Our Foundation Stories Part II: The Meaning of the First Vision

John Nilssonchrist, christianity, church, faith, history, Jesus, joseph, LDS, mormon, Mormon, new order mormon, orthodox, prophets, religion, restoration, scripture, smith, testimony, theology 27 Comments

Now that we’ve discussed the nature of the First Vision, what did it mean?

There are many meanings, the most vital being those which each person can discover for herself or himself. Here are those we are most familiar with, because they have been written and spoken about at length in the official media of the institutional LDS Church:

1. The heavens are not closed. Revelation continues in our day.

Closely related to this meaning is:

2. God loves his children.

3. The Father and the Son are physically separate.

Closely related to this meaning is:

4. The Father and the Son are corporeal (have bodies).

5. All churches on the earth in 1820 are corrupt.

Closely related to this meaning is

6. The Restoration has begun


7. Joseph Smith is a prophet.

Meaning 1 is quite obvious from Joseph’s account, although a minority interpretation has insisted from the First Vision that the vision itself reopened the heavens, which had been closed since the apostasy. The vision provides no evidence for this view.

Meaning 2 is not stated, but is an implied meaning deduced from 1 and fits with our other beliefs about God’s character. Meaning 3 is also fairly obvious from Joseph’s account, at least his 1838 one.

Meaning 4 I cannot defend based on the accounts Joseph has left us. I believe it is a back-reading from a section of the Doctrine and Covenants which is superimposed on our interpretations of the vision.

Meaning 5 is clear from the accounts Joseph left, especially the 1838 one.

Meanings 6 and 7 I cannot defend from the text, unless one takes Joseph’s statement that “many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time” refers to coming events like the Restoration and his role in it. I cannot defend this interpretation based on subsequent events like Joseph’s account of his 1823 vision of Moroni, wherein Joseph is apparently given his first Restoration “task” with no inkling that he was praying for anything but forgiveness from his sins.

There are other meanings which can be unpacked from Joseph’s accounts, especially when one integrates the earlier accounts with the version published in the Pearl of Great Price:

1. Prophets sin and seek forgiveness.

Closely related to this meaning is:

2. God forgives sins readily.

3. Spiritual experience confirms conclusions we have already reached.

4. Deity speaks in language familiar to the listener (King James English).

Meaning 1 is often trivialized in the LDS Church. The language of sin has fallen into disuse among us. Prophets do not sin. Instead, they have “frailties”, “weaknesses”, “shortcomings”, and make “mistakes.” The First Vision reminds us that all humankind sins.

Meaning 2 is a comforting one. Joseph’s sins are forgiven. He is not told to do works of penance, unless one takes the Lord forbidding him to join any other churches as a punishment for sin. If so, Joseph skirted this commandment, as he attended Methodist meetings in 1828!

Meaning 3 is more interesting, because here Joseph contradicts himself in the various accounts. In the 1832 account, he states that his conviction from reading the scriptures was that the true church could not be on the earth. The 1838 account ,on the other hand, makes it sound as if he believes that God just might tell him, for example, that the Universalists have it right, or that the Presbyterians are God’s church. I tend to believe that Joseph at the very least, strongly suspected that God’s church was not on the earth. He uses the conditional, “if”, to describe the question which drove him into the grove. If Christ’s church is on the earth, which one is it?

Meaning 4 is a comforting one to end on. God will speak to us in language we understand. If my primary reading matter, like Joseph’s, was the Elizabethan English of the King James Version of the Bible, and that is how I believe God speaks, God will speak to me that way. Conversely, if my thought world is informed by 21st-century American English vernacular, seasoned by occasional scientific reading, and a love of music and nature, God may speak to me through those means.

What meanings do you find in the First Vision story?

Comments 27

  1. Interesting stuff.

    I’d like to dive into points 6. & 7. though. The conclusion from the first vision that JS is a prophet (is present or past tense more appropriate here?) is defensible if one takes as assumptions certain premises. I think the common assumptions are that the only recorded theophanies in scripture are by those with at least apostolic callings (if you want to include experiences like what Stephen & Paul/Saul had) or whose callings were being elevated. From that perspective at least, I could see the argument to say perhaps a theophany is a justification for elevation to status as a prophet.

