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Alleged Early References to the First Vision

Alleged Early References to the First Vision

A summary of Rob Bowman's articles on Joseph Smith's first vision, and the various arguments brought forth by LDS apologists. Includes links to the full articles on each topic.
 

The LDS Church defines the First Vision on their website this way:

In the spring of 1820, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith as he prayed in a grove of trees near his home in western New York. This event is known as the First Vision.

The earliest mention of young Joseph Smith seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ is in the account written in 1838 or 1839 and later published in Pearl of Great Price (JS-H 1:5-22). According to this account, Joseph saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in the spring of 1820, and then over three years later (in the fall of 1823) saw an angel who told him about the Book of Mormon.

"Determining the earliest reference to the First Vision or to Joseph seeing a divine being prior to the visit of the angel is crucial if we are to trace the history of this story and to assess the likelihood that it has any basis in fact."

Since 1965, we have known of an earlier account of the Lord Jesus visiting Joseph Smith prior to the appearance of the angel, written between July and November 1832 in Smith’s own handwriting. This is the earliest such account of such a visitation by a divine being, though it does not fit the LDS Church’s own standard definition of the First Vision. (It does not mention an appearance by God the Father, and in this account Joseph was not asking which of the churches he should join.) Anyone investigating Mormonism will want to know if that late 1832 account is the earliest reference to an initial divine visitation to Joseph Smith, or if there is any evidence that anyone had ever heard such a story prior to that date. Determining the earliest reference to the First Vision or to Joseph seeing a divine being prior to the visit of the angel is crucial if we are to trace the history of this story and to assess the likelihood that it has any basis in fact.

LDS scholars and apologists have mentioned four alleged references to the First Vision dated earlier than July 1832 that deserve our consideration. Two of these come from articles published in 1830 and 1831 in a non-Mormon newspaper in Smith’s home town of Palmyra, New York, called The Reflector. A third comes from a text dated June 1830 in the LDS scripture called Doctrine & Covenants (D&C). The fourth comes from another non-Mormon newspaper from a small town in upstate New York, the Fredonia Censor, dated March 7, 1832. The LDS apologetics organization FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) cites three of these sources (all but the 1830 Reflector article) as published “references to the First Vision” (see here and here). Jeff Lindsay, on his popular LDS apologetics website, also cites three of these four sources (all but the Fredonia Censor article) as “evidence” for the First Vision

This article provides a brief overview of these four alleged references to the First Vision. It also provides links to four longer articles that examine each of these references in detail. This overview demonstrates two things. First, we have no reliable or likely reference from before 1832 to any visitation by a divine being to Joseph Smith (let alone one matching the LDS Church’s definition of the First Vision). Second, some notable LDS scholars and apologists engage in uncritical, inaccurate, and even dishonest use of sources to defend their belief in the First Vision.

The 1830 Reflector Satire on the Book of Mormon

According to Hugh Nibley, Abner Cole’s satire “The Book of Pukei” in two 1830 issues of The Reflector constitutes a reference to the First Vision. However, Nibley’s quotations from Cole’s satire selectively omit material that proves that Cole was referring only to the visitation of the angel to tell Joseph about the Book of Mormon. For example, in Cole’s satire, the “spirit” that visited Joseph told him, “I have been sent unto thee by Mormon, the great apostle to the Nephites.” Making matters even worse, some Mormon apologists have erroneously claimed that Cole’s satire was published in 1829, the year before Smith founded the LDS Church. In fact, Cole published his satire in 1830, not 1829.

For a thorough examination of this alleged reference, see here.

An Alleged 1830 Reference to the First Vision in D&C 20:5

The only Mormon publication prior to 1832 that any Mormon claims refers to the First Vision is a statement Joseph Smith made in June 1830 recorded in Doctrine & Covenants 20:5. In this text, Smith says, “After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world; but after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel…” (D&C 20:5-6). A few Mormons have suggested that this statement is an allusion or passing reference to the First Vision. The basis for this view is that Joseph’s handwritten, unpublished 1832 account connects his First Vision to receiving an assurance of the forgiveness of his sins. A careful study of Joseph Smith’s wording in D&C 20, however, shows that he was probably not alluding to a vision. At best, one might read a First Vision type of experience into the text, but it simply does not mention such a vision and therefore is not evidence for the story.

For a thorough examination of this alleged reference, see here.

An 1831 Reflector Reference to Joseph Smith Seeing God

In another article in The Reflector, this one published in 1831, an unnamed correspondent reports that Oliver Cowdery and his associates were telling people in Ohio that Joseph Smith “had seen God frequently and personally.” While some Mormons claim this report is a reference to the First Vision, there are some serious problems with such a conclusion. For one thing, the report is unreliable because it comes fourth-hand (from Joseph Smith, to Oliver Cowdery, to an anonymous correspondent, to the newspaper editor). For another thing, other information in the same report is clearly unreliable. For example, the article reports that Smith supposedly also was teaching in 1830 that the world was coming to an end in two or three years, and claiming to possess documents signed by Christ himself. Third, even the report that Smith saw God “frequently” is clearly wrong; Mormon sources report no appearance by God to Joseph before 1830 other than the First Vision. For these reasons, we should view the comment in the 1831 Reflector as no more reliable than a rumor, not as a reliable reference to the First Vision.

For a thorough examination of this alleged reference, see here.

The 1832 Fredonia Censor Article

On March 7, 1832, the Fredonia Censor published a short article about Mormonism that reported what Mormons were saying about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Although the LDS apologetics organization FAIR claims that the article refers to “at least six of the beginning elements of the First Vision story,” in fact it does not mention the First Vision, or any vision of God or Christ appearing to Joseph Smith. Rather, it refers to the angel appearing to Joseph Smith to tell him about the Book of Mormon—a point omitted by the FAIR article.

For a thorough examination of this alleged reference, see here.

Conclusion

It is striking that the above four alleged references to the First Vision—none of which really qualifies as such—are the best evidence LDS scholars can scrounge up for any alleged knowledge about the First Vision story prior to Joseph Smith’s handwritten account in late 1832 of a vision of the Lord Jesus. This absence of the First Vision story is not merely a matter of a lack of evidence (as it were, an argument from silence), because Joseph Smith’s story of how Mormonism got started was told repeatedly. The First Vision simply was not part of that story. It is also important to note the lengths to which LDS apologists go in distorting and misrepresenting the evidence to support their conclusions. No one is immune from the temptation to bend the evidence to one’s position, but anyone who does so should be held accountable. At the very least, honest Mormons will disavow these flawed arguments and admit that these publications contain no evidence for the early circulation of the First Vision story.
 


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