Multiple accounts of the First Vision/1832

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Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision


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Video published by the Church History Department.


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What differences are there between Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and later accounts?

Religious revival

"this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen"

...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 sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
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At what age did Joseph Smith become concerned about religion?

Joseph's interest in religion began when he was 12 years old, after the 1817 revival

Joseph's concern about religion started when he was twelve years old, close on the heels of the revival of 1817. In his 1832 account, Joseph notes that his concern about religion began at age 12 (1817-1818):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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 different denominations led me to marvel excedingly 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... (Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision)

Richard Bushman notes that this "would have been in late 1817 and early 1818, when the after-affects of the revival of 1816 and 1817 were still felt in Palmyra." [1]

Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." There is documented evidence of at least one Methodist camp meeting in the Palmyra area during that period, which only by chance happened to be mentioned in the local newspaper because of a specific death that seemed to be associated with it. In addition, there are newspaper articles talking of large-scale revival activity in the larger region surrounding Palmyra during the same general period when Joseph Smith said that it was taking place.

It is reasonable to assume based upon the facts that the Methodists had more than one camp meeting during this period. This could easily account for the religious excitement in Palmyra that, in Joseph's mind at age 14, began with the Methodists.

From age 12 to 15 Joseph pondered many things in his heart concerning religion

Joseph continues in his 1832 account: "[T]hus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins." In July, 1819, several years after Joseph said his mind became "seriously imprest," a major Methodist conference was held near Palmyra:

[T]he Methodists of the Genesee Conference met for a week in Vienna (later Phelps), a village thirteen miles southeast of the Smith farm on the road to Geneva. About 110 ministers from a region stretching 500 miles from Detroit to the Catskills and from Canada to Pennsylvania met under the direction of Bishop R. R. Robert to receive instruction and set policy. If we are to judge from the experience at other conferences, the ministers preached between sessions to people who gathered from many miles around. It was a significant year for religion in the entire district. . . . The Geneva Presbytery, which included the churches in Joseph's immediate area, reported in February, 1820, that "during the past year more have been received into the communion of the Churches than perhaps in any former year." Methodists kept no records for individual congregations, but in 1821 they built a new meetinghouse in town. [2]

What religious excitement was occurring in Palmyra in 1820?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Methodist camp meetings were being held in Palmyra in 1820

Some claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, contrary to Joseph Smith's claims that during that year there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion...indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it" Joseph Smith—History 1:5 Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country."

Abundant evidence of religious excitement exists to substantiate Joseph’s account. This has been thoroughly summarized by Pearl of Great Price Central. Their analysis may be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

One should keep in mind that Joseph Smith never used the term "revival" in his description - he simply described it as "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion." To a 14 year old who had been concerned about religion starting at age 12 after the 1817 revival, the ongoing camp meetings in the town in which he lived would certainly qualify.

What statements did Joseph Smith make about religious excitement in the area of Palmyra?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Statements from Joseph's history regarding religious excitement when he was a youth

Critics of Joseph Smith claim that no revival is mentioned in the 1832 First Vision account because the actual word 'revival'—or something similar—is not found within the text. But they have failed to notice a distinct pattern of words that demonstrate a definite link between the various First Vision accounts.

7 March 1832

On 7 March 1832 (just a few months before Joseph Smith penned his 1832 First Vision account) some Mormon missionaries in Pennsylvania were saying that during Joseph’s youth he had repented of his sins but was "not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them," and so he resorted to prayer.[3]

September—November 1832

At about the age of twelve years my mind became 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 became excedingly 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 . . . . [A]nd 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.[4]

December 1834

  • During "the 15th year of [Joseph Smith's] life" there was "a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion" in Palmyra, New York and its "vicinity."
  • There was "much enquiry for the word of life"
  • "in common with others, [Joseph Smith's] mind became awakened"
  • "For a length of time the reformation seemed to move in a harmonious manner"
  • "but, as the excitement ceased . . . a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects, for proselytes"
  • "Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches"
  • "Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony . . . and a cry—I am right—you are wrong—was introduced"; "all professed to be the true church"
  • "In this general strife for followers, [Joseph Smith's] mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians"
  • This circumstance gave Joseph "further reflection"
  • He received "strong solicitations to unite with one of those different societies"
  • But "seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth from each, [Joseph Smith's] mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind"
  • His "spirit was not at rest day nor night"
  • Joseph did not want to "profess godliness without its benign influence upon [his] heart" [i.e., 'repenting of sins' theme]
  • He also did not want to "unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one"
  • Joseph Smith felt that there would be "serious consequences of moving hastily, in a course fraught with eternal realities"
  • He believed that "amid so many [denominations], some must be built upon the sand"
  • "In this situation where could he go?"
  • Joseph spent time "reflecting" on a passage of scripture
  • He had a strong "degree of determination . . . relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God"[5]

9 November 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, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind . . . . information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it.[6]

2 May 1838

"multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist . . . . a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; Priest contending against priest, and convert against convert . . . a strife of words and a contest about opinions". . . ."so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations". . . . "the cry and tumult were so great and incessant"; "war of words, and tumult of opinions"; "the contests of these parties of religionists" [7]

When the September—November 1832 First Vision account is compared with subsequent recitals (especially 1838), and one partial previous rendition, it appears that they are all telling the same story: Prior to the First Vision event there were contentions and divisions among the different religious denominations in connection with a revival. It seems, therefore, that the Prophet's handwritten 1832 account does indeed make a passing reference to revival activity.

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals. For instance, Joseph Smith said that when he was "about the age of twelve years" (23 December 1817—23 December 1818) he became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul. Why did these feelings arise at this point in time? Possibly because there was a Methodist camp-meeting/revival from June 19th through the 22nd, 1818 held in Palmyra, New York.[8]

Joseph Smith pointed to a time period "from the age of twelve years to fifteen" (i.e., between 23 December 1817 and 23 December 1821) when he –

  • applied himself to studying the scriptures
  • noticed the hypocrisy of some persons who claimed to be religious
  • pondered the "contentions and divisions" among men [revival imagery seen in other First Vision accounts]
  • pondered the "wickedness and abominations" and "darkness" of mankind
  • was grieved by what he saw around him; felt to mourn for the sins of the world
  • became "exceedingly distressed" because he felt "convicted of [his] sins" and felt to "mourn" for them
  • did not recognize any religious denomination that followed the biblical pattern completely
  • determined that God wanted to be worshiped in truth
  • decided to pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it.

Some of the themes enumerated above can be matched with the Prophet's other descriptions of things that happened during the revival activity of Palmyra and its vicinity. This matching of themes tends to support the argument that the 1832 text does indeed refer to revival activity.

(1832) "the scriptures . . . they contained the word of God"; (1834) "that record called the word of God"
(1832) "I became convicted of my sins"; (1834) "arouse the sinner to look about him for safety"
(1832) "that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth"; (1834) "All professed to be the true church"
(1832) "society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament"; (1834) "a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation"
(1832) "those of different denominations . . . they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation"; (1834) "they were certainly hypocritical"
(1832) "my mind became exceedingly distressed"; (1838) "my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness"
(1832) "the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind"; (1838) "At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness" or pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it. Rev. George Peck recounted the happenings at a Methodist camp meeting held on 4 July 1816 in Plymouth, New York. He said that "There was an unbroken roar of fervent supplication all over the ground, while the awful voice of the preacher resounded." One person then fell to the ground and cried for mercy.[9]

Learn more about religious excitement in the time of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Donald L. Enders, "A Snug Log House," Ensign (August 1985), 16.off-site
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
  • D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp-Meeting'," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3 (12 July 2006), PDF link
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Joseph's motivations

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest"

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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...
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"my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations"

...thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy wal and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository...
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"for I become convicted of my sins....I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world"


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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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.[10] 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 ignore 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.'[11]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[12] 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.'[13]

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' [14] 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.

A longer version of this argument is made by Walker Wright and historian Don Bradley in a 2023 paper for BYU Studies.[15]

BYU Studies, ""None That Doeth Good" Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14"

Walker Wright and Don Bradley,  BYU Studies 61/3 (2022)
The First Vision has been a center of both faith and controversy. While millions of Latter-day Saints affirm it as the beginning of the Restoration, others see it as an ever-growing fish tale. The multiple accounts of the First Vision vary in detail, with Joseph Smith’s earliest written account (1832) lacking some of the elements found in his later accounts. However, some of these elements—particularly the ­appearance of God the Father as part of the First Vision experience—are laced throughout Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These historical threads ultimately culminate in his translation of Psalm 14, which weaves together many of the elements supposedly lacking in Smith’s earliest account of the First Vision. But why bring these threads together in Psalm 14? What was its connection with his First Vision? A basic comparison of Psalm 14 with elements of the First Vision shows that elements of this psalm are found in the background of the vision, as Joseph Smith narrated it, and even in the words of Deity spoken within the vision itself.

Click here to view the complete article

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. [Is this a veiled reference to fogiveness of sins? We recall that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Religious confusion

"by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord"

...and 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...
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Did Joseph Smith decide that all churches were wrong before he received the First Vision?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics 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, 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?[16]

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

Such a claim is a false dilemma, as we will now see.

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.[17] 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.

A close reading 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.'[18]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[19] 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.'[20]

"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.'"[21] 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... [22]

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.[16]:99–100

Looking at Antecedents

Haws describes another 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."[16]: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 among others. If we presume that Joseph was lying, our hostile reading will lead us to pick this option. If we grant that Joseph might be telling the truth, the other options will not be summarily rejected.

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).[23]

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."[24]

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."[25] 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."

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy"

...therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness...

Why does Joseph Smith state in his 1832 First Vision account that he was in his "16th year" of age?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

Joseph's 1832 account states the "16th year" of his age in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams

In Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision recital he said that he was "in the 16th year of [his] age" when the manifestation took place but in all other accounts in which he mentions his age, he was in his "fifteenth year."

  • Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time, and was thus a fabrication to begin with?

The only First Vision account that provided a different age was the 1832 account written in Joseph Smith's own handwriting. In 1832, 12 years after the First Vision, Joseph wrote, "we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements."

Although the portion of Joseph's 1832 history is in his own handwriting, the text insertion of "in the 16th year of my age" was in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, Joseph's scribe. It is likely that Joseph's dating schemes were slightly off when he dictated his age to Williams, many years afte the fact. There is nothing nefarious in Joseph Smith correcting his own slight mathematical miscalculations.

Two years later, Oliver Cowdery had Joseph's 1832 history in his possession when he began publishing history of the Church in late 1834 in the Latter-day Saints' Messenger and Advocate. Oliver clearly established Joseph's age as 14 ("the 15th year of his life") during the period of religious excitement (although Oliver ultimately never described the actual First Vision at this time). Once the date of the First Vision was correctly established it remained steady throughout all subsequent recitals as the "15th year" or "age 14."

Are the ages stated in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision "all over the place?"

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

All other accounts except the 1832 one state Joseph's age as 14 or that he was in his "fifteenth year"

The ages are not, as one critic states, "all over the place." [26] The only account produced by Joseph Smith that indicated a different age was the 1832 account (age 15 rather than 14, based upon a text insertion above the line by Frederick G. Williams after Joseph had already written his account). All remaining accounts indicate age 14 (the "15th" year).

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

In the 1832 history, the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact Joseph's dating scheme becomes

The 'one-year-off-the mark' dating anomaly of the 1832 First Vision account can best be understood by taking a look at all of the dates and time frame indicators that are provided within the document. It can then be seen that the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact his dating scheme becomes.

Notice that the date of the First Vision is an above-the-line insertion in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, meaning that it was not placed in the text initially but was added at a later time than the creation of the main text.

(17 years back in time)

"at the age of about ten years my father Joseph Smith Sr. moved to Palmyra" [23 Dec. 1815 – 23 Dec. 1816]

(15 years back in time)

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1818]

(12 years back in time)

"from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1821]
"while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a pillar of fire" [23 Dec. 1820 – 23 Dec. 1821]
for many days
about that time
after many days

(7 years back in time)

when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord . . . [and an] angel [appeared]. . . . it was on the 22d day of Sept. AD 1822

(5 years back in time)

the plates [I] obtained them not until I was twenty one years of age
in this year I was married . . . 18th [of] January AD 1827
on the 22d day of Sept of this same year I obtained the plates
in December following we moved to Susquehanna

Joseph Smith: "I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements"

We should carefully note that Joseph Smith correctly stated that he was "seventeen years of age" when the angel Moroni appeared to him on 22 September 1823, he got the time of that manifestation wrong by one year. A clue as to why this incorrect date was placed by the Prophet in this historical account can be found right in the 1832 document itself. Near the beginning of the narrative Joseph writes: "being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family having nine children. And as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say [that] I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements". Elder Orson Pratt once asked rhetorical questions of the Prophet to illustrate his meager level of formal education: "Had you been to college? No. Had you studied in any seminary of learning? No. Did you know how to read? Yes. How to write? Yes. Did you understand much about arithmetic? No. About grammar? No. Did you understand all the branches of education which are generally taught in our common schools? No." (Journal of Discourses, 7:220-21). And when Elder Pratt wrote specifically about the First Vision he was even more specific about the level of the Prophet's math skills, saying that he had "a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic." (Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions [Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840],—-).

In the 1838 history, Joseph got the year of his own brother's death wrong

The 1832 history is not the only one where the Prophet made a dating mistake that was one year off the mark. He did the same thing when he created the 1838 Church history, but this time he got the year of his own brother's death wrong. He erroneously remembered that it was 1824 instead of 1823. The significant thing about this particular dating blunder is that four years after the Prophet recorded the initial information he came to the realization that it was not correct and had his scribe, Willard Richards, make the appropriate adjustment. Perhaps the problem with the date was brought to the Prophet's attention by a member of his own family after the information had been printed and made available for public perusal [publication in May 1842; correction in December 1842].

Initial Manuscript Record (2 May 1838)

Alvin (who is now dead)
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin.

Publication ( 15 March 1842 / 2 May 1842)

Alvin, (who is now dead) (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 10, 15 March 1842, 727).
In the year eighteen hundred and twenty-four my father's family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 13, 2 May 1842, 772).

Post-Publication Manuscript Correction (2 December 1842)

Alvin (who <died Nov. 19th: 1823 in the 25 year of his age.> is now dead) [the last three words are stricken out]
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. [this year designation was not corrected by Willard Richards - whose editorial additions and notes end before this point in the manuscript]

A similar type of dating correction scenario, as mentioned above, may have taken place in connection with the 1832 history. Oliver Cowdery claimed that he had the Prophet's help in creating his December 1834 Church history article and despite the fact that he had the erroneously-dated 1832 document sitting in front of him [see paper on this subject] he provided the correct year for the Prophet's First Vision - "in the 15th year of his life" (i.e., between 23 December 1819 and 23 December 1820). And just nine months later the Prophet himself was telling a non-Mormon that the First Vision took place when he was "about 14 years old" (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Is there a case where Joseph stated that his age was 17 rather than 14 at the time of the First Vision?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

Some critics think so: One case in which the age in an 1835 account was mistakenly stated as age 17

An image from "mormoninfographics" is in circulation on the internet which mistakenly states that Joseph claimed that he was age 17 when the First Vision occurred. However, this was a misreading of Joseph Smith's 1835 journal entry, which clearly states that Joseph was age 14 at the time of the first vision, and age 17 at the time of Moroni's visit.

An anti-Mormon "mormoninfographic" which attempts to demonstrate that the ages of the first vision accounts are different. Since this was posted, the owner of "mormoninfographics" acknowledged and corrected this mistake by removing all of the ages from this particular graphic. [27]

Why is Joseph Smith's struggle with Satan not mentioned in the 1832 account of the First Vision?

Joseph Smith says in the official Church history account of the First Vision that directly before the theophany occurred he had a struggle with Satan, but this struggle is not mentioned in his 1832 recital of the experience

Is this evidence that this visionary tale evolved over time by becoming more dramatic and elaborate?

The 'struggle' motif is absent from the first known self-written account of the Prophet's visionary experience (1832) but it is also absent from his self-written Wentworth Letter account (1842). It is clear from the available documentary evidence that the Prophet did not feel constrained by the arbitrary rule of his modern critics that he must include every aspect of his First Vision story in every single retelling of it, and no reasonable person should be bothered that he doesn't.

The following timeline displays the 'struggle' material found in First Vision recitals that were produced during the Prophet's lifetime. The corresponding text from the 1832 document is also provided for purposes of comparison.

It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it

Several observations about the information presented below may prove useful.

  • It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it - even after the official Church history account was written down (1838) and published (1842). He opted not to speak about that aspect of the story in the Wentworth Letter (1842), in a speech given before the Saints at the Nauvoo Temple (1843), and also when he conducted an interview with a non-Mormon newspaper editor (1843). Yet, he did briefly refer to that part of the story in a subsequent private conversation with a convert (1844).
  • A careful comparison of texts indicates that the Prophet's Wentworth Letter was likely constructed by utilizing the content of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account pamphlet.[28] But even though Elder Pratt’s account refers directly to the 'struggle' theme, Joseph Smith chose not to include it within the Wentworth Letter.
  • Even after Joseph Smith revealed details about his 'struggle' with the Adversary he did not include some of them in subsequent accounts. For instance, in 1835 he told of hearing somebody walking up behind him but this detail didn't ever appear again in the known recitals. Gathering darkness and the dread of sudden destruction are mentioned in the official 1838 rendering of events but then it disappears and is not seen in any later sources which were produced during the Prophet's lifetime.

September–November 1832

I cried unto the Lord for mercy. . . and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord . . . a pillar of fire [or] light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God.

9 November 1835

I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray. My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed. I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head, which presently rested down upon me and filled me with unspeakable joy.

2 May 1838

I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an imaginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being, just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.

September 1840

He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him.

June 1841

He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

1 March 1842

I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

11 June 1843

he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right.

29 August 1843

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? Directly I saw a light.

24 May 1844

Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself down, his tongue was close[d,] cleave[t]h to his roof—could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile—saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer. . . . the fire drew nigher, rested upon the tree, enveloped him[, and] comforted [him].

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Why does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention two personages?

Although the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared, He is mentioned

The theophany portion of the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared to Joseph Smith together with Jesus Christ. The relevant text (in its original form) reads as follows:

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day c[a]me down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> 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 th[e]ir 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.[29]

Even though the Savior makes a direct reference to the Father there is no indication in this portion of the 1832 document that God appeared to Joseph Smith alongside His Son.

The same pattern exists in the Book of Mormon with Lehi's vision of God on His throne

This type of pattern is seen in the Book of Mormon, translated in 1829: The Book of Mormon begins (1 Nephi 1꞉8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on His throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi—thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.

Is there any reference to God the Father being present in Joseph Smith's 1832 account?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #9: Did Both the Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith in the First Vision?

A significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is associated with the First Vision: "receiving the testimony from on high"

There is a very significant phrase located in the introductory paragraph of the Prophet's historical narrative. There he indicates that the 1832 document is . . .

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brough<t> [it] forth and established [it] by his hand <firstly> he receiving the testamony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel—<—the Law and commandments as they were given unto him—>and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God.

This paragraph not only introduces the document with a heavy emphasis on the Son of God but it also chronologically outlines four inaugural events of the Restoration.

FIRST: Reception of "the testimony from on high"—First Vision
SECOND: The "ministering of angels"—Moroni visitations
THIRD: Reception of the Holy Priesthood to administer the letter of the gospel—Aaronic priesthood
FOURTH: Reception of the High Priesthood after the order of the Son—Melchizedek priesthood

This 1832 phraseology corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove

The significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is the one associated with the First Vision—"receiving the testimony from on high" (spelling standardized). When this phrase is placed in conjunction with the Prophet's 1835 and 1838 accounts of the First Vision it becomes obvious that the 1832 phraseology closely corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove.

(1832 ACCOUNT)
firstly . . . receiving the testimony from on high
(1835 ACCOUNT)
He [God the Father] testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God
(1838 ACCOUNT)
[He] said...This is my beloved Son

The Father's identification of Jesus Christ as His Son was His "testimony" of Him.

Critics have objected that—in their minds—the phrase "from on high" cannot be so easily equated with God the Father. But there is a sizable amount of corroborating evidence for this idea. Consider the following points of connection.

  • 3 Ne. 11:3, 5-7 - between April and June 1828

The Father's voice . . . came out of heaven [i.e., 'from on high'] and testified of His Beloved Son.

  • D&C 20:16 - April 1830

Joseph Smith stated, "the Lord God has spoken it; and we . . . have heard . . . the words of the glorious Majesty on high."

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Peter - between 8 March 1831 and 24 March 1832

There are five New Testament scriptures (which Joseph Smith would have been familiar with from his work on the JST) that have distinct parallels to the First Vision story. Jesus Christ's Old World disciples heard the Father's voice come "from heaven" (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; 2 Pt. 1:17-18) [i.e, 'from on high'] or "out of the cloud" (Mt. 17:5) [i.e., 'from on high'] and in each of these instances the Father testified of His Son and employed the same phraseology that Joseph Smith said He utilized during the First Vision

  • JST John 1:18/19 - between 20 November 1831 and 16 February 1832
And no man hath seen God at any time, except he [i.e., God the Father] hath borne record of the Son.
  • 1832 First Vision account - between 22 September 1832 and 27 November 1832
receiving the testimony from on high
  • D&C 93:15 - 6 May 1833
Mention is made of the Father's voice being heard "out of heaven."
  • Patriarchal Blessing - 9 December 1834
When the Prophet received his Patriarchal Blessing on 9 December 1834 he was reminded by the Patriarch (his father) that during his "youth" he had "heard [God's] voice from on high."

Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account

This chronological evidence points to the conclusion that Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account.

"The Lord opened the heavens and I saw the Lord"

There is another line from the 1832 account that may be referring to two people:

I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord

It has been argued that the seperation of "Lord" into two may be referring to the Lord God [i.e., the Father] and the Lord Jesus Christ. Three pieces of evidence can be used to argue for this interpretation.

  • Evidence #1 - The separation of "Lord" is used in scripture in Psalm 110:1 to refer to two distinct, divine individuals. As John Welch and James Allen have argued, if David can do this, so can Joseph.[30] This connection becomes more plausible when we realize that Joseph would have either recently been working on or completed Psalms in his Inspired Translation of the Bible at this time.

Some critics have taken issue with this evidence for the interpretation—claiming that since Psalm 110:1 was originally written in Hebrew with two different words for Lord (rendering "Lord" and "LORD" in all caps for the second mention) that the argument fails.[31]

Robert S. Boylan has responded by showing how Psalm 110:1 is the most quoted, echoed, and/or alluded to passage in the New Testament which Joseph would have been working on revising in his Inspired Translation of the Bible. He then shows that the revelations in Doctrine and Covenants leading up chronologically to the publication of the history containing the 1832 account of Joseph’s vision deliberately echo that verse (Doctrine and Covenants 20:24; 49:5-6; 76: 20, 23). If Joseph were familiar with that verse close to the publication of the account by way of the Old and/or New Testament and as echoed in his revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants, it seems reasonable to assume that he could have used that verse as a template for rendering his account of events surrounding the First Vision.[32] This is even if one mention is capitalized and the other not. If the structure is deliberate and clear (and it appears so), then it seems odd to be upset that Joseph doesn't use capitals for the second "Lord" he writes about.

  • Evidence #2 - The successive appearance of personages in other accounts (such as the 1835 account).

The 1832 account may be read to have a successive appearance of personages, one after the other. This is strengthened by the 1835 accounts mention of successive appearance. Further evidence of this in the 1832 account may be that Joseph was "filled with the spirit of God" before he mentions "the Lord".

  • Evidence #3 - Joseph used "Lord" to refer to God and not just Jesus Christ in the 1832 account.

Some have argued that the 8 uses of Lord in the 1832 account all refer to Jesus Christ.[33] There are at least three references that may be read otherwise:

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous [sic] experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand.

A separation of "Christ" and "the Lord." This is able to be read with Christ or the Father as the Lord.

My mind became 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

Joseph may be referring to coming to the Lord (i.e., the Father) and the gospel of Christ.

The third plausible evidence of the Father as Lord is the ending of the account:

My soul was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy. The Lord was with me, but I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.

The reference here is vague enough that it cannot be conclusively read one way or the othe—especially with the just-cited mention of the Lord.

Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in a manner such as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance?

Analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations

Since it can be concluded from the above documentary evidence that Joseph Smith did indeed make an oblique reference to the appearance of the Father in his 1832 history the question becomes—Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in the manner that he did (so as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance)? A careful analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations. The apostle Stephen's view of both the Father and the Son is clearly utilized by the Prophet in one section of the 1832 text but, more importantly, Joseph Smith told the actual theophany portion of this narrative in language that very closely corresponds to the apostle Paul's vision of Jesus Christ (Acts 26).[34] .

The apostle Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son

On this reading, the Father is not explicitly mentioned as making an appearance in the theophany portion of the 1832 First Vision account because Joseph Smith patterned that part of his narrative after the vision of Jesus Christ experienced by the apostle Paul.

Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son, and so it is logical that this is the reason why Joseph Smith did not explicitly mention the Father's appearance in his text either. The Prophet's strong sense of connection with Paul's visionary experience is referred to by him right in his 1838 First Vision account. The context of this connection is the persecution experienced by both men for speaking publicly about a heavenly manifestation. Joseph Smith relates in his 1838 history that he was informed by a clergyman that his vision was "all of the devil." This piece of information may help to explain why the Prophet chose to couch his first known written account of his vision in heavy biblical language and imagery. He may have hoped that by doing this his story would have a better chance of being accepted amongst a populace that was steeped in biblical content.

Gospel Topics: "There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence."

The Gospel Topics Essay touching on the first vision touches on another way of looking at the evidence. It focuses on the awkward repetition of the word "Lord" and how this may have been Joseph's perhaps uneducated way of stating the order of appearance of the personages:

Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.

There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence. A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness.10 Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.

Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”

Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.” The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.[35]

Read the full article here.

Did any of Joseph's scribes ever say anything about Joseph's story of the vision changing over time?

Joseph's scribe Frederick G. Williams never mentioned anything about Joseph's story "evolving" over time

It is worthwhile to note that the scribe for the material which directly precedes and follows after the 1832 First Vision narrative—Frederick G. Williams—never mentioned anything about Joseph Smith's story evolving over time and becoming more elaborate with the so-called 'addition' of the Father.

Williams was a resident of Quincy, Illinois when the First Vision account which explicitly refers to the Father was published in Nauvoo, Illinois on 1 April 1842. It is known that Williams was with the Prophet in Nauvoo shortly before his death on 10 October 1842 but during the intervening six months there is no known objection from Frederick to the content of the printed text. Why not? Williams was the person who wrote down the words in the introductory remarks of the 1832 document that talk of Joseph Smith receiving "the testimony from on high" during the First Vision. And it is known that Frederick was accompanying four LDS missionaries who, in November 1830, were teaching the citizens of Painesville, Ohio that Joseph Smith had seen "God" personally (see the 1830 statement about seeing "God").

Williams was a member of the First Presidency of the Church on 9 November 1835 when Joseph Smith was teaching a non-Mormon that there were two personages who appeared during the First Vision (see Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835). Frederick probably never drew attention to a so-called 'discrepancy' between what Joseph Smith taught in 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842 because he knew that there wasn't one; he knew that the words of the Father spoken during the vision were referred to right in the text that he had written down in 1832.

Joseph's scribe Oliver Cowdery never mentioned anything about Joseph's story changing

Oliver Cowdery is another person who was in a position to know if the Prophet's First Vision story had changed over time by the addition of the Father. But he never mentioned any such 'discrepancy'. Cowdery had possession of the 1832 First Vision account when he wrote and published a series of Church history letters in December 1834 and February 1835 and so he was fully aware of the explicit mention of Christ's appearance and he also would have known of the introductory remark which refers to "the testimony from on high" being delivered during this event. Cowdery became the Associate or Assistant President of the entire Church on 5 December 1834 (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1653), and thus he would have been in the highest office of Church authority when the Prophet was teaching about one year later that two personages appeared during the First Vision (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Even after both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery became disaffected with Joseph Smith, they never claimed his story of the First Vision had mutated or changed over time

Both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery had reason to feel animosity toward Joseph Smith and the Church since they were both excommunicated in the late 1830's. But neither of these men - even after their reinstatements into full fellowship - ever pointed to any 'creative editing' of the Prophet's First Vision story to sound more impressive and dramatic.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Was Joseph Smith's First Vision Vision set in heaven or on earth?

