A teenage boy in upstate New York went to a secluded wood one spring day in 1820 to ask God about his sins and his prospects for salvation. Now, 200 years later, that boy and that experience have been scrutinized, analyzed, criticized, idealized, demonized and romanticized.
Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” as it is known to the 16.3 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the basis of books and essays, podcasts and popular speeches, art installations and academic tomes, lyrics and poems — belief and disbelief.
This year, as the Utah-based church celebrates the bicentennial of that pivotal moment in Mormonism, it promises to be the focus at the faith’s April 4-5 General Conference.
Due to the expanding coronavirus contagion, the public will not be invited to the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City but rather will watch the sermons online or on television.
Still, the First Vision will be a central theme as members worldwide have been asked by President Russell M. Nelson to look at the vision anew to find themselves and their faith in it.
“That singular event in human history initiated the restoration of the Lord’s gospel — an unfolding restoration that continues today,” Nelson wrote in a message to members. “ .. Just as [God] listened to Joseph’s prayer in 1820, he listens to you and yearns to speak with you through the Spirit.”
God loves all of his children and “has a vision for each,” the 95-year-old “prophet, seer and revelator” wrote on social media. “You may wish to begin your preparation by reading afresh Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.”
The account Nelson recommends is the one that Smith dictated in 1838 as leader of the denomination he founded, the one canonized in Latter-day Saint scripture, and the one most members know.
In this telling, the Mormon prophet describes his teenage angst about the competing Protestant denominations in his town, followed by reading a biblical verse about getting divine answers to questions. So, he says, he found a nearby spot — now called “the sacred grove” — knelt down and asked God which church was “true.” Smith reports that he was visited by two embodied beings, standing above him in a “pillar of light.” One pointed to the other and said, “This is my beloved son. Hear him.”
The male figures, whom Latter-day Saints believe were God the Father and Jesus Christ, instructed the boy not to join any church for they were all “corrupt.”
Smith then paraphrases several biblical passages to describe how God viewed these Christian leaders: “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
But the familiar and approved version of the First Vision is not the earliest or only account of Smith’s mystical experience. There are at least nine different descriptions of it, either in his own words, as told to others and recorded in their journals, or dictated — with varied details in each.
In the first, for example, he described seeing one figure — the Lord. In another, he saw angels and no deity. And so forth.
Critics long have used the discrepancies as reason to discount Smith’s story and to view Mormonism as a fabrication, but church apologists — and even some outside scholars — see the differences as possible evidence of authenticity.
“Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions or competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide,” Stephen Prothero writes in “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.” “In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain aloof from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.”
Latter-day Saint historians have threaded these diverse aspects into a single narrative, which is expressed visually in a video in the Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City.
Smith’s earliest account was in 1832, and it’s the only one penned in his own hand. It is much less polished and much more personal than the canonized one. For some, it is more raw, more real. It also is more universal.
“It’s rough in some of its writing, but we see how this all started for Joseph Smith,” Spencer McBride, a historian with the “Joseph Smith Papers” project, says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “He did ask which church was true, but it all started as this personal quest for salvation. He believed there was a God. He believed salvation came through Jesus Christ. The question of which church only came as a result of him seeking a connection to God, seeking forgiveness for his sins.”
Before people ask which church to join, they wonder, “why a church?” McBride adds. “We ask: ‘How do we connect with God?’”
The historian, who also hosts a series of podcasts on the “First Vision,” sees Smith’s first effort at telling his story as “a very relatable account for Latter-day Saints — but also for those who aren’t of the faith who go through the same experience.”
‘My immortal Soul’
Two years after the church was founded, the then-26-year-old Smith wrote a history of Mormonism to that date, and he began with his visionary meeting (the following includes misspellings and word changes by Smith).
“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. ...[My] mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that man <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith,” he writes, according to a copy in the “Joseph Smith Papers” project, “and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”
This initial description of Smith’s prayerful search was less about which church was true, argues historian Kathleen Flake, who teaches Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, in a forthcoming article, and more about which church could truly save him.
Smith biographer Richard Bushman echoes that sentiment.
“Joseph was asking, ‘How am I standing with God?’” Bushman says from his New York City home. “He is concerned about the state of the churches in his day, but his great thrust is forgiveness for himself.”
Smith recounts the story again and again through his life, emphasizing different details each time, he says, trying to understand his relationship to deity.
“It is an ongoing issue for Joseph,” says Bushman, author of the critically acclaimed “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” “and provides a universal appeal of the gospel that can transcend its cultural boundaries.”
Bushman gave a speech about the First Vision recently to inmates at the Utah State Prison in Draper. As the historian narrated Smith’s story of seeking forgiveness, the inmates were listening “with rapt attention,” he says. “It is a powerful lesson to keep in mind.”
If Smith’s visionary experience was so potent and archetypal, why wasn’t it used as a tool of conversion to the first generation of Mormon converts?
A Latter-day Saint origin myth
What is now known among Mormons as the First Vision “was not a matter of common knowledge, even among church members, in the earliest years of Mormon history,” Flake points out in her forthcoming article, quoting Latter-day Saint historian James B. Allen.
Though the heavenly visitation was mentioned in a sermon as early as 1883, she says, “the turning point in the status of the First Vision occurred during the administration of Joseph F. Smith and contemporaneous with the Smoot hearing crisis and its immediate aftermath.”
Reed Smoot was a Latter-day Saint apostle from Utah who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1902. When he sought to take his seat in Washington, outraged Christians who opposed Mormonism and polygamy gathered more than 3 million signatures on a petition against him, writes Flake, author of “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.”
The Senate launched an investigation into every aspect of Mormon belief and practice. After hundreds of witnesses and 3,500 pages of testimony, Smoot, a monogamist, took his place, which he held for 30 years.
