The First Vision Goes to the Movies

Casey Paul Griffiths

Casey Paul Griffiths, “The First Vision Goes to the Movies,” in Joseph Smith and His First Vision: Context, Place, and Meaning, ed. Alexander L. Baugh, Steven C. Harper, Brent M. Rogers, and Benjamin Pykles (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 257‒78.

Casey Paul Griffiths is an assistant teaching professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

For most living members of the Church, their earliest encounter with the First Vision came through cinema.[1] Film is a medium that embraces the use of the major senses, presenting imagery and sound in a way that allows viewers to feel transported to other times and places. These qualities make film accessible to almost every person, regardless of their age, education, or background. While there are limits to any kind of communicative media, film is often the swiftest way to transport us to the world of early nineteenth-century upstate New York and into the words of the young seeker Joseph Smith. This study seeks to explore the work of the men and women who labored to bring Joseph Smith’s theophany to life on the silver screen. Believing filmmakers are confronted by several overwhelming questions when tasked with translating the First Vision to film: How much should the story be fictionalized to make it more appealing to audiences? Which accounts of the First Vision translate best in the medium? Perhaps most important, is there an appropriate way to depict deity on screen and capture the transcendent nature of Joseph Smith’s experience?

Early Attempts: The Message of the Ages

It is difficult to determine when the earliest filmed depiction of the First Vision may have been created. For instance, a Church film produced in 1913 entitled One Hundred Years of Mormonism chose to omit the First Vision, jumping from Joseph Smith’s childhood to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.[2] In 1923 a missionary in the Eastern States Mission procured a camera and filmed on the Smith Farm and near the Hill Cumorah at a conference memorializing the centennial of Moroni’s appearance to Joseph Smith, though it is not known if any attempts to reenact the First Vision on the site were ever filmed.[3]

still photo from the depiction of the first vision from the message of the agesStill photo from the depiction of the First Vision from The Message of the Ages. Photograph courtesy of Randy Astle.

The earliest known cinematic depiction of the First Vision was filmed during a portion of a 1930 centennial pageant titled The Message of the Ages. The filming took place as part of a newsreel created by Pathe Sound News. The First Vision was one of several tableaus chosen for inclusion in the newsreel. To obtain the right light for filming, the pageant was staged on the exterior steps of the newly completed Utah State Capitol. In front of a painted backdrop on the rear exterior steps of the capitol, Joseph Smith, played by Hyrum J. Smith, is shown kneeling in the grove and then raising his hands upward as if seeing deity. There were no attempts to depict the Father and the Son, and the entire sequence lasts thirty-two seconds.[4] While the film seems quaint by today’s standards, it does reveal the commitment Church leaders demonstrated to embrace new media.

The First Vision: The Visitation of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith (1976)

In the decades following this early attempt to capture the history of the Church on celluloid, Latter-day Saint filmmaking become more sophisticated and prolific. Under the direction of Wetzel O. “Judge” Whitaker and his brother Scott Whitaker, a talented group of filmmakers was assembled at Brigham Young University. Judge Whitaker, called by one film historian “the most important figure in the history of [Latter-day Saint] film,”[5] presided over numerous productions, many of them focused on Church history. Under Whitaker’s direction, films such as Windows of Heaven (1963), Pioneers in Petticoats (1969), and The Church in Action (1970–1982) introduced audiences around the world to stories about Church history.[6] When Judge Whitaker retired in 1974, development was already underway for a film centering on the First Vision.

Dr. David K. Jacobs was first recruited by Judge Whitaker to portray the famed Latter-day Saint scientist, Henry J. Eyring. Throughout the 1960s Jacobs worked as casting director at the Latter-day Saint motion picture studio, bringing in actors for such classic films as Johnny Lingo (1969) and Windows of Heaven. By the early 1970s he had begun to work as a director, and he was asked to oversee the production of the first attempt to film the First Vision since the 1930 centennial. Jacobs later remarked, “The First Vision was the hardest thing I ever did.”[7]

still photo from the 1976 first visionStill photo from the 1976 First Vision. Photograph courtesy of David Jacobs.

