In this video, I delineate the main objections raised by critics of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and offer clarifying, faithful resolutions based on accurate records and references.
Today, we’re going to talk about the First Vision and some of the issues that critics bring up about this experience that Joseph Smith had. The first is the multiple accounts of the First Vision. There are four main accounts that Joseph told. The first one was a private recording in an autobiography in 1832. 1835 account was Joseph telling the story to a visitor in his home that was then recorded by Warren Parish’s scribe into Joseph’s journal. The 1838 account we find in the scriptures. That’s the one that’s been canonized, and we have it in the Pearl of Great Price and Joseph Smith history, and then the 1842 account was the Wentworth letter. We also have five different accounts of people that wrote really secondhand accounts of when Joseph told them the story. They recorded what they remember Joseph telling them.
There are lots of different details in these different accounts, and I think they’re beautiful. Combined altogether, you get this wonderful holistic view of this experience. If you were to tell a story multiple times, you would emphasize different things to different audiences. There, the 1832 account was very focused on Joseph coming to the Lord seeking forgiveness of sins. The 1838 account was much more of the institutional church and the focus there. This is actually a fantastic book that I love, Opening the Heavens, that goes and takes the nine accounts and actually puts them together into a way where you can see each of the different areas, so Joseph Smith’s quest and struggle, or what Joseph Smith saw, for example. You can see all nine accounts listed there, and it’s fascinating to see different things.
Four accounts, the first two and the last two actually talk about one person coming and then another. Now, it’s interpreted a little bit, possibly implied in the 1832 account. It’s a little confusing. We’re going to talk about that next, but that’s a fascinating aspect to that as well. If you were to look at a couple of examples from the New Testament, Paul on the road to Damascus or the vision on the mount of transfiguration, there were multiple tellings of that with different details in the various accounts. It doesn’t mean the story is not true because there’s different details. In fact as you read this, there isn’t anything you’ll find that contradicts anything else. In fact, the 1838 account where we have two people being there, it just doesn’t say how exactly they came. The other accounts help you understand it sounds like one came first and then immediately followed thereafter by the Son.
So the next issue that’s often brought up is the wording of the 1832 account. This is the one that causes the most challenge from the critics bringing this up with the wording here. So let me read exactly what Joseph said. He said, in describing this, “A pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me, and I was filled with the spirit of God.” Then he says, “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.'” He uses the term “the Lord” twice, so some have criticized Joseph saying that there was really only one person here. Keep in mind the vernacular of that time and really today in some ways too, the Father and the Son being one, the Lord is a descriptive term for both there. But it does seem, especially when you hear the next time Joseph’s telling this, where he’s describing this, he’s saying one came and then one followed thereafter, so it really was only one first and then the second was introduced. I find it interesting, the last two accounts, 1843 and ’44 after the official accounts were published, he tells it the same way, again how there was one first and then another to follow. That’s the way I read that.
The next issue that’s sometimes brought up is (silence) why did Joseph wait 12 years to record this officially? A couple things. First of all, in 1832 there was a lot of criticism coming at the Church at that point in time. That was the year the office of the First Presidency was organized, and Joseph began recording different things and felt like there needed to be some history of his experiences recorded, also to rebut what was being spread and being publicized there from critics. If you look at his 1838 account, the way it starts, and it makes you wonder almost if there hadn’t have been critics, Joseph may have not told the story here at all. He said, “Owing to the many reports which had been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing persons,” he says, “I have been induced to write this history to disabuse the public mind about what has happened.”
So it is interesting. Joseph’s attitude about sacred things was to keep them sacred. He talked about if you receive a spiritual manifestation to keep it to yourself. If you remember when Moroni came to Joseph, he told him to tell his father about the experience, and the next day Moroni came to Joseph and asked if he had done it, and he said he hadn’t because he was afraid his father wouldn’t believe. Moroni then said, “Tell your father and he will believe,” which he did. Joseph had this reticence, this attitude about this. Also in 1832 account, he does actually say that he found none that would believe, so we don’t know how many he told, but he was very reticent to do it. We do know he told the Methodist preacher the experience and was rejected out of hand.
The last topic that’s sometimes brought up is about whether there was really revivals happening in 1820 in Palmyra. This really came from Reverend Wesley Walters. In the year of 1967, he did a study on just looking back at the papers that were around in Palmyra then to just try and identify, and he found nothing in the spring of 1820 there. So he said, “Well, then that gives us the proof that the Joseph didn’t have this vision because there wasn’t a religious excitement that he talked about.” Well, in his 1838 account, he says “Sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester.” Now, they moved there in 1838, so this would be 1819. He says, “After our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodist but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of countries seemed affected by it.”
So first of, all he’s talking about Manchester, and one year earlier, 1819. There was an interesting side note I will tell you. There was a big snow storm on May 28th of 1820 in Palmyra, so there was actually a big revival in June 1820 in Palmyra, but that wasn’t considered spring. Well, if you had a big snow storm May 28th, you might consider June spring. Where Joseph’s really talking about it though is he said it was the whole district, and in fact even in Manchester in 1819 there was religious excitement, particularly the Methodists. There are journals from Methodist preachers now that had been found that record that. This was a great one that Milton Backman did on looking at where we have recordings of unusual religious excitement in 1819 and 1820 in upstate New York, particularly in the west in the Burned-over district, which was considered from the Finger Lakes over to Lake Erie. All those dots represent spots where there was recorded religious excitement, unusual religious excitement there. This is really close. Here’s Manchester right there, so you can see all around Joseph. That’s really what he alluded to there, so I think that’s kind of a silly argument for anyone to make, but it goes back to that research that was done in 1967.
So those are the things regarding the First Vision that I thought would be good. Again, this is Cliff Notes version. There’s lots of detail in all of these. I will put some details in the description of other links to go deeper on this if you’d like. Please subscribe, and we’ll look forward to the next video.
Opening the Heavens, Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 by John Welch
Gospel Topics Essay: https://www.lds.org/topics/first-visi…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.