Lesson 3: “I Had Seen a Vision” #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the religious and cultural context in which Joseph Smith had his First Vision.
  2. Compare the various accounts of the First Vision.
  3. Summarize the relevance of the First Vision to contemporary Mormon belief and practice.

Vermont, New York, and Religious Liberty

Joseph lived in Vermont until he was about 10. In Vermont, there was no state-established church. Rather, each town could select its own minister, effectively establishing a church. Most towns chose a Congregationalist (or “Puritan”) minister. 

When he was 10, Joseph’s family moved to New York. Outside of the four counties closes to New York City, New York did not have an established church. That didn’t mean total religious liberty, though: the New York legislature refused to charter any church that wasn’t either Anglican or Dutch Reformed. As late as 1775, th New York legislature denied a charter to a Presbyterian church. Source.

Religious Confusion

Joseph Smith writes that, when he was 12 years old, “there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” JS-H 1:5. Two or three years after that, when he was 14, there was a full-fledged religious revival. [For a compelling case that he conflated two or more revivals in his telling, see Michael Quinn here.]

How did Joseph and his family react to the revivals? Have class member read JS-H 1:7-8.

And how did Joseph react? He decided to pray.

He went into a grove a trees behind his house, possibly because he had “no hope of privacy in the little cabin filled with children and household activity” (Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 39).

He found an open spot and started to pray.

Read JS-H 1:15-16.

Shouting Methodists and Prayer

Note here that Joseph wasn’t making this up: going to the woods to pray seems to have been a not-uncommon shouting Methodist thing to do. And remember that Joseph was partial to the Methodists.

In fact, his experience (which we’ll get to in a minute) followed a fairly common ecstatic Methodist form: a person went to the woods to pray for forgiveness. According to Staker, at some point, they “expected that ‘the power,’ meaning the power of God or the Holy Spirit, would come as they prayed, causing them to fall to the ground, binding their tongues, making it impossible to speak, and sometimes accompanying these manifestations with jerks and trembling.” See Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 135.

Alternatively, according to Christopher Jones, the idea of the Devil impeding a would-be convert’s prayer was common, if not ubiquitous. Jones, 105. [Note that the Jones article provides an excellent overview of Methodist conversion and how Joseph’s conversion reflected and differed from the Platonic Methodist experience.]

But Joseph rejected the ecstatic/devilish interruption as the experience he was looking for, believing, instead, that it was a manifestation of the devil; pushing through, he experienced his vision.

What does it mean that the First Vision followed a common (or, at least, a not-uncommon) pattern, that it wasn’t sui generis? And what does it mean that his experience broke with that tradition?

Versions of the First Vision

Joseph recorded four versions of the First Vision in his lifetime (two published and two unpublished). The earliest version he recorded was in 1832, twelve years after his First Vision. He wrote another in 1835 and one in 1842. The one we’re most familiar with—the one we find in Joseph Smith History—he wrote in 1838. (If you want to give more detail about the context of each recorded version, the link provides that context.) In addition, there are five contemporaneous versions written by individuals who knew him.

Divide class into 4 groups (or, if you have a really big class, 9 groups). Give each group a copy of one version of the First Vision, pen and paper. (You can copy and paste all 9 from links from this site, or you can copy and paste from this site.) Have each group summarize the salient points in the description.

Bring class together. Have each group present their version of the First Vision. What do these accounts have in common? How do they differ?

We can sometimes learn important things from how different accounts of the same event complement and contradict each other. What can we learn comparing versions of the First Vision?

[N.b.: if the class is uncomfortable with the fact that the versions have significant differences, maybe spend some time discussing the different goals underlying the various tellings, and Joseph’s progressive understanding of his prophetic role (line upon line). I don’t personally find that line of thought terribly interesting, but I think it does have some value and explanatory power if it’s needed.]

The Aftermath

Note that, when Joseph saw Heavenly Father and Jesus, it wasn’t The First Vision. It was merely (ha!) a revelatory experience. Looking back from almost 200 years later, we see its part in the development of what is now a worldwide church. But at the time, Joseph had to process it from his experience as a 14-year-old boy. We believe that we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. There’s no reason Joseph, upon seeing his vision, would have the same interpretation as we have. [In fact, JKC beat me to the punch here. You may want to read his excellent post on a limited apostasy and the relevance of the First Vision in that context, and incorporate his insights and questions into your lesson. If you have time, anyway.]

And initially, Joseph didn’t talk much about the vision. Early converts likely didn’t hear anything about it. Bushman, 39.

