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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

First Vision: Approaching Joseph Smith's Differing Accounts

There's an issue concerning one of the foundational elements of Mormonism that some find disturbing, but that I've never had issue with. For many Mormons like myself, Joseph Smith's First Vision, where he claims to have seen Jesus Christ and God the Father as a young man, is a powerful part of our history and the event that jump started the "Restoration." However, throughout his life, Joseph Smith gave various details of this event, withholding some until later and leaving off others. In fact, one gets the sense that he was sometimes downright reluctant to relate the story, as it seemed to have more personal meaning to him than Church-wide meaning, at least from his early perspective. 

Yet these differing accounts, because of their varying details, lead some to conclude that Joseph Smith was sort of making it up as he went along, adding and subtracting details as it was convenient and as his theology changed and evolved. I reject this theory outright, for I find nothing odd about how he told the story throughout his history, but rather find it natural and expected.

But first let's put forth the different accounts. This site has the various accounts recorded and I encourage people to look at the accounts in their entirety for themselves and not to take them on my assessment alone. But here's the basic list:

-- The 1832 Account:
 Frederick Williams, Joseph Smith's scribe, starts off this record, pretty much introducing Joseph. Joseph Smith relied heavily on scribes throughout his life to help him record his history. He was not confident in his own writing ability, so relied on these secretaries and scribes to help him record the important events of his life... which is peculiar for a man who purportedly was supposed to have made up the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price! In one of her last interviews with her sons before her death Joseph Smith's first wife (and a former school teacher) Emma said that, "Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone the Book of Mormon." Thus Joseph's reliance on scribes. 

But with this account, Joseph breaks from his normal tradition and, after Frederick Williams' brief introduction, Joseph takes over the account in his own handwriting. I find it significant that Joseph feels the need to give the account of this seminal event in his life his own handwriting and with his own personal touch. His own direct testimony, if you will. 

In this account I find none of the elegance nor sophistication of the writers of the Book of Mormon, although Joseph seems to be trying to imitate a scriptural style, with not much success. You get the sense that Joseph is trying his best to give it his best prose and vocabulary (despite the horrendous spelling errors). In fact, Joseph Smith seems self conscious about this lack of education in the account itself (original spelling retained): 
my Father Joseph Smith Siegnior 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 bennifit of an education Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading {and} writing and the ground [rules] of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.
But what I do find remarkable about this account is a surprising earnestness and sense of sincerity that pervades the document.This is pure, unfiltered Joseph Smith, with no scribes or editors interfering. And the story that Joseph tells is a personal one. Unlike some later accounts, this one's focus is on Joseph Smith's personal salvation. We do find Joseph's feelings about a mass apostasy (shared by his father Joseph, Sr., who had his own dream-visions about the subject). We do find his inner doubts over the conflicting doctrines of the churches around him, as we do in later accounts:   
"Searching the Scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly far 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 that 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 sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickeness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the {of the} minds of mankind)." 
But in this account, Joseph is primarily seeking redemption. That is his personal investment in this narrative:
my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that {mand} [mankind] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and 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... I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and {to} obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry..." 
This is a famous prayer, an iconic and universal moment for modern Mormons, but was a very personal and private moment for Joseph at the time. Joseph received a reply:
"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 come down from above and rested upon me and I was filld with the Spirit of God and the [Lord] 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 crucifyed 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 asside 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 acording 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 and 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 hevenly vision."
So from the very beginning you get the main themes of Joseph Smith's narrative, although with a different emphasis than in later accounts: conflicting churches, the world is in apostasy, etc. Although there are details which you don't always get in later versions. Joseph only relates the Jesus part of the equation, not bringing in the Father, or even other angels as he does in other accounts. No confrontation with a dark force. No James 1:5, although he makes mention of spending some time in the scriptures during his search ("for I learned in the Scriptures..."). But I'll spend more time on those issues later. 

