How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision?

JSAge

Joseph Smith–History Insight #8

When Latter-day Saints tell the story of the First Vision today, they frequently emphasize Joseph Smith’s age when he entered the grove of trees near his family home to seek God in prayer. For instance, an article on the official website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states the following: “When Joseph Smith was 14 years old, he wanted to know which church he should join, so he asked God in sincere prayer. In response to this prayer, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph and told him the true Church of Jesus Christ was not on the earth and They had chosen Joseph to restore it.”1 In another article published in the February 2020 issue of the Ensign, a magazine published by the Church, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency recognized, “When 14-year-old Joseph Smith walked out of a grove of trees in Palmyra, New York, USA, he knew for himself that God communicates with His children in mortality.”2

Describing Joseph as fourteen years old when he experienced his First Vision comes from his 1838–39 history as canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. In that account Joseph described himself as “an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age” when he experienced his vision “early in the spring of eight hundred and twenty” (Joseph Smith–History 1:22–23, 14). A look at Joseph’s three other extant contemporary firsthand accounts of his First Vision reveals an overall consistency in this detail.

In his 1835 and 1842 accounts of the First Vision, Joseph identified himself as being, respectively, “about 14. years old” and “about fourteen years of age” when he experienced his vision.3 In another retelling, Joseph informed Erastus Holmes that he was “about 14 years old” when he received “the first visitation of Angels.”4

There is one exception, however. In Joseph’s earliest surviving account of his vision scribe Frederick G. Williams inserted interlineally that he was “in the 16th year of [his] age” when he called upon the Lord for forgiveness of his sins.5

The first point to keep in mind is that Joseph was consistent throughout his other accounts in placing his age at between fourteen and fifteen years old when he received his vision in the early spring of 1820. So too were the contemporary secondhand accounts of the First Vision recorded or published in Joseph’s lifetime, which all place him at that same age.6 What’s more, “in the 16th year of my age” does not necessarily mean Joseph was claiming he was sixteen years old when he had his vision, but could actually indicate that Joseph was no older than fifteen years old at the time of the vision. As historian D. Michael Quinn has observed, “like many people today, Joseph Jr. was confused by the distinction between stating his age . . . and its equivalent year-of-life.”7 The “16th year of [Joseph’s] age” would actually have started on his fifteenth birthday in December 1820,8 so while the dating of the vision in the 1832 account is still anomalous, it is not dramatically divergent from Joseph’s stated age of “about 14 years old” and “between fourteen and fifteen years of age” at the time of the vision in early 1820 in his later narratives.9

Looking at the 1832 history in fuller narrative context likewise helps make sense of this discrepancy.

Joseph Smith wrote that “at about the age of twelve years” his mind became concerned “with regard to the all importent concerns” of his immortal soul. He then became aggrieved that the various denominations did not “adorn their profession by a holy walk” as required by the Bible, and he pondered in his heart many things concerning the darkness of the world for three years, “from the age of twelve years to fifteen,” culminating with the vision in that year, as he says, when he was “in the 16th year of my age” (that is, fifteen years old). Here we learn that Joseph’s personal spiritual concerns began earlier (at the age of twelve) than we might otherwise have supposed and that his discontent over the contentions, divisions, wickedness, and abominations around him grew over a period of two to three years. It is understandable that, in preparing his 1832 draft, he might have thought of those intense struggles as having lasted a year longer than they actually had. After more careful reflection, he would consistently report that the answer came in his fifteenth year.10

Finally, as Matthew Brown has pointed out, by his own admission Joseph only had a rudimentary grasp of “the ground of Arithmatic.”11 When this point is brought into consideration, “it becomes apparent that the chronology changes that take place in Joseph Smith’s historical narrations originate not from an evolutionary scheme of storytelling but rather from a pronounced lack of mathematical skills” and perhaps simple lapses of memory in his first attempt to record his history.12 In other words, there is no reason to conclude that Joseph was fabricating the story of his First Vision simply because he innocently misremembered his age by less than a year in one of his accounts. And all of this, of course, assumes that Williams’ insertion of the phrase “in the 16th year of my age” in the 1832 history was at Joseph’s behest and was not an independent scribal interpolation.

The anomalous dating in the 1832 history notwithstanding, the cumulative historical evidence strongly favors the “traditional” date of early 1820 for the First Vision when Joseph was fourteen years old.

Source

Age of Joseph Smith at the Time of First Vision

 JS History, ca. Summer 1832, pp. 1–3.“<​in the 16th year of my age​>”
JS, Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835, pp. 23–24“about 14. years old”
JS, Journal, 14 Nov. 1835, p. 37“about 14, years old”
JS History, 1838–1856, vol. A–1, pp. 2–3“in my fifteenth year,” “between fourteen and fifteen years of age,” “a little over fourteen years of age”
The Wentworth Letter (“Church History”)“about fourteen years of age”
Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions“somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old”
Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste“his fifteenth year”
David Nye White, Interview with Joseph Smith, 21. August 1843“about fourteen years old, a mere boy”

Further Reading

Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9–44.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 59–61.

Footnotes

 

1 See “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith” online at churchofjesuschrist.org

2 Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, February 2020, 13.

3 Journal, 1835–1836, 24; “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (1 March 1842): 706.

4 Journal, 1835–1836, 37.

5 History, circa Summer 1832, 3.

6 Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, [3], “When somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old”; Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry out of the Wilderness), 13, “When he had reached his fifteenth year”; Interview, 21 August 1843, extract, [3], “He revealed himself to me first when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy.”

7 D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 141.

8 Compare the language of the Universalist minister Sylvanus Cobb, who was born on July 17, 1798 and wrote of being converted in “the 16th year of [his] age” in “the autumn of 1813” when he was fifteen years old. Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., comp., The Autobiography of the First Forty-One Years of the Life of Sylvanus Cobb, D.D. (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1867), 23, 39; or the Reverend William Andrew Crocker, born on November 4, 1825, who wrote of his “formal profession of religion” in the “summer of 1841, in the 18th year of [his] age” when he was between sixteen and seventeen years old. John J. Lafferty, Sketches of the Virginia Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Richmond, VA: Christian Advocate Office, 1880), 37; or Dan Bradley, born on June 10, 1767, who “became a member of Yale College” in “September 1785” in “the 19th. year of [his] age” when he was eighteen years old. Israel Parsons, The Centennial History, of the Town of Marcellus, Delivered in the Presbyerian Church, of Marcellus, Onondaga County, N.Y. (Marcellus, NY: Reed’s Printing House, 1878), 36; or the poet Thomas Chatterton, born on November 20, 1752, who “in the summer of 1763, being then in the 12th year of [his] age, . . . contracted an intimacy with one Thomas Phillips” when he was eleven years old. The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton (Cambridge: W. P. Grant, 1842), 1:xvii, xxv. Additional examples could be multiplied (e.g. J. M. Russell, The History of Maidstone [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881], 392–393).

