The First Vision-A Close Reading

This year has been marked out as a bicentennial celebration of the year Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision.  President Russell M. Nelson invited us to “immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration,” offering the suggestion to “begin your preparation by reading afresh Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.”  While he specifically mentions the official account of the First Vision as a starting point, President Nelson encourages each of us to go on from that account and do more study: “Select your own questions.  Design your own plan.  Act on any of these invitations to prepare yourself.”[1]

As part of my own study of the First Vision, I reviewed all the primary accounts of the event to see what could be gleaned from them about what the messages of the vision were.  Based on documents we have available, my feelings are that the First Vision was primarily a conversion experience for Joseph Smith and a confirmation that a general apostasy had occurred.  In looking at all of the contemporary accounts of the First Vision, the only messages that God presented to Joseph Smith were that (1) God forgave his sins, (2) a general apostasy had occurred, (3) Joseph Smith shouldn’t join any existing churches, (4) Joseph Smith would learn the fullness of the gospel later on, and (5) the Second Coming would occur soon.  There are corollaries that can be drawn from the narrative, but those were the five main topics I could find in the words spoken to Joseph.

The earliest message that Joseph Smith focused on in retelling the First Vision was forgiveness of sins through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  The first hint of the First Vision we have is a passing reference to a time when “it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins” (D&C 20:5).  In the 1832 account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith recorded that he approached the Lord in part because he had “important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul” and “became convicted of my sins.”  When the Lord spoke to Joseph in that account, the first message given was: “Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. …  Behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.”[2]  Likewise, in the 1835 account, Joseph recalled that the message of the Vision was that: “He said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God.”[3]   Thus, personal salvation and forgiveness of sins were Joseph Smith’s initial interpretations of the experience.

The other main message Joseph Smith recorded receiving is that there had been an apostasy.  Prior to the First Vision, Joseph Smith had concerns about being “prepared for a future state,”[4] and gained “intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations.”  From this, he concluded that “mankind . . . had apostatized from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”[5]  He believed that “if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.”[6]  This was an important concern that Joseph sought answers to and it forms the burden of the Lord’s message to Joseph Smith.  The Lord’s answer was that: “The world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments,”[7] and He stated that: “All religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.”[8]  “All their Creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were all corrupt.” Joseph Smith also recalled that “he again forbade me to join with any of them” (JS-H 1:20).  It seems clear that one of the primary messages Joseph Smith learned during the First Vision was that there had been a general apostasy.

There are a few other minor things Joseph Smith mentions about the First Vision.  The 1832 account records that the Lord’s final words were: “Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father,”[9] meaning that the Second Coming was mentioned during the vision.  There are also references that more happened than is recorded.  In 1835, Joseph added that “I saw many angels in this vision.”[10]  The official history also states that “many other things did [the Lord] say unto me” (JS-H 1:20).  It should be observed that there are also things that we can infer from the First Vision, such as how the experience may have shaped Joseph Smith’s patterns for seeking revelation and his understanding of the nature of God, but he did not make those connections explicit himself.

Notably absent from the Lord’s words are indications of a prophetic call.   It is only in the later accounts of the First Vision—which were written when Joseph Smith was approaching the height of his prophetic career—that Joseph even mentioned hints of his future role as a prophet.  In 1838, he stated that he was “one called of God” during the interim between the First Vision and the first visit of the Angel Moroni (JS-H 1:28), and in 1842, he wrote that he received “a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto” him.[11]   Instead, it seems that the translation of the Book of Mormon was the beginning of what Joseph Smith considered his calling as a prophet.[12]  This was indicated by the fact that 1835 account of the First Vision was only considered a part of “a relation of the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”[13]  In other writings, he indicated that his prophetic career began in 1827 rather than 1820—with the translation of the Book of Mormon rather than the visit of God and Christ.[14]   Thus, it may not be entirely accurate to declare things like: “Light had flooded a grove of trees, and God the Father and Jesus Christ had called a 14-year-old boy to be their prophet.”[15]

While perhaps surprising, the idea that Joseph Smith treated the First Vision as a personal experience rather than a prophetic call could be attributed the possibility that Joseph Smith didn’t understand the experience to be particularly unique.  Dozens of other individuals in the same region and the same era reported having visions, some of which involved both God the Father and the Son or declarations of a general apostasy.[16]  The forms in which Joseph Smith wrote the major narratives of the First Vision also follow existing genres of personal conversion experiences. For example, it has been observed that the 1832 account is written in the form of a Protestant “born again” spiritual autobiography, while the 1838 account is similar to Methodist conversion narratives of the time.[17]  He seems to have only rarely spoken of the event during his lifetime and the narrative of the First Vision wasn’t used frequently within the Church until the late 1800s.[18]  The First Vision may have seemed less unique to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries than it often has to us.

What, then, are some of the significant takeaways from the First Vision?  There are several things that could be mentioned,[19] but I find that it is fitting that a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ was the first message Joseph received directly from God.  The central purpose of the Church and gospel is to provide full access to the Atonement of Christ.  As Joseph Smith would later write: “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”[20]  I appreciate how one Latter Day Saint historian approached the First Vision, noting that, first and foremost, he was “overwhelmed with the centrality of God and Christ in the inception and mission of the Restoration in the world.”[21]  All accounts of the First Vision put Jesus Christ front and center in the Restoration from the start, but the earlier accounts put particular emphasis on His role as our Savior.

