter interpretation would lend support for dating the First Vision to 1820Harv|Ray|2002|p=4-5 For a counter argument—that there was a second cabin on the Smith property in Manchester—see Dan Vogel, "EMD", 3: 416-19. Vogel argues that based on archaeological and documentary evidence, the Manchester cabin was constructed prior to the Smiths' building of their frame home. "To argue for the existence of only the Jennings cabin, which the Smiths inadvertently built on the Palmyra side of the township line, one must assume that the error was perpetuated not only by the Smiths but also by authorities in both counties. However, the existence of the names of Joseph Sr., Alvin, and Hyrum on the Palmyra road lists for 1820-22 strongly argues that both the Smiths and village authorities understood that the cabin was in Palmyra township."(419)]

The LDS Church has canonized the 1838 account in which Joseph Smith said that this vision occurred "early in the spring of 1820." [ [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/1/5 Joseph Smith-History 1: 5] .] Two LDS scholars, researching weather reports and maple sugar production records, argue that the most likely exact date for the First Vision was Sunday, March 26th, 1820. [ [http://www.meridianmagazine.com/sci_rel/021009maple.html Meridian Magazine] .]

Smith's accounts of the vision

What Joseph Smith said he saw during the first vision is recorded in several accounts that he wrote or dictated, as well as in interviews and reminiscences of those who said they heard the story:

On a beautiful, clear spring day, [Harvnb|Smith|1842b|p=728.] Smith went to a clearing in a forested area, to a stump where he had left his axe the day before, and there knelt to pray. [Harvnb|Waite|1843.] He said this was the first time he had ever tried to pray out loud. [Harvnb|Smith|1842b|p=727.] An 1832 account said that he "cried unto the Lord for mercy" for his sins. [Harvnb|Smith|1832|p=3.] According to later accounts, he prayed, "O Lord, what church shall I join?" [Harvnb|Waite|1843.]

His prayer was interrupted by an encounter with an evil spirit. According to an account from his diary, Smith stopped praying because his tongue became swollen in his mouth and because he heard a noise behind him like someone walking towards him. He tried to pray once more, and when he heard the noise grow louder, he sprang to his feet and looked around but saw no one. The third time he knelt to pray, his tongue was loosed and he received the vision. [Harvnb|Smith|1835|p=23.] In a later description of his encounter with the evil spirit, Smith said that when he first began to pray, he was immediately overcome by an evil "being from the unseen world" whose power was greater than that of any being he had previously felt. [Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748; Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5.] The spirit bound his tongue and covered him with a thick darkness, and he thought he would be destroyed. [Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] Nevertheless, at his darkest moment, he summoned all his power to pray, and, as he felt ready to sink into oblivion, the vision rescued him. [Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.]

Smith said he saw a pillar of "fire light," brighter than the noon-day sun, that slowly descended on him from above, [Harvnb|Smith|1832|p=3;Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] growing in brightness as it descended, and lighting the entire area for some distance. [Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5.] When the light reached the tops of the trees, Smith worried that the trees would catch fire, but they were not consumed, thus easing his fear that he too would be burned. [Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5; Harvnb|1835|p=24.] The light reached the ground and enveloped him, causing a "peculiar sensation." [Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5] Then "his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision." [Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5; Harvnb|Smith|1842a|p=706.]

While in the vision, he said he saw one or more "personages", who are described differently in Smith's various accounts. In one account, Smith said he "saw the Lord." [Harvnb|Smith|1832|p=3.] In diary entries, he said he saw a "visitation of Angels" [Harvnb|Smith|1835|p=37.] or a "vision of angels" that included "a personage," and then "another personage" who testified that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God," as well as "many angels". [Harvnb|Smith|1835|p=24.] In later accounts, Smith consistently said that he had seen two personages who appeared one after the other. [Harvnb|Neibaur|1844|loc=May 24, 1844; Harvnb|Waite|1843.] These personages "exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness." [Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5; Harvnb|Smith|1842a|p=707.] The first personage had "light complexion, blue eyes, a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders, his right arm bare." [Harvnb|Neibaur|1844|loc=May 24, 1844.] One of the personages called Smith by name "and said, (pointing to the other), 'This is my beloved Son, hear him.'" [Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] Most Latter Day Saints believe that these personages were God the Father and Jesus. [Harvnb|Taylor|1879|p=161. Taylor, who stated he had heard the story from Smith himself, said the personages were "the Lord" and "his Son Jesus."]

In one account, Smith said that the Lord told him his sins were forgiven, that he should obey the commandments, that the world was corrupt, and that the Second Coming was approaching. [Harvnb|1832|p=3.] Later accounts say that when the personages appeared, Smith asked them "O Lord, what church shall I join?" [Harvnb|Waite|1843.] or "Must I join the Methodist Church?" [Harvnb|Neibaur|1844|loc=May 24, 1844.] In answer, he was told that "all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom." [Harvnb|Smith|1842a|p=707; Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5.] All churches and their professors were "corrupt", [Harvnb|Waite|1843 Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] and "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight." [Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] Smith was told not to join any of the churches, but that the "fulness of the gospel" would be known to him at a later time. [Harvnb|Smith|1842a|p=707; Harvnb|Pratt|1840|p=5. One account also said that "many other things did [the personage] say unto me which I cannot write at this time." Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.] After the vision withdrew, Smith said he "came to myself" and found himself sprawled on his back. [Harvnb|Waite|1843; Harvnb|Smith|1842c|p=748.]

