Criticism of Mormonism/Books/An Insider's View of Mormon Origins/Chapter 8

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Response to claims made in "Chapter 8: The First Vision"

A FairMormon Analysis of: An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, a work by author: Grant Palmer
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Response to claims made in An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, "Chapter 8: The First Vision"

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Response to claim: 239 - "The Book of Commandments...contains nothing on such important events as Joseph's first vision"

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

 Author's quote: The Book of Commandments...contains nothing on such important events as Joseph's first vision...The earliest allusion, oral or written, to the first vision is the brief mention that was transcribed in June 1830 and originally printed in the Book of Commandments...

Author's sources:

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

The author claims that the Book of Commandments "contains nothing" on the First Vision, yet in the subsequent paragraph the author points out that it contains the "earliest allusion" to it.


Response to claim: 239 - The Book of Commandments states that it was the Book of Mormon that constituted Joseph's call to the work

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

The Book of Commandments states that it was the Book of Mormon that constituted Joseph's call to the work.

Author's sources:

FairMormon Response

|authorsources=

  1. Book of Commandments 24:7-11

}}

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources


Response to claim: 239, n5 - Oliver Cowdery claimed that it was Moroni that called Joseph to the work rather than Jesus in the First Vision

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Oliver Cowdery claimed that it was Moroni that called Joseph to the work rather than Jesus in the First Vision.

Author's sources:
  1. Oliver Cowdery, "Letter IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 (Feb. 1835): 78-79; quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:427-429.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

The author does not understand the events described in the first two installments of Oliver Cowdery's history of the Church published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1834 and 1835. The 1834 installment described events leading up the the First Vision. The 1835 installment refers to these events as being in the past, skips mentioning the vision, and skips forward three years to Moroni's visit.


Question: Did Oliver Cowdery state that Joseph did not know if a "supreme being" existed in 1823?

In the first installment of his history published in December 1834, Oliver established Joseph's age as 14 and very accurately described the religious excitement leading up to the First Vision

Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in the Messenger and Advocate in December 1834 which is commonly misunderstood:

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit.[1]

Two months later in the second installment published in February 1835, Oliver abruptly "corrects" Joseph's age from 14 to 17 years old, skips the First Vision and then proceeds instead to describe Moroni's visit

After spending the previous installment leading up to the First Vision, Oliver abruptly skips three years ahead and does not mention the vision directly. However, before describing Moroni's visit, Oliver even takes the time to minimize the importance of the religious excitement that he described in the previous installment, stating,

And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

The religious "excitement" that Oliver is describing is now portrayed as an event in the past, during which Joseph desired to know "if a Supreme being did exist"

Note carefully what Oliver is saying. The religious "excitement," and the event that Oliver described in the first installment when he said that Joseph was 14 years of age, was when Joseph was seeking a "full manifestation of divine approbation" with the desire to know "if a Supreme being did exist." Oliver then alludes to the First Vision in the past tense by saying,

This, most assuredly, was correct—it was right. The Lord has said, long since, and his word remains steadfast, that for him who knocks it shall be opened, & whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

Oliver is stating that something of significance happened in Joseph’s life prior to the events that Oliver would be describing next, and he assures the reader that “this, most assuredly, was correct.” Oliver then proceeds to describe Moroni's visit to Joseph at age 17.


Question: What criticisms are related to Oliver Cowdery's 1834-1835 history of the Church?

Critics of the Church conflate Oliver's first and second installments of his Church history in order to "prove" that Joseph was not aware that a "Supreme being" existed three years after he claimed to have had his first vision

When Oliver Cowdery published his version of the history of the Church in December 1834 and February 1835 he did not include a recital of the First Vision story - thus implying that it was not known among the Saints by that point in time. One critical website makes the following claim:

In the first history of Mormonism from 1835 written under Joseph Smith's direction, it says that the night of September 1823 Joseph Smith began praying in his bed to learn 'the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.' (LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Feb. 1835). It makes no sense for him to ask if God existed, if Smith had already seen God face-to-face some three years earlier, and knew he existed.[2]

and

In Joseph Smith's 1835 published history of the church, he claimed that his first spiritual experience was in 1823 after a religious revival in Palmyra that same year. Smith testified that he prayed while in bed one night, to discover if God existed.

These claims, however, are false. Oliver's February 1835 installment did not describe Joseph's First Vision - it described Moroni's visit. It should also be noted that this was not "Joseph Smith's 1835 published history."

Only two years prior to Oliver's history, Joseph's 1832 account of the First Vision clearly establishes the date of both the first vision, and the vision of Moroni

Oliver Cowdery did, in fact, know about the First Vision when he recorded his version of the history of the Restoration—he had physical possession of the Prophet's 1832 history, which contains an account of the First Vision.

In October 1834 Cowdery announced in his newspaper that Joseph Smith would help with the history project but the Prophet himself noted that "no month ever found [him] more busily engaged than November." [3] In December 1834 President Smith was busy lecturing at the School of the Elders and acting as a trustee for the Kirtland High School and so during this month he sent Oliver a short letter to be included as part of the project, but also noted within it that he learned of his prominent role in the project, and its imminent appearance in the press, by reading Cowdery's periodical! [4]


Response to claim: 239 - Joseph viewed his First Vision in "evangelical Protestant fashion" until 1838 and "viewed his epiphany" in this fashion until 1838

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Joseph viewed his First Vision in "evangelical Protestant fashion" until 1838 and "viewed his epiphany" in this fashion until 1838.

Author's sources:
  1. Author's opinion.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

It is odd that the 1835 account is not mentioned here. Here is what the 1835 account says about Joseph's motivation to pray in the grove:

...respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bow[e]d down before the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find and again, if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men libarally and upbradeth not; information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord for the first time... (emphasis added)

  • The motivation in the 1835 account matches that in the 1838 account, yet the author claims that Joseph "viewed his epiphany" in "evangelical Protestant fashion" as a forgiveness for his sins until the 1838 account was written. This is apparently done to support the author's desired conclusion that the 1838 account was written to deal with a leadership crisis in Kirtland.


Question: What was Joseph Smith's motivation for going to the grove to pray in 1820?

Joseph had two motivations: obtain a forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right

Joseph Smith's stated motivation for praying to the Lord changes between the first known account of the First Vision (1832) and the official version of it (1838). The 1832 account emphasizes his desire for a forgiveness of sins, and the 1838 (official) account emphasizes his desire to know which church was right. Some critic claim that Joseph changed his story in later years.

The texts that are employed by critics to justify the charge of 'differing motivations' are as follows:

1832

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy"

1838

"My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join."

The words that precede the point at which Joseph Smith offers his prayer in the 1832 text demonstrate that the anti-Mormon claim about his motivation changing is not sustainable. These words read as follows (standardized for readability):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.
Thus applying myself to them, and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul.
Thus, from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind: the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.
My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins.
And by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and 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 and for the sins of the world.
For I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He was no respecter to persons, for He was God. For I looked upon the sun - the glorious luminary of the earth - and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty - whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvelous, even in the likeness of Him who created them.
And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, "Well hath the wise man said, 'It is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.'" My heart exclaimed, "All all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power; a Being who maketh laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds; who filleth eternity; who was, and is, and will be from all eternity to eternity." And when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth, therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.


Question: How do the First Vision accounts compare on the subject of Joseph's motivation for praying?

Summary of themes

  • Between the ages of 12 and 15 Joseph Smith became exceedingly distressed about his personal sins and mourned over them. He became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul and so he searched the scripture for information on that topic.
  • He both marveled and grieved that his acquaintances who belonged to various Christian denominations did not act in accordance with what was found on the pages of the Bible.
  • His study of the New Testament led him to the conclusion that all the Christian denominations with which he was acquainted had apostatized from the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Joseph pondered the darkness that pervaded the minds of mankind and its resultant wickedness and abominations - and he mourned for the sins of the world.
  • He also thought about the "contentions and division" among men [see - revival mentioned in the 1832 text].
  • Joseph believed from his personal observation of created objects and entities that God did indeed exist.
  • He also believed the scriptures that taught God was an eternal Being who was all powerful and everywhere present, who was no respecter of persons, who was a God of law and did not change over time, and wanted mankind to worship Him in truth.
  • When Joseph Smith "considered all these things" he prayed to the Lord and received his First Vision.