As it is, I think this is an account that is chiefly personal (and wasn't widely published at the time... most early Mormons had no inkling about the First Vision at this point... the emphasis in those days was the circumstances surrounding the Book of Mormon and the return of ancient orders and spiritual gifts). But, interestingly, Joseph ends the narrative, again, on a more personal note:
"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 writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions."
 I've always found it interesting that, from the very beginning, Joseph is very upfront about his shortcomings and personal flaws. Why would a charlatan, a man pretending to be a shiny ideal from God: give people the ammunition to stone him with? But consistently throughout his history Joseph asserts, even insists, to people that he is a human being, as liable to sin and error as they are. That's not a pattern I would expect from a megalomaniac trying to deceive the world. 

It is, however, the pattern I would expect from a man who is trying to do the best with God gave him. He often seemed to be asking the world to be patient with the flaws that he knows he has in the face of the heavy calling he has been given. Especially in this early stage of his life, Joseph was a self conscious prophet. But I believe that only adds to his credibility and believability. It follows the pattern of a Moses or a Peter... prophets painfully aware of their shortcomings, but willing to answer the call anyway.

-- 1834-35 Oliver Cowder Account:
Some sources try to count Oliver Cowdery's account in the Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1834, vol.1, no.3. as a First Vision Account, which was mainly because Oliver starts the narrative with Joseph's confusion about the various churches. But then it launches into the narrative behind the angel Moroni and the coming forth  Book of Mormon. Cowdery makes a note later, changing the events from taking place in Joseph's 14th year and "correcting" it to taking place his 17th year. 

This actually makes sense to a degree, if he started out a little confused, hearing about Joseph Smith's first vision and starting to give those details, but then later switches to the Moroni account, which was indeed a few years later than the First Vision (reported to take place in when Joseph was 14 in a number of the accounts). There is some confusion about the actual date of Joseph's vision, but some of that confusion seems to stem from the fact that certain accounts try to conflate the two events. But Joseph Smith consistently puts it either in his 14th or 15th year, without the same level variance others put on it. 

When it comes to remembering even the most important dates of my own life, I sometimes have to struggle to remember which years they took place... but don't tell that to my wife. However, Joseph does seem to settle on his 14th year, even when there is confusion among other accounts, including this already muddled up one by Cowdery. I pretty much attribute this to Cowdery being a second hand source of the event, so he's not terribly clear on the details. 

But before this account Joseph has already established the First Vision as part of his personal narrative, so based on this document, I don't buy anti-Mormon attacks that the Book of Mormon narrative was Joseph Smith's first fabricated narrative, and then he just conveniently slid in the First Vision account. The time line doesn't allow for that. Again at least the major details of the First Vision have been established in historical record by this time.

--The 1835 Account:
It's important to realize that this account comes to us not directly from Joseph Smith, but from Warren Cowdery, who was a witness to the conversation. So take that for it's worth. Nevertheless, I think this one is telling. 

Cowdery was the third party in a conversation between Joseph Smith and one "Joshua the Jewish Minister" who, from Cowdery's portrait of words, seems to be a bit of a character. But in their discussion a rare thing happens for this period... Joseph relates his first vision. Again, early accounts of the First Vision are not common, and it seemed to be only a select few who hear the account personally from Joseph, or are even aware of the experience. The emphasis on the First Vision comes later.

But here we have one of those moments where Joseph opens up about the experience among a small group. And I think it's interesting that it's coming up not in any kind of official capacity or declaration to the world, but rather in a more intimate setting. Notice that even in the first account, that wasn't meant for publication or dispersal, but was written down for his personal records. Joseph wasn't yet ready to publish this story abroad, for reasons we'll address later. This is yet another signal that he didn't mean it for public consumption yet.

This account differs from the first in several significant ways. First, we get our first reference to a second figure (God the Father). But the way Joseph mentions this is also interesting:   
A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with un-speakable 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.  

