Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/1832/Motivation is different

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Joseph Smith's motivation for praying in his 1832 First Vision account


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for I become convicted of my sins...and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
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Question: What was Joseph Smith's motivation for going to the grove to pray in 1820?

Joseph had two motivations: obtain a forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right

Joseph Smith's stated motivation for praying to the Lord changes between the first known account of the First Vision (1832) and the official version of it (1838). The 1832 account emphasizes his desire for a forgiveness of sins, and the 1838 (official) account emphasizes his desire to know which church was right. Some critic claim that Joseph changed his story in later years.

The texts that are employed by critics to justify the charge of 'differing motivations' are as follows:

1832

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy"

1838

"My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join."

The words that precede the point at which Joseph Smith offers his prayer in the 1832 text demonstrate that the anti-Mormon claim about his motivation changing is not sustainable. These words read as follows (standardized for readability):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.
Thus applying myself to them, and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul.
Thus, from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind: the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.
My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins.
And by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.
And I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.
For I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He was no respecter to persons, for He was God. For I looked upon the sun - the glorious luminary of the earth - and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty - whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvelous, even in the likeness of Him who created them.
And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, "Well hath the wise man said, 'It is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.'" My heart exclaimed, "All all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power; a Being who maketh laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds; who filleth eternity; who was, and is, and will be from all eternity to eternity." And when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth, therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.

Historian Christopher Jones has observed that Joseph Smith's 1832 account (and indeed much of his other three accounts) are shaped as Methodist conversion narratives. Within Methodism (and indeed the broader religious culture of Joseph Smith's day), finding forgiveness of sins and joining the right Church rode in tandem. You receive forgiveness of sins by joining the right Church. If you don't follow the correct, "biblical" doctrine then you can't receive such forgiveness.[1] In the case of Joseph Smith, he receives forgiveness of sins and is told not to join any church with which he was acquainted at the time.

There are those who claim that Joseph Smith only claims to seek forgiveness of sins in his 1832 account. These critics are ignorant of the larger historical context under which the 1832 account was written (documented by Jones) and also fail to take notice of scriptural passages quoted near the end of the account in which Christ echoes Matthew 15:8-9:

the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <​my​> commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to thir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which <​hath​> 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 <​clothed​> in the glory of my Father

This clearly does not refer to young Joseph's seeking of a forgiveness of sins. It must refer to an apostasy and restoration of a Church--the true Church of Christ that Joseph had already proclaimed to restore as Doctrine and Covenants 1 (revealed in 1831) makes clear:

30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually

Some may counter that this only refers to corrupt people and not corrupt churches or religions. Going back to the passage from the 1832 account cited above, one reads "the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doth good no not one..." This phrase ('and none doeth good no not one') is echoed in a few scriptural passages (Psalm 53: 3; Romans 3: 10, 12; Moroni 7:17) but for our purposes we will highlight one of these occurrences in JST Psalm 14:2. The Church still describes this passage in its heading as lamenting "the loss of truth in the last days[.]" The passage "looks forward to the establishment of Zion." The italics represent edits made by Joseph Smith to the text:

JST Psalm 14-1-7 screenshot.png

"Joseph Fielding McConkie said, 'The JST rendering of this Psalm reads like another account of the First Vision.'[2]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[3] He even goes so far to say that 'the JST Psalm 14 text may have served as a prototype of sorts for the composition of the 1832 historical document.'[4]

The 1838-39 account’s mention of 'corrupt professors' seems to be reflected in the JST’s 'their teachers are workers of iniquity.' . . . JST Psalm 14:2-4 features 'all these who say they are [the Lord’s]' being rejected by the Lord due to them having 'gone aside,' 'become filthy,' and 'none of them…doing good.' And this is laid at the feet of 'their teachers' who 'are workers of iniquity.'"[5] This use of Psalm 14 to be explanatory for Joseph's use of no one doing good is strengthened by the fact that Psalm 14 is quoted specifically earlier in the 1832 account ("And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, 'Well hath the wise man said, It is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.'")

Thus, to summarize again, those who don't do good are all people and this is caused by false teachers teaching incorrect doctrine.

