Joseph Smith's First Vision/Personages that appeared referred to by Church leaders as "angels"

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Some Church leaders referred to the personages that appeared in the First Vision as "angels"

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Question: Is it possible that as late as the end of the nineteenth century that there was uncertainty among Mormon Church officials about the identity of the personages that appeared to Joseph Smith during his First Vision?

A history article printed in 1888 by assistant Church historian Andrew Jenson twice referred to one of the visitors as an "angel"

A history article printed in 1888 by assistant Church historian Andrew Jenson twice referred to one of the visitors as an "angel".[1] Two years later Church leaders revised Jenson's text to clear up the discrepancy but did not provide any notation about the change.

When the light of historical scholarship shines upon this particular charge of the critics, it quickly becomes apparent that this is really a non-issue. By the time that Andrew Jenson had published his anomalous First Vision account in 1888 the Pearl of Great Price rendition of the same story had already been canonized by the Church for eight years. Latter-day Saints had long been familiar with the official version of events that took place in the Sacred Grove and the precise identities of Joseph Smith's celestial visitors.

The publication that anti-Mormon critics are referring to was called The Historical Record and it was printed in Salt Lake City, Utah. Volume 7 of this collection contains the reference that critics utilize to try and cast doubt upon the veracity of the First Vision account.

Since Andrew held no position of authority in the LDS Church when he made his "angel" comments, they cannot be looked upon as having any kind of evidentiary value in regard to what Church leaders believed at the time

Andrew Jenson was not a Church historian ('assistant' or otherwise) in 1888 when he wrote the text in question. A book produced by Jenson himself indicates that “his services were engaged by the First Presidency, and he was blessed and set apart by Apostle Franklin D. Richards [on] April 16, 1891, as ‘an historian’ in the Church.”[2] Jenson was not sustained as the Assistant Church Historian until 10 April 1898. [3] Since Andrew held no position of authority in the LDS Church when he made his "angel" comments, they cannot be looked upon as having any kind of evidentiary value in regard to what Church leaders believed at the time.

Church critics neglect to tell their readership that Andrew Jenson is plainly listed as the editor and the publisher of both the initial 1888 text and the revision which they allege was printed in 1890. Furthermore, they fail to make note of the fact that when volumes 5-8 of The Historical Record were advertised for sale in a Utah newspaper in 1889 it was noted that this was a "work which Brother Jenson offers" to the public. [4] There is, therefore, no justification whatever in claiming that the LDS Church was somehow responsible for the content of Andrew Jenson's original 1888 article or the revised text that was issued later.


Question: Who was the "angel" in the First Vision that Andrew Jenson was referring to?

Jenson identified the second personage, Jesus Christ, as the "angel"

Critics also neglect to tell their audience about the context of the remarks in question. Andrew Jenson is quoting - at length - from the official 1838 Church history account of the First Vision (first published in 1842). Jenson made an important modification to the quoted material that needs to be noted. When Jenson reached the part where the Prophet's two heavenly visitors identified themselves he capitalized the entire phrase, "THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, HEAR HIM". It is the "Son" who is, just a few paragraphs later, twice identified as "the angel". Thus, Jenson does not in any way confuse facts and state that an angel (in the sense of a heavenly being who is subordinate to Deity) appeared during the First Vision. Rather, Andrew Jenson was applying the title of "angel" to the Lord Jesus Christ.

The chronological timeline below demonstrates, with ample documentation, that both before and shortly after Brother Jenson produced his disputed text he understood that Joseph Smith's First Vision consisted of seeing the Father and the Son.

4 July 1877

On 4 April 1877 Andrew Jenson publicly announced that with the approbation of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, and under the direct supervision of Apostle Erastus Snow, he and another LDS convert would publish Joseph Smith's history in the Danish-Norwegian language.[5] The first pamphlet in this series was printed on 4 July 1877. [6] In the First Vision section of this pamphlet one of two personages - who are both suspended in the air - points to the other one and says, "Denne er min elskelige Son, hor ham" (Danish trans. - "That is my loveable Son, listen to him").