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Some have seen a discrepancy between the location of Deity in the Prophet's 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts. The 1838 version says that the Prophet saw two Personages standing in the air above the earth, within his proximity. But the 1832 version is not so clear—it seems to locate Deity in heaven.

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration. A myopic focus on a limited number of historical documents can only lead to misunderstanding of the past and a twisted sense of the message that the author is trying to convey.

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures. And at this point in his manuscript he utilized Acts 7꞉55-56 to tell his story. It reads:

But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.

And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

The Greek text that underlies the KJV translation says that Stephen looked into "heaven" (ouranos - 'the sky'; by extension: 'heaven'; also translated as 'air') and saw the "heavens" (the same Greek word - ouranos) opened. Thus, Stephen did not necessarily see Deity in their celestial abode - far beyond the confines of the earth - but rather standing above him in the air.

When Joseph Smith says in the 1832 First Vision account that he saw the Lord after the "heavens" (he uses the plural form) were opened he seems to be expressing the same idea that is found in the New Testament text.

Notice that the physical proximity of the Personages is established in the Prophet's 1835 recital: the pillar of fire can be physically seen in the air; the pillar of fire physically descends and rests upon Joseph; the pillar of fire has contact with physical objects that surround Joseph; two Personages are seen in the midst of this pillar of fire. Notice also that in the 1844 account the Prophet indicates that he could see with his natural eyesight the pillar "toward heaven", or up in the air. A glance at the 1840 account also shows that the phrase "in the heavens above" simply means "a considerable distance" up in the sky - it is not a reference to the celestial abode of Deity.

1832

  • a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.

1835

A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.

1838

I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brigtness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. . . . When the light rested upon me I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.

1840

he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages.

1842

while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.

1843

Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage.

1844

saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire . . . the fire drew nigher, Rested upon the tree, enveloped him comforted.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Joining other churches—"thy sins are forgiven thee"

saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does the 1832 account of the First Vision not prohibit Joseph from joining any church?

The 1832 First Vision account does not portray the Lord giving Joseph Smith an injunction against joining any church

The 1832 account of the First Vision does not portray the Lord as announcing that all the creeds were corrupt. These details do not show up until the 1838 account. Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time?

The claim that Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision story does not contain a divine injunction against joining any churches does not take evidence within the document itself into proper consideration. The information is implicit instead of explicit, but it is there nevertheless. This point cannot be legitimately used as evidence of an evolving storyline.

Joseph went to pray in the grove because he had concluded that the behavior of the churches was not in accordance with the Bible

A quick look at the 1832 First Vision text reveals how untenable this claim is. Joseph Smith states that before he went into the woods to pray he had concluded in his own mind that "those of different denominations [which he was personally acquainted with]. . . did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what [he] found contained in [the Bible] . . . . [There were] contentions and divisions [among them] . . . . [T]hey had apostatised 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."

Jesus Christ informed Joseph in the 1832 account that "they draw near to me with their lips while their hears are far from me"

Then, when Jesus Christ Himself made a personal appearance to Joseph in the grove, He informed the young boy that -

"the world lieth in sin 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 and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir 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"

To summarize:

  • Joseph Smith could not find a church that he thought was adhering to biblical teachings.
  • Jesus Christ confirmed Joseph Smith's observation by saying that the entire world was in a sinful, ungodly condition; they did not keep divine commandments; they had turned aside from the gospel—"not one" person was doing good in His estimation.
  • Jesus Christ said that those who professed Christianity were in a state of hypocrisy.
  • Jesus Christ said that He was angry with the inhabitants of the earth and was contemplating their punishment.

This is an unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the denominations would be unacceptable

How can critics possibly see this as anything other than a forceful and unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the Christian denominations would be an unacceptable path for Joseph to take? Notice in the remainder of the 1832 text that Joseph says he felt great joy and love because of his experience and pondered the things which he had seen and heard during the vision . . . but during an interval of several years he did NOT join any church. Why?

As the 1832 text so plainly says—Joseph Smith believed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Jesus Christ confirmed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Joseph was therefore provided with a set of golden plates that contained writings which were "engrave[d] by . . . the servants of the living God." The 1832 account speaks three times of the "work" that God wanted Joseph Smith to do, while the 1838 account explicitly connects this "work" with the bringing forth of "the everlasting gospel." The 1842 First Vision account ties all of these themes together. There the Prophet relates: "I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me."

Jesus Christ said that He would bring to pass "that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles"

Another indication from the 1832 document that Joseph Smith knew from the First Vision event that he should not join any of the churches can be found in something the Savior said to him. Jesus Christ explained that He was going to take action against the situation the world was currently in by "bring[ing] to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles." What did this statement mean? In a canonized text written at approximately the same time as the 1832 First Vision account (September 1832) the following phraseology is found:

  1. A revelation of Jesus Christ unto his servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders, as they united their hearts and lifted their voices on high.
  2. Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints . . . . (D&C 84꞉1-2).

The Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church

In other words, the Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church. This viewpoint is bolstered by several instances where the Prophet utilized the same phraseology used by the Lord during the First Vision to speak about the Restoration.

  • The work of the Lord in these last days, is one of vast magnitude and almost "beyond the comprehension of mortals. Its glories are past description, and its grandeur unsurpassable. It is the theme which has animated the bosom of prophets and righteous men from the creation of the world down through every succeeding generation to the present time; and it is truly the dispensation of the fullness of times, when all things which are in Christ Jesus, whether in heaven or on the earth, shall be gathered together in Him, and when all things shall be restored, as spoken of by all the holy prophets since the world began".[36]
  • "I . . . hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began".[37]
  • "in the last days, . . . that which shall precede the coming of the Son of Man, and the restitution of all things spoken of by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began".[38]
  • "the great purposes of God are hastening to their accomplishment and the things spoken of in the prophets are fulfilling, as the kingdom of God is established on the earth, and the ancient order of things restored"[39]
  • "when the purposes of God shall be accomplished: when ‘the Lord shall be King over the whole earth,’ and ‘Jerusalem His throne.’ ‘The law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ This is the only thing that can bring about the ‘restitution of all things spoken of by all the holy Prophets since the world was’—‘the dispensation of the fullness of times, when God shall gather together all things in one’."[40]
  • "the last dispensation, . . . bringing to pass the restoration spoken of by the mouth of all the Holy Prophets . . . . the restitution of all things spoken of by the holy Prophets be brought to pass".[41]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith join the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches between 1820 and 1830 despite the claim made in his 1838 history that he was forbidden by Deity from joining any denomination?

Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim

Three of the primary sources that charge Joseph Smith with joining sectarian churches between 1820 and 1830 were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, over a half-century after the First Vision. None of the three are contemporary records; the earliest one was written 50 years after the First Vision took place.

  • Fayette Lapham claimed that Joseph had joined the Baptist Church.
  • Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church.
  • S.F. Anderick claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Presbyterian Church.

We must note too that none of these sources confirms the others—they all discuss different denominations and different time frames. Thus, the stories are not mutually reinforcing.

Eyewitness reminiscences and contemporary records provide strong evidence that these claims are not valid and, therefore, do not reflect historical reality. The three sources are all late, and all from hostile voices.

Did Joseph Smith become a baptized member of the Baptist Church in 1822?

Fayette Lapham claimed to have learned this from Joseph Smith, Sr. 50 years after the First Vision had occurred

Fayette Lapham claimed to have interviewed Joseph Smith Sr. in 1829-30, and published a report forty years later. In it, he reported:

About this time [1822, perhaps as late as 1824] he [Joseph, Jr.] became concerned as to his future state of existence, and was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.[42]

There are no records to support the claim that Joseph joined the Baptist Church

The Lapham source is secondhand at best—putting forward information that reportedly came from the Prophet's father. There are no records beyond this late, second-hand recollection to support this claim.

Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

In 1879, 59 years after the First Vision, Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church while translating the Book of Mormon

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.—It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[43]

There is a difference between attending Methodist services and formally joining the Methodist Church

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

Joseph Lewis described himself as one of the "official members", indicating the Joseph was not a member of the church

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.

Did Joseph Smith join the Presbyterian Church after the First Vision?

S.F. Anderick claimed in 1887, 67 years after the First Vision, that Joseph Smith had joined the Presbyterian Church in the 1820s

S.F. Anderick (1887):

When Jo[seph Smith] joined the Presbyterian Church, in Palmyra village, it caused much talk and surprise, as he claimed to receive revelations from the Lord.[44]

Joseph likely attended the Presbyterian Church with his family, but no record exists of him being an actual member of the congregation

As Dan Vogel notes, "Because Lucy Smith and three of her older children joined the Presbyterian Church, together with the possibility that Joseph Jr. may have attended some meetings with other family members, some observers may have assumed Joseph Jr. was also a member."[45] (Vogel notes that Lorenzo Saunders claimed in 1884 that he attended Sunday School with Joseph at the Presbyterian Church, and so that attendance (without formal membership) may be the source for this reminiscence.[46]

The Anderick source may simply be recalling an occasion when the young Prophet attended a church service with his Presbyterian mother and siblings.

Questions: Are there contemporary witnesses that confirm that Joseph Smith didn't join any church after the First Vision?

Eyewitness sources indicated that Joseph Smith was not formally attached to any church, and had rejected all of them

The eyewitness sources that follow below indicate that up until the time that Joseph Smith announced the existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his family (23 September 1823) he was not formally attached to any church, but had instead publicly rejected all of them and manifested his desire NOT to join their ranks. Some are contemporaneous, others are later remembrances, but the hostile and friendly voices are clear that he had no denominational affiliation.

Reminiscence Around 1820

Pomeroy Tucker (a non-Mormon critic who knew Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York) said that Joseph joined the Methodist probationary class in Palmyra but soon "withdrew from the class" without being converted; announcing that "all the churches [were] on a false foundation."[47] This information corresponds with historical details dated by Joseph Smith at around 1820.

Reminiscence of Fall 1823

Lucy Mack Smith:

Joseph Smith's mother recalled in her autobiography that shortly after her son Alvin died on 19 November 1823 Joseph "utterly refused" to attend church services with the intent to convert, and he made the specific request: "do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time."[48]

As can be seen by the continuing chronological sources which follow, Joseph Smith and his associates were teaching from 1825 to 1832 that the Prophet did not belong to any church between the years 1825 and 1827.

Reminiscence Concerning 1825

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon):

I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man and at that time did not profess religion.[49]

Reminiscence Concerning 1827

Peter Bauder:

In 1827 David Marks (a non-Mormon minister) went to Palmyra and Manchester, New York where he "made considerable inquiry respecting . . . [Joseph] Smith" and learned from "several persons in different places" that Joseph was "about 21 years [old]; that previous to his declaration of having found the plates he made no pretensions to religion."[50]

Reminiscence Concerning 1830

In October 1830 Peter Bauder (a non-Mormon minister) spoke directly to the Prophet. Bauder commented: "he could give me no Christian experience," meaning that he did not belong to any church before his experience with the angel and plates in September 1823.[51]

Contemporary Document - 1830

Observer and Telegraph (newspaper):

Four LDS men from New York state taught that at the time the angel appeared to Joseph Smith (22 September 1823) he "made no pretensions to religion of any kind."[52]

Contemporary Document - 1831

Palmyra Reflector (newspaper):

The editor of a Palmyra, New York newspaper claimed that he has been "credibly informed," and was "quite certain," that "the prophet . . . never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation"—meaning the Book of Mormon, which was made known among Palmyra's residents in the Fall of 1827.[53]

Contemporary Document - 1832

Orson Pratt:

Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson taught on 8 April 1832 that "in 1827 a young man called Joseph Smith of the state of New York, of no denomination [i.e., not belonging to a church], but under conviction, inquired of the Lord . . . [and] an angel [appeared to him] . . . who gave information where the plates were deposited."[54] Pratt clarified in a much later statement that between 1820 and 1823 Joseph Smith "was not a member of any church."[55]

Thus, a great deal of contemporary evidence disproves the late, second hand claims.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Primary Sources

  • Baptist: Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  • Methodist:
    • Hiel Lewis, "That Mormon History. Reply to Elder Cadwell," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (6 August 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:314–316.
    • Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  • Presbyterian: Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.

New Dispensation?

Why doesn't Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account mention a "new dispensation"?

The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation

One critical author states, "Joseph [Smith] added new elements to his later narratives that are not hinted at in his earlier ones. His first vision evolved from a forgiveness epiphany [1832 account] to a call from God the Father and Jesus Christ to restore the true order of things [1842 account]."

Taken altogether, the above information reveals that Joseph Smith considered his initial calling to have come directly from Deity in the Sacred Grove in 1820—not at some later time. The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation.

The unsustainable nature of this argument becomes glaringly apparent once the 1832 First Vision account is carefully scrutinized and other historic LDS documents are taken into consideration

In Joseph Smith's 1832 account he plainly states that before the First Vision took place he was of the opinion that "mankind . . . 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." When the Prophet saw Jesus Christ face to face during the First Vision experience the Savior verified what Joseph had previously believed by saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments" (emphasis added).

During the lifetime of Joseph Smith the word DISPENSATION was defined in a popular English dictionary in the following manner: "a system of principles and rites enjoined [or dispensed or bestowed]; as . . . the gospel dispensation; including . . . the scheme of redemption by Christ."[56] As noted above, Jesus Christ informed Joseph Smith that mankind had turned aside from the gospel and no longer kept His commandments. He then issued a directive straight to Joseph Smith by saying, "Walk in my statutes and keep my commandments" (emphasis added). This is clearly a new beginning; the Lord enjoined His ‘system of principles’ or ‘scheme of redemption’ upon Joseph Smith. This act qualifies—by definition—as a new dispensation of the gospel.

Was this early nineteenth-century dispensation of the gospel meant only for the benefit of Joseph Smith? In writing out the 1832 account the Prophet utilized some very specific wording when he said that "the world of mankind . . . . had apostatized" and he mourned for "the sins of the world." In his perspective "no society or denomination . . . built upon the gospel." And when the Lord spoke to Joseph during the vision He emphasized that this situation was on a universal scale saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one." Thus, the 1832 account definitely describes a universal apostasy—and it makes no sense that the Savior would inaugurate a dispensation of His gospel only for the sake of one individual when innumerable humans were in need of salvation.

A glance at the chronological record of history reveals that there is plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that Joseph Smith's call to serve as the leading prophet of the last dispensation came at the time of the First Vision

  • William Smith appears to have heard his brother Joseph Smith state to the entire Smith family on 22 September 1823 that during his First Vision: "that being [i.e., the ‘personage’ in the light] pointed him [i.e., Joseph Smith] out as the messenger to go forth and declare His truth to the world; for ‘They had all gone astray.’"[57]
  • In the Articles and Covenants of the Church - written in April 1830 - Joseph Smith speaks of his being "called of God" (D&C 20꞉2) and shortly thereafter refers to the First Vision/Book of Mormon sequence of events (see vss. 5–6; emphasis added).
  • Joseph Smith recorded a revelation in October 1830 wherein the Lord issued a formal "call" to laborers in His "vineyard" and thereafter utilized distinct phraseology that is found in the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts (D&C 33:3-4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17-18 / compare with the 1835 hymn by William W. Phelps).
  • In the Book of Commandments/Doctrine and Covenants introduction—provided on 1 November 1831—the Lord Himself stated: "Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments" (D&C 1:17; emphasis added). This can be identified as a First Vision text by comparing it with Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and Levi Richards' 1843 record of a First Vision statement made by the Prophet in Nauvoo, Illinois.
  • Lorenzo Snow heard Joseph Smith speak about the First Vision at the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio about 12 November 1831. Lorenzo said that the Prophet "simply bore his testimony to what the Lord had manifested to him, to the dispensation of the gospel which had been committed to him"[58]
  • On 9 December 1834 Joseph Smith's father gave him a Patriarchal Blessing and rehearsed the following information about his son: "The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens: thou hast heard His voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth [compare with the 1832 First Vision account]. . . . Thou hast been called, even in thy youth to the great work of the Lord: to do a work in this generation" (LDS Historian’s Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, pp. 3–4).
  • In October 1835 in Kirtland, Ohio William W. Phelps composed a hymn which reads in part: "When the world in darkness lay, Lo, he [i.e., Joseph Smith] sought the better way, And he heard the Savior say, ‘Go and prune my vineyard [cf. Matthew 20꞉4,7], son! [Matthew 21꞉28]’"[59] This portion of the hymn matches very closely with some of the wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account.
  • "Not long after hearing this [i.e., in 1836], two men came into the town where I was living and called at my father’s house as missionaries. From them we learned the facts of the wonderful message they were bearing to the world; viz., that God, the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith and authorized him to declare to the world the introduction of a new dispensation by which the people might be prepared for the fullness of times."[60]
  • In Orson Pratt's 1840 rendition of the First Vision he reveals more of the details of what was said to Joseph Smith during the First Vision with regard to the gospel [repeated in Orson Hyde/1842 and the Wentworth Letter/1842]. In this source it is stated that Joseph "received a promise that the true doctrine[,] the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him."[61] This certainly qualifies as a call to future action since it would make no sense at all for the Lord to only allow one mortal to possess "the true doctrine"; it would need to be spread by someone.
  • In note C of Joseph Smith's 1838 Church history (written down on 2 December 1842) he states that before the visitation of the angel Moroni in 1823 he had been "called of God"—and he is here referring directly to his First Vision experience.[62]
  • Alexander Neibaur spoke with the Prophet on 24 May 1844 and recorded in his diary: "Br[other] Joseph tol[d] us [about] the first call he had" and then Alexander provided a rough outline of the First Vision story.[63]
  • On 1 January 1845 Elder Parley P. Pratt published a proclamation to the Saints in the eastern states of the U.S. and said, "The people did not choose that great modern apostle and prophet, Joseph Smith, but God chose him in the usual way that He has chosen others before him, viz., by open vision, and by His own voice from the heavens. He it was that called him."[64]
  • Sometime in 1854 an LDS children's catechism was published which asked and answered the following: "Q. When and how was this dispensation commenced? A. About the year 1820, whilst Joseph Smith, who then lived at Manchester, Ontario County, New York, was praying to the Lord to teach him the true religion, the heavens opened over his head, two glorious persons descended towards him, and one, pointing to the other, said, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear him.’"[65]
  • On 14 August 1859 Elder Orson Pratt posed the question, "When, where, and how were you, Joseph Smith, first called? How old were you? And what were your qualifications? I was between fourteen and fifteen years of age. . . . [Y]ou say the Lord called you when you were but fourteen or fifteen years of age? How did he call you?" Pratt then related the First Vision story and said that during this manifestation Joseph was "informed that at some future time the fulness of the gospel should be made manifest to him, and he should be an instrument in the hands of God of laying the foundation of the kingdom of God." Pratt noted that he had "often" heard the First Vision account from Joseph Smith himself.[66] Elder Pratt did not, however, indicate when exactly he first heard the Prophet relate the story – it could have been very early on since they first met in November 1830.
  • On 23 June 1867 President Brigham Young said, "When the Lord called upon Joseph he was but a boy — a child, only about fourteen years of age. He was not filled with traditions; his mind was not made up to this, that, or the other."[67] President Young then related several distinct First Vision story elements. President Young first met Joseph Smith in November 1832 and he never, in any of his speeches or writings, indicated that the Prophet's story of the source and timing of his call ever evolved or varied.

An entry found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism agrees with the quotations provided above. It states with regard to the First Vision: "The Lord spoke face-to-face with Joseph and called him to service."[68]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

When Jesus Christ speaks to Joseph Smith in the 1832 First Vision account, did He say that one receives eternal life regardless of what church they are affiliated with?

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church

all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in Sin...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision

In light of the statements produced by Joseph Smith before he wrote the 1832 quotation of Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove, it is not possible to uphold the claim that the Lord told the Prophet on that occasion that a Christian of any denomination automatically qualified for eternal life (in the LDS understanding of the term).

While it is true that the Lord is quoted in the 1832 First Vision account as saying "all those who believe on my name may have eternal life" it can be seen in an earlier revelation dated 7 March 1831 that those who "believe on [Christ's] name" must also "come unto [Him]" in order to "have everlasting life" (D&C 45꞉5).

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church. Rather, He declares unambiguously in that account that "none" of the existing Christian denominations of the time were keeping His commandments; they had all turned aside from His gospel. From this piece of information alone, it is clear that eternal life could not be made available to them; they were categorized by the Lord as being in a state of "sin" (cf. Romans 5꞉21; Romans 6꞉22-23). In the 1832 text Jesus Christ says to Joseph Smith - "keep my commandments," and in connection with this it can be seen in a revelation dated March 1829 that the Lord informed the Prophet that he could only be granted "eternal life" if he was "firm in keeping the commandments" that Christ gave unto him (D&C 5꞉21-22; cf. D&C 14꞉7; D&C 18꞉8; D&C 30꞉8).

On 1 November 1831 the Lord affirmed to adherents of the LDS faith that there was "only [one] true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (D&C 1꞉30). Earlier—in May 1831—He had spoken specifically to members of "the church that profess my name" (compare with the 1832 document wording) and indicated that only the faithful members of it who endured would "inherit eternal life" (D&C 50꞉4-5). Thus, the blessing of eternal life could not be obtained without complying with certain conditions.

Before Joseph Smith penned the Lord's words that are found in the 1832 First Vision text he clearly understood that:

  • Profession of the Lord's name alone is not sufficient for the reception of eternal life; a person must also "come unto" Him.
  • Eternal life is granted only to those people who keep the Lord's commandments.
  • One of the Lord's commandments is to be baptized by, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through His authorized representatives (D&C 49꞉11-14 / March 1831; D&C 76꞉51-52 / 16 February 1832).
  • There is only one church on the earth that is recognized by Jesus Christ as being His own.

The implication of this last point is that only one church can perform ordinances that will be considered valid in the sight of the Lord. And so a person can only be truly obedient to all of the Lord's commandments by holding membership in His one true Church. Joseph Smith indicated in the introductory remarks of the 1832 history that he had received priesthood authority, from a heavenly source, which enabled him to "administer . . . the commandments . . . and the ordinances".

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

The wrath to come—"mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth"

Why does the 1832 account say that the wicked will be destroyed, but the 1838 account doesn't?

The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents

One discrepancy between the 1832 First Vision account and the official 1838 recital is that it portrays Jesus Christ as prophesying that He will return to earth quickly to destroy wicked mortals. The 1838 story makes no mention of the impending doom of this planet's depraved inhabitants.

The claim that there is a discrepancy between the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts on the point of the Second Coming and destruction of the wicked appears to be a desperate attempt at sowing discord. It is a charge without much substance. The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents.

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents. In the 1832 account the Lord says:

mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them ac[c]ording to th[e]ir 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.

There is, indeed, no reference to this specific prophecy in the First Vision portion of the 1838 document. However, Joseph Smith clearly states in that very narrative that Jesus Christ told him "many other things" during the First Vision that he decided not to write down at that time! Thus, an argument from silence (on the part of the critics) is utterly unconvincing. A close look at the remainder of the 1838 historical text reveals that the angel Moroni did, in fact, speak to Joseph Smith about prophecies of the Savior's return and the destruction of the wicked. The Prophet reports:

[The angel] first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as reads in our books he quoted it thus, 'For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud <yea> and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble, for <they> that cometh shall burn them saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.' And again he quoted the fifth verse thus, 'Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.' . . . . He also quoted the second chapter of Joel from the twenty eighth to the last verse. He also said that this was not yet fulfilled but was soon to be.

The 1832 and 1838 histories present the very same prophecy of the destruction of the wicked at the time of the Lord's Second Coming. The 1832 account portrays the Lord speaking it personally; the 1838 account portrays an angel relaying the words of the Lord as recorded in prophetic, biblical texts. Either way, the message is the same.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (Janaury 2007).

Persecution afterwards—"I could find none that would believe"

nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart about that time my mother and but after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions and it—came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision
∗       ∗       ∗
as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention that he was persecuted for telling others about the vision?

The Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital

Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account does not explicitly say that he was persecuted for relating his spiritual manifestation to others. Some have claimed that this stands as evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time—probably to add a sense of drama. However, the Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital. The persecution is situated squarely between the First Vision experience and the angel Moroni visitations. The documentary evidence presented above demonstrates conclusively that Joseph Smith did not see anything wrong with telling the basic elements of his First Vision story and either giving a passing reference to other elements or leaving them out altogether. Regardless, it was still a record of the very same experience that took place at the Smith homestead near Palmyra, New York.

"My father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Joseph Smith made some remarks in his 1832 First Vision account that have a marked degree of relevance to the argument being put forward by his critics. In relation to the period of time between the First Vision and the appearance of the Book of Mormon angel he said,

  • "I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart"
  • "there were many things which transpired that cannot be written"
  • "my father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Since it is explicitly stated by Joseph Smith that nobody believed his story, it would be unreasonable to assume that all of the responses to it were friendly in nature. In fact, the Prophet says right in this text that before the Book of Mormon angel visited him his family was persecuted and afflicted for some unspecified reason(s). He did not elaborate upon the nature of the "many persecutions" that took place against his family because—as far as this particular document was concerned—he had elected not to write down "many things which transpired."

Documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account

The following documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account strengthens the argument that the 1832 text is referring to some type of persecution that took place because of Joseph's initial spiritual experience.

  • Back "then" (i.e., between 1820 and 1823) Joseph's mind was engaged in "serious reflection" over the notion that he had been the recipient of "the bitterst persecution and reviling" by adherents of religion, simply because he had spoken about his First Vision.
  • Persecution over the vision was also heaped upon Joseph Smith by "irreligious" persons.
  • His words were treated not only lightly but also with great contempt.
  • It was implied that he was a liar.
  • He was told that his experience originated with the Devil.
  • People became prejudiced against him. They spoke "all manner of evil against [him] falsely". He was "hated".
  • The persecution increased over time and even became "severe".
  • Some people tried to get Joseph Smith to "deny" his vision.
  • The Prophet relates: "I was led to say in my heart, 'Why persecute me for telling the truth?'"

This 1838 description corresponds very well with the "many persecutions and afflictions" that are mentioned in the 1832 account. It also matches closely with the 1832 statements that nobody would believe Joseph's story and he reflected upon this adverse situation in his heart.

The persecution aspect of the 1838 account is rarely mentioned in subsequent accounts

It should be pointed out that even though the 'persecution' theme is very pronounced in the 1838 account it is a piece of the story that was not always mentioned or emphasized in subsequent retelling (both published and verbal).

  • It is missing in Orson Pratt's 1840 missionary tract called An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions.
  • It is missing in the Prophet's 1842 Wentworth Letter recital.
  • It shows up again in David White's 1843 newspaper interview with the Prophet where an interesting insight is provided about the reason for the pronounced negative reaction by some of those who heard the story. The Prophet said, "When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since."
  • Rejection, but no outright persecution, is mentioned in Alexander Neibaur's 1844 diary notes. There Joseph is said to have "told the Methodist priest [about the experience], [but he] said this was not a[n] age for God to reveal Himself in vision[. The priest said that] revelation ha[d] ceased with the New Testament."

This last example is especially significant because it is an obvious reference to the Methodist minister who is spoken of in the 1838 History of the Church account. The 1844 rehearsal of events is less detailed but it is, nevertheless, the same exact story. The 1844 document clearly demonstrates that Joseph Smith did not always include an equal amount of story elements in his recitals of the First Vision. Critics of this manifestation should, therefore, not expect any such thing when they scrutinize the pertinent documents. If an element of the story was not known by one particular audience it cannot be automatically assumed that it was not known by another.

Learn more about claims that Joseph Smith's First Vision is impossible because there is no such thing as visions
Online
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Why does Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision mention "many angels?"

Criticisms related to Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision

The capitalized word "Angels" in Joseph Smith's diary entry for 14 November 1835 has given rise to two distinct criticisms by detractors of the faith, and one misguided conclusion by some Latter-day Saints.

