Joseph Smith’s first revelatory experience is known among Mormons as the first vision. Joseph’s four known accounts of this experience are from 1842, 1838, 1835, and 1832. These accounts were either written by Joseph himself or were dictated by him to a scribe.
The first vision experience
Between the age of fourteen and fifteen Joseph began to wonder which of all the religious denominations is correct, and was concerned about his own standing before God. One night as he was reading the Bible he came across a passage from the book of James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5). Joseph decided to do as James suggested and pray for guidance. He writes, “for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (JS-History 1:12). With these questions in mind he retired one morning to a secluded place to pray. As he began to offer his prayer he records (1835 account), “My tongue seemed to be swoolen [sic] in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one 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.” As he made another attempt to pray “a pillar of light” appeared over his head, “above the brightness of the sun.” And Joseph saw “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (1838). The two persons are identified as God the Father and as Jesus Christ (1838, 1835, and 1842). They instructed Joseph that all the denominations were wrong and that he should not join any of them. According to his 1838 account (the official account) this was in the spring of 1820, which would make Joseph fourteen years old.
The first vision experience is used to illustrate the reality of Satan, that the Father and the Son are distinct persons who have physical bodies, and that revelatory visions did not end with the apostles. It also affirms that an apostasy had taken place and that face to face communication with God is possible.
Each account contains different levels of detail. The 1832 account mentions only one personage, who apparently was Jesus Christ. The 1835 version indicates that the Son appeared first, followed by the Father. The 1842 and 1838 accounts describe the personages as if they had appeared at the same time. The 1842 and 1832 account do not mention any demonic attempt to prevent Joseph’s prayer. The 1835 account mentions that Joseph “saw many angels in this vision,” something that the other accounts fail to mention.
The 1842, 1838, and 1835 account puts Joseph’s age at around fourteen years. In the 1832 account Joseph is sixteen. But this might be an error. In an article written by James B. Allen published in Dialogue, he mentions a conversation with Paul R. Cheesman who (in 1965) discovered the 1832 account. Mr. Allen writes, “Note that Mr. Cheesman interpreted the handwriting in the original manuscript as saying that this event took place in the 16th year of Joseph’s age. In private conversation, Mr. Cheesman indicated that the original document actually was not clear–the number could have been either 16 or 14, but 16 appeared to be more likely” (Jamed B. Allan, “The significance of Joseph Smiths ‘First Vision’ in Mormon thought,”Dialogue, Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 40; see footnote 17). The 1842, 1838, and 1835 account mention James 1:5 as an important passage that motivated Joseph’s prayer for guidance. In addition to the passage from James, the 1838 account mentions Luke 11:9 as part of what motivated his inquiry.
The messages that Joseph received during the first vision experience contain many references to scripture. Also, Joseph uses Biblical phrases to describe what he saw. At the end of this post I have included a list of these passages and phrases along with their corresponding Biblical verse.
What others say
Anti-Mormon writers like to point out discrepancies between the four accounts. However, it can be argued that many of these are omissions, not contradictions. They also make the assertion that the church tries to conceal parts of its history, consequently few Mormons know of the four accounts. However, the 1842 account is from the Wentworth letter (well known among Mormons) which is published in the History of the Church; the 1838 version was included in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price published in 1851 (Allan 38); the 1832 version was published in the Ensign in 1984; and all four versions are discussed in an article published in BYU Studies. Also, the scholar Hugh Nibley (famous among Mormons) discusses these different accounts in his published BYU lectures titled Ancient Documents and the Pearl of Great Price (Lecture 25 and 26).
As a devout Latter-day Saint I believe that Joseph did pray for guidance, that there was a demonic attempt to prevent his prayer, that he saw the Father and the Son, and that they instructed him not to join any of the existing denominations. It is true that there is some inconsistency between the four accounts. However, Joseph had this experience in 1820 and (if we have his earliest written account) he did not record it until 1832. Given this twelve-year gap and that Joseph had his vision at such a young age, I am not surprised that the accounts have some inconsistencies. Further, when he recorded his 1832 account (had he invented it) he was old enough (26 or 27) to have easily established a single account from which there would be little variation.
