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Editor’s note: We will hear a great deal about the First Vision in this coming year. 2020 has been declared a bicentennial year and celebration of the First Vision. Meridian has published a Bicentennial First Vision Calendar for 2020 which is available immediately for purchase here: latterdaysaintmag.com/calendar
You and I have studied the First Vision from the earliest times of our membership in the Church. We’ve all had numerous lessons in Sunday School, Family Home Evening, Relief Society, Priesthood, Young Women’s, Young Men’s, Primary—the list goes on and on. Is it possible that we have missed some details about this grand and glorious event?
We have five primary source accounts given by Joseph Smith himself (one written by his own hand, four others as dictated by Joseph to scribes) and five other secondary accounts (people who heard him talk about the First Vision and they wrote down what they heard during Joseph’s lifetime). Each account gives us some different details and insights, depending on the audience and context.
Let’s explore seven things you may not know about the First Vision.
Reverend George Lane Connection
In the 1838 account of the First Vision (which most of us know the best since this has been published as Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price) we learn something about Joseph’s process of searching for the church he should join. “In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them…” (Joseph Smith History 1:8) There is some indication that one of the most influential Methodist circuit preachers in the area at that time may have had some influence on Joseph’s desire to learn more and seek an answer from God. His name was Reverend George Lane.
In July 1819 (just 9 or 10 months before the First Vision), Reverend Lane attended a special Methodist religious conference that lasted a week. This meeting included 110 ministers and their bishop and took place within 15 miles of the Smith Farm and is right at the time when Joseph identified “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” near their home. “Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties,” Joseph recorded.
William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, recounted later in life an interesting tie of Reverend Lane to Joseph:
Reverend Mr. Lane of the Methodists preached a sermon on what church shall I join? and the burden of his discourse was to ask God using as a text “if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally” and of course when Joseph went home and was looking over the text he was impressed to do just what the preacher had said and going out in the woods with child like simple trusting faith believing that God meant just what he said kneeled down and prayed…
Could Reverend Lane have been the man Joseph referred to in
the 1838 account here? “Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be
in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the
before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject
of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had
had.” (Joseph Smith History 1:21) Joseph does not identify him by name nor does
Lucy Mack Smith in her history of Joseph.
Of course, Joseph was seeking to know what he should do. Of course, he was attending various meetings and gathering as much information from others as he could. Of course, the religious fervor in the area of Palmyra was influencing Joseph. It does appear that Reverend Lane had some influence on Joseph’s desire to move forward and turn to God for answers.
Gracefully to Gradually
In the 1838 account of the First Vision, Joseph describes the first part of the vision like this:
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.” (Joseph Smith History 1:16)
In the original manuscript of this account, the word he had his scribe write down here describing how the pillar of light came down was gracefully and then he crossed that word out and used the word gradually.
It may have been that Joseph was attempting to describe this incredible, majestic, indescribable light and wasn’t sure which word best described the experience. Each of those words are very descriptive in different and wonderful ways.
Joseph tried to describe Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ by saying, “whose brightness and glory defy all description.” (Joseph Smith History 1:17) A mortal attempt to describe a celestial experience is always full of metaphors and similes. It’s just too hard to put in words.
He Thought the Trees Might Catch Fire
In the 1835 account, Joseph gives the description of someone who works the land and would be concerned about fire (as any farmer would): “A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.”
In Orson Pratt’s 1840 account, he indicates more details about this particular concern Joseph had about the trees possibly catching fire:
“[Joseph] continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and, as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness, and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around, was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but, perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hopes of being able to endure its presence.”
It is wonderful to think that young Joseph’s concern about fire was changed into confidence to continue in his quest to ask God his questions.
Joseph’s desire for forgiveness of his sins was perhaps as great as his desire to know which church to join
Joseph began thinking deeply about the things of eternity when he was a young boy. “At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul.”
He had carefully observed the sun, the moon and the stars and was full of wonder and awe at their perfect order and he said in the 1832 account: “…and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said it is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.”
