By Scott S. Mitchell
The reason the authors of this essay believe the subject of Joseph Smith’s claimed First Vision demands heavy and thorough scrutiny is related to our history of interacting closely with Protestants and Catholics. As the reader may recall, Joseph Smith’s canonized account asserts that he asked God the Father and Jesus Christ, as they stood in the air above him, which sect was right, and Jesus then told him that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong. . . and that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors [presumably those who professed any of the Christian churches’ creeds] were all corrupt . . .” Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith–History 1:18, 19 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,, 1989). (Emphasis added.) If the LDS Church (hereafter also referred to as “the Church”) is thus going to say to the rest of Christianity and its many hundreds of millions of adherents that all its creeds, and those who profess those creeds, are abominable and corrupt, no member of Mormonism should endorse such a potentially inflammatory claim unless he or she is sure that the Lord actually said it. We thus undertake such scrutiny here.
Before attending Brigham Young University, the authors both grew up in California and attended schools where Mormons comprised approximately one percent of the student body. The balance of the student bodies consisted of Protestants and Catholics, except for enough Buddhists, in one case, to equal or outnumber the Mormons. What we noticed in both cases was that devout Protestants and Catholics led lives that were essentially identical, in every major behavioral way, to ours, and to those of all active Mormons we knew. (We do not deem abstinence from tea or coffee, or from moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages to be major differences.) Active Protestants and Catholics spoke and acted like we did, and they believed their beliefs with the same conviction. The Protestants did healings in the name of Jesus Christ that bore the same fruits as those performed by Mormons, and both they and the Catholics were dedicated to their religion with the same fervor as LDS members. They even had the same history of martyrdom for the gospel’s sake that our church proudly claimed, though Mormonism’s claimed martyrs were more recent. Some of these Christians were our best friends in elementary school, junior high and high school, and some of them occasionally tried to interest us in their faiths as much as we tried to interest them in ours.
Later, after leaving BYU, while attending graduate schools and during our careers in the workplace, actively religious Protestants and Catholics were the people for whom we felt the most natural affinity, along with active Mormons, among so many others who claimed no significant religious devotion. Conversations with these fellow Christians have demonstrated over the years that, not surprisingly, they’re offended by the suggestion in Joseph Smith’s First Vision account, published in 1842, that all their creeds are abominable, especially since Mormons, as fellow Christians, purport to share the most important of those creeds. They are also offended by the idea that only Mormons have authority from God to baptize. (This subject is treated in other essays on this website.) But even if our Christian friends didn’t find these teachings offensive, the authors would feel compelled to question the claims of the First Vision simply because, instead of appearing “corrupt,” so many of our fellow Christians live such demonstrably righteous lives.
During our time as missionaries, which we served in different missions in Mexico, most of the people we encountered were Catholics with no strong background of scriptural knowledge. On average, these people, along with other Latinos in the Americas, tended to be much more receptive to the Book of Mormon and the fuller explanations of the gospel which LDS missionaries provided, than was the norm in other parts of the world. Among the receptive converts, our message in Mexico compared favorably to the Roman Catholicism to which most Mexicans were accustomed. Roman Catholics prayed to, worshipped and sought blessings from statues depicting Catholic saints, recited memorized prayers, and paid priests to baptize their infants and perform marriages (which expensive church marriages they’d been taught were the only ones God recognized). They confessed their sins to those same priests without any corresponding priestly emphasis on spiritual repentance other than confession itself, and perceived no need to become well-versed in scripture, since that, too, was the priest’s function. There’s a reason Mormonism has done well in Latin America, and continues to show strong growth there.
But Protestantism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day-Adventists have done just as well. All the non-Catholic denominations in Latin America are known to encourage believers to be personally engaged with the Lord and his scriptures without priestly intermediaries or the help of dead saints. During our missions and since that time, we have listened to Protestant sermons, attended their study groups and church services, read their books and worked with them on charitable and volunteer activities. We’ve also had many hours worth of discussions with the Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries in our respective homes. Most recently, both of us have hosted the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) apostles in our homes on several occasions, sometimes for days at a time when they were ministering in the states where we live, and had lengthy doctrinal discussions with them. Through all of this, in addition to the other things we’ve learned about them, we’ve noticed that the devout members of these other faiths are influenced by the Holy Ghost just as much as we Mormons are.
Of course, Protestants and Catholics do have some false doctrinal beliefs, and they certainly are inculcated with wrong ideas about Mormons. But as we continued to interact with these other people over the years, gradually it seemed impossible that Jesus would describe his humble followers in other Christian faiths the way they are described in the First Vision account of Joseph Smith that we now read in the Pearl of Great Price. How could these churches be “all wrong” when what so many of them taught and believed was the exact same doctrine that we believe from the Book of Mormon and the Bible? How could Jesus have possibly said “that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” when those same creeds are found in the Book of Mormon, which Jesus described as containing “the fulness of the gospel”? And “all their professors [those who professed their creeds] were corrupt” seemed far too sweeping a description, since it covered so many unassailably righteous people (including Joseph’s own family members prior to 1830). Also, since these words were being attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ, they presumably were describing everyone in the world, not just those in Joseph’s local area, thus making the conclusions in said words all the more sweeping because of the scope of their exclusion. So, our first questions about the First Vision came because Jesus’s quoted words from said appearance seemed to contradict what we had learned to be true after living with so many Christians for so many decades. Our questions didn’t come from reading some scornful essay by an “anti-Mormon.”
