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 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
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.
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.
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.