Our Foundation Stories Part I: The First Vision or the First Visit?

John NilssonDevil, faith, history, Jesus, joseph, LDS, liberal, Mormon, new order mormon, orthodox, questioning, religion, testimony, theology 67 Comments

Do you believe that God the Father, the Son, and maybe even the Holy Ghost visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820?

Or did Joseph have a vision of them?

Does the difference matter? Do you base your testimony, your faith in the existence of God, your continued participation in Mormonism, on a visit of Deity to a young farmboy?

Hearing about the First Vision growing up, I thought if only I had a time machine, I could go back to the spring of 1820 to the grove of trees where Joseph had his epiphany and observe the same thing I saw depicted in LDS paintings, stained-glass windows, and Church films about Joseph’s history: Two Men in white descending amidst brilliant light, talking to Joseph.

Now, after reading accounts of other visions Joseph and others had, I think that if Joseph had this experience as he recounted in his final written version, and if I had been able to time travel back to the First Vision, I would have seen Joseph talking into thin air. Why I still believe Joseph Smith told the truth about what he saw has to do with the understanding I now have not only of church history, but of visions in general.

As regards Church history, every primary account I have read of visions occurring in the first generation of the restored Church, including the Angel Moroni visiting Joseph while his siblings were in the same room, has been an entirely subjective one, where others present report not seeing the phenomenon.

As regards visions in general, scientists have performed experiments to determine that visions can be induced from a variety of stimuli, including lack of food or sleep, stress overload, imbibing liquor or other mind-altering substances, schizophrenia, and of course, meditation and prayer!

So, given the different accounts of the First Vision, it’s apparent to me that Joseph had an experience where he saw spiritual beings around the time he said he did. I believe Joseph entered a forest, knelt down, prayed aloud, had oppressive feelings followed by the overcoming of those feelings accompanied by a vision of heavenly beings, whether those beings were angels, Jesus alone, or Jesus and God the Father. That he remembered his vision differently at different times based on later spiritual experiences and theological reflection is very likely.

Now listen carefully to the varying language used to describe this experience by later commentators, who are usually trying to make a theological point (the Father and the Son are separate, corporeal, look alike, etc.) which Joseph never made in his History. “The Father and the Son appeared to the young farmboy”, “God the Father and the Son came down to Joseph”, “Joseph saw God”, etc. These are not all saying the same thing, although life-long Church members have been conditioned to ignore the differences.

In essence, did God the Father and Jesus Christ ride a celestial elevator downwards from Kolob to Palmyra , or did Joseph have a vision? I have no trouble accepting the latter interpretation, especially since the later accounts of heavenly visions followed the same pattern.

I can even accept the possibility that a naturalistic explanation of Joseph’s visions may be valid, in that his experiences may have had physiological roots. God can still be the ultimate cause of these experiences, no matter their immediate trigger.

What do you think?

Comments 67

  1. See what I wrote in response to the evidences and reconciliations post recently, in which I posit that there are various types of theophanies, namely:
    My personal take on theophany is this: there are at least types: sleeping vision (in which the person is shown deity in dream), waking vision (in which the person’s mind is called up and shown things of the heavens, including deity), and finally, personal visitation (in which the person is literally visited by deity). I would guess that the first of these is fairly common for prophets and apostles, inasmuch as any vision of deity can be called common. The second is probably much less so, and the third is likely quite rare–on the order of once or less per dispensation, and only in extremely sacred grounds or, if available, within the confines of a temple.

    I might argue that there may be a fourth and fifth type, the fleeting glimpse, which may be experienced in a brief waking moment, and the momentary translation, such as Enoch’s experience when he was taken into the heavens and shown all of creation, which is somehow greater than even Joseph Smith’s experience, but I have less scriptural or other evidences for these types. I certainly would argue that these are important.

    I would guess that most people in the LDS church argue that the First Vision are claiming that Joseph Smith’s experience was the Type 3, while you are essentially arguing that it was more likely a Type 2. I don’t personally have an opinion on this, but given the language used to describe the experience by subsequent prophets, I think the assumption has long been a Type 3 theophany, rather than a Type 2. A Type 4, such as what Enoch seems to have had may have only happened once or twice in the history of the earth, but we just don’t know. It also seems that the Type 2 experiences may differ somewhat in magnitude. After all, the angelic visitation by Moroni is powerful, but even that is not as powerful as the visitation from the Father and Son, regardless if both were Type 2 or Type 3.

    Of course, I’m using a personal taxonomy that I’ve derived completely on the fly, but having a taxonomic language to describe the visions is important, I think. I would describe the ‘Glimpse’ as a Type 0, it being exceptionally brief. There is also a Null, which differs from Zero conceptually (this is what happens when someone whose worked with data sets gets involved in creating a spiritual taxonomy 🙂 — you get a system that needs both Null and Zero as separate points). Null is the absolute lack of any theophany, which is were most people stand, while a Type Zero is the Glimpse. I may need to rethink this, however. I’ll be back.

    As for your assertion, I’d say that it matters very little. From a psychological perspective, the concept of remembering a specific event clearly is hardly problematic, whether it is a vision or an actual visitation, neither presents a problem in terms of his descriptions from what I can tell. Eyewitness testimony is such a tricky area in forensic psychology that we essentially have come to the conclusion that witnesses are extremely unreliable for details of an event. In the case of someone like Joseph Smith, a modern court would probably conclude that while the event happened at some level, and the basics were correct, there would be little hope of getting specifics.

    If it were a crime of some sort (I’ll use a murder), they would conclude that Joseph had seen a murder, but that there was insufficient evidence to identify the killer from that event alone. However, given that he later picked up further corroborating evidence, they would probably find the named killer guilty (eg, the fact that JS claimed to have seen a vision of God is important, but alone would be insufficient; backed up by the translation of the BOM, and the founding of the church and numerous other prophetic works, it is sufficient to indicate that his initial testimony was accurate, insofar as he related it).

    What really happened in the grove? We just don’t know. We shall never know in this life. We do know that it was important, and that it was rare.

  2. We do know that it was important, and that it was rare.

    Actually, this is an important issue with regard to John’s post. The fact is, everyone and his brother were claiming theophanies in the early 19th century. Typical “conversion narratives” included at least a claim of seeing angels, and very often a claim of seeing Jesus. They also, as in the earlier versions of Joseph’s story, typically included a statement that the recipient’s sins had been forgiven. If Joseph’s experience was a vision (and I personally believe it was), then his initial theophany was nothing particularly unusual. We can accept it at face value, or we can get into the “mechanics” of such an experience, as John has noted. A case can easily be made that Joseph was under significant mental stress at the time, not only from the religious anxiety that prompted his question, but also from the dynamics and circumstances of his family at the time. It’s even possible that Joseph chewed on a random weed as he walked out into the woods, and experienced pharmacological effects.

    So far as I understand, it was not common to claim personal visitation, and it certainly was not common to assert (among a trinitarian people, after all) that Jesus and God made a joint appearance as separate and distinct beings. It seems to me that Joseph’s initial experience is only unusual/unique if it took place in this very concrete, physical sense.

