I once listened to a presentation by several highly regarded historians. They had been asked what they would choose to witness themselves if they could pick any event in American history. Some of the answers were profound: Columbus on the morning of discovery; the closed debates of the Constitutional Convention. Others seemed silly or insignificant. No one asked me, but I knew from the moment I heard the question what my answer would be. If I could witness any event in American history, I would witness Joseph Smith’s theophany, his vision of God and Christ in the woods of western New York.
No wonder that it is hotly contested. On the one hand Joseph Smith’s first vision may be the best documented theophany-vision of God-in history. The known historical record includes four or five different accounts (depending on how one decides to identify them) in eight statements (three of the statements are nearly identical to, and clearly copied from, earlier ones) of the vision in Joseph’s papers, and a few other contemporary secondary accounts in the papers of people who heard him tell of it.
Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
? 1832 – autobiography written on the first pages of a book used by Joseph Smith to record letters he sent and received
? 1835 (November 9) – entry in Joseph Smith’s journal by his scribe, reporting Joseph’s account of the vision to a visitor (reproduced in 1834-1836 history)
? 1835 (November 14) – entry in Joseph Smith’s journal by his scribe, reporting Joseph’s account of the vision to Erastus Holmes (reproduced in 1834-1836 history)
? 1838 – account scribed by George Robinson and copied into Joseph’s Manuscript History by James Mulholland and later revised, presumably by Joseph, and copied again by Howard Coray about 1841; published in the Times and Seasons newspaper on March 15, 1842; redacted by Willard Richards later that year; later excerpted in the Pearl of Great Price
? 1842 – Joseph Smith letter to John Wentworth letter, published in the Times and Seasons newspaper on March 1, 1842; reproduced in 1843 for Israel Daniel Rupp’s An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States.
On the other hand critics contend that the multiple accounts are inconsistent with each other or with historical facts and see in them an evolving story that Joseph embellished over time. The very same evidence sustains a more faithful view. The multiple accounts and the historical facts do not compel one to disbelieve Joseph, as is often insinuated. Rather, it is the way some people interpret the multiple accounts and pick and choose from historical facts that, when unexamined, can lead believers to lose faith. Meanwhile, many find the richly documented vision a compelling reason to believe Joseph.
Joseph’s testimony leads many to belief, including the British literary scholar Arthur Henry King. He wrote:
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.
Arthur Henry King, Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent World (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1998), 288.
I’ve had the opportunity of learning about the vision from all of the known accounts. I’ve held the manuscripts in my hands and read Joseph’s own handwriting.
I’ve been mentored by the finest scholars of these documents, the historians who have discovered some of the accounts and published them and the most significant writings about them. I realized recently that very few people have had such an opportunity. The documents have been published repeatedly but most people still don’t know about them or how to access them, or have the opportunity to handle and examine the manuscripts.
Moreover, the important work my mentors did to publish these accounts and tell their history is not very widely known. These scholars are all aging and I’m afraid that their work on the First Vision is little known and unappreciated. This is not a problem of ego or recognition. The problem is that many families and individuals are in crisis, having had their faith in the First Vision shaken or shattered because it was not well founded when critics raised their consciousness of the several accounts, insinuating slyly that Joseph cannot be trusted, thereby toppling one’s entire testimony.
The work of my mentors could help resolve this pervasive problem. They, after all, have studied the vision accounts for a half-century, discovered and published some of them along with contextual studies of them, and they all believe. It’s not knowing the accounts that undermines testimony, it’s thinking that you know more about them than you do.
One of these venerable scholars, Dean Jessee, was a young historian assigned to catalog manuscripts in the LDS Church Historian’s Office in the 1960s. He became intimately acquainted with the handwriting of early Latter-day Saints and with the handwritten accounts of Joseph’s vision. He discovered and published the 9 November 1835 account in Joseph’s journal. When I asked Dean recently why many people seem surprised and some even disturbed to learn that Joseph made multiple accounts of the vision, he gave his wry smile and said in his understated way that he didn’t think they would have that trouble if they were more inclined to read.