9 As Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 460n46, and Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 99, point out, Joseph and other members of the Smith family sometimes experienced the same confusion (age vs. year-of-life) when it came to remembering other important dates, such as the age of Alvin Smith, Joseph’s older brother, at the time of his death.

10 James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 60.

11 History, circa Summer 1832, 1.

12 Brown, A Pillar of Light, 99–101. On the role of memory in shaping Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision, see Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), esp. 9–44.

Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820

CampRevival

Joseph Smith–History Insight #7

Joseph Smith remembered the time leading up to his First Vision as a period of intense personal struggle trying to decide which church, if any, was true. “At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with the all important concerns for the well fare of my immortal Soul,” Joseph recalled in his 1832 history.1 As his mind was “wrought up” on “the subject of religion,” Joseph considered “the different systems [of religion] taught [to] the children of men,” and “knew not who was right or who was wrong.”2

Later in his 1838–39 history, Joseph remembered that this personal religious quest for the truth was happening in the midst of “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.”3 Beginning “in the place where [he and his family] lived” with the Methodists, this religious excitement “soon became general among all the sects” and spread throughout “that region of country” until “the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5).4

Historical records and primary sources confirm that there was considerable religious activity throughout much of western New York in the early 1800s.5 During this time, multi-day Methodist revival meetings were regularly held throughout the region, featuring dozens—and sometimes even hundreds—of preachers and attracting crowds in the thousands from miles around.6

In Palmyra specifically, “The great revival of 1816 and 1817, which nearly doubled the number of Palmyra Presbyterians, was [still] in progress when the Smiths arrived.”7 The next year, in June 1818, a Methodist camp meeting was held on the outskirts of town, drawing in a crowd of around 2000—twice the population of Palmyra itself—and featuring a high-ranking leader in the American Methodist church.8 Another Methodist camp meeting with at least 1000 people in attendance was held in Palmyra in June 1820.9 In July 1819, the neighboring town of Phelps (also called Vienna) was the host of a major regional conference of the Methodist church, bringing in around 100 preachers from all across western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and southern Canada. These preachers held camp-meetings throughout the region as they traveled to and from the conference.10

Each of these events initiated by the Methodists in Palmyra and the surrounding area between the years 1818–1820 would indeed have generated “an unusual excitement” and provide a glimpse of the “great excitement” which promoted “serious reflection and great uneasiness” in young Joseph while at other times making him “greatly excited” (Joseph Smith—History 1:8–9).11 Sarepta Marsh Baker, who attended some these revival meetings around Palmyra as a teenager in either 1819 or 1820, similarly remembered these events as a “religious cyclone which swept over the region round about.”12

Much of western New York was experiencing similar religious excitement. “Between 1816 and 1821,” writes historian Milton V. Backman, “revivals were reported in more towns and a greater number of settlers joined churches than in any previous period of New York history.”13 Several towns within a 20-mile radius of the Smith farm experienced heightened religious excitement in 1819–1820, and Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all experienced significant membership gains throughout western New York at this time.14

Accounts of revivalism and major membership gains in other parts of western New York were reported directly in Palmyra and would have spread by word of mouth as people traveled as far as 50 miles or more to attend revival meetings and regional conferences.15

This evidence of religious excitement both directly in Palmyra and within the much larger “whole district of country” is consistent with Joseph Smith’s account.16 As historian Richard Lloyd Anderson explained: “Joseph’s 1838 history creates two geographical levels explaining local as against regional religious conflict, his tighter home area as against expansion throughout a broader ‘district,’ possibly intended as the technical Methodist term.”17 Joseph identified “unusual excitement” in his immediate environs in and around Palmyra while “the great multitudes [who] united themselves to the different religious parties” were said to have been throughout “the whole district of country” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5). As Anderson concluded:

Joseph quickly identified the crescendo of growth as the “whole district of country,” which may be a general term for his larger area or his technical term for the whole Methodist Genesee District. . . . This multicounty Methodist “District” increased by 1,187 in the conference year ending July 1819. . . . [Thus] Joseph’s accounts [of his First Vision] coalesce not only with each other but also with family, local, and revival records, showing that his First Vision setting is historically authentic.18

Further Reading

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 91–169.

Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 301–320; reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 171–197.

Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the Frist Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 11–23.

Footnotes

 

1 History, ca. Summer 1832, p. 1, in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1: 1832–1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson et al. (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 11.

2 Journal, 1835–1836, p. 23, in Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, vol. 1: 1832–1839, ed. Dean C. Jessee et al. (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 87.

3 History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, p. 1 in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 208.

4 History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, p. 1–2 in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 208. See also the interview of Joseph Smith recorded by David Nye White, which quotes Joseph as explaining, “There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join.” See David Nye White, Interview, 21 August 1843, p. 3, online at josephsmithpapers.org.

5 See “Awakenings and Revivals,” online at history.churchofjesuschrist.org. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1950). See also Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2004); Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-over District of New York in the 1840s (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986).

6 For background on camp-meetings, see Milton V. Backman Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: 1980), 71–74; D. Michael Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience on a Methodist ‘Camp-Meeting’ in 1820,” Dialogue Paperless #3 (December 2006): 26–29.

7 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 36.

8 See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 104–116; Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 2–4. See also Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 11–12.

9 Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 4, 30–40. Although this camp meeting may be too late to have directly influenced Joseph before his vision, Quinn argues that Joseph’s vision may have been later in the season than typically assumed (see pp. 23–24).

10 See Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 81–82; Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 116–118; Brown, Pillar of Light, 12–13.

11 History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, p. 2, in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 208–210. See also Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, p. 23, online at josephsmithpapers.org: “Br Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival Meeting … he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing.”

