Joseph Smith’s History is not a journal entry document. It was written in 1838 when he was 32 years old, 8 years after the church was organized and 18 years after the First Vision. The retrospective record is useful because it excludes the mundane and irrelevant, focusing instead on the key elements which led to the formation of the Church.
“Can a record be accurate if made eighteen years after the fact? Of course, if the experience is profound. Famous people who write their life’s history usually have no diary of their early years, and Joseph Smith was intellectually mature at age thirty-two when he remembered his prayer in the grove at fourteen.” (Richard L. Anderson, Ensign, Apr. 1996, 10–20)
1838 did not start well for the Prophet Joseph Smith. He recorded: “A new year dawned upon the Church in Kirtland in all the bitterness of the spirit of apostate mobocracy; which continued to rage and grow hotter and hotter, until Elder Rigdon and myself were obliged to flee from its deadly influence, as did the Apostles and Prophets of old, and as Jesus said, ‘when they persecute you in one city, flee to another.’ On the evening of the 12th of January, about ten o'clock, we left Kirtland, on horseback, to escape mob violence, which was about to burst upon us under the color of legal process to cover the hellish designs of our enemies, and to save themselves from the just judgment of the law.” (History of the Church, 3:1)
By mid-March, the Prophet arrived in the new church headquarters of Far West, Missouri. The Missouri days were a time to clean house and set the record straight. Apostasy had contributed to driving Joseph and Sidney from Kirtland, but Missouri had its own fair share of dissent. The Prophet was pleased with the local High Council’s diligence in dealing with these rebellious Brethren. But these weren’t just any Brethren, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were excommunicated, as was William W. Phelps. Four of the 12 Apostles were excommunicated between March and May: William E. McLellin, Lyman E. Johnson, Luke S. Johnson, and John F. Boynton (See History of the Church 3:3-31). Driven from the safety of Kirtland, losing two out of three of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and losing one third of the Council of the Twelve, one might expect the Prophet to be in a deep depression. Ironically, his spirits don’t seem to be melancholy in the least. While we might ask if the young Church survive without these Brethren, the Prophet seemed to understand that it could. Indeed, how could the Prophet’s attitude be so positive unless he knew the destiny of the Church was larger than any of its individual leaders? He seemed to understand that no individual apostasy could mar the progress of the kingdom of God. In classic fashion, those who kick against the pricks only hurt themselves.
Another apostate at this crucial time was Church Historian, John Whitmer. For a year or two after his calling in March 1831(D&C 47), Whitmer did a fair job at keeping a history of the Church. The Prophet, however, was not particularly impressed. The preceding 5 years’ performance had been woefully inadequate and the Prophet wanted to personally edit and augment the work. John refused to give up the history he had kept, even when the Prophet sent him a stern letter requesting it. This was the impetus for the Prophet to take the time to write his story. If John Whitmer couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, the Prophet would do it himself. This also demonstrates the prophetic insight of the Seer! He was not worried about the Church imploding because of apostasy; he was more concerned that the kingdom of God on earth had a proper history.
April 27 ,—This day I chiefly spent in writing a history of the Church from the earliest period of its existence up to this date.” (History of the Church, 3:25-26)
JS-History 1:1 many reports… have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons
Ohio newspapers of the 1830’s had a heyday with Mormonism. The new religion was fascinating fodder for the tabloids of the time. Attacks came on three fronts: 1) the Book of Mormon, 2) the church leaders, especially the Prophet, and 3) the deluded converts.
The Book of Mormon
The first explanation for the book’s origin was that it was the fanciful creation of Joseph Smith, a “cunningly devised fable,” full of “dull, stupid and foolishly improbable stories.” Another report called it a “miserable attempt at imitation;” a complete fake of the King James English, “full of barbarisms and ungrammaticisms.” One critic took only two words to find fault with the book. After reading “I, Nephi,” he became immediately “disgusted with such puffing egotism,” as if the use of a personal pronoun was scriptural heresy. In summary, their conclusion was, “the Book of Mormon cannot survive this generation.” (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscoh02.htm
Of course, there is a lot of great theology in the Book of Mormon. So these denunciations fail to explain how unschooled Joseph could have written it. Hence, the next explanation came from apostate, “Doctor” P. Hurlburt. He told the papers that the Book of Mormon was written by a clergyman 30 years ago. His intent was to write a romance, but died before it could be completed. Sidney Rigdon is given credit for the finishing touches. (Guernsey Times, Cambridge, Ohio, Jan. 18, 1834) Theoretically, as clergy, this man and Rigdon could write a theological treatise, but a romance? Besides, who would ever classify the Book of Mormon as a romance novel? The other obvious problem with this explanation is that Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith never met until many months after the Book of Mormon was published.
Next in line was the Spaulding Theory. This explanation lasted longer than the other two.
“It appears that Mormonism owes its origin to an individual named Solomon Spalding, who wrote the historical part of the Book of Mormon, or, as it is sometimes called, the Mormon Bible. But it was done more than twenty years ago, and without the least intention, on the part of the author, of framing a system of delusion for his fellow men. This Solomon Spalding was a native of Ashford, Connecticut, where he was distinguished at an early age, for his devotion to study, and for the superiority of his success over that of his schoolmates. At a proper age, he received an academic education at Plainfield, and afterward commenced the study of law at Windham. But his mind becoming inclined to religious subjects, he abandoned the study of law, and went to Dartmouth College for the purpose of preparing himself for the ministry. After receiving the degree of A. M., he was regularly ordained, and continued in the ministry for about three years; but for some reason not known, he abandoned that profession and established himself as a merchant at Cherry [Valley], in the State of New York. Failing in trade, he removed to Conneaut, in the State of Ohio, where he built a forge; but again failed, and was reduced to great poverty. While in this condition he endeavored to turn his education to account by writing a book, the sale of which he hoped would enable him to pay his debts and support his family.
“The subject selected for this purpose was one well suited to his religious education. The work was to be a historical novel, containing a history of the Aborigines of America, who, according to the notion of those who refer all questions of history, science, and morals to the scriptures, were supposed to be descended from the Jews.” (The Ohio Repository, Canton, Ohio, Sep. 1, 1836, vol. 22, no. 18) (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscoh08.htm)
Early reports described Joseph Smith as ordinary and dull: “He is tall and slender… having but little expression of countenance, other than that of dulness (sic); his mental powers appear to be extremely limited.” The Cincinnati Daily Gazette
called him “an indolent, ignorant, careless shiftless fellow.” (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscohio.htm
) Yet this individual of apparently limited capacity had gathered quite a following. Deluded fanatics, it seemed, were perfectly willing to give up their money to the “Mormonite” leader.
There was the motivation—church leaders kept a “steady eye on the success of the money making scheme.” Ironically borrowing arguments from Korihor (Alma 30:24-31), the Mormon Mohammed used revelations to control the faith of the converts, keeping them in “mental and moral slavery” while glutting himself upon their labors (Cincinnati Journal
, Jan. 1833). (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscoh02.htm
The system seems pretty complex and clever for such a simple-minded knave. Others, from Martin Harris to Sidney Rigdon to Oliver Cowdery were also implicated in the scheme. Martin was the foolish financier. Sidney Rigdon was the “arch apostate.” William W. Phelps had “respectable talents and keen wit” but was still “carried away with this fanatical delusion.”
