.:IS JOSEPH SMITH’S FIRST VISION A SOLID HISTORICAL FACT?
The religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormonism as it is often called, was founded by the self-proclaimed “prophet” Joseph Smith, Jr. on April 6, 1830. Although different accounts of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” story are found in the pages of historical Mormon writings, the official account currently recognized by the LDS church was originally written in 1838 and has been reproduced in “Joseph Smith — History” of the LDS Scripture Pearl of Great Price and in History of the Church, volume 1, pages 1-44.
According to the official account of Joseph Smith’s story, his calling as a “prophet” began in the spring of 1820 at fifteen years of age. The previous year, Joseph Smith and his family had moved to Palmyra, New York and were soon caught up in an alleged revival of the region. Joseph Smith explains that at that time, all the denominations were competing for the membership of the unusually high number of converts occurring at the revival meetings. Such “confusion,”1. explains Smith, prompted him to retreat to the woods one morning in order to follow the admonition of James 1:5 which states, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God … and it shall be given him.” 2.
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join,”3. Joseph Smith explains: “For at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong. … I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt.” 4.
This revelation in which God the Father and Jesus Christ allegedly appeared to Joseph Smith, denouncing the supposed apostasy of Christendom’s churches, provides the underlining basis for Mormonism’s claim to the “restoration” of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the one and only “true” Christian church. The dogmatic nature of these claims can be seen in the following statements found in LDS publications:
“Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (History of the Church, vol. 1, p. XL)
“There is no salvation outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol 2, pp. 1-350)” (Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 670)
In the same way that the foundation of historic Christianity rests in the validity of a documented historic event — the resurrection of Jesus Christ; so the foundation of Mormonism rests on the credibility of the historic event of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. LDS apostle John A. Widtsoe proclaimed: “The First Vision of 1820 is of first importance in the history of Joseph Smith. Upon its reality rest the truth and value of his subsequent work.”5. Joseph Fielding Smith, another LDS apostle and former prophet, echoes Widtsoe’s sediment.
“CHURCH STANDS OR FALLS WITH JOSEPH SMITH. Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph Smith was a deceiver, who wilfully attempted to mislead the people, then he should be exposed; his claims should be refuted, and his doctrines shown to be false, for the doctrines of an impostor cannot be made to harmonize in all particulars with divine truth. If his claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect. The doctrines of false teachers will not stand the test when tried by the accepted standards of measurement, the scriptures.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1954, vol. 1, p. 188) 6.
Just as Joseph Fielding Smith articulated in the above quote, if Joseph Smith’s “claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect.” In the case of Joseph Smith’s story, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the “contradictions” which are easy to detect.
In the 1838 recount of the story of his First Vision of the Father and the Son and subsequent visions of the angel Moroni that lead up to Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith provides a detailed account of important chronological events.
- There was a great revival going on in the community that caused Joseph Smith to “ask God” which church he should join. This resulted in receiving his First Vision of God the Father and the Son “early in the spring” of 1820.7.
- Three years passed between the time of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and his visits with the angel Moroni in September of 1823. 8.
- The angel Moroni commands Joseph Smith to wait “until four years from that time” before he would be permitted to remove the gold plates of the Book of Mormon from the Hill Cumorah in order to translate them. 9.
Thus, according to the official 1838 account of Joseph Smith’s story, we see that there was a total of seven years that transpired between his First Vision in 1820 and his obtaining of the gold plates for translating the Book of Mormon in 1827.