12 As cited in Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 89. Backman situates her description of the era in the period immediately after the 1819 Genesee Conference in Phelps, but Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 45–46 situates it in the context of the 1820 camp meeting in Palmyra.

13 Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 77.

14 See Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 301–320, esp. the map on pp. 312–313; reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, 171–197 (map on p. 182). See also Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 53–89 (map on pp. 86–87). Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 99–101, also documents significant religious growth throughout the broader region of western New York.

15 See Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 88–89; Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 36; Brown, Pillar of Light, 13–16. Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 27. Later, Quinn documents ministers attending the Palmyra 1820 camp meeting from as far as 85 miles away, and notes that over 50 miles is not an unusual distance for even non-ministers to travel for such events (see pp. 47, 53). See also Milton V. Backman Jr., “Lo, Here! Lo, There! Early in the Spring of 1820,” in The Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry C. Porter and Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988), 24.

16 See Brown, Pillar of Light, 13–16.

17 Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 99.

18 Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 137–138.

Secondhand Accounts of the First Vision

FVSecondary

Joseph Smith–History Insight #6

During his lifetime, Joseph Smith provided four firsthand accounts of his First Vision.1 These primary accounts serve as the foundation for understanding the Prophet’s early history and prophetic call. During his lifetime, however, Joseph also on occasion recounted his First Vision to trusted friends and the public at large. Those who heard him retell the First Vision story then recorded  these rehearsals in both published works and private journals. These secondary accounts act as important historical data in two important ways: first, they capture some details about the vision that Joseph himself did not preserve in his firsthand accounts, and second, they serve as evidence that even though he was overall reticent to speak too much about it, Joseph was nevertheless telling others about the First Vision during his lifetime.2 A look at the known contemporary secondhand accounts of the First Vision is helpful to fully capture and appreciate what Joseph saw, heard, and felt on that important occasion.

Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions

In 1840, while on a mission in the British Isles, apostle Orson Pratt published A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records as a missionary tract. “Pratt began his thirty-one-page pamphlet by describing [Joseph Smith]’s first vision of Deity and the later visit [Joseph] received from ‘the angel of the Lord.’” In addition, “He summarized the contents of the Book of Mormon, reprinted the statements of two groups of witnesses who saw the gold plates, and concluded with a fifteen-point ‘sketch of the faith and doctrine of this Church.’”3 In this tract, Pratt hit upon most of the major points narrated by Joseph himself in his earlier accounts of the First Vision, including his confusion over which Christian denomination of his day was the true faith, his reliance on James 1:5 to find guidance, retiring to a grove of trees to pray, seeing “two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness,” being forgiven of his sins, and being told to join none of the existing churches.4 Pratt’s 1840 telling of the First Vision emphasizes the factor of reason, which told Joseph’s mind that there was only “one doctrine,” one “Church of Christ,” to be known with “certainty,” through “positive and definite evidence.” Pratt was also the first to mention that the bright light that descended on Joseph was so intense that the boy “expected . . . the leaves and boughs of the trees [to be] consumed.”5

Pratt’s pamphlet proved to be highly influential. “The first American edition was printed in New York in 1841, and reprints appeared in Europe, Australia, and the United States.” Although not a firsthand source from Joseph Smith himself “because [he] did not write it, assign it, or supervise its creation,” some of the language and content of A[n] Interesting Account was nevertheless appropriated by the Prophet in his 1842 “Church History” editorial that included a narrative of the First Vision.6 At the same time, it obvious that Pratt knew about the First Vision before leaving for the British Isles from either Joseph directly or from his papers, and it is possible that Pratt had been instructed by Joseph on some of the details to publish about the First Vision once in Europe, thus accounting for these consistencies.

Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste

Two years after Pratt published A[n] Interesting Account another apostle, Orson Hyde, published a missionary tract in Germany titled Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (A Cry out of the Wilderness, A Voice from the Bowels of the Earth). Using Pratt’s A[n] Interesting Account as his “principle source,”7 Hyde touched on the same points as Pratt in his retelling of the First Vision. One detail included by Hyde but not by Pratt, however, is that as Joseph prayed in the grove “the adversary” filled his “mind with doubts and . . . . all manner of inappropriate images [that] prevent[ed] him from obtaining the object of his endeavors.”8 Although Hyde’s overseas pamphlet did not become as popular or influential as Pratt’s, it is significant as “the first account [of the First Vision] published in a language other than English.”9

Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843

In a meeting at the temple in Nauvoo, Illinois on the evening of June 11, 1843, Levi Richards, one of the Prophet’s clerks and a Church historian, heard Joseph give an account of his First Vision.10 This retelling came right after Elder George Adams spoke on the Book of Mormon and passages from Isaiah 24, 28, and 29 concerning the apostasy from Christ’s everlasting covenant. After summarizing Adams’ remarks, Richards then recorded,

Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same— saying that when he was a youth he began to think about these these  things but could not find out which of all the sects were right— he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right— re  received for answer that none of them were right, that they were all wrong, & that the Everlasting covena[n]t was broken.11

That the Prophet would focus this rehearsal of the First Vision on Christ’s affirmation of the reality of the Great Apostasy (a detail present in each of Joseph’s extant firsthand accounts) is understandable given the context of the message Adams had just delivered. As with the 1832 firsthand account which focuses heavily on Joseph’s personal quest for forgiveness of his sins,12 this secondary account recorded by Richards indicates that on occasion Joseph preferred emphasizing certain aspects of his vision to given audiences and to illustrate specific theological points.

“Joseph Smith and His Friends” by William Warner Major, via The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of the known secondhand accounts of the First Vision came from members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (such as Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, depicted here).

David Nye White, Interview with Joseph Smith, 21. August 1843

A few months after this June 1843 meeting, a journalist named David Nye White, senior editor of the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, interviewed Joseph for his paper while travelling through Nauvoo and the nearby area.13 “During the conversation that ensued, the Prophet related the circumstances of his 1820 vision.”14 In this interview, Joseph reiterated the familiar points present in his earlier accounts, with the added detail that the specific place in the grove where he prayed was in a clearing that had a “stump where [he] had stuck [his] axe when [he] had quit work” the previous day (presumably).

Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844

The final contemporary secondary account of the First Vision comes from Alexander Neibaur, a trusted Jewish German friend of the Prophet’s who had joined the Church in England in 1837some years previously and had immigrated to Nauvoo four years later.15 “In May 1844 Neibaur was present at a small gathering to which Joseph gave an account of his vision just a month before he was murdered.”16 Included in this gathering was a certain person identified as a “Mr Bonnie” by Neibaur, meaning probably Edward Bonney,17 who was not a member of the Church (and indeed was not even very religious per se) but was a member of the Council of Fifty.18

In this mixed audience of close confidants and as preserved in Neibaur’s “sincere, unpolished style that one would expect from a humble devotee not used to writing in English,”19 Joseph retold how “he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing.” Importantly, Neibaur preserved Joseph’s only description of the personage who otherwise “def[ied] all description” (Joseph Smith–History 1:17) as “light complexion blue eyes a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear after a w[h]ile a other person came to the side of the first.” Considering the audience and this intimate context, “there is a strong possibility that . . . though recorded by Neibaur, [this retelling of the First Vision] may have been given primarily for the benefit of the Prophet’s non-religious friend and Council of the Fifty member, Edward Bonney.”20  Neibaur’s account echoes details that span the full range of the primary First Vision accounts from 1832 down to the versions published in the final years of Joseph’s life.

It should be remembered that these are the known contemporary secondhand accounts of the First Vision. It is almost certain that Joseph told more individuals about his vision but that these retellings were not recorded or have not survived.21 Later reminiscences from individuals who knew Joseph corroborate this. For instance, Joseph Curtis remembered Joseph providing an account of his First Vision in 1835 while visiting the Saints in Michigan.22 Edward Stevenson recalled late in his life that in 1834 he along with “many large congregations” heard the Prophet “testif[y] with great power concerning the visit of the Father and the Son, and the conversation he had with them.”23 And Mary Isabella Horne recounted how she first met Joseph as a young woman while living in Toronto, Canada in the fall of 1837 and remembered hearing him “relate his first vision, when the Father and the Son appeared to him; [and] also his receiving the gold plates from the Angel Moroni.”24 Although these reminiscences must be accepted cautiously because of their secondhand nature and in some cases because of their great distance from the time of the events, they are consistent with Joseph’s own firsthand accounts and are reinforced by the known fact that the Prophet was indeed telling others (including non-Latter-day Saints such as Robert Matthews and Erastus Holmes) about his vision during the mid-1830s.25

When brought together, these firsthand and secondary accounts constitute “the entire known historical record that relates directly to the contemporary descriptions of Joseph Smith’s first vision” and potentially make that vision “the best documented theophany in history.”26

Further Reading

Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 53–57.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294.

Footnotes

 

1 Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294; James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

2 For an overview of these accounts, see Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971; 2nd edition, 1980), 170–177; Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 54–66.

3 Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 519.

4 Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 3–5, reproduced in Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 522–524.

5 Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 5, reproduced in Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 524.

6 Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 519–520.

7 Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 519.

8 Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, 14–15, English translation via the Joseph Smith Papers website. The German original reads: “Er umnachtete seinen Verstand mit Zweifeln und führte seiner Seele allerlei unpassende Bilder vor, um ihn an der Erreichung des Gegenstandes seiner Bestrebungen zu hinder.”

9 Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 60.

10 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 63–64.

11 Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843, extract, pp. [15–16]

12 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “The 1832 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #2 (February 6, 2020).

13 David White, “The Prairies, Nauvoo, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette (September 15, 1843); reprinted in Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989), 438–444.

14 Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1, 443.

15 Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1, 459–461.

16 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 65.

17 Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1, 459.

18 See “Bonney, Edward William” online at the Joseph Smith Papers website; Quinten Zehn Barney, “A Contextual Background for Joseph Smith’s Last Known Recounting of the First Vision,” 8–9, unpublished manuscript in authors’ possession, cited with permission.

19 Allen and Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 55.

20 Barney, “A Contextual Background for Joseph Smith’s Last Known Recounting of the First Vision,” 8.

21 See Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 53–57.

22 Joseph Curtis reminiscences and diary, 1839 October-1881 March, p. 5 (CHL MS 1654). Historian Steven C. Harper, First Vision, 53, dates this retelling to 1839.

23 Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet, And the Coming Forth of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Edward Stevenson, 1893), 4. Stevenson, born in 1820, would have been a teenager when he first heard Joseph Smith recount his First Vision. Although the year is different, it is possible that Stevenson is recounting the same occasion of Joseph preaching in Michigan as in Curtis’ reminiscence. At the very least, these two sources corroborate the idea that Joseph was telling others his First Vision story in the mid-1830s.

24 “Testimony of Sister M. Isabella Horne,” Woman’s Exponent, June 1910, 6. Horne died in 1905, which means although her reminiscence was published in 1910, it was recounted some years earlier. In the fall of 1837 when she first met Joseph Smith she would have been about 19 years old.

25 On the contemporary retellings of the First Vision to Matthews and Holmes, see Journal, 1835–1836, 23–24, 36–37. See further Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 195–215; Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 54n13.

26 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 66, 31.

The 1842 First Vision Account

JS1842

Joseph Smith–History Insight #5

In 1842, as Nauvoo, Illinois was growing rapidly and Joseph Smith was gaining more notoriety on a national level, a Chicago newspaperman named John Wentworth solicited “a summary of the doctrines and history of the Latter-day Saints” from Joseph on behalf of his friend George Barstow, who was writing a history of the state of New Hampshire.1 Joseph obliged, and provided Wentworth with a short “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints.”2 Joseph took the request from Wentworth seriously, since “opportunities for favorable treatment of the church in non-Mormon publications were rare, and some previous attempts had not been entirely successful.”3 In this history, which was ultimately not published by Barstow but was published by the Prophet in the Times and Seasons as “Church History,” and which is known widely today as the Wentworth Letter, “[Joseph] recounted his first vision of Deity and the production of the Book of Mormon. He also included a thirteen-point summary of Latter-day Saint beliefs, known today as the Articles of Faith.”4

The account of the First Vision provided by the Prophet in this history is somewhat brief, but hits upon the major points that are also present in his previous narratives. He begins this part of the history with, “When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment.” “[C]onsidering that all could not be right,” Joseph reasoned, “and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully.” This Joseph did by turning to the Bible, where he encountered passages such as James 1:5. “I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord,” he continued, and “while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.” The personages told Joseph “that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.” Joseph was “expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’” and instead received “a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto [him].”5