Another influential thought compelling further investigation was that our reading in the Book of Mormon produced no indication that the entire Christian world would be in complete condemnation as purportedly described by Jesus in the First Vision, shortly before the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The picture painted by the Book of Mormon is one of the Christian world in Europe and the United States having received much of the gospel through the Bible, but because of teachings not fully expounded by biblical theology, “an exceeding great many,” but certainly not all, had been caused to stumble. 1 Nephi 13: 28-30. (After much study of 1 Nephi chapters 13 and 14, we infer that Nephi was describing the Catholic influence on the Bible which caused the stumbling that spurred the Protestant Reformation.) God’s answer to this problem was to provide the Gentiles with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon does not indicate God’s latter-day solution would be to restore the true church to the earth, or restore lost priesthood authority. In fact, Nephi’s vision in I Nephi 13 and 14 indicates that the church of the Lamb continued to exist on the earth after Christ; as of 1820, it was not lost.
Not only was Christ’s church not lost, but Nephi foresaw how the church of the Lamb succeeded in defeating the military forces of the “great and abominable church,” all of which occurred before the Book of Mormon was brought to light. (See, elsewhere on his website, How History Shows the Great and Abominable Church was Overcome by the Church of the Lamb.) Thus, the restoration prophesied in the Book of Mormon referred to plain and precious truths which had been omitted from biblical teaching being restored in the Book of Mormon. 1 Nephi 13: 34-42, see also 3 Nephi 21: 9-11. Jesus himself, in speaking about the latter-day Gentiles, said those who believed in him would be blessed, and was clearly not contemplating Mormons only with the term, “Gentiles.” (See 3 Nephi 16: 6.) Those who turned against his gospel through wickedness would have the fulness of the gospel taken from them, but the repentant would be counted among his people. 3 Nephi 16: 10-13. The Lord didn’t say, and Nephi didn’t predict, that all Christian Gentiles would be corrupt and wrong leading up to Joseph Smith’s era.
The prophecies of the prophet Moroni corroborate this inference. In writing to the “wicked and perverse and stiff-necked people” of the latter days when the Book of Mormon would come forth, he foresaw that their pride had polluted their churches. See Mormon 8: 33, 36. This comment implies, not that Christ’s church was no longer on the earth, but that the Christian denominations would otherwise be acceptable were it not for the un-Christian behavior of individuals within those denominations. His questions in verse 38 then drive home this point: “O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers . . .why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ?” Moroni then goes on to list all the ways the latter-day Christians of all faiths have allowed Christ’s teachings of caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed people among them to be ignored (see Mormon 8:39-41). Having finished his rebuke of such hypocritical Christians, Moroni then goes on to address those have rejected the gospel message and “do not believe in Christ.” (See Mormon 9:1) The salient point from these verses is not that the church of Christ was not present on earth when the Book of Mormon came forth, but that the church was present, and too many of its individual leaders and members were corrupting or polluting it by their behavior. Together, these verses contradict the words Joseph Smith said the Lord told him in the First Vision. The Christian churches were not wrong, and their creeds weren’t abominable. Their creeds were of Christ, but a great many individuals in Christianity showed an abandonment of those creeds in their materialistic, prideful, world-fearing behavior.
Therefore, if the very Book of Mormon itself appears to not contemplate the church of the Lamb being lost from the earth before 1820, nor all Christian churches believing abominable creeds, nor all those believers in those creeds being corrupt, we have yet another reason to meticulously study whether the First Vision account we have is authentic. With this backdrop, here’s what our research showed:
No one Heard of the First Vision Until Almost 20 Years After Joseph said it Occurred
First, what seems to us to be the most powerful evidence against the First Vision account is that not a single person on earth, including Joseph Smith’s siblings, parents,1 wife or children, ever heard of it until many, many years after it supposedly happened, and not a single person ever remembered it happening. Though early church converts and Smith’s family members talked and wrote extensively about the earliest events in Joseph’s life and in the Church, as did anti-Mormon writers, no one ever wrote about hearing Joseph talk about the most important of all those events, the appearance of the Father and the Son to say all churches were false. Nor do they remember even hearing or reading that it had happened until almost two decades after 1820, the year Joseph said it occurred. David Whitmer went to his death not knowing that Joseph Smith had claimed to have had the First Vision, as did Oliver Cowdery. Brigham Young wrote all about having been introduced to the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, and all he’d heard about Mormonism. But Brigham’s account omits any reference having been told about the First Vision. In fact, in a speech delivered in 1855, Brigham stated his understanding that the personage who appeared to Joseph in his first vision was a mere angel, not the Father or the Son. Erastus Holmes had also reported that in 1835 Joseph Smith said angels, not the Father and the Son, had appeared to him in his first vision, and this view was repeated in talks given in later years by apostle George A. Smith and President John Taylor.2 In fact, Joseph’s own original version of his conversation with Holmes, in which was printed in the May 29, 1852 edition of the Deseret News, said it was angels, not the Father and the Son, that visited him, and no mention had yet been made that the Father and Son had ever visited him. Later, when Joseph’s account was incorporated into the History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 312, the Church emended the account by substituting the words “first vision” for “first visitation of angels.” To this day, we’ve never found anyone who’s written or talked about having heard about the First Vision before 1839 or 1840 at the earliest.
