How to “know Brother Joseph again” using the First Vision

linford-first-vision[Another part of my ongoing “Tips for Teachers” series. See the associated links here.]

My friend’s ward has an interesting Elder’s Quorum lesson schedule and I’m not sure how wide-spread it is in other wards. It goes like this:

1st Sunday: EQ Presidency Message
2 & 3rd: PH/RS manual
4th: “Teachings for our Times” (usually a conference address)
5th: Bishopric message

As EQ president, he gets to select lesson topics once a month. For the past few months he’s made use of the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays on issues like “Race and the Priesthood,” “Becoming Like God” and “Book of Mormon Translation.” This month he decided to focus on the new piece about the First Vision so I told him about a lesson I put together back when I taught Elder’s Quorum lessons in my Maryland ward.

For my last lesson before my family moved I thought it would be great to sit down together as a quorum and read through each of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision. This was before the Church had released the Gospel Topic essay, so now instructors for Priesthood or Relief Society classes have a direct source from the Church they can use to teach such a lesson.


Here’s the gist of how I went about it:

I printed out copies of the accounts for members of the quorum so we could read the words together. I also printed a color copy of an image of the written 1832 account to pass around. (A teacher might also simply bring a laptop or tablet to show the actual images posted at the Joseph Smith Papers website.) Before mentioning the First Vision, I began the lesson by talking about how our own memories of important events sometimes shift in emphasis over time depending on later life experiences. I had members of the class offer a few examples. Then I referred to something I recall learning from Richard Bushman (though I forget where)—that when Joseph left the grove of trees in 1820 he had no idea he’d just encountered “The First Vision.” Then we read the accounts and discussed them together as we went along.

One of the main observations I emphasized regarded Joseph’s motive in going out to pray. We typically talk about his confusion over which church to join, but the first written account suggests that Joseph was very concerned about his own standing in the eyes of God. He felt sinful and wished for forgiveness. In effect, Joseph was asking God, “Do you love me?” I emphasized the “forgiveness” element of the experience more than the “abomination” elements. I had the group again read the first words Joseph reported the Lord saying to him: “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.”


I’m speeding through it, so the impact won’t be the same for your class as it is as you are reading this perfunctory blog post, but you get the idea. Of course, you can also spend time examining the differences or perceived discrepancies in the written record, and you’ll likely be pleased with the interesting comments class members make when interacting firsthand with documents they likely have never before read. For me, above all, I was happy to emphasize this very personal element of Joseph’s encounter with God, an element most of us should find terribly and personally meaningful.

Here’s a copy of the document I used, including links to the pertinent Joseph Smith Papers sources and some additional recommendations.


  1. Larry Morris says:

    Thanks, Blair. I’m a big fan of the 1832 account–it’s the first record of the first vision and the only one that includes Joseph’s handwriting. I wish we would emphasize it a lot more in church settings.

  2. Chris G says:

    FYI, that schedule is pretty well laid out in the CHI2: (

    Not saying I think it’s a wonderful schedule, but thus it is.

  3. This is great Blair!

    I can’t quite make out who that painting is by but its pretty fabulous!

  4. Hunter says:

    Did anyone push back on the lesson?

  5. Ah, just figured out you linked to the artist page. Sweeeeeeeeeeeet!

  6. Thanks, Blair. Good stuff. I’m interested in your response to Hunter’s question.

    From my experience, I’ve only ever received push back during Sunday School – never in Elder’s Quorum. It’s interesting to me because EQ seems to be more of a dialogue or back and forth sharing ideas and principles while SS seems to be a history class where “x is fact, and x means x”, meaning anything presented or offered that doesn’t fit a traditional narrative people and people get all squirmy in their seats. Also, I think the having High Priests (whom are the most steeped in the traditional narrative) in the mix increases the likelihood of push back.

  7. Hunter: “Did anyone push back on the lesson?”

    Not in the slightest. My ward included a lot of really great people. Most of the quorum was reserved, not outspoken, but from all I could tell they all really enjoyed the lesson. There was definitely a good spirit in the room. Our ward’s two missionaries were there, too. I actually had one of the elders recite the canonized version for us in order to transition the lesson from initial discussion about our own memories to the First Vision itself.

    Riley: it very well may have been different in a Gospel Doctrine class, yes, but I’m not sure. It’s all about framing and approach, IMO.

  8. Villate says:

    For our lesson on the First Vision in Young Women’s class a couple of weeks ago, I brought in my laptop and showed them the Joseph Smith Papers site and we talked about the Gospel Topics article. The girls seemed pretty blasé about it, but afterward one of the other leaders came up to me and said, “I wish someone had showed me this when I was young.” Turns out that some of her siblings are having testimony issues over things that were “hidden” from them when they were young, one of those things being the different versions of the First Vision. So if anything, the girls in this class can never claim that they weren’t told about the different versions, etc.

  9. I teach the 12-13 year olds and had a similar lesson last week. We read all three accounts, looked at the similarities and differences and talked about the possible reasons. Then I had them watch the old Awareness Test video (see ) – I was actually surprised only one out of 15 kids had seen it – and we used that as a way to understand how he went in looking for one thing, got what he wanted, but in the process appears to have missed the real gem, of the two distinct beings.

    In fact, it seems to have taken quite a while for him to realize what he’d seen (see Lectures on Faith, Lecture Fifth), and we can only imagine Joseph’s response when he put it all together. It must have been like the second time you see the Awareness Test video and see what was right in front of your eyes, but somehow managed to miss.

