Audio for Episode 5, “It Caused Me Serious Reflection”
Spencer: Joseph Smith had seen a vision. At that time, however, he did not refer to it as his “first vision.” According to Joseph’s own histories and revelations, in the decades that followed he experienced numerous visions of divine personages. Only after those could this vision become known as his first.
In time, the story of Joseph’s first vision would resonate with men and women throughout the world. In part, it’s because Joseph’s questions were not unique. Many others then and since have worried about the state of their souls and have sought forgiveness of their sins. Many others then and since have experienced confusion and uncertainty in seeking answers among the various churches and religious systems in their communities. This is part of the reason that Joseph’s vision in the grove of trees near his family’s farm in 1820 eventually resonated with millions.
But first he would need to tell those closest to him.
This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode Five: It Caused Me Great Reflection.
Spencer: For just a moment, put yourself in Joseph Smith’s shoes. You have just experienced a magnificent vision of Deity. Who do you tell? How do you tell them?
As historians, we work from surviving sources. The sources on who Joseph Smith told about his vision are sparse. But those that survive are insightful nonetheless. We do know that Joseph returned to his home after the vision and spoke with his mother.
Robin: One of the accounts says that he went home, and, rather than recording that he told his mother all about this vision, he told his mother that he learned for himself that “Presbyterianism was not true.”
Spencer: That’s Robin Jensen. He’s an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. Now, remember that amid the unusual excitement on the subject of religion occurring in the Smith’s community, Joseph’s mother, Lucy, and several of his siblings had united with the Presbyterians.
Robin: For Joseph to tell his mother that this religion that she had just joined was not true must have been fairly shocking to Lucy Mack Smith. Now, whether there was more information there, whether Joseph told Lucy how he exactly knew that, Joseph doesn’t say in this account. And so, it’s left to . . . and maybe he did, maybe he did tell his mother that he had received this vision.
Spencer: Now, the instance of Joseph Smith relating the details of his vision that seems to stick in his memory for years to come is when he told a Methodist minister about what he saw in response to his prayer.
In his 1838 account of the vision, Joseph stated, “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. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there was no such things as visions and revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.”
Why did this minister react in such a critical way to Joseph’s account? After all, it was in the revival meetings that preachers were urging the undecided—the unconverted—to seek conversion through private prayer. It was a preacher who spoke on James chapter one, verse five, who helped lead Joseph to pray in the first place. Why such hostility to his account of his vision?
Certainly, Joseph describing a vision in which Jesus Christ instructed him to join none of the churches then competing for his membership had something to do with it. But historian Steven Harper explains that the minister’s negative response likely also had something to do with the challenges Joseph’s vision presented to the creeds of Christendom.
Steve: This is the reason why when he reports his vision to a minister, he’s rejected. Nobody in his culture, none of the authorities, are ready to receive a direct revelation on the scale of Joseph’s first vision. What we might call the theological content, Joseph Smith’s is radical. It’s a radical departure from what was acceptable. He doesn’t even see it. He thinks he’s just had a Methodist conversion experience. He knows other people who have prayed and received dramatic answers, even visionary answers. He’s been hoping for something like the ecstasy, the love of God that has filled them and that they’ve been reporting in their meetings. So, he’s stunned when he describes some of what I’m calling the theological content of his vision to a minister, to an authority, and he’s rejected. The minister understands what a dramatic departure Joseph’s making before Joseph ever does.
Spencer: The negative response Joseph received from the Methodist minister—a person he had clearly trusted enough to share a very personal and poignant spiritual experience with—was difficult. It stung. Surviving records suggest that Joseph did not often speak of his vision publicly in its immediate aftermath, in part, because of that response.
So, you might be wondering, why didn’t Joseph write down his experience in 1820, right after it happened. As Robin Jensen explains, this had a lot to do with the culture of record keeping at this time. It’s about the way the Smith family kept records on their farm in 1820.
Robin: They, of course, kept records. They—any good farming family—would have to know what odd jobs they are doing. They’d have to keep accounts of various financial things.