The rejection of Christianity based on their doctrines and creeds is important because it provides the rationale for the work that Joseph Smith would do throughout the remainder of his life.  As Elder B. H. Roberts stated: “[By] this great revelation . . . the errors of the age were swept aside and the ground cleared for the re-establishment of His Church in the earth.”  Elder Roberts continued: “From the revelation referred to I learn that ‘Mormonism’ came into existence because there was an absolute necessity for a new dispensation of the Gospel, a re-establishment of the Church of Christ among men.”[22]  In this manner, the First Vision paved the way for the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Russell M. Nelson, “My 2020 Invitation to You: Share the Message of the Restoration of the Savior’s Gospel,” Church Blog, 1 January 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/my-2020-invitation-to-you-share-the-message-of-the-restoration-of-the-saviors-gospel?lang=eng.

[2] “History, circa Summer 1832,” pp. 2-3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2

[3] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/25

[4] ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 706, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1

[5] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2

[6] ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 706, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1

[7] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3

[8] ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 707, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/2

[9] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3

[10] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/25

[11] ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 706, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1

[12] Elder M. Russell Ballard indicated this subtly when he noted that after the First Vision, “life continued as usual for Joseph and the rest of the Smith family for several years.”  In contrast, when Moroni came: “instead of simply telling him that all was well and that God still loved him, Moroni came to put Joseph to work.”  (M. Russell Ballard, Our Search for Happiness [SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006], 40-41.)

[13] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 23, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 5, 2016, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/24

[14] In 1835, he wrote that: “I have been laboring in this cause for eight years,” in Messenger and Advocate 1.12 (September 1835): 179.

[15] Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), 4.

[16] See Bushman, Richard Lyman. “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith.” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997-1998), 183-204.

[17] See Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History, 7 (1980): 31-42; Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Spring 2011): 88-114.

[18] See James B. Allen,  “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.

[19] For example, the story functions in the missionary discussions as an example of how to seek revelation so that individuals have a model to follow in seeking to know whether God approves of the Church and wants them to join it.  That seems like a fitting use of the First Vision narrative that will likely continue.

[20] Elder’s Journal, Vol.1, No.3 (July 1838): 42-44.

[21] Howard, Richard P. “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: The RLDS Tradition.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980) 23-29.

[22] B. H. Roberts, Address, General Conference Report, April 1906, 13-14.

4 comments for “The First Vision-A Close Reading

  1. stephenchardy
    February 27, 2020 at 10:06 am

    Oliver Cowdery helped write the first “full history of the rise of the church of Latter Day Saints” In it, his story of the beginning of the church began with Joseph Smith praying in his bedroom and having Moroni appear to him, eventually leading to the plates, etc. Apparently for Oliver the restoration began then. It seems possible that Joseph’s “first vision” was seen as an intensely personal experience, with no significant meaning for the church, or for the restoration. I write this not to throw darts at the first vision but to remind us that we rarely understand the true meaning and significant of events when they occur.

  2. 0t
    February 29, 2020 at 11:18 pm

    “The First Vision may have seemed less unique to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries than it often has to us.”

    So then were others persecuted the way Joseph was? Or what made his situation different?

  3. Chad Nielsen
    March 1, 2020 at 12:15 am

    stephenchardy, thank you for sharing that as well.

    Ot, others who experienced and discussed visions were often treated with suspicion and hostility as well. It wasn’t entirely uncommon for people to have and share visions in that area and time, but the people who did so were often regarded as fringe groups by the main organized religions. Methodism was undergoing a transition from embracing those types of experiences to regarding them with suspicion as they were becoming more respectable. It’s also a bit unclear how much persecution Joseph Smith was remembering for the First Vision itself (which mostly centered on his discussion with the Methodist minister) and how much was memories of what came later (Book of Mormon, Church founded, Missouri situations, etc.). The Book of Mormon and other later things are more likely to have aroused active persecution than the vision, since those were what made the early Latter Day Saint movement really different.

    A couple relevant literature quotes about reactions to visions, in case you’re interested. Steven Harper explained: “To be accused of enthusiasm in Joseph Smith’s world was not a compliment. It meant that one was perceived as mentally unstable and irrational. Methodists had for several generations tried to walk a fine line that valued authentic spiritual experience yet stopped well short of enthusiasm. Young Joseph likely was not attuned to the sophisticated difference worked out by Methodist theologians. He reported to the minister what he thought would be a highly valued experience, one resembling that of other sincere Christians, but his account of his vision was received as an embarrassing example of enthusiasm and thus condemned.” (See https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/evaluating-three-arguments-against-joseph-smiths-first-vision/)

    Christopher C. Jones also explained that the language of a literal experience rather than a spiritual/figurative experience also was likely a big sticking point for the Methodist minister. ‘Methodists of the day carefully qualified the nature of their visionary experiences with phrases like “by faith, I saw . . .” or by affirming that it was just a dream. … Joseph Smith, by contrast, affirmed unambiguously that “it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a vision. . . . I had actually seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me. . . . I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” It was thus not necessarily a matter of what Joseph Smith experienced, but rather how he explained it. The straightforward and sure language he used to describe his vision filtered its meaning, making it more threatening to the Methodist minister in whom he confided.’ (Jones, Christopher C. “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Spring 2011), 88-114.)

  4. 0t
    March 3, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Chad, thanks for the additional information.

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