    In the end, of course, the question of which type of experience Joseph actually had does little to either establish or question his subsequent development as a spiritual leader. Even if we were to learn, for example, that Joseph likely (accidentally) ingested a mind-altering substance, this would not, in itself, determine the reality or unreality of a resulting visionary experience. The use of hallucinogenic substances has a long history as a tool for spiritual illumination. I’d go so far as to say that even if Joseph’s initial theophany was a complete hallucination, his subsequent teachings and acts establish him as a genuine religious genius, and perhaps even a “prophet.”

  3. This is a interesting and thought provoking post John. Thank you for bring it up. Benjamin O’s typing or categorizing is always interesting and I have done much the same in the past.

    I remember the first time I visited the Smith home in Manchester and as the five of us were in the children’s bedroom discussing Moroni’s visit my mother was shocked that Moroni could appear to Joseph in such a small room with all of his brothers and sisters in the room and they did not see Moroni. For someone like my mother who is as faithful a Mormon as one can find this was even to marvelous. Once I explained that Joseph could have been the only person to see Moroni, even if the others had be awake, she seemed to feel much better about the vision of Moroni.

    The only comment I would take issue with is Benjamin O’s saying that what happened in the grove is rare. My first introduction to the realization that Joseph’s first theophany was anything but rare was Richard Bushman’s “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism”. With the wonderful work of Rick Grunder and his “Mormon Parallels” I found five different people that had similar theophanies with the wording being almost a match to Joseph’s 1832 account. These people wrote their account all before Joseph’s 1820 theophany.

  4. John, I was actually thinking of writing a similar post about this. Benjamin noted that recent, and even not-so-recent wording of retellings of the story have given the Church membership that the first vision was an apparition. However, I have seen that when we consider Joseph’s own words on the matter, and the earliest retellings, it really is a non-issue. Joseph was clearly describing a vision occurring outside of the realm of common space-time. If a video camera was filming during the vision, I do believe that the “pillar of light” would be visible to a 3rd party observer. An 1840 account states:

    “He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it.”

    At this point, the pillar of light seems to act as a conduit, not for God and Jesus to descend through, but rather to spiritually displace Joseph. From the text of the wentworth letter (the source of our articles of faith) Joseph writes:

    “…while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision”

    It was also retold as:

    “When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision…”

    After the vision, even our Pearl of Great Price account states:

    “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home.” (JSH verse 20)

    If he needed to “come to himself again,” it seems pretty clear that the process was more that God and Jesus just slipping back up to heaven.
    On my mission, I pointed things like this out to some companions, who were shocked to find a disparity in their traditional notion. But honestly, we do call it the first “vision,” not the first “apparition,” so I had no qualms with taking that at face value.

    To me, at least, the issue has no bearing on the claims or authenticity of the vision. I don’t believe that the significance of the first vision lies in its physicality. Even Moses, in his meeting with God, describes the exchange as metaphysical:

    But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:11)

    One lump this does cause for a Sunday School lesson is the answer to the question “What do we learn from the first vision?”
    One might answer “That God and Jesus have physical bodies!”
    While I do consider the corporeality of God a true tenant of our faith, I do not believe that the First Vision is an appropriate source to derive this information from. By the same yardstick, one could conclude that God has four faces and is physically part man, part eagle, part lion, and part ox based on another prophetic vision. (See Ezekiel 1)

    Anyway, I don’t think this is a shocking revelation, although I do think it’s significant to point out. The first vision was a vision. That’s how Joseph Smith told it, and that’s how it was. A thorough and literal reading of the original First Vision accounts leaves no room but to understand the vision as metaphysical. It’s not to say that God and Jesus aren’t physical in nature, but the First Vision was not a manifestation of their physical bodies, much like Joseph’s vision of the degrees of Glory was not a physical transportation to the Celestial Kingdom—Joseph and Sidney were still physically in the John Johnson home, while their spirits were experiencing something elsewhere. I’m sure there’s some traditionalists (ironically taking a turn away from the actual traditional accounts) who will take issue with this, but to me, again, it’s really a non-issue.

    (BTW, please see http://eldenwatson.net/harmony.htm for a great harmony of the various first vision accounts)

  5. Post


    Excellent! My post next week is on the meanings we draw from the First Vision.

    I wanted to see what LDS assumptions about the nature of Joseph’s experience are. It seems from the responses to this thread so far that there is quite a diversity.

    As far as a pillar of light being visible to others (your video camera thought experiment), I’m not sure how light is different from persons in terms of altering the appearance of the surrounding area. Persons being opaque, they would presumably block light from other sources, for instance. To the person experiencing the vision, it is a different experience than for others in the vicinity who are not in the spiritual mindset. Wouldn’t others have observed the light in the grove of trees? No reports exist of this. I’m not saying this didn’t happen, but just that I don’t see why you single out the light as an objective part of a vision.


    I had your exact thoughts about the Moroni vision, and related it to Joseph’s other visions. I treat this in part III of this series.


    Thanks for the historical context. The “pharmacological trigger” for visions and other revelations I have heard mentioned before in connection with Joseph Smith. Do you know of anyone in Mormon Studies who has explored the possibility of Joseph chewing a “weed” as the catalyst for visionary experience? I don’t think it’s necessary or likely, the mental stress you cite being sufficient, but your mentioning it rings a bell. I just can’t place where I heard that idea before.


    Your taxonomy is interesting. “As for your assertion, I’d say that it matters very little.” I agree.

  6. This is a good question and I am pretty convinced based on what I have studied on the subject that Joseph Smith did have profound spiritual experiences that led him to believe that he was doing what he felt God intended for him.

    What is funny is that people have visions all the time, but if it happened in the past, they become religious leaders, if it happens today, they are labeled as schizophrenic.

    I suggest re-reading Joseph Smith History in the PoGP verses 30-47. When it was pointed out to me that Joseph Smith was in a small farm house sharing a small room with 5 brothers on only 2 beds, simple math made me realize that at least the depiction of Moroni visiting Joseph by himself is a little dishonest. After re-reading the passage, it is abundantly clear to me that most likely Moroni appeared to Joseph in a dream, because the whole thing is very dreamlike. Hence, I believe Joseph Smith received a vision, but not a visitation.

    As for the first vision, the first documented account of it by Joseph was from his own diary and only mentions seeing Jesus in 1821, not 1820 and it didn’t have anything to do with establishing a church, it only had to do with a forgiveness of his sins. Perhaps his sins weighed heavily on him at the time. However, the later account that Joseph Smith dictated years later is the church’s official account. Perhaps Joseph Smith had a spiritual experience in his youth, or maybe he had several spiritual experiences and simply applied these spiritual experiences as a means to understand what was going on later in his lifetime. I have no problem accepting that Joseph Smith had visions, as this is not very un-common. People with epilepsy have very similar experiences that Joseph Smith had and they come out feeling that God had touched them or visited them in some way. However, I do not believe that Joseph Smith received a visitation.

