An 1829 Reference to the First Vision?
What is the earliest reference to the First Vision—the alleged appearance of God and Christ to Joseph Smith in 1820? Joseph Smith claimed in his 1839 account that he had told people, including at least one minister, about his 1820 First Vision immediately after it occurred, and that he suffered a great deal of persecution from people “among all the sects” over the next three years because of it (JS-H 1:21-28). However, the earliest known undisputed account of anything approximating what today is known as the First Vision dates from the 1832 account written in Smith’s own handwriting. Can the date for the earliest reference to the First Vision be pushed back any earlier?
The earliest alleged evidence for the First Vision story, as cited by LDS scholars and apologists, dates from 1829. I first learned about this report from Jeff Lindsay’s popular LDS apologetics website. Here is how he describes it:
Other critical publications of the era referred to claims by Joseph and others of angelic visions, and of personal conversations with Christ or with God Almighty. These stories were circulated long before modern anti-Mormon writers say that Joseph first came up with the idea. One example comes from an 1829 anti-Mormon satire by Abner Cole, who wrote a series of articles called “The Book of Pukei” for a Palmyra newspaper. The satire poked fun at many aspects of the Book of Mormon, including the first vision. The satire is evidence that Joseph’s first vision story was known and talked about in 1829 (Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, “Letters to an Anti-Mormon,” FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, p. 160).
This paragraph set me on a trail to track down the primary source document (the unnamed and unquoted Palmyra newspaper) to see what it actually said. Naturally, I began by following Lindsay’s link to the article by McGregor and Shirts. This is all they say about it:
A number of years ago, Professor Hugh W. Nibley of BYU wrote an essay entitled “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story” (later included in his Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass). In it he clearly showed that anti-Mormon writers have universally suppressed or distorted the first vision story; even years after it was officially published and included in the scriptures of the church, the church's critics have fought shy of it or seriously misused it. But Nibley also found some very clear indications that the first vision story was known from a much earlier date. In 1829, a journalist named Abner Cole wrote a series of satirical articles in a Palmyra newspaper. His “Book of Pukei” was intended as a satire on the Book of Mormon, but he satirized everything he could—including Moroni and the first vision. Oh yes, it was talked about, all right. Mocked and distorted though it was, it was still recognizable.
McGregor and Shirts also give no name for this Palmyra newspaper or any quotation from it to demonstrate its reference to the First Vision. Still, I thought, Nibley was a consummate scholar, so surely he will provide this documentation. I found Nibley’s essay “Censoring the Joseph Smith Story,” which at last gives some details:
A few weeks after the appearance of the Book of Mormon, Obadiah Dogberry published a satire on Joseph Smith in the Palmyra Reflector; it is the Book of Pukei, and we quote from chapter 2. First the contents of the chapter are given: “1. The idle and slothful reverence the prophet. 2. The prophet reveals to them the first appearance of the Spirit. 3. The admonition and promises. 4. Description of the Spirit.”
Then beginning with verse 2:
And the Prophet answered and said…lo! yesternight stood before me in the wilderness of Manchester, the spirit…. And he said unto me, “Joseph, thou son of Joseph, hold up thine head…hold up thine face and let the light of mine countenance shine upon thee…. I am the spirit that walketh in darkness, and will shew thee great signs and wonders.” And I looked, and behold a little old man stood before me, clad, as I supposed, in Egyptian raiment, except his Indian blanket and moccasins—his beard of silver white, hung far below his knees. On his head was an old-fashioned military half cocked hat such as was worn in the days of the patriarch Moses—his speech was sweeter than molasses, and his words were the reformed Egyptian. And again he said unto me, “Joseph thou who has been surnamed the ignoramus, knowest thou not, that great signs and wonders are to be done by thine hands?”