In other words, the Smith family was a fairly normal agricultural family in that they kept practical records, but they didn’t necessarily keep records about their past. There doesn’t seem to be much correspondence, though there is some evidence that there is some. In other words, the Smith family is not a literary family. They are literate. They’re not literary. They are not engaged in this republic of letters where they’re reading what various intellectuals are saying. They’re not creating their own types of information. It’s a practical record keeping. It’s as much an oral culture than it is a literate culture. Once Joseph Smith is receiving these visions, they are not written down at the time. They are like [what] he would have with others in his family or his neighbors. He is talking to various heavenly beings. He is receiving instructions through word of mouth. These are not being written down. Joseph Smith is not thinking about, “Oh, I should go home and write down this account,” because it’s not his frame of mind.
Spencer: So, Joseph Smith experienced his first vision at a time when he, his family, and many of his neighbors were not inclined to make written records of spiritual occurrences in their immediate aftermath. But that record-keeping culture would change. As Joseph Smith experienced more visions in the years that followed, as he prepared to publish the Book of Mormon and to organize the Church of Jesus Christ, he reported a revelation indicating the significance of record keeping. And in the years that followed, Joseph sought to record his visions and revelations—and to account for those in his earlier history.
Spencer: All this talk of record keeping brings us to a question that many Latter-day Saints have asked about Joseph Smith’s first vision. Why are there different accounts?
The answer: there are different accounts of the First Vision because Joseph Smith described the event to different audiences at different times. Naturally, the different accounts vary in emphasis and detail because each was told in a different context. Nevertheless, the various accounts tell a consistent story.
Now, historians expect differences in the accounts of historical events if they were created at different times and under different circumstances. In fact, such differences in detail and emphasis often help historians and other scholars piece together a fuller story.
For instance, think of the accounts of Jesus’s life and His resurrection in the Bible—the four gospels. There are four different accounts told in different contexts that emphasize different details. Scholars of the Bible and early Christianity do not reject the accounts because of the differences but instead understand the different accounts as a benefit to their scholarship.
So, the different accounts of the First Vision can be studied in a similar way. And they not only help us better understand the vision itself. The different accounts help us better understand Joseph Smith’s life and the early history of the church he led. As Steven Harper explains, this has a lot to do with the way that memory works, that in addition to Joseph relating the vision at different times to different audiences, the various accounts are also formed by the nature of memory itself.
Steve: So, the answer to why these different accounts to me lies in the science and the psychology of memory. Memory is not what we often assume it is. Memory is not a recording of our past that’s like this podcast recording. We could replay it ten years from now, and it’ll sound the same. It’ll be the exact same recording, no matter how many times you play it or how distant in time we play it. That is not how memories work, not at all.
A memory is a present production that is made from a combination of cues that are stored somewhere in our minds somehow. Nobody knows for sure how, but “traces” of the past, as Daniel Schacter at Harvard calls them. “Traces” is his word.
So, it’s the past or pieces of the past—you might think about it as shards of the past—and present. The present environment in which we are remembering has a lot to do with the shape that memory will take.
Spencer: What Steve is describing is really interesting to me. As I understand it, what is happening in the present influences the way we remember events in the past. Our circumstances in a given moment also influence what aspects of those events we choose to emphasize. When we are talking about memory, context matters. And it matters a lot.
In other words, we view the past through the lens of the present. That’s how our memories work.
So, how does this influence the way that Joseph Smith remembered and retold the First Vision at different times?
Steve: So, what is happening in Joseph’s present to cue the memory in the first place, and then help him recover some of the shards or traces he has at his disposal, and put them together in the particular way he does at the time—that’s the way to get at the differences in the accounts.
Spencer: If we want to understand the differences in the accounts of the First Vision and uncover new and deeper meaning from Joseph Smith’s experiences, then we need to ask what was happening in Joseph Smith’s life at the moments in which he recounted the First Vision. In short, to move beyond the question of why there are different accounts of the First Vision to the question of what insights can we gain from studying the different accounts, we need to look at what cues informed the way Joseph remembered and told audiences about the event.
Spencer: Joseph Smith recorded the earliest surviving account of the First Vision in 1832, and he did it in a moment in which Joseph and other church leaders were actively engaged in record keeping.
Robin: In 1832, there are five significant records that are begun. We have a collection of revelations; we have a journal; we have a letterbook; we have a minute book; and then we also have a history.
