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On the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of 1820, God the Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared to a young man named Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:14-17). Many critics of the Church attack the scriptural account of this experience, found in Joseph Smith—History, by trying to show discrepancies and contradictions with the other accounts Joseph gave of this extraordinary event. As a result, sometimes faithful members of the Church are confused by these other accounts or cautiously avoid them. This is unfortunate because these additional accounts not only don’t contradict the scriptural version, they enhance it by expanding our understanding of what all took place that glorious day.
As anyone who has ever told a story knows, the way we tell a true story differs in emphasis and detail depending on the audience and context in which it is shared and the point we are trying to make. The accounts of the First Vision are no different. Like the Apostle Paul’s telling of his own first vision experience or the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Christ, there are slight differences in the accounts Joseph Smith gave of the event that changed the course of his life. “Yet, despite these differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision”. In fact, if anything, these differences prove Joseph Smith was telling the truth by showing that his description of the First Vision was natural and authentic rather than canned and contrived.
There are four first-hand accounts of the First Vision and five second-hand accounts. The 1832 account is the earliest and simplest telling. The 1835 account was part of a conversation Joseph had with a visitor in Kirtland, Ohio. The 1838 account is the most familiar to Latter-day Saints because it was canonized in the scriptures and is now found in Joseph Smith—History. The 1842 account is part of Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Restoration to a newspaper editor and is now commonly called the Wentworth Letter. The most famous second-hand accounts were published by Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt as missionary pamphlets in Germany and Scotland (for more information, see www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts; and https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision).
The purpose of this article is to use these other accounts as commentary to expand our understanding of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and identify additional lessons we can learn from this singular event. It is formatted to be studied in connection with related passages from Joseph Smith—History. I hope that this serves to strengthen our testimonies and increase our knowledge of “the greatest event that has happened in this world since the resurrection of the Master” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, p. 105).
“In process of time” (JS-H 1:8)
1832 Account: “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 which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God . . .thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered.”
Although Joseph Smith—History simply mentions the “process of time,” it is clear from the 1832 account that the question of which church was true was on Joseph’s mind for years. This is not something that Joseph Smith just thought about briefly and decided to pray about immediately. He struggled with this question for a long time, from about the age of twelve until his “fifteenth year” (JS-H 1:7). This teaches us a great lesson about the process and timing of revelation. In a day of fast-food restaurants and instant gratification, it is important to remember that receiving revelation often takes time as we search, study, and struggle to get an answer from the Lord.
“If any one of them be right, which is it?” JS-H 1:10
1842 Account (Wentworth letter): “When about fourteen years of age, I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon inquiring [about] the plan of salvation, I [found] that there was a great clash in religious sentiment. If I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another, each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection. Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if He taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, He would not teach another, principles which were diametrically opposed.”
This account shares the important insight that God is not the author of confusion, but has only one true path to salvation. A common reaction to our message today is to say that all churches are true, despite their differing and conflicting views, and that it doesn’t matter which one you belong to because they all lead to heaven (see President Boyd K. Packer, “The Only True Church,” Ensign, Nov 1985, 82). Joseph Smith’s First Vision contradicts this notion and the conclusion he reached is a powerful lesson for us to learn today: There can only be one true church, and two churches which teach different things cannot both be right. This conclusion was confirmed when the Lord told Joseph to “join none of them, for they were all wrong” (JS-H 1:19).
“I was seized upon by some power” JS-H 1:15
Orson Hyde Missionary pamphlet: “He was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. 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 and the accomplishment of his goal.”
1835 Account: “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 around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again.”
Joseph Smith—History states that Satan attacked and tried to overcome Joseph, but these additional accounts give insight into how Satan attempted to do this. He used “doubts,” “improper pictures,” and “noise.” One lesson this teaches us that Satan will try to prevent us from accomplishing our righteous goals and having spiritual experiences by bombarding us with distractions, doubts, and improper thoughts. This is a powerful lesson for us to learn in a day of technological distractions, pornography, and internet attacks on our faith. Like Joseph Smith, we must exert all our powers to resist these forces so we can receive the spiritual direction the Lord wants to give us and Satan wants to prevent (JS-H 1:15-16).