Criticism #1 - Critics note that this word is plainly used in reference to the First Vision and thus assume that Joseph Smith did not consistently claim to see Deity during this manifestation and that he therefore contradicted himself.
Criticism #2 - Critics conclude that the official History of the Church was "falsified" when this reference was changed without any notation.
Misguided Conclusion - Some conclude that since the word "Angels" is capitalized in the text Joseph Smith must have been applying this title to Deity.

Both the two personages and "many angels" are mentioned

The mention of "many angels" in the November 9, 1835 diary entry is a clarifying detail. The appearance of the Father and Son are clearly referenced separately from the mention of the "many angels." Since the visit of the Father and Son are acknowledged in the diary entry for the 9th the change from "first visitation of Angels" to "the First Vision" in the History of the Church entry is not a "falsification" of information.

By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?

Joseph referred to his 1820 theophany as the "first visitation of Angels" or the "first communication"

Joseph Smith never actually referred to what we now call the "First Vision" by that name. Instead, he referred to it as the "first visitation of angels" or the "first communication." Joseph also referred to Moroni's visit as "another vision of angels."

  • One critic of Mormonism states that "Who appears to [Joseph] – a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place." [69]
Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 journal entry, which was written by his scribe, describes a visit of two personages. The scribe then goes back and inserts the phrase "and I saw many angels in this vision" between the lines. Image from "Journal, 1835–1836," Joseph Smith Papers off-site

The account that Joseph entered in his journal on 9 November 1835 was a detailed account which clearly describes two personages, as well as "many angels." The account that Joseph wrote just five days later in his journal on 14 November 1835 was a one line summary of the event, which he described as "the first visitation of Angels." Critics of the Church seem to believe that Joseph completely changed his story from "two personages" to "Angels" over the course of only five days. The truth is that Joseph referred to all of the personages that appeared to him as "angels."

The terms "personages" and "angels" were interchangeable

This confusion regarding "angels" versus "personages" is illustrated in a critical "Mormoninfographic".[70] We have illustrated the error by comparing Joseph's journal entries on both days.

Mormoninfographic.error.1835-2.jpg

What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #19: The Visionary World of Joseph Smith

The type of event that we now refer to as Joseph Smith's First Vision was not entirely uncommon at the time

There were at the time people who went to the wood to pray after reading the Bible, and as a result received visions and epiphanies. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992; 2007) noted that "[i]nitial skepticism toward Joseph Smith's testimony was understandable because others had made similar claims to receiving revelation from God."[71] Similarly, the Church's new narrative history Saints (2018) notes that after Joseph's vision when he spoke to the reverend about his vision that "[a]t first the preacher treated his words lightly. People claimed to have heavenly visions from time to time."[72] Visionaries are not that uncommon in environments where people are routinely open to the divine. Even the famous Charles Finney had one. Finney, after retiring to the woods to pray, described the experience:

Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.

Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God's veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God's word, and God's voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me."

That seemed to settle the question that I could then, that day, perform my vow. The Spirit seemed to lay stress upon that idea in the text, "When you search for me with all your heart." The question of when, that is of the present time, seemed to fall heavily into my heart. I told the Lord that I should take Him at his word; that He could not lie; and that therefore I was sure that He heard my prayer, and that He would be found of me.

He then gave my many other promises, both from the Old and the New Testament, especially some most precious promises respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. I never can, in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me. I took them one after the other as infallible truth, the assertions of God who could not lie. They did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.

I continued thus to pray, and to receive and appropriate promises for a long time, I know not how long. I prayed till my mind became so full that, before I was aware of it, I was on my feet and tripping up the ascent toward the road. The question of my being converted, had not so much as arisen to my thought; but as I went up, brushing through the leaves and bushes, I recollect saying with emphasis, "If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel."[73]

Although Finney doesn't claim to have seen any personages, he does describe a communication with God. Joseph Smith describes his experiences in much the same way as others in his environment did.

Joining a church at that time required one to explain one's standing with God to a preacher

Keep in mind that Joseph prayed to find out if his sins had been forgiven. And he discovered that they had. This pleased him greatly. Why did he pray about this matter? The reason is that joining a church at that time often required that one explain one's standing with God to a preacher. We are dealing with Protestant sects. And conservative Protestants believe that one is saved (justified) at the moment one confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So Joseph, as he faced the competing Protestant sects, was deeply concerned about his sins. One had to demonstrate to oneself and also convince a preacher that one had been saved—that is, justified. And there were many instances in which prayers were answered by visions in which the person learned that God had forgiven their sins.

One difference between Joseph's vision and others is that Joseph was told not to join any denomination

The difference between Joseph's experience and many other accounts by visionaries, is that, in addition to being told that his sins were in fact forgiven, he was also told not to join any denomination. When he told that part of his visionary experience, it got him into big trouble with preachers. It was not the vision that was a problem for preachers, but his reporting that he should not join some sect.

So the fact is, contrary to our current way of telling his story, the First Vision was not the beginning of Joseph's call as Seer, Prophet, Revelator and Translator. His vision signaled the beginning of the restoration. It did not begin the work of the restoration.It steered him away from joining one of the competing denominations. It was Joseph's subsequent encounters with Moroni that made him a Seer, and eventually the founding Prophet of a fledgling Church, and not his initial vision, which was initially for him a private event about which he was reluctant to talk, though eventually he dictated some accounts that were found and published during our lifetime. Joseph told a few people about it, word got around, and this caused him much trouble with Protestant preachers.

Neither Joseph nor others at that time offered the First Vision as a reason to become Latter-day Saints

Joseph eventually wrote the account of that early vision late in his life because rumors about it had circulated and caused him difficulty. But neither Joseph nor any of the other early Saints offered that vision as a reason for others to become Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. It was only much later that what we now call the First Vision began to take on a special importance for the Saints. One reason is that Americans soon did not live in a visionary environment. The great Charles Dickens, writing in England, explained why. He called Joseph Smith vision an absurdity—"seeing visions in the age of railways."

Wilford Woodruff came into the Church of Jesus Christ because he had known earlier in his life someone he believed was a prophet who had alerted him to the soon to be restoration of primitive Christianity. This remarkable story, which was included in the lesson manual on President Woodruff, illustrates the visionary world in which Joseph was raised. Though there were a few—one or two—instances in which the visionary reported encounters with two heavenly messengers, it was most often God the Son who they reported appearing to them.

But there have been and still are peoples not impacted by post-enlightenment skepticism about divine things who are open to visions and other dramatic encounters with the divine, though they often do not speak in public about such things, since they tend to see them as strictly private blessings and not something about which one ought to be gossiping and boasting.

The establishment of the restored Church of Jesus Christ began with the Book of Mormon

The first missionaries in the Church used The Book of Mormon, not the First Vision, as a witness that the heavens were open, and that each individual, by applying the promise in Moroni 10:3-5, can receive a direct manifestation from Heavenly Father, through the Holy Ghost, that The Book of Mormon is true. After that testimony is gained, it follows that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, as he brought The Book of Mormon forth and restored the fullness of the Gospel under the direction of the Savior.

The fledgling Church of Christ began with the Book of Mormon, the witnesses to the plates, the restoration of priesthood keys, and not directly with what we call the First Vision, though that initial experience assisted in Joseph avoiding what could be perceived as damaging sectarian contamination. The historical record shows that Joseph never gave any attention to the creeds or arguments of quarreling preachers. This was the purpose served by the First Vision.

How do the accounts of Paul's vision compare to the accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision?

Some Christians accept Paul's vision while rejecting that of Joseph Smith for a variety of reasons. Richard Lloyd Anderson made the following comparisons.

Many Christians who comfortably accept Paul’s vision reject Joseph Smith’s. However, they aren’t consistent in their criticisms, for most arguments against Joseph Smith’s first vision would detract from Paul’s Damascus experience with equal force.

For instance, Joseph Smith’s credibility is attacked because the earliest known description of his vision wasn’t given until a dozen years after it happened. But Paul’s earliest known description of the Damascus appearance, found in 1 Corinthians 9꞉1, was recorded about two dozen years after his experience.

Critics love to dwell on supposed inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s spontaneous accounts of his first vision. But people normally give shorter and longer accounts of their own vivid experiences when retelling them more than once. Joseph Smith was cautious about public explanations of his sacred experiences until the Church grew strong and could properly publicize what God had given him. Thus, his most detailed first vision account came after several others—when he began his formal history.

This, too, parallels Paul’s experience. His most detailed account of the vision on the road to Damascus is the last of several recorded. (See Acts 26:9–20.) And this is the only known instance in which he related the detail about the glorified Savior prophesying Paul’s work among the Gentiles. (See Acts 26:16–18.) Why would Paul include this previously unmentioned detail only on that occasion? Probably because he was speaking to a Gentile audience, rather than to a group of Jewish Christians. Both Paul and Joseph Smith had reasons for delaying full details of their visions until the proper time and place.[74]

Do Greek scholars solve the discrepancies in Paul's vision accounts?

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory

Joseph Smith left several accounts of his First Vision. None of these accounts is identical with any other. As the main page discusses, some critics wish to argue that Joseph's vision accounts are mutually contradictory, and thus that there was no vision.

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory. Yet, the Church's sectarian critics accept Paul's account as true despite the Bible containing apparently frank contradictions in its accounts. While accepting or explaining away these discrepancies, the critics nevertheless refuse to give Joseph Smith the same latitude. Members of the Church have long pointed out that this is a clear double standard, designed to bias the audience against Joseph from the beginning.

Perhaps because of the force of this argument, some critics have begun to argue that no contradiction exists between the versions of Paul's vision.

Some critics have begun to argue that Greek scholarship has resolved the contradiction that exists between the versions of Paul's vision

Author Richard Abanes wrote that contradictions in the stories of Paul's vision were

long ago resolved by scholars analyzing the Greek texts. The discrepancies in Paul's account involve modern ignorance of the Greek wording used.[75]

In support of this claim, Abanes cites W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words p. 544.

Despite Abanes' claim, Greek scholarship has not resolved this issue. In fact, his use of the scholarship is dated, he ignores contrary views, and does not seem to realize that the Bible text itself (including the Acts of the Apostles) violates his supposed 'rule' more often than it keeps it.

The two verses usually at issue are Acts 9꞉7 and Acts 22꞉9. For example, one Wikipedia editor claims that

"There is no conflict in the three accounts of Paul's vision if you read Acts 22:9 in any version other than the KJV. For instance, in the New American Standard Bible and the New International version, it says that Paul's companions did not "understand the voice"—that is hear what was uttered with understanding."[76]

The debate centers on the word translated "hearing" or "heard" in these verses

Bible version Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Summary

Heard voice, saw no one?

Saw light, heard no voice?

  • Clear contradiction?
KJV

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

  • Clear contradiction?

Abanes' source

The work cited by Abanes is not a recent work of Greek scholarship—it was first published in 1940.[77] In the reference for ακούω, we read:

...the usual word denoting "to hear," is used (a) intransitively, e.g., Matt. 11:15; Mark 4;23; (b) transitively when the object is expressed, sometimes in the accusative case, sometimes in the genitive. Thus in Acts 9:7, "hearing the voice," the noun "voice" is in the partitive genitive case [i.e., hearing (something) of], whereas in Acts 22:9, "they heard not the voice," the construction is with the accusative. This removes the idea of any contradiction. The former indicates a "hearing" of the sound, the latter indicates the meaning or message of the voice (this they did not hear). "The former denotes the sensational perception, the latter (the accusative case) the thing perceived" (Cremer).

Abanes' claim

Thus, by this source, Abanes hopes to argue that there can be "no idea of any contradiction":

Factor Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Case

partitive genitive

accusative

  • "Case" is a part of speech, it indicates the role a noun (here, "the voice") plays in the sentence. English does not use cases.
Meaning

One hears the sound

One hears the message

—|-

Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

We have seen Abanes appeal to a source that was more than sixty years old at the time of his writing. Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

Daniel Wallace (a non-LDS, conservative Christian scholar) wrote of this same issue:

...There seems to be a contradiction between this account [Acts 9:7] of Paul's conversion and his account of it in Acts 22, for there he says, "those who were with me..did not hear the voice..." However, in Acts 22:9 the verb ακούω takes an accusative direct object. On these two passages, Robertson states: '...it is perfectly proper to appeal to the distinction in the cases in the apparent contradiction....The accusative case (case of extent) accents the intellectual apprehension of the sound, while the genitive (specifying case) calls attention to the sound of the voice without accenting the sense.'...

The NIV [a conservative Bible translation, the New International Version] seems to follow this line of reasoning....[thus the differences in case] can be appealed to to harmonize these two accounts....(italics in original)[78]

Thus, Wallace is here dealing with the exact verses under discussion, and notes the exact argument which Abanes makes. Does he agree? Let us see:

On the other hand, it is doubtful that this is where the difference lay between the two cases used with ακούω in Hellenistic Greek: the N[ew] T[estament] (including the more literary writers) is filled with examples of ακούω + genitive indicating understanding[79]....as well as instances of ακούω + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place[80]}....The exceptions, in fact, are seemingly more numerous than the rule!

Thus, regardless of how one works through the accounts of Paul's conversion, an appeal to different cases probably ought not form any part of the solution (italics and bold italics in original).[81]

Thus, the New Testament itself does not agree with Abanes' reading. Far from supporting him, Greek scholarship argues against his solution—the Bible has more examples where his supposed "rule" is broken than when it is followed. (Even Acts itself contains three counterexamples!)

It would seem that this approach has been developed by those who wish to maintain the idea of biblical inerrancy in the face of the Greek evidence.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Learn more about multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver's Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith's First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8/4 (6 December 2013). [27–44] link
  • Robert A. Rees, "Looking Deeper into Joseph Smith's First Vision: Imagery, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Construction of Memory," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25/3 (21 April 2017). [67–80] link}
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/5 (2 November 2012). [73–86] link
Video
  • "Multiple accounts of the First Vision," BH Roberts Foundation print-link.
Navigators


Notes

  1. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 53.
  2. Bushman, Beginnings of Mormonism, 53.
  3. The Fredonia Censor, vol. 11, no. 50, 7 March 1832.
  4. Joseph Smith, 1832 vision account; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 1–2.; from MS Joseph Smith, "A History of the Life of Joseph Smith," in Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1-6, Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
  5. (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:42-43.
  6. Joseph Smith, Journal entry, 9 November 1835; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22. from MS Joseph Smith Journal, 1835-36, 193 pp., Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
  7. JS-H 1꞉5-6
  8. E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D.D. (New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1880), 21–22, citing the Aurora Seager diary. This revival was never mentioned in the Palmyra newspapers.
  9. George Peck, The Life and Times of Rev. George Peck (New York: Nelson and Philips, 1874), chapter 2.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  13. Ibid., 193.
  14. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of editor of this article.
  15. Walker Wright and Don Bradley, "'None That Doeth Good': Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14," Brigham Young University Studies 61 no. 3 (2022), 123–40.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 J.B. Haws, "Reconciling Joseph Smith—History 1:10 and 1:18–19," Religious Educator 14, no. 2 (2013): 97–105 (97–98).
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  20. Ibid., 193.
  21. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of FAIR.
  22. Jim Bennett, "A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee,"(2 September 2020).
  23. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 2.
  24. Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.
  25. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22.
  26. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director".
  27. "I am the owner and main contributor to mormoninfographics.com I wanted to thank you or whoever for pointing out the error I had in the 1835 Jewish Minister account. I had mistakenly labeled his age as 17. This has since been corrected. I apologize for the error and welcome any and all input on this or any other infographic. Thank you." (Posted by bjpascoal, on 20 June 2013 - 08:35 PM on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board) off-site The author of "A Letter to a CES Director" subsequently corrected the graphic in the copy of the letter hosted on his site.
  28. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 1–31. off-site off-site Full title GL direct link
  29. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 9–20.off-site.(emphasis added)
  30. See John W. Welch and James B. Allen "Analysis of Joseph Smith's Accounts of the First Vision," Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, 1st ed., John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies Press, 2005).
  31. See for example Stan Larson, "Another Look at Joseph Smith's First Vision," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 37-62 (52).
  32. Robert Boylan, "Psalm 110:1 and the two Lords in the 1832 First Vision Account," (6 October 2019).
  33. Stan Larson, "Another Look," 52.
  34. See the 2006 FAIR Conference address entitled "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories" and its accompanying slides (see links below in the "Video" section).
  35. Gospel Topics Essays "First Vision Accounts" lds.org
  36. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:185. Volume 4 link
  37. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:77–78. Volume 6 link
  38. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:271. Volume 2 link
  39. Times and Seasons 3, 761. off-site GospeLink
  40. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:64. Volume 5 link
  41. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:210–212. Volume 4 link
  42. Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  43. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  44. Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.
  45. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:210n9.
  46. Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by William H. Kelley, 17 September 1884, 1-18, in E.L. Kelley Papers, RLDS Church Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:125-135.
  47. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 17–18.
  48. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1945), 90.
  49. Letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. to John S. Fullmer, 17 February 1843.
  50. Morning Star, 7 March 1833 [Limerick, Maine].
  51. Peter Bauder, The Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ (Canajoharie, New York: A. H. Calhoun, 1834), 36.
  52. Observer and Telegraph, 18 November 1830 [Hudson, Ohio].
  53. “Gold Bible, No. 3,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 12 (1 February 1831): {{{pages}}}. off-site
  54. The Catholic Telegraph, 14 April 1832 [Cincinnati, Ohio].
  55. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:140-141.
  56. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. ""dispensation," definition #4, (emphasis in original)) "dispensation," definition #4, (emphasis in original))."
  57. Saints’ Herald, vol. 30 (16 June 1883): 388; emphasis added.
  58. Deseret Evening News, 20 July 1901, 22.
  59. Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 no. 13 (October 1835), 208.; hymn #26 – 1835 edition; emphasis added.
  60. Samuel W. Richards, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet," Young Women's Journal 18 no. 12 (December 1907), 537–539, (emphasis added).
  61. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), ?, (emphasis added). off-site off-site Full title GL direct link
  62. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), footnote #11 to the 1838 history.
  63. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980 [1971]), 177.
  64. Millennial Star 5 no. 10 (March 1845), 150.
  65. John Jaques, Catechism For Children: Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool, England: Franklin D. Richards, 1854), 76.
  66. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 7:221.
  67. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:68.
  68. Larry C. Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), {{{vol}}}:1512.
  69. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2013)
  70. Image from "MormonInfographics.com".
  71. William O. Nelson, "Anti-Mormon Publications," Encyclopedia of Mormonism Daniel H. Ludlow ed. (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992; 2007) 45-46.
  72. Matthew J. Grow, Richard E. Turley Jr., Steven C. Harper, Scott A. Hales eds., Saints Volume 1 - The Standard of Truth (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 17. The book cites Richard Bushman, "The Visionary World of Joseph Smith," BYU Studies 37:1 (1997-1998): 183–204.
  73. Charles G. Finney, "Memoirs of Charles G. Finney," (1876) 16-18.
  74. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith," Ensign (July 1972).off-site
  75. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 42, 43 (sidebar). ( Index of claims )
  76. Comment made by Wikipedia editor John Foxe on "First Vision" talk page (17 Aug. 2006) off-site
  77. W.E. Vine's M.A., Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940). off-site
  78. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1997), 133. off-site
  79. Wallace gives as examples which contradict Abanes' model: Matthew 2꞉9, John 5꞉25, John 18꞉37, Acts 3꞉23, Acts 11꞉7, Revelation 3꞉20, Revelation 6꞉3,5, Revelation 11꞉12, Revelation 14꞉13, Revelation 16꞉1,5,7, Revelation 21꞉3. Note that two of these examples are even from the book of Acts!
  80. Wallace gives as examples which contradict Abanes' model: Matthew 13꞉19, Mark 13꞉7, Matthew 24꞉6, Luke 21꞉9, Acts 5꞉24, 1 Corinthians 11꞉18, Ephesians 3꞉2, Colossians 1꞉4, Philemon 1꞉5, Jas 5:11, Revelation 14꞉2.
  81. Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 133–134. off-site

Video published by the Church History Department.


Video from FAIR

What differences are there between Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and later accounts?

Religious revival

"this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen"

...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 sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

At what age did Joseph Smith become concerned about religion?

Joseph's interest in religion began when he was 12 years old, after the 1817 revival

Joseph's concern about religion started when he was twelve years old, close on the heels of the revival of 1817. In his 1832 account, Joseph notes that his concern about religion began at age 12 (1817-1818):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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 different denominations led me to marvel excedingly 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... (Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision)

Richard Bushman notes that this "would have been in late 1817 and early 1818, when the after-affects of the revival of 1816 and 1817 were still felt in Palmyra." [1]

Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." There is documented evidence of at least one Methodist camp meeting in the Palmyra area during that period, which only by chance happened to be mentioned in the local newspaper because of a specific death that seemed to be associated with it. In addition, there are newspaper articles talking of large-scale revival activity in the larger region surrounding Palmyra during the same general period when Joseph Smith said that it was taking place.

It is reasonable to assume based upon the facts that the Methodists had more than one camp meeting during this period. This could easily account for the religious excitement in Palmyra that, in Joseph's mind at age 14, began with the Methodists.

From age 12 to 15 Joseph pondered many things in his heart concerning religion

Joseph continues in his 1832 account: "[T]hus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins." In July, 1819, several years after Joseph said his mind became "seriously imprest," a major Methodist conference was held near Palmyra:

[T]he Methodists of the Genesee Conference met for a week in Vienna (later Phelps), a village thirteen miles southeast of the Smith farm on the road to Geneva. About 110 ministers from a region stretching 500 miles from Detroit to the Catskills and from Canada to Pennsylvania met under the direction of Bishop R. R. Robert to receive instruction and set policy. If we are to judge from the experience at other conferences, the ministers preached between sessions to people who gathered from many miles around. It was a significant year for religion in the entire district. . . . The Geneva Presbytery, which included the churches in Joseph's immediate area, reported in February, 1820, that "during the past year more have been received into the communion of the Churches than perhaps in any former year." Methodists kept no records for individual congregations, but in 1821 they built a new meetinghouse in town. [2]

What religious excitement was occurring in Palmyra in 1820?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Methodist camp meetings were being held in Palmyra in 1820

Some claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, contrary to Joseph Smith's claims that during that year there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion...indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it" Joseph Smith—History 1:5 Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country."

Abundant evidence of religious excitement exists to substantiate Joseph’s account. This has been thoroughly summarized by Pearl of Great Price Central. Their analysis may be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

One should keep in mind that Joseph Smith never used the term "revival" in his description - he simply described it as "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion." To a 14 year old who had been concerned about religion starting at age 12 after the 1817 revival, the ongoing camp meetings in the town in which he lived would certainly qualify.

What statements did Joseph Smith make about religious excitement in the area of Palmyra?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Statements from Joseph's history regarding religious excitement when he was a youth

Critics of Joseph Smith claim that no revival is mentioned in the 1832 First Vision account because the actual word 'revival'—or something similar—is not found within the text. But they have failed to notice a distinct pattern of words that demonstrate a definite link between the various First Vision accounts.

7 March 1832

On 7 March 1832 (just a few months before Joseph Smith penned his 1832 First Vision account) some Mormon missionaries in Pennsylvania were saying that during Joseph’s youth he had repented of his sins but was "not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them," and so he resorted to prayer.[3]

September—November 1832

At about the age of twelve years my mind became 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 became excedingly 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 . . . . [A]nd 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.[4]

December 1834

  • During "the 15th year of [Joseph Smith's] life" there was "a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion" in Palmyra, New York and its "vicinity."
  • There was "much enquiry for the word of life"
  • "in common with others, [Joseph Smith's] mind became awakened"
  • "For a length of time the reformation seemed to move in a harmonious manner"
  • "but, as the excitement ceased . . . a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects, for proselytes"
  • "Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches"
  • "Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony . . . and a cry—I am right—you are wrong—was introduced"; "all professed to be the true church"
  • "In this general strife for followers, [Joseph Smith's] mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians"
  • This circumstance gave Joseph "further reflection"
  • He received "strong solicitations to unite with one of those different societies"
  • But "seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth from each, [Joseph Smith's] mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind"
  • His "spirit was not at rest day nor night"
  • Joseph did not want to "profess godliness without its benign influence upon [his] heart" [i.e., 'repenting of sins' theme]
  • He also did not want to "unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one"
  • Joseph Smith felt that there would be "serious consequences of moving hastily, in a course fraught with eternal realities"
  • He believed that "amid so many [denominations], some must be built upon the sand"
  • "In this situation where could he go?"
  • Joseph spent time "reflecting" on a passage of scripture
  • He had a strong "degree of determination . . . relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God"[5]

9 November 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, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind . . . . information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it.[6]

2 May 1838

"multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist . . . . a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; Priest contending against priest, and convert against convert . . . a strife of words and a contest about opinions". . . ."so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations". . . . "the cry and tumult were so great and incessant"; "war of words, and tumult of opinions"; "the contests of these parties of religionists" [7]

When the September—November 1832 First Vision account is compared with subsequent recitals (especially 1838), and one partial previous rendition, it appears that they are all telling the same story: Prior to the First Vision event there were contentions and divisions among the different religious denominations in connection with a revival. It seems, therefore, that the Prophet's handwritten 1832 account does indeed make a passing reference to revival activity.

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals. For instance, Joseph Smith said that when he was "about the age of twelve years" (23 December 1817—23 December 1818) he became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul. Why did these feelings arise at this point in time? Possibly because there was a Methodist camp-meeting/revival from June 19th through the 22nd, 1818 held in Palmyra, New York.[8]

Joseph Smith pointed to a time period "from the age of twelve years to fifteen" (i.e., between 23 December 1817 and 23 December 1821) when he –

  • applied himself to studying the scriptures
  • noticed the hypocrisy of some persons who claimed to be religious
  • pondered the "contentions and divisions" among men [revival imagery seen in other First Vision accounts]
  • pondered the "wickedness and abominations" and "darkness" of mankind
  • was grieved by what he saw around him; felt to mourn for the sins of the world
  • became "exceedingly distressed" because he felt "convicted of [his] sins" and felt to "mourn" for them
  • did not recognize any religious denomination that followed the biblical pattern completely
  • determined that God wanted to be worshiped in truth
  • decided to pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it.

Some of the themes enumerated above can be matched with the Prophet's other descriptions of things that happened during the revival activity of Palmyra and its vicinity. This matching of themes tends to support the argument that the 1832 text does indeed refer to revival activity.

(1832) "the scriptures . . . they contained the word of God"; (1834) "that record called the word of God"
(1832) "I became convicted of my sins"; (1834) "arouse the sinner to look about him for safety"
(1832) "that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth"; (1834) "All professed to be the true church"
(1832) "society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament"; (1834) "a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation"
(1832) "those of different denominations . . . they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation"; (1834) "they were certainly hypocritical"
(1832) "my mind became exceedingly distressed"; (1838) "my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness"
(1832) "the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind"; (1838) "At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness" or pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it. Rev. George Peck recounted the happenings at a Methodist camp meeting held on 4 July 1816 in Plymouth, New York. He said that "There was an unbroken roar of fervent supplication all over the ground, while the awful voice of the preacher resounded." One person then fell to the ground and cried for mercy.[9]

Learn more about religious excitement in the time of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Donald L. Enders, "A Snug Log House," Ensign (August 1985), 16.off-site
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
  • D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp-Meeting'," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3 (12 July 2006), PDF link
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Joseph's motivations

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest"

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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...
∗       ∗       ∗

"my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations"

...thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy wal and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository...
∗       ∗       ∗

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


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
∗       ∗       ∗

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.[10] 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 ignore 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.'[11]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[12] 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.'[13]

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' [14] 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.