It is clear from a consultation of the 1832 text that Joseph Smith's desire to be forgiven of his personal sins was NOT the only motivation for his prayer in the wilderness. He prayed (as he explicitly states) because of "all" of the things he mentions - including the desire to worship God in truth; according to His laws (which Joseph did not believe was the case among any of the Christians denominations that he knew of).

Patterns within documents

The 1832 textual pattern of (1) desire to prepare for eternity / worship God in truth and (2) desire for forgiveness of personal sins can be detected in subsequent First Vision recitals, demonstrating that there is no change in his declared motive over time. The confusion of the critics on this issue arises when they do not see exact matches in themes across documents or insist that every detail of the story be present in every text that relates it.

1832 (Smith)

"my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul . . . . my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins . . . . when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord . . . . He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1834 (Cowdery/Smith)

Joseph Smith had a "determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion . . . . [but he also] call[ed] upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and . . . to have an assurance that he was accepted of Him." Joseph is classified in this text among the "humble, penitent sinner."

1835 (Smith)

"being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right . . . being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord . . . . He said unto me, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1838 (Smith)

"how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, would never know . . . . My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . . many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time" [INDIRECT REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS?]

1840 (Pratt)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same. . . . He was informed that his sins were forgiven"

1842 (Smith)

"I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment . . . . considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully" [FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS NOT MENTIONED]

1842 (Hyde)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind; he perceived that it was a question of infinite importance. . . . [The two personages] told him that his prayers had been answered, and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing." [VEILED REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS? - Remember that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]


Response to claim: 240, n7 - Joseph is claimed to "not yet mention the appearance of God the Father" in his 1835 First Vision account

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Joseph is claimed to "not yet mention the appearance of God the Father" in his 1835 First Vision account.

Author's sources:
  • In footnote 7, the author uses Joseph's 1835 account to claim that his concept of the Godhead had evolved from one personage to two personages.
  • Boyd Kirkland, "The Development of the Mormon Doctrine of God," Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary James Bergera, 35-52.
  • Dan Vogel, "The Earliest Mormon Concept fo God," Line upon Line, 17-33.
  • Melodie Moench Charles, "Book of Mormon Christology," New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe, 81-114.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

Joseph Smith did not mention "God the Father" by name in any of his First Vision accounts - he only referred to the Father and the Son as "personages." Here is the relevant passage from Joseph's 1835 First Vision account:

...a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God;

Joseph didn't explicitly identify the first personage as God the Father, but it is clear from the context (the second personage identified as Jesus Christ as being "like unto the first") that this is who is being referred to. To claim that Joseph "does not yet mention the appearance of God the Father" is a misrepresentation of this narrative.


Response to claim: 240 - The author claims that Joseph rewrote his personal conversion experience in 1838 to satisfy institutional needs

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that Joseph rewrote his personal conversion experience in 1838 to satisfy institutional needs.

Author's sources:
  1. Author's opinion.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

This is the author's opinion, and is not supported by evidence.


Question: Did Joseph Smith revise his account of the First Vision in 1838 to respond to a leadership crisis?

Joseph Smith was telling the same First Vision story in 1835, three years before the leadership crisis

It is claimed that in 1838 Joseph Smith revised his personal history to say that his original call came from God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than an angel. It is also claimed that his motive for doing this was to give himself a stronger leadership role because an authority crisis had recently taken place and large-scale apostasy was the result.

The idea that Joseph Smith modified the First Vision story in 1838 in order to quell a leadership crisis is a convenient mythology crafted by critics who seem to be woefully unfamiliar with the records of the past and were unaware that Joseph told the same story in 1835.

Warren Parrish was the "ringleader" of the Kirtland leadership crisis in 1839, and yet he was also the scribe for the 1835 First Vision account

This argument is a reference to the Kirtland crisis of 1837–38. Warren Parrish was considered by some of the Saints to be the ringleader of the Kirtland crisis. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that it was this same Warren Parrish who acted as scribe in recording a First Vision recital given by the Prophet Joseph Smith on 9 November 1835. When Parrish's 1835 account of the theophany is compared to the 1838 account it becomes glaringly obvious that the story did NOT change over time, as the critics would like everyone to believe.

There is no shift in historical content between the 1835 and 1838 First Vision accounts, since both are followed immediately thereafter by the Book of Mormon angel story

It should also be noted that both the 1835 and 1838 First Vision accounts are followed immediately thereafter by the Book of Mormon angel story. Thus, it is impossible for critics to claim a shift in historical content by the Prophet. Before the Kirtland crisis took place Joseph Smith spoke in the 1835 retelling of events about an 1820 vision of two personages followed by an 1823 visitation by an angel. After the Kirtland crisis took place Joseph Smith said the exact same thing in the 1838 retelling of events.

9 November 1835 – “was about 14 years old”
2 May 1838 – “a little over fourteen years of age”
9 November 1835 – “looking at the different systems [of religion] taught [to] the children of men”
2 May 1838 – “Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’”
9 November 1835 – “being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion”; “being thus perplexed in mind”
2 May 1838 – “my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness”
9 November 1835 – “I knew not who was right or who was wrong”
2 May 1838 – “it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong”
9 November 1835 – “the Lord . . . had said . . . if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not”
2 May 1838 – “I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse which reads, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him’”
9 November 1835 – “I retired to the silent grove”
2 May 1838 – “I retired to the woods”
9 November 1835 – “[I] bowed down before the Lord”; “I called upon the Lord for the first time”
2 May 1838 – “I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God . . . It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt”
9 November 1835 – “I made a fruitless attempt to pray, my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter . . . looked around, but saw no person”
2 May 1838 – “I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue . . . the power of some actual being from the unseen world”
9 November 1835 – “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon my head”
2 May 1838 – “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me”
9 November 1835 – “a personage appeared . . . another personage soon appeared”
2 May 1838 – “I saw two personages”
9 November 1835 – “he testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”
2 May 1838 – “This is my beloved Son”


Response to claim: 240, n8 - The 1820 revival described by Joseph better fits the 1824-25 revival

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

The 1820 revival described by Joseph better fits the 1824-25 revival.

Author's sources:
  • Marvin S. Hill, "The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15 (Summer 1982), 37-39.
  • Wesley P. Walters, "New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 4 (Sprint 1969), 60-67.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

Joseph describes a religious "excitement" in the region in 1820, and states that his interest in religion began when he was twelve years old. This coincides with the 1818 revival.


Question: Did Joseph Smith simply conflate elements of the 1818 and 1824-25 revivals in his story of the First Vision?

There is documentary evidence that shows abundant religious activity in the region surrounding Palmyra, New York during the 1819-1820 time period

Some critics and armchair scholars have come to the conclusion that some of the revival story elements found in Joseph Smith's 1838 historical narrative are not really accurate, but rather are representative of a conflation of facts. These people believe that Joseph Smith was actually mixing parts of 1818 and 1824-25 Palmyra revival activities into his storyline about what happened in 1820. In other words, they claim that the Prophet's narrative is not historically accurate - but not deceptively so.

The problem with the 'conflation theory' is two-fold: (1) It can be demonstrated that one of the most important pieces of documentary evidence which is used to support this theory does not actually say what some people think it says - see the FAIRwiki paper called Conflation of 1824-25 revival?. (2) There is plenty of documentary evidence that shows abundant revival activity in the general region surrounding Palmyra, New York during an 1819-1820 time period. A careful examination of Joseph Smith's 1838 narrative reveals that three distinct zones of revival activity are being referred to by him and each of these can be confirmed in non-LDS newspapers and ecclesiastical sources. When all of these sources are taken into account the idea of conflation loses most of its strength.


Response to claim: 242, n14 - William Smith said that the revival occurred in 1823

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

William Smith said that the revival occurred in 1823.

Author's sources:
  • William Smith, interview by James Murdock, 18 April 1841, quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:478.
  • William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism, 6.
  • Saints' Herald, 16 June 1883, 338; quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:494.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

William Smith mixes up the events of the First Vision and Moroni's visit, well after Joseph had published his official account of these events. William even acknowledges that Joseph's published history is more accurate than his own recollection.


Question: Did William Smith claim that a religious revival led to the Joseph's "first vision" of an angel in 1823?

