Joseph Smith's First Vision/Early knowledge of the nature of God

Table of Contents

Joseph Smith's early knowledge of the nature of God

Jump to Subtopic:


Question: Did Joseph Smith begin his prophetic career with a "trinitarian" idea of God?

Joseph and the early Saints were not trinitarian, and understood God's embodiment and the identity of the Father and Son as separate beings very early on

This doctrine is apparent in the Book of Mormon, and in the earliest friendly and non-friendly accounts of such matters from the Saints.

Such texts demonstrate that the supposed 'evidence' for Joseph altering his story later is only in the eyes of critical beholders. For example, Joseph's 1832 First Vision account focuses on the remission of his sins. However, critics who wish to claim that in 1832 Joseph had only a vaguely "trinitarian" idea of God (and so would see the Father and the Son as only one being) have missed vital evidence which must be considered.[1]

Martin Harris remembered rejecting the ideas of creedal Trinitarianism prior to meeting Joseph

Martin dictated an account of his early spiritual search:

"52 years ago I was Inspired of the Lord & Tought of the Spirit that I should not Join Eny Church although I Was anxiousley Sought for by meny of the Secatirans[.] I Was taught I could not Walk togther unless agreed[.] What can you not be agreed in [is] in the Trinity because I can not find it in my Bible[.] find it for me & I am Ready to Receive it. 3 Persons in one god[.] one Personage I can not concede for this is Antichrist for Where is the Father & Son[?] I have more proof to Prove 9 Persons in the Trinity then you have 3[.]...other sects the Epicopalians also tired me[.] they say 3 Persons in one god Without Body Parts or Passions[.] I Told them such A god I would not be afraid of: I could not Please or offend him[.] [I] Would not be afraid to fight A Duel With such A god.[2]

It would be very strange for Martin to feel so strongly on this point, only to embrace Joseph's teachings if Joseph taught creedal trinitarianism.

1829 - In the Book of Mormon one [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi--thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate

The Book of Mormon also begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi--thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.

1830 - Book of Moses: "And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten"

Between June and October 1830, Joseph had dictated his revision (the "Joseph Smith Translation") to Genesis.[3] The first chapter of Moses was dictated in June 1830 (about a month after the Church's reorganization), and began:

2 And [Moses] saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence.

3 And God spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?

4 And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.

5 Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.

6 And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all (Moses 1:2-6)

Here already, God distinguishes himself from the Only Begotten, Moses sees and speaks with God face to face, and says that Moses was created "in the similitude of mine Only Begotten."

Joseph's rendered Genesis 1:26 as:

And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and it was so....And I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them. (Moses 2:26-27.)

There can be no doubt that Joseph understood "in mine own image" to refer to a physical likeness, rather than merely a moral or intellectual one. The JST of Genesis 5:1-2 reads

In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; in the image of his own body, male and female, created he them (Moses 6:8-9, emphasis added)

Thus, by 1830 Joseph was clearly teaching a separation of the Father and Son, and insisting that both had some type of physical form which could be copied in the creation of humanity.

Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also noted that other Christian denominations took issue with the new Church because of its teachings about God, noting that in 1830:

the different denominations are very much opposed to us.... The Methodists also come, and they rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith comes in contact with this principle.[4]

1831 - Joseph "saw the heavens opened, and the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Father"

Anti-Mormon writers in 1831 noted that Joseph claimed to have received "a commission from God"; and the Mormons claimed that Joseph "had seen God frequently and personally."[5] That Joseph's enemies knew he claimed to have "seen God," indicates that the doctrine of an embodied God that could be seen was well-known early on.

John Whitmer would also write in 1831 of a vision enjoyed by Joseph in which Joseph saw Christ as separate from the Father, for he "saw the heavens opened, and the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Father making intercession for his brethren, the Saints." (emphasis added) [6] Of this same experience, Levi Hancock wrote:

Joseph Smith then stepped out onto the floor and said, 'I now see God, and Jesus Christ at his right hand, let them kill me, I should not feel death as I am now.' (emphasis added) [7]

1832 - In the 1832 account of the First Vision, Jesus announces to Joseph that he will come "clothed in the glory of my Father"

One should first note that in the 1832 account of the First Vision, Jesus announces to Joseph that he will come "clothed in the glory of my Father." The Book of Mormon (translated three years earlier in 1829) also contains numerous passages which teach a physical separation and embodiment (even if only in spirit bodies, which are clearly not immaterial, but have shape, position, and form) of the members of the Godhead. (See: 3 Nephi 11:, 1 Nephi 11:1-11, Ether 3:14-18.)

