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Joseph Smith's First Vision/Criticisms of the First Vision/The first and second visitation of angels
Joseph Smith's first and second visitation of angels
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- Question: By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?
- Question: What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?
- Juncker (1994): "Unknown to many, the early church fathers often referred to Jesus as an Angel....in antiquity the word 'angel' meant 'messenger.'"
- Joseph Smith: "Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while his body was lying in the sepulcher)...After His resurrection He appeared as an angel to His disciples"
- Joseph Smith (9 Nov. 1835): "I saw many angels in this vision...I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication"
- Joseph Smith (14 Nov. 1835): "I received the first visitation of angels, which was when I was about fourteen years old"
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; I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication; When I was about 17 years old I saw another vision of angels in the night season after I had retired to bed...
Joseph Smith's journal, 9 November 1835. The phrase "and I saw many angels in this vision" was written in above the line later after the original entry was made. off-site
Question: By what name did Joseph Smith refer to the First Vision?
Joseph referred to his 1820 theophany as the "first visitation of Angels" or the "first communication"
Joseph Smith never actually referred to what we now call the "First Vision" by that name. Instead, he referred to it as the "first visitation of angels" or the "first communication." Joseph also referred to Moroni's visit as "another vision of angels."
- One critic of Mormonism states that "Who appears to [Joseph] – a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place." 
The account that Joseph entered in his journal on 9 November 1835 was a detailed account which clearly describes two personages, as well as "many angels." The account that Joseph wrote just five days later in his journal on 14 November 1835 was a one line summary of the event, which he described as "the first visitation of Angels." Critics of the Church seem to believe that Joseph completely changed his story from "two personages" to "Angels" over the course of only five days. The truth is that Joseph referred to all of the personages that appeared to him as "angels."
The terms "personages" and "angels" were interchangeable
This confusion regarding "angels" versus "personages" is illustrated in a critical "Mormoninfographic". We have illustrated the error by comparing Joseph's journal entries on both days.
Question: What is the difference between Joseph Smith's first vision and other reported visions of God at the time?
The type of event that we now refer to as Joseph Smith's First Vision was not entirely uncommon at the time
There were at the time people who went to the wood to pray after reading the Bible, and as a result received visions and epiphanies. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992; 2007) noted that "Initial skepticism toward Joseph Smith's testimony was understandable because others had made similar claims to receiving revelation from God.". Similarly, the Church's new narrative history Saints (2018) notes that after Joseph's vision when he spoke to the reverend about his vision that "At first the preacher treated his words lightly. People claimed to have heavenly visions from time to time."  Visionaries are not that uncommon in environments where people are routinely open to the divine. Even the famous Charles Finney had one. Finney, after retiring to the woods to pray, described the experience:
Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.
Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God's veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God's word, and God's voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me."
That seemed to settle the question that I could then, that day, perform my vow. The Spirit seemed to lay stress upon that idea in the text, "When you search for me with all your heart." The question of when, that is of the present time, seemed to fall heavily into my heart. I told the Lord that I should take Him at his word; that He could not lie; and that therefore I was sure that He heard my prayer, and that He would be found of me.
He then gave my many other promises, both from the Old and the New Testament, especially some most precious promises respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. I never can, in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me. I took them one after the other as infallible truth, the assertions of God who could not lie. They did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.
I continued thus to pray, and to receive and appropriate promises for a long time, I know not how long. I prayed till my mind became so full that, before I was aware of it, I was on my feet and tripping up the ascent toward the road. The question of my being converted, had not so much as arisen to my thought; but as I went up, brushing through the leaves and bushes, I recollect saying with emphasis, "If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel."
Although Finney doesn't claim to have seen any personages, he does describe a communication with God. Joseph Smith describes his experiences in much the same way as others in his environment did.
Joining a church at that time required one to explain one's standing with God to a preacher
Keep in mind that Joseph prayed to find out if his sins had been forgiven. And he discovered that they had. This pleased him greatly. Why did he pray about this matter? The reason is that joining a church at that time often required that one explain one's standing with God to a preacher. We are dealing with Protestant sects. And conservative Protestants believe that one is saved (justified) at the moment one confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. So Joseph, as he faced the competing Protestant sects, was deeply concerned about his sins. One had to demonstrate to oneself and also convince a preacher that one had been saved--that is, justified. And there were many instances in which prayers were answered by visions in which the person learned that God had forgiven their sins.
