New Light on Joseph Smith's First Vision
Copyright © 1995 Institute for Religious Research. All rights reserved.
Joseph Smith's Official
First Vision Account:
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 that region of country ...
and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties .... Some were
contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist
... my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect ... but so great were 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 .... So in accordance with
this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the 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 .... One of them spake unto
me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other 'This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!'
.... 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 ....
I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice
against me among professors [believers] of religion, and was the cause of great
persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between
fourteen and fifteen years of age ... yet men of high standing would take notice
sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution;
and this was common among all the sects all united to persecute me.
— Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith - History 1:5-8,
The Importance of Joseph Smith's Vision
Joseph Smith's First Vision Story — cited above — is one of
the foundational truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Mormons). Its importance has been described as second only to belief in the divinity of
Jesus of Nazareth.1 Mormon
Prophet and President Gordon B. Hinckley declared:
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either
occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud
(General Conference address as published in The Ensign,
November, 2002, p. 80).
If there is even a remote chance that this pivotal
point in the Mormon story is a fabrication, what Latter-day Saint would not want any and
all of the pertinent facts? This article provides historical evidence that puts Joseph
Smith's First Vision story in a new light. Many Latter-day Saints today remain unaware of
significant historical details which have been intentionally omitted or suppressed,
including the following facts:2
- According to the historical evidence Joseph Smith could not have been
stirred by an 1820 revival to ask which church was true, since there was no revival in
1820 anywhere near Manchester, New York, where he was living. A revival as described by
Joseph Smith did occur there beginning in the spring of 1824. However, this then seriously
disrupts Joseph's whole story, because there is not enough time between the First vision
and the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon for all the events described in the First
- There are other earlier accounts of the First Vision, including one
handwritten by Joseph Smith himself, which make no mention of an appearance of the Father
and the Son. Instead, these earlier accounts refer to an angel, a spirit, many angels, or
the Son. The story in its present form with the Father and the Son, did not appear until
1838, many years after Joseph claimed to have had the vision.
- The details now known about Joseph s early life contradict his claim that
he was persecuted in 1820 for telling the story of the First Vision. As a young man he
participated in Methodist meetings, and later joined a Methodist church class. No
persecution is recorded.
No 1820 Revival
Joseph Smith's neighborhood experienced no revival in 1820 such as he
described, in which great multitudes joined the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian
churches. According to early sources, including church conference reports, newspapers,
church periodicals, presbytery records and published interviews, nothing occurred in
1820-21 that fits Joseph's description. There were no significant gains in church
membership in the Palmyra-Manchester, New York area,3 during 1820-21 such as
accompany great revivals. For example, in 1820, the Baptist Church in Palmyra only
received 8 people through profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church added
14 members, while the Methodist circuit lost 6 members, dropping from 677 in 1819 to 671
in 1820 and down to 622 in 1821 (see Geneva area Presbyterian Church Records, Presbyterian
Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA; Records for the First Baptist Church in Palmyra,
American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester, NY; Minutes of the [Methodist] annual
Conference, Ontario Circuit, 1818-1821, pp. 312, 330, 346, 366).
In his 1838 account, Joseph Smith stated that his mother, sister and two
brothers were led to join the local Presbyterian Church as a result of that 1820 revival.
However, Joseph's mother, Lucy, tells us that the revival which led her to join the church
took place after the death of her son, Alvin. Alvin died on November 19, 1823, and
following that painful loss Lucy Smith 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 (First draft of Lucy Smith's History, p. 55, LDS Church
Lucy 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 . There is plenty of additional evidence that the revival Lucy Smith refers to did
occur beginning in the spring of 1824. It was reported in at least a dozen newspapers and
religious periodicals (see for example, a letter of George Lane, dated January 25, 1825,
in Methodist Magazine 8, [April 1825]:159 and a note in a Palmyra newspaper, the Wayne
Sentinel 1 [September 15, 1824]:3).4
Church records from that time period show outstanding increases in membership 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
in the Palmyra-Manchester area as Joseph claimed. It is clear from this evidence that the
revival Joseph Smith described did not occur in 1820, but in 1824. When Joseph Smith wrote
the 1838 version of his history, he arbitrarily moved that revival back four years to 1820
and made it part of a First Vision story that neither his mother nor other close
associates had heard of in those early days. (For further details see, Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1969, pp. 59-100.)
