By Scott S. Mitchell
Introduction and a Word of Caution
I’ve written two previous essays on this website analyzing whether the First Vision account is authentic history, and whether the doctrinal pronouncements contained within it are from the Lord. One of those addressed the historical evidence in depth, while the latter dealt solely with whether it’s doctrinally correct to assume the Lord appears to, and speaks face to face with, us Gentiles living in these latter days. On both occasions when I announced the essays were being posted, I encouraged readers NOT to read them if they believed the Pearl of Great Price’s First Vision account was true and didn’t desire to read material that would threaten that belief. I assumed then, and still assume now, that most readers of this website will be hostile to the assertions of those two essays, and this one. Since I’ve previously delved deeply into the specifics of several of the First Vision’s major evidentiary issues, I won’t repeat that exercise in this shorter essay. However, because I WILL be discussing herein the degree to which I think the Church is misrepresenting the facts of one of those issues, I once again urge readers to not proceed beyond the end of this paragraph if they fall into the category described above. (I’ve provided the link to the previous essays in the next paragraph to prevent you from prematurely linking to them and later regretting it.) I don’t judge you, hostile or not. I was in that category myself until about 27 years ago, and my intentions were just as pure then as they were later when I affirmatively sought to expose myself to ideas and evidence I’d previously avoided. If you believe the First Vision account taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereineafter “the Church”) is true, you should read no further unless you’re willing to risk those beliefs being altered.
The overwhelming majority of members of the LDS Church know almost nothing about the extent of the evidence bearing on the First Vision account’s historicity, but, as so often happens in these situations, they firmly believe they know everything about it that God wants them to know. They assume this because they’re confident their leaders will always teach them the truth, and would never be guilty of covering up that truth to preserve the status quo.
I must emphasize that I DO believe that general authorities of the LDS Church honestly believe the First Vision really happened. I don’t think they’re misrepresenting their own beliefs on that point. I do contend, however, that they’re unfamiliar with the overwhelming historical evidence against what they believe. (See, primarily, Whether Joseph Smith’s Canonized First Vision Account is Authentic History for a discussion of several major and telling pieces of evidence pertaining to First Vision historicity. For a narrower discussion questioning the doctrinal soundness of accounts of latter-day in-person appearances of the Lord, see The LDS Church’s Most Overlooked and Underrated Scripture, elsewhere on this website.) They’ve demonstrated no interest in acquainting themselves with that evidence, even though it comes from their own archives. They seem to only be aware of the fact that there were four major versions of the First Vision, each written a few years apart from each other and containing inconsistent material. However, if this lack of knowledge were their only fault, it would be a relatively small one, since it would only involve a negligent failing to thoroughly read their own LDS Church history and a disinterest in giving perceived dissidents a fair hearing. Unfortunately, what appears to have previously been somewhat benign carelessness has recently begun morphing into knowing concealment and mischaracterization of inconvenient truths. This short essay discusses the evidence of this disturbing trend.
Pretending “There’s Nothing to See Here” When the Truth is Troubling
At the close of the LDS Church’s October 2019 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson previewed the April 2020 conference with these words:
Now I would like to turn to another topic: plans for the coming year. In the springtime of the year 2020, it will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision. God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph, a 14-year-old youth. That event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness, precisely as foretold in the Holy Bible.
. . .
Thus, the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year. General conference next April will be different from any previous conference. In the next six months, I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.
You may wish to begin your preparation by reading afresh Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. . .
I was already completely familiar with the Church’s official version of the First Vision history, which is contained in the Pearl of Great Price 1:5-26. I was also aware that on the LDS Church’s official website, the only historically problematic issue surrounding the First Vision to which an essay is devoted addresses the multiple conflicting versions written in 1832, 1835, 1838 or ’39 and 1842. The multiple versions issue actually raises TWO important questions, not just one. The obvious issue is the differences between the versions, which, as will be demonstrated below, the Church dishonestly misportrays as minimal and understandable and on which it expends its energy in subtly concealing and trivializing. The ignored issue, which is potentially far more consequential because of its implications, is that the first two versions weren’t made public, so the first time Church members became aware of a claimed First Vision was when the third version written in 1838-39, was published in 1842, twelve years after the Church had been organized. Before 1838, no one inside or outside the church had heard of what we now refer to as the First Vision. Of course, I certainly didn’t expect the Church to materially alter its own famous founding narrative in its 2020 conference. Nevertheless, after Nelson’s announcement of the emphasis the First Vision would receive, I decided to wait until afterwards to determine whether the Church had confronted history’s negative corroboration of its famous beginning.
The problem with the historical records from the 1800s wasn’t just that they cast overwhelming doubt on every single assertion in the now-canonized First Vision account, but that those damaging historical facts came from the LDS Church’s own records. And in the last 25 years, another problem had emerged: the internet had made access to every relevant fact and argument about the First Vision history, and the church records supporting those facts and arguments, accessible to anyone in the world who might be interested. High-profile church members, including one area-authority seventy, Hans Mattson, had been among the many who disassociated themselves from the Church over what they alleged was a false historical narrative regarding much of what really occurred in the period of 1820-1844. The uproar was so troubling to LDS leaders that the Church felt compelled to admit, in an essay by unidentified authors on its website, something it had never before discussed in its class manuals or conference addresses–that there were multiple versions of the First Vision, and extremely noticeable differences existed between the first one and the now-official one.