A longer version of this argument is made by Walker Wright and historian Don Bradley in a 2023 paper for BYU Studies.[15]

BYU Studies, ""None That Doeth Good" Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14"

Walker Wright and Don Bradley,  BYU Studies 61/3 (2022)
The First Vision has been a center of both faith and controversy. While millions of Latter-day Saints affirm it as the beginning of the Restoration, others see it as an ever-growing fish tale. The multiple accounts of the First Vision vary in detail, with Joseph Smith’s earliest written account (1832) lacking some of the elements found in his later accounts. However, some of these elements—particularly the ­appearance of God the Father as part of the First Vision experience—are laced throughout Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These historical threads ultimately culminate in his translation of Psalm 14, which weaves together many of the elements supposedly lacking in Smith’s earliest account of the First Vision. But why bring these threads together in Psalm 14? What was its connection with his First Vision? A basic comparison of Psalm 14 with elements of the First Vision shows that elements of this psalm are found in the background of the vision, as Joseph Smith narrated it, and even in the words of Deity spoken within the vision itself.

Click here to view the complete article

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. [Is this a veiled reference to fogiveness of sins? We recall that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Religious confusion

"by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord"

...and 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...
∗       ∗       ∗

Did Joseph Smith decide that all churches were wrong before he received the First Vision?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics 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, 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?[16]

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

Such a claim is a false dilemma, as we will now see.

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.[17] 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.

A close reading 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.'[18]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[19] 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.'[20]

"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.'"[21] 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... [22]

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.[16]:99–100

Looking at Antecedents

Haws describes another 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."[16]: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 among others. If we presume that Joseph was lying, our hostile reading will lead us to pick this option. If we grant that Joseph might be telling the truth, the other options will not be summarily rejected.

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).[23]

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."[24]

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."[25] 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."

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy"

...therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness...

Why does Joseph Smith state in his 1832 First Vision account that he was in his "16th year" of age?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

Joseph's 1832 account states the "16th year" of his age in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams

In Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision recital he said that he was "in the 16th year of [his] age" when the manifestation took place but in all other accounts in which he mentions his age, he was in his "fifteenth year."

  • Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time, and was thus a fabrication to begin with?

The only First Vision account that provided a different age was the 1832 account written in Joseph Smith's own handwriting. In 1832, 12 years after the First Vision, Joseph wrote, "we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements."

Although the portion of Joseph's 1832 history is in his own handwriting, the text insertion of "in the 16th year of my age" was in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, Joseph's scribe. It is likely that Joseph's dating schemes were slightly off when he dictated his age to Williams, many years afte the fact. There is nothing nefarious in Joseph Smith correcting his own slight mathematical miscalculations.

Two years later, Oliver Cowdery had Joseph's 1832 history in his possession when he began publishing history of the Church in late 1834 in the Latter-day Saints' Messenger and Advocate. Oliver clearly established Joseph's age as 14 ("the 15th year of his life") during the period of religious excitement (although Oliver ultimately never described the actual First Vision at this time). Once the date of the First Vision was correctly established it remained steady throughout all subsequent recitals as the "15th year" or "age 14."

Are the ages stated in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision "all over the place?"

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

All other accounts except the 1832 one state Joseph's age as 14 or that he was in his "fifteenth year"

The ages are not, as one critic states, "all over the place." [26] The only account produced by Joseph Smith that indicated a different age was the 1832 account (age 15 rather than 14, based upon a text insertion above the line by Frederick G. Williams after Joseph had already written his account). All remaining accounts indicate age 14 (the "15th" year).

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

In the 1832 history, the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact Joseph's dating scheme becomes

The 'one-year-off-the mark' dating anomaly of the 1832 First Vision account can best be understood by taking a look at all of the dates and time frame indicators that are provided within the document. It can then be seen that the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact his dating scheme becomes.

Notice that the date of the First Vision is an above-the-line insertion in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, meaning that it was not placed in the text initially but was added at a later time than the creation of the main text.

(17 years back in time)

"at the age of about ten years my father Joseph Smith Sr. moved to Palmyra" [23 Dec. 1815 – 23 Dec. 1816]

(15 years back in time)

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1818]

(12 years back in time)

"from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1821]
"while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a pillar of fire" [23 Dec. 1820 – 23 Dec. 1821]
for many days
about that time
after many days

(7 years back in time)

when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord . . . [and an] angel [appeared]. . . . it was on the 22d day of Sept. AD 1822

(5 years back in time)

the plates [I] obtained them not until I was twenty one years of age
in this year I was married . . . 18th [of] January AD 1827
on the 22d day of Sept of this same year I obtained the plates
in December following we moved to Susquehanna

Joseph Smith: "I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements"

We should carefully note that Joseph Smith correctly stated that he was "seventeen years of age" when the angel Moroni appeared to him on 22 September 1823, he got the time of that manifestation wrong by one year. A clue as to why this incorrect date was placed by the Prophet in this historical account can be found right in the 1832 document itself. Near the beginning of the narrative Joseph writes: "being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family having nine children. And as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say [that] I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements". Elder Orson Pratt once asked rhetorical questions of the Prophet to illustrate his meager level of formal education: "Had you been to college? No. Had you studied in any seminary of learning? No. Did you know how to read? Yes. How to write? Yes. Did you understand much about arithmetic? No. About grammar? No. Did you understand all the branches of education which are generally taught in our common schools? No." (Journal of Discourses, 7:220-21). And when Elder Pratt wrote specifically about the First Vision he was even more specific about the level of the Prophet's math skills, saying that he had "a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic." (Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions [Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840],—-).

In the 1838 history, Joseph got the year of his own brother's death wrong

The 1832 history is not the only one where the Prophet made a dating mistake that was one year off the mark. He did the same thing when he created the 1838 Church history, but this time he got the year of his own brother's death wrong. He erroneously remembered that it was 1824 instead of 1823. The significant thing about this particular dating blunder is that four years after the Prophet recorded the initial information he came to the realization that it was not correct and had his scribe, Willard Richards, make the appropriate adjustment. Perhaps the problem with the date was brought to the Prophet's attention by a member of his own family after the information had been printed and made available for public perusal [publication in May 1842; correction in December 1842].

Initial Manuscript Record (2 May 1838)

Alvin (who is now dead)
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin.

Publication ( 15 March 1842 / 2 May 1842)

Alvin, (who is now dead) (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 10, 15 March 1842, 727).
In the year eighteen hundred and twenty-four my father's family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 13, 2 May 1842, 772).

Post-Publication Manuscript Correction (2 December 1842)

Alvin (who <died Nov. 19th: 1823 in the 25 year of his age.> is now dead) [the last three words are stricken out]
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. [this year designation was not corrected by Willard Richards - whose editorial additions and notes end before this point in the manuscript]

A similar type of dating correction scenario, as mentioned above, may have taken place in connection with the 1832 history. Oliver Cowdery claimed that he had the Prophet's help in creating his December 1834 Church history article and despite the fact that he had the erroneously-dated 1832 document sitting in front of him [see paper on this subject] he provided the correct year for the Prophet's First Vision - "in the 15th year of his life" (i.e., between 23 December 1819 and 23 December 1820). And just nine months later the Prophet himself was telling a non-Mormon that the First Vision took place when he was "about 14 years old" (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Is there a case where Joseph stated that his age was 17 rather than 14 at the time of the First Vision?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

Some critics think so: One case in which the age in an 1835 account was mistakenly stated as age 17

An image from "mormoninfographics" is in circulation on the internet which mistakenly states that Joseph claimed that he was age 17 when the First Vision occurred. However, this was a misreading of Joseph Smith's 1835 journal entry, which clearly states that Joseph was age 14 at the time of the first vision, and age 17 at the time of Moroni's visit.

An anti-Mormon "mormoninfographic" which attempts to demonstrate that the ages of the first vision accounts are different. Since this was posted, the owner of "mormoninfographics" acknowledged and corrected this mistake by removing all of the ages from this particular graphic. [27]

Why is Joseph Smith's struggle with Satan not mentioned in the 1832 account of the First Vision?

Joseph Smith says in the official Church history account of the First Vision that directly before the theophany occurred he had a struggle with Satan, but this struggle is not mentioned in his 1832 recital of the experience

Is this evidence that this visionary tale evolved over time by becoming more dramatic and elaborate?

The 'struggle' motif is absent from the first known self-written account of the Prophet's visionary experience (1832) but it is also absent from his self-written Wentworth Letter account (1842). It is clear from the available documentary evidence that the Prophet did not feel constrained by the arbitrary rule of his modern critics that he must include every aspect of his First Vision story in every single retelling of it, and no reasonable person should be bothered that he doesn't.

The following timeline displays the 'struggle' material found in First Vision recitals that were produced during the Prophet's lifetime. The corresponding text from the 1832 document is also provided for purposes of comparison.

It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it

Several observations about the information presented below may prove useful.

  • It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it - even after the official Church history account was written down (1838) and published (1842). He opted not to speak about that aspect of the story in the Wentworth Letter (1842), in a speech given before the Saints at the Nauvoo Temple (1843), and also when he conducted an interview with a non-Mormon newspaper editor (1843). Yet, he did briefly refer to that part of the story in a subsequent private conversation with a convert (1844).
  • A careful comparison of texts indicates that the Prophet's Wentworth Letter was likely constructed by utilizing the content of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account pamphlet.[28] But even though Elder Pratt’s account refers directly to the 'struggle' theme, Joseph Smith chose not to include it within the Wentworth Letter.
  • Even after Joseph Smith revealed details about his 'struggle' with the Adversary he did not include some of them in subsequent accounts. For instance, in 1835 he told of hearing somebody walking up behind him but this detail didn't ever appear again in the known recitals. Gathering darkness and the dread of sudden destruction are mentioned in the official 1838 rendering of events but then it disappears and is not seen in any later sources which were produced during the Prophet's lifetime.

September–November 1832

I cried unto the Lord for mercy. . . and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord . . . a pillar of fire [or] light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God.

9 November 1835

I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray. My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed. I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head, which presently rested down upon me and filled me with unspeakable joy.

2 May 1838

I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an imaginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being, just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.

September 1840

He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him.

June 1841

He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

1 March 1842

I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

11 June 1843

he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right.

29 August 1843

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? Directly I saw a light.

24 May 1844

Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself down, his tongue was close[d,] cleave[t]h to his roof—could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile—saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer. . . . the fire drew nigher, rested upon the tree, enveloped him[, and] comforted [him].

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Why does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention two personages?

Although the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared, He is mentioned

The theophany portion of the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared to Joseph Smith together with Jesus Christ. The relevant text (in its original form) reads as follows:

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day c[a]me down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> 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 th[e]ir 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.[29]

Even though the Savior makes a direct reference to the Father there is no indication in this portion of the 1832 document that God appeared to Joseph Smith alongside His Son.

The same pattern exists in the Book of Mormon with Lehi's vision of God on His throne

This type of pattern is seen in the Book of Mormon, translated in 1829: The Book of Mormon begins (1 Nephi 1꞉8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on His throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi—thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.

Is there any reference to God the Father being present in Joseph Smith's 1832 account?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #9: Did Both the Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith in the First Vision?

A significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is associated with the First Vision: "receiving the testimony from on high"

There is a very significant phrase located in the introductory paragraph of the Prophet's historical narrative. There he indicates that the 1832 document is . . .

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brough<t> [it] forth and established [it] by his hand <firstly> he receiving the testamony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel—<—the Law and commandments as they were given unto him—>and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God.

This paragraph not only introduces the document with a heavy emphasis on the Son of God but it also chronologically outlines four inaugural events of the Restoration.

FIRST: Reception of "the testimony from on high"—First Vision
SECOND: The "ministering of angels"—Moroni visitations
THIRD: Reception of the Holy Priesthood to administer the letter of the gospel—Aaronic priesthood
FOURTH: Reception of the High Priesthood after the order of the Son—Melchizedek priesthood

This 1832 phraseology corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove

The significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is the one associated with the First Vision—"receiving the testimony from on high" (spelling standardized). When this phrase is placed in conjunction with the Prophet's 1835 and 1838 accounts of the First Vision it becomes obvious that the 1832 phraseology closely corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove.

(1832 ACCOUNT)
firstly . . . receiving the testimony from on high
(1835 ACCOUNT)
He [God the Father] testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God
(1838 ACCOUNT)
[He] said...This is my beloved Son

The Father's identification of Jesus Christ as His Son was His "testimony" of Him.

Critics have objected that—in their minds—the phrase "from on high" cannot be so easily equated with God the Father. But there is a sizable amount of corroborating evidence for this idea. Consider the following points of connection.

  • 3 Ne. 11:3, 5-7 - between April and June 1828

The Father's voice . . . came out of heaven [i.e., 'from on high'] and testified of His Beloved Son.

  • D&C 20:16 - April 1830

Joseph Smith stated, "the Lord God has spoken it; and we . . . have heard . . . the words of the glorious Majesty on high."

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Peter - between 8 March 1831 and 24 March 1832

There are five New Testament scriptures (which Joseph Smith would have been familiar with from his work on the JST) that have distinct parallels to the First Vision story. Jesus Christ's Old World disciples heard the Father's voice come "from heaven" (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; 2 Pt. 1:17-18) [i.e, 'from on high'] or "out of the cloud" (Mt. 17:5) [i.e., 'from on high'] and in each of these instances the Father testified of His Son and employed the same phraseology that Joseph Smith said He utilized during the First Vision

  • JST John 1:18/19 - between 20 November 1831 and 16 February 1832
And no man hath seen God at any time, except he [i.e., God the Father] hath borne record of the Son.
  • 1832 First Vision account - between 22 September 1832 and 27 November 1832
receiving the testimony from on high
  • D&C 93:15 - 6 May 1833
Mention is made of the Father's voice being heard "out of heaven."
  • Patriarchal Blessing - 9 December 1834
When the Prophet received his Patriarchal Blessing on 9 December 1834 he was reminded by the Patriarch (his father) that during his "youth" he had "heard [God's] voice from on high."

Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account

This chronological evidence points to the conclusion that Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account.

"The Lord opened the heavens and I saw the Lord"

There is another line from the 1832 account that may be referring to two people:

I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord

It has been argued that the seperation of "Lord" into two may be referring to the Lord God [i.e., the Father] and the Lord Jesus Christ. Three pieces of evidence can be used to argue for this interpretation.

  • Evidence #1 - The separation of "Lord" is used in scripture in Psalm 110:1 to refer to two distinct, divine individuals. As John Welch and James Allen have argued, if David can do this, so can Joseph.[30] This connection becomes more plausible when we realize that Joseph would have either recently been working on or completed Psalms in his Inspired Translation of the Bible at this time.

Some critics have taken issue with this evidence for the interpretation—claiming that since Psalm 110:1 was originally written in Hebrew with two different words for Lord (rendering "Lord" and "LORD" in all caps for the second mention) that the argument fails.[31]

Robert S. Boylan has responded by showing how Psalm 110:1 is the most quoted, echoed, and/or alluded to passage in the New Testament which Joseph would have been working on revising in his Inspired Translation of the Bible. He then shows that the revelations in Doctrine and Covenants leading up chronologically to the publication of the history containing the 1832 account of Joseph’s vision deliberately echo that verse (Doctrine and Covenants 20:24; 49:5-6; 76: 20, 23). If Joseph were familiar with that verse close to the publication of the account by way of the Old and/or New Testament and as echoed in his revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants, it seems reasonable to assume that he could have used that verse as a template for rendering his account of events surrounding the First Vision.[32] This is even if one mention is capitalized and the other not. If the structure is deliberate and clear (and it appears so), then it seems odd to be upset that Joseph doesn't use capitals for the second "Lord" he writes about.

  • Evidence #2 - The successive appearance of personages in other accounts (such as the 1835 account).

The 1832 account may be read to have a successive appearance of personages, one after the other. This is strengthened by the 1835 accounts mention of successive appearance. Further evidence of this in the 1832 account may be that Joseph was "filled with the spirit of God" before he mentions "the Lord".

  • Evidence #3 - Joseph used "Lord" to refer to God and not just Jesus Christ in the 1832 account.

Some have argued that the 8 uses of Lord in the 1832 account all refer to Jesus Christ.[33] There are at least three references that may be read otherwise:

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous [sic] experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand.

A separation of "Christ" and "the Lord." This is able to be read with Christ or the Father as the Lord.

My mind became 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

Joseph may be referring to coming to the Lord (i.e., the Father) and the gospel of Christ.

The third plausible evidence of the Father as Lord is the ending of the account:

My soul was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy. The Lord was with me, but I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.

The reference here is vague enough that it cannot be conclusively read one way or the othe—especially with the just-cited mention of the Lord.

Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in a manner such as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance?

Analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations

Since it can be concluded from the above documentary evidence that Joseph Smith did indeed make an oblique reference to the appearance of the Father in his 1832 history the question becomes—Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in the manner that he did (so as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance)? A careful analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations. The apostle Stephen's view of both the Father and the Son is clearly utilized by the Prophet in one section of the 1832 text but, more importantly, Joseph Smith told the actual theophany portion of this narrative in language that very closely corresponds to the apostle Paul's vision of Jesus Christ (Acts 26).[34] .

The apostle Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son

On this reading, the Father is not explicitly mentioned as making an appearance in the theophany portion of the 1832 First Vision account because Joseph Smith patterned that part of his narrative after the vision of Jesus Christ experienced by the apostle Paul.

Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son, and so it is logical that this is the reason why Joseph Smith did not explicitly mention the Father's appearance in his text either. The Prophet's strong sense of connection with Paul's visionary experience is referred to by him right in his 1838 First Vision account. The context of this connection is the persecution experienced by both men for speaking publicly about a heavenly manifestation. Joseph Smith relates in his 1838 history that he was informed by a clergyman that his vision was "all of the devil." This piece of information may help to explain why the Prophet chose to couch his first known written account of his vision in heavy biblical language and imagery. He may have hoped that by doing this his story would have a better chance of being accepted amongst a populace that was steeped in biblical content.

Gospel Topics: "There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence."

The Gospel Topics Essay touching on the first vision touches on another way of looking at the evidence. It focuses on the awkward repetition of the word "Lord" and how this may have been Joseph's perhaps uneducated way of stating the order of appearance of the personages:

Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.

There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence. A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness.10 Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.

Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”

Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.” The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.[35]

Read the full article here.

Did any of Joseph's scribes ever say anything about Joseph's story of the vision changing over time?

Joseph's scribe Frederick G. Williams never mentioned anything about Joseph's story "evolving" over time

It is worthwhile to note that the scribe for the material which directly precedes and follows after the 1832 First Vision narrative—Frederick G. Williams—never mentioned anything about Joseph Smith's story evolving over time and becoming more elaborate with the so-called 'addition' of the Father.

Williams was a resident of Quincy, Illinois when the First Vision account which explicitly refers to the Father was published in Nauvoo, Illinois on 1 April 1842. It is known that Williams was with the Prophet in Nauvoo shortly before his death on 10 October 1842 but during the intervening six months there is no known objection from Frederick to the content of the printed text. Why not? Williams was the person who wrote down the words in the introductory remarks of the 1832 document that talk of Joseph Smith receiving "the testimony from on high" during the First Vision. And it is known that Frederick was accompanying four LDS missionaries who, in November 1830, were teaching the citizens of Painesville, Ohio that Joseph Smith had seen "God" personally (see the 1830 statement about seeing "God").

Williams was a member of the First Presidency of the Church on 9 November 1835 when Joseph Smith was teaching a non-Mormon that there were two personages who appeared during the First Vision (see Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835). Frederick probably never drew attention to a so-called 'discrepancy' between what Joseph Smith taught in 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842 because he knew that there wasn't one; he knew that the words of the Father spoken during the vision were referred to right in the text that he had written down in 1832.

Joseph's scribe Oliver Cowdery never mentioned anything about Joseph's story changing

Oliver Cowdery is another person who was in a position to know if the Prophet's First Vision story had changed over time by the addition of the Father. But he never mentioned any such 'discrepancy'. Cowdery had possession of the 1832 First Vision account when he wrote and published a series of Church history letters in December 1834 and February 1835 and so he was fully aware of the explicit mention of Christ's appearance and he also would have known of the introductory remark which refers to "the testimony from on high" being delivered during this event. Cowdery became the Associate or Assistant President of the entire Church on 5 December 1834 (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1653), and thus he would have been in the highest office of Church authority when the Prophet was teaching about one year later that two personages appeared during the First Vision (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Even after both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery became disaffected with Joseph Smith, they never claimed his story of the First Vision had mutated or changed over time

Both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery had reason to feel animosity toward Joseph Smith and the Church since they were both excommunicated in the late 1830's. But neither of these men - even after their reinstatements into full fellowship - ever pointed to any 'creative editing' of the Prophet's First Vision story to sound more impressive and dramatic.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Was Joseph Smith's First Vision Vision set in heaven or on earth?

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Some have seen a discrepancy between the location of Deity in the Prophet's 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts. The 1838 version says that the Prophet saw two Personages standing in the air above the earth, within his proximity. But the 1832 version is not so clear—it seems to locate Deity in heaven.

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration. A myopic focus on a limited number of historical documents can only lead to misunderstanding of the past and a twisted sense of the message that the author is trying to convey.

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures. And at this point in his manuscript he utilized Acts 7꞉55-56 to tell his story. It reads:

But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.

And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

The Greek text that underlies the KJV translation says that Stephen looked into "heaven" (ouranos - 'the sky'; by extension: 'heaven'; also translated as 'air') and saw the "heavens" (the same Greek word - ouranos) opened. Thus, Stephen did not necessarily see Deity in their celestial abode - far beyond the confines of the earth - but rather standing above him in the air.

When Joseph Smith says in the 1832 First Vision account that he saw the Lord after the "heavens" (he uses the plural form) were opened he seems to be expressing the same idea that is found in the New Testament text.

Notice that the physical proximity of the Personages is established in the Prophet's 1835 recital: the pillar of fire can be physically seen in the air; the pillar of fire physically descends and rests upon Joseph; the pillar of fire has contact with physical objects that surround Joseph; two Personages are seen in the midst of this pillar of fire. Notice also that in the 1844 account the Prophet indicates that he could see with his natural eyesight the pillar "toward heaven", or up in the air. A glance at the 1840 account also shows that the phrase "in the heavens above" simply means "a considerable distance" up in the sky - it is not a reference to the celestial abode of Deity.

1832

  • a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.

1835

A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.

1838

I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brigtness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. . . . When the light rested upon me I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.

1840

he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages.

1842

while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.

1843

Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage.

1844

saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire . . . the fire drew nigher, Rested upon the tree, enveloped him comforted.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Joining other churches—"thy sins are forgiven thee"

saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does the 1832 account of the First Vision not prohibit Joseph from joining any church?

The 1832 First Vision account does not portray the Lord giving Joseph Smith an injunction against joining any church

The 1832 account of the First Vision does not portray the Lord as announcing that all the creeds were corrupt. These details do not show up until the 1838 account. Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time?

The claim that Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision story does not contain a divine injunction against joining any churches does not take evidence within the document itself into proper consideration. The information is implicit instead of explicit, but it is there nevertheless. This point cannot be legitimately used as evidence of an evolving storyline.

Joseph went to pray in the grove because he had concluded that the behavior of the churches was not in accordance with the Bible

A quick look at the 1832 First Vision text reveals how untenable this claim is. Joseph Smith states that before he went into the woods to pray he had concluded in his own mind that "those of different denominations [which he was personally acquainted with]. . . did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what [he] found contained in [the Bible] . . . . [There were] contentions and divisions [among them] . . . . [T]hey had apostatised 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."

Jesus Christ informed Joseph in the 1832 account that "they draw near to me with their lips while their hears are far from me"

Then, when Jesus Christ Himself made a personal appearance to Joseph in the grove, He informed the young boy that -

"the world lieth in sin 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 and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir 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"

To summarize:

  • Joseph Smith could not find a church that he thought was adhering to biblical teachings.
  • Jesus Christ confirmed Joseph Smith's observation by saying that the entire world was in a sinful, ungodly condition; they did not keep divine commandments; they had turned aside from the gospel—"not one" person was doing good in His estimation.
  • Jesus Christ said that those who professed Christianity were in a state of hypocrisy.
  • Jesus Christ said that He was angry with the inhabitants of the earth and was contemplating their punishment.

This is an unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the denominations would be unacceptable

How can critics possibly see this as anything other than a forceful and unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the Christian denominations would be an unacceptable path for Joseph to take? Notice in the remainder of the 1832 text that Joseph says he felt great joy and love because of his experience and pondered the things which he had seen and heard during the vision . . . but during an interval of several years he did NOT join any church. Why?

As the 1832 text so plainly says—Joseph Smith believed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Jesus Christ confirmed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Joseph was therefore provided with a set of golden plates that contained writings which were "engrave[d] by . . . the servants of the living God." The 1832 account speaks three times of the "work" that God wanted Joseph Smith to do, while the 1838 account explicitly connects this "work" with the bringing forth of "the everlasting gospel." The 1842 First Vision account ties all of these themes together. There the Prophet relates: "I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me."

Jesus Christ said that He would bring to pass "that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles"

Another indication from the 1832 document that Joseph Smith knew from the First Vision event that he should not join any of the churches can be found in something the Savior said to him. Jesus Christ explained that He was going to take action against the situation the world was currently in by "bring[ing] to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles." What did this statement mean? In a canonized text written at approximately the same time as the 1832 First Vision account (September 1832) the following phraseology is found:

  1. A revelation of Jesus Christ unto his servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders, as they united their hearts and lifted their voices on high.
  2. Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints . . . . (D&C 84꞉1-2).

The Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church

In other words, the Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church. This viewpoint is bolstered by several instances where the Prophet utilized the same phraseology used by the Lord during the First Vision to speak about the Restoration.

  • The work of the Lord in these last days, is one of vast magnitude and almost "beyond the comprehension of mortals. Its glories are past description, and its grandeur unsurpassable. It is the theme which has animated the bosom of prophets and righteous men from the creation of the world down through every succeeding generation to the present time; and it is truly the dispensation of the fullness of times, when all things which are in Christ Jesus, whether in heaven or on the earth, shall be gathered together in Him, and when all things shall be restored, as spoken of by all the holy prophets since the world began".[36]
  • "I . . . hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began".[37]
  • "in the last days, . . . that which shall precede the coming of the Son of Man, and the restitution of all things spoken of by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began".[38]
  • "the great purposes of God are hastening to their accomplishment and the things spoken of in the prophets are fulfilling, as the kingdom of God is established on the earth, and the ancient order of things restored"[39]
  • "when the purposes of God shall be accomplished: when ‘the Lord shall be King over the whole earth,’ and ‘Jerusalem His throne.’ ‘The law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ This is the only thing that can bring about the ‘restitution of all things spoken of by all the holy Prophets since the world was’—‘the dispensation of the fullness of times, when God shall gather together all things in one’."[40]
  • "the last dispensation, . . . bringing to pass the restoration spoken of by the mouth of all the Holy Prophets . . . . the restitution of all things spoken of by the holy Prophets be brought to pass".[41]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith join the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches between 1820 and 1830 despite the claim made in his 1838 history that he was forbidden by Deity from joining any denomination?

Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim

Three of the primary sources that charge Joseph Smith with joining sectarian churches between 1820 and 1830 were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, over a half-century after the First Vision. None of the three are contemporary records; the earliest one was written 50 years after the First Vision took place.

  • Fayette Lapham claimed that Joseph had joined the Baptist Church.
  • Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church.
  • S.F. Anderick claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Presbyterian Church.

We must note too that none of these sources confirms the others—they all discuss different denominations and different time frames. Thus, the stories are not mutually reinforcing.

Eyewitness reminiscences and contemporary records provide strong evidence that these claims are not valid and, therefore, do not reflect historical reality. The three sources are all late, and all from hostile voices.

Did Joseph Smith become a baptized member of the Baptist Church in 1822?

Fayette Lapham claimed to have learned this from Joseph Smith, Sr. 50 years after the First Vision had occurred

Fayette Lapham claimed to have interviewed Joseph Smith Sr. in 1829-30, and published a report forty years later. In it, he reported:

About this time [1822, perhaps as late as 1824] he [Joseph, Jr.] became concerned as to his future state of existence, and was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.[42]

There are no records to support the claim that Joseph joined the Baptist Church

The Lapham source is secondhand at best—putting forward information that reportedly came from the Prophet's father. There are no records beyond this late, second-hand recollection to support this claim.

Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

In 1879, 59 years after the First Vision, Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church while translating the Book of Mormon

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.—It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[43]

There is a difference between attending Methodist services and formally joining the Methodist Church

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

Joseph Lewis described himself as one of the "official members", indicating the Joseph was not a member of the church

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.

