There are different accounts of the First Vision. That surprises some people, which always surprises me in turn. Who tells a momentous, notable story only one time in their life? Additionally, some people are troubled that the different accounts don’t match up exactly, word for word, each time they’re told. But when someone tells the same stories and same jokes in exactly the same way every single time, what does that tell you? That they’re rehearsed. And that can often have a negative connotation. Even the Department of Justice website advises not to memorize your testimony for court because it sounds unconvincing and insincere.
That’s why the four Gospels differ in many areas, but overall tell a coherent story. The sequence of events, phrasing, and finer details are often different—Matthew 1:16 says that Jacob was the father of Joseph, for example, while Luke 3:23 says that Heli was Joseph’s father. None of those discrepancies mean that the Savior didn’t exist or that the events described didn’t actually happen.
Though all four Gospel accounts tell the story of the Savior’s earthly life and ministry, they don’t all give the same information. Matthew skims over the birth of the Savior and doesn’t even mention the Nativity. Instead, he focuses much of his attention on the Wise Men. Mark and John don’t discuss the Savior’s birth at all and jump straight to His baptism. Luke is the only Gospel where we receive the account of the shepherds and the angelic hosts. That doesn’t mean the authors were lying. It just means they focused on different details and messages. There are variations in the accounts of Paul’s vision and Alma the Younger’s vision, too.
I myself had a profound spiritual experience about 14 years ago that I don’t talk about much. It wasn’t a vision, but it left a deep impression on me and things were revealed to me at that time. On the few occasions I’ve discussed this experience, I’ve highlighted different things, combined things, left other things out, etc. Each time I’ve told it to someone, it’s differed from the account I wrote in my journal after it happened.
And in another recent example, George W. Bush and Seth MacFarlane both gave various accounts of their experiences on 9/11 that don’t match up exactly, either. They even had video of their previous interviews they could watch to refresh their memories, but still got some details wrong. That’s simply the way that memory works, especially when it comes to notable experiences that deeply affect us. Even the law makes a distinction between “discrepancy” and “contradiction” because witness statements will often include inconsistencies.
So, there are different ways to approach the same information. Can you look at each of those things described above and decide that they must be lies because the stories don’t perfectly align? Yes, of course you can—and many have. Can you also look at that those same things and conclude that they’re true because they’re largely consistent stories overall? Yep, you can do that, too. And again, many people have done so. Can you also study the accounts with the Spirit by your side, helping you decipher what’s true and what isn’t? Yes. This is my approach, and that of many others.
As the Gospel Topics Essay states, “The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.”
That said, let’s see what the LFMW has to say about the different accounts:
- Multiple Accounts of the First Vision
Josephsmithpapers.org records 4 separate accounts of the First Vision by Joseph between 1832-1842.
Yes, and here they are, along with the corresponding links to the Church’s website in case anyone wants transcripts with proper spelling:
- 1832 account original | 1832 account transcript
- 1835 account original | 1835 account transcript
- 1838 account original | 1838 account transcript
- 1842 account original | 1842 account transcript
You can compare and contrast them for yourselves. Most of them are brief, so don’t let that put you off of reading them. Only the 1838 account is somewhat long, and that’s the one we’re all familiar with.
Earliest account – Joseph Smith’s journal. Letterbook 1A, 27 November 1832:
In his first account written in 1832, Joseph mentions that he had already concluded that the world had apostatized from the faith and that “there was no society or denomination built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.” He then has an encounter with “the Lord,” but makes no mention of two separate personages. Joseph then writes that his sins are forgiven and the Lord agrees with Joseph’s conclusion about the corruption of Christianity.
Just as a point of clarification, Joseph’s wording is that he found there was no society or denomination that matched what he read about in the New Testament, and that his mind was “exceedingly distressed” over it. He didn’t say he concluded it, or determined it, or settled on it, or anything of the sort. It’s something he found, or discovered, and it really upset him. The reason I point out his phrasing is because that doesn’t sound to me as though he’d made up his mind yet. He was still struggling with the question, trying to fully understand what his heart realized.
This entire account is an emotional one that describes the battle between his mind and his heart. Though the other accounts also describe that same battle, and though they describe events that were clearly emotional for Joseph, the language used is different. They’re more rational, more focused on his thoughts than his feelings.