William Smith conflates Joseph's First Vision with Moroni's visit in his 1883 biography

William Smith does indeed say in his 1883 autobiography that during a period of religious revival (which he dates at 1822-1823) Joseph Smith prayed to the Lord to know "the path of obedience" and was in turn visited by an angel who told him that "none of the sects were right."[5]

William acknowledged that Joseph's own published history was more accurate than his own recollection

Critics of the Church who wish to use Williams statement to prove that the First Vision didn't happen in 1820 neglect to tell their audience members that directly after making this anomalous statement William adds that,

"A more elaborate and accurate description of [Joseph Smith's] vision, however, will be found in his own history"
(William B. Smith, William Smith on Mormonism [Lamoni, IA: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883], 9).

This notation kicks the legs right out from underneath the stool that the critics are perched upon. William Smith identifies the Prophet's published history (the primary source of information) as being "more...accurate" than his own. This accurate version of events was canonized by the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City three years before William Smith published his erroneous remarks.

William was drawing his own history from an inaccurate source: Oliver Cowdery's 1834 and 1835 history in the Messenger and Advocate

Why was William Smith's recital of historical events so far off the mark? The answer is simple. He was drawing information, at length, from an inaccurate secondary source. A comparison of texts reveals that William was just rephrasing the information found in Oliver Cowdery's deficient Church history articles which were printed in the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate in 1834-35.[6] This is where William got the "1823" date from and the idea that an "angel" appeared during the Prophet's initial visitation.

During a speech that William gave in 1883, his memory of events was much more accurate

It should be noted that during the very same year that William published his autobiography (1883) he gave a speech wherein he discussed certain elements of Church history. This time he was not reworking published information for inclusion in another printed text - he was simply telling other people about incidents that he remembered. This time his recital was much closer to his brother's own account. William said on this occasion,

  • About 4 years after Joseph Smith Sr. went to Palmyra, New York (i.e., in 1820) Joseph Jr. became concerned about religion.
  • Joseph Jr. did not know which way to go; he desired guidance in this area.
  • Joseph Jr. wanted to be prepared for the next life; he wanted to know the "plan".
  • Joseph Jr. said that there was "a lack of wisdom".
  • At that time Mother Smith some of her children belonged to the Presbyterian church.
  • Joseph Jr. went into the "woods" to pray to the Lord for guidance.
  • A bright light appeared like the brightness of the sun.
  • Joseph Jr. received a "vision".
  • In the light Joseph Jr. saw "a personage".
  • "that [B]eing pointed him [i.e., Joseph] out as the messenger to go forth and declare [H]is truth to the world; for ‘They had all gone astray;’ ‘Every man was going his own way'".

(The Saints’ Herald, vol. 30, no. ----, 16 June 1883, 388).

When William Smith relied upon his own memory he got many aspects of the First Vision story correct. When he relied upon a faulty historical narrative he was dead wrong about the details. Critics should take William's advice and quit pointing to his statements as if they had some kind of important significance and turn instead to the Prophet's own published account because it is "more . . . accurate".


Response to claim: 242, n15 - Oliver Cowdery said that the revival that affected Joseph came in 1823

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Oliver Cowdery said that the revival that affected Joseph came in 1823.

Author's sources:
  • Oliver Cowdery, "Letter III," Messenger and Advocate 1 (Dec. 1834), 42.
  • Oliver Cowdery, "Letter IV," Messenger and Advocate 1 (Feb. 1835), 78.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

The author does not understand the events described in the first two installments of Oliver Cowdery's history of the Church published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1834 and 1835. The 1834 installment described events leading up the the First Vision. The 1835 installment refers to these events as being in the past, skips mentioning the vision, and skips forward three years to Moroni's visit.


Question: Did Oliver Cowdery state that Joseph did not know if a "supreme being" existed in 1823?

In the first installment of his history published in December 1834, Oliver established Joseph's age as 14 and very accurately described the religious excitement leading up to the First Vision

Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in the Messenger and Advocate in December 1834 which is commonly misunderstood:

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit.[7]

Two months later in the second installment published in February 1835, Oliver abruptly "corrects" Joseph's age from 14 to 17 years old, skips the First Vision and then proceeds instead to describe Moroni's visit

After spending the previous installment leading up to the First Vision, Oliver abruptly skips three years ahead and does not mention the vision directly. However, before describing Moroni's visit, Oliver even takes the time to minimize the importance of the religious excitement that he described in the previous installment, stating,

And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

The religious "excitement" that Oliver is describing is now portrayed as an event in the past, during which Joseph desired to know "if a Supreme being did exist"

Note carefully what Oliver is saying. The religious "excitement," and the event that Oliver described in the first installment when he said that Joseph was 14 years of age, was when Joseph was seeking a "full manifestation of divine approbation" with the desire to know "if a Supreme being did exist." Oliver then alludes to the First Vision in the past tense by saying,

This, most assuredly, was correct—it was right. The Lord has said, long since, and his word remains steadfast, that for him who knocks it shall be opened, & whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

Oliver is stating that something of significance happened in Joseph’s life prior to the events that Oliver would be describing next, and he assures the reader that “this, most assuredly, was correct.” Oliver then proceeds to describe Moroni's visit to Joseph at age 17.


Response to claim: 245 "If his report that "all the sects...united to persecute me" were accurate, one would expect to find some hint of this in the local newspapers"

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:


  • Joseph is claimed to have been persecuted not for his vision, but because of his treasure digging.
  •  Author's quote: If his report that "all the sects...united to persecute me" were accurate, one would expect to find some hint of this in the local newspapers...

    Author's sources:

  1. Author's opinion.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Seriously? The author is suggesting that the local newspapers would report that one or more local ministers criticized a 14-year-old boy for stating that he had a vision of God?


Question: Why didn't the newspapers in Palmyra take notice of Joseph Smith's First Vision?

Newspapers would not have considered a visionary claim from a 14-year-old boy to have been newsworthy

This claim by critics is indeed strange. We are apparently to believe that the newspapers of the area would consider a claim from a 14-year-old boy as newsworthy. We know that Joseph didn't even tell his family about the vision at the time that it occurred—when his mother asked him, all he said to her was that he had found that Presbyterianism was not true.

When Joseph told the story of his vision to a local minister, he was strongly refuted for doing so

Joseph did, however, make mention of his vision to a Methodist preacher. According to Richard Bushman, Joseph's perceived persecution for telling his story may not have actually been because it was a unique claim, but rather because it was a common one. According to Bushman,

The clergy of the mainline churches automatically suspected any visionary report, whatever its content...The only acceptable message from heaven was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph's report of God's rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical, who repeated the conventional point that "all such things had ceased with the apostles and that there never would be any more of them."[8]


Response to claim: 245, n27 - In 1838, Joseph is claimed to have shifted his calling from 1823 to 1820 because of apostasy in the Church

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

In 1838, Joseph is claimed to have shifted his calling from 1823 to 1820 because of apostasy in the Church.

Author's sources:
  1. William I. Appleby, Biography and Journal, 30-31, LDS archives, quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:145-47.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Joseph remained in control of the Church even during the 1838 apostasy. There was no need to rewrite history to do so, and there is no evidence that such a thing occurred.


Question: Did Joseph Smith lose control of the Church during the 1838 Kirtland apostasy?

The historical record shows that Joseph Smith stayed firmly in charge of Church affairs during the 1838 crisis

Anti-Mormons claim that because of the problems caused by apostates in Kirtland, Ohio Joseph Smith suffered in his role as leader of the restored Church. While it is true that the apostates claimed Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet, and tried to take over his role, the historical record shows that he stayed firmly in charge of Church affairs. In other words, the anti-Mormon claim that he needed to somehow boost his role as leader by modifying his story to sound more impressive falls flat. Consider the following timeline which leads right up to the time of the recording of the 1838 First Vision account.