“I saw a pillar of light” JS-H 1:16
1835 Account: “A pillar of fire appeared . . . this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.”
Orson Pratt Missionary Pamphlet: “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 hope of being able to endure its presence.”
Although we are most familiar with Joseph describing what he first saw as a “pillar of light,” in other accounts he described it similarly as a “pillar of fire.” This description is consistent with those given by earlier prophets and provides additional insights into these ancient experiences with God. For example, Lehi described his own first vision experience as a “pillar of fire” that “dwelt upon a rock before him” (1 Nephi 1:6).
Similarly, the first vision experience of Moses at the burning bush is described in these words, “the presence of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (JST Ex. 3:2). These other accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision help us interpret the experiences of Moses and Lehi as not just being a dramatic sign of divine fire, but as actually an appearance of the Lord in fire-like glory. The lesson this teaches us is that the Lord is consistent and unchanging. He appeared to the prophet Joseph Smith in glory just as had appeared to the prophets of old.
“I saw two personages” JS-H 1:17
1842 Account (Wentworth Letter): “I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday.”
An important point that we often make in teaching the First Vision is that what Joseph Smith saw was in direct contradiction to the creeds of traditional Christianity, which describe the Father and Son as the same divine being. But the First Vision not only reveals how the Father and the Son are separate beings, it also perfectly reveals how they are one. Joseph Smith explained that they “exactly resembled each other in features and likeness.” This visual image symbolically teaches us about their character and attributes. They look exactly alike because they are exactly alike. By perfectly obeying His Father, Jesus Christ has become exactly like His Father. The First Vision is a powerful object lesson that perfectly illustrates the doctrine that the Father and the Son are separate beings and, at the same time, they are united as one and perfectly alike.
“Hear Him!” JS-H 1:17
1832 Account: “I saw the Lord and he spake unto me, saying, ‘Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.’
1835 Account: “I saw many angels in this vision”
The critics of Joseph Smith often accuse him of embellishing or adding to the story of the First Vision over time. In fact, these examples show that he did just the opposite. In Joseph Smith—History he only shared that portion of the vision he felt was meant for the world to know and for our missionaries to proclaim. He focused on doctrinal issues like seeing two personages and learning about the Apostasy and Restoration. He did not mention the dramatic detail that he shared in the 1835 account that he “saw many angels.” Nor did he include what he shared in his more personal 1832 account, where instead of emphasizing seeing two personages, he simply stated that he “saw the Lord” who told him “thy sins are forgiven thee.” Clearly, there was much more to this event than what Joseph shared.
Presumably, the reason he didn’t share all that he experienced was because some portions of this vision he felt were personal revelations to him and too sacred and private to relate to the world. The powerful lesson we can learn from this is to safeguard our own spiritual experiences and be careful in sharing them. As President Boyd K. Packer has explained, “It is not wise to continually talk of unusual spiritual experiences. They are to be guarded with care and shared only when the Spirit itself prompts you to use them to the blessing of others.” (Candle of the Lord, Ensign, Jan. 1983, 53).
“And many other things did he say unto me” JS-H 1:20
1842 Account (Wentworth Letter): “At the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”
As this account makes clear, the First Vision launched the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In it, Joseph Smith was promised that the fulness of the gospel would now be restored. Some try to diminish the significance of the First Vision by reminding us of others who had visionary experiences before Joseph Smith, but none of these experience led to the Restoration of the Gospel. They were personal revelations to individuals, but the First Vision was the introductory revelation of the Restoration. As such, it marked the end of the Great Apostasy and the beginning of a new dispensation. It is what first introduced us to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in our day. All other truths and revelations of our dispensation are the “fruits of the First Vision” (President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ensign, May 2005, 36).
Because of what it teaches and reveals to each of us, it is not really just Joseph Smith’s first vision, but all of our first vision. By speaking to one of us, the Lord has spoken to all of us. That is why we have shared the First Vision as part of the first lesson from the beginning of organized missionary lesson plans. God’s message to everyone is: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS-H 1:17). He speaks again today. May we all listen and continue to learn from the remarkable experience we call the First Vision.
For more information on the power of the First Vision in sharing the gospel, check out Mark A. Mathews book Open Your Mouth: What To Say When Sharing the Gospel.