Joseph Smith–History Insight #15
The accounts of the First Vision left by Joseph Smith establish the basic details of this supremely important historical experience. These details include the who, what, where, why, and when of the events surrounding the First Vision.1 But beyond the historical details surrounding the First Vision itself is the importance or significance of the First Vision for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As historian James Allen pointed out several decades ago in two pioneering pieces of historical scholarship, there is the perceived reality of the First Vision—what the vision means, what it signifies, or what we learn from it—as much as there is the historical reality of that event.2 The historical reality of the First Vision is captured in Joseph Smith’s primary accounts and, barring any major future discoveries, remains fairly solidified in the historical consciousness of modern Latter-day Saints. The perceived reality of the significance of the First Vision, on the other hand, has evolved over time as Latter-day Saints beginning with Joseph Smith himself have attempted to make sense of what the vision means for their faith and religious practice.
As Allen and others have explored at length, the meaning or significance assigned to the First Vision emerged slowly during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.3 The Prophet left some clues as to what he himself understood was the significance his vision in his firsthand accounts of that experience. In some of his accounts, especially from 1832 and 1835, but also in Orson Pratt’s secondhand presentation in 1840, Joseph conceptualized the importance of his vision in a deeply personal way.4 The importance of a personal God who forgives sins and answers the humble prayers of his children appears most prominently in these retellings. In his later accounts from 1838 and 1842 that were intended for a more public audience—and which were written when the Prophet had time to more carefully conceptualize and record what points he wanted to emphasize in his history—the First Vision took on more universal significance as a sign that Joseph had been called of God to usher in the last dispensation of the gospel after a long period of apostasy.5 The dichotomy between an early personal stage, on the one hand, and an institutional stage in his later First Vision formulations and usages, on the other, however, is not entirely rigid. For example, instructions not to join any existing church and their errors are already found in the 1832 account, and the points about Joseph’s prayers being answered and a special personal blessing having been given to him persist in Orson Hyde’s 1842 secondhand account.6
From surviving secondhand accounts, we now also know that Joseph at times told his vision in ways to highlight specific theological points beginning earlier than scholars had previously thought. For example, in the spring of 1835 in Michigan, Joseph spoke to believers about the First Vision to support the doctrine of continuing revelation. In Kirtland, Ohio in June 1835, he preached a Sabbath sermon on the requested topic of “This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him.” In 1837 in Toronto, Canada he spoke about the Father and the Son. In 1840, Samuel Bennett and Orson Pratt discussed, in Philadelphia, the bodily manifestation of God in connection with the First Vision, and both of them that year published booklets in defense of the Church.7 Finally, in a discourse delivered on June 11, 1843, the Prophet related his vision in a way that affirmed the reality of the Great Apostasy.8
It appears that while Joseph Smith used the First Vision often and for several purposes, including at times to discuss the nature of God,9 Latter-day Saints did not systematize any single special theological meaning or significance out of the First Vision in the early years of the Church. For example, whereas today Church members look to the First Vision to fortify a full understanding of the nature of the Godhead, a systematic approach was not fully developed until later in the nineteenth century with such works as Elder B.H. Roberts’s The Mormon Doctrine of Deity and into the twentieth century with the 1916 statement by the First Presidency on the Godhead.10 Such full articulation was beyond the capability and priorities for the first generation of converts to the Church of Jesus Christ.11 This, Allen reasonably argues, might be because many of the details of Joseph’s vision were not widely known in the 1830s as well as because of the general wariness among Latter-day Saints to propound anything that seemed like a dogmatic creed.12
Another reason identified by Allen “may have been that the first generation of Mormon theologians placed so much emphasis on the idea that the restoration of the gospel began [in earnest] when the angel Moroni delivered the Book of Mormon [plates to Joseph in 1827]. This event, after all, was depicted from the beginning as fulfilling the prophecy in Revelation 14:6.”13 This can be seen in the example of Elder Orson Pratt in his 1840 pamphlet A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. Pratt undertook one of the earliest attempts to draw theological or historical significance out of the First Vision. But instead of elaborating on how the First Vision clarified the nature of God, in this publication Pratt—as had Joseph himself in 1835—situated the vision of the Father and the Son as the first in a series of heavenly encounters leading to the recovery and translation of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.14 That was understandable, as Pratt was writing a missionary tract for investigators and new converts who would have tangible access to the text of the Book of Mormon but not to the accounts of First Vision. Furthermore, when earliest members of the Church spoke of “the Vision,” they often meant what is now known as Doctrine and Covenants 76, the grand vision of the degrees of glory experienced together by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.15 There were many visions in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, so in the midst of those outpourings the focus of attention was still dynamic and broad.16
Although Pratt’s pamphlet was influential, it would still take several more years for Latter-day Saint writers to craft a full institutional narrative or understanding about the First Vision that had applicability for the faith of Church members worldwide. In what historian Steven Harper calls the creation of a “collective memory,”17 Latter-day Saints throughout the mid- to late-nineteenth century began delivering sermons, composing poems and hymns, writing tracts and books, and commissioning artwork that standardized how the First Vision was collectively imagined and communicated. Indeed, even the name First Vision (first used by Pratt in 1849) was itself coined as a way to position Joseph’s 1820 encounter with the Father and the Son in a broader historical and theological context in relation to his subsequent visions of Moroni and other heavenly personages.18 Fostering this growing significance of the First Vision in the collective thinking of Church members was the canonization of the Pearl of Great Price in the year 1880, which brought with it scriptural status for the 1838–39 account of the First Vision recorded in what is known today as Joseph Smith–History (vv. 1–26).