This account was written when Joseph was still early in his transition from uneducated farm worker to devout student of languages and theology. He was still working on the JST during this time. He hadn’t read or considered the deeper doctrine contained in the Book of Abraham, hadn’t yet studied Hebrew or Greek, hadn’t held the School of the Prophets, hadn’t restored the Endowment or work for the dead, hadn’t given the King Follett discourse, etc. He was still learning how to speak to the entire church as its leader. And he was writing down for the very first time an overwhelming experience that brought him and his family pain and derision. For example, Joseph’s sister Katharine described how their oldest sister, Sophronia, became sick and frail because of the way her own friends treated her in the wake of Joseph’s vision being spread around the town.
So, when he says that his mind was “exceedingly distressed” over something he’d “found” in the scriptures, that tells me that he was still grappling to understand it. It wasn’t something for which he’d already made up his mind and accepted in his heart.
As to Joseph’s references to “the Lord,” multiple scholars, including those who wrote the Gospel Topics Essay on the subject, have pointed out that because his uses of that phrase are separated by time and action, it could just as easily be referring to two beings instead of one. As in, “the Lord [God the Father] opened the heavens, and [then] I saw the Lord [Jesus Christ].”
Supporting this is the original handwritten manuscript. If you zoom in and look at the actual written page, what he originally wrote was, “…I was filled with the spirit of god and the opened the heavens….” The word “Lord” was inserted later when he realized he’d skipped it accidentally. We don’t know what Joseph intended the original word or words to be. Maybe it was “Lord,” or maybe it was “he,” referring back to “the spirit of god.” Or maybe it was “the first personage.” Or maybe it even could have been “they.” We don’t know. All we know is that it was later corrected to say “the Lord.” That may have been his original intention, or it may not have been. If you’re going to claim that Joseph later embellished his accounts to include two Gods instead of one based on this passage, that is quite a stretch when you don’t even know what he originally meant to say.
In a recent fireside, Greg Smith proposed a different theory. The typed account on the Church’s website/LDS Tools picks up with the beginning of Joseph’s first-person narration. However, the handwritten accountcontains a third-person preface. This preface lists four things that Joseph experienced: first, receiving the “testimony from on high”; second, the ministering of angels; third, the reception of the Priesthood in order to administer ordinances; and fourth, the confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood and its authority and keys. These come in order of when they were received. First, Joseph received that testimony from on high. Then, he received visits by Moroni and other heavenly messengers. Third, he received the Aaronic Priesthood. And lastly, he received the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Greg looked up what “testimony from on high” meant in various other writings from the beginning of the 19th Century onward. In those accounts, he discovered something interesting. They all pointed to references from the scriptures, such as the Mount of Transfiguration or at Christ’s baptism, in which the Father testified of the Son, saying, “This is My Beloved Son.” We know from two of Joseph’s later accounts that those words were exactly how God introduced the Savior to Joseph. So, according to vernacular from Joseph’s day, the preface of his first account heavily implying that God the Father was present and testified of His Son, Jesus Christ.
However, you might disagree with these theories. To that, I would argue that it doesn’t really matter if Joseph only described the Savior or both the Savior and God the Father. The Savior did the bulk of the talking during the First Vision. Only mentioning Him does not mean that the Father wasn’t also there.
Say you were hanging out with a group of friends, and later, you saw a mutual friend of one of them. You tell that person that the two of you hung out. That’s completely true, even though the statement leaves out the fact that other people were there with you.
Finally, remembering that the 1832 manuscript was an unpolished effort to record the spiritual impact of the vision on him, and that the main content of the heavenly message was delivered by the Son, it is understandable that the Prophet simply emphasized the Lord in the 1832 account. Thus, nothing precludes the possibility that two beings were present.
The next three accounts are all lumped mostly together in the LFMW with very little commentary:
Second account – Joseph’s 1835 account notes that while one of the two personages testifies that Jesus is the Son of God, neither personage is specifically identified as God or Jesus. Also sees “many angels.”
Third account – 1838 (draft 2) account adopted as the official version.