Why would anyone believe in the Golden Bible and Joseph Smith? Coverts to the new faith were painted as deluded religious fanatics. Fanatics usually pose little risk to mainstream society, but not with the Mormons. They were a threat. When smallpox broke out, the concern was that the Mormons “would be the means of scattering the infection through the country.” What of abolition? Mormons were accused of spreading “a spirit of insurrection in the slaves.” If that wasn’t inflammatory enough, the Mormons were going to start another war in Missouri: “The Mormons are said to be preparing for another attack on Jackson County, the scene of their former disasterous defeat. They are arming to the number of 1,500 or 2,000 men.” (Ohio Observer
, Hudson, Ohio, Thurs., July 21, 1836, vol. 10, no. 18) (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscoh08.htm
) Mormons were also becoming too powerful and political.
“There has been observed a striking change among our neighbors, the Mormons, in the course of three years… For some time past they have been swelling up with pride and ambition. They have become exceedingly fond of political power. They are ready to seize upon all the town offices, and divide them among themselves exclusively; and some of the oldest inhabitants are greatly disturbed at their domineering spirit… The love of money is the root of all evil. It has completely infatuated these Mormons… how shall I become rich and obtain an eligible site in the New Jerusalem is all the theme.” (Ohio Observer
, Hudson, Ohio, March 2, 1837, no. 10, vol. 50) (http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/OH/miscoh08.htm
JS-History 1:2 Joseph Smith begins writing the history in 1838
“On the day the Church was organized, the Lord, through revelation, told the Prophet, ‘There shall a record be kept among you’ (D&C 21:1). From that time, Joseph Smith sought to write a faithful history of his life and of the Church… Joseph set out to obey the Lord’s instructions and soon appointed Oliver Cowdery as Church Historian (see Jessee, 1984, 3). The keeping of the history, however, proved much more difficult than Joseph may have imagined. Some years later he complained:
Since I have been engaged in laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have been prevented in various ways from continuing my journal and history in a manner satisfactory to myself or in justice to the cause. Long imprisonments, vexatious and long-continued law-suits, the treachery of some of my clerks, the death of others, and the poverty of myself and brethren from continued plunder and driving, have prevented my handing down to posterity a connected memorandum of events desirable to all lovers of truth; yet I have continued to keep up a journal in the best manner my circumstances would allow, and dictate for my history from time to time, as I have had opportunity so that the labors and suffering of the first Elders and Saints of this last kingdom might not wholly be lost to the world. (History of the Church, 4:470)
“With consistent and stubborn tenacity, Joseph kept trying to produce an up-to-date and accurate history… It is of note that Joseph did little of the actual writing himself. Though he had a readable hand, he felt slow and awkward using the pen. He preferred to dictate his words to trusted clerks. In 1844 he wrote, ‘For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have each accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said’ (History of the Church, 6:409).
“It was not always like that. One of the frustrations Joseph faced early in his ministry was the lack of faithful Church historians. Oliver Cowdery had barely started the task when the Lord called him to labor in Missouri. Joseph, through revelation, next appointed John Whitmer. He was a reluctant scribe but did manage to keep at least a partial record over the next seven years. Unfortunately, his ardor for the Church cooled, and by 1838 he was released. In bitterness, he refused to hand his records over. Though this history was later recovered, his actions forced Joseph to appoint others to reproduce the history as best they could and then continue keeping the records. In all, Joseph Smith appointed seventeen men as Church historians.” (The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse by Verse Commentary, RD Draper, SK Brown, MD Rhodes, [SLC: Deseret Book, 2005], 325-327)
JS-History 1:3 I was born… on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon… Vermont
By all accounts, Vermont winters are inhospitable. The biting wind and bone-chilling cold are legendary. Amidst this cold in a small cabin in Sharon Vermont, a remarkable thing happened. It is said that when God wants to change the world, He doesn’t open the heavens riding chariots of fire to declare divine decrees in a thunderous display; instead, He sends a tiny babe to the earth. Such was the case with the inconspicuous birth of Joseph Smith.
The Christmas season in the early 19th century was quite a bit different than it is today. At least in New England, it was before celebrations involved Santa Claus, gift giving, or Christmas trees. Charles Dickens had not yet invented Ebenezer Scrooge. Nonetheless, Americans were very religious and enjoyed the Christmas season in their own way. It seems an appropriate time of year for the Savior’s latter-day prophet to be born.
Birthplace of Joseph Smith
During the summers, the area is absolutely beautiful, but Joseph Smith wasn’t born in the summer. Calendar calculators tell us that December 23, 1805 was a Monday. Although the third son, the name of Joseph was reserved for him to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Joseph of Egypt (2 Ne. 3:15).
Lucy Mack Smith
Here my husband rented a farm of my father, which he cultivated in the summer season and in the winter taught school. In this way my husband continued laboring for a few years, during which time our circumstances gradually improved until we found ourselves quite comfortable again.
Here it was that my son Joseph was born, December 23, 1805. (The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, SF Proctor and MJ Proctor, [SLC: Bookcraft, 1996], 62)
George F. Richards
Joseph Smith was born of humble parentage in an obscure village. He never went to college nor attended high school, but he accomplished in the short period of his life of thirty-eight and one-half years more than any other mortal man of his time, if not of all time… During the short life of the Prophet Joseph Smith he was instrumental in the hands of the Lord in the establishment of the Church and kingdom of God on earth as seen in vision by the Prophet Daniel…
The works of Joseph Smith and the spirit that prompted them live on in the hearts and lives of his followers. (Conference Report, October 1949, Afternoon Meeting 153)
JS-History 1:3 My father, Joseph Smith, Sen., left the State of Vermont, and moved to Palmyra
One of the difficult lessons of mortality is to understand that bad things happen to us for reasons only the Lord knows. God needed Joseph Smith in Palmyra. He could have sent an angel to Joseph Smith, Sr. telling him to move his family to New York, but that is rarely the way the Lord works. Crop failures and bad weather drove the Smiths out of Vermont. The Prophet’s Mother wrote:
“The first year (1814) our crops failed, and we bought our bread with the proceeds of the orchard and our own industry. The second year they failed again. In the ensuing spring, Mr. Smith said that we would plant once more on this farm, and if he did not succeed better, we would go to New York, where the farmers raise wheat in abundance.
“This next year (1816) was like the preceding seasons. An untimely frost blighted the vegetation, and being the third year in succession in which the crops had failed, it well nigh produced a famine. This was enough. My husband was now altogether decided upon going to New York. One day he came into the house and sat down, and after meditating some time, he said that could he so arrange his affairs, he would be glad to start soon for New York with one Mr. Howard, who was going to Palmyra.” (The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, SF Proctor and MJ Proctor, [SLC: Bookcraft, 1996], 81-82)
God had a plan to get the Smiths where He needed them. The Lord places us where he needs us as well. Paul taught that God “hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Neal A. Maxwell mused, “If God… had not planned accordingly, we might well have ended up having Joseph Smith born in Manchuria and the Book of Mormon plates buried in Belgium!” (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979], 17)
“1816… was known as the year without a summer. Lucy spoke of an ‘untimely frost.’ Actually on June 8 several inches of snow fell all across the highlands of northern New York and New England, and ice formed on the ponds. The entire summer was cold and dry. Famine compelled farmers to pay $3 a bushel for imported corn. As Lucy remembered it, ‘This was enough: my husband was now altogether decided upon going to New York.’ Thousands of Vermonters left the state…
“For over a decade, weather, crop failures, creditors, illness, and business failures had battered the Smith household economy. They were in desperate shape by the time they left Norwich, but not without resources. Stories of New York land available on long credit gave them hope.” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, [Random House, NY, 2005], 27-28)
The move to New York was accomplished in stages. Joseph Sr. was the first to move. He had gone ahead with his brother Asael to find a place to live and make preparations. This left Lucy with the children, including Joseph who was about 10, back in Vermont. While she had the help of the older sons, Don Carlos Smith had been born in March of 1816 and was just a baby at the time of the move.