But this is impossible, if you believe Joseph Smith. According to him, he wasn’t quiet about his spectacular vision. The whole area of New York where he lived was up in arms about it, and he was severely persecuted. As recorded in the now-canonized Joseph Smith History 1: 20-25:
20 It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy? . . .
22 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; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
23 It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.
24 “However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
25 “So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth?I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”
If Joseph Smith’s account really happened, it seems impossible that no one in his family, especially his watchful and protective mother and his proud father and siblings, and no Protestant ministers, and no acquaintances of his, and no early church members, would have ever written or said anything about this incredibly important time and event in his life. According to Joseph, he was the center of attention in his community, and “men of high standing,” “the great ones” of the major religions of his day, were reviling and greatly persecuting him, and spreading evil lies about him. To this day, 197 years later, no one but Joseph has written or been quoted as having discussed this event, or even heard of it, until about two decades after it was supposed to have happened. But virtually every family member, acquaintance, in-law, and early member of the church wrote or spoke all about the events of the Book of Mormon, or of their reaction the first time they heard of it and read about it. These early members of the Church were keeping personal journals or writing public articles and letters and yet were silent on what would be the most important vision in world history if it had happened.
The LDS Church has never addressed this devastating hole in the historical records; there’s no way to do it. This hole singlehandedly discredits the First Vision account, and does so decisively, in our minds.
The First Published Church History Omits any Mention of the First Vision
A second extremely telling body of evidence is also enlightening on this issue. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery collaborated in late 1834 to write and publish the earliest events of church history in a publication called the Messenger and Advocate. In February of 1835 the beginnings of Mormonism began to be chronicled. What did Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery deem the first significant event in church history? The visit of the unnamed angel to Joseph Smith to herald the coming forth of the Book of Mormon which occurred on September 21, 1823, when JS was 17 years old.3 So here we have Joseph Smith himself forgetting in 1835 that he had ever had the so-called First Vision experience with the Father and the Son in 1820 at the age of fourteen.
In fact, Oliver Cowdery had first written that the appearance of the angel announcing the Book of Mormon had occurred in Joseph’s 15th year, but in the next issue of the same volume, he went out of his way to correct this error, writing:
You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been the 15th year of our brother J. Smith Jr.’s age–that was an error in the type–it should have been in the 17th.–You will please remember this correction, as it will be necessary for the full understanding of what will follow in time. This would bring the date down to 1823.4
He goes on to relate the appearance of the angel. What’s interesting about this is not only the absence of the First Vision account, but the fact that (a) Oliver begins by writing that he’s relating it as told to him by Joseph, (b) the account of the angel announcing the Book of Mormon is preceded by the same general account of religious excitement in the area that now prefaces the First Vision account, and (c) the correction as to time of occurrence is made to ensure historical accuracy, because the other events occurring in 1823 and 1824 are matters of historical record, including the preaching of a Methodist Presiding Elder named George Lane. When Lane posed the question of which church his listeners should join, his sermons caused much religious excitement in the Palmyra area where Joseph lived. Cowdery went out of his way to place Joseph’s own First Vision in the same general time as the excitement caused by Lane’s preaching. (See below for more on this point.)
Thus, the seminal event in LDS church history not only went unmentioned by any individuals for two decades after its supposed occurrence, but Joseph Smith himself didn’t include it in the Church’s own first published history. Again, this evidence against First Vision authenticity seems impossible to overcome.
Joseph Smith’s Messenger and Advocate history reveals another interesting and significant point as well. None of the scriptures that Joseph would later claim were cited by Moroni when he first appeared in Joseph’s bedroom in 1823 were cited in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate history, but other scriptures that made more sense were cited. (In fact, the idea that the messenger was “Moroni” is not in the first version; the messenger was unnamed. Nor was the angel’s purported statement that Joseph’s name would be had for good or bad in every nation.) According to the 1835 history, the scriptural references allegedly cited by the unnamed angelic messenger were mostly from Isaiah 29: 11-14, which one would expect. Those verses describe the early history of the Book of Mormon coming forth to someone unlearned, “for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid,” and constituting a “marvelous work and a wonder.” Other phrases were also quoted from 1 Cor. 1: 27-29, Isaiah 28: 21 and Romans 11: 25 (though no citations were given in the text to any of these scriptures; one has to cross-reference the key phraseology from them if one doesn’t already know the scriptural source). In the final 1842 version, however, which became canonized, the angel is named as Moroni, and he’s quoted as having cited to a whole new set of scriptures.