Does a discrepancy of four years cause a major problem for Joseph's
story? It certainly does. Joseph described a 10-year sequence of events that begins with
the First Vision and ends with the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830. If this
sequence did not start until 1824, there are only six years in which to fit the ten year
sequence Joseph claims occurred before the Book of Mormon was printed.
In the story as it appears in Mormon scripture, Joseph says that in
1823, three years after the 1820 First Vision, he was visited by the angel Moroni. Moroni
tells Joseph about the gold plates but says he must wait four years before obtaining them.
In 1827 Joseph gets the gold plates and three years later (1830) publishes the Book of
Mormon. However, recall that Joseph linked the First Vision to a great religious
excitement in the Manchester-Palmyra area. As documented above, we now know that this
revival took place, not in 1820, but in 1824. This means that the angel Moroni's initial
visit three years after the First Vision would have to be dated to 1827. When we add the
four additional years Joseph said he had to wait to get the plates, he would not even have
had them until 1831. But by this time the Book of Mormon was already in print. The 10-year
sequence of events which Joseph spells out in his First Vision story simply will not fit
into the span of time between 1824 and the 1830 publication date of the Book of Mormon.
How did the story of Mormon origins become so confused? Part of the
answer is found in the fact that Joseph Smith himself told the story several different
An Ever-Changing Story
In about 1832, Joseph Smith, began an account of the origin of the
Mormon Church (the only one written in his own hand) that is considerably different from
the official First Vision story he dictated some six years later. This 1832 account, which
has been referred to as Joseph's strange account, was never finished and for many years
remained inaccessible to the public. It was published in BYU Studies, Spring 1969,
pp. 278ff, and is also included in Dean C. Jessee's The Personal Writings of Joseph
Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984, pp. 14ff).
In this version Joseph presented himself as a boy who, between the ages
of twelve and fifteen, was a committed and perceptive reader of the Bible. He claimed that
it was his study of the Scriptures which led him to understand that all the denominations
were wrong. He wrote:
by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the
Lord but that they had apostatized 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 (Personal Writings, p. 5).
Six years later, when Joseph set forth his official
First Vision account, he changed his story and no longer claimed his personal Bible study
led him to the conclusion that all churches were wrong. Instead, he said that the Father
and the Son told him that all the churches were wrong and he must join none of them.
(Ironically, Mormon historians have documented the fact that Joseph Smith joined a
Methodist church class in 1828, which would seem to constitute a direct violation of the
claimed divine command "to join none of them."5 He claimed to be surprised
by this announcement, for he added parenthetically, "at this time it had never
entered into my heart that all were wrong." Yet, in stating this, Joseph contradicted
himself, for a few paragraphs earlier in this same account he recorded: "I often
said to myself . . . Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together?"
The statement — "it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong"
— appears in the original manuscript (see BYU Studies
cited previously, p. 290), and in the first (1851) edition of the Pearl
of Great Price. This phrase, which contradicts Joseph's earlier
statement, was edited out of later editions of LDS scriptures until
sometime after 1980, when it was inserted back into English language
editions of the PGP. It was also omitted from some foreign language
editions, including Spanish and Portuguese, until sometime after 1989
when it was inserted in those as well.
Even without this contradiction the 1838 official account conflicts with
the 1832 version. In the 1832 account it is Joseph's Bible reading that stirs him to seek
God, while in the 1838 story it is a (non-existent 1820) Palmyra-area revival that
In the 1832 version Joseph only mentions the appearance of Christ, while
in the 1838 rendition he claims both the Father and the Son appeared. In the 1832 account
he already knows all the churches are wrong, while in the 1838 story he says it never
occurred to him that all were wrong until the two deities informed him of this fact.
Joseph's mother, likewise, knew nothing of a vision of the Father and
the Son in the Sacred Grove. 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 all 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, p. 46, LDS
Still another version of the First Vision was published in 1834-35 in
the periodical, Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate (Vol. 1, pp. 42, 78). This
account was written by LDS leader Oliver Cowdery with the help of Joseph Smith. It tells
how a revival in 1823 caused 17-year-old Joseph Smith 6 to be stirred up on the
subject of religion. According to Cowdery, Joseph desired to know for himself of the
certainty and reality of pure and holy religion (p. 78). He also prayed if a Supreme being
did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him and a manifestation in some
way that his sins were forgiven (Ibid., 78, 79). According to this account, an angel (not
a deity) appeared in Joseph's bedroom to tell him his sins were forgiven.
