Four Accounts and Three Critiques of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Steven C. Harper
August 4, 2011

Four Accounts and Three Critiques of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Joseph Smith’s first vision may be the best-documented theophany in history. In the 1830s and 1840s Joseph wrote or caused scribes to write eight known documents declaring that the Lord opened the heavens upon him. Five of these eight are unique. The other three are obviously copies of previous ones. Five other known writers documented the event during Joseph’s lifetime. Scholars would be thrilled to have that much direct and indirect documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, or Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.

Joseph Smith worked hard to document his experience in the grove, and scholars have worked hard to raise awareness of his several accounts. The Church and various scholars have published and publicized these documents repeatedly for half a century now. Images of the documents containing his own direct statements are available in the Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1 Even so, they are little known by most Latter-day Saints and others.

Strangely, some believers do not want to know the plentiful historical record. They can hardly be troubled with Joseph’s efforts to capture his sublime experience. Some critics, meanwhile, assume that the documentary richness shows Joseph to be a fraud. But seekers thirst for all the evidence and examine it for themselves. They read, remember, and ponder Joseph’s descriptions. They seek understanding and verification. My presentation is for them.

The first vision accounts were created in specific historical settings that shape what they say and how they say it. Each of the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision has its own history. Each was created in circumstances that shaped how it was remembered and communicated and thus how it was transmitted to us. Each account has gaps and omissions. Each adds detail and richness.

1832 Account

This is the most raw of all Joseph’s accounts. Here he, literally with his own pen for much of the document, poured his experience onto the pages, reflecting as nearly as possible what God’s condescending visit meant to Joseph’s sinful fourteen-year-old self. Later accounts are more conscious of the vision’s significance for all mankind, but none surpasses this earliest known account at revealing what it meant to just young Joseph Smith.

This account is part of Joseph’s earliest autobiography, a rough, six-page statement of epic themes expressed in what Joseph called crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.2 It declares, “A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brough forth and established by his hand.”

Joseph and Frederick Williams wrote this document in 1832, probably between July and November. Joseph’s first counselor, Sidney Rigdon, declared on July 5 that year among saints in Kirtland, Ohio, that authority had been taken from the church and entrusted to him.3 When Joseph addressed the saints in Kirtland on 8 July he confiscated President Rigdon’s preaching license and asserted that, “I myself hold the Keys of this last dispensation and I forever will hold them in time and in eternity.”4 Soon after, Frederick Williams, Joseph’s second counselor, assumed President Rigdon’s role as Joseph’s scribe.5 Williams then began to pen Joseph’s autobiography until, part-way down the first page, Joseph picked up the pen himself and wrote much of the rest.

Joseph’s earliest autobiography is undated, but the context in which it was written seems to include Joseph’s 27 November 1832 revelation, now D&C 85, reaffirming the need for the saints “to keep a history” and to document “their manner of life, their faith, and works” (D&C 85:1-2).6 Joseph bought his first diary the day that revelation came, and he spent the next day “reading and writing.”7 He also began to record letters he sent and received in another record book. The first letter in that book is dated the same day and includes the text of section 85. Joseph and Frederick wrote his autobiography on the six pages that immediately preceded the letter in the record book. So it seems likely that Joseph wrote his autobiography at about the time he began keeping a diary and recording his letters because he took personally the revelation to keep a history that documented his faith, life, and works (D&C 85).

Joseph described a highly personalized experience in his earliest account (1832). Using the language of the revivals, he says he became “convicted of my sins,” but he could find no place for forgiveness since “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins.” Joseph describes:

I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was

none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord

heard my cry in the wilderness and while inattitude of

calling upon the Lorda piller of fire

light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down

from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit

of god and theopened the heavens upon me and I saw

the Lord and he spake unto me saying Josephthy sins

are forgiven thee. go thywalk in my statutes and keep my

commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed

for the world that all those who believe on my name may have

Eternal life

This account emphasizes the atonement of Christ and the personal redemption it offered Joseph. He wrote in his own hand that as a result of the vision, “my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.” 8

1835 Account

Three years later in 1835 an eccentric visitor from the east inquired of Joseph, whose scribe captured some of Joseph’s response in his journal. In this account Joseph cast the vision as the first in a series of events that led to the translation of the Book of Mormon. He emphasized the opposition he felt in the grove, how he made “a fruitless attempt to pray” but couldn’t speak until he knelt and was enabled. This account tells that one divine personage appeared in a pillar of fire, followed shortly by another. “I saw many angels in this vision,” Joseph added as an afterthought, noting, “I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication.”9 A week later Joseph told another inquirer of the vision, though his scribe recorded only that Joseph gave the fellow an account of his “first visitation of Angels,” rather than describing the vision itself.10 Both 1835 accounts were also incorporated into a draft of Joseph’s history.

