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The First Vision was the foundational event of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, occurring in the spring of 1820, when Joseph Smith was a teen. At the time, religious revivals were occurring in the area, and Joseph could not tell which church was true. While reading in the Bible, young Joseph was impressed by the scripture in James 1:5, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…" He decided to pray and ask God which church he should join. As a result of his prayer, Joseph saw God and Jesus Christ, who told him not to join any of the churches.
Overview of LDS position
Not only was this a pivotal event in teaching the world that none of the churches were true, therby establishing the need to restore God's true Church, it helps members understand the actual nature of God: God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ are two separate personages. It also shows an example of how God can be approached in prayer, and shows that He does answer, when asked with a sincere heart.
Overview of Critics' position
Was this a real, physical event? Or was this a vision in the same sense that Lehi saw a vision of the tree of life, in a dream? The first written version of the account by Joseph was not given until 12 years after it supposedly took place. When he first penned the account, Joseph only mentioned one person visiting him, which is no small detail to be mistaken about. There are now known at least nine different accounts given by Joseph Smith relating the First Vision with varying degrees of changes and circumstances. If this vision was so important, why are there discrepancies and why did it take so long to write?
As far as Mormon literature is concerned, there was apparently no reference to Joseph Smith's First Vision in any published material in the 1830's, it was left out of the first publication of the Church's history written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. It was also left out of the Book of Commandments (the precursor to the Doctrine & Covenants) and the general church membership did not receive information about the First Vision until the 1840's and that the story certainly did not hold the prominent place in Mormon thought that it does today.
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, wrote that in the spring of 1820, when he was fourteen years old, there was a significant revival in his neighborhood. He recounted that "Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist." His mother, two brothers and his sister joined the Presbyterian Church. Then Smith went out into the woods to pray for wisdom concerning which church he should join. In answer to this prayer God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him as two separate, distinct beings. They told him not to join any of the churches "for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt" (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:5-19).
After the First Vision took place, the following things were made very clear:
Many LDS know that there are perhaps two accounts of the First Vision. One is more of an abbreviated version and the other is a longer version in Joseph Smith's History that goes into more detail. The versions do not contradict each other. Most LDS think the only inconsistency is that one version says Joseph was 14 and the other said he was 15 which probably means he was almost 15.
Links recording official church version:
Most Church members did not know about the First Vision until 1842, and even then it wasn't regarded as very important. Joseph said that he was persecuted for telling people that he had seen a vision. There seems to be little evidence that the complete First Vision account was openly taught. Perhaps some snippets of some kind of an encounter was recorded in other places, which wasn't really all that strange in the early 1800s, but not the complete First Vision with all the details that make Mormonism unique. It is absent from the core Church documents like the Book of Commandments which you would naturally expect to find the event that sparked the entire Mormon movement. The following evidence indicates that the First Vision either perhaps never really happened or was very different from what LDS leaders teach:
Why did Joseph Smith fail to mention his First Vision when he first wrote the church history in 1835?
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote and published a history of the church that supposedly covered all of the important points related to its beginnings. However, Joseph Smith records a different story than the "official" one later published in 1842. In Joseph Smith's own 1835 published history of the church, he says that his first spiritual experience was in 1823 after a religious revival in Palmyra that same year. Smith testified that he prayed while in bed to discover if God existed when he was visited by an angelic messenger (Moroni) that forgave him his sins. Elements of this narrative are similar to the later "official" version except the "official" version has different dates, locations, visitors and purposes for Smith's first spiritual experience. See: http://mit.irr.org/changing-first-vision-accounts-1834-35-first-vision-account-in-messenger-and-advocate
Some quotes by early church leaders that seem to contradict Joseph's First Vision account:
(It is certain Young is speaking of the First Vision for he says the angel told Smith to join no church for they were all wrong. This is the very question the official version of the story states Smith asked of the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove.)
A few days later Apostle Wilford Woodruff declared:
"That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God,... The angel taught Joseph Smith those principles which are necessary for the salvation of the world;... He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world,... This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel;..." (Journal of Discourses, Vol.2, pp.196-197)
Church Apostle Heber C. Kimball, speaking Nov. 8th, 1857, seemed to be oblivious to any vision where Smith saw God and Christ:
Church Apostle John Taylor explained in a sermon March 1, 1863:
Church Apostle George A. Smith, Nov. 15th, 1863, preached:
Five years later Apostle Smith again referred to Smith's first vision:
It seems that in the first 50 years since the first vision was supposed to have happened, that whenever the church leaders referred to the first vision, they were actually referring to the visit of the angel Moroni and not the first vision by God the Father and Jesus.
Fawn M. Brodie was one of the first to cast serious doubt upon the authenticity of Joseph Smith's story of the first vision:
Joseph's mother, likewise, knew nothing of a vision of the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove. In her unpublished account she traces the origin of Mormonism to a bedroom visit by an angel. Joseph at the time had been pondering which of all the churches were the true one. The angel told him "there is not a true church on Earth, No, not one" (First draft of Lucy Smith's History, p. 46, LDS Church archives).
Why doesn't the First Vision play an important role in Mormon history until the 1880s? It was scarcely even mentioned before then even though it is now deemed by Latter-day Saints to be the most important event in almost 2,000 years.References
In modern times if someone said they had a vision it would seem extraordinary, or more likely not believable. However in the early 1800s having visions wasn't perceived to be all that uncommon. Even Joseph Smith's father claimed to have had a vision - namely the Tree of Life vision. People believed in magic, seer stones, divining rods, etc. and people claiming to have visions weren't seen as all that strange. Like much of Joseph's work, the first vision is strikingly similar to someone else's story. The following are accounts of visions similar to Joseph's First Vision. Note: All of these accounts appeared in print before Joseph's First Vision was published.
Was this a previously unpublished version of Joseph Smith's "first vision," one might ask? No. It was the claim of one Norris Stearns, published in 1815, in Greenfield, Massachusetts---not far from where the Joseph Smith Senior family lived in Vermont.
The most intriguing aspect of Stearns' "vision," is how he described the Father and the Son as two separate, distinct, human personages. LDS faithful, of course, have long asserted that that was one of the "truths" that had been lost from the world until Joseph Smith's First Vision. It was a major point in the late apostle Hugh B. Brown's 1950's sermon "Profile of a Prophet." But Joseph may have merely been inspired by Stearns, or some other contemporary source.
Pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman's comments
Even pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman, is intrigued by the similarities of literary voice and tone between Joseph's account of the First Vision and Norris Stearns' vision saying "That voice suited Joseph perfectly, and he adopted it as his own with immense success in his simple narrative of innocence overtaken by divinity". books.google.com
In 1816 a minister by the name of Elias Smith published a book in which he told of his conversion. Notice how similar it is to Joseph Smith's first account: "... I went into the woods ... a light appeared from heaven.... My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb.... The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly.... It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation ..." (The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816, pp.58-59).
Alexander Campbell wrote the following on March 1, 1824, concerning a "revival in the state of New York": "Enthusiasm flourishes.... This man was regenerated when asleep, by a vision of the night. That man heard a voice in the woods, saying,
'Thy sins be forgiven thee.' A third saw his Savior descending to the tops of the trees at noon day" (The Christian Baptist, Vol. 1, pp.148-49).
Asa Wild claimed to have a revelation which is very similar to the story Joseph Smith published. It was published in the Wayne Sentinel (the paper to which the family of Joseph Smith apparently subscribed) on October 22, 1823: "It seemed as if my mind ... was struck motionless, as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah. He then spake ... He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt...."
Meridian Magazine has recently published an article by famed LDS historian Richard Bushman giving another person's account of a vision which is remarkably similar to Joseph's First Vision but preceded Joseph's First Vision by four years. The article, abridged by Meridian but with a link to the full article, is here:
As per this article, one Solomon Chamberlain was on a quest for the true religion and gave the following account
Now there are known to have been several accounts by Joseph Smith of his first vision, one in which it was an 'angel' who communicated with Joseph, another in which it was Christ alone, and the official canonized version, which included both the Father and the Son. All of these accounts were recorded some time after the establishment of the Church. The account of Solomon Chamberlain, as recounted by Bushman above, is so similar to that of Joseph's own account, particular his earliest version, that one is left to wonder if Joseph did not appropriate this vision for himself.
Michael Quinn, in his book "The Mormon Hierarchy : Origins of Power" mentions that in 1838 a 14 year-old Mormon boy had a vision of God and Jesus and talked to them "face to face."