How the vision story has been presented

The importance of the First Vision within the Latter Day Saint movement evolved over time. There is little evidence that Smith discussed the First Vision publicly prior to 1830. ["The earliest allusion, oral or written, to the first vision is the brief mention that was transcribed in June 1830 and originally printed in the Book of Commandments." Palmer, 235.] Mormon historian James B. Allen notes that

The fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days. [James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought,” "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought", 1 (Autumn 1966), 30. [http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?] ]
Smith said that he made an oblique reference to the vision in 1820 to his mother, telling her the day it happened that he had "learned for [him] self that Presbyterianism is not true." [Harv|Roberts|1902|loc=vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 6] Lucy did not mention this conversation in her memoirs. [Lucy Smith's "Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet", first published in Liverpool in 1853. "EMD", 1: 227.]

In the oldest known account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith, Jr., said he "could find none that would believe" his experience. [Harv|Smith|1832|p=2] He said that shortly after the experience, he told the story of his revelation to a Methodist minister [According to Mormon apologist Larry C. Porter, the Methodist minister, George Lane, may have passed very near the Smith home and preached at a camp meeting along the way in July of 1820. "In the pursuit of his ministerial duties Rev. Lane was in the geographical proximity of Joseph Smith on a number of occasions between the years 1819-1825. The nature degree or indeed the actuality of their acquaintanceship during this interval poses a number of interesting possibilities... In July 1820 Lane would have had to pass through the greater Palmyra-Manchester vicinity..unless he went by an extremely circuitous route. Present records do not specify Lane's itinerary or exact route... but they do for Lane's friend, Rev. George Peck... [Peck's] conference route took him north to Ithaca, then on to a camp meeting in the Holland Purchase, subsequently passing along the Ridge Road to Rochester... As Rev. Peck, [Lane] may even have stopped at a camp meeting somewhere along the way. A preacher of his standing would always be a welcome guest." [https://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/PDFSRC/9.3Porter.pdf] Smith never mentions the name of the minister.] who responded "with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there was no such thing as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there never would be any more of them." [Harv|Smith|1842c|p=748 Harv|Roberts|1902|loc=vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 6] He also said that the telling of his vision story "excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase." [Harv|Roberts|1902|loc=vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 7.] There is no contemporary evidence for this persecution beyond Smith's testimony. [James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought,” "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought", 1 (Autumn 1966), 30. [http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?] "According to Joseph Smith, he told the story of the vision immediately after it happened in the early spring of 1820. As a result, he said, he received immediate criticism in the community. There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830's Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it "at the time", and no one was criticizing him for it."] None of the earliest anti-Mormon literature mentioned the First Vision. [James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought,” "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought", 1 (Autumn 1966), 31. [http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?] . "Apparently not until 1843, when the "New York Spectator" printed a reporter's account of an interview with Joseph Smith, did a "non-Mormon" source publish any reference to the story of the first vision."] Smith also said he told others about the vision during the 1820s, and some family members said that they had heard him mention it, but none prior to 1823, when Smith said he had his second vision.

Possible 1830 allusion

Amateur Mormon apologist Jeff Lindsay argues that Joseph Smith may have referred to the First Vision in the "Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ", written in June 1830 [Harv|Phelps|1833|p=47] and first published in 1831. [Harv|Howe|1831] In describing the beginnings of Smith's Church of Christ, the document says:

For, after that it truly was manifested unto the first elder that he had received remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world, but after truly repenting, God visited him by an holy angel . . . and gave unto him power, by the means which was before prepared that he should translate a book" [Harv|Howe|1831]

Lindsay says that the general outline, the heavenly manifestation, Smith's forgiveness and relapse into sin and his subsequent repentance and visit by an angel, is similar to subsequent accounts, [ [http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_first_vision.shtml#early Jeff Lindsay - Joseph Smith and His Accounts of the First Vision: Fatal Contradictions??] ] but this 1830 statement does not mention an appearance of Jesus or God the Father and there is no condemnation of contemporary churches. [Palmer, 240.]

Joseph Smith's 1832 account

The earliest extant account of the First Vision was handwritten by Joseph Smith in 1832, but it was not published until 1965. ["One of the most significant documents of that period yet discovered was brought to light in 1965 by Paul R. Cheesman, a graduate student at Brigham Young University. This is a handwritten manuscript apparently composed about 1833 and either written or dictated by Joseph Smith. It contains an account of the early experiences of the Mormon prophet and includes the story of the first vision. While the story varies in some details from the version presently accepted, enough is there to indicate that at least as early as 1833 Joseph Smith contemplated writing and perhaps publishing it. The manuscript has apparently lain in the L.D.S. Church Historian’s office for many years, and yet few if any who saw it realized its profound historical significance." James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought,” "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought", 1 (Autumn 1966). [http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?] .]

