Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith remove the 1832 account of Joseph Smith's First Vision from its original letterbook and hide it in his safe?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith remove the 1832 account of Joseph Smith's First Vision from its original letterbook and hide it in his safe?

It is not known who removed the pages from the book or why, nor is it known when or why they were restored to the book. The removal may have been done by Joseph Fielding Smith, Earl E. Olson, or A. William Lund.

From History, circa Summer 1832 on the Joseph Smith Papers site (click the Source Notes tab):

Photocopy and microfilm images of the book, as well as an inspection of the conservation work now present in the volume, indicate that the text block separated from the binding at some point. Also, the initial three leaves containing the history were excised from the volume. The eight inscribed leaves in the back of the volume may have been cut out at the same time. Manuscript evidence suggests that these excisions took place in the mid-twentieth century. A tear on the third leaf, which evidently occurred during its excision, was probably mended at the time. This tear was mended with clear cellophane tape, which was invented in 1930. The three leaves of the history certainly had been removed by 1965, when they were described as “cut out,” although they were archived together with the letterbook. The size and paper stock of the three excised leaves match those of the other leaves in the book. Also, the cut and tear marks, as well as the inscriptions in the gutters of the three excised leaves, match those of the remaining leaf stubs, confirming their original location in the book. The three leaves were later restored to the volume, apparently in the 1990s. This restoration was probably part of a larger conservation effort that took place, in which the entire volume was rebound, including binding the formerly loose index of letters. The first gathering, which contains the history, was slightly trimmed in connection with this conservation work. The volume shows marked browning, brittleness, and wear. It is listed in Nauvoo, Illinois, and early Salt Lake City, Utah, inventories made by the Church Historian’s Office, as well as in the 1973 register of the JS Collection, indicating continuous institutional custody. [1]

Stan Larson adds more perspective following that of the Joseph Smith Papers team:

Although the editors of the Histories volume of the Joseph Smith Papers do not discuss why the 1832 history was excised, we can speculate about who might have removed the leaves, and why. Because we know that the missing pages were kept in the office safe of Joseph Fielding Smith, it is unlikely that the leaves were removed simply in accordance with the archival practice of separating collectionsbased on content. We can also surmise that one of the senior members of the Church Historian’s Office would have been responsible for the decision to keep the pages separate; it was probably Joseph Fielding Smith himself, but could possibly have been Earl E. Olson or A. William Lund.[2] There are no available records of the reasoning behind the decision to keep the 1832 account from becoming widely known, but the history of denying researchers access to the account suggests some uneasiness about its contents. Some time during the 1940s or early 1950s, Joseph Fielding Smith[3]showed Levi Edgar Young (who was then the senior president of the First Council of the Seventy) this 1832 account of the First Vision. LaMar Petersen, an organist and music teacher by profession but an amateur Mormon historian by avocation, had a meeting with Young on February 3, 1953, and took the following notes:

"A list of 5 questions was presented. Bro. Young indicated some surprise at the nature of the questions but said he heartily approved of them being asked. Sa[i]d they were important, fundamental, were being asked more by members of the Church, and should be asked. Said the Church should have a committee available where answers to such questions could be obtained. He has quit going down with his own questions to Brother Joseph Fielding (Smith) because he was laughed at and put off. His curiosity was excited when reading in Roberts’ Doc. History reference to “documents from which these writings were compiled.” Asked to see them. told to get higher permission. Obtained that permission. Examined documents. Written, he thought, about 1837 or 1838. Was told not to copy or tell what they contained. Said it was a “strange” account of the First Vision. Was put back in vault. remains unused, unknown.[4]"

Thirty-four years later, Petersen wrote his memories of this same episode:

"The most noteworthy [meetings with LDS General Authorities] were six sessions in which my wife and I spent with Levi Edgar Young in 1952. He was forthright in discussing Mormon problems in history and theology, but always in loyal church terms. He told us that he had been defended before the First Presidency by his “buffers”—Apostles [Joseph F.] Merrill, [Charles A.] Callis, and [John A.] Widtsoe. He told us of a “strange account” (Young’s own term) of the First Vision, which he thought was written in Joseph’s own hand and which had been concealed for 120 years in a locked vault. He declined to tell us details, but stated that it did not agree entirely with the official version. Jesus was the center of the vision, but God was not mentioned. I respected Young’s wish that the information be withheld until after his death.[5]"

