The First Rumor: The 1831 Palmyra Reflector and the First Vision
The earliest known reference to Joseph Smith having a vision of God or Christ as a teenager—what Mormons call the First Vision—is Smith’s unpublished 1832 account in his own handwriting, some twelve years after the alleged event. LDS scholars and apologists have attempted to shorten this gap by arguing that there is evidence from non-Mormon sources that the story had circulated prior to 1832. In general, these alleged references to the First Vision are actually references to Smith’s encounter with the angel who told him about the gold plates containing the text of the Book of Mormon.1
However, an 1831 newspaper article does refer to a rumor, circulating by November 1830, to the effect that Joseph Smith had claimed to see God. The article, which appeared in the February 14, 1831 issue of the Palmyra Reflector, contained the following report on the visit of Mormon representatives to Painesville, Ohio
Our Painesville correspondent informs us, that about the first of Nov. last, Oliver Cowdery, (we shall notice this character in the course of our labors,) and three others arrived at that village with the “New Bible,” on a mission to the notorious Sidney Rigdon, who resides in the adjoining town. Rigdon received them graciously—took the book under advisement, and in a few days declared it to be of “Heavenly Origin.” Rigdon, with about 20 of his flock, were dipt immediately. They then proclaimed that there had been no religion in the world for 1500 years,—that no one had been authorised to preach &c. for that period—that Jo Smith had now received a commission from God for that purpose, and that all such as did not submit to his authority would speedily be destroyed. The world (except the New Jerusalem) would come to an end in two or three years. The state of New York would (probably) be sunk. Smith (they affirmed, had seen God frequently and personally -- Cowdery and his friends had frequent interviews with angels, and had been directed to locate the site for the New Jerusalem, which they should know, the moment they should “step their feet” upon it. They pretend to heal the sick and work miracles, and had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to do so. The Indians were the ten lost tribes— some of them had already been dipt. From 1 to 200 (whites) had already been in the water, and showed great zeal in this new religion—many were converted before they saw the book. Smith was continually receiving new revelations, and it would probably take him 1000 years to complete them -- commissions and papers were exhibited, said to be signed by Christ himself!!!2
Mormons sometimes appeal to this report as evidence that the First Vision was known earlier than Joseph Smith’s own 1832 account. Mormon historian Elden J. Watson, for example, asserts:
It is clear that some material about Joseph Smith's first vision was disseminated publicly, because as early as 1830 an anti-Mormon article appeared in the Palmyra newspaper stating that Joseph affirmed “that he had seen God frequently and personally.”3
Similarly, Jeff Lindsay, a popular online apologist, says:
As another example, The Reflector, in Palmyra, New York, reported in 1830 that “Oliver Cowdery and ‘friends’ were preaching in Ohio to the effect that “Joseph Smith had seen God frequently and personally.”
Both Lindsay and Watson get the date wrong for the Reflector article; the article was published in early 1831, not in 1830, though it reported statements made by Mormons in Ohio in late 1830. Lindsay’s source for this information is a BYU Studies article by LDS historian Richard L. Anderson that cites the Reflector article as an “allusion” to the First Vision:
The earliest known newspaper allusion is a reaction to the first great success of Latter-day Saint proselyting, the Ohio-Missouri mission. “Our Painesville correspondent” forwarded a report of the 1830 preaching of “Cowdery and his friends” in Ohio: “Smith (they affirmed), had seen God frequently and personally.”4
Does this report show that Joseph Smith had told people about the First Vision as early as 1830? It seems unlikely, for the following reasons.
First, as it stands the information is little more than rumor. An unnamed “correspondent” reported to the author of the Reflector article (Abner Cole) the claims made by Oliver Cowdery and his three associates concerning what Joseph Smith had seen. We therefore have the following chain of sources:
Joseph Smith → Oliver Cowdery and friends → unnamed correspondent → Abner Cole
The opportunities for garbled communication through this many stages of transmission are obvious. Information obtained third- or fourth-hand is not exactly reliable.
Second, the report includes a number of other statements that support the conclusion that someone in the pipeline was passing distorted, unreliable information. For example, the report claims that Cowdery and his associates were preaching that the world was going to “come to an end in two or three years” and that New York State would “probably” be “sunk.” I know of no evidence to support this description of Smith’s teachings. I think most Mormons are also unlikely to admit that Joseph Smith was claiming in 1830 that “all such as did not submit to his authority would speedily be destroyed,” although this is arguably correct. Then there is the fantastic report that Smith claimed to have documents “said to be signed by Christ himself”! Again, to my knowledge Smith never made any such claim. Thus, this newspaper article, in the very same paragraph as the statement that Cowdery and his associates were claiming Joseph Smith saw God, reports other claims that they supposedly made that are almost certainly false and that no Mormon today would ever admit were reliable. If we don’t trust the article’s report in these other matters, then we should also not trust its report (based on the very same source) regarding the alleged claim that Joseph Smith had seen God.
Third, the statement itself that “Smith…had seen God frequently and personally” finds no support in LDS sources. In all of the LDS written materials available—unpublished and published, by Joseph Smith and by others, official and unofficial—Smith is reported to have seen God only one time prior to the 1831 Reflector article. That one time is in 1820, according to Smith’s later accounts, in his First Vision. There is no basis in LDS sources for the claim that as of 1830 Joseph Smith had already seen God “frequently.”
I am aware of only two other occasions in his life in which Smith reported seeing either God (the Father) or Jesus Christ (the Son). Both of these reported visions took place after 1831. The first occasion was a vision that Smith and Sidney Rigdon claimed to have on February 16, 1832, in Hiram, Ohio. According to their written record of this vision: “we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father…. For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (D&C 76:20, 23). The second occasion was at the Kirtland temple in 1836, when Joseph said that in a vision of the celestial kingdom he had seen “the Father and the Son” seated on the throne (D&C 137:5).5
It is evident from the sparseness of such reported visions even after 1831, and from the absolute lack of any LDS references to Joseph seeing God or Christ on any occasion prior to 1831 other than the First Vision, that the report that he had claimed to see God “frequently” is unreliable.
We have, then, three reasons to view the 1831 Reflector reference to Joseph Smith seeing God as unreliable information. (1) It comes to us fourth-hand. (2) It is imbedded with several other claims from the same source that Mormons must agree are either unreliable or untrue. (3) The statement itself makes the unfounded and disproved claim that such visions of God were already frequent by 1830. For these reasons, we are on safe ground in dismissing this report as historically unreliable.
1 See, for example, Robert M. Bowman Jr., “An 1829 Reference to the First Vision?” concerning the claim that Abner Cole’s satire “The Book of Pukei” constitutes a reference to the First Vision from 1829, the year before Smith founded the LDS Church. As that article shows, Cole published his satire in 1830, not 1829, and referred to the angel of the Book of Mormon disclosure, not to God or Christ appearing to Joseph Smith.
2 “Gold Bible, No. 4,” Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 1831 (quoting from a microfilm copy in IRR’s archives), boldface emphasis mine.
3 Elden J. Watson, “The William Smith Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision” (1999).
4 Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences,” BYU Studies 9 (1969): 401.
5 According to Smith’s 1832 handwritten history, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery also had visions, prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, in which they (individually) saw the Lord: “the Lord appeared unto him [Harris] in a vision…. [The] Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdry and shewed unto him the plates in a vision….” Early Mormon Documents, comp. and ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:31.
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