This point carries more evidentiary weight than might appear at first glance. Not only are none of the scriptures now cited in JS History 1: 36-41 found in the original version, but a look at the one of the scriptures Joseph DID cite in his 1842 published History of Joseph Smith deserves our attention–Malachi 3 and 4. Therein, Joseph quoted Moroni as having changed the wording of Malachi 4: 5, 6 by adding a phrase stating “the Priesthood” would be revealed by Elijah to plant the promises of the children and fathers in each others’ hearts. See Joseph Smith–History 1:37-38. Why is this 1842 quote from the angel suspicious? Because not only is it a completely different version than the first version, but it’s contradicted by the wording of Malachi 4: 5, 6 used by Jesus when he spoke to the Nephites. See 3 Nephi 25: 5, 6. This conflict forces the reader to decide whether Joseph remembered the angel’s words incorrectly, or the angel or Jesus remembered Malachi’s words incorrectly.
Here’s yet another tidbit one learns upon studying the 1835 Messenger and Advocate history: According to Joseph Smith, the situation that precipitated the 1823 appearance of the angel to herald the Book of Mormon was Joseph praying about two things: First, to know which church was true, and second, to know if his sins could be forgiven. This is odd, because supposedly, according to the Pearl of Great Price version of the First Vision currently accepted by the LDS church, this question of which church was true had already been answered three and a half years before September 21, 1823 with the appearance of the Father and the Son in the early spring of 1820 when Joseph was 14. But if Joseph many years later fabricated a First Vision account of something that had never actually happened, then the Messenger and Advocate’s 1835 history is credible and makes perfect sense.
So, not only does it appear that Joseph Smith published a previously-unknown First Vision account in 1842 after omitting it from the first version of Mormonism’s history in the Messenger and Advocate, but that he also at the same time massively revised, overhauled and replaced his 1835 account of the 1823 visit from the angel Moroni. Today, the 1835 Messenger and Advocate history and the now-official 1842 history found in the Pearl of Great Price are, in our view, so strikingly dissimilar as to be irreconcilable.
Family histories kept by Smith Family Members Omit any Mention of the First Vision
The third and fourth pieces of evidence have to do with the Smith family histories kept by Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, and William Smith, his brother, respectively. Lucy Mack Smith wrote a history of her family so detailed that it included genealogies, a plethora of conversations had among family members, numerous family difficulties of all sorts, including the tribulation the family encountered in moving from one place to another due to lack of income, dreams experienced by family members, Joseph’s leg operation, the death of her son Alvin, her attendance with her children at Protestant churches in the 1820s, many events related to the difficulty of protecting the golden plates, and the process of bringing forth the Book of Mormon, including the crushing loss of the first 116 pages of its text, etc. When reading her history, one gets the unmistakable impression that Lucy’s purpose was always to cast her family in the most positive light possible. But never in her history did she say anything about the momentous event of all, her son Joseph’s First Vision.
During his life, Joseph Smith’s brother, William Smith, who was a member of the Church’s early Quorum of Twelve Apostles, is known to have given four separate carefully documented accounts of the First Vision. Two were interviews with journalists (the last of which was published in Zions’s Ensign and later in the Deseret News), one was a book he wrote, and one was a talk he gave in church. These four events occurred in 1841, when he was an apostle in the church, and in 1883, 1884 and 1893, respectively.5 Each time, he described the First Vision as the event when the angel came to announce the hidden golden plates, and that it occurred in 1823. But in a lengthy last interview, he also explained that Joseph had heard and was impressed by a powerful sermon by the Methodist minister George Lane in 1823 entitled “Which Church Should I Join?”. Rev. Lane had used as his text James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom . . ., etc.”6 William makes reference in his accounts to the (historically well-documented) religious excitement and the preaching by “Elder Lane” in the local area in 1823. He stressed in his last interview how believable his family members Lane. Later, in writing his own 1842 history, Joseph appears to have appropriated Reverend Lane’s scriptural text as well as his sermon in prefacing what led him in 1820 to go to the grove and pray for guidance regarding which church to join.
Three of William’s accounts have the angel’s appearance in a grove of trees, but the first one has it occurring in the night in his chamber, and Joseph being awakened by it. William’s accounts also stress the effect that a Presbyterian Reverend Stockton had on Joseph when Stockton preached at Alvin Smith’s funeral that Alvin had gone to hell for not being baptized before his death. I personally believe Stockton’s words were the genesis of the reportedly harsh words attributed to Jesus about the creeds of other religions contained in Joseph’s 1842 First Vision account, as well as the source of Doctrine and Covenants Section 137’s declaration that Alvin had gone to the Celestial Kingdom without baptism. The fact that Joseph’s own brother, himself an apostle who referred to Joseph as the Prophet, repeatedly averred that the appearance of the messenger to herald the advent of the Book of Mormon constituted the First Vision, is very damaging indeed.
William discussed in his last interview with church journalists the extent to which Joseph related to his family the appearance of the angel, reinforcing the conclusion that if the First Vision as we now know it had happened, Joseph would have discussed that, too. William, who never went west with the Brigham Young faction of Mormonism after his brother’s death, died in 1893 without ever having heard of Joseph’s account of seeing the Father and the Son and being told not to join any church.
In his 1999 essay discussing William Smith’s four accounts of Joseph’s First Vision, Elden J. Watson acknowledges that no one in Joseph’s family seems to have been aware of the First Vision account published in 1842, and that Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s Messenger and Advocate account doesn’t mention it either.7 Still, Watson being himself an orthodox Mormon, concludes that William was simply mistaken in each of his accounts, because his version was inconsistent with Joseph Smith’s canonized history currently found in the Pearl of Great Price. Watson does not consider the possibility in his essay that Joseph Smith himself could have fabricated his First Vision account after writing a more accurate, but less spectacular, account earlier in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate.
