Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Joseph Smith's First Vision

fvNote: Before I officially embark on this in-depth assessment of the truth claims of Catholicism and Mormonism, I wanted to first state the goals I have for this project. As I have explored the internet for arguments both for and against the claims of the Catholic and LDS faiths I have found that the arguments against them have often been uncharitable and unfair. Critics often lower themselves to relying on straw men and other deceptive claims about these traditions. My intention is to be as fair and charitable as possible in my assessments. I will seek to utilize only accurate evidence and the best arguments I can muster. As part of this intention I welcome and encourage those who may come across my posts to challenge and correct me where needed.  

It has been difficult trying to figure out where exactly to begin assessing the claims of the LDS faith. Having failed to come up with any creative way to address the Mormon movement, I figured I would begin where the story begins chronologically. I will first provide the account of the first vision the LDS faith holds to be official. I will then consider some of the issues surrounding the First Vision account and then determine whether these issues are reconcilable with, or problematic for the position of the LDS faith.

The Official Version

The account of the First Vision taught by Mormon educators and missionaries reads as follows:

In accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction--not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being--just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other--"This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than 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. I was answered that I must join none of them, 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; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. (Source:
This is the official version of the story that was firt recorded in 1838. I have highlighted select excerpts in red since they will be most relevant in considering possible issues with this vision.

Problems with the First Vision Story

A problem apparent from the above text, is that Joseph Smith claims to have experienced this vision in 1820, but the record above does not arise until 18 years later. In fact, the first recorded instance of Joseph Smith recording this vision is not until 1832:
...I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in (the) attitude of calling upon the Lord (in the 16th year of my age) a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the (Lord) opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph (my son) thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy (way) walk in my statutes and keep my commandments 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 (behold) 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 they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which (hath) been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud (clothed) in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart  … (Source: History, 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp.2,3)
The first issue, and a minor one that I don't find very problematic, is that Joseph claims in the official version to have been 14 years of age, whereas in this version he claims to be in his 16th year, which can be interpreted to mean either that he was already, or going on, 16 years of age. Sometimes I forget exactly how old I was when something happened to me, too. Ultimately this minor discrepancy does not do much harm to Smith's claims.

The second issue, on the other hand, is quite problematic since Joseph Speaks of only one personage, the Lord, being present in this vision, and further idetifies him with Christ. Why is it, if the official version is accurate, that Joseph left out the crucial detail that two separate persons appeared to him in his first version? The Mormon apologist may argue that just because Smith doesn't mention a second person doesn't mean the second person wasn't there. I concede this possibility; however, there is a pivotal detail that many often overlook.
In the time preceding and even following the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, the evidence strongly suggests that Joseph Smith Jr. held a sabellian view of God, meaning he believed Christ and God the Father to be the same person. The Book of Mormon itself seems to speak of God in a sabellian fashion:
"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)
"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)
In light of these factors, Smith's first recorded account of his vision seems to fit perfectly well with the theology he held at the time. If he truly saw the two personages of Christ and God the Father in a vision, we are left to wonder why he left out such a crucial detail, and further, why the Book of Mormon speaks of God as one person rather than two. Further, history suggests that until 1835 the Mormon movement as a whole adhered to a sabellain view. (New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, pages 82, 96-99, 103-104, 110)

Further, unknown to many modern Mormons, is the fact that the official account of the vision did not begin to be taught until 1842 (source), 22 years after it supposedly happened, and 12 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. This likely means that the Mormon movment prior to 1842 would have been grounded far less on the Joseph Smith's encounter with God, and instead on the Book of Mormon itself.

