The First Vision in 2020

Richard L. Bushman

Richard Lyman Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of Emeritus of History, Columbia University, and former Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, Claremont Graduate University.

I wonder what the fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith would have felt if he knew that in two hundred years a small army of scholars would spend two days dissecting his experience in the clearing on his father’s farm in 1820. Originally he was reluctant to tell anyone about the vision. When his mother asked, Joseph Smith put her off, saying, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off. . . . I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (Joseph Smith—History 1:20). He was not of a mind to broadcast his experience, even to his own family. He said very little about the vision for the next twenty years.

Now two hundred years after the event, we scour the archives for the slightest reference to the First Vision and then exert all our powers to understand every word. The First Vision has come to mean everything to us. We think of it as the founding event of the Restoration to which we have committed our lives. Scholars pay tribute to the vision by making it the subject of ongoing research and speculation.

You can get an idea of where scholarship has led us by visiting the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. A few years ago the museum installed a new permanent exhibition on the first floor, the first thing you see as you enter. The aim of the exhibition is to introduce visitors to the Church through art, historical documents, and historical objects. The previous permanent exhibition told the story of the Saints’ gathering. It was filled with displays of the pioneers crossing the plains to Utah and of converts from around the world migrating from Britain, Denmark, Italy, and so on. This is one of the Church’s great stories, and the museum did a splendid job of dramatizing the arduous journey and the faith that was required to uproot, travel long distances, and establish a new home in the West.

The new exhibition tells a different story—the story of the Restoration. It begins with accounts of people who were searching for new light at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They yearned for revelation and direction from heaven but could not find it. Then the exhibition displays a picture of Joseph Smith searching the scriptures and invites visitors into a theater where the First Vision is reenacted in film. The film is projected on the walls of a round room to show a wooded grove surrounding visitors by about 270 degrees. A tall young man walks into this grove, prays, and the light appears. The revelation that was looked for by so many seekers has at last come.

Emerging from the theater, visitors encounter displays that tell the story of the Book of Mormon followed by the other events of the Restoration down to Joseph Smith’s death. This is our great story: in modern times the gospel has been restored, and Christianity has been refreshed by a wave of revelations preparing the world for Christ’s return. The story is told with the latest technology; brightly lit, colorful displays; and objects from the past, including the string that bound the manuscript of the Book of Mormon when it was taken to the press.

depiction of joseph kneeling in the grove and seeing the lightThe First Vision. © Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

This is a familiar story for Latter-day Saints. We hear it the minute we begin to investigate the Church or attend Primary. But going through the exhibit for the first time, I noticed some new features. One was in the theater where the First Vision was reenacted on the screen. As the film begins, words appear on the screen explaining that there are nine versions of the First Vision and that this presentation draws on all of them. A notebook on a stand just outside the theater contains all these accounts in full, with the words incorporated into the film script printed in bold.

That is a new addition to the story: nine accounts of the First Vision when previously we had only one, the story that appears in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith—History 1. This canonical account was drafted, so far as we know, in 1838 when the First Presidency set out to write the history of the Church. We know this account well. It is the story of a teenage boy, confused by all the churches, turning to God for an answer. We treat this account as scripture. It has been published separately as a tract to give to investigators. It is frequently referred to in talks and writings about the Restoration.

Now the Church Museum is going beyond this one familiar account to draw on multiple accounts of the First Vision. This has surprised some Church members. Children did not grow up knowing about these other records and are startled to discover that other versions exist. Contemplating what to say to you today, I thought you might be interested in hearing how it came about that we have these other accounts, when for so long there was just one. Even more important, how does this new knowledge affect our understanding of Joseph Smith and the gospel?

The discovery of nine versions of the First Vision is the result of a challenge from critics of the Church. In the middle of the twentieth century, a number of critics, including Fawn Brodie, author of a biography of the Prophet, asked why the account of the First Vision was not written until 1838. Brodie thought that so spectacular an event should have been recorded earlier—if it had actually happened. Brodie hypothesized that Joseph Smith made up the whole story in 1838 to reinvigorate belief at a time when many of his followers were falling away. The First Vision, she argued, was a fabrication meant to strengthen the faith of wavering believers.[1] Later critics, such as Wesley Walters, took up the same line of reasoning, putting pressure on belief in the historicity of the account.[2]

Church historians of course could not leave that challenge unanswered. They thought Brodie made a weak argument, but without evidence of an earlier account, her conjecture might be persuasive. And so the hunt was on. The historians began to scour the archives for earlier references to the First Vision. And sure enough, one by one, other accounts began to turn up: one from 1835, another from as early as 1832, and others scattered through Joseph’s life. Brodie’s claim that Joseph had said nothing about the First Vision until 1838 was effectively dispelled. He wrote the first of these accounts in 1832 as a start on a history of the Church, which he hoped to continue in a daily journal.