    What else does it mean? At the very least the First Vision has a very distinct meaning to say that God chooses to whom he speaks without regard for the established orthodoxy. This should have been evident from the New Testament, but the Catholic Church as well as many Protestants, seem to have forgotten the great lesson of Christ–that God does not feel the need to work within the system to accomplish his works if the system is corrupt. Thus while Christ respected many things about the Jewish laws, he blatantly ignored those things which were not divinely inspired in his eyes (and from a Christian perspective he truly knew). This is part of what upset the Sanhedrin so badly–he threatened their power base.

    Joseph Smith did something similar by working against the established system. If he had been a powerful Methodist minister (as an example) and made similar claims, and then used it to further the cause of the Methodist church, it might have been well accepted by many. But he was outside all the orthodoxy, and completely rejected it all.

    The First Vision also showed, for me, that we don’t know exactly how much answer we will get to our prayers if we are sincere. We might get almost nothing (as Joseph did for quite a while AFTER the FV), OR we might get a very powerful experience. We just don’t know.

  2. I gave a talk addressing some of this a few years back (soon after returning from my missionary service). I addressed the First Vision in a similar way, trying to ascertain what it really teaches and concluded that Joseph took it as more of an answer to his repentant prayer and a personal conversion experience.

    Benjamin, you make a good point about theophanies in scripture being indicative of apostolic callings. Joseph’s worldview surely was informed by the biblical accounts, however it was also informed by the many other experiences (see Bushman’s RSR for more details) that leave points 6 & 7 as unclear based solely on the First Vision. As such, saying that the First Vision teaches 6 & 7 does not overstep the bounds, but also does not present the First Vision and its teachings as they likely would have been received by Joseph prior to other experiences and revelations.

    As for the meaning I find in the First Vision, I’ll probably write more on my blog, but I like to think of it as a more personal story. Yes, it did usher in a new dispensation. However, Joseph seems not to have realized that grand significance until later. As such, the experience is accessible by all. When we find ourselves in the midst of personal apostasy (and I do like your point that all of humankind sins), we can approach God knowing what you elaborate (that God loves us and forgives sins easily) and look ahead to a personal restoration.

    More to come…

    Thanks for your insights and for spurring the discussion.


  3. Post

    Benjamin O,

    Interesting point about theophanies and their accompanying status. So Mary saw Gabriel, not God, and is hence not an apostle, although she carried Jesus in her womb? If those claiming to be apostles have not had a theophany, are they not apostles? What about the other non-Mormon theophanies recorded in journals and newspapers?

    I see where you’re coming from, but “above 500 brethren” saw the risen Lord as recorded by Paul and that’s an awfully big quorum of the 12. I tend to think these are categories we have come up with to impose order on earlier experiences. Ironically, you bring up the point that God will work outside the “system” as one of the lessons we can draw from the First Vision. That argument works until we introduce our own system. Then we can cover ourselves by saying, “But our system, unlike these earlier religious systems, is not corrupt” and the retort is, “all humans sin, including prophets, as witnessed by Joseph’s experience” and back and forth ad infinitum.

    There is a side point which is that Joseph Smith was not referred to as a prophet until well after the Church was organized. Well after. I don’t think the translation of the Book of Mormon was even seen as evidence of prophethood, but as evidence of his “seership” and “translatorship”. Zion’s Camp more clearly established his prophetic role and voice, I think. Historians out there to clarify this point, please?


    How was your First Vision talk received? Have you written something similar on your blog?

  4. Fwiw, I think we overstate what the First Vision meant at the time by including what it means to us now. There is a difference.

  5. John, the talk was actually received very well. Several ward members told me that they hadn’t known about how edifying the non-canonized accounts of the First Vision could be (although in the interest of full disclosure this was a YSA ward, so the experience/study level may not be reflective of wards in general). I’ve been thinking for the last week or so that some update on that might be a good post on my blog, so perhaps I’ll have to make that happen soon. It essentially relied on bringing together the early accounts of the First Vision and trying to make the experience more relevant to the lay member as a prototype of our own possibility and conversion rather than a story about the beginning of an institution. I’m about to wrap up my series of posts on transcendence on my blog and as I’m wrapping up, I’m thinking an addendum may be appropriate in which I point out the enduring aspects of Joseph’s experience with our own lives.