  • On 7 November 1837 Joseph Smith was "unanimously" sustained by the Far West, Missouri Saints as the presiding officer of the Church.[9]:522 This is the same location where the Prophet had the 1838 First Vision account recorded.
  • About 10 December 1837 Joseph Smith returned to Kirtland, Ohio. While the Prophet was away at Far West, Missouri Warren Parrish and his band of "reformers" denounced the Saints in general as heretics and set Joseph Smith "at naught".[9]:528 During this period Parrish was under suspicion for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the Kirtland bank - which led to the apostasy of a considerable number of Saints.
  • On 22 December 1837 the apostates were threatening to kill a member of the Quorum of the Twelve who was supportive of Joseph Smith[9]:529
  • On 12 January 1838 Joseph Smith and another member of the First Presidency of the Church left Kirtland, Ohio in order to "escape mob violence" which was aimed at them.[10]:1
  • Some of the Kirtland apostates, armed with rifles and pistols, followed the Prophet for 200 miles with the intent of taking his life - he was a firsthand witness to their threats.[10]:2-3
  • On 10 February 1838 Joseph Smith's authority was recognized in Far West, Missouri while that of the apostates was rejected and they were removed from office "by a united voice."[10]:7
  • On 12-14 March 1838 Joseph Smith was met by several groups and escorts, "with open arms," as he approached Far West, Missouri.[10]:9
  • On 29 March 1838 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to Church leaders in Kirtland, Ohio, mentioning the warm reception he received and says of Far West: "The Saints at this time are in union; and peace and love prevail throughout." He also relates: "Various and many have been the falsehoods written from Kirtland to this place, but [they] have availed nothing. We have no uneasiness about the power of our enemies in this place to do us harm." He spoke of recently receiving a vision from the Lord. The Prophet signed his letter as "President of the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints."[10]:10-12
  • On 6 April 1838 the General Conference of the Church was held in Far West, Missouri and Joseph Smith was the presiding officer.[10]:13
  • About 10 April 1838 Joseph Smith signs a letter identifying himself as one of the "Presidents of the whole Church of Latter-day Saints."[10]:15-16
  • On 28 April 1838 Joseph Smith attended a High Council by invitation and was invited to preside over it.[10]:25-26

Clearly, this is not the picture of a man in a leadership crisis who needed to bolster his standing among the Saints by making up some impressive-sounding story. This is the picture of a man who was being targeted by a small band of thugs but who still retained leadership standing among the vast majority of the Saints. The story that he told before the apostate problems of the Kirtland era was the same story he told after the troublemakers were shown the door.


Response to claim: 246, n31 - Martin Harris is claimed to have publicly stated that "none of the witnesses had physically seen or handled the plates" and that they had not seen them with their "natural eyes"

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Martin Harris is claimed to have publicly stated that "none of the witnesses had physically seen or handled the plates" and that they had not seen them with their "natural eyes."

Author's sources:
  • Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838, Joseph Smith Letterbook, 2:64-66, quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:291.
  • Warren Parrish to E. Holmes, 11 Aug. 1838, The Evangelist, 1 Oct. 1838, 226.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

The author selectively focuses on a few reported quotes in which Martin mentioned "spiritual eyes," and ignores the multitude of quotes in which Martin said straight out that he saw the angel and handled the plates with his hands.


Question: Did Martin Harris tell people that he did not see the plates with his natural eyes, but rather the "eye of faith"?

A former pastor, John A. Clark, said that a "gentleman in Palmyra" told him that Harris said that he saw the plates with the "eye of faith"

John A. Clark, a former pastor who considered Joseph Smith a fraud and the Book of Mormon “an imposture,” states,

To know how much this testimony [of three witnesses] is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,-”Did you see those plates?” Harris replied, he did. “Did you see the plates, and the engraving on them with your bodily eyes?” Harris replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes,-they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.” “But did you see them with your natural,-your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Harris replied,-”Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,-though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.[11]

John A. Clark did not interview Martin Harris - he was repeating what someone else told him

The source cited is “Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828,” Early Mormon Documents 2:270. However, rather than being an interview between Clark and Harris, as implied by the title of reference work using in the citation, Clark’s actual statement clearly says that he received his information from a “gentleman in Palmyra…a professor of religion,” who said that he had talked with Harris. This is not an interview between Clark and Harris.

Larry E. Morris notes that the “claim that ‘Harris told John A. Clark’ is not accurate. This is not secondhand testimony but thirdhand—’he said that he said that he said.’….As if that weren’t enough, Clark does not name his source—making it impossible to judge that person’s honesty or reliability. What we have is a thirdhand, anonymous account of what Martin Harris supposedly said.” (Larry E. Morris, FARMS Review, Vol. 15, Issue 1.)

Clark's account mixes elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as one of the Three Witnesses and portrays Harris as contradicting himself

The two elements that are mixed together in Clark's account are the following:

  1. Martin Harris said that he only saw the plates through the "eye of faith" when they were covered with a cloth prior to his experience as a witness.
  2. Martin Harris saw the plates uncovered as one of the three witnesses.

Note also that the date assigned to these comments places them prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, yet Clark’s statement appears to include elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as a witness. Harris “saw them” with his eyes when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, but he only saw them through the “eye of faith” when they were covered with a cloth prior to his being a witness. Clark’s third-hand hostile relation of another hostile source, makes no distinction between these events, and instead portrays Harris as contradicting himself.

When Martin Harris said that he had seen the angel and the plates with his "spiritual eyes" or with an "eye of faith" he may have simply been employing some scriptural language that he was familiar with. Such statements do not mean that the angel and the plates were imaginary, hallucinatory, or just an inner mental image—the earliest accounts of Martin Harris' testimony makes the literal nature of the experience unmistakable.

Rather than being hallucinatory or "merely" spiritual, Martin claimed that the plates and angel were seen by physical eyes that had been enhanced by the power of God to view more objects than a mortal could normally see (cf. DC 76:12; DC 67:10-13).


Question: Did Martin Harris tell people that he only saw the plates with his "spiritual eye"?

John H. Gilbert, who printed the Book of Mormon, reported that Harris said that he saw the plates with his "spiritual eye"

John H. Gilbert:

Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses,—(Harris—Cowdery and Whitmer—) I said to him,—"Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?" Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, "No, I saw them with a spir[i]tual eye."[12]

Pomeroy Tucker told of Harris using the phrase "seeing with the spiritual eye"

Pomeroy Tucker in his book Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (1867) also refers to Harris using the phrase "spiritual eye":

How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement, in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained. In reply to uncharitable suggestions of his neighbors, he used to practise a good deal of his characteristic jargon about "seeing with the spiritual eye," and the like. [13]

Martin elsewhere emphasized that the vision was also with the "natural eye," to enable them to "testify of it to the world"

In 1875, Martin said:

"The Prophet Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and myself, went into a little grove to pray to obtain a promise that we should behold it with our eyes natural eyes, that we could testify of it to the world (emphasis added)."[14]

Harris did not, then, see "spiritual eye" and "natural eye" as mutually exclusive categories. Both described something about the witness experience.


Question: Why would Martin Harris use the phrases "eye of faith" or "spiritual eye" to describe his visionary experience?

Martin Harris was using scriptural language to describe his visionary experience

Why did Martin Harris use the particular phraseology that he did in describing his experience? Perhaps the answer lies in another passage found in the book of Ether 12:19.

And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad.

Here it is noted that those people who have "exceedingly strong" faith can see things "within the veil." But even though they see things in the spiritual realm "with their eyes" it is described as beholding things with "an eye of faith."

Another possibility can be seen in the text of Moses 1:11. It reads:

But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face.

This dovetails nicely with the description of David Whitmer who "explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it—that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God." [15]


Question: Do Martin Harris's statements related to the "spiritual eye" or "eye of faith" contradict the reality of his witness?

Some wish to make it appear as though the statements made by Martin Harris about the Three Witnesses’ manifestation discount its reality. Doing so pulls Harris’ statements out of their proper context. This vital viewpoint can be regained by simply taking a look at several passages from the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants—which all predate Martin’s public statements about the nature of his experience.

The scriptural witnesses

Ether 5:2–3

This prophetic passage had a direct application to Martin Harris as one of the Three Witnesses. It said: “the plates . . . . unto three shall they be shown by the power of God

D&C 5:11,13,24–26

“unto [three of my servants] I will show these things . . . . I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are.” Speaking specifically of Martin Harris: “then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see. And then he shall say unto the people of this generation: Behold, I have seen the things which the Lord hath shown unto Joseph Smith, Jun., and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them, for they have been shown unto me by the power of God and not of man. And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.”

D&C 17:1–3,5

All three of the witnesses were told: “you shall have a view of the plates . . . . And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old . . . . And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them . . . . And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith

From these scriptural texts it is evident that:

  • The Three Witnesses were required by God to exercise faith like “the prophets of old” in order to view the angel and the plates (cf. Moroni 7:37; DC 20:6).
  • God would exercise His power to enable the Three Witnesses to see things that were not usually visible to mortal eyes.
  • Nevertheless, the Three Witnesses would see the angel and the plates “with [their] eyes” and “as they are” in objective reality.

