As we wind down on the First Vision discussion, I want to take a moment to say again how important this topic is. This event truly was the foundation for everything that came afterward. As such, this is also a pillar that we need supporting the firm foundation of our personal testimonies. There’s been a lot of conversation online recently over Kevin Hamilton’s excellent BYU devotional, “Why a Church?” In that talk, Hamilton pointed out that you can’t separate Jesus Christ from His church or His chosen representatives. Christ Himself endorsed these men to lead His earthly church. That means that He also endorsed Joseph Smith. Therefore, when you stand in opposition to the Church or to the prophets, you are also standing in opposition to Christ. When you criticize the Church or the prophets, you are also criticizing Him for giving them His stamp of approval. And when you dismiss Joseph Smith as a fraud, you are also dismissing The One who called Him to help restore His Priesthood to the Earth.
That’s not the same thing as having questions. Not having a testimony of Joseph Smith yet is not equivalent to openly attacking him and his character. But when you go beyond questioning and start protesting, you’re crossing a line the prophets have repeatedly warned against. There is no room for activism or “loyal opposition” in this Church, just as you can’t stand in opposition to Joseph while still claiming a testimony of the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, Priesthood power, or the fulness of the Gospel. It just doesn’t work. As President Oaks taught in the April 2016 General Conference, “However appropriate for a democracy, there is no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not.”
We all come to have our favorite prophets and apostles over time. Different teaching styles resonate with different people, so those favorites will vary. Someone who loves President Oaks’s matter-of-fact approach may be somewhat tired of Elder Uchtdorf’s frequent plane analogies. Someone who needs President Nelson’s guidance on learning to receive personal revelation may not gravitate as strongly toward President Monson’s focus on charity. Someone who feels heard and seen by Elder Holland’s deep empathy for those struggling with depression or anxiety may not be as grateful for President Eyring’s unfailing cheerfulness. All of that is okay. But when you start criticizing them for not being exactly what you want or need in that exact moment, you’re also criticizing the Savior, who deeply felt every moment of pain you have ever experienced.
Similarly, when you attack the First Vision, you also attack Joseph Smith. And when you attack Joseph, you attack everything that he helped to bring forth. And when you attack this Church and its prophets, you also attack Jesus Christ. I fully respect having honest questions. Every single member of this church has unanswered questions. This church was restored precisely because Joseph had unanswered questions of his own. But I can’t respect using those questions to attack Joseph, this church, the other prophets, and especially my Savior.
As I read through this portion of the LFMW and noticed the doublespeak and the criticism masquerading as confusion and doubt, it annoyed me. It’s manipulative. It’s condescending. And it cheapens the experiences of those who legitimately struggle with this issue.
Faulk picks up his letter with a debate on which First Vision account we should trust:
- Which One is Correct?
In 1902 The Church decided to adopt the 1838 version of Joseph’s First Vision as the official account now contained in The Pearl of Great Price – Joseph Smith History.
So, again, Faulk’s facts are incorrect. Elder James E. Talmage did separate the text into chapters and verses in 1902 to make it more readable. Those changes were approved in that October’s General Conference. However, the Joseph Smith—History, including the account of the First Vision, was a part of the Pearl of Great Price from its very first printing in 1851. It was also included in the 1878 version, which was canonized as scripture in 1880.
At this time, the only two widely known accounts of the First Vision were this 1838 version and an account from 1842 from what is known as the Wentworth Letter. Presumably, the 1838 account was included in the Pearl of Great Price over the 1842 Wentworth Letter account because it was much more detailed, but I don’t know that for certain. It seems clear, though, that it wasn’t chosen over the 1832 account for any nefarious purposes.
Though the 1832 and 1835 accounts were included in a compiled record now titled Joseph Smith’s History, 1834–1836, this book was neither finished nor published. Its contents, along with Joseph’s journals, found their way to Salt Lake City with the main body of the Saints, but were put into the Church archives and largely forgotten over the years.
The title of this portion, “Which One is Correct?” also positions these accounts as somehow being in conflict, or battling it out for which one is the accurate one. I think that’s where a large part of the difference between us is, because to me, the different accounts all complement one another. They go hand-in-hand. It’s not that if one is correct, the others all have to be incorrect. They can all be accurate. They can all be truthful. They don’t contradict one another. They’re remarkably consistent. Some of the accounts have more detail than others, and some of them focus on different things, but they all tell the same story.