    As to Benjamin’s theophany point… In his defense, and at the risk of putting words in his mouth (please do correct me if I’m wrong) I didn’t read him to be saying that only by virtue of a theophany could one become an apostle, but rather that a theophany by definition qualifies one as an apostle. Perhaps not an Apostle, but definitely an apostle.

    And thanks for underscoring the gradual development of Joseph’s understanding of his call. “Well after.” As echoed by Ray, we often map our modern sensibilities onto past events to reinterpret them. Not that doing so is entirely inappropriate to our modern purposes at times; however, we ought to be honest about what we are doing. Yes, we as modern Latter-day Saints learn 1-7 from the First Vision. But no, the First Vision in itself does not teach 1-7. The same problem too often prevents us from learning from scripture generally when we approach the words assuming that they will reinforce our present understanding of things. But that’s another post I’ve been meaning to make on my blog, best suited for another day.

    Thanks all–good thoughts.

  6. I think that you get too caught up in trivial quibbles about the foundation stories here. This is not an issue of gray areas as far as the first vision goes. If you can’t take Joseph Smith on the basics of his claims in the 1838 account which was meant to clear up ambiguities, then you should probably pray harder. I’m not making an attack on anyone who doesn’t believe as I do. I just think that the 1838 account was meant to clear up the many ambiguities when he really sat down and thought real hard about getting all of the critical aspects of the story straight. I can think of so many times when I tell a story and then I realize that it got cloudy when I hadn’t thought about it for a while, and I got a bit of the details kind of goofed up. And then when I sat down and really thought about it hard, everything came back to me clearly when I sat down to concentrate on recording it in my journal. I had to ask my wife about details sometimes to see if I could remember those details right. If one cannot give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt for getting his experience basically right over the years and then really sitting down to put clarity down on paper, then I think one isn’t being being realistic and quibbling too much over insignificant things. The fact that Joseph Smith had further revelation also helped him clarify what it was that he saw in his own memories that were a bit foggy probably before he realized that he had to put it down on paper. That’s what the holy ghost is for, to bring all things to our remembrance. This is a very easy thing to understand, and you have to either take Joseph Smith’s basic claims at face value, or you have to reject them outright. You can quibble about details here and there if you wish, but you must either accept the basics that it was reality or it was not reality that his basic claims are real or not. On that you must make a choice on what you believe, and hopefully that choice will be based on promptings from the Holy Ghost and not a rejection based on technicalities or little insignificant details.

  7. The Father and the Son are corporeal (have bodies).

    This is one of the most distinctive of the doctrines that arose from the First Vision.

    Presumably “bodies of flesh and bone as tangible as man’s” have physical mass. If so, how fast can they travel through space, given the limits discovered by Einstein? I’m not being flippant. The laws of physics impose severe limits on the movement of matter and energy through space. This doctrine is quite problematic from a practical point of view.

    (To put the problem in another way, can Elohim travel faster than the speed of light? If so, what is his mass? Again, I’m not being flippant. I’m just pointing out that the comfort and reassurance of a physical God is offset by troubling consequences of physicality.)

  8. #7 – mhh, fwiw, I don’t believe that doctrine arose from the First Vision. I think it arose from the subsequent visitations where physical contact was made (like the restoration of the Priesthoods with the laying on of hands) AND the Biblical account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in Luke 24. It is VERY hard to read that account literally as written and not come to the conclusion that Jesus (at least) has a resurrected body of flesh and bones – or at least that such a description is the best way for us to describe it. If Jesus has such a body, and if He and His Father are separate beings, and if He is like His Father in every way, it is a natural conclusion that the Father also is corporeal.

    Physics really doesn’t enter this for me, since it’s quite easy to construct theoretical possibilities – even if we limit ourselves to the latest discoveries in quantum and string physics. That stuff is FASCINATING.