Creditors called upon her demanding payments. These were not legitimate claims, but Lucy paid them $150 which amounted to 2/3 of what she had for the journey. Paying every last debt was always important in the Smith family—even if the creditor was unfair. In order to avoid lawsuits and because she was in a hurry to go, she paid them anyway.
Lucy Mack Smith
I pursued my journey, but it was only a short time until I discovered that the man who drove the team in which we rode was an unprincipled, unfeeling wretch by the manner in which he handled my goods and money, as well as his treatment of my children, especially Joseph. This child was compelled by Mr. Howard to travel for miles at a time on foot, though he was still somewhat lame (from the typhoid infection in his leg). We bore patiently with repeated aggravations until we came twenty miles west of Utica, when one morning we were preparing as usual for starting on the day's journey. My oldest son came to me and said, "Mother, Mr. Howard has thrown the goods out of the wagon and is about getting off with the team." I told him to call the man in. I met him in the barroom, where there was a large company of travelers, both male and female, and I demanded his reason for such a procedure. He answered that the money which I had given him was all exhausted and he could go no farther.
I turned to those present and said, "Gentlemen and ladies, please give me your attention for a moment. Now, as there is a God in heaven, that wagon and horses, as well as the goods that accompany them, are mine. This man is determined to take away from me every means of proceeding on my journey, leaving me with eight little children, utterly destitute. But I forbid you, Mr. Howard, from driving one step with my wagon or horses. And here I declare that the teams, goods, and children, with myself, shall go together to my husband and their father. As for you, sir, I have no use for you, and you can ride or walk the rest of the way as you please; but I shall take charge of my own affairs." I then proceeded on my way, and in a short time I arrived in Palmyra with a small portion of my effects, my babes, and two cents in money, but perfectly happy in the society of my family.
The joy I felt in throwing myself and my children upon the care and affection of a tender husband and father doubly paid me for all I had suffered. The children surrounded their father, clinging to his neck, covering his face with tears and kisses that were heartily reciprocated by him. (The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, SF Proctor and MJ Proctor, [SLC: Bookcraft, 1996], 84-86)
JS-History 1:3 after my father’s arrival in Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester
At first, the Smiths lived in a small log cabin within the town of Palmyra proper. Once they had made arrangements to lease some farmland to the south, they moved to Manchester township, about 2 miles away. In Joseph Smith’s day, Palmyra and Manchester were in the same county. Today they are not. Hence, Joseph says that Palmyra and Manchester were in the same county of Ontario.
“The Smiths lived in Palmyra without a farm. Since selling their property in 1803, they had rented land and supplemented farming by hiring out their labor and engaging in small enterprises. In Palmyra they lived by their labor alone. Lucy painted oilcloth table coverings, and the family sold refreshments from a small shop. On public occasions, they peddled the goods from a cart. Joseph Sr. and the older sons hired out for haying and harvesting in the peak seasons when every farmer needed extra hands, and took on odd jobs like gardening and digging wells. High wheat prices from 1812 to 1819 enabled farmers to pay for extra labor. The contributions of Alvin and Hyrum made a big addition to the family income. When the census taker came to the Smiths in 1820, Joseph Jr. was not listed, probably because he was living elsewhere earning during the growing season.
“The combination of Palmyra’s flourishing economy, the wages of Alvin and Hyrum, and the family’s industry allowed the Smiths to contract for a farm for the first time in fifteen years. The growing population had not yet occupied all of Palmyra’s and Farmington’s virgin land, and the Smiths located a wooded tract less than two miles south of Palmyra village on Stafford Road… In July 1820, Joseph Smith Sr. contracted with Zechariah Seymour, land agent of the Evertson heirs, to pay $600 to $700 for 100 acres.
“The Smiths moved onto their land in stages. Before obtaining title to the land, the Smiths raised a log house adjacent to their prospective purchase on the land of a local merchant, Samuel Jennings, possibly to begin clearing the land they intended to buy. Purchase was delayed until the Evertson estate appointed an agent in June 1820, but the Smiths were living on the Jennings property by 1819 and perhaps a year earlier. An early visitor described the house as having two rooms on the ground floor—one doubtless a kitchen-dining room—and a low garret divided in two. When they built the house in 1818 or 1819, the Smiths had to find sleeping spaces for ten people: six boys ages nineteen to two; two girls, fifteen and six; and the parents. They soon added a bedroom wing of sawed slabs to the dwelling. Crowded though it was, the ‘snug log house, neatly furnished,’ with ‘the means of living comfortably,’ satisfied Lucy for the time being.” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, [Random House, NY, 2005], 31-33)
Log home adjacent to the Smith Property: Joseph lived here at the time of the First Vision and Moroni’s initial visit.
JS-History 1:4 Alvin… died November 19th, 1823, in the 26th year of his age
“Alvin lived seven years after the family’s move to New York… During these years, Alvin and Hyrum made special contributions to buying and improving the farm… The Smiths now followed the pioneer pattern of replacing the cabin with a frame house, and again Alvin took the lead. We watch him through Lucy’s eyes: ‘My oldest son took principle charge of this, and when the month of November, 1822 arrived, the house was raised and all the materials procured for completing the building. Alvin was very much animated by the idea, as he said, of making father and mother so comfortable. He would say: `I am going to have a nice pleasant room for them to sit in and everything arranged for their comfort, and they shall not work as they have done any more.’
“Alvin was then twenty-four, and Joseph, at seventeen, was deeply influenced by his older brother’s example of constant loyalty to family and parents. Joseph later called Alvin ‘the noblest of my father’s family,’ one who ‘lived without spot from the time he was a child.’… Alvin was clearly Joseph’s role model in labor and obedience, contributing much to Joseph’s strong feelings of responsibility to God and to others. He was evidently also well adjusted socially, for his mother notes the person who “felt our grief more deeply than the rest” at Alvin’s passing—‘a lovely young woman who was engaged to be married to my son shortly after the time in which he died.’
“By 1823, much of the farm land had been cleared, the new frame home was nearly ready for occupancy—and Joseph was ready for the visit of Moroni. Sometime after Joseph retired to his room the evening of September 21, the angel visited him three times and revealed the existence of the ancient record.
“The next morning, Joseph labored weakly in the field. Lucy Smith’s history describes how Alvin noticed Joseph slackening, how Joseph was sent to the house by his father, how Joseph then received another vision commanding him to tell his father, and how Alvin obeyed Joseph’s request to bring their father to hear of the revelation. Joseph next went to the hill, and that night Alvin saw that Joseph was too emotionally drained to talk further. So the oldest brother proposed that all should work hard enough to quit an hour early the next day in order to hear Joseph.