What lends credibility to Lucy Mack Smith’s and William Smith’s accounts of what they considered to be the First Vision is the fact that they are very similar to Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 account that appeared in the Messenger and Advocate. All three accounts link the first vision to the same general time frame of 1823, when Joseph Smith was 17 years old. All aver that this occurred in the same general time frame as the preaching of a Methodist minister by the name of George Lane,8 whose preaching had stirred up much excitement among the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists regarding which church was right. All three versions also state that the vision consisted of an unnamed messenger visiting Joseph Smith to tell him about the Book of Mormon written on the golden plates. And all three versions are consistent in reporting what the angel told Joseph. Ironically, all three versions now stand massively contradicted by the version of the First Vision now found in the Pearl of Great Price and accepted as canonical by the LDS Church.
Joseph’s First Three Versions Vary too Dramatically on Major Points to be Credible
The fifth body of evidence concerns the discrepancies between the different versions of the First Vision by Joseph Smith. We have concluded that the now-official version differs so greatly from the first version that the two cannot possibly be harmonized. Their only commonality appears to be that both versions describe a vision. But nothing about the two visions is the same. Indeed, we believe the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that the First Vision experience known throughout Mormondom did not actually occur at all.
According to the LDS Church’s website essay,
Joseph Smith published two accounts of the First Vision during his lifetime. The first of these, known today as Joseph Smith—History, was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price and thus became the best known account. The two unpublished accounts, recorded in Joseph Smith’s earliest autobiography and a later journal, were generally forgotten until historians working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rediscovered and published them in the 1960s. Since that time, these documents have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues. In addition to the firsthand accounts, there are also five descriptions of Joseph Smith’s vision recorded by his contemporaries.9
The Church essay10 goes on to argue that the differing versions paint a consistent picture. We do not agree; they do the opposite. We argue that the Church’s attempt on its website to harmonize and justify these discrepancies is full of intellectually dishonest reasoning, especially in this paragraph, wherein we have highlighted in red those words which we deem misleading:
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.11
The first iteration of the First Vision was written by Joseph in 1832 in his own handwriting and in his own personal letter book.12 Its existence was never disclosed to church members until the 1960s, so its only “audience” was Joseph himself. He had no need to omit any significant detail, since he was writing to himself. Though future versions might reasonably be expected to add or omit minor details, no credible argument can be proffered as to how most of the important features of the official version would be left out of the first version. In fact, this first version should logically be the most reliable, since it was closest in time to the actual event, and presumably written to preserve Joseph’s existing memory of what happened. Note how it differs from the canonized version: Joseph wrote that the First Vision had occurred in his “16th” year, not when he was 14. It contained no account of his wondering which church was true, or of reading James 1:5 and being inspired by it to ask God which church to join, or of having a struggle with a powerful, unseen evil force trying to destroy him as he prayed, or of him asking the Lord which church he should join. In fact, he wrote that he’d already decided that none of the churches or people were right. He wrote that he was very concerned for his sins, and was seeking forgiveness therefor (which is also what he wrote later in prefacing his account of the appearance of the angel heralding the Book of Mormon). He states he prayed, and one personage, the Lord, appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven, and condemned the inhabitants of the earth, saying “none doeth good, no, not one.” (Oddly enough, this last statement from the Lord seemed to be contradicted by a prior one in the same vision, in which the Lord said all who believed in His name would have eternal life. This “all who believe will receive eternal life” statement was not included in subsequent iterations of the visions. Thus, taken on face value, as we read it now, the Lord seemed to be have been asserting that no one on earth in 1821 or 1822, “no, not one,” even believed on his name, because none were doing good.) The Lord added that his wrath was kindling against mankind. This version also did not mention the presence of God the Father, or of Him introducing his Son, or anything having been said about other churches being wrong or having abominable creeds. Joseph also didn’t say whom he told about this experience afterwards, nor did he claim anyone persecuted him for his story, but he did write that he “could find none that would believe the hevnly [sic] vision.”
The second version of the First Vision, written by Joseph Smith into his own diary in 1835, is not treated in-depth here. Suffice it to say that it is shorter than the first version, and more similar to it than to the third version published in 1842. The second version contains no mention of God the Father or Jesus Christ visiting Joseph, and the heavenly being who reportedly does appear to him is quoted as having said that Joseph is forgiven of his sins, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Joseph says many angels appeared to him in this vision, but doesn’t disclose who they were or what they said. No discussion takes place in this version about the rightness or wrongness of any other religion, either.13
But the third version, thought to have been written in 1838 or 1839, and first published in 1842 in the Church periodical Times and Seasons,14 adds that the Lord said “many other things” to Joseph at this time, which he could not write. Joseph seemed to be leaving room for further claims that he might want to promulgate later. But one wonders why he would consider this necessary, since by this time he had already made so many spectacular claims, like having seen God the Father on one occasion and Jesus Christ on several occasions, as well as many angels and ancient prophets. His spectacular 1838-39 additions seem all the more improbable, given their lack of mention in the first version.
