Come Follow Me – Joseph Smith—History 1:1–26
by Steven C. Harper
There is so much more to the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision than is commonly known. Besides the familiar account included in the Pearl of Great Price, there are three other known accounts by Joseph and five known reports of people who heard him tell his experience. As a historian and as a believer, I’m thrilled that Joseph Smith’s first vision is probably the best documented vision of God in history. But some Latter-day Saints are troubled when they learn that there are several accounts of the story.
They worry that the differences in the accounts could prove them to be inauthentic.
“Far from being proof of a fabrication, the differences in the accounts demonstrate the reliability of the account. Depending upon the purpose for telling a story and the audience that will hear it, people choose to emphasize different aspects of the story.”[i]
The quote fits Joseph Smith’s first vision but it was written by a Christian writer about the conversion of Paul. There are three accounts of it in the book of Acts (chapters 9, 22, 26), and like Joseph’s vision accounts they tell a generally consistent story with some key differences. The sources of Joseph’s conversion story are much better documented. We know when each of them was written, where, by whom, and how the scribes knew Joseph’s story. The source material for Paul’s story is comparatively uncertain. We don’t know exactly when Acts was written or how its author knew Paul’s story. The best scholarly estimates say Acts was written a few decades after Paul’s conversion. Joseph’s earliest account of his vision was written about twelve years after the vision, and it’s in Joseph’s handwriting.
The fact that there are multiple accounts of Joseph’s story wasn’t unsettling to me because I learned it from Professor Backman, who wrote the book on the accounts and was thrilled, as a historian and a believer, to have such a richly documented vision of God to study. His motive was to teach me the vision in a way that was true to the historical facts and sustaining of my faith. But there are other motives out there. Other people present the same facts as Professor Backman taught me, but their motive is to undermine faith.
On its face, the fact of multiple and varied accounts is not a problem. In other words, there is nothing inherent in the facts of the matter that ruins faith. Faith in the first vision, or loss of it, depends entirely on what a person decides to do with the facts. Faith in the first vision, or loss of it, is not a matter of knowledge or sincerity. Some people on all sides of this issue are both informed and sincere. Others on all sides are neither. And some on all sides are informed but insincere while others are sincere but not well versed in the facts of the matter. None of those things seem to be the determinant of whether a person has faith in Joseph Smith’s first vision.
The determinant of faith in Joseph’s first vision, or lack thereof, is each individual’s agency. We are not acted upon by knowledge. We act upon knowledge. We exercise our God-given ability to decide for ourselves whether to exercise faith in Him, His Son, and in Joseph Smith as their choice to restore the gospel. I am well-informed about the facts. I have studied the accounts of Joseph’s vision for several years and I find them harmonious and complimentary on the core elements of the story, namely: Joseph craved more light and truth about God and couldn’t find it in the existing churches. He studied the Bible and that inspired him to pray in the woods, where God answered his prayer directly.
Critics counter this claim by highlighting ways the accounts are inconsistent with each other or with other known facts, and some critics claim that Joseph embellished his experience over time. It comes down to deciding whether to trust Joseph or not, and if you want to make that decision based on a consensus view of Joseph’s reputation, you’ll find that Moroni accurately predicted that Joseph’s name would be known for good and evil everywhere on the planet (Joseph Smith-History 1:33). You’ll have to choose whether you can trust him. No one else can make that choice for you.
By predisposition, prayer, and lots of study, I have decided to trust Joseph Smith. I have studied all the accounts of his vision carefully and in context. I have published books about the vision with both academic and devotional publishers. My testimony is that Joseph Smith told the truth, and that those who knew him best believed him most.
Consider why the stakes are so high. Many talks and lessons over the years have emphasized that the vision showed that God and Christ were separate beings. That is true, but it’s not what mattered most to Joseph. It’s not what he wrote in his accounts. What was it about his vision that was most important to him? What was at stake from Joseph’s perspective?
God is forgiving.