  9. Guy, just to clarify, I don’t see anyone here saying they reject propositions 1-7 or suggesting that any of them are not true. Rather, I see us saying that the First Vision itself didn’t teach all of those (those not taught directly through that experience have been subsequently revealed and taught and the subsequent teaching is what we are finding when we read the First Vision as teaching those truths). Thus, in taking scripture and Church history seriously, we are here considering what the First Vision taught in its own right. The discussion of what it can teach when projected through the lens of the restored gospel is the discussion most often held in Church classes; however, the frequency and truth of that discussion does not impede this separate discussion from being profitable and significant. Thanks for bringing to our attention that the topic could be wrongly read to suggest that faith in some of these propositions would be misplaced–that’s definitely not what I intended.

    Note: I’ll have a post on this topic put together on my blog shortly to more coherently characterize some of my thoughts.

  10. Good post. Would it be too presumptuous to suggest that you align the font left, rather than centering it, for ease of reading?

  11. IMO, for the 7 points above, 1-3 seem pretty clear from the version of ’38, with a few caveats:
    1 – may not have been in great dispute in many people’s minds, regardless of what some ministers taught. JS’s family was very visionary, heeding their dreams and so on.
    2 – fair enough, but again, not very revelatory.
    3 – this was news indeed, and per the 1838 account is evident.
    4 – this one is a bit tricky. The proper conclusion would be that they have bodies that resemble ours. He saw, but did not handle their bodies. If they were a “vision” or “hologram” or whatever, he couldn’t positively conclude that except through subsequent revelation.
    5 – I don’t love the generalization of this conclusion. The specific things he said in the 1838 version were that “their creeds were an abomination” (creed does not equal church, IMO) and “those professors were all corrupt” (which professors? all ministers of all religions? those in Palmyra? those JS had met personally?).
    6 & 7 – only with the benefit of several years of hindsight, though. As was mentioned JS attended Methodist services as late as 8 yrs later, and didn’t organize the church until 10 years later.

    Of the other 4 conclusions you list out (when considering all First Vision accounts), here are my thoughts:
    1 – I agree this is important. As to the “sins” vs. “frailties,” even JS hedged a bit in describing his own sins.
    2 – At least He forgives them readily when supplicated in a certain manner.
    3 – Interesting. Frankly, the Universalists are not specifically refuted by what is recorded other than the command to “join none of them.” Universalists are non-creedal. I am not sure any specific Universalist ministers were implied in the “those professors were all corrupt” which is not very specific.
    4 – seems pragmatic to me (vs. comforting), but whatever.

    Good post. Thought provoking.

  12. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of the First Vision. Seems like it means one thing one day, and another thing another day. And, Guy Smiley’s statements about the various “cloudy” versions of the First Vision sort of makes sense if we are talking about whether he attended the softball game on Friday and the track meet on Saturday, etc. But what we are talking about is God the Father AND Jesus Christ appearing to him. No offense meant, but how do you get that mixed up? If I talked to Bob one day, and Tony the next, then later couldn’t remember which order, or if maybe it was the same time, that would be one thing, but if it was God, and Jesus Christ, that would make an impression.

    So, I sort of think, Joseph may have been praying for forgiveness, felt that he received forgiveness, and later embellished the story.

    Isn’t the “Miracle of Forgiveness” itself something significant. Maybe he should have just left it at that.

    The multiple versions kind of confuses things, but forgiveness of sins is good.

  13. Post

    Matt M,

    Couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂


    That goes for you too!




    It is true that meaning 5 is somewhat ambiguous, but I find it defensible given Joseph’s assumptions about his world. Joseph probably had little to no contact with Catholics or Orthodox Christians in his boyhood, so his phrase “Which of all the churches were right” has to be seen in that light. Our questions presuppose certain answers and exclude others. Joseph assumed CHRISTIANITY was right, and probably that if any church were “right” it would be one with its origins in the Reformation. He did not ask “which of all the monotheistic or Abrahamic religions is right?” I think this point alone (Joseph’s assumptions going into the grove) is fascinating in itself. His family dynamics were pointing him in several different directions, but primarily between a form of orthodox American Protestantism and universalism.

    As far as point 3, I think it is telling that Joseph continued to lean universalist until the translation of the Book of Mormon, when universalist teachings come under significant fire. However, universalism can still be seen in the book of Moroni, whose diatribe against infant baptism would be received warmly in universalist congregations.