So, we believe if the version written in 1838-39 and published in 1842 were true, Joseph wouldn’t have left out of his first version that he was searching for the right religion rather than seeking forgiveness of sins, or that some unseen evil force physically struggled mightily with him to prevent him from learning what he was about to learn, or that the God the Father appeared and introduced his Son. In 1838-39 he wrote that he asked the two Personages which church was true “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong,” but this statement is flatly contradicted by the first version, which says he’d already reached that conclusion prior to praying for forgiveness. We also think if he’d suffered as much persecution as he later says he did, he would have written about said persecution earlier. If not, why did it become so heavily emphasized later? It appears Joseph increasingly realized the value of portraying himself as valiant defender of truth, and the late portrayal of himself suffering intense persecution as a 14-year-old boy became useful.
Interestingly, the first version claims Joseph could find none that believed his account, which would apparently include his family members. But this, too, is contradicted by what his family members wrote. His brother William and his mother Lucy both stated in their separate accounts that their family members found the first account of a heavenly visitation they had ever heard from him–regarding the appearance of the Book of Mormon angel–to be believable.
And, though this is a minor point, it seems unlikely Joseph would have correctly remembered in 1838 that the First Vision occurred when he was fourteen, when he had already twice given different ages in prior versions, and had emphatically stated he was seventeen in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate version. This adds another layer of implausibility to the official church version.
Family Members Joined a Protestant Church after 1820
A sixth strong argument against the authenticity of the official First Vision account is the historical fact that in 1824, Joseph’s ultra-loyal mother Lucy, his sister Sophronia and his brothers Hyrum and Samuel joined the Presbyterian church.15 Attempts by Mormon writers to show the Smith family members joined the Presbyterian church sometime before 1820 have become increasingly difficult due to the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to late 1824 or early 1825 as the time when this happened. The sources for the latter date are listed below under Footnote 12. The exhaustive research by the Reverend Wesley Walters, contained in a written debate between himself and Mormon historian Richard Bushman published in 1969 in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, provided what this author considers conclusive proof that Joseph’s family joined Presbyterianism in late 1824 at the earliest.16 Readers are encouraged to read the written debate for themselves to weigh the evidence on each side, and to read the other sources provided under footnote 12. Writing about the same controversy 36 years later, however, Bushman appears to tacitly acknowledge the probative strength of Walters’ research. In his landmark biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, though he buries this comment in a footnote, Bushman states the following about Joseph’s mother Lucy joining the Presbyterian church: “It is possible to argue plausibly that she did not join until later Palmyra revivals in 1824.” He does not mention or cite to his earlier Dialogue debate in 1969, however, instead citing to other, less exhaustive writings by Walters and H. Michael Marquardt on the same subject.17 The joining of Presbyterianism was at least four years after Joseph had supposedly told everyone who would listen that God the Father and his Son Jesus had visited him to announce that all other churches were wrong, that they taught abominable creeds, and that those who professed those creeds were corrupt.
In fact, Joseph claimed in his now-canonized version that he told his mother the same day as the First Vision “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.”18 However, given the fact that every member of the Smith family eventually joined the LDS Church when it was founded, and accepted Joseph as the Choice Seer chosen by God to assist in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, it seems impossible to believe that the four above-named members of the Smith family would join a Protestant church if Joseph had told them in 1820 that the Lord had informed him, in person, that all such churches were wrong and should not be joined. The only believable inference is that Joseph had not told his family members, or anyone else they were acquainted with, any such thing prior to 1824 (or any time soon thereafter, either, since none of them ever reported quitting Presbyterianism due to anything Joseph ever told them). Such a conclusion is compelled not only from close family members joining an “abominable” Protestant denomination, but by the absence, discussed earlier in this essay, of any record to indicate anyone heard of Mormonism’s currently-accepted First Vision account before 1838. Logic also compels the conclusion that the reason Joseph hadn’t advised anyone of what the resurrected Lord had told him about joining other churches in 1820 is because the experience hadn’t actually occurred at all.
A word of caution is perhaps advisable here. While we have accepted the conclusions of men like Walters and Marquardt that Joseph Smith’s close family members joined the Presbyterian Church in 1824, our acceptance is based solely on the merits of the research supporting those conclusions, which research we have compared against several Mormon writers such as Richard Bushman, Milton R. Backman and the many anonymous scholars who write for the pro-Mormon apologetic website fairmormon.org. Walters and Marquardt happen to be in agreement with Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Fawn Brodie, and several others who are well known for discrediting many of Mormonism’s high-profile historical claims. Accepting a researcher’s conclusions on one historical point or another is not the same as agreeing with those authors on all other points they’ve written about. In particular, the reader should not infer that we also agree with any writing or research by any authors which attempts to impeach the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. We have studied exhaustively all arguments known to us against Book of Mormon authenticity, and found them unpersuasive and inferior to the many layers of spiritual and intellectual proof that the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be.
The Excitement and Division Over Which Church to Join had not Occurred in 1820, but Did Occur in Late 1824 and Early 1825.