Fourth account – 1842 account from the Wentworth Letter notes two personages; again neither identified as God or Jesus.
The very first thing to mention in response to this is that none of the accounts identify either being as God or Jesus.
In the 1835 account, it says, “A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared, like unto the first. He said unto me, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee.’ He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God.”
In the well-known 1838 account, it says, “When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
And in the 1842 account, it just says, “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 noonday. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.”
From those passages, we can infer that it’s God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, but no account explicitly confirms that.
As for the comment about “many angels,” the amount of First Vision references that refer to “angels,” whether from Joseph or others, is fairly high, as the author himself lays out in his very next point. One notable account he omits is Joseph’s second 1835 journal entry, which discusses his “first visitation of Angels which was when [he] was about 14 years old.” It’s not listed as an official First Vision account since it’s only a passing reference.
Regardless, it was a somewhat common description for the First Vision:
- Contemporary Accounts
It appears that Joseph told the elders of the Church a very different experience than any of his written accounts.
The LFMW then gives quotes from Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, and John Taylor in which they all describe Joseph being visited by “an angel” during the First Vision. I’ll list and comment on each quote in turn, but I wanted to talk about the point as a whole first.
You see, the premise of this section is incorrect for at least three reasons. I’m not saying this to insult Thomas Faulk, but if it’s not meant to be purposely dishonest, it does show a surprising ignorance of both Biblical scholarship as well as LDS Church history for someone who supposedly studied all of this out as a voracious student while writing his list/letter.
The first reason this is a bad argument is because “angel” held a variety of meanings in the mid-1800s. Now, I don’t blame Faulk for not being an expert on American English linguistic history—the vast majority of us aren’t. But that’s why we turn to the handy 1828 Webster’s Dictionary as a reference for how the word was used in Joseph’s day. And what do we find? A definition that says the word could mean “Christ, the mediator and head of the church,” and cites Revelation 10:1 as a reference. What does that verse and chapter describe? A mighty angel coming down from Heaven amid clouds and pillars of fire, carrying a book through which comes the restoration of prophesy to “many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.”
So, if the word was a synonym for Jesus Christ, then all of the different uses of the word “angel” are not in any way contradictory with Joseph’s claims to also have seen the Savior that day. It’s just another way of saying the exact same thing.
The second reason is that the Bible further backs this up. The most common Hebrew word translated as “angel” in the Bible is “ma’lak.” This word has various meanings which are all used in the Bible, including: a messenger or representative (such as a prophet or a teacher like John the Baptist); an angel (a divine messenger who is not God, but has a message for someone from God, such as the Angel Gabriel); and a being who is called the theophanic angel, AKA “The Angel of the Lord,” a being who appears frequently throughout the scriptures and speaks as God, identifies Himself with God, and claims the attributes of God.
By way of explanation, a theophany is when someone has a literal visitation from God, not just a feeling of the Spirit. So, a “theophanic angel” is when God delivers a message to someone while in a human form, as opposed to a cloud of smoke or a burning bush. Most Biblical scholars define the Angel of the Lord as exactly that, a manifestation of Jehovah Himself.
The “Malak Yahweh,” as he is sometimes called, is a figure that was described by many pre-Christian Jews and was “a divine figure, properly denominated Yahweh, but nonetheless distinct from another called Yahweh. The earliest Christians, as well as many other Christian worthies throughout the centuries, have also viewed the Malak Yahweh as a distinct divine person within the Godhead, further explicating it as a Christophany, that is, an appearance of the pre-incarnate Logos or Word of God—the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A “Christophany” is exactly what it sounds like: an appearance of Jesus Christ to someone. Several early Christians believed that this Angel of the Lord/Malak Yahweh was a pre-earthly Jesus Christ appearing as a messenger sent by His Father. And who is the pre-earthly Jesus Christ? Jehovah/Yahweh.
So, basically, all of these different scholars are saying the exact same thing: Jehovah was sent at various times to deliver messages on God the Father’s behalf to His people. That is not just contemporary Bible scholarship; early Christians, Muslim scholars, and Jewish teachers prior to the birth of Christ all believed this figure was a manifestation of Jehovah and/or Jesus Christ, and that He was a separate being from the Father but still part of the Godhead.