Contemporary witnesses

Joseph Smith was an eyewitness to what Martin Harris said at the exact moment that the manifestation took place. He reported that Martin's words were: "Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld". [16] Another eyewitness, named Alma Jensen, saw Martin Harris point to his physical eyes while testifying that he had seen both the angel and the plates. [17]

Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to a skeptical author in November 1829, and spoke for both himself and Harris on the question of whether there was some trickery or "juggling" at work:

"It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye".[18]


Question: What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word "supernatural" to describe their experiences?

The term "supernatural" is used as a synonym for "miraculous"

An early hostile account of the three witnesses' testimony from February 1830 is instructive:

In the Investigator, No. 12, Dec. 11, I published, by way of caution, a letter of Oliver H.P. Cowdry, in answer to my letter to Joseph Smith, Jun. Martin Harris, and David Whitmore—the believers in said bible of gold plates—which they affirm they have miraculously, or supernaturally beheld. I sought for evidences, and such as could not be disputed, of the existence of this bible of golden plates. But the answer was—the world must take their words for its existence; and that the book would appear this month.[19]

Clearly, the author here uses "supernatural" as a synonym for "miraculous," not an attempt to argue that the plates do not literally exist, since "their words" are intended as "evidences...for its existence."

Martin Harris was claimed to have "supernaturally" seen the plates and angel, yet he also insisted that the experience was tangible and literal

Furthermore, Martin Harris' testimony is reported in a mocking newspaper article, which still makes it clear that Harris' experience was tangible and literal:

Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God! [20]

John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses, did not see an angel, but he did say that he "handled those plates." Yet, Whitmer was also said by Theodore Turley to have described the plates as being shown to him by a "supernatural power".

...all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith." Whitmer replied "I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them." and he described how they were hung "and they were shown to me by a supernatural power." he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said "I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.[21]

In a letter written by Myron Bond in 1878, Whitmer is said to have "saw and handled" the plates:

John Whitmer told me last winter....[that he] 'saw and handled' [the plates and]....helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or almighty power[22]

Some who repeated John Whitmer's words may have conflated his "non-supernatural" experience in handling the plates with his "supernatural" experience of listening to Joseph dictate the Book of Mormon

Note that Bond describes how Whitmer helped to copy the manuscript as Joseph dictated the words "by supernatural or almighty power." It is possible that Theodore Turley's recollection conflated Whitmer's non-supernatural handling of the plates with the description of the translation process by a "supernatural" power.

Like Martin Harris, John Whitmer, when speaking in his own words, was very clear that he had physically handled the plates:

It may not be amiss in this place, to give a statement to the world concerning the work of the Lord, as I have been a member of this church of Latter Day Saints from its beginning; to say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my named to it as such; and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department. Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished: therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve the statements of your unworthy friend and well-wisher.[23]


Question: What did the other witnesses say regarding "spiritual" versus "natural" viewing of the plates?

David Whitmer clarified the idea of "spiritual" versus "natural" viewing of the plates

David Whitmer helps clear up the "spiritual" vs. "natural" viewing of the plates. Responding to the questions of Anthony Metcalf (the same Metcalf who interviewed Harris) Whitmer wrote:

In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it 'being in vision.' We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God. Daniel saw an angel in a vision; also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled at noon day, and there in a vision, or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon. I am now passed eighty-two years old, and I have a brother, J. J. Snyder, to do my writing for me, at my dictation. [Signed] David Whitmer. [24]

And to leave absolutely no doubt about the nature of the manifestation Whitmer explained, "I was not under any hallucination . . . . I saw with these eyes." [25]

The young James Henry Moyle would write of a visit he had with Whitmer:

I inquired of those whom I met: What kind of man is David Whitmer? From all I received the same response, that he was a good citizen, an honest man, and that he was highly respected in the community....

I wanted to know from him...what he knew about the Book of Mormon, and what about the testimony he had published to the world concerning it. He told me in all the solemnity of his advanced years, that the testimony he had given to the world, and which was published in the Book of Mormon, was true, every word of it, and that he had never deviated or departed from any particular from that testimony, and that nothing int he world could separate him from the sacred message that was delivered to him. I still wondered if it was no possible that he could have been deceived. I wondered if there was not something in that psychological operation which some offer as the cause of these miraculous declarations and by which he could have been deceived...so I induced him to relate to me, under such cross-examination as I was able to interpose [Moyle had just graduated from law school], every detail of what took place. He described minutely the spot in the woods, the large log that separated him from the angel, and that he saw the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, that he handled them [this may be in error, given that the contemporaneous record says otherwise], and that he did hear the voice of God declare that the plates were correctly translated. I asked him if there was any possibility for him to have been deceived, and that it was all a mistake, but he said, "No."[26]

He also wrote later:

He said that they (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) were out in the primitive woods in Western New York; that there was nothing between them and the Angel except a log that had fallen in the forest; that it was broad daylight with nothing to prevent either hearing or seeing all that took place...he did see and hear the Angel and heard the declaration that the plates had been correctly translated; that there was absolutely nothing to prevent his having a full, clear view of it all. I remember very distinctly asking him if there was anything unnatural or unusual about the surroundings or the atmosphere. He answered that question. I do not remember exactly the words he used, but he indicated that there was something of a haze or peculiarity about the atmosphere that surrounded them but nothing that would prevent his having a clear vision and knowledge of all that took place. He declared to me that the testimony which he published to the world was true and that he had never denied any part of it.[27]

We note here that the experience is very literal and real--but there is also a difference in atmosphere or "haze" that renders it different from day-to-day life. This dovetails well with the Three Witnesses' insistence that there was a spiritual component to their experience, though it was also literal and "real."


Question: How did newspaper accounts describe the nature of the witnesses experience?

Hostile newspaper accounts clearly stated that both Harris and Whitmer physically handled and examined the plates

Early hostile newspapers claimed that the witnesses' descriptions did not match, but were clear that both Harris and Whitmer had at some point physically handled and examined the plates:

Whitmar’s [sic] description of the Book of Mormon, differs entirely from that given by Harris; both of whom it would seem have been of late permitted, not only to see and handle it, but to examine its contents. Whitmar relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his father’s farm near Waterloo, when they found the book lying on the ground; Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alledging that the book was in the custody of another, intimating that some Divine agent would have it in safe keeping. [28]

David, like Martin, had been charged with being deluded into thinking he had seen an angel and the plates. One observer remembers when David was so accused, and said:

How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height--a little over six feet--and said, in solemn and impressive tones: "No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!" (Joseph Smith III, et al., Interview, July 1884, Richmond Missouri, in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-35) [29]

On another occasion in which Whitmer was asked about the plates, the interviewer recorded:

He then explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it--that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable. [30]


Question: How did the apostle Paul describe spiritual experiences?

The apostle Paul understood the difficulty of describing spiritual experiences

Paul understood the difficulty of describing spiritual experiences when he wrote:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 2 Corinthians 12:2

Paul's vision was real, yet he was unsure whether he had the experience in or out of his body. Harris may have felt a similar experience. He knew the plates were real, yet he also knew that when the angel showed him the plates he was only able to see them by the power of God. On a separate occasion Harris testified to the reality of his vision. The scene as recorded by Edward Stevenson was instrumental in getting Harris to re-enter the Church.

On one occasion several of his old acquaintances made an effort to get him tipsy by treating him to some wine. When they thought he was in a good mood for talk they put the question very carefully to him, "Well, now, Martin, we want you to be frank and candid with us in regard to this story of your seeing an angel and the golden plates of the Book of Mormon that are so much talked about. We have always taken you to be an honest good farmer and neighbor of ours but could not believe that you did see an angel. Now, Martin, do you really believe that you did see an angel, when you were awake?" "No," said Martin, "I do not believe it." The crowd were delighted, but soon a different feeling prevailed, as Martin true to his trust, said, "Gentlemen, what I have said is true, from the fact that my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel, and it was the brightness of day." [31]


Response to claim: 248, n44-45 - The author claims that Joseph wrote his 1838 narrative to secure his position and authority within the church

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that Joseph wrote his 1838 narrative to secure his position and authority within the church.

