A First Vision: A Conference Prep.

Last year President Russell M. Nelson promised that this April church conference would be like nothing in the past. Circumstances have probably changed those plans. President Nelson advised church members to study Joseph Smith’s story in the Pearl of Great Price regarding his “first vision.” I’m not pointing to any particular observations or literature here, just thinking out loud a bit, if you will. I do think it’s worthwhile to point to JosephSmithPapers.org where various accounts and reports of this first vision have been collected.

To begin, I think it’s vital to notice that this episode narrates an experience of a young teenager. The propositions entailed in Joseph Smith’s several reports of the vision sit within varying contexts or frameworks or things taken for granted when those reports were uttered, dictated, written. These frameworks are often tacit assumptions and likely, in many cases, unacknowledged by the narrator, dictator, writer because they have never been fully realized and thus never consciously stated. There is always a naivete present in any report, research, claim. There is, what philosophers have called, “the background” or “the picture.” Something whose shape is difficult or well-nigh impossible to perceive, unquestioned, unnoticed, just obvious though not fully formed, written or now justified.

I think one can see Joseph Smith’s vision in this way, most simply in terms of the reports he wrote (12 years after in 1832) or were written by others in 1835 or 1838 or 1842, etc. His own background, in the technical sense above had, I think, changed perhaps mightily. And the usual things seem pertinent here. For example, his 1832 writing reports mainly his concern for his own soul, not some global work to save mankind. It is quite brief and merely mentions that he saw the LORD and his sins were forgiven. Here I think he is at least in part reporting the real ground of his reason for the tipping point prayer in secret woods. But it is likely not a complete epistemological acknowledgement. The 14 year old was steeped in the Protestant backwoods story and perhaps we see just a bit of this in his reported words to his mother, “Presbyterianism is not true” (she was apparently taken with the socially higher denomination). His prayer may have gone, “should I join up with the Methodists? the Presbyterians? the baptists?” Where is my soul to find salvation? Every time he rolls out the story, there are a different set of assumptions, experiences, prejudices, background in play. What are those, exactly? We can never truly know them, but by working backwards, perhaps we can establish some of them. Here, the skeptic and believer sit on more or less equal ground and everyone should, at least in this exercise regard the others as honest dealers. Of course, this requires some pretty deep looks at ourselves to begin with, not just Joseph Smith, or say, Orson Pratt.

That’s all. Just a thought rolling around in my head prior to this conference, which does indeed promise to be different.


  1. I don’t get why anyone has freaked out over multiple versions of the First Vision. I got excited when I first learned about different versions. I do like how in the latest First Vision video the church produced (released on YouTube a few days ago) they explicitly call out how aspects of it were taken from the multiple accounts of the event.

  2. I think “getting freaked out” is a legitimate response, given what I’m talking about in the post. Also, I’m not convinced that any sort of combining reports is the best way to see what’s going on, it’s a bit like the early Syrian Church taking all the Gospels and trying for some combined version. It really doesn’t work.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts.
    I agree on the importance of recognizing that propositions inferred from the “several reports of the vision sit within varying contexts or frameworks or things taken for granted when those reports were uttered, dictated, written.” It is also important to me to keep in mind the vagaries of human perception as a result of one’s framework as well as the malleability of human memory.

    Some see significance in the 1832 account mentioning only “the Lord” while the 1838 account makes a point of two personages. To me that significance, if any, is derived, not so much from the vision, from the use the Church subsequently made of the vision as support for an anti-trinitarian* view of the Godhead, when it could just as well have argued from New Testament Stephen’s vision. To me the more significant difference is that in the 1832 version JS had determined that none of the churches he knew of were right before going to pray for forgiveness while in the 1838 version he prayed to learn “which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).” At least the parenthetical suggests a memory change relative to what JS had written in 1832.

    I am impressed by Roger Terry’s experience reported in “Frau Rüster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance”, DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, VOL.40, NO. 3, and intrigued by his concluding at p. 209: “I don’t know how factual all the details are. … [T]he canonized version he recorded in 1838, is accurate enough for God to endorse it as truth.”

  4. Sorry, I meant to note:
    * “anti-trinitarian” is mere shorthand here. The subject is more complicated than that. Yes, I know the Joseph F. Smith First Presidency referred to the “Trinity” without disparagement: “The Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit, he constitutes the third person in the Trinity, the Godhead.”

  5. Teacher says:

    As a college composition instructor, I gotta say that the wide variations between the different First Vision accounts through the years don’t really bother me, because I have too much experience grading student essays wherein they leave out large swaths of important, relevant, and essential information because it honestly didn’t occur to them to put it in. Did college-age Joseph Smith–with only a 3rd-grade education to boot–only write “the LORD” and forget to record the appearance of both personages in the 1832 version, not adding it till the 1835? Buddy, you should see what college students with a High School diploma and competitive GPAs forget to put in their essays, even after multiple revisions and direct instructor feedback.

