On Sunday I gave a talk on the first vision in Church (incidentally I’m a Mormon). In the process I thought I’d check out what was out there in cyberspace. I’ve known for dozens of years that there were different accounts, and each one seemed to reveal various things about the event. Critics of the church love to say that these variations constitute inconsistencies. I, of course, am a seeker of truth, while at the same time I choose to believe those things that bring about the most good since “by their fruits shall you know them”. And that logic combined with experiences that I’ve had give me license to explore just about anything without fear that my spiritual foundation is at risk.
With that in mind I set out to create a table showing what was revealed in these different accounts of the first vision, using only the 1st and 2nd hand accounts, with full confidence that I have nothing to hide or hide from. The “first vision” incidentally, lays the foundation for the LDS church, it being the very first (around 1820) vision that Joseph Smith had.
The table references those accounts that are mutually accepted by Mormons and Anti-mormons alike and shows the events that each account discussed. There already exists similar tables like this, but significant effort was made in this one to make it acceptable as an objective representation of the chronology that both Mormons and Anti-mormons could agree upon:
Now this table is quite interesting for the simple reason that it shows everything that we know was revealed to Joseph in the first vision. That was the initial reason for creating it. This format also provides a nice birds-eye view of when different parts of it were revealed (whereas similar tables I’ve seen span many pages and seem worded to forward a particular agenda). Lastly, I wanted to use the most widely accepted sources and judging criteria to provide a starting point whereby the topic can be intelligently explored by critics, apologists, and everyone in between.
As I mentioned before, I don’t think mormons have nothing to hide nor do they have anything to hide from. To me much of the variation in the 1st vision can be explained by Joseph’s discretion with attention to his immediate audience and what he was instructed to reveal in each account (more on this below).
For example, it is rather easy to say an angel appeared to someone, as people frequently claim they spoke with a deceased loved one, while escaping any skepticism from even the most militant church-goers or ardent atheists. However, to publicly declare in printed word that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, personally visited you is to invite persecution from all sides no matter who you are. I’m sure that dynamic hasn’t changed in the last 200 years, and surely it was something of which young Joseph (only 14 yrs old at the time) was fully cognizant. For the fear of a 14 yr old boy, for feelings of insecurity, or from a personal imperative to not allow the event to be mocked, surely he had to be careful what he revealed and when.
Same thing goes for when he told ministers that their church is false … surely Joseph observed this himself through scripture study after God revealed the fact of it in the vision. To tell a minister, however, that God personally revealed their falseness would be quite offensive to any minister – and historically Joseph was very friendly with multiple ministers and congregations in his younger years even though he openly challenged their teachings.
A quick glance of the chronology reveals that the most significant dynamic is that the later accounts revealed information that ministers would have found more explosive. It suddenly becomes clear that Joseph was practicing “milk before meat” the same way the original 12 Apostles taught (1 Corinthians 3:2, John 16:12, etc.).
And considering the original apostolic Church that Christ established, it seem people are so much more forgiving of them than they are of anyone who claims to have the same authority they did. Critics, and people in general, somehow expect a modern-day prophet of God to start out like the Son of God – pure, perfect, and undefiled. In contrast, Joseph as a youth was no less righteous and no more guilty of foolish pursuits as any other boy, and his boyhood character was well-regarded by all of his reputable critics. Still, being basically good wasn’t good enough for someone who would be God’s prophet – and so gaining a remission of sins was part of that process, as he claimed in his earlier accounts when that information was most vital.
And while considering his human side it’s only fair to also consider the state of mind of an insecure 14 yr old boy … one who has all the hopes and fears that any other 14 yrs old boy has. I’d be surprised if such a boy would even tell his parents the details of such an amazing event other than he learned for himself that Presbyterianism is false (which is precisely what he did say to his Presbyterian mother). Its foolhardy to think such a boy would gladly publicly declare that he personally experienced such a remarkable and religiously explosive experience. When he did mention the event privately to a minister who he respected, of course he was reprimanded. The “spiritualism” movement was underway and anything dealing with visions was repugnant to adherents of established churches.
I’m surprised with the notion that every account should be a full acount. In the 1838 account of the first vision, canonized by The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he makes it very clear that there were more aspects of the vision that he could not yet reveal. In otherwords, he never intended to provide a complete accounting for the event at any time – but only intended to reveal those things he was able to reveal.
Lastly I’d like to suggest that nobody is an expert on visions except those who’ve had them. I’ve never had anything so great happen to me as happened to Joseph Smith, and I doubt I’ve met anyone who has, and so I don’t think I nor anyone that I know is qualified to understand how revelation is received and interpreted in a way that man understands. The scriptures however provide a clue – and in this clue there is a wealth of information about revelation that provides considerable latitude for Joseph Smith’s different accounts.
Let me explain … surely God speaks all dialects, but I think the Bible makes it clear that scriptural utterances of God the father are put into our language by prophets and not by God himself. For example, throughout the Old Testament each book is called “the word of [some prophet]”, and is not always called the word of God. A precise example is in the beginning of Jeremiah 1: 1-2 : “ The words of Jeremiah … To whom the word of the LORD came”, then in verse 3 ” Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” This is basically a translation into English of what Jeremiah heard from God. Now I’m certain that Jeremiah wouldn’t call it a translation, but I’m also convinced that Jeremiah perceived the word of God as a message that he understood without a need for words. And while I could be wrong I’ve never found anything to suggest that God would need to use the actual language of the person receiving the revelation.
Furthermore, after it is translated into men’s words by the original prophet it is then translated into other languages also BY MEN, and it is still considered scripture regardless what language it’s in (yes, Anglican’s I’m afraid English is not the official language of heaven, *wink*, but neither is the “vulgate”). So the word of God is given to us in the words of men – but this does not invalidate the Bible as being the word of God.
The point is that revelation is given as “the Holy Ghost teacheth”, and “not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth” (1 Cor 2:13), and then put into words with man’s wisdom teacheth so we can understand it. With this in mind, I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Holy Ghost started teaching Joseph with this first vision, but he wasn’t an instant expert on what was provided in that vision. Let me be clear that there can only be one correct interpretation – but Spirit imparts knowlege line upon line and precept upon precept and in this way there very well may have been revelations that occured during that vision that took Joseph some time to understand through the Holy Ghost (see above reference). It would have taken even more time to put it into words which man’s wisdom teaches.
Okay, I beat this topic to death. Anyway, I hope the table I created will provide a nice common ground where people can discuss the topic without getting creative to make it seem more or less consistent or inconsistent to fit their agenda.