Joseph Smith–History Insight #16
Latter-day Saints have formulated a number of important theological or doctrinal points that can be learned from Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Some of these points include: searching the scriptures can bring revelation, God answers sincere prayers and forgives sins, Satan is real but his power is limited, and God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ are separate beings with human forms.1 While these doctrinal contributions of the First Vision are certainly worthy of careful consideration by modern Latter-day Saints, another interesting question to ponder is what Joseph Smith himself may have learned from his vision of the Father and the Son and how that may have influenced his teachings and ministry. Because the Prophet gave multiple accounts of the First Vision, we are capable of piecing together fairly well what he saw, heard, and experienced on that occasion. We are also capable of creating some sense of what Joseph learned based on what the accounts explicitly record and what we might infer from reading between the lines.
Based on both first- and secondhand reports,2 the following tables provide a synopsis of what Joseph heard and saw in his vision.3
As seen above, based on the explicit details of the surviving accounts of the First Vision, it is obvious that Joseph learned much from his encounter with the Father and the Son. First, he learned of the reality of a personal God and a personal Savior who answer prayers and are concerned for the well-being and salvation of humankind. In his 1832 account, Joseph—who as a youth became “convicted of [his] sins”—said that he sensed as though “there was none else to whom [he] could go and obtain mercy.” He therefore “cried unto the Lord for mercy” and testified that “the Lord heard [his] cry in the wilderness.”4 Indeed, as Joseph made clear six years later, from his vision in the grove he “had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided” (Joseph Smith–History 1:26).5
Another truth Joseph learned from the First Vision was of the reality of the Great Apostasy, which New Testament apostles had prophesied must occur before the Second Coming of the Lord (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12).6 Three out of the four firsthand accounts left by the Prophet indicate that Jesus confirmed this to young Joseph. “The world lieth in sin at this time,” Joseph quoted the Lord as telling him in his 1832 account, “and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.”7 Since it was intended for a non-Latter-day Saint audience, the account prepared by the Prophet in 1842 softened the language but still communicated the same point: “[The heavenly personages] told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.”8 A year later, Joseph used what he learned in the First Vision about the apostasy in a sermon elaborating on Isaiah 24, 28–29.
at 6 AM. heard Eld. G[eorg]e J Adam Adams upon the book of Mormon proved from the 24,th 28th & 29th of Isaiah that the everlasting covena[n]t set which was set upon by Christ & the apostles had been broken . . . Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same— saying that when he was a youth he began to think about these these things but could not find out which of all the sects were right— he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right— re received for answer that none of them were right, that they were all wrong, & that the Everlasting covena[n]t was broken.9
While these points are explicit in the surviving historical accounts, others must be teased out more cautiously. For instance, it is unclear preciously how the First Vision impacted Joseph’s understanding of the nature of the Godhead. To be sure, three out of the four firsthand accounts report two personages, the Father and the Son, being present in the vision. (The fourth seems to imply the presence of two personages, but is not explicit.10) Joseph also reported that one of the personages appeared first and then the second shortly after,11 with the two of them “exactly resemble[ing] each other in features and likeness.”12 Beholding something so extraordinary undoubtedly would have left a strong impression on the young boy, and it is probable that this encounter influenced Joseph’s teachings that God the Father and Jesus Christ both had tangible bodies of flesh and bone (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22–23).13 But because the Prophet himself was not explicit on this point, we must posit this cautiously. Based on surviving documentation, “it is difficult to know exactly what [Joseph] Smith concluded about the nature of the godhead from this experience.”14 A late, thirdhand account preserved by Charles Lowell Walker indicates that God the Father physically touched Joseph’s eyes before he saw the Savior in the vision.15 If this source is accurate, it would bolster the idea that Joseph learned something about the corporeality of God as early as 1820.16
By his own admission, there were “many things” which Joseph heard and saw in his vision which he could not fully describe (Joseph Smith–History 1:20). It is not clear, for instance, how long the vision lasted. As such, there will always be some remaining question as to what precisely the Prophet himself took away from his vision or how it otherwise affected him personally. What is clear, however, is that Joseph was completely confident in the reality of what he had experienced, and this confidence gave him encouragement in times of trial. “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me,” he testified. “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (Joseph Smith–History 1:25). Part of the excitement for Latter-day Saints today in studying the surviving First Vision accounts is trying to better appreciate the Prophet’s testimony and unfold its true significance.
B. Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 123–125.
“Eight Truths from the First Vision,” Ensign, February 2020, 19–21.
Don Bradley, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision as Endowment and Epitome of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or Why I Came Back to the Church),” delivered at the 2019 FairMormon Conference.
1 J. B. Haws, “First Vision, doctrinal contributions of,” in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 123–125; “Eight Truths from the First Vision,” Ensign, February 2020, 19–21.
2 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #1 (February 4, 2020); “Secondhand Accounts of the First Vision,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #6 (February 19, 2020).
3 Charts adapted from 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), tables 3 and 4, [pp. 75–76].
4 History, circa Summer 1832, 3, spelling and punctuation standardized.
5 See further Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, February 2020, 12–17.
6 Kent P. Jackson, “New Testament Prophecies of Apostasy,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The New Testament, ed. Frank F. Judd Jr. and Gaye Strathearn (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 394–406.
7 History, circa Summer 1832, 3, spelling and punctuation standardized.
8 “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 707.
9 Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843, extract, [pp. 15–16].
10 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Did Both the Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith in the First Vision?” Joseph Smith–History Insight #9 (March 3, 2020).
11 See Journal, 1835–1836, 24.
12 “Church History,” 707.
13 See Terryl Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 89–105; David L. Paulsen, “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives, Part I: Restoration of the Doctrine of Divine Embodiment,” BYU Studies 35, no. 4 (1995–1996): 9–39; Jacob Neusner, “Conversation in Nauvoo about the Corporeality of God,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1 (1996–1997): 7–30.
14 Givens, Wrestling the Angel, 72.
15 A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755–756.
16 See further Givens, Wrestling the Angel, 72–73, 89–95; Don Bradley, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision as Endowment and Epitome of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or Why I Came Back to the Church),” delivered at the 2019 FairMormon Conference.