1838 Account

Joseph published two accounts of the vision during his lifetime. The first of these to be written and the best known is in Joseph’s manuscript history. Scribe George Robinson noted that he and Joseph and Sidney Rigdon spent April 27, 1838 “writing a history of this Church from the earliest period of its existence.”11 Dean Jessee wrote that by May 2 “the writing had progressed to the eighth page of the manuscript,” including the account of the first vision.12 James Mulholland copied this text into Manuscript History Book A1 sometime before his death late in 1839. Joseph published the early part of his history in the Times and Seasons on March 15, 1842. Willard Richards redacted this account later that year when he began service as Joseph’s secretary, which is why the version now excerpted and canonized in the Pearl of Great Price varies from the version in the Times and Seasons.

This account emphasizes unusual religious excitement external to Joseph as a catalyst for the vision. The other accounts suggest a more internal process. Of course, the external and internal forces are not exclusive. This account also emphasizes Joseph’s quest for a true church where the others emphasize a quest for redemption. Again, those seem like compatible quests. This account is rich with evidence of both factual memory (what Joseph experienced at the time) and interpretive memory (what the experience meant to Joseph over time).

1842 Wentworth account

Joseph responded to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth’s request for a “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution and faith of the Latter-day Saints” as source material for a friend, George Barstow, who was writing a history of New Hampshire.13 Many of Wentworth’s papers seem to have been destroyed in the 1871 Chicago fire, and there is no known evidence that Barstow used Joseph’s account, but Joseph had it printed in the March 1, 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons newspaper, making it the first account published in the United States. This account is terse but telling. It says that the two divine beings Joseph envisioned looked exactly alike, and that they told him that the churches believed in incorrect doctrines.

Joseph and scribe Frederick Williams wrote the earliest account a decade before the 1838 and 1842 accounts were published, and the church’s historians brought this document across the plains to Utah, but it became unknown to Latter-day Saints until Paul Cheesman published it in his master’s thesis in 1965.14 Similarly, the two accounts Joseph’s scribe, Warren Parrish, penned into Joseph’s journal in November 1835, which were later copied into a draft of Joseph’s history, were generally unknown to Latter-day Saints until LDS historians published them in the late 1960s.15

Hearsay Accounts

There are also a handful of contemporary hearsay accounts, meaning that they were written by people who heard Joseph describe his vision. Orson Pratt wrote one of these and published it in Scotland in 1840 as A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. It echoes passages from Joseph’s earlier accounts and prefigures passages in later ones. Orson Pratt must have had access to Joseph’s tellings, either in person or through the documents of the pre-1840 accounts (or both), and possibly to an unknown document that pre-figured the 1842 Wentworth letter. Alternatively, Orson’s own rendering of the vision may have shaped the account in the Wentworth letter. The two accounts clearly share phrasing.

Pratt’s account of the vision is the most thorough of the third-person accounts. Other hearsay accounts include Orson Hyde’s 1842 German publication of an account very much like Orson Pratt’s, the first translated publication of a first vision account. Levi Richards wrote in his journal of hearing Joseph relate the vision in June 1843. David Nye White, editor of the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, similarly wrote in his paper of his August 1843 interview with Joseph, including an account of the vision. Alexander Neibaur, a German convert to Mormonism, wrote in his journal of hearing Joseph relate the vision in May 1844, just a month before Joseph’s death. All of Joseph’s and the hearsay accounts have been published again recently, together with scholarly analysis, in the first two chapters of the book Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844.

