Part 9: CES Letter First Vision Questions

by Sarah Allen


Like last week, this is another section with just one main question, the multiple accounts of the First Vision.

There are at least 4 different first vision accounts by Joseph Smith, which the Church admits in its November 2013 First Vision Accounts essay

Yep, and there are also five secondhand accounts written by people who heard the story from Joseph, too. First, though, I have to object to the fact that he’s saying the Church “admits it” in the essay, as if it’s the first time the Church has ever made mention of those other accounts or something. They’ve been published repeatedly in Church magazines and other publications, comparing and contrasting all of them together since at least 1970, and at least a few of them were published many times over apart from that. Add this item to the list of things that Jeremy Runnells could have known, even if I don’t necessarily think he should  have known it.

Here they are, in case you guys want to read them for yourselves and make your own comparisons:

And I’ll also throw this in here, if you’re just looking for a single, comprehensive overview:

In the only handwritten account by Joseph Smith, penned in 1832, but not publicly published until much later, describes the first vision in an unfamiliar way.

Eh, not really. There are a few slight differences, but it’s pretty similar overall. As the Gospel Topics essay explains:

The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.

John Tvedtnes wrote a great article for the Interpreter comparing and contrasting the First Vision accounts with the different accounts of Paul’s vision, if anyone’s interested in reading it. The team at Book of Mormon Central also wrote an article doing the same, but with Alma the Younger’s visitation instead of Paul’s. And Val Larsen wrote one comparing Joseph Smith’s First Vision to Lehi’s first vision that is also pretty solid.

It’s actually pretty normal for there to be various accounts of the same event that differ slightly from telling to telling. Reddit user Senno_Ecto_Gammat wrote a post in the Latterdaysaints subreddit some time ago  pointing out the differences between Seth McFarlane’s and President George W. Bush’s various accounts of 9/11, when they had video evidence of exactly what they’d said before to remind them as well as the internet to clarify any discrepancies, unlike Joseph Smith.

I can also speak about this from personal experience. I had what I sometimes refer to as a revelatory experience a little over 12 years ago, or an event similar to something Nephi described. This incident had a profound effect on me, and it’s something I’ve pondered a lot as I’ve grown older. I’ve only described this event in detail about three times ever and have only referred to it happening about a dozen times altogether, counting this one right now. My own immediate family doesn’t even know that it happened. The few times that I have discussed it, I’ve left things out of the story, I’ve combined certain other things, and I’ve let my memory of some aspects of it grow fuzzy because they simply weren’t important. I’ve told different versions of that story to different people. The reason I’ve done that is because those things weren’t relevant to my point in telling the story. I had a different point I was making each time I shared it. If I were to recount it to you all right now, there would probably be some notable differences from the account I wrote in my journal after it happened.

That’s just the way that people talk and the way that memory works. It’s normal to see those minor differences. When you see a story told exactly the same way each time over and over again, it’s less believable because it seems rehearsed.

So, having said that, let’s see what Jeremy finds objectionable about this:

  • No mention of two beings
  • 12 years after the vision happened
  • Age is 15-years-old (“16th year of my age”), not 14-years-old
  • No reference to asking the question about which church he should join
  • No description of being attacked by Satan

This isn’t as big a deal as he makes it out to be. To begin with, the mention of Joseph being 15 years old at the time was actually written by Frederick G. Williams:

The 1832 First Vision account was written by Joseph Smith himself. It was a rough draft and was not meant for publication. After Joseph had written the text, his scribe, Frederick G. Williams, inserted “in the 16th year of my age” into the document (which would have made Joseph 15 at the time of the vision). … Williams, probably in discussion with Joseph, was trying to add details to clarify the document. This detail was likely in error and was corrected in later versions.

Again, leaving certain things out? Not a big deal. This is especially true because this was Joseph Smith’s own handwritten account in his journal. It was one of the very first entries in that journal, one he bought a few years after receiving the revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 20, encouraging the new church to keep records.