1879

All of the pamphlets in Jenson's series on the history of the Prophet were combined in book form and entitled Joseph Smiths Levnetslob. The First Vision account is found near the front of the book. [7]

17 April 1883

Elder Erastus Snow wrote to Andrew Jenson and informed him that he would be allowed to publish his translation of the Pearl of Great Price in his Danish periodical called Morgenstjernen ("Morning Star").[8] Jenson read proofs for this project on 18 November 1883 [9] and the text was published in Morgenstjernen, vol. 2, 1883, pp. 81-107 and 161-78. This text identified the Prophet's visitors in the Sacred Grove as the Father and the Son.

January 1886

In The Historical Record, vol. 5, no. 1, January 1886, page 1 Andrew Jenson quoted a Church history text that was written by Elder George A. Smith in 1855[10] Jenson's quote includes the portion of Elder Smith's history that speaks of the "two glorious Beings" who appeared to the Prophet. Elder Smith's capitalization of the word "Beings" makes it clear that these individuals were Deity.

5 April 1888

In a General Conference address - only about three months after issuing his January 1888 "angel" text - Andrew Jenson said,
"We claim in regard to the Latter-day Saints that it is necessary for them today . . . to know whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God or not, and whether or not he did receive the manifestations and power of God; to know if he did see the Father and the Son when he went to the woods to pray . . . . When [Joseph Smith] made the declaration that all were going astray that none of the sects of the day were right and that the Lord acknowledged none of them, he only repeated what was told him. It was very presumptuous for a boy of his standing in society to make such sweeping declarations as these, especially when that boy lived in the wilderness of New York . . . withal unlearned in the things of this world, a mere youth, and yet he made the declaration that all the Christian world had gone astray, that none of the sects were right, and that he had heard the voice of Jehovah."[11]

1890 Revision

Another thing that critics have not acknowledged in their published comments about Andrew Jenson's text is that near the top of the page of Jenson's revised article he provided an important note about his source material. There he clearly stated that his record was “Compiled in part from the history of Joseph Smith, published in the Millennial Star, and from Geo[rge] Q. Cannon’s writings about Joseph, the Prophet, as published in the Juvenile Instructor.” This is very significant information since a consultation of Brother Cannon’s writings reveals that precisely twenty-two years earlier he was teaching in the Juvenile Instructor that Joseph Smith “had the glorious privilege of beholding the Father and the Son.”[12] And, of course, the story of the First Vision that Jenson was drawing details from in the Millennial Star was the 1838 official Church history account, where the Father and Son are clearly identified.

16 January 1891

In a public discourse Andrew Jenson spoke of the Prophet attending revivals, entering the woods to pray for wisdom in accordance with James 1:5, being attacked by the power of darkness, a light descending from the sky, and "then a vision of two glorious personages standing above him in the air, one of whom speaking to him, while pointing to the other, said: 'This is my beloved [S]on, hear him.' Here, then, was Jesus Christ being introduced by His Father to Joseph Smith, the praying boy, who next was informed by the Great Redeemer Himself, that all the sects of the day were wrong" [13]


Juncker (1994): "Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel....in antiquity the word 'angel' meant 'messenger.'"

Günther Juncker (at the time of this writing), Master of Divinity candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel. And they gave him this appellation long before the (alleged) distortions of Constantine, the Controversies, the Councils, and the Creeds.... the word Angel has a prima facie claim to being a primitive, if not an apostolic, Christological title. Before pronouncing judgement on the Fathers, men who were often quite close to first-century apostles and eyewitnesses, we may recall that in antiquity the word "angel" had a broader semantic range than at present. When we think of angels, we immediately think of super-human, bodiless spirits, all of whom were created and some of whom fell with Satan in his rebellion. But in antiquity the word “angel” meant “messenger.” It was primarily a functional (as opposed to an ontological) description and, thus, could refer to messengers who were human, angelic, or divine (the best known of the latter being Hermes, “the messenger god”). Likewise in Scripture, in both the OT and the NT, the term angel refers to human as well as to angelic messengers.[14]


Question: Is there anything wrong with early Church leaders using the term "angel" to refer to Jesus Christ?

