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Differences in First Vision accounts
Revision as of 22:17, 10 April 2022 by DavidSmith (added Main Page and added First Vision navigation templates)
What are the differences in accounts of the First Vision?
Summary: Joseph Smith and others told the story of the First Vision multiple times in multiple settings. This led to some differences between accounts (such as some things being included in one and not included in another), including some minor discrepancies (such as age). This article addresses some of those differences.
First video published by the Church History Department.
- Question: What differences are there between Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and later accounts?
- Question: Why does Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision mention "many angels?"
- Question: By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?
- Question: What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?
- Question: Are the ages stated in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision "all over the place?"
- Question: How do the accounts of Paul's vision compare to the accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision?
- Question: Do Greek scholars solve the discrepancies in Paul's vision accounts?
Question: What differences are there between Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account and later accounts?
"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
offor 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
insteadof adorn ingtheir 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"
"for I become convicted of my sins....I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world"
"by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord"
...and by searching the scriptures I found that
manddid 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...
"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...
"in the 16th year of my age"
"I saw the Lord"
"thy sins are forgiven thee"
"all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life"
"mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth"
"I could find none that would believe"
"I pondered these things"
nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart
about that time my mother andbut 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
Question: Why does Joseph Smith's 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision mention "many angels?"
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.
Question: 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." 
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". We have illustrated the error by comparing Joseph's journal entries on both days.
Question: What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?
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." 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." 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."
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.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Why does Joseph Smith state in his 1832 First Vision account that he was in his "16th year" of age?
- Question: Are the ages stated in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision "all over the place?"
- Question: Is there a case where Joseph stated that his age was 17 rather than 14 at the time of the First Vision?
Question: 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.
Question: 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."
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.
"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."
The debate centers on the word translated "hearing" or "heard" in these verses
|Bible version||Acts 9:7||Acts 22:9||Comments|
Heard voice, saw no one?
Saw light, heard no voice?
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.
The work cited by Abanes is not a recent work of Greek scholarship—it was first published in 1940. 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).
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|
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)
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....as well as instances of ακούω + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place}....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).
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.
- Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2013)
- Image from "MormonInfographics.com".
- William O. Nelson, "Anti-Mormon Publications," Encyclopedia of Mormonism Daniel H. Ludlow ed. (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992; 2007) 45-46.
- 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.
- Charles G. Finney, "Memoirs of Charles G. Finney," (1876) 16-18.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith," Ensign (July 1972). off-site
- Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 42, 43 (sidebar). ( Index of claims )
- Comment made by Wikipedia editor John Foxe on "First Vision" talk page (17 Aug. 2006) off-site
- W.E. Vine's M.A., Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940). off-site
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1997), 133. off-site
- 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!
- 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.
- Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 133–134. off-site