    Regarding point 4, I find it comforting that God is pragmatic! 😉

  14. Arthur Davis (comment #12) writes:

    “So, I sort of think, Joseph may have been praying for forgiveness, felt that he received forgiveness, and later embellished the story.”

    Indeed, nearly every day for several weeks in the spring of 1832, Joseph Smith retired to a grove of trees in southern Indiana where he could be alone. He prayed, meditated and wept at the thought of the adversary’s influence upon him in times past. He emerged from these experiences triumphant, declaring that “. . . God is merciful and has fogiven my Sins and I rjoice that he Sendeth forth the Comferter unto as many as believe and humbleeth themselves before him . . .” (Letter to Emma Smith in Joseph’s handwriting [spelling retained], Greenville, Indiana, 6 June 1832. Original manuscript at the Chicago Historical Society, transcribed with commentary and illustrations in [The] Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Revised Edition, Compiled and Edited by Dean C. Jessee. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2002], 263-68; text above quoted from p. 264.)

    By November (1832), Joseph had recorded the earliest known account of his first vision. It is written in his own hand. It mentions the appearance of one being only, “the Lord of glory” who was crucified for the sins of the world and who would come again, “clothed in the glory of my Father . . .”

  15. John, the talk was actually received very well. Several ward members told me that they hadn’t known about how edifying the non-canonized accounts of the First Vision could be

    Locally we’ve had harmonies of the accounts passed out in Gospel Doctrine. You can a learn a lot by comparing and contrasting.

    Just like listening to a couple tell the story of how they met. Depending on the audience and what is being talked about, that story will have a lot of differences.

    Or, speaking of harmonies, compare the four gospels. I’ve had people tell me that Christ didn’t exist, based on the differences between the gospels, or that the resurrection isn’t part of the original story. Wars have been fought over whether we should forgive our debtors, trespassers or others.

    The focus of the First Vision is that Christ spoke to Joseph Smith, forgave him and gave him instructions. Was Christ introduced? Was there an environment and where there attendants. What were the specifics of the instructions and what did they really mean? Those are themes that get developed, or not, depending on what we discuss the First Vision for.

    Much like the complete set up. Joseph had meditated and studied scripture, resolves to pray vocally (which he was not in the habit of doing) and had other predicates that moved him to have this particular prayer on this particular day, place and time.

    Are we getting the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark or the Gospel according to John?

    Zion’s Camp more clearly established his prophetic role and voice

    It is easy to forget that until after Liberty Jail, Joseph was not a strong public speaker and always had others who had the limelight, who spoke. After Liberty Jail he begins to speak for himself. There are some interesting transitions. When you read about the latter Joseph, it is easy to forget the almost illiterate farm boy who didn’t even do his own writing and could not work on the Book of Mormon without someone to write for him. Whose personal letters are rather weak.

    Later he is eloquent, and the differences as his style matures are interesting, especially since his voice and the various editorial and authorial voices of the Book of Mormon never really overlap.

    That also bears on his accounts of the First Vision. His early writing is weak, not detail filled, and pointed. Later he is able to better express himself.

  16. But “God” does not speak in Jacobean English in the BOM, as the BOM does not follow the grammatical rules of Jacobean English. Moreover, Jane Austen had already published her novels, as had Sir Walter Scott. Neither they, nor their contemporaries, used such English. In the United States, Emerson, Cooper, Hawthorne, and many others were using colloquial American English, without the malapropisms found in the first editions of the BOM.

  17. “One of the most striking characteristics of Smith’s book,” writes Dr. Paul Gutjahr,

    “is its language. Smith wrote imitating King James English, playing on the long-standing association of Elizabethan English with the sacred propagated by the predominance of the King James Bible. No longer the common idiom in nineteenth-century America, the unique Elizabethan English conjured up visions of the sacred for American readers. Many of the later arguments against revising the King James Bible revealed how many Americans saw Elizabethan English as the only appropriate language in which to enfold the holy words of Scripture.

    “Smith judiciously wrote his book in an idiom that constantly invoked the holy cadences of the King James Bible. While Alexander Campbell was taking the eth endings off words, Smith was putting them on. . . .”

    —Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, [c. 1999]), 153.

  18. Rick, this quote makes it sound like Joseph sat down and considered which idiom to use when he dictated the Book of Mormon. I just don’t get that from any account I’ve ever read.