Did Joseph Smith join the Presbyterian Church after the First Vision?

S.F. Anderick claimed in 1887, 67 years after the First Vision, that Joseph Smith had joined the Presbyterian Church in the 1820s

S.F. Anderick (1887):

When Jo[seph Smith] joined the Presbyterian Church, in Palmyra village, it caused much talk and surprise, as he claimed to receive revelations from the Lord.[44]

Joseph likely attended the Presbyterian Church with his family, but no record exists of him being an actual member of the congregation

As Dan Vogel notes, "Because Lucy Smith and three of her older children joined the Presbyterian Church, together with the possibility that Joseph Jr. may have attended some meetings with other family members, some observers may have assumed Joseph Jr. was also a member."[45] (Vogel notes that Lorenzo Saunders claimed in 1884 that he attended Sunday School with Joseph at the Presbyterian Church, and so that attendance (without formal membership) may be the source for this reminiscence.[46]

The Anderick source may simply be recalling an occasion when the young Prophet attended a church service with his Presbyterian mother and siblings.

Questions: Are there contemporary witnesses that confirm that Joseph Smith didn't join any church after the First Vision?

Eyewitness sources indicated that Joseph Smith was not formally attached to any church, and had rejected all of them

The eyewitness sources that follow below indicate that up until the time that Joseph Smith announced the existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his family (23 September 1823) he was not formally attached to any church, but had instead publicly rejected all of them and manifested his desire NOT to join their ranks. Some are contemporaneous, others are later remembrances, but the hostile and friendly voices are clear that he had no denominational affiliation.

Reminiscence Around 1820

Pomeroy Tucker (a non-Mormon critic who knew Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York) said that Joseph joined the Methodist probationary class in Palmyra but soon "withdrew from the class" without being converted; announcing that "all the churches [were] on a false foundation."[47] This information corresponds with historical details dated by Joseph Smith at around 1820.

Reminiscence of Fall 1823

Lucy Mack Smith:

Joseph Smith's mother recalled in her autobiography that shortly after her son Alvin died on 19 November 1823 Joseph "utterly refused" to attend church services with the intent to convert, and he made the specific request: "do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time."[48]

As can be seen by the continuing chronological sources which follow, Joseph Smith and his associates were teaching from 1825 to 1832 that the Prophet did not belong to any church between the years 1825 and 1827.

Reminiscence Concerning 1825

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon):

I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man and at that time did not profess religion.[49]

Reminiscence Concerning 1827

Peter Bauder:

In 1827 David Marks (a non-Mormon minister) went to Palmyra and Manchester, New York where he "made considerable inquiry respecting . . . [Joseph] Smith" and learned from "several persons in different places" that Joseph was "about 21 years [old]; that previous to his declaration of having found the plates he made no pretensions to religion."[50]

Reminiscence Concerning 1830

In October 1830 Peter Bauder (a non-Mormon minister) spoke directly to the Prophet. Bauder commented: "he could give me no Christian experience," meaning that he did not belong to any church before his experience with the angel and plates in September 1823.[51]

Contemporary Document - 1830

Observer and Telegraph (newspaper):

Four LDS men from New York state taught that at the time the angel appeared to Joseph Smith (22 September 1823) he "made no pretensions to religion of any kind."[52]

Contemporary Document - 1831

Palmyra Reflector (newspaper):

The editor of a Palmyra, New York newspaper claimed that he has been "credibly informed," and was "quite certain," that "the prophet . . . never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation"—meaning the Book of Mormon, which was made known among Palmyra's residents in the Fall of 1827.[53]

Contemporary Document - 1832

Orson Pratt:

Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson taught on 8 April 1832 that "in 1827 a young man called Joseph Smith of the state of New York, of no denomination [i.e., not belonging to a church], but under conviction, inquired of the Lord . . . [and] an angel [appeared to him] . . . who gave information where the plates were deposited."[54] Pratt clarified in a much later statement that between 1820 and 1823 Joseph Smith "was not a member of any church."[55]

Thus, a great deal of contemporary evidence disproves the late, second hand claims.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Primary Sources

  • Baptist: Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  • Methodist:
    • Hiel Lewis, "That Mormon History. Reply to Elder Cadwell," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (6 August 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:314–316.
    • Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  • Presbyterian: Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.

New Dispensation?

Why doesn't Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account mention a "new dispensation"?

The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation

One critical author states, "Joseph [Smith] added new elements to his later narratives that are not hinted at in his earlier ones. His first vision evolved from a forgiveness epiphany [1832 account] to a call from God the Father and Jesus Christ to restore the true order of things [1842 account]."

Taken altogether, the above information reveals that Joseph Smith considered his initial calling to have come directly from Deity in the Sacred Grove in 1820—not at some later time. The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation.

The unsustainable nature of this argument becomes glaringly apparent once the 1832 First Vision account is carefully scrutinized and other historic LDS documents are taken into consideration

In Joseph Smith's 1832 account he plainly states that before the First Vision took place he was of the opinion that "mankind . . . 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." When the Prophet saw Jesus Christ face to face during the First Vision experience the Savior verified what Joseph had previously believed by saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments" (emphasis added).

During the lifetime of Joseph Smith the word DISPENSATION was defined in a popular English dictionary in the following manner: "a system of principles and rites enjoined [or dispensed or bestowed]; as . . . the gospel dispensation; including . . . the scheme of redemption by Christ."[56] As noted above, Jesus Christ informed Joseph Smith that mankind had turned aside from the gospel and no longer kept His commandments. He then issued a directive straight to Joseph Smith by saying, "Walk in my statutes and keep my commandments" (emphasis added). This is clearly a new beginning; the Lord enjoined His ‘system of principles’ or ‘scheme of redemption’ upon Joseph Smith. This act qualifies—by definition—as a new dispensation of the gospel.

Was this early nineteenth-century dispensation of the gospel meant only for the benefit of Joseph Smith? In writing out the 1832 account the Prophet utilized some very specific wording when he said that "the world of mankind . . . . had apostatized" and he mourned for "the sins of the world." In his perspective "no society or denomination . . . built upon the gospel." And when the Lord spoke to Joseph during the vision He emphasized that this situation was on a universal scale saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one." Thus, the 1832 account definitely describes a universal apostasy—and it makes no sense that the Savior would inaugurate a dispensation of His gospel only for the sake of one individual when innumerable humans were in need of salvation.

A glance at the chronological record of history reveals that there is plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that Joseph Smith's call to serve as the leading prophet of the last dispensation came at the time of the First Vision

  • William Smith appears to have heard his brother Joseph Smith state to the entire Smith family on 22 September 1823 that during his First Vision: "that being [i.e., the ‘personage’ in the light] pointed him [i.e., Joseph Smith] out as the messenger to go forth and declare His truth to the world; for ‘They had all gone astray.’"[57]
  • In the Articles and Covenants of the Church - written in April 1830 - Joseph Smith speaks of his being "called of God" (D&C 20꞉2) and shortly thereafter refers to the First Vision/Book of Mormon sequence of events (see vss. 5–6; emphasis added).
  • Joseph Smith recorded a revelation in October 1830 wherein the Lord issued a formal "call" to laborers in His "vineyard" and thereafter utilized distinct phraseology that is found in the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts (D&C 33:3-4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17-18 / compare with the 1835 hymn by William W. Phelps).
  • In the Book of Commandments/Doctrine and Covenants introduction—provided on 1 November 1831—the Lord Himself stated: "Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments" (D&C 1:17; emphasis added). This can be identified as a First Vision text by comparing it with Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and Levi Richards' 1843 record of a First Vision statement made by the Prophet in Nauvoo, Illinois.
  • Lorenzo Snow heard Joseph Smith speak about the First Vision at the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio about 12 November 1831. Lorenzo said that the Prophet "simply bore his testimony to what the Lord had manifested to him, to the dispensation of the gospel which had been committed to him"[58]
  • On 9 December 1834 Joseph Smith's father gave him a Patriarchal Blessing and rehearsed the following information about his son: "The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens: thou hast heard His voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth [compare with the 1832 First Vision account]. . . . Thou hast been called, even in thy youth to the great work of the Lord: to do a work in this generation" (LDS Historian’s Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, pp. 3–4).
  • In October 1835 in Kirtland, Ohio William W. Phelps composed a hymn which reads in part: "When the world in darkness lay, Lo, he [i.e., Joseph Smith] sought the better way, And he heard the Savior say, ‘Go and prune my vineyard [cf. Matthew 20꞉4,7], son! [Matthew 21꞉28]’"[59] This portion of the hymn matches very closely with some of the wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account.
  • "Not long after hearing this [i.e., in 1836], two men came into the town where I was living and called at my father’s house as missionaries. From them we learned the facts of the wonderful message they were bearing to the world; viz., that God, the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith and authorized him to declare to the world the introduction of a new dispensation by which the people might be prepared for the fullness of times."[60]
  • In Orson Pratt's 1840 rendition of the First Vision he reveals more of the details of what was said to Joseph Smith during the First Vision with regard to the gospel [repeated in Orson Hyde/1842 and the Wentworth Letter/1842]. In this source it is stated that Joseph "received a promise that the true doctrine[,] the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him."[61] This certainly qualifies as a call to future action since it would make no sense at all for the Lord to only allow one mortal to possess "the true doctrine"; it would need to be spread by someone.
  • In note C of Joseph Smith's 1838 Church history (written down on 2 December 1842) he states that before the visitation of the angel Moroni in 1823 he had been "called of God"—and he is here referring directly to his First Vision experience.[62]
  • Alexander Neibaur spoke with the Prophet on 24 May 1844 and recorded in his diary: "Br[other] Joseph tol[d] us [about] the first call he had" and then Alexander provided a rough outline of the First Vision story.[63]
  • On 1 January 1845 Elder Parley P. Pratt published a proclamation to the Saints in the eastern states of the U.S. and said, "The people did not choose that great modern apostle and prophet, Joseph Smith, but God chose him in the usual way that He has chosen others before him, viz., by open vision, and by His own voice from the heavens. He it was that called him."[64]
  • Sometime in 1854 an LDS children's catechism was published which asked and answered the following: "Q. When and how was this dispensation commenced? A. About the year 1820, whilst Joseph Smith, who then lived at Manchester, Ontario County, New York, was praying to the Lord to teach him the true religion, the heavens opened over his head, two glorious persons descended towards him, and one, pointing to the other, said, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear him.’"[65]
  • On 14 August 1859 Elder Orson Pratt posed the question, "When, where, and how were you, Joseph Smith, first called? How old were you? And what were your qualifications? I was between fourteen and fifteen years of age. . . . [Y]ou say the Lord called you when you were but fourteen or fifteen years of age? How did he call you?" Pratt then related the First Vision story and said that during this manifestation Joseph was "informed that at some future time the fulness of the gospel should be made manifest to him, and he should be an instrument in the hands of God of laying the foundation of the kingdom of God." Pratt noted that he had "often" heard the First Vision account from Joseph Smith himself.[66] Elder Pratt did not, however, indicate when exactly he first heard the Prophet relate the story – it could have been very early on since they first met in November 1830.
  • On 23 June 1867 President Brigham Young said, "When the Lord called upon Joseph he was but a boy — a child, only about fourteen years of age. He was not filled with traditions; his mind was not made up to this, that, or the other."[67] President Young then related several distinct First Vision story elements. President Young first met Joseph Smith in November 1832 and he never, in any of his speeches or writings, indicated that the Prophet's story of the source and timing of his call ever evolved or varied.

An entry found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism agrees with the quotations provided above. It states with regard to the First Vision: "The Lord spoke face-to-face with Joseph and called him to service."[68]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

When Jesus Christ speaks to Joseph Smith in the 1832 First Vision account, did He say that one receives eternal life regardless of what church they are affiliated with?

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church

all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in Sin...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision

In light of the statements produced by Joseph Smith before he wrote the 1832 quotation of Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove, it is not possible to uphold the claim that the Lord told the Prophet on that occasion that a Christian of any denomination automatically qualified for eternal life (in the LDS understanding of the term).

While it is true that the Lord is quoted in the 1832 First Vision account as saying "all those who believe on my name may have eternal life" it can be seen in an earlier revelation dated 7 March 1831 that those who "believe on [Christ's] name" must also "come unto [Him]" in order to "have everlasting life" (D&C 45꞉5).

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church. Rather, He declares unambiguously in that account that "none" of the existing Christian denominations of the time were keeping His commandments; they had all turned aside from His gospel. From this piece of information alone, it is clear that eternal life could not be made available to them; they were categorized by the Lord as being in a state of "sin" (cf. Romans 5꞉21; Romans 6꞉22-23). In the 1832 text Jesus Christ says to Joseph Smith - "keep my commandments," and in connection with this it can be seen in a revelation dated March 1829 that the Lord informed the Prophet that he could only be granted "eternal life" if he was "firm in keeping the commandments" that Christ gave unto him (D&C 5꞉21-22; cf. D&C 14꞉7; D&C 18꞉8; D&C 30꞉8).

On 1 November 1831 the Lord affirmed to adherents of the LDS faith that there was "only [one] true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (D&C 1꞉30). Earlier—in May 1831—He had spoken specifically to members of "the church that profess my name" (compare with the 1832 document wording) and indicated that only the faithful members of it who endured would "inherit eternal life" (D&C 50꞉4-5). Thus, the blessing of eternal life could not be obtained without complying with certain conditions.

Before Joseph Smith penned the Lord's words that are found in the 1832 First Vision text he clearly understood that:

  • Profession of the Lord's name alone is not sufficient for the reception of eternal life; a person must also "come unto" Him.
  • Eternal life is granted only to those people who keep the Lord's commandments.
  • One of the Lord's commandments is to be baptized by, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through His authorized representatives (D&C 49꞉11-14 / March 1831; D&C 76꞉51-52 / 16 February 1832).
  • There is only one church on the earth that is recognized by Jesus Christ as being His own.

The implication of this last point is that only one church can perform ordinances that will be considered valid in the sight of the Lord. And so a person can only be truly obedient to all of the Lord's commandments by holding membership in His one true Church. Joseph Smith indicated in the introductory remarks of the 1832 history that he had received priesthood authority, from a heavenly source, which enabled him to "administer . . . the commandments . . . and the ordinances".

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

The wrath to come—"mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth"

Why does the 1832 account say that the wicked will be destroyed, but the 1838 account doesn't?

The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents

One discrepancy between the 1832 First Vision account and the official 1838 recital is that it portrays Jesus Christ as prophesying that He will return to earth quickly to destroy wicked mortals. The 1838 story makes no mention of the impending doom of this planet's depraved inhabitants.

The claim that there is a discrepancy between the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts on the point of the Second Coming and destruction of the wicked appears to be a desperate attempt at sowing discord. It is a charge without much substance. The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents.

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents. In the 1832 account the Lord says:

mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them ac[c]ording to th[e]ir 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.

There is, indeed, no reference to this specific prophecy in the First Vision portion of the 1838 document. However, Joseph Smith clearly states in that very narrative that Jesus Christ told him "many other things" during the First Vision that he decided not to write down at that time! Thus, an argument from silence (on the part of the critics) is utterly unconvincing. A close look at the remainder of the 1838 historical text reveals that the angel Moroni did, in fact, speak to Joseph Smith about prophecies of the Savior's return and the destruction of the wicked. The Prophet reports:

[The angel] first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as reads in our books he quoted it thus, 'For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud <yea> and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble, for <they> that cometh shall burn them saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.' And again he quoted the fifth verse thus, 'Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.' . . . . He also quoted the second chapter of Joel from the twenty eighth to the last verse. He also said that this was not yet fulfilled but was soon to be.

The 1832 and 1838 histories present the very same prophecy of the destruction of the wicked at the time of the Lord's Second Coming. The 1832 account portrays the Lord speaking it personally; the 1838 account portrays an angel relaying the words of the Lord as recorded in prophetic, biblical texts. Either way, the message is the same.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (Janaury 2007).

Persecution afterwards—"I could find none that would believe"

nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart about that time my mother and but after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions and it—came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision
∗       ∗       ∗
as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention that he was persecuted for telling others about the vision?

The Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital

Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account does not explicitly say that he was persecuted for relating his spiritual manifestation to others. Some have claimed that this stands as evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time—probably to add a sense of drama. However, the Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital. The persecution is situated squarely between the First Vision experience and the angel Moroni visitations. The documentary evidence presented above demonstrates conclusively that Joseph Smith did not see anything wrong with telling the basic elements of his First Vision story and either giving a passing reference to other elements or leaving them out altogether. Regardless, it was still a record of the very same experience that took place at the Smith homestead near Palmyra, New York.

"My father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Joseph Smith made some remarks in his 1832 First Vision account that have a marked degree of relevance to the argument being put forward by his critics. In relation to the period of time between the First Vision and the appearance of the Book of Mormon angel he said,

  • "I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart"
  • "there were many things which transpired that cannot be written"
  • "my father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Since it is explicitly stated by Joseph Smith that nobody believed his story, it would be unreasonable to assume that all of the responses to it were friendly in nature. In fact, the Prophet says right in this text that before the Book of Mormon angel visited him his family was persecuted and afflicted for some unspecified reason(s). He did not elaborate upon the nature of the "many persecutions" that took place against his family because—as far as this particular document was concerned—he had elected not to write down "many things which transpired."

Documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account

The following documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account strengthens the argument that the 1832 text is referring to some type of persecution that took place because of Joseph's initial spiritual experience.

  • Back "then" (i.e., between 1820 and 1823) Joseph's mind was engaged in "serious reflection" over the notion that he had been the recipient of "the bitterst persecution and reviling" by adherents of religion, simply because he had spoken about his First Vision.
  • Persecution over the vision was also heaped upon Joseph Smith by "irreligious" persons.
  • His words were treated not only lightly but also with great contempt.
  • It was implied that he was a liar.
  • He was told that his experience originated with the Devil.
  • People became prejudiced against him. They spoke "all manner of evil against [him] falsely". He was "hated".
  • The persecution increased over time and even became "severe".
  • Some people tried to get Joseph Smith to "deny" his vision.
  • The Prophet relates: "I was led to say in my heart, 'Why persecute me for telling the truth?'"

This 1838 description corresponds very well with the "many persecutions and afflictions" that are mentioned in the 1832 account. It also matches closely with the 1832 statements that nobody would believe Joseph's story and he reflected upon this adverse situation in his heart.

The persecution aspect of the 1838 account is rarely mentioned in subsequent accounts

It should be pointed out that even though the 'persecution' theme is very pronounced in the 1838 account it is a piece of the story that was not always mentioned or emphasized in subsequent retelling (both published and verbal).

  • It is missing in Orson Pratt's 1840 missionary tract called An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions.
  • It is missing in the Prophet's 1842 Wentworth Letter recital.
  • It shows up again in David White's 1843 newspaper interview with the Prophet where an interesting insight is provided about the reason for the pronounced negative reaction by some of those who heard the story. The Prophet said, "When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since."
  • Rejection, but no outright persecution, is mentioned in Alexander Neibaur's 1844 diary notes. There Joseph is said to have "told the Methodist priest [about the experience], [but he] said this was not a[n] age for God to reveal Himself in vision[. The priest said that] revelation ha[d] ceased with the New Testament."

This last example is especially significant because it is an obvious reference to the Methodist minister who is spoken of in the 1838 History of the Church account. The 1844 rehearsal of events is less detailed but it is, nevertheless, the same exact story. The 1844 document clearly demonstrates that Joseph Smith did not always include an equal amount of story elements in his recitals of the First Vision. Critics of this manifestation should, therefore, not expect any such thing when they scrutinize the pertinent documents. If an element of the story was not known by one particular audience it cannot be automatically assumed that it was not known by another.

Learn more about claims that Joseph Smith's First Vision is impossible because there is no such thing as visions
Online
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Why does Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision mention "many angels?"

Criticisms related to Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision

The capitalized word "Angels" in Joseph Smith's diary entry for 14 November 1835 has given rise to two distinct criticisms by detractors of the faith, and one misguided conclusion by some Latter-day Saints.

Criticism #1 - Critics note that this word is plainly used in reference to the First Vision and thus assume that Joseph Smith did not consistently claim to see Deity during this manifestation and that he therefore contradicted himself.
Criticism #2 - Critics conclude that the official History of the Church was "falsified" when this reference was changed without any notation.
Misguided Conclusion - Some conclude that since the word "Angels" is capitalized in the text Joseph Smith must have been applying this title to Deity.

Both the two personages and "many angels" are mentioned

The mention of "many angels" in the November 9, 1835 diary entry is a clarifying detail. The appearance of the Father and Son are clearly referenced separately from the mention of the "many angels." Since the visit of the Father and Son are acknowledged in the diary entry for the 9th the change from "first visitation of Angels" to "the First Vision" in the History of the Church entry is not a "falsification" of information.

By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?

Joseph referred to his 1820 theophany as the "first visitation of Angels" or the "first communication"

Joseph Smith never actually referred to what we now call the "First Vision" by that name. Instead, he referred to it as the "first visitation of angels" or the "first communication." Joseph also referred to Moroni's visit as "another vision of angels."

  • One critic of Mormonism states that "Who appears to [Joseph] – a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place." [69]
Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 journal entry, which was written by his scribe, describes a visit of two personages. The scribe then goes back and inserts the phrase "and I saw many angels in this vision" between the lines. Image from "Journal, 1835–1836," Joseph Smith Papers off-site

The account that Joseph entered in his journal on 9 November 1835 was a detailed account which clearly describes two personages, as well as "many angels." The account that Joseph wrote just five days later in his journal on 14 November 1835 was a one line summary of the event, which he described as "the first visitation of Angels." Critics of the Church seem to believe that Joseph completely changed his story from "two personages" to "Angels" over the course of only five days. The truth is that Joseph referred to all of the personages that appeared to him as "angels."

The terms "personages" and "angels" were interchangeable

This confusion regarding "angels" versus "personages" is illustrated in a critical "Mormoninfographic".[70] We have illustrated the error by comparing Joseph's journal entries on both days.

Mormoninfographic.error.1835-2.jpg

What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #19: The Visionary World of Joseph Smith

The type of event that we now refer to as Joseph Smith's First Vision was not entirely uncommon at the time

There were at the time people who went to the wood to pray after reading the Bible, and as a result received visions and epiphanies. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992; 2007) noted that "[i]nitial skepticism toward Joseph Smith's testimony was understandable because others had made similar claims to receiving revelation from God."[71] Similarly, the Church's new narrative history Saints (2018) notes that after Joseph's vision when he spoke to the reverend about his vision that "[a]t first the preacher treated his words lightly. People claimed to have heavenly visions from time to time."[72] Visionaries are not that uncommon in environments where people are routinely open to the divine. Even the famous Charles Finney had one. Finney, after retiring to the woods to pray, described the experience:

Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.

Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God's veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God's word, and God's voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me."

That seemed to settle the question that I could then, that day, perform my vow. The Spirit seemed to lay stress upon that idea in the text, "When you search for me with all your heart." The question of when, that is of the present time, seemed to fall heavily into my heart. I told the Lord that I should take Him at his word; that He could not lie; and that therefore I was sure that He heard my prayer, and that He would be found of me.

He then gave my many other promises, both from the Old and the New Testament, especially some most precious promises respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. I never can, in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me. I took them one after the other as infallible truth, the assertions of God who could not lie. They did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.

I continued thus to pray, and to receive and appropriate promises for a long time, I know not how long. I prayed till my mind became so full that, before I was aware of it, I was on my feet and tripping up the ascent toward the road. The question of my being converted, had not so much as arisen to my thought; but as I went up, brushing through the leaves and bushes, I recollect saying with emphasis, "If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel."[73]

Although Finney doesn't claim to have seen any personages, he does describe a communication with God. Joseph Smith describes his experiences in much the same way as others in his environment did.

Joining a church at that time required one to explain one's standing with God to a preacher

Keep in mind that Joseph prayed to find out if his sins had been forgiven. And he discovered that they had. This pleased him greatly. Why did he pray about this matter? The reason is that joining a church at that time often required that one explain one's standing with God to a preacher. We are dealing with Protestant sects. And conservative Protestants believe that one is saved (justified) at the moment one confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So Joseph, as he faced the competing Protestant sects, was deeply concerned about his sins. One had to demonstrate to oneself and also convince a preacher that one had been saved—that is, justified. And there were many instances in which prayers were answered by visions in which the person learned that God had forgiven their sins.

One difference between Joseph's vision and others is that Joseph was told not to join any denomination

The difference between Joseph's experience and many other accounts by visionaries, is that, in addition to being told that his sins were in fact forgiven, he was also told not to join any denomination. When he told that part of his visionary experience, it got him into big trouble with preachers. It was not the vision that was a problem for preachers, but his reporting that he should not join some sect.

So the fact is, contrary to our current way of telling his story, the First Vision was not the beginning of Joseph's call as Seer, Prophet, Revelator and Translator. His vision signaled the beginning of the restoration. It did not begin the work of the restoration.It steered him away from joining one of the competing denominations. It was Joseph's subsequent encounters with Moroni that made him a Seer, and eventually the founding Prophet of a fledgling Church, and not his initial vision, which was initially for him a private event about which he was reluctant to talk, though eventually he dictated some accounts that were found and published during our lifetime. Joseph told a few people about it, word got around, and this caused him much trouble with Protestant preachers.

Neither Joseph nor others at that time offered the First Vision as a reason to become Latter-day Saints

Joseph eventually wrote the account of that early vision late in his life because rumors about it had circulated and caused him difficulty. But neither Joseph nor any of the other early Saints offered that vision as a reason for others to become Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. It was only much later that what we now call the First Vision began to take on a special importance for the Saints. One reason is that Americans soon did not live in a visionary environment. The great Charles Dickens, writing in England, explained why. He called Joseph Smith vision an absurdity—"seeing visions in the age of railways."

Wilford Woodruff came into the Church of Jesus Christ because he had known earlier in his life someone he believed was a prophet who had alerted him to the soon to be restoration of primitive Christianity. This remarkable story, which was included in the lesson manual on President Woodruff, illustrates the visionary world in which Joseph was raised. Though there were a few—one or two—instances in which the visionary reported encounters with two heavenly messengers, it was most often God the Son who they reported appearing to them.

But there have been and still are peoples not impacted by post-enlightenment skepticism about divine things who are open to visions and other dramatic encounters with the divine, though they often do not speak in public about such things, since they tend to see them as strictly private blessings and not something about which one ought to be gossiping and boasting.

The establishment of the restored Church of Jesus Christ began with the Book of Mormon

The first missionaries in the Church used The Book of Mormon, not the First Vision, as a witness that the heavens were open, and that each individual, by applying the promise in Moroni 10:3-5, can receive a direct manifestation from Heavenly Father, through the Holy Ghost, that The Book of Mormon is true. After that testimony is gained, it follows that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, as he brought The Book of Mormon forth and restored the fullness of the Gospel under the direction of the Savior.

The fledgling Church of Christ began with the Book of Mormon, the witnesses to the plates, the restoration of priesthood keys, and not directly with what we call the First Vision, though that initial experience assisted in Joseph avoiding what could be perceived as damaging sectarian contamination. The historical record shows that Joseph never gave any attention to the creeds or arguments of quarreling preachers. This was the purpose served by the First Vision.

How do the accounts of Paul's vision compare to the accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision?

Some Christians accept Paul's vision while rejecting that of Joseph Smith for a variety of reasons. Richard Lloyd Anderson made the following comparisons.

Many Christians who comfortably accept Paul’s vision reject Joseph Smith’s. However, they aren’t consistent in their criticisms, for most arguments against Joseph Smith’s first vision would detract from Paul’s Damascus experience with equal force.

For instance, Joseph Smith’s credibility is attacked because the earliest known description of his vision wasn’t given until a dozen years after it happened. But Paul’s earliest known description of the Damascus appearance, found in 1 Corinthians 9꞉1, was recorded about two dozen years after his experience.

Critics love to dwell on supposed inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s spontaneous accounts of his first vision. But people normally give shorter and longer accounts of their own vivid experiences when retelling them more than once. Joseph Smith was cautious about public explanations of his sacred experiences until the Church grew strong and could properly publicize what God had given him. Thus, his most detailed first vision account came after several others—when he began his formal history.