Three Critiques of Joseph’s Testimony

There are essentially three arguments against the first vision. The minister to whom Joseph reported the event announced that there were no such things these days. More than a century later Fawn Brodie wrote with literary grace to mask historical deficiencies that Joseph concocted the vision years after he said it happened. Then a generation later Wesley Walters charged Joseph with inventing revivalism when a lack of historical evidence proved that there was none, and therefore no subsequent vision as a result. So by now it has become a foregone conclusion for some there are no such things as visions, and Joseph failed to mention his experience for years and then gave conflicting accounts that didn’t match historical facts.16

Each of the three arguments begins with the premise that the vision simply could not have happened as Joseph described it. Philosophers describe that kind of premise as a priori, a Latin term that describes knowledge that is, essentially, assumed. In other words, a priori knowledge does not rely on experience for verification. It is based on definitions, widely shared beliefs, and reason. Knowledge derived from experience is a posteriori. Joseph testified that he experienced a divine revelation and therefore knows. The epistemology in Joseph’s first vision accounts is a posteriori. The epistemology of Joseph’s vision critics is a priori. They claim to know that what Joseph said happened could not have happened because all reasonable people know that such things do not happen.

“Some few days after I had this vision,” Joseph reported, “I happened to be in the company with one of the Methodist preachers” that had contributed to the religious fervor. “I took occasion to give him an account of the vision,” Joseph said, continuing, “I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there never would be any more of them” (JSH 1:21). The preacher’s premises were all a priori, namely:

  • Joseph’s story was of the devil
  • There were no such things as revelations in what Dickens called the age of railways
  • Visions or revelations ceased with the apostles
  • There would never be anymore

No doubt this good fellow was sincere in each of these beliefs and striving as best he knew to prevent Joseph from becoming prey to fanaticism. But he did not know from experience the validity of any of the four premises he set forth as positive facts. All he knew a posteriori is that he had not had a vision or a revelation. On what basis could this minister evaluate Joseph’s claims and make such sweeping statements? Who but an omniscient being could say with certainty that the future would not include a revelation?

Fawn Brodie largely shaped the skeptical interpretations of Joseph’s first vision. She first articulated major criticisms that others have since adopted and published and that circulate widely today. In the first edition of her biography of Joseph, published in 1945, Brodie cited his 1838 history, the one excerpted in the Pearl of Great Price. She reported that her efforts to research at the church archives were thwarted.17 She tried but could not access Joseph’s 1832 diary. She did not draw on Joseph’s 1835 journal or the undiscovered 1832 account in Joseph’s Letterbook. She therefore concluded that no one had spoken of the vision between 1820 and about 1840. She interpreted that limited evidence to mean that Joseph concocted the vision in the wake of an 1837 banking crisis “when the need arose for a magnificent tradition.”18

Fawn Brodie did not change her assumptions when she revised her biography of Joseph after the 1832 and 1835 accounts were discovered and published. She did not reconsider her interpretation in the light of evidence that showed Joseph had written and spoken openly of the vision on more than one occasion earlier than 1838. Rather, with characteristic insinuation, she simply substituted 1830 for 1834 in this sentence about the vision: “it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition.”19 She also noted in her second edition the differences in details between the accounts, suggesting that their inconsistencies evidenced Joseph’s invention and embellishment of the story.

Fawn Brodie persuaded her publisher by emphasizing her “attitude of complete objectivity,” but privately she and her closest advisor knew of her psychological need to understand Joseph’s life and escape his influence. She reflected that writing the book enabled her to assert her independence. She called it a “compulsion to liberate myself wholly from Mormonism.” She decided in the process of preparing the biography to see in the historical facts evidence that Joseph consciously concocted the vision with intent to deceive. Having read an early draft of her biography, a close confidant wrote that he was “particularly struck with the assumption your MS makes that Joseph was a self-conscious imposter.” Though sympathetic to her work, this advisor worried about what he called her “bold judgments on the basis of assumptions.” A later reviewer noted similarly that she regularly stated “as indisputable facts what can only be regarded as conjectures supported by doubtful evidence.”20