How well does this account compare with the historical events noted by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries? In his book, Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth, apostle John A Widtsoe quotes Joseph Smith’s brother William as he retold the story:
“In his old age, only two weeks before his death, William Smith, brother of the Prophet, confirmed the story of the First Vision. He said: ‘Hyrum, Catherine and mother were members of the Presbyterian Church. My father would not join. He did not like it because of Reverend Stockton. He had preached my brother’s [Alvin’s] funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member … What caused Joseph to ask for guidance as to what church he should join? … the next evening Reverend Mr. Lane of the Methodists preached a sermon on ‘What church shall I join?’ And the burden of the discourse was to ask of God, using as a text, ‘If any man lacks wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally.’ And of course when Joseph went home and was looking over the text he was impressed to do just what the preacher had said, and going into the woods … he kneeled down and prayed; and … God was pleased to show him that he should join none of these churches.’” (Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth, 1952, p. 23-24)
One key historical fact often overlooked in the above account is the fact that Joseph Smith did not receive his First Vision until after the death of his brother Alvin Smith who died November 19, 1823.10. Since Alvin died in the Fall of 1823 and Joseph Smith states that his vision occurred “early in the spring,” this places the First Vision in the year 1824 — not 1820! This later date of 1824 fits better with the historical data available that demonstrates that a revival in that area of Palmyra, NY did not begin until around 1823. 11.
When one adds the seven years Joseph Smith describes in his 1838 account to the recalculated 1824 date for his First Vision, one realizes that this places Joseph Smith’s obtaining of the gold plates in 1831! This is one year after he had already translated, printed, and published the 1830 Book of Mormon!
Not only does this change the date for the First Vision cause an incongruous match of Smith’s account with the chronology of documented historical facts, but one will strive in vain to reconcile Joseph Smith’s alleged visit of the angel Moroni in September 1823 with the 1824 date for the First Vision; for if Smith’s visits with the angel Moroni had occurred prior to his First Vision revelation, what need would he have had to “ask God” which church he should join?
The LDS documentary book, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, provides a word-for-word account of the original 1838 account dictated by Joseph Smith and transcribed by James Mulholland.12. This publication notes how “Nephi” rather than “Moroni” was the original word written at Joseph Smith — History 1:33 in the 1838 account. This is a significant error because according to Book of Mormon history, it was Mormon’s son Moroni who finished writing the historical record of the Nephite people in the Book of Mormon and who had buried the gold plates of this record in the Hill Cumorah. Thus, one can only conclude that it would be logical that Moroni — not Nephi — would reveal to Joseph Smith the location of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
Not only did Nephi appear in the original 1838 account, but Nephi was the original name published in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price and “in the original publication of the history in the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo…and the Millennial Star.”13. The documentary book, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith notes that when LDS historian “Brigham H. Roberts prepared the History for publication in its seven-volume format at the turn of the century, he wrote ‘Mormon’ above the name of ‘Nephi’ and keyed his insertion to the following reference at the bottom of the page: ‘Evidently a clerical error; see Book Doc & Cov., Sec 50, par 2; Sec 106, par 20; also Elders’ Journal Vol. 1, page 43. Should read Moroni.’” 14.
1838 OFFICIAL ACCOUNT
1832 DIARY ACCOUNT
Joseph Smith learned of Christendom’s apostasy through his First Vision and direct revelation. 15.
Joseph Smith learned of Christendom’s apostasy through “searching the scriptures.” 19.
Joseph Smith prayed and received his First Vision in the “fifteenth year” of his life. 16.
Joseph Smith prayed and received his First Vision in the “16th year” of his life. 20.
In his First Vision, Joseph saw “two Personages” — the Father and the Son. 17.
In his First Vision, Joseph saw “the Lord of glory” who was “crucifyed for the world” with no mention of the Father. 21.
The angel Moroni visits Joseph Smith on “the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three.” 18.
|The angel Moroni visits Joseph Smith “on the 22nd day of Sept. AD 1822.” 22.|
In addition to the conflicting information Joseph Smith provides of his First Vision written in 1832 and 1838 respectively, the contradictions of these accounts are further compounded by yet another diary account written by Joseph Smith in 1835.