This, too, parallels Paul’s experience. His most detailed account of the vision on the road to Damascus is the last of several recorded. (See Acts 26:9–20.) And this is the only known instance in which he related the detail about the glorified Savior prophesying Paul’s work among the Gentiles. (See Acts 26:16–18.) Why would Paul include this previously unmentioned detail only on that occasion? Probably because he was speaking to a Gentile audience, rather than to a group of Jewish Christians. Both Paul and Joseph Smith had reasons for delaying full details of their visions until the proper time and place.[74]

Do Greek scholars solve the discrepancies in Paul's vision accounts?

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory

Joseph Smith left several accounts of his First Vision. None of these accounts is identical with any other. As the main page discusses, some critics wish to argue that Joseph's vision accounts are mutually contradictory, and thus that there was no vision.

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory. Yet, the Church's sectarian critics accept Paul's account as true despite the Bible containing apparently frank contradictions in its accounts. While accepting or explaining away these discrepancies, the critics nevertheless refuse to give Joseph Smith the same latitude. Members of the Church have long pointed out that this is a clear double standard, designed to bias the audience against Joseph from the beginning.

Perhaps because of the force of this argument, some critics have begun to argue that no contradiction exists between the versions of Paul's vision.

Some critics have begun to argue that Greek scholarship has resolved the contradiction that exists between the versions of Paul's vision

Author Richard Abanes wrote that contradictions in the stories of Paul's vision were

long ago resolved by scholars analyzing the Greek texts. The discrepancies in Paul's account involve modern ignorance of the Greek wording used.[75]

In support of this claim, Abanes cites W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words p. 544.

Despite Abanes' claim, Greek scholarship has not resolved this issue. In fact, his use of the scholarship is dated, he ignores contrary views, and does not seem to realize that the Bible text itself (including the Acts of the Apostles) violates his supposed 'rule' more often than it keeps it.

The two verses usually at issue are Acts 9꞉7 and Acts 22꞉9. For example, one Wikipedia editor claims that

"There is no conflict in the three accounts of Paul's vision if you read Acts 22:9 in any version other than the KJV. For instance, in the New American Standard Bible and the New International version, it says that Paul's companions did not "understand the voice"—that is hear what was uttered with understanding."[76]

The debate centers on the word translated "hearing" or "heard" in these verses

Bible version Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Summary

Heard voice, saw no one?

Saw light, heard no voice?

  • Clear contradiction?
KJV

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

  • Clear contradiction?

Abanes' source

The work cited by Abanes is not a recent work of Greek scholarship—it was first published in 1940.[77] In the reference for ακούω, we read:

...the usual word denoting "to hear," is used (a) intransitively, e.g., Matt. 11:15; Mark 4;23; (b) transitively when the object is expressed, sometimes in the accusative case, sometimes in the genitive. Thus in Acts 9:7, "hearing the voice," the noun "voice" is in the partitive genitive case [i.e., hearing (something) of], whereas in Acts 22:9, "they heard not the voice," the construction is with the accusative. This removes the idea of any contradiction. The former indicates a "hearing" of the sound, the latter indicates the meaning or message of the voice (this they did not hear). "The former denotes the sensational perception, the latter (the accusative case) the thing perceived" (Cremer).

Abanes' claim

Thus, by this source, Abanes hopes to argue that there can be "no idea of any contradiction":

Factor Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Case

partitive genitive

accusative

  • "Case" is a part of speech, it indicates the role a noun (here, "the voice") plays in the sentence. English does not use cases.
Meaning

One hears the sound

One hears the message

—|-

Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

We have seen Abanes appeal to a source that was more than sixty years old at the time of his writing. Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

Daniel Wallace (a non-LDS, conservative Christian scholar) wrote of this same issue:

...There seems to be a contradiction between this account [Acts 9:7] of Paul's conversion and his account of it in Acts 22, for there he says, "those who were with me..did not hear the voice..." However, in Acts 22:9 the verb ακούω takes an accusative direct object. On these two passages, Robertson states: '...it is perfectly proper to appeal to the distinction in the cases in the apparent contradiction....The accusative case (case of extent) accents the intellectual apprehension of the sound, while the genitive (specifying case) calls attention to the sound of the voice without accenting the sense.'...

The NIV [a conservative Bible translation, the New International Version] seems to follow this line of reasoning....[thus the differences in case] can be appealed to to harmonize these two accounts....(italics in original)[78]

Thus, Wallace is here dealing with the exact verses under discussion, and notes the exact argument which Abanes makes. Does he agree? Let us see:

On the other hand, it is doubtful that this is where the difference lay between the two cases used with ακούω in Hellenistic Greek: the N[ew] T[estament] (including the more literary writers) is filled with examples of ακούω + genitive indicating understanding[79]....as well as instances of ακούω + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place[80]}....The exceptions, in fact, are seemingly more numerous than the rule!

Thus, regardless of how one works through the accounts of Paul's conversion, an appeal to different cases probably ought not form any part of the solution (italics and bold italics in original).[81]

Thus, the New Testament itself does not agree with Abanes' reading. Far from supporting him, Greek scholarship argues against his solution—the Bible has more examples where his supposed "rule" is broken than when it is followed. (Even Acts itself contains three counterexamples!)

It would seem that this approach has been developed by those who wish to maintain the idea of biblical inerrancy in the face of the Greek evidence.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Learn more about multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver's Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith's First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8/4 (6 December 2013). [27–44] link
  • Robert A. Rees, "Looking Deeper into Joseph Smith's First Vision: Imagery, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Construction of Memory," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25/3 (21 April 2017). [67–80] link}
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/5 (2 November 2012). [73–86] link
Video
  • "Multiple accounts of the First Vision," BH Roberts Foundation print-link.
Navigators


Notes

  1. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 53.
  2. Bushman, Beginnings of Mormonism, 53.
  3. The Fredonia Censor, vol. 11, no. 50, 7 March 1832.
  4. Joseph Smith, 1832 vision account; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 1–2.; from MS Joseph Smith, "A History of the Life of Joseph Smith," in Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1-6, Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
  5. (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:42-43.
  6. Joseph Smith, Journal entry, 9 November 1835; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22. from MS Joseph Smith Journal, 1835-36, 193 pp., Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
  7. JS-H 1꞉5-6
  8. E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D.D. (New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1880), 21–22, citing the Aurora Seager diary. This revival was never mentioned in the Palmyra newspapers.
  9. George Peck, The Life and Times of Rev. George Peck (New York: Nelson and Philips, 1874), chapter 2.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  13. Ibid., 193.
  14. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of editor of this article.
  15. Walker Wright and Don Bradley, "'None That Doeth Good': Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14," Brigham Young University Studies 61 no. 3 (2022), 123–40.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 J.B. Haws, "Reconciling Joseph Smith—History 1:10 and 1:18–19," Religious Educator 14, no. 2 (2013): 97–105 (97–98).
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 177.
  20. Ibid., 193.
  21. Walker Wright, unpublished manuscript. Digital copy in possession of FAIR.
  22. Jim Bennett, "A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee,"(2 September 2020).
  23. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 2.
  24. Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.
  25. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22.
  26. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director".
  27. "I am the owner and main contributor to mormoninfographics.com I wanted to thank you or whoever for pointing out the error I had in the 1835 Jewish Minister account. I had mistakenly labeled his age as 17. This has since been corrected. I apologize for the error and welcome any and all input on this or any other infographic. Thank you." (Posted by bjpascoal, on 20 June 2013 - 08:35 PM on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board) off-site The author of "A Letter to a CES Director" subsequently corrected the graphic in the copy of the letter hosted on his site.
  28. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 1–31. off-site off-site Full title GL direct link
  29. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 9–20.off-site.(emphasis added)
  30. See John W. Welch and James B. Allen "Analysis of Joseph Smith's Accounts of the First Vision," Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, 1st ed., John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies Press, 2005).
  31. See for example Stan Larson, "Another Look at Joseph Smith's First Vision," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 37-62 (52).
  32. Robert Boylan, "Psalm 110:1 and the two Lords in the 1832 First Vision Account," (6 October 2019).
  33. Stan Larson, "Another Look," 52.
  34. See the 2006 FAIR Conference address entitled "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories" and its accompanying slides (see links below in the "Video" section).
  35. Gospel Topics Essays "First Vision Accounts" lds.org
  36. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:185. Volume 4 link
  37. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:77–78. Volume 6 link
  38. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:271. Volume 2 link
  39. Times and Seasons 3, 761. off-site GospeLink
  40. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:64. Volume 5 link
  41. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:210–212. Volume 4 link
  42. Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  43. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  44. Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.
  45. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:210n9.
  46. Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by William H. Kelley, 17 September 1884, 1-18, in E.L. Kelley Papers, RLDS Church Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:125-135.
  47. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 17–18.
  48. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1945), 90.
  49. Letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. to John S. Fullmer, 17 February 1843.
  50. Morning Star, 7 March 1833 [Limerick, Maine].
  51. Peter Bauder, The Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ (Canajoharie, New York: A. H. Calhoun, 1834), 36.
  52. Observer and Telegraph, 18 November 1830 [Hudson, Ohio].
  53. “Gold Bible, No. 3,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 12 (1 February 1831): {{{pages}}}. off-site
  54. The Catholic Telegraph, 14 April 1832 [Cincinnati, Ohio].
  55. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:140-141.
  56. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. ""dispensation," definition #4, (emphasis in original)) "dispensation," definition #4, (emphasis in original))."
  57. Saints’ Herald, vol. 30 (16 June 1883): 388; emphasis added.
  58. Deseret Evening News, 20 July 1901, 22.
  59. Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 no. 13 (October 1835), 208.; hymn #26 – 1835 edition; emphasis added.
  60. Samuel W. Richards, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet," Young Women's Journal 18 no. 12 (December 1907), 537–539, (emphasis added).
  61. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), ?, (emphasis added). off-site off-site Full title GL direct link
  62. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), footnote #11 to the 1838 history.
  63. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980 [1971]), 177.
  64. Millennial Star 5 no. 10 (March 1845), 150.
  65. John Jaques, Catechism For Children: Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool, England: Franklin D. Richards, 1854), 76.
  66. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 7:221.
  67. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:68.
  68. Larry C. Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), {{{vol}}}:1512.
  69. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2013)
  70. Image from "MormonInfographics.com".
  71. William O. Nelson, "Anti-Mormon Publications," Encyclopedia of Mormonism Daniel H. Ludlow ed. (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992; 2007) 45-46.
  72. Matthew J. Grow, Richard E. Turley Jr., Steven C. Harper, Scott A. Hales eds., Saints Volume 1 - The Standard of Truth (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 17. The book cites Richard Bushman, "The Visionary World of Joseph Smith," BYU Studies 37:1 (1997-1998): 183–204.
  73. Charles G. Finney, "Memoirs of Charles G. Finney," (1876) 16-18.
  74. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith," Ensign (July 1972).off-site
  75. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 42, 43 (sidebar). ( Index of claims )
  76. Comment made by Wikipedia editor John Foxe on "First Vision" talk page (17 Aug. 2006) off-site
  77. W.E. Vine's M.A., Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940). off-site
  78. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1997), 133. off-site
  79. Wallace gives as examples which contradict Abanes' model: Matthew 2꞉9, John 5꞉25, John 18꞉37, Acts 3꞉23, Acts 11꞉7, Revelation 3꞉20, Revelation 6꞉3,5, Revelation 11꞉12, Revelation 14꞉13, Revelation 16꞉1,5,7, Revelation 21꞉3. Note that two of these examples are even from the book of Acts!
  80. Wallace gives as examples which contradict Abanes' model: Matthew 13꞉19, Mark 13꞉7, Matthew 24꞉6, Luke 21꞉9, Acts 5꞉24, 1 Corinthians 11꞉18, Ephesians 3꞉2, Colossians 1꞉4, Philemon 1꞉5, Jas 5:11, Revelation 14꞉2.
  81. Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 133–134. off-site

Video published by the Church History Department.


Video from FAIR

What differences are there between Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and later accounts?

Religious revival

"this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen"

...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 sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

At what age did Joseph Smith become concerned about religion?

Joseph's interest in religion began when he was 12 years old, after the 1817 revival

Joseph's concern about religion started when he was twelve years old, close on the heels of the revival of 1817. In his 1832 account, Joseph notes that his concern about religion began at age 12 (1817-1818):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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 different denominations led me to marvel excedingly 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... (Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision)

Richard Bushman notes that this "would have been in late 1817 and early 1818, when the after-affects of the revival of 1816 and 1817 were still felt in Palmyra." [1]

Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." There is documented evidence of at least one Methodist camp meeting in the Palmyra area during that period, which only by chance happened to be mentioned in the local newspaper because of a specific death that seemed to be associated with it. In addition, there are newspaper articles talking of large-scale revival activity in the larger region surrounding Palmyra during the same general period when Joseph Smith said that it was taking place.

It is reasonable to assume based upon the facts that the Methodists had more than one camp meeting during this period. This could easily account for the religious excitement in Palmyra that, in Joseph's mind at age 14, began with the Methodists.

From age 12 to 15 Joseph pondered many things in his heart concerning religion

Joseph continues in his 1832 account: "[T]hus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins." In July, 1819, several years after Joseph said his mind became "seriously imprest," a major Methodist conference was held near Palmyra:

[T]he Methodists of the Genesee Conference met for a week in Vienna (later Phelps), a village thirteen miles southeast of the Smith farm on the road to Geneva. About 110 ministers from a region stretching 500 miles from Detroit to the Catskills and from Canada to Pennsylvania met under the direction of Bishop R. R. Robert to receive instruction and set policy. If we are to judge from the experience at other conferences, the ministers preached between sessions to people who gathered from many miles around. It was a significant year for religion in the entire district. . . . The Geneva Presbytery, which included the churches in Joseph's immediate area, reported in February, 1820, that "during the past year more have been received into the communion of the Churches than perhaps in any former year." Methodists kept no records for individual congregations, but in 1821 they built a new meetinghouse in town. [2]

What religious excitement was occurring in Palmyra in 1820?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Methodist camp meetings were being held in Palmyra in 1820

Some claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, contrary to Joseph Smith's claims that during that year there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion...indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it" Joseph Smith—History 1:5 Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country."

Abundant evidence of religious excitement exists to substantiate Joseph’s account. This has been thoroughly summarized by Pearl of Great Price Central. Their analysis may be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

One should keep in mind that Joseph Smith never used the term "revival" in his description - he simply described it as "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion." To a 14 year old who had been concerned about religion starting at age 12 after the 1817 revival, the ongoing camp meetings in the town in which he lived would certainly qualify.

What statements did Joseph Smith make about religious excitement in the area of Palmyra?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #7: Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

Statements from Joseph's history regarding religious excitement when he was a youth

Critics of Joseph Smith claim that no revival is mentioned in the 1832 First Vision account because the actual word 'revival'—or something similar—is not found within the text. But they have failed to notice a distinct pattern of words that demonstrate a definite link between the various First Vision accounts.

7 March 1832

On 7 March 1832 (just a few months before Joseph Smith penned his 1832 First Vision account) some Mormon missionaries in Pennsylvania were saying that during Joseph’s youth he had repented of his sins but was "not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them," and so he resorted to prayer.[3]

September—November 1832

At about the age of twelve years my mind became 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 became excedingly 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 . . . . [A]nd 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.[4]

December 1834

  • During "the 15th year of [Joseph Smith's] life" there was "a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion" in Palmyra, New York and its "vicinity."
  • There was "much enquiry for the word of life"
  • "in common with others, [Joseph Smith's] mind became awakened"
  • "For a length of time the reformation seemed to move in a harmonious manner"
  • "but, as the excitement ceased . . . a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects, for proselytes"
  • "Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches"
  • "Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony . . . and a cry—I am right—you are wrong—was introduced"; "all professed to be the true church"
  • "In this general strife for followers, [Joseph Smith's] mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians"
  • This circumstance gave Joseph "further reflection"
  • He received "strong solicitations to unite with one of those different societies"
  • But "seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth from each, [Joseph Smith's] mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind"
  • His "spirit was not at rest day nor night"
  • Joseph did not want to "profess godliness without its benign influence upon [his] heart" [i.e., 'repenting of sins' theme]
  • He also did not want to "unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one"
  • Joseph Smith felt that there would be "serious consequences of moving hastily, in a course fraught with eternal realities"
  • He believed that "amid so many [denominations], some must be built upon the sand"
  • "In this situation where could he go?"
  • Joseph spent time "reflecting" on a passage of scripture
  • He had a strong "degree of determination . . . relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God"[5]

9 November 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, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind . . . . information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it.[6]

2 May 1838

"multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist . . . . a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; Priest contending against priest, and convert against convert . . . a strife of words and a contest about opinions". . . ."so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations". . . . "the cry and tumult were so great and incessant"; "war of words, and tumult of opinions"; "the contests of these parties of religionists" [7]

When the September—November 1832 First Vision account is compared with subsequent recitals (especially 1838), and one partial previous rendition, it appears that they are all telling the same story: Prior to the First Vision event there were contentions and divisions among the different religious denominations in connection with a revival. It seems, therefore, that the Prophet's handwritten 1832 account does indeed make a passing reference to revival activity.

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals

There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals. For instance, Joseph Smith said that when he was "about the age of twelve years" (23 December 1817—23 December 1818) he became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul. Why did these feelings arise at this point in time? Possibly because there was a Methodist camp-meeting/revival from June 19th through the 22nd, 1818 held in Palmyra, New York.[8]

Joseph Smith pointed to a time period "from the age of twelve years to fifteen" (i.e., between 23 December 1817 and 23 December 1821) when he –

  • applied himself to studying the scriptures
  • noticed the hypocrisy of some persons who claimed to be religious
  • pondered the "contentions and divisions" among men [revival imagery seen in other First Vision accounts]
  • pondered the "wickedness and abominations" and "darkness" of mankind
  • was grieved by what he saw around him; felt to mourn for the sins of the world
  • became "exceedingly distressed" because he felt "convicted of [his] sins" and felt to "mourn" for them
  • did not recognize any religious denomination that followed the biblical pattern completely
  • determined that God wanted to be worshiped in truth
  • decided to pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it.

Some of the themes enumerated above can be matched with the Prophet's other descriptions of things that happened during the revival activity of Palmyra and its vicinity. This matching of themes tends to support the argument that the 1832 text does indeed refer to revival activity.

(1832) "the scriptures . . . they contained the word of God"; (1834) "that record called the word of God"
(1832) "I became convicted of my sins"; (1834) "arouse the sinner to look about him for safety"
(1832) "that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth"; (1834) "All professed to be the true church"
(1832) "society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament"; (1834) "a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation"
(1832) "those of different denominations . . . they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation"; (1834) "they were certainly hypocritical"
(1832) "my mind became exceedingly distressed"; (1838) "my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness"
(1832) "the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind"; (1838) "At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness" or pray

The phrase "I cried unto the Lord for mercy" in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it. Rev. George Peck recounted the happenings at a Methodist camp meeting held on 4 July 1816 in Plymouth, New York. He said that "There was an unbroken roar of fervent supplication all over the ground, while the awful voice of the preacher resounded." One person then fell to the ground and cried for mercy.[9]

Learn more about religious excitement in the time of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Donald L. Enders, "A Snug Log House," Ensign (August 1985), 16.off-site
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
  • D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp-Meeting'," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3 (12 July 2006), PDF link
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Joseph's motivations

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest"

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest 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...
∗       ∗       ∗

"my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations"

...thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy wal and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository...
∗       ∗       ∗

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


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
∗       ∗       ∗

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.[10] 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 ignore 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.'[11]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[12] 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.'[13]

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' [14] 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.

A longer version of this argument is made by Walker Wright and historian Don Bradley in a 2023 paper for BYU Studies.[15]

BYU Studies, ""None That Doeth Good" Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14"

Walker Wright and Don Bradley,  BYU Studies 61/3 (2022)
The First Vision has been a center of both faith and controversy. While millions of Latter-day Saints affirm it as the beginning of the Restoration, others see it as an ever-growing fish tale. The multiple accounts of the First Vision vary in detail, with Joseph Smith’s earliest written account (1832) lacking some of the elements found in his later accounts. However, some of these elements—particularly the ­appearance of God the Father as part of the First Vision experience—are laced throughout Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These historical threads ultimately culminate in his translation of Psalm 14, which weaves together many of the elements supposedly lacking in Smith’s earliest account of the First Vision. But why bring these threads together in Psalm 14? What was its connection with his First Vision? A basic comparison of Psalm 14 with elements of the First Vision shows that elements of this psalm are found in the background of the vision, as Joseph Smith narrated it, and even in the words of Deity spoken within the vision itself.

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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. [Is this a veiled reference to fogiveness of sins? We recall that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Religious confusion

"by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord"

...and 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...
∗       ∗       ∗

Did Joseph Smith decide that all churches were wrong before he received the First Vision?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics 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, 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?[16]

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

Such a claim is a false dilemma, as we will now see.

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.[17] 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.

A close reading 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.'[18]

The late Matthew Brown suggested that Joseph's translation of Psalm 14 took place 'shortly after late July 1832.'[19] 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.'[20]

"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.'"[21] 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... [22]

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.[16]:99–100

Looking at Antecedents

Haws describes another 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."[16]: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 among others. If we presume that Joseph was lying, our hostile reading will lead us to pick this option. If we grant that Joseph might be telling the truth, the other options will not be summarily rejected.

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).[23]

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."[24]

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."[25] 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."

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy"

...therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness...

Why does Joseph Smith state in his 1832 First Vision account that he was in his "16th year" of age?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

Joseph's 1832 account states the "16th year" of his age in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams

In Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision recital he said that he was "in the 16th year of [his] age" when the manifestation took place but in all other accounts in which he mentions his age, he was in his "fifteenth year."

  • Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time, and was thus a fabrication to begin with?

The only First Vision account that provided a different age was the 1832 account written in Joseph Smith's own handwriting. In 1832, 12 years after the First Vision, Joseph wrote, "we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements."

Although the portion of Joseph's 1832 history is in his own handwriting, the text insertion of "in the 16th year of my age" was in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, Joseph's scribe. It is likely that Joseph's dating schemes were slightly off when he dictated his age to Williams, many years afte the fact. There is nothing nefarious in Joseph Smith correcting his own slight mathematical miscalculations.

Two years later, Oliver Cowdery had Joseph's 1832 history in his possession when he began publishing history of the Church in late 1834 in the Latter-day Saints' Messenger and Advocate. Oliver clearly established Joseph's age as 14 ("the 15th year of his life") during the period of religious excitement (although Oliver ultimately never described the actual First Vision at this time). Once the date of the First Vision was correctly established it remained steady throughout all subsequent recitals as the "15th year" or "age 14."

Are the ages stated in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision "all over the place?"

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

All other accounts except the 1832 one state Joseph's age as 14 or that he was in his "fifteenth year"

The ages are not, as one critic states, "all over the place." [26] The only account produced by Joseph Smith that indicated a different age was the 1832 account (age 15 rather than 14, based upon a text insertion above the line by Frederick G. Williams after Joseph had already written his account). All remaining accounts indicate age 14 (the "15th" year).

The only account showing a different age is the 1832 account, which states age 15 rather than 14

In the 1832 account, Frederick G. Williams inserted the "in the 16th year of my age" above Joseph's text after Joseph had already written it. (See: "History, circa Summer 1832," The Joseph Smith Papers)

1832.account.16th.year.png

In the 1832 history, the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact Joseph's dating scheme becomes

The 'one-year-off-the mark' dating anomaly of the 1832 First Vision account can best be understood by taking a look at all of the dates and time frame indicators that are provided within the document. It can then be seen that the farther back in time Joseph Smith goes, the more inexact his dating scheme becomes.

Notice that the date of the First Vision is an above-the-line insertion in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, meaning that it was not placed in the text initially but was added at a later time than the creation of the main text.

(17 years back in time)

"at the age of about ten years my father Joseph Smith Sr. moved to Palmyra" [23 Dec. 1815 – 23 Dec. 1816]

(15 years back in time)

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1818]

(12 years back in time)

"from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart" [23 Dec. 1817 – 23 Dec. 1821]
"while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a pillar of fire" [23 Dec. 1820 – 23 Dec. 1821]
for many days
about that time
after many days

(7 years back in time)

when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord . . . [and an] angel [appeared]. . . . it was on the 22d day of Sept. AD 1822

(5 years back in time)

the plates [I] obtained them not until I was twenty one years of age
in this year I was married . . . 18th [of] January AD 1827
on the 22d day of Sept of this same year I obtained the plates
in December following we moved to Susquehanna

Joseph Smith: "I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements"

We should carefully note that Joseph Smith correctly stated that he was "seventeen years of age" when the angel Moroni appeared to him on 22 September 1823, he got the time of that manifestation wrong by one year. A clue as to why this incorrect date was placed by the Prophet in this historical account can be found right in the 1832 document itself. Near the beginning of the narrative Joseph writes: "being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family having nine children. And as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say [that] I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements". Elder Orson Pratt once asked rhetorical questions of the Prophet to illustrate his meager level of formal education: "Had you been to college? No. Had you studied in any seminary of learning? No. Did you know how to read? Yes. How to write? Yes. Did you understand much about arithmetic? No. About grammar? No. Did you understand all the branches of education which are generally taught in our common schools? No." (Journal of Discourses, 7:220-21). And when Elder Pratt wrote specifically about the First Vision he was even more specific about the level of the Prophet's math skills, saying that he had "a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic." (Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions [Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840],—-).

In the 1838 history, Joseph got the year of his own brother's death wrong

The 1832 history is not the only one where the Prophet made a dating mistake that was one year off the mark. He did the same thing when he created the 1838 Church history, but this time he got the year of his own brother's death wrong. He erroneously remembered that it was 1824 instead of 1823. The significant thing about this particular dating blunder is that four years after the Prophet recorded the initial information he came to the realization that it was not correct and had his scribe, Willard Richards, make the appropriate adjustment. Perhaps the problem with the date was brought to the Prophet's attention by a member of his own family after the information had been printed and made available for public perusal [publication in May 1842; correction in December 1842].

Initial Manuscript Record (2 May 1838)

Alvin (who is now dead)
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin.

Publication ( 15 March 1842 / 2 May 1842)

Alvin, (who is now dead) (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 10, 15 March 1842, 727).
In the year eighteen hundred and twenty-four my father's family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. (Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 13, 2 May 1842, 772).

Post-Publication Manuscript Correction (2 December 1842)

Alvin (who <died Nov. 19th: 1823 in the 25 year of his age.> is now dead) [the last three words are stricken out]
In the year Eighteen hundred and twenty four my fathers family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother Alvin. [this year designation was not corrected by Willard Richards - whose editorial additions and notes end before this point in the manuscript]

A similar type of dating correction scenario, as mentioned above, may have taken place in connection with the 1832 history. Oliver Cowdery claimed that he had the Prophet's help in creating his December 1834 Church history article and despite the fact that he had the erroneously-dated 1832 document sitting in front of him [see paper on this subject] he provided the correct year for the Prophet's First Vision - "in the 15th year of his life" (i.e., between 23 December 1819 and 23 December 1820). And just nine months later the Prophet himself was telling a non-Mormon that the First Vision took place when he was "about 14 years old" (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Is there a case where Joseph stated that his age was 17 rather than 14 at the time of the First Vision?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #8: How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

Some critics think so: One case in which the age in an 1835 account was mistakenly stated as age 17

An image from "mormoninfographics" is in circulation on the internet which mistakenly states that Joseph claimed that he was age 17 when the First Vision occurred. However, this was a misreading of Joseph Smith's 1835 journal entry, which clearly states that Joseph was age 14 at the time of the first vision, and age 17 at the time of Moroni's visit.

An anti-Mormon "mormoninfographic" which attempts to demonstrate that the ages of the first vision accounts are different. Since this was posted, the owner of "mormoninfographics" acknowledged and corrected this mistake by removing all of the ages from this particular graphic. [27]

Why is Joseph Smith's struggle with Satan not mentioned in the 1832 account of the First Vision?