"7 May, 1838. James G. Marsh, 14-year-old son of the president of the Quorum of Twelve, dies. The Elder's Journal issue of July notes that at age nine this boy "had a remarkable vision, in which he talked with the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory." No publication at this time had yet referred to Smith's vision of the Father and the Son."
(D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p.628)
It's interesting to note that this boy's first vision-type story was published just before Joseph Smith's secretary wrote the "official" first vision story with the Father and the Son.
Joseph Smith was the editor of the Elders Journal when the boy's obituary appeared:
Elder's Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Far West, Missouri, July 1828
Vol.1, No.3, p.48
DIED on the 7th of May last, James G. Marsh, second son of Thomas B. Marsh, aged 14 years, 11 months and seven days.
From early infancy he manifested a love and reverence towards his Heavenly Father, while his parents diligently taught him the first principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And having a thirst for knowledge and a love of good principles, he eagerly embraced the gospel, and was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, early in the spring of 1832, being between eight and nine years of age.
His great love of knowledge led him to take hold of every opportunity to read the most useful books, and as he was a lover of the gospel, he made himself well acquainted with the sacred writings, and even at this early age, he had become well skilled in profane as well as sacred history.
It seems that the Lord had respect unto this lover of righteousness, for when he was but about nine years of age, he had a remarkable vision, in which he talked with the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory.
Is it just a coincidence that shortly after the above was published, Joseph Smith's secretary first penned the Father and Son apparition version of the "first vision" story? Smith's first vision story wasn't published until five years later in 1842, but it was written just after this obituary in the summer of 1838.
The following is an interesting article on the First Vision which is remarkably similar to the account of an evangelist, Charles G. Finney.
Piecing Together the First Vision
by Paul Derengowski
Anyone familiar with the beginnings of Mormonism is aware of the great importance that Mormons place upon the foundational experiences of their first president and prophet Joseph Smith. In fact, the whole Mormon belief structure rises or falls on his testimony: one's salvation hinges upon the reception or rejection of it. There is no middle ground. The question arises, however, about whether Joseph Smith's spiritual experience, known as his "First Vision," was truly that unique. The unusual religious experiences common in his day convinces objective readers of the non-originality of his story. This is especially true when one examines the striking parallels between Smith's First Vision and the conversion experience of the well-known lawyer-turned-evangelist, Charles G. Finney.
PARALLEL #1: SPIRITUAL STRAITS
Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805. Later, his family moved to Palmyra, New York, in the western part of that state. "Central and Western New York in the early nineteenth century was a 'boom' country with all the characteristics of the recently settled and rapidly expanding community." With that expansion of new settlements the atmosphere was fertile for religious revival. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were only a few of the more established denominations vying for the souls of men during the excitement of settling the new territory.
It was during the religious fervor of the day that Joseph Smith became perplexed concerning his spiritual destiny. Viewing all the religious competition of the day confused him. He did not know which denomination to join. Therefore, upon reading James 1:5 he set out to ask God which denomination was correct and with which one he should align himself. This supposedly occurred in the spring of 1820. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley p. Walters, however, report that newspaper accounts, religious periodicals, church records, and personal narratives show no signs of a revival in Palmyra in 1820; the closest date for a revival was 1824-25. This greatly increases the likelihood that Smith's story was modeled after Finney's.
Charles G. Finney, on the other hand, was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut in 1792. As a youth his parents also moved to Central New York where he grew to maturity. Although he spent time in service in the local Presbyterian Church as a choir director, Finney did not trust ministerial advice, much less God Himself. In fact, he often scoffed at the dogmas and practices of those who claimed to be Christians. However, at the age of 29 he began to experience serious spiritual despair that culminated in a need to personally seek the face of God. This occurred in October of 1821, while he was serving his apprenticeship in Adams, New York.
PARALLEL #2: GRAPHIC GROVES
One clear, spring morning, Joseph Smith journeyed west of his parents' farm into a "beautiful grove" to petition God regarding his dilemma. After "having looked around...and finding [himself] alone, [he] kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of [his] heart to God." It was supposedly the first time in young Joseph's life that he had ever endeavored to "attempt to pray vocally."
Similarly, Charles Finney knew of a "grove of woods" that lay north of Adams. He set forth one morning for work and was compelled that he must accept God or die. He "turned and bent [his] course for that grove of woods, feeling that [he] must be alone and away from all human eyes, so that [he] could pour out [his] prayer to God."
PARALLEL #3: PARALYZED PRAYERS
Not long after Joseph began his petition "the enemy" subdued him. He could not speak, for his tongue had been bound. Hearing noises in the woods near him, Smith assumed that other persons were walking around in his presence. He tried several times to make his requests known to God, but without success. The young inquirer despairingly supposed that he was "doomed to destruction." He had never before encountered such supernatural strength.
In like manner, Charles Finney determined to give his heart to God, but upon making his petition he found that he could not pray. When he attempted to pray he became "dumb," having "nothing to say to God." Rustling of leaves nearby led him to believe that other individuals were in his presence. Ultimately that thought led him to such a sense of conviction of personal wickedness that it took possession of him. Charles attempted to pray several times without success, leading him to the verge of despair. He recollected that "a great sinking and discouragement came over me at this point, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees."
PARALLEL #4: LOFTY LUMINARIES
Upon deliverance from the clutches of the enemy, Joseph witnessed a pillar of light descending upon him until it enveloped him. He became filled with the "spirit of God," causing him also to be "filled...with unspeakable joy." At this time both God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, of which Joseph petitioned them "which of all sects were right - and which I should join." He was admonished that he should join none of them, for they were all wrong! The experience lasted "one brief hour."
Charles envisioned a light also, but it was scripturally caused. Reflecting upon Jeremiah 29:12-13, the passage "seemed to drop into [his] mind with a flood of light." With that he was convinced that he could perform his vow of accepting God that day. In the midst of such spiritual ecstasy he left the woods and returned to the village. After dinner Charles wished to "pour out [his] whole soul to God." He retired to the Counsel room of his law practice, where it was dark, but "it appeared to [him] as if it was perfectly light." In that "lighted" room he came face to face [emphasis his] with Jesus Christ. No words were exchanged, but Finney "fell down at his feet and poured out [his] soul to him." Shortly thereafter, Charles received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost, which he characterized as a "wave of electricity" or "waves of love." The event lasted until late in the evening.
PARALLEL #5: REJECTED REPORTS
Joseph shared his visionary experience with those whom God had previously denounced as "wrong" and "corrupt." To his surprise he was treated lightly and with great contempt. Although only a boy of young age, he soon found that his visions and revelations were not welcomed, and that "men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against [him]," creating "bitter persecution." Being satisfied in mind that he had seen a vision, however, Smith endured, thereafter translating the Book of Mormon and starting the Mormon Church.
Charles, too, endured persecution for sharing his experience. Certain young men in his neighborhood had been warned to avoid him, for he "was a very careless young man about religion." To associate with Finney was tantamount to diverting oneself away from conversion. The neighborhood's opinions caused him to doubt his own eternal security. He perceived that others thought of him as possibly delusional or even "crazy." Nevertheless, after falling asleep the day of his conversion, and then awaking, he experienced "the great flow of the love of God" in his heart. Finney even visited Joseph Smith's community in 1831.
The role that Joseph Smith plays in Mormonism cannot be underestimated. His character is central to the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the salvation of its members. Important is his testimony regarding what he saw on a spring, New York morning in 1820. At first glance his experience seems extraordinary. However, upon further review, similar experiences shared by others of his the day, coupled with chronological problems, seem to negate the uniqueness of Joseph Smith's testimony. More important, the parallelism between Smith's testimony and Charles G. Finney's prior written declaration seems also to negate Smith's story as original.
Did Joseph Smith really see anything? Only God knows for sure. Yet, based on the above, one conclusion at which readers could arrive is that Joseph Smith did not see anything at all. More than likely, he culled from the experiences of others, Charles Finney specifically, editing and reshaping them to form his own First Vision.
Reference: http://www.watchman.org/lds/firstvsn.htmCritic's Summary
It is plain to see, then, that the story Joseph Smith penned in the early 1830s is not much different than the visions related by others. It was only when he added the part about the Father appearing with the Son that the story began to sound somewhat unique and even then some of those above such as James G. Marsh mentioned both the Father and the Son.