  7. Mind you, John, I’m only saying a “weed” is a possibility. I’m not claiming that such was the case. I’m unaware of any published exploration of this idea, though it would be interesting if any detailed vegetation surveys have been done on the Palmyra/Manchester farm. Of course, such a study would not be definitive, since the site has changed considerably in the last 180 or so years.

  8. John, i’ll try to explain myself as to why I think the pillar of light is the objective element. Most (if not all) artistic depictions of the first vision (including the two church-made videos) show God and Jesus floating amid the trees of the forest. My reading of the accounts leads me to believe that the encounter did not take place in a forest setting at all, but took place in the virtual/metaphysical/spiritual realm encapsulated in the vision. There are even mentions of many angels, and glory beyond description, etc, within the scope of the vision, which seems unfeasible if the angels are navigating through trunks and branches without getting their robes dirty. Anyway, Joseph states that was “enwrapped” in this vision and his “mind was taken away from the objects with which [he] was surrounded (i.e., dirt, trees, leaves)” only AFTER he saw the pillar of light descend and engulf him. This leads me to separate the pillar of light from the vision itself…as if the light were a catalyst for the vision.

    Of course I suppose its reasonable to assume that the light itself could also have been a spiritual manifestation visible only to Joseph, but seeing the descriptions of the light coming in contact with the “leaves and boughs of the trees,” leads me to accept that part of it as occurring in natural space-time. Plus it might be analogous to what Moses described as being “transfigured before him.”

    Also, a part that is often ellipsesed (…) out is that the pillar of light was “exactly over [his] head.” I think he meant what he said, and the artists are wrong to depict it as a luminous cone pointing in his general direction. I think this solidifies the idea that the pillar of light was a conduit directed at Joseph, not a portal through which God and Jesus were traveling.

    Based on this reasoning, the only accurate artistic depiction I’ve seen of this was a wood cut that showed a wide angle of a forest with a big pillar of light beaming down from heaven into the forest. I wish I could find it now… It was in some ensign somewhere.

  9. I just had another thought. What if hypothetically you could travel in your time machine and go back to the moment when Joseph had these experiences and you saw him having an epileptic seizure? Would that change your view of his experience? I would venture to say that most likely it would not change your view, and in this hypothetical situation you would simply explain that God was the prime mover behind his epilepsy. I am not suggesting Joseph was, I am simply wondering how your view of the first vision would be different if hypothetically he was.

  10. Aside from the fact that its not born out by the primary sources, I think the interpretation that the angels, God the father, and Jesus, appeared in the physical world of the early 19th century is problematic for Mormons today for two reasons:

    (1) It has a feeling that is more science fiction–like than spiritual. If angels are traveling into our dimension physically from somewhere else, they really are like hyper-advanced space men. Picturing a visionary experience feels more spiritual to me.

    (2) Imagining that these physical experiences happened then begs the question why they don’t happen now. It goes contrary to the whole point of the Restoration, which was to announce that the heavens were again open. And so are they again closed now? Making past visions into visitations has the effect of separating the present-day faithful from the early Latter Day Saints.

  11. I believe that Joseph saw what he said he saw. I do not know why that requires us to believe that God the Father and Son were physically present. With technology, I do not why they could not have appeared as holographic projections (I say that only partially in jest), or appeared to Joseph’s spiritual eyes as a vision.

  12. #10:
    Imagining that these physical experiences happened then begs the question why they don’t happen now. It goes contrary to the whole point of the Restoration, which was to announce that the heavens were again open. And so are they again closed now? Making past visions into visitations has the effect of separating the present-day faithful from the early Latter Day Saints.

    John, don’t you think this is already a significant issue with regard to LDS-ism? After all, claims of visions and miracles were quite common in early Mormonism, but fell off dramatically at least by the Heber J. Grant administration. In the 1990s, Bruce Hafen went so far as to write an Ensign article about how the LDS church had now “matured” beyond such things. (Apparently he didn’t bother to read The Book of Mormon, or other LDS literature that attributes the absence of miracles to apostacy?) The old Mormon experience of continual miracle claims has been largely replaced by vague comments, claiming one has had experiences which are “too sacred to talk about.”

  13. I have no idea, since there is no claim of physical contact with the Beings themselves, but I am fine with any of the explanations presented in the post. It “feels” like more of a classic spiritual vision than a visitation, but I am open to many possibilities.

    I look at Lehi’s vision as instructive, since we use the same word (“vision”) – and since, based on the rections of his family members (**NONE of whom accepted it automatically and unconditionally**), it appears that he also had credibility problems – that even his children understood it differently. My suspicion is that it was totally unexpected (no history of visions) OR that there was a history of visions that never had required any signigficant sacrifice – that this one was different more because of what it caused Lehi to do than because it occurred.

    I see Joseph’s vision the same way – as unique because of the details (like Nick mentioned) NOT because of its occurance.

  14. I would imagine if the apostles talked amongst themselves their testimonies of Christ would be based on years and years of faithful service- line upon line until they can testify like Elder Faust below.

    I think thats the special witness the prophets hold in our church.

    For example, Allen Wyatt, of FAIR, shares this entry in his personal journal from February 3, 1990,

    Today is the first day of our stake conference. I am the executive secretary of our stake. Elder James E. Faust is here to replace our stake presidency. I was sitting in the priesthood leadership session, and Elder Faust was bearing his testimony. It is, without a doubt, the strongest testimony I have ever heard. He said (paraphrasing) ‘I have always believed in the Church; I come from good blood. But through thousands of spiritual experiences, so many now that I have at least one a day–we had one earlier today (referring to meeting with the new stake presidency)–I have gained a testimony to the point I can say, as did the brother of Jared, “I saw the finger of the Lord and the veil could not withhold Him from me, therefore I no longer believed, for I had knowledge.” As the brother of Jared stated, so say I–I know that Jesus is the Christ.’

  15. #12 – Nick, Nick, Nick . . .

    I know any number of people who have had visionary experiences, and we don’t talk about them specifically because of how they are derided and rejected in this day and age. I’m sure if I lived in a different time – or even in a different culture in the here and now – I would talk openly about my own experiences much more than I do. (Remember, I have been accused on this very blog of turning the discussion to my intense spiritual experiences and glossing over facts. Such a reaction is common, and I have no desire to have my experiences mocked – so I rarely share the details.) To equate a dearth of published accounts of visions to the cessation of miracles is a mighty stretch – even in your LDS-ism obsessiveness. 🙂

  16. John Hammer “If angels are traveling into our dimension physically from somewhere else, they really are like hyper-advanced space men. Picturing a visionary experience feels more spiritual to me”

    You hit the nail in the head for me. If Kolob is a real place in this universe, and they literally traveled through space to Earth to visit Joseph, then it would reduce God and angels to space men, which does sound more like a Star Trek episode.