Select list of accounts published in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries
<p style="margin-left: 30px; text-indent: -0.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />25in; line-height: normal;”>? Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Deseret, 2012)
? Joseph Smith Papers, multiple volumes include one or more accounts. See josephsmithpapers.org
? John W. Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations
? Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” Ensign 26 (April 1996): 10-21
? Milton V. Backman Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign 15 (January 1985): 8-17
? Dean C. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed., and Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols.
? Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (1971, 1980)
? James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision-What Do We Learn From Them,” Improvement Era 73 (April 1970): 4-13
? Dean C. Jessee, editor, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9:3 (1969): 275-94.
? Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Visions,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965, especially pages 126-32
As I contemplated these issues early one morning a few years ago, I felt a strong desire to do something to meet the needs of people who are willing to believe Joseph but just don’t have the tools to know what to think or how to feel about the hackneyed but incessant attacks on his credibility. I decided to do what I could to bring the scholarship of my mentors to the attention of the “rising generations” (D&C 69:8). With a generous mentoring grant from Brigham Young University and its consecrated patrons, I worked with Samuel Dodge, then a talented undergraduate history major and now a graduate student in history at U Mass, to produce a documentary featuring the several accounts of the First Vision and the scholars who have studied them most, along with a book of their seminal articles.
I also determined to write a new kind of book about the vision (Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts, based on the premise that only Joseph Smith knew whether he experienced a vision of God and Christ in the woods. He was the only witness. His own statements are the only direct evidence. With so much at stake, Joseph’s accounts have been examined and questioned. Are they credible?
To answer that question satisfactorily, seekers need access to all the evidence and the skills to analyze it for themselves. So in the book I provide all of the known accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision that were written during his lifetime, including color images of Joseph’s first-person accounts, along with tools to help readers think about them analytically and historically, tools that enable readers to make the shift from hypothetical history they assume to documented history they have diligently sought by study and also by faith (D&C 88:118). It is a believing book but not a defensive or a dogmatic one. It is an invitation to all seekers everywhere to take a fresh look at Joseph Smith’s first vision.
I had read Joseph’s accounts of the vision many times before, but when I began to think about them anew I discovered much that I had not noticed before. It came as the result of listening to Joseph more intently. He lamented sorrowfully in his earliest account that, though the vision filled his soul with love and joy, “[I] could find none that would believe the heavenly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart.” Perhaps you have felt like a parent or a spouse just would not make the effort to hear what you were saying. Perhaps you have been frustrated by the feeling that you lacked the ability to communicate something vital? Joseph did.
He keenly felt inadequate to share what he experienced. At about the same time as he composed his earliest account in 1832 he lamented that he was confined by what he called “the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”[i] Besides, much of it he simply could not tell. He said that the heavenly beings he witnessed defied description.
Shortly before his death Joseph acknowledged that no one knew his history, despite his numerous attempts to describe it. “I cannot tell it. I shall never undertake it; if I had not experienced what I have I should not have known it myself.”[ii]
I noticed as I listened to a variety of people talk about the first vision that those who were inclined to impeach Joseph’s testimony followed a flawed logic. They blamed Joseph when they discovered that his story did not match their unfounded assumptions, which were nothing more than hypothetical ideas about what he should have said if his experience were real. It became clear to me that some people fault Joseph for not telling the truth when they fail to listen carefully enough to understand the truth that he told.
In any communication there is an encoder that sends the signal and a decoder that receives it. Always there is noise between the sender and the receiver of the signal and it limits and hinders perfect transmission and reception. In terms of communication, noise is not only audible. Sound or physical noise can interrupt a signal, but other kinds of noise hinder communication too. Semantic noise happens when the encoder sends signals that the receiver lacks the power to decipher. Psychological noise happens when a receiver’s assumptions or prejudices or preconceived notions or emotions prevent an accurate interpretation of the signal.
