Joseph Smith’s 1832 Handwritten History

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?


For more information see:
Which First Vision Account Should We Believe?
Joseph Smith’s Changing First Vision Accounts
Photo of a portion of Joseph’s 1832 handwritten First Vision account

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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15 Responses to Joseph Smith’s 1832 Handwritten History

  1. falcon says:

    This change in the vision wasn’t merely a more “fully remembering” of the facts and details as I’m sure Mormons would like to contend. Joseph Smith’s accounts changed in response to challenges to his authority. He enlarged upon and expanded the vison stories to bolster his own credibility as those in leadership in his church began to question his divine appointment. The point of the first vision story was all about getting assurance of the forgiveness of sins…period. Having two personages appear to him was a rather big point to leave out of the story of the vision, isn’t it? Also, Mormons need to understand that the crowd Joseph Smith hung around with were into “second sight” That was the whole point of the magic seer stone(s). These folks “saw” all kinds of things. But they didn’t see them with their natural eyes. Related to this, they didn’t “see” the golden plates, as Mormons of today are led to believe. They “saw” them with the eyes of faith. Big difference.

  2. Michael P says:

    This is the most troubling part for me regarding Mormonism. The spiritual stuff, as wrong as it is, is one thing. But looking at the history of the Mormon church’s whitewashing of its history and its changing nature should trouble anyone.

    I understand many Mormons have left because of it. I hope it leads more away.

  3. DefenderOfTheFaith says:

    These arguments are spurious and speculative. You and I often retell a story to our friends emphasizing one aspect of the story to one and leaving out that aspect entirely to another. Does that mean that our story is not true? So Joseph was convinced that the denominations around him did not reflect what his read in the scriptures. Do you think that he was so arrogant to assume that throughout the vast earth that he lived on that no one had the fulness of truth. No! It was a humble admition of his limited knowledge at the time. Maybe somebody did have the truth and he wanted to know. As far as seeking forgiveness, Joseph demonstrates his wisdom in spiritual things. Sin clouds our minds and if we are going to receive knowledge from the Lord we had better acknowledge it. He simply knew that in order to receive his answer this would need to be addressed. Did Joseph emphasize his vision to bolster his credibility or in response to his authority? Absolutely! He found out quickly, as I have, that people don’t believe your testimony by mouth. I cannot be refuted. Why won’t they just believe my report? Because it cannot be challenged. Not only that. After stating your report, it immediately gets changed into something entirely different. Joseph learned this quickly. Hence, you better write it down. Don’t let others tell the story for you.
    Father and the Son: Just because the initial version is different doesn’t say much to me. Falcon pointed out it was done in response to a challenge of authority. Did Joseph need to convince them of the nature of the Godhead? No. His point was he had a vision and the Lord was going to initiate His work through him (Joseph). Later Joseph was sure to realize that his testimony would go to all nations (Christian, Jewish, Islam, etc.) where a full account of the true nature of the Godhead would need to be clearly explained. I do admit that the arguments I have made are purely speculative, but so are Sharon’s….

  4. DefenderOfTheFaith says:

    and it gets us no closer to the truth of the matter. Did the Lord appear to Joseph or not? Hence President Hinckley’s comment. The validity of the work rests in the reality of the vision. The question is, since we are all far removed from the actual events described, how do we discover the answer? I applaud this audience for taking such a matter so serious. If this were an atheistic crowd I would not be able to make a stance they would be satisfied with. But for those who believe in the tradition of prophets, by what criteria are you giving your stamp of approval for prophets of old? I believe the answer is crucial to the discussion of any prophet, true or false.

  5. Michael P says:

    Defender, I think you miss the point. Why did the story change so much around what should have been a truly life changing event? We’re not talking about the color of his wife’s dress on their first date here, we’re talking about being visited by God himself!

    To change such a story so much and expect to be believed is stretching credulity.

  6. germit says:

    DOF: among the many things that I would point out to a prospective LDS convert that they should think twice about the (false) prophet Joseph Smith is his utter inablility to be self-reflective about his own sin condition for more than one or two sentences. And then his attention turns to his (my opinion, admittedly) REAL DEAL: the sins of the world, their wretched condition, and how the religion of the time is hopeless to remedy any of that. For now: focus on the brevity of his own ‘confession’ how lacking in detail, how it reads as an aside. Do any of my LDS listeners have an account where JS gets real , for more than a sentence or two, about his own tragic state ?? Humble?? Only God knows JS heart, but words, and sometimes the lack of them are telling. I can remember reading an account of JS trip to New York City, and the same scenario: SMALL blip about his own fallibilty, LONG harangue about the state of NY city and how hopelessly lost they were. I think that was from Richard Bushman, and to him it was evidence of JS great compassion for the lost. Perhaps, but I don’t trust ANY prophet, old or modern, whose depth of concern for the sins of others far outstrips their own. If any of my LDS have examples of JS at his self-reflective best, I’d be happy to read those and reconsider. Lord help us all, starting with me. GERMIT

  7. austinjl says:

    Joseph states, “…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”

    Later he says of the First Vision, “(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)”

    In one account, Joseph learns that all denominations are wrong through Scripture, and the other Joseph learns this at the First Vision where he states this was new knowledge.

    This appears to be a contradiction to me. How do you reconcile this?