One exception, though: read JS-H 1:21.

Ask the class: Why would Joseph have told a Methodist minister about his vision?

[Again, remember, he was 14: he doubtless wanted spiritual guidance. Also, from Bushman, 40: “Newly reborn people customarily talked over their experiences with a clergyman to test the validity of the conversion.”]

Note, too, that the minister’s response wasn’t because of the uniqueness of Joseph’s story; rather, visionary experiences were tremendously common, but by 1820, visionaries were viewed with suspicion. Bushman, 40-41.

Formative Evaluation

In the last minute(s) of class, pass out papers and pencils (or have students pull out their phones and open a notetaking app), and have them write a one-minute paper. Possible prompts:

  • How does the First Vision affect your religious practices?
  • What can you learn from Joseph Smith’s progressive accounts of his First Vision?
  • What in the lesson stood out to you?

(Alternatively, choose one question and have students answer it orally to the person sitting next to them.)

Note: Lesson 3 of the lesson manual is available here.


  1. I’d love to have a lesson like this on Gospel doctrine!

  2. *in GD, I mean.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    Nice Sam. Recognizing that how visions occur is partially socially determined, what is the social expectation of praying to God in our own culture?

  4. Christopher Jones says:

    Nice work, and thank you for the generous comments and links to my article. I would also note that the minister’s negative response to JS’s report of a vision probably had less to do with the vision itself than it did with the message communicated in that vision (that JS should not unite with the Methodists or any other denomination). That would, understandably, upset a Methodist preacher looking to make another convert.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    This is a great outline, and content. I wasn’t familiar with the W&M Law Review article, and it is helpful.

    I think your suggestion of pedagogical techniques, namely the groups, and writing, are probably solid. But I have rarely seen it go super well in Sunday School. How do you pull it off successfully?

  6. I love the lesson outline, Sam. It’s worth noting that class members can also access the four primary First Vision accounts through the newest update to the Gospel Library app. You should still bring paper copies (I don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to have a smartphone), but I’d take a minute to let folks know about the newly expanded accessibility of these accounts.

  7. The acceptability of visions and ecstatic experiences as socially constructed is definitely something we see in the Church today. In my experience, White American Saints generally get a little squeamish when Latinos bear testimony over the pulpit about their dreams and visions–a very, very common occurrence in most Latin American cultures, and IMO the primary reason for the incredible success of Pentecostalism in Latin America.

  8. I was able to access the Gospel Topics essay *about* the First Vision accounts from the app, but the links were all busted. (Or rather, nonexistent.) Is that just me, then?

    I teach CTR-9 or Valiant-9 or whatever they’re calling it these days, and we spent half the lesson on Sunday talking about the Great Awakening. (This is largely due to the fact that A) I’m a history geek and B) I grew up in Western New York.) I pointed out that several religions besides our own have their origins in roughly the same place and time. The girls in the class particularly liked hearing about the Seneca Falls Convention, which took place just a few years after JS’ death.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    This is great. I often used to read suggestions that we break into groups as part of the class, but while a potentially solid technique it usually never made sense to me to do so as described in the manual. But breaking into four groups to discuss the FV accounts is sheer brilliance! What a great class that would be…

  10. This is a great outline. I’ll join the chorus praising the suggestion to have different groups paraphrase the first vision and then compare notes. I usually hate when teachers do that in Sunday School. But here it makes a lot of sense.

  11. Hey everyone, thanks for your comments!

    J., usually when I ask students to discuss something in a group, I have the added leverage of giving them a grade at the end of the semester. But I agree with you—it usually doesn’t work great at church. I think that’s partly because we read things that we’re already familiar with, and partly because we don’t have a really focusing question.

    Here I think there could be some value (since most of us haven’t read the other versions of the First Vision), but only if students know what their end goal is. That’s why I’d ask them to summarize, with an eye to looking for similarities and differences.

    Of course, it may not work with all groups or in all wards. (I teach Primary, and largely did this as my lesson. I think the heart is reading and comparing the versions but, although the kids are all really smart and could handle the idea of multiple versions, because of time and reading level, we just talked about the fact that it had been recorded several times instead. It wasn’t perfect, but I think it worked better for that particular class.)

