Did Early LDS Leaders Misunderstand the First Vision?

FairMormon Staff

Did Early LDS Leaders Misunderstand the First Vision?

Q. Some critics of the LDS faith have taken the position that Joseph Smith never claimed to see God, the Father and Jesus Christ in his First Vision, until the end of his life. They claim that Joseph’s original story was that he saw an angel and he latter added the Father and Son part. They use various statements from early LDS leaders (Young, Taylor, Pratt) that demonstrate their lack of knowledge about the vision of the Father and Son, as a basis for their claim.

My question is this: Did early LDS leaders really misunderstand the First Vision? Did they really believe that it was only an angel that appeared to Joseph in that vision?

A. (by D. Charles Pyle and Cooper Johnson) Sandra Tanner has made this one famous. Tanner demonstrates, through several quotes of other leaders of the Church (Apostles and later Prophets) that other people thought that Joseph only saw an angel and did not see God, the Father, and Jesus Christ. (Thus making the point that the part about seeing the Father and the Son were added later to the story.) The argument goes, if the Tanners can demonstrate that these early leaders of the Church didn’t understand that Joseph claimed to have seen the Father and the Son and that they understood Joseph’s vision as only seeing an angel, then the Tanners have succeeded in casting serious doubt that this “First Vision,” ever happened.

Let’s take a look…

In their book, Mormonism–Shadow or Reality, we find the following statement:

Mormon scholars have been unable to locate any sermon by Brigham Young in which he identifies the personages as God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. As we have shown before, in one sermon Brigham Young said that “The Lord did not come… But he did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun.,…” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 171)

In their book The Changing World of Mormonism, page 164 (which is a condensed version of Mormonism–Shadow or Reality?, page 154), the Tanners quote from a sermon of John Taylor. They write:

John Taylor, the third president of the church, made the following statement on March 2, 1879: “…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. What, none of them? No. we will not stop to argue that question; the angel merely told him to join none of them that none of them were right.” (Journal of Discourses vol. 20, p. 167)

Lastly, the following is another quote from Tanner in a talk given in November 8, 1998 in Salt Lake City:

Speaking on Dec. 19, 1869, Orson Pratt taught: “By and by an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and, in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him;… This young man, some four years afterwards, was visited again by a holy angel.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, pp.65-66)

At first glance, it appears that Tanner has a valid point. With these statements by early LDS leaders, their knowledge of Joseph’s First Vision is certainly called into question, thus the event of the First Vision itself is called into question. However, let’s dig a little deeper to get a better understanding.

Brigham Young

Here’s Tanner’s use of Young’s statement one more time:

Mormon scholars have been unable to locate any sermon by Brigham Young in which he identifies the personages as God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. As we have shown before, in one sermon Brigham Young said that “The Lord did not come… But he did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun.,…” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 171)

Here we have it from the lips of Brigham Young that “The Lord did not come,” to Joseph Smith. “But He did send His angel,” to Joseph Smith. Leading us to believe that Brigham thought that the angel “informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects.”

Of course, according to Joseph Smith’s account of the first vision, it was Jesus Christ who was informing him. So, we are to believe that Brigham Young didn’t understand what Joseph claimed and he thought there was only an angel, not the Father and the Son?

Well, first of all, we know that Joseph did in fact have several visions of the angel, Moroni, among others. He only had one vision of the Father and the Son.

Now, let’s look at the entire quote from Brigham Young…

The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. 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; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.” (Journal of Discourses 2:170-171)

So, now we get the full picture. Brigham doesn’t say that the Lord didn’t come ever; he says that He didn’t come with the “armies of heaven, in power and great glory.” In other words, He didn’t come with a bunch of pomp and circumstance. And, as a matter of fact, when you look closer with the entire quote, Brigham specifically says that the Lord did come. It was the Lord who “informed him,” not the angel. Read the sentence, “But He did send His angel…AND [He, the Lord] informed him [Joseph]…” So the quote from Brigham takes on a whole new meaning when you look at the whole thing.

John Taylor

Here is the Tanner’s use of the John Taylor quote, once more:

John Taylor, the third president of the church, made the following statement on March 2, 1879: “…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. What, none of them? No. we will not stop to argue that question; the angel merely told him to join none of them that none of them were right.” (Journal of Discourses vol. 20, p. 167)

It is true that the Tanners have accurately quoted this portion of the Journal of Discourses. It is also true that the word angel was used here. It would appear that the Tanners are correct in their assumption that John Taylor was confused about the details of the first vision! However, what exactly does this mean for the reader? Was President Taylor really confused on this issue? Was this just a slip of the tongue or transcriber’s stylus?

What did Taylor really understand about the first vision? The Tanners do not tell us. They simply include the reference as one of their evidences that the Mormon leaders were confused as to the First Vision. What does the historical context–which the Tanners have not provided us with–tell us about this sermon? Let us examine the relevant evidence…

First, it is a fact that John Taylor was the editor of the Times and Seasons periodical of the Church in 1842-1843. It is also a fact that this editor published the account of the First Vision in 1842 as the History of Joseph Smith. Could he have published this account and not been aware of its teaching as to the appearance of the Father and Son?

In 1851, the Pearl of Great Price was first published. John Taylor was aware of its existence and authorized a reprint of an American edition in 1878. Clearly, this document contained the account of the First Vision that we have today. That was just one year before John Taylor’s angel comment in 1879.

