NCCG's Guided Tour
2-1. The First Vision
by Steven L. Shields
Various studies have been completed on the First Vision and the many varied accounts of what was supposed to have taken place have left many of the faithful perplexed and have provided those such as Jerald and Sandra Tanner (1982) and Wesley P. Walters (1967) with plenty of fuel for their fires of discrediting Joseph Smith. We know clearly from the records that the First Vision was not used as an argument at least in the first ten years of the Latter Day Saint church; most of the membership of the church were unaware of the event (Howard, 1980). It is clear from Richard P. Howard's analysis that the story evolved over the years until it finally reached that version which ias been normative in both the LDS and RLDS Church in recent times. Both churches published the story in various formats. The LDS Church has canonized the story in the pages of the Pearl of Great Price, one of its books of scripture. This version is that which was published in the Times and Seasons (Smith, 1842, pp.726-728, 748-749). However, one of the earliest versions, written apparently sometime in 1831 or 1832, is much more oriented to the view that it was a personal conversion experience (Howard, 1980, p.97ff). The description of the vision itself reads:
Joseph's motivation was to pray, as spelled out in the larger text of this version, focus strongly on his concern for the "welfare of my immortal soul." Joseph does make reference to his search of the scriptures and the denominations and not finding any that meet the requirements of the scriptures. This is a common understanding of restorationism as expressed by the Campbells and others (Vogel, 1988; Campbell, 1809/1924), However, Joseph is not called to form a new church, although Latter Day saints have inferred that because of subsequent events (Vogel, 1988).
...while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the Sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me and 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 saying Joseph my son thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commamndments 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...
Paul M. Edwards (1991, p.34-35) comments on the various versions of the vision, noting the growth and maturing of Joseph's thought over the years. Each version of the vision experience is essentially true to the others in basic substance even though the details are often different. Unfortunately, most of the arguments about the First Vision have focussed on the specific facts of in the various records, rather than the context of a personal conversion experience. Viewing the First Vision from our perspective, colored as it is by the many events which took place subsequent to the vision itself, we are inclined to make connections that may not have been there. For instance, if the First Vision experience was foundational for Joseph Smith's later ecclesiastical efforts, it certainly was not seen as such by the others who were involved. Consider Hugh Nobley's )1962, p.522) argument that
Fawn Brodie (1957, pp.24-25) also pointed out that,
The prophet did not like to talk about the first vision and those to whom he told the story kept it to themselves. It was only when inevitable leaks led to all sorts of irresponsible reports that he was 'induced' to publish an official version (J. & S. Tannner, 1982, p.143).
Add to all of this the report that Joseph Smith, Sr. had a similar vision in 1811 in which he was told that none of the churches was right and additionally that he was to find a box, the contents of which would make him wise (Vogel, 1988, p.28). This is not to say, then, that the vision of Joseph Smith, Jr. did not take place, nor that the events described in any of the various versions of the vision are not true. It is merely to say that the Latter Day Saints of all brands, as well as others, have ascribed to the First Vision a certain status and have given to the vision a place in history that is perhaps not as well considered as it should be.
If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph's home town and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family.
This page was created on 7 September 1999
Last updated on 9 March 2001
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