Furthermore, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were to receive a revelation of the three degrees of glory in the same year as Joseph's 1832 account was written; it clearly teaches a physical separation of the Father and Son, bearing witness of seeing both. (See D&C 76:14,20–24.)[8]

1832–1833 - "Joseph answered that this was Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother"

Two of Joseph's close associates reported their own visions of God in the winter of 1832–1833. Both are decidedly not in the trinitarian mold.

Zebedee Coltrin:

Joseph having given instructions, and while engaged in silent prayer, kneeling...a personage walked through the room from East to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did, and Joseph answered that this was Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother. Afterward Joseph told us to resume our former position in prayer, which we did. Another person came through; He was surrounded as with a flame of fire. [I] experienced a sensation that it might destroy the tabernacle as it was of consuming fire of great brightness. The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw him....

He was surrounded as with a flame of fire, which was so brilliant that I could not discover anything else but his person. I saw his hands, his legs, his feet, his eyes, nose, mouth, head and body in the shape and form of a perfect man. He sat in a chair as a man would sit in a chair, but This appearance was so grand and overwhelming that it seemed that I should melt down in His presence, and the sensation was so powerful that it thrilled through my whole system and I felt it in the marrow of my bones. The Prophet Joseph said: "Brethren, now you are prepared to be the apostles of Jesus Christ, for you have seen both the Father and the Son and know that They exist and that They are two separate personages.[9]

John Murdock:

During the winter that I boarded with[Bro[ther] Joseph... we had a number of prayer meetings, in the Prophet’s chamber.... In one of those meetings the Prophet told us if we could humble ourselves before God, and exersise [sic] strong faith, we should see the face of the Lord. And about midday the visions of my mind were opened, and the eyes of my understanding were enlightened, and I saw the form of a man, most lovely, the visage of his face was sound and fair as the sun. His hair a bright silver grey, curled in a most majestic form, His eyes a keen penetrating blue, and the skin of his neck a most beautiful white and he was covered from the neck to the feet with a loose garment, pure white, whiter than any garment I had ever before seen. His countenance was the most penetrating, and yet most lovely. And while I was endeavoring to comprehend the whole personage from head to feet it slipped from me, and the vision was closed up. But it left on my mind the impression of love, for months, that I never felt before to that degree.[10]

1834–1835 - Lectures on Faith: "There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things"

In the School of the Prophets, the brethren were taught that

"There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things, by whom all things were created and made, that are created and made. . . . They are the Father and the Son--the Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfection and fulness, the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle. (Lecture 5:1–2)

Here, the separateness of the Father and Son continues to be made clear.

1836 - "They believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts"

A skeptical news article noted:

They believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts; and that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself....[11]

Evidence that is absent

In addition to all the non-trinitarian evidence above, as Milton Backman has noted, there is a great deal of evidence that we should find, but don't. For example, no one has "located a publication (such as an article appearing in a church periodical or statement from a missionary pamphlet) written by an active Latter-day Saint prior to the martyrdom of the Prophet that defends the traditional or popular creedal concept of the Trinity. . . ." Moreover, there are no references in critical writings of the 1830s (including statements by apostates) that Joseph Smith introduced in the mid-thirties the doctrine of separateness of the Father and Son.[12]


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.[13]

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: Is the fact that Latter-day Saint missionaries were teaching around 1 November 1830 that Joseph Smith had seen “God” personally a reference to having seen Jesus Christ, but not the Father?

The document which reports the missionaries’ teachings refers to “God” twice but also to “Christ” once and the “Holy Spirit” once

It cannot be successfully argued that before the missionaries made their statement in November 1830 Latter-day Saints would have understood “God” as a reference to Jesus Christ alone. When the missionaries (one of whom was Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdery) were teaching that Joseph Smith had seen “God” personally they could have legitimately been referring to God the Father.