Author's sources:
  • Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:226-27; 232-33.
  • DC 115:3-4

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

Joseph Smith was telling the same First Vision story in 1835, three years before the leadership crisis.


Question: Did Joseph Smith revise his account of the First Vision in 1838 to respond to a leadership crisis?

Joseph Smith was telling the same First Vision story in 1835, three years before the leadership crisis

It is claimed that in 1838 Joseph Smith revised his personal history to say that his original call came from God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than an angel. It is also claimed that his motive for doing this was to give himself a stronger leadership role because an authority crisis had recently taken place and large-scale apostasy was the result.

The idea that Joseph Smith modified the First Vision story in 1838 in order to quell a leadership crisis is a convenient mythology crafted by critics who seem to be woefully unfamiliar with the records of the past and were unaware that Joseph told the same story in 1835.

Warren Parrish was the "ringleader" of the Kirtland leadership crisis in 1839, and yet he was also the scribe for the 1835 First Vision account

This argument is a reference to the Kirtland crisis of 1837–38. Warren Parrish was considered by some of the Saints to be the ringleader of the Kirtland crisis. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that it was this same Warren Parrish who acted as scribe in recording a First Vision recital given by the Prophet Joseph Smith on 9 November 1835. When Parrish's 1835 account of the theophany is compared to the 1838 account it becomes glaringly obvious that the story did NOT change over time, as the critics would like everyone to believe.

There is no shift in historical content between the 1835 and 1838 First Vision accounts, since both are followed immediately thereafter by the Book of Mormon angel story

It should also be noted that both the 1835 and 1838 First Vision accounts are followed immediately thereafter by the Book of Mormon angel story. Thus, it is impossible for critics to claim a shift in historical content by the Prophet. Before the Kirtland crisis took place Joseph Smith spoke in the 1835 retelling of events about an 1820 vision of two personages followed by an 1823 visitation by an angel. After the Kirtland crisis took place Joseph Smith said the exact same thing in the 1838 retelling of events.

9 November 1835 – “was about 14 years old”
2 May 1838 – “a little over fourteen years of age”
9 November 1835 – “looking at the different systems [of religion] taught [to] the children of men”
2 May 1838 – “Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’”
9 November 1835 – “being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion”; “being thus perplexed in mind”
2 May 1838 – “my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness”
9 November 1835 – “I knew not who was right or who was wrong”
2 May 1838 – “it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong”
9 November 1835 – “the Lord . . . had said . . . if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not”
2 May 1838 – “I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse which reads, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him’”
9 November 1835 – “I retired to the silent grove”
2 May 1838 – “I retired to the woods”
9 November 1835 – “[I] bowed down before the Lord”; “I called upon the Lord for the first time”
2 May 1838 – “I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God . . . It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt”
9 November 1835 – “I made a fruitless attempt to pray, my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter . . . looked around, but saw no person”
2 May 1838 – “I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue . . . the power of some actual being from the unseen world”
9 November 1835 – “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon my head”
2 May 1838 – “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me”
9 November 1835 – “a personage appeared . . . another personage soon appeared”
2 May 1838 – “I saw two personages”
9 November 1835 – “he testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”
2 May 1838 – “This is my beloved Son”


Response to claim: 251 - Joseph moved his calling from 1823 to 1820 in order to disassociate himself from "troubling questions" regarding the Book of Mormon witnesses, who had left the Church

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Joseph moved his calling from 1823 to 1820 in order to disassociate himself from "troubling questions" regarding the Book of Mormon witnesses, who had left the Church.

Author's sources:
  1. Author's conjecture.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

What "troubling questions?" The author doesn't say. If this is the case, then why was the Testimony of the Three and the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses retained in the Book of Mormon? Why did the witnesses hold fast to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon?


Response to claim: 251-252 - The author claims that Joseph's motive for praying was different in the 1832 account than in the 1838 account

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that Joseph's motive for praying was different in the 1832 account than in the 1838 account.

Author's sources:
  1. Author's opinion.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Once again, the author fails to deal with the 1835 account, even though he is clearly aware of it and mentions it several times earlier. Why only compare the 1832 and 1838 accounts? Because he is continuing to make the point that the account was modified in 1838 due to a leadership crisis.


Question: What was Joseph Smith's motivation for going to the grove to pray in 1820?

Joseph had two motivations: obtain a forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right

Joseph Smith's stated motivation for praying to the Lord changes between the first known account of the First Vision (1832) and the official version of it (1838). The 1832 account emphasizes his desire for a forgiveness of sins, and the 1838 (official) account emphasizes his desire to know which church was right. Some critic claim that Joseph changed his story in later years.

The texts that are employed by critics to justify the charge of 'differing motivations' are as follows:

1832

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy"

1838

"My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join."

The words that precede the point at which Joseph Smith offers his prayer in the 1832 text demonstrate that the anti-Mormon claim about his motivation changing is not sustainable. These words read as follows (standardized for readability):

At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.
Thus applying myself to them, and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul.
Thus, from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind: the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.
My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins.
And by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and 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 and for the sins of the world.
For I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He was no respecter to persons, for He was God. For I looked upon the sun - the glorious luminary of the earth - and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens, and also the stars shining in their courses, and the earth also upon which I stood, and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven, and the fish of the waters, and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty - whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvelous, even in the likeness of Him who created them.
And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, "Well hath the wise man said, 'It is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God.'" My heart exclaimed, "All all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power; a Being who maketh laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds; who filleth eternity; who was, and is, and will be from all eternity to eternity." And when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth, therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.


Question: Did Joseph Smith change his stated motivation for praying in later years after he received the First Vision?

The story elements of the vision remain steady over time

The assertion that Joseph Smith's motivation for prayer changes in later accounts of the First Vision event does not pass the test of close examination. The evidence shows, rather, that the story elements remain steady over time. Joseph's motivations for praying are not, as one critic puts it "all over the place." He had two motivations: forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right.

  • 1832 Account
    my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul....
    My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins....He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
  • 1835 Account (9 Nov. 1835)
    being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right....
    he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee....
  • 1835 Account (14 Nov. 1835)
    This account is simply a one line summary of the vision - motive not given.
  • 1838 Account (published in 1842)
    Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?....My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join....
    many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time....
  • 1840 Account by Orson Pratt
    ...if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it?...
    He was informed that his sins were forgiven.

It must be kept in mind that those who report the Prophet's inaugural manifestation in writing do not always spell things out in exactly the same way; sometimes they obscure information by the language they choose to utilize and on occasion they omit story elements altogether (possibly because of audience considerations).


Question: How do the First Vision accounts compare on the subject of Joseph's motivation for praying?

Summary of themes

  • Between the ages of 12 and 15 Joseph Smith became exceedingly distressed about his personal sins and mourned over them. He became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul and so he searched the scripture for information on that topic.
  • He both marveled and grieved that his acquaintances who belonged to various Christian denominations did not act in accordance with what was found on the pages of the Bible.
  • His study of the New Testament led him to the conclusion that all the Christian denominations with which he was acquainted had apostatized from the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Joseph pondered the darkness that pervaded the minds of mankind and its resultant wickedness and abominations - and he mourned for the sins of the world.
  • He also thought about the "contentions and division" among men [see - revival mentioned in the 1832 text].
  • Joseph believed from his personal observation of created objects and entities that God did indeed exist.
  • He also believed the scriptures that taught God was an eternal Being who was all powerful and everywhere present, who was no respecter of persons, who was a God of law and did not change over time, and wanted mankind to worship Him in truth.
  • When Joseph Smith "considered all these things" he prayed to the Lord and received his First Vision.

It is clear from a consultation of the 1832 text that Joseph Smith's desire to be forgiven of his personal sins was NOT the only motivation for his prayer in the wilderness. He prayed (as he explicitly states) because of "all" of the things he mentions - including the desire to worship God in truth; according to His laws (which Joseph did not believe was the case among any of the Christians denominations that he knew of).

Patterns within documents

The 1832 textual pattern of (1) desire to prepare for eternity / worship God in truth and (2) desire for forgiveness of personal sins can be detected in subsequent First Vision recitals, demonstrating that there is no change in his declared motive over time. The confusion of the critics on this issue arises when they do not see exact matches in themes across documents or insist that every detail of the story be present in every text that relates it.