    As with everything else in the Church, we believe Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision due to the Holy Spirit, not the strength of his prose.

  6. joshua h says:

    I am not one who is “freaked out” over the multiple versions of the First Vision. I readily acknowledge that time and circumstance can have an influence on what you remember about an event. HOWEVER, if the event involved seeing God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, I can’t imagine any version of the event that would confuse that part of the story. Once I knew who I had encountered, it would be very unlikely that I would describe them as angels or as just one person. Every reader reading this knows what I mean.

  7. Joshua, I don’t think that the earlier account saying “the Lord” vs two personages had anything to do with confusion, or memory, but everything to do with the target audience. Joseph Smith had seen how people first reacted when he told them about it in 1820 (ie. very negatively), so I’m not surprised that the first written account says “the Lord” and that the early church focused on the Moroni visitations, and coming forth of the golden plates. He didn’t want to scare away too many people from being interested.

  8. Wondering says:

    Was there a target audience for the 1832 account? Was it published anywhere in the 1830s?

  9. joshua h says:

    jader3rd: Was Joseph Smith just being sensitive to his target audience, or was he manipulating his own story to cater to the target audience? There’s a big difference between those two objectives. It’s easy to wonder why the First Vision was not promoted by him from day one, after all it’s a big deal. Maybe he was being sensitive to the audience, knowing that they would mock and disbelieve. Or, maybe he modified his story as time went on to manipulate his audience and assert his authority and legitimacy.

  10. joshua h says:

    wondering: nope. radio silence for 12 years

  11. Seeking says:

    jader3rd: the “target audience” of the first account that only mentions “the Lord” was Joseph Smith himself. It was in his personal journal and it isn’t clear whether it was intended for an audience. Also, outside of the 1838 recounting in the PoGP, there is no evidence of any public reaction to his telling of the First Vision. There is historical evidence of reaction to the Moroni story and the plates, but until the mid-1830s, there is no evidence that anyone even knew about the first vision. I also don’t think that accurately telling the first vision would scare more people away than telling them an ancient american Indian has been visiting you and gave you golden plates which only you could translate.

  12. Wondering says:

    Richard Bushman’s November 2016 “What Can We Learn from the First Vision” (see BYUH site) seems to support the lack of any target audience for the 1832 account:

    “Forgiveness then is the first lesson I derive from the 1832 First Vision account. …
    Joseph did not publish this story once it was written. He did not print the account in the church newspaper or add it to the Book of Commandments which was about to appear. So far as we know the 1832 account was never read in a church meeting. It was buried away in church records until discovered by a historian in the 1960s.
    This withholding of the 1832 account was typical of the first decade of the Church. Very little was made of the First Vision in Church teachings until 1839 when for the first time the story of the vision appeared in print, in an account by Orson Pratt. The familiar 1838 account was not published until 1842. Joseph mentioned his experience to a visitor to Kirtland in 1835, but did not tell the story in any sermon we know about. Likely no more than a handful of Latter-day Saints had even heard of the First Vision before 1839.”

    Among other reports, John Turner’s “have visions ceased” posted on patheos in 2014 raises questions about whether the fact of such a vision was really such a “big deal” in early 19th century New England — at least as reported in the 1832 version. It doesn’t seem that Joseph or the early Mormons made much of a big deal out of it at all.

  13. Eric Facer says:

    It appears the initial account of the first vision was written by Jospeh in response to a revelation he received in April 1830 instructing him to record the events that made him a prophet. But it took him a couple of years to get around to it.

    I believe the 1832 account is the most factually accurate and that the variations and additions in subsequent accounts are the product of things he learned and experienced during the remainder of the decade.

    His early revelations blur the distinction between the Father and the Son (e.g., D&C 20:28; 11:2, 10, 28; 49:5, 28). And the first edition of the Book of Mormon did likewise. All of this is consistent with his claim to having seen only one divine personage. But in the early and mid-1830s his understanding of the Godhead began to change, prompting him to revise several verses in the BofM which suggested that God and Jesus were one in the same (1 Nephi 11:18; 21, 32 and 13:40.) Those changes were published later that decade in the second edition to the BofM.

    What we actually see is often a product of what we expect to see. Joseph, consistent with his understanding of the Bible and belief in modalism, he saw just one divine being in 1820. But what he subsequently learned, through prayer, study, and additional revelations, altered his understanding of the Godhead, causing him to rethink and reimagine what he originally experienced in the Sacred Grove. We all do this, though our experiences are usually more mundane.

    Also, one of the significant additions to the 1838/39 account is the statement that he was ridiculed and persecuted when he shared his theophany with others as a young boy. But, according to the historical record, there is no evidence he told anyone about his experience for ten years, save a lone Methodist minister. And if had shared his experience with others, it’s nonsensical to think that people would have given any attention to what they would have viewed as the silly imaginings of a 14-year old kid. In reality, Joseph, was projecting the persecution he experienced in 1838—the worst year of his life—back onto the first vision.