See this side-by-side comparison of these Visions with Joseph's First Vision:
Since Joseph never told anyone about the vision, he wasn't persecuted. There is simply no evidence that he was ever persecuted for the First Vision.
Here's what Joseph said officially about it:
How strange that Joseph says that the neighborhood knew enough about it to persecute this obscure boy, but his own family hadn't heard about it at all. If Joseph's story had actually occurred and caused said excitement, someone would have mentioned it. No one did.
Joseph was persecuted, but not for his first vision account in 1820, but rather from talking about treasure digging and later, in 1827, about the golden plates. No one, friend or foe, in New York or Pennsylvania remembers either that there was "great persecution" or even that Joseph claimed to have had a vision. Not even his family remembers it. It is likely that the vision was unremarkably similar to many other epiphanies of that era and no one took notice of it.
God & Christ visit a young boy, and because of local gossip, he withheld that info from his family. And yet then he receives another visitation three years later from an angel, and immediately he tells his family? Why the inconsistencies?
If it really happened, why couldn't Joseph Smith tell a consistent story about such a powerful experience as meeting with God and Jesus Christ face-to-face?
How many people forget where they were when their first child was born? Or when they got their patriarchal blessing? Or their wedding night? How many forget who they were with and what happened? If we can remember details such as year, circumstance and those involved, why couldn't Joseph Smith consistently recall basic facts about his incredible First Vision?
In Joseph Smith's first handwritten testimony of the first vision in 1832, he says he already knew all other churches were false before he prayed. Smith testified: "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 built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ."
See: 1832 First Vision
Yet in the "official" story written years later by a scribe, it has Joseph Smith saying: "I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join."
In fact, looking at all the versions of the first vision story, you see a pattern of contradictions and evolution, not a pattern of mere elaboration on a single original experience.
Why didn't Joseph Smith write the "official" version of the First Vision?
In fact, the 'Joseph Smith History' in the Pearl of Great Price was written by a scribe, James Mulholland, and went unpublished for years. There are earlier versions of the First Vision story in Joseph Smith's own handwriting, but they are not considered "official" and are relatively ignored by the church.
Although there are several accounts referred to by many people as the 'first vision' the ones recorded before 1832 refer to the Moroni visitation and not the visit of the Father and Son. And none of these were published to the church members before 1842 even if they were recorded earlier.
You can read them all here:
It is worth comparing the 1832 account which is in the handwriting of Joseph himself and not a scribe to the 'official ' 1838 account used by the church today. These versions are not consistent with each other. The biggest problem being the 1832 version has Joseph being visited by Jesus only and the 1838 version has both God the Father and Jesus.Changing First Vision Accounts: Conclusion
The evidence available from early sources, including Joseph Smith and his family establish a number of important facts.
First, Joseph did not relate his story consistently, but changed key elements over the years.He changed:
Second, common elements from early accounts raise questions about what appears to be a gradual evolution of Joseph Smith's first vision story. Did Joseph begin to include a "Christian experience" in the telling of his story because Bauder noticed it was lacking? The earliest accounts given to Chase and Harris do not include this. There is a noticeable shift in the context of finding the gold plates, from 17 year-old money-digger to 14 year-old spiritual seeker.Is this an attempt to put his story into a more socially acceptable context? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as time went on, Joseph omitted uncomfortable but true parts of his history and replaced them with fictitious elements in order to make his story more socially acceptable and spiritually compelling.
One thing is clear, the LDS Church does a great disservice to investigators of its claims by presenting Joseph Smith's 1838 account of his first vision as the only version of these events. It appears deliberately misleading to offer this account (now canonized as part of LDS Scripture) as an unquestioningly accurate and honest portrayal of its historical origins.
- Joel B. Groat
S. Dilworth Young was a senior member of the First Council of the Seventy, and one of the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is apparent from this Improvement Era excerpt below, that Young was surprised to learn of Joseph's evolving accounts about the first vision and seems to indicate that Brother Young was somewhat distressed upon learning about this. (emphasis added)
This statement is from the June 1957 Improvement Era magazine:
*Oliver Cowdery's account in the 1834 "Messenger and Advocate" stated that the "first vision" occurred in 1823---not a word about an 1820 vision. Cowdery's account also related that Smith's interest in religion was sparked by the preaching of Methodist elder George Lane, rather than Smith's version which claimed that he was inspired by reading in the Bible at 14. Cowdery also stated that the date of the "religious excitement in Palmyra and vicinity" was in Smith's "17th year," which would have been 1823, rather than 1820.
Joseph's brother William's account of the event was closer to Cowdery's than to Joseph's:
Note that William's and Cowdery's accounts both pinpoint the preaching of George Lane as Joseph's impetus for seeking "inspiration." That calls into doubt Joseph's claim that his "first vision" occurred in 1820, because Lane did not preach in the area until 1824. And where William and Cowdery's accounts pinpoint Lane as being Joseph's inspiration, Joseph himself claimed that local ministers "persecuted" him.
Note also how William's account co-mingles elements of the alleged "first vision" with those of " Moroni's visit" of supposedly 1823. That same contradiction also occurred in Lucy Mack Smith's original manuscript of her "Biographical Sketches":
To see Lucy's original book as she wrote it: http://www.utlm.org/booklist/titles/lucysbook_xb184.htm
And of course, Smith's 1842 "official version" contradicts on many points his original 1832 version. All of these contradictions, originating in accounts from Smith and his closest family and friends, indicate that those involved couldn't keep their stories straight----and that, of course, leads us to believe that Smith simply invented the "first vision" story, probably around 1832 when he wrote his original version of it----and the story changed somewhat with each re-telling.
There are other contradictions which cast doubt on the "first vision," such as the some of the Smith family joining the Presbyterian church AFTER God has supposedly told Joseph that all churches were corrupt; Cowdery's statement that Smith had wondered, several years after the alleged "first vision," as to whether "a Supreme Being did exist"; and the fact that as late as 1851, church publications such as the "Times and Seasons" were calling the angel that visited Joseph "Nephi," rather than Moroni. Seeing as how Joseph Smith was the editor of the "Times and Seasons," it seems incredible that he would allow his own paper to misstate the name of the angel, and not issue a correction.
Bottom line----all of these contradictions cast serious doubts on Smith's "first vision" claims. If this level of contradictions existed in any "anti-Mormon" claims or publications, Mormon apologists would ridicule and discredit them. But unfortunately, Mormon apologists hold "anti-Mormon" claims and writings to a much higher standard of inerrancy than they do the claims and writings of their "prophets." And that double standard renders all the efforts of modern Mormon apologists nothing more than a silly game of pot-kettle-black.
Ex-Mormon LDS critic Randy Jordan
Comparison Chart of the First Vision
Click here for a PDF comparison chart of the details of six accounts of the First Vision: http://www.annuitech.com/ms/ftp/Jim/ComparisonChart.pdf
Here is a comparison of nine different accounts from an apologist's site: http://www.josephsmithforum.org/doc/comparison-of-9-first-vision-accounts/
The following is provided by Mormon Infographics. Click on the image to see it full size. For more information, view the Mormon Infographics' website: Joseph Smith's First Vision and His Conflicting Accounts.
According to the historical evidence Joseph Smith could not have been stirred by a 1820 revival to ask which church was true, since there was no revival in 1820 anywhere near Manchester, New York, where he was living. A revival as described by Joseph Smith did occur there beginning in the spring of 1824. However, this then seriously disrupts Joseph's whole story, because there is not enough time between the First vision and the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon for all the events described in the First Vision story.
A young Joseph, an amazing vision, the birth of Mormonism - it all started with a great revival. Joseph Smith gave a vivid description of the revival that took place in his boyhood town of Palmyra, New York:
There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religions. It commenced with the Methodist, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country... . great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir ... Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist (Pearl of Great Price / Joseph Smith History 1:5).
This revival made a big impression on Joseph Smith, but what kind of mark did it leave in history? Could we pinpoint the place and date of this event and verify that it really happened? Would church records for the years immediately before and after a revival, show a sudden jump in church memberships telling us exactly when this took place? What if we found the actual records but there was no evidence of a revival?
Authors Marquardt and Walters asked themselves these same questions and set out to discover the revival mentioned by Joseph Smith. They found membership records, minutes of church meetings, newspaper accounts, and, an unexpected surprise. It was to have implications for the very foundations of Mormonism.
