The start of the Mormon church can be traced back to Joseph Smith's claim of a vision. Because Joseph gave varying and conflicting versions of his First Vision experience, it is difficult to establish what actually took place. (See New Light on Joseph Smith's First Vision)
According to the version of the First Vision that Joseph Smith published in 1842, a neighborhood revival in 1820 prompted Joseph at age 14 to pray and ask God which church he should join. Two personages appeared to him and told him all churches were wrong and that he was to join none of them. Though details of this version conflicted with previously recorded accounts, it has become the official version of Joseph's First Vision, and is now a part of the Mormon scriptures (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith — History 1:1-20). Current Mormon teaching is that these two personages were God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, and their appearance is what marks the start of the Mormon religion.
However, for more than 15 years after Joseph's death, Mormon leaders identified the personages who appear to Joseph and mark the start of Mormonism as angels, rather than the Father and the Son. It is not until 1874 that Mormon leaders begin consistently associating the appearance of the Father and the Son with the First Vision and the commencement of Mormonism. Based on this evidence it would appear that Joseph changed his story of the first vision, and that the most common and well known version was one of angels appearing rather than the Father and Son.
Click on the links below to see scans of these early LDS documents.
- Brigham Young - "The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven ... but He did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong" Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 171 (1855)
- Wilford Woodruff - "The same organization and Gospel that Christ died for ... is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world ... He told him the Gospel was not among men, and that there was not a true organization of His kingdom in the world" Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 196 (1855)
- Wilford Woodruff - "Joseph was strengthened by the Spirit and power of God, and was enabled to listen to the teachings of the angel. ... This man to whom the angel appeared obeyed the Gospel" Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 197 (1855)
- Heber C. Kimball - "Do you suppose that God in person called upon Joseph Smith, our Prophet? God called upon him; but God did not come himself and call, but he sent Peter to do it." Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 29 (1857)
- Orson Hyde - "Some one may say, 'If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Saviour come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?' Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else." Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 335 (1854)
- John Taylor - "How did the state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith" Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 127 (1863)
- George A. Smith - "he [Joseph Smith] went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong" Journal of Discourses, vol. 12, p. 334 (1863)
- George A. Smith - "[Joseph] was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, one of the first inquiries was 'Which of the denominations of Christians in the vicinity was right?' " Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 78 (1869)
- Wilford Woodruff - "How did it [Mormonism] commence? It commenced by an angel of God flying through the midst of heaven and visiting a young man named Joseph Smith in the year 1827. ... The Lord heard his prayer and sent His angel to him, who informed him that all the sects were wrong" Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 324 (1869)
- John Taylor - "None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right." Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 167 (1879)
- Oliver Cowdery - "You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our Brother J. Smith Jr.s age that was an error in the type — it should have been in the 17th. — You will please remember the correction, as it will be necessary for the full understanding of what will follow in time. This would bring the date down to the year 1823." Times and Seasons, vol. 2, p. 241 (1840)
Early testimony that the name of the angel who appeared to Joseph was Nephi, not Moroni.
- "He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi." Millennial Star, vol. 3, p. 53 (1842)
- "Again, when we read the history of our beloved brother, Joseph Smith, and of the glorious ministry and message of the angel Nephi" Millennial Star, vol. 3, p. 71 (1842)
- Joseph Smith - "When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me. He called me by name, and said unto me, that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi." 1851 Pearl of Great Price, p. 41 (1851)
- Joseph Smith - "He called me by name, and said unto me, that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi." Times and Seasons, vol. 3, p. 753 (1842)