The weakness of this argument is twofold. First and foremost, critics ignore the fact that the document which reports the missionaries’ teachings[14]refers to “God” twice but also to “Christ” once and the “Holy Spirit” once. Hence, all three members of the Godhead appear to be represented individually in the document. In this context, a natural interpretation demands that “God” refer to the Father and the statement made by the missionaries would therefore mean that sometime before November 1830 Joseph Smith had seen God the Father “personally.”

The Book of Mormon talks of Lehi having a vision of both "God" and Jesus Christ

The second problem with the critics’ argument is that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants contain several contemporary texts that undercut their position. For instance, 1 Nephi 12:18 speaks of “the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record.” Here all three members of the Godhead are represented and “the Eternal God” is an obvious reference to God the Father. It becomes apparent from a reading of Alma 11:44, however, that this is a title that can be appropriately applied to all three divine Beings. This scriptural passage talks about being “arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.” This concept is paralleled in D&C 20:28—a text written about April 1830—which says that the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal.”

The Book of Mormon also begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One bright being [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi--thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both "God" and Christ.

Even a contemporary hostile source reports that Joseph communicated with "Almighty God"

A hostile account from someone who knew Joseph in 1827 reported:

I, Joseph Capron, became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Sen. in the year of our Lord, 1827. They have, since then, been really a peculiar people -- fond of the foolish and the marvelous -- at one time addicted to vice and the grossest immoralities -- at another time making the highest pretensions to piety and holy intercourse with Almighty God. The family of Smiths held Joseph Jr. in high estimation on account of some supernatural power, which he was supposed to possess.[15]

Capron obviously dislikes and distrusts the Smiths, but he makes it clear that there were claims of holy intercourse (i.e., "communication" with)[16] "Almighty God." This sounds much more like a reference to the Father than to Christ.

Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835"

Roger Nicholson,  Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, (December 6, 2013)
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.

Click here to view the complete article

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. David L. Paulsen, "The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives," Brigham Young University Studies 35 no. 4 (1995–96), 6–94. (Key source)
  2. "Testimony of Martin Harris Written by my hand from teh Moth of Martin Harris," dictated to Edward Stevenson 4 September 1870, Edward Stevenson Collection, Miscellaneous Papers, LDS Church Archives; cited by Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:331.
  3. Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Matthews, and Scott H. Faulring (editors), Joseph Smith's New Translation Of The Bible: Original Manuscripts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2004), 82.
  4. Lucy Mack Smith, The History of Joseph Smith By His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, edited by Preston Nibley, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1956), 161. AISN B000FH6N04.
  5. The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) (14 February 1832): 102.
  6. F. Mark McKiernan, An Early Latter-day Saint History: The Book of John Whitmer (Independence, MO.: Herald Publishing House 1980), 67, punctuation corrected; cited in Robert L. Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy, Tension, and Tradition," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 3 (Summer 1989), 49–68.
  7. As cited in Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism," footnote 12.
  8. The current D&C 76 vision was first published in Evening and Morning Star, Independence, Missouri, July 1832.
  9. 3 October 1883, Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book 1883 (Palm Desert, California: ULC Press, 1981), 39; cited in Paulsen, 34.
  10. "An Abridged Record of the Life of John Murdock Taken From His Journal by Himself," (typescript) Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 13; cited in Paulsen, 35.
  11. Truman Coe, “Mormonism,” Cincinnati Journal and Western Luminary (25 August 1836). Reprinted from Ohio Observer, circa August 1836. off-site See Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Truman Coe’s 1836 Description of Mormonism," Brigham Young University Studies 17 no. 3 (Spring 1977), 347-55. See also Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:47.
  12. Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Joseph Smith's First Vision: Cornerstone of a Latter-day Faith," in To Be Learned is Good, If ..., ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987).; cited in Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism," 59.
  13. 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).
  14. “Gold Bible, No. 4,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 13 (14 February 1831): 102. off-site
  15. Joseph Capron affidavit, 8 November 1833; in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 258-259. (Affidavits examined)
  16. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "intercourse." defines the term as simply "[1] Communication....[2] Silent communication or exchange."