“at about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest [p. 1] with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures . . . 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 for I become convicted of my sins and . . . . I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world . . . . 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 and . . . . 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 saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. . . . I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.”
God can fill us with his love.
“I called on the Lord in mighty prayer,” Joseph said, “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down up me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable.” In another account he testified, “my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy.”
God answers anxious, imperfect teenagers without upbraiding them.
Joseph learned that when he was perplexed, distressed, and anxious in a confusing world, he could seek and receive God’s wisdom. When his crisis intensified and Joseph was about to be overwhelmed by despair, he learned that he could choose to call upon God in faith and be delivered from a real but unseen enemy.
That’s what Joseph emphasized. “I had found the testimony of James to be true,” he said, “that a[nyone] who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided.”
What difference does it make if God and Christ are separate, embodied beings if they no longer reveal themselves, if they don’t hear and answer the prayers of anxious teenagers who ask in faith, if they don’t forgive sins or fill us with love and joy? Presbyterians of Joseph’s day believed that God was without body, parts, or passions. Latter-day Saints respond by emphasizing how the vision proves that God and Christ have bodies. But what does it matter if they have bodies unless they also have passions, including redeeming love for us?
All of Joseph’s vision accounts testify of a loving, responsive God and show how we can reach him. They show how an anxious soul can make the courageous choice to exercise faith. Sarah Edwards lived a century before Joseph. She was married to the great Presbyterian preacher Jonathan Edwards, whose most famous sermon explained God’s mercy by emphasizing how abhorrent we are to God, so the fact that he is temporarily sparing us from the pains of the well-deserved hell we will most likely inhabit real soon is evidence of his mercy.
Sarah secretly preferred a different God. She had a deep desire to “call God my Father” and wondered whether she really could. She sought him in private prayer and felt
“the presence of God was so near, and so real, that I seemed scarcely conscious of any thing else. God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness, and mildness, and gentleness, and their great . . .love to me.”
Sarah struggled to communicate, as Joseph would a century later, “the peace and happiness, which I hereupon felt.” It “was altogether inexpressible.”
Sarah Edwards typified many people then and now. Terryl Givens explained, “Long before Joseph Smith offered his first prayer, thousands and millions of people must have yearned, as Sarah did, for the assurance that God was not the severe, distant, impersonal deity of Jonathan Edwards, but the kind, loving, and very personal God that Joseph found in the Sacred Grove.”
That is why Joseph’s first vision is so vitally important. It is the answer to all our prayers, our hopes for God’s acceptance, love, and forgiveness. It is the archetype for seekers everywhere. It reveals the antidote to our fears and anxieties and dilemmas. When Joseph entered the grove, it seemed to his teenage soul as if he were one of very few who could not feel God’s love and forgiveness. Then God filled him with love. Experiencing that love is the reason to choose to exercise faith in the God who revealed himself to Joseph Smith. The Father and the Son who appeared to Joseph are so loving and lovable. They respond to anxious teenagers, forgive their sins, and fill them with love that helps them cope with their fears and frustrations and causes them to rejoice with great joy.
In answer to his simple, faithful prayer, Joseph Smith saw our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ in the woods. After anxiety, perplexity, distress, and guilt, he felt their love, received their forgiveness, and experienced unspeakable joy, and so can you.
More Come Follow Me resources here.
Steven C. Harper is a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has served as an editor of The Joseph Smith Papers, working on volumes in the Documents series and the Revelations and Translations series. He taught religion at BYU from 2002 to 2012 and religion and history at BYU–Hawaii from 2000 to 2001. He earned his PhD in early American history from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (2012), Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants (2008), and Promised Land: Penn’s Holy Experiment, the Walking Purchase, and the Dispossession of Delawares 1600–1763 (2006), as well as multiple published articles on early Mormonism and the early American republic. Two of these were awarded the T. Edgar Lyon and Juanita Brooks awards by the Mormon History Association.