Other Worldviews

How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Changed over Time

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 08/23/2018

The Mormon religion rests on Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” wherein he claimed he was visited by the Father and the Son and told he must not join any of the existing churches, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–20 to read the canonized account).

This vision is at the root of Mormonism’s unique doctrines, as Christian apologists Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever explain:

This vision is significant to a Mormon for a number of reasons. First, it has been used to support the notion that God the Father and Jesus Christ, as two separate and distinct personages, are also two distinct and separate gods. And two, it gives the Mormon justification to believe Christianity had fallen into a complete apostasy and needed to be restored to earth.

But there’s a problem. There is more than one account of Smith’s vision, and its major details (primarily, the idea that he was visited by the Father and the Son) seem to have evolved over time.

While I was at the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, UT earlier this year, I came across this pamphlet by Christian Research & Counsel documenting the history of the development of the First Vision story. Its introduction explains, in the words of the LDS Church’s own former prophet and president, how much is riding on the accuracy of the official account:

Concerning Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” seeing God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ together, Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said: “...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 roots in the First Vision of the boy prophet. Without it we would not have anything much to say...This becomes the hinge pin on which the whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is that simple [emphasis added].” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p.227)

From the above quote, it is obvious that the history of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is of paramount importance. For that reason the following documented accounts, beginning in the year 1820, have been compiled to enable the reader to determine how, and when, the First Vision actually came about.

The pamphlet takes you from 1820 (the year the LDS Church claims Smith received the revelation) to 1888, noting how Smith’s vision is portrayed in—or missing from—each of the historical records. At the end of the timeline, it sums up the evident problems, saying, “Thus we see that the details of the First Vision vary in the different accounts. Early LDS leaders usually thought of the vision as one of angels, not God. They did not appeal to the first vision to establish their teaching that God has a body.”

These historical records of the First Vision leave us with more questions than answers:

  • If Joseph Smith’s claim to a vision in 1820 had resulted in the kind of public persecution he described, why did the story go completely unnoticed by the public media, and remain absent from the official literature of the LDS Church for 22 years?
  • Why is there no mention of the 1820 appearance of the Father and the Son in all of Brigham Young’s sermons?
  • If Brigham Young believed Joseph’s revised First Vision of the Father and the Son, why would he continue to tell the story of a First Vision wherein the Lord sent his angels to tell Joseph not to join any of the churches?
  • Why did it take more than 50 years for the revised First Vision, adding the Father and the Son, to replace the original First Vision of angels as the church’s standard teaching?

You can read and/or print out the entire pamphlet here.