The conflicts produced by this account are numerous. First, the date of
the revival is given as 1823, instead of 1820. Second, if Joseph had already had a vision
of the Father and the Son in 1820, why did he need to pray in 1823 about whether or not a
Supreme being existed? Third, when the revival prompts him to pray, the personage that
appears is an angel, not the Father or Son. Fourth, the message of the angel is one of
forgiveness of sins, rather than an announcement that all the churches were wrong.
These widely divergent accounts raise serious questions about the
authenticity of Joseph Smith's First Vision story. Different people may have varying views
of the same event, but when one person tells contradictory stories about the same event,
we are justified in questioning both the person and the truthfulness of the story.
Persecution Or Acceptance?
Today's First Vision story not only runs into trouble with the
historically verified date of the Palmyra, New York revival and with Joseph's earlier
accounts of the event, it also conflicts with what we know about his early years in
Palmyra. In his official version Joseph Smith claims he was persecuted by all the churches
in his area "because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision." However,
this is contradicted by one of Joseph's associates at the time. Orsamus Turner, an
apprentice printer in Palmyra until 1822, was in a 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. This point is supported by Brigham Young
University historian and LDS bishop, James B. Allen. Allen found virtually nothing to
support Joseph's claim that he told the First Vision story immediately after it happened
in 1820, and suffered persecution as a result, or even that Joseph was telling the story
ten years later:
There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830s Joseph
Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to
consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing
him for it. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this
period for telling the story of the First Vision ("The Significance of Joseph Smith's
First Vision in Mormon Thought", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn
1966, p. 30).
From all available lines of evidence, therefore, Joseph's 1838 official
rendition of his First Vision story appears to be myth not history:
- There was no revival anywhere in the Palmyra-Manchester, New York area in
- The events as told by Joseph Smith will not fit into the time period
between the 1824 revival and the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon.
- Joseph was welcomed, not persecuted by the Methodists.
- In his 1832 account Joseph said it was by personal Bible study that he
determined all the churches were apostate, while in his 1838 account he said it
"never entered into my heart that all were wrong."
- In his 1832 version Joseph claimed to see only a vision of Christ and in
his 1835 version Joseph told of the visit of an angel, while in the 1838 story the message
came from the Father and the Son.
- No one knew of today's version of the First Vision until after Joseph
dictated it in 1838, and no published source mentions it until 1842 (Ibid., pp. 30ff).
The conflicts and contradictions brought to light by the preceding
historical evidence demonstrate that the First Vision story, as presented by the Mormon
church today, must be regarded as the invention of Joseph Smith's highly imaginative mind.
The historical facts and Joseph's own words discredit it.
— Wesley P. Walters
1 Brigham Young University professor James B. Allen, in "The
Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision in Mormon Thought", Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966, p. 29. Allen was an LDS bishop at the time.
Return to article.
2 For example, the Mormon
church magazine the Ensign, April 1995, featured a six page article on the
importance of the First Vision titled, "Oh, How Lovely Was The Morning! : Joseph
Smith's First Prayer and the First Vision." It gave no clue to the serious conflicts
between Joseph's First Vision story and the historical evidence. Return to article.
3 Palmyra and
Manchester were immediately adjoining towns. Return
4 Lane wrote that the Lord s
work in Palmyra and vicinity commenced in the spring, and progressed moderately until the
time of the quarterly meeting, which was held on the 25th and 26th of September 1824. The Wayne
Sentinel article stated: A reformation is going on in this town of great extent. The
love of God has been shed abroad in the hearts of many, and the outpouring of the Spirit
seems to have taken a strong hold. Return to
5 Linda King Newell
and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma, Emma Hale Smith, University of Illinois
Press, 2nd edition, 1994, p. 25. Return to article.
6 On page 78 Cowdery
corrects a printing error regarding Joseph's age. When Cowdery begins the account of
Mormon origins on page 42 he mentions the revival and Joseph's age as being fourteen. In
the next issue, when he continues the story on page 78, he dates the revival as being in
1823 and corrects Joseph's age to seventeen-years-old. Return to article.