Why all this concern over a revival? Because Joseph Smith tied his entire First Vision story to this event. If the revival did not occur when Joseph Smith said it did, his complex story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is suspect, and might perhaps be nothing more than a fabrication.
There are few things as foundational to Latter-day Saint faith as the First Vision story - Joseph Smith's account of how the Father and the Son appeared to him in a vision. For example, former LDS President Howard W. Hunter called Joseph's account of an 1820 revival and vision "the first pillar of our faith," (The Ensign, September 1994, p. 54), while Ezra Taft Benson referred to it as "bedrock theology to the Church" (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 101).
According to Joseph's story, a revival affected all the churches in the area, and brought Joseph and his family to a greater religious awareness. This prompted Joseph to go to a grove to pray. While in prayer he received a vision of the Father and the Son, who told him all the churches were wrong. Thus, the revival is the historical catalyst for the events leading to the start of the LDS church.
Using Joseph Smith's story as a guide, the authors went in search for evidence of a revival occurring in or around 1820. They meticulously combed early sources including: church conference reports, newspapers and church periodicals, presbytery records and published interviews. But an examination of these sources for 1820-21 showed nothing that fit Joseph's detailed description. There were no significant gains in church membership in Palmyra during 1820-21 such as accompany great revivals. For example, in 1820, "the first Baptized Church in Palmyra" only received 8 people through profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church added 14 members, and the Methodist circuit lost 6 members, (Inventing, pp. 17-18). Would not a revival like the one described by Joseph have had a greater impact? Where was Joseph's 1820 revival?
Then they found it. Multiple sources revealed evidence of a great religious excitement, with big gains in church membership for all the denominations mentioned by Joseph. But, instead of the revival beginning in 1820, it started in the autumn of 1824 and continued into the spring of 1825. For the year ending September 1825, the Baptist church recorded 94 admitted on profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church reported 99 new members and the Methodist circuit showed an increase of 208 (p. 27). These facts fit Joseph's description, but not his date for the event. How did the 1824 date square with other related evidence?
Two additional details from Joseph Smith's family also pointed to 1824 as the correct date for the revival. The first comes from Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. She wrote her own history, published by the LDS publisher, Bookcraft (History of Joseph Smith By His Mother). In her preliminary manuscript she recounted the great sorrow their family experienced when Joseph's oldest brother, Alvin, died suddenly - a victim of frontier medicine. Lucy wrote,
we all wept with one accord our irretrievable loss and it seemed as though we could not be comforted because he was not. About that time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest flocked to the meeting house to see if their [sic] was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings (p. 55).
A revival following Alvin's death matches the 1824 date, for Alvin died in November 1823.
The second detail was Joseph Smith's statement that the revival took place "sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester" (PGP/JS History 1:5). Research into existing tax records and property assessments indicate the most likely date for the Smith family's move onto their Manchester farm is 1822. A revival occurring in the second year after 1822 fits the 1824 revival date (Inventing, pp. 7-8).
The combination of these historical facts leaves little doubt that the proper date for the revival mentioned by Joseph Smith is 1824 rather than 1820.Is This a Problem?
So does it matter that Joseph's chronology is off by four years? It turns out to be critical. The revival sets in motion a series of events which hinge on one another. Here is the traditional chronology based on Joseph's story found in the Pearl of Great Price. An 1820 revival caused a 14 year old Joseph to pray, which led to the first vision. Joseph claimed that three years after the first vision (1823) an angel appeared in his bedroom and told him of the gold plates. In 1827, four years after the appearance of the angel, Joseph finally succeeded in getting the plates. Joseph then began to produce the Book of Mormon and had it printed for the first time in 1830.
The revival can be dated with certainty to the year 1824. According to Joseph's chronology, it was three years later (1827) when the angel Moroni appears for the first time. Joseph would have been 21 years old. Then it was another four years (1831) before Joseph was able to get the plates and begin translation, but by that time the Book of Mormon had already been in print for a full year. The 1824 date for the revival means the events as Joseph Smith outlines them do not fit the available time frame. It could be that the revival really had nothing to do with Joseph's first vision story, or that the events leading to the writing of the Book of Mormon are different than what Joseph claimed. Either way, we are left with serious discrepancies that challenge the authenticity of Joseph's story.
If Joseph Smith saw God in 1820, why did he pray in his room in 1823 to find out "if a Supreme being did exist?"
In the first history of Mormonism from 1835 written under Joseph Smith's direction, it says that the night of September 1823 Joseph Smith began praying in his bed to learn "the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him." (LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Feb. 1835) How could that possibly make sense if Smith had already seen God face-to-face some three years earlier in 1820?
If Jesus Christ and God the Father really told Joseph Smith in 1820 that all churches were an abomination, then why did he try joining the Methodist church in June of 1828?
Records show that in June of 1828, Joseph Smith applied for membership in his wife's Methodist Church. He also joined Methodist classes taught there. (The Amboy Journal, Amboy, IL, details Smith's activity in the Methodist Church in 1828. April 30, 1879 p. 1; May 21, 1879 p.1; June 11, 1879, p.1; July 2, 1879 p.1.)References
Numerous changes to the first edition of the Book of Mormon were made for its 2nd edition. LDS leaders would have you believe it is all punctuation and grammar corrections but of the nearly 4,000 alterations, some of them had to do with Joseph's evolving belief about the nature of God. Notice how these verses changed from indicating that Jesus was God the Father to Jesus being the Son of God. (emphasis added)
Critics believe that when Joseph changed his belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ were one being to the belief that they were two beings, he then revised the Book of Mormon to support his idea. This is further evidence that the First Vision may possibly never have happened. Joseph would not have made the first edition of the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, show his original belief in One God when he knew from the First Vision in 1820 that there were three gods constituting the Godhead.
Joseph did not change all the verses however. The following verses in today's BOM still support the idea that God the Father and Jesus are one being:
Ether 3:14 "Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light... they shall become my sons and my daughters."
Mosiah 15: 1, 2, 5 "And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son... And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation..."
Alma 11: 28-29
Alma 11: 44
2 Ne. 31: 21
Morm. 7: 7
Declaration of the Three Witnesses: "And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen."References
Early LDS members thought Jesus Christ was God the Father. This contradicts the Church's teaching of simple, plain truth known immediately when JS was 14.
When Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830, his views concerning God were similar to those held by Christian ministers of his day. Although Smith believed that there was only one God when he "translated" the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, he later decided that there were two Gods and eventually concluded that there were many Gods.
The fact that Joseph Smith's first written account of the First Vision only mentioned one personage is consistent with what he believed about God when he dictated the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, proclaimed that Christ was God Himself manifest in the flesh:
"And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son... And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation..." (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 15: 1, 2, 5)
The Book of Mormon tells of a visitation of the Father and the Son to the "brother of Jared," but the account is not speaking of two separate personages. Only one personage appears, and this personage says:
"Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light... they shall become my sons and my daughters." (Ether 3:14)
Mormon scholar Melodie Moench Charles acknowledges that it is difficult to reconcile the teachings regarding God found in the Book of Mormon with the present teachings of the church. She argues, in fact, that at least some of the teachings of the Book of Mormon regarding God go even beyond the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in emphasizing the oneness of God:
"Recently when I was teaching the Book of Mormon in an adult Sunday school class we discussed Mosiah 15.... I said that I saw no good way to reconcile Abinadadi's [sic] words with the current Mormon belief that God and his son Jesus Christ are separate and distinct beings. I suggested that perhaps Abinadi's understanding was incomplete.
"The class response included defenses of revelation and prophets... and accusations that I was crossing the line of propriety and wisdom to suggest that a prophet could teach incorrect doctrines about God. Some people appreciated a public acknowledgment of an obvious difference between Book of Mormon doctrine and current church doctrine. A few friends said things like, 'I don't care what they say about you. I've wondered about that passage for a long time, and I'm glad somebody pointed out that it's not what we teach today.' But many class members thought the lesson inappropriate and upsetting, and soon I was demoted to teaching nursery....
"When we explore what the Book of Mormon says, its christology or doctrines concerning Christ differ from the christology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since at least the 1840s....
"Book of Mormon people asserted that the Father and Christ (and the Holy Ghost) were one God. When Zeezrom asks Amulek, 'Is there more than one God?' Amulek, who learned his information from an angel, answers, 'No' (Alma 11: 28-29). At least five times in 3 Nephi, Jesus says that he and the Father are one. Emphasizing that oneness with a singular verb, Nephi, Amulek, and Mormon refer to 'the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God' (2 Ne. 31: 21; Alma 11: 44; Morm. 7: 7, emphasis added).