A seventh piece of evidence militating against First Vision authenticity is the fact that historical records conclusively show that the great excitement on the subject of religion which Joseph Smith claimed occurred in 1820 between the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, actually did not occur until the last months of 1824 and the first few months of 1825. There can be no question that the events Joseph described in his official history were not merely things he heard were happening in his general geographic area, but were localized and focused in Palmyra itself, because Joseph wrote that the contention between the three denominations over which one was right caused him “extreme difficulties.”19 But there is simply no evidence of it in Palmyra during that time, either in newspaper accounts or in the journals or writings of people who lived there. However, the opposite is true regarding what happened in 1824 and 1825. Indeed, in the writings of Lucy Smith, William Smith, and Oliver Cowdery in collaboration with Joseph Smith writing in the Messenger and Advocate, referenced earlier in this essay, all of them wrote of this religious excitement occurring in 1823 or shortly thereafter. Several newspapers covered the events, and participants wrote about it in their journals. The Wayne Sentinel, a Palmyra newspaper, even noted on March 2, 1825, that some 400 people had been converted in the past several months to the three local denominations, a huge number. 20 The records for the three churches confirmed that in Palmyra and Macedon (a nearby village) together, from autumn of 1824 to September of 1825, the Presbyterians had gained 99 new converts, the Baptists 94, and the Methodists, who were led by George Lane’s preaching, 208.21 Nothing remotely similar to this is reported to have happened in 1820. In fact, in the Methodist circuit that included Palmyra, the reports of the denomination’s newspaper showed the faith lost 23 members in 1819, another six in 1820, and 40 in 1821. The newspapers of the three faiths affirmatively showed an absence of revivals in Palmyra in 1820.22
Meanwhile, the personal contemporaneous reporting of Reverend George Lane himself repeatedly referred to the “revival” sweeping through Palmyra, and outward from there, in the fall of 1824. Reverend Walters quoted Lane’s reports extensively in his 1969 Dialogue essay.23 In fact, Lane’s accounts are corroborated with precision by Lucy Mack Smith’s own written history of her family. In her original handwritten manuscript of that history, Lucy, who faithfully chronicled every event she deemed important in her family’s past, mentioned no time of religious excitement occurring in 1820, but had much today about the religious excitement transpiring shortly after her son Alvin died, which occurred on November 19, 1823. Alvin’s passing fell about two months after Joseph had received his first visit from the angel to proclaim the advent of the Book of Mormon, and Lucy specifically remembers Alvin on his deathbed encouraging Joseph to live so as to be worthy to retrieve the buried plates. Thereafter, as discussed above, in response to the religious excitement in their town, Lucy and three of her children began attending a local Protestant church.24
Fairmormon.org, an apologetic website devoted to defending LDS doctrine and history, has written an article addressing the historical of evidence of what was and was not occurring in Palmyra when Joseph Smith lived there in 1820. Entitled “Religious activity in the Palmyra area in 1820,” it illustrates what we have come to believe is the typical LDS response to this inconvenient hole in the historical record. In an effort to bolster Joseph Smith’s version, the article lists four towns cited in the Palmyra Register newspaper as having experienced revivals in 1820. However, the towns listed are not anywhere near the vicinity of Palmyra; they’re in fact great distances away in the context of 1820 travel times. Moreover, the article argues, without support, that Joseph’s family would have read this newspaper, and doing so would have given Joseph “the sense that there was substantial revival activity in the region.” The article not only ignores the fact that another Palmyra newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel, never mentioned any revival activity in the Palmyra area during this time, but it also ignores the fact that when an actual revival and heightened excitement about religion came to Palmyra in 1824, not only did the Wayne Sentinel write about it, but all the newspapers put out by the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists did as well. Other LDS historians writing about this issue, Richard Lloyd Anderson and Milton Backman, Jr. also avoid the point that the description of what happened during 1824-25 fits perfectly with what Joseph Smith described as happening in 1820, a year in which the records are silent. Richard Bushman didn’t address this fact, either, when he defended the official First Vision account 48 years ago in Dialogue, but in 2005, in his famous work Rough Stone Rolling, he does acknowledge, at least in footnotes, the evidence contradicting Joseph Smith’s version. See footnotes 27, 29, 30 and 34, p. 570. However, in the chapter to which those footnotes belong, he avoids any direct discussion of the matter.
Doctrinal Conflicts With the First Vision Account in the Book of Mormon
Our last two arguments against First Vision authenticity are doctrinal, not historical, and perhaps even more significant than the historical arguments. First of all, as recorded in 3 Nephi 15:23 in the Book of Mormon, Jesus explained to the Nephites that the latter-day Gentiles “should not at any time hear my voice–that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost.” Lest we not understand that Jesus considered Joseph Smith a “Gentile,” Jesus went on to explain that in the latter days the fulness of the gospel in the Book of Mormon would come forth from the Gentiles to the scattered remnants of the house of Israel. See 3 Nephi 16: 5-7. Joseph Smith was one of the Gentiles through whom the Book of Mormon came forth to the rest of the world. Therefore, the Lord makes clear here that his communications with latter-day Gentiles like Joseph would be through the Holy Ghost, but not by appearing and speaking to them. All LDS claims of appearances by God to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon during the 1830s (which claims are made exclusively by Joseph Smith, and not by the other two men), suffer from this same weakness–they contradict Jesus’s own statements regarding his method of interacting with his latter-day Gentile followers.
