Joseph Smith–History Insight #9
In the canonical 1838–39 account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith identified “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above [him] in the air” (Joseph Smith–History 1:17). With one exception, the other firsthand accounts of the First Vision left by the Prophet also speak of two personages appearing in the vision. The one exception is the 1832 history, “a rough, unpolished effort [by the Prophet] to record the spiritual impact of the vision on him” and “probably the first time Joseph Smith had even tried to commit his experience to writing.”1 In that account Joseph, in his own hand, described what he saw and heard as follows:
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 a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come 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.2
In this the earliest extant firsthand account of his vision, Joseph did not explicitly specify that two personages appeared to him, but rather that, first, “the Lord opened the heavens” upon him, and second, “[he] saw the Lord.” This has led some historians to wonder how, if at all, this might be reconciled with Joseph’s other accounts which do more overtly specify that two personages, the Father and the Son, appeared to him. James Allen and John Welch provide one persuasive reading of the historical sources that finds agreement among other scholars:
Because the 1832 account does not say that two beings were present in the vision, some people have wondered, Did Joseph Smith see two personages or one? Did he alter his story as time went on? With a little explanation, these questions can be answered. First, it is clear that the consensus of the First Vision accounts is that two personages appeared. While the brief 1843 Richards report leaves out many details, including any specific mention of God’s appearance, all of the other eight accounts speak clearly of two divine beings. Second, the remaining account, the 1832 narrative, actually suggests that the vision progressed in two stages: first, Joseph ‘was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me,’ and second he “saw the Lord and he spake unto me.” The second stage clearly refers to Jesus Christ, who identifies himself as the one who was crucified. Though not explicitly stated, the initial mention of the Spirit of God and the Lord may have reference to the presence of God the Father and his opening of this vision, since it is clear in all the other accounts that the vision was opened by God who then introduced his Son. To be sure, the main point of emphasis, especially in the official 1838 account, was that “I had actualy seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak unto me, or one of them did.” Finally, remembering that the 1832 manuscript was an unpolished effort to record the spiritual impact of the vision on him, and that the main content of the heavenly message was delivered by the Son, it is understandable that the Prophet simply emphasized the Lord in the 1832 account. Thus, nothing precludes the possibility that two beings were present.3
This two-stage reading is strengthened by the fact that in his 1835 account of the First Vision, and also in two contemporary secondhand accounts (those captured by David White and Alexander Neibaur as seen in the chart below), Joseph described one personage appearing to him in the midst of the brilliant pillar of light or flame and then the second one appearing immediately after.4 Indeed, it would make functional sense that one being (the Father) was first the focus of Joseph’s attention as the Father “opened the heavens upon” him, at which point Joseph then “saw the Lord [the Son].”
Keeping in mind that the various divine titles for the members of the Godhead were not necessarily uniform or standardized among Latter-day Saints in the Prophet’s lifetime,5 nothing precludes the possibility that the 1832 account refers to both God the Father and Jesus Christ as “the Lord.”6 As historian Richard L. Anderson elaborates,
Possibly the term Lord referred to the Father in the first instance, while afterward referring to the Son, who declared his atonement for the sins of all. This is the most personalized of all the vision accounts, and Joseph Smith is preoccupied with Christ’s assurance, evidently only hinting at the presence of the Father. Yet in the Prophet’s 1838 public history, the Father introduced the Son and told Joseph to “Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17). Joseph’s 1832 account verifies that the answer came from Christ himself; this account concentrates on the Savior’s words as the response to Joseph’s prayer. From the beginning, the resurrected Savior directed the reestablishment of his own church.7
Additionally, contextual clues from the 1832 history reinforce this argument. The opening lines of this text situate the First Vision as just the first in a series of momentous events leading to “the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time.”8 The first event in this sequence is described as Joseph “receiving the testamony from on high,” meaning the First Vision. Second is “the ministering of Angels,” meaning the appearance of Moroni. Third is “the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of—Aangels to adminster the letter of the Law <Gospel–>,” meaning probably the restoration of the priesthood by John the Baptist. Fourth, and finally, is “a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God,” referring to either the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James, and John or the June 1831 conference that witnessed the first confirmations of elders to the high priesthood.9
As Matthew Brown and Gregory Smith have both observed, the description of Joseph “receiving the testamony from on high” could very likely be referring to God the Father testifying that Jesus Christ is His Son.10 Given the narrative sequence of the history (which begins with an account of the First Vision [pp. 2–3] and then describes the appearance of Moroni and the translation of the Book of Mormon [pp. 3–6]), this could only work as a reference to God the Father testifying of His Son during Joseph’s First Vision. As Brown writes, although the presence of God the Father is not explicitly “described as making an appearance alongside His Son in the” 1832 First Vision account, “the words the Father spoke to Joseph Smith [‘This is my Beloved Son – Hear Him!’] during that experience are alluded to” with the prefatory note that in the vision Joseph “receiv[ed] the testamony from on high.”11 This is consistent with the other First Vision accounts that have the Father testifying of the Son and would, in turn, necessitate two personages being implicitly present in the 1832 account even if only one is explicitly described. In other words, the 1832 account could easily be read as describing Joseph’s experience with two divine beings, one whom he at least heard, and the other whom he saw and also heard.