[T] he Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in attitude of calling upon the Lord a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned aside from the gospel and keep not 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 th [e] ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap [o] stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud in the glory of my Father . . . ." [Harv|Smith|1832|p=2. Angle brackets indicate insertions by Smith.]

Unlike later accounts of the vision, the emphasis of the 1832 account is on the young Joseph's quest for personal forgiveness. The account does not mention an appearance of God the Father, nor does it mention the phrase "This is my beloved Son, hear him." In the 1832 account, Smith also stated that before he experienced the First Vision, his own searching of the Scriptures had led him to the conclusion that mankind 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." [Joseph Smith History, 1832, "EMD", 1:28.]

1834 account by Oliver Cowdery

In several issues of the LDS periodical "Messenger and Advocate" (1834-35), [See the full text of the "Messenger and Advocate" [http://www.centerplace.org/history/ma/v1n03.htm#42 December 1834, page 42] and [http://www.centerplace.org/history/ma/v1n05.htm#78 January 1835, pages 78-79] .] Oliver Cowdery wrote an early biography of Joseph Smith, Jr. In one issue, Cowdery explained that Smith was confused by the different religions and local revivals during his "15th year" (1820), leading him to wonder which church was true. In the next issue of the biography, Cowdery explained that reference to Smith's "15th year" was a typographical error, and that actually the revivals and religious confusion took place in Smith's "17th year." However, Cowdery apparently confused Smith's "17th year" (1822) with Smith being "seventeen years old" (1823), and thus he gave the year as 1823.

Therefore, according to Cowdery, the religious confusion led Smith to pray in his bedroom, late on the night of September 23 1823, after the others had gone to sleep, to know which of the competing denominations was correct and whether "a Supreme being did exist." In response, an angel appeared and granted him forgiveness of his sins. The remainder of the story roughly parallels Smith's later description of a visit by angel in 1823 who told him about the Golden Plates. Thus, Cowdery's account, containing a single vision, differs from Smith's 1832 account, which contains two separate visions, one in 1821 prompted by religious confusion (the First Vision) and a separate one regarding the plates on September 22 1822. Cowdery's account also differs from Smith's 1838 account, which includes a First Vision in 1820 and a second vision on September 22, 1823.

Joseph Smith's 1835 account

On November 9, 1835, Smith recorded an account of the First Vision in his diary that mentioned a vision of two unidentified personages and "many angels" when he was "about 14 years old." Jesus is identified as the Son of God, but neither "personage" is identified with Him. Smith also noted that he had another vision in his bedroom when he was 17. [Abanes, 16; [http://www.irr.org/mit/First-Vision-Scans/first-vision-1835A.html the 1835 account] . In 1835, Smith approved the Lectures on Faith, an orderly presentation of Mormonism (probably by Sidney Rigdon) in which it was taught that although Jesus Christ had a tangible body of flesh, God the Father was a spiritual presence--a view not out of harmony with orthodox Christian belief. The "Lectures on Faith" were canonized as scripture by the LDS Church and included as part of the Doctrine and Covenants until de-canonized after 1921. (Bushman, 283-84.)] Unlike previous and subsequent accounts, there is no mention of all churches being condemned as corrupt.

Joseph Smith's 1838 Account

In 1838, Joseph Smith said that eighteen years previous, in the spring of 1820, during a period of "confusion and strife among the different denominations" following an "unusual excitement on the subject of religion", he had debated which of the various Christian groups he should join. While in turmoil, he read from the Bible: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." [James 1: 5; Joseph Smith's sourcetext|source=Pearl of Great Price|book=History, an account of his First Vision.]

One morning, deeply impressed by this scripture, the fourteen-year-old Smith went to a grove of trees behind the family farm, knelt, and began his first vocal prayer. Almost immediately he was confronted by an evil power that prevented speech. A darkness gathered around him, and Smith believed that he would be destroyed. He continued the prayer silently, asking for God's assistance though still resigned to destruction. At this moment a light brighter than the sun descended towards him, and he was delivered from the evil power.

In the light, Smith "saw two personages standing in the air", identified as God the Father and Jesus Christ. One pointed to the other and said "This is My Beloved Son, hear Him." Smith asked which religious sect he should join and was told to join none of them because all existing religions had corrupted the teachings of Jesus Christ. ["See" Great Apostasy.]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has canonized [http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/1 Smith's 1838 account of the First Vision] . [Harv|Anderson|1996]

Accounts created for publication

An 1840 missionary tract by Orson Pratt stated that after Smith saw the light, "his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision." [Harv|Pratt|1840|p=5] Pratt's account referred to "two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness", [Harv|Pratt|1840|p=5] but did not identify them as angels or as God and Jesus, or otherwise.