It is not hard to empathize with Fawn Brodie. Having been raised as a Latter-day Saint, she chose to leave the faith and underwent a painful reorientation process that required her to reinterpret Joseph Smith’s first vision. None of us are so very different from her. Our identities and psychologies are bound up in our various commitments. We cannot escape Joseph Smith’s first vision any more than she could, and we work to make sense of the evidence for ourselves in ways that are satisfying to our intellects and to our souls. But whatever her motives, it is Brodie’s method that concerns us here. Critical interpretations of Joseph’s vision like hers share a common hermeneutic or explanatory method. They assume how a person in Joseph’s position must have acted if his story were true, and then show that his accounts vary from the assumed scenario. They usually postulate an alternative to Joseph’s own explanation.21

That is what Wesley Walters did. He originated the enduring argument that Joseph’s canonized first vision account is anachronistic, or out of historical order. He was pastor of the United Presbyterian Church in Marissa, Illinois when he published in the fall of 1967 an innovative article that asserted that there was no evidence of religious revival in Palmyra, New York in the spring of 1820, and therefore Joseph’s claim to have been influenced by such religious fervor must be false.22 Richard Bushman said that Walters “performed a very positive service to the cause of Mormon History because he was a delver. He went deep into the heart of the archives. And Mormons had accepted a lot of things as simple facts—for example that there was a revival in Joseph Smith’s neighborhood around the 1820 period.”23 Walters noted accurately that prior to his work Mormon scholars had “assumed that Joseph Smith’s account must be correct.”24 According to Bushman, Reverend Walters “made us realize that we can’t assume anything. Everything had to be demonstrated and proved.”25

That realization led Truman Madsen and the Institute of Mormon Studies at BYU to sponsor a team of talented, well-educated young Mormon historians to research all the evidence they could find.26 As a result of their research, it is clear that there are two main weaknesses in the Walters argument, namely the fallacies of negative proof and of irrelevant proof. Historian David Hackett Fischer defined the fallacy of negative proof as “an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence. It occurs whenever a historian declares that there is no evidence that X is the case and then proceeds to affirm or assume that not-X is the case.”27 Walters argued creatively that “a vision, by its inward, personal nature, does not lend itself to historical investigation,” but “a revival is a different matter.” He posited, therefore, that he could disprove Joseph’s claim to a vision by showing “that in 1820 there was no revival in any of the churches in Palmyra and its vicinity.”28 He erred against the historical method by arguing, in other words, that a lack of evidence for a Palmyra revival was proof that the vision did not occur.

Reverend Walters also erred in arguing an irrelevant proof. Joseph’s accounts do not claim that the revivalism centered in Palmyra itself, as Walters argues, nor that the revivalism occurred in 1820. Rather, Joseph said that the excitement began in the second year after his family moved to Manchester, New York, meaning in 1819, and he located the “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” around Manchester, not Palmyra. Joseph used a Methodist term to describe a wider geographical scope than Walters’s emphasis on the village of Palmyra. Joseph said “the whole district of country seemed affected” by the revivalism (Joseph Smith—History 1:5). To nineteenth-century Methodists, a district was somewhat akin to an LDS stake or a Catholic diocese. Joseph claimed only that there was unusual religious excitement in the region or district around Manchester that began sometime in 1819, during the second year after his family’s move there (JSH 1:5).

There is evidence that an intense revival stirred Palmyra in 1816-17 when Joseph moved there with his family. It may have catalyzed Joseph’s 1832 description of his mind becoming seriously concerned for the welfare of his soul “at about the age of twelve years.”29 Then about 1818 Joseph’s family purchased a farm in Manchester, a few miles south of Palmyra. The next summer, Methodists of the Genesee Conference assembled at Vienna (now Phelps), New York, within walking distance of the Smith farm. The Reverend George Lane and dozens of other exhorters were present. One participant remembered the result as a “religious cyclone which swept over the whole region.”30Joseph’s contemporary and acquaintance, Orsamus Turner, remembered that Joseph caught a “spark of Methodist fire” at a meeting along the road to Vienna.31 A Palmyra newspaper and the diary of a Methodist minister confirm a weekend camp-meeting in Palmyra in June 1820 at which “about twenty people were baptized and forty became Methodists.”32 If he had known about this evidence, given the way he consistently interpreted evidence in support of his conclusion, Rev. Walters may have objected that a June 1820 camp-meeting would be too late to catalyze Joseph’s early spring vision. And if so he might be quite right but not necessarily. It snowed heavily on May 28 that year, and Joseph may have thought of what early spring meant differently than we might. But Joseph’s descriptions are not dependent on external events in Palmyra or in 1820. The diaries of Methodist itinerant Benajah Williams evidence that Methodists and others were hard at work in Joseph’s district all the while. They combed the countryside and convened camp meetings to help unchurched souls like Joseph get religion. The response was phenomenal, especially in western New York, the home of nearly one-fourth of the six thousand Presbyterian converts in 1820. Baptist churches expanded similarly.33 Methodism expanded most impressively as traveling preachers like Williams gathered anxious converts.34