Still, the national hearings were grueling and disconcerting for Latter-day Saint leaders, especially the church’s sixth president, Joseph F. Smith, a nephew of the faith’s murdered founder.
So they decided to fortify the church and their own connection to its origins by celebrating the centennial of Joseph Smith's 1805 birth in Sharon, Vt.
Several traveled to the Green Mountain State to erect a monument to the founder and began to use his First Vision as a mainstay of church curriculum in Sunday school texts and priesthood manuals.
In 1907, Latter-day Saints bought the Smith family farm in Palmyra, N.Y., and it passed to church ownership in 1916, Flake says in her piece. A thicket of trees where Smith was assumed to have had the First Vision “became an increasingly popular pilgrimage site, culminating in centennial celebrations in 1920.”
Eventually, the story of Smith’s theophany would be granted, according to the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism,” the status of “the beginning point, the fountainhead, of the restoration of the gospel.”
It “captured the attention of the Progressive Era church members because it ‘oriented’ them at a time of chaos intensified by the Reed Smoot hearing,” Flake says. “Like the stories of Moses and Abraham [in the faith’s Pearl of Great Price, where it was eventually printed], the 1838 version could be read as a prophet’s story, describing his calling, preparation, and labor to inaugurate a new aeon or dispensation of the gospel power.”
Taken as one, the 1832 and 1838 accounts bring together Smith’s desire for truth and to “experience holiness,” Flake says. The two versions “are not separate but on a continuum.”
The problem is that these stories are “told with such awe and reverence, they become iconic,” Bushman adds. “When you try to bring Joseph back into history, it’s a shock many members can’t bear.”
Latter-day Saints, the historian says, need to make their founder “a real person.”
A white, embodied God
Janan Graham-Russell heard about Smith’s vision from Mormon missionaries while she was a potential convert.
Given that such mystical happenings are not unfamiliar in the African American church of her childhood, Graham-Russell recalls, “it helped me think through ways I could connect with the LDS Church differently from other faiths.”
Hearing about Smith “encountering the divine changed the way that I thought about all encounters with the divine,” says Graham-Russell, who is a doctoral candidate at Harvard. “It didn’t make me want to join the church but helped me share how I think about my own relationship to God and Christ.”
Eventually, she did become a Latter-day Saint and is now writing a dissertation on the notion of collective memory among Haitian members.
“Collective memory is what the First Vision is about,” she says from her Boston home. “From Joseph Smith’s telling about it to ways in which members remember what he said and talk about it, this is part of Latter-day Saint identity.”
Figures in the Hebrew Bible — Isaiah, Jacob, Abraham, Moses — all had encounters with the heavens, Graham-Russell says. The First Vision “ties Mormonism’s history back to them and solidifies that being prophetic means the ability to interact with the divine.”
For the African American scholar, it also raises questions about race.
“What does it mean for this Anglo American white male [Smith] to have this conversation, this engagement with God?” Graham-Russell asks. “How does it extend to what God looks like?”
Smith described the deities he saw as being encased in a “pillar of light,” and most artists depict the figures as white men. That view, she says, permeated Mormonism’s approach to the question of race.
Latter-day Saints use the First Vision to underscore the belief that God and Jesus have bodies of “flesh and bones,” she says. “How does that set up a narrative of race?”
It’s a question, she says, worth exploring.
‘Discovered a friend in Joseph Smith’
Like most evangelical Christians, Richard Mouw does not buy the idea that God told Smith the existing churches and their creeds were “an abomination in his sight.”
But Mouw, who has had decades of conversations with Latter-day Saint scholars, does identify with the personal parts of the teen’s prayer.
He’s been there, Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says in a presentation he recently gave at a California symposium.
As a young man, the Christian educator felt his own spiritual distress as he listened to older evangelicals argue “over baptism, predestination and interpretations of the Book of Revelation.”
Mouw says he found “especially gripping” the Mormon leader’s despair at the “war of words and tumult of opinions.”
When reading the Mormon founder’s account of his vision, the evangelical says, “it is no exaggeration to say that I felt like I had discovered a friend in Joseph Smith. Here was someone who understood my own confusions and yearnings, ones that I had been reluctant to express to the adults in my life — and even a bit fearful of admitting them to myself.”
Though Mouw has “serious theological disagreements” with Smith’s teachings, he says, “I have never forgotten, nor discounted, that early sense of spiritual kinship with him.”
He also points to visionary accounts of other Christian figures in history.
In 1693, Cotton Mather, 30 at the time, was struggling to grasp the will of God for his life, Mouw reports. Then, one night, in his bedroom, Mather had what he described as this “strange and memorable thing.”
“After outpourings of prayer, with the utmost fervor and fasting, there appeared an angel, whose face shone like the noonday sun. He was completely beardless, but in other respects human, his head encircled by a splendid tiara,” Mather wrote, according to Kenneth Silverman’s biography. “On his shoulders were wings; his garments were white and shining; his robe reached to his ankles; and about his loins was a belt not unlike the girdles of the peoples of the East.”
In the end, Mouw says, “the way a community lives out a founder’s teachings can tell us something significant about that founder’s character.”
For their part, Latter-day Saints already respect their founder’s character and believe his story. They repeat what the church says about lessons learned in the woods that spring morning.
Matthew Grow, managing director of the church History Department and general editor of the “Joseph Smith Papers,” knows well those lessons about church, deity and salvation.
To him, though, at least one rarely considered takeaway from this anniversary of the First Vision is this: “God responds to his teenage children who are in crisis.”
As Nelson instructed members during this bicentennial year, Grow says, they should bring their own questions to God — just as young Joseph did.