For several years Judge Whitaker’s goal to create a film on the First Vision had failed to come to fruition. Over a period of seven years, many scripts were submitted and rejected. Finally, Doug Stewart, the writer of the Latter-day Saint musical Saturday’s Warrior, submitted a script that was accepted. The script relied primarily on Joseph Smith’s words narrating a series of still images. While the proposition to only use still images was abandoned in favor of live action, the makers retained the format of the adult Joseph Smith narrating the action with only minimal dialogue from the young Joseph.[8] While several General Authorities, including Elders Thomas S. Monson, Boyd K. Packer, Marvin J. Ashton, and Mark E. Petersen, reviewed the script and made adjustments,[9] the only specific directive Church leaders gave was that the film should not be longer than twenty minutes.[10]

Conceptualizing the film was one of the greatest challenges that Jacobs and his team faced. He notes the largest questions he wrestled with as follows: “How would we handle the vision itself? Would showing deity be too sacred? What would they look like—clothes—face—hair—beards, etc.? How would we handle the darkness scene where Joseph is assailed?”[11] Jacobs was particularly vexed by the problem of how to depict deity on-screen. “I knew that nothing we could depict on film could anywhere equal in any way the glories of the Father and the Son,” he later wrote. Initially the decision was made not to attempt to show deity but to focus on Joseph Smith’s reaction. Jacobs changed his mind when, during a meeting with several General Authorities, he was asked if he was going to show the Father and the Son. When Jacobs replied that he wasn’t sure, the General Authority “quickly said, ‘I am so glad you are going to show them; after all, that’s what the vision was all about and what set apart Joseph and the Church from the rest of the world.’” That ended the discussion for Jacobs and his team. “I felt that was a direct answer to prayer,” he later wrote. “There was no question after that as to whether we should show them or not. The only question was how to show them to make them as glorious as we possibly could.”[12]

The script for the film relies heavily on the canonized 1838 account of the First Vision. However, Jacobs rewrote the script to incorporate the different accounts of the vision given during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. He was strongly influenced by an article published by historian James B. Allen, which discussed eight contemporary accounts of the vision.[13] When Jacobs read the 1835 account that describes Joseph hearing a person walking toward him as he began to pray,[14] Jacobs was struck. “When I read that [account] I got chills up and down my arms and I knew that it was the devil coming up upon Joseph and that was the way to handle that scene.”[15]

Shooting the film was true guerrilla filmmaking. Jacobs and his crew operated on a shoestring budget and had only limited time to obtain the shots needed for the film.[16] None of the cast received any compensation for their roles, even Stewart Petersen, the young actor selected to portray Joseph Smith. Petersen was already well known from his role in Where the Red Fern Grows (1974), and working around his busy schedule was one of the challenges of the production. Part of the film was shot on location in the spring of 1975, in the actual Sacred Grove, but the weather in Palmyra refused to cooperate for the majority of the film shoot. Time was limited because Stewart Petersen was committed to return to Wyoming after one week for another film. When the crew initially arrived in the Sacred Grove, the ground was so saturated with water that it was impossible to bring in the equipment necessary to film. Over the next few days rain continued to frustrate efforts to film. Finally, Jacobs and his crew awoke at 4:00 a.m. and saw that it had stopped raining. He later remembered, “When the sun came up we beheld the loveliest mists we’d ever seen. It was incredible. The tall wet grasses sparkled, and the birds burst forth into song, and we knew we had been blessed with a beauty that we could have never produced ourselves.”[17]