This account of the First Vision is marked by a “concise, straightforward, unadorned, informative, and matter-of-fact” tone. This makes perfect sense since “this account was meant for publication by the non-Mormon press” and thus has “the characteristics one would expect to find in a public relations statement.”6 Unlike Joseph’s 1838–39 account which was written during a time of severe persecution for Joseph and the Saints, the 1842 account was written during a time of relative peace and calm. It was also solicited in good faith by an influential and sincerely inquisitive non-Latter-day Saint journalist. Joseph’s voice in the 1842 account is therefore not as defensive or polemical as in his previous account. For example, the 1842 account lacks any mention of the local opposition to Joseph’s vision (a theme that is prominent in the 1838–39 account), and instead of quoting the Lord as harshly saying the Christian creeds were an “abomination” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19), instead he is paraphrased as simply saying that “all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines.”

The 1842 account of the First Vision also bears the marks of Joseph Smith’s evolving literary style and his reliance on clerks and ghostwriters (such as William W. Phelps, John Taylor, and others) to assist him in telling his history.7 Unlike Joseph’s 1832 account of the First Vision, the language of this account is highly polished and sophisticated and peppered with Latin phrases such as summum bonum (“the highest good”), all of which rhetorically serves to give readers an impression of the Prophet’s learnedness. Joseph likewise drew from the language of previously published works such as Orson Pratt’s influential 1840 missionary tract A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions in this retelling of his early visions.8 The cumulative effect of all of this is a tone running throughout this account that is erudite while also “confident and self-assured.”9

The influence of this account of the First Vision can be seen in its republication on multiple occasions throughout the succeeding decade after its initial appearance in 1842. Both Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints republished both extracts and verbatim copies of “Church History” in newspapers, books, and tracts throughout the 1840s and early 50s.10 In 1843, at the direction of Joseph Smith, William Phelps prepared a slightly revised and updated version of “Church History” for the publisher Clyde, Williams & Co., which was preparing a volume surveying contemporary religious movements in the United States. A year later Phelps’ revised version of Joseph’s 1842 history appeared as an article titled “Latter Day Saints” in the book He Pasa Ekklesia edited by Israel Daniel Rupp.11

Although the 1842 “Church History” editorial would later be eclipsed by Joseph’s 1838–39 history, it still contributes important and unique details to fully understanding what Joseph saw and experienced in the grove. For example, it is in this account that Joseph described the two personages he saw as “exactly resembl[ing] each other in features, and likeness,”12 thus affirming the inseparability and corporeal nature of both the Father and the Son (cf. Doctrine and Covenants 130:22–23). For these and other reasons, Latter-day Saints are greatly benefited by Joseph’s 1842 account of his First Vision.

“Church History,” 1 March 1842 (Wentworth Letter)

(Following the standardized version here; original available here)

When about fourteen years of age, I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring about the plan of salvation, I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society, they referred me to one plan, and another to another, each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection. Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed. Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”

I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord. While fervently engaged in supplication, my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.

Further Reading

Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 489–501.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,”BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294.

Footnotes

 

1 Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 489.

2 “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 706; cf. Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 492.

3 Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 489.

4 Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 491.

5 “Church History,” 706–707.

6 James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 53.

7 Alex D. Smith, Christian K. Heimburger, and Christopher James Blythe, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 9: December 1841–April 1842 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2019), 177; Bruce A. Van Orden, We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book. 2018), 317–318.

8 Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 491–492, 519–520; Smith, Heimburger, and Blythe, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 9, 177.

9 Allen and Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 53.

10 Smith, Heimburger, and Blythe, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 9, 177–178. A generation later, Latter-day Saint historian B. H. Roberts blended the 1842 account with the canonical 1838 account in his retelling of the early visions of Joseph Smith. See the discussion in Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 152–153, citing B. H. Roberts, “History of the Mormon Church: Chapter 5, The Early Visions of Joseph Smith,” Americana 4, no. 6 (September 1909): 610–627, esp. 616n8.

11 “Latter Day Saints,” 1844; cf. Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 503–516.

12 “Church History,” 707.

The 1838 First Vision Account

JS1838

Joseph Smith–History Insight #4

The 1838 account of the First Vision is the most detailed and fleshed out of the four accounts written or dictated by Joseph Smith. It is also the one most familiar to Latter-day Saints today, owing to the fact that it is the account canonized as Joseph Smith—History found in the Pearl of Great Price. The account was part of a new history Joseph Smith began with Sidney Rigdon and George W. Robinson on April 27, 1838 in Far West, Missouri. Joseph dictated his history to Robinson until September, when James Mulholland took over as the primary scribe. Shortly thereafter, the Missouri War broke out, Joseph was imprisoned, and the history writing stalled. It wasn’t until June 10, 1839 that Joseph and Mulholland began again.1

The portion of the narrative relating the First Vision was originally dictated in April or May 1838. The original manuscript prepared by Robinson, however, is lost. Mulholland made a copy in the summer of 1839, and revisions to the narrative may have occurred at this time. This was a period of severe persecution for Joseph Smith and the Saints. Only weeks before he began writing this history, the hostilities of former friends turned apostates in Kirtland forced Joseph to move to Far West. Then, as mentioned, the history was derailed by the Missouri War and Joseph’s imprisonment in Liberty Jail.2 These hostilities were undoubtedly at the forefront of his mind as he dictated this history. Thus, he began:

Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing persons in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Latter day Saints … I have been induced to write this history so as to disabuse the publick mind, and put all enquirers after truth into possession of the facts as they have transpired in relation to both myself and the Church as far as I have such facts in possession.3

As James B. Allen and John W. Welch observed, “In this context, it is no wonder that persecution, contention, competition, religious excitement, bad feelings, strife, contempt, bitterness, hatred, and rejection were recalled so vividly and stated so graphically in this 1838–39 account.”4 Steven C. Harper has also noted, “An outward observer would not likely interpret these events as intensely as [Joseph] Smith subjectively did.”5