  19. Certainly very true, Ray – excellent observation. Of course, any information about choosing an idiom would have had to come from Joseph Smith himself rather than from observers (since he seldom changed a word once he dictated it). And, this is not the sort of thing which I would expect Joseph to process or express consciously. Just look, for example, at the nearly identical Bible-speak of his own Preface to the 1830 edition. My expectation is that such language would have come to Joseph almost instinctively, based on my research of comparable writers of scripture-style text in that era, region, and social level.

    Alternatives to my explanation strike me as less efficient, as if seeking unnaturally strained rationales of Joseph’s scripture language style in that already-accustomed, already-welcoming historical and folk-literary culture. Or to use plain English (heh, heh!), Joseph spoke scripture as both he and his listeners would expect it to sound. But they scarcely stopped to ponder the matter consciously. Scripture, to these people, automatically had a certain sound, so that was the way to speak it and to read it. And even the least educated among them – if blessed with a literary bent – could wax rather eloquent when their conversations turned from matters of the weather or politics to matters of eternity. Lifetimes of Bible-reading and preacher-listening had equipped them for such performance, just as with LDS children who know how to pray in Thee-Thou style. The spelling or grammar of young Joseph Smith and his peers might be atrocious at times, but oh, the power of some of their religious language!

    I am going out of town in the morning for several days, so I apologize in advance for not being able to comment further right away.

  20. John (#3), you’re right, I’d forgotten about those 500 brethren. That’s a way to shoot a nice big hole in my nice tight little theory. This is what I love about the internet–you have an idea, it sounds great, but then you post it for public abuse, and someone immediately shows you why humility is a good idea. I’ll err on the side of staying humble, thank you.

    MattM (#5), that’s not what I had meant, but now that you put it that way, I think you may have a valid point. Of course, the question then becomes whether or not this is a requirement for apostolic service. I seriously doubt we can get a definitive answer on this particular point, but given my earlier typology of visions, we might be able to say that at least a Type II theophany (dream-vision) is required for apostolic service.

    As I think about it now, however, I also completely ignored those who saw Christ as recorded in the Book of Mormon. I would account their experience as somewhat different, however. It was still an intensely spiritual and powerful experience, but for some reason it doesn’t quite seem to be the same as what JS experienced, or even what Paul or Moses experienced. Not that it wasn’t powerful or highly influential, but it seems to have involved some sort of suspension of the normal ‘rules’ that are normally involved in these things. I’m not sure what all this means now–oh well.

    I do see some possible justification for the event indicating designation as a prophet–many prophetic careers were started with a similar event (Moses, Lehi & Paul are three that are easily cited, although Lehi may a poor example, since we do not know that his prophetic career started at that point).

  21. A discussion that presumes validity is hypothetical and that’s what seems to be going on here. As there were no eye witnesses to the first vision any support will be circumstantial. Joseph Smith’s great prophecies rarely came true and his infatuation with the occult provokes the question how can we be sure the personages were those of the Father and the Son? Joseph used a peepstone, Oliver a divining rod, We all wear occultist/masonic symbols against our skin; what’s that all about? Would you buy a used car from this guy?

  22. Good post, John.

    I just wanted to point out that the idea that the “heavens were closed” during the Apostasy has been expressly and specifically rejected by the Church’s leadership.

    “The line of priesthood authority was broken. But mankind was not left in total darkness or completely without revelation or inspiration. The idea that with the Crucifixion of Christ the heavens were closed and that they opened in the First Vision is not true. The Light of Christ would be everywhere present to attend the children of God; the Holy Ghost would visit seeking souls. The prayers of the righteous would not go unanswered.”

    Boyd K. Packer, “The Light of Christ,” Ensign, Apr. 2005, 11 (quoted on Church website at: http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/).

    I think we often mistakenly think that the absence of priesthood keys during the Apostasy meant an absence of communication between God and man during the Apostasy. But as Elder Packer makes clear, that is not the case. God didn’t stop communicating with man during the Apostasy.

  23. JohnN (#3) Just as an fyi, I posted yesterday on my blog to summarize some of my talk and add an appropriate addendum to a series of posts I just completed that are a large reason that this particular topic caught my attention so much.