Other Visions of the Time

Another complication for Smith is that visions like his were not that uncommon in the early 1800s, and more troublesome still is that many of these other visions had striking similarities to his own:
"I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them.  One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man.  His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a cloud.  In looking steadfastly to discern features, I could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place.  Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man---His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining.  His Father's will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love." (Norris Stearn, 1815)
"... 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)
There have been multiple versions of Joseph Smith Jr's first vision that have been circulated far and wide. Some of the discrepancies between visions are minor, such as the exact day or year that he had the vision, while others are details that have serious theological implications. A further problem for Smith's account is that there are multiple vision accounts preceding Smith's that have striking similarities to his own. While there indeed seem to be a few crucial problems with the First Vision, perhaps LDS apologists provide insight into how Mormons can overcome these problems.

LDS Apologist Responses to First Vision Problems

From the official website of the LDS Church, Milton V. Backman Jr. writes the following:

The four surviving recitals of this theophany were prepared or rendered through different scribes, at different times, from a different perspective, for different purposes and to different audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that each of them emphasizes different aspects of his experience. When Latter-day Saints today explain this remarkable vision to others, their descriptions often vary according to the audience or circumstances that prompt such reports. If one were relating the incident to a group of high priests, for example, he would undoubtedly tell it somewhat differently than he would to individuals who had never heard of the restoration of the gospel or of Joseph Smith...

...Indeed, there are long-standing precedents for differing accounts of the same spiritual experience. For example, the four Gospels do not correspond exactly concerning the great events at the garden’s empty tomb. There are variations as to the number of women and angels who were present and whether the angels were sitting or standing. Although the Prophet Joseph Smith in his inspired translation clarified some of these details (and others cited below), minor disparities remain in the four descriptions of this event (compare 
Matt. 28 with Mark 16, Luke 24, andJohn 20). The differences, however, are not important—they may have resulted from incorrect transmissions or translations, or may be the result of recording the event from different perspectives. The glorious fact remains that the tomb was empty because Jesus had risen as the first fruits of the Resurrection.
As I stated previously, there are certain discrepancies that I would expect and not make a big fuss about. If a Mormon was recounting the Smith's story and got the year wrong, for instance, I wouldn't think much of it. However, when an account differs in a significant, theological way and also happens to correspond with the view of God Joseph Smith Jr. held at the time of the recording, it seems unlikely that such a major detail as God the Father being present along with Christ would be left out simply due to forgetfulness. Further, this was not the only time that a record of Smith's visions differed significantly from the official version:
Joseph Smith's First Vision and His Conflicting Accounts

If there exist such extreme discrepancies between New Testament accounts, I would indeed be a hypocrite to hold them to a lesser standard, so let us consider whether there are any such discrepancies. Backman states that "There are variations as to the number of women and angels who were present and whether the angels were sitting or standing" and provides Matt. 28Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 as examples. Let us look at these verses.

Matt: 28
And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre.
And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow.
And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men.
And the angel answering, said to the women: Fear not you; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid.
In this account two women come to the tomb and one angel greets them.
Mark 16

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus.
And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they come to the sepulchre, the sun being now risen.
And they said one to another: Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
And looking, they saw the stone rolled back. For it was very great.
And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe: and they were astonished.
Who saith to them: Be not affrighted; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, behold the place where they laid him.
But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee; there you shall see him, as he told you.

Once again, two women named Mary, and one being speaking to them. The only discrepancy is that this being is referred to as a man rather than an angel; however he is description sounds like that of an angel.

Luke 24

And on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared.
And they found the stone rolled back from the sepulchre.
And going in, they found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
And it came to pass, as they were astonished in their mind at this, behold, two men stood by them, in shining apparel.
And as they were afraid, and bowed down their countenance towards the ground, they said unto them: Why seek you the living with the dead?
He is not here, but is risen. Remember how he spoke unto you, when he was in Galilee,
Saying: The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
Two people go to the tomb once again. Given the earlier gospels it seems reasonable to assume that these two beings are the Marys. This time, however, the account speaks of two angelic beings.

John 20
And on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalen cometh early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre; and she saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
She ran, therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith to them: They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

This seems like a condensed version of the three previous accounts, and this is no surprise, given that the Gospel of John is more of a theological than historical work. It would be akin a condensed version of Smith's account, such as "God the Father and Jesus appeared to me. Jesus told me not to join any of the churches in existence because they are all wrong."