  17. #12 Nick “Apparently he didn’t bother to read The Book of Mormon, or other LDS literature that attributes the absence of miracles to apostasy”

    I am very interested in those sources. Do you have the references?

  18. #15 – Ray, Ray, Ray …

    I also know a ‘number’ of people who have had visionary experiences. Unfortunately that ‘number’ is zero.

    Accounts of spiritual experiences would be welcome, although there are some that will lead to ridicule. I’ve heard too many of the ‘I was on my way to church and I seemed to hit every green light–I just knew that God was helping me’ sort of spiritual experiences. I don’t find them very meaningful. The healing stories like, ‘I was given a blessing and after six weeks in the ICU I was able to come home’ likewise don’t point too strongly to the miraculous power of priesthood.

    As Nick points out, a simple reading of the scriptures (both new testament and Book of Mormon) it would lead an unbiased observer to conclude that todays LDS church is apostate.

  19. If a video camera were secreted in the Sacred Grove and the videotape only now just released to the world… I think we’d see a slightly anxious but very sincere young teen praying earnestly for forgiveness of his sins. I also think we’d see the same boy walking home with a smile and look of relief on his face.

  20. Post


    Thanks for the explanation. I get where you’re coming from with this. “Coming to myself” and “lying on my back” are easier to explain given your view of what likely happened to Joseph.


    Fair question. If I saw Joseph having what appeared to be an epileptic seizure, besides calling for help and rupturing the chain of causality, I would interpret his experience differently. Not much differently, but I think it would be unavoidable for me to then compare other epileptics’ accounts of their experiences with his. Could the bright lights Joseph reported seeing then be explained away by a physiological change in brain chemistry? Likely so. Is an audible component present in other epileptics’ accounts, etc.? Determining whether the seizure was the cause of his vision or whether God was is like asking if God caused the trees in the forest to exist or if natural processes did.

    Depends on your view of God. To my way of thinking, God would always use natural processes (seizures, education, science, waterfalls, the night sky, parents, children) to communicate with humans, but that’s another post for another time. 🙂


    I hope you don’t feel that we would trample on your experiences. I have heard numerous reports of people’s spiritual experiences and do feel I would hear more of them if I weren’t so skeptical.

    I tend to hear about negative spiritual experiences as much as positive ones, however. To give one example, and perhaps which will give you an insight into my skepticism, I once had an otherwise very clear-headed LDS friend who testified to me that he had a powerful feeling of dread one evening (these things always happen at night, apparently) while with his girlfriend. His girlfriend felt it too, and my friend verbally rebuked an evil spirit after noticing claw marks appear on the flesh of his girlfriend’s arm and side. I confess I interpret such experiences psychologically and not as manifestations of the devil.

    I prefer hearing about the opposite kinds of spiritual experiences, and occasionally am privileged to do so.

    John H,

    I entirely agree with your two points.

    There is something very potent, or at least used to be, about the crude, straightforward, physical way in which everything has been interpreted in our religious history. Perhaps getting away from our earthy agricultural roots has played its role in this. I would submit that even entertaining the concept of a “visitation” is fairly unique to Latter-day Saints among Christian groups.

  21. Temporal lobe epilepsy and severe migraine often include visual, auditory, or or other sensate hallucinations.

  22. I’m increasingly apt to speak openly about some of my spiritual expereiences. I’m still very cautious. But I think we may have gone too far to the ‘don’t speak of it’ end of the spectrum.

    There are certainly things I would never speak of except with trusted friends. For instance, there is a great deal of my spiritual life I’d theoretically be willing to share with Ray, for instance, but not with Nick. Becuase in doing so I wouldn’t be looking for reasons to doubt their reality, I would be neither wanting nor needing to have thier veracity confirmed. Rather, I’d be wanting and needing to ferret out additional meaning from them and for _mutual_ edification. My expereince is that things of a visionary nature happen quite frequently, but are not spoken of publicly. They are every bit as likely to happen to a “regular” member of the church who is seeking deeply and living faithfully as to a leader in the church living the same way.

    Spiritual gifts of a more usual variety are exceptionally common in the church. I see them almost every week.


  23. Folks, interesting discussion. Some thoughts as I’ve been reading this:

    Joseph’s account of his encounter with Moroni is interesting when you consider the way Moroni departed:

    “43 After this communication, I saw the light in the room begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking to me, and it continued to do so until the room was again left dark, except just around him; when, instantly I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.”

    This seems to me to suggest a more physical manifestation, but I don’t see it as being conclusive either way.

    But consider Nephi’s description of Lehi’s “first vision”:

    “And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.”

    This seems to indicate that the pillar of fire was a conduit to a vision of greater things.

    Also, there are examples in scripture where people who have had visions have been unsure themselves whether those visions were beheld by their natural eyes or not. Consider Paul’s words:

    “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
    And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
    How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”

    Or consider Lehi’s vacillation about whether or not he saw God in his “first vision,” as recounted by Nephi:

    “And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.”

    Lehi THOUGHT he saw God?

    Considering these examples from Paul and Lehi, I wonder if Joseph was even sure himself of whether the First Vision was a spiritual vision or a physical visitation.

  24. “That he remembered his vision differently at different times based on later spiritual experiences and theological reflection is very likely.”

    John, since this is such a big issue for some, would you mind discussing it or would you rather leave it to a later post? Thanks

  25. I should add: if the First Vision was more of a dream/vision than of a physical visitation, in my mind that would go a long way toward explaining any variations in the First Vision accounts. It’s difficult enough to remember something you physically witnessed, but even more difficult to have exact recall of a dreamlike occurrence.

    Benjamin O. is correct that even eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, not because the witness didn’t see the incident in question, but because it is so easy to remember what we’ve seen differently each time we remember it, and especially if there are several years in between versions of our own story. My Forensic Science instructor told our class that when several death row inmates were exonerated several years ago through DNA technology, legal researchers checked the court records to see what evidence had been used to wrongfully convict the death row inmates. Most often the form of evidence that had been used to wrongfully convict these later-exonerated men of capital offenses was eye-witness testimony.

  26. Bill, you make my point exactly in #18, and Thomas explained my hesitancy. My experiences are mine and DEEPLY personal. I shared a few details of one concerning the Priesthood ban on T&S (in response to a direct question of whether or not I had prayed about it) and immediately got ridiculed and had my experience (a VERY powerful one that included a “vision” of sorts) twisted then rejected out of hand. I’m cautious about what I share.

    I will share one experience I’ve had more than once. I have been given a gift that lends itself to priesthood blessings. On more than one occasion, I have given blessings that included very explicit and narrow counsel about things of which I knew nothing – things that the receiver had never told anyone. These were not blessings of healing, but rather blessings of comfort. It’s one of the reasons I accept the prophetic possibility of visions; I have experienced “seeing” things I could not see naturally.

    On another occasion, the one I shared on T&S, I “saw” God weeping for the sins of His people. It was not a visitation, or even a classic vision, but it was real, nonetheless.