The broad, heavy Yankee humor is apparent enough, and it would be hard to explain such expressions as “reformed Egyptian” as coming from any but an official source. But what about the rest of the satire? Note the table of contents: “2. The prophet reveals to them the first appearance of the Spirit. 3. The admonition and promises. 4. Description of the Spirit.” The first appearance of the Spirit is then depicted as taking place “in the wilderness of Manchester,” where the Spirit addresses Joseph by name, introduces himself, and promises great things to come, including a work to be done by Smith himself. In the burlesque description of “the Spirit,” special mention is made of the light of his countenance and the extreme whiteness of his beard. With the coming of this light, Smith is told, “hold up thine head,” as if before he had been cast down. Now is Mr. Dogberry simply making all this up or is he satirizing?
Although Nibley is not explicit in these paragraphs, in context his claim here is that Obediah Dogberry (whose real name was Abner Cole) is satirizing and that his satire reflects some knowledge of the First Vision story. Thus, “the first appearance of the Spirit” (as Nibley quotes Dogberry) supposedly refers to the First Vision. Nibley picks out various elements of Dogberry’s satire that connect with the official First Vision account: it takes place in Manchester; the Spirit addresses Joseph by name and introduces himself; Joseph is told he will do a great work; the Spirit appears in extremely white light.
Nibley’s source for this information is a popular LDS book defending the Book of Mormon: Francis W. Kirkham’s A New Witness for Christ in America. So now we are looking at a fourth secondary source for this newspaper article. Kirkham, it should be noted, makes no attempt to relate anything in that article to the First Vision. Nibley is apparently responsible for drawing this correlation.
One point that Kirkham (and Nibley following him) get right that McGregor and Shirts get wrong in their article, and that Lindsay also gets wrong in following them, is the date of the Reflector article. Dogberry’s satirical articles entitled “The Book of Pukei” appeared in the Reflector in June and July of 1830, not 1829. One year may not seem very important, but the difference is that 1829 was before Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church, whereas the summer of 1830 was a few weeks after he did those things. Mormon apologists would dearly love to find evidence for the First Vision story before Smith founded the LDS Church in order to deflect the criticism that he invented the story to buttress his new claims to religious authority. Even if “The Book of Pukei” did refer to the First Vision, this two-part article did not appear until June and July 1830.
Kirkham presents the complete text of the “Book of Pukei” from the Palmyra Reflector, which was very helpful, but I wanted to eyeball the newspaper itself or some kind of photographic copy of it. I was unable to find any such reproduction online. Fortunately, my colleague at the Institute for Religious Research, Joel Groat, remembered that we have microfilm copies of the Reflector in our library. At the end of chapter 1 of the “Book of Pukei,” we read:
Now the rest of the acts of the magician, how his mantle fell upon the Prophet Jo. Smith Jun. and how Jo. made a league with the spirit, who afterwards turned out to be an angel, and how he obtained the “Gold Bible,” Spectacles, and breast plate, will they not be faithfully recorded in the book of Pukei?1
The above statement, which is a teaser for chapter 2, makes it clear that “the spirit”2 in chapter 2 is the angel that showed Joseph Smith the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, not the spirit of God the Father or Jesus Christ. This is confirmed when one reads verses 2 through 5 of chapter 2 with the material that Nibley omitted using ellipses (shown in boldface type below):
2. And the prophet answered and said,—“Behold! hath not the mantle of Walters the Magician fallen upon me, and I am not able to do before you my people great wonders, and shew you, at a more proper season, where the Nephites hid their treasures?—for lo! yesternight stood before me in the wilderness of Manchester, the spirit, who, from the beginning, has had in keeping all the treasures, hidden in the bowels of the earth.
3. And he said unto me, Joseph, thou son of Joseph, hold up thine head; do the crimes done in thy body fill thee with shame?—hold up thine face and let the light of mine countenance shine upon thee—thou, and all thy father’s household, have served me faithfully, according to the best of their knowledge and abilities—I am the spirit that walketh in darkness, and will shew thee great signs and wonders.”
4. And I looked, and behold a little old man stood before me, clad, as I supposed, in Egyptian raiment, except his Indian blanket, and moccasins—his beard of silver white, hung far below his knees. On his head was an old fashioned military half cocked hat, such as was worn in the days of the patriarch Moses—his speech was sweeter than molasses, and his words were the reformed Egyptian.