Finally, as suggested in the fourth and fifth paragraphs of this essay, we are convinced that the doctrine announced in Mormonism’s canonized account of the First Vision, that all other Christian churches were wrong, that all their creeds were abominable, and that those who professed those beliefs were corrupt, was false. We do not believe Jesus said those words, because the Book of Mormon and Bible themselves teach otherwise. Jesus would not deliver a message to Joseph Smith which was contradicted by these two books of scripture. As indicated above, we explain in another essay on this website, entitled “The Historic Overthrow of the Great and Abominable Church by the Church of the Lamb,” that the Book of Mormon makes clear that the church of the Lamb–Christ’s church–was never lost from the earth in the first place. It did not need to be restored in 1830, though it did need to have the previously-lost plain and precious parts of the gospel from the Book of Mormon restored to its teachings.
For all of the above reasons, we conclude the canonized version of the First Vision contained in the Pearl of Great Price is not authentic. It did not happen.
We also conclude that former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was wrong when he spoke these words in the Church’s 2002 general conference regarding the centrality of the First Vision account to Mormonism:
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. . . . Upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this Church. . . . [W]ithout that history we have nothing. The truth of that unique, singular, and remarkable event is the pivotal substance of our faith.25
Without the canonized First Vision account, we do not become “frauds.” To be honestly mistaken about a belief is not to be fraudulent in proclaiming it. Nor are we left with “nothing.” We yet remain in possession of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which together contain the fulness of the gospel. But going forward, to prevent ourselves from holding on to inherited, foundational, perhaps even treasured beliefs which we have never carefully evaluated, we must resolve to judge all our religious creeds on their individual intellectual and spiritual merits.
- See the seventh argument of this essay, and Footnote 22 for more information on Lucy Mack Smith’s written family history.
- See Journal of Discourses, vol. 2 (Liverpool: F.D. Richards, 1855) p. 171 for statement by Brigham Young. For statement by Erastus Holmes quoting Joseph Smith, see “History of Joseph Smith” in Deseret News, May 29, 1852; for statement by George Albert Smith, see Journal of Discourses vol. 13 (Liverpool, Horace s. Eldridge, 1871) p. 78, speech given on June 20, 1869; for statement by John Taylor, see Journal of Discourses vol. 20 (Liverpool, William Budge, 1880) p. 167, speech delivered March 2, 1879. All Journal of Discourses volumes are now accessible online at no charge on various websites.
- Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, No. 1, page 13, Oct. 1834; vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 40-43, December 1834; vol. 1, No. 5, pp. 77-80, February 1835.
- Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, No. 5, February 1835, p. 78.
- Elden J. Watson, “The William Smith Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision”, at http://www.eldenwatson.net, copyright 1999.
- As will be demonstrated below in this essay, the recollections placing Methodist Rev. George Lane’s preaching about which church to join, and the great excitement that surrounded it, are slightly, though not materially, inaccurate. Reliable and redundant records show these events actually occurred in 1824. However, this may or may not require historians to revise the conclusion that Joseph Smith was first visited by the angel heralding the golden plates in September of 1823. In placing this event in 1823 Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith Jr., as well as Lucy and her son William don’t purport to connect it to an exact date, but rather, the same general time frame of Rev. Lane’s preaching. Moreover, Rev. Lane appears to have preaching in the areas outside of Palmyra, but not necessarily far from it, during 1823, though he only arrived in Palmyra proper in 1824.
- All of Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts have been reproduced in Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in John W. Welch, ed., with Erick B. Carlson, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo and Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012).
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topics essay published on the LDS church’s website at lds.org.
- Joseph Smith History, ca. Summer 1832, in Joseph Smith, Letter Book A, pp. 2,3, Joseph Smith Collection, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- “First Vision Accounts,” Ibid.
- Times and Seasons 3 (March 15-April 1, 1842):727-28, 748-49.
- Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith–History 1:7 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981). The canonized LDS version places this event of family members joining Presbyterianism sometime before the spring of 1820, but overwhelming historical evidence that it occurred in 1824 is presented in Marquardt, H. Michael, and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), pp. xxviii, 16-17; Hill, Marvin S., “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 2 (1982): 39-42; Walters, Wesley P., “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival” and “A Reply to Dr. Bushman,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4, no. 1 (Spring 1969), 61-73, 93-105.
- Walters, Wesley P., “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4, no. 1 (Spring 1969), 61-73, 93-105.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 570, n. 30.
- Joseph Smith–History 1:20
- Joseph Smith–History 1:1
- Wayne Sentinel, (Mar. 2, 1835), II, 3, 4, as quoted in Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Period,” p. 66.
- Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Period,” p. 66 and footnote 35 for citations to individual denominations’ records.
- Ibid., 66-67.
- Ibid., 64-65.
- Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), p. 357. In her history, Lucy’s only remembrance of an incident from her son Joseph’s life as a fourteen-year-old was that one day he came in the house claiming to have been shot at, and the family determined the following day that a bullet was lodged in the head of a cow.
- Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith,” Ensign, November, 2002, p. 80 (from October 2002 General Conference address).