  27. Ray, et. al.,
    Please know that I did not, in any way, intend to make light of anyone’s experiences which they consider sacred and/or faith promoting. In fact, such a thing didn’t even enter my mind, so I was surprised at your reaction, Ray.

    If anything, I very intentionally criticized the argument of Bruce Hafen, which by the way, was written prior to his call as a general authority. At the time his article was published, I was firmly in my nearly-fanatical-Mormon stage of life, and I honestly found the article very offensive at the time, given the writings of Hugh Nibley and others, who condemned the same argument as “evidence” of christian apostacy prior to the time of Joseph Smith.

  28. So far as I understand, it was not common to claim personal visitation, and it certainly was not common to assert (among a trinitarian people, after all) that Jesus and God made a joint appearance as separate and distinct beings.

    Not to belabor a point I seem to address too much but Trinitarianism entails a belief that the Father and the Son are different persons and Trinitarians have absolutely zero problem with say Acts 7:55-56 which is pretty much what Joseph claimed to see (and I think in later texts like D&C 76:23 is referencing Stephen’s vision).

  29. Regarding the main issue. I don’t have trouble with whether it is a vision or visitation. Unless something was touched is there any possible way to distinguish the two? Why worry?

    Nick’s right that claims of visions aren’t too uncommon. I suspect that many claiming them haven’t had them or have exaggerated them. But then one could make the same claim of Joseph except for the whole issue of the Book of Mormon. Which is why I find that so important.

  30. Post


    I do get into the issue of later interpretations of the First Vision in part II of this post, which comes out in a week. For now, suffice it to say that one can legitimately accept Joseph as an honest recounter of his vision even if one notes the discrepancies between his vision accounts. If one takes revelation seriously, particularly the development of the concept of God between the time Joseph had the First Vision and the time he wrote his 1838 account, it is natural for Joseph to “back-read” the presence of two separate beings in his vision, especially given that the two beings looked exactly alike, right? There is a remarkable consistency in the message of the Lord to Joseph in all of the accounts I have read, with some change in emphasis from a mainly personal message of forgiveness to a global intimation of the apostasy. Who the Lord was (one being in the mold of the traditional Trinity, later two) probably changed in Joseph’s memory as he received additional light on the matter.

    Otherwise he would have been clear on the matter from the start, right?

  31. Did anyone see that Jodi Foster movie “Contact” where an extra-terrestrial culture responded to satellite signals from earth and sent back instructions on how to construct a space travel machine? She ended up being the “astronaut” that took the first ride and to the witnessed camera the machine dropped through a ring into the ocean and that was the end of the ride…big waste of money. To her, she had a vision which was extremely personal that she could not deny and she was mocked by the politicians who wanted some payback for all their investment. The video recorder that was inside her space capsule recorded nothing, but the interesting thing was that during a journey that lasted a fraction of a second to the observers, her in capsule video recorder recorded 6 hours of nothing…an impossible occurrence.

    When people mentioned a camera observing the sacred grove, this parallel came to mind. If there was a camera in Joseph’s mind that recorded the duration of the visit, how long would it have recorded in comparison to the camera that recorded the physical surrounding of the grove, and would they have been different?

  32. John, thanks for your response. I’ll wait for your next post to try and get a better feel for your reasoning. It’s just that I would have expected the authorized version to be recalled first given his age and the important points of no true church, given that’s what he went to pray about, and separate beings in the Godhead. Thanks again.

  33. An institute teacher of mine once was teaching about the first vision and the LDS belief that it teaches that the two personages had separate bodies. He told us that he contacted a member of what was then the RLDS church in a leadership position to ask how they reconcile the account of two personages with their doctrine that God and Jesus are not separate beings. (Anyone correct me if my understanding of that belief system is incorrect). The answer that he told us he received from the member of the RLDS church was that God could appear as one being or two beings. (Again anyone feel free to correct if what I was told is incorrect. I understand that the answer given may have depended upon how the question was asked, and the answer given to the class was likely condensed from a longer discussion)

    This theologic belief could be easily reconciled if the vision was either type 1 or type 2 in Benjamin O’s system, but in non-LDS theology systems it could also be a type 3 as well.

    Here is the description summarizing Joseph Smith’s vision in the grove from the Community of Christ website:

    “How long this first attempt at verbal prayer lasted is not known, but he came to a point of deep despair. At this point, a vision surrounded him with love and mercy. From that light came a voice as clear as his own. As the vision ebbed and the voice faded, Joseph felt that he knew the truth. He felt the healing presence of God within and the forgiving mercy of Christ. He knew that God would be with him.”

  34. Nick, I owe you an apology. I know you don’t deride or deny spiritual experiences. I conflated two things in one comment and made it appear I was speaking of you. After reading your response I realized that I was reacting to a couple of other commenters over the last few months here who have mocked spiritual experiences, and your “vague comments, claiming one has had experiences which are ‘too sacred to talk about'” simply was the catalyst for my reference to them. I should have made that clear.

    Frankly, the last paragraph of Bill’s #18 is exactly what bothers me. To assert that “unbiased observer(s) (would) conclude that today’s LDS church is apostate” solely because we don’t talk about our spiritual experiences nearly as much as the earlier saints did . . . I just don’t like those types of sweeping generalities used to make a very narrow claim that is SO offensive in its nature.

  35. “Do you believe that God the Father, the Son, and maybe even the Holy Ghost visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820?

    Or did Joseph have a vision of them?”

    I believe the answer to both of your questions is yes. God the Father, and the Son, visited Joseph. The vision is HOW they visited him. God knows a lot more about physics than I do, but I would venture to guess that when God wants to visit someone, or a group of someones, that he causes a vision of himself to appear in their minds. The first part of Joseph’s account, about being seized by darkness, sounds a lot like sleep paralysis, in fact. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe it was real, though. Instead, I believe there are always physical explanations for spiritual phenomena. Interesting things are happening on multiple levels at once. We then are left free to choose how we wish to interpret them.

  36. eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, not because the witness didn’t see the incident in question, but because it is so easy to remember what we’ve seen differently each time we remember it,

    NPR had a great discussion on that a while back, the memories we revisit the most are the ones most likely to change.

    I always thought the best part of missions was the experiences that were clear. The prompting to get up and go tracting on prep day, knocking on the first door and having someone who that was their only day off and who had been looking for the Church, having gotten a Book of Mormon and having been converted. I’d only been out about three months then, but it made an impact on me. Had a similar experience finding Richard Oteno. Another where we were headed to an appointment and there was a flash of light and the clear impression we should just skip the appointment and go somewhere else.

    Sigh, I couldn’t just fall through, so we walked several more blocks in the snow, they blew us off, and I trekked back through the snow, up the stairs, around the corner, down the hall and to the door where someone was praying and asking God for help. I feel bad they had to wait an extra half hour, but glad we made it.

    That’s not coincidence, or random events (look, a flock of pigeons overhead and not one pooped on me) or anything else.

