Is the Account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision Reliable?

Is the Account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision ReliableWhen I first began to examine the case for Christianity, my Mormon family encouraged me to examine Mormonism as well. Both systems make claims about history and are dependent on the reliability of witnesses. As a result, the veracity of either worldview depends entirely on the authority of its sources. Can we trust the Bible or the Book of Mormon? Can we trust the authors of these texts? In the end, the truth of Mormonism is dependent on its primary author: Joseph Smith. As I examined Joseph’s history, I became less and less convinced of his character and reliability. One important area of witness reliability involves accuracy and honesty over time. Has the witness changed his or her story over the years? If so, he or she can’t be trusted. As I examined the history of Joseph’s claims related to the Book of Mormon, I discovered he often changed his story. Joseph’s story about his first vision from God related to his discovery of the golden plates (from which the Book of Mormon were translated) changed a great deal. Key elements vary over the years in which it was first described. Joseph said he received this vision (prior to the discovery) yet kept quiet about it for several years before he ever shared it with anyone. All his descriptions are well after the fact. Before we can begin to examine the changing claims related to Joseph’s first vision, we should first review a few known historical facts:

A Spiritual Revival Occurred in 1824-25
A spiritual revival took place in the area of Palmyra, New York, where Joseph and his family were living at the time. Church attendance and conversion records indicate strong growth starting in 1824.

Joseph Was On Trial in 1826
At the age of 20, Joseph Smith was on trial for divination in South Bainbridge, New York. The 1826 Bainbridge Court Records of Judge Albert Nealy indicate Joseph was being tried as a “glass looker” (using a “seer stone” to discover buried gold in the ground) on March 20th, 1826. Joseph was found guilty of a misdemeanor in violation of the New York State vagrancy law because he was pretending to locate lost treasures with this seer stone placed in a hat (interestingly, this is the same method he later said he used to translate the Book of Mormon). The court records also indicate Joseph used other occult rituals to help him locate the treasures, including the sprinkling of animal blood to break the enchantment thought to guard the treasure. Because Joseph was a minor, he was allowed to leave the county rather than face jail time.

With these two known historical dates in mind, let’s examine the first vision accounts provided by Joseph and his closest friends over the years. In general, the accounts eventually developed several key elements. Joseph is initially visited by a spiritual being who tells him about buried Gold plates, but he is not allowed to retrieve the plates for some period of time. As we investigate the changing nature of the vision over time, we’ll track three key elements of the story: the motivation Joseph had for seeking God, Joseph’s age and the date of the vision, and who appeared to him in the vision:

1827
Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr. gave an account to Willard Chase, as related in his 1833 affidavit.

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph said the gold book was found in the context of his money-digging activities. There is no mention of a revival

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph said he was approximately 17 (1823) when he had the vision. He was then 21 (1827) when he finally retrieved the plates

What He Said He Saw
Several years before obtaining the plates, a “spirit” appeared to Joseph in a vision telling him of a record on gold plates.

1827
Martin Harris gave an account to Rev. John Clark, as published in his book Gleanings by the Way, printed in 1842 (pages 222-229).

How He Described His Motivation
No revival was mentioned. The vision occurred after an evening of money-digging

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph was approximately 18-19 (1824-25) when he had the vision

What He Said He Saw
An “angel” appeared to Joseph in a vision telling him he had been chosen to be a prophet and bring forth a record on gold plates.

1830
Joseph Smith was interviewed by Peter Bauder, recounted by Bauder in his book, The Kingdom and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, printed in 1834 (pages 36-38).

How He Described His Motivation
No revival was mentioned. In fact, Joseph could give Bauder no “Christian experience”, ie. no conversion experience or manifestation of saving grace in his life

When He Said This Occurred
No age was mentioned

What He Said He Saw
Joseph claimed an “angel” told him where to find a secret treasure

1832
Joseph Smith hand wrote the earliest known attempt at an “official” recounting of the “First Vision”, from History, 1832, Joseph Smith (Letterbook 1, pages 2, 3)

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph now said he started serious study of the scriptures at age 12 and felt convicted of sins. He also said he determined all churches were wrong. He made no mention of a revival and omitted all information about the money-digging context of the first accounts.

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph now said he was 15 (in his 16th year) when he had a first vision, and added a second vision occurring at the age of 17 (he said he again prayed and then had the second vision)

What He Said He Saw
Joseph claimed to see “Jesus” in the first vision at 15, and an “angel” at the second vision (this angel told him where to find the plates)

1834-35
Oliver Cowdery, with Joseph Smith’s help, published the first history of Mormonism in the LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Dec. 1834 (vol.1, no.3)

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph said a revival stirred in him a desire to “know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.”