“Alvin immediately believed Joseph’s story. As Lucy Smith emphasized: ‘Alvin had ever manifested a greater zeal and anxiety, if it were possible, than any of the rest with regard to the record which had been showed to Joseph.’ The Prophet and his mother consistently give Alvin a secondary role. The Prophet had first received the spiritual experiences, and Alvin was an eager listener.
“Two months later, these scenes of excitement were replaced by mourning for the departed eldest brother. Painfully attacked by stomach cramps, possibly caused by appendicitis, Alvin asked for a doctor. The family’s regular physician could not be found, so a substitute gave Alvin calomel, a chalky substance later found in his blocked intestine along with gangrene. To the Smiths, the heavy dose of the purging agent was unforgivable medical malpractice, and their family physician agreed. Yet his regular doctor may not have been able to save him, either. Treating a ruptured appendix was beyond any medical skill of the time.
“Alvin faced pain and death with courage and control, using his last moments to express love, to urge Hyrum to finish the house, to encourage Joseph. Lucy emphasized her oldest son’s dying faith in the Prophet’s mission: ‘Alvin was never so happy as when he was contemplating the final success of his brother in obtaining the record. And now I fancied I could hear him with his parting breath conjuring his brother to continue faithful that he might obtain the prize which the Lord had promised him.’
“In Lucy Smith’s history, Alvin began to be sick on November 15 and died late in the night of November 19. Mother Smith says that four additional physicians were called, and the account of one of them has an entry dated 19 November 1823: ‘Joseph Smith visit, attend, $3.00.’ The billing may be for the autopsy. This is also the date of the Palmyra gravestone: ‘In memory of Alvin, son of Joseph & Lucy Smith, who died Nov. 19, 1823, in the 25 year of his age.’
“Alvin’s death was a tragic blow for the family. Perhaps it was part of a divine plan. At least Joseph’s vision of Alvin in the celestial kingdom confirms that Alvin ‘would have received’ the gospel had he ‘been permitted to tarry.’ (D&C 137:7.) As we have seen, Alvin heard his younger brother relate his first attempt to get the plates, and he died a devout believer in Joseph’s mission.
“As the comments and histories of the Smith family have been brought together, it has become clear that the impact of Alvin’s death was the ‘great affliction’ remembered by the Prophet. (See JS—H 1:56.) Joseph was nearly eighteen when his brother died, but he carried the shock of that night into his latest years: ‘I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart when he died.’ Lucy Smith later pictured the family’s feelings for the oldest son who would ‘return no more in this life—we all with one accord wept over our irretrievable loss.’” (Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 68–69)
JS-History 1:5 there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion
The term “unusual excitement” might be an understatement. Historians have confirmed that a wave of lay preachers stirred up the western New York settlers in camp meetings in the early 1800’s. The movement has been called the “Second Great Awakening.”
“The Second Great Awakening was a Christian revival movement during the early 19th century in the United States. The movement began around 1800, had begun to gain momentum by 1820, and was in decline by 1870. The Second Great Awakening expressed Arminian theology, by which every person could be saved through revivals. It enrolled millions of new members, and led to the formation of new denominations. Many converts believed that the Awakening heralded a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
“Upstate New York was called the ‘Burned-over district’ because of the numerous revivals that crisscrossed the region. On the frontier the Awakening supported growth of the Methodists and Baptists. Baptists and Methodist revivals were also successful in some parts… where an increasing number of plain folk (and slaves) were converted. Revivalists techniques were based on the camp meeting, with its Scottish Presbyterian roots.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening
“Post-revolutionary American women and men pondered and experienced religion with an intensity singular in the nation's history. What Joseph Smith termed ‘an unusual excitement on the subject of religion’ was an indication of the new nation's growing religious pluralism… It affected not only upstate New York, but all of New England, as well as the southern back country where Baptists and Methodists had kept alive the enthusiasm of the earlier Great Awakening (1740-1743).” (Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992], 4)
JS-History 1:6 a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued
Sectarian zeal was unbounded in its efforts to secure as many of the new converts as possible to its own particular denomination. There was a cry of lo here and of lo there, not infrequently accompanied with remarks of detraction about the opposing sects. The priests, each jealous for his own church, contended fiercely with one another, so that they who ought to have been the most exemplary in that conduct which makes for peace on earth and good will towards men, were often the most to be blamed for stirring up contention.
Such a wave of religious fervor brought about in the manner above set forth, and attended with results described, passed over the western part of the State of New York in the winter and spring of 1820… It can well be imagined… [that] the bitterness among the sects taking part in the movement would be correspondingly great when it came to dividing up the spoils. By which I mean when the converts made by a unity of effort began to file off some to one sect and some to another. Such was the case. Presbyterians opposed Methodists, and Methodists Baptists; and Baptists opposed both the other sects. All was strife, contention, confusion, beneath which Christian charity and good will to man—these weightier matters of the law—were buried so far out of sight that it might be questioned if they ever existed. (New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909], 1: 167 - 168)
JS-History 1:7 I was at this time in my fifteenth year
Today, we don’t give our age the same way the Prophet did. If you are in your 15th year, then you are 14 years old. A baby is in his first year until his first birthday. The Prophet was in his 15th year until his 15th birthday.
So the Prophet was only 14 years old! As prophets of old (Enoch, Samuel, Nephi, et al) he was called in his youth, but this has been a sticky point for many a skeptic. How is one to believe that God would appear to a 14 year old boy? Nonsense! “It’s incredible. Or it’s stupid! A 14-year-old boy can’t talk to God. And the Bible. It’s complete. Why should we need any more scriptures than we already have?” (Richard M. Romney, “An Apple a Day,” New Era, Oct. 1982, 15) These are the initial feelings of many an investigator. Many can never get past it.
Gordon B. Hinckley
I have wondered at times why the Lord would have him go in as a 14-year-old boy. Why didn’t He wait until [Joseph] was 20 or 30 or 40, when he would have had the weight of authority that comes with age? He went in—the Lord permitted it—and responded to his inquiry because he came in perfect trust as a boy. There was no doubt in his mind. He said that if anyone needed wisdom, he needed wisdom, and he asked for it, with full confidence that something would happen as a result of his prayer. (Ensign, Aug. 1997, 3)
Marvin J. Ashton
The total and complete honesty of a young 14-year-old boy has made more impact on our day than any other modern occurrence. (Tambuli, Mar. 1984, 29)
JS-History 1:8 my feelings were deep and often poignant
Joseph’s search for the truth was extensive. He pondered the heavens and their majesty and tried to make sense of the religions presented to him. Evidence suggests his concerns weighed heavily on him for more than just a few weeks.
From the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world. (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984], 5)
JS-History 1:8 my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect
The Methodist church followed the teachings of Anglican cleric and theologian, John Wesley (1703-1791). When we look at Methodist doctrines, we can see how Joseph would be naturally drawn to them.
“Most Methodists identify with the Armenian conception of free will, through God's prevenient grace, as opposed to the theological determinism of absolute predestination.
“Methodism affirms the traditional Christian belief in the triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the orthodox understanding of the [simultaneous] humanity and divinity of Jesus.