    My father once remarked that when he went through strong spiritual experiences with others, some treasured them up and remembered them and were nourished by them, others let them slip away. Years later, those who nourished them (reminds me of Mary treasuring up things about Jesus) were active, those who let them slip away and slipped away from the Church.

  37. I read this and I think my opinion jumped back and forth several times before I actually made up my mind. The question is an interesting one, but in the end the real question is does it matter which? For some reason I’m reminded of the silly question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, did it make any noise?” In the end, if someone was there or not, of course the tree made noise when it fell. I think it is the same for the first vision, whether anyone else could actually see it or not, it happened. Whether it happened by vision or in actuality, although, I tend to lean towards it actually happening for two reasons. One being that, right before the Son and the Father appeared to Joseph, he was consumed by evil, would that have left if Joseph had just had a vision? I think the actual presence of the Father and the Son would be almost essential. The second being that this wouldn’t be the first time Christ has appeared in the actual flesh. Why wouldn’t he do it then, in the key point of the restoration? Either way, by vision or in reality, does it really make a difference?
    Very good post, thanks!

  38. “Frankly, the last paragraph of Bill’s #18 is exactly what bothers me. To assert that “unbiased observer(s) (would) conclude that today’s LDS church is apostate” solely because we don’t talk about our spiritual experiences nearly as much as the earlier saints did . . . I just don’t like those types of sweeping generalities used to make a very narrow claim that is SO offensive in its nature.”

    Ray–no offense was intended. I’m sorry. My comment was meant to agree with Nick’s statements:

    “After all, claims of visions and miracles were quite common in early Mormonism, but fell off dramatically at least by the Heber J. Grant administration.”

    “The old Mormon experience of continual miracle claims has been largely replaced by vague comments, claiming one has had experiences which are “too sacred to talk about.”

    Do you disagree with these statements? Do you find these statements to be offensive? If you agree with these statements, its not much of a stretch to say that an unbiased observer would not see a ‘God of miracles’ in the modern Mormon church. And the book of mormon does seem to imply that miracles cease only because of apostate conditions. Thus my comment, ‘an unbiased observer…’

  39. Bill, my answer is that there are TONS of miracle claims in Nick’s modern “LDS-ism” – they simply aren’t as public or dramatic or publicized. It’s the **visions** that were so public back then and not as public now. “Miracles” are believed just as much now as at any time in the past. Step into ANY Mormon congregation in the world and ask if the members believe in and **have experienced** miracles. I think the positive response rate would be close to 100%. So, I would say an “uninformed” observer might feel that way, but an “unbiased” observer would have all of the facts and not reach that conclusion.

  40. From what it appears maybe the visionary channel is the way God prefers to communicatae with man. Joseph Smith didn’t literally need use the plates to translate the book of Mormon he used his seer stone and a hat. If the records are accurate Martin Harris saw the gold plates in a visionary state.

    According to Joseph Smith’s history, Joseph then goes to find Harris, and while praying together, Harris cries out, “Tis enough, tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have be- held;” (Ibid, p. 55). According to Martin Harris, “I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. …In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71).

  41. People nowadays receive “visions”. I would hazard a guess that in nearly every LDS family (and in other churches too)there is someone who has received an authentic “vision”. It might be useful to find such an individual and talk with him/her. That way you’ll have the genuine thing instead of merely speculating about something. Having endless discussions about something one know nothing about is less than useful IMO.

  42. Hey, just checking back in.

    I’ve thought more about my taxonomy, and I’m still considering (busy week at work, so not much time). Let me say this: in reading some of the subsequent discussion I’ve noted a disturbing amount of discussion about whether or not there are still visions.

    I will agree with Bill and Nick and others who state that it does indeed seem as if there are fewer and fewer public statements of ‘I have seen in vision a need to do this…” followed by a new policy for the Church. Or for church leaders to make certain things explicit. I sometimes wonder why this is, but I do not think that this is because such things are not happening.

    There are often sacred, very intimate (and there is, unfortunately, no better word to use for this) experiences that a person can have that one does not share. Many of these are what I referred to as either Type 0 (Glimpses) experiences, or even Type 2 (angelic) experiences, which would only be shared as doctrinal if one is the prophet of the church (something the early church took a bit to explain, very patiently, to its members).

    The unfortunate effect of all this is that this means that all but those experience shared by the prophet over the pulpit at General Conference are now considered ‘glurge’, or at best anecdotal. This means that the scientific observer is going to discount, and seemingly justified in doing so, all accounts of LDS visions, miracles, priesthood blessings healing the sick, and everything else that happens. So how does a member know whether or not these things actually occur? Ultimately, the only way becomes to seek these experiences personally, even in a time when mass email, nearly instantaneous communication and blogs are common. Which, I rather suspect, may be exactly what the Lord is after.

    I will say this, I know from personal experience that the Type 0 experiences do happen. I know from personal experience that Priesthood Blessings have power. Those are cause and effect observations. I have faith that there is a God in Heaven, and that He hears and answers prayers. I have faith that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was established by that same God and is led by him through a prophet. I know that there are a lot of things that I don’t know, and that I’m a big dummy sometimes. I have doubts at times, and there are times when I have had serious questions. During those times, though, I have always come back to the fact that there are certain experiences that I cannot explain away that easily.

    Now, that aside, personal feelings and witnesses put back where I want them, let me say this: I also think there may be a very solid reason that the Church leadership is less prone to speak of visions so directly. As Bill mentioned one possible, and not unreasonable, explanation is that the LDS church has apostasized. I can see that perspective, offensive as it may be. However if we are to reject it, we must provide an alternate hypothesis. You cannot reject any hypothesis, no matter how offensive, simply because it is offensive, so long as it is the only standing hypothesis that fits the facts. Of course, it remains to be seen that it does fit the facts (I argue that it does not). Instead we must, as a community, provide an alternate hypothesis.

    I would argue that LDS leadership has begun under-reporting visions not only because of their sacred nature (alternate hypothesis 1, which is somewhat unsatisfactory), but also because their administrative nature. I suspect that most of the visions that 12 and 1st presidency receive currently are either dealing with items of an extremely personal nature or an extremely administrative nature, and are therefore deemed too sacred or of no special interest, and are therefore not shared. Of course, I have no real idea about this, and I could be completely off, having never been in that position.

    Oh well. Enjoy.

  43. Oh, and as another quick thought. I know at least one LDS person whose ‘visions’ I wouldn’t put any stock in. I know numerous non-LDS folks that I’d ignore completely if they told me they had a vision. I did use to work in a mental-health facility, after all (long-term residential treatment for schizophrenics). If you want to talk about ‘visions’, I can talk in spades. These folks knew all about it, but there was nothing prophetic about it.

    I will say this from having worked with a group of schizophrenics. Anyone who suggests that JS was schizophrenic and was able to accomplish what he did, all while completely untreated in any way, has likely never worked with anyone with schizophrenia. The disease is completely and utterly debilitating for the vast majority of complainants, and I do not credit such theories as even worth the time it takes to speak them. Not even worth debunking.