In Joseph Smith’s 1838 account, he speaks of the Father and the Son appearing to him and the Father pointing to the Son proclaiming: “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” No mention is made of forgiveness of sins, nor does Joseph Smith make any indication that the “two personages” were accompanied by “angels.” This account is at variance with the 1835 account which states that along with the two personages, Joseph “saw many angels in this vision” and was told that his “sins are forgiven.” 23.
While the 1838 account clearly indicates the identity of the two personages, the 1835 account leaves one wondering about the identity of the second personage who declared “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”24. If these personages who appeared to Joseph Smith in the 1835 account are indeed the Father and the Son (as stated in the 1838 account), why wouldn’t the second personage speak of Jesus Christ in first-person terms of “I am” or “My Son Jesus Christ is,” rather than use the third person language, “Jesus Christ is…”? Such language leads one to the conclusion that this personage could not have been the Son of God Himself.
Furthermore, while the 1832 and 1838 accounts place Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the 15th or 16th years of his life (in 1820 or 1821), the 1835 account places him at “14 years” of age which puts the First Vision in the year 1819. 25.
Since Joseph Smith couldn’t get the details of his own story correct, is it any wonder his followers had a hard time determining who Joseph Smith saw in his First Vision? In 1855, Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS Church, proclaimed: “The Lord did not come … but He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith Jun. … and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong.”26. The fact that Brigham Young was not alone in his assessment that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and not by the Father or the Son is evident in the following quotes from LDS prophets and apostles:
“He sought the Lord by day and by night, and was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, one of his first inquires was, ‘Which of the denominations of the Christians in the vicinity was right?’ He was told they had all gone astray.…he was, consequently, directed not to join any one of them.” (George A. Smith, 1869, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 78)
“How did it commence? It commenced by an angel of God…visiting a young man named Joseph Smith, in the year 1827. That was the time of a great awakening.…He went into his secret chamber and asked the Lord what he must do to be saved. The Lord heard his prayer and sent His angel to him, who informed him that all the sects were wrong.” (Wilford Woodruff, 1869, Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 324)
“None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right.” (John Taylor, 1879, Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 166)
“Some one may say, ‘If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Savior come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?’ Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else.” (Orson Hyde, 1854, Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 335)
Thus, we see that the foundation of Mormonism stands tainted by the contradictory discrepancies found in the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Unlike the Biblical narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that gains veracity through comparison with various eye-witness accounts, Joseph Smith’s First Vision fails the test of historic consistency, bringing the entire account into suspect. Indeed, while the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands authenticated by remarkable collaborative evidence in historic, literary and archeological studies, 27. Joseph Smith’s First Vision account fails the test.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)
For more information see:
1. Joseph Smith—History 1:13
2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taking from the King James Version
3. Joseph Smith—History 1:18
4. Joseph Smith—History 1:18-19
5. Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth,1952, p. 19
6. Emphasis in the original
7. Joseph Smith—History 1:5, 14
8. Joseph Smith—History 1:27-28, 33
9. Joseph Smith—History 1:53, 59
10. See Joseph Smith—History 1:4; Note that History of the Church, vol. 1, p. 2 and early editions of “Joseph Smith—History” in Pearl of Great Price give the year “1824” for Alvin’s death, rather than the more accurate year 1823 which has been corrected in later editions.
11. For more information on the newspaper accounts of the revival in 1823, see the booklet New Light on Mormon Origins, 1990, by Wesley P. Walters available through Institute For Religious Research – http://www.irr.org
12. See The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 211 compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee and published in 1984 by LDS owned Deseret Book Company
13. Footnote of History of the Church, vol 1, p. 11
14. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, p. 667
15. Joseph Smith—History 1:18-19
16. Joseph Smith—History 1:7
17. Joseph Smith—History 1:17
18. Joseph Smith—History 1:27-29
19. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 5
20. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 6
21. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 6
22. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 7
23. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, pp.84, 75-76
24. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 75
25. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 1984, p. 76
26. Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 171
27. For more information on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, see Josh MacDowell’s book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, vol 1, pp. 179-263