“It is a historical position of the church that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason. By reason, it is said, one reads and is able to interpret Scripture coherently and consistently. By reason one determines whether one's Christian witness is clear. By reason one asks questions of faith and seeks to understand God's action and will.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodism
The emphasis on moral agency, the rejection of predestination, the nature of the Godhead, the divinity of Jesus, the importance of scripture, reason, testimony, and faith would all be important tenets of the restored gospel. Indeed, it was Joseph’s “question of faith” that gave him the desire to “understand God’s action and will” at this critical time.
“Methodist preachers were the most aggressive frontier missionaries, relying heavily on the camp meeting. Scores and hundreds would gather in New York woods as circuit preachers often joined forces for days of exhorting, hymn singing, and group praying. Such meetings were so common that they were rarely noticed in the press, though one camp meeting reached the Palmyra newspaper in the spring of 1820 because of the report of a death. These wilderness persuasions were associated with the Prophet in a reliable recollection. A Palmyra printer who knew young Joseph Smith said the boy caught ‘a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods on the Vienna road.’ The Prophet says of this period that he attended various ‘meetings as often as occasion would permit,’ that ‘in process of time’ he favored Methodism, ‘and I felt some desire to be united with them’ (JS—H 1:8). Such feelings could have been influenced by the Methodist ‘excitement’ in the area in 1819—the annual meeting of the Genesee Conference, which gathered more than a hundred circuit preachers from New York west of the Hudson valley and from the adjacent section of Lower Canada. That year, the assembly was at the village of Vienna (now Phelps), a dozen miles from the Smith farm. The conference format is clear from vivid recollections of annual conferences just before and after 1819. The time and place of these weeklong sessions were designated the year before. Crowds assembled at the open Sunday services. Seasoned ministers known for fiery and emotional preaching were at the Vienna conference… [with] gatherings typically too large for any building.” (Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” Ensign, Apr. 1996, 15–16)
JS-History 1:8 it was impossible… to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong
George Q. Cannon
There was division throughout all the religious world. Ministers of religion were quarreling as to points of doctrine and as to the plan of salvation. Every denomination had a different method which they taught to all who enquired as the method by which they should obtain salvation. In the midst of all this uncertainty, honest souls groped about, seeking here and there for the right path. There is but one path—"one faith, one Lord, one baptism," as the great Apostle said; and these honest souls in the various nations were groping for this path, enquiring of these professed leaders where it lay and how they could enter it, and each minister pointing out his path, his little track, as the right one. What were men and women to do under such circumstances? Filled with doubt and anxiety concerning their future, they did not know what to do. (Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 5 vols. [Burbank, Calif., and Woodland Hills, Ut.: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992], vol. 2, March 1, 1891)
Sterling W. Sill
Out of over two billion people who presently occupy the earth, only one-third even bear the name of Christian. And this one-third is divided into some 250 contending sects, all claiming to accept the Bible as the inspired word of God and the only authoritative rule of faith and doctrine. Their confusion on even the most simple points of doctrine is indicated by the report that some seventy-eight of these baptize by immersion, many sprinkle, sixty-eight have optional forms, sixty-seven practice infant baptism, many have no baptism. Thirty-nine require no adherent to creed or doctrine of any kind.
Almost every Protestant church came into existence because of “a protest” or an “argument.” The division of opinion caused by the Civil War was responsible for the formation of many new churches. The Church of England was organized because the Pope refused to give Henry VIII a divorce. There are many “state churches.” It was Emperor Constantine, not the servants of the Lord, that made Christianity the church of the Roman Empire.
And as this famine has run its long, destructive course, many of the truths that Jesus came to give to the world have been lost. (Conference Report, April 1956, First Day—Morning Meeting 16)
JS-History 1:10 are they all wrong together?
Here we find a small inconsistency with Joseph’s story. After the First Vision, he said, “it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong” (JS-History 1:18). Before the First Vision, he wondered, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (v. 10)
Most likely, young Joseph did not consider the possibility that they were all wrong as a 14 year old boy. This inconsistency is likely a product of recording the history 18 years after the event occurred. For 18 years since the vision, Joseph understood that they were all wrong. But he probably didn’t even think of that possibility until after God told him. A young boy would not likely make such a lofty assumption. He certainly didn’t go into the Sacred Grove with an agenda to denounce all Christian sects as wrong.
JS-History 1:11 I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse
Bruce R. McConkie
This single verse of scripture has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age. It might well be said that the crowning act of the ministry of James was not his martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus, but his recitation, as guided by the Holy Ghost, of these simple words which led to the opening of the heavens in modern times.
And it might well be added that every investigator of revealed truth stands, at some time in the course of his search, in the place where Joseph Smith stood. He must turn to the Almighty and gain wisdom from God by revelation if he is to gain a place on that strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life. (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 247)
Ezra Taft Benson
Take time to meditate. Meditation on a passage of scripture—James 1:5—led a young boy into a grove of trees to commune with his Heavenly Father. That is what opened the heavens in this dispensation. (“Seek the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 2)
JS-History 1:14 I retired to the woods… on the morning of a beautiful, clear day
Gordon B. Hinckley
This is where the First Vision occurred. This is the pivotal thing of our story. Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its root in the First Vision of the boy prophet. Without it we would not have anything much to say. This was the great curtain-raiser on the dispensation of the fulness of times, when God promised that He would restore all the power, the gifts, the blessings, of all previous dispensations in one great summing up. (New York Rochester Missionary Meeting, July 12, 1996) (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 226)
JS-History 1:15 I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me
There are certain limitations on Satan’s powers (See Job 1:7-12), but this account shows a power of darkness that could almost take Joseph’s life. Let’s be clear—Satan would have killed him if he could.
“Satan… knew who this young boy was—he knew Joseph was a spiritual redwood; he knew Joseph was destined to be a ‘disturber… of his kingdom’ (Joseph Smith-History 1:20). Satan could see the plane in its landing pattern, and he knew Joseph Smith was the anointed pilot. But before the advent of something good and great, Satan always works the hardest. It happened at the birth of the Savior with the slaying of the innocents. It occurred again when the Savior commenced his mission and was confronted with the three temptations… And so it would be with the Prophet Joseph before the advent of this great and glorious contributions—Satan would be there in all his diabolic opposition. At all costs, Satan knew he must stop this young boy from proceeding to carry out his destined work. Satan was poised to make his preemptive strike. He was ‘as a roaring lion… seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).” (Tad Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, [SLC: Deseret Book, 2006], 339)
JS-History 1:17 When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages
Joseph’s choice of words fascinates me. Notice that he does not say, “I saw God and Jesus Christ.” This account was written for the public and the public notion at the time was, “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18). By 1838, the Prophet had suffered innumerable insults for claiming he had actually seen God. So in the public account, he is cleverly subtle, describing “two Personages” whose identity is clear from the following verses. Who says, “This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him” but the Father? As to the identity, there is no ambiguity, but there is a careful humility in this account rarely noticed by the casual observer. Perhaps when we share the message, we should use the same careful choice of words, considering the prejudices of our audience.