The simple fact is, we have hardly any documents from Joseph’s own hand prior to 1832. He didn’t record things. He didn’t have a personal journal before that point. He didn’t like to write letters. Writing did not come easily for him. He struggled mightily with it, and found it much, much easier to let others do the writing for him while he did the talking.

Let’s not forget that he’s the same man who famously had scribes write his own journal entries for him as he dictated them. He’s the same man whom Emma once described as unable to “write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.” He’s the same man who once wrote in a letter to W.W. Phelps that writing was a “narrow, little prison, almost as it were total darkness of paper, pen, and ink, and a crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language.”

Is it any wonder, then, that his own handwritten account is short, imprecise, undetailed, and didn’t appear until after the Lord commanded him to keep a record of the restoration?

As for only mentioning one being, the Gospel Topics essay suggests that Joseph may well have been referring to both God the Father and Jesus Christ, referring to them each as “the Lord” at different times, while FAIR elaborates on that idea and also offers several other possible theories.

However, even if none of those theories were true and he did only mention the Savior, so what? As Jim Bennett says, “A person who visits his parents and later tells a friend, ‘I saw Mom yesterday’ would not be contradicting themselves if they later told someone else, ‘I saw Dad yesterday.’ Both things are true. Mom’s presence does not preclude Dad’s, and the Son’s presence does not preclude the presence of the Father.”

Runnells then repeats the charge that in the 1832 account, Joseph says he’d already determined that none of the churches were true, while in the 1838 account, that was one of his primary motivations for asking:

Contradictions: In the 1832 account Joseph wrote that before praying he knew there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness for his sins.

 “…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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ…”

 In the official 1838 account, however, Joseph wrote:

 “My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sections was right, that I might know which to join” … “(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).”

 This is in direct contradiction to his 1832 first vision account.

Again, I don’t think that’s nearly as troubling as Jeremy seems to. Judging by his words in every account, it seems that Joseph didn’t see much similarity to God’s church as found in the Bible from the branches of Christianity he was familiar with. He may have suspected that no churches were fully true and prayed for confirmation of that fact. Or he may have simply have been a little hazy on the details of his memory and remembered it more clearly later. It’s not like we can’t pray for more than one thing at a time during our prayers. He went to pray for forgiveness for his sins, and to know if he should join any of the churches because he suspected he shouldn’t. He got answers to both of those questions.

Bennett also gives an interesting take on the meaning of Joseph’s phrasing in the 1832 account vs the 1838 account, where he points out that just 8 verses prior to the one Jeremy quoted, Joseph also stated, “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself:  What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” Elaborating on this point, Bennett continues:

How could he ask if they were all wrong in verse 10 and then say in verse 18 that it had “never entered into his heart” that they were all wrong? Remember, this was the definitive version that Joseph was writing for the History of the Church, and it undoubtedly had more than a few proofreading eyes on it before it was published to the world at large. So either Joseph and his scribes were just too lazy to notice he directly contradicts himself in the course of a few paragraphs, or there’s something else going on here.

The key phrase is “entered into my heart.”

We can have confidence in what Joseph means by this because it is not the only time he uses variations of this phrase. Here’s what he says about his experience reading James 1:5.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. [JSH 1:12, emphasis added]

This is a phrase Joseph uses to describe something more powerful than mere intellectual assent. He’s describing a spiritual experience, where the feelings of the heart complement and contribute to clarity of mind. … Joseph had clearly considered the possibility all churches were in error in verse 10 (and in the 1832 account,) but the idea hadn’t really sunk in – i.e. entered into his heart – until after verse 18.

 While studying the Bible, Joseph realized that no church he knew of matched the church established by Christ. Part of him wondered if that church existed at all anymore and if so, which one it was. But deep down, he hadn’t yet fully grasped that the fulness of Christ’s gospel no longer existed at all. He still expected an answer regarding which church to join. When it “entered into his heart,” he was no longer pondering the idea and wondering if it was true. He was receiving a spiritual confirmation that he was right to question whether those churches belonged to Christ or not.