"This is common trinitarian formula....
"In isolation the Book of Mormon's 'which is one God' statements sound like orthodox trinitarianism, but in context they resemble a theology rejected by orthodoxy since at least 215 C.E., the heresy of modalism (also known as Sabellianism). Modalists believed that for God to have three separate identities or personalities compromised the oneness of God. Therefore, as Sabellius taught, 'there is only one undivided Spirit; the Father is not one thing and the Son another, but... both are one and the same' (Lonergan 1976, 38). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three labels for the different functions which the one God performed.... The Book of Mormon often makes no distinction between Christ and God the Father. For example, Jesus in 3 Nephi talked about covenants which his father made with the Israelites, and yet beyond anything he claimed in the New Testament he also claimed that he was the God of Israel who gave them the law and covenanted with them...
"The Book of Mormon melds together the identity and function of Christ and God. Because Book of Mormon authors saw Christ and his Father as one God who manifested himself in different ways, it made no difference whether they called their god the Father or the Son. They taught that Jesus Christ was not only the one who atoned for their sins but was also the god they were to worship. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Israel and the Book of Mormon people....
"Like the Book of Mormon, Mormonism before 1835 was largely modalistic, making no explicit distinction between the identities of the Father and the Son. Yet Mormonism gradually began to distinguish among different beings in the Godhead. This means the christology of the Book of Mormon differs significantly from the christology of the Mormon church after the 1840s....
"The current theology that most Mormons read back into the Book of Mormon is tritheism: belief in three Gods. Joseph Smith and the church only gradually came to understand the Godhead in this way. When he translated the Book of Mormon, Smith apparently envisioned God as modalists did: he accepted Christ and Christ's father as one God. In his first written account of his 'first vision' in 1832 Smith told of seeing 'the Lord' -- one being....
"Later, in 1844, Smith said, 'I have always declared God to be a distinct personage -- Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and or Spirit, and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods'... Mormon history does not support Smith's claim about what he taught earlier. Documents from early Mormonism reflect that Smith went from belief in one god to belief in two and later three gods forming one godhead....
"Book of Mormon theology is generally modalistic. In the Book of Mormon, God and Jesus Christ are not distinct beings." (New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, pages 82, 96-99, 103-104, 110)
When all the evidence is carefully examined it becomes obvious that Joseph Smith interpolated his later view regarding God the Father into his story of the First Vision. Consequently, Mormons who are not acquainted with the evidence still rely on the later account to prove that God the Father is an exalted man.
In addition, Joseph Smith's 1835-36 diary contains other accounts of his First Vision which tend to add to the confusion. For instance, in one account Joseph Smith told Erastus Holmes regarding his "juvenile years, say from 6 years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14 years old." (An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, page 59)
Mormon leaders were apparently embarrassed that Smith spoke of angels but neglected to mention either the Father or the Son in this account! Therefore, in the published History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 312, the statement has been changed to read: "...I received my first vision, which was when I was about fourteen years old..." Another account in the same diary (page 51) has Joseph Smith saying that he "saw many angels in this vision." (For a thorough examination of the many conflicting statements in Joseph Smith's accounts of the First Vision see our book, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? pp. 143-153)
Marvin S. Hill, professor of American history at the church's Brigham Young University, tried to defend the idea that Joseph Smith had an important religious experience in the grove, but he had to admit that Joseph Smith's official 1838 account has some real problems. He, in fact, suggested that the 1832 account of the vision was probably more accurate than the official account and that Joseph Smith may have changed his theological views concerning God:
"It seems to me that everybody has approached the issue from the wrong end, by starting with the 1838 official version when the account they should be considering is that of 1832. Merely on the face of it, the 1832 version stands a better chance of being more accurate and unembellished than the 1838 account... I am inclined to agree that the religious turmoil that Joseph described which led to some family members joining the Presbyterians and to much sectarian bitterness does not fit well into the 1820 context detailed by Backman. For one thing, it does not seem likely that there could have been heavy sectarian strife in 1820 and then a joint revival where all was harmony in 1824. In addition, as Walters notes, Lucy Mack Smith [Joseph Smith's mother] said the revival where she became interested in a particular sect came after Alvin's death, thus almost certainly in early 1824.... An 1824 revival creates problems for the 1838 account, not that of 1832....
"At any rate, if Joseph Smith in 1838 read back into 1820 some details of a revival that occurred in 1824, there is no reason to conclude that he invented his religious experiences....
"Giving priority to the 1832 account also makes it more understandable why Oliver Cowdery got his story tangled.... If initially Joseph said one personage came to him in 1820, it became easier for Oliver Cowdery to confuse this visit with the coming of Moroni than it would have been a few years later when Joseph taught emphatically that there were three separate personages in the Godhead.
"The Tanners make much of the argument that Joseph Smith changed his view of the Godhead. There is a good deal of evidence that his understanding grew on many points of theology... If, as the Tanners argue, Joseph grew in his understanding of the nature of the Godhead, this does not provide evidence of his disingenuousness...
"It seems to me that if the Latter-day Saints can accept the idea that Joseph gained his full understanding of the nature of God only after a period of time, instead of its emerging fullblown in 1820, then most of the difficulties with chronology can be resolved... As James Allen shows, Joseph never cited his vision with respect to the nature of the Godhead. This use of the vision came long afterward." (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1982, pp. 39-41)
Since the Mormon Church canonized the 1838 account of the First Vision in the Pearl of Great Price (one of the four standard works of the church), it seems very doubtful that the church will follow Professor Hill's suggestion about giving "priority to the 1832 account" of the vision. In any case, Thomas G. Alexander, who is also a professor of American history at BYU, agrees that a theological shift in Joseph Smith's view concerning the Godhead caused him to change his story from one to two personages:
"One of the barriers to understanding Mormon theology is the underlying assumption by most Latter-day Saints that doctrine develops consistently, that ideas build cumulatively on each other. As a result, older revelations are usually interpreted by referring to current doctrinal positions. This type of interpretation may produce systematic theology and may satisfy those trying to understand and internalize the current doctrine, but it is bad history since it leaves an unwarranted impression of continuity and consistency....
"The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus Christ (see Abinadi's sermon to King Noah in Mos. 13-14).... there is little evidence that early church doctrine specifically differentiated between Christ and God. Indeed, this distinction was probably considered unnecessary since the early discussion also seems to have supported trinitarian doctrine. Joseph Smith's 1832 account of his first vision spoke only of one personage and did not make the explicit separation of God and Christ found in the 1838 version. The Book of Mormon declared that Mary 'is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,' which was changed in 1837 to 'mother of the Son of God.' Abinadi's sermon in the Book of Mormon explored the relationship between God and Christ...
"The 'Lectures on Faith' differentiated between the Father and Son more explicitly, but even they did not define a materialistic, tritheistic godhead. In announcing the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, which included the lectures, the Messenger and Advocate commented that it trusted the volume would give 'the churches abroad... a perfect understanding of the doctrine believed by this society.' The lectures declared that 'there are two personages who constitute the great matchless, governing and supreme power over all things -- by whom all things were created and made.' They are 'the Father being a personage of spirit' and 'the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather man was formed after his likeness, and in his image.' The 'Articles and Covenants' called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost 'one God' rather than 'Godhead,' a term Mormons use today to separate themselves from trinitarians.
"The doctrine of the Holy Ghost in these early sources is even more striking compared to our point of view today. The 'Lectures on Faith' defined the Holy Ghost as the mind of the Father and the Son, a member of the Godhead but not a personage, who binds the Father and Son together (D&C [i.e., Doctrine and Covenants], 1835 ed., 53-54). This view of the Holy Ghost likely reinforced trinitarian doctrine by explaining how personal beings like the Father and Son become one god through the noncorporeal presence of a shared mind." (Line Upon Line, edited by Gary James Bergera, 1989, pages 53-55)
Originally the Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures on Faith, accepted as doctrine by Joseph Smith in 1835. The Fifth Lecture on Faith (I think these lectures were actually part of the D & C until the church removed them in 1920) specifically states that the Father is a spirit, that only Jesus has a body, and that the Holy Ghost is the Mind of the Father and the Son. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon promoted this as doctrine in 1835. Yet the whole foundation of the church rests on the reality of the 1820 first vision that proves a different Godhead.