The word translated "messenger" is the Hebrew mal'ak which can also be translated as "an angel"

What about the term "angel"? Is there anything wrong with Brigham Young or others using that term to refer to Jesus Christ? Malachi spoke of the Lord as the "messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in." (Mal.3:1) The word translated "messenger" is the Hebrew mal'ak which can also be translated as "an angel."[15] The Septugint of Isaiah 9:6, traditionally thought by Christians to refer to Christ speaks of the "messenger of great counsel." This term for Jesus was frequently used by early Christians. Eusebius stated that Christ "was the first and only begotten of God; the commander-in-chief of the spiritual and immortal host of heaven; the angel of mighty counsel; the agent of the ineffable purpose of the Father." [16] The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (an apocryphal work, thought to have been written before the fourth century states that when Christ descended to earth he "made himself like the angels of the air, that he was like one of them." [17] The Epistula Apostolorum (another important early Christian work, thought to have been written by 2nd Century Christians quotes the resurrected Jesus as saying,"I became like an angel to the angels...I myself was a servant for myself, and in the form of the image of an angel; so will I do after I have gone to my Father." [18] At least the use of the term "angel" in Christianity does not seem unknown.

Joseph Smith said that after his resurrection, Jesus Christ "appeared as an angel to His disciples."

How did Joseph Smith understand the term "angel"? One revelation calls Jesus Christ "the messenger of salvation" (D&C 93:8) Another states,"For in the Beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father." (JST John 1:16). The Father sends Jesus because he is the angel of salvation. Joseph Smith himself taught that angels of God are resurrected beings who have bodies of flesh and bone. [19] "Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while his body was lying in the supulchre) to the spirits in prison...After His resurrection He appeared as an angel to His disciples." [20] In Mormon theology the term "angel" has a unique doctrinal significance.

Since Joseph Smith frequently taught this doctrine, is it any wonder that those who knew him best (Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, etc.), would frequently refer to the Lord's visit to Joseph Smith as the visit of an angel (i.e. a resurrected personage of flesh and bone)?


Notes

  1. Andrew Jenson, Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson, 1888), 7:355–356. (January 1888)
  2. Andrew Jenson, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 4 vols., (Salt Lake City, A. Jenson History Co., 1901; reprinted Salt Lake City, Utah : Greg Kofford Books, 2003), 1:261.
  3. See Autobiography, 192, 193, 391.
  4. Deseret Weekly, vol. 39, no. 15, 5 October 1889, 460
  5. Deseret News, vol. 26, no. 12, 25 April 1877, 178.
  6. See Autobiography, 102-103.
  7. Andrew Jenson and Johan A. Bruun, Joseph Smiths Levnetslob (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Office, 1879), 2-4.
  8. See Autobiography, 132.
  9. See Autobiography, 134.
  10. See Deseret News, vol. 5, no. 26, 5 September 1855, 2.
  11. Millennial Star, vol. 50, no. 18, 30 April 1888, 276-77.
  12. George Q. Cannon, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet," The Juvenile Instructor 1 no. 1 (January 1866), 1.
  13. Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), {{{vol}}}:2. [Discourse given on 16 January 1891.]
  14. Günther Juncker, “Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title,” Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994):221–250.
  15. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words In The Hebrew Bible With Their Renderings In the Authorized English Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 1890), 66.
  16. The History of the Church Book I:2 (3), in Eusebius: The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine, G.A. Williamson Translator (Penguine Books, 1986), 33-4.
  17. Martyrdom And Ascension of Isaiah 10:30-31, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2 Vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985), 2:174.
  18. Epistula Apostulorum 14, in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 1:199.
  19. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 162. "An angel has flesh and bones; we see not their glory." If Jesus comes as an angel he "will adapt himself to the language and capacity" of the individual.
  20. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 191. See also D&C 129.