This is the first time that Joseph Smith writes down a detailed history of his own life, and what we have is, almost immediately, Joseph Smith commits to writing his experiences. So, this is twelve years after the events of the First Vision. But, in looking at the record-keeping context itself, the very first thing that he does when he commits things to paper is to talk about the First Vision. And in this 1832 history, we have this deeply personal, deeply intimate look at Joseph Smith’s own past.
Spencer: In addition to being the earliest surviving account of the vision, the 1832 account stands out for another reason.
Robin: One thing about the 1832 history, this is the first record of Joseph Smith’s past. It’s also the only record that’s in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting, and it’s a little bit complicated because it’s only a six-page document. There are actually two scribes that are working on this manuscript, Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams.
And what we have there is an intimate account of Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness and the Lord coming to him and telling him that his sins are forgiven. Leading up to that we do have Joseph Smith contemplating various religions. He talks about the revival meetings. He talks about how he had pondered on his standing. He talks about who is right among all of this confusion of religions. That’s not actually addressed much in the answer that he records in the 1832 account. For Joseph Smith in 1832, the emphasis that he wants to make is that his standing before God was redeemed through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. That Joseph Smith and all of the world was in sin and that it was through Christ’s redemption that one could find salvation.
Spencer: It really does read as a quite personal account. The reason has a lot to do with the context in which Joseph wrote it. And that context involves travel and a stagecoach accident.
Matt: So, around this time in the summer of 1832, or actually in the spring of 1832, Joseph is commanded through a revelation that he receives on March 1, 1832, to go to Missouri and to counsel with the Saints there.
Spencer: That’s Matthew Godfrey, the managing historian and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Matt: This is a difficult time in his life. His adopted son, Joseph Murdock, had just passed away at the end of March, about a week before Joseph actually leaves to go to Missouri. And this happens, Joseph thinks, because of an incident that occurs late in March in 1832, when a mob burst into the home were Joseph and Emma and Julia Murdock and Joseph Murdock are staying. They drag Joseph out of the house. They take him into a field where they tar and feather him. They leave the door of the house open, and Joseph Murdock, who’s already sick with the measles, is exposed to the cold night air and ends up dying just a couple of days later. This is actually the fourth child of Joseph’s to pass away in infancy. Emma had given birth earlier to three other babies who had not survived past childbirth. It’s a traumatic time in his life when he’s going to Missouri. He gets there in April of 1832. He stays in Missouri for about three weeks, and then he returns to Kirtland. He’s traveling with Sidney Rigdon and Newel K. Whitney. As they’re going along, they’re riding in a stagecoach, and they’re in Indiana, and the horse that’s pulling the stagecoach gets spooked by something. So, they start running away.
Joseph is able to leap to safety. Sidney Rigdon is able to leap to safety. But when Newel K. Whitney tries to jump, his pants get caught on the door, and he ends up breaking his leg in several different places which means that he can’t travel any longer back to Ohio. Joseph even in the midst of this kind of tumultuous time in his life decides that he can’t just abandon Newel in this village where Newel doesn’t know anyone, but that he needs to stay with Newel. So, he sends Sidney Rigdon on to Ohio, and Joseph ends up staying in Greenville, Indiana—this small, little town—with Newel K. Whitney for about six weeks until Newel is able to travel again.
Spencer: No doubt this was a tragic accident. A painful one, too. And while it may not be readily apparent, there is a meaningful connection to the 1832 account of the First Vision.
Matt: Now, the reason why I tell you all this is because while Joseph’s in Greenville, there’s a grove of trees that is in the back of the town. He tells Emma in a letter that he writes to her in June of 1832 that, because he has all this time on his hands and he doesn’t really know what to do, he has frequently gone back to this grove of trees, and there he has recalled his past sins in his life and has also recalled God’s mercy in forgiving these sins. So, clearly, Joseph is contemplating his life, again. This is a time where he’s thinking about writing down his own personal history. And so, not long after this—in fact, it’s possible that he could have even started composing this in Greenville when he had time to do this—at some point in the summer of 1832 he begins writing this 1832 history of his life where he describes this vision that he had in Palmyra in 1820. And it’s interesting because this first account focuses on Joseph’s own “seeking of redemption” from the Savior. It talks a lot about Joseph’s sins, about how he was concerned about his spiritual welfare as well as the spiritual welfare of the earth itself or the people living in the world, and that, as he contemplated these things, he went to a grove in Palmyra. He prayed. He says the Lord appeared to him and told him that his sins were forgiven. And so, oftentimes, when people are looking at the different accounts of the First Vision, they look at this 1832 account, which kind of seems to be an outlier, in that unlike the other three accounts that he gives of the First Vision, again, he doesn’t talk a whole lot about seeking to know which church is true. It’s very much a personal experience that he’s talking about here. Also, he doesn’t seem to mention more than one being in this 1832 account. He just says the Lord appeared to him. And of course, in other accounts he’ll say that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him.