This account also came in the wake of multiple previous attempts at writing a history of the Church’s origins, each of which had been derailed for one reason or another.6 This allowed Joseph to experiment with different styles and methods of writing before settling on the bold, autobiographical style embodied in this account. It’s clear that over the years, Joseph had deeply contemplated how he wanted to tell his story. Now, with an urgent need “to set the record straight once and for all,” Joseph was finally ready to tell his story with resolute purpose, and according to Allen and Welch, “it is likely that Joseph would more carefully consider this account than he had the earlier versions.”7

The result is an account of his experience that is more fully developed out than the earlier rehearsals. Here, Joseph puts greater emphasis on the “unusual religious excitement” around him than was mentioned in previous accounts.8 He also makes the impact that reading and pondering James 1:5 had on him more explicit in this narration than any other. With the recent persecutions of Ohio and Missouri fresh on his mind, this report is also the only one that mentions his confiding in—and being rejected by—a trusted Methodist minister, and it more poignantly elaborates on his feelings of being persecuted as a young boy. Perhaps most importantly, however, it is this account that most clearly establishes that it was both God the Father and his “beloved son,” Jesus Christ, who appeared to him.

As the canonized account, the 1838 narration of the First Vision has had the greatest influence on how Latter-day Saints understand, learn, teach, and visualize the experience Joseph had in the grove early in the spring of 1820. This account, more than any other, has shaped and defined the legacy of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

JS History, 1838–39

(See Joseph Smith–History 1:1–20; original here.)

Further Reading

Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers—Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 192–202.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 31–66.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294.

Footnotes

 

1 For background and historical context, see Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 192–202; Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 12–13; also published in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd ed., ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Deseret Book, 2017), 13–15; James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820,” in Exploring the First Vision, 54–56; also published in Opening the Heavens, 50–52.

2 For more details on the events in Joseph Smith’s life in 1838, including the persecutions he faced, see Alexander L. Baugh, “Joseph Smith in Northern Missouri, 1838,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2010), 291–346.

3 History, circa June 1839–cairca 1841, [Draft 2], 1; cf. Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 204.

4 Allen and Welch, “Appearance of the Father and the Son,” 55.

5 Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 18.

6 See Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 193.

7 Allen and Welch, “Appearance of the Father and the Son,” 54.

8 Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 44.

The 1835 First Vision Account

JSJournal1835

Joseph Smith–History Insight #3

In early November 1835, Joseph Smith was visited by a man named Robert Matthews (also known as Joshua “the Jewish minister”), a Christian preacher who converted to Judaism and began claiming that he was the reincarnated apostle Matthias.1 During their meeting the two began “talking upon the subject of religion” and the Prophet gave Matthews “a relation of the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”2 As part of this narrative, Joseph retold his First Vision experience.

As he described it, “respecting the subject of religion” Joseph was as a young man deeply “perplexed in mind.” He could not tell “who was right or who was wrong” among “the different systems taught [by] the children of men” but recognized the “first importance that [he] should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences.” And so with faith in biblical teachings found in passages such as Matthew 7:7 and James 1:5 Joseph relayed how he “retired to the silent grove and bowd down before the Lord” to resolve his perplexity. “[I]nformation was what [he] most desired at this time,” Joseph recounted, “and with a fixed determination to obtain it, [he] called upon the Lord for the first time.” After encountering a terrifying supernatural entity which attempted to stop him from praying, Joseph described how “a pillar of fire appeared above [his] head” that “rested down upon” him and “filled [him] with joy unspeakable.” In that “pillar of flame” appeared a “personage” who was then followed by another that “appeard like unto the first.” This second personage informed Joseph that his sins had been forgiven and testified of Jesus Christ. Many angels too were present in “this first communication” that occurred when Joseph was “about 14. years old.”3

Among the other reasons for its importance, this account of the First Vision offers a glimpse into how Joseph began understanding the step-by-step unfolding of his prophetic call. As historian Steven C. Harper has recognized, “In this account Joseph cast the vision as the first in a series of events that led to the translation of the Book of Mormon.”4 Although it would take a few more years for Joseph to more fully contextualize and narrate the importance of what he called his “first communication” with Deity, it is clear from this 1835 account that he was already formulating a coherent narrative structure for how he retold his vision to inquirers.

Unlike his highly personal 1832 history, this retelling of the First Vision by the Prophet was to a total stranger who literally walked into Joseph’s house unannounced and asked about his experience.5 It is therefore understandable that “Joseph’s conversation on this occasion tended to deal with objective details, rather than intimate feelings. This account is plain, bold, and to the point.”6 What’s more, Joseph drew on biblical language and imagery to describe his vision that would have appealed to a Jewish convert such as Matthews. Terms such as “pillar of fire” used in this account evoke the Exodus narrative in the Bible that describes the Lord appearing to Israel in just such (e.g. Exodus 13:21). “[T]he withholding of any mention of a divine name in connection with the Supreme One,” together with the mention of ‘many angels in this vision,’ would have [likewise] comported with Jewish sensitivities.”7 At the same time, however, “the clear assertion of the presence of two divine beings and the unambiguous testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God were bold declarations” for Joseph to have made in front of his Jewish guest.8

The added detail of “many angels” being present in the vision is perhaps the most notable unique detail in this retelling. It isn’t clear precisely what the Prophet meant by this, and indeed including it in the narrative appears to have been something of an afterthought (the line is inserted interlineally in the journal). Notwithstanding, “A precedent for a visitation of Deity and angels can be seen in the account in 3 Nephi in which Jesus Christ descended to the earth to instruct His people and was followed by ‘angels descending . . . in the midst of fire’ to act as ministers (3 Ne. 17:24).” The identity of these angels “can only be guessed” since they go unnamed by Joseph. “It is not known if these celestial visitants acted as a heavenly retinue (see Rev. 5:11; 1 Ne. 1:8; Alma 36:22), served in some type of ministerial capacity, or represented the many angels who would visit Joseph during the future process of restoration.”9 What is known is that one week after his meeting with Matthews, Joseph told another inquirer (a non-Latter-day Saint named Erastus Holmes) about his “first visitation of Angels” when he was “about 14, years old.”10

The significance of this account of the First Vision was not lost on Joseph’s clerks, who had it recopied with only slight revisions into his 1834–1836 history.11 One of the clerks involved in the project “explained that the intention [of the history] was to provide a ‘faithful narration of every important item in [Joseph Smith’s] every-day-occurrences.’”12 The recopying of this account of the First Vision from Joseph’s private journal into another documentary repository among the early Latter-day Saints further signifies its importance. “Even so, [this account] remained generally unknown to Latter-day Saints until” its publication in the 1960s.13

Journal, 9–11 November 1835

(Following the standardized version here; original available here)

Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong. And considering it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences, being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense that he had said (if the Bible be true), “Ask, and you shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened; seek, and you shall find,” and again, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”

Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord for the first time in the place above stated. Or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray; my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me, like some person walking towards me. I strove again to pray but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprung up on my feet and looked around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.