Additional portions of the story were shot on a soundstage at the BYU Motion Picture Studio. The actors portraying the Father and the Son were filmed against a black background, and then their two scenes were composited using an optical printer and an aura surrounding the figures of deity. The filmmakers chose not to linger too long on the Father and the Son, immediately moving the camera away after their divine appearance and then pulling slowly away until the glow fades and the scene comes to an end.[18] Instead of hearing the voice of the Father and the Son, the film relies on a voiceover from Joseph Smith, who is explaining the message given to him. Other effects were achieved more simply; for instance, the dark and blurry effects on the film surrounding the demonic attack on Joseph were achieved by placing a plastic bag over the camera while shooting.[19]

An early cut of the film was shown to members of the Brigham Young University 53rd Branch. After the showing, 139 students rated the quality of the film: 75 said the film was “excellent,” 51 “very good,” 9 “good,” 3 “average,” and 1, “fair.” It was later discovered that the lone student who gave the film a “fair” rating worked at the motion picture studio and was angry about not being allowed to serve on the film crew. Comments given by the students after they watched the cut were overwhelmingly positive. “I felt the emotion of tears well within my eyes for the truthfulness of the gospel restored by a true prophet, Joseph Smith,” wrote one student. Another wrote, “I was deeply touched. I am a visual learner. Thank you for this uplifting experience.” Reflecting on the film as a historical portrayal, another student wrote, “I thought it dealt with the vision tastefully and honestly. I would like some of my friends to see it.”[20]

Another preliminary showing took place at the Church Office Building with several Apostles in attendance, including Boyd K. Packer and Ezra Taft Benson. Jacobs later recalled, “When it was over everyone was quiet [and] President Benson had his head down. We sat there for at least a minute with nothing said. Without looking up, President Benson [said], ‘I wanted it to go on and on!’ That sealed the deal.”[21] The film premiered on the evening of 2 September 1976 at the Promised Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City. President Spencer W. Kimball and dozens of other General Authorities and their guests attended the event. David Jacobs welcomed everyone to the premiere and then noted that the purpose of the film was “to particularly strengthen the testimonies of the young people throughout the Church.”[22] The film soon became a fixture in Latter-day Saint culture, surpassing even Man’s Search for Happiness as the most popular film made by the LDS Motion Picture Studio.[23]

The Joseph Smith Story (Animated, 1987)

The next attempt to bring the First Vision to life on film took place over a decade later through the animated series sponsored by the Living Scriptures company. The film was part of an effort to put a number of scripture stories from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon into an animated format for children. “At the time VHS tapes were just becoming popular,” recalls Jared Brown, one of the founders of Living Scriptures. “I wanted something that would grab both children and adults—I wanted something with comedy and drama.”[24] Brown at first approached Hanna-Barbera to produce the series, but the company’s costs were too high. In the end, he recruited veteran Disney animator Richard Rich to serve as the director of the new series and commissioned twenty-four stories from the New Testament and twelve from the Book of Mormon. As an experiment, he also commissioned one story from Church history.[25]

The Joseph Smith Story was scripted by Orson Scott Card, the well-known author of the science fiction novels Ender’s Game (1985) and Speaker for the Dead (1986), both winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Because the animated scripture films were designed both to inform and to entertain viewers, Card took more liberties with the story, aiming to allow audiences to become familiar with Joseph Smith’s character and not just the facts of the story. “I felt my most important responsibility was to develop the character of Joseph Smith, so that viewers would respect and love him before the pivotal event. People tend to deify religious figures from the past, so it was important to me that he be seen as a believably real boy who loved fun, worked hard, took responsibility, and faced adversity with courage,” Card later reflected. From this perspective, “The coming of Christ and the Father to that grove was the denouement, not the climax; the climax was Joseph’s decision to go on with his prayer despite the fear and struggle caused by the adversary. That was the crucial action on Joseph’s part.”[26]

With an eye to developing the character of Joseph Smith, the story opens well before the First Vision, beginning instead with the harrowing story of Joseph’s leg operation when he was ten years old.[27] Card took liberties with the story to show the Smiths as a warm and loving family, though he was cautious not to alter any historical events. “I always have hesitation in taking liberties with any scriptural story,” Card reflected. “I don’t believe I took liberties beyond those required by the medium I’m working in. Like a painter who has to decide just what skin tone his depiction of the Savior ought to have during his mortal ministry, I make the necessary decisions within the boundaries of respect, faith, and decorum.”[28]