Even though Levi Edgar Young told LaMar Petersen that he had read the “strange account” of the First Vision, he had been instructed “not to copy or tell what they contained,” and accordingly did not divulge the contents to anyone. However, while not providing any detailed information about this “strange account” of the First Vision, Young did disclose that it described a vision of only Jesus, without any mention of God. Petersen kept this information confidential until Young’s death in December 1963. In early 1964, Petersen told Jerald and Sandra Tanner about this “strange account” of the First Vision. They wrote to Joseph Fielding Smith, asking for an opportunity to see this early account. Joseph Fielding Smith did not know exactly what Levi Edgar Young had told LaMar Petersen, and he refused to let the Tanners see the 1832 history. However, about this same time Joseph Fielding Smith relinquished the three leaves of the excised 1832 history from his private custody within his office safe and transferred it back to the regular Church Historian’s collection. Then he authorized Earl E. Olson, his Assistant Church Historian, to show the newly available leaves to Paul R. Cheesman, a BYU graduate student working on his thesis. Cheesman explained that Olson demonstrated how the pages “matched with [the] edge of the journal to prove location” in the Joseph Smith letterbook.[6] As the result of this assistance, Cheesman prepared a typescript in his 1965 BYU master’s thesis on Joseph Smith’s visions.[7] Later that same year Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner were the first to publish the text of the 1832 account, using Cheesman’s imperfect transcript. Four years later Dean C. Jessee published his important article in Brigham Young University Studies, with an accurate transcript of the text.[8][9]

Jerald and Sandra Tanner made a similar statement in their book Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?:

"Strange" Accounts

For years the Mormon leaders publicly maintained that Joseph Smith told only one story concerning the First Vision. Preston Nibley declared: "Joseph Smith lived a little more than twenty-four years after this first vision. During this time he told but one story--..." (Joseph Smith the Prophet, 1944, page 30)

At the very time that Preston Nibley made this statement the Mormon leaders were suppressing at least two accounts of the First Vision which were written prior to the account which Joseph Smith published in the Times and Seasons. Levi Edgar Young, who was the head of the Seven Presidents of Seventies in the Mormon Church, told LaMar Petersen that he had examined a "strange" account of the First Vision and was told not to reveal what it contained. The following is from notes by LaMar Petersen of an interview with Levi Edgar Young which was held on Feb.3, 1953:

"A list of 5 questions was presented. Bro. Young indicated some surprise at the nature of the questions but said he heartily approved of them being asked. Said they were important, fundamental, were being asked more by members of the Church, and should be asked. Said the Church should have a committee available where answers to such questions could be obtained. He has quit going down with his own questions to Brother Joseph Fielding (Smith) because he was laughed at and put off.

"His curiosity was excited when reading in Roberts' Doc. History reference to 'documents from which these writings were compiled.' Asked to see them. Told to get higher permission. Obtained that permission. Examined the documents. Written, he thought, about 1837 or 1838. Was told not to copy or tell what they contained. Said it was a 'strange' account of the First Vision. Was put back in vault. Remains unused, unknown." [10]

Response to the critical perspective

It does seem very likely that someone from the Church Historian's Office was responsible for the excision of the leafs from the notebook. We don't know exactly who did it, but it does seem reasonable to assume that it was kept in the safe because of a discomfort with the 1832 accounts' content. We can be certain that at least the keeping of the account in the safe wasn't contested by Joseph Fielding Smith. But would this be for entirely nefarious purposes? Not necessarily. We might consider the words of Latter-day Saint historian Richard L. Bushman:

Now the Church Museum is going beyond this one familiar account to draw on multiple accounts of the First Vision. This may surprise some Church members. Not everyone has been aware of the existence of these other records and may be startled to discover that other versions exist. Contemplating what to say to you today, I thought you might be interested in hearing how it came about that we have these other accounts when for so long there was just one. Even more important, how does this new knowledge affect our understanding of Joseph Smith and the Gospel?