In 1842, two years before his assassination, Joseph Smith, Jr., wrote a letter to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat. In the letter, Smith outlined the basic beliefs of the Latter Day Saint movement and included an account of the First Vision. [Harv|Smith|1842a|pp=706–710.] Smith said that he was "about fourteen years of age" when he had the First Vision. [Harv|Smith|1842a|pp=706] Like the Orson Pratt account, Smith's Wentworth letter said that his "mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision." [Harv|Smith|1842a|pp=706] In language paralleling that used two years earlier by Orson Pratt, Smith said he "saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day", [Harv|Smith|1842a|pp=707] but Smith did not identify the personages or note whether they were angels or deities. Smith said he was told that no religious denomination "was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom" and that he was "expressly commanded to 'go not after them.'" [Harv|Smith|1842a|pp=707]

mith's accounts found in later reminiscences

Late in his life, Smith's brother, William, gave two accounts of the First Vision, dating it to 1823, [Harv|Smith|1883|pp=6, 7–8] when William was twelve years old. William said the religious excitement in Palmyra had occurred in 1822-23 (rather than the actual date of 1824-25), that it was stimulated by the preaching of a Methodist, the Rev. George Lane, a "great revival preacher," and that his mother and some of his siblings had then joined the Presbyterian church. [Harv|Smith|1883|p=6]

William Smith said he based his account on what Joseph had told William and the rest of his family the day after the First Vision: [Harv|Smith|1883|pp=6, 8–9]

[A] light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees where he was. It appeared like fire. But to his great astonishment, did not burn the trees. An angel then appeared to him and conversed with him upon many things. He told him that none of the sects were right; but that if he was faithful in keeping the commandments he should receive, the true way should be made known to him; that his sins were forgiven, etc. [Harv|Smith|1883|pp=6, 8–9]

In an 1884 account, William also stated that when Joseph first saw the light above the trees in the grove, he fell unconscious for an undetermined amount of time, after which he awoke and heard "the personage whom he saw" speak to him. [Harv|Smith|1884]

How people have responded to the First Vision

Acceptance of the First Vision

The importance of the First Vision within the Latter Day Saint movement evolved over time. Early adherents were unaware of the details of the vision until 1840, when the earliest accounts were published in Great Britain. An account of the First Vision was not published in the United States until 1842, shortly before Joseph Smith's death. Jan Shipps has written that the vision was "practically unknown" until an account of it written in 1838 was published in 1840. [Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 30. The first extant account of the First Vision is the manuscript account in Joseph Smith, "Manuscript History of the Church" (1839); the first published account is Orson Pratt, "An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records" (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840); and the first American publication is Joseph Smith's letter to John Wentworth in "Times and Seasons", 3 (March 1842), 706-08, only two years before Smith's assassination. (These accounts are available in Dan Vogel, ed., "Early Mormon Documents" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), volume 1.) As the LDS historian Richard Bushman has written in his authoritative biography, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), "At first, Joseph was reluctant to talk about his vision. Most early converts probably never heard about the 1820 vision." (39)]

The canonical First Vision story was not emphasized in the sermons of Smith's immediate successors Brigham Young and John Taylor. Hugh Nibley noted that although a "favorite theme of Brigham Young's was the tangible, personal nature of God," he "never illustrates [the theme] by any mention of the first vision." ["Improvement Era" (November 1961), 868.] John Taylor gave a complete account of the First Vision story in an 1850 letter written as he began missionary work in France, [" [Joseph Smith] mind was troubled, he saw contention instead of peace; and division instead of union; and when he reflected upon the multifarious creeds and professions there were in existence, he thought it impossible for all to be right, and if God taught one, He did not teach the others, "for God is not the author of confusion." In reading his bible, he was remarkably struck with the passage in James, 1st chapter, 5th verse, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him." Believing in the word of God, he retired into a grove, and called upon the Lord to give him wisdom in relation to this matter. While he was thus engaged, he was surrounded by a brilliant light, and two glorious personages presented themselves before him, who exactly resembled each other in features, and who gave him information upon the subjects which had previously agitated his mind. He was given to understand that the churches were all of them in error in regard to many things; and he was commanded not to go after them; and he received a promise that the 'fulness' of the gospel should at some future time be unfolded unto him: after which the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace." John Taylor, Letter to the Editor of the Interpreter Anglais et Français, Boulogne-sur-mer (25 June 1850).] and he may have alluded to it in a discourse given in 1859. ["What could the Lord do with such a pack of ignorant fools as we were? There was one man that had a little good sense, and a spark of faith in the promises of god and that was Joseph Smith-a backwoods man. He believed a certain portion of scripture which said-"If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who to all men liberally and upbraideth not." He was fool enough in the eyes of the world, and wise enough in the eyes of God and angels, and all true intelligence to go into a secret place to ask God for wisdom, believing that God would hear him. The Lord did hear him, and told him what to do." "Deseret News" (Weekly), December 28, 1859, 337] However, when Taylor discussed the origins of Mormonism in 1863, he did so without alluding to the canonical First Vision story, ["How did this state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith and manifested unto him in vision the true position of the world in a religious point of view. He was surrounded with light and glory while the heavenly messenger communicated these things unto him, after a series of visitations and communications from the Apostle Peter and others who held the authority of the holy Priesthood, not only on the earth formerly but in the heavens afterwards." [http://journalofdiscourses.org/Vol_10/refJDvol10-28.html "Journal of Discourses" 10: 123@ 127] ] and in 1879, he referred to Joseph Smith having asked "the angel" which of the sects was correct. [ [http://journalofdiscourses.org/Vol_20/JD20-158.html "Journal of Discourses" 20: 158 @ 167.] For Mormon apologetic response see [http://www.fairlds.org/Misc/Did_Early_LDS_Leaders_Misunderstand_the_First_Vision.html FairLDS.org] ]

