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.:IS JOSEPH SMITH’S FIRST VISION A SOLID HISTORICAL FACT?
The religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormonism as it is often called, was founded by the self-proclaimed “prophet” Joseph Smith, Jr. on April 6, 1830. Although different accounts of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” story are found in the pages of historical Mormon writings, the official account currently recognized by the LDS church was originally written in 1838 and has been reproduced in “Joseph Smith—History” of the LDS Scripture Pearl of Great Price and in History of the Church, volume 1, pages 1-44.
According to the official account of Joseph Smith’s story, his calling as a “prophet” began in the spring of 1820 at fifteen years of age. The previous year, Joseph Smith and his family had moved to Palmyra, New York and were soon caught up in an alleged revival of the region. Joseph Smith explains that at that time, all the denominations where competing for the membership of the unusually high number of converts occurring at the revival meetings. Such “confusion,”1. explains Smith, prompted him to retreat to the woods one morning in order to follow the admonition of James 1:5 which states “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…and it shall be given him.” 2.
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join,”3. Joseph Smith explains: “…for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.…I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt.…” 4.
This revelation in which God the Father and Jesus Christ allegedly appeared to Joseph Smith denouncing the supposed apostasy of Christendom’s churches, provides the underlining basis for Mormonism’s claim to the “restoration” of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the one and only “true” Christian church. The dogmatic nature of these claims can be seen in the following statements found in LDS publications:
“Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”—History of the Church, vol. 1, p. XL
In the same way that the foundation of historic Christianity rests in the validity of a documented historic event—the resurrection of Jesus Christ; so the foundation of Mormonism rests on the credibility of the historic event of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. LDS apostle John A Widtsoe proclaimed: “The First Vision of 1820 is of first importance in the history of Joseph Smith. Upon its reality rest the truth and value of his subsequent work.”5. Joseph Fielding Smith, another LDS apostle and former prophet, echoes Widtsoe’s sediment.
Just as Joseph Fielding Smith articulated in the above quote, if Joseph Smith’s “claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect.” In the case of Joseph Smith’s story, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the “contradictions” which are easy to detect.
In the 1838 recount of the story of his First Vision of the Father and the Son and subsequent visions of the angel Moroni that lead up to Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith provides a detailed account of important chronological events.
Thus, according to the official 1838 account of Joseph Smith’s story, we see that there were a total of seven years that transpired between his First Vision in 1820 and his obtaining of the gold plates for translating the Book of Mormon in 1827.
How well does this account compare with the historical events noted by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries? In his book, Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth, apostle John A Widtsoe quotes Joseph Smith’s brother William as he retold the story:
One key historical fact often overlooked in the above account is the fact that Joseph Smith did not receive his First Vision until after the death of his brother Alvin Smith who died November 19, 1823.10. Since Alvin died in the Fall of 1823 and Joseph Smith states that his vision occurred “early in the spring,” this places the First Vision in the year 1824—not 1820! This later date of 1824 fits better with the historical data available that demonstrates that a revival in that area of Palmyra, NY did not begin until around 1823. 11.
When one adds the seven years Joseph Smith describes in his 1838 account to the recalculated 1824 date for his First Vision, one realizes that this places Joseph Smith’s obtaining of the gold plates in 1831! This is one year after he had already translated, printed, and published the 1830 Book of Mormon!
Not only does this change in date for the First Vision cause an incongruous match of Smith’s account with the chronology of documented historical facts, but one will strive in vain to reconcile Joseph Smith’s alleged visit of the angel Moroni in September 1823 with the 1824 date for the First Vision; for if Smith’s visits with the angel Moroni had occurred prior to his First Vision revelation, what need would he have had to “ask God” which church he should join?
The LDS documentary book, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, provides a word-for-word account of the original 1838 account dictated by Joseph Smith and transcribed by James Mulholland.12. This publication notes how “Nephi” rather than “Moroni” was the original word written at Joseph Smith—History 1:33 in the 1838 account. This is a significant error because according to Book of Mormon history, it was Mormon’s son Moroni who finished writing the historical record of the Nephite people in the Book of Mormon and who had buried the gold plates of this record in the Hill Cumorah. Thus, one can only conclude that it would be logical that Moroni—not Nephi—would reveal to Joseph Smith the location of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
Not only did “Nephi” appear in the original 1838 account, but Nephi was the original name published in the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price and “in the original publication of the history in the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo…and the Millennial Star”13. The documentary book, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith notes that when LDS historian “…Brigham H. Roberts prepared the History for publication in its seven-volume format at the turn of the century, he wrote ‘Mormon’ above the name of ‘Nephi’ and keyed his insertion to the following reference at the bottom of the page: ‘Evidently a clerical error; see Book Doc & Cov., Sec 50, par 2; Sec 106, par 20; also Elders’ Journal Vol. 1, page 43. Should read Moroni.’ ” 14.
In addition to the conflicting information Joseph Smith provides of his First Vision written in 1832 and 1838 respectively, the contradictions of these accounts are further compounded by yet another diary account written by Joseph Smith in 1835.
In Joseph Smith’s 1838 account, he speaks of the Father and the Son appearing to him and the Father pointing to the Son proclaiming: “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” No mention is made of forgiveness of sins, nor does Joseph Smith make any indication that the “two personages” were accompanied by “angels.” This account is at variance with the 1835 account which states that along with the two personages, Joseph “saw many angels in this vision” and was told that his “sins are forgiven.” 23.
While the 1838 account clearly indicates the identity of the two personages, the 1835 account leaves one wondering about the identity of the second personage who declared “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”24. If these personages who appeared to Joseph Smith in the 1835 account are indeed the Father and the Son (as stated in the 1838 account), why wouldn’t the second personage speak of Jesus Christ in first-person terms of “I am…” or “My Son Jesus Christ is…”, rather than use the third person language, “Jesus Christ is…”? Such language leads one to the conclusion that this personage could not have been the Son of God Himself.
Furthermore, while the 1832 and 1838 accounts place Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the 15th or 16th years of his life (in 1820 or 1821), the 1835 account places him at “14 years” of age which puts the First Vision in the year 1819. 25.
Since Joseph Smith couldn’t get the details of his own story correct, is it any wonder his followers had a hard time determining who Joseph Smith saw in his First Vision? In 1855, Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS Church, proclaimed: “The Lord did not come…but He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith Jun. …and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong…”26. The fact that Brigham Young was not alone in his assessment that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and not by the Father or the Son is evident in the following quotes from LDS prophets and apostles:
Thus, we see that the foundation of Mormonism stands tainted by the contradictory discrepancies found in the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Unlike the Biblical narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that gains veracity through comparison with various eye-witness accounts, Joseph Smith’s First Vision fails the test of historic consistency, bringing the entire account into suspect. Indeed, while the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands authenticated by remarkable collaborative evidence in historic, literary and archeological studies, 27. Joseph Smith’s First Vision account fails the test.
For more information see:
1. Joseph Smith—History 1:13
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