JOSEPH SMITH'S FIRST VISION
Fact or Fable ?
By W. P. Walters
"Sometime in the second year after our removal to
Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual
excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the
Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in the
region of country ... my mind became somewhat partial to the
Methodists ... but so great was the confusion and strife among
the different denominations, that it was impossible ... to come
to any certain conclusion who was right, and who was wrong ... in
accordance with this, by determination, to ask God, I retired to
the woods to make an attempt. It was on the morning of a
beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and
twenty ... I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my
heart to God. ... I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head
.. When the light rested upon me I saw two personages, (whose
brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in
the air ... I asked the personages who stood above me in the
light, which of all the sects was right, (for at this time it had
never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I
should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for
they were all wrong ..." Joseph Smith, Jr.
The well publicized story above, of Joseph Smith's First
Vision is not a true account of the origin of the Latter Day
Saint movement. The facts are decidedly against it!
First, the historical evidence shows that Joseph Smith, Jr.
could not have been stirred by an 1820 revival, to ask which
church was true.
Second, early Mormon statements do not support his claim
that in 1820 he learned through a visitation of the Father and
the Son that all existing churches were wrong.
Third, the details known about Joseph's early life
contradict his assertion that in 1820 he had such a divine
visitation and was persecuted by the community for telling such a
NO 1820 REVIVAL .....
First his neighborhood in 1820 experienced no revival such
as he described, in which "great multitudes" joined the
Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. The Presbyterian
records for the Palmyra Presbyterian Church show that it
experienced no revival in 1820. The local Baptist Church gained
only six on profession of faith the entire year, while the
Methodists actually lost members that year as well as the
preceeding and following years. (Minutes of the Annual
Joseph Smith claimed that his mother, sister and two
brothers were led to join the local Presbyterian Church as a
result of that 1820 revival. However, four years before he made
this claim, his own church paper had stated that the revival in
which his family had been led to join the Presbyterian Church
took place in 1823. (Messenger & Advocate I, pp. 42, 78) In fact,
that account says it was the same 1823 revival that led him to go
to his bedroom (not to a sacred grove) and pray "if a Supreme
being did exist" and to know that "he was accepted of him." An
angel (not a deity) is then reported to have appeared and told
him of his forgiveness and of the gold plates.
Joseph's mother, likewise, knew nothing of an 1820 vision.
In her unpublished account she traces the origin of Mormonism to
a BEDROOM VISIT by an angel. Joseph at the time had been
"pondering which of the churches were the true one." The angel
told him "there is not a true church on Earth, No not one."
(First draft of "Lucy Smith's History," LDS Church Archives)
Furthermore, she tells us that the revival which led to her
joining the church took place following the death of her son,
Alvin. Alvin died November 19, 1823, and following that painful
loss she reports that: "..about this time there was a great
revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much
aroused to the subject and we among the rest, flocked to the
meeting house to see if there was a word of comfort for us that
might relieve our over-charged feelings." (P. 86)
She adds that although her husband would only attend the
first meetings, he had no objection to her or the children "going
or BECOMING CHURCH MEMBERS." (emphasis added)
There is plenty of additional evidence that the revival Lucy
Smith refers to did occur during the winter of 1824-1825. It was
reported in at least a dozen newspapers and religious
periodicals. The church records show outstanding increases due to
the reception of new converts. The Baptist Church received 94,
the Presbyterian 99, while the Methodist work grew by 208. No
such revival bringing in "great multitudes" occurred in 1820.
It is clear that the revival Joseph Smith, Jr. described did
not occur in 1820, but in 1824. Joseph Smith arbitrarily moved
that revival back four years to 1820 and made it fit a First
Vision story that neither his mother nor other close associates
had heard of in those early days. The historical facts completely
discredit Joseph Smith's First Vision story. (For further details
see, DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, Spring 1969, pp. 59-
BIBLE READING vs. REVELATIONS .....
About 1832, Joseph Smith, Jr. began an account of the origin
of the Mormon church (the only one written in his own hand), that
contradicts the official First Vision story he dictated some six
years later. The account was never finished and has only recently
been published. (See the text in BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
STUDIES, Spring 1969, pp. 278ff) In this version Joseph presents
himself between the ages of twelve and fifteen being a committed
and perceptive reader of the Bible. He claims that his STUDY OF
THE SCRIPTURES led him to understand that all the denominations
were wrong. He wrote: "...by searching the Scriptures I found
that mankind did not come into the Lord but that they had
apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no
society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus
Christ as recorded in the new testament."