Reverend Walters focused on the word reformation used by Oliver Cowdery to describe the scope of the religious excitement, and on the Reverend George Lane, whom both Cowdery and William Smith, Joseph’s brother, credited with being “the key figure in the Methodist awakening.” Walters wrote that “there is no evidence” for these claims, which was an unwise thing to do.35 Undiscovered evidence is not the same as no evidence, and when Walters made the bold claim that no evidence existed, researchers quickly set out to see for themselves. Among the several evidences discovered since are the Williams journals. They document much religious excitement in Joseph’s district and region of country in 1819 and 1820. They report that Reverend George Lane was indeed in that area in both of those years, and that while there in July 1820 he “spoke on Gods method in bringing about Reffermations.”36 Indeed, the Williams diaries attest that not only Lane but many Methodist preachers in Joseph’s time and place catalyzed unusual religious excitement as Joseph described. Writers who have not studied this evidence continue to parrot Walters and claim that “there was no significant revival in or around Palmyra in 1820,” but the evidence fits Joseph’s description nicely.37

Though Walters consistently interpreted them otherwise, Joseph’s accounts are consistent with the mounting evidence. He said that the unusual religious excitement in his district or region “commenced with the Methodists,” and that he became “somewhat partial” to Methodism (Joseph Smith—History 1:5-8). The Walters thesis, though heartfelt and tenaciously defended by him and uncritically accepted and perpetuated by others, no longer seems tenable or defensible.38 He succeeded in establishing “the fact that his [Joseph’s] immediate neighborhood shows no evidence of an 1820 revival,” without showing that anything Joseph said was false.39 Thin evidence for revivalism in Palmyra in 1820 is not evidence that there was not a vision in the woods near Manchester in the wake of well-documented religious excitement “in that region of country” (JSH 1:5).

Latter-day Saints historians of the first vision have credited Walters with awakening them to investigate the context of Joseph’s accounts, but they fault him for forcing his thesis.40 We can easily understand his determined efforts and unwillingness to give up his point. Joseph’s most definitive account of his vision relates how he told his mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” He also quoted the Savior saying that the Christian creeds “were an abomination” (JSH 1:19-20). Latter-day Saints who feel defensive about the Reverend’s efforts to discredit the vision should be able to empathize with his response to Joseph’s testimony. In one sense, his determined and enduring devotion to his cause is admirable. Even so, his arguments are not as air tight as they may seem and his evidence, or lack thereof, does not prove what he claims that it does.

Similarly, the critics’ a priori certainty that the vision never happened as Joseph said it did is not a proven historical fact based on eye-witness testimony or hard data. Rather, those determined beliefs reflect each critic’s heartfelt, reasoned belief about what was possible. Their commitment to skepticism about the kind of supernatural events Joseph described prevented them from believing in the possibilities that the historical accounts offer. In other words, all of the unbelieving explanations share a common hermeneutic or interpretive method, sometimes called the hermeneutic of suspicion, which in this case simply means interpreting Joseph Smith’s statements skeptically, unwilling to trust that he might be telling the truth. One historian who doesn’t believe Joseph Smith said that he couldn’t trust the accounts of the vision because they were subjective, and that it was his job to figure out what really happened. But how will this skeptical scholar discover what actually happened when he is unwilling to trust the only eyewitness or the process of personal revelation? Such historians assume godlike abilities to know, yet they don’t trust God’s ability to reveal truth or theirs to receive it. They don’t seem to grasp the profound irony that they are replacing the subjectivity of historical witnesses with their own. I call their method subjectivity squared. They dismiss the historical documents and severely limit possible interpretations by pre-determining that Joseph’s story is not credible. When Joseph’s 1832 account was discovered in the 1960s, opening to Brodie new interpretive possibilities than her original thesis, she did not respond with willingness to consider that Joseph might be telling the truth, but simply by fitting the new evidence into her previous conclusion. And because the evidence is now more abundant than ever, parts of Fawn Brodie’s thesis are not as compelling as they once were. The evidence she analyzed in her second edition suggested to her that Joseph embellished each telling of the vision until it matured into the canonized 1838-39 account. But even later accounts do not continue to become longer, more detailed, or elaborate. Rather, these accounts return to sounding like Joseph’s earlier, less-developed accounts. This evidence can be interpreted as Joseph’s intention to make his 1838 account definitive and developed for publication, whereas some of the less-developed accounts, including ones later than 1838, were created for other purposes. Some were delivered on the spur of the moment and captured by someone remembering and writing later.