There's a few things are happening here that are important. We get a second affirmation of one of the very personal reasons Joseph is coming before the Lord: "first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee." We get the "pillar of fire" and the light that Joseph is surprised isn't consuming everything. But we also get this second personage of who we can deduce from later accounts is God the Father, but with this account standing by itself, we wouldn't necessarily know that.

It's interesting how often in the accounts Joseph is roundabout in how he addresses who the "personages" are. Whether it was in Joseph's telling of the story or Warren Cowdery's re-telling and possibly imperfect memory of the conversation, the information is omitted (unlike the first account) who even the first personage (Jesus Christ) really is. It only says that one of the personages (the first or the second?) testifies of Jesus Christ, which is particularly vague. 

Again, taken by itself, it almost sounds as if these two figures are angels simply testifying of Christ, like the two angels at Christ's tomb on resurrection day. But we can deduce from the previous account, that one of those figures is Christ (in the first account Joseph states clearly "I saw the Lord"), and that the second figure is God the Father. But whether Joseph was intentionally obscuring this from Joshua the Jewish Minister, to retain certain sacred aspects of the story and not open them up for ridicule, which we find that he was sensitive to in other accounts; or whether it was just an imperfect account of what was said on Cowdery's part, it's impossible to say.

But both figures are there, unlike the first account. And also, now I think this is very important, it mentions that the two personages did not immediately appear together, contrary to how artists and writers have often depicted the event. Joseph says that he first sees Christ alone, singular. This, to me, makes the first account make more sense when Joseph only tells us about one of the personages coming and saying: "I was filld with the Spirit of God and the [Lord] opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph [my son] thy Sins are forgiven thee." According to my understanding of these passages, and comparing them to each other, it becomes evident to me that Christ appeared first and thus gets the chief mention when Joseph's describing the event in his first account. 

Even in this account, and later accounts, God the Father is more of a background figure, of whom Joseph simply mentions in this 1835 account, "Another personage soon appeared like unto the first." Joseph mentions God the Father only vaguely, which seems to me a purposeful obfuscation. Joseph Smith, when you look at his teaching style, was a "line upon line, precept upon precept" kind of teacher. He prepared people first, before teaching them more radical doctrines. He built upon common beliefs, giving milk before feeding you the meat (and, boy, did that meat eventually come!). So it doesn't surprise me, although in hindsight we understand it, that the signs of the later Mormon understanding of the godhood (three separate beings, God the Father and Jesus as physical personages, a very non-Nicaen Creed understanding of who and what God is) are not immediately revealed, even in this telling of the story. Yet it also does not surprise me that the evidence of those details are there, even in this early account, hidden from view to the uninitiated, but perfectly plain to those who have the context. "Ye who have ears to ear, let him hear," as Jesus Christ said. If Joseph was trying to be open and bold in proclaiming to the world this rather radical doctrine for the time (and also, ask any modern Evangelical, this time), then I don't see him holding back like this. But at this point in his life, he still seems reticent about these details. Chiefly, I assume, because he knows exactly how people will react to them, as we discover in later accounts. Joseph wanted to have people give him a chance before he blasts away their confusing, non-Biblical traditions (created by the Nicene creed, not revealed through prophets) about the nature of God. 

Thus I haven't a lot of patience for those who read these differing accounts and think they have struck upon some great controversy about Joseph Smith changing his story. Rather these de-emphasized details, thrown in because they actually happened, but de-emphasized because Joseph doesn't want to bring too much early attention to them, convince me all the more that Joseph was holding back on the larger story rather than adding details as he went along. But more on that later.

Another very interesting detail we get is the presence of other "angels" at the First Vision. "I saw many angels in this vision," Joseph tells us and, oh dear me, doesn't that cause the mind to speculate! 