Joseph Smith says in the official Church history account of the First Vision that directly before the theophany occurred he had a struggle with Satan, but this struggle is not mentioned in his 1832 recital of the experience

Is this evidence that this visionary tale evolved over time by becoming more dramatic and elaborate?

The 'struggle' motif is absent from the first known self-written account of the Prophet's visionary experience (1832) but it is also absent from his self-written Wentworth Letter account (1842). It is clear from the available documentary evidence that the Prophet did not feel constrained by the arbitrary rule of his modern critics that he must include every aspect of his First Vision story in every single retelling of it, and no reasonable person should be bothered that he doesn't.

The following timeline displays the 'struggle' material found in First Vision recitals that were produced during the Prophet's lifetime. The corresponding text from the 1832 document is also provided for purposes of comparison.

It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it

Several observations about the information presented below may prove useful.

  • It is obvious that Joseph Smith did not mention the 'struggle' element of the First Vision story every time he rehearsed it - even after the official Church history account was written down (1838) and published (1842). He opted not to speak about that aspect of the story in the Wentworth Letter (1842), in a speech given before the Saints at the Nauvoo Temple (1843), and also when he conducted an interview with a non-Mormon newspaper editor (1843). Yet, he did briefly refer to that part of the story in a subsequent private conversation with a convert (1844).
  • A careful comparison of texts indicates that the Prophet's Wentworth Letter was likely constructed by utilizing the content of Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account pamphlet.[28] But even though Elder Pratt’s account refers directly to the 'struggle' theme, Joseph Smith chose not to include it within the Wentworth Letter.
  • Even after Joseph Smith revealed details about his 'struggle' with the Adversary he did not include some of them in subsequent accounts. For instance, in 1835 he told of hearing somebody walking up behind him but this detail didn't ever appear again in the known recitals. Gathering darkness and the dread of sudden destruction are mentioned in the official 1838 rendering of events but then it disappears and is not seen in any later sources which were produced during the Prophet's lifetime.

September–November 1832

I cried unto the Lord for mercy. . . and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord . . . a pillar of fire [or] light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God.

9 November 1835

I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray. My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed. I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head, which presently rested down upon me and filled me with unspeakable joy.

2 May 1838

I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an imaginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being, just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.

September 1840

He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him.

June 1841

He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

1 March 1842

I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

11 June 1843

he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right.

29 August 1843

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? Directly I saw a light.

24 May 1844

Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself down, his tongue was close[d,] cleave[t]h to his roof—could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile—saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer. . . . the fire drew nigher, rested upon the tree, enveloped him[, and] comforted [him].

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Why does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention two personages?

Although the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared, He is mentioned

The theophany portion of the 1832 account does not specifically indicate that the Father appeared to Joseph Smith together with Jesus Christ. The relevant text (in its original form) reads as follows:

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day c[a]me down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> 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 th[e]ir 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.[29]

Even though the Savior makes a direct reference to the Father there is no indication in this portion of the 1832 document that God appeared to Joseph Smith alongside His Son.

The same pattern exists in the Book of Mormon with Lehi's vision of God on His throne

This type of pattern is seen in the Book of Mormon, translated in 1829: The Book of Mormon begins (1 Nephi 1꞉8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on His throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi—thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.

Is there any reference to God the Father being present in Joseph Smith's 1832 account?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #9: Did Both the Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith in the First Vision?

A significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is associated with the First Vision: "receiving the testimony from on high"

There is a very significant phrase located in the introductory paragraph of the Prophet's historical narrative. There he indicates that the 1832 document is . . .

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brough<t> [it] forth and established [it] by his hand <firstly> he receiving the testamony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel—<—the Law and commandments as they were given unto him—>and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God.

This paragraph not only introduces the document with a heavy emphasis on the Son of God but it also chronologically outlines four inaugural events of the Restoration.

FIRST: Reception of "the testimony from on high"—First Vision
SECOND: The "ministering of angels"—Moroni visitations
THIRD: Reception of the Holy Priesthood to administer the letter of the gospel—Aaronic priesthood
FOURTH: Reception of the High Priesthood after the order of the Son—Melchizedek priesthood

This 1832 phraseology corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove

The significant phrase in the introductory paragraph is the one associated with the First Vision—"receiving the testimony from on high" (spelling standardized). When this phrase is placed in conjunction with the Prophet's 1835 and 1838 accounts of the First Vision it becomes obvious that the 1832 phraseology closely corresponds with the words spoken by God the Father when He introduced His Son in the Sacred Grove.

(1832 ACCOUNT)
firstly . . . receiving the testimony from on high
(1835 ACCOUNT)
He [God the Father] testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God
(1838 ACCOUNT)
[He] said...This is my beloved Son

The Father's identification of Jesus Christ as His Son was His "testimony" of Him.

Critics have objected that—in their minds—the phrase "from on high" cannot be so easily equated with God the Father. But there is a sizable amount of corroborating evidence for this idea. Consider the following points of connection.

  • 3 Ne. 11:3, 5-7 - between April and June 1828

The Father's voice . . . came out of heaven [i.e., 'from on high'] and testified of His Beloved Son.

  • D&C 20:16 - April 1830

Joseph Smith stated, "the Lord God has spoken it; and we . . . have heard . . . the words of the glorious Majesty on high."

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Peter - between 8 March 1831 and 24 March 1832

There are five New Testament scriptures (which Joseph Smith would have been familiar with from his work on the JST) that have distinct parallels to the First Vision story. Jesus Christ's Old World disciples heard the Father's voice come "from heaven" (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; 2 Pt. 1:17-18) [i.e, 'from on high'] or "out of the cloud" (Mt. 17:5) [i.e., 'from on high'] and in each of these instances the Father testified of His Son and employed the same phraseology that Joseph Smith said He utilized during the First Vision

  • JST John 1:18/19 - between 20 November 1831 and 16 February 1832
And no man hath seen God at any time, except he [i.e., God the Father] hath borne record of the Son.
  • 1832 First Vision account - between 22 September 1832 and 27 November 1832
receiving the testimony from on high
  • D&C 93:15 - 6 May 1833
Mention is made of the Father's voice being heard "out of heaven."
  • Patriarchal Blessing - 9 December 1834
When the Prophet received his Patriarchal Blessing on 9 December 1834 he was reminded by the Patriarch (his father) that during his "youth" he had "heard [God's] voice from on high."

Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account

This chronological evidence points to the conclusion that Joseph Smith appears to have equated the voice "from on high" with God the Father both before and after he penned his 1832 First Vision account.

"The Lord opened the heavens and I saw the Lord"

There is another line from the 1832 account that may be referring to two people:

I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord

It has been argued that the seperation of "Lord" into two may be referring to the Lord God [i.e., the Father] and the Lord Jesus Christ. Three pieces of evidence can be used to argue for this interpretation.

  • Evidence #1 - The separation of "Lord" is used in scripture in Psalm 110:1 to refer to two distinct, divine individuals. As John Welch and James Allen have argued, if David can do this, so can Joseph.[30] This connection becomes more plausible when we realize that Joseph would have either recently been working on or completed Psalms in his Inspired Translation of the Bible at this time.

Some critics have taken issue with this evidence for the interpretation—claiming that since Psalm 110:1 was originally written in Hebrew with two different words for Lord (rendering "Lord" and "LORD" in all caps for the second mention) that the argument fails.[31]

Robert S. Boylan has responded by showing how Psalm 110:1 is the most quoted, echoed, and/or alluded to passage in the New Testament which Joseph would have been working on revising in his Inspired Translation of the Bible. He then shows that the revelations in Doctrine and Covenants leading up chronologically to the publication of the history containing the 1832 account of Joseph’s vision deliberately echo that verse (Doctrine and Covenants 20:24; 49:5-6; 76: 20, 23). If Joseph were familiar with that verse close to the publication of the account by way of the Old and/or New Testament and as echoed in his revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants, it seems reasonable to assume that he could have used that verse as a template for rendering his account of events surrounding the First Vision.[32] This is even if one mention is capitalized and the other not. If the structure is deliberate and clear (and it appears so), then it seems odd to be upset that Joseph doesn't use capitals for the second "Lord" he writes about.

  • Evidence #2 - The successive appearance of personages in other accounts (such as the 1835 account).

The 1832 account may be read to have a successive appearance of personages, one after the other. This is strengthened by the 1835 accounts mention of successive appearance. Further evidence of this in the 1832 account may be that Joseph was "filled with the spirit of God" before he mentions "the Lord".

  • Evidence #3 - Joseph used "Lord" to refer to God and not just Jesus Christ in the 1832 account.

Some have argued that the 8 uses of Lord in the 1832 account all refer to Jesus Christ.[33] There are at least three references that may be read otherwise:

A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous [sic] experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand.

A separation of "Christ" and "the Lord." This is able to be read with Christ or the Father as the Lord.

My mind became 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

Joseph may be referring to coming to the Lord (i.e., the Father) and the gospel of Christ.

The third plausible evidence of the Father as Lord is the ending of the account:

My soul was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy. The Lord was with me, but I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.

The reference here is vague enough that it cannot be conclusively read one way or the othe—especially with the just-cited mention of the Lord.

Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in a manner such as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance?

Analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations

Since it can be concluded from the above documentary evidence that Joseph Smith did indeed make an oblique reference to the appearance of the Father in his 1832 history the question becomes—Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in the manner that he did (so as to exclude explicit mention of the Father's appearance)? A careful analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations. The apostle Stephen's view of both the Father and the Son is clearly utilized by the Prophet in one section of the 1832 text but, more importantly, Joseph Smith told the actual theophany portion of this narrative in language that very closely corresponds to the apostle Paul's vision of Jesus Christ (Acts 26).[34] .

The apostle Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son

On this reading, the Father is not explicitly mentioned as making an appearance in the theophany portion of the 1832 First Vision account because Joseph Smith patterned that part of his narrative after the vision of Jesus Christ experienced by the apostle Paul.

Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son, and so it is logical that this is the reason why Joseph Smith did not explicitly mention the Father's appearance in his text either. The Prophet's strong sense of connection with Paul's visionary experience is referred to by him right in his 1838 First Vision account. The context of this connection is the persecution experienced by both men for speaking publicly about a heavenly manifestation. Joseph Smith relates in his 1838 history that he was informed by a clergyman that his vision was "all of the devil." This piece of information may help to explain why the Prophet chose to couch his first known written account of his vision in heavy biblical language and imagery. He may have hoped that by doing this his story would have a better chance of being accepted amongst a populace that was steeped in biblical content.

Gospel Topics: "There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence."

The Gospel Topics Essay touching on the first vision touches on another way of looking at the evidence. It focuses on the awkward repetition of the word "Lord" and how this may have been Joseph's perhaps uneducated way of stating the order of appearance of the personages:

Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw. Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.

There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence. A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness.10 Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.

Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”

Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.” The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.[35]

Read the full article here.

Did any of Joseph's scribes ever say anything about Joseph's story of the vision changing over time?

Joseph's scribe Frederick G. Williams never mentioned anything about Joseph's story "evolving" over time

It is worthwhile to note that the scribe for the material which directly precedes and follows after the 1832 First Vision narrative—Frederick G. Williams—never mentioned anything about Joseph Smith's story evolving over time and becoming more elaborate with the so-called 'addition' of the Father.

Williams was a resident of Quincy, Illinois when the First Vision account which explicitly refers to the Father was published in Nauvoo, Illinois on 1 April 1842. It is known that Williams was with the Prophet in Nauvoo shortly before his death on 10 October 1842 but during the intervening six months there is no known objection from Frederick to the content of the printed text. Why not? Williams was the person who wrote down the words in the introductory remarks of the 1832 document that talk of Joseph Smith receiving "the testimony from on high" during the First Vision. And it is known that Frederick was accompanying four LDS missionaries who, in November 1830, were teaching the citizens of Painesville, Ohio that Joseph Smith had seen "God" personally (see the 1830 statement about seeing "God").

Williams was a member of the First Presidency of the Church on 9 November 1835 when Joseph Smith was teaching a non-Mormon that there were two personages who appeared during the First Vision (see Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835). Frederick probably never drew attention to a so-called 'discrepancy' between what Joseph Smith taught in 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842 because he knew that there wasn't one; he knew that the words of the Father spoken during the vision were referred to right in the text that he had written down in 1832.

Joseph's scribe Oliver Cowdery never mentioned anything about Joseph's story changing

Oliver Cowdery is another person who was in a position to know if the Prophet's First Vision story had changed over time by the addition of the Father. But he never mentioned any such 'discrepancy'. Cowdery had possession of the 1832 First Vision account when he wrote and published a series of Church history letters in December 1834 and February 1835 and so he was fully aware of the explicit mention of Christ's appearance and he also would have known of the introductory remark which refers to "the testimony from on high" being delivered during this event. Cowdery became the Associate or Assistant President of the entire Church on 5 December 1834 (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1653), and thus he would have been in the highest office of Church authority when the Prophet was teaching about one year later that two personages appeared during the First Vision (Joseph Smith diary, 9 November 1835).

Even after both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery became disaffected with Joseph Smith, they never claimed his story of the First Vision had mutated or changed over time

Both Fredrick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery had reason to feel animosity toward Joseph Smith and the Church since they were both excommunicated in the late 1830's. But neither of these men - even after their reinstatements into full fellowship - ever pointed to any 'creative editing' of the Prophet's First Vision story to sound more impressive and dramatic.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Was Joseph Smith's First Vision Vision set in heaven or on earth?

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration

a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Some have seen a discrepancy between the location of Deity in the Prophet's 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts. The 1838 version says that the Prophet saw two Personages standing in the air above the earth, within his proximity. But the 1832 version is not so clear—it seems to locate Deity in heaven.

Details about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience are best interpreted by taking all of the extant accounts into consideration. A myopic focus on a limited number of historical documents can only lead to misunderstanding of the past and a twisted sense of the message that the author is trying to convey.

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures

This so-called 'discrepancy' can be accounted for by the fact that Joseph Smith built his 1832 First Vision account using the framework of 47 biblical scriptures. And at this point in his manuscript he utilized Acts 7꞉55-56 to tell his story. It reads:

But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.

And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

The Greek text that underlies the KJV translation says that Stephen looked into "heaven" (ouranos - 'the sky'; by extension: 'heaven'; also translated as 'air') and saw the "heavens" (the same Greek word - ouranos) opened. Thus, Stephen did not necessarily see Deity in their celestial abode - far beyond the confines of the earth - but rather standing above him in the air.

When Joseph Smith says in the 1832 First Vision account that he saw the Lord after the "heavens" (he uses the plural form) were opened he seems to be expressing the same idea that is found in the New Testament text.

Notice that the physical proximity of the Personages is established in the Prophet's 1835 recital: the pillar of fire can be physically seen in the air; the pillar of fire physically descends and rests upon Joseph; the pillar of fire has contact with physical objects that surround Joseph; two Personages are seen in the midst of this pillar of fire. Notice also that in the 1844 account the Prophet indicates that he could see with his natural eyesight the pillar "toward heaven", or up in the air. A glance at the 1840 account also shows that the phrase "in the heavens above" simply means "a considerable distance" up in the sky - it is not a reference to the celestial abode of Deity.

1832

  • a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.

1835

A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.

1838

I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brigtness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. . . . When the light rested upon me I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.

1840

he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages.

1842

while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.

1843

Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage.

1844

saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire . . . the fire drew nigher, Rested upon the tree, enveloped him comforted.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

Joining other churches—"thy sins are forgiven thee"

saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does the 1832 account of the First Vision not prohibit Joseph from joining any church?

The 1832 First Vision account does not portray the Lord giving Joseph Smith an injunction against joining any church

The 1832 account of the First Vision does not portray the Lord as announcing that all the creeds were corrupt. These details do not show up until the 1838 account. Is this evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time?

The claim that Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision story does not contain a divine injunction against joining any churches does not take evidence within the document itself into proper consideration. The information is implicit instead of explicit, but it is there nevertheless. This point cannot be legitimately used as evidence of an evolving storyline.

Joseph went to pray in the grove because he had concluded that the behavior of the churches was not in accordance with the Bible

A quick look at the 1832 First Vision text reveals how untenable this claim is. Joseph Smith states that before he went into the woods to pray he had concluded in his own mind that "those of different denominations [which he was personally acquainted with]. . . did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what [he] found contained in [the Bible] . . . . [There were] contentions and divisions [among them] . . . . [T]hey had apostatised 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."

Jesus Christ informed Joseph in the 1832 account that "they draw near to me with their lips while their hears are far from me"

Then, when Jesus Christ Himself made a personal appearance to Joseph in the grove, He informed the young boy that -

"the world lieth in sin 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 and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir 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"

To summarize:

  • Joseph Smith could not find a church that he thought was adhering to biblical teachings.
  • Jesus Christ confirmed Joseph Smith's observation by saying that the entire world was in a sinful, ungodly condition; they did not keep divine commandments; they had turned aside from the gospel—"not one" person was doing good in His estimation.
  • Jesus Christ said that those who professed Christianity were in a state of hypocrisy.
  • Jesus Christ said that He was angry with the inhabitants of the earth and was contemplating their punishment.

This is an unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the denominations would be unacceptable

How can critics possibly see this as anything other than a forceful and unambiguous indication on the Lord's part that joining any of the Christian denominations would be an unacceptable path for Joseph to take? Notice in the remainder of the 1832 text that Joseph says he felt great joy and love because of his experience and pondered the things which he had seen and heard during the vision . . . but during an interval of several years he did NOT join any church. Why?

As the 1832 text so plainly says—Joseph Smith believed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Jesus Christ confirmed that Christians had turned aside from the gospel; Joseph was therefore provided with a set of golden plates that contained writings which were "engrave[d] by . . . the servants of the living God." The 1832 account speaks three times of the "work" that God wanted Joseph Smith to do, while the 1838 account explicitly connects this "work" with the bringing forth of "the everlasting gospel." The 1842 First Vision account ties all of these themes together. There the Prophet relates: "I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me."

Jesus Christ said that He would bring to pass "that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles"

Another indication from the 1832 document that Joseph Smith knew from the First Vision event that he should not join any of the churches can be found in something the Savior said to him. Jesus Christ explained that He was going to take action against the situation the world was currently in by "bring[ing] to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles." What did this statement mean? In a canonized text written at approximately the same time as the 1832 First Vision account (September 1832) the following phraseology is found:

  1. A revelation of Jesus Christ unto his servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders, as they united their hearts and lifted their voices on high.
  2. Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints . . . . (D&C 84꞉1-2).

The Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church

In other words, the Lord was telling Joseph Smith during the First Vision about the coming Restoration and so there would not be any need for him to join an existing church. This viewpoint is bolstered by several instances where the Prophet utilized the same phraseology used by the Lord during the First Vision to speak about the Restoration.

  • The work of the Lord in these last days, is one of vast magnitude and almost "beyond the comprehension of mortals. Its glories are past description, and its grandeur unsurpassable. It is the theme which has animated the bosom of prophets and righteous men from the creation of the world down through every succeeding generation to the present time; and it is truly the dispensation of the fullness of times, when all things which are in Christ Jesus, whether in heaven or on the earth, shall be gathered together in Him, and when all things shall be restored, as spoken of by all the holy prophets since the world began".[36]
  • "I . . . hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began".[37]
  • "in the last days, . . . that which shall precede the coming of the Son of Man, and the restitution of all things spoken of by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began".[38]
  • "the great purposes of God are hastening to their accomplishment and the things spoken of in the prophets are fulfilling, as the kingdom of God is established on the earth, and the ancient order of things restored"[39]
  • "when the purposes of God shall be accomplished: when ‘the Lord shall be King over the whole earth,’ and ‘Jerusalem His throne.’ ‘The law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ This is the only thing that can bring about the ‘restitution of all things spoken of by all the holy Prophets since the world was’—‘the dispensation of the fullness of times, when God shall gather together all things in one’."[40]
  • "the last dispensation, . . . bringing to pass the restoration spoken of by the mouth of all the Holy Prophets . . . . the restitution of all things spoken of by the holy Prophets be brought to pass".[41]
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith join the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches between 1820 and 1830 despite the claim made in his 1838 history that he was forbidden by Deity from joining any denomination?

Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim

Three of the primary sources that charge Joseph Smith with joining sectarian churches between 1820 and 1830 were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, over a half-century after the First Vision. None of the three are contemporary records; the earliest one was written 50 years after the First Vision took place.

  • Fayette Lapham claimed that Joseph had joined the Baptist Church.
  • Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church.
  • S.F. Anderick claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Presbyterian Church.

We must note too that none of these sources confirms the others—they all discuss different denominations and different time frames. Thus, the stories are not mutually reinforcing.

Eyewitness reminiscences and contemporary records provide strong evidence that these claims are not valid and, therefore, do not reflect historical reality. The three sources are all late, and all from hostile voices.

Did Joseph Smith become a baptized member of the Baptist Church in 1822?

Fayette Lapham claimed to have learned this from Joseph Smith, Sr. 50 years after the First Vision had occurred

Fayette Lapham claimed to have interviewed Joseph Smith Sr. in 1829-30, and published a report forty years later. In it, he reported:

About this time [1822, perhaps as late as 1824] he [Joseph, Jr.] became concerned as to his future state of existence, and was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.[42]

There are no records to support the claim that Joseph joined the Baptist Church

The Lapham source is secondhand at best—putting forward information that reportedly came from the Prophet's father. There are no records beyond this late, second-hand recollection to support this claim.

Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

In 1879, 59 years after the First Vision, Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church while translating the Book of Mormon

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.—It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[43]

There is a difference between attending Methodist services and formally joining the Methodist Church

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

Joseph Lewis described himself as one of the "official members", indicating the Joseph was not a member of the church

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.

Did Joseph Smith join the Presbyterian Church after the First Vision?

S.F. Anderick claimed in 1887, 67 years after the First Vision, that Joseph Smith had joined the Presbyterian Church in the 1820s

S.F. Anderick (1887):

When Jo[seph Smith] joined the Presbyterian Church, in Palmyra village, it caused much talk and surprise, as he claimed to receive revelations from the Lord.[44]

Joseph likely attended the Presbyterian Church with his family, but no record exists of him being an actual member of the congregation

As Dan Vogel notes, "Because Lucy Smith and three of her older children joined the Presbyterian Church, together with the possibility that Joseph Jr. may have attended some meetings with other family members, some observers may have assumed Joseph Jr. was also a member."[45] (Vogel notes that Lorenzo Saunders claimed in 1884 that he attended Sunday School with Joseph at the Presbyterian Church, and so that attendance (without formal membership) may be the source for this reminiscence.[46]

The Anderick source may simply be recalling an occasion when the young Prophet attended a church service with his Presbyterian mother and siblings.

Questions: Are there contemporary witnesses that confirm that Joseph Smith didn't join any church after the First Vision?

Eyewitness sources indicated that Joseph Smith was not formally attached to any church, and had rejected all of them

The eyewitness sources that follow below indicate that up until the time that Joseph Smith announced the existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his family (23 September 1823) he was not formally attached to any church, but had instead publicly rejected all of them and manifested his desire NOT to join their ranks. Some are contemporaneous, others are later remembrances, but the hostile and friendly voices are clear that he had no denominational affiliation.

Reminiscence Around 1820

Pomeroy Tucker (a non-Mormon critic who knew Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York) said that Joseph joined the Methodist probationary class in Palmyra but soon "withdrew from the class" without being converted; announcing that "all the churches [were] on a false foundation."[47] This information corresponds with historical details dated by Joseph Smith at around 1820.

Reminiscence of Fall 1823

Lucy Mack Smith:

Joseph Smith's mother recalled in her autobiography that shortly after her son Alvin died on 19 November 1823 Joseph "utterly refused" to attend church services with the intent to convert, and he made the specific request: "do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time."[48]

As can be seen by the continuing chronological sources which follow, Joseph Smith and his associates were teaching from 1825 to 1832 that the Prophet did not belong to any church between the years 1825 and 1827.

Reminiscence Concerning 1825

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon):

I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man and at that time did not profess religion.[49]

Reminiscence Concerning 1827

Peter Bauder:

In 1827 David Marks (a non-Mormon minister) went to Palmyra and Manchester, New York where he "made considerable inquiry respecting . . . [Joseph] Smith" and learned from "several persons in different places" that Joseph was "about 21 years [old]; that previous to his declaration of having found the plates he made no pretensions to religion."[50]

Reminiscence Concerning 1830

In October 1830 Peter Bauder (a non-Mormon minister) spoke directly to the Prophet. Bauder commented: "he could give me no Christian experience," meaning that he did not belong to any church before his experience with the angel and plates in September 1823.[51]

Contemporary Document - 1830

Observer and Telegraph (newspaper):

Four LDS men from New York state taught that at the time the angel appeared to Joseph Smith (22 September 1823) he "made no pretensions to religion of any kind."[52]

Contemporary Document - 1831

Palmyra Reflector (newspaper):

The editor of a Palmyra, New York newspaper claimed that he has been "credibly informed," and was "quite certain," that "the prophet . . . never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation"—meaning the Book of Mormon, which was made known among Palmyra's residents in the Fall of 1827.[53]

Contemporary Document - 1832

Orson Pratt:

Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson taught on 8 April 1832 that "in 1827 a young man called Joseph Smith of the state of New York, of no denomination [i.e., not belonging to a church], but under conviction, inquired of the Lord . . . [and] an angel [appeared to him] . . . who gave information where the plates were deposited."[54] Pratt clarified in a much later statement that between 1820 and 1823 Joseph Smith "was not a member of any church."[55]

Thus, a great deal of contemporary evidence disproves the late, second hand claims.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Primary Sources

  • Baptist: Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  • Methodist:
    • Hiel Lewis, "That Mormon History. Reply to Elder Cadwell," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (6 August 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:314–316.
    • Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  • Presbyterian: Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.

New Dispensation?

Why doesn't Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account mention a "new dispensation"?

The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation

One critical author states, "Joseph [Smith] added new elements to his later narratives that are not hinted at in his earlier ones. His first vision evolved from a forgiveness epiphany [1832 account] to a call from God the Father and Jesus Christ to restore the true order of things [1842 account]."

Taken altogether, the above information reveals that Joseph Smith considered his initial calling to have come directly from Deity in the Sacred Grove in 1820—not at some later time. The wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account can be comfortably interpreted to mean that he understood this extraordinary event represented the beginning of a new gospel dispensation.

The unsustainable nature of this argument becomes glaringly apparent once the 1832 First Vision account is carefully scrutinized and other historic LDS documents are taken into consideration

In Joseph Smith's 1832 account he plainly states that before the First Vision took place he was of the opinion that "mankind . . . 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." When the Prophet saw Jesus Christ face to face during the First Vision experience the Savior verified what Joseph had previously believed by saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments" (emphasis added).

During the lifetime of Joseph Smith the word DISPENSATION was defined in a popular English dictionary in the following manner: "a system of principles and rites enjoined [or dispensed or bestowed]; as . . . the gospel dispensation; including . . . the scheme of redemption by Christ."[56] As noted above, Jesus Christ informed Joseph Smith that mankind had turned aside from the gospel and no longer kept His commandments. He then issued a directive straight to Joseph Smith by saying, "Walk in my statutes and keep my commandments" (emphasis added). This is clearly a new beginning; the Lord enjoined His ‘system of principles’ or ‘scheme of redemption’ upon Joseph Smith. This act qualifies—by definition—as a new dispensation of the gospel.

Was this early nineteenth-century dispensation of the gospel meant only for the benefit of Joseph Smith? In writing out the 1832 account the Prophet utilized some very specific wording when he said that "the world of mankind . . . . had apostatized" and he mourned for "the sins of the world." In his perspective "no society or denomination . . . built upon the gospel." And when the Lord spoke to Joseph during the vision He emphasized that this situation was on a universal scale saying, "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good; no, not one." Thus, the 1832 account definitely describes a universal apostasy—and it makes no sense that the Savior would inaugurate a dispensation of His gospel only for the sake of one individual when innumerable humans were in need of salvation.