  12. timburriaquito says:

    I’m teaching Gospel Doctrine this year, and I enjoy studying the scriptures beyond what is usually a superficial look in most Sunday School classes. I think it’s fascinating to read about the various accounts of the First Vision and I want to discuss it in class, but where is the spiritual side of the discussion? I think people come to Sunday School to have their testimonies strengthened and also learn about the gospel. I am worried that I could spend so much of the limited time in the class on each version of the FV and then not emphasize that this really was a seminal moment in the life of Joseph Smith and the opening of the last dispensation. In this blog discussion as well as the one by JKC it almost seems like we’re taking out the spiritual (or supernatural, if you will,) of the experience. I worry that my Sunday School class will be too academic and not enough faith promoting. We only get about 35 minutes and there’s never enough time to cover all we’d like to. I do enjoy reading these comments here, where I have time to read, ponder and pray. I just don’t have the talent to compile it all into an easy to understand lesson for those who come on Sunday without having read anything ahead of time.

  13. Thanks for the post. It will make for an interesting self-study lesson even if it’s not something I would expect from my particular GD class. Christopher Jones, I don’t see the Methodist minister’s reaction you point out as matching up with Joseph’s 1838 account, JS-H 1:21: “…he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.” And it seems to contradict the points in your article that such personal conversion accounts were common and encouraged back then by the Methodist church. Are you saying that Joseph is putting a different spin on the minister’s reaction in his 1838 account with the benefit of the knowledge and ideas he had gained by then? Or am I missing something else about your point?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    “Multiple accounts of the First Vision” is on the short list of things people cite for losing their faith. It’s almost a cliche. You want to strengthen testimonies? Teach this lesson. Our people need it.

  15. I taught this last year to my youth Sunday school class. I started by showing the man in a gorilla suit video where you ask people to count the number of passes a particular basketball team makes and they totally miss the gorilla walking through the game. When they watch it again looking for the gorilla, they see it easily. We also talked about some of the research on construction of memory. Then, while normally I hate the group thing, in this case I did it, assigning each group/pair a version of the vision. Then I asked them to write down what happened — giving them categories so that each group was looking for the same categories of info — e.g., who did Joseph Smith see, what did he hear etc. then we got back together and put it all up on the board so it was easy to visually compare. Then we talked about why Joseph might have remembered/described the experience differently (connecting back to the research on memory/perception). Despite my general dislike of small group things, I thought it worked really well in this case.

  16. Adapt for Junior Sunday School: Pass out paper and crayons. Tell children to kneel on floor and use seat as drawing desk. Have children draw pictures of various first vision accounts.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Lch, bravo!

  18. Lch, that sounds great. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Tim, largely what Kevin said.

    But I’m going to add to it a little: what do you mean by “spiritual”? It’s way beyond the scope of this lesson or this discussion, but my impression is that, when we say “spiritual,” what we mean is tear-jerking, or otherwise producing an emotional reaction (see, e.g., Youth Conference testimony meetings).

    Honestly, I reject that as the sine qua non of “spiritual.” We believe that the Spirit can speak to our hearts and our minds; while emotional reactions certainly can be a sign of the Spirit, it’s not the only one.

  20. timburriaquito says:

    I appreciate the comments of Kevin and Sam. I’ve only been called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher since Jan 1, and the previous teacher had been there 7 years. He was a very good, comfortable teacher who followed the manual and had enough personality to make for interesting classes. I’m still trying to find my voice. I’ve read books like David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve learned, and I’d like to covey that kind of learning on the class I’m teaching. I don’t want to rock the boat too much, but I do want to introduce things that people may not have considered, like the different versions of the first vision. But as I prepare my lesson, I look at the stated purpose of the lesson from the manual;

    To strengthen class members’ testimonies of the First Vision and of Joseph Smith’s calling as the prophet through whom God restored the fulness of the gospel to the earth.

    That seems to be different than the purpose of the lesson here in the OP, which, of course, was the point. I’m sure I’d love to attend and participate in a class as outlined here, but I wouldn’t expect it during Sunday School.

    And as far as “spirituality” vs emotional reaction, I definitely do not believe it is the same thing. I am actually repelled by attempts to draw out emotions and then try to call it “the Spirit” especially in some of the LDS films, books and music of the last several years.

    I’ve been reading this blog and others for many years. But now that I’ve actually commented, I feel like I may be swimming in waters that are too deep for me. I think I’ll just stand on the shore and watch for a while.

  21. Hey Tim, congrats and good luck with the new calling!

    As for this lesson outline, if it doesn’t speak to you or work for you, definitely don’t use it. If you find one or two things you like, feel free to use them. I didn’t write this to be the One True Lesson 3 by any means.