  44. As long as we’re talking about visions, might we also bring up subsequent visions/visitations as indicators of the nature of the First Vision and Moroni’s visit in 1823? I’m thinking of John the Baptist restoring the Aaronic Priesthood, Peter, James and John restoring the Melchizedek Priesthood, Moroni showing the Three Witnesses the plates and other artifacts, Jesus Christ himself appearing to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in the Kirtland Temple, with Moses, Elias, and Elijah restoring priesthood keys. These shared visions/visitations seem a bit more corporeal, and yet wording seems to conflate physical prescence of the heavenly visitors with visionary syntax. In D&C 110:
    v.1: “The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.” (visionary)
    v.2: “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us” (visitation)
    v.3: “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters” (visionary)
    v.11: “After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us” (visionary/visitation)
    v.13: “After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us” (visionary/visitation)

    There are more explicitly “visionary” episodes recorded in the the D&C, of course, the most spectacular of which is D&C 76:11-24. This account, too, however, mentions seeing the Only Begotten of the Father on the right hand of God (v.23).

    I’m not sure if this helps shed further light upon the First Vision or not, but maybe. They probably have influenced subsequent readings of the First Vision accounts as visitations, however, because they suggest physical interaction with the heavenly beings (ordination involving laying on of hands(?), Moroni showing the Golden Plates and other artifacts, etc.). Terryl Givens talks about this emphasis on the physicality of God and the tangible, artifactual nature of our theology as one of the major distinguishing features of Mormonism in contrast to other Christian faiths of the 19th century.

    Fascinating discussion.

  45. #41:
    Step into ANY Mormon congregation in the world and ask if the members believe in and **have experienced** miracles. I think the positive response rate would be close to 100%.

    I think you’re right, Ray. It seems, however, that a culture developed in the LDS church where it wasn’t considered “appropriate” to share certain kinds of spiritual experiences publicly. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young certainly advised against indiscrete sharing of personal revelation, for a variety of reasons. I think this cultural phenomenon goes beyond what they were saying, though.

    In a weird sort of way, this cultural sense of discretion has produced an unfortunate side effect. If you step into your same random LDS congregation on Fast Sunday, and an average member (i.e. not one in a “high” position of ecclesiastical leadership) happens to describe a vision they receieved, what will be the reaction? Some may quietly think it was “inappropriate,” but I think it’s fair to say a majority will conclude the speaker is imbalanced. The relative absence of sharing these stories eventually makes the stories sound less and less credible to their intended audience.

  46. It might be useful to find such an individual and talk with him/her. That way you’ll have the genuine thing instead of merely speculating about something. Having endless discussions about something one know nothing about is less than useful IMO.

    Jared, what makes you certain that nobody in this discussion has had experienced which they believe were spiritual visions? Experiencing a vision doesn’t make you automatically believe every other person’s claims of receiving visions. For that matter, experiencing a vision doesn’t even make the receiver sure that they have received a vision. I’ve certainly had spiritual experiences which I interpreted as visions or revelations at the time, but subsequently had reason to reconsider. Sometimes I had to conclude that they were not “authentic.” Others I’m still not able to define with absolute certainty.

  47. #48 Nick said: what makes you certain that nobody in this discussion has had experienced which they believe were spiritual visions?

    Good question. From the post and comments I read the discussion was dealing with theory only. There are enough church members who have experienced the things of the spirit that dealing with theory isn’t necessary.

    Nick said; I’ve certainly had spiritual experiences which I interpreted as visions or revelations at the time, but subsequently had reason to reconsider. Sometimes I had to conclude that they were not “authentic.”

    My experience differs when it comes to the greater manifestations of the spirit. A vision is presented with sufficient power that the recipient is unable to a misunderstand what the Lord is communicating to him/her. A “feeling” or an impression can be misunderstood. We are taught that it takes time and experience to develop and grow in our ability to discern impressions. On occasion, I’ve make mistakes thinking an impression that came to my mind was from the Lord, however, as events related to the impression came about I had to conclude that I had erred.

  48. My experience differs when it comes to the greater manifestations of the spirit. A vision is presented with sufficient power that the recipient is unable to a misunderstand what the Lord is communicating to him/her. A “feeling” or an impression can be misunderstood. We are taught that it takes time and experience to develop and grow in our ability to discern impressions.

    This is precisely what I grew to find discomforting about LDS quorums. Little games of “spiritual one-upmanship,” in which one seems to feel some great need to establish themselves as more devout, more “spiritually mature,” etc. “What? You dare disagree with me? Well, obviously you just aren’t experienced with the GREATER manifestations of the spirit! When you have lots of time and experience, like ME, then you’ll come bowing and scraping at my feet, to acknowledge my glorious superiority!” Ugly and repulsive.

  49. Nick–interesting response. No such attitude was suggested or present in my comment. I do not feel any superiority, I’m not playing a game of “spiritual one-upmanship”.

    What I meant by the “greater manifestations” as nothing to do with me, it has to do with the type of manifestation. A vision is “greater” in its impact than an impression.

  50. Jared, your comments strongly suggested that in your own view, you have had “greater” manifestations, and thus know more about the subject of visions than anyone you happen to disagree with here. You even attributed it to your “time and experience,” though you did give a polite nod to “occasional” mistakes, lest you come across in public as prideful.

  51. Nick– I’m sorry that you took offense at the “way I come across”. I’m in the Bloggernacle to learn and to share. I am not making judgments of others.

    Eight months ago I came to the Bloggernacle to do two things: 1) To learn from others about their experiences with the things of the Spirit, 2) to share my experiences. I didn’t know what to expect so I just jumped in. I soon learned that the things of the spirit are rarely talked about in the major LDS blogs. So I’ve set up my own blog. I am finding that people using google are interested in two subjects, prayer and repentance. Those post receive a lot of interest. However, few leave comments.

    I suppose it’s like many other things we encounter in life– there is a wide range of talent and capability manifest by men and women in every endeavor mankind undertakes, and apparently this is true with things of the spirit.

  52. I’m a little late for this discussion and regret my having been away. In conference a year ago or so, President Hinckley made the statement that the truthfulness of the church hung on the veracity of the First Vision. It either happened just as it is recorded in the PoGP or the church is a fraud. This was a very black and white statement with very definite consequences both ways. You either believe it, just as it’s written, or you should run from the church as no-one should want to be part of a fraud. No middle ground here, as some of you seem to be suggesting.

    I personally found his talk very hard to reconcile. I have tried to walk the middle path and find the good associated in fellowship with the saints, all-the-while feeling like the First Vision was at best believed by Joseph as a type 2 event (thanks Benjamin) or at worst made up to add validity to his claims of divine authority. Based on the things Joseph was teaching in the early days of the church, it seems quite clear that he didn’t develop an understanding of God being corporeal and separate from the Son until after 1835 or so. According to some LDS scholars, missionary work in the 1830’s didn’t involve any mention of the First Vision. That would seem to indicate that the event was not core to the restoration claims of the church and only became important after the Kirtland rebellion.

