Joseph Smith–History Insight #10
In the various accounts of the First Vision left behind by Joseph Smith, the appearance of Jesus Christ, alongside God the Father, takes center stage.1 Yet a passing reference in the 1835 account hints at the possibility that he saw more than the Father and the Son. Just as he was finishing this narration of the his “first communication,” Joseph passingly mentioned how he saw “many angels in this vision.”2
This tantalizing hint suggests that Joseph Smith’s First Vision may have been comparable to the theophanies of ancient Israelite prophets, where they would see God in the midst of his divine council. In ancient Israel, God was believed to rule in heaven, surrounded by a multitude of divine beings, variously called gods, sons of God, holy ones, angels, and other similar titles.3 It was considered the mark of a true prophet that he had seen and heard the proceedings of God’s divine council.4 As such, the calling of new prophet typically followed a narrative pattern culminating in his standing in the midst of the council.
The typical prophetic call narrative began with a historical introduction, often describing a time of trouble in the land which leads the prophet to pray in behalf of the people of Israel. As a result of the prayer, the heavens are opened and the prophet sees God in the midst of the heavenly host, is initiated into the divine council, and is permitted to witness their deliberations and decrees. The vision then culminates with the prophet being commissioned to deliver the message he received from council to the people of Israel.
Latter-day Saint scholars have pointed out that Lehi, in the Book of Mormon, fits this pattern remarkably well.5 The setting is “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah,” a time when Jerusalem had recently been invaded by the Babylonians and when there were “many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” Lehi “went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.” Lehi’s prayer is answered with a series of visions, beginning with a vision of “a pillar of fire” and culminating with another vision of “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.” Members of the divine council descend to earth, and “One,” whose “luster was above that of the sun at noon-day,” handed Lehi a book, containing the decrees of the council (1 Nephi 1:4–14).
Although Joseph Smith did not use the ancient Israelite literary pattern to narrate his First Vision,6 careful study of his accounts suggests that he had a parallel experience. Like Lehi and many of the prophets of old, Joseph lived in a time of “unusual excitement,” living in the center of the second great awakening (Joseph Smith—History 1:5).7 Caught in the midst of a “war of words and tumult of opinions” (Joseph Smith—History 1:10), Joseph went out into a grove of woods to pray. He saw a “pillar of light,” or “pillar of fire,” as he describes it in some accounts, which was “above the brightness of the sun” (Joseph Smith—History 1:16).8 Joseph then saw “two personages,” identified as God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ (Joseph Smith—History 1:17) and—according to his 1835 account—“many angels.”
Thus, Joseph Smith appears to have stood in the midst of the heavenly host, making his First Vision akin to the prophetic calls of ancient prophets. In February 1832, Joseph would have another vision—this one in tandem with Sidney Rigdon—where he clearly described seeing God and Christ in the midst of the heavenly council:
And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness; And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever. (Doctrine and Covenants 76:21–22)
With divine council visions like that of D&C 76, and most likely the First Vision as well, Joseph Smith placed himself firmly within the ancient Hebrew prophetic tradition.
Val Larson, “First Visions and Last Sermons: Affirming Divine Sociality, Rejecting the Greater Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 36 (2020): 37–84.
Don Bradley, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision as Endowment and Epitome of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” presented at 2019 FairMormon Conference, online at fairmormon.org.
Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (2017): 155–180.
1 For background on these different accounts, see “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision,” Joseph Smith—History Insight #1 (February 4, 2020).
3 See Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (2017): 161–163 for background on the divine council.
5 See Blake Thomas Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies 26, no. 4 (1986): 67–95; John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Council Vision and the Mysteries of God,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 24–25; Stephen D. Ricks, “Heavenly Visions and Prophetic Calls in Isaiah 6 (2 Nephi 16), the Book of Mormon, and the Revelation of John,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, eds. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 171–90; John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, eds. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 421–48.
6 Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31–42 actually show that Joseph Smith’s narrative form is (unsurprisingly) consistent with that of religious narratives of his own time and place. See also Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 88–114.
7 See “Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820,” Joseph Smith—History Insight #7 (February 24, 2020).
8 For the “pillar of fire” expression, see Journal, 1835–1836, p. 24, in Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, vol. 1, 87. See also History, ca. Summer 1832, p. 3, in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1: 1832–1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson et al. (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 11.