Multiple Accounts of the First Vision

Date of Account

Context

Notable details

Summer 1832

The earliest known account, in Joseph Smith’s[BIO] handwriting.

Mentions seeing “the Lord” and not specifically two personages. This was edited by scribe Fredrick G. Williams to say Joseph was 15 years old.[1]

Nov 9, 1835

Joseph Smith's journal entry about a visit with Robert Matthews,[BIO] scribed by Warren Parrish.[BIO]

Describes two “personages” and “many angels” appearing in the vision. [2]

Nov 14, 1835

Joseph Smith's journal entry about a visit with Erastus Holmes,[BIO] scribed by Warren Parrish.

Gives Joseph's age as 14 years old and describes the event as the "first visitation of angels."[3]

1838–1839

An account that was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. The earliest extant copy was scribed by James Mulholland.[BIO]

Mentions two personages with no mention of angels.[4] This is the official, canonical version.

1842

Times & Seasons editorial titled “Church History” published by Joseph Smith.

Lists two personages “who exactly resembled each other.”[5]

Sept 15, 1843

David Nye White[BIO] interviews Joseph Smith for the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette.

Mentions two personages, one "a glorious person in light."[6]

1844

In He Pasa Ekklesia, Israel Daniel Rupp[BIO] prints Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision.

Details "two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness."[7]

Did Joseph Smith give more than one account of the First Vision?

Yes. Joseph Smith recorded five (known) firsthand accounts of his experience and gave two other accounts to interviewers.[8] Joseph also may have alluded to the First Vision in some of his revelations.[9]

Why did Joseph give different accounts of his vision?

Probably because each account had a different purpose[10] and was given to a different intended audience.[11]

Okay, but are the differences important?

Maybe? The basics of the story in the different accounts are the same:[12] as a young man, Joseph prayed to God and had a divine vision. In that vision, he saw deity and was given a commission.

But why would Joseph say angels visited in one of the accounts instead of God?

We don't know, but possibly because he was being purposely vague. Joseph recorded this vague account when an ex-Methodist named Erastus Holmes[BIO] came to visit Joseph asking about the Church.[13]

The week before, he shared a very detailed account with another visitor.[14] Joseph later learned the person he shared the detailed account with was not the Jewish Rabbi he claimed to be. Instead, he was a notorious domestic abuser, fraudster, and possible murderer.[15] After this negative experience, Joseph may have decided to be less open with Erastus Holmes.

However, it's also possible that Joseph was just using "angels" as a generic term for deity.[16]

Aren’t these inconsistencies evidence that he made the First Vision up?

Not really. If Joseph Smith made it up with the intent to defraud then he would probably have a memorized, well-rehearsed story, and every version would be identical.[17]

But if Joseph was a prophet, wouldn't God have helped him tell his experience perfectly each time?

Probably not. Prophets don't have perfect recall, and apparently, God is okay with this.[18]

Did any of Joseph Smith’s peers give reports of the vision?

Yes. A handful of individuals gave secondhand accounts of the vision while Joseph Smith was alive and claimed they heard the account from Joseph.[19] Others allude to hearing it from Joseph.[20] There are also thirdhand accounts[21] and later reminiscences from people who claimed they heard about the vision from Joseph.[22]

Did those secondhand accounts match up with Joseph’s accounts?

Overall, yes. But some of them conflated details of the First Vision with Moroni’s visits to Joseph.[23]

Were accounts of Joseph’s vision ever published and circulated during his lifetime?

Yes. The Church's newspaper published two accounts in 1842. One was part of an editorial from Joseph now known as the Wentworth Letter.[24] The other is the account found in the Pearl of Great Price today.[25] A non-Latter-day Saint publication later republished this account in 1844.[26]

Why did Joseph wait so long to record his vision?

Probably because when Joseph had the vision, he was a poor writer.[27] There are no known examples of his writing before 1831.[28] One of the first things he did write was his account of the First Vision.[29] He required a scribe when translating the Book of Mormon, and Emma reported that he could barely read or write at the time.[30]

Couldn’t he have asked someone else to write it for him?

Probably, but Joseph said that the few people he shared the vision with reacted with unbelief and hostility.[31] It seems he mostly kept the vision to himself until he was older and had people around him that he felt he could rely on and share his experiences with.[32]

Is it true that no other Church leaders ever talked about Joseph’s vision until decades after it purportedly happened?

No, not really. Two different apostles published accounts of the vision during Joseph’s lifetime for use in missionary efforts.[33] In the 1850s and 1860s, several Church leaders gave sermons referencing the First Vision.[34] Church curriculum was developing throughout the 1800s and early 1900s,[35] so it's difficult to determine how frequently leaders referenced the First Vision.

Did the Church try to keep the multiple accounts of the First Vision a secret?

No, not really. In the Church's official centennial history, edited by B. H. Roberts in 1930, the 1838 and 1842 accounts of the First Vision were freely and openly harmonized and cited.[36]

After Paul Cheesman[BIO] documented the 1832 First Vision account in 1965,[37] follow-up publications in places like BYU Studies,[38] the Improvement Era,[39] and the Ensign,[40] as well as Church CES publications,[41] openly discussed the different First Vision accounts or drew from material in the different accounts.

In the April 1970 edition of the Improvement Era a synoptic chart comparing the different historical accounts of the First Vision was published:[42]

1970 Improvement Era synoptic chart of various First Vision accounts.

But didn't Joseph Fielding Smith hide the 1832 account from the public by locking it up?

Possibly. There is circumstantial evidence that Joseph Fielding Smith may have intended to keep the 1832 account private.

The account was torn out from the letterbook it was originally written in at some point between 1930 and 1965.[43] Amateur historian LaMar Petersen[BIO] recounted a meeting with Elder Levi Edgar Young[BIO] during the 1950s in which Young made mention of a "strange account" of the First Vision that was "unused, unknown"[44] and "concealed for 120 years in a locked vault."[45] The details of the "strange account" seem to match Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision.[46] This has led some to argue that Joseph Fielding Smith[BIO] (who was Church Historian and Recorder at the time) had the account locked away from public eyes.[47]

Some People Say . . .

"The accounts are all basically the same. If you have doubts about the First Vision, you should pray about it."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Joseph recorded five versions of the First Vision, all of which have some similarities and differences.

  • Joseph didn't record the First Vision until 1832.

  • The First Vision was discussed in various sermons throughout the early Church period.

  • In the twentieth century, different versions of the First Vision were discussed in various Church publications.

Our Take

Joseph Smith’s vision of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ is a key part of the restoration—and of Latter-day Saint faith—so feeling like this story is inconsistent or doesn't make sense can be concerning. Why didn't he record the vision until over a decade later? Why are there inconsistencies in the different versions? Are these indications that he made it up?

The basics of the First Vision are always the same: as a young man, Joseph prayed to God and had a divine vision. The different accounts are consistent with someone recalling a powerful experience and relating it to different audiences at different times.

Understanding this vision, and the various historical accounts, is an important part of understanding how Joseph Smith understood his role in the restoration. It's also important for looking at the First Vision's history—while understanding its spiritual significance comes by study and faith.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Brad W.
    Good summary. None of the accounts of Christ's appearance to the Apostle Paul are exactly the same.
  • Mike M
    As a missionary I related the First Vision to many people. I know that Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ. I am now near 80 and know still that this is true.
  • Brayden S
    Even in his first account, the way he mentions “The Lord” twice could imply he saw two people.
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Footnotes