One hundred and seventy-six years ago yesterday (that is, on July 20, 1832) Joseph Smith began writing a history of his life. This was his first attempt at recording his history. He worked on it for several months while living in Kirtland, Ohio, but abandoned the project in November of the same year. The account was never published in Joseph’s lifetime.
According to historian Dan Vogel,
“The History was begun in the midst of challenges to Smith’s authority, primarily initiated by Bishop Edward Partridge in Missouri, which evoked Smith’s introduction of the office of president of the high priesthood… It is therefore not simply an autobiographical sketch, but an apology setting forth Smith’s credentials as leader of the church. The History therefore contains the earliest account of what is known as his ‘first vision’ and earliest mention of angelic priesthood ordinations.” (Early Mormon Documents, volume 1, page 26)
Not only does this History present the earliest known account of Joseph’s First Vision, it is the only account of the First Vision recorded in Joseph’s own handwriting. There are numerous versions of the First Vision story, each one different from the next. The “official” story, which has been canonized and today appears in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price, was written in 1838.
According to late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, the First Vision is of the utmost importance to the LDS Church. He said,
“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not. If it did not, then this work is a fraud.’ (Salt Lake Tribune, October 7, 2002)
It’s interesting to note, then, that there are significant differences between the “official” version and the 1832 version of the story. For instance, the 1832 version tells of Joseph becoming concerned for his soul at the age of 12,
“which led me to Searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God 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…thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind…my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my Sins and by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised 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…” (Early Mormon Documents, volume 1, pages 27-28)
As Joseph first told the story leading up to his ultimate vision experience, he explained his motivation in an entirely different way than what is presented in the official account. Note that Joseph claimed in 1832 that he had discovered by “searching the scriptures” that different denominations didn’t seem to behave or talk as he thought Christians ought; he discovered in the pages of scripture that there had been an apostasy from the true faith and all denominations were in error.
In the official version, however, Joseph’s motivation for seeking God in prayer was “to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join…(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)” (Joseph Smith – History 1:18). Indeed, according to the official version, as soon as Joseph gained an audience with God the Father and Jesus Christ, he asked that very question and was given a resounding and controversial answer. Well, did Joseph ask that question? Or not?
Another significant difference between these two versions of the First Vision story is in the actual vision itself. In 1832 Joseph wrote:
“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 and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god 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 crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth…” (Early Mormon Documents, volume 1, page 28)
Here Joseph said that when he was 15 years old (the official version says 14) Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven. This is the most significant part of the vision’s message as Joseph reported it. Jesus was also said to have spoken briefly about the state of mankind; nevertheless, the bulk of the discourse attributed to Jesus in the official First Vision account was not present in this early telling of the story. Nor could it be. The main content of the message Joseph received in the official First Vision account concerned God’s answer to a question Joseph didn’t need to ask according to his 1832 account, for he already knew the answer.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, in the 1832 account Joseph only testified of seeing Jesus; he did not say that two Personages appeared to him; he did not mention the Father whose introduction of the Son (“This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”) is such an integral part of the official version. Did Joseph’s First Vision include God the Father? Or not?
This is a very important detail for the LDS Church, for the Church bases its understanding of the nature of God on Joseph’s First Vision. Ten years ago LDS Church News reported,
“In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President [Gordon B.] Hinckley spoke of those outside the [LDS] Church who say Latter-day Saints ‘do not believe in the traditional Christ. No, I do not. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He, together with His Father, appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1820, and when Joseph left the grove that day, he knew more of the nature of God than all the learned ministers of the gospel of the ages.'” (6/20/1998, page 7)
Latter-day Saints believe in a Christ who is not the “traditional” Christ because Joseph Smith emerged from the grove with a new and different understanding of the nature of God. Or did he?
In bearing testimony of Joseph Smith, President Hinckley once said,
“I have read and believed his testimony of his great first vision in which he conversed with the Father and the Son. I have pondered the wonder of that as I have stood in the grove where he prayed, and in that environment, by the power of the Spirit, I have received a witness that it happened as he said it happened.” (Ensign, May 1992, pages 51-52)
The question is, of which “way that he said it happened” did this spirit bear witness?