New York, 1820s—He’d witnessed people get the Holy Spirit and shout; his mother and a few of his siblings had joined the Presbyterian Church. That intense religious ‘revival’ had been filling all the churches but sectarian bitterness affected him. Perhaps that was the reason why he couldn’t get ‘religion’ like the rest did? “Early in the Spring,” ¹ on the morning of a “clear beautiful day,” Joseph went into the silent woods with James 1:5-6 ² in mind.
2—How it all began: teenagers looking for religion.
1—Joseph’s Smith’s ‘First Vision’ is the genesis of Mormonism. Myth or reality? This post is my take on it—in a new category: ‘Mormon History (Revisited)’.
In his earliest record—written ten years after the facts—Joseph Smith said he was 16 in 1822 when a pillar of light rested upon him as he prayed to God. While filled with the Spirit, the heavens opened and he saw the Lord. He said his sins were forgiven but complained of the fact that men used his name while ignoring him in their hearts. He added he would soon come clothed in the glory of his Father. And the Spirit pumped joy in Joseph’s entire being for days after that visitation.
Thirteen years later—under the date of November 9, 1835—Joseph wrote in his diary that, at 14 (in 1820), he retired to the woods to pray but was unable to utter a word. Then he heard steps getting close and he sprung to this feet. There was nobody there. He knelt again. This time a “mightily prayer” came out of his mouth and over his head appeared a pillar of fire which did not consume the trees but filled him with an incredible joy. He wrote seeing a personage in the flame—and then another one. The first man said his sins were forgiven and that Jesus was the Son of God. He added that he saw “many angels.”
Another seven years later—in 1842—a polished version was published, well-known to all Mormons for being the official account, in which one of the two personages aforementioned pointed to the other—his beloved Son—saying: “Hear him.” At some point Joseph asked what denomination was correct and was commanded to join none—for each one was “an abomination.”
Joseph lived in a world steeped in religion and open to accounts of personal revelations and visions. It wasn’t unusual for a New York resident or for a 14-year-old to claim to have had such an experience: One Asa Wild saw an angel with the everlasting gospel telling him to join no Church too. Joseph’s visitation fitted in the place and time in which he lived but what makes it different from all other similar accounts is the fact that it has been shared the whole world.
That visitation is one of the first things missionaries teach investigators; it’s the stuff of Mormon folklore and LDS art; it’s what Apostle LeGrand Richards described as “one of the most important and momentous events in this world’s history.” ³ Yet no one talked about it for 20 years. What is strange is not the fact that Joseph had a vision or a visitation but that we do not even find any mentions of it in the first History of the Church published in 1834.
In the early years of Mormonism, the only ‘first vision’ that was talked about was the account of an angel who, in 1823, told Joseph about the Book of Mormon. The Latter-day Saints’ Messenger & Advocate—then the Church’s official organ—related that the event took place during the religious revival when Joseph, then 17, asked for the assurance that a Supreme Being existed.
The story of one of the most adored and reviled men to have ever walked the Earth—Joseph Smith, the fascinating and enigmatic founder of Mormonism.
It is also interesting to note that early Church leaders—such as Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball—talked about ‘angels’, not the Father or the Son, when referring to the ‘First Vision.’
What’s more, Joseph later wrote that important people took notice of him, told him that visions “were things that ceased with the New Testament” and that he, 14 year-old “obscure boy,” had then become the enemy of all denominations. However, there is no record from his ‘enemies’, his family or his followers ever mentioning this before the mid-1830s.
For biographer Fawn Brodie the ‘First Vision’ was the “elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighbourhood.” To Joseph’s detractors, he simply did not see God and the official version is nothing but a sham. Meanwhile, all across the world, almost two centuries later, there are men and women who get convinced each day that Joseph conversed with God.
And here begins the story of one of the most adored and reviled men to have ever walked the Earth—Joseph Smith, the fascinating and enigmatic founder of ‘Mormonism’. But where is the truth? If Joseph did not make this story up, why did he wait a decade before writing about that first contact? Perhaps because his vision was of a personal nature and he did not feel it concerned the Church.
To be sure, once he set himself to share with the Church, it is improbable that time had blurred out details of such an important event. But perhaps some details—however important—were left out in the 1842 account because Joseph was then more inclined to ‘teach’ than to recollect (and tales of persecution would fall under that category). Such retelling would place him on par with New Testament authors (according to scholars).
Perhaps Joseph understood the nature of his vision and refrained from saying too much too soon.
I think it is very possible that Joseph kept his vision to himself until he was able make sense of it. As his understanding improved, his recollection might have taken on new aspects. For example, Joseph later taught that angels were not winged cherubs like folks believed them to be, but exalted men—messengers, if we go by the true meaning of the word. God sends those messengers to act in His name and to speak on His behalf. Identifying them would have been difficult. We also know it is not always easy to identify heavenly speakers in the Scriptures either and we have instances in which Jesus talks for God/as God in the Book of Mormon too, confusing some readers about the identity of Christ and Jehovah.
It is also possible that Joseph—and others—understood the nature of his vision but refrained from saying too much too soon. For example, God is an ‘angel’ too. This could have led the early leaders to mentioned ‘angels’ when referring to the First Vision in order to keep it simple. After all, the Mormon claim that God is an exalted man remains a heresy in all Christian traditions.
One thing only is certain: Joseph Smith remains a mystery. His untimely death left us destitute of a supply of more information about the man and his claims. Not even a (real) photograph exists of the farm boy who set in motions a worldwide religious empire. ‘The Prophet’ once said: “No man knows my history.” Fawn Brodie could not have chosen a more fitting title to her controversial biography of the first Mormon.
¹ This quotation and all the following quotations in this post are taken from numerous original sources quoted in Mormonism, Shadow or Reality? 5th Edition, pp. 143-162D. I read that book long ago and I consulted it again to write this post. That anti-Mormon book has the merit to be well researched and to offer sources that had been long lost or kept hidden from the general public. The ground-breaking No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie was written in 1945 and revised in 1971.
³ A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 1966, p.7