    During 1838 he was accused and acquitted of murder. Then there was the economic crisis in Kirtland, Ohio caused by his ill advised banking enterprise, which prompted a number of his closest associates to turn on him and try to replace him. Threatened with lawsuits and violence, Joseph flees in the dark of night to Far West, Missouri. But conditions there weren’t much better and were about to get worse. In November of that year, he was arrested for treason and thrown in Liberty Jail, which were some of the darkest hours of his mortal existence. Is it any wonder that this would color his 1838/39 account of the First Vision?

    Science has shown that our memories are both fallible and malleable, especially when it comes the most astonishing events in our lives. We mold our recollection of those events to make sense of what we have learned and what we are experiencing in the present moment. This a critical evolutionary survival mechanism. The purpose of our memory is not photographic recollection, but to learn and to teach. These concepts are explained convincingly in Stephen Harper’s new book, “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins.”

  14. An interesting 20-part series of posts by Dennis B. Horne called “Teachings and Testimony of the First Vision” can be found here: https://interpreterfoundation.org/blog-teachings-and-testimony-of-the-first-vision-1/ at The Interpreter Foundation. Interesting read!

  15. Eric Facer, Well said and I agree. The problem with this is then wrapping this understanding of memory and experience into a culture/church that has for decades now used the reality of the first vision happening just as it is said in the 1838 account as a hallmark of faith. We say “I know” without equivocation and recite the 1838 account. Clearly, Joseph Smith didn’t even know. Who knows how the account would have changed had Joseph not been killed. In the 1850s, maybe he would have seen Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father’s father or god’s going all the way back. Perhaps he would have remembered being told many other specific things too, some which may have been inconsistent with prior accounts.

    However, our members certainly aren’t saying, “I have a testimony that in 1838, Joseph Smith remembered his first vision experience as it was described in the 1842 publication.” The church has taught that the 1838 account is exactly what happened and apologetics and the Church’s own essay have tried to make all of the other accounts fit or somehow not be inconsistent with the 1838 account.

    My “aha” moment of peace and understanding on this issue came when I let go of the 1838 account as the “accurate” account of what happened and accepted that it was what Joseph remembered or wanted to have happened at that particular time and that it had changed and was likely to change again and again in future re-tellings. That it is theology, not history.

  16. Left Field says:

    The FV film that was produced around 1978 included elements from at least three different accounts, and a New Era article at the time directly discussed the accounts that were included in the film.

  17. The 1835 account seems overloaded with scriptural quotes. If Jospeh dictated it I would like to know who wrote it down, possibly helping out? It’s interesting to ponder over those phrases and wonder what Jospeh is trying to doctor into his experience and conveying.
    I find it hard to believe that 15 years after the Vision Jospeh would have had a perfect recollection of so many passages of scripture. And I find it strange that after about 1800 years of silence the Lord of the universe comes back to earth with a message of sin and anger quoting his own scripture as often as Bruce R. McConkie would in conference. Can’t the Lord say anything new?
    What is beautiful in the 1832/35 accounts is the mystic language Jospeh uses. Peace, joy, love.
    Dante, Meister Eckhart, Rumi and other mystics repeat the same.

  18. I hope church will encourage members (when the COVID19 pandemic is over) to go off into nature and have our own sacred grove experience. I know they want us to have testimonies about Brother Joseph’s experience, even testimonies about their lived experiences that they share at conference. But it isn’t the same. If God is really no respector of persons, than we should all be able to tap into the light and peace that Brother Jo experienced in the woods. BUT there is a lot of rigidity and so much unhelpful binary thinking at church. I don’t think anyone would be threatenes by hearing of another’s experience of encompassing light and feelings of peace and forgiveness. But people being visited by God as embodied by two Celestial beings of flesh and blood? Hmm… So maybe that is where the ideas of only prophets and apostles being entitled to visions comes from?

    I definitely appreciate the generous and expansive thinking regarding the multiple accounts of the First Vision that are in this post and these comments. I am saddened that the same generous and expansive thoughts cannot be applied by our prophets and apostles to LGBT sons and daughters of God. If there can be multiple accurate accounts of the first vision, why can’t there be multiple and accurate ways of falling in love and doing marriage?

    I suppose religious currency is found in its rigidity. Maybe what keeps the vast majority of Mormons active in the faith is the idea that attaining peace is a straight and narrow path and not a generous road to be widened at every opportunity and made smooth so that everyone with us and after us can find their way.

  19. Righteous love the truth and are not shaken says:

    I speak as one who has to deal with SSA. There is such a thing as sin in the world. Gay sex is deadly to the body iamd to the soul. it does not help when members of the church encourage people to go down this road. Remember in the last section of D&C when Christ appears in the spirit world but is unable to go to those in darkness who had defiled themselves while in the flesh.

  20. Eric Facer says:

    Seeking, equally well said.

    Amy, greatly appreciate your warm, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude. Reminds me of the ideas espoused by a carpenter’s son who was born a little over 2,000 years ago.

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