The story closely adheres to the historical record, though it does add a number of flourishes designed to make the Smith family relatable to the audience. Samuel and William Smith are depicted as having a teasing relationship with each other, with the former even bringing a frog to church. Card’s script turns the frog episode into a teaching moment. When Lucy and Joseph Sr. chastise Samuel for bringing the frog into the church, young Joseph remarks that the minister’s sermon told them that everything is predetermined (a Calvinist teaching of the time), and so Samuel must have been meant to bring the frog into the meeting. The film is also noteworthy because it contains the only speaking depictions of one of the Smith daughters—Sophronia Smith is given several spoken lines.

screenshot of one the first vision in the 1987 animated version of the first visionAnimated version of the First Vision. Courtesy of Living Scriptures.

The most notable part of the animated story comes in the actual depiction of the vision itself. This part of the story is given another childlike touch: two small animals in the grove, a rabbit and a squirrel, are shown reacting with fear from the intrusion of Satan and with wonder at the arrival of the Father and the Son. Perhaps most importantly, the film contains the first spoken dialogue of the Father and Son in a First Vision film. After the Father introduces the Son and Joseph asks which church he should join, the Savior tells Joseph: “You must join none of them, Joseph. They’re all wrong. They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They teach as doctrines the commandments of men. They copy the forms of godliness but they deny the power of God. There is no church in the world today that teaches the fulness of my gospel. . . . You, Joseph, shall be an instrument in my hand to build the kingdom of God on the earth.”[29] Card’s script follows the 1832 account of the First Vision most closely and should be commended not only for the inclusion of the Savior’s words but also for not softening the message of the vision. “I have found that children are able to receive material that will also entertain and educate adults,” Card later wrote. “Kids appreciate not being pandered to or talked down to. I try to avoid doing anything that smacks of those things.”[30]

The Work and the Glory (2004)

The bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth in 2005 led to a new surge in filmed projects surrounding early Church history. For the first time the story of the First Vision came to local cineplexes in 2004 with the release of the film The Work and the Glory. The film was based on Gerald Lund’s popular historical novels that follow a fictional family, the Steeds, through the early events surrounding the history of the Church. While the Steeds take the main stage in the film, Joseph Smith is a major character, played by Jonathan Scarfe, who was not a Church member. Russ Holt, the writer-director of the film, carried out an extensive search to find the right actor to play Joseph Smith. “We looked far and wide and auditioned dozens of actors for that role,” Holt later said. “Jonathan had a quality to him that we were looking for—of still having a backwoods farm boy feel to him, but also having wisdom beyond his years and dignity that I felt the Prophet Joseph had even in his rustic frontier upbringing.”[31]

Unlike other versions of the First Vision, this film was not shot in or around Palmyra, instead using the forests outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, as a stand-in for the New York frontier. In the film, the First Vision is introduced when Joseph and Hyrum Smith take the fictional Nathan Steed aside and privately tell him the story of the vision. The story is told in flashback, with Joseph narrating. “We didn’t show everything,” Russ Holt later commented. “For instance, we don’t show the Father and the Son actually appearing to Joseph. We get right up to the moment where that happens, then we go to Joseph quietly telling Nathan what he saw rather than show[ing] it.”[32] The Work and the Glory is one of the only depictions of the First Vision made outside of the institutional direction of the Church and the only depiction where the Father and the Son are not openly shown.

