FAIR is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/George A. Smith said First Vision was an "angel"
George A. Smith said First Vision was an "angel"
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Was George A. Smith unaware that the Father and Son appeared to Joseph Smith during the First Vision?
- George A. Smith (1868): "revealed to Joseph by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world"
- Juncker (1994): "Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel....in antiquity the word 'angel' meant 'messenger.'"
- Question:Is there anything wrong with early Church leaders using the term "angel" to refer to Jesus Christ?
Question: Was George A. Smith unaware that the Father and Son appeared to Joseph Smith during the First Vision?
George A. Smith was aware that the Father and Son appeared prior to making his statements about an "angel" appearing
Apostle George A. Smith said on two separate occasions that Joseph Smith's First Vision was of an "angel"—not of the Father and the Son. However, the argument that George A. Smith was simply not aware of a Father-and-Son First Vision account when he made his "angel" statements is nonsense since it can be shown from a documentary standpoint that he did indeed have prior knowledge of such a thing. An argument of ignorance is also untenable in light of the fact that Brother Smith's close associates in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had published orthodox recitals of the First Vision on nine different occasions long BEFORE he made his verbal missteps at the pulpit: (Orson Pratt - 1840, 1850, 1851); (Orson Hyde - 1842); (John E. Page - 1844); (John Taylor - 1850); (Lorenzo Snow - 1850); (Franklin D. Richards - 1851, 1852).
Historic documents appear to verify the claim that on two different occasions George A. Smith spoke of an angel appearing during Joseph Smith's First Vision
This does not mean that Brother Smith was not aware of the Father and the Son appearing to the Prophet at the time that he made his anomalous remarks. The following timeline demonstrates that the Prophet's cousin was well aware of the official version of events. His out-of-place comments need to be evaluated from that perspective.
7 April 1854
Elder George A. Smith was appointed at General Conference to be the new Church Historian.
9 August 1855
Elder George A. Smith wrote to the editor of the Deseret News on 9 August 1855 and gave permission to publish a short Church history that was originally requested for inclusion in a non-Mormon publication, but which ultimately did not appear in print. When Elder Smith told the First Vision story in this history he said that Joseph Smith beheld "two glorious Beings" during the experience. The capitalization of the word "Beings" indicates that the two individuals were considered to be Deity. Elder Smith then went on to tell the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon which, he said, was instigated by an "angel" who was commissioned of God (Deseret News, vol. 5, no. 26, 5 September 1855, 2).
15 August 1855
The First Vision account as found in the Wentworth Letter (1 March 1842) was published in Salt Lake City in connection with the official History of the Church. This account speaks of "two glorious personages" and then later speaks of the single "angel" who was involved in revealing the existence of the Book of Mormon plates. Since Elder Smith was the Church Historian at this time he likely would have known about the content of this publication.
6 August 1862
Elder George A. Smith's short Church history (see 9 August 1855 above) was reprinted on the pages of the Deseret News. In this First Vision account Elder Smith referred to "two glorious Beings" and then later spoke of the single "angel" who was involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon
15 November 1864
In a discourse on historical matters, Elder George A. Smith quoted directly from the official First Vision account, which was first published in the Times and Seasons newspaper on 15 March 1842 and 1 April 1842. Elder Smith recited the line, “This is my Beloved Son, hear Him” – leaving no doubt that he knew the specific identities of the two "personages" who appeared to Joseph Smith during the First Vision event.
15 November 1868
President George A. Smith (now a counselor in the First Presidency) accurately related many First Vision story elements - as published in the Church’s official history - but mistakenly mixed them together with several accurate angel Moroni story elements - as published in the Church’s official history. He said,
- Joseph Smith was 14 or 15 years old
- There was a revival involving Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists
- There was a scramble after the revival to secure converts
- Unpleasant feelings were the result
- Joseph Smith had attended those meetings
- Joseph Smith prayed because of James 1:5
- The Lord sent an angel to Joseph Smith in answer to his prayer
- Joseph Smith asked the angel which church was right and the angel said they were all wrong
- The vision was repeated several times and Joseph Smith was commanded to tell his father about it
- Joseph Smith’s father told him to observe the instructions that were given to him.