Six years later, when he set forth his official First Vision
story, he decided that he never had reached the firm conclusion
that all churches were wrong from his study of the Bible.
Instead, he claimed that it was DURING A VISION OF THE FATHER AND
THE SON that he first learned this information. He presented this
as coming as a great surprise, for he added parenthetically -
"for at this time it had NEVER ENTERED INTO MY HEART THAT ALL
WERE WRONG." (emphasis added) That statement even contradicted
what Joseph had said a few paragraphs earlier in the same
account. There he claimed that "I OFTEN SAID TO MYSELF ... Who of
all these parties are right; or ARE THEY ALL WRONG TOGETHER?"
(emphasis added) Although the former statement appears in the
original manuscript (see BYU Studies above, p. 290), such a
serious contradiction could not be allowed to stand, and after
Joseph's death the embarrassing words were edited out.
Even without these words, however, the 1838 official account
is in conflict with the 1832 version. In the 1832 account it is
his Bible reading that stirs him to seek God, while in the 1838
story it is a non-existent revival that motivates him.
In the 1832 version he claims to have seen only Christ,
while in the 1838 rendition both the Father and the Son appear.
In the 1832 account he already knows all the churches are wrong,
while in the 1838 story it is the dual deities who first inform
him of this. Different people may have different views of the
same event, but when one person tells contradictory stories about
an event, he completely loses his credibility.
PERSECUTION vs. ACCEPTANCE .....
The 1838 First Vision story not only runs into trouble with
Joseph's earlier 1832 version, it is also contradicted by what we
know about his early years in Palmyra. In his official version
Joseph claims he was persecuted by all the churches in his area
"because I continued to affirm I had seen a vision." However,
Orsemus Turner, an apprentice printer in Palmyra until 1822, was
in the same juvenile debating club with Joseph Smith. He recalled
that Joseph "after catching a spark of Methodism ... became a
very passable exhorter in evening meetings." (HISTORY OF THE
PIONEER SETTLEMENT OF PHELPS AND GORHAM'S PURCHASE, 1851, p. 214)
Thus, instead of being opposed and persecuted as his 1838 account
claims, young Joseph was welcomed and allowed to exhort during
the Methodist's evening preaching. Furthermore, no one, either
Mormon or non-Mormon, seems ever to have heard of Joseph's
encounter with two divine Personages until after 1838. (see this
admission in DIALOGUE, Autumn 1966, pp. 30-31; SAINTS HERALD,
June 29, 1959, p. 21)
From all available lines of evidence, therefore, Joseph's
First Vision story appears to be a fabrication. There was NO
REVIVAL anywhere in the Palmyra area in 1820, Joseph was
WELCOMED, NOT PERSECUTED by the Methodists. His 1832 account
represents him as PERCEIVING FROM HIS PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY that
all the churches were apostate, while his 1838 account said it
"NEVER ENTERED INTO MY HEART that all were wrong." His 1832
version claimed ONLY A VISION OF CHRIST, while the 1838 story
transformed this into THE FATHER AND THE SON. No one ever heard
such a story until after he dictated it in 1838.
In the light of such strong contradictory evidence, the
First Vision story must be regarded as only the invention of
Joseph Smith's highly imaginative mind. The facts and Joseph's
own words discredit it.
This work is presented with the earnest prayer that sincere
people everywhere may perceive the fallacy and danger of
Mormonism and will not become entangled in it, and that the dear
Mormon people who are unfortunately deceived by it, may be
reclaimed and find the true Way of salvation in the Bible and the
blessed Saviour whom it reveals.
"Jesus saith unto him, I am the Way, the Truth, and the
Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me." (John 14:6)
We also pray that the earnest reader upon discerning these
things will search the Word of God, the Bible, the only Book
whose message is "able to make thee wise unto salvation through
faith which is in Christ Jesus." (II Timothy 3:15)
For Further information write:
Utah Christian Tract Society
P.O. Box 725
La Mesa, California 92041
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