Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that in the year 1820, Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. This vision is in response to Joseph Smith’s wish to know which church he was supposed to join. Joseph Smith was told to join none of the churches and was called to be a prophet in our time. Eventually he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by divine revelation and guidance.
This event (known as the First Vision) is one of the most important events in world history, and Joseph Smith’s most famous account is found in the scriptural book The Pearl of Great Price (the text is here.) However, Joseph Smith told his story many times, and we have four separate records of the prophet personally telling his account of the First Vision.
These different accounts are instructive. Each account is different and some omit or include certain details that others do not. This reflects the fact that Joseph Smith undoubtedly shared different details with different audiences according to their needs. It also shows that he grew in his understanding of the significance of his vision. Details that may not have seemed important earlier in his life seemed more important as he grew older and gained a more profound understanding of his role.
I would like to share the four different accounts. The third to last account that Joseph Smith gave is found in the Pearl of Great Price which I linked above, so here are the other three accounts, which are read less often among Latter Day Saints.
This is the earliest known recital of the First Vision. The Prophet dictated it to Frederick G. Williams between the summer of 1832 and the end of November of that year. The spelling and punctuation of this account are pretty rough because it was never polished up for mass publication.
I was born in the town of Charon in the State of Vermont, North America on the twenty-third day of December A D 1805 of goodly parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the Christian religion. At the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Senior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the Support of a large Family having nine children and as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the Support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements. At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul which led me to Searching the Scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.
Thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in the Sacred depository. This was a grief to my Soul. Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind; the contentions and divisions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind. My mind became exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.
I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever, that he was no respecter to persons for he was God. For I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood; and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the Strength of beauty whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous even in the likeness of him who created him them. And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed, well hath the wise man Said the it is a fool that Saith in his heart there is no God. My heart exclaimed all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity. When I considered all these things and that being Seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy.
The Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the Sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me. I was filled with the Spirit of God and the opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me saying:
“Joseph my Son thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy way, walk in my Statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life. Behold the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned aside from the Gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles. Behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me, in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father.”
My Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the heavenly vision. . . .
Nevertheless I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my Soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be written and my Father’s family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions.
Notes: This account is interesting because it only mentions Jesus Christ appearing to Joseph Smith and omits the visitation of the Father. Possibly, Joseph Smith felt that that part of the experience was too sacred to be shared in written form. This account also omits the appearance of Satan before the vision and the importance of Joseph’s Biblical study. In the Pearl of Great Price account Joseph Smith shares that James 1:5 was the scripture that inspires him to pray. This account is more ambiguous in that regard.
In 1835 Joseph Smith related his experience in the grove to a visitor to Kirtland, a man named Matthias. The experience was recorded by Warren Cowdrey.
Monday Nov. 9th. . . While sitting in his house this morning between the hours of ten an eleven a man came in and introduced himself to him calling himself Joshua the Jewish Minister. His appearance was something singular, having a beard about three inches in length which is quite grey, his hair was also long and considerably silvered with age. He had the appearance of a man about 50 or 55 years old. He was tall and straight, slender frame, blue eyes, thin visage, and fair complexion. He wore a green frock coat and pantaloons of the same color. He had on a black fur hat with a narrow brim. When speaking he frequently shuts his eyes and exhibits a kind of scowl upon his countenance. He (Joseph) made some inquiry after his name, but received no definite answer. The conversation soon turned upon the subject of Religion, and after the subject of this narrative had made some remarks concerning the bible, he commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, which were nearly as follows:
Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. . .
Note: This account is interesting in that it mentions the appearance of many angels in the vision besides God the Father and Jesus Christ.
A selection from Joseph Smith’s history known as the Wentworth Letter. This was a history of the church for non members and was first published in 1842.
At the request of Mr. John Wentworth, Editor, and Proprietor of the “Chicago Democrat,” I have written the following sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints, of which I have the honor, under God, of being the founder. Mr. Wentworth says, that he wishes to furnish Mr. Bastow [George Barstow], a friend of his, who is writing the history of New Hampshire, with this document. As Mr. Bastow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation.
I was born in the town of Sharon Windsor co., Vermont, on the 23rd of December, A.D. 1805. When ten years old my parents removed to Palmyra New York, where we resided about four years, and from thence we removed to the town of Manchester.
My father was a farmer and taught me the art of husbandry. When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed. Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him,” I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I 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. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctorines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.
Note: A fascinating part of this account is the detail that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to be exactly resemble each other. This seems to explain the cryptic phrase found in John 14:9, “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father”.
These are the accounts of the first vision. Many second hand accounts were giving, but the accounts from Joseph Smith teach us much about this singular event. By studying these, all people will be able to feel of the truth of the prophets testimony.