Who were these angels? Who would be thought of sufficient importance to include in this remarkable group of "many"? Were they angels in the traditional sense? Or does that word "angel" take on a different significance, as the angel of the Lord (who is perhaps really Jesus from the context?) in one of Nephi's visions in the Book of Mormon? Or as the word angel is sometimes a reference to Jehovah in the Old Testament. Look up some of the work of the Methodest biblical scholar Margaret Barker (much of whose work and research has unintentional, but intriguing parallels with Mormonism), especially her ideas about the Great Angel and what that term "angel" really connotates in the context of ancient religions, especially of the the early Hebrew variety (who weren't as originally monotheistic as they became under King Josiah). Under those kind of ideas, I often wonder who was included in this group of "angels." 

We often talk as Mormons, in our supposedly heretical but perfectly Biblical ideas, about a "council" of gods in Heaven. Is it possible that other heavenly figures were there whose significance reach beyond traditional ideas of nondescript choirs of angels? Did Joseph Smith communicate at all with these figures, or were they much like God the Father, in the background giving consent to Christ's role as messenger of this important charge? 

My wife once speculated to me that the presence of Joseph Smith in the grove was a nod towards our Heavenly Mother, since ancient Hebrew goddess worship happened in groves and trees have long been a symbol of the Mother Goddess. Yet I wonder even more whether She was actually there, in this group of "angels" which God the Father emerged from. Of course, this is all speculative and not "doctrinal," but these emerging details do certainly show that even the later versions we have of the First Vision are incomplete and that Joseph Smith didn't give us the complete picture even later in his life. 

Which brings up another important point, whether my theological postulations have any validity or not. Joseph consistently expressed concern that his knowledge, if taught prematurely, would cause apostasy and perhaps even lead to his own death (which, in the case of polygamy and other doctrinal developments in Nauvoo, proved exactly to be the case in Carthage Jail): 
 "Brethren, if I were to tell you all I know of the kingdom of God, I do know that you would rise up and kill me." and Brigham arose and said, "Don't tell me anything that I can't bear, for I don't want to apostatize." (As recalled by Parley P. Pratt in MS 55 (September 4, 1893): 585.)

"If I revealed all that has been made known to me, scarcely a man on this stand would stay with me" and “The Prophet said to me [Brigham Young] about sixteen years ago [at Kirtland], 'If I was to show the Latter-day Saints all the revelations that the Lord has shown unto me, there is scarce a man that would stay with me, they could not bear it'"
(MS 13 [September 1, 1851]: 257)

(For a quick internet resource, see lots of other readily available Joseph Smith quotes at,_Jr., if you don't want to dig into big, thick, history books like I enjoy doing). 
So keeping these multiple quotes in mind, it's important to recognize that Joseph Smith was more than okay in withholding theological information, if he felt his audience was not ready to receive it. In fact, he may have felt his life and the faithfulness of the Church depended on it. I find that this is especially applicable to the details of the First Vision that only came to the surface later, if at all.

In this account we get our first off hand reference that the influence that James 1:5 (as well as other scriptures) had upon Joseph in his desire to seek answers from God. We also get in this 1835 account our first mention of dark spiritual forces conspiring against Joseph Smith just previous to the First Vision:
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 swoolen 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.
 I will address this more on a personal level, as we go into the next account.

-- The 1838 Account:  The 1838 version is the version most Mormons will be intimately familiar with, as it was canonized as the section in the Pearl of Great Price known as Joseph Smith History . In this version, the details from the previous versions which were omitted or only hinted at come to their full fruition. It becomes clear that the two personages referred to obliquely in the 1835 account are indeed God the Father and Jesus Christ. The prominent influence that James 1:5 on him is revealed more extensively. The background information about the conflicting churches and religious divide in his own family, which has been present from the very first account, is more fleshed out.Then, as mentioned above in the 1835 account, we get the mention again of a dark force attacking him:
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
I Digression as it is, I would like to indulge in a personal side note. When I was 18 years old, mere months before my mission for the Church, I had a personal experience that made me much more receptive and empathetic to this part of Joseph Smith's history. I had an intense argument with my mother that day (a rare occasion between me and her at that point), and I felt a dark feeling follow me for the rest of the day. I awoke that night, startled to find myself paralyzed, completely unable to move except for my eyes. I was equally surprised to find that I could not speak and, like Joseph Smith describes, I found that my tongue was "bound" and I couldn't speak. 