As the Gospel Topics Essay on this subject says, “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.”
Next, the LFMW quotes from the Pearl of Great Price account:
- Pearl of Great Price – Official account
15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, 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 an 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.
16 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 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.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. 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!
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. (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History 1:15-18)
This bit is all very straightforward. We’re all familiar with this account. Faulk then provides a little table, contrasting the 1832 account with the 1838 account:
|Summary from Joseph’s First Account||Summary from Pearl of Great Price|
|Already thought all churches were not true||Desired to know which church was true|
|Desired for mercy||Prayed|
|Prayed||Overcome by power of Satan|
|Saw a pillar of light||Saw a pillar of light|
|Saw the Lord||Saw 2 personages|
Looking at that table, the first thing that jumps out at me is that he has two lines, “desired for mercy vs prayed” followed by “prayed vs overcome by power of Satan.” Those are juxtaposed as being two separate differences between the accounts. But he easily could have put “prayed vs prayed” and “desired for mercy vs overcome by power of Satan.” He put “saw a pillar of light vs saw a pillar of light,” after all, so he wasn’t only listing differences. For some reason, though, rather than acknowledge the identical aspect of Joseph praying in each account, he positions it as being two separate discrepancies. That feels dishonest to me.
As far as the first line goes, critics also like to point out that this exact same dilemma occurs within the span of a few verses in the 1838 account. However, as Steven Harper explains, it’s a dilemma with an answer. The conflict was between Joseph knowing something intellectually, in his mind, and having it confirmed to him in his heart by the Spirit. Joseph may have thought that no churches matched Christ’s Biblical church, but he hadn’t fully grasped the fact that none of them were uncorrupted. He grew up surrounded by numerous feuding Protestant sects. Protestants believe that the church had become corrupted too, and needed a Reformation to correct it. Joseph hadn’t yet understood that it actually needed a Restoration instead.
His desire for mercy/wanting his sins forgiven is mentioned in several of the accounts, and so is the acknowledgment that they were forgiven. However, it’s absent from the 1838 account. I don’t personally consider this a conflict between the accounts—people often have more than one reason for praying, especially if something is weighing on them on for some time the way this was.
He doesn’t mention being overcome by that thick, gloomy darkness in the 1832 account, that’s true. He does mention it in the 1835 account, but it’s a fair criticism. Again, though, different accounts highlight different things for different audiences. That’s normal and to be expected when someone gives multiple accounts of the same story—unless they’ve rehearsed it.
And let’s not forget how difficult writing was for Joseph. In another blog post, Steven Harper discusses a letter that Joseph wrote to Emma about five years into their marriage. Joseph was away from home at the time, helping Newell Whitney recover from an accident. This is how Harper describes the letter and the subsequent First Vision account:
The letter is in Joseph’s hand. It is composed of just two sentences. Their average length is about 300 words. In them, Joseph jumped from topic to topic. He was a jumble of emotions. He spelled creatively. He asked Emma to excuse “my inability in convaying my ideas in writing. [sic]”
The inability to convey his ideas in writing was one of the horns of Joseph’s dilemma. The other was that he had been commanded to convey his ideas in writing….
Joseph confessed and exposed his mere literary abilities on the opening page [of the 1832 account]. Here in his earliest autobiography, he highlights the horns of his dilemma: he has a marvelous experience to share, and he feels inadequate to share it. In a single sentence of 137 words, there are misspellings, awkward phrases, misplaced modifiers, and no punctuation. It’s natural to wonder why Joseph waited twelve years to write an account of his vision. Discovering how burdened he felt by that task leads us to appreciate the fact that he ever wrote it at all. (emphasis added)
Joseph was not a man who had any confidence at all in his writing ability. Of the few handwritten letters we have from him, several contain apologies for his lack of skill. All of them have poor spelling, grammar, punctuation, and missing words and phrases. The vast majority of his words throughout his lifetime were captured by scribes, not by his own hand.
As a 2020 article for the Church News points out, “Consider the many dramatic events in young Joseph’s life that were not recorded until 1832: Almost losing his leg as a child. Moroni’s visit. Joseph’s courtship and marriage of Emma Smith. The death of their first four children. ‘Joseph did not make any sort of historical record,’ said Elder [Kyle S.] McKay, ‘until the Lord gave him the commandment: ‘There shall be a record kept among you.’’”
