Did Joseph Smith See God the Father in the First Vision?
A basic element of the Mormon faith is the belief in the First Vision, in which Joseph Smith claimed that the Father and the Son personally appeared to him in the spring of 1820 (Joseph Smith—History 1:14). There are many reasons to question the truth of the First Vision. In this brief article, however, only one very specific question will be considered: Did Joseph Smith see God the Father in that vision?
Joseph Smith produced several accounts of the First Vision (or something like it) between 1832 and 1844. According to the earliest of these accounts, Joseph saw “the Lord,” that is, the Lord Jesus. Yet, according to the 1838 account published in Joseph Smith—History, he saw “two personages,” the Father and the Son. If Joseph really had seen the Father, how is one to explain the omission of this occurrence from the earliest account?
It is true that the 1832 account does not deny that the Father was present, and so one might dismiss this criticism as an argument from silence. On the other hand, the visible appearance of the Father alongside the Son is surely one of the most significant elements of the story. It certainly has been viewed that way historically by LDS authorities. Gordon B. Hinckley (LDS Church President, 1995-2008) commented on the uniqueness of this aspect of the vision: “At no other time of which we have any record have God our Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the risen Lord, appeared on earth together…. Nothing like it had ever happened before.”1 This is why the following argument presented by Mormon apologist Michael Ash will not work:
Nothing in the 1832 account states, however, that there was only one personage. If you tell someone that you had visited with the President of the United States, does this mean that the Vice President and First Lady were not present?2
Ash’s point backfires as a defense against the particular objection here. The situation is more akin to someone reporting that he had visited with the Vice-President but neglecting to mention that he had also seen the President! Again, the supposed visible appearance of the Father alongside the Son in the woods is regarded by Mormons as an essential element of the vision and as a unique event in the history of revelation (which it would be). Its omission, if it were factual, cannot be explained away as a “minor” difference or as a matter of “emphasis” or “focus.”
A recent article on LDS.org about the First Vision acknowledges the problem and suggests that the 1832 account may refer to two divine persons by the same title “the Lord.” The article proposes that in the 1832 account, the statement “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord” meant that the Father opened the heavens and then Joseph saw the Son, Jesus Christ.3 Even if that explanation were correct, the 1832 account would still conflict with the 1838 account. Suppose the quoted statement means, “The Father opened the heavens upon me, and I saw the Son.” This would still mean that Joseph saw just one divine person, not two.
Moreover, the interpretation that “the Lord” refers to the Father in the first instance but to the Son in the second instance is ad hoc and strained. As Stan Larson, a Mormon (albeit a rather unorthodox one) has pointed out, the passage uses the title “the Lord” repeatedly without any indication that it refers to two different divine persons.4 A review of the occurrences of the title in the 1832 account bears out Larson’s point:
I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord…
I cried unto the Lord for mercy….
And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness….
And while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord….
And the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord….
Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world….
And the Lord was with me….
The claim that the 1832 account meant to say that Joseph saw two personages is therefore simply not plausible (even if it is, barely, possible). As it stands, the 1832 account is inconsistent with the later 1838 account that is part of Joseph Smith—History, which Mormons accept as Scripture. Nor is the difference between the two accounts with regard to who visited Joseph a matter of an incidental detail omitted from the earlier account. Quite the contrary, this is a major discrepancy that reflects the fact that Joseph’s theology was developing and changing in the 1830s. This fact can be discerned from an examination of the revelations, teaching materials, sermons, and supposed inspired translations he produced throughout the decade.
In the early 1830s, Joseph held to something close to the traditional Christian view of the doctrine of the Trinity (see the Testimony of Three Witnesses; 2 Ne. 31:21; Mormon 7:7; D&C 20:17, 28; Moses 7:29, 31). It would not have made sense in his theology at the time to have the Father and the Son both appearing on earth in bodily form side by side. In the 1835 Lectures on Faith, which Joseph oversaw and approved, the Father was understood to be a “personage of spirit” and the Son a “personage of tabernacle,” that is, with a physical body (Lectures on Faith 5.2). Although the two “personages” are more sharply distinguished, still at this point the idea of a literal appearance of the two divine persons on earth would not have fit Joseph’s theology.
By the late 1830s, however, Joseph’s monotheistic worldview was coming apart, and he apparently viewed the three persons of the Trinity as three separate beings and even perhaps as three Gods. In an 1839 revelation, Joseph announced that a time was coming when it would be known “whether there be one God or many gods,” and when other truths would be revealed “according to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was” (D&C 121:28, 32). By 1843 Joseph was teaching publicly that God the Father was not, as stated in the Lectures on Faith, a personage of spirit as opposed to one of tabernacle, but a personage with “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22).
In short, Joseph’s claim in 1838 that he had been visited in 1820 by the Father and the Son as two separately visible personages therefore reflects the stage of Joseph’s theological development at that time.5 This evidence supports the conclusion that the First Vision was a fiction, invented by Joseph after he started the LDS Church and which he continued to alter over time to suit his changing doctrine.
1. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, 84.
2. Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, 273-79, 2nd ed., expanded and rev. (Redding, CA: FAIR [now FAIRMormon], 2013), 277.
3. “First Vision Accounts,” LDS.org. See also James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 72-73.
4. Stan Larson, “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Dialogue 47, 2 (Summer 2014): 52.