No one – including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about the first vision from twelve to twenty-two years after it supposedly occurred. The first and earliest written account of the first vision in Joseph Smith’s journal was 12 years after the spring of 1820. There is absolutely no record of any claimed “first vision” prior to this 1832 account.

Not true, besides being terribly poor reasoning. In his response to Jeremy, Jim Bennett continued:

You’re offering a fallacious argument from silence here. Since you can’t find written statements about the First Vision, you assume this proves that nobody talked about it. But other than a handful of revelations with regard to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Joseph didn’t really write anything down until 1832, twelve years after the First Vision occurred. Since nothing he said during that time was recorded for posterity, are we to assume that was because he never spoke about anything prior to 1832, let alone the First Vision? … For example, [1832]’s the earliest written account where Joseph Smith records his own birthday. Should we assume that until 1832, nobody in his family knew when his birthday was? Or, better yet, that he made up his birthday, too?

Reticence to share was his initial reaction, which is not at all surprising when we remember that we’re talking about 14-year-old kid here, one who has just experienced something overwhelmingly difficult to process. And events shortly thereafter would make him even more gun-shy about spreading the word.

He finally gets up the courage to tell a Methodist minister about the vision, and the minister blows him off “with great contempt” and makes him feel foolish for sharing it. He soon discovers that talking about the vision brings him nothing but trouble.

So when bullies are mocking you for talking about seeing God, what do you do? You stop talking about it. Certainly your family stops talking about it. But that doesn’t stop others for making fun of you for it, which, according to Joseph, they did – and some of it even leaked over into records of the time.

In February of 1831 one such record, a Palmyra paper called The Reflector, mocked the fledgling church members because Joseph “had seen God frequently and personally.” Maybe one of you could explain to me how that’s even possible if no one had ever heard about the First Vision until a year after that article was written.

Also, D&C 20:5, recorded in 1830, talks about Joseph having received a remission of his sins, which Joseph stated happened during the Vision. So, if the First Vision never happened and Joseph made it all up in 1832, then how could the Lord reference it in 1830?

Who appears to him? Depending upon the account, a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels or the Father and the Son appear to him – are all over the place.

When you actually look at what the accounts say, they’re not contradictory. In some accounts he gives more details than others, but they all complement one another. Sometimes, he includes angels in the vision and sometimes he doesn’t, but again, people leave certain things out of a retelling when they aren’t the main focus of their story. Judging from the angelic hosts that accompanied the announcement of the birth of Christ, it seems natural that they also accompanied the announcement of the restoration of the Gospel—but it also seems natural that a host of angels would be somewhat overshadowed by seeing God the Father and the Savior. I mean, I’m just saying.

Speaking of angels, though, let’s take the Gospels as an example. Matthew skims over the birth of the Savior and doesn’t mention the shepherds or the angels, only the wise men. Mark and John don’t mention His birth at all, and just jump straight into His baptism. Luke is the only Gospel where we receive the account with the shepherds and the angelic hosts. Are they contradictory accounts? No. They’re just focusing on different things, the same as the accounts of the First Vision.

Contrary to Joseph’s account, the historical record shows that there was no revival in Palmyra, New York in 1820.

Joseph never said there was a religious revival in Palmyra in 1820. He said there was religious “excitement” that “commenced with the Methodists,” and yes, the historical record absolutely does show that. The Palmyra Register contained an article dated June 28, 1820, which states that a man died from alcohol poisoning after attending a Methodist camp meeting the night before with about 1000 other people and having a bit too much fun while he was there.

But that’s not all. Insights into Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the ebook created by the team at Book of Mormon Central, states the following:

Historical records and primary sources confirm that there was considerable religious activity throughout much of western New York in the early 1800s. During this time, multi-day Methodist revival meetings were regularly held throughout the region, featuring dozens—and sometimes even hundreds—of preachers and attracting crowds in the thousands from miles around.