The church credits Joseph Smith with defining, once and for all, the true nature of God. In fact, it is heralded as a great contribution and gift to mankind. However, most church members are unaware of the extent of the evolution of the concepts associated with the nature of God. A close examination of Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible reveals his early monotheistic beliefs. He consciously attempted to remove all references to a plurality of gods from the King James Bible. He also changed several passages to identify the Father and the Son as the same god. For example, he revised Luke 10:22 to have Jesus teaching that "no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it." These observations provide significant insight into understanding Book of Mormon passages which identify Jesus Christ as "God Himself," the "Holy One of Israel," the "Lord Omnipotent," the "Father of heaven and earth" who revealed himself to Moses and many of the ancient patriarchs. Apparently, Joseph's own early theology is reflected in his translation of the Book of Mormon. Similarly, some of Joseph Smith's early revelations freely switch the role of the God of Israel from the Son to the Father. In the "Lectures on Faith, fifth lecture, Joseph Smith defined the Godhead as consisting of two personages: the Father, a personage of spirit, and the Son, a personage of tabernacle. The Holy Ghost was not considered to be a personage, but rather was defined as the "mind" of the Father and the Son. Clearly, Joseph Smith originally taught that God did not possess a body.
In a 1980 Sunstone article: "The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology", Thomas G. Alexander attempts to track these changes in the nature and concept of God in the LDS Church over the last 180 years. Click here for some excerpts from his article: The Nature of God in the Book of Mormon.
The link to the following essay by R. L. Pratt is a must-read on how the Book of Mormon undermines the First-Vision. The essay summarizes the issues nicely, citing many LDS documents in support of its argument. Here are a few of the issues covered:
1) The Book of Mormon (1830) teaches that God the Father, and the Son Jesus Christ, are merely one-and-the-same person. Yet, had Joseph Smith's First Vision (1820) been a real event, he would have known without any doubt from his own personal experience, that the Father and the Son were two separate individual persons. Joseph never seemed to notice this contradiction. Why not? This paper explains.
2) Sabellianism is a useful term when dealing with the Book of Mormon. That term simply refers to any theology which holds that the Father and the Son are one-and-the-same person. It is easy to distinguish Sabellianism from Trinitarianism, as this paper demonstrates.
3) Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Elohim was thought to be a name synonymous with Jehovah. But in 1916, Church authorities issued out a Doctrinal Exposition saying in effect that Elohim was actually an altogether different person; a higher-yet god.....a god above Jehovah! Thus, at the stroke of a pen, Elohim suddenly became the new Supreme Being. Why did Church authorities do this? What pressures drove them to undertake this rash act of theological revisionism?
4) Many people are not aware of just how the names of Elohim and Jehovah appeared in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. (Some Mormons are not even aware that in Hebrew, the first line of Genesis I contains the word "Elohim", i.e. "In the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth.")
5) It is preposterous, not to say repugnant, to imagine Jesus Christ being on the American continent slaying the wicked, while at the very same time he is in Jerusalem hanging on the cross, praying: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do!" Read the addendum to see how 3 Nephi presents this.
Joseph Smith Sabellianism and Mormon Belief (Please give the page a few seconds to load.)
(If the link will not load, you can access an archived backup essay here)
Another potential evidence that Joseph Smith did not see the Father and the Son in 1820, to those who believe in the restoration of the Priesthood, is the fact that in the year 1832 Joseph Smith claimed to have a revelation which stated that a man could not see God without the Priesthood. This revelation is published as Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In verses 21-22 we read:
"And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
"For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live."
Now, it is claimed that "The Father and the Son appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith before the Church was organized and the priesthood restored to the earth" (Doctrines of Salvation, by Joseph Fielding Smith, vol. 1, p.4).
Some critics maintain that the revelation given in 1832 suggests that Joseph Smith's story of the first vision was made up years after it was supposed to have occurred. Joseph did not even claim to have the Priesthood in 1820, and the Doctrine and Covenants clearly says that without the Priesthood no man can see God and live.References
Was Joseph really the first person to propose that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings?
In the book 'Answers to Gospel Questions' by the 10th president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith answers the question 'What evidences have we to substantiate the first vision of Joseph Smith to prove the truth of his story and that he was not deceived or a deceiver?'
President Smith said that when Joseph declared that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings it was 'too revolutionary of an idea and conflicted with all of the religious creeds, Catholic and Protestant in the world.The Nicene Creed held almost universal sway throughout the Christian world.'
President Smith contended that the 'evidence' of the First Vision is that the idea of the Father and the Son as separate beings was basically unheard of at that time and so revolutionary that for Joseph to have come up with that on his own would be very unlikely so the First Vision must be true.
Joseph was certainly not the first person to propose that God the Father and Jesus Christ were separate beings. This was hotly debated since at least the 4th century. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea was formed for the very purpose of resolving disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in the relationship to the Father. The whole trinity (all in one) doctrine was an effort to impose orthodoxy at a time when a variety of beliefs existed about the nature of the godhood. If the doctrine had been clear from the beginning the Nicene effort would not have been necessary.
Additionally, the question was hotly debated (amongst other things) during the revivals of 1824. Theologians, pastors, and everyone else were discussing religious issues and reasoning more with religion. The new religions of America were able to make heretical leaps without fear of reprisal form the State churches of Europe, etc.
No doubt, Joseph's mind was ripe and fertile during this period. A source once states that the Book of Mormon contains most of the popular answers to all the theological problems of the day.
Kabbalah teaches there are three separate personalities, or emanations which present themselves in different forms. http://gnosis.org/jskabb1.htm
Read part 3 of this to get the full explanation. The Mormon Historical Society gave this the award for the best new research paper in 1995.
Obviously anyone reading the Bible can come to the very reasonable belief that God the Father and Jesus are separate beings. For example who was Jesus talking to on the cross when he said 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do'? Joseph studied the Bible in his youth and probably thought they were separate beings just like many other people did at the time and still do. The Jews, Muslims and all other non-Christian churches certainly don't believe that Jesus and God are one and the same.
We have a friend who is hardcore Catholic but he thinks it is very obvious that God and Jesus are two different people. This comes from reading the Bible and not from the LDS missionaries. Even many people that believe in the Trinity believe they are separate persons. Those who think otherwise misunderstand trinitarian belief.
Of course hundreds of millions of Catholics and Protestants support the idea of the Trinity and that God is a spirit. Read Catholic Encyclopedia: The dogma of the TrinityEditor Comment
It appears that The only thing Joseph Smith said that was perhaps really unique was that God the Father had a body of "flesh and bone". But who can say if he is correct or not?
Even if Joseph was the first person to propose something, it is very flawed logic to assume what he proposed is true or that he is a prophet for proposing it - especially when it can't be proven one way or another.
Also, Joseph is often credited with being the first person to claim that there are three degrees of glory (which no one knows is right or wrong anyway). But this concept has also been around a long time. In 1784, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote a book called Heaven and Hell and Its Wonders about his visions of the afterlife. Swedenborg insisted: "There are three heavens," described as "entirely distinct from each other." He called the highest heaven "the Celestial Kingdom," and stated that the inhabitants of the three heavens corresponded to the "sun, moon and stars."
Some LDS faithful want to know why they should even bother with looking at the details of the First Vision in the first place. Isn't it enough that they believe in the basic story?
Here's a comment from the 10th president of the church Joseph Fielding Smith when asked about the First Vision:
"It is well-known that the truth or falsity of a story lies mainly in the details.There are some details connected with the vision given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, which may appear to many as insignificant, and by many members of the Church are overlooked, yet they are of vital and of overwhelming importance." Answers to Gospel Questions, Joseph Fielding Smith, vol IIIch 14,page 56.
When Joseph Fielding Smith was saying how important the details of the First Vision are, this was before the 1832 account of the First Vision was discovered, or at least became public. This version was in Joseph's handwriting and contradicted many of the details in the official 1838 version. This was also before the other details, such as the revival spoken of by Joseph, lack of evidence that Joseph told anyone about the vision, etc. were researched and made public.
We wonder what President Joseph Fielding Smith would say about the importance of the details of the First Vision now that they reduce the credibility of the First Vision?
The following essay by James Whitefield is reprinted in its entirety:
LDS Church Claimed Event Dates:
1820 Spring. Supposed date of the "First Vision" of God the Father & Jesus Christ.
1823 21st - 22nd September. Dates of the first Moroni / Nephi visions or dreams.
