Examining the First Vision

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. If it did, then it is the most wonderful and important work under the heavens." Gordon B. Hinckley - General Conference October 7th 2002.

This claim that the validity of the Latter Day Saint Church is founded upon the actual occurrence, of what is known, as the ‘First Vision’ is spoken by none other than the Mormon Prophet himself. Thus I propose to investigate as to how well history validates this vision and what that means in relation to this statement from the Mormon prophet.

Although we have no other witness to the alleged first vision other than Joseph Smith himself, we do have witnesses of his early accounts of this vision. While we would expect to see some general differences in these second hand accounts, we should also find some common points. One of these, given its amazing nature, should be the consensus of the appearance of both God the Father and Jesus Christ. An amazing part of the story, which, I am sure you will agree, if someone conveyed to you, you would not forget or misinterpret.

Former LDS Apostle John A. Widtsoe stated:

The story of the First Vision need only be studied from original sources to assure the seeker not only of its truth, but also of the time of its occurrence." Joseph Smith--Seeker After Truth, page 26)

Well lets take up that challenge and look in these original sources for evidence of the claim that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to a 14-year-old boy in a grove of trees as stated in the History of the church.

Let us start by firstly looking at the relevant verses of the official version of the ‘First vision’. We can then begin to establish if this account actually concurs with the events of the day and the recollections of those to whom Joseph had recounted the events of that afternoon in the grove. In the interests of Brevity I will only include the relevant verses.

Let us firstly then establish what Joseph’s age was when the first vision occurred.

I was born in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five, on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, State of Vermont . . . My father, Joseph Smith, Sen., left the State of Vermont, and moved to Palmyra, Ontario (now Wayne) county, in the State of New York, when I was in my tenth year, or thereabouts. In about four years after my father’s arrival in Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester in the same county of Ontario—

His family consisting of eleven souls, namely, my father, Joseph Smith; my mother Lucy Smith (whose name, previous to her marriage, was Mack, daughter of Solomon Mack); my brothers, Alvin (who died November 19th, 1823, in the 26th year of his age), Hyrum myself, Samuel Harrison, William, Don Carlos; and my sisters, Sophronia, Catherine, and Lucy.

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was at 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. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, "Lo, here!" and others "Lo, there!" Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia." (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History, 1:5,7)

Joseph declares his age to be 14 by stating that he was in his 15th year. From that information we can work out that, as Joseph Smith was born in 1805, so the year of his first vision would have had to have been 1820.

To verify this date of 1820 we can look at the other facts he also offers:

  1. It was some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester.
  2. A time of religious excitement (better known as a revival) during which his mother Lucy and of his brothers and sisters joined the Presbyterian faith.
  • He states that his vision occurred in the second year after the move to Manchester, which would mean that his family would have had to have moved in 1818.
  • However as we can see from the first verse he said that his family moved to Palmyra, New York, when he was about ten (or in 1816 since he was born December 23, 1805). About four years later (1816+4=1820) the family moved to a farm in Manchester township.
  • Then, he states 'in the second year after their move to Manchester' (1820+2=1822), 'there was an unusual excitement on the subject of religion'. Thus, Smith's own chronology indicates the revival and first vision took place at the earliest in 1822. As opposed to his claimed date of the spring of 1820 after the revival.
  • The evidence for the date of his families removal to Manchester also contradicts the necessary date of 1818, according to tax records held by Brigham Young University, there is no evidence of them moving there until early 1822. Which would have meant that some time in the second year would be even later i.e 1824.

    In regards to his family joining the Presbyterian faith during a revival, we have an account from Joseph's own brother William:

    In 1822 and 1823, the people in our neighborhood were very much stirred up with regard to religious matters by the preaching of a Mr. [George] Lane, an elder of the Methodist Church..... The consequences [of this growing religious revival] was that my mother, my brothers Hyrum and Samuel, older than I, joined the Presbyterian Church. Joseph, then being about seventeen years of age."

    Here we also observe Joseph Smiths Brother William, further confirming our timeframe of around 1823, by stating that this was when his mother and his brothers joined the Presbyterian Church.

    Further evidence of these events actually occurring in 1823 is given by Oliver Cowdery who states:

    You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our Brother J. Smith Jr'ss, age that was an error in the type- it should have been the 17th...This would bring the date down to the year 1823." (Oliver Cowdery - Times & Seasons Vol. 2, p. 241 1840)

    Lucy Smith (Joseph s mother) also indicates that the revival occurred around 1824. Her son, Alvin died on November 19, 1823, and following that tragic event 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 Archives).

    Lucy, in her book Sketches, also informs us that she joined the Presbyterian Church following the death of her son Alvin. So to state the obvious:

    If Lucy joined during the revival and following the death of Alvin, then the revival could not have been in 1820 - it had to be later than November 1823, the date of Alvin’s death.

    So let us see if we can then find a date that brings together all of the following facts:

    1. Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester
    2. As all the evidence points to them moving to Manchester no earlier than April 1822 so we have a date of 1824.