20 June 1869
President George A. Smith mistakenly mixed together accurate First Vision story elements with accurate angel Moroni story elements. He said,
- Some members of Joseph Smith’s family joined the Presbyterians
- Joseph Smith reflected much on religion
- Joseph Smith was astonished at the bad feelings manifested at the end of the reformation
- Joseph Smith was led to pray because of James 1:5
- Joseph Smith had a vision of a holy angel
- Joseph Smith asked which of the denominations in the vicinity was right
- Joseph Smith was told that they had all gone astray and wandered into darkness
- Joseph Smith was instructed not to join any of them
- Joseph Smith was told that God was about to restore the gospel in its simplicity and purity.
President George A. Smith published a small pamphlet which contained the Wentworth Letter account of the First Vision.
20 November 1870
President George A. Smith accurately related several First Vision story elements at the pulpit. This time he did NOT mistakenly include any angel Moroni story elements in his narrative.
- The Lord revealed Himself to Joseph Smith
- Joseph Smith was puzzled by hearing learned men preach about different doctrines
- Joseph Smith saw the learned men quarrel over converts
- Joseph Smith prayed humbly, with faith, because of James 1:5
- Joseph Smith asked the Lord which was the right way
- The Lord showed Joseph Smith the right way.
The timeline shows that George A. Smith was accurate in relating First Vision details when he had a physical text to read from
The pattern that can be seen in the timeline above is that George A. Smith was accurate in relating First Vision details when he had a physical text to read from or was formally writing down historical matters; he was accurate on many points when he was talking extemporaneously; he corrected himself after delivering erroneous verbal remarks.
George A. Smith (1868): "revealed to Joseph by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world"
George A. Smith:
When Joseph Smith was about fourteen or fifteen years old, living in the Western part of the State of New York, there was a revival of religion, and the different sects in that portion of the State—principally Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists—preached the necessity of belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, and repentance in order to be saved, declaring that unless men and women did this, and obtained what they termed, "a hope for the future," they would be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone, and there remain for ever. I have heard men spend hours in endeavoring to explain how long this hell would last. It was frequently illustrated in this manner, "Suppose a bird could carry a drop of water from this planet to another, and be gone a year on the journey, and continue this until every drop of water, on the earth was carried away, and then should take a particle of sand and go to another planet and be gone a thousand years, and carry one article of sand at a time until every particle of matter of which this globe is composed was carried away, that then this eternal punishment would have just commenced, and that the torture and pain there inflicted were so great that no mortal could conceive anything about it." The general effort in their preaching was to scare men into the road to heaven by such descriptions of eternal punishment. When eloquent men deliver such discourses they produce, especially upon ignorant people, more or less agitation, and when this is pretty general it is called a revival of religion. But when the excitement subsides and the converts have obtained what is termed "a hope," then the sects who may have united in bringing about such results begin to scramble to secure the converts. It was so at the time to which I have referred in western New York. The Baptists wanted their share, and the Methodists and Presbyterians theirs; and the scramble ended in a very unpleasant and un-Christian state of feeling.
Joseph Smith had attended these meetings, and when this result was reached he saw clearly that something was wrong. He had read the Bible and had found that passage in James which says, "If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not," and taking this literally, he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong,—they had all gone astray, transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant, and that the Lord was about to restore the priesthood and establish His Church, which would be the only true and living Church on the face of the whole earth.
Joseph, feeling that to make known such a vision would be to subject himself to the ridicule of all around him, knew not what to do. But the vision was repeated several times, and in these repetitions he was instructed to communicate that which he had seen to his father. His father was not a member of any church, but was a man of exemplary life. His mother and bro. Hyrum were members of the Presbyterian church. Joseph communicated what he had seen to his father, who believed his testimony, and told him to observe the instructions that had been given him.
These visits led, in a short time, to the bringing forth of the record known as the Book of Mormon, which contained the fullness of the Gospel as it had been preached by the Savior and his apostles to the inhabitants of this land; also a history of the falling away of the people who dwelt on this continent and the dealings of God with them. 