1827 22nd September. Date of Moroni / Nephi delivering up gold plates to Smith.
Although the early accounts of Willard Chase and Rev. Clark and others are here dated to the time they attest they were given the accounts themselves, no actual record of any account of any vision, first or otherwise, (other than scant references to them) was available in written or published form prior to the year 1832, when Smith himself wrote his first account of everything. This was twelve years after the first vision, nine years after the first Moroni / Nephi visions and five years after the plates were supposedly obtained. More accounts exist. Those most accepted are listed below.
Each account is annotated with what was reportedly seen and how. These vary from dreams to visions, containing ghosts, spirits or angels, unidentified or with differing names; through to deity; Jesus alone, or God and Jesus, Smith himself giving several different versions of what he saw.
F = akin to the First Vision. M = akin to the Moroni / Nephi Visions or dreams.
1827 M Willard Chase affidavit of 1833 (A spirit in a vision)
1827 M Rev. John A. Clark. Account of Martin Harris published 1842 (Angel in a dream)
1828-9 M Cousin of Emma Smith quoting Joseph Smith in a letter (Ghost in a dream) 1
1829 M Martin Harris quoted in Rochester Gem (Spirit in a dream) 2
1829 M August. Palmyra Freeman. Joseph Smith (Spirit of the Almighty in a dream) 3
1830 M Peter Bauder Interview with Joseph Smith published 1842 (Unidentified Angel)
1830 M Fayette Lapham interview with Joseph Smith Snr. (Dream about a treasure) 4
1830 M 26 November Parley P. Pratt. Letter from Amherst (Angel of light in a dream) 5
1830 M 9 Dec. Ohio Star reporting Oliver Cowdery & Peter Whitmer (Spirit in a dream) 6
1832 F 20 July - 27 November. A History of the Life of Joseph Smith (The Lord)
1832 M 20 July - 27 November. A History of the Life of Joseph Smith (Unidentified Angel*)
1834-5 M Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery & Joseph Smith (Personage, Messenger)
1835 M Apr. Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery & Joseph Smith (Angel Moroni)
1835 F 9th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Joshua, Jewish Minister (Many Angels)
1835 M 9th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Joshua, Jewish Minister (Unidentified Angel)
1835 F 14th November. Joseph Smith Diary - Erastus Holmes (Vision of Angels)
1838 F Joseph Smith History (Official) Account pub. 1842 (assumed God & Jesus Christ)
1838 M Joseph Smith History Account (Angel Nephi) altered after Smith's death to Moroni.
1838 M July. Joseph Smith - Elder's Journal Vol 1 No. 3 P 43. (Angel Moroni)
1840 F Orson Pratt Account (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 F Orson Hyde Account (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 M April. Times and Seasons. Joseph Smith. (Angel Nephi)
1842 F 1st Mar Wentworth Letter. Times & Seasons 1842 (Two Unidentified Personages)
1842 M 1st Mar Wentworth Letter, Times and Seasons (Unidentified Angel)
1842 M August. Latter Day Saints Millennial Star" published in England (Angel Nephi)
1842 M Editorial. Latter Day Saints Millennial Star" published in England (Angel Nephi)
1842 M Martin Harris - Gleanings p 226 (Angel of God in a dream)
1843 F 23 Sept New York Spectator - Joseph Smith (Assumed to be God and Jesus Christ)
1844 F Account written by Joseph Smith (Two Unidentified Personages)
1844 M Account written by Joseph Smith (Unidentified Angel)
1845 M Lucy Mack Smith - Biography (Unidentified Angel)
1851 M Pearl of Great Price. Joseph Smith. Handwritten copies & 1st Edition (Angel Nephi)
1853 M Lucy Mack Smith - History of Joseph Smith (Angel Nephi)
1859 M August. Martin Harris account in Tiffany's Monthly, (Unidentified Angel)
1884 F William Smith sermon. The Saints Herald. (Unidentified Personage)
From the above accounts we derive the following analysis:
All the First Vision accounts listed were recorded by Smith himself apart from three, Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, who refer to two unidentified personages and William Smith who refers to one. Joseph Smith first refers to "The Lord" in 1832, "angels" twice in 1835; and then 2 unidentified "personages" in 1838, which are taken to be God and Jesus; by the way one addresses the other.
No account, other than one by Cowdery, identifies any name, apart from Smith himself who uses Moroni only once, Nephi appearing the rest of the time in all of his accounts. Lucy follows suit.
References to most accounts appear in relevant chapters. The following references may not appear elsewhere as they contain no significant detail which has been used from them other than the method of communication.
Extract from "The Mormon Delusion"
This material is available for personal use only and may not be copied, reproduced, shared or disseminated in any manner, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of the author. The author can be contacted at email@example.com
Jim Whitefield, author of the very popular series, The Mormon Delusion, has provided this insightful essay on the First Vision from his book series.
The First Vision - The Joseph Smith Story by Jim Whitefield (the page is sometimes slow, be patient)
Some researchers believe that Joseph had an 'out-of-body' experience which he interpreted as The First Vision. For more information on this theory, please read this very interesting 2006 article by Robert Bushman, former supervising linguist in the Translation Department of the LDS Church: The “First Vision” of Joseph Smith as “out-of-body experience” and what that means about the First Vision (2006) (PDF)
Robert Bushman's out-of-body experience (OBE) biblography (over 2000 references) - archived web page.
In the LDS scripture, Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:5-19, we learn that after God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph Smith, Joseph asked God what church he should join. Joseph relates God's response in verse 19:
We have to ask if this was really true. Would God in the early 1800s or even today, say that ALL their creeds were corrupt and were an abomination in his sight? Would he really say that the professors were ALL corrupt?
Undoubtedly some of the religious leaders were corrupt and some beliefs of some religions must be in error. But would a kind, loving Father in Heaven actually say that ALL creeds were an ABOMINATION in his sight?
For the most part, religions try to serve God and do good things such as inspiring people to give to others, run soup kitchens, preach the golden rule, etc. Does it not sound somewhat harsh to label every religion at that time an abomination and every religious leader corrupt? At that time, Sidney Rigdon was a protestant minister. Was he corrupt as well as every other religious leader at the time or even today?
According to Joseph, God said that all the other churches were wrong. As LDS members, we even admit that the other churches aren't all wrong but have elements of the truth e.g. Baptists got baptism by emersion right but missed other things. This seems a bit extreme to simply label all churches wrong and that all their leaders are corrupt. It's perhaps one thing to say that the other churches are mistaken on some things but to label them an abomination doesn't sound very Christlike or Godlike.
This simply doesn't sound like something a wise, kind, Father in Heaven would say, does it? Yet, it is exactly what Joseph alleged God said.
We regret that we could not find this issue discussed in sufficient detail in any church publication or web site. However we did find various LDS apologetic responses and Ensign articles.
From LDS apologist Jeff Lindsay's web site
Other critical publications of the era referred to claims by Joseph and others of angelic visions, and of personal conversations with Christ or with God Almighty. These stories were circulated long before modern anti-Mormon writers say that Joseph first came up with the idea. One example comes from an 1829 anti-Mormon satire by Abner Cole, who wrote a series of articles called "The Book of Pukei" for a Palmyra newspaper. The satire poked fun at many aspects of the Book of Mormon, including the first vision. The satire is evidence that Joseph's first vision story was known and talked about in 1829 (Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, p. 160). http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_first_vision.shtml
Critic's response to Jeff Lindsay
This is a prime example of how some Mormon apologists will cite works to prove their point assuming that no faithful LDS will actually look at the works they cite. The Book of Pukei is clearly referring to the Angel Moroni story and not the First Vision of God and Jesus.
Read the original "The Book of Pukei" satire for yourself:
Chapter 1 (click on the link to "RF Jun 12 '30")
In the July 7th 1830 Reflector is where the satire pokes fun at Joseph Smith's "first vision" story. Here's what it says:
This is clearly a parody of the angel Moroni dream story and the golden treasure, and not a satire of a God-and-Jesus First Vision story.
This is also in harmony with another reference some faithful LDS have claimed was about the visitation of God. In fact, it also is referring to the Moroni dream story and not a Jesus-and-God First Vision:
This is NOT evidence that Joseph Smith was telling people about seeing God and Jesus Christ but backs up the other evidence that Smith was only telling an angel dream story.
Apparently Joseph didn't come up the God-and-Jesus story until 1838 and then didn't first publish it until 1842.