    3. His family joining the Presbyterian faith during a revival
    4. As his family didn’t join until After Alvin’s death in November 1823 we again have an indication of 1824.

    5. William talks about the preaching of a Mr. [George] Lane, an elder of the Methodist Church occurring during this revival which led to his family joining the Presbyterian faith
    6. The Methodist church records also show that Reverend Lane was not assigned to Palmyra until 1824. Reverend Lane came in July, 1824, and left in January, 1825, because of health problems.This again places the revival no earlier than 1824.

    Here we have clear and overwhelming evidence, from original sources, that the setting for Joseph s vision was actually 1824 not 1820. Which would then have actually been Joseph s 19th year, not as Oliver Cowdary stated when he corrected himself, his 17th.

    Thus rather than a boy of 14, we have a young man of 18.

    The dating of the first vision to be no earlier than 1824, is extremely significant as we shall see later.

    Now let us continue our examination of original sources in regards to the vision and look at the evidence for the appearance of God the Father and Jesus in the Grove. To do this we will examine accounts of this event produced by Joseph and friends of Joseph.

    In the official version of the first vision we read:

    It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other -This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History, 1:17)

    Joseph clearly declares that he saw two personages, One of whom was the Father of the other.

    For those of you that may be unaware, the official version of the first vision is not the only version of this vision. There were indeed earlier versions some of which we will look at now.

    Here is an excerpt from an 1832 account of the first vision written in Joseph s own handwriting:

    I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and {to} obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in [the] attitude of calling upon the Lord [in the 16th* year of my age] a pillar of {fire} light above the brightness of the Sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filld with the Spirit of God and the [Lord] opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph [my son] thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy [way] walk in my Statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life (The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989)

    Notice how Joseph only mentions how "I saw the Lord" rather than two separate personages.

    In an 1835 account of the First vision, written by Warren A. Cowdery we read:

    I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with un-speakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication.

    So three years after his first account he recalls seeing 2 personages and many angels. However he neglects to mention that either of the personages was either God the father or Jesus Christ. We could perhaps assume from the 1832 version that he meant to imply that the second personage was Jesus Christ, as this personage stated to him thy sins are forgiven thee which are the words he said the Lord used in his 1832 version.

    However even if such an assumption is valid there is still no mention yet of God the Father. We also note that Joseph now recollects that he was 14 as opposed to in his previous statement of being in his 16th year.

    Interestingly in 1830 a journalist Peter Bauder interviewed Joseph Smith.Here is an excerpt from that interview.

    I will name some of the particular discoveries which through Divine Providence I was favored with in an interview with Joseph Smith, Jr. at the house of Peter Whitmer, in the town of Fayette, Seneca County, state of New York, in October, 1830. I called at P[eter] Whitmer s house for the purpose of seeing Smith, and searching into the mystery of his system of religion, and had the privilege of conversing with him alone, several hours, and of investigating his writings, church records, &c. I improved near four and twenty hours in close application with Smith and his followers; he could give me no christian experience, but told me that an angel told him he must go to a certain place in the town of Manchester, Ontario County, where was a secret treasure concealed, which he must reveal to the human family."

    Bauder spent several hours alone conversing with Joseph, yet we are told Joseph could give no Christian experience?

    There is no mention of the First vision, even though according to the official account, Josephs recounting of the events of the vision had led to severe and widespread persecution by men of high standing and people of all sects.

    I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors 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, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, 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....though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth?... 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:..."

    Seeing then that Joseph’s vision in the grove, if it really occurred as he stated, must have been common knowledge by 1830, it seems strange that the only mention of a vision Bauder declares in his interview with Joseph is one of an Angel.

    We will now switch back to the account of Oliver Cowdary, which we touched on before as it sheds further light upon Joseph’s alleged vision:

    You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our brother J. Smith Jr. s age that was an error in the type it should have been in the 17th. You will please remember this correction, as it will be necessary for the full understanding of what will follow in time. This would bring the date down to the year 1823. I do not deem it necessary to write further on the subject of this excitement. And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him. On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind of messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God. While continuing in prayer for a manifestation in some way that his sins were forgiven; endeavoring to exercise faith in the scriptures, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a purer and far more glorious appearance and brightness burst into the room It is no easy task to describe the appearance of a messenger from the skies But it may be well to relate the particulars as far as given The stature of this personage was a little above the common size of men in this age; his garment was perfectly white, and had the appearance of being without seam. Though fear was banished from his heart, yet his surprise was no less when he heard him declare himself to be a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord, to deliver a special message, and to witness to him that his sins were forgiven, and that his prayers were heard;” (Published as The first history of Mormonism in the LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834, vol.1, no.3 )

    Here we have Cowdary stating that Joseph was, calling upon the Lord in secret wanting to know if a Supreme being did exist, so he could gain an assurance that he was accepted of him.

    This confirms that Cowdary is talking about the first vision, otherwise Joseph would not be wondering if a Supreme Being existed. Further confirmation that this is a recollection of the first vision is the statement that the visiting personage delivered the message that 'his sins were forgiven' .