Three non-Mormon students of Mormonism, Douglas Davies, Kurt Widmer, and Jan Shipps agree that the LDS emphasis on the First Vision was a "'late development', only gaining an influential status in LDS self-reflection late in the nineteenth century." ["Historians have pondered the various phrases of this vision's evolution and tend to see its present form as a 'late development,' only gaining an influential status in LDS self-reflection late in the nineteenth century." Douglas J. Davies, "An Introduction to Mormonism" (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 136; Kurt Widner, "Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1833-1915" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), 92-107; Jan Shipps, "Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition" (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1985), 30-32. Nevertheless, LDS apologists assert that the doctrine played a significant part in new religion by the time of Smith's martyrdom [http://en.fairmormon.org/index.php/Seldom_mentioned_in_LDS_publications_before_1877_%28long%29 www.fairwiki.org - historical timeline of First Vision presentation] ] Mormon historian James B. Allen also argues that the First Vision "did not figure prominently in any evangelistic endeavors by the Church until the 1880s." [Allen, 43-69, summarized in Kurt Widner, "Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1833-1915" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), 103.] The first important visual representation of the First Vision was painted by the Danish convert C. C. A. Christensen sometime between 1869 and 1878, and George Manwaring, inspired by the artist, wrote a hymn about the First Vision (later renamed "Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning") first published in 1884. [Harvnb|Allen|1980|p=53-54.]

Kurt Widner states that it was primarily through "the post 1883 sermons of LDS Apostle George Q. Cannon that the modern interpretation and significance of the First Vision in Mormonism began to take shape." [Kurt Widner, "Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1833-1915" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), 93; "Journal of Discourses", 24: 340-41, 371-72. "The emergence of the First Vision is a syncretic approach to deal with past doctrinal inconsistencies on a broad scale. What it attempts to do is, in one giant sweep, gather all of the doctrinal inconsistencies, such as a plurality of Gods, God being an exalted man, the purpose of the Church, and the calling of Joseph Smith, and place it into an earlier time frame." Widner, 105. ] As the sympathetic but non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps has written, "When the first generation of leadership died off, leaving the community to be guided mainly by men who had not known Joseph, the First Vision emerged as a symbol that could keep the slain Mormon leader at center stage." [ Jan Shipps, "Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition" (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1985), 32.] The centennial anniversary of the vision in 1920 "was a far cry from the almost total lack of reference to it just fifty years before." [Harvnb|Allen|1980|p=57: "The Mutual Improvement Associations issued a special commemorative pamphlet, the vision was memorialized in music, verse and dramatic representations, and the church's official publication, the "Improvement Era", devoted almost the entire April issue to that event."] By 1939, even George D. Pyper, an LDS Sunday School superintendent and manager of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, found it "surprising that none of the first song writers wrote intimately of the first vision." [George D. Pyper, "Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns: Their Authors and Composers" (Salt Lake City: Deseret Press, 1939), 34. Pyper noted that Parley Pratt's earlier "An Angel from on High" and "Hark Ye Mortals" "referred to Cumorah and the "Book of Mormon" rather than to the First Vision.]

Beliefs about the First Vision

Most contemporary denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement include the First Vision as part of their doctrine and history. However, they differ in their teachings about both the details and significance of the First Vision, and a few denominations reject it altogether.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has canonized Smith's 1838 account of the First Vision within the book Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price, and it is a foundational belief of the Church. [Harv|Bitton|1994|p=86as quoted inHarv|Anderson|1996] An official website of the Church calls the First Vision "the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ." [http://www.josephsmith.net/portal/site/JosephSmith/menuitem.da0e1d4eb6d2d87f9c0a33b5f1e543a0/?vgnextoid=497679179acbff00VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD JosephSmith.net, a website of the LDS Church.]

In 1998, Gordon B. Hinckley, then Church President and Prophet, declared,

Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. It was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fullness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life. [cite journal| title=What Are People Asking about Us? | author=Gordon B. Hinkley | journal=Ensign |date=November 1998 | accessdate=2007-05-12 | url=http://lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b12f9d18fae655bb69095bd3e44916a0/?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=7c86605ff590c010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1.]
In 1961 Hinckley went even further, "Either Joseph Smith talked with the Father and the Son or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in a blasphemy." ["Improvement Era" (December 1961), 907. David O. McKay, the ninth president of the LDS Church, also declared the First Vision to be the foundation of the faith. David O. McKay, "Gospel Ideals" (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1951), 19.] Likewise, in a January 2007 interview conducted for the PBS documentary "The Mormons," Hinckley said of the First Vision, " [I] t's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world....That's our claim. That's where we stand, and that's where we fall, if we fall. But we don't. We just stand secure in that faith." [ [http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/hinckley.html PBS interview with Hinckley] ]

According to the LDS church the vision teaches that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate beings with glorified bodies of flesh and bone; that mankind was literally created in the image of God; that Satan is real but God infinitely greater; that God hears and answers prayer; that no other contemporary church had the fullness of Christ's gospel; and that revelation has not ceased. In the twenty-first century, the Vision features prominently in the Church's program of proselytism. [Kurt Widmer, "Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1833-1915" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), 92.]