One difference between Joseph's vision and others is that Joseph was told not to join any denomination
The difference between Joseph's experience and many other accounts by visionaries, is that, in addition to being told that his sins were in fact forgiven, he was also told not to join any denomination. When he told that part of his visionary experience, it got him into big trouble with preachers. It was not the vision that was a problem for preachers, but his reporting that he should not join some sect.
So the fact is, contrary to our current way of telling his story, the First Vision was not the beginning of Joseph's call as Seer, Prophet, Revelator and Translator. His vision signaled the beginning of the restoration. It did not begin the work of the restoration.It steered him away from joining one of the competing denominations. It was Joseph's subsequent encounters with Moroni that made him a Seer, and eventually the founding Prophet of a fledgling Church, and not his initial vision, which was initially for him a private event about which he was reluctant to talk, though eventually he dictated some accounts that were found and published during our lifetime. Joseph told a few people about it, word got around, and this caused him much trouble with Protestant preachers.
Neither Joseph nor others at that time offered the First Vision as a reason to become Latter-day Saints
Joseph eventually wrote the account of that early vision late in his life because rumors about it had circulated and caused him difficulty. But neither Joseph nor any of the other early Saints offered that vision as a reason for others to become Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. It was only much later that what we now call the First Vision began to take on a special importance for the Saints. One reason is that Americans soon did not live in a visionary environment. The great Charles Dickens, writing in England, explained why. He called Joseph Smith vision an absurdity--"seeing visions in the age of railways."
Wilford Woodruff came into the Church of Jesus Christ because he had known earlier in his life someone he believed was a prophet who had alerted him to the soon to be restoration of primitive Christianity. This remarkable story, which was included in the lesson manual on President Woodruff, illustrates the visionary world in which Joseph was raised. Though there were a few--one or two--instances in which the visionary reported encounters with two heavenly messengers, it was most often God the Son who they reported appearing to them.
But there have been and still are peoples not impacted by post-enlightenment skepticism about divine things who are open to visions and other dramatic encounters with the divine, though they often do not speak in public about such things, since they tend to see them as strictly private blessings and not something about which one ought to be gossiping and boasting.
The establishment of the restored Church of Jesus Christ began with the Book of Mormon
The first missionaries in the Church used The Book of Mormon, not the First Vision, as a witness that the heavens were open, and that each individual, by applying the promise in Moroni 10:3-5, can receive a direct manifestation from Heavenly Father, through the Holy Ghost, that The Book of Mormon is true. After that testimony is gained, it follows that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, as he brought The Book of Mormon forth and restored the fullness of the Gospel under the direction of the Savior.
The fledgling Church of Christ began with the Book of Mormon, the witnesses to the plates, the restoration of priesthood keys, and not directly with what we call the First Vision, though that initial experience assisted in Joseph avoiding what could be perceived as damaging sectarian contamination. The historical record shows that Joseph never gave any attention to the creeds or arguments of quarreling preachers. This was the purpose served by the First Vision.
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.
Joseph Smith: "Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while his body was lying in the sepulcher)...After His resurrection He appeared as an angel to His disciples"
Joseph Smith considered a personage with a resurrected body of flesh and bone to be an "angel". This included Jesus Christ:
Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while his body was lying in the sepulcher) to the spirits in prison, to fulfill an important part of His mission, without which He could not have perfected His ward, or entered into His rest. After His resurrection He appeared as an angel to His disciples.
Joseph Smith (9 Nov. 1835): "I saw many angels in this vision...I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication"
Joseph Smith's journal (scribe Warren Parrish):
he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; <and I saw many angels in this vision> I was about 14. years old when I received this first communication; When I was about 17 years old I saw another vision of angels, in the night season after I had retired to bed
Joseph Smith (14 Nov. 1835): "I received the first visitation of angels, which was when I was about fourteen years old"
Joseph Smith's journal (scribe Warren Parrish):
up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years old and also the the visitations that I received afterward, concerning the book of Mormon
See FairMormon Evidence:
More evidence of the use of the term "angels" to refer to Deity in the First Vision
- Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2013)
- Image from "MormonInfographics.com".
- William O. Nelson, "Anti-Mormon Publications" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1992; 2007) 45-6. off-site
- Saints Vol 1 - The Standard of Truth (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018) 17. The book cites Richard Bushman, “Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies Journal 37:1, 183–204.
- Charles G. Finney, "Memoirs of Charles G. Finney," (1876) 16-18.
- Günther Juncker, "Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title," Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994): 221–250.
- Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 191. See also D&C 129.
- "Journal, 1835–1836," The Joseph Smith Papers.
- "Journal, 1835–1836," The Joseph Smith Papers.