The following is as close to an official response from the LDS Church that we could find:
See the January 1985 issue of The Ensign on the church's web site.
Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision by Milton V. Backman, Jr.
Interview with Apostles and Steve Benson
Also, in an interview with Steve Benson (President Ezra Taft Benson's grandson), Apostle Dallin Oaks reportedly said the following in response to the various accounts of the First Vision:
LDS Scholar Hugh Nibley
Also, Hugh Nibley, in his "Censoring the Joseph Smith Story", tries to explain such inconsistencies with this fantastic assertion:
Critic's response to Hugh Nibley
Cowdery was trustworthy enough to supposedly have been led by God to find Smith and help him translate the gold plates; trustworthy enough to be one of the "three witnesses", and to allegedly have an angel show him the gold plates; trustworthy enough to, along with Smith, receive the two priesthoods from angels; trustworthy enough to be named the "second elder of the church" upon its founding; and trustworthy enough for Smith to instruct him to keep the first history of the church.
And brother William was trustworthy enough to be called as one of the twelve apostles, who are supposed to be "special witnesses of Jesus Christ."
But in spite of this, according to Nibley, Smith "knew from the first" neither of them was "trustworthy" enough to be able to relate a credible account of what they heard from Joseph with their own ears. Apparently, Nibley wishes his readers to believe that Joseph told Oliver and William false information about the "first vision" because they couldn't be trusted to know the "real" version!
Nibley's irrational rantings merely demonstrate the desperate measures some Mormon apologists go to in order to keep members from questioning the various First Vision accounts.
Read the different accounts of the First Vision for yourself and you can decide if the differing versions are consistent enough with each other to not be problematic for the church. In particular compare the 1832 account written by Joseph himself with the official 1838 account we use today.
From the church's official web site, there is an article that gives the church's point of view on why there are multiple accounts of the First Vision.
LDS website - Accounts of the First Vision
3) Joseph trying to join the Methodist Church after being told the other churches were an abomination.
True believer's response
Since there was no correct church currently on the earth since Joseph had not yet officially established the LDS Church, he likely desired to still be affiliated with some Christian organization. Joseph likely just wanted the fellowship involved with attending a Methodist Church while not really accepting their doctrine. He also was a member only briefly. Reference: Discussion held in Sunday School class attended by MormonThink contributors.
We can accept that Joseph wanted to fellowship with other believers in Christ even if he didn't believe their doctrine. So we don't have a problem if Joseph merely attended an occasional Methodist church service. Most of us involved with MormonThink don't think that this particular problem with the First Vision is as serious as some critics claim. However we are somewhat disturbed if he actually tried to officially join the Methodist Church as God specifically told him not to. We also find it strange that several members of Joseph's family would join protestant churches after Joseph told his family of the First Vision. Didn't his family believe him when God told him that he was not to join any of those churches for they were all wrong? Wouldn't Joseph try to talk his family members out of doing something that God forbid him to do?
It is obvious by the above statements by church leaders that the First Vision did not happen in the way the Church portrays. The church would have you believe that Joseph had the vision in 1820 and that it has always been the central part of the LDS faith. In fact the one, simple, plain truth that every member that joined the church should have known is that God the Father and Jesus Christ were separate beings. We take this for granted now but this wasn't firmly established until over 15 years after the event supposedly occurred.
There are simply too many problems with the official version taught by the missionaries to ignore. The church doesn't like to talk about any problems with the First Vision and any articles written in church publications only discuss some of the problems and ignore others and their significance. If you look at all the problems surrounding the First Vision that the average LDS member doesn't know about, it is no wonder the church prefers to stick with the simple story told by the missionaries and casually dismiss any evidence that contradicts the account. Look at all the evidence for yourself and decide.
Joseph recounted how the visitation of the angel Moroni happened on September 21, 1823. An interesting question - how is it that JS could remember the precise date of the angel's visit in 1823, but could not remember the precise date of God's appearance to him in 1820?
From all available lines of evidence, therefore, Joseph's 1838 official rendition of his First Vision story appears to be myth not history:
The conflicts and contradictions brought to light by the preceding historical evidence demonstrate that the First Vision story, as presented by the Mormon church today, must be regarded as the invention of Joseph Smith's highly imaginative mind. The historical facts and Joseph's own words discredit it.
- Wesley P. Walters
How do we know that it wasn't Satan (if he exists) that appeared to Joseph? Please read this insightful essay to see how Satan can appear as a Heavenly Being as described by Joseph Smith: How can we know when information is from Satan?
Editor comment: This challenge has been on the Internet for years and to our knowledge no one has attempted to claim it. He has actually upped the bounty since this was written to $2,000.
Both the critics and defenders of the faith have compelling points to make. The editors of this section give their own opinion:
It is clear that in the early days of the church, the emphasis was on the Book of Mormon and Moroni's visit and not on the First Vision. The First Vision didn't even really get any real notoriety until the early 1900s. Now the question is why this occurred? Is this, as critics claim, because the First Vision never happened and was invented by Joseph Smith after the church was established to boost his credibility or is there some other reason to account for this?
Either Joseph saw God the Father and Jesus in the grove of trees, or he didn't.We were taught that he did, and that he came out of that grove of trees telling that very story on that very day.But we learn that he did not, in fact, come out of the trees telling that story when it occurred, that in fact the story really didn't make it's first appearance to the general membership of the church for some 20 or so years.
We use to think you either believed the First Vision or you didn't. It was simply a matter of faith. This simple story rested solely on believing one person's incredible account with no other evidence either supporting or contradicting it. But now we realize that there are many details surrounding this event that can be tested. The many supporting things that Joseph said have been researched and they seem to contradict Joseph every time. We wonder how this can be? Is it possible that the First Vision happened but Joseph got all the details wrong?
We can accept that Joseph gave different ages for his vision experience as an error of memory and maybe he backdated the revival issues to make the circumstances surrounding his vision sound more meaningful and impressive. However, we are very troubled by the different versions of the First Vision. We find Elder Oaks answer that he altered the details depending upon his audience to be insufficient. Why would he lie to one audience and tell them just Jesus was there and another just angels? Wouldn't he want to tell the real story of his magnificent experience truthfully as to benefit the listeners as to the nature of God and the mission he had for Joseph? A very key point of the First Vision is that this established for certainty that God the Father and Jesus were separate beings. Why on earth would he dictate this very important fact to one scribe but not to another scribe or tell one audience but not another?
Some members have suggested Joseph was afraid to tell people that Heavenly Father and Jesus were separate entities. For us, this explanation hardly ties in with D&C 60:2
"But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine danger is kindled against them."
Does this not also include Prophets?
We also find it problematic that there is no evidence for Joseph telling anyone, even his family, about the First Vision. There is much evidence that he told everyone about the Angel Moroni visit but why is the First Vision account kept out of the history books for some 22 years? Especially troubling is that it was not mentioned in either the official History of the Church written in 1835 by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith or by Joseph's own mother (Lucy Smith) in her original version of her biographical sketch of her son Joseph.
The 1832 FV account was written by Joseph himself and this version only talks about Jesus. No mention of God the Father. Why wouldn't this version be more accurate than a later version written by a scribe?
Also, we find it strange that Joseph can recall the exact date of the first visit by Moroni (September 21, 1823), yet he cannot recall the date of his vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
One of the best critical summaries and perhaps most plausible explanations for the various issues surrounding Joseph's First Vision, can be found in the last chapter of former LDS Church Education System teacher Grant Palmer's book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins. After presenting an impressive series of well-documented arguments against the traditional version we've all been taught in the church, the author proposes a very plausible explanation:
Now whenever we hear about missionaries teaching investigators the First Vision, it makes us wonder what really happened to Joseph? Did he see God the Father and Jesus or just Jesus or many angels and which of the many reported circumstances surrounding the First Vision actually occurred? Or did anything really extraordinary happen to him at all? The version, and the surrounding events that are taught by the missionaries, is very simplified and perhaps not likely to be what really happened when you consider all the evidence contradicting the official account of the First Vision that we were all taught in Sunday School.
You would think that the biggest, most impressive founding event of the LDS church would be the one thing that is very clear and straightforward. One thing that is very clear is that this plain, simple basic teaching of the church is a lot more complicated than we ever imagined it was once we started looking at all the details surrounding it.
Supporting the critics
Lucy Smith's writings
Supporting the church
Other LDS Sources
New Order Mormon Information on the First Vision (neutral)