FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/George Q. Cannon referred to "angels"
George Q. Cannon referred to "angels" in the First Vision
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Why did George Q. Cannon say that Joseph Smith was visited by an "angel" during the First Vision?
- Source:Günther Juncker (1994):Christ As Angel:Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel
- Question:Is there anything wrong with early Church leaders using the term "angel" to refer to Jesus Christ?
- Question: What prior knowledge did George Q. Cannon have of the First Vision?
- Question: How have critics taken George Q. Cannon's First Vision "angel" references out of context?
Question: Why did George Q. Cannon say that Joseph Smith was visited by an "angel" during the First Vision?
Cannon's 1882 and 1883 statements are in perfect harmony with the canonized story of Joseph Smith's First Vision experience
On several occasions, George Q. Cannnon identified First Vision story themes with the visit of an "angel" instead of Deity. "George Q. Cannon seemed to start Joseph’s call with the vision of Moroni. He did mention that Joseph saw Jesus and God but did not put those experiences in the framework of the first vision." 
The text used to justify criticism #1 reads as follows:
29 October 1882 - "[Joseph Smith] was visited constantly by angels; and the Son of God Himself condescended to come and minister unto him, the Father having also shown Himself unto him; and these various angels, the heads of dispensations, having also ministered unto him. Moroni, in the beginning, as you know, to prepare him for his mission, came and ministered and talked to him from time to time"
The text used to justify criticism #2 reads as follows:
27 May 1883 - "But suppose that the statement that Joseph Smith says the angel made to him should be true - that there was no church upon the face of the earth whom God recognized as His, and whose acts He acknowledged - suppose this were true" 
However, Cannon clearly was aware of the details of the First Vision for years prior to making these statements. Furthermore, Cannon's 1882 and 1883 statements are in perfect harmony with the canonized story of Joseph Smith's First Vision experience. They do not lend any weight to the charge that late nineteenth century General Authorities were in a state of confusion over what happened in 1820 to the founding Prophet of the dispensation of the fulness of times. The critics' use of this material demonstrates that they suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of LDS history and the documents that record it.
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.
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." 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."  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."  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."  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.  "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."  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)?
Question: What prior knowledge did George Q. Cannon have of the First Vision?
In January 1866, Cannon wrote two articles that contain a detailed account of the First Vision
The best way to deal with the two George Q. Cannon quotations that are being used by critics is to show that Brother Cannnon was well aware of the orthodox First Vision account long before the time when the disputed quotes were made.
Cannon wrote two articles:
- George Q. Cannon, "Biography: Joseph Smith, the Prophet," The Juvenile Instructor 1 no. 1 (1 January 1866), 1.
- George Q. Cannon, "Biography: Joseph Smith, the Prophet," The Juvenile Instructor 1 no. 2 (15 January 1866), 5.
These two articles contain a detailed account of the First Vision. An analysis of these articles demonstrate that George Q. Cannon was gathering his First Vision material from the following published sources.
- Joseph Smith, Dictated Church History (1838).
- Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions (1840).
- Joseph Smith, Wentworth Letter (1842).
June 1871: Cannon states that the Lord told Joseph not to join any of the churches
- Elder George Q. Cannon: "Joseph [Smith] sought the Lord diligently and earnestly to know which was the right way; his mind was distracted by the various claims set forth by one sect and another, and he was determined to seek unto the Lord for wisdom, for he had read in the Epistle of James, that if any lacked wisdom and would ask of God, he would give liberally and upbraid not. He did so, and the Lord communicated to him that in his own time he would establish his Church on the earth. He also told him not to join any of the churches then in existence, for all had departed from the right way.
July 1880: Cannon refers to the First Vision
- George Q. Cannon suggests that the First Vision story be used to teach children the nature of God
October 1880: Cannon suggests that the Pearl of Great Price be canonized
- The person who held up the Pearl of Great Price volume before a General Conference audience and suggested that its contents be canonized (including the First Vision story) was none other than President George Q. Cannon
Cannon knew the details of the First Vision well before his 1882 and 1883 remarks about an "angel"
This documentary evidence all sustains the idea that long before George Q. Cannon made the 1882 and 1883 remarks that are being utilized by anti-Mormon critics he was perfectly familiar with the orthodox version of the First Vision story. Having this knowledge (and being a member of the First Presidency of the LDS Church) it is unlikely that he would not accurately understand the foundational stories of the Restoration.
Question: How have critics taken George Q. Cannon's First Vision "angel" references out of context?
It is claimed that in 1882 George Q. Cannon "seemed to start Joseph’s call with the vision of Moroni." This, despite the fact that they admit Brother Cannon's statement refers to the appearance of the Father and Son to the Prophet! This is a prime example of anti-Mormon desperation. A fuller examination of the content of Brother Cannon's sermon reveals that his focus in the material right before the contested quote is on "the ministration of divers angels—heads of dispensations . . . all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their Priesthood. So that Joseph, the head of this dispensation . . . received from all these different sources . . . all the power and all the authority and all keys that were necessary for the building up of the work of God in the last days."