The discovery of nine versions of the First Vision is the result of work by historians in response to a challenge from critics of the Church. The standard account found in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church is so rich and interesting that for many years we were content to rely on it alone. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, a number of critics of Joseph Smith, including Fawn Brodie author of a biography of the Prophet, asked why was the account of the First Vision not written until 1838. Brodie thought that so spectacular an event should have been recorded earlier--if it had actually happened. Brodie hypothesized that Joseph Smith made up the whole story in 1838 to reinvigorate belief at a time when many of his followers were falling away. The first vision, she argued, was a fabrication meant to strengthen the faith of his wavering followers.

Church historians of course could not leave that challenge unanswered. They thought Brodie made a weak argument but without evidence of an earlier account, her conjecture might persuade some. And so the hunt was on. The historians began to scour the archives for earlier references to the First Vision. And sure enough, one by one, other accounts began to turn up, one in 1835, another as early at 1832, and others scattered through his life. Brodie’s claim that Joseph had said nothing about the First Vision until 1838 was effectively dispelled. He wrote the first of these accounts in 1832 as a start on a history of the church which he hoped to continue in a daily journal.[11]

We might now consider the words of Stan Larson in conjunction with Richard Bushman's comments here. Could it be that Joseph Fielding Smith, upon learning that Paul Cheesman was writing his work on the First Vision and that faithful historians were trying to answer charges against the Church in the Gospel, surrendered the account knowing that it would be in trusted hands? It's a theory that at the least fits the evidence but to speculate about his motives without explicit evidence can be tricky so this theory should be considered as just that for now, a theory--but a theory that we can use to counter those critics that seek to deliberately assign nefarious motives without evidence to malign past presidents of the Church.

A final question we can deal with is if the discomfort exhibited towards the 1832 account and its supposed mention of only Jesus Christ was warranted. That is discussed more in detail elsewhere on the wiki:

Notes

  1. History, circa Summer 1832, The Joseph Smith Papers.
  2. Robin Jensen, lead archivist for The Joseph Smith Papers Project, confirmed in an informal telephone [to Larson] conversation on December 20, 2012, that this is a plausible scenario.
  3. When Joseph Fielding Smith became president of the LDS Church in 1970, the personal safe in his office was moved into the First Presidency’s walk-in vault. The exact time that the 1832 account was put into the Joseph Fielding Smith office safe and the date that he showed the history to Levi Edgar Young would probably be found in the Joseph Fielding Smith Collection, catalogued as Ms 4250 at the Church History Library Archives. On December 11, 2012 the writer sent to Richard E. Turley a written request for permission to read the diaries (either photocopies or microfilm) of Joseph Fielding Smith from 1930 to 1954, but this request was denied.
  4. Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith’s Strange Account of the First Vision; Also a Critical Study of the First Vision (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., [1965]), 4, with the quotation being based on notes made by Petersen of the interview with Levi Edgar Young. Emphasis is in the original, but that emphasis is probably due to the Tanners, who added the full caps and underlining. Levi Edgar Young was wrong about the date of the “Strange” account of the First Vision, since we now know that it was written in 1832, not 1837 or 1838.
  5. LaMar Petersen, The Creation of the Book of Mormon: A Historical Inquiry (Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press, 2000), xii. Petersen gave the year as 1952, instead of February 3, 1953. Since he had six separate sessions with Levi Edgar Young, these meetings could have covered late 1952 as well as early 1953. The other option is that the 1952 date is an error in the memory of the nonagenarian Petersen.
  6. Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965), 126. Cheesman thought that this six-page account was written about 1833. In a telephone conversation with the writer on December 15, 2012, his widow, Millie Foster Cheesman, stated that in contrast to the complete restriction placed on Fawn M. Brodie (a niece of President David O. McKay), Cheesman was given full access, allowing him to transcribe the 1832 account of the First Vision.
  7. Two decades later Cheesman published his thesis as a hardback book, The Keystone of Mormonism: Early Visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo: Eagle Systems International, 1988).
  8. Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275–94.
  9. Stan Larson, "Another Look at Joseph Smith's First Vision" Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 37-62 (41-43).
  10. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, "Chapter 8: The First Vision," Mormonism--Shadow or Reality?
  11. Richard Bushman, "What Can We Learn From the First Vision" BYU Hawaii Speeches (15 November 2016).