Joseph Smith's First Vision/Contradiction about knowing all churches were wrong

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Is there a contradiction between First Vision accounts about Joseph knowing all churches were wrong?


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behold the world lieth in Sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me ...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision [1]
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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; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

—Joseph Smith History 1:19 (canonized account of the First Vision)
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Question: Did Joseph Smith decide that all churches were wrong before he received the First Vision?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claim that there is a contradiction between the 1832 account of Joseph Smith's First Vision and the rest of his first-hand accounts. They also claim that the same contradiction occurs internally in the 1838 account. It is alleged that Joseph Smith concluded prior to going to the grove of trees to pray that all the denominations on the earth were false. This supposedly contradicts the 1835 and 1838 accounts in which Joseph expresses doubt as to which Church was true prior to going to the grove.

In his 1832 history, Joseph Smith said:

I found [by searching the scriptures] 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.

In his 1835 account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith said, “I knew not who [of the denominations] was right or who was wrong.”

In his 1838 account of the Vision, Joseph writes:

9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be aright, which is it, and how shall I know it?
18 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. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.
19 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; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

The 1832 account then, according to some critics, contradicts the 1835 and 1838 account in that Joseph had already determined before seeing God and Jesus that there was no true Church and thus the only motive for going to the grove in the 1832 account would be to obtain a forgiveness of sins and not to find the true Church.

Author J.B. Haws describes the criticism as it relates to the 1838 account specifically:

Here is the essence of that trouble, as some have seen it. In Joseph’s 1838–39 dictated account (the account that would eventually find its way into the LDS Church’s canon as the official Joseph Smith—History), he described his youthful confusion about the competing religious sects that he encountered in these words: “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (Joseph Smith History 1:10). According to this narrative, it seems that fourteen-year-old Joseph had already considered the possibility that all churches could be “wrong together.” Yet only eight verses later (by the account’s current scriptural format), Joseph reported what seems like surprise in response to the divine injunction that he must join no church, “for they were all wrong”—and “it had never entered into [his] heart that all were wrong” (JS—H 1:18–19). But didn’t we just read that the “all were wrong” possibility had entered his heart in verse 10? Why such an apparently careless and contradictory oversight in the narrative?[2]

Critics ask if this is a contradiction and evidence that the First Vision story evolved over time.

This article seeks to respond to and provide plausible alternative readings of the cited passages, thus refuting a criticism based on a false dilemma fallacy.

Response to Criticism

Forgiveness of Sins = Finding the Right Church

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.[3] In the case of Joseph Smith, he receives forgiveness of sins and is told not to join any church. Thus even if Joseph's main emphasis is forgiveness of sins in the 1832 account, that doesn't mean he's not talking about what Church is true.

An Exegesis of The 1832 and 1838 Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision, Matthew 15:8-9, and JST Psalm 14

Those critics who claim that Joseph is only speaking about the forgiveness of sins in the 1832 account are ignorant of the larger historical context under which the 1832 account was written (documented by Jones) and also fail to take notice of important scriptural passages quoted near the end of the account. Speaking about the condition of the world, Christ, speaking to Joseph, 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

'[T]hat which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles' might easily refer to an apostasy and restoration.

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.'[4]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[5] 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.'[6]

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.'"[7] 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. Under this understanding, the 1832 account of Joseph Smith's First Vision is giving implicit credence that Joseph was indeed seeking to know from God which Church to join because the teachers of other denominations had become corrupt.

Never Entered Into My Heart

Author Jim Bennet describes one approach that a person can take while seeking to reconcile this with their faith and that is to focus interpretation on the phrase "entered into my heart":

The key phrase is “entered into my heart.” 



We can have confidence in what Joseph means by this because it is not the only time he uses variations of this phrase. Here’s what he says about his experience reading James 1:5.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. [JSH 1:12, emphasis added]


This is a phrase Joseph uses to describe something more powerful than mere intellectual assent. He’s describing a spiritual experience, where the feelings of the heart complement and contribute to clarity of mind. It’s a concept that shows up in the Doctrine and Covenants, too:

Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground. [D&C 8:2-3, emphasis added]


 Joseph had clearly considered the possibility all churches were in error in verse 10 (and in the 1832 account,) but the idea hadn’t really sunk in – i.e. entered into his heart – until after verse 18.
 
 I think all of us have had this experience – things happen that we choose not to believe. Even when we have solid information, we don’t allow our intellectual knowledge to become wisdom and “enter into our hearts.” He’s describing the very human process of denial, much like Amulek from the Book of Mormon, who once said of his own testimony, “I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.” (Alma 10:6)
 
 Make up your mind, Amulek! Did you know or didn’t you know?! That’s a direct contradiction!


In the case of “Forgiveness of Sins v. Which Church is True,”... Joseph was preoccupied with what he needed to do to prepare to meet God. You see that in all of Joseph’s firsthand accounts. 
 