Spencer: So, Joseph starts to record his personal history—including the First Vision—in the aftermath of this experience in Greenville. That experience appears to be the cue for how he remembered the First Vision on this occasion.
As I have shared the 1832 account with church members who were previously unfamiliar with it, I find that they, too, are struck by the personal nature of the account.
I think that Brent Rogers, associate managing historian at the Joseph Smith Papers, gets at one of the reasons for this.
Brent: I really like looking at the ’32 account and the personal nature of it. This focus on the forgiveness of Joseph’s sins as a person, as a human who has failings, that’s a comforting account because I’m like, “Oh, personal forgiveness? That’s something that I need in my life.”
I think really what it does for me is it shows this move from Joseph Smith’s experience as a personal, intimate moment into an organized religious expression. That’s something I guess I can relate to in terms of being a member of an organized religion and understanding why you would need to have certain ways that things are explained and expressed for that body. But as an individual, I really like that earliest account because I see how important it was to Joseph Smith the person, and then I can understand why he’s written the account for the world and for the organized church in the way that he has.
Spencer: Another reason for the personal nature of Joseph Smith’s 1832 account has to do with the way Joseph was accustomed to hearing others speak of spiritual experiences.
In revival meetings, especially those held by the Methodists, attendees were encouraged to seek out spiritual confirmation of what was being preached. In attending these meetings, Joseph would have heard story after story of people finding a private space—often in the woods—and receiving answers to their prayers. It makes sense, then, that Joseph would intuitively model his first written account after these. In the religious culture of the time, it was how experiences were expressed. Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, explains.
Chris: When Joseph Smith first shares the account of his first vision, it reads very much like an evangelical conversion narrative that you would encounter either orally through someone sharing it with you, or that’s being published in one of these denominational newspapers, with the important distinction that God doesn’t tell Joseph Smith to join a particular church but rather tells him, “Don’t unite with any of them.”
Spencer: Yet, despite the similarities in format between Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision and evangelical conversion narratives, there is a significant difference between them.
Chris: One way in which Joseph Smith’s accounts differ, including especially that fullest one that we have in the 1838 [history], is very specific language he uses to describe the visionary experience.
So, in the case of somebody like Benjamin Abbott or in the case of hundreds of these other Methodist converts who are experiencing these visions, they’re always very, very, very careful in their language in the way that they describe the actual visionary experience. And what they’ll say is, “By faith I saw the Lord Jesus Christ,” or, tapping into the apostle Paul’s language from the Bible, “Whether in the body or out of the body, I could not tell.” They’re trying to make sense of what it means to actually experience a divine vision, and they’re very careful. They always stop short of saying, “God came and visited to me.” These are visions, not visitations. In Joseph’s 1838 account, he goes in directly the opposite direction.
Whether as an effort to distinguish his own account from those that are also circulating during the time or whether this reflects his more expanded understanding of the importance in that experience, he says, “I did in reality, see a vision. God the Father did in reality visit me. Jesus Christ did in reality speak to me.” He frames it much more as a visitation, as opposed to a vision that he can’t quite make sense of. The language of “by faith I saw,” or “in a dream state I saw,” is absent from Joseph Smith’s accounts. He’s adamant that this is something more real, that this is something more tangible. I think that’s significant in both understanding how his experience differs from others and how he understands his experience differing from others, and also, I think that’s important in helping us understand the response that his vision elicits.
Spencer: And as we mentioned earlier, the theological implications of Joseph’s first vision probably had a lot to do with the Methodist minister in 1820 responding to Joseph so negatively.
Spencer: There’s an important textual feature of the 1832 account that I find particularly useful to understanding the challenges that Joseph Smith had in recounting his vision in writing.