1832 (Smith)

"my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul . . . . my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins . . . . when I considered all these things and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord . . . . He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1834 (Cowdery/Smith)

Joseph Smith had a "determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion . . . . [but he also] call[ed] upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and . . . to have an assurance that he was accepted of Him." Joseph is classified in this text among the "humble, penitent sinner."

1835 (Smith)

"being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right . . . being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord . . . . He said unto me, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee.'"

1838 (Smith)

"how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, would never know . . . . My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . . many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time" [INDIRECT REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS?]

1840 (Pratt)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same. . . . He was informed that his sins were forgiven"

1842 (Smith)

"I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment . . . . considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully" [FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS NOT MENTIONED]

1842 (Hyde)

"[Joseph] began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind; he perceived that it was a question of infinite importance. . . . [The two personages] told him that his prayers had been answered, and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing." [VEILED REFERENCE TO FORGIVENESS OF SINS? - Remember that Hyde utilized information straight from Pratt's account]


Response to claim: 252 - The author claims that Joseph "knows that the pure gospel is not on the earth and therefore does not ask which church is right"

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

In the 1832 account of the First Vision, the author claims that Joseph "knows that the pure gospel is not on the earth and therefore does not ask which church is right."

Author's sources:
  1. None

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

How would Joseph have determined that there was no true "denomination upon the earth" by examining the few churches that he had access to in Palmyra? He may have determined that none of the ones that he was familiar with were true, but how would he know that there wasn't one on the entire earth unless he asked God during his vision?


Question: Did Joseph Smith decide that all churches were wrong before he received the First Vision?

Criticisms of Joseph's 1832 account compared to his 1835 account of the First Vision

In his 1832 history, Joseph Smith said:

I found [by searching the scriptures] that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

But in 1835 he said, “I knew not who [of the denominations] was right or who was wrong.”

  • It this a contradiction and is this evidence that the First Vision story evolved over time?
  • One critic of the Church states, "In the 1832 account, Joseph said that before praying he knew that there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness of his sins. . . .In the official 1838 account, Joseph said his “object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join”…”(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)”"

If you had come to the conclusion that mankind has apostatized from the true faith, and you suddenly found Jesus standing in front of you, wouldn't you ask Him if any of those churches was the correct one?

If you had come to the conclusion that mankind has apostatized from the true faith, and you suddenly found Jesus standing in front of you, wouldn't you ask Him if any of those churches was the correct one? Or would you simply tell Him, "never mind, I already figured it out for myself?"

Besides, where is the inconsistency? How many churches did Joseph have immediate knowledge of? Three or four? Joseph determined that the churches with which he had direct experience did not adhere to the scriptures and that therefore mankind "had apostatized from the true and living faith." During his vision, he then asked the Lord which church was right, because it had not occurred to him that the Lord's church didn't exist anywhere on the face of the earth. It had never entered into his heart that all churches were wrong.

Joseph's motivation in his 1832 account, in addition to seeking forgiveness of his sins, was also to determine whether God's church was upon the earth

Josephs.1832.account.which.church.is right.jpg

There is no contradiction in the two texts presented in the above argument, only a short-sighted understanding of some isolated sources. The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in a detailed examination of relevant texts.


Question: How could Joseph Smith come to the conclusion that all churches were wrong on his own?

Joseph was in doubt as to what his duty was regarding joining a church

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in a detailed examination of relevant texts. It is important to first compare Joseph Smith’s November 1832 text (which is in his own handwriting) with a newspaper article printed earlier that same year which refers to the Prophet’s inaugural religious experiences.

1832 (February): “not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them, and being in doubt what his duty was, he had recourse [to] prayer” (Fredonia Censor).
1832 (November): “my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations . . . . by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament” (handwritten account by Joseph Smith).[32]

Joseph Smith concluded that none of the denominations with which he had acquaintance was built upon the New Testament gospel

When both of these texts are taken into consideration the following storyline suggests itself: Joseph Smith had come to the conclusion, through personal scripture study, that none of the denominations WITH WHICH HE HAD AN INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCE was built upon the New Testament gospel. He prayed for guidance because he was “in doubt what his duty was.” This doubt is obliquely referred to again in Oliver Cowdery’s February 1835 Messenger and Advocate partial First Vision recital where he said that because of the religious excitement the Prophet had “determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.”[33]

Doubt is present again in the Prophet’s November 1835 diary entry: “I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequences.”[34] So the conclusion this fourteen-year-old boy had reached through personal scripture study did not altogether solve his dilemma. In fact, in the May 1838 account he clarifies that because of his youth and inexperience in life he could not make an absolute decision with regard to this matter: “it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right, and who was wrong”; “I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right? Or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right which is it, and how shall I know it?”; “if any person needed wisdom from God I did, for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had [I] would never know.”

Joseph wanted to know which of the many hundreds of denominations on earth was the correct one

Orson Pratt’s 1840 First Vision account helps to explain why the ‘Joseph-decided-every-existing-church-was-wrong’ theory cannot possibly be valid. Elder Pratt reports, “He then reflected upon the immense number of doctrines now in the world which had given rise to many hundreds of different denominations. The great question to be decided in his mind was—if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it?” This expansive view is reflected in the Prophet’s 1838 account. There he states, “My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right that I might know which to join. No sooner therefore did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join.”


Response to claim: 252 - "During the leadership crisis of April 1838, Joseph remembered a different purpose in going to pray"

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

 Author's quote: During the leadership crisis of April 1838, Joseph remembered a different purpose in going to pray...he now says, 'My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right'.

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Yet again, the 1835 account (recorded in Joseph's journal) mentioned earlier by the author is not mentioned here. And again, we note in the 1835 account the following:

...respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; (emphasis added)

How is it that the author, who mentions the 1835 account earlier in the chapter, does not mention Joseph's stated motivation for praying? It is simply because it does not fit with his theory that this "change" in motivation recorded in the 1838 account was in response to a leadership crisis.


Question: Did Joseph Smith change his stated motivation for praying in later years after he received the First Vision?

The story elements of the vision remain steady over time

The assertion that Joseph Smith's motivation for prayer changes in later accounts of the First Vision event does not pass the test of close examination. The evidence shows, rather, that the story elements remain steady over time. Joseph's motivations for praying are not, as one critic puts it "all over the place." He had two motivations: forgiveness of sins, and a desire to know which church was right.

  • 1832 Account
    my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my soul....
    My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins....He spake unto me saying, 'Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
  • 1835 Account (9 Nov. 1835)
    being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right....
    he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee....
  • 1835 Account (14 Nov. 1835)
    This account is simply a one line summary of the vision - motive not given.
  • 1838 Account (published in 1842)
    Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?....My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join....
    many other things did He say unto me which I cannot write at this time....
  • 1840 Account by Orson Pratt
    ...if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it?...
    He was informed that his sins were forgiven.

It must be kept in mind that those who report the Prophet's inaugural manifestation in writing do not always spell things out in exactly the same way; sometimes they obscure information by the language they choose to utilize and on occasion they omit story elements altogether (possibly because of audience considerations).


Response to claim: 253, n51 - Joseph is claimed to have "sought membership with the Methodists in Harmony, Pennsylvania" in 1828, well after he was instructed to join no churches in 1820

The author(s) of An Insider's View of Mormon Origins make(s) the following claim:

Joseph is claimed to have "sought membership with the Methodists in Harmony, Pennsylvania" in 1828, well after he was instructed to join no churches in 1820. The footnote claims that Joseph Lewis reported the Joseph "joined the Methodist Episcopal class in Harmony, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1828."

Author's sources:
  • Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History, A New Chapter about to be Published," Amboy Journal, 30 April 1879, 1.
  • "A Word from Utah," Amboy Journal, 2 July 1879, 1.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim.


Question: Did Joseph Smith join the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches between 1820 and 1830 despite the claim made in his 1838 history that he was forbidden by Deity from joining any denomination?

Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim

Three of the primary sources that charge Joseph Smith with joining sectarian churches between 1820 and 1830 were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, over a half-century after the First Vision. None of the three are contemporary records; the earliest one was written 50 years after the First Vision took place.

  • Fayette Lapham claimed that Joseph had joined the Baptist Church.
  • Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church.
  • S.F. Anderick claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Presbyterian Church.

We must note too that none of these sources confirms the others—they all discuss different denominations and different time frames. Thus, the stories are not mutually reinforcing.