The discovery of considerable evidence of revivalism in both 1819 and 1820 in and around Palmyra, and especially in the broader “region” Joseph described, did not alter the argument Wesley Walters continued to make. No matter what evidence came to light, he interpreted it according to his original conclusion. He chose not to see the possibilities available to those who approach Joseph’s accounts on a quest to discover if he could possibly be telling the truth.

For those who choose to read Joseph’s accounts with the hermeneutic of suspicion, the interpretation of choice is likely to remain that Joseph elaborated “some half-remembered dream” or concocted the vision as “sheer invention.”41 Those are not historical facts. They are skeptical interpretations of the fact that Joseph reported that he saw a vision. There are other ways to interpret that fact. Indeed, the several scholars who have studied the accounts of the vision for decades and written the seminal articles and the only scholarly book on the vision share what one of them described as a hermeneutic of trust.42

One will arrive at the same conclusions as the skeptics if one shares their assumptions about what the facts mean. But if one is open-minded, other meanings for the same facts are possible. The danger of close-mindedness is as real for believers as for skeptics. Many believers seem just as likely to begin with preconceived notions rather than a willingness to go where Joseph’s accounts lead them. The reasoning process of many believers is no different from Fawn Brodie’s. Some assume, for instance, that Joseph told his family of the vision immediately, or wrote it immediately, that he always understood all of its implications perfectly or consistently through the years, or that he would always remember or tell exactly the same story, or that it would always be recorded and transmitted the same. But none of those assumptions is supported by the evidence. Some believers become skeptics in short order when they learn of the accounts and find that their assumptions of what would happen if Joseph told the truth are not supported by the historical record.

I believe it is those vulnerable believers to whom we should direct our attention. Apologetics can easily become arrogant and contentious, and when it does it serves sinister purposes in my opinion. Richard Bushman had just won the Bancroft Prize when he responded with civility and grace to Reverend Walters. When asked why he chose that method, Bushman replied, “simply as a tactical matter in any kind of controversy, it never serves you well to show scorn towards your opponent. That may make the people who are on your side rejoice and say, ‘kick them again.’ But for those who are in the middle who are trying to decide which truth is right, you just alienate them, you just drive them into the hands of your opponent.”43 I don’t think that my efforts will convert critics of the first vision. I believe it might meet some of the needs of “those who are in the middle who are trying to decide which truth is right.” I don’t want to alienate them. Nor do I want any part in the too human us v. them syndrome. There is only us, the children of God, and we can debate the content of various claims without damaging relationships in the process. I disagree with the a priori assumptions and historical interpretations of the Methodist minister who reproved Joseph, Fawn Brodie, and Reverend Walters. But I do not wish to fight with them. I would love to visit with each of them. They are interesting. And like me they are vulnerable personalities who worked hard to figure out how to relate to Joseph Smith’s first vision. In fundamental ways I am like each of them, and I wish to treat them as I would like to be treated by them. Joseph taught the Relief Society sisters in Nauvoo that “the nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more are we dispos’d to look with compassion on perishing souls—to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our back. . . . If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.”44


1 Dean C. Jessee, editor, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9/3 (1969): 275ñ94. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed., and Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols. Also see Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), especially the appendices, and Backman, “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign 15 (January 1985): 8-17; James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First VisionóWhat Do We Learn From Them,” Improvement Era 73 (April 1970): 4-13; Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” Ensign 26 (April 1996): 10-21. More recently see Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” and James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820,” in John W. Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), pages1-34 and 35-76 respectively.