In Palmyra specifically, “The great revival of 1816 and 1817, which nearly doubled the number of Palmyra Presbyterians, was [still] in progress when the Smiths arrived.” The next year, in June 1818, a Methodist camp meeting was held on the outskirts of town, drawing in a crowd of around 2000—twice the population of Palmyra itself—and featuring a high-ranking leader in the American Methodist church. Another Methodist camp meeting with at least 1000 people in attendance was held in Palmyra in June 1820. In July 1819, the neighboring town of Phelps (also called Vienna) was the host of a major regional conference of the Methodist church, bringing in around 100 preachers from all across western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and southern Canada. These preachers held camp meetings throughout the region as they traveled to and from the conference.

Each of these events initiated by the Methodists in Palmyra and the surrounding area between the years 1818–1820 would indeed have generated “an unusual excitement” and provide a glimpse of the “great excitement” which promoted “serious reflection and great uneasiness” in young Joseph while at other times making him “greatly excited” (Joseph Smith—History 1:8–9). Sarepta Marsh Baker, who attended some these revival meetings around Palmyra as a teenager in either 1819 or 1820, similarly remembered these events as a “religious cyclone which swept over the region round about.”

Much of western New York was experiencing similar religious excitement. “Between 1816 and 1821,” writes historian Milton V. Backman, “revivals were reported in more towns and a greater number of settlers joined churches than in any previous period of New York history.” Several towns within a 20-mile radius of the Smith farm experienced heightened religious excitement in 1819–1820, and Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all experienced significant membership gains throughout western New York at this time. Accounts of revivalism and major membership gains in other parts of western New York were reported directly in Palmyra and would have spread by word of mouth as people traveled as far as 50 miles or more to attend revival meetings and regional conferences.

Clearly, “religious excitement” is an accurate term for it, and clearly, it was happening in and around Palmyra in 1820.

Anyway, as I’m wrapping up this section, I just wanted to take a moment to bear my testimony of Joseph Smith. There are a lot of things coming up that are deliberately framed to put him in the worst possible light, and before we dive into all of those, I wanted to share my deep love and respect for him. He was not a perfect man, and he arguably made several large mistakes in his lifetime. He had flaws like we all do. He was a mortal man, not a God, and it’s important that we recognize that and allow him room to be imperfect.

But we also need to recognize all that he accomplished in his short years on this Earth, and all that we are able to learn from him today. A simple, heartfelt prayer of his ushered in a new dispensation and the restoration of Christ’s Holy Priesthood. Under the gift and power of God, he brought forth new scripture. He formed a church that still stands today. He spoke with God the Father and God the Son face to face, as well as a host of other divine messengers. He reintroduced work to redeem the dead. He restored the sealing power to the Earth. He built temples and communities, and he sealed his testimony with his blood. Did he do all of that on his own? Of course not. It was the work of the Father and of the Savior, but They did that work through Joseph.

In a fantastic presentation from the 2014 FAIR Conference by Matt Roper and Paul Fields, Fields said the following:

Now, since the King James Version of the Bible was a translation product of 54 learned men, who spent four years doing their work, and the Book of Mormon was the translation product of one unschooled farm boy, over about a 90-day period of time, we can say then that there is 250 times as much effort per word that went into the translation of the King James Bible as compared to the Book of Mormon, and if Joseph Smith alone could have accomplished that feat, he was indeed a remarkable man.

Joseph Smith was a remarkable man. The very first two times I can ever remember feeling the Spirit as a kid were when I was in Primary, learning the words to “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” and “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer.” I was too young at the time to understand what the feeling even was, let alone what it was teaching me, but it was such a unique feeling that I remembered it. When I was older and I recognized it for what it was, I understood that the Spirit was teaching me that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in a grove of trees, and that the Priesthood had been restored to the Earth.

And I have never doubted that since.

Those things were made possible because Joseph followed the prompting he received, just like how our prophets counseled us to do during our last General Conference. He went somewhere private, and got on his knees and prayed, and look at everything that has come because of it. May we all be that willing to follow the Spirit.


Sources in this entry:–9


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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