The 1832 account emphasizes Joseph's want of forgiveness as a means to the end of restoring the true Church of Christ. This is completely in line with the rest of the accounts and thus the standard narrative of the First Vision and Joseph's motives in seeking such a vision as taught officially by the Church.


Question: Did Joseph Smith change his stated motivation for praying in later years after he received the First Vision?

The story elements of the vision remain steady over time

The assertion that Joseph Smith's motivation for prayer changes in later accounts of the First Vision event does not pass the test of close examination. The evidence shows, rather, that the story elements remain steady over time. Joseph's motivations for praying are not, as one critic puts it "all over the place." He had two motivations: forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right.

  • 1832 Account
    my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul....
    My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins....He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
  • 1835 Account (9 Nov. 1835)
    being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right....
    he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee....
  • 1835 Account (14 Nov. 1835)
    This account is simply a one line summary of the vision - motive not given.
  • 1838 Account (published in 1842)
    Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?....My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join....
    many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time....
  • 1840 Account by Orson Pratt
    ...if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it?...
    He was informed that his sins were forgiven.

It must be kept in mind that those who report the Prophet's inaugural manifestation in writing do not always spell things out in exactly the same way; sometimes they obscure information by the language they choose to utilize and on occasion they omit story elements altogether (possibly because of audience considerations).


Question: How do the First Vision accounts compare on the subject of Joseph's motivation for praying?

Summary of themes

  • Between the ages of 12 and 15 Joseph Smith became exceedingly distressed about his personal sins and mourned over them. He became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul and so he searched the scripture for information on that topic.
  • He both marveled and grieved that his acquaintances who belonged to various Christian denominations did not act in accordance with what was found on the pages of the Bible.
  • His study of the New Testament led him to the conclusion that all the Christian denominations with which he was acquainted had apostatized from the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Joseph pondered the darkness that pervaded the minds of mankind and its resultant wickedness and abominations - and he mourned for the sins of the world.
  • He also thought about the "contentions and division" among men [see - revival mentioned in the 1832 text].
  • Joseph believed from his personal observation of created objects and entities that God did indeed exist.
  • He also believed the scriptures that taught God was an eternal Being who was all powerful and everywhere present, who was no respecter of persons, who was a God of law and did not change over time, and wanted mankind to worship Him in truth.
  • When Joseph Smith "considered all these things" he prayed to the Lord and received his First Vision.

It is clear from a consultation of the 1832 text that Joseph Smith's desire to be forgiven of his personal sins was NOT the only motivation for his prayer in the wilderness. He prayed (as he explicitly states) because of "all" of the things he mentions - including the desire to worship God in truth; according to His laws (which Joseph did not believe was the case among any of the Christians denominations that he knew of).

Patterns within documents

The 1832 textual pattern of (1) desire to prepare for eternity / worship God in truth and (2) desire for forgiveness of personal sins can be detected in subsequent First Vision recitals, demonstrating that there is no change in his declared motive over time. The confusion of the critics on this issue arises when they do not see exact matches in themes across documents or insist that every detail of the story be present in every text that relates it.

1832 (Smith)

"my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul . . . . my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins . . . . when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord . . . . He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1834 (Cowdery/Smith)

Joseph Smith had a "determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion . . . . [but he also] call[ed] upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and . . . to have an assurance that he was accepted of Him." Joseph is classified in this text among the "humble, penitent sinner."

1835 (Smith)

"being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right . . . being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord . . . . He said unto me, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1838 (Smith)

"how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, would never know . . . . My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . . many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time" [INDIRECT REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS?]

1840 (Pratt)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same. . . . He was informed that his sins were forgiven"

1842 (Smith)

"I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment . . . . considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully" [FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS NOT MENTIONED]

1842 (Hyde)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind; he perceived that it was a question of infinite importance. . . . [The two personages] told him that his prayers had been answered, and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing." [VEILED REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS? - Remember that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Christopher C. Jones, "The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith's First Vision," Journal of Mormon History Vol. 37, No. 2 (Spring 2011): 88–114.
  2. Joseph Fielding McConkie, “Joseph Smith and the Poetic Writings,” The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, ed. Robert L. Millet and Monte S. Nyman (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1985), 111.
  3. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  4. Ibid., 193.
  5. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of editor of this article.