Question: Did Orson Spencer claim in a letter to a non-LDS clergyman that Joseph Smith's "first" spiritual manifestation was of an angel - not the Father and the Son?

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Question: Did Orson Spencer claim in a letter to a non-LDS clergyman that Joseph Smith's "first" spiritual manifestation was of an angel - not the Father and the Son?

With information about the First Vision publicly and readily available months before he wrote his letter, it seems highly unlikely that Spencer was claiming that Joseph Smith's meeting with the angel was his first encounter with a divine being

The general populace of Nauvoo had the orthodox story of Joseph Smith's early spiritual experiences readily available to them. It is not reasonable to try to pass off a claim that is clearly contradicted by public, contemporaneous, and authoritative documents.

Orson Spencer's letter - which was written on 17 November 1842 - was first published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons newspaper on 2 January 1843[1] and then reprinted in the British Millennial Star newspaper in June 1843.[2]

As demonstrated by the following references, shortly before Orson Spencer penned his letter, the First Vision story had been made available three separate times, in printed form, to the citizens of Nauvoo. In each instance the First Vision was clearly described as having occurred before Joseph Smith's encounter with the angel.

  • Aug. 1841. Orson Pratt's pamphlet called An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions was advertised for sale in Nauvoo. It was advertised in the Times and Seasons that “[t]his . . . work will be found to contain information of great importance, as it will save the traveling elders the labor of constantly relating, over and over again, those things in which every new enquirer is so deeply interested, and upon which he is so very anxious to obtain correct information.”[3]
  • Aug.-Sept. 1841. The same advertisement and note were repeated for An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions in the two subsequent editions of the Times and Seasons.[4] [5]
  • Mar. 1842. The Wentworth Letter was published in the Times and Seasons on 1 March 1842. In this article, Joseph Smith states that he "was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day."[6]
  • Mar.-Apr. 1842. Part 1 of the 1838 First Vision recital was published in the Times and Seasons on 15 March 1842, and Part 2 was published on 1 April 1842.[7] [8]
  • Jun. 1842. Parts 1 and 2 of the 1838 recital - “From the ‘Times and Seasons’” - were reprinted in England in June 1842.[9]

With this information publicly and readily available months before he wrote his letter, it seems highly unlikely that Spencer was claiming that Joseph Smith's meeting with the angel was his first encounter with a divine being. It should be noted that in the 7th letter that Spencer wrote to the non-LDS clergyman—on 28 August 1847—he spoke again about Joseph Smith seeing the angel but indicated that he (Orson Spencer) was familiar with some written source on the subject. This fact narrows the possibility that Spencer was claiming that the angel was the "first" spiritual manifestation enjoyed by the Prophet. Indeed, a closer look at Spencer's 1842 statement makes this suggestion even more unlikely. It says,

"Joseph Smith, when the great designs of heaven were first made known to him, was not far from the age of seventeen."

Orson Spencer may simply be referring in this quote to what the angel told Joseph Smith about "the great designs of heaven." The angel said,

"the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign. I was informed [by the angel] that I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation." (Wentworth Letter).


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.[10]


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."[11] 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." [12] 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." [13] 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." [14] 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. [15] "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." [16] 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)?


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

Notes

  1. {TS | author=Orson Spencer| vol=4|num=4|article=LETTER OF ORSON SPENCER.|date=2 January 1843|start=56|end=57 }}
  2. Joseph Smith, Jr., Millennial Star 4 no. 2 (June 1843).
  3. Anonymous, "Books! Books! Books!!!," Times and Seasons 2 no. 19 (2 August 1841), 502. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) emphasis added.
  4. Anonymous, "Books! Books! Books!!!," Times and Seasons 2 no. 20 (16 August 1841), 518. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  5. Anonymous, "Books! Books! Books!!!," Times and Seasons 2 no. 21 (1 September 1841), 534. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. Joseph Smith, Jr., "CHURCH HISTORY.," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 March 1842), 706–707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  7. Joseph Smith, Jr., "HISTORY OF JOSEPH SMITH.," Times and Seasons 3 no. 10 (15 March 1842), 727–728. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  8. Joseph Smith, Jr., "HISTORY OF JOSEPH SMITH.," Times and Seasons 3 no. 11 (1 April 1842), 748–749. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  9. Joseph Smith, Jr., Millennial Star 3 no. 2 (June 1842), 21–23.
  10. Günther Juncker, “Christ As Angel: The Reclamation Of A Primitive Title,” Trinity Journal 15:2 (Fall 1994):221–250.
  11. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words In The Hebrew Bible With Their Renderings In the Authorized English Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 1890), 66.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Epistula Apostulorum 14, in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), 1:199.
  15. 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.
  16. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 191. See also D&C 129.