Joseph Smith's First Vision/Fabricated to give "Godly authority"

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Claims that the First Vision was fabricated by Joseph Smith to give him a line of "Godly authority"

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Question: Was the First Vision fabricated to give Joseph Smith "Godly authority?"

It is claimed by some that Joseph Smith decided after he released the Book of Mormon to the public that he needed 'authority from God' to justify his claims as a religious minister

It is asserted by some that Joseph Smith fabricated the First Vision story in order to provide himself with a more prestigious line of authority than that of the "angel" who revealed the golden plates.

There is no doubt that before Joseph Smith produced his 1832 history of the Restoration he was telling other people that he had a directive from God to carry out a certain work and that he had received instruction directly from one of God's authorized representatives. Joseph Smith had no need to produce some type of authority claim by 'fabricating' the First Vision event in 1832. The line of Divine authority had already been long established.

Joseph Smith had no need to produce some type of authority claim by 'fabricating' the First Vision event in 1832

This theory does not stand up to close scrutiny. There are numerous contemporary and reminiscent documents which indicate that before Joseph Smith recorded his 1832 history (September-November 1832) he was claiming - both implicitly and explicitly - to have authority from God to carry out his ministry.

Notice in the citations below that when the angel who revealed the plates is mentioned he is identified as God's messenger. Thus, Joseph Smith's interaction is not simply with a nondescript angel; the angel is an authorized representative of Deity.

November 1826

  • Joseph Smith "told us of God’s manifestations to him, of the discovery and receiving of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated" (Newel Knight).[1]

Spring 1827

  • Joseph Smith specifically identifies the otherworldly messenger with whom he has been dealing as the angel of the Lord[2]

Fall 1827

  • Martin Harris states that it was an angel of God who visited Joseph Smith and revealed the golden plates to him and he also said that Joseph had been chosen by the Lord.[3]

April 1828

  • Palmyra townspeople state that "an angel of God" appeared to Joseph Smith.[4]

1828

  • Joseph Smith said that he received a revelation from God to tell him where the plates were concealed.[5]
  • Joseph Smith told his wife’s uncle that he had been commanded by God to translate the plates.[6]
  • Joseph Smith states that he is a prophet sent by God to gather Israel.[7]
  • Joseph Smith declares that his ability to translate the plates is a gift from God.[8]

1829

  • Joseph Smith wrote to members of his father’s family and told them that an angel of the Lord had revealed the gold book to him.[9]
  • Believers in Joseph Smith’s mission teach others that he has been visited by a messenger from "the Almighty".[10]
  • In the published statement of the Three Witnesses in the Book of Mormon (written ca. June 1829) it is said that it was "an angel of God" who showed them the golden plates.

April 1830

  • Joseph Smith confirms in an official Church document that he had been "called of God" and "God ministered unto him by an holy angel" when the Book of Mormon plates were revealed.[11]

1830

  • Joseph Smith states that he has been entrusted by God.[12]
  • According to "the most credible reports" that a non-Mormon minister had heard "the angel indicated to [Joseph Smith] that the Lord [had] destined him" to carry out a certain work.[13]

November 1830

  • Joseph Smith had seen God "personally" and received a commission from God to preach the gospel.[14]

August 1831

  • Before the Book of Mormon translation was completed "the Lord" told Joseph Smith that it must be published.[15]

September 1831

  • The "chief Elders" in Kirtland, Ohio - including Joseph Smith - state that the Prophet had "held communion with an angel from God" with regard to the golden plates.[16]

November 1831

  • The Lord declares in the Doctrine and Covenants that He "called" Joseph Smith to be His servant (D&C 1:17).


Question: Did Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision grow more detailed and more colorful after he first recorded it in 1832?

Joseph Smith's later tellings of the First Vision story were less detailed than his earlier ones

Joseph Smith actually omitted details from his earlier First Vision account in his later ones. For example, the presence of "many angels" in addition to the two main personages noted in the 9 November 1835 account is never noted in any subsequent account.

Even though some of Joseph Smith's critics believe that the First Vision story changing over time is evidence that it was fabricated to begin with, the documents provide for a different explanation. The core elements of the First Vision story do not change as time passes - they are simply being clarified by the addition of details. The Prophet did not seem too concerned about which explanatory notes were being presented to his audience at any particular time because the really important parts—the core elements—never changed.

24 story elements found in the 1832 account of the First Vision do not show up again in later accounts

The above claim is not accurate simply because 24 story elements found in the 1832 account do not show up again in later recitals. In other words, the story actually becomes significantly LESS detailed over time because it does not include all of the elements that were initially rehearsed.