Soon I saw what I thought at first was my mother. But then I realized it was too twisted to be so. The form twisted and turned and became wispish and white and soon disappeared. I prayed in my heart for help, and soon (as if beckoned by my prayer) my dog Knox rushed into my room (where he was before that, I don't know), jumped onto my bed, and took a stance as if he were protecting me (oh, I loved my dog Knox!). Immediately my breath and movement returned and I could speak and move.

Soon after that my mother came into the room (it was very late, by the way, so I don't know why she would have been up), as if she had sensed something, too. She asked if everything was all right and I said that I was fine.

Thus I have a bit of a different perspective on this moment in Joseph's history, especially when he talks about the dark force trying to "bind" his tongue. I know that many scientific minds unwilling to entertain such possibilities would try to pass off my experience (and perhaps Joseph Smith's) as sleep paralysis (although in Joseph Smith's case, he would have been wide awake before the experience occurred). 
nd I'm actually open to that, that there might have been some chemical or physical or psychological mechanism acting as part of the process of this dark moment--but I certainly don't believe that is all it was.  

Thus I take Joseph Smith's experience pretty literally here. Through physical, psychological, chemical or spiritual means, I see both his and my experiences as literal spiritual attacks from "some actual being from the unseen world." This experience of Joseph's rings true to me, because I have experienced something very similar. Of course, there are those who criticize this part of the narrative because it, too, wasn't mentioned until later. Yet, as one who has had a similar experience, I can understand the reticence in wanting to share it in front of a larger audience, even when eventually you feel as if you ought to. 

In the 1838 account we also get our most clear indication of the identities of those speaking with Joseph. Although note that this, too, is  by inference (although a very clear one!), yet there is still not any flat out declaration saying, "This is Jesus! This is the Father!" Even here, in his clearest account, Joseph seems content to let people connect the dots from his own narrative, without outlining every detail and conclusion:
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
It is also in this 1838 account that we get a clear response from the "personages" about that concern of Joseph's that he mentioned in the 1832 account--the concern about where the truth could be foun and the fear that there may have been some authority and truth lost along in the way in Christianity's troubled march forward:
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.
Again, some try to criticize this part of the narrative as having been a convenient addition, as Joseph was now the leader of a growing religion (although he's been that through all of these accounts) and that he now needed a way to distinguish his Church's claims from other Churches.

But, as we've seen from the 1832 account, this was not a new theme in Joseph's accounts and I can certainly see Joseph's reticence is openly declaring from the outset that those who he is teaching are coming from apostate creeds and traditions. Even today, that doesn't go over well with our Christian brothers and sisters, so I have seen many a missionary go fuzzy on that point until they think an investigator is ready for that next step in the teaching.

Again, Joseph was a "line upon, precept upon precept", "milk before meat" teacher (and so was Jesus Christ, actually... he told a lot of people to withhold information about his Messiahship until the time was ripe). But much of that meat eventually came with Joseph Smith's teachings, as we see in this 1838 account.

In the last section of the 1838 account, we get the addition of a seemingly small, but narratively significant interchange between Joseph Smith and his mother that focuses on the idea that Joseph has received clarity on the religious contention and partisanship that existed in his family:  
When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.”
And then Joseph launches into some sentiments that seem more reflective of some one who has experienced a great deal since the initial experience, which has colored how he now views the experience. He talks about how he feels surprised at the attention that had been brought to him, not by God (remember, he had faith that God would answer his prayer, in one way or another), but by the devil, who seemed intent on stopping Joseph in that moment:
 It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?
And then, along the same lines, he wonders at the persecution he has received from people for telling this and similar stories from his life, beginning from the time when he received a severe chastisement from a Methodist minister for telling the story, and then the mounting persecution he received for the rest of his life. 
 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.
 Again, this shows us why he was reticent to tell this story in its fulness for so long. Whenever he did, persecution and hardship followed. 