JS-History 1:17 Nature of the Godhead revealed
“How important is it for us to understand the nature of God? John the Beloved taught the imperative need to understand God when he wrote, ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true god, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3). The Church of the New Testament and the early Christian writers taught that God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost were three, separate, distinct beings, having a oneness in unity and purpose. Unfortunately, this simple doctrinal belief quickly evolved into a mystery, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were an inexplicable triune—three gods who were somehow only one substance and one God. In addition, the early Christian writers came to the erroneous conclusion that God was some immaterial essence.” (Tad Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, [SLC: Deseret Book, 2006], 106)
After centuries of this mysterious incomprehensible doctrine, the heavens would open and reveal the true nature of the Godhead. In other accounts of the vision, Joseph said these personages, “exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday.” They were distinct personages, in the form of men, with glorified bodies of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22).
Athanasian Creed (circa 8th century)
“We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one; of the Son, another; of the Holy Spirit, another. But the divinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one, the glory equal, the majesty equal. Such as is the Father, such also is the Son, and such the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal Beings, but one eternal Being. So also there are not three uncreated Beings, nor three infinite Beings, but one uncreated and one infinite Being. In like manner, the Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, and the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. And yet there are not three omnipotent Beings, but one omnipotent Being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God only. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord. And yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord only…”
Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 AD)
“There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions… In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost…” (http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Creeds.html
Councils of religious experts defined the nature of God for all of Christianity. Their creeds tell us what to believe. They represent the combined work of great scholars and priests. We can imagine large halls filled with finely adorned men condescending to define the nature of God for the common man.
We can heed the creeds of councils, or we can believe in the God revealed to a fourteen year old boy. Which is it? The experts or a 14 year old boy? Whom should we believe?
In an instant of real revelation, the creeds of Christianity crumble and blow away as the chaff in the wind. One eyewitness is worth more than centuries of scholars, priests, linguists, and experts! Joseph had actually seen God. He knew. He heard. He felt. He saw. In this ultimate epiphany, Joseph dispels the darkness of the ages. He is the one who can tell us the nature of the God we worship.
[If you] could gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject. (History of the Church, 6:50)
Any person that had seen the heavens opened knows that there are three personages in the heavens who hold the keys of power, and one presides over all. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 312)
Gordon B. Hinckley
During the short time of his great vision he learned more concerning the nature of Deity than all of those who through centuries had argued the matter in learned councils and scholarly forums. (“A Season for Gratitude,” Ensign, Dec. 1997, 2)
JS-History 1:19 they teach for doctrines the commandments of men
Joseph Fielding Smith
What was the condition of the religious world, which professed to believe in and practice the doctrines of the Redeemer, when the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith and instructed him? The answer is found in the words of the Lord which are similar to and a fulfillment of the prediction by Isaiah: "They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." Some of the leading teachings and practices were as follows:
- That God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are not three personages, but one ethereal, immaterial God, unknown and unknowable to man, who fills the immensity of space.
- That the canon of scripture is full and complete, and since the passing of the apostles there was to be no more revelation, no opening of the heavens and communications by angels, but the people were left to rely on what was written in the Bible or taught by their priests.
- That baptism is to cleanse us from "original sin," and that all little children had to be "regenerated" by baptism and if not baptized they will perish.
- That baptism is an ordinance acceptable to the Lord by sprinkling or pouring water on the heads of unbaptized adults or infants.
- That men may take upon themselves the authority to be ministers of the word of God, without a divine appointment by one duly authorized by Jesus Christ.
- That the organization of the Church as established in the days of Jesus Christ and his apostles is no longer necessary; there were to be no more apostles, prophets, and gifts of the spirit.
- That man was not created in the image of God in form, for God is not an anthropomorphic being.
- Other doctrines, such as the necessity for keys for the restoration of Israel, the need of the coming of Elijah, as proclaimed in the scriptures, are not necessary. (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., edited by Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956], 3: 285)
JS-History 1:19 having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof
“Gospel ordinances that resemble in form those that Deity has declared necessary for salvation but that lack divine priesthood authority, are not accepted by God and therefore lack the power to save souls. Furthermore, no matter how sincere a person’s intentions may be in performing or receiving a gospel ordinance, if the ordinance is performed without authority recognized by God, it has no power to save.” (Hoyt W. Brewster Jr., “I Have a Question,” Ensign, July 1987, 65)
Bruce R. McConkie
A form of godliness without saving power! A hollow shell shattered into many fragments! An illusive image without substance! An imitation of what God had aforetime revealed through Peter and Paul! A system of so-called Christianity which worshiped a God without power, a God who gave no revelations, unfolded no visions, worked no miracles, and had forgotten the unchangeable pattern of the past! All Christendom wallowing in the mire and filth of apostasy! (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 112)
JS-History 1:16-20 Other versions of the First Vision
When Joseph told the story of his first vocal prayer, the rendition was fitted to the circumstance and the audience. Therefore, we should not be surprised that other accounts supply information that is absent in the 1838 history. By way of summary, the other accounts add detail but don’t change doctrine. From them we learn that Joseph prayed in a small clearing where he had left an ax in the stump of a tree, that when he began to pray he thought he heard someone approaching from behind and got up to look, that the Savior told him his sins were forgiven him and testified it was He who was crucified for the sins of the world, that he saw many angels, and that after the vision, Joseph was filled with love for many days.
The following material is gratefully copied from Kent P. Jackson, From Apostasy to Restoration [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1996], 67-75.
The 1832 Draft History
The first known effort of Joseph Smith to record his sacred experiences was a document written in 1832. This history covers events from the Prophet's birth through the arrival of Oliver Cowdery to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon. The following excerpt, which is the earliest written report of the First Vision in existence, is entirely in Joseph Smith's own hand, making it an even more remarkable document because he usually dictated his words to scribes. We could assume that his original intention was to prepare the manuscript for publication, but that is not certain. It was never completed, and it remained in rough-draft condition throughout his lifetime.
1 At about the age of twelve years, my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures, believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.
2 Thus, applying myself to them, and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly, for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul.
3 Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen, I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind—the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.
4 My mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins.
5 And by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord, but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.
6 And I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world, for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever, that he was no respecter to persons, for he was God.
7 For I looked upon the sun, the glorious luminary of the earth, and also the moon, rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty, whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous [are] even in the likeness of him who created them.
8 And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, "Well hath the wise man said, 'It is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God'" [Ps. 14:1].
9 My heart exclaimed, "All these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power, a being who maketh laws and decreeth and bindeth all things in their bounds, who filleth eternity, who was and is and will be from all eternity to eternity."
10 And when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth, therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.
11 And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness. And while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the sixteenth year of my age, a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me, and I was filled with the Spirit of God.
12 And the Lord opened the heavens upon me, and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me, saying, "Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life."
13 "Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me."
14 "And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to their ungodliness, and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it [is] written of me, in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father."
15 And my soul was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy, and the Lord was with me. But [I] could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. Nevertheless, I pondered these things in my heart.
The 1835 Journal Account
In November 1835, Joseph Smith was visited in Kirtland, Ohio, by a well-known religious eccentric who went by the name "Joshua the Jewish Minister." During their conversations, the Prophet related to him some of his early experiences, including the First Vision. The following is the Prophet's journal entry documenting that conversation, as recorded by his scribe. This account, too, was never published in Joseph Smith's day and thus has also been preserved in rough-draft form.
1 Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong. And I considered it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences.