Community of Christ

William B. Smith, a younger brother of Joseph Smith, Jr., and a key figure in the early Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS, renamed Community of Christ in 2001) gave several accounts of the First Vision, although in 1883 he stated that a "more elaborate and accurate description of his vision" was to be found in Joseph Smith's own history [William Smith, "On Mormonism," in Vogel, "EMD", 1:496.]

The RLDS Church did not emphasize the First Vision during the nineteenth century. [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=24.] In the early twentieth century, there was a revival of interest, and during most of the century, the First Vision was viewed as an essential element of the Restoration. In many cases, it was taught as the foundation and even the embodiment of the Restoration. [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=25.] The Vision was also interpreted as a justification for the exclusive authority of the RLDS Church as the Church of Christ. [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=25–26.]

In the mid- to late-twentieth century, writers within the RLDS church emphasized the First Vision as an illustration of the centrality of Jesus. [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=27.] The church began taking a broader view of the Vision, and used it as an example of how God evolves the church over time through revelation and restoration. [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=27–28.] There was less emphasis on the Great Apostasy and a growing belief that the First Vision itself was not necessarily identical with Joseph Smith's later reconstructions and interpretations of the vision, what one RLDS Church Historian has called "genuine historical sophistication." [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=28.] In 1980, this Church Historian noted that he had "systematically brought to the attention" of hundreds of church members "the substantive differences in half a dozen accounts of the First Vision" and expressed his satisfaction that RLDS scholars, "deeply moved and augmented by the presence of the wondrously diverse and conflicting accounts of the First Vision," could "begin the exciting work of developing a mythology of Latter Day Saint beginnings." [Harvnb|Howard|1980|p=28-29.]

Today, the Community of Christ generally refers to the First Vision as the "grove experience" and takes a flexible view about its historicity, [According to its website, the church "does not legislate or mandate positions on issues of history. We place confidence in sound historical methodology as it relates to our church story. We believe that historians and other researchers should be free to come to whatever conclusions they feel are appropriate after careful consideration of documents and artifacts to which they have access. We benefit greatly from the significant contributions of the historical discipline." [http://www.cofchrist.org/ourfaith/faq.asp Community of Christ website.] ] emphasizing the healing presence of God and the forgiving mercy of Jesus Christ felt by Joseph Smith. [ [http://www.cofchrist.org/history/default.asp Our History - Introduction ] ]

The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite)

The Church of Jesus Christ, a Rigdonite branch with 15,000 members headquartered in Pennsylvania, has had an independent history from the Brighamite branches since the 1844 succession crisis. The church refers to the vision obliquely in a lengthy excerpt from Smith's 1838 account included in its official literature, in which the date "1820" and "a personage" (singular, not plural) are mentioned in paraphrases. [Timothy Dom Bucci, "Apostasy and Restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ" (Bridgewater, Michigan: The Church of Jesus Christ Print House, 2004), 5-10. The reference quotes the 1838 account as found in the LDS Church "Pearl of Great Price", with some exceptions including the following paraphrases: 1) "As the light shown down on him, a personage appeared...." (2, 6) "This was in the year 1820" (6). The summary following the excerpt (10) emphasizes the importance of the Book of Mormon, but makes no additional comment about the First Vision.]

Church of Christ (Temple Lot)

The Church of Christ (Temple Lot), a non-Brighamite branch with 5000 adherents, follows the David Whitmer tradition in rejecting many of Smith's post-1832 revelations [ [http://www.churchofchrist-tl.org/history.html Church of Christ (Temple Lot) website - History] ] . Nevertheless, the church uses several elements of the 1838 account of the First Vision including Smith's desire to know which church he should join, his reading of James 1:5, his prayer in the grove, the appearance of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the statement by Jesus Christ that all existing churches were corrupt, and the instruction that he should join none of them. [ [http://www.churchofchrist-tl.org/mormon.html#how Church of Christ (Temple Lot) website - Book of Mormon] ]

Criticism of the First Vision

Alleged chronological problems

Writing of the revivals described in the 1838 First Vision story (which has been canonized by the LDS Church), Milton V. Backman, Jr., associate professor of history and religion at Brigham Young University said that although "the tools of the historian" could neither verify nor challenge the First Vision, "records of the past can be examined to determine the reliability of Joseph's description regarding the historical setting." [Harvnb|Backman|1969|p=2] Grant Palmer and others claim that there are serious discrepancies between the various accounts, as well as anachronisms revealed by lack of contemporary corroboration. [The best recent skeptical summary of the First Vision stories is Grant Palmer, "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 235-54. Palmer, a retired paid LDS religious instructor was disfellowshipped by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after publishing this book. Palmer concludes his chapter, "The 1832 account describes Joseph's experience most accurately. Joseph's 1832 description does not forbid him from joining a church, nor does it mention a revival or persecution. Instead, he became convicted of his sins from reading the scriptures and received forgiveness from the Savior in a personal epiphany. He stated that his call to God's work came in 1823 from an angel, later identified as Moroni. When a crisis developed around the Book of Mormon in 1838, he conflated several events into one. Now he was called by God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820 during an extended revival, was forbidden to join any existing church, and was greatly persecuted by institutions and individuals for sharing his vision of God. This version is not supported by historical evidence."(253-54)]