Then, Brother Cannon says in the contested paragraph, "when Joseph died he had embodied in him all the keys and all the authority, all the powers and all the qualifications necessary for the head of a dispensation, to stand at the head of this great last dispensation. They had been bestowed upon him through the providences of God, and through the command of God to His faithful servants who lived in ancient days. There was no end scarcely, in many respects, to the knowledge that [Joseph] received. He was visited constantly by angels; and the Son of God Himself condescended to come and minister unto him, the Father having also shown Himself unto him; and these various angels, the heads of dispensations, having also ministered unto him. Moroni, in the beginning, as you know, to prepare him for his mission, came and ministered and talked to him from time to time, and he had vision after vision in order that his mind might be fully saturated with a knowledge of the things of God."
The sentence that is emphasized above by bold lettering highlights an important passage tha critics of Mormonism have conveniently skipped over. It provides the proper sequence of the giving of "keys," "powers," "authority," and "qualifications." First came bestowals through God Himself (i.e., the First Vision) and then came similar things through ancient, faithful messengers who were commanded by God to visit Joseph Smith (i.e., angelic visitations). In Oliver Cowdery's published Church history he even makes note of the fact that "[Joseph Smith] heard [the angel Moroni] declare himself to be a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord"
Anti-Mormons are taking Brother Cannon's phraseology - "there was no church upon the face of the earth whom God recognized as His, and whose acts He acknowledged" - and claiming that it belongs exclusively to the First Vision story. They claim that there must be a confusion of storylines because this phrase appears to be attributed by Brother Cannon to the angel Moroni.
A check of the sermon where Brother Cannnon makes this remark shows that two paragraphs prior to where this statement is made there is a very similar one which says -
- "It was foreshadowed to [Joseph Smith] in the plainest possible manner that which we now behold. The effect of the preaching of the true gospel would be that persecution would be aroused. He was shown the hatred he would have to contend with, and all the adverse influences that have had to be overcome from that day until the present. Joseph Smith was told that there was no authority upon the face of the earth to administer the ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was told that there was no church which God recognized as His own, while there were many that had parts of the truth, portions of the gospel. There was no church which God acknowledged amid the multiplicity of sects as His. He was told to wait until the Lord should give the power and communicate the authority."
The question to ask, then, is - Did the angel Moroni make these things known to Joseph Smith or are they themes that belong exclusively to the First Vision narrative?
The answer to this question is found in the published accounts of the angel Moroni visitations. In them it can be seen that Joseph Smith was told by the angel Moroni in 1823 that -
- he was chosen to do the work of bringing forth "the fulness of the everlasting gospel" (Smith 1838); the "plan of salvation" would be made known (Cowdery, April 1835).
- the Priesthood would be revealed (Smith, May 1838); the "holy priesthood" would be given so that baptisms could be performed and the gift of the Holy Ghost bestowed (Cowdery, October 1835).
- "those who are not built upon the Rock will seek to overthrow this church; but it will increase the more opposed" (Cowdery, October 1835).
- Joseph must focus his mind on building God's "kingdom" (Smith, May 1838); the Gentiles would be "called into the kingdom" (Cowdery, April 1835).
- missionary work, gathering, and temple worship would take place (Cowdery, April 1835).
- the "restoration of the house of Israel" would be accomplished (Cowdery, July 1835).
- the "covenant" between the Lord and His people would be reestablished (Cowdery, April 1835).
The angel Moroni definitely told Joseph Smith that the Lord was going to establish a "church" in his day because the plan of salvation, legitimate priesthood authority, the fulness of the gospel, and authorized ordinances were not available on the earth at that time. In other words, the Lord clearly did not recognize the ecclesiastical organizations that were then in existence. George Q. Cannon's 1883 statement is, therefore, completely vindicated.
- Christian Research and Counsel, "Documented History of Joseph Smith's First Vision," full-color pamphlet, 10 pages. [There is a notation within this pamphlet indicating that research and portions of text were garnered from Utah Lighthouse Ministry]
- George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 23:362.
- George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 24:38.
- Günther Juncker, “Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title,” Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994):221–250.
- James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words In The Hebrew Bible With Their Renderings In the Authorized English Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 1890), 66.
- 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.
- 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.
- Epistula Apostulorum 14, in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 1:199.
- 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.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 191. See also D&C 129.
- George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 14:171.
- George Q. Cannon, The Juvenile Instructor (15 July 1880), 162.
- See Journal History, 10 October 1880, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.
- Oliver Cowdery, February 1835.