Holt worked with Jonathan Scarfe to add nuances into his performance. They spent time discussing how Joseph mentioned in multiple accounts how the Lord called him by name. “Jonathan perceived [what] a significant thing it was that the God of the universe would call this 14-year-old boy by his first name. You can feel that in his delivery of those lines.”[33] The Work and the Glory was followed by two sequels, American Zion (2005) and A House Divided (2006), which also featured Jonathan Scarfe as Joseph Smith. Several other films around this time, including Praise to the Man (2005), depicted the First Vision, though they utilized footage from The Restoration or Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. T. C. Christensen was involved in filming every depiction of the First Vision during this period, and the versions share a similar look and feel.[34]

The Restoration (2004)

While The Work and the Glory was a largely commercial venture, the Church also launched its own effort to create a new cinematic interpretation of the First Vision. In 2001 efforts began to create a new version of the First Vision for use in Church visitors’ centers.[35] Gary Cook, a veteran of Church audiovisual productions, was selected to write and direct the video. Cook started working on the script as early as 1995 and consulted with a number of Latter-day Saint scholars, including Richard Lyman Bushman, Larry C. Porter, Susan Easton Black, and Truman G. Madsen. “I wanted to make a more personal story,” Cook later remarked. “We wanted Joseph to be an interesting character.”[36] The script for the film focuses on Joseph’s family relationships, especially his relationship with his older brother Alvin.[37] Filming took place in a number of locations throughout the United States, though the First Vision scenes were primarily filmed in the forest near the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York. Dustin Harding, a fifteen-year old Latter-day Saint, was chosen to play Joseph Smith after auditioning and even being interviewed by a General Authority. He recalled, “I was told that if I had this experience that I would not only need to be worthy during filming, but I would have to be worthy for the rest of my life. . . . It has been something that I have had to live by.”[38]

The film draws primarily from the 1838 account found in the Pearl of Great Price, occasionally adding to or updating the wording for a more modern audience. Though it does not overtly mention the different accounts of the First Vision, it does draw a number of details from the different accounts. The film shows Joseph’s search for the true church happening over the course of several years, a detail given in the 1832 account of the First Vision. Several different seasons are shown as Joseph interacts with his family and seeks counsel and guidance from them. A notable detail omitted from the film is the darkness that overshadowed Joseph before his vision of the Father and the Son. The suggestion to leave out the incident with Satan was given by Church missionary department officials, who wanted the film to serve as a missionary tool and worried that the experience would overshadow the vision of deity.[39] The film, which was originally intended to be shown only in the Palmyra Visitors’ Center, was eventually utilized as a missionary tool and was widely distributed within the Church.[40]

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (2005)

The success of The Restoration led to Church leaders’ commissioning of a feature-length film on the life of Joseph Smith. Ron Munns, a longtime producer of Church media, remembered being approached by President Gordon B. Hinckley about the production: “President Hinckley loved the film A Man for All Seasons. He told me that he wanted our film to do for Joseph Smith what A Man for All Seasons did for Sir Thomas Moore.” President Hinckley also wanted the film to have a strong emotional effect on audiences.[41] Gary Cook, who was asked to direct the film, wanted a moving film built around strong themes of family and faith. He emphasized the connection between Joseph, Hyrum, and Alvin Smith. The greater length accorded to the film allowed this theme to be developed more fully, with scenes showing the brothers’ relationships, and even a depiction of Alvin’s death. Originally, Cook planned to end the film by showing the three brothers reunited after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum.[42] When it came to portraying the First Vision, the filmmakers again utilized details from different accounts, but primarily relied on the text of the 1838 account of the First Vision.[43]

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration utilized footage from The Restoration, especially relating to the First Vision, though young Joseph Smith was recast, with Nick Whitaker taking up the role. T. C. Christensen served as the cinematographer on both films and created a warmly lit and glowing feel throughout the grove. In approaching the vision of deity, Christensen focused on the light described in the accounts. “Joseph said it was beyond description, and now you are asking me to describe it? Instead, we wanted to provide a sense of the feeling.”[44] The effects within the grove were filmed using surprisingly simple means. The grove was flooded with smoke, and at the right time of day the rays of the sun shone through the trees, creating streaks of light. “The biggest light is the sun,” Christensen later added, so “we smoked up the grove and then captured the natural effect.”[45] In addition, minimal computer-generated imagery was used to define more sharply some of the rays of light in the grove.

