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Cover image: Stained glass of the First Vision, in the Palmyra Temple by artist Tom Holdman.
Spring 2020 is the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. The articles in this column look forward to the upcoming bicentennial celebrations of the events of the Restoration with great quotes, stories and interesting thoughts about the Prophet Joseph Smith. To read the previous article in the series, CLICK HERE.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision is one of the most pivotal moments in human history—perhaps the greatest event since the resurrection of the Savior. Most of us are aware that the Prophet Joseph Smith, himself, recorded his First Vision on four different occasions, and that several of his closest friends who heard him speak of his experience in other settings, also wrote down what they heard him say. (More will be written about these unique accounts recorded between 1832 and 1844 in future articles.) Many of us only read the 1838 account found in the Pearl of Great Price. However, concurrently reading all of the eyewitness accounts of the First Vision yields greater views of the Prophet’s groundbreaking gospel experience.
Let me illustrate why reading more than one account could be important. If one were to read a red-letter edition of the New Testament (which highlights all the personal sayings of Jesus Christ in red type), a person could read all the recorded words of the Savior in the Four Gospels in about thirty minutes. Even though the Savior lived thirty-three years, and served a three-and-a-half year mission, the Four Gospels combined cover only 31 days of His entire life! That’s why John the Revelator declared at the end of his Gospel, that his New Testament writings were never intended as biography of the Savior’s life, but rather as a testimony to give us greater faith: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31). So while none of the four Gospels contain all of the Savior’s teachings, by reading all four accounts, we come to greater understanding of what the Lord taught.
Similarly, the Prophet Joseph never recorded, in a single-setting nor in a single narrative, everything he experienced during his First Vision. Each account tells the same story, and it’s important to understand that he never embellished nor contradicted his testimony from one telling to the next, but Joseph emphasized particular and unique details in each testimony he shared. Reading all the available accounts together adds to the richness of our understanding of his revelation. Here are examples of some of the unique details he and others recorded, as excerpted from just a few of the available accounts. Not all the insights are included, but just a few that were intriguing, which caught my interest.
1832 (recorded in Joseph Smith’s Kirtland Letter Book)
- Joseph stated that for two or three years he had been engaged in a quest for religious truth and had utmost concern because of the sins of mankind: “I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.”
- During the vision, he learned the Second Coming of Christ is imminent.
- Joseph was taught about the nature of the Atonement: “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 crucified for the world that all those hwo believe on my name may have Eternal Life.”
- “My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me.”
1835 (Joseph Smith to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. This is the shortest account of the First Vision.)
- Described how important it was for him to find out which church he should join: “I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matters involving eternal consequences.”
- Described in greater detail his encounter with the adversary: “My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like someone walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again.”
- “A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy.”
- Joseph was told his sins were forgiven him.
- “I saw many angels in this vision.”
1838 (Joseph Smith—History found in the Pearl of Great Price)
- Specifically identified God the Eternal Father as one of the two personages who appeared to him.
- Stated that, besides what he had written in this account, he also learned many other truths.
- Declared that this vision was the beginning of the “rise and progress of the Church.”
1842 (Joseph Smith’s letter to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, first newspaper published in Chicago, Illinois, who was seeking information for a friend, George Barstow, who was preparing a history of New Hampshire)
- Learned that the fullness of the Gospel would be revealed to him.
- Included thirteen unnumbered beliefs which became the Thirteen Articles of Faith.
1840 (Orson Pratt account, written in his book An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. This is the first known publication of the First Vision.)
- “The bright and glorious light appeared to be in the heavens above, then it descended earthward. The whole wilderness was illuminated for a considerable distance around.”
- Joseph noticed that the leaves of the trees surrounding him didn’t burn (precisely like experience of Moses when he received his call from the Lord to deliver Israel out of Egypt, when the “bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed,” see Exodus 3:2-4).
1842 (Orson Hyde account in his pamphlet, A Cry From the Wilderness, A Voice from the Dust)
- On his walk from the family log cabin out to the Sacred Grove in the Spring of 1820 where he would have his First Vision experience, Joseph said the adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts.
I used to provide college students with copies of all the available accounts of the First Vision, and give them the challenge to read them in one sitting, and then write their impressions. One bright student, Matthew Christensen, took up the challenge to combine all the accounts, using a different colored font for each. He later expanded his initial paper and published his book, The First Vision—A Harmonization of 10 Accounts from the Sacred Grove (Cedar Fort Inc., 2014, 49 pages). I’ll be providing sources where you can read all these accounts for yourself, in a future article.
The Church History Museum in Salt Lake City has a stunning 240 degree, circular screen in the “First Vision Theater,” allowing visitors to experience Joseph Smith’s First Vision in an inspiring 7-minute presentation with the title: Ask of God—Joseph Smith’s First Vision. The film draws on nine different accounts of the First Vision, recorded during the Prophet’s lifetime, which “provide additional perspectives and insights into this remarkable event.”
But if you can’t travel to Salt Lake City to see the presentation on the 240 degree screen, you can watch the 7-minute video yourself online, and experience those “additional perspectives and insights into this remarkable event,” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EgpvCLUq8k