 “[M]y mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul,” he wrote in 1832. “I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces;” he wrote in 1835. “My mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness... my feelings were deep and often poignant... What is to be done?” he wrote in 1838. “I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future [i.e. eternal] state,” he wrote in 1842.
 These are different words, to be sure, but there’s no mistaking the commonality of their underlying meaning. I believe that all these accounts show that Joseph’s deepest desire was to know what he had to do to be saved. That was the one and only item on his agenda in the Sacred Grove.


The question he asked, then, about which church he should join tells us about young Joseph’s theological assumptions. It’s clear in all accounts that salvation and church membership were inextricably linked in his mind. Even in 1832, where he doesn’t specify what question he asked the Lord before his sins were forgiven, he goes on at great length about his concern for the error he sees in all the churches.The possibility that a church might not be necessary doesn’t seem to occur to Joseph, nor would it have been likely to occur to anyone in the early 19th Century. Christ without a church in 1820? Who could imagine such heresy? Certainly not an illiterate farmboy who, at that point, had no inkling what the Lord had in store for him. 
 In Joseph’s mind, “which church is the right one” and “how can I get my sins forgiven” were variations on the same theme, and only minor variations at that. Rather than show inconsistency, the two accounts are remarkably united in their depiction of Joseph’s concern for his soul and his assumptions about what was necessary to save it. 


So with that understanding, the apparent contradiction about whether or not he had decided that all the churches were wrong prior to praying becomes far less problematic. The 1832 account spends more time detailing the specific problems with all the churches than the 1838 account, indicating that Joseph still believed in the importance of joining a church to gain access to the Atonement. True, he doesn’t explicitly say that any church membership is necessary, but he didn’t have to – those reading his account in the 19th Century would have had the same assumptions, and neither Joseph nor his audience would have even considered the modern/post-modern idea of an effectual Christian life outside the boundaries of organized religion. Even if all the churches were wrong to one degree or another, surely Joseph would still have felt it necessary to join the best one...
[8]

For I Supposed that One of Them Were So

Speficially addressing the passages from JS History 1: 10 and 18, J.B. Haws wrote:

In a draft of Joseph Smith’s history that was written sometime in 1840–41 by scribe Howard Coray (but only essentially rediscovered in the Church’s archival holdings in 2005), the corresponding passage reads differently:

Joseph Smith—History 1:18–19

I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong . . .

Howard Coray’s 1839–41 history (labeled Draft 3 in Histories, Volume 1 of The Joseph Smith Papers)

I asked the Personages who stood in the light; Which of the sects were right. (for I supposed that one of them were so.) and which I should join. I was answered “join none of them; they are all are wrong . . .”
Coray’s version suggests that Joseph still “supposed”—still believed, still considered it most likely—that one of the sects was right, even if he had considered the possibility that such was not the case. Thanks to the careful editorial scrutiny of The Joseph Smith Papers scholars, it is apparent that Coray’s draft was written after the draft of Joseph Smith’s history (labeled Draft 2 in the handwriting of James Mulholland) that was eventually published in the Times and Seasons and then the Pearl of Great Price. The Joseph Smith Papers volume editors note that, “for whatever reason,” Joseph Smith chose that Draft 2 (Mulholland) version for eventual publication, even though there is evidence to suggest that Coray transcribed as Joseph “read aloud from Draft 2 in the large manuscript volume, directing editorial changes as he read.” With that background in mind, the parallel phrases above suggest an affinity of sentiment, such that the phrase “it had never entered into my heart” meant, essentially, “I [still] supposed one of them were [right]”—which reinforces the reading that Joseph held out hope in his heart that he would be pointed to the true denomination.[2]:99–100

Looking at Antecedents

Haws details one more way to view both the 1832 account and 1838 account:

One minor drawback in reading Joseph Smith’s history in its current scriptural format is that the verse divisions might inadvertently separate his thoughts too starkly. Because of that potential challenge, the second possibility proposed here is that the contradiction between verses 10 and 18 might simply be a question of antecedents in verse 10. Thus one final alternate reading (and reconciliation) of those verses becomes clearer in the paragraph format of the Draft 2 (Mulholland) manuscript version of Joseph Smith’s history. In what is now verse 9 in the Pearl of Great Price version, Joseph describes the furious activity of three named denominations: the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Methodists. Those were the major players in the religious competition that was all around him in that region of New York. And those three groups preached, importantly, distinct soteriological visions of Christianity. If, however, verse 10 is not seen as completely separate from verse 9, then we might understand Joseph’s questions as being much more specific.

Here is how the passage appears in Draft 2 (Mulholland) of Joseph Smith’s history:

My mind at different times was greatly excited for the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all their powers of either reason or sophistry to prove their errors, or at least to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally Zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right? Or are they all wrong together? and if any one of them be right which is it? And how shall I know it?