Like other filmmakers, Cook and Christensen wrestled with the question of whether to depict the Father and the Son. Christensen initially wanted to avoid showing deity, feeling the power lay in the viewer’s imagination. He changed his mind when some of the General Authorities advising on the film told him that they felt that showing the Father and the Son was important to express the doctrinal principle that they were two separate beings. The filmmakers felt overwhelmed by the task but chose to follow the direction they were given. Digital technology and a green screen were eventually used to depict the glory of the Father and the Son, though they were only shown on-screen momentarily and as tastefully as possible. Cook felt very strongly that he wanted to show the wounds in the Savior’s hands, which are glimpsed briefly. The Father and the Son speak very briefly in the film, only introducing themselves, while most of the encounter is described in Joseph’s words. The film also featured a brief sequence showing the demonic attack prior to the vision of deity.[46]

Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision (2015)

The most recent production to show the First Vision is wholly unique among the cinematic interpretations of the event. The development of Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision, created especially for the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, began with a narrow focus, aiming to show the vision itself, nothing less and nothing more. The film was created to be shown on a circular screen, meant to envelop a small audience with the feeling of being inside the grove itself. In order to create this immersive experience, the film utilized nine mini cameras that were mounted together and filmed off an array of mirrors that reflected the surrounding environment. The images were later digitally stitched together to create a seamless 240-degree environment. Digital artists composited several two-dimensional elements, including real and CGI trees, filmed actors playing Joseph Smith and the Father and the Son, and other digital elements to re-create the Sacred Grove experience. For the final shot, the cameras were suspended by rope below a helicopter. Footage from the helicopter was digitally stitched together to form a seamless ascent as the camera exited from the grove. Digital artists then worked with historians to create a realistic depiction of what the Smith farm would have looked like in 1820.[47]

While Ask of God is a technical marvel, perhaps what sets it apart from other films about the First Vision is its approach to the story. While earlier versions of the First Vision focused on building emotional involvement by showing Joseph’s struggle and his interactions with his family and surrounding environment, Ask of God focuses solely on the vision experience. Earlier films drew from the different accounts of the First Vision but did not explicitly mention the accounts, and they generally conformed very closely to the 1838 account published in the Pearl of Great Price. In contrast, Ask of God opens with a black screen and bold text, declaring, “Between 1832 and 1844, Joseph Smith and some of his closest friends recorded at least nine accounts of Joseph’s First Vision experience, given on different occasions to different audiences. . . . What you are about to see draws upon all of the written First Vision accounts to provide additional perspectives and insights into this remarkable event.”[48]

Adam Anderegg, the writer and director of Ask of God, describes his process: “We compared all of the accounts, hoping to keep the spirit of the experience, [and] consulted closely with a team of historians from the Church History Department and the Joseph Smith Papers.”[49] Though Anderegg is credited as the writer, he notes, “Joseph [Smith] really wrote the script—what I did was compile the account. I made a nine-column document and made a harmony with what each one said about the story.”[50] The amalgamated account was later presented to fifteen different historians who reviewed the manuscript and made suggestions. Ask of God was the first major film of the First Vision made since the Joseph Smith Papers project was inaugurated in 2008 and after the First Vision Accounts Gospel Topics essay was published in 2013.[51]

Since there are no close-ups in the film, two different actors portrayed Joseph Smith. When it came to the depiction of the Father and the Son, the only liberty taken was to show Jesus stepping down onto a plane nearer to Joseph while he delivered his message. At just six minutes and thirty-six seconds, the film is one of the briefest depictions of the vision. At the same time, it includes the most spoken lines of dialogue by deity of any version of the First Vision. This filmed version is also unique in using only words recorded by Joseph Smith or one of his contemporaries. The film includes every aspect of the experience described by Joseph, including the demonic attack and the appearance of the Father and the Son.[52]