    This specific event ties in with both of the early accounts of the First vision. However Cowdary is clear in stating that only a single personage appeared and that he declared himself to be a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord.

    You will notice that this recollection of Oliver Cowdary is far more similar to Joseph’s recollection of his visitation by the Angel Moroni than to the official version of the first vision. However it is clear from the specifics of the setting, that this is the time talked about in the official version of the First vision and from what Cowdary says, there is no way that there could have been a vision prior to this. Otherwise he would not have been talking about how Joseph had been seeking confirmation of the existence of a Supreme Being.

    Further evidence that Joseph s first vision may not have comprised of seeing God the Father and Jesus come from the words of the Early Prophets:

    Brigham Young

    The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven...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” (JOD Volume 2 p.171 1855).

    Wilford Woodruff

    How did it (the organization) come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world...He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world.” (JOD Volume 11 p.196 1855).

    John Taylor

    How did the state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith and manifested unto him in a vision the true position of the world in a religious point of view. He was surrounded with light and glory while the heavenly messenger communicated these things to him.” (- JOD Volume 10 p.127 1863).

    George A. Smith

    When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong.” (George A. Smith - JOD Volume 12 p.334 1863).

    All of these men, were prophets of the Church after Joseph Smith, and each of them were under the same impression as Oliver Cowdary, i.e. that an Angel appeared to Joseph Smith. Each confirms that this Angel revealed to him information that Joseph claimed to have received from God the Father and Jesus Christ. Making it clear they are talking about the event Joseph claimed to be his first vision.

    What seems to be crystal clear from the evidence I have presented here, is that Joseph Smith could not possibly have had the first vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ before the age of 17, and certainly not as he claims, at the tender age of 14. Add to this the overwhelming evidence of him initially claiming to have seen Angels, and we have a case for serious doubt as to the validity of the claim made by the Mormon Church.

    In fact I would go as far as to say that anyone who reads this essay and checks out the sources yet still believes the claim that:

    God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared in 1820 to a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith.

    Needs to question their basis for understanding 'reality'.

    If however you accept the conclusions drawn from the evidence, then you are forced to concede the point made by the Current Mormon Prophet himself, which I quote again:

    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." Gordon B. Hinckley - General Conference October 7th 2002..

    Finally for those who may be thinking that changing the date for the first vision is not overly significant, I will now add why I stated earlier that 'The dating of the first vision to be no earlier than 1824, is extremely significant '.

    Lets look at the timeline for the Production of the Book of Mormon.

    BOM Published

    1829 June
    BOM Translation finished, copyright Issued

    1828 April 12
    The translation begins:

    Mr. Harris having returned from this tour he left me and went home to Palmyra, arranged his affairs, and returned again to my house about the twelfth of April, Eighteen hundred and twenty-eight, and commenced writing for me while I translated from the plates, ...” (History of the Church 1:20)

    1827 Sep 22
    Joseph Smith gets the plates:

    At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven (P. of G.P., J.S. History 1:59)

    On the twenty second day of September, One thousand Eight hundred and twenty seven, having went as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me with this charge that I should be responsible for them (History of the Church 1:17)

    1823 Sept
    Joseph Smith is told about the plates the plates:

    I made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden by the messenger, and was again informed that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would it, until four years from that time; but he told me that I should come to that place precisely in one year from that time, and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates.” (P. of G.P., J.S. History 1:53)

    The messenger clearly told Joseph he would have to wait four years and Joseph’s brother William gives further evidence of this four-year wait.


    [Following the visitations of Moroni to Joseph Smith,] we . . . all gathered. He [Joseph Smith] arose and told us how the angel appeared to him. . . He continued talking to us sometime. The whole family were melted to tears, and believed all he said. Knowing that he was very young, that he had not enjoyed the advantages of a common education; and knowing too, his whole character and disposition, they were convinced that he was totally incapable of arising before his aged parents, his brothers and sisters, and so solemnly giving utterance to anything but the truth. All of us, therefore, believed him and anxiously awaited the result of his visit to the hill Cumorah, in search of the plates containing the record of which the angel told him. He went, and upon his return told us that in consequence of his not obeying strictly the commandments which the angel had given him, he could not obtain the record until four years from that time.”

    he escaped to the house and brought the plates with him, wrapped up in a tow frock. He could not permit us to see them, because he said the angel told him not to do so, and he was determined to obey strictly this time; for he had disobeyed before and was compelled to wait four years before he could come into possession of the plates. (Source: William Smith, “The Old Soldier's Testimony,” The Saint's Herald 31(1884):643-44. )

    Thus the conclusion that we can draw here is that If Joseph had to wait 4 years for the plates, which witnesses say he got in 1827, then he must had seen Moroni no later than Sept 1823, So changing the date of the first vision to 1824 means that this must have happened at least a year before the alleged first vision could have possibly occurred.

    In other words the two events are historically mutually exclusive.

    Is it time to re-evaluate your beliefs ?