    Call me cynical, but taking what would seem to be a personal spiritual experience of Joseph’s, thereby making it unimportant for the rest of us, and turning it in the most important part of the restoration would seem problematic. If he had a type 3 event, as some have stated, it would seem to me that it would have been the first thing out of his mouth when telling folks why the modern Christian world was wrong and he had the truth. That was the premise of the missionary program when I was out. The very first thing we taught was the First Vision and its importance… I can’t buy into the argument that it was too scared to talk about early on as that would mean it still should be too scared to just put out there to anyone who opens their door to missionaries.

    Just my perspective on the whole First Vision thing, please feel free help me see the error in my logic…

  53. Post

    Doug G,

    I agree with you entirely. Elder Holland has made similar statements to Hinckley, and they are obviously for polemical purposes. No one who has arrived at a nuanced understanding of our founding events will be seduced by stark black-white dualism anymore. It’s untrue to life.

    I look forward to Nick’s post on certainty, as I think we add a thick, glossy patina of certitude to most events in our past, witness the seagulls eating crickets story, which is being slowly neglected in our storytelling now…

  54. Doug G, I understand and agree with what you are saying to a degree, but I just want to point out that “it either happened or it didn’t happen” actually is a pretty ambiguous statement as far as HOW it happened. This post is a great example of how members can view it as having happened in any number of differing ways and still believe it happened. Imho, it’s only when someone says that Joseph made it all up (that he was a liar and a fraud) that the line is crossed over to believing that it didn’t happen.

  55. Post


    I think I see what you’re getting at. What we think happened partly determines what lessons we derive from the story. My post next week gets into the meanings we derive.

  56. As Exodus 33:19-23 states that no one can see the face of GOD and live. So by that there is no way that he could have been physically present AND seen the face of GOD. Unless of course you are claiming that GOD can change, but that is a whole other topic.

  57. Ray,

    “I understand and agree with what you are saying to a degree, but I just want to point out that “it either happened or it didn’t happen” actually is a pretty ambiguous statement as far as HOW it happened”

    I completely agree with the statement being “ambiguous”, but remember I’m just quoting the guy who actually made the ambiguous statement. Thanks for the respectful answer.

    To your point about not calling JS a fraud, many people claim to have communication with the divine and I would be the last person to say they didn’t have it. In fairness, I wasn’t there in the woods that day, so I can’t possibly know what communication, if any, JS had with God. On the same point, nobody here actually knows what happened that day either.

    I used to state that “I knew” the First Vision occurred based on what I perceived were strong feelings in my heart about it. For some, those feelings will outweigh anything else. We think God is talking to us and thereby we get our ego stroked as well as go from simply believing to knowing. I say it’s an ego thing because we now also think that we’re worthy enough to have God communicate directly with us.

    One of the great waking moments of my life came when I realized those feelings are not always correct. Therefore, basing truth claims of the church strictly on feelings of what one perceives as the spirit is flawed in my opinion. Throughout our lives we tend to remember the times the feelings worked out to show truth and forget the times they don’t. For me, it came to a head when my mother died. I won’t go into the whole story; sufficient to say that she had what we all felt was a powerful spiritual blessing by the Bishop and then died the next day anyway. At the funeral, the Bishop expressed his great bewilderment at feeling so good about what he pronounced in the blessing and then having just the opposite transpire. For him, it made him question his worthiness to give blessings. For me, it was an awakening to understanding that feelings are much more apart of us chemically then spiritually. I’m not saying that God never talks to any of us. I’m just saying for me, that communication path is much more complex than my Mormon upbringing led me to believe. I think the same applies to JS; from my studies, it would seem that he was sincere in his belief that he had experienced something supernatural in his early youth. My point being, he could be 100% sure of his experience and yet in reality nothing actually happened. Just as some claim to “know” having faith no-longer, and yet the truth is actually quite different then their knowledge.

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  59. Great post. Sorry I’m late to the party. To your original question, I always thought of it as a “sci-fi” type visitation like John Hamer describes when I was growing up, but I have grown to understand that visions are seldom like that. I find the polemic arguments described from gen conf to be a rhetorical device more than anything else (e.g. “If it’s true, then what else matters?”)

    As to whether visions still occur, I agree that they are pretty common still, but not discussed openly. If someone told me about their vision, I’d probably be skeptical and would definitely consider the source, but I’m a product of the time we live in. People used to discuss these things very openly in society, and we just don’t do that now. I know of several visions and dreams that have occurred in my family or that I have had that were significant and important to me or to family members, but there is no point to sharing them broadly. They were for that individual’s benefit. Is the point to sharing them to “prove” that the church is still brimming with personal revelation? We can’t prove spiritual matters. Individual conversion is not a matter of proof. So, for better or worse, I don’t see the need.

  60. Just realized #60 could be read in different ways – ironically, making my point. 🙂

    I meant, I understand and can respect what you are saying.

  61. I think it’s clear that Joseph Smith was a typical teenager in most ways. His motivation for going to the Sacred Grove was personal, focused on himself and nobody else. So was his motivation for his prayer three years later, when Moroni visited him. Now, it’s also clear from the scriptures that such visions or visitations can be personal experiences, limited to the perception of the one receiving it. How this occurs is, of course, anyone’s guess. It’s clear, as well, that the Book of Mormon was the major focus of early missionary work and that the First Vision was not discussed publicly until a few years later. And, of course, there are different accounts of the First Vision, with different details and emphases in each. What do all of these facts tell us? I’m not sure. But what they don’t tell us is that we can’t know whether Joseph Smith was truly a prophet. Even for Joseph, it took years to grow into the principle of revelation, and he struggled in communicating his revelations and visions to the people. More importantly, he tried to teach people how revelation works in an individual’s life. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he started telling the First Vision story more publicly. If nothing else, we should trust that God does answer prayers.

  62. Pingback: Our Foundation Stories Part II: The Meaning of the First Vision at Mormon Matters

  63. In all this discussion one important point is not being factored in: Joseph Smith’s infatuation with the occult and his quest for distinction shared by his father and brother even to the carrying of the Jupiter Talisman to the moment of his death. Quoting and discussing evidences from the book of Moses (#4) is like taking both feet off the ground to stand a bit steadier. And citing Kolob (and that’s a big ‘if’, Zelph!)from the utterly discredited Abraham facsimiles is as fruitless. I agree we shall never know and a consideration of the fruits of any encounter with deity leaves me wondering what happened to Jesus over the last two thousand years to change his teachings so drastically as delivered by LDS prophets. It seems that the Holy Ghost who started out as God’s representitive is now a P.A. for the first president.

  64. Pingback: Expectations « Sunrise Tantalize

  65. It’s hard to say really. Being all-powerful, God and Jesus could have physically visited Joseph Smith, but still have been invisible to others.

    When Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon saw the vision of the three Mormon heavens (a doctrine that distinctively sets Mormonism apart from other Christian religions), there were 11 other men in the room who didn’t see a thing.

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