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What Can We Learn from the First Vision

I was delighted to receive an invitation from President Tanner to address you today. Having been here before, I know that you are an unusual collection of Latter-day Saints, studying in an unusual location, and receiving an unusual education. My wife Claudia and I recently spent a week speaking in Korea and came away with a new view of how the Church works around the globe. I welcome the opportunity to get to know you a little better.

Should the opportunity ever come to you to travel to Salt Lake City, I recommend that you visit the Church History Museum. This is the organization that every two years sponsors an exhibition of Mormon art from around the world. The work of artists from Ghana, Argentina, Tokyo, Samoa, everywhere is put on display—a marvelous introduction to the global church.

Recently 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 The aim of the exhibition is to introduce visitors to the church through art, historical documents, and historical objects.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 gathering. It was filled will displays of the pioneers crossing the plains to Utah and then 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 great 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 19th century. They yearned for revelation and direction from heaven and could not find it. Then the exhibition displays a picture of Joseph Smith searching the scripture and invites you into a theater where the First Vision is reenacted in film. The film is projected in a round room to show a wooded grove surrounding you 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, you 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; 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. One item is the string that bound the manuscript of the Book of Mormon when it was being taken to the press.

This is a familiar story for Latter-day Saints. We hear it the minute we begin to investigate the Church or attend junior Sunday School. But going through the exhibit for the first time, I noticed some new features. One was in the filming room 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 this presentation draws on all of them. On a stand as you exit the theater is a notebook containing all of these accounts in full, with the parts that are 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 known only one, the one that appears in Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith I. This canonical account was written, 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. We treat it 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 may surprise some Church members. Not everyone has been aware of the existence of these other records and may be 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 work by historians in response to a challenge from critics of the Church. The standard account found in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church is so rich and interesting that for many years we were content to rely on it alone. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, a number of critics of Joseph Smith, including Fawn Brodie author of a biography of the Prophet, asked why was the account of the First Vision 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 his wavering followers.

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 persuade some. 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 in 1835, another as early at 1832, and others scattered through his 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 had an added value. What more can we learn about the Vision by looking at these various accounts more carefully? Each one naturally differs in detail from the others. They all talk about the Lord appearing and giving a message to Joseph, but they are like the gospels in the New Testament. Each one has a different emphasis and gives us a somewhat different view of the event. What can we learn from these added accounts??

I am particularly attracted to the first of the accounts, the one written in 1832. As I have suggested, it was a season when Joseph was trying to improve his record-keeping. He had received the command to keep a record at the time the church was organized and tried as best he could, but like us in our journal keeping, his record was spotty. In 1832 he was trying again. The account of the Vision was part of his new resolve, the first time he sat down to explain how it all began.

The record is particularly interesting because large parts of it were written in his 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.

The 1832 account is not complete. It says nothing about the revivals that so confused Joseph, or about reading James 1:5—if any of you lack wisdom. 1 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 summing up what happened, Joseph chose to record some things and not others. 

So the 1832 account omits some parts of the whole story, but it also adds things missing from the familiar story. 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 impress [p. 1]with regard to the all important 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 exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins”  

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 “mankind> . . . had apostatized 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.” But 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.”

It comes as no surprise then that 1832 account deals with sin and forgiveness. Here is Joseph’s 1832 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.”  

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 crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.”  

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.

Once this emphasis is found in the account of the First Vision, 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 when 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.” 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? That question is 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. Once he got on to 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.” 2 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 LDS 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 orange jump suits, 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 really was the difference 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–even his brother Hyrum. In 1832, on his way back to Kirtland from Missouri, Joseph had to stop in Indiana after Newell K. Whitney broke 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 Suffering 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 f[o]rgiven my Sins and I r[e]joice that he Sendeth forth the Comforter unto as many as believe and humbleth themselves before him.” He sounded very much like Nephi in 2 Nephi 4 who lamented: “O wretched man that I am.” 3 Both men felt deeply the need for mercy and forgiveness.

After telling Emma of his misery, thoughts of death came to him. Joseph wrote:

I will try to be contented with my lot knowing that God is my friend    in him I shall find comfort    I have  given my life into his hands   I am prepared to go at his Call   I desire to be with Christ    I Count not my life  dear to me only to do his will.

It sounds like sorrowful life to be forever repenting of your sins and seeking forgiveness as Joseph and Nephi did. But in actuality, repentance and forgiveness lead to hope and resilience. We all fall short from time to time. We make mistake and look foolish or hurt people. We build up many regrets about our lives and can be burdened down by memories of our failures and errors. We can become quite depressed and weakened by a sense of failure and sin The doctrine of continuous forgiveness acknowledges that this will be true of us all. It may be unavoidable that we constantly stumble. 

But we need never be borne down by our shortcomings and sins. It is built into the nature of the universe that we if approach God with a broken heart and pray in the name of Christ, we will be forgiven and renewed. It is a doctrine that gives us courage, hope, and the ability to move on. Joseph’s lamentations did not debilitate him. He was not crippled by his regrets. He put his faith in Christ, pled for forgiveness, and went on to magnificent achievements. To me that is what the 1832 account of the First Vision promises us—a God who will forgive us and lift the burden of sin from our backs. Even those men in prison for their sins and crimes can take hope.

Forgiveness then is the first lesson I derive from the 1832 First Vision account. The second has to do with a peculiar fact about its usage. 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 which 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 discovered by a historian in the 1960s.

This withholding of the 1832 account was typical of the first decade of the Church. Very little was made of the First Vision in Church teachings until 1839 when for the first time the story of the vision appeared in print, in an account by Orson Pratt. The familiar 1838 account was not published until 1842. Joseph mentioned his experience to a visitor to 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 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 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: “the convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” All the revelations, point in the same direction. The Preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, section 1 says the prophet was called that “the fullness of the gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world.” 4 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. In 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.

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 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 talked about today. 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 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. 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 that faith might increase in the earth and that Christ’s everlasting covenant might be established. 5 He 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 the man, 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. His revelations pointed beyond himself to Christ and the Father. I believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, and most of you here today 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. The Vision is a powerful source of faith. It helps my faith to know that someone in our own era saw God. But we should keep in mind the Vision’s purpose: it was to testify of the Lord. That Christ will come first in our faith, that he will be the foundation, that we will enjoy forgiveness and renewal through His atonement, I pray in Christ’s name, amen.



[1]James 1:5

[2]D&C 110:5

[3]2 Nephi 4

[4]D&C 1:23

[5]D&C 1:19-22