Again, the 1832 account is in Joseph’s own handwriting and as he gets to the vision, he wrote that he saw “a pillar of fire.” But he stops there for a moment. We don’t know for how long, but we know by looking at handwriting that he stopped in that very moment. And before he continued, he crossed out the word “fire” and inserted the word “light.” The finished sentence then read, “A pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day [came] down from above and rested upon me.” He replaced “fire” with “light.” And it’s only in reading the manuscript that we can detect this moment in which Joseph struggled to know what word to use to describe the light that descended from heaven.
As a historian working with Joseph Smith’s surviving documents, I’ve thought long and hard about this moment—this crossed-out word—and what I think we see here is the difficulty Joseph experienced in describing his first vision. And I think it’s understandable. How do you describe a light that is brighter than any light you have ever seen? How do you describe the divine within the constraints of mortal language?
Joseph described this exact struggle in a letter he wrote to William W. Phelps about this same time. In that 1832 letter, he lamented the difficulty of the writing process for describing the sights, sounds, and feelings of visions and revelations. He described the writing process as “the little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper and pen and ink and crooked scattered imperfect language.”
For Joseph Smith, writing was hard. And it was even harder when writing about divine visions.
In the different accounts of the First Vision, then, we see varied language to tell a consistent story. And we often see Joseph working to find just the right words to describe what he had experienced.
Spencer: The next two surviving accounts of the First Vision were recorded in 1835. The occasion of the first was a meeting between Joseph Smith and Robert Matthews. Now, Matthews was also known as Matthias the Prophet and Joshua the Jewish Minister. He was an eccentric religious figure in nineteenth-century America. At different times in his life, he claimed that he was God or that he was the reincarnation of the New Testament apostle Matthias.
In November 1835, Matthias came to Ohio and sought out Joseph Smith. While the two conversed, Joseph described his own spiritual history. Warren Parrish, one of Joseph Smith’s scribes, was present and recorded an account of the meeting that he later copied into Joseph’s journal.
Steve: And this 1835 account then is not the result of a strategic retrieval. He’s just talking with Matthias. Matthias is eager to sort of plumb the depths of Joseph Smith and figure out what he’s got. Do I have an ally in this guy? Do I have a rival prophet? Joseph is doing the very same thing. So, they are having this conversation trying to figure each other out, kind of comparing prophetic credentials as they go. When it’s Joseph’s turn to tell his story, he says, “Let me tell you how the Book of Mormon came forth.” And the first event in that sequence is his first vision.
Spencer: This is also a development for Joseph in how he viewed the First Vision in his history as an ecclesiastical leader. He starts the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon three years before the 1823 visions he had of Moroni. He starts the story with his 1820 vision.
Steve: This is the first time we hear him use the word “first” to describe the vision. It only becomes the “First Vision” in interpretive memory when subsequent experiences allow you to give that meaning to it. So, he tells Matthias about how he translated the Book of Mormon, and what I find most interesting is that, in this spontaneous memory, he does not seem to be worried about or burdened by the need to respond to that Protestant culture that’s overbearing.
Spencer: This is an important point regarding the context of this account. In this moment, Joseph is not telling the story to a large audience or for publication. He’s speaking to one person. And that matters.
Steve: He’s just telling a story. It’s a lighter story. It moves faster. This is largely because I think it’s not autobiography. He’s just telling it. He’s spontaneously telling it. It’s a refreshing account. It’s the first time we hear him talk about the opposition from the unseen power. It’s the first time he explicitly says, I saw one divine personage who then revealed the other one. We’re going to hear that three times in the various accounts, but this is the first time. I love that 1835 account because it’s so unburdened by other concerns.
Spencer: The second 1835 account is derived from this very same meeting. Warren Parrish included in Joseph Smith’s history a slightly edited version of the account.
The message and story of the 1835 accounts are consistent with those of the 1832 account, but these later accounts demonstrate how the memory and retelling of the vision in a different context provided new insights.
Spencer: Now, the account of the First Vision that Latter-day Saints are most familiar with is the 1838 account. It’s the one that was eventually published in the Pearl of Great Price.