5. And again he said unto me, “Joseph, thou who hast been surnamed the ignoramus, knowest thou not, that great signs and wonders are to be done by thine hands? knowest thou not, that I have been sent unto thee by Mormon, the great apostle to the Nephites—Mormon who was chief among the last ten tribes of Israel?”3
Nibley omitted the references in verse 2 to the “treasures” that the Nephites had hidden and that “the spirit” that appeared to Joseph had in his keeping. He also omitted the last half of verse 5, in which the spirit states that it had been sent to Joseph by Mormon, a Nephite apostle!
A later issue of the same newspaper confirmed even more directly (without the satire) that the above article’s description of “the spirit” referred to the heavenly messenger that brought Joseph Smith information about the Book of Mormon:
At a time when the money digging ardor was somewhat abated, the elder Smith declared that his son Jo had seen the spirit, (which he then described as a little old man with a long beard,) and was informed that he (Jo) under certain circumstances, eventually should obtain great treasures, and that in due time he (the spirit) would furnish him (Jo) with a book….4
Clearly, then, Dogberry’s satire was poking fun at the story of a spirit, or angel, supposedly appearing to Joseph Smith to reveal the location of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. This is consistent with other early accounts given by friends, neighbors, and relatives of Joseph Smith that trace the origins of Mormonism to Joseph Smith’s encounter with a spirit or angel. Nothing in the article shows any knowledge whatsoever of a previous visit, years before the angel, of God the Father or Jesus Christ to the boy Joseph Smith. Nibley’s handling of the material shows contempt for context at best and willful misrepresentation of facts at worst. The more recent apologists who depend on Nibley violate the first rule of scholarship: check the source.
Cole’s “Book of Pukei” satire, then, published in 1830, shows no awareness whatsoever of the First Vision story, and obviously cannot establish knowledge of that story in 1829. LDS scholars and apologists can point to no other source as showing, even possibly, that anyone had heard the story of the First Vision prior to 1831, and no LDS source for the story prior to Joseph Smith’s 1832 account in his own handwriting.5 There is absolutely no evidence that Smith had told anyone about his alleged encounter with God or Christ prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the LDS Church in 1830.
1 “The Book of Pukei,—Chapter 1,” Palmyra Reflector, June 12, 1830. Cf. Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon: Attempts to Prove the Book of Mormon Man-Made Analyzed and Answered, new and enlarged ed. (Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University, 1959), 52, where the article is misdated June 22, 1830. Full texts of these newspaper articles appear at Dale Broadhurst, “Uncle Dale’s Readings in Early Mormon History,” http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NY/wayn1830.htm. See also Joseph Antley, “Book of Pukei,” http://earlymormon.com/wiki/index.php?title=Book_of_Pukei. My quotations from the Reflector come directly from the microfilm copy of the actual newspaper in our library.
2 Both Kirkham (New Witness for Christ in America, 52) and Nibley (“Censoring the Joseph Smith Story”) quote Dogberry’s summary for chapter 2 as referring to “the first appearance of the Spirit” (with a capital S), which may suggest to contemporary readers (as it may have to Nibley) that a divine Spirit (God or Christ) is meant. In the more careful typescripts of both “Uncle Dale” and Joseph Antley, the word spirit is not capitalized. I was able to verify from the microfilm copy of the Reflector that the word was not capitalized. Even in Kirkham and Nibley’s quotations, the word is not capitalized in the rest of the passage.
3 “The Book of Pukei,—Chapter 2,” Palmyra Reflector, July 7, 1830; cf. Kirkham, New Witness for Christ in America, 53. Cole probably meant to write “the lost ten tribes of Israel.”
4 “Gold Bible, No. 4,” Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 1831; the entire text is available online at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NY/wayn1830.htm#021431. The article goes on to describe the contents of the Book of Mormon, stating inaccurately that it was to recount the history of an “antediluvian” (pre-Flood) civilization in the Americas.
5 Oddly enough, the only alleged reference to the First Vision in 1831 also comes from the Palmyra Reflector, in which the Feb. 14 issue refers to Mormons in Painesville, Ohio, claiming that Joseph Smith “had seen God frequently and personally.” On this matter, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The First Rumor: The 1831 Palmyra Reflector and the First Vision”
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