The Mormon Stories essay on Joseph Smith’s First Vision is riddled with errors. Here are just four readily obvious examples pertaining to the essay’s handling of Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision.
I. The essay claims: “The journal makes no mention of God or battling Satan.”
It is not exactly clear what the author of the essay means by this. The 1832 account emphatically does mention God. Perhaps what the author meant was that the account does not explicitly mention two personages appearing to Joseph in the vision.
It is true that there is no explicit mention of two personages. The 1832 account reads:
“I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.”
However, historian Matthew Brown has convincingly argued that the presence of the Father and the Son can be inferred in the 1832 account by reading it closely. For example, the opening lines of this account written by Frederick G. Williams report that “<firstly> he [Joseph Smith] receiv[ed] the test[i]mony from on high.” This phrase, “testimony from on high,” is likely a reference to “the words spoken by the Father in the 1838 account: ‘This is my beloved Son, hear Him.'” Other evidence bolsters this claim.1
Another point mentioned by the Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision accounts is worth noting:
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”“First Vision Accounts,” Gospel Topics essays, accessed March 7, 2019.
Other Latter-day Saint apologists have explored this very plausible reading of the 1832 account.
II. The essay mentions that in the 1832 account “Smith stated in the ’16th year of my age,’ which would have made him fifteen or sixteen at the time.”
Actually, this specific text comes not from Joseph Smith, but Frederick G. Williams, who created an interlinear insertion:
As can clearly be seen, the text “in the 16th year of my age” has been inserted with a caret after “the Lord,” so that the running text reads:
“to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day”
The non-bolded portion in chevrons is Williams’ insertion. It did not originate with Joseph Smith. In fact, as noted by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, this afterthought by Williams is contradicted by Joseph Smith himself, who left various accounts placing his First Vision in “early spring 1820, when he was fourteen years old. (JS History, vol. A-1, 3; compare JS, Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835; JS, ‘Church History,’ Times and Seasons, 1 Mar. 1842, 3:706; and JS, ‘Latter Day Saints,’ in Rupp, He Pasa Ekklesia, 404–405.)”
III. The Mormon Stories essay claims that “there is no mention of other churches being corrupt” in the 1832 account.
This is simply false. Joseph may not have used the word “churches” specifically, but he did speak of what he perceived was the general corruption of Christianity in his day:
“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns
of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorn ing their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind.”
Here Joseph specifically mentions that the “differant denominations” of his day “did not adorn . . . their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what [he] found contained in that sacred depository,” that is, the Bible. This aligns nicely with Joseph’s 1835, 1838, and 1842 histories, which all mention his distress over not feeling willing to align with any major Christian denomination of his day.
- 1835: “Being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking upon <at> the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and concidering it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences; being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowd down before the Lord.”
- 1838: “During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness, but though my feelings were deep and often pungent, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties though I attended their several meetings as occasion would permit. . . . My mind at different times was greatly excited for the cry and tumult were so great and incessant.”
- 1842: “When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.”
IV. The Mormon Stories essay claims that the 1832 account contradicts the 1838 account in the following manner:
This first and only version in Smith’s own hand contradicts the 1838 version regarding what he knew and when – “my mind became exceedingly distressed…and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the lord, that man had apostatized from true and living faith and that there was no society or denomination that was built upon gospel of Christ as recorded in new testament.”“First Vision,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 7, 2019.
Commenting on this, scholar J. B. Haws wrote:
New attention to the determiners and pronouns might be in order. Which of all of these parties—that is, the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists—is right? Or are they—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists—all wrong together? If any of them—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists—be right, which is it? It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph wondered not about the possibility that there was no true religion on the earth, but only that the principal religions represented in his area might all be wrong. Hence, his crucial question—his “object in going to enquire of the Lord”— was “to know which of all the sects was right,” and perhaps it was the subsequent instruction to join no sect anywhere (“for they were all wrong”) that would have been surprising; in that case, this latter possibility was the one that had never entered into his heart.
Again, this is only suggested as one way to read the text—but it is one that also seems to fit with a telling line in the earliest known written account of the First Vision, one from 1832 that Joseph Smith partly dictated and partly wrote. The key is something he stated about personal familiarity:
In that 1832 history, Joseph wrote in his own hand:
“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously [ impressed]with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul . . .”
The fact that his conclusions were based on an “intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations” should not be overlooked. His subsequent recollections do seem to reflect an expanded understanding of a broader apostasy: “by searching the scriptures I found that mand did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” Yet his choice of words (“no society or denomination”) and his declaration that “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy” seem to reflect his discouragement with his local options and his growing assurance that only divine intervention could help him transcend that confusion.J. B. Haws, “Reconciling Joseph Smith—History 1:10 and 1:18–19,” Religious Educator 14, no. 2 (2013): 101–102.
Haws then cites Steven C. Harper, who makes this salient point:
Joseph Smith’s accounts of his first vision are remarkably consistent. His descriptions are, in fact, portraits of the time and place in which he lived. Indeed, if Joseph had repeated well-rehearsed statements verbatim from year to year rather than the thoughtful accounts he gave in specific contexts, historians would rightly find him more calculating and less credible.Steven C. Harper, “Trustworthy History? A Review of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins,” FARMS Review 15, no. 2 (2003): 298.
Indeed, contrary to what the author of the Mormon Stories essay argues, these slight variations between Joseph’s 1832 and 1838 accounts actually heighten the overall believability of the Prophet’s claims rather than diminish such.
While the author of the Mormon Stories essays opts for a hyper-skeptical interpretation of the historical accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the way the author (mis-)handles just the 1832 account is on its own compelling reason to in turn be skeptical of their ability to properly interpret the evidence.