Having put forward all these scriptural examples, let us now consider whether the discrepancies are on par with the serious discrepancies in Smith's accounts by first determining what are the most important  aspects of these vision.
The central theme of the four gospel accounts above is that Christ is risen. The number of women present, or number of angels revealing this reality to the Marys does not change this key theme of the story. In other words, what is significant is not who came to the empty tomb, but that the tomb was found empty. Further, Backman acknowledges that these verses have had two thousand years to be altered and changed, which would give an additional reason as to why there are minor discrepancies.

In Smith's vision, the central theme, as the LDS church has promoted it, is that God and Christ have appeared to Smith and Christ has informed him that none of the religions are correct. It is important, given LDS theology, that the Father and Christ are identified separately. Thus anything that takes away from these important elements is a serious problem. Smith getting the day, year, or exact words Christ used when speaking to him would not change the central theme, but a change with theological bearings would. Hence, the discrepancies between Smith's accounts are more problematic than the discrepancies between the empty tomb accounts in the gospels.

An article from the (unofficial) LDS apologetics site FAIR puts forward the following argument:
Even though the Savior makes a direct reference to the Father there is no indication in this portion of the 1832 document that God appeared to Joseph Smith alongside His Son.
This type of pattern is seen in the Book of Mormon, translated in 1829: The Book of Mormon begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi—thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.
The apologist here makes a good case for the belief that God and Christ being in some way distinct from one another is present in the Book of Mormon. What we are then left to ask is why other parts of the Book of Mormon speak of God and Christ as the same being. The Mormon may hold that such a discrepancy is easily accounted for, since the books comprising the Book of Mormon were penned by different authors who had different beliefs about God. Perhaps it is possible to reconcile the 1832 account with the 1838 if we grant that Smith did indeed hold the same view of the Godhead that Mormons now hold. However, evidence seems to suggest that this is not the case. As Thomas G. Alexander highlights, "...the doctrine of God preached and believed before 1835 was essentially trinitarian, with God the Father seen as an absolute personage of Spirit, Jesus Christ as a personage of tabernacle, and the Holy Ghost as an impersonal spiritual member of the Godhead." If this is indeed the case, then the FAIR apologist reaches too far in his defense by implying that God and Christ were seen as seperate in the modern Mormon sense. He instead might have used the word distinct or different.topic, see the following:

The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology" by Thomas G. Alexander 


It has here been shown that there are issues with the First Vision accounts offered by Joseph Smith Jr. that may indeed be irreconcilable with the truth claims of the LDS faith. The arguments of the apologists I considered fail to make distinctions between minor discrepancies, and further, present claims that seems to run counter to the historical evidence. Even if one believes Joseph Smith Jr. really did experience a vision of the divine, or at least believes it possible, key questions remain:

1. Why doesn't Smith mention the Father in the 1832 account?

2. Why does the 1832 account of the first vision seem to coincide with the theological perspective Smith happened to have at the time? If Smith had really seen God and Christ as separate beings, why would both the Mormon movement and Smith continue to hold a view of God that varied from trinitarian to sabellian?

3. Why wasn't the First Vision taught in the LDS faith until 1842?

4. How do we account for the similarities Smith's vision has to visions that preceded his own?

5. Is it more likely that the discrepancies between the view of God in the Book of Mormon and the view of the Godhead held by the modern LDS faith is a result of ancient Mesoamerican authors having  trinitarian/ sabellian views of God, or that it was penned by 19th century authors that lived in a Protestant America where trinitarian/ sabellian views of the Godhead were the norm?

For further reading on this topic as a whole, see the following:

"Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision" by Milton V. Backman, Jr.
Mormonthink on the First Vision


  1. Thank you, Devin. I only hope it comes across as fair and charitable.