The historians’ research accomplished their purpose of answering Fawn Brodie, but the acquisition of other records of the First Vision complicated the story. The accounts were not exactly the same. The 1832 account says nothing about the revivals that so confused Joseph nor anything about reading James 1:5—“if any of you lack wisdom.” It does not mention darkness overpowering Joseph before the light came, and it does not mention God the Father, only that the Lord appeared. That does not mean these things did not occur, only that in 1832 in summing up what happened, Joseph chose to record some things and not others.[3]

The various accounts of the First Vision are like the Gospels in the New Testament. There are inconsistencies in the way the writers tell the story. Did Jesus carry his cross or not? In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, he gets help. In John, he carries it all the way by himself. What about the thieves? Mark records no conversation at all with the others on crosses. Matthew has two thieves taunting Jesus. In Luke only one thief taunts. In John the two men are not called thieves. The testaments also differ on when Jesus was crucified: the third hour or the sixth hour? His last words are not the same in the Gospels: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34); “into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46); “it is finished” (John 19:30).

What do we do when sacred stories of signal events differ in things large and small? Some Latter-day Saint scholars have followed the lead of New Testament scholars and synthesized the accounts, that is, blended them into one story. This is the path followed by the Church History Museum. It weaves parts from each of the nine accounts into a single narrative enacted on the screen. This is what historians do all the time. The narratives we read in history books blend conflicting sources into a single account that the historian believes best sums up what actually happened.

But this method obscures what the differences tell us. Why did the various accounts leave out or add things? What made some facts seem relevant at one time and not at another? This question of why the differences exist applies most importantly to the comparison of the 1832 and the 1838 accounts. Between these two there is not just a difference of detail but of Joseph’s basic purpose in going to pray in the first place.

I am attracted to the account written in 1832. The record is interesting because large parts of it were written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, and the rest he dictated to Frederick G. Williams. Because it came from his own hand and his own voice, we have good reason to believe that it came from his own mind. It was not polished or shaped by an editor, as frequently happened with other writings attributed to Joseph. It rolls forth in a rush of words, not well punctuated and not carefully organized, the kind of thing an untrained writer would produce when trying to get down his memories. To me the account is very appealing.

But it differs from the Joseph Smith—History version in the Pearl of Great Price in one salient point. The emphasis in the 1838 account is on confusion about the churches—which one was the Lord’s. The 1832 account emphasizes worthiness. It says that “my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns [of] for the well fare of my immortal Soul.” Joseph was worried not just about the state of the churches but about his own “Soul.” He goes on to say, “My mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins.”[4]

We have always known that Joseph was disillusioned with church people he knew. They did not adorn “their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation,” he wrote in 1832. He concluded that humankind “had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” But according to the 1832 record, that was not his only question when he went to pray. He was as worried about his own worthiness as he was concerned about the religions around him. As he put it in 1832, “I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”[5]

It comes as no surprise then that the 1832 account deals with sin and forgiveness. Here is Joseph’s description of what happened: “a piller of fire 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.”[6]

I like that passage because the first thing the Savior did was to forgive Joseph and urge him to repent. The first act of the Restoration was to put the soul of the Lord’s Prophet into order. After granting forgiveness, Christ went on to remind Joseph of the Atonement: “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.”[7]

To my way of thinking, this account throws a new light on the Restoration. The 1838 account, the traditional one, emphasizes the problem of churches—which church is true? The 1832 story brings redemption to the fore—forgiveness and atonement. Even the Prophet of the Lord stands before God in need of forgiveness.

The difference between 1832 and 1838, between seeking forgiveness and asking about the churches, raises an interesting question: Is it possible that Joseph Smith understood his own vision differently at various times in his life? Early on, he likened it to the conversions going on in the revivals, the framework with which he was most familiar after listening to camp-meeting preaching. He understood encounters with God to be for the purpose of receiving forgiveness and being accepted of God. The First Vision was a conversion experience like that of the people who attended the revivals in his neighborhood. Because it was personal, he did not talk about it much. It was his own conversion.