Beyond its eventual inclusion in a book of scripture, the account is best known in part because it is one of the most complete accounts of the vision. It was occasioned by the writing of a history of the church in 1838. Previously, other attempts had been made to write the history of the church, but this was a new effort and much of it was done in the wake of the expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from Missouri. Accordingly, the context for its creation was very different than what was going on in 1832 when Joseph started to write his personal history or in 1835 when he spoke with the eccentric Robert Matthews.
In the wake of a long string of violent persecution, Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, and clerk George W. Robinson opened the history like this: “Owing to the many reports which have been in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a church and its progress in the world—I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession off the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the church.”
Robin: Joseph Smith wanted to put his story out there. He wanted to be on record of what’s going on.
Spencer: And Joseph is very direct and determined in the language he uses. After recounting the vision, he writes, “For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.”
That Joseph and the Saints had experienced such violent persecution around the time that he wrote this history helps explain the defiant tone. He was saying that no amount of persecution would cause him to deny the visions and revelations he had had. Steven Harper explains.
Steve: So, this is the year of his life that sandwiches the writing of his history. He starts writing that account that we have in the Pearl of Great Price before he gets captured and put in jail, and he finishes it shortly after he gets out of jail and moves to what’s now Nauvoo. So, he is cued in his memory. He is conditioned in his thinking by that year, and when he says in his mind, “Okay, what’s the beginning of this story? Where did it begin? Where did this hot, bitter persecution start? Oh yeah, I remember. It’s the day I told that minister about my vision.”
Spencer: We also see in the 1838 account that Joseph is recognizing just how important the visions and revelations he experienced in the 1820s were to the establishment and progress of the church since 1830. At one level they were personal spiritual experiences for him, but they were more than that.
Robin: So, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon begin their history—and it really is a personal history, a history about Joseph Smith—with the intent of talking about the rise of the church. And so, we begin to see that the visions of Joseph Smith, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, is intimately linked to the rise of the church itself. And we move away from Joseph Smith seeing the First Vision as a personal redemptive narrative to a beginning of the church itself—that Joseph Smith is receiving, not just messages of “your sins are forgiven you,” but “Joseph don’t join any churches. You need to form your own.” And I think that that’s important to see. Early on, Joseph Smith talked about his visions in a more personal manner, and then by the end of his life, his early visions are linked to the rise, the progress of the church itself.
Spencer: In 1842, Joseph received a letter from John Wentworth. Wentworth was the owner and editor of a prominent Chicago newspaper, and he wrote on behalf of a friend who was writing a book on the history of New Hampshire. This friend was considering including information on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in that book. Accordingly, Wentworth asked Joseph to supply a summary of the doctrine and history of the Latter-day Saints.
Joseph obliged and wrote a brief letter in reply. He included an account of his first vision congruent with the 1838 account, but the tone was different. Steven Harper explains a likely reason.
Steve: Joseph had lived in New Hampshire as a kid. His leg surgery happened there, and this is incredibly refreshing if you’re Joseph Smith. Think of the way the 1838–39 [history] opens—“owing to the many reports, put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing people,”—and now you’ve got influential opinion makers asking you kindly if you would provide your own story for them. And so, Joseph Smith responds so much less defiantly in his 1842 letter to John Wentworth. Wentworth’s papers seem to have been largely destroyed.
We don’t have the letter Joseph wrote to Wentworth, but he [Joseph] published it in his own newspaper in the Times and Seasons. So, we’ve got a March 1842 printing of it, and it tells the same story, but it tells it in terms that are not angry and that may have been consciously or unconsciously shaped by public relations concerns. So, instead, for example, of the Lord saying, “the professors of religion are corrupt and all their creeds are an abomination,” the 1842 paraphrase of that is, “the Lord told me they were all believing in incorrect doctrines.”
So, it says the same thing, but it says it in terms that are designed for a different audience or maybe just conditioned by Joseph Smith being in a different mood.
Spencer: A little softer, a little more digestible to a non-Latter-day Saint.
Wentworth’s friend ultimately ended his history of New Hampshire at 1819 and did not include the Latter-day Saints in that book. Had Joseph not published the letter in the Times and Seasons, that account may have been lost to history.
Spencer: The four accounts that we have already described are the only firsthand accounts we know of that were recorded by Joseph Smith or under his direction. However, several of his contemporaries who had personally spoken with Joseph about his first vision wrote down what he had told them. In doing so, they often situated the First Vision in a narrative with Joseph’s later visions and revelations. Robin Jensen explains.