Eyewitness reminiscences and contemporary records provide strong evidence that these claims are not valid and, therefore, do not reflect historical reality. The three sources are all late, and all from hostile voices.


Question: Did Joseph Smith become a baptized member of the Baptist Church in 1822?

Fayette Lapham claimed to have learned this from Joseph Smith, Sr. 50 years after the First Vision had occurred

Fayette Lapham claimed to have interviewed Joseph Smith Sr. in 1829-30, and published a report forty years later. In it, he reported:

About this time [1822, perhaps as late as 1824] he [Joseph, Jr.] became concerned as to his future state of existence, and was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.[35]

There are no records to support the claim that Joseph joined the Baptist Church

The Lapham source is secondhand at best—putting forward information that reportedly came from the Prophet's father. There are no records beyond this late, second-hand recollection to support this claim.


Question: Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

In 1879, 59 years after the First Vision, Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church while translating the Book of Mormon

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.--It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[36]

There is a difference between attending Methodist services and formally joining the Methodist Church

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

Joseph Lewis described himself as one of the "official members", indicating the Joseph was not a member of the church

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.


Questions: Are there contemporary witnesses that confirm that Joseph Smith didn't join any church after the First Vision?

Eyewitness sources indicated that Joseph Smith was not formally attached to any church, and had rejected all of them

The eyewitness sources that follow below indicate that up until the time that Joseph Smith announced the existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his family (23 September 1823) he was not formally attached to any church, but had instead publicly rejected all of them and manifested his desire NOT to join their ranks. Some are contemporaneous, others are later remembrances, but the hostile and friendly voices are clear that he had no denominational affiliation.

Reminiscence Around 1820

Pomeroy Tucker (a non-Mormon critic who knew Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York) said that Joseph joined the Methodist probationary class in Palmyra but soon "withdrew from the class" without being converted; announcing that "all the churches [were] on a false foundation."[37] This information corresponds with historical details dated by Joseph Smith at around 1820.

Reminiscence of Fall 1823

Lucy Mack Smith:

Joseph Smith's mother recalled in her autobiography that shortly after her son Alvin died on 19 November 1823 Joseph "utterly refused" to attend church services with the intent to convert, and he made the specific request: "do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time."[38]

As can be seen by the continuing chronological sources which follow, Joseph Smith and his associates were teaching from 1825 to 1832 that the Prophet did not belong to any church between the years 1825 and 1827.

Reminiscence Concerning 1825

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon):

I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man and at that time did not profess religion.”[39]

Reminiscence Concerning 1827

Peter Bauder:

In 1827 David Marks (a non-Mormon minister) went to Palmyra and Manchester, New York where he “made considerable inquiry respecting . . . [Joseph] Smith” and learned from “several persons in different places” that Joseph was “about 21 years [old]; that previous to his declaration of having found the plates he made no pretensions to religion.”[40]

Reminiscence Concerning 1830

In October 1830 Peter Bauder (a non-Mormon minister) spoke directly to the Prophet. Bauder commented: “he could give me no Christian experience,” meaning that he did not belong to any church before his experience with the angel and plates in September 1823.[41]

Contemporary Document - 1830

Observer and Telegraph (newspaper):

Four LDS men from New York state taught that at the time the angel appeared to Joseph Smith (22 September 1823) he “made no pretensions to religion of any kind.”[42]

Contemporary Document - 1831

Palmyra Reflector (newspaper):

The editor of a Palmyra, New York newspaper claimed that he has been “credibly informed,” and was “quite certain,” that “the prophet . . . never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation” -- meaning the Book of Mormon, which was made known among Palmyra's residents in the Fall of 1827.[43]

Contemporary Document - 1832

Orson Pratt:

Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson taught on 8 April 1832 that “in 1827 a young man called Joseph Smith of the state of New York, of no denomination [i.e., not belonging to a church], but under conviction, inquired of the Lord . . . [and] an angel [appeared to him] . . . who gave information where the plates were deposited.”[44] Pratt clarified in a much later statement that between 1820 and 1823 Joseph Smith "was not a member of any church."[45]

Thus, a great deal of contemporary evidence disproves the late, second hand claims.


Notes

  1. Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8:27-44 (December 6, 2013).
  2. "The First Vision," mormonthink.com.
  3. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:170. Volume 2 link
  4. J. Christopher Conkling, A Joseph Smith Chronology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 68–69.
  5. William Smith, On Mormonism, 1883, Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:494–495.
  6. In the Messenger and Advocate, Oliver began describing the “excitement raised on the subject of religion” that occurred in Joseph Smith’s “15th year of his life.” (Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER III," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 3 (Dec. 1834), 42.) In a subsequent issue however, Oliver declares his previous statement as having been “an error in the type—it should have been in the 17th,” and then proceeds to relate the story of Moroni’s visit in 1823. (Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.) It is apparent that Oliver was originally planning to describe the events of the First Vision, but then switched to a description of the visit of the angel Moroni instead.
  7. Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8:27-44 (December 6, 2013).
  8. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 41.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957). Volume 2 link
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 History of the Church. Volume 3 link
  11. “Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828,” Early Mormon Documents 2:270.
  12. John H. Gilbert, "Memorandum," 8 September 1892, Early Mormon Documents, 2: 548.
  13. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 71 in "Pomeroy Tucker Account, 1867," Early Mormon Documents, 3: 122.
  14. Martin Harris Interview with Ole A. Jensen, July 1875 in Ole A. Jensen, "Testimony of Martin Harris (ONe of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon)," undated (c. 1918), original in private possession, photocopies at Utah State Historical Society, LDS Church Archives, and Special Collections of BYU's Harold B. Lee Library; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:375.
  15. Nathan Tanner Jr. Journal, 13 April 1886.
  16. NeedAuthor, Times and Seasons 3 no. 21 (1 September 1842), 898. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  17. Autobiography of Alma L. Jensen, 1932.
  18. Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, in letter dated 29 November 1829, quoted in Corenlius C. Blatchly, "THE NEW BIBLE, written on plates of Gold or Brass," Gospel Luminary 2/49 (10 Dec. 1829): 194. (emphasis added)
  19. C. C. Blatchley, “Caution Against the Golden Bible,” New-York Telescope 6, no. 38 (20 February 1830): 150. off-site
  20. Martin Harris . . .,” Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) 2, no. 39 (15 March 1831).
  21. "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
  22. Saints’ Herald 25/16 (15 August 1878): 253; letter written by Myron Bond in Cadillac, Michigan on 2 August 1878.
  23. John Whitmer, "Address To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate," (March 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:286-287. (italics added)
  24. Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, Idaho: A. Metcalf, 1888), 74.
  25. Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831; cited in The Saints' Herald, 28 January 1936.
  26. James Henry Moyle, Address, 22 March 1908, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:142-143.
  27. James Henry Moyle, statement, 13 September 1938; in Template:EMG
  28. “Gold Bible, No. 6,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 16 (19 March 1831): 126–27. off-site
  29. Joseph Smith III visited David Whitmer in 1884, along with a committee from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and several onlookers. According to Joseph III's memoirs, one of the non-believers there was a military officer, who suggested the possibility that Whitmer "had been mistaken and had simply been moved upon by some mental disturbance or hallucination, which had deceived him into thinking he saw" the angel and the plates. Joseph III's recollection of Whitmer's response is quoted above. See Memoirs of Joseph Smith III, cited in Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Independence, MO: 1952), pp. 311-12. Cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 88. ISBN 0877478465.
  30. "David Whitmer Interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., 13 May 1886," Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel (editor) 5:166.
  31. Letter of Elder Edward Stevenson to the Millennial Star quoted in William Edwin Berrett, The Restored Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974), 57–58.
  32. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 2.
  33. Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.
  34. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22.
  35. Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  36. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  37. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 17–18.
  38. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1945), 90.
  39. Letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. to John S. Fullmer, 17 February 1843.
  40. Morning Star, 7 March 1833 [Limerick, Maine].
  41. Peter Bauder, The Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ (Canajoharie, New York: A. H. Calhoun, 1834), 36.
  42. Observer and Telegraph, 18 November 1830 [Hudson, Ohio].
  43. “Gold Bible, No. 3,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 12 (1 February 1831): {{{pages}}}. off-site
  44. The Catholic Telegraph, 14 April 1832 [Cincinnati, Ohio].
  45. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:140-141.