Then later as the church developed and he saw better what was happening, he came to see it more and more as the founding event of the Restoration. God was beginning a great work through him—to establish a new Christian church. So he recast the story to fit his new understanding. Parts that were left out were brought back and emphasized. The failings of the established churches and the beginning of a new church were brought forward. Neither the 1832 nor the 1838 account was wrong or more true than the other. They were two versions of the same experience.

It is the same regarding the question of two beings. In 1832 Joseph was not much concerned about God and Christ being two separate beings. Later in life after that doctrine was revealed to him, it became vitally important that he had seen two beings with bodies of their own.

The two major accounts then document the growth in the prophet’s understanding of his own mission and the nature of God. They were part of an ongoing restoration that came bit by bit and line upon line, not all at once.

Once the emphasis in the 1832 account of the First Vision engages us, our attention is drawn to the importance of forgiveness throughout Joseph’s life. We remember that concern for his sins led to his second momentous prayer, during which Moroni appeared. The 1832 account says, “I fell into transgressions and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul.” Once again he prayed, and “an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins.”[8] We have no reason to believe that Joseph’s sins were grievous, but they troubled him. Had he offended the God who had appeared to him out of the heavens? Was he worthy of continued favor? Those questions are what drove him to pray again.

We may think that this concern for his sins was the anxiety of a young man, still undisciplined in the ways of the Lord. We may think that once he got onto the prophetic track as an adult, concern about his sins would dissipate. But that did not happen. Christ appeared in the Kirtland Temple in April 1836, and among his first words were again, “Behold your sins are forgiven you; you are clean before me; therefore, lift up your heads and rejoice” (Doctrine and Covenants 110:5). Perhaps because the Prophet was close to the Lord, he was in special need of forgiveness when he came into Christ’s presence, but it also appears that whatever our position in the Church, forgiveness is basic to our spiritual lives.

I once preached a sermon along these lines to a group of Latter-day Saint men doing time in prison. When I was given the assignment, I had wondered what it would be like to meet Latter-day Saints convicted of a crime. It was a disconcerting experience. The prisoners marched in wearing jumpsuits, and to my surprise, shook our hands, looked us in the eye, and welcomed us to the prison. They seemed very much like people I would meet in any ward meeting. I wondered for a moment what the real difference was between them and the people I met in church each week. The prisoners were returned missionaries and former high councilors who had made mistakes. They were apparently sincere men who had fallen into crime. They of course loved my sermon on forgiveness. They hungered for the assurance of forgiveness and took hope in hearing that Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Lord, had turned to God for forgiveness too.

We catch a glimpse of what forgiveness meant to Joseph in his letters to Emma. He revealed more of himself to her than to anyone—including even his brother Hyrum. In 1832, on his way back to Kirtland from Missouri, Joseph had to stop in Indiana to tend to Newel K. Whitney, who had broken his leg in a runaway carriage accident. For a month Joseph was forced into inactivity and, without something to do, became melancholy. Deep regrets about his life came flooding back. He wrote to Emma that he went every day to a grove outside the town to pray.

“I have Called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to morn and Shed tears of sorrow for my folly in Sufering the adversary of my Soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past but God is merciful and has forgiven my Sins and I rejoice that he Sendeth forth the Comferter unto as many as believe and humbleeth themselves before him.”[9] His words sounded very much like Nephi’s lament: “O wretched man that I am!” (2 Nephi 4:17). Both men felt deeply the need for mercy and forgiveness.

One benefit, then, of paying attention to the differences in the First Vision accounts is that we gain a new view of Joseph Smith and the origins of the Restoration. We see that forgiveness and atonement were fundamental from the start. We can also learn from an interesting fact about this account. Joseph did not publish this story once it was written. He did not print the account in the Church newspaper or add it to the Book of Commandments that was about to appear. So far as we know, the 1832 account was never read in a Church meeting. It was buried away in Church records until it was discovered by a historian in the 1960s. Joseph casually mentioned the vision here and there but did not publicize it.

Very little was made of the First Vision in Church teachings until 1839 when the story of the vision appeared in print for the first time, in an account by Orson Pratt. The familiar 1838 account was not published until 1842. Joseph mentioned his experience to a visitor in Kirtland in 1835 but did not tell the story in any sermon we know about. Likely no more than a handful of Latter-day Saints had even heard of the First Vision before 1839.

Its notable absence from Church writings until 1839 is quite surprising. Parley P. Pratt published the most influential early Mormon tract, The Voice of Warning, in 1837. It summed up the Mormon message at that time without mentioning Joseph Smith’s name, much less his First Vision. Pratt emphasized the return of revelation without seeing a need to name the revelator or describe the vision that launched the Restoration.