For instance, in his 1838 account, Smith said that when he shared his vision with a Methodist minister, the latter treated his "communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days." Smith said that he became the "subject of great persecution, which continued to increase." ["I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them. I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase."Harv|Smith|1842c|p=748] But according to emeritus Brigham Young University history professor James B. Allen, there is no evidence beyond Smith's word that he ever mentioned his vision to a minister—or in fact, to anyone else—for years after the event is supposed to have occurred. Nor is there any evidence that the young Smith was persecuted for telling the First Vision story during the 1820s. ["The fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days.” James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought,” "", 1 (Autumn 1966). In "No Man Knows My History" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), the skeptical Fawn Brodie is more biting: "Joseph's first published autobiographical sketch of 1834, already noted, contained no whisper of an event that, if it had happened, would have been the most soul-shattering experience of his whole youth." (24) "If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph's home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family." (25)]

Contradictions

In the 1832 account Smith said that by "Searching the Scriptures" he had concluded that "there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Christ". [...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 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..." in "EMD" 1: 28. ] In the 1838 account, he said that he was unable to determine which, if any, of the churches he studied were correct [JSH:1:10 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 aright, which is it, and how shall I know it?] and then that it had never entered into his heart that all churches were wrong. [JSH:1:18 ... 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.] FARMS, an informal group of Brigham Young University scholars, [The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) is part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, formerly known as the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, at Brigham Young University (BYU), which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.] does not dispute the difference between the accounts but argues that the "point of the 'official' version of Joseph Smith's story is that he received a revelation on the issue [, which does] not preclude the idea that he had already determined the answer and needed confirmation." [ [http://farms.byu.edu/faq.php?id=10&table=questions FARMS FAQ webpage] ]

According to Smith, he indirectly mentioned the vision to his mother shortly after it occurred. [JSH 1:20 ... And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” ...] In her several recollections of the events that led to the founding of the LDS Church, there is no extant record that Lucy Mack Smith ever mentioned Joseph having had a vision before his bedroom visitation from Moroni in 1823. Lucy also said that Joseph's vision of Moroni followed a family discussion about the "diversity of churches." [Lucy Mack Smith notes that after the family's third wheat harvest in Palmyra/Manchester (1823), "we were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousands opinions in existence as to the truths contained in scripture. Joseph never said many words upon any subject but always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature. After we ceased conversation he went to bed and was pondering in his mind which of the churches were the true one but he had not laid there long till he saw a bright light enter the room where he lay he looked up and saw an angel of the Lord standing by him." Lucy Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript" LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah in "EMD", 1: 289.]

Joseph Smith may have become involved with at least two Methodist churches between 1820 and 1830. [He may have even spoken during some Methodist meetings—a childhood acquaintance of Smith's, Orsamus Turner (1801-1855), described him as a "very passable exhorter," which Dan Vogel has interpreted to mean some involvement with the Methodists "during the 1824-25 revival in Palmyra. Nevertheless, Vogel admits that Smith "could not have been a licensed exhorter since membership was a prerequisite."EMD", 3: 50, n. 15; Harvnb|Turner|1851|p=429 Turner says that "after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings." According to the "Oxford English Dictionary", an "exhorter" is either "One who exhorts or urges on to action" or "a person appointed to give religious exhortation under the direction of a superior minister." Exhorters were common in early Methodism. (For instance, see Abel Stevens, "History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America" (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1884), 2: 235.) Nevertheless, according to Craig N. Ray, the word "exhorter" refers to Smith's activities in a debating club, not in Methodist meetings. (No other reputable scholar has adopted this interpretation.)Harvnb|Brown The full text of the Turner quote can be found at [http://olivercowdery.com/texts/1851Trn1.htm#p-429a Olivercowdery.com] It is a single very lengthy sentence, but in summary, it says: "...the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us to solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club... and, subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings." Smith was also said to have been influenced by the preaching of the Rev. George Lane, a Methodist presiding elder.Harvnb|Cowdery|1834|p=13; Harvnb|Smith|1883] While he almost certainly never formally joined the Methodist church, he did associate himself with the Methodists eight years after he said he had been instructed by God not to join any established denomination. [Bushman, 69-70. The Methodists did not acquire property on the Vienna Road until July 1821, so it is likely that Smith's first dabble with Methodism occurred during the 1824-25 revival in Palmyra.] In 1828, following the death of Smith's first-born son and the loss of 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, Smith asked to be enrolled in a Methodist class in Harmony Township, Pennsylvania, [(Harvnb|Lewis|Lewis|1879; Harvnb|McKune|1879).] but a cousin of his wife "objected to the inclusion of a 'practicing necromancer' on the Methodist roll." [Joseph Lewis and Hiel Lewis, Statement, in "EMD", 4: 305. Richard Bushman writes: "Sometime in this dark period, Joseph attended Methodist meetings with Emma, probably to placate her family. One of Emma's uncles preached as a Methodist lay minister, and a brother-in-law was class leader in Harmony. Joseph was later said to have asked to be enrolled in the class. Joseph Lewis, a cousin of Emma's rose in wrath when he found Joseph's name....He confronted Joseph and demanded repentance or removal. For some reason Joseph's name remained on the roll for another six months, although there is no evidence of attendance." Bushman, 69-70.]