    Stephen (#15) I’m glad that I’m not alone in finding the positives available in receiving all of the accounts. I made a similar parallel to the Gospels in the talk I gave on the First Vision as a part of the Restoration. I think that understanding the intended audiences is important. Didn’t Joseph himself say that the key to interpreting scripture (and arguably, by extension, sacred history) is to discern the question that led to the inspired word?

    Thanks to all for the good insights, thoughts, and productive questions!

  24. MattM — Joseph Smith had several keys to understanding scripture, but they all involved context. What did the surrounding verses say (it is amazing that when he stated that principle it was a breakthrough to those he was talking to)? What was the question it was responding to, who and why was the question asked and who answered it.

    Context is important.

    As I’ve noted before, too often we answer out of our own context, from our own logic or reckoning and do not even thing that we might not know or our logic may not be complete.

    A major point I’ve gotten every time I study philosophy is that the “logic” that other ages has seen as airtight and solid and irrefutable leaks like a sieve over and over again, especially if you do not share the presuppositions.

  25. I agree with what Arthur Davis said (#12). It seems to me if you have a vision of God you’d remember if there were one or two personages present. Was he praying for forgiveness or for the truth about what church to join? And if Joseph Smith was he told that all churches were wrong and he was “forbade” to join none of them why did he attend the ?Methodist church and according to Palmer act as an exhorter during services. I know that the thrust of this post was what points can be gleaned from the first vision but I have not seen any satisfying explanation of the difference in versions. Personally, I don’t think the answer as suggested by Guy Smiley is to pray harder. The differences in the visions accounts are a serious issue from many people and deserve a serious explanation. The one that I’ve heard that makes the most sense is that he enlarged and embellished the account in 1838 to try and stem the tide of dissent but that is a little less than faith promoting. Any other opinions would be most welcome.

  26. I was recently doing some study on the different accounts of the First Vision and came across something I had never seen before. In the official version Joseph states that two years after the family moved to Manchester there was an unusual excitement on the subject of religion that began with the Methodist and spread to the rest of the religions where he lived…

    What I find interesting about this is the well maintained church records for the number of converts brought in during the revivals in the Palmyra area from 1824 to 1825. Add to this the statements of Lucy Mack and William Smith about the death of Alvin in Nov. of 1823 and the ensuing revival thereafter which inspired her and Joseph’s sisters to join the Presbyterian Church. Given their statements, the church records, many newspaper articles and such about this religious excitement in the area, no-one should doubt that a great revival was in progress after Alvin’s death.

    I realize that a revival in 1824 doesn’t mean one wasn’t in progress in 1820, but there doesn’t seem to be many records confirming it. I think there’s just one mention of a camp meeting for the Methodist’s that involved drinking and someone getting hurt. Camp meeting= revival? Maybe, I don’t know.

    All of the above I’ve known for some time and heard argued a lot. Here’s what I didn’t know… The Smith family moved from Vermont to Palmyra sometime around 1816. According to tax records, Joseph Smith Sr. bought the Manchester property (close to Palmyra) in 1819 and paid taxes in 1820 through 1822 at the same rate. The 1823 tax records show a marked increase in the property value for the Manchester land indicating that improvements had been made to the property some time in 1822. These improvements typically would have included a cabin or small home and land cleared for farming. Assuming that the increase in property value did mean the addition of a log cabin and land cleared for farming in 1822, the statement about a “great excitement” on the subject of religion two years after moving to Manchester fits perfectly with the already discussed revivals in 1824.

    In-order for the 1838 version of the First Vision to work, Joseph Smith Sr. would have had to buy the Manchester property in 1818 and move in that same year. He then would need to somehow avoid paying taxes until 1820 and then only pay on the land as unimproved until 1823. Meanwhile he was still paying road taxes in Palmyra until 1823 which he wouldn’t have owed once he moved to Manchester. We then must believe that a large revival also occurred in 1820 but somehow avoided detection by the prominent religions in the area as none of them report any significant increase in membership that year. I think the evidence points most determinately towards the move to Manchester in 1822 and the revivals of 1824 (which puts the First Vision in the spring of 1824), or in other words, at least six months after Moroni’s visit.

    So my question is, how do church apologists answer this?

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