And what are angels in LDS theology? Ministers from the Lord who are either pre-resurrected beings made of spirit or resurrected beings made of flesh and bone. Though the Bible Dictionary is not an official statement of doctrine, by the definition of the word that our church typically uses, as a resurrected being the Savior does fall into this category.
Therefore, saying that a visitation from an angel could also be a visitation from Jesus Christ is not a stretch at all. It’s not some absurd twisting of the word that you’d have to be desperately reaching to make. It’s something that numerous scholars from many denominations and world religions across multiple centuries have believed; it aligns with LDS theology; and “angel” was a synonym for “Christ” in Joseph’s day.
And there’s still a third reason this point is poorly made. While Faulk lists a handful of accounts that used “angel” instead of “Jesus Christ,” all of them are quoted from the Journal of Discourses, which should be taken with a grain of salt. The reporters took it upon themselves to edit, delete, add to, and rephrase the sermon transcripts before publishing them, often substantially (also see here, here, and here for further details). We do not have the original transcripts for these four sermons, which means that we can’t be certain any of them are quoted properly.
But even accepting them all at face value and granting that they did indeed say “angel,” Faulk ignores the multiple other contemporary accounts that say otherwise.
William and Katharine Smith both each variously referred to Joseph conversing with an angel, the Lord, and the Father and the Son in his vision. However, most of the contemporary secondhand accounts from others given closer in time to the vision do not say “angel.”
In 1840, Orson Pratt described “two glorious personages” who appeared to Joseph. In 1842, Orson Hyde mentioned “two glorious heavenly personages.” In 1843, Levi Richards wrote in his journal that Joseph “enquired of the Lord” which church to join and “received for answer that none of them were right.” He doesn’t mention how that answer came to Joseph. In a newspaper interview from 1843 that was reported in both the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette and the New York Spectator, Joseph is quoted as describing “a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage.” And in 1844, Alexander Neibaur wrote in his journal that Joseph “saw a personage in the fire” and then, “after a wile a other person came to the side of the first[sic].”
Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde were both apostles. Claiming that Joseph told “the elders of the Church” a very different story than the one he told everyone else is demonstrably untrue. He was telling a consistent story all along.
The first of these quote in question is from Brigham Young:
“The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven … but He did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, 1855, p.171)
[T]he Lord sent forth His angel to reveal the truths of heaven as in times past, even as in ancient days. This should have been hailed as the greatest blessing which could have been bestowed upon any nation, kindred, tongue, or people. It should have been received with hearts of gratitude and gladness, praise and thanksgiving.
But as it was in the days of our Savior, so was it in the advent of this new dispensation. It was not in accordance with the notions, traditions, and pre-conceived ideas of the American people. The messenger did not come to an eminent divine of any of the so-called orthodoxy, he did not adopt their interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek, the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.
Brigham was not giving a recitation of the First Vision, though he described some of its details. His point was that when God restored the fulness of the Gospel to the Earth, He followed the same pattern for prophetic revelation He always had. It did not come from a thundering army announcing the news to the entire world. Instead, it came by delivering a one-on-one message to a single prophet.
Additionally, none of these quotes are from the only time these people ever referenced the First Vision. Brigham Young referenced elements of it, or was in the proximity of others mentioning it, on numerous occasions throughout his life. Sometimes he used the word “angel,” other times he didn’t. In fact, in this exact same sermon Faulk quoted, Brigham used several phrases from the 1838 First Vision account.