A glance at the chronological record of history reveals that there is plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that Joseph Smith's call to serve as the leading prophet of the last dispensation came at the time of the First Vision

  • William Smith appears to have heard his brother Joseph Smith state to the entire Smith family on 22 September 1823 that during his First Vision: "that being [i.e., the ‘personage’ in the light] pointed him [i.e., Joseph Smith] out as the messenger to go forth and declare His truth to the world; for ‘They had all gone astray.’"[57]
  • In the Articles and Covenants of the Church - written in April 1830 - Joseph Smith speaks of his being "called of God" (D&C 20꞉2) and shortly thereafter refers to the First Vision/Book of Mormon sequence of events (see vss. 5–6; emphasis added).
  • Joseph Smith recorded a revelation in October 1830 wherein the Lord issued a formal "call" to laborers in His "vineyard" and thereafter utilized distinct phraseology that is found in the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts (D&C 33:3-4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17-18 / compare with the 1835 hymn by William W. Phelps).
  • In the Book of Commandments/Doctrine and Covenants introduction—provided on 1 November 1831—the Lord Himself stated: "Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments" (D&C 1:17; emphasis added). This can be identified as a First Vision text by comparing it with Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and Levi Richards' 1843 record of a First Vision statement made by the Prophet in Nauvoo, Illinois.
  • Lorenzo Snow heard Joseph Smith speak about the First Vision at the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio about 12 November 1831. Lorenzo said that the Prophet "simply bore his testimony to what the Lord had manifested to him, to the dispensation of the gospel which had been committed to him"[58]
  • On 9 December 1834 Joseph Smith's father gave him a Patriarchal Blessing and rehearsed the following information about his son: "The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens: thou hast heard His voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth [compare with the 1832 First Vision account]. . . . Thou hast been called, even in thy youth to the great work of the Lord: to do a work in this generation" (LDS Historian’s Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, pp. 3–4).
  • In October 1835 in Kirtland, Ohio William W. Phelps composed a hymn which reads in part: "When the world in darkness lay, Lo, he [i.e., Joseph Smith] sought the better way, And he heard the Savior say, ‘Go and prune my vineyard [cf. Matthew 20꞉4,7], son! [Matthew 21꞉28]’"[59] This portion of the hymn matches very closely with some of the wording in the Prophet's 1832 First Vision account.
  • "Not long after hearing this [i.e., in 1836], two men came into the town where I was living and called at my father’s house as missionaries. From them we learned the facts of the wonderful message they were bearing to the world; viz., that God, the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith and authorized him to declare to the world the introduction of a new dispensation by which the people might be prepared for the fullness of times."[60]
  • In Orson Pratt's 1840 rendition of the First Vision he reveals more of the details of what was said to Joseph Smith during the First Vision with regard to the gospel [repeated in Orson Hyde/1842 and the Wentworth Letter/1842]. In this source it is stated that Joseph "received a promise that the true doctrine[,] the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him."[61] This certainly qualifies as a call to future action since it would make no sense at all for the Lord to only allow one mortal to possess "the true doctrine"; it would need to be spread by someone.
  • In note C of Joseph Smith's 1838 Church history (written down on 2 December 1842) he states that before the visitation of the angel Moroni in 1823 he had been "called of God"—and he is here referring directly to his First Vision experience.[62]
  • Alexander Neibaur spoke with the Prophet on 24 May 1844 and recorded in his diary: "Br[other] Joseph tol[d] us [about] the first call he had" and then Alexander provided a rough outline of the First Vision story.[63]
  • On 1 January 1845 Elder Parley P. Pratt published a proclamation to the Saints in the eastern states of the U.S. and said, "The people did not choose that great modern apostle and prophet, Joseph Smith, but God chose him in the usual way that He has chosen others before him, viz., by open vision, and by His own voice from the heavens. He it was that called him."[64]
  • Sometime in 1854 an LDS children's catechism was published which asked and answered the following: "Q. When and how was this dispensation commenced? A. About the year 1820, whilst Joseph Smith, who then lived at Manchester, Ontario County, New York, was praying to the Lord to teach him the true religion, the heavens opened over his head, two glorious persons descended towards him, and one, pointing to the other, said, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear him.’"[65]
  • On 14 August 1859 Elder Orson Pratt posed the question, "When, where, and how were you, Joseph Smith, first called? How old were you? And what were your qualifications? I was between fourteen and fifteen years of age. . . . [Y]ou say the Lord called you when you were but fourteen or fifteen years of age? How did he call you?" Pratt then related the First Vision story and said that during this manifestation Joseph was "informed that at some future time the fulness of the gospel should be made manifest to him, and he should be an instrument in the hands of God of laying the foundation of the kingdom of God." Pratt noted that he had "often" heard the First Vision account from Joseph Smith himself.[66] Elder Pratt did not, however, indicate when exactly he first heard the Prophet relate the story – it could have been very early on since they first met in November 1830.
  • On 23 June 1867 President Brigham Young said, "When the Lord called upon Joseph he was but a boy — a child, only about fourteen years of age. He was not filled with traditions; his mind was not made up to this, that, or the other."[67] President Young then related several distinct First Vision story elements. President Young first met Joseph Smith in November 1832 and he never, in any of his speeches or writings, indicated that the Prophet's story of the source and timing of his call ever evolved or varied.

An entry found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism agrees with the quotations provided above. It states with regard to the First Vision: "The Lord spoke face-to-face with Joseph and called him to service."[68]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

When Jesus Christ speaks to Joseph Smith in the 1832 First Vision account, did He say that one receives eternal life regardless of what church they are affiliated with?

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church

all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in Sin...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision

In light of the statements produced by Joseph Smith before he wrote the 1832 quotation of Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove, it is not possible to uphold the claim that the Lord told the Prophet on that occasion that a Christian of any denomination automatically qualified for eternal life (in the LDS understanding of the term).

While it is true that the Lord is quoted in the 1832 First Vision account as saying "all those who believe on my name may have eternal life" it can be seen in an earlier revelation dated 7 March 1831 that those who "believe on [Christ's] name" must also "come unto [Him]" in order to "have everlasting life" (D&C 45꞉5).

The Lord does not state in the 1832 narrative that eternal life is available to members of every Christian church. Rather, He declares unambiguously in that account that "none" of the existing Christian denominations of the time were keeping His commandments; they had all turned aside from His gospel. From this piece of information alone, it is clear that eternal life could not be made available to them; they were categorized by the Lord as being in a state of "sin" (cf. Romans 5꞉21; Romans 6꞉22-23). In the 1832 text Jesus Christ says to Joseph Smith - "keep my commandments," and in connection with this it can be seen in a revelation dated March 1829 that the Lord informed the Prophet that he could only be granted "eternal life" if he was "firm in keeping the commandments" that Christ gave unto him (D&C 5꞉21-22; cf. D&C 14꞉7; D&C 18꞉8; D&C 30꞉8).

On 1 November 1831 the Lord affirmed to adherents of the LDS faith that there was "only [one] true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (D&C 1꞉30). Earlier—in May 1831—He had spoken specifically to members of "the church that profess my name" (compare with the 1832 document wording) and indicated that only the faithful members of it who endured would "inherit eternal life" (D&C 50꞉4-5). Thus, the blessing of eternal life could not be obtained without complying with certain conditions.

Before Joseph Smith penned the Lord's words that are found in the 1832 First Vision text he clearly understood that:

  • Profession of the Lord's name alone is not sufficient for the reception of eternal life; a person must also "come unto" Him.
  • Eternal life is granted only to those people who keep the Lord's commandments.
  • One of the Lord's commandments is to be baptized by, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through His authorized representatives (D&C 49꞉11-14 / March 1831; D&C 76꞉51-52 / 16 February 1832).
  • There is only one church on the earth that is recognized by Jesus Christ as being His own.

The implication of this last point is that only one church can perform ordinances that will be considered valid in the sight of the Lord. And so a person can only be truly obedient to all of the Lord's commandments by holding membership in His one true Church. Joseph Smith indicated in the introductory remarks of the 1832 history that he had received priesthood authority, from a heavenly source, which enabled him to "administer . . . the commandments . . . and the ordinances".

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (January 2007).

The wrath to come—"mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth"

Why does the 1832 account say that the wicked will be destroyed, but the 1838 account doesn't?

The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents

One discrepancy between the 1832 First Vision account and the official 1838 recital is that it portrays Jesus Christ as prophesying that He will return to earth quickly to destroy wicked mortals. The 1838 story makes no mention of the impending doom of this planet's depraved inhabitants.

The claim that there is a discrepancy between the 1832 and 1838 First Vision accounts on the point of the Second Coming and destruction of the wicked appears to be a desperate attempt at sowing discord. It is a charge without much substance. The Prophet's own statement about the omission of certain items can be legitimately utilized to account for several differences in the two documents.

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents

This criticism loses its negative effect when it is weighed in the balance against the content of the relevant historical documents. In the 1832 account the Lord says:

mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them ac[c]ording to th[e]ir 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.

There is, indeed, no reference to this specific prophecy in the First Vision portion of the 1838 document. However, Joseph Smith clearly states in that very narrative that Jesus Christ told him "many other things" during the First Vision that he decided not to write down at that time! Thus, an argument from silence (on the part of the critics) is utterly unconvincing. A close look at the remainder of the 1838 historical text reveals that the angel Moroni did, in fact, speak to Joseph Smith about prophecies of the Savior's return and the destruction of the wicked. The Prophet reports:

[The angel] first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as reads in our books he quoted it thus, 'For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud <yea> and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble, for <they> that cometh shall burn them saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.' And again he quoted the fifth verse thus, 'Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.' . . . . He also quoted the second chapter of Joel from the twenty eighth to the last verse. He also said that this was not yet fulfilled but was soon to be.

The 1832 and 1838 histories present the very same prophecy of the destruction of the wicked at the time of the Lord's Second Coming. The 1832 account portrays the Lord speaking it personally; the 1838 account portrays an angel relaying the words of the Lord as recorded in prophetic, biblical texts. Either way, the message is the same.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board (Janaury 2007).

Persecution afterwards—"I could find none that would believe"

nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart about that time my mother and but after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions and it—came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision
∗       ∗       ∗
as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision...

—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
∗       ∗       ∗

Does Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision not mention that he was persecuted for telling others about the vision?

The Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital

Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account does not explicitly say that he was persecuted for relating his spiritual manifestation to others. Some have claimed that this stands as evidence that the Prophet's story evolved over time—probably to add a sense of drama. However, the Prophet's 1832 history of the Restoration talks about persecution in very close proximity to the First Vision recital. The persecution is situated squarely between the First Vision experience and the angel Moroni visitations. The documentary evidence presented above demonstrates conclusively that Joseph Smith did not see anything wrong with telling the basic elements of his First Vision story and either giving a passing reference to other elements or leaving them out altogether. Regardless, it was still a record of the very same experience that took place at the Smith homestead near Palmyra, New York.

"My father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Joseph Smith made some remarks in his 1832 First Vision account that have a marked degree of relevance to the argument being put forward by his critics. In relation to the period of time between the First Vision and the appearance of the Book of Mormon angel he said,

  • "I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart"
  • "there were many things which transpired that cannot be written"
  • "my father's family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions"

Since it is explicitly stated by Joseph Smith that nobody believed his story, it would be unreasonable to assume that all of the responses to it were friendly in nature. In fact, the Prophet says right in this text that before the Book of Mormon angel visited him his family was persecuted and afflicted for some unspecified reason(s). He did not elaborate upon the nature of the "many persecutions" that took place against his family because—as far as this particular document was concerned—he had elected not to write down "many things which transpired."

Documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account

The following documentary evidence from the 1838 First Vision account strengthens the argument that the 1832 text is referring to some type of persecution that took place because of Joseph's initial spiritual experience.

  • Back "then" (i.e., between 1820 and 1823) Joseph's mind was engaged in "serious reflection" over the notion that he had been the recipient of "the bitterst persecution and reviling" by adherents of religion, simply because he had spoken about his First Vision.
  • Persecution over the vision was also heaped upon Joseph Smith by "irreligious" persons.
  • His words were treated not only lightly but also with great contempt.
  • It was implied that he was a liar.
  • He was told that his experience originated with the Devil.
  • People became prejudiced against him. They spoke "all manner of evil against [him] falsely". He was "hated".
  • The persecution increased over time and even became "severe".
  • Some people tried to get Joseph Smith to "deny" his vision.
  • The Prophet relates: "I was led to say in my heart, 'Why persecute me for telling the truth?'"

This 1838 description corresponds very well with the "many persecutions and afflictions" that are mentioned in the 1832 account. It also matches closely with the 1832 statements that nobody would believe Joseph's story and he reflected upon this adverse situation in his heart.

The persecution aspect of the 1838 account is rarely mentioned in subsequent accounts

It should be pointed out that even though the 'persecution' theme is very pronounced in the 1838 account it is a piece of the story that was not always mentioned or emphasized in subsequent retelling (both published and verbal).

  • It is missing in Orson Pratt's 1840 missionary tract called An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions.
  • It is missing in the Prophet's 1842 Wentworth Letter recital.
  • It shows up again in David White's 1843 newspaper interview with the Prophet where an interesting insight is provided about the reason for the pronounced negative reaction by some of those who heard the story. The Prophet said, "When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since."
  • Rejection, but no outright persecution, is mentioned in Alexander Neibaur's 1844 diary notes. There Joseph is said to have "told the Methodist priest [about the experience], [but he] said this was not a[n] age for God to reveal Himself in vision[. The priest said that] revelation ha[d] ceased with the New Testament."

This last example is especially significant because it is an obvious reference to the Methodist minister who is spoken of in the 1838 History of the Church account. The 1844 rehearsal of events is less detailed but it is, nevertheless, the same exact story. The 1844 document clearly demonstrates that Joseph Smith did not always include an equal amount of story elements in his recitals of the First Vision. Critics of this manifestation should, therefore, not expect any such thing when they scrutinize the pertinent documents. If an element of the story was not known by one particular audience it cannot be automatically assumed that it was not known by another.

Learn more about claims that Joseph Smith's First Vision is impossible because there is no such thing as visions
Online
  • Steven C. Harper, "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/2 (12 October 2012). [17–34] link
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Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Why does Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision mention "many angels?"

Criticisms related to Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision

The capitalized word "Angels" in Joseph Smith's diary entry for 14 November 1835 has given rise to two distinct criticisms by detractors of the faith, and one misguided conclusion by some Latter-day Saints.

Criticism #1 - Critics note that this word is plainly used in reference to the First Vision and thus assume that Joseph Smith did not consistently claim to see Deity during this manifestation and that he therefore contradicted himself.
Criticism #2 - Critics conclude that the official History of the Church was "falsified" when this reference was changed without any notation.
Misguided Conclusion - Some conclude that since the word "Angels" is capitalized in the text Joseph Smith must have been applying this title to Deity.

Both the two personages and "many angels" are mentioned

The mention of "many angels" in the November 9, 1835 diary entry is a clarifying detail. The appearance of the Father and Son are clearly referenced separately from the mention of the "many angels." Since the visit of the Father and Son are acknowledged in the diary entry for the 9th the change from "first visitation of Angels" to "the First Vision" in the History of the Church entry is not a "falsification" of information.

By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?

Joseph referred to his 1820 theophany as the "first visitation of Angels" or the "first communication"

Joseph Smith never actually referred to what we now call the "First Vision" by that name. Instead, he referred to it as the "first visitation of angels" or the "first communication." Joseph also referred to Moroni's visit as "another vision of angels."

  • One critic of Mormonism states that "Who appears to [Joseph] – a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place." [69]
Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 journal entry, which was written by his scribe, describes a visit of two personages. The scribe then goes back and inserts the phrase "and I saw many angels in this vision" between the lines. Image from "Journal, 1835–1836," Joseph Smith Papers off-site

The account that Joseph entered in his journal on 9 November 1835 was a detailed account which clearly describes two personages, as well as "many angels." The account that Joseph wrote just five days later in his journal on 14 November 1835 was a one line summary of the event, which he described as "the first visitation of Angels." Critics of the Church seem to believe that Joseph completely changed his story from "two personages" to "Angels" over the course of only five days. The truth is that Joseph referred to all of the personages that appeared to him as "angels."

The terms "personages" and "angels" were interchangeable

This confusion regarding "angels" versus "personages" is illustrated in a critical "Mormoninfographic".[70] We have illustrated the error by comparing Joseph's journal entries on both days.

Mormoninfographic.error.1835-2.jpg

What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?

Pearl of Great Price Central, Joseph Smith - History Insight #19: The Visionary World of Joseph Smith

The type of event that we now refer to as Joseph Smith's First Vision was not entirely uncommon at the time

There were at the time people who went to the wood to pray after reading the Bible, and as a result received visions and epiphanies. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992; 2007) noted that "[i]nitial skepticism toward Joseph Smith's testimony was understandable because others had made similar claims to receiving revelation from God."[71] Similarly, the Church's new narrative history Saints (2018) notes that after Joseph's vision when he spoke to the reverend about his vision that "[a]t first the preacher treated his words lightly. People claimed to have heavenly visions from time to time."[72] Visionaries are not that uncommon in environments where people are routinely open to the divine. Even the famous Charles Finney had one. Finney, after retiring to the woods to pray, described the experience:

Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.

Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God's veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God's word, and God's voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me."

That seemed to settle the question that I could then, that day, perform my vow. The Spirit seemed to lay stress upon that idea in the text, "When you search for me with all your heart." The question of when, that is of the present time, seemed to fall heavily into my heart. I told the Lord that I should take Him at his word; that He could not lie; and that therefore I was sure that He heard my prayer, and that He would be found of me.

He then gave my many other promises, both from the Old and the New Testament, especially some most precious promises respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. I never can, in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me. I took them one after the other as infallible truth, the assertions of God who could not lie. They did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.

I continued thus to pray, and to receive and appropriate promises for a long time, I know not how long. I prayed till my mind became so full that, before I was aware of it, I was on my feet and tripping up the ascent toward the road. The question of my being converted, had not so much as arisen to my thought; but as I went up, brushing through the leaves and bushes, I recollect saying with emphasis, "If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel."[73]

Although Finney doesn't claim to have seen any personages, he does describe a communication with God. Joseph Smith describes his experiences in much the same way as others in his environment did.

Joining a church at that time required one to explain one's standing with God to a preacher

Keep in mind that Joseph prayed to find out if his sins had been forgiven. And he discovered that they had. This pleased him greatly. Why did he pray about this matter? The reason is that joining a church at that time often required that one explain one's standing with God to a preacher. We are dealing with Protestant sects. And conservative Protestants believe that one is saved (justified) at the moment one confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So Joseph, as he faced the competing Protestant sects, was deeply concerned about his sins. One had to demonstrate to oneself and also convince a preacher that one had been saved—that is, justified. And there were many instances in which prayers were answered by visions in which the person learned that God had forgiven their sins.

One difference between Joseph's vision and others is that Joseph was told not to join any denomination

The difference between Joseph's experience and many other accounts by visionaries, is that, in addition to being told that his sins were in fact forgiven, he was also told not to join any denomination. When he told that part of his visionary experience, it got him into big trouble with preachers. It was not the vision that was a problem for preachers, but his reporting that he should not join some sect.

So the fact is, contrary to our current way of telling his story, the First Vision was not the beginning of Joseph's call as Seer, Prophet, Revelator and Translator. His vision signaled the beginning of the restoration. It did not begin the work of the restoration.It steered him away from joining one of the competing denominations. It was Joseph's subsequent encounters with Moroni that made him a Seer, and eventually the founding Prophet of a fledgling Church, and not his initial vision, which was initially for him a private event about which he was reluctant to talk, though eventually he dictated some accounts that were found and published during our lifetime. Joseph told a few people about it, word got around, and this caused him much trouble with Protestant preachers.

Neither Joseph nor others at that time offered the First Vision as a reason to become Latter-day Saints

Joseph eventually wrote the account of that early vision late in his life because rumors about it had circulated and caused him difficulty. But neither Joseph nor any of the other early Saints offered that vision as a reason for others to become Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. It was only much later that what we now call the First Vision began to take on a special importance for the Saints. One reason is that Americans soon did not live in a visionary environment. The great Charles Dickens, writing in England, explained why. He called Joseph Smith vision an absurdity—"seeing visions in the age of railways."

Wilford Woodruff came into the Church of Jesus Christ because he had known earlier in his life someone he believed was a prophet who had alerted him to the soon to be restoration of primitive Christianity. This remarkable story, which was included in the lesson manual on President Woodruff, illustrates the visionary world in which Joseph was raised. Though there were a few—one or two—instances in which the visionary reported encounters with two heavenly messengers, it was most often God the Son who they reported appearing to them.

But there have been and still are peoples not impacted by post-enlightenment skepticism about divine things who are open to visions and other dramatic encounters with the divine, though they often do not speak in public about such things, since they tend to see them as strictly private blessings and not something about which one ought to be gossiping and boasting.

The establishment of the restored Church of Jesus Christ began with the Book of Mormon

The first missionaries in the Church used The Book of Mormon, not the First Vision, as a witness that the heavens were open, and that each individual, by applying the promise in Moroni 10:3-5, can receive a direct manifestation from Heavenly Father, through the Holy Ghost, that The Book of Mormon is true. After that testimony is gained, it follows that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, as he brought The Book of Mormon forth and restored the fullness of the Gospel under the direction of the Savior.

The fledgling Church of Christ began with the Book of Mormon, the witnesses to the plates, the restoration of priesthood keys, and not directly with what we call the First Vision, though that initial experience assisted in Joseph avoiding what could be perceived as damaging sectarian contamination. The historical record shows that Joseph never gave any attention to the creeds or arguments of quarreling preachers. This was the purpose served by the First Vision.

How do the accounts of Paul's vision compare to the accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision?

Some Christians accept Paul's vision while rejecting that of Joseph Smith for a variety of reasons. Richard Lloyd Anderson made the following comparisons.

Many Christians who comfortably accept Paul’s vision reject Joseph Smith’s. However, they aren’t consistent in their criticisms, for most arguments against Joseph Smith’s first vision would detract from Paul’s Damascus experience with equal force.

For instance, Joseph Smith’s credibility is attacked because the earliest known description of his vision wasn’t given until a dozen years after it happened. But Paul’s earliest known description of the Damascus appearance, found in 1 Corinthians 9꞉1, was recorded about two dozen years after his experience.

Critics love to dwell on supposed inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s spontaneous accounts of his first vision. But people normally give shorter and longer accounts of their own vivid experiences when retelling them more than once. Joseph Smith was cautious about public explanations of his sacred experiences until the Church grew strong and could properly publicize what God had given him. Thus, his most detailed first vision account came after several others—when he began his formal history.

This, too, parallels Paul’s experience. His most detailed account of the vision on the road to Damascus is the last of several recorded. (See Acts 26:9–20.) And this is the only known instance in which he related the detail about the glorified Savior prophesying Paul’s work among the Gentiles. (See Acts 26:16–18.) Why would Paul include this previously unmentioned detail only on that occasion? Probably because he was speaking to a Gentile audience, rather than to a group of Jewish Christians. Both Paul and Joseph Smith had reasons for delaying full details of their visions until the proper time and place.[74]

Do Greek scholars solve the discrepancies in Paul's vision accounts?

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory

Joseph Smith left several accounts of his First Vision. None of these accounts is identical with any other. As the main page discusses, some critics wish to argue that Joseph's vision accounts are mutually contradictory, and thus that there was no vision.

Latter-day Saints often point out that the Bible's accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus appear to be contradictory. Yet, the Church's sectarian critics accept Paul's account as true despite the Bible containing apparently frank contradictions in its accounts. While accepting or explaining away these discrepancies, the critics nevertheless refuse to give Joseph Smith the same latitude. Members of the Church have long pointed out that this is a clear double standard, designed to bias the audience against Joseph from the beginning.

Perhaps because of the force of this argument, some critics have begun to argue that no contradiction exists between the versions of Paul's vision.

Some critics have begun to argue that Greek scholarship has resolved the contradiction that exists between the versions of Paul's vision

Author Richard Abanes wrote that contradictions in the stories of Paul's vision were

long ago resolved by scholars analyzing the Greek texts. The discrepancies in Paul's account involve modern ignorance of the Greek wording used.[75]

In support of this claim, Abanes cites W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words p. 544.

Despite Abanes' claim, Greek scholarship has not resolved this issue. In fact, his use of the scholarship is dated, he ignores contrary views, and does not seem to realize that the Bible text itself (including the Acts of the Apostles) violates his supposed 'rule' more often than it keeps it.

The two verses usually at issue are Acts 9꞉7 and Acts 22꞉9. For example, one Wikipedia editor claims that

"There is no conflict in the three accounts of Paul's vision if you read Acts 22:9 in any version other than the KJV. For instance, in the New American Standard Bible and the New International version, it says that Paul's companions did not "understand the voice"—that is hear what was uttered with understanding."[76]

The debate centers on the word translated "hearing" or "heard" in these verses

Bible version Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Summary

Heard voice, saw no one?

Saw light, heard no voice?

  • Clear contradiction?
KJV

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

  • Clear contradiction?

Abanes' source

The work cited by Abanes is not a recent work of Greek scholarship—it was first published in 1940.[77] In the reference for ακούω, we read:

...the usual word denoting "to hear," is used (a) intransitively, e.g., Matt. 11:15; Mark 4;23; (b) transitively when the object is expressed, sometimes in the accusative case, sometimes in the genitive. Thus in Acts 9:7, "hearing the voice," the noun "voice" is in the partitive genitive case [i.e., hearing (something) of], whereas in Acts 22:9, "they heard not the voice," the construction is with the accusative. This removes the idea of any contradiction. The former indicates a "hearing" of the sound, the latter indicates the meaning or message of the voice (this they did not hear). "The former denotes the sensational perception, the latter (the accusative case) the thing perceived" (Cremer).

Abanes' claim

Thus, by this source, Abanes hopes to argue that there can be "no idea of any contradiction":

Factor Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9 Comments
Case

partitive genitive

accusative

  • "Case" is a part of speech, it indicates the role a noun (here, "the voice") plays in the sentence. English does not use cases.
Meaning

One hears the sound

One hears the message

—|-

Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

We have seen Abanes appeal to a source that was more than sixty years old at the time of his writing. Have modern Greek scholars anything to add to our discussion?

Daniel Wallace (a non-LDS, conservative Christian scholar) wrote of this same issue:

...There seems to be a contradiction between this account [Acts 9:7] of Paul's conversion and his account of it in Acts 22, for there he says, "those who were with me..did not hear the voice..." However, in Acts 22:9 the verb ακούω takes an accusative direct object. On these two passages, Robertson states: '...it is perfectly proper to appeal to the distinction in the cases in the apparent contradiction....The accusative case (case of extent) accents the intellectual apprehension of the sound, while the genitive (specifying case) calls attention to the sound of the voice without accenting the sense.'...

The NIV [a conservative Bible translation, the New International Version] seems to follow this line of reasoning....[thus the differences in case] can be appealed to to harmonize these two accounts....(italics in original)[78]

Thus, Wallace is here dealing with the exact verses under discussion, and notes the exact argument which Abanes makes. Does he agree? Let us see:

On the other hand, it is doubtful that this is where the difference lay between the two cases used with ακούω in Hellenistic Greek: the N[ew] T[estament] (including the more literary writers) is filled with examples of ακούω + genitive indicating understanding[79]....as well as instances of ακούω + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place[80]}....The exceptions, in fact, are seemingly more numerous than the rule!

Thus, regardless of how one works through the accounts of Paul's conversion, an appeal to different cases probably ought not form any part of the solution (italics and bold italics in original).[81]

Thus, the New Testament itself does not agree with Abanes' reading. Far from supporting him, Greek scholarship argues against his solution—the Bible has more examples where his supposed "rule" is broken than when it is followed. (Even Acts itself contains three counterexamples!)

It would seem that this approach has been developed by those who wish to maintain the idea of biblical inerrancy in the face of the Greek evidence.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Learn more about multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision
Wiki links
Online
  • Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver's Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith's First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8/4 (6 December 2013). [27–44] link
  • Robert A. Rees, "Looking Deeper into Joseph Smith's First Vision: Imagery, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Construction of Memory," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25/3 (21 April 2017). [67–80] link}
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2/5 (2 November 2012). [73–86] link
Video
  • "Multiple accounts of the First Vision," BH Roberts Foundation print-link.
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