CES Reply: The First Vision – One or Two Beings?

This is a continued serialization of my latest revision of my CES Letter reply, which you can read in its entirety here

The main purpose of serializing the reply has been to try to spur participation in Canonizer’s Latter-day Saint Survey Project, which you can see in the links at the bottom of this post. So far, while people have been reading the reply, the Canonizer interface has proved to be somewhat daunting, so future projects will be designed to demonstrate the value of the Canonizer consensus-building tools more directly. 

In the meantime, we now move on to the First Vision. As always, Jeremy’s words are in green the color of life, and mine are in black, the color of darkness.

“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [first] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”


I am not worried that the Prophet Joseph Smith gave a number of versions of the first vision anymore than I am worried that there are four different writers of the gospels in the New Testament, each with his own perceptions, each telling the events to meet his own purpose for writing at the time. I am more concerned with the fact that God has revealed in this dispensation a great and marvelous and beautiful plan that motivates men and women to love their Creator and their Redeemer, to appreciate and serve one another, to walk in faith on the road that leads to immortality and eternal life.”

– PRESIDENT GORDON B. HINCKLEY, “God Hath Not Given Us the Spirit of Fear,” 11/5/93

1. There are at least 4 different first vision accounts by Joseph Smith, which the Church admits in its November 2013 First Vision Accounts essay:


There are precisely four, not “at least” four. The accounts are remarkably consistent, and it is unreasonable to expect, as you do, that they ought to be nearly identical. Critics strain credulity in attempts to manufacture contradictions where they do not exist. 


Saying “the Church admits” suggests 2013 was the first time this fact was acknowledged. As demonstrated by the comment from President Hinckley above, that’s not true. I read all four versions in official church sources when I was a missionary from 1987-1989. These four versions were widely acknowledged well before the Church’s essay on the subject. 


No, there is only one 1835 account and a slight, seventeen-word reference to that account in a journal entry a few days later.

• 1842 ACCOUNT

 I can recall being troubled by many allegations against the Church when I first heard them, but for the life of me, I cannot muster any degree of concern about the different accounts of the First Vision. Upon discovery, this information was a complete non-issue for me.

 On my mission, we repeatedly showed the movie “The First Vision,” complete with Joseph throwing a handful of seeds in the air, and the narration of the movie  drew from both the 1838 account and the 1842 Wentworth Letter, and I wanted to know where the non-1838 language had come from.

Joseph Smith in the 1976 First Vision video as he’s about to throw away some perfectly good seeds.

This was in a pre-Internet world, and I would only have had access to official church stuff. I found an article, probably in the Ensign, that compared the accounts, and my reaction was along the lines of, “Oh, okay. So that’s where that stuff came from.” It didn’t occur to me that I should be the least bit disturbed by this. 

In the only handwritten account by Joseph Smith, penned in 1832, but not publicly published until much later, describes the first vision in an unfamiliar way:

“…and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled 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…”

• No mention of two beings.

I readily concede that of all the supposed contradictions you cite, this is the only one of any possible significance. Everything else is manufactured nonsense that cannot be sustained by anything beyond the most superficial reading of the four accounts. 

A consistent element in all four accounts is that the Son is the one who takes center stage. The Father simply introduces the Son and then gets out of the way. That is the role the Father has taken in all of scripture – at Jesus’s baptism; at the Mount of Transfiguration, and when Jesus appeared to the Nephites. Since the Fall, the Father has delegated all communication with us fallen mortals through his Only Begotten Son, and he only appears to make the introduction, provide his blessing, and he then steps back.

I think it’s entirely possible that the Father was only present at the outset of the vision, and that the vast majority of the time was spent with Joseph one-on-one with the Son alone, which is how Joseph personally remembered the experience. After all, people don’t discuss Christ’s visit to the Nephites as including both the Father and the Son, but the fact remains that the Father participated in that visitation much the same way he did with Joseph Smith. (3 Nephi 11:1-7)

Only the Son is depicted in Friberg’s painting, even though the Father announced his presence. 

This is speculation, of course, but it would explain why Joseph focused only on “the Lord” in an account written in a private journal, not necessarily intended for public consumption. Joseph wasn’t a particularly adept writer at this point, and I doubt he thought he was writing the single, definitive version of an event that had been the source of a great deal of ridicule in his early years which he may have still been reticent to discuss.

But all right, in 1832, Joseph says he “saw the Lord,” and that’s it. Does this contradict the later accounts? As much as you’re eager to imply that it does, the fact is undeniable: it does not.

A contradiction would require two irreconcilable facts in two different accounts. This account, for instance, says Joseph was 15, and the 1838 account says he was 14. That’s a contradiction. (Joseph’s incorrect age was later written in by Frederick G. Williams as a marginal note above Joseph’s handwriting in the 1832 account. There’s no reason to assume it’s anything other than an honest mistake. If you’re expecting infallibility in the 1832 account, you’re in serious trouble. The grammar alone in that thing is truly awful.)

A person who visits his parents and later tells a friend, “I saw Mom yesterday” would not be contradicting themselves if they later told someone else, “I saw Dad yesterday.” Both things are true. Mom’s presence does not preclude Dad’s, and the Son’s presence does not preclude the presence of the Father.

Tomorrow, we continue with Jeremy’s objections to the different First Vision accounts.  In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!