2 Being thus perplexed in mind, I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense that he had said, if the Bible be true, "Ask, and you shall receive; knock and it shall be opened; seek and you shall find" [Matt. 7:7]; and again, "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not" [James 1:5].
3 Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord for the first time, in the place above stated, or in other words I made a fruitless attempt to pray.
4 My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me. I strove again to pray but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang up on my feet and looked around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.
5 I kneeled again. My mouth was opened and my tongue liberated, and I called on the Lord in mighty prayer.
6 A pillar of fire appeared above my head. It presently rested down upon me and filled me with joy unspeakable. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed.
7 Another personage soon appeared like unto the first. He said unto me, "Thy sins are forgiven thee." He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
8 And I saw many angels in this vision.
9 I was about fourteen years old when I received this first communication.
The 1838 "History of Joseph Smith" (JS-H)
The longest and best-known of the Prophet's accounts of his First Vision was dictated to a scribe in 1838 as part of his official history, which eventually became the History of the Church.10 It shows every indication of having been written with great care. It is the most deliberate, the most detailed, and the most formal of the accounts. It was first published in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1842 and is now included in the Pearl of Great Price. Thus it is the only account that has been canonized as scripture…
The 1842 "Church History"
John Wentworth, publisher of the Chicago Democrat, requested that Joseph Smith write for him an article about the Church, which he planned to send to a friend who was writing a book. Accordingly, what has come to be known as the "Wentworth Letter" was written. The article apparently never was published in Wentworth's newspaper or in the book, but the Prophet published it himself in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. fn It was the first of the Prophet's accounts to appear in print. The article discusses the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the history of the Church. It ends with a brief sketch of some beliefs of the Church which we now call the Articles of Faith. Unlike the 1832 and 1835 accounts, this document was prepared for publication, presumably for readers who were not Latter-day Saints.
In 1843 the Prophet was asked to prepare a chapter on the Latter-day Saints for a book on various religious beliefs. It was published shortly before his death the next year. The account of the First Vision in it is almost identical to that in the 1842 "Church History."
1 When about fourteen years of age, I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state. And upon enquiring the plan of salvation, I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment. If I went to one society they referred me to one place, and another to another, each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection. Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.
3 Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James: "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" [James 1:5].
4 I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord.
5 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 and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday.
6 They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.
7 And I was expressly commanded to "go not after them," at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.
The 1843 Pittsburgh Gazette Interview
In 1843 Joseph Smith was interviewed by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. The following is his brief account of the First Vision as it was reported in that newspaper.
1 The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it. He revealed himself first to me when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy. I will tell you about it.
2 There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious and was desirous to know what church to join.
3 While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament promiscuously on these words in James: "Ask of the Lord, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not" [James 1:5]. I just determined I'd ask him.
4 I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work. And I kneeled down and prayed, saying, "O Lord, what church shall I join?"
5 Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage. And the first personage said to the second, "Behold my beloved Son, hear him."
6 I then addressed this second person, saying, "O Lord, what church shall I join?" He replied, "Don't join any of them; they are all corrupt."
7 The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back, and it was some time before my strength returned. (Kent P. Jackson, From Apostasy to Restoration [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1996], 67-75)
JS-History 1:16-20 Significance of the First Vision
Carlos E. Asay
All the towers ever built and all the spaceships ever launched pale in comparison to Joseph Smith’s first vision. Though men fly higher and higher into the heavens, they will not find God or see his face unless they humble themselves, pray, and heed the truths revealed through the Prophet of the Restoration.
Some have foolishly said, “Take away Joseph Smith and his prayer in the grove and the First Vision and we can accept your message.” Such people would have us bury the treasure of saving truths already cited, and many more, and turn our backs to “the most important event that had taken place in all world history from the day of Christ’s ministry to the glorious hour when [the First Vision] occurred” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968, p. 285). (Ensign, Apr. 1995)
Ezra Taft Benson
The first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith is bedrock theology to the Church. The adversary knows this and has attacked Joseph Smith's credibility from the day he announced the visitation of the Father and the Son. You should always bear testimony to the truth of the First Vision. Joseph Smith did see the Father and the Son. They conversed with him as he said they did. Any leader who, without reservation, cannot declare his testimony that God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith can never be a true leader, a true shepherd. If we do not accept this truth—if we have not received a witness about this great revelation—we cannot inspire faith in those whom we lead.
Some of our own members have attempted to interpret the experiences of Joseph Smith and his revelations. They say that it really is not important whether or not Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. What matters, they claim, is that he thought he did. That is preposterous. (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988], 101)
JS-History 1:20 I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom
The devil was disturbed when Joseph received the gold plates. He rejoiced when the 116 pages were lost but was annoyed when Joseph translated the small plates of Nephi to replace the lost material. He was disturbed when the Book of Mormon was published. He was annoyed when the Priesthood was restored. He was disturbed when the Church was organized. He was annoyed when church membership grew. He was disturbed by the saints settling in Zion. He was annoyed when they built the Kirtland temple. He was disturbed when Joseph’s revelations were published in The Book of Commandments. He was annoyed when the doctrine of Baptism for the dead was revealed. He was disturbed when the Nauvoo temple was erected. He was annoyed by the revelation on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. Lastly, he was disturbed by Joseph laying the authority of the kingdom on the shoulders of the Twelve prior to his martyrdom.
To Satan, Joseph Smith was disturbing and annoying. In fact, no individual had done so much to disturb the kingdom of Satan since the Savior himself (D&C 135:3).
JS-History 1:21 no such things as visions or revelations in these days
The idea that visions and revelations had stopped is non-biblical. Here you had protestant ministers clinging to the Bible as their only source of authority, yet they didn’t believe the words that were in front of their eyes. From Joel we learn what God had planned before the Second Coming: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and… your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28). So a young man saw a vision in fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy. How well was that received? How excited was the religious community that Joel’s prophesy was beginning to be fulfilled?
The words of Nephi must have resonated with Joseph when he translated them 9 years later, “the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord… shall say… this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.” (2 Ne 28:3-6) Joseph got that message loud and clear from those who should have been his friends and mentors.
Has the day of miracles ceased?
Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?
Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief and all is vain. (Moroni 7:35-37)
Ezra Taft Benson
God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ revealed themselves to Joseph Smith in a marvelous vision. After that glorious event, Joseph Smith told a minister about it. Joseph was surprised to hear the minister say that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days, that all such things had ceased. (See JS—H 1:21.)
This remark symbolizes practically all of the objections that have ever been made against the Church by nonmembers and dissident members alike. Namely, they do not believe that God reveals his will today to the Church through prophets of God. All objections, whether they be on abortion, plural marriage, seventh-day worship, etc., basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation. (Ensign, Jan. 1988, 4)
Boyd K. Packer
There has come, these last several years, a succession of announcements that show our day to be a day of intense revelation, equaled, perhaps, only in those days of beginning, 150 years ago. But then, as now, the world did not believe. They say that ordinary men are not inspired; that there are no prophets, no Apostles; that angels do not minister unto men—not to ordinary men.
That doubt and disbelief have not changed. But now, as then, their disbelief cannot change the truth.