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph said he was 17 (1823) when he had the vision in his bedroom

What He Said He Saw
Joseph claimed an “angel” appeared to him

1835
Joseph Smith gave an account to Joshua the Jewish minister, described in the Joseph Smith Diary (Nov. 9, 1835).

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph now said he was “wrought up” in his mind about religion, but there was no mention of a revival.

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph now claimed he was 14 (1820) when he had a vision in a grove. He maintained he later had another vision at the age of 17

What He Said He Saw
Joseph said he had a vision of one “personage” and then another. One personage testifies about Jesus, but neither is identified as Jesus. Joseph said he saw many “angels” in this first visitation. In the second visitation, Joseph saw “angels”

1835
Joseph gave an account to Erastus Holmes on November 14, 1835, originally published in the Deseret News (Saturday May 29, 1852).

How He Described His Motivation
None was given

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph said he was 14 (1820) when he had the vision

What He Said He Saw
Joseph said he had a vision of “angels”

1838
This account became the official version, now part of Mormon Scripture in the Pearl of Great Price, written by Joseph Smith, as recorded in History (1:7-20). Though written in 1838, it was not published until 1842 in Times and Season (March 15, 1842, vol. 3, no. 10, pages 727-728, 748-749, 753).

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph said a local revival caused him to wonder which church was right, it had never occurred to him all were wrong

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph said he was 14 years old (1820) when he had a vision in a grove. Three years later he had yet another vision of an “angel”

What He Said He Saw
Joseph said in the first vision he saw two “personages”. One identified the other as his son (by implication God the Father and Jesus, but not explicitly stated), in the second vision, he only saw an “angel”

1844
Joseph described the vision while writing a chapter on Mormonism in An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States, edited by Daniel Rupp

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph said he began reflecting on the importance of being prepared for the future state, but upon inquiring found a great conflict of religious opinion. There is no mention of a revival.

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph said he was 14 years old (1820) when he had a vision in a grove. Three years later he had a second vision.

What He Said He Saw
He had a vision of two “personages”, but they are unidentified. He said he had a vision of a single “personage” (same description as previous “personages”) three years later. He identified this “personage” as an “angel”

1859
Martin Harris was interviewed in Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, New York: Published by Joel Tiffany (vol. v.12, pages 163-170).

How He Described His Motivation
Joseph found the plates using the seer stone in the context of money-digging. There was no mention of a revival at all

When He Said This Occurred
Joseph was 21 years old at the time of the vision

What He Said He Saw
An “angel” appeared to Joseph after finding the plates, and told him it (the Book of Mormon) was God’s work and Joseph must “quit the company of the money-diggers”

Clearly there is a variation in the key elements of the first vision story. It begins with discrepancies related to Joseph’s initial motivation to find the plates or to seek God. The motivational descriptions range from no motive (a spirit appears with the news of gold plates), to active Bible reading and conviction of sin, to a revival, and then to a desire to know if God exists. In addition to this, Joseph and his immediate associates vary on the age and date of the first vision, ranging from 1823 (Joseph at age 16), to 1821 (age 15), to 1820 (age 14). The vision initially is described in a bedroom, then in a grove. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are discrepancies who appeared to Joseph. Was it a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, or the Father and the Son?

Ultimately, the LDS Church maintains Joseph was responding to the spiritual revival in Palmyra when he had his first vision and stands by this account. We know however, this revival did not occur until years after the 1820 date the LDS Church accepts related to the vision. In addition, we know Joseph was a convicted “gold digger” even after the time of the first vision by any account (based on his arrest in 1826).

There appears to be a gradual evolution of the account, moving from the earliest accounts given to Chase and Harris mentioning no spiritual foundation for the discovery of the plates (these accounts say Joseph was simply digging for gold), to later accounts describing a strong spiritual motivation (like a revival in Palmyra or intense Bible study on the part of Smith). Joseph was described early as a 17 year old money digger who finds the plates, but later as a 14 year old spiritual seeker who was led to the plates by God. It does seem as though Joseph, over the course of time, omitted and changed the facts of the vision to make them less offensive (from a money digging perspective) and more compelling (from a spiritual perspective).

For diverse information on the changing first vision accounts of Joseph Smith (some of which are referenced in this post), please visit the Church of Latter Day Saints Website, Wikipedia, the Mormonism Research Ministry, and the Institute for Religious Research.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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