God may reveal flawless signals, but no mortal, including the youthful Joseph Smith, receives communication flawlessly. There is always noise. And in this case the process of communication will be doubly difficult since Joseph’s best efforts to re-communicate his experience to us are also compromised by communication noise.
So rather than assume that I could know all about the vision by reading Joseph’s accounts, I expected only to understand some of what Joseph experienced and only as it came through his memory and the limits of communication.
Joseph’s vision was a particular kind of communication we call revelation. “Revelation,” according to Elder David A. Bednar, “is communication from God to his children on the earth.”[iii] Elder Bednar described two types of revelation. One is like turning on a light switch and dispelling darkness in an instant. Joseph’s experience in the woods belongs to this category. The other type of revelation is a process, like watching night turn into morning as the rising sun gradually and subtly replaces darkness.[iv] The process type of revelation yields insight from ongoing inspiration. This is the kind of revelation that resulted from Joseph’s vision.
He accumulated richer and deeper understanding of his vision as he gained subsequent experience and reflected on it. As I listened carefully to Joseph’s efforts to communicate, I felt like I could discern between the two types of revelation in his several accounts, which helped me see that the accounts are less like photographs of what happened in the grove than they are like movies of what that experience in the grove meant to Joseph not only at the time but over time. They tell us what happened that day in 1820 and what it meant as Joseph grew, gained experience, insight, and the ability to discover richer and deeper meanings than he could at the time.
For example, Joseph didn’t come home from the grove and announce that he had just experienced his first vision. He describe the vision as his first when he later told about it in the context of subsequent visions as he was describing the series of events that led to the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon.
Knowing that he had an important story to tell, Joseph was concerned by the limits on his ability to communicate clearly. His earliest known account begins with a disclaimer in which he explains why he felt that his ability to communicate in writing was inadequate. His parents’ large family, he said, “required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.”
In this passage Joseph prepares us for the rough composition of his subsequent narrative. We hear the tension between his knowing that it was vital for him to communicate his singular experience and his sense of inadequacy to communicate it clearly. With that recognition we are prepared to hear Joseph’s marvelous story in crooked, broken, scattered, imperfect language. It is a bit like listening to someone communicate in a language they have learned but not yet mastered.
One of the most striking themes we hear in Joseph’s several accounts is his effort to communicate the deep frustration and anxiety he experienced before his vision. In 1832 he clearly communicated his overwhelming concern “for the welfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures.” But his search resulted in “grief” rather than relief and Joseph became “exceedingly distressed” because he knew he needed forgiveness but could not find it. In 1835 Joseph said that he was “wrought up in my mind” and that he considered it crucial to be right “in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces.” Even so, he was “perplexed in mind.”
In 1838 Joseph described even further his period of “serious reflection and great uneasiness” as he tried to sort out “the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations.” He felt paralyzed and found it “impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. My mind at different times was greatly excited for the cry and tumult were so great and incessant.”
As I was in the process of listening to Joseph emphasize this point, I sat in a Sunday School class where the vision was the topic. The discussion turned on the wonderful developments in religious freedom and the nurturing Smith family. I thought to myself about how the discussion reflected our sense of what we have inherited from history, but did not capture the tensions, frustrations, and fears that fill Joseph’s accounts. As a teen, he experienced religious freedom as anxiety-producing chaos in the midst of a family that, though loving, was itself divided on what Joseph called questions that involve eternal consequences. In short, listening to Joseph carefully leads to hearing him emphasizing how much he labored “under the extreme difficulties” caused by knowing that he needed forgiveness without being able to find it.
Listening to Joseph carefully leads to the recognition that he saw at least two divine beings in the woods but not necessarily simultaneously. In 1832 he wrote, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account says clearly, “I saw two personages” and the 1842 account adds, “two glorious personages.” The distinction between the 1832 account’s apparent reference to only one being-the Lord-and the 1838’s unequivocal assertion of two beings has led some to wonder and others to criticize Joseph for changing his story. But it may be that we just need to listen more carefully to Joseph tell the story. It may be that we have assumed that we understood his meaning before we did.