    The youth loved it, and we had a fantastic discussion.

    It’s been my observation that the earlier we can teach our members the more nuanced side of the gospel and our history, the better they can understand it. I find that as we age, we tend to find all sorts of things we’ve put in our minds to fill in the blanks, and when the actual events are known, it’s harder for us to take because we have to push out what we’ve told ourselves all along is right in order to allow what is actually right.

  10. Howard says:

    Great post! I’d love to have a lesson like this taught in my ward.

  11. Corrina says:

    Great timing! This month’s Come Follow Me topic is “Prophets and Revelation.” I was planning on teaching the multiple accounts of the First Vision to my 14-15yo class this Sunday. This is the second year I’m doing this, and last time, my students were so insightful about the multiple accounts. They had no problem with it–you would’ve thought it was something they had learned their whole lives. I’m working in the other new Gospel Topic essays into my lessons throughout the year. Blair, thanks for the link to your document, too…very helpful.

  12. Angela C says:

    That artwork is awesome. I mentioned the 4 different versions of the FV when I taught RS several years ago. It was mostly unknown to the sisters in the room, and a few mentioned they didn’t know it, but I explained just what you did, that the FV was his personal experience and meaningful to him in the context of his own life, not necessarily something he saw turning into the second discussion in missionary efforts or our own basis for our view of God. The real problem, IMO, is that church members (and leaders) grew accustomed to taking history out of its context. In a way, that’s what “likening scriptures unto ourselves” means. It may be a way to draw meaning for ourselves, but it’s not how to really understand history.

  13. hemshadley says:

    Corrina, we are on the same page. This lesson immediately came to mind when thinking of the the redundancy issues of the Come Follow Me curriculum. The two outlines that relate to Joseph Smith and the First Vision, “What was Joseph Smith’s role in the Restoration?”, and “Why is the First Vision Important?” don’t refer to the new piece on the “The First Vision” or the Joseph Smith Papers. The outline suggests singing “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” together in class, showing a picture, then showing a video, reading Joseph Smith History, and referring to a talk. Hopefully the instructor is digs deeper, is in tune with the needs of the individuals, and seeks to answer/discuss their questions/issues about Joseph Smith. I know from experience they yearn to get into new territory and need instructors that aren’t afraid to tackle controversial issues. It would be a shame for them to get through an entire month on The Apostasy and the Restoration (four lessons in Priesthood/YW, four Sunday School, and 16+Seminary) only to leave certain concerns unspoken.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Great idea for a lesson, Blair.

  15. Don’t you get tired of all the complicated explanations needed for these stories to sound plausible? Assuming truth and then working backwards to explain it is a faulty way to go about any investigation of anything

  16. David: I understand that complexity is hard for some people to wrap their heads around. I’m drawn to easy answers sometimes, too. But when it comes to the transition from lived experience to expressed memories, I can’t help but see inevitable complexity, shifting, etc.

    PS- None of this conversation has revolved around plausibility.

  17. Count me as one of those raised in the faith but shocked when I heard there were different versions of the First Vision when I took institute. However I thought I was taught there were 7 different versions?

    I was bothered–although I didn’t say anything–until I heard from another teacher about the varying accounts of Saul’s on the road to Damascus. This greatly helped me.
    Acts 9:7 “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.”
    Acts 22:9 “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.”

  18. My memories of quite a few things are different now than they used to be – and different than others who experienced the exact same things, even incredibly important things. I’m old enough to understand differing messages and memories from the same event on a personal level. This is one case where charges of mental gymnastics and retrofitting are shallow and self-confirming to me.

    I also teach a youth Sunday School class, and I am planning on doing a similar lesson with them in two weeks, so it’s not on Mother’s Day. I plan on focusing on the universal access to revelation and being prophets in relation to each of the kids in the class, with an intro nod explicitly to it being Mother’s Day and that, according to our own Bible dictionary, the young women can be prophets every bit as much as any man can be – that just because we sustain 15 men as prophets doesn’t mean they are the only ones who can be prophets.

  19. Bryan H. says:

    It hadn’t occurred to me to use the Gospel Topics articles for lessons and now I know what I’m doing the rest of the year when it’s my turn to teach.

    This is really a great approach to introduce other First Vision accounts. It reminds me of this Jack Welch article where he uses the different accounts as a jumping off point to teach about the apostasy.

    I liked the other commenter who noted that conflicting details in Paul’s vision in the Bible made it easier to accept them in Joseph’s. Something that helped me was learning about differences between the gospels in the New Testament, where the writers sometimes change historical details to make theological points.

    I don’t know how well any of these things would work in lesson though, so I appreciate this post.

  20. Better than Welch’s treatment of the apostasy is the recent book from OUP:

    I’ll have a brief review up on the Maxwell Institute Blog sometime in the next few weeks.

  21. John Harrison says:

    I did roughly this for a lesson several years ago. I printed up six different accounts of the first vision and divided the class into three groups. Each group got two accounts. They were supposed to compare and contrast the two versions they got with the Joseph Smith History account in the PoGP.

    The thing that blew my mind was that the participants were only able to find similarities with the standard account. Nobody would cite a single difference, despite increasingly aggressive prompting on my part.

    The lesson for me was that in some ways our culture blinds us to inconsistencies. I had a whole section of the lesson prepared for why there might be inconsistencies depending on the audience and purpose of the account but we didn’t even get there as the class was constitutionally unable to cooperate.

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