    I think it’s consonant with the lesson manual’s purpose. And frankly, I think the purpose of increasing testimony is essential. (Then why isn’t that one of my Learning Objectives? Because learning objectives are meant to be measurable goals for a class.) For me, learning more about context and history surrounding ZJoseph’s revelations is faith-affirming.

    Others’ mileage may vary, though. Whatever you decide to teach, though, best of luck!

  22. For what its worth, I think Kevin’s point can’t be overstated. The more we avoid talking about the various accounts, the more it looks like the church think it has something to hide. The value of a lesson like this one is that helps members to see that the various accounts do not have to undermine faith. That said, every class has different needs and a teacher should always follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

    But for me, personally, reading the various accounts may have made me question my previously held certainty that I knew exactly what happened to Joseph Smith in the woods that day, but it has strengthened by conviction that something extraordinary happened, that he walked in a boy, but walked out a visionary and a prophet.

    But like Sam says, everyone’s mileage may vary.

  23. An excellent lesson plan, a good way to deal with the potentially disruptive issue of multiple accounts, and a convincing use of a breakout session (a first for me).
    I would make time for a different ending, however. When I was an alt-GD teacher (called by a somewhat free thinking bishop-also-friend who wanted an alternate SS class in the Ward and for him to attend, at a time when most bishops would have kept me on the no calling no speaking list, just shy of silencing), I determined to try to emulate Paul, to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) It seems to me that the material for this lesson provides an excellent opportunity to do just that.

  24. Thanks for sharing this. Since I am going out of town this weekend, I had my ward skip ahead so we could do this lesson when I was there to teach it (we have a few gospel doctrine teachers that rotate). It’s a YSA ward, and I thought it was important that we do the different first vision accounts in class – in my several years of teaching gospel doctrine, I’ve come to the opinion that I’d rather people find out about multiple first vision accounts, rock in the hat, etc. during church in a safe space to learn and discuss than on the internet.

    We only did bullet # 2 from the outline in the OP – summarizing and discussing the various first vision accounts, because our class always has a ton of participation and we’re lucky to make it through 5 or 6 scriptures (it’s a blessing and a curse!). First we went over the fact that yes, there are multiple versions of the first vision (in a class of about 25 people, maybe 7 or 8 had heard that there were multiple accounts), and the class together downloaded the church history and first vision parts of the gospel library app. I wanted the class to know that everything was coming from sanctioned sources, and not from some deep dive into the internet :) I gave a very very brief summary of where each of the accounts originated.

    One of the class members had recently been to the church history museum exhibit on the first vision, and she told us a little about her experience. Then we quickly went over the main points of the 1838 JSH version. Then we broke into three groups, and each group was assigned one of the remaining versions, and after two minutes each group described the details that they thought were interesting and/or different. Class members then shared their thoughts on why they thought there would be differences (audience, memory, etc.). We then discussed the importance of the first vision as (1) a model for how the D&C works generally (JS has a question, goes and asks, receives revelation) and (2) the testimony of the atonement and receiving a remission of sins found in the first vision (particularly through the lens of the 1832 account).

    Finally, I read this Gordon B Hinckley quote: “This glorious First Vision … was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.” I talked briefly about how it bothered me because if you don’t have a testimony of the first vision, it’s okay – you can still believe in the Book of Mormon, modern revelation, temple covenants, etc. and that while I love President Hinckley, I worry that this quote sets up a sort of all or nothing scenario for people without President Hinckley’s testimony. Then I discussed that what is really important that we learn from the first vision is that Christ lives – that he atoned for our sins, and that like Joseph Smith, we can all receive remission for our sins, and that we can all receive answers to our prayers (albeit in a less spectacular fashion).

    It went over pretty well, but my ward is generally flexible and doesn’t give a lot of push back if we go off the beaten path.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    TL, totally agree that people need to learn these things at church in a faithful environment. Well done.

  26. Christopher Jones says:

    Bro. B,

    Yes, JS’s 1838 account of the Methodist preacher’s reaction was almost certainly colored by the subsequent 18 years of history. But at a more basic level, I’m simply noting that JS telling the Methodist preacher that God had told him not to unite with the Methodist church likely helped provoke the negative reaction he received. If JS comes to the Methodist preacher, says, “God appeared to me, forgave me of my sins, and confirmed that I should unite with your church,” I doubt the preacher would respond by saying, “it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.” It’s not just that, of course–as I note in the article, JS rhetorically goes further than most other visionaries of the day in refusing to couch his vision in “eye of faith” terms–but I do think it played an important role.

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