Title: A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision
Author: Matthew B. Brown
Publisher: Covenant Communications, Inc.
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 268
Reviewed by Trevor Holyoak
In the October 1998 General Conference, Gordon B. Hinckley said that “our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision….Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration.” (Page ix.) In April 1984, James E. Faust pointed out that “since no one was with Joseph when this great vision took place in the wooded grove near Palmyra, a testimony concerning its reality can come only by believing the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s own account or by the witness of the Holy Ghost, or both.” (Page x.) With these statements in mind, it is not surprising that the First Vision has been one of the favorite things for critics of Joseph Smith to attack. In this book, Matthew Brown lays out the historical facts from which one can be helped to gain a testimony of the event, strengthen existing convictions, and help answer any doubts or confusion arising from critics’ claims.
The book starts out by giving the background in which the First Vision occurred, beginning with Joseph Smith’s birth and upbringing through 1820. This includes the family’s move to New York (and gives evidence for when it happened), as well as their finances, work, and education. It also speaks of his parents’ religious backgrounds, and of the religious climate in the area at that time, both of which fostered Joseph’s interest in religion.
Chapter two goes into detail about the “religious excitement” of the time. Brown gives a local camp meeting in 1818 as a probable candidate for the beginning of the events that led to Joseph’s inquiry in the grove, followed by another meeting in 1819 in a nearby town. There is also evidence given for visits from Methodist preachers to Palmyra in 1819 and 1820. There is a chart included that shows articles from the Palmyra Register about revivals in 1820, as well as a timeline of Smith family relocations from 1816 to 1820.
Elements of the First Vision are covered in detail in chapter 3, including the probable date, the location of the grove, the prayer Joseph gave, the opposition he faced as he began praying, the pillar of light and the personages that appeared within, and the instructions he received. The details are taken from many different sources and help the reader towards getting a better understanding of what happened.
The following chapter discusses what happened after the vision. It speaks of how it affected Joseph physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It also tells us about those it is known that he told about the experience and why he might have been hesitant to share it, even among his family. The resulting persecution is also discussed, including the account of a Presbyterian woman who lived nearby.
The next two chapters talk about what Joseph learned, and whether it was an actual visitation or a vision. The language of the written accounts of the vision is discussed, down to the meaning of significant words. Space is also devoted to the topic of the nature of God, as there have been questions raised as to whether Joseph’s concept of God and the Godhead evolved over time.
There are several different versions of the First Vision that were written by different people at different times, and chapter seven gives a thorough analysis of the 1832 account. It is compared to the 1838 account, and it is shown that they are very similar, and that many of the things that critics have claimed are missing in the 1832 version are at least implied. It is also shown that the 1832 account is built on a framework of biblical scriptures, which was probably done to help counteract the negative reactions he had received.
It has been said by critics that the First Vision narrative evolved over time, and that many early members of the church during Joseph’s lifetime were not even aware of it. Chapter eight addresses these issues, drawing from documentary evidence relating to William I. Appleby, George Q. Cannon, Oliver Cowdery, Orson Hyde, Andrew Jenson, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, George A. Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, William Smith, Orson Spencer, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Brigham Young.
The following chapter then deals with 16 common criticisms, such as “In 1835 Joseph Smith identified his First Vision visitors as angels instead of Deities,” “The First Vision story became more elaborate over time,” “In 1838 the Prophet changed the story of the origin of his prophetic call in order to offset a leadership crisis,” and “The LDS Church seldom publicized the First Vision until after Brigham Young’s death in 1877.” There is also a chart comparing eight different versions of the vision written between 1832 and 1844, which helps to illustrate that there is actually a great amount of consistency between the various texts.
The remainder of the text in the book is made up of appendices. The first one includes documents about the First Vision that were written by Joseph Smith and others during his life time. It includes the previously mentioned eight versions, as well as the JST version of Psalms 14:1-4. The second appendix gives a chronological list of recitals and references to the First Vision, from ca. 23 April 1820 to 24 May 1844. It also goes into detail on the 1827 comments from Martin Harris and the 1834 dispute with Mr. Ellmer, which both show that people were aware of the First Vision at those times.
Appendix three demonstrates the interdependence of several of the First Vision accounts. For example, it shows that the Oliver Cowdery account of 1834 relied on the 1832 account by Joseph Smith, and that the Smith account of 1838 in turn used the 1834 Cowdery document. This shows again that the various accounts are much more consistent than critics would lead us to believe. Appendix four then shows the dependence of Doctrine and Covenants 84 on the 1832 account, which helps date the 1832 version to between September 23 and November 27.
I did find a few small problems with the book, but they are minor and should not detract much from it. There are some typographical errors, and most of the table of contents is off by two pages. The index was also not thorough enough to be as helpful as I would have liked.
This book does a good job of covering all the criticisms one might find on the Internet or in certain books. The various accounts are shown to be very much in harmony with each other, and through them the reader can gain a better understanding of the First Vision and the early life of the prophet Joseph Smith. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that is interested in the topic, especially those that have encountered criticisms.