I kneeled again. My mouth was opened and my tongue liberated, and I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head. It presently rested down upon me and filled me with joy unspeakable. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared, like unto the first. He said unto me, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. And I saw many angels in this vision. I was about fourteen years old when I received this first communication.

Further Reading

Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 87–88.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294.

Footnotes

 

1 See “Matthews, Robert” online at the Joseph Smith Papers website.

2 Journal, 1835–1836, 23; cf. Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 87–88.

3 Journal, 1835–1836, 23–24.

4 Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 41.

5 Joseph opens this account with the detail that “while setting in my house between the hours of nine & 10 11 this morning a man came in, and introduced himself to me.” Journal, 1835–1836, 23.

6 James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 49.

7 Allen and Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 49.

8 Allen and Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 49–50.

9 Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 31–32.

10 Journal, 1835–1836, 37.

11 History, 1834–1836, 120–121; cf. Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 115–116.

12 Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 26.

13 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 42; cf. Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 283–286.

The 1832 First Vision Account

1832Account

Joseph Smith–History Insight #2

The earliest firsthand account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision was written in the summer of 1832.1 Part of a larger, ambitious historical narrative “of the life of Joseph Smith Jr.” that includes “an account of his marvilous experience” and “an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time,”2 this account of the First Vision is the only extant rendition that is preserved in the Prophet’s own hand.

The origin of the 1832 history that preserves this early account of the First Vision can be placed in the context of a shifting emphasis in recordkeeping among early Latter-day Saints. Spurred on by revelation commanding that a record and history be kept of the rise of the newly-formed Church of Christ (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1; 85:1–2), “the circa summer 1832 history came about as part of a new phase in [Joseph Smith]’s record-keeping practices. During the first four years of Mormon record keeping (1828–1831), [Joseph] focused primarily on preserving his revelatory texts. . . . This focus changed in 1832, when [Joseph] began documenting his personal life in detail for the first time, both in his history and in the journal he began on 27 November 1832.”3

“In the early 1830s,” note the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, “when this history was written, it appears that [Joseph] had not broadcast the details of his first vision of Deity” with the possible exception of a hinting reference to the First Vision in an 1830 revelation.4

Initially, [Joseph] may have considered this vision to be a personal experience tied to his own religious explorations. He was not accustomed to recording personal events, and he did not initially record the vision as he later did the sacred texts at the center of his attention. Only when [Joseph] expanded his focus to include historical records did he write down a detailed account of the theophany he experienced as a youth. The result was a simple, unpolished account of his first “marvilous experience,” written largely in his own handwriting. The account was not published or widely circulated at the time, though in later years he told the story more frequently.5

It isn’t clear exactly when in 1832 this history was recorded, but a very likely time frame for its composition is sometime between July and November of that year.6 Frederick G. Williams assisted Joseph as a scribe to record the opening pages of this history. The way Joseph told this account of his vision was likely influenced, in part, by experiences he had while staying in Greenville, Indiana.7 That spring he traveled with Sidney Rigdon, Jesse Gause, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Newel K. Whitney to Missouri. On the way back to Ohio in May, Whitney broke his leg in a stagecoach accident, forcing Joseph to stay with him in Greenville to help him recover. During this time Joseph had plentiful opportunities to ponder on his standing before the Lord and reflect on the trials that faced him. Several of the prominent themes in the 1832 retelling of the First Vision parallel themes that appear in Joseph’s letters from his time in Greenville, which speak to the strong likelihood that at least the narrative and thematic seeds of the 1832 history were planted in Joseph’s mind during this time.8

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the 1832 account is that it does not explicitly speak of two personages visiting Joseph as later accounts do. Rather, it speaks of “the open[ing] the heavens upon [Joseph]” and Joseph then seeing “the Lord.”9 The reason for this apparent discrepancy with his later accounts has been explored by Latter-day Saint writers who argue that, while admittedly not as clear as the later accounts, the language of this account does not necessarily preclude the possibility of two personages being described.10

Another remarkable detail in this account of the vision is Joseph’s description of  “a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day” shining above him. Joseph appears to have struggled somewhat to communicate what he experienced in the vision, as he first wrote “fire” to describe what he saw but immediately crossed it out and replaced it with the word “light.”11 This gives a glimpse into Joseph’s struggle to describe his revelations with what he called “the little narrow prison . . . of paper[,] pen[,] and ink and a crooked[,] broken[,] scattered[,] and imperfect language.”12

After the Prophet’s death in 1844, the 1832 history traveled west with the Saints to Utah and was kept in the Church Historian’s Office. Being eclipsed in notoriety and importance by Joseph’s canonical 1838–39 account in the Pearl of Great Price, it went unpublished until 1965 when Paul Cheesman included a transcript of it in his master’s thesis.13 Since then, the 1832 account has been published and discussed multiple times (including in official Church publications) and has regained a prominent place in the historical consciousness of Latter-day Saints.14

Although the 1832 account of the First Vision may be “the least polished” of the extant renditions, it is without question the most intimate. The later retellings “are more conscious of the vision’s significance for all mankind, but none surpasses this earliest known account at revealing what it meant personally to young Joseph Smith.”15

Circa Summer 1832 History

(Following the standardized version here; original available here)

At about the age of twelve years, my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures—believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God and thus applying myself to them. My intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly, for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul.

Thus, from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind. My mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins, and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world, for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever, that he was no respecter of persons, for he was God.

For I looked upon the sun, the glorious luminary of the earth, and also the moon, rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty, whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceedingly great and marvelous, even in the likeness of him who created them. And when I considered upon these things, my heart exclaimed, “Well hath the wise man said, ‘It is a fool that saith in his heart, there is no God.’” My heart exclaimed, “All, all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power, a being who maketh laws and decreeth and bindeth all things in their bounds, who filleth eternity, who was and is and will be from all eternity to eternity.” And I considered all these things and that that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth.

