Joseph Smith–History Insight #12
Based on the extant documentary record, and by his own admission, Joseph Smith was at first reluctant to tell others about his First Vision. In the canonical 1838–39 account, Joseph reported that when his mother asked what had happened to him in the grove, he refrained from informing her about the vision.
When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” (Joseph Smith–History 1:20)
“Not only did [Joseph] initially refrain from describing his experience to his mother,” noted historian Ronald Walker, “he apparently told no one in his family at the time, though it is certain that he told them later. The one person he did tell, according to his record, was one of the local clergymen of the area, a man of the cloth whom he thought would understand and one whom he could trust.”1 Indeed, as told in the canonical account, Joseph confided in “one of the Methodist preachers” who was active in the Palmyra, New York area.2 However, after telling this preacher about the vision, Joseph was “greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated [Joseph’s] communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them” (Joseph Smith–History 1:21).
It appears that Joseph told a few others about his vision in the early 1820s, but quickly discovered that doing so “excited a great deal of prejudice against [him] among professors of religion” (Joseph Smith–History 1:22). It’s likely that Joseph’s memory of this “great persecution” (Joseph Smith–History 1:22) that he experienced as a young man was amplified beyond its actual scope by the opposition he was exposed to during the Kirtland apostasy of 1837 and the Mormon War of 1838 at the time when he penned the account in the Pearl of Great Price.3 At the very least, though, it’s clear that Joseph took this criticism very personally (as one might reasonably expect from an impressionable teenage boy), and the negative reactions of the Methodist preacher and other Palmyra residents was enough to apparently startle the Prophet into relative silence for the remainder of his adolescence. As recognized by historian James Allen, there “is little if any evidence . . . that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the story [of the First Vision] in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it.”4 Instead of the First Vision, as is common today, “the popular image of Mormon belief [in sources from the 1830s and 40s] centered around such things as the Book of Mormon, the missionary zeal, and the concept of Zion in Missouri.”5
Why is it, then, that Joseph was reticent to publicly talk about the First Vision until later in his life? As seen above, one obvious answer is that Joseph felt stung by the rejection and contempt he experienced as a teenager when he first began telling others about his vision. As Allen elaborates,
It is noted by some that in 1838 [Joseph Smith] declared that his basic reason for telling [the First Vision] even then, eighteen years after it happened, was in response to “reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons” [ cf. Joseph Smith–History 1:1] who had distorted the facts. Furthermore, the young prophet said that he had been severely rebuffed the first time he told the story in 1820; and since it represented one of his most profound spiritual experiences, he could well have decided to circulate it only privately until he could feel certain that in relating it he would not receive again the general ridicule of friends.6
Another “possible explanation for the fact that the story of the vision was not generally known in the 1830’s is sometimes seen in Joseph Smith’s conviction that experiences such as these should be kept from the general public because of their extremely sacred nature.”7 Consistent with the practices of the early followers of Jesus,8 “[Joseph] kept sacred things sacred until it was otherwise required. As he did throughout his life, he desired his followers to have a measure of the same things that he experienced. They, too, would need to exercise discretion in caring for what was revealed to them.” As seen in a general pattern of guarded behavior on Joseph’s part when it came to him relating details about his visions to others, “It is clear that his early instincts and early instructions from the Lord caused him to treat his experiences with great care. Later, when it became expedient, he was more forthcoming about what had happened to him. But even then, we have just glimpses and squints at the scope of his experiences.”9
Joseph’s early reluctance to speak publicly about his First Vision, however, should not be mistaken as evidence of fabrication.10 As Allen himself points out, Joseph began privately recording and retelling the details of his First Vision “during the formative decade of church history.”11 Besides the surviving contemporary historical sources,12 later reminiscences left by others also remember Joseph telling public audiences about the First Vision by the mid-1830s.13 The point, therefore, is not that Joseph was opportunistically concocting stories of visions to suit his purposes, but rather that “if Joseph Smith told the story to friends and neighbors in 1820, he stopped telling it widely by 1830” and only gradually divulged it to a more public audience beginning in the mid- to late-1830s.14 By the end of his life Joseph–no longer the insecure teenager of Palmyra–felt confident enough to publish accounts of his First Vision for the entire world to scrutinize.15
Ronald O. Barney, “Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and his Record.” Presented at the 2013 FairMormon Conference, August 2013.
James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966): 29–46.
1 Ronald O. Barney, “Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and his Record.” Presented at the 2013 FairMormon Conference, August 2013.
2 On the possible, though unconfirmed, identity of this Methodist preacher, see “Who Was the Minister Joseph Smith Spoke to About His Vision?” Joseph Smith–History Insight #11 (March 10, 2020).
3 See Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 13–21.
4 James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966): 30, emphasis in original.
5 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 31.
6 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 34.
7 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 34.
8 Hugh Nibley, “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story, Part I,” Improvement Era, July 1961, 522.
9 Barney, “Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and his Record.”
10 Nibley, “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story, Part I,” 522; “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story,” Improvement Era, November 1961, 813.
11 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 35–37, quote at 35.
12 See “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).
13 Harper, First Vision, 53–57.
14 Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” 44.
15 Joseph’s 1838–39 account was published in 1842 as part of the series “History of Joseph Smith” (Times and Seasons 3, no. 10 [March 15, 1842]: 726–728; Times and Seasons 3, no. 11 [April 1, 1842]: 748–749). At the same year Joseph also published his “Church History” editorial, known also as the Wentworth Letter, which was republished two years later. See “The 1842 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #5 (February 18, 2020).