 Now it's tempting for a lot of people to say that Joseph liked this attention, even the negative attention, and getting it at this young age gave him a taste for it. That would make sense, if that attention hadn't come at such a high cost

Remember this "attention," by this point in his life, had cost him the life of one of his children, as well as the lives of many of his friends and followers. This is written in the context of 1838, which is before Nauvoo's glory days... which were still plenty full of persecution and hardship, despite some reprieve and rise in prominence they gave for Joseph and the Latter-day Saints

This is 1838. In 1838 the Mormons were expelled from Missouri--they had just lost all their property, their homes and had to walk to Illinois in the freezing snow of Winter. Their chief apostle David W. Patten and other faithful members were killed in the Battle of Crooked River. Mormon men, women and children were slaughtered during the Haun's Mill Massacre. When the Missouri militia came against the Mormons and caused the downfall of the city of Far West, their property was stolen, many Mormon women were raped, and the entire city was pillaged and desecrated.

Joseph Smith was then thrown into a dark, dank and freezing prison called Liberty Jail. There was a considerable chance that they would execute him (and almost did off the bat, without a trial, if it hadn't been for an admirable non-Mormon officer named Alexander Doniphan). Joseph's wife and children were homeless, walking across frozen rivers, in fear of their lives, knowing that they would be lucky to ever see their husband and father again aliveAll of the people who trusted Joseph as a prophet were also homeless, driven, freezing, and (in many cases) dying.

Anyone who could think, after having experienced all of this, that Joseph is anything but sincere when he says that these persecutions were "often the cause of great sorrow to myself," then I say that person has no understanding Joseph Smith's history, his character, and what it meant to be a severely persecuted Mormon in the 19th century. To suffer so much for the sake of a little notoriety and attention--well, I just don't buy that kind of explanation, especially knowing Joseph Smith's history as I do.

But, in this 1838 account, Joseph stated unequivocally why he was willing to suffer for his stories (and eventually die for them), and see other people suffer for them (and also die for them):
I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.
-- Conclusion: 

There are other early accounts of the First Vision, including the one attached to the Wentworth Letter (written in 1842), as well as second hand accounts from Orson Pratt, John Taylor and
Alexander Neibaur. The Wentworth Letter is pretty much just a condensed version of 1838 account (minus the attack from the dark influence), and the other narratives become variations on themes and facts already established (all except some interesting--possibly suspect?--physical descriptions of the Father and the Son included by Neibaur), so I won't go into any great details with those. The 1838 account pretty much cements in the last details of the story and that's the version that the LDS Church has focused on since then
  A stained glass window depicting the First Vision, which was once at a chapel in the Los Angeles area is on display at the Church HIstory Museum of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah Friday, Sept., 4, 2009.  Mike Terry, Deseret News (Mike Terry, Deseret News)The so called "changes" in the First Vision through time seem to me to be Joseph Smith's perfectly natural (though gradual) opening up about the story and feeling more and more ready to let the story come out in its fulness. Looking back on my own personal experiences, and seeing my initial reticence to tell full details to various listeners, I have no problem in attributing Joseph Smith the same quality. I find those who "strain their eyes at gnats, while swallowing camels" when it comes to the First Vision accounts have missed the entire beauty, significance and, yes, gradual, revealing consistency of these accounts.  

I have always believed that God gives by degrees... fulfill that initial trust given, then there's surely more to come. Joseph Smith, I believe, has taken that example and followed a similar course. Line upon line, precept upon, here a little and there a little... until the fulness comes.      


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