We lay no claim to being Apostles of the world—but of the Lord Jesus Christ. The test is not whether men will believe, but whether the Lord has called us—and of that there is no doubt! We do not talk of those sacred interviews that qualify the servants of the Lord to bear a special witness of Him, for we have been commanded not to do so. But we are free, indeed, we are obliged, to bear that special witness… (That All May Be Edified, pp. 149-151)
JS-History 1:22-23 my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion
“On occasions Joseph was required to stand as a lone witness of the truth. Perhaps it was part of his Abrahamic test, part of the purchase price required to restore the gospel to the earth. The first such test came in the grove of trees. There was no one who stood by his side. True, he had the wonderful support of his family, but absent that small group of noble souls, he was a fourteen-year-old boy pitted against the world. There was no other mortal to whom he could turn and say, ‘Ask him—he was with me—he saw what I saw and heard what I heard.’ No, Joseph alone carried that staggering burden. In this respect he alone stood against the ministers of his day, against ‘men of high standing,’ against the false traditions that for centuries had declared the heavens were sealed. But he would not recant.” (Tad Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy, [SLC: Deseret Book, 2006], 342)
David O. McKay
The result of this declaration was his immediate ostracism from the religious world. In a very short time he found himself standing alone.
Alone—and unacquainted with the learning and philosophy of his day!
Alone—and unschooled in the arts and sciences!
Alone—with no philosopher to instruct him, no minister to guide him! In simplicity and kindness he had hastened to them with his glorious message; in scorn and derision they had turned from him saying it was all of the devil; that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the Apostles; and that there would never be any more of them.
Thus he was left alone to embark upon the ocean of religious thought, having rejected every known vessel with which to sail and never having built one or even having seen one built himself. Surely if an impostor, the bark [or ship] he could build would be indeed a crude one.
On the other hand, if that which he built possesses an excellence and superiority over that which the learned professors and philosophers had given to the world during the preceding hundreds of years, men will be forced, at least, to say in surprise, whence hath this man his wisdom!
It would appear, then, that though he seemed alone, he was alone only as was Moses on Sinai; as Jesus on the Mount of Olives. As with the Master, so with the prophet, his instructions came not through man-made channels but direct from God, the source of all intelligence. He says: “I am a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel were never heard on me until the Lord took me in hand. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.” (Gospel Ideals: Selections from the Discourses of David O. McKay [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953], 80-81)
JS-History 1:22-23 men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me
I remember the excitement stirred up among some of the people over Joseph's First Vision, and of hearing my father contend that it was only the sweet dream of a pure minded boy. One of our church leaders came to my father to remonstrate against his allowing such close friendship between his family and the "Smith Boy," as he called him. My father defended his own position by saying that Joseph was the best help he had ever found. He told the churchman that he always fixed the time of hoeing his large field to that when he could secure the services of Joseph Smith, because of the influence that boy had over the wild boys of the neighborhood, and explained that when these boys, or young men, worked by themselves much time would be spent in arguing and quarreling, which often ended in a ring fight. But when Joseph Smith worked with them, the work went steadily forward, and he got the full worth of the wages he paid.
I remember the churchman saying, in a very solemn and impressive tone, that the very influence the boy carried was the danger they feared for the coming generation, that not only the young men, but all who came in contact with him, would follow him, and he must be put down. (Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974], 2)
Now the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the Father and the Son appeared to him when he was a mere lad, not quite fifteen, and the thing that he could not understand was the prejudice that that statement aroused in the minds of leaders of men and leaders of religion, for he was a boy of no great pretense, just a farmer's boy without education, and he said he could understand, but he said he felt as he imagined Paul felt. He knew that he had seen a light. He knew that he had heard the voices of these two Personages, God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. And he said he knew that God knew it, and he dared not deny it because he knew that by so doing he would come under condemnation before God.
Does it seem any more incredible today to believe that the God of heaven and his Son Jesus Christ who was resurrected from the grave should appear to man here upon this earth than to believe that Christ was resurrected, a thing that had never been seen or heard of before at the time of his resurrection?
We read in the scriptures how the Father announced his approval of the Son at his baptism and on the mount of the transfiguration. We read that Stephen gazed into heaven and saw Christ sitting on the right hand of his Father, so we know they do exist, and then think of all that the prophets have foretold for the latter days, and it does not seem incredible that they should usher in this the greatest gospel dispensation of all time by a personal visitation to this earth…
We know through the declaration of one of the American prophets, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith was called before he was born and was in waiting three thousand years before his birth to come forth to usher in this great latter-day gospel dispensation (2 Ne. 3:13-15), so that it is no miracle and not a thing incredible to believe that God would raise up a man to do the work that needed to be done in restoring his work to the earth in this dispensation. (Conference Report, April 1956, Third Day—Morning Meeting 96)
JS-History 1:24 I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa
Captured by the Jews in Jerusalem, rescued from death at their hands by the Romans, Paul was imprisoned for 2 years while the Jews plotted his death. Paul was being held by the Roman procurator Festus when king Herod Agrippa II, then king of the Jews, paid Festus a visit. Upon hearing about the prisoner, Agrippa asked for Paul to be brought forth.
There Paul bore his testimony before Agrippa, his wife, and the Roman procurator Festus (Acts 26). Preaching of the resurrection of Jesus, Paul asked:
Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead? (Acts 26:8)
Paul’s question is a fair one. Can God raise the dead? Can he appear to a 14 year old boy if he wants? Men seem to get upset when God does something miraculous. Like Joseph, Paul had actually seen Jesus in a vision:
As I went to Damascus… At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. (Acts 26:12-15)
Joseph saw the same light, above the brightness of the sun. He himself fell to the earth like Paul’s companions. He heard the voice of Jesus in his own tongue. But when he told others about the vision, what was the reaction?
Festus said, “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.” (Acts 26:24) This was the reaction that Joseph Smith related to. People thought he was crazy, off his rocker, beside himself. Was Joseph Smith crazy? Was he just a head case? Was Paul crazy? Festus thought the whole story was outrageous. Perhaps it was, but it was also true. Whether or not Festus believed could not change what happened on the road to Damascus.
JS-History 1:24 He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise
Of all the testimonies of the First Vision that have ever been, of all the messages given by missionaries, Apostles, and Prophets, none are more powerful than the testimony of Joseph Smith himself. “All the persecution under heaven” could not change the fact that he had seen a vision. It happened and he knew it. It wasn’t his fault that the story is hard to believe. It wasn’t his fault that ministers said it couldn’t happen. Nor was it his fault that God works in mysterious ways. Joseph didn’t wish this on himself. He did not make up his story. If he had, the persecution would surely have shut him up. No one would go through what he did for a hoax—it makes no sense. The fact that he stuck to his testimony is proof for an unbelieving world that it really happened.
I don't blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 361)
JS-History 1:25 I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
As we remember and honor the Prophet Joseph Smith, my heart reaches out to him in gratitude. He was a good, honest, humble, intelligent, and courageous young man with a heart of gold and an unshaken faith in God. He had integrity. In response to his humble prayer, the heavens opened again. Joseph Smith had actually seen a vision. He knew it, and he knew that God knew it, and he could not deny it (see Joseph Smith—History 1:25).
Through his work and sacrifice, I now have a true understanding of our Heavenly Father and His Son, our Redeemer and Savior, Jesus Christ, and I can feel the power of the Holy Ghost and know of Heavenly Father’s plan for us, His children. For me, these are truly the fruits of the First Vision. (Liahona, Feb. 2009)