By the year 1920—one hundred years after the boy Joseph entered the grove of trees near his home to seek out God in prayer—the First Vision had secured an enormously important position for Latter-day Saints. In April of that year the Church’s magazine Improvement Era published an issue celebrating the centennial anniversary of the First Vision.19 Writing in that commemorative issue of the magazine, President Heber J. Grant heralded “the appearance of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ to the boy prophet Joseph Smith” as a “marvelous occurrence fraught with wonderous results” and nothing less than “the greatest event that has taken place in all the world since the birth of our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” He likewise deemed it “the most wonderful vision ever bestowed upon mortal man.”20 Among other truths, the First Vision, President Grant continued, demonstrated the reality of the restoration of the gospel and the divine calling of Joseph Smith.21 That same month during the Church’s general conference, President Anthon H. Lund of the First Presidency preached that the First Vision was “the dawn of this last dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times. It was indeed the beginning, the very initiating of this work; and the Lord chose an instrument, not learned and educated, but a man who was willing to do that which he should be commanded to do.”22
Today, leaders of the Church have further elaborated, emphasized, and clarified how the First Vision is significant for Latter-day Saints and, indeed, the entire world. In the October 2002 general conference of the Church, President Gordon B. Hinckley testified,
We declare without equivocation that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith. . . . Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens. Reflect upon it, my brethren and sisters. For centuries the heavens remained sealed. Good men and women, not a few—really great and wonderful people—tried to correct, strengthen, and improve their systems of worship and their body of doctrine. To them I pay honor and respect. How much better the world is because of their bold action. While I believe their work was inspired, it was not favored with the opening of the heavens, with the appearance of Deity. Then in 1820 came that glorious manifestation in answer to the prayer of a boy who had read in his family Bible the words of James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). Upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this Church.23
In 2005, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf bore testimony that “Joseph Smith’s First Vision blesses our own personal lives, the lives of families, and eventually the whole human family—we come to believe in Jesus Christ through the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”24 More recently, the Church’s Ensign magazine has published talks by General Authorities once again articulating the valuable truths that we learn from the First Vision, including truths about the nature of God and Jesus Christ, how to receive personal revelation and answer to prayer, and the divine origins of the Church of Jesus Christ.25
All of this demonstrates that, like God’s children of past dispensations, Latter-day Saints of this final dispensation learn truth line upon line, precept upon precept (2 Nephi 28:30). It often takes time and careful study to fully recognize and convey the unfathomable significance of when God enters into history and acts for the benefit of humankind; a point recognized by Elder Roberts over a century ago.
I believe “Mormonism” affords opportunity for disciples of the second sort; nay, that its crying need is for such disciples. It calls for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of its truths, but will develop the truths; and enlarge it by that development. Not half—not one-hundredth part—not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the Church has yet been unfolded, either to the Church or to the world. The work of the expounder has scarcely begun. The Prophet planted by teaching the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fulness of times. The watering and weeding is going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain. The disciples of “Mormonism,” growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; co-operating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of development.26
“Once the [First Vision] assumed its predominant place in Mormon writing and preaching” in the latter half of the nineteenth century, observed Allen, “it became much more than Joseph Smith’s personal experience. It became a shared community experience. Every Mormon and every prospective convert was urged to pray for his own testimony of its reality–in effect, to seek his own theophany by becoming one with Joseph in the grove.”27 This invitation remains extended today as the significance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is shared throughout the world.
James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 43–61.
James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966): 29–45; reprinted as James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2012), 283–306.
1 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #1 (February 4, 2020); Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012).
2 James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966): 29–45; “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 43–61.
3 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 29–45; “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 43–61; J. B. Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 123–125; Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), esp. 47–258; Terryl Givens, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 223–240.
4 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “The 1832 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #2 (February 2, 2020); “The 1835 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #3 (February 11, 2020).
5 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “The 1838 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #4 (February 13, 2020); “The 1842 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #5 (February 18, 2020).
6 Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (Frankfurt: Im Selbstverlage des Verfassers, 1842), 14–15.
7 See Harper, First Vision, 53–57.
9 Harper, First Vision, 55, observes, “It has been argued and now widely assumed in academic circles that Joseph Smith’s theology began with a Trinitarian concept that transformed later into emphasis on the separate, embodied natures of God and Christ. If that is true, the supporting idea—that Smith’s first vision story was employed only after 1840 and especially emphasized late in the nineteenth century to effect that transformation—is not true. Smith and others were telling of the vision in the 1830s, and its implications for the trinity and materiality of God were asserted that early.”
10 B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: The Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion (Salt Lake City, UT; The Deseret News, 1903); “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve,” Improvement Era, August 1916, 934–942.
11 Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 45–50.
12 Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 46–47.
13 Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 52.
14 Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 3–6.
15 Matthew McBride, “The Vision,” in Revelations Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), 148–154.
16 Alexander L. Baugh, “Seventy-Six Accounts of Joseph Smith’s Visionary Experiences,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies Press, 2017), 281–350.
17 Harper, First Vision, 71–76.
18 Harper, First Vision, 71–181; cf. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 50–56.
21 Grant, “‘A Marvelous Work and a Wonder’,” 472–474.
22 Anthon H. Lund, Conference Report, April 1920, 18.
25 Joseph F. Merrill, “Joseph Smith Did See God,” Ensign, December 2015, 70–71; Richard J. Maynes, “The First Vision: Key to Truth,” Ensign, June 2017, 61–65; Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, February 2020, 13–17; cf. “Eight Truths from the First Vision,” Ensign, February 2020, 19–21.
27 Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 58.