2 Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832, in Dean C. Jessee, comp. and ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 284ñ87.

3 On Rigdon’s claim, see Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 560ñ64; “Philo Dibble’s Narrative,” in “Early Scenes in Church History”: Four Faith Promoting Classics (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 74ñ96. And see the following at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City: Reynolds Cahoon diary, 5ñ17 July 1832, Charles C. Rich, “History Charles Coulson Rich,” MS, 3ñ4.

4 Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 560ñ64

5 Frederick G. Williams Papers 1834ñ1842, MS 782, folder 1, item 6, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Joseph Smith began his 31 July 1832 letter to William Phelps, “I sit down to dictate for Broth Frederick to write.” Retained copy in handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, Church History Library, Salt Lake city, in Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, Steven C. Harper, editors, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 453.

6 Joseph Smith to William Phelps, November 27, 1832, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, in Joseph Smith, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed., Dean C. Jessee, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2002), 285. The beginning of the letter includes JS’s statement, “I sit down to dictate for Broth Frederick to write.” Joseph Smith’s retained copy of the letter is also in Williams’ handwriting. Joseph Smith to Phelps, 31 July 1832, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

7 Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen, editors, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, volume I: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), see entries for dates noted above.

8 Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens, 4-7.

9 Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens, 7-8.

10 Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens, 10-11.

11Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen, editors, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, volume I: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 260-61. Spelling standardized.

12 Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 226.

13 Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens, 17.

14 Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Visions,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965, pages 126-132.

15 James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 40-41. Dean C. Jessee, The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9:3 (1969): 275-94.

16 Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2004), xv.

17 Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 84-85.

18 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 25.

19 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet 2nd edition (New York: Vintage, 1995), 25.

20 Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 80, 87, 95, 105, 115.

21 Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 106.

22 See, for example, Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival,” reprinted in Dialogue 4 (1969): 60ñ67.

23 Richard L. Bushman, interview by Samuel Dodge, 31 July 2009, Provo, Utah, transcription in possession of the author.

24 Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue 4 (1969): 61.

25 Richard L. Bushman, interview by Samuel Dodge, 31 July 2009, Provo, Utah, transcription in possession of the author.

26 Truman G. Madsen, “Guest Editor’s Prologue,” BYU Studies 9:3 (Spring 1969): 235-40.

27 David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970), 47.

28 Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue 4 (1969): 61.

29 Welch, editor, Opening the Heavens, 4.

30Quoted in Backman, “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” 308.

31Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement, 213. Richard L. Anderson evaluates Turner’s credibility as a witness in “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences,” BYU Studies 9/3 (1969): 373ñ404.

32 Aurora Seager wrote in his diary, “I attended a camp-meeting at Palmyra” in June 1818. He said that over the weekend about twenty people were baptized and forty became Methodists. See E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D.C. (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1880), 12, quoted on pages 2-3 of D. Michael Quinn, Joseph Smith’s Experience of a Methodist “Camp Meeting” in 1820, Dialogue Paperless E-Paper 3, December 20, 2006.

33 Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 268-69. Backman, “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” BYU Studies.

34 John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3-6.

35 Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue 4 (1969): 62, 76.

36 Diaries of Benajah Williams, in possession of Michael Brown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

37 Robert D. Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1999).

38 Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District,” 309. Richard L. Bushman “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue 4/1 (1969): 85.

39 Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival,” reprinted in Dialogue 4 (1969): 69.

40 Dean C. Jessee, James B. Allen (27 July 2009), Richard L. Anderson (29 July 1009), Larry Porter (30 July 2009), Richard L. Bushman (31 July 2009), Milton V. Backman, Jr., (12 August 2009), interviews by Samuel Dodge, tape recording, transcriptions in possession of author.

41 Brodie, No Man Knows My History 2nd edition (New York: Vintage, 1995), 25.

42 Richard L. Bushman, interview by Samuel Dodge, 31 July 2009, Provo, Utah, transcription in possession of the author.

43 Richard L. Bushman, interview by Samuel Dodge, 31 July 2009, Provo, Utah, transcription in possession of the author.

44 Discourse, 9 June 1842, Nauvoo, Illinois, “A Record of the Organization and Proceedings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 61-64, LDS Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 5:23ñ25; and Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 122ñ124.

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