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
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.
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.
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.