Robin: Individuals who heard Joseph Smith talk about these would add them in their own missionary pamphlets. So, we have two fairly significant pamphlets. One is written by Orson Pratt, and he published this over in Europe when he was on a mission—an account of several remarkable visions, and in this, he included the story of the First Vision.
And then another pamphlet: Orson Hyde. He published a pamphlet in German. And the translation of it is “A Cry Out of the Wilderness.” And both of these pamphlets, I think, are meaningful in the sense that the First Vision became seen as part of a missionary tool—that individuals would see the efficacy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not just in the Book of Mormon, not just in the Doctrine and Covenants, not just in even their interpretation of the Bible, but in the personal experiences of Joseph Smith. And I think vicariously, members of the church could see through Joseph Smith these remarkable visions and recognize that God not only could speak to the prophet, but He could also speak to them as they joined the church and believed in the teachings of the church.
Spencer: And, as Steve Harper tells us, others recorded the accounts elsewhere.
Steve: There is an 1843 journal entry in Levi Richards’s journal. Pretty brief, but he tells about Joseph following a sermon given by someone else. Joseph just stands up in Nauvoo and tells about the time he experienced the First Vision.
And we have an 1843 newspaper article. A Philadelphia newspaper writer came to interview Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and published it. It’s a really wonderful account. It’s full of details you don’t get anywhere else.
It’s hard to know for sure how much of it is Joseph’s voice and how much might be the newspaper man. If you’ve ever been quoted in the newspaper, you realize it’s a dangerous idea to assume that everything is exactly what was quoted as it was quoted in that context, but even so, I think we can feel safe that we’re getting a little bit there at least from Joseph Smith. This is where we learn the detail, for example, that he went to a place where he had stuck his ax in the woods and began to call upon the Lord. It’s a real lively account. It moves fast. It sounds like somebody talking rather than writing an autobiography.
And then, lastly, we have this account that Joseph gave just a month before he was murdered. He was telling his German Jewish convert dentist friend, Alexander Neibaur, and a group of others who were with him about his experience. And it’s in Neibaur’s sort of broken English. It’s this really beautiful account of Joseph wanting to feel and shout like the other Methodist converts when he went to the meetings, but he could feel nothing.
I love that because it tells me about his authenticity. He desperately wants forgiveness from God. He wants to feel God’s love and know that God is pleased with him, but he can’t feel it, and he won’t pretend to feel it, and so he keeps on the quest.
Spencer: Four firsthand accounts and five secondhand contemporary accounts of the First Vision—of Joseph Smith’s theophany, a word meaning a visible manifestation of God to humankind. Those are the principles sources historians use when studying the First Vision.
And they illuminate one another. When studied together, they allow for deeper insights into Joseph’s history and the history of the church. And, if you are interested, they are all published and available on the Joseph Smith Papers website, josephsmithpapers.org.
From the perspective of gospel study in the church, the different accounts offer deeper insights into our inherent desire to communicate with the divine and God’s desire to communicate with His children. As Steven Harper describes it, the First Vision is the best-documented theophany in history. Historians are grateful to have as many accounts as we do.
Spencer: We see a development over time in Joseph Smith’s telling of the First Vision. The vision was a poignant moment for Joseph, a moment in which his deepest concerns, his concerns about the state of his soul, were put at ease by God. It was a personal experience.
What Joseph and others appear to have understood only with time was that the vision was significant for greater reasons. They started to understand it as a key moment in the process by which the Church of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth. The different accounts of the First Vision illuminate this development.
By the end of his life in 1844, Joseph had moved beyond only sharing his first vision with close friends and family to sharing it with the entire church and the general public. Furthermore, apostles in the church had included the First Vision in missionary tracts distributed throughout the world. And the story was shared again and again after Joseph’s death. Each generation shared it with the next, and as the church spread throughout the world, so too did the story of the First Vision.
Although the story is very much rooted in the history of western New York in the nineteenth century, it has resonated with millions of men and women across time and space. Today, more than one hundred thousand visitors travel to the Sacred Grove every year to see the place where this momentous vision occurred.
We’ll talk about the life and lasting influence of the vision in our own time—and throughout the world—in our next episode of The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.