“The same organization and Gospel that Christ died for … is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world … He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world … Joseph was strengthened by the Spirit and power of God, and was enabled to listen to the teachings of the angel. . . . The man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel.” (Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, vol.2, 1855, pp.196-197)
When I looked this one up, my mouth actually dropped open a little bit. Those ellipses are shady:
That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world, and unfolded unto him the gross darkness that surrounded the nations, those scenes that should take place in this generation, and would follow each other in quick succession, even unto the coming of the Messiah. The angel taught Joseph Smith those principles which are necessary for the salvation of the world; and the Lord gave him commandments, and sealed upon him the Priesthood, and gave him power to administer the ordinances of the house of the Lord. He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world, that the people had turned away from His true order, changed the ordinances, and broken the everlasting covenant, and inherited lies and things wherein there was no profit. He told him the time had come to lay the foundation for the establishment of the Kingdom of God among men for the last time, preparatory to the winding up scene. Joseph was strengthened by the Spirit and power of God, and was enabled to listen to the teachings of the angel. He told him he should be made an instrument in the hands of the Lord, if he kept His commandments, in doing a good work upon the earth, that his name should be held in honor by the honest in heart, and in dishonor throughout the nations by the wicked. He told him he should be an instrument in laying the foundation of a work that should gather tens of thousands of the children of men, in the generation in which he lived, from every nation under heaven, who should hear the sound of it through his instrumentality. He told him the nations were wrapt in wickedness and abomination, and that the judgments of God were ready to be poured out upon them in their fulness; that the angels were holding the vials of His wrath in readiness; but the decree is that they shall not be poured out until the nations are warned, that they may be left without an excuse.
This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel; he received it in meekness and humility, and bowed down before the Lord and worshipped Him, and did the best he could in his illiterate state; he was as it were but a mere plow-boy.
Woodruff calls the angel “the Lord” twice in the omitted passages. The entire thing also testifies strongly of Joseph’s call as the Prophet of the Restoration. No wonder those portions were cut out.
And again, Wilford Woodruff spoke often of the First Vision, and he used a variety of terms while doing so: the angel; the Lord; the Son of God; God Himself; the Father and the Son (at least five separate times); the God of heaven; and God the Father and God the Son. To claim he was unaware of the details of the First Vision is absurd.
“He [Joseph Smith] went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong.” (George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses, 1863, vol.12, pp.334)
Unlike the last one, this quote doesn’t have any omissions. George A. Smith did refer to Joseph being visited by an angel during the First Vision on two different occasions, but he also quoted from and read sections of the 1838 First Vision account on several public occasions, including just the year after this particular sermon.
Additionally, George A. Smith was called as the Church Historian in 1854. The Church Historian surely knew the details of the First Vision. And we know that Smith did, because while serving in that capacity, he published in the Deseret News a history of the Church that included the First Vision. This history stated that Joseph saw “two glorious Beings wrapped in a brilliant and glorious light.”
“How was it, and which was right? None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right. What, none of them? No. We will not stop to argue that question; the angel merely told him to join none of them that none of them were right.” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, vol.20, 1879, pp.158-171)
The above statement from 3rd president of the Church, John Taylor, reveals that as late as 1879 (35 years after Joseph Smith’s death; 59 years after his vision) the Church was still not teaching that Joseph saw two personages but only an “angel.” This makes it seem that the official version in the Pearl of Great Price must be a much later revision.
This one is such an insane claim, I’m actually a little surprised it wasn’t in the CES Letter instead. Not only does John Taylor have a lengthy history of discussing the First Vision in some detail, but this particular sermon was given the exact same day as another sermon by Taylor that also referenced the First Vision. In that other sermon, Taylor said, “When the Father and the Son and Moroni and others came to Joseph Smith, he had a priesthood conferred upon him…”
Like the others on Faulk’s list, he used a variety of terms to describe the vision. Many of them came before this quoted sermon. Those terms included: an holy angel; two glorious personages; the Lord; the Father and the Son; God Himself through his Son, Jesus Christ; God Himself accompanied by the Savior; the Lord accompanied by his Son Jesus; the Lord together with his Son Jesus; both the Father and the Son; God the Father, and God the Son; God and His Son Jesus; Heavenly Father pointed to the Savior; etc.
Imagine having the audacity to claim that “the Church was still not teaching that Joseph saw two personages but only an ‘angel’” after John Taylor himself used all of those other terms. And this is just John Taylor we’re talking about. It isn’t even counting all of the dozens of other references and accounts from multiple people prior to 1879 that clearly say two personages were there. Faulk claims to have been an avid student of Church history. For him to then make a statement like this is mind-boggling. Or blatantly dishonest, take your pick. This is right up there with the very worst things in the CES Letter. It’s a flat-out lie. And he expects any of us to trust anything he has to say after this?
Personally, I’m not in the habit of trusting sources that lie to me. And I hope none of you are, either.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.