Juncker (1994): "Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel....in antiquity the word 'angel' meant 'messenger'"
Günther Juncker (at the time of this writing), Master of Divinity candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:
Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel. And they gave him this appellation long before the (alleged) distortions of Constantine, the Controversies, the Councils, and the Creeds.... the word Angel has a prima facie claim to being a primitive, if not an apostolic, Christological title. Before pronouncing judgement on the Fathers, men who were often quite close to first-century apostles and eyewitnesses, we may recall that in antiquity the word "angel" had a broader semantic range than at present. When we think of angels, we immediately think of super-human, bodiless spirits, all of whom were created and some of whom fell with Satan in his rebellion. But in antiquity the word “angel” meant “messenger.” It was primarily a functional (as opposed to an ontological) description and, thus, could refer to messengers who were human, angelic, or divine (the best known of the latter being Hermes, “the messenger god”). Likewise in Scripture, in both the OT and the NT, the term angel refers to human as well as to angelic messengers.
Question: Is there anything wrong with early Church leaders using the term "angel" to refer to Jesus Christ?
The word translated "messenger" is the Hebrew mal'ak which can also be translated as "an angel"
What about the term "angel"? Is there anything wrong with Brigham Young or others using that term to refer to Jesus Christ? Malachi spoke of the Lord as the "messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in." (Mal.3:1) The word translated "messenger" is the Hebrew mal'ak which can also be translated as "an angel." The Septugint of Isaiah 9:6, traditionally thought by Christians to refer to Christ speaks of the "messenger of great counsel." This term for Jesus was frequently used by early Christians. Eusebius stated that Christ "was the first and only begotten of God; the commander-in-chief of the spiritual and immortal host of heaven; the angel of mighty counsel; the agent of the ineffable purpose of the Father."  The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (an apocryphal work, thought to have been written before the fourth century states that when Christ descended to earth he "made himself like the angels of the air, that he was like one of them."  The Epistula Apostolorum (another important early Christian work, thought to have been written by 2nd Century Christians quotes the resurrected Jesus as saying,"I became like an angel to the angels...I myself was a servant for myself, and in the form of the image of an angel; so will I do after I have gone to my Father."  At least the use of the term "angel" in Christianity does not seem unknown.
Joseph Smith said that after his resurrection, Jesus Christ "appeared as an angel to His disciples."
How did Joseph Smith understand the term "angel"? One revelation calls Jesus Christ "the messenger of salvation" (D&C 93:8) Another states,"For in the Beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father." (JST John 1:16). The Father sends Jesus because he is the angel of salvation. Joseph Smith himself taught that angels of God are resurrected beings who have bodies of flesh and bone.  "Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while his body was lying in the supulchre) to the spirits in prison...After His resurrection He appeared as an angel to His disciples."  In Mormon theology the term "angel" has a unique doctrinal significance.
Since Joseph Smith frequently taught this doctrine, is it any wonder that those who knew him best (Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, etc.), would frequently refer to the Lord's visit to Joseph Smith as the visit of an angel (i.e. a resurrected personage of flesh and bone)?
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- See Deseret News 5 no. 23 (15 August 1855), 1.
- Deseret News, vol. 12, no. 6, 6 August 1862, 2.
- George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 11:2.
- George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 12:334.
- George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 13:77-78.
- George A. Smith, The Rise, Progress, and Travels of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Office, 1869), 37.
- George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 13:293.
- George A. Smith, (15 November 1868) Journal of Discourses 12:333-334..
- Günther Juncker, "Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title," Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994): 221–250.
- James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words In The Hebrew Bible With Their Renderings In the Authorized English Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 1890), 66.
- The History of the Church Book I:2 (3), in Eusebius: The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine, G.A. Williamson Translator (Penguine Books, 1986), 33-4.
- Martyrdom And Ascension of Isaiah 10:30-31, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2 Vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985), 2:174.
- Epistula Apostulorum 14, in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 1:199.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 162. "An angel has flesh and bones; we see not their glory." If Jesus comes as an angel he "will adapt himself to the language and capacity" of the individual.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 191. See also D&C 129.