Therefore, I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy. And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness, and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord, in the sixteenth year of my age, a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me. I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.

And he spake unto me, saying, “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth, to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.”

My soul was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy. The Lord was with me, but I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.

Further Reading

Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 3–23.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–294.

Footnotes

 

1 See History, circa Summer 1832; cf. Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 3–23.

2 History, circa Summer 1832, 1.

3 Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 6.

4 See Articles and Covenants, ca. Apr. 1830 [D&C 20:5]; cf. Michael Hubbard MacKay et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 121.

5 Davidson et al., eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 6.

6 Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 34.

7 Matthew C. Godfrey, “The Second Sacred Grove: The Influence of Greenville, Indiana, on Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account,” Journal of Mormon History 44, no. 4 (October 2018): 1–18.

8 See Godfrey, “The Second Sacred Grove,” 15–18.

9 History, circa Summer 1832, 3.

10 James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era, April 1970, 7; Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2009), 92–94; Steven C. Harper, “A Seeker’s Guide to the Historical Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 12, no. 1 (2011): 168; James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 66–67. 

11 History, circa Summer 1832, 3.

12 Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, in Letterbook 1, p. 4; cf. Matthew C. Godfrey et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 2: July 1831–January 1833 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 320.

13 Paul R. Cheesman, An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions (Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965), 126–132.

14 Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 278–280; Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” 4–13; Milton V. Backman Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971; 2nd edition, 1980), 155–157; “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, January 1985, 8–17; Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1986), 17–32; Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1984. rep. ed. 2002), 4–6; The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989), 3–10; Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” 10–21; Ronald O. Barney, “The First Vision: Searching for the Truth,” Ensign, January 2005, 14–19; Brown, A Pillar of Light, 178–180; Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1, 10–16; MacKay et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 279–285; Allen and Welch. “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 37–77; Richard J. Maynes, “The First Vision: Key to Truth,” Ensign, June 2017, 60–65. 

15 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 33.

Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision

FV1

Joseph Smith–History Insight #1

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are inspired by Joseph Smith’s account of his First Vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ as recorded in Joseph Smith–History in the Pearl of Great Price. Canonized as scripture on Sunday, October 10, 1880,1 this account of the First Vision has been enshrined for Latter-day Saints as the canonical narrative of the early life and prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.2

But while Latter-day Saints are mainly familiar with the canonical account of the First Vision that was first drafted by Joseph Smith in 1838–39, over the years historians have identified three other firsthand accounts of the First Vision left by the Prophet. As with the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, the four primary accounts of the First Vision can be read individually to appreciate the nuance and subtle differences that they communicate in each retelling or they can be read together in harmony to appreciate them as an organic whole. Whether read individually or in harmony, each account communicates profound truths about God and Joseph Smith’s prophetic call.3

The primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision have been conveniently collected and digitized by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.4 They entail:

The 1832 Account: JS History, ca. Summer 1832, pp. 1–3.

This is the earliest account of the First Vision and is recorded in Joseph Smith’s own hand. It is a deeply personal and poignant narrative that is couched in Joseph’s quest to find forgiveness for his sins as a young man. It features an extended direct quotation of what the Lord instructed Joseph in the vision.

The 1835 Account: JS, Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835, pp. 23–24.

This recitation of the First Vision stems from Joseph Smith’s encounter with the eccentric Robert Matthews in November 1835. Joseph and Matthews discussed religious matters during their meeting as both claimed prophetic authority. Part of the conversation included Joseph’s description of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the First Vision. This account includes the detail not present in other accounts that Joseph saw “many angels” in his vision of the Father and the Son.

The 1838 Account: JS History, 1838–1856, vol. A–1, pp. 2–3

Undoubtedly the most famous account of the First Vision, this recitation opened what later evolved into the six-volume History of the Church and was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Written at a time when the persecution of the Saints in Missouri was fresh on the Prophet’s mind, the tone of this retelling is more defensive and apologetic and emphasizes the theme of opposition against Joseph personally as well as his efforts to restore the Church of Jesus Christ.

The 1842 Account: The Wentworth Letter (“Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 [March 1, 1842]: 706–707.)

Published in 1842 in the Church’s newspaper Times and Seasons, this account was prepared at the request of Chicago newspaperman John Wentworth. It was contextualized as part of a larger “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints.” Peppered with Latin phrases, carefully crafted for wide public consumption, and drawing language from previously published records, this account of the First Vision shows the Prophet’s evolving literary style and reliance on clerks who helped him (re)formulate his narrative in later years.

The 1835, 1838, and 1842 accounts of the First Vision were copied or otherwise repurposed on a few occasions in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, attesting to their importance. As one historian has remarked, “Joseph Smith’s [F]irst [V]ision may be the best documented theophany in history. . . . Joseph Smith worked hard to document his experience in the grove, and scholars have worked hard to raise awareness of his several accounts.”5

Rather than feel threatened or bothered by the existence of multiple accounts of the First Vision, Latter-day Saints can rightly rejoice that they have access to additional records that compliment the canonical account in the Pearl of Great Price. As is true with all books of scripture, “The [F]irst [V]ision accounts were created in specific historical settings that shape what they say and how they say it. Each of the accounts of Joseph Smith’s [F]irst [V]ision has its own history. Each was created in circumstances that determined how it was remembered and communicated and thus how it was transmitted to us. Each account has gaps and omissions. Each adds detail and richness.”6

Further Reading

Steven C. Harper, “The First Vision: A Narrative from Joseph Smith’s Accounts” online at www.history.churchofjesuschrist.org.

Milton V. Backman Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, January 1985, 8–17.

James B. Allen and John W. Welch. “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, edited by John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77.

Footnotes

 

1 “Fiftieth Semi-Annual Conference,” Deseret News (13 October 1880).

2 See the discussion and overview of the importance of the First Vision in Latter-day Saint thought in Terryl Givens, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2019), 223-240; Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2019).

3 Richard J. Maynes, “The First Vision: Key to Truth,” Ensign, June 2017, 60–65.

4 See “Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity,” online at the Joseph Smith Papers website.

5 Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 31.

6 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 32.