Joseph’s 1835 account provides the clearest chronology. He said, “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down up me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.” Two of the secondary accounts also say that Joseph first saw one divine personage who then revealed the other.
In the 1835 account Joseph also added as an afterthought, “and I saw many angels in this vision.” There is nothing in the accounts that requires us to read these variations as exclusive of each other. In other words, there is no reason to suppose that when Joseph says, “I saw two personages,” he means that he saw them at exactly the same time for precisely the same length of time, or that he did not also see others besides the two. Moreover, because the 1835 account and two of the secondary statements assert that Joseph saw one being who then revealed the other, we could interpret the 1832 account to be saying that Joseph saw one being who then revealed another while referring to both beings as “the Lord”: “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
We cannot be sure but it seems plausible that Joseph struggled in 1832 to know just what to call the divine personages.
The first instance of the word Lord was inserted into the sentence after the original flow of words, as if Joseph did not know quite how to identify the Being. In 1842 Joseph said that he “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.” It is plausible that he meant all along to communicate that he envisioned a divine being who revealed another one but that he struggled to characterize them precisely from what he called his narrow prison of paper, pen, and ink. They defied description, after all.
The insight I value most from listening to Joseph is recognizing his subtle but significant distinction between his mind and his heart. Each of his accounts narrates a struggle between his head and his heart. Introspective Joseph reflected carefully and wrote quite precisely about his thought processes as well as his emotional responses but few listen carefully enough to discern the difference. It was, according to Joseph, his mind that was worked up as he rationally looked for evidence of “who was right and who was wrong.” In 1832 Joseph said that he was about twelve when his “mind became seriously imprest” regarding the welfare of his soul. He felt deep emotional desires for God’s love and forgiveness and attention. But his accounts narrate his simultaneous efforts to discern authentic answers through rational processes.
Not picking up on Joseph’s distinction nor understanding the tension between head and heart that is the key conflict in his accounts, some readers have wondered or have even been critical of what they regard as inconsistency in Joseph, especially in his 1838 account. There he said that he had often thought about which church was right and that they may all be wrong and wondered how he could know. Later in the same account Joseph acknowledged that he asked the divine beings which church was right because, as he put it, “at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.”
When we listen carefully to Joseph we hear him describing the tension between what he had often thought in his head and what he would allow himself to conclude in his heart. His rational processes had suggested repeatedly that all the churches might be wrong, but that was a thought too terrible for Joseph to let it sink into his hopeful heart. Emotionally it was such an awful conclusion to the pre-vision teenager that he refused to let the recurring idea become a foregone conclusion without more wisdom from God. What seems to some like inconsistency in Joseph’s story can be interpreted as the very point he intended to communicate, namely that his head and his heart were at odds and he desperately needed wisdom from God in order to discern which if either he should favor.
One interviewer asked me whether we had exhausted the study of Church history. Is there more to be learned about something as well-known as Joseph Smith’s first vision? Indeed there is and today’s scholars of Joseph Smith’s first vision stand on the shoulders of giants. The saying is at least as old as Bernard of Chartres, who reportedly said of medieval professors like himself “that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”
Isaac Newton later used the same metaphor to acknowledge, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” It has been my good fortune to learn about Joseph Smith’s First Vision from the finest scholars of it, to study all of the accounts in detail, and to write a book that I hope will help seekers understand what the historical records say, why they were created, and how they combine to create the best documented vision of God in history.
Steven C. Harper is a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an adjunct professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU.
[i] Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Online.
[iii] Elder David A. Bednar, “The Spirit of Revelation,” April 2011 General Conference Address, accessed July 18, 2011.
[iv] Elder David A. Bednar, “The Spirit of Revelation,” April 2011 General Conference Address, accessed July 18, 2011.