While Ask of God was beautifully filmed, it was intended to serve as an immersive experience and not just as a film. A test mock-up was built in a former television studio in Salt Lake City to test the technologies involved to ensure they worked properly.[53] In the final theater the circular screen shows a 240-degree perspective of the grove. Fourteen different sound channels play the ambient sounds of the grove, with heightened sound levels during the depiction of the demonic attack on Joseph. There is no music in the film except for a brief violin piece at the end of the film when Joseph Smith’s words are shown to the audience, stating, “Truly this is a day long to be remembered . . . a day in which the God of heaven has begun to restore the ancient order of His kingdom to bring about the completion of the fullness of the Gospel . . . to prepare the earth for the return of His glory.”[54] While the film was originally intended to be shown only as part of the visitor experience at the Church History Museum, a theatrical version was also filmed that could be viewed online.[55] The online version of Ask of God debuted just prior to a 2017 Face to Face broadcast featuring President Henry B. Eyring and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland meeting with a group of youth in the visitors’ center just outside the Sacred Grove.[56]

A Story Told and Retold

The questions faced by the filmmakers in depicting the theophany of the Palmyra Prophet in some ways mirror the circumstances that led Joseph himself to relate different accounts of the vision in his own lifetime. It is difficult to say which version is superior because each exists to fill a different function. As the vision moved from the page to the screen, a similar phenomenon took place. While the basic details of the story remained in place, the details shifted to align with the purpose and proposed audience of each cinematic interpretation. Each film fills a unique gap in the work of interpreting the First Vision. The 1976 film of The First Vision was a remarkable achievement for its cohesion, beauty, and the fluidity of its storytelling. For missionary work, the simple thesis of The Restoration (2004), to seek knowledge from God, is probably the best approach. The animated Joseph Smith Story is a wonderful way to introduce children to the story of the Restoration and the principles of prayer and revelation. If understanding the entire life of Joseph Smith is the goal, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration creates an involving, emotional story spanning the time from Joseph’s early years to the last moments of his life. In recent years, as antagonists’ attacks on the history of the Church have grown more sophisticated, Ask of God serves as an effective answer to those who try to use the different accounts of the vision to question its historicity.

The First Vision is a timeless story, the kind of experience that will continue to be retold and reinterpreted for each successive generation. It is a foregone conclusion that new interpretations on film will continue to enter production, and the story will take on a new life as it comes into the hands of different filmmakers. No doubt the efforts already completed are just the beginning of the work of bringing the story of the First Vision and the latter-day Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.


[1] The early stages of this project were created in collaboration with Trent Toone from the Church News. I am indebted to him for his help with tracking down and interviewing many of the people involved in creating the different cinematic interpretations of the First Vision found in this paper. His article on First Vision films can be found at Trent Toone, “As Church Commemorates Bicentennial, Here’s a Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision Portrayed on Film,”

[2] Randy Astle, Mormon Cinema, Origins to 1952 (New York City: Mormon Arts Center, 2018), 197.

[3] Astle, Mormon Cinema, 207.

[4] Astle, Mormon Cinema, 348–49. Many thanks to Randy Astle, who was able to provide me with a copy of the newsreel. Randy Astle, email message to author, 2 November 2019; copy in author’s possession.

[5] See Gideon O. Burton and Randy Astle, “The Third Wave: Judge Whitaker and the Classical Era,” BYU Studies 46, no. 2 (2007): 77–95.

[6] For an overview of the Judge Whitaker era of Latter-day Saint filmmaking, see Wetzel O. Whitaker, Looking Back: An Autobiography (privately published, 1978?); and A Reel Legacy (2013), directed by Tom Laughlin, produced by Workman Productions. See also Burton and Astle, “Third Wave,” 77–95.

[7] David K. Jacobs, interview with author, 31 October 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[8] David K. Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture; copy in author’s possession.

[9] Campus Memorandum, 15 March 1973, copy in David Kent Jacobs Collection, UA 5625, box 60–61, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University (hereafter Perry Special Collections).