This puzzling absence moves us to ask: What was the message in that first decade? If Joseph Smith was not seeking to promote himself as a prophet, what was he promoting? What was the message if not that of a new prophet?

The answer of course is perfectly clear in the revelations themselves. The Book of Mormon proclaims its purpose on its title page—“to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” All the revelations point in the same direction. The preface to the Doctrine and Covenants says the Prophet was called so that “the fulness of my [the Lord’s] gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:23).

The one scripture we hear more than any other in the Church is Doctrine and Covenants 20:77 and 79, the sacrament prayers. Every Sunday in our services we are invited to spend time contemplating Christ’s sacrifice. During the sacrament, we witness to God that we are willing to take upon us the name of his Son and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given us, that we may always have his Spirit to be with us (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:77, 79).

A member of our ward in Manhattan tells of a time in college when he was questioning the Book of Mormon. Could he believe the story of the Nephites and Lamanites? Was the Book of Mormon historically authentic? During this time of struggle and doubt, he prayed for guidance about the book’s value. Eventually, he says, the answer came. In his mind he heard the words: “Did it not bring you to me?” For him that was the payoff. He had found the Savior in the pages of the Book of Mormon. That is what the book was intended to do. That is what Joseph would want to come out of his work: for us to believe in Christ.

Sometimes this deep infusion of Christ into modern revelation does not achieve its purpose in people’s lives. Some people’s faith is based more on Joseph Smith than on Jesus Christ. When they begin to question the Prophet, they lose faith in the Savior. We all know of Latter-day Saints whose faith is shaken by new facts, such as the existence of the alternate accounts of the First Vision, which I have been discussing. When this new information builds up, they grow concerned. Could it all be wrong? Their consternation goes so far that they consider leaving the Church, painful as that would be.

For a long time, I would try to answer their specific questions, try to persuade them that there was another way of understanding the facts that were bothering them. I reminded them that people like me and many other informed Latter-day Saints are aware of all the disruptive information and still believe in Joseph Smith. We would talk for hours, but nothing seemed to work. After all the talk, they seemed as fixed in their doubts as I am in my faith.

Of late, I have taken to asking the doubters a question: How do you feel about Jesus Christ? If they say the Savior means everything to them, I assure them, “You will be all right. If you can hold to Christ, you will find your way.” But to my dismay, others say that in losing faith in Joseph Smith, they also lose faith in Christ and even in God and prayer. Everything falls apart. I feel bad when I hear this response. It means that Joseph Smith, not the Savior, is the foundation of their faith. Once Joseph is removed, the whole building collapses.

This is not what Joseph intended. He did not organize a Church of Joseph Smith. The Articles of Faith do not mention Joseph Smith’s name. They begin with the statement, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (Articles of Faith 1:1). That is the foundation.

Those who lose faith in Christ because they have lost faith in Joseph Smith have things backward. Joseph’s mission was to increase faith in Christ, not in himself. He thought of himself as one of the weak things of the world who came forth so that faith might increase on the earth and Christ’s everlasting covenant might be established (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:19–22). Joseph would want us to develop faith in his teachings, in Christ and the Atonement, in prayer and adhesion to high moral standards—not in him as a man. He would want us to believe in the principles independent of himself, as the Saints in the first decade did. We honor him as a prophet, to be sure, but as one who testified of the Savior. Joseph’s revelations pointed beyond himself to Christ and the Father. I believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, and most of you reading this do too. But we must place our faith first in Christ and believe in him apart from our faith in his messenger. Christ should be the anchor when we struggle and question.

We now benefit from having not just one but many accounts of the First Vision, each one offering a different perspective. We are right to reconcile the differences when we can and to speculate on what they reveal about Joseph Smith’s thinking. But we should keep the vision’s purpose in mind: to testify of the Lord. I pray that Christ will come first in our faith, that he will be the foundation, and that we will enjoy forgiveness and renewal through his Atonement. In Jesus Christ’s name, amen.


[1] Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 22–25.

[2] Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 10, no. 4 (1967): 227–44.

[3] The authoritative version of the 1832 account is “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, 1:10–16 (hereafter JSP, H1).

[4] “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in JSP, H1:11.

[5] “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in JSP, H1:11–12.

[6] “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in JSP, H1:12–13.

[7] “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in JSP, H1:13.

[8] “History, Circa Summer 1832,” in JSP, H1:13–14.

[9] “Letter to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832,” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, 2:249, 251.