Grant Palmer has noted that Joseph Smith had a clear motive for changing his story in 1838, a period of crisis within the Latter Day Saint Movement. At the time there was open dissent against Smith's leadership. A quarter of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and some 300 members—perhaps fifteen percent of the total membership—had left the church. Palmer argues that Smith "fearing the unraveling of the church," wrote a new "more impressive version of his epiphany" in which Smith claimed that his original call had come from God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than from an angel.Palmer, 248-252. Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were excommunicated on April 12-13, 1838. The following week Smith contemplated rewriting his history. On April 26, he renamed the church. The next day he "started dictating a new first vision narrative." (248)]

Apologetic Responses

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have acknowledged that the differences in the accounts can be troublesome. Apostle Neal A. Maxwell wrote:

In our own time, Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon constitute stumbling blocks for many—around which they cannot get—unless they are meek enough to examine all the evidence at hand, not being exclusionary as a result of accumulated attitudes in a secular society. Humbleness of mind is the initiator of expansiveness of mind." [Neal A. Maxwell, "Meek and Lowly" (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987), 76).]

Some believers view differences in the accounts as overstated. Richard L. Anderson, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University wrote, "What are the main problems of interpreting so many accounts? The first problem is the interpreter. One person perceives harmony and interconnections while another overstates differences.""One person perceives harmony and interconnections while another overstates differences. Think of how you retell a vivid event in your life—marriage, first day on the job, or an automobile accident. A record of all your comments would include short and long versions, along with many bits and pieces. Only by blending these glimpses can an outsider reconstruct what originally happened. The biggest trap is comparing description in one report with silence in another. By assuming that what is not said is not known, some come up with arbitrary theories of an evolution in the Prophet’s story. Yet we often omit parts of an episode because of the chance of the moment, not having time to tell everything, or deliberately stressing only a part of the original event in a particular situation. This means that any First Vision account contains some fraction of the whole experience. Combining all reliable reports will recreate the basics of Joseph Smith’s quest and conversation with the Father and Son."Harv|Anderson|1996]

Other believers view the differences in the accounts as reflective of Smith's increase in maturity and knowledge over time. In a recent PBS interview, Marlin K. Jensen, General authority and Church Historian said:

I've actually studied the various accounts of Joseph's First Vision, and I'm struck by the difference in his recountings. But as I look back at my missionary journals, for instance, which I've kept and other journals which I've kept throughout my life, I'm struck now in my older years by the evolution and hopefully the progression that's taken place in my own life and how differently now from this perspective I view some things that happened in my younger years. [ [http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/jensen.html Interview with Marlin Jensen for PBS documentary "The Mormons"] ]

In another interview on the same PBS documentary, Richard Mouw, an evangelical theologian and student of Mormonism summarized his feelings about the First Vision in this way:

My instinct is to attribute a sincerity to Joseph Smith. And yet at the same time, as an evangelical Christian, I do not believe that the members of the godhead really appeared to him and told him that he should start on a mission of, among other things, denouncing the kinds of things that I believe as a Presbyterian. I can't believe that. And yet at the same time, I really don't believe that he was simply making up a story that he knew to be false in order to manipulate people and to gain power over a religious movement. And so I live with the mystery. [ [http://www.pbs.org/mormons/etc/script.html Interview with Richard Mouw for PBS documentary "The Mormons"] ]

Notes

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.

External links

* [http://scriptures.lds.org/js_h/1 Excerpts from the 1838 version, canonized by the LDS Church] .
* [http://www.mormon.org/learn/0,8672,959-1,00.html A brief official account]
* [http://www.irr.org/mit/First-Vision-Accounts.html List of First Vision accounts with brief summaries] .
* Jerald and Sandra Tanner, [http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changech6.htm "The First Vision" from "The Changing World of Mormonism"] .
* [http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_first_vision.shtml An LDS apologetic on the varied First Vision Accounts] .
* [http://www.i4m.com/think/intro/must_believe_vision.htm The Importance of the First Vision in the LDS Faith] .
* [http://www.xmission.com/~country/reason/firstvis.htm "The First Vision" from "Mormonism--Shadow or Reality?"]
* James B. Allen, [http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=533 "Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant H. Palmer"] .
* [http://eldenwatson.net/harmony.htm An LDS Harmony of First Vision accounts] .
* John C. Lefgren, [http://www.meridianmagazine.com/sci_rel/060324lovely.html "Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning: Sun 26 Mar 1820?", "Meridian Magazine"] . An LDS author's attempt to determine the date on which the First Vision occurred.
* Scott Ennis, [http://www.sonnetwriters.com/first-vision "First Vision" a sonnet sequence] .


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