The following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, and Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Director of Media Products for FairMormon.)
I received your letter with your concerns about Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism. I think this is a good place to continue our discussion. Before we get into his translating the Book of Mormon, why don’t we examine your uneasiness about Joseph Smith’s First Vision?
You wrote, “Apparently no one–––including Joseph Smith’s family–––had ever heard of the First Vision until a dozen years after it supposedly happened.” Your claim is obviously based on the fact that the earliest known record we have of the vision is dated to 1832 whereas the vision took place in 1820.
It’s important first to note that Joseph didn’t call it the “First Vision,” but rather a visitation of angels. Because Joseph had several visions in his lifetime, we are the ones who define his initial visitation with God and Jesus Christ as the “First Vision.”
As a young teenager Joseph had no idea that his revelation would begin a process that eventually lead to the restoration of more scripture and the Lord’s Church. Like other people in his day who also had experienced visions of Christ, his initial visitation would have been a very personal experience–––it was a message of redemption and forgiveness. As a personal experience it’s unlikely that he felt a need to share it with others–––in fact he was probably reluctant to talk about it. Several years later, when he was visited by Moroni, Joseph was also silent about the experience until Moroni explicitly commanded him to tell his father.
Joseph seems to have confided some of the details of his First Vision to a local minister who reacted negatively to Joseph’s retelling. Growing up I used to think that the preacher reacted negatively to Joseph’s story because of its strangeness, but in reality the minister most likely reproached the teenager because of story’s familiarity. A number of people who were caught up in the surrounding revivals had experienced visions. The minister was obviously aware of these other visionary claims and was likewise trying to set Joseph straight on the matter when he told him that such things had ceased.
The counsel, coming from a respected minister–––a minister whom Joseph must have trusted at least to some degree in order to confide in him the experience of the visitation–––would probably have caused Joseph some concern about sharing the story with others.
There is evidence, however, that Joseph did share the information with at least some caution. Both Joseph and his mother Lucy recalled that Joseph was persecuted by others who had heard about his visionary experience. One Presbyterian woman who grew up in the Smith’s neighborhood remembered hearing that Joseph has supposedly experienced a vision. The woman’s father told her that Joseph’s vision was likely the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy. A year before Joseph first recorded the vision, his hometown paper made mention that Joseph claimed to have frequently seen God.
Not long after the Church was officially restored in 1830 Joseph received revelation that emphasized the importance of keeping records, so in 1832 he dictated the basic contents of his First Vision to his scribe Frederick G. Williams (a portion of this record is in Joseph’s own handwriting). The 1832 account was a rough draft and was never published by the prophet. Although twelve years had passed since the First Vision, Joseph still explained it as an incident of personal conversion. The personal significance of the vision still overshadowed its role in the overall restoration.
So while it’s true that most early members were probably unaware of the First Vision, we can see that to Joseph the vision was initially understood as more personal than applicable to his future calling, and that there were reasons for his reluctance in sharing his vision with others. The fact that others in Joseph’s early vicinity had heard rumors of his visionary experience, however, supports the position that the visitation took place long before Joseph committed the story to paper.
As soon as I get a chance, I’ll send another letter reviewing the differences between the various First Vision accounts.
For more information on the First Vision, please visit the FairMormon Wiki.