Also consider this: it was a common thing for various articles and letters to be repurposed by the early Saints and repeated multiple times across different publications. This account was never published a first time, let alone multiple times. Each time he tried to write the account, he soon abandoned it and started again, rather than polishing and publishing the prior accounts. This tells me that neither of them were good enough to Joseph. He considered the two prior accounts inferior in some way to the 1838 account, because he wasn’t comfortable capturing exactly what happened.
He didn’t know how to tell his own story, because he was trapped by his inability to write clearly. So, if there are things in those early accounts that were left out or that are unclear, to me that makes perfect sense. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have those problems.
As for the last line of the table, Faulk addresses that discrepancy in more detail:
- “I saw the Lord” vs. “I saw two Personages”
The difference is quite significant, especially in the most important piece of information they are communicating. If they are both supposed to be of the same event, then why would the official account say he spoke to God and Jesus, while Joseph’s journal say he only saw theLord?
We discussed the question of whether Joseph mentioned both God the Father and the Savior in his 1832 account last week, but just to recap, it’s possible that he didn’t. The Savior did the bulk of the talking, so Joseph may have just concentrated on Him. Not mentioning the Father’s presence doesn’t mean He wasn’t there. Again, Joseph struggled with how to express his thoughts and feelings, and writing was very difficult for him. If you look at the original manuscript, he skipped a lot of words and phrases that had to later be corrected. It’s entirely possible he just focused on the Savior because it was easier than trying to explain in full detail what he’d experienced.
However, it’s equally possible that Joseph did mention the Father in this account. As Greg Smith demonstrated, in Joseph’s day, “testimony from on high” was very commonly used to refer to the times in the Bible in which the Father announced that the Savior was His Son and to listen to Him. That’s exactly what happened during the First Vision, and “testimony from on high” is mentioned in the introduction to the 1832 account as being the first event that helped shape Joseph’s role as a prophet.
Since Joseph accidentally skipped the word “Lord” in the original manuscript and had to later edit it in, it’s possible he originally had a different word in mind that would have further clarified the situation.
Also, his motivation for praying seem to be different and his experience with Satan is missing.
We’ve already discussed both of those points in this post, so there’s no need to do it again.
No priesthood or Sunday school manual has ever mentioned that Joseph himself originally wrote that he only saw one personage, not two.
I didn’t have time to try to hunt down and go through every single Sunday School manual the Church has ever put out, but I did find something that calls this line into question. The original LFMW was written and posted to Reddit in 2016. The Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual for Seminary and Institute, which was first published in 2015 and then updated in 2016, spoke about the different accounts of the First Vision. Additionally, the Gospel Topics Essays were written and posted to the Church’s website in 2013, several years before this letter was written. While those were not Sunday School manuals, the Essays were actively discussed in many of our Sunday School classes when they were newly released.
It’s possible there are other manuals that discuss the various accounts. There are hundreds of manuals you’d need to wade through to confirm or refute that allegation. Faulk made a claim like this precisely because it’d be extremely time-consuming, if not nearly impossible, to debunk it.
However, in addition to that manual and the Essay, these various accounts were discussed at length in numerous official Church magazines. You can search them by year at FAIR, but here’s the major ones:
- April 1970 Improvement Era
- September 1976 Ensign
- September 1978 Ensign
- January 1985 Ensign
- January 1986 Ensign
- April 1996 Ensign
- January 2005 Ensign
- Continued Concealment
Using the vast resources of the Church education system, members are not informed of the inconsistencies relating to Joseph’s visions.
I would again advise Faulk to speak only for himself, as this is not true of every member of the Church. Experiences will vary depending on the teacher’s knowledge and focus, as well as the student’s willingness or ability to retain information.
You can also hardly claim the Church was hiding these accounts when they were published repeatedly over the span of decades in the Church’s official magazines, on their website, and in at least one of their manuals.
I honestly don’t remember when or where I first learned of the different accounts of the First Vision. I do know it was prior to the Gospel Topics Essays. It wasn’t a surprise when I read the Essay about this topic, but that’s all I can say for certain. I can’t claim to have learned about this topic in Seminary, for example, or from reading my parents’ Ensign, because I simply don’t remember.
