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The First Vision

Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision is a powerful story. It is one of the first tools missionaries use when talking to investigators and it is frequently recounted and drawn upon in church meetings and lessons. It plays a very prominent role in many members’ testimonies of the church. As I studied the actual history surrounding it, I was surprised to learn a number of interesting things.

What history tells us

First of all, the First Vision wasn’t taught in the church until 22 years after it happened. Despite the existence of large amounts of writing from that time, there is no published record at all of the First Vision for 12 years after the event. This is apparent from any unbiased history of the time, but I will quote James B. Allen, who served as assistant church historian (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966, pages 29-45):

“…none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision….”

More from James B. Allen (Dialogue, Vol.1, No.3, p.31 – p.32):

“As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith’s first vision in any published material in the 1830’s. Joseph Smith’s history, which was begun in 1838, was not published until it ran serially in the Times and Seasons in 1842. The famous “Wentworth Letter,” which contained a much less detailed account of the vision, appeared March 1, 1842, in the same periodical. Introductory material to the Book of Mormon, as well as publicity about it, told of Joseph Smith’s obtaining the gold plates and of angelic visitations, but nothing was printed that remotely suggested earlier visitations.”

“In 1833 the Church published the Book of Commandments, forerunner to the present Doctrine and Covenants, and again no reference was made to Joseph’s first vision, although several references were made to the Book of Mormon and the circumstances of its origin.”

“The first regular periodical to be published by the Church was The Evening and Morning Star, but its pages reveal no effort to tell the story of the first vision to its readers. Nor do the pages of the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, printed in Kirtland, Ohio, from October, 1834, to September, 1836. In this newspaper Oliver Cowdery, who was second only to Joseph Smith in the early organization of the Church, published a series of letters dealing with the origin of the Church. These letters were written with the approval of Joseph Smith, but they contained no mention of any vision prior to those connected with the Book of Mormon.”

“In 1835 the Doctrine and Covenants was printed at Kirtland, Ohio, and its preface declared that it contained “the leading items of religion which we have professed to believe.” Included in the book were the “Lectures on Faith,” a series of seven lectures which had been prepared for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland in 1834-35. It is interesting to note that, in demonstrating the doctrine that the Godhead consists of two separate personages, no mention was made of Joseph Smith having seen them, nor was any reference made to the first vision in any part of the publication.”

“The first important missionary pamphlet of the Church was the Voice of Warning, published in 1837 by Parley P. Pratt. The book contains long sections on items important to missionaries of the 1830’s, such as fulfillment of prophecy, the Book of Mormon, external evidence of the book’s authenticity, the resurrection, and the nature of revelation, but nothing, again, on the first vision.”

“The Times and Seasons began publication in 1839, but, as indicated above, the story of the vision was not told in its pages until 1842. From all this it would appear that the general church membership did not receive information about the first vision until the 1840’s and that the story certainly did not hold the prominent place in Mormon thought that it does today.”


Despite Joseph Smith’s claims that he was persecuted by quite a few people, there exists no written mention of it . Not in newspapers, by his own family, neighbors, other church members, etc. until more than a decade later. Read Joseph’s much later account here:

22 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.

23 It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.

How could there possibly be no record of it if it actually happened as he said? Joseph Smith himself didn’t mention it at all when he first wrote the history of the church in 1835. Joseph’s own mother knew nothing of what we now refer to as the First Vision. By her account, it all started with a visit by an angel in his bedroom. The First Vision was barely mentioned in the church until the 1880’s. There is no record of it in newspapers, diaries, journals, or any other writing of any sort. No neighbor, acquaintance, or family member of Joseph’s mentioned it until the 1830’s. Why not? Did it actually happen? Or was it a convenient story created in the 1830’s to build faith?

There was more than one account

One of the most interesting aspects of the First Vision account is that it is not the only account. The official version was written by a scribe, James Mulholland, and remained unpublished for years. There were at least six accounts, each different than the others. In the 1832 account, written in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting, he claimed to have already known before the vision that no church was true. In fact, in that account he claimed to have seen only “the Lord”, who referred to Joseph as His son and claimed to have been crucified. Not two personages, but a single one. With the accounts there are numerous discrepancies in major details. I would like to think that if I had such a spectacular vision and was visited by God and Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t forget vital details such as where it occurred, who actually came to visit me, and how old I was. You can find all the accounts here.

What does the church say?

Be prepared to be angry if you’re anything like me. Direct from

“During a 10-year period (1832–42), Joseph Smith wrote or dictated at least four accounts of the First Vision. These accounts are similar in many ways, but they include some differences in emphasis and detail. These differences are complementary. Together, his accounts provide a more complete record of what occurred.”

Frankly, that’s offensive to anyone with some modicum of intelligence that actually looks at the various accounts. They differed significantly in enormously important details. The differences are not complementary. And the “more complete record” is completely ignored by the church.

S. Dilworth Young, a General Authority, wrote this in the Improvement Era (emphasis mine):

“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?”

I agree completely Elder Young. So why did he fail to write it clearly, distinctly and accurately if he really did receive such a vision? If he really did have a vision of God and Jesus Christ, why did he recount it as a single angel, two angels, a spirit, multiple angels, and just the Lord? Why did the accounts differ on his age, whether there was a revival or not, the location of the vision, and whether or not his sins were forgiven?

Other problems with the official First Vision account

  • Why did Joseph pray in 1823, three years after the First Vision supposedly occurred, to find out if a Supreme Being existed?
  • D&C 84:21-22 clearly state that no man can see God and live without the priesthood. Joseph didn’t claim to have had the priesthood at that time.
  • Why did Joseph, after having been commanded by God to join no other church, apply to join the Methodist church in 1828?
  • The 1830 Book of Mormon text had numerous references to God and Christ being one and the same. After the First Vision account came out later, those passages in the Book of Mormon were revised. Indeed, there is significant evidence that Joseph’s idea of the Godhead changed dramatically in the 1830’s.

If I look at it objectively, there is an explanation that makes sense to me: the First Vision never occurred. It’s a powerful missionary tool and a faith-builder for church leaders, but it appears to be a complete fabrication that evolved over time, with the church eventually choosing a single account as official to the exclusion of all others.

Wikipedia does a fine job covering the controversy surrounding the First Vision.

Next Step: The Kinderhook Plates

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