  8. Rick B says:

    DOF, I think LDS like you want to believe we retell stories to each other, But I dont, I tell the same story to everyone, Might not be word for word the same, but the dates do not change by months or years, the amount of people I claim I saw and spoke with do not change like JS did. I believe he was both decived and a liar. Rick b

  9. DefenderOfTheFaith says:

    All points taken. Well thought out. To me, however, this is all speculative. We can all take the story and spin it to whatever we believe. In other words, your premise is Joseph is a false prophet. With that basis, you take a look at his story and finds ways to punch holes in it. My premise, he is a true prophet and now I look at the same story and find as many reasons why it is perfectly plausible. It is all speculative on both sides. I do admire the wisdom of the inquiry however. If one is going to make an accusation, I appreciate the attempt to justify the conclusion. If I, in all good faith, present a dollar bill to you as a genuine item, you have every right to assume it is a fraud. However, the burden of proof then becomes yours to expose the counterfeit. It should be fairly easy to expose. To me this story does nothing more than throw some ?’s as to why the different versions of the story. Without the defendent available for clarification, it is all speculation. That is not to say that I can’t think of any good reasons why he might emphasize one portion over another depending on the context (as I mentioned before). It doesn’t answer the ultimate ?, was his vision a reality. Anyone know where those pics came from? Last point: Let us hold all prophets to the same standard. I would like someone to artistically depict Paul’s vision and Stephen’s vision EXACTLY as recorded. Is anyone willing to challenge either of them based on some preconceived doctrine? Does the fact that they saw contradictory visions, make them any less a reality? And besides, if you honestly consider JS a fraud, why spend time on a speculative issue like this. I would go to the BoM. It claims to be an actual history from a narrow time frame. Easy to expose if counterfeit. To me that is, and has always been the best test for the doubter. As a side, Hinckley’s witness seem clear and concise. Notice he didn’t say after years of study, contemplation, and comparison…that he knows. Crucial!

  10. Michael P says:

    Well, now you bring up the BoM, Defender. Do you really want to go into all the problems with that? I am not sure you do…

    But is it all speculative? I am not sure it is. I studied history, and while I know the troubles in studying it, I also know that we can study what was said or recorded, look at actions through the eyes of others and newspaper accounts and a wide variety of sources to piece together what really happened.

    Joseph Smith has enough ?’s in his own character and stories to put confidence into my stance that he embellished the story for effect and for piety. It is likely he did use this to bolster his authority, whether or not he knew this was what he was doing.

    And when you look at him and his fruit, he is easy to expose. Do you wish to see it?

  11. Rick B says:

    I cannot read your mind, so please explain what the issues are you have between Paul and Steven. I am not sure where your going or what you are looking for.

    Then you say we come with a bias to the first vision, your joking correct? You mean 7 different versions with different places, years and people proves JS was accurate and were simply looking for fraud.

    Any case like that brought to court would be tossed out. Any other human today like me or you would be accused of lying. the burden really does rest on you guys to proves all these problem really are not problems. not the other way around.

    We see problems, clearly lay out what we see as problems, point them out, and then you tell us, we need to show more problems as those we already showed are not enough. Please, were not stupid, we clearly see you cannot answer them, so you blow more smoke, wave your wand to move us away then say, see I need more from you.

    Say what you want, but the burden is really on you. If Your new prophet really is a true prophet, and JS was really a true prophet, and JS really did here from God, then God claims he is not the author of confusion, so why so much confusion from your prophet? Why cannot the new prophet who claims a direct line to God, speak to him and get this cleared up once and for all. I know why he cannot, he is a false prophet, but you cannot explain why he cannot.

    You will simply say something like, I cannot speak for the prophet, or I cannot go and ask him why. So it seems shady to me. Rick b

  12. Jeffrey says:

    Maybe I’m just thinking to simplistic here, but if you in fact saw God the Father, and Jesus Christ, would you leave that part out of the story? I would think you would emphasize it.

    Just like Rick B mentioned about this being brought to court. Anyone who changes his story so much is found to be a false witness.

    Lol, imagine this: On the Next Judge Judy! – The People Vs. Joseph Smith.

    Have you seen how badly she grills people who change their story so often? It makes me cringe.

  13. Rick B says:

    Better than Judge Judy is Judge Jesus, What is JS going to say to the REAL Judge, O sorry Jesus, I thought you came to me, but then you did not, then the years changed from 27 to 44, what a major change in years. Opps will not Fly with that Judge. Rick b

  14. austin says:

    It is not speculative when you have two trustworthy accounts from one person that contradict. This is a problem with the storyteller, not the interpretation. The fact that Joe Smith is dead and cannot answer for this is a distraction from the fact this contradiction historically exists. This is not my bias as I believe God could call a modern day prophet. We must be objective in examining his claims.

  15. germit says:

    DOF: I really like your use of the dollar bill illustration. And just as we have objective, and very clear and precise ways to determine real money, so it is with truth that is real beyond our own merely privatized, subjective, truth, and so it is with issues of the character of the money maker. These we are able to examine and make a judgment. The fool just accepts the rumpled $20 or worse yet, the $100 quickly and doesn’t bother to take a second, maybe even a third look. What if the bill wasn’t $100, but had “YOUR ETERNAL SOUL” written on it?? How many close looks are worth it then?? You seem like a careful and thoughtful person, use those qualities to consider the various claims we are making about the money and the money maker. I would suggest you compare your prophet, and your gospel, to what we find in the NT. I believe the OT to be just as inspired, but sometimes I think you trip yourself up comparing JS with Abraham or Moses. Compare him to the new testament leaders and teachers, compare your church and message with what Jesus clearly taught and left us. If you do all this and still see the Mormon church as ‘restored’, then I respect that, even if we agree to disagree. Take a look, use your mind, refuse to curl up in a testimony ball: the truth is much bigger than that. GERMIT

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