It also appears that average members are not the only ones surprised by this evidence. President of the First Quorum of the Seventy, S. Dilworth Young, published a statement in the Improvement Era on this subject.
“I cannot remember the time when I have not heard the story, concerning the coming of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am concerned however with one item which has recently been called to my attention on this matter. There appears to be going about our communities some writing to the effect that the Prophet Joseph Smith evolved his doctrine from what might have been a vision, in which he is supposed to have said that he saw an angel, instead of the Father and the Son. According to this theory, by the time he was inspired to write the occurrence in 1838, he had come to the conclusion that there were two beings.
This rather shocked me. I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How then could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately?” (S. Dilworth Young, Improvement Era, General Conference edition, June 1957)
This rather shocks me, actually, for several reasons. There are two omissions in this full quote that are not marked by ellipses. Additionally, the first paragraph here was actually two different paragraphs originally. The context of the quote is also missing, giving it an entirely different spin than the one Young did in his Conference talk. The quote, given in context, should read:
I cannot remember the time when I have not heard the story, quoted by Brother Bennion, concerning the coming of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am convinced as I grow older and become proportionately wiser that if boys and girls in our Church could keep that story uppermost in their hearts, believing it, having a testimony of it, much of the ills of our youth which President Richards so graphically portrayed this morning would not be.
I am concerned however with one item which has recently been called to my attention on this matter. There appears to be going about our communities some writing to the effect that the Prophet Joseph Smith evolved his doctrine from what might have been a vision, in which he is supposed to have said that he saw an angel, instead of the Father and Son. According to this theory, by the time he was inspired to write the occurrence in 1838, he had come to the conclusion that there were two Beings.
This rather shocked me. I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in its nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How then could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately?
It seems to me, too, that had he evolved such a thing, his enemies would have used it against him. In 1838 there was a crisis in the Church. Men were falling away. It was at that time that Oliver Cowdery became disaffected. If any man in this Church had ever heard that story of the first vision, Oliver Cowdery must have heard it. Yet his reasons for disaffection were never given as an evolution of the first vision. Other men of that time did not use it as their excuse. In 1844 when the final conspiracy was concocted to murder Joseph Smith, the reasons given by those men were not discrepancies in his story of the first vision, but rather other matters far removed from it.
When Joseph wrote the story in 1838, men and women who had known him ever since he had started this work took the story in their stride, that is, it was common enough knowledge from the beginning that no one took an exception to it. Everybody knew it; everybody had heard it; not exactly in the words in which he wrote it—I believe no man will speak extemporaneously in the same manner that he will write something—but essentially the same, and when the Saints read it, it merely confirmed what they had heard over and over again.
His mother should have known something about it. You will remember, he walked into her house that morning and told her that the church to which she had given her allegiance was not true. To my way of thinking, he must have told her all about the vision. When she chose to write the story of her son’s experience, she did not put it in her own words. I suspect that she must have felt that so nearly was what he had written the way he had described it to her, that she quoted his written statement.
This statement was given in 1957, 8 years before the 1832 account was first published. It was also well before an analysis showed that in Lucy’s autobiography, her interviewer/ghostwriter padded her memories with direct quotes from many different sources that Lucy herself did not quote. This would have included Joseph’s account of the First Vision.
However, Young’s point remains that nobody accused Joseph of adding to or altering his recollections of the First Vision when additional accounts with further details were written or published. His account in 1838 matched the stories that had already been floating around, as we went over a few weeks ago. Even his harshest critics never made that accusation against him. That’s the point Young was making, not that Joseph couldn’t possibly have given accounts with slightly different details.
The rumors Young described were in reference to the then-mostly unknown 1832 account. Surprisingly, Faulk doesn’t go into its history, even though it’d have given him a stronger case if he had. But since I am all about providing context, I’ll outline it here.
As I went over above, Joseph’s handwritten account was buried in the Church archives for a good century or more before it was finally published. His account is found on the first few pages of a notebook that was later repurposed as a letter book (where copies of his letters were recorded before being sent, something that was popular in that day and age). That letter book eventually made its way to Salt Lake, and was stowed away in the Church Historian’s Office.
That office was originally quite small, and things were haphazardly stored. None of the people called to work in that office were actually professional historians, and many of them didn’t know how to properly care for older records. Any avid student of history will wince at the treatment this notebook received in that office.