Some have argued that Joseph’s 1832 history describes only one divine personage because his views on the nature of God allegedly evolved over time, and earlier in his life he held to more traditional Trinitarian views.12 This argument seems unlikely for a few reasons, not the least being that a vision received by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in February 1832 (Doctrine and Covenants 76) contains explicit mention of them seeing Jesus Christ on the right hand of God the Father, who bore witness of His Son (vv. 20–23).13 The earliest extant manuscript of this vision was composed or copied probably between February and March 1832, several months before the 1832 history, which was begun later that summer.14 If Joseph was already claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son in early 1832, then the reason for the less explicit mention of the Father in the 1832 account of the First Vision cannot plausibly have been due to an alleged evolution from a Trinitarian to a non-Trinitarian theology on Joseph Smith’s part.15
As historian James B. Allen rightly concludes, after looking at the available historical evidence, “All accounts of the First Vision but one specify that two heavenly personages appeared to young Joseph, and three [secondhand accounts] state that these personages exactly resembled each other. There is no doubt that the Prophet intended to convey the message that they were the Father and the Son.”16
What Joseph Saw in the Vision
|JS History, ca. Summer 1832, pp. 1–3.||“the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord”|
|JS, Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835, pp. 23–24||“a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first . . . . <and I saw many angels in this vision>”|
|JS History, 1838–1856, vol. A–1, pp. 2–3||“I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.”|
|Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions||“he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness.”|
|Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste||“Two glorious heavenly personages stood before him, resembling each other exactly in features and stature.”|
|The Wentworth Letter (“Church History”)||“I . . . saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light”|
|David Nye White, Interview with Joseph Smith, 21. August 1843||“I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, ‘Behold my beloved Son, hear him.’”|
|Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844||“saw a fire towards heaven came near & nearer saw a personage in the fire light complexion blue eyes a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear after a w[h]ile a other person came to the side of the first”|
James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 66–67.
Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2009), 92–94.
Gregory L. Smith, “More Testimony from On High? A Note on the Presence of God the Father in Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, forthcoming.
1 James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era, April 1970, 6.
3 James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 66–67, see also 44–48.
4 Charles Lowell Walker preserved John Alger’s 1893 report of Joseph Smith informing him (Alger) that God the Father appeared first to Joseph in the vision and physically touched his eyes, whereupon he then saw Christ. The detail in Alger’s report of God the Father appearing first and then the Son directly afterwards is consistent with other secondhand reports of the First Vision, as well as one firsthand account from the Prophet, but the added detail that God touched Joseph’s eyes is unique to Alger. The reliability of Alger’s account is hampered by its late, thirdhand nature, meaning it must be accepted very cautiously (if at all). A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755–756.
5 See Ryan Conrad Davis and Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Usage of the Title Elohim in the Hebrew Bible and Early Latter-day Saint Literature,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, ed. Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2011), 113–135; “Usage of the Title Elohim,” Religious Educator 14, no. 1 (2013): 109–127.
6 Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 7, writes that, as mentioned, in some of the accounts this detail is explicit, and that “nothing in [the remaining accounts, including the 1832 history] precludes the possibility that [Joseph] may have seen one personage first, and then the other.” Compare the similar observation in Steven C. Harper, “A Seeker’s Guide to the Historical Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 12, no. 1 (2011): 168.
8 JS History, ca. Summer 1832, 1.
9 Minutes, ca. 3–4 June 1831; cf. Michael Hubbard MacKay et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 317–327.
10 Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2009), 92–94; Gregory L. Smith, “More Testimony from On High? A Note on the Presence of God the Father in Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account,” forthcoming, manuscript in BMC staff possession, cited with permission.
11 Brown, A Pillar of Light, 92.
12 See for instance Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996), 1:60n22; Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2002), 240n7.
13 Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76], 2–3; cf. Matthew C. Godfrey et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 2: July 1831–January 1833 (Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 179–192.
14 Matthew C. Godfrey et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 2, 183, 279.
15 See further Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review 13, no. 2 (2001): 109–169, esp. 132–133.
16 Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 6.