It’s noteworthy than in Joseph first attempt (that we know of) to record the First Vision (1832), he reported the very beginning of the vision as follows: “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.”
In the 1835 account, Joseph reported these words first: “he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.”
Orson Pratt also recorded this at the beginning of the vision: “He was informed, that his sins were forgiven.”
We learn from the scriptures that no unclean thing can enter the presence of God so this was certainly a critical step for Joseph to be in His presence—to be forgiven of his own sins.
And, of course, we learn that forgiveness was always paramount to Joseph—as three and-a-half years later he records: “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him.”
We can learn a
great deal from the Prophet Joseph and his desire to obtain forgiveness
directly from the Lord.
The Most Likely Date of the First Vision was Sunday, March 26, 1820
I am so grateful for the research of Dr. John Pratt and Dr. John Lefgren who, after many years and tremendous effort, have come to the conclusion that the most likely date for the First Vision was Sunday, March 26, 1820. Meridian published and re-published their article on this research many years ago. You can read the entire article here: https://latterdaysaintmag.com/oh-how-lovely-was-the-morning-sun-26-mar-1820/
Due to the fortuitous weather reporting in 1820 of the U.S. Naval officer, W. Wheaton, we have four weather observations day by day carefully recorded just a few miles from Palmyra at Sackets Harbor. The weather of Sackets Harbor and Palmyra are almost always the same. I personally watched the two weather stations on my own phone weather app—daily for two years to do my own personal observations. The weather was never more than one or two degrees different and the conditions were always the same.
Read or re-read the Meridian article to see the other factors that led Dr.’s Pratt and Lefgren to come to their conclusions about the exact date of the First Vision. Again, you can read their article here: https://latterdaysaintmag.com/oh-how-lovely-was-the-morning-sun-26-mar-1820/
Many angels attended Joseph in this vision
We learn from the 1835 account a little-known fact: “And I saw many angels in this vision.” We know no more details than that particular line. We see in accounts of other grand visions of Prophets that angels attended to them. They were there for Adam and Eve, Nephi and Lehi, for Abraham and for Moses. It seems a natural thing that if the Lord is showing the things of eternity to a Prophet, angels will naturally be in attendance.
Joseph Smith’s Father had at Least Seven Visions before the First Vision
Lehi was a visionary man. Nephi was a visionary man. Isaiah was a visionary man. Joseph Smith, Sr. was a visionary man. Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet Joseph, and wife to Joseph Smith, Sr. records at least seven visions that he had, all of which took place before the First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr.
One of the visions is particularly significant as Joseph Smith, Sr. had his own experience and vision of the Tree of Life. A portion of that vision is recorded as follows from Lucy Mack Smith’s history:
“Traveling a short distance further, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream, I could see neither the source nor yet the mouth, but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope, running along the bank of it about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low but very pleasant valley in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible, whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so, the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description.
“As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I cannot eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
“While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.”
There are many more details recorded of this vision of Joseph Smith, Sr. which took place in the summer of 1812.
Joseph’s Smith’s First Vision is the greatest event since the birth, death, resurrection and atonement of Jesus Christ. This coming year we celebrate the bicentennial of this grand theophany. May we study it, reflect upon it, meditate and ponder about it in these months to come. May the great truths of the First Vision permeate our souls and fill us with joy.
You may purchase the First Vision Bicentennial calendar for 2020 here today: latterdaysaintmag.com/calendar
 Deseret Evening News, Salt Lake City, January 20 1894, p. 11.
 Joseph Smith, “Sketch Book for the use of Joseph Smith, jr.,” Journal, Sept. 1835–Apr. 1836, p. 24.
 Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records; Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840, p. 5.
 JS, “A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr., circa summer 1832, pp. 1-2 (emphasis added).
 Ibid, p. 3.
 Joseph Smith, “Sketch Book for the use of Joseph Smith, jr.,” Journal, Sept. 1835–Apr. 1836, p. 24.
 Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840, p. 5.
 Joseph Smith History 1:29.
 Journal, 9-11 November 1835.
 Smith, Lucy Mack, Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, Edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1996, pp. 64-65.