The church’s resulting essay attempted to pretend all the versions were “consistent” in significant details, but this attempt only heightened criticism because of its disingenuosness. I urge readers to read the Church’s essay “First Vision Accounts” on its website instead of taking my word for how misleading it is. The First Vision version written in 1832 in Joseph’s own letter book, which wasn’t known by LDS members to exist until the early 1960s, and the third (official) version are so different they share only two similarities–that Joseph received a heavenly visitation during which the Lord was present, and that Joseph couldn’t get anyone to believe his visionary claim. Nothing else is consistent, including Joseph Smith reading James 1:5, the reasons he prayed in the first place, when the vision happened, Satan’s efforts to prevent it, the presence of the Father, what was said by Joseph or the Lord during the vision, and Joseph being persecuted for talking about it afterward.
A version which first, states Joseph already knew no church was true before he prayed to the Lord, and that he prayed for forgiveness of his sins and not to know which church was true; second, that only “the Lord” was present, and third, contained no information indicating Joseph would play any role in any restoration of a true church, cannot in good faith be characterized as “consistent” with the enhanced version accepted by the Church today. But in its website essay, the Church does so anyway. It even explains that Joseph tailored his accounts to the understanding of his different audiences. Of course, this explanation is absurd, given the fact that the two earliest versions had no audience but Joseph himself. This explanation begs this question: Why would someone attempting to memorialize in his own diary such an important seminal event in world history omit almost every important detail? The explanation also ignores that the facts for the 1838-39 version were mostly contradictory to the 1832 version and dramatically altered, not merely added.
Even now, the LDS Church has not been forthcoming about its previous efforts to hide the 1832 version from church members. Few members know about these efforts. In “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, 47, vol. 2 (Summer 2014), pp. 37-62, Stan Larson, a lifelong member of the Church, described those efforts. His article can be read here. When discovered sometime between 1930 and 1965, the earliest version was literally ripped out of the Joseph Smith’s own handwritten letterbook (a type of diary he kept) and placed separately in Joseph Fielding Smith’s office safe. By 1965, when it was first seen by Paul Cheesman, and after Jerald and Sandra Tanner had been denied permission to examine it, it had been re-attached into the place of the book from which it had been torn. Even now, however, the Church has refused to divulge who ripped it out of its place and hid it, and why. The picture is clear enough, however, regardless of the Church’s silence on the issue.
References to First Vision History in the April 2020 General Conference
Not surprisingly, except for the existence of the four versions, none of the overwhelming evidence against First Vision authenticity, much of which is set forth in the aforementioned essays on this website, was addressed by any speakers during the April 2020 conference commemorating it. The only mention of four versions existing as opposed to just one, came in a Saturday morning session talk by Apostle M. Russell Ballard. Ballard said: “We are blessed to have four primary accounts from which I will draw.” He then proceeded to integrate various phrases from the four accounts into one narrative, but never explained to the churchwide audience which excerpt was from which version, or what parts he’d omitted. Nor did he depart from the official version accepted by the Church in any important detail. Thus, the listener wasn’t told that Joseph Smith’s first version was out of harmony on every point that would set the vision apart as the seminal moment of the Church’s rebirth. In fact, because of the way Ballard’s talk was pieced together, the obfuscation of the differences between versions was more pronounced than in the Church’s website essay. Unfortunately, this blending into one seamless, cohesive unit seems to intentionally lead the listener or reader away from damaging specifics. The writer(s) of the talk, whoever they were, couldn’t have done that by accident.
Apostle Neil L. Anderson was the only other general authority to make even passing reference to any other issue of First Vision historicity. Speaking in the same Saturday morning session as Ballard, the first sentence of his talk contained this allusion: “Eighteen years after the First Vision, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote an extensive account of his experience.” He failed to say it was the first disclosure of the vision that anyone had heard of. Instead, he implied the distinguishing feature of this version was its extensiveness. Interestingly, the still-hidden first version contained a direct quote attributed to Jesus which is four times longer than any direct quote contained in the version the Church now deems official. In that way, the official version is less extensive than the first one.
Thus, when the conference commemorating the First Vision’s bicentennial anniversary was over, not only had speakers failed to confront the most probative evidence against historical authenticity detailed in my earlier essays, they’d left the multiple versions issue less clear than it was before the conference.
Given the above facts, I feel it’s valid to conclude that if one wants to study LDS Church history in depth, relying on the Church’s edited version as your source may not provide a full and objective view of what happened. Apostle Boyd K. Packer famously said in an address to Church educators, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” See Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 no. 3 (Summer 1981), 259-278. In some respects, Packer could have been right, depending on the specific instance he might have had in mind. But when the truth is suppressed to advance a false narrative glorifying past church leaders and sanitizing their erroneous teachings, unsparing truth becomes extremely useful to prevent the promulgation of false history and doctrine. We should never endorse an approach which prioritizes a glorified view of LDS history over a truthful one. Our question should ever be, “O say, what is truth?”