Read in that way, new attention to the determiners and pronouns might be in order. Which of all of these parties—that is, the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists—is right? Or are they—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists— all wrong together? If any of them—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists—be right, which is it? It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph wondered not about the possibility that there was no true religion on the earth, but only that the principal religions represented in his area might all be wrong. Hence, his crucial question—his “object in going to enquire of the Lord”— was “to know which of all the sects was right,” and perhaps it was the subsequent instruction to join no sect anywhere (“for they were all wrong”) that would have been surprising; in that case, this latter possibility was the one that had never entered into his heart.

Again, this is only suggested as one way to read the text—but it is one that also seems to fit with a telling line in the earliest known written account of the First Vision, one from 1832 that Joseph Smith partly dictated and partly wrote. The key is something he stated about personal familiarity:

In that 1832 history, Joseph wrote in his own hand:

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously [impressed] with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorning 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 . . .

The fact that his conclusions were based on an “intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations” should not be overlooked. His subsequent recollections do seem to reflect an expanded understanding of a broader apostasy: “by searching the scriptures I found that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” Yet his choice of words (“no society or denomination”) and his declaration that “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy” seem to reflect his discouragement with his local options and his growing assurance that only divine intervention could help him transcend that confusion.

It may, then, have been the sheer universality of the apostasy (“join none of them”) that had not entered into his heart. It may have been Joseph Smith’s original hope and assumption, as expressed in the Howard Coray draft, that “one of them were” right, even if he had considered the theoretical possibility that the three denominations with which he had “intimate acquaintance” were all “wrong together” and that he would have to seek a religious home among another, less familiar one of “all the sects.”[2]:101–102

Getting Rid of Any Doubt

If you had come to the conclusion that mankind has apostatized from the true faith, and you suddenly found Jesus standing in front of you, wouldn't you ask Him if any of those churches was the correct one? Or would you simply tell Him, "never mind, I already figured it out for myself"?

Simply Misremembering

Could it be that Joseph simply misremembered? Why must one automatically have to be assumed that he was simply embellishing the story?

Conclusion

There are several interpretive possibilities for the supposed discrepancies between the accounts. Is it possible that Joseph Smith contradicted himself? Certainly. But it only remains just that: a possibility--one interpretive option that has equal possibility with others. If equal in possibility, then one gets to choose what they believe and there is no fault to be found in any choice.


Question: How could Joseph Smith come to the conclusion that all churches were wrong on his own?

Joseph was in doubt as to what his duty was regarding joining a church

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in a detailed examination of relevant texts. It is important to first compare Joseph Smith’s November 1832 text (which is in his own handwriting) with a newspaper article printed earlier that same year which refers to the Prophet’s inaugural religious experiences.

1832 (February): “not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them, and being in doubt what his duty was, he had recourse [to] prayer” (Fredonia Censor).
1832 (November): “my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations . . . . 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” (handwritten account by Joseph Smith).[9]

Joseph Smith concluded that none of the denominations with which he had acquaintance was built upon the New Testament gospel

When both of these texts are taken into consideration the following storyline suggests itself: Joseph Smith had come to the conclusion, through personal scripture study, that none of the denominations WITH WHICH HE HAD AN INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCE was built upon the New Testament gospel. He prayed for guidance because he was “in doubt what his duty was.” This doubt is obliquely referred to again in Oliver Cowdery’s February 1835 Messenger and Advocate partial First Vision recital where he said that because of the religious excitement the Prophet had “determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.”[10]

Doubt is present again in the Prophet’s November 1835 diary entry: “I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequences.”[11] So the conclusion this fourteen-year-old boy had reached through personal scripture study did not altogether solve his dilemma. In fact, in the May 1838 account he clarifies that because of his youth and inexperience in life he could not make an absolute decision with regard to this matter: “it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right, and who was wrong”; “I often said to myself, what is to be done? 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?”; “if any person needed wisdom from God I did, for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had [I] would never know.”

Joseph wanted to know which of the many hundreds of denominations on earth was the correct one

Orson Pratt’s 1840 First Vision account helps to explain why the ‘Joseph-decided-every-existing-church-was-wrong’ theory cannot possibly be valid. Elder Pratt reports, “He then reflected upon the immense number of doctrines now in the world which had given rise to many hundreds of different denominations. The great question to be decided in his mind was—if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it?” This expansive view is reflected in the Prophet’s 1838 account. There he states, “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. No sooner therefore did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join.”


Notes

  1. Spelling modernized
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 J.B. Haws, "Reconciling Joseph Smith—History 1:10 and 1:18–19," Religious Educator 14, no. 2 (2013): 97–105 (97–98).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  6. Ibid., 193.
  7. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of editor of this article.
  8. Jim Bennett, "A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee," <https://canonizer.com/files/reply.pdf> (2 September 2020).
  9. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 2.
  10. Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.
  11. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22.