[10] A Few Notes from the Director: The First Vision, copy in David Kent Jacobs Collection, UA 5625, box 60–61, Perry Special Collections.

[11] Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture, 5.

[12] Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture; emphasis in the original.

[13] James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of the First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?,” Improvement Era, 1970, 4–13.

[14] See “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 23,

[15] Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture, 7.

[16] David Jacobs estimates the total cost of the 1976 First Vision to be $104,000; by comparison, he estimated the average cost of a thirty-second Church-sponsored commercial at the time to be $130,000.

[17] Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture, 7.

[18] Jacobs, notes from an Education Week lecture, 7.

[19] Jacobs, interview with author, 31 October 2019.

[20] The First Vision: Film Evaluation Summary, Student Comments, David Kent Jacobs Collection, UA 5625, box 60–61, Perry Special Collections.

[21] David K. Jacobs interview with author, 22 November 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[22] “A Sacred Morning,” 11 September 1976, clipping from an unknown newspaper, David Kent Jacobs Collection, UA 5625, box 60–61, Perry Special Collections.

[23] Gideon O. Burton and Randy Astle, “The Fourth Wave: The Mass Media Era (1974–2000),” BYU Studies 46, no. 2 (2007): 101.

[24] Jared Brown, interview with author, 2 November 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[25] Brown, interview with author, 2 November 2019.

[26] Orson Scott Card, email to author, 30 January 2020; copy in author’s possession; emphasis in the original.

[27] See “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 58,

[28] Orson Scott Card, email to author, 30 January 2020.

[29] This scene can be viewed on YouTube at the following address: My thanks to Matthew Brown and Living Scriptures for making this scene available to any who wish to view it. See Joseph Smith—History 1:19.

[30] Orson Scott Card, email to author, 30 January 2020. Part of Card’s desire to remain close to the original accounts came from the fact that he was the son-in-law of James B. Allen, who wrote the original groundbreaking article on the different First Vision accounts.

[31] Russ Holt, interview with Trent Toone, email to author, 16 January 2020; copy in author’s possession.

[32] Holt, interview with Toone.

[33] Holt, interview with Toone.

[34] T. C. Christensen, interview with author and Trent Toone, 25 October 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[35] Mark Lusvardi, interview with Trent Toone; notes in author’s possession.

[36] Gary Cook, interview with author, 8 November 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[37] The Restoration can be viewed at

[38] “Dustin Harding Talks about Representing Joseph Smith on the Big Screen,” MirrorFilmsTV,

[39] Cook, interview with author, 8 November 2019; Ron Munns, interview with author, 31 October 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[40] Munns, interview with author, 31 October 2019.

[41] Munns, interview with author, 31 October 2019.

[42] Cook, interview with author, 8 November 2019.

[43] Munns, interview with author, 31 October 2019.

[44] Christensen, interview with author and Toone, 25 October 2019.

[45] Christensen, interview with author and Toone, 25 October 2019.

[46] Cook, interview with author, 8 November 2019; Christensen, interview with author and Toone, 25 October 2019.

[47] “New First Vision Exhibit at the Church History Museum,” unpublished video, courtesy of Sallie Larsen, 25 October 2019; Alan Johnson, interview with author, 23 October 2019; Kurt Graham, interview with author, 22 October 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[48] Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,

[49] Adam Anderegg, interview with author, 8 January 2020; notes in author’s possession.

[50] Anderegg, interview with author, 8 January 2020.

[51] Anderegg, interview with author, 8 January 2020.

[52] Anderegg, interview with author, 8 January 2020.

[53] Sallie Larsen, interview with author, 25 October 2019; notes in author’s possession.

[54] Joseph Smith, History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842], p. 1268,

[55] Anderegg, interview with author, 8 January 2020.

[56] Lauren Hanson, “New First Vision Video to Premier Prior to Face to Face with President Eyring, Elder Holland,” Church News, 2 March 2017,