On October 7th, 1878, nearly a year and a half earlier, he wrote a letter in behalf of the Quorum o the Twelve commenting upon a book by Edward W. Tullidge entitled Life of Joseph Smith. In that letter, he wrote:

God the Father and Jesus, with the ancient apostles, prophets, patriarchs and men of God have revealed to Joseph Smith principles on which hang the destinies of the world…

Although this may or may not be taken as a clear example of John Taylor’s knowledge of the First Vision, allow me to quote from others of his sermons in the Journal of Discourses. On December 31, 1876 (nearly three years before the sermon that the Tanners quote), John Taylor clearly taught:

Again, there are other things associated with these matters, all bearing more or less upon the same points. When God selected Joseph Smith to open up the last dispensation, which is called the dispensation of the fullness of times, the Father and the Son appeared to him, arrayed in glory, and the Father, addressing himself to Joseph, at the same time pointing to the Son, said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. (Journal of Discourses 18:325-326).

This provides a clear picture of what John Taylor understood about the events of the First Vision both previous to and following the sermon that the Tanners enter into evidence. It is quite clear to me that Taylor clearly understood that the Father and Son appeared to Joseph in that first vision and that he had that understanding from 1842 to 1880 and beyond. Anyone who looks beyond the Tanners’ myopia can see this astonishing fact. What is even more embarrassing to the Tanners is that they failed to cite the remainder of Taylor’s sermons for the day of March 2, 1879. On that very same day, the day that he referred to an angel, he maintained that:

When Jesus sent forth his servants formerly he sent them to preach this Gospel. When the Father and the Son and Moroni and others came to Joseph Smith, he had a priesthood conferred upon him which he conferred upon others for the purpose of manifesting the laws of life, the Gospel of the Son of God, by direct authority, that light and truth might be spread forth among all nations. (Journal of Discourses 20:257)

The above sermon was given the same day and is in the same volume of the Journal of Discourses! The above sermon, taken with the periodicals that he edited, the publication of the 1878 American edition of the Pearl of Great Price which he oversaw and quoted from, and the sermons both previous to and following the sermon that the Tanners cite all go to prove that Taylor was anything but confused on this issue.

But why the word angel, you ask? We are not told one way or another but the Bible may provide the key for us to understand this usage if it was not just a slip of either the stylus or the tongue. Jacob himself called the God of Israel “the Angel which redeemed me” (Genesis 48:16).

Could this have been what Taylor meant? It is certainly clear that Taylor certainly understood and knew of the events that transpired during the first vision, but you would not understand that from reading what the Tanners have given us.

Orson Pratt

Here’s the Tanners’ use of the quote from Pratt:

Speaking on Dec. 19, 1869, Orson Pratt taught: “By and by an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and, in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him;… This young man, some four years afterwards, was visited again by a holy angel.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, pp.65-66)

Again, it appears that yet another former leader of the Church (one of the twelve Apostles at the time) from the 1800s was either confused or unaware that Joseph claimed to see the Father and the Son…not just an angel. Let’s once again look at the quote in its entirety (the omitted portion is in bold):

By and by an obscure individual, a young man, rose up, and, in the midst of all Christendom, proclaimed the startling news that God had sent an angel to him; that through his faith, prayers, and sincere repentance he had beheld a supernatural vision, that he had seen a pillar of fire descend from Heaven, and saw two glorious personages clothed upon with this pillar of fire, whose countenance shone like the sun at noonday; that he heard one of these personages say, pointing to the other, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear ye him.’ This occurred before this young man was fifteen years of age; and it was a startling announcement to make in the midst of a generation so completely given up to the traditions of their fathers; and when this was proclaimed by this young, unlettered boy to the priests and the religious societies in the State of New York, they laughed him to scorn. ‘What!’ said they, “visions and revelations in our day! God speaking to men in our day!” They looked upon him as deluded; they pointed the finger of scorn at him and warned their congregations against him. ‘The canon of Scripture is closed up; no more communications are to be expected from Heaven. The ancients saw heavenly visions and personages; they heard the voice of the Lord; they were inspired by the Holy Ghost to receive revelations, but behold no such thing is to be given to man in our day, neither has there been for many generations past.’ This was the style of the remarks made by religionists forty years ago. This young man, some four years afterwards, was visited again by a holy angel. (Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, pp.65-66)

We find, once again, that the Tanners are willing to go to great lengths to accomplish their goal…bring down the LDS faith at any cost. In an effort to demonstrate that Orson Pratt did not understand or know anything about the Father and the Son appearing to Joseph Smith, Tanner actually omits part of the sermon that actually demonstrates Pratt’s clear knowledge and understanding, when he says, “…that he had seen a pillar of fire descend from Heaven, and saw two glorious personages clothed upon with this pillar of fire, whose countenance shone like the sun at noonday; that he heard one of these personages say, pointing to the other, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear ye him.’”

In her zeal to provide negative evidence, Sandra Tanner left out an entire 239 words that show Orson Pratt was clearly aware of the official account of the First Vision involving two personages, one of whom introduced the other as his Beloved Son! You would not understand this from reading what Tanner has provided. Why would she do this? That will be left for you to decide.

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