You see, sometime between its arrival in Salt Lake and its publishing in 1965, someone cut the account out of the letter book and stashed the pages in the safe in the Head Historian’s Office. The best guess is, this was done sometime after 1930. One of the pages did not tear out properly, and a corner was left in the book. It was removed and taped onto the corresponding page with clear tape that was not invented until 1930. It’s possible that the corner was taped years or even decades after the pages were removed, but most likely, it was done at the same time.
We also do not know for certain who did this, or why they did it. There are some good guesses, however. Joseph Fielding Smith had been a worker in the Historian’s Office since 1901, and was made the official Church Historian in 1921, where he served until 1970. As he was the Church Historian at the time the pages are believed to have been removed, he is the likely person who removed them. However, one of his senior assistants, A. William Lund or Earl E. Olson, also could have done it. They all had access to that office and that safe.
Several people were given access to this account during the time it was locked in the safe. Eventually, Jerald and Sandra Tanner learned of it and demanded to see it. They were refused, but the contents were published later that same year by sources more friendly to the Church.
While apparently someone from the Church Historian’s Office was responsible for the excision of the leaves from the notebook, we don’t know exactly who did it or why. A possible motive was trying to maintain complete consistency with the 1838 account that was available in the Pearl of Great Price. At that time, any differences between accounts could have been seen as possibly faith destroying.
If it was done to keep it hidden, it is odd that it was shown to enough people that there were rumors loud enough to be addressed during General Conference and passed along to the Tanners. It is also odd that it was subsequently returned to the letter book and published. Especially since this happened still while under Joseph Fielding Smith’s tenure as Church Historian. Those aren’t the actions I would personally expect to see if it was being purposely hidden.
Another motive, as speculated in the comments of a 2019 post on Dan Peterson’s blog, could be because the Historian’s Office at that time separated the different documents by content rather than by source. It wasn’t just Joseph’s First Vision account that was removed, but the entire history he began. So, it’s possible that the historians wanted to keep the history separate from the letter book, as they were two different things. And, since they were loose pages in Joseph’s own handwriting, maybe they were moved to the safe to preserve them better than they would be otherwise.
But again, we just don’t know. Either of those theories could be correct, or neither of them. Both theories are speculation.
The 1832 account first came to light in a thesis paper by a BYU student named Paul Cheesman. It was then published to a much wider audience in 1969 by historian Dean Jesse, along with the also newly discovered 1835 account from Joseph’s journal.
So, we don’t know for sure who removed the pages; we don’t know for sure when they removed them; we don’t know for sure why they removed them; and we don’t even know for sure if they kept the pages hidden away. The pages were restricted to those with special permission, but some people still saw them, and they clearly talked about them.
Faulk wraps up the First Vision section with one last recap paragraph:
Considering that First Vision-like accounts were common in New England, that it took 60 years for leadership to become aware of the “two personages”, and the active suppression of this information, it feels hard to be confident in the truthfulness of the First Vision.
Visions in New England and elsewhere in the United States were indeed fairly common in Joseph’s day. Again though, the Lord has a history of preparing His people for significant events in His church’s history. And remember, Joseph was the only one called to help restore the fulness of the Gospel; the only one called to bring forth new scripture; the only one prophesied to be spoken of for good and evil by the entire world; the only one who organized a thriving church that still exists today; and the only one whose name we actually still know today.
Moving on, it most certainly did not take over 60 years for Church leadership to become aware of the two personages in the accounts, as we went over several weeks ago. The Church leaders he quoted from all had additional quotes clearly discussing both personages in the vision. “Angel” was also a synonym for “Christ” in Joseph’s day. And, as stated, the Lord is described as an angel multiple times in the Bible.
There was no “active suppression” of the 1832 account after its initial publication, as the Church was repeatedly publishing them in their official publications, on their website, and in their Seminary and Institute manuals. And prior to its initial publication, there is no actual evidence that the account was being “actively suppressed.” That is only speculation. It may be true, or it may not be. We simply don’t know. Regardless, even if it was being suppressed, people were still shown the account, and it was still published more than half a century ago.
It is not hard to feel confident in the truthfulness of the First Vision. That is what the Spirit is for. All you need to do is get on your knees and ask Heavenly Father if it truly happened. He will tell you. The Holy Ghost testifies of the truth of all things, and the Savior Himself promised us that there is no greater witness than that of the Spirit.
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.