The 24 missing story elements from the 1832 recital are as follows:

  • Concern for personal salvation began at age 12
  • Taught that the scriptures contained the word of God
  • Realization of apostasy through study of the scriptures
  • Grief over hypocrisy of some denominational Christians
  • The creation bears testimony of God’s existence
  • God was, is, and will be to all eternity
  • God is the same forever
  • God is no respecter of persons
  • God makes laws
  • God is omnipotent
  • God is omnipresent
  • God wants to be worshipped in truth
  • Joseph Smith was convicted of his personal sins
  • Joseph Smith mourned for the sins of the world
  • Cry to God for mercy
  • Filled with the Spirit of God
  • Savior identified as the Lord of glory
  • Directive to obey commandments
  • Crucifixion so others could achieve eternal life
  • Second Coming in the cloud
  • Fulfillment of prophecies
  • Lord's anger against the earth’s inhabitants
  • Punishment for the ungodly
  • Joseph Smith was filled with love for many days

In the 9 November 1835 First Vision account, several story elements do not show up in subsequent accounts

The same type of thing happens with the 9 November 1835 recital of the story. There are several story elements presented that do not show up in subsequent retellings. The later recitals are, therefore, LESS detailed.

The missing 1835 elements are:

  • Reference to scripture - "seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened"
  • Joseph Smith hears a noise like a person walking toward him
  • Joseph Smith springs to his feet and looks around but doesn't see anybody
  • Many angels were seen during the vision (this element IS repeated in a recital given 5 days later)

Some details in the 1838 First Vision account do not appear in the 1842 (Wentworth Letter) account

A comparison of the Prophet's 1838 and 1842 recitals yields the same result. The following details from the 1838 recounting do not show up in the 1842—Wentworth Letter—rehearsal:

  • An unusual excitement on the subject of religion took place around Manchester, New York
  • Contention among denominational leaders
  • Large-scale conversions
  • Proselytizing of Joseph's family
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • James 1:5 affected Joseph with great force
  • Vision took place on a Spring morning
  • Seized by a dark power; fear of destruction
  • Pillar of light descended
  • Deliverance from the enemy
  • The Father introduced the Son
  • Creeds are an abomination; corruption of professors
  • Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof
  • Contempt and persecution for telling the story

Again, it is apparent that the Prophet's later tellings of the First Vision story were LESS detailed than his earlier ones.


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”


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.[17]: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".[17]: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[17]: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.[18]: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.[18]: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."[18]:7
  • On 12-14 March 1838 Joseph Smith was met by several groups and escorts, "with open arms," as he approached Far West, Missouri.[18]: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."[18]: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.[18]: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."[18]:15-16
  • On 28 April 1838 Joseph Smith attended a High Council by invitation and was invited to preside over it.[18]: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.

Don Bradley, "The Original Context of the First Vision Narrative: 1820s or 1830s"

Don Bradley,  Proceedings of the 2013 FAIR Conference, (August 2, 2013)
If Latter-day Saint belief about the First Vision is correct, Joseph’s narrative reports a memory of his early experience. If, on the other hand, Vogel, Palmer, and other skeptical interpreters were to be correct, Joseph’s narrative was created to meet his needs as a church leader in the 1830s, bolstering his authority as prophet.


These two radically different understandings of the First Vision lead us to two radically different predictions about how well Joseph’s First Vision accounts will align with the events of the early 1820s. On the first, the believing, view, Joseph’s narrative should match the 1820s context in some detail. On the second, skeptical, view, his narrative should match the claimed 1820s context poorly or only superficially.

Because these two views lead to such different predictions, we can determine which view is correct by testing those predictions. And this is what we’ll do today.

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

Notes

  1. Newel Knight [citation needed]
  2. Lucy Mack Smith, Autobiography, Chapter 21.
  3. Rev. John A. Clark [citation needed]
  4. David Whitmer[citation needed]
  5. Henry Harris[citation needed]
  6. Nathaniel Lewis[citation needed]
  7. Hezekiah McKune[citation needed]
  8. Alva Hale[citation needed]
  9. Jesse Smith[citation needed]
  10. Palmyra Freeman (1829), [citation needed]
  11. ?, "?," Evening and Morning Star 1 no. 1 (June 1832), 1. off-siteGospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  12. The Fredonia Censor, 10/10 (2 June 1830): page? [citation needed]
  13. Letter, Rev. Diedrich Willers to L. Mayer and D. York, 18 June 1830.
  14. The Reflector [Palmyra, New York] 2/13 (14 February 1831), page ?
  15. The Sun (18 August 1831): page?
  16. Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated, 2d ed., (Portsmouth: John Caldwell, 1833), 150–151; first edition printed in 1832.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 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
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 18.7 History of the Church. Volume 3 link