For similar reasons it is not surprising that the details of certain events in the New Testament are also inconsistent. For example in Matthew 26:34 Jesus says, “before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” But in Mark 14:30 Jesus says, “before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.” Luke 23:46 records the last words of Jesus as, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” But in John 19:30 he says, “It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” Also in the account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in the book of Acts, “the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice” (Acts 9:7). But in Acts 22:9, “they that were with me saw indeed the light…but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.” Some of these apparent differences are reconcilable. Others are not. As it is with the New Testament so it is with the accounts of Joseph’s first vision: We can accept the reconcilable differences, but we must admit the irreducible ones–After all, I don’t believe in the inerrancy of Joseph’s diary.
See also “First Vision” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
A video presentation made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Wentworth letter (1842)
Joseph Smith History (1838)
Joseph Smith’s Diary (1835)
Joseph Smith’s letter book (1832)
James B. Allan (Autumn 1966), The significance of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Mormon Thought, Dialogue, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 29-46.
Dean C. Jessee (Spring 1969), The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, BYU Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3.
Milton Vaughn Backman (1980), Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, Salt Lake City, 1984, p. 6, 75-76, 198-199, 213.
Hugh W. Nibley, Ancient Documents and the Pearl of Great Price, Transcript of 26 Lectures Given In An Honors Class on The Pearl of Great Price at Brigham Young University, Winter Semester 1986. Edited by Robert Smith and Robert Smythe.
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head” (1838)
“A pillar of fire appeared above my head” (1835)
“piller of light…come down from above and rested upon me” (1832)
Exod. 13:21 “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.”
“walk in my statutes and keep my commandments” (1832)
Lev. 26:3 “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them.”
“above the brightness of the sun at noon day” (1832)
“above the brightness of the sun” (1838)
“surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon day” (1842)
Acts 26:13 “At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.”
“brightness and glory defy all description” (1838)
Heb. 1:3 “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person…”
“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (1838)
“He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God” (1835)
Mark 9:7 “This is my beloved Son: hear him.”
“thy sins are forgiven thee” (1835)
“thy sins are forgiven thee” (1832)
Luke 5:20 “And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.”
“they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (1838)
“they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me” (1832)
Isa. 29:13 “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.”
2 Titus 3:5 “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”
“to go not after them” (1842)
“I was answered that I must join none of them…He again forbade me to join with any of them” (1838)
Luke 17:23 “And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them.”
“go thy way” (1832)–this phrase is repeated 19 times in the KJV.
Luke 17:19 “And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”
“I am the Lord of glory” (1832)
1 Cor. 2:8 “Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
James 2:1 “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.”
“that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles” (1832)
Acts 3:21 “Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”
“none doeth good no not one” (1832)
Psalm 14:3 “They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Compare Ps. 53:3 and Rom. 3:12).
“the world lieth in sin” (1832)
1 John 5:19 “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.”
“all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life” (1832)
John 3:15 “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
“they have turned asside [sic] from the gospel” (1832)
Exod. 32:8 “They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them.”
“and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth”
Hosea 8:5 “Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off; mine anger is kindled against them: how long will it be ere they attain to innocency?”
Isa. 26:21 “For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain.”
“to visit them acording [sic] to their ungodliness” (1832)
Psalm 28:4 “Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.”
“I come quickly” (1832)
Rev. 3:11 “Behold, I come quickly” (compare Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).
“clothed in the glory of my Father” (1832)
Matt. 16:27 “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”
JST Luke 9:26 “…when he shall come in his own kingdom, clothed in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels.”
JST Luke 21:36 “that ye may be counted worthy …to stand before the Son of man when he shall come clothed in the glory of his Father.”
JST Rev. 1:7 “For behold, he cometh in the clouds with ten thousands of his saints in the kingdom, clothed with the glory of his Father.”
“I pondered these things in my heart” (1832)
Luke 2:19 “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
–“filled me with unspeakable joy” (1835)
–“my soul was filled with love for many days” (1832)
–Experience with demonic forces (1838, 1835)
–“I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages” (1842)
–“When the light rested upon me I saw two personages” (1838)
–“A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me…A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame…Another personage soon appeared” (1835)
–“a piller of light…come down from above and rested upon me…I saw the Lord and he spake unto me” (1832)