Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why I Believe: Evidence Forty: The Purpose of the Canonized Version of Joseph’s Early Visions

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Forty:
The Purpose of the Canonized Version of Joseph’s Early Visions© 
Revised 31 August 2015

The two most important and earliest events in the Restoration–the First Vision and the appearance of Moroni to Joseph Smith–have been the subject of controversy since the 1820s. In the late 1960s new attacks were made against both events, beginning with Wesley P. Walters’challenge of the historical background of the First Vision. Walters was a Presbyterian minister and in 1967 he wrote a small pamphlet in which he produced evidence that he said showed there was no religious revival in 1820 in or around Palymra, New York. Coupled with other events, Walters’ study enlivened Church scholars and reignited interest in early Mormon history which continues to this day.  In recent years several monographs have appeared containing studies of the First Vision.(1) As most Latter-day Saints are aware, the Book of Mormon has also been the subject of intense study by both critic and defender since even before its publication in March of 1830.(2) That has also continued to the present time and there is little reason to believe it will subside anytime soon.  

One of the documents at the center of much of this study is Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of the foundational events of the Restoration, beginning with the First Vision and the visits of the angel Moroni four years later. It is now the official version found in the Pearl of Great Price. Due to questions about the history of both the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, the 1838 account has been scrutinized in detail and the bibliography on these two seminal stories in our history fills a number of singled-spaced typed pages.

In this flurry of activity which has been going on for nearly half a century now, one small facet of the 1838 account of these two episodes has remained largely overlooked. The thing to which I refer is no surprise to the close student of the scriptures. Indeed, it is well known, if not well understood or discussed. It is that the 1838 account contains some statements that suggest that it was intentionally left incomplete.  Verse twenty says that during the First Vision the Lord “again forbade me to join with any of them [existing churches]; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” Twenty-one verses later he said in reference to Moroni, “He quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here.”(3) In other words, in both visions Joseph was given considerable information –“many other things” and “many explanations”–which he said he could not include in this narrative.(4)

This naturally raises the question why this would be the case? Why would Joseph Smith tell us he received more information and yet not disclose it to us? What did he mean by the phrases “which I cannot write at this time,” and “which cannot be mentioned here”? The word “cannot” in both statements suggest that Joseph was under some constraint either by God or his own judgment. From other similar statements by Joseph Smith we know he had both a natural reticence to share sacred things, but he was also frequently under divine constraint not to do so.(5) It appears that in the cases of these two passages that Joseph was under some restraint from God.  He does not appear reticent to tell the stories he does. They are honest, straight forward, unembellished.(6) So why not make known the additional information he said he received? Joseph’s natural inclination toward reticence does not adequately answer the question. On the other hand, if I am correct in believing that God instructed him not to include this extra information, that raises the further question of why not? Two answers suggest themselves.  

Perhaps the additional information was too sacred to be discussed, or the Lord did not want that information to be a distraction from the purpose of this document. Sacredness does not seem to be the issue since Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did record other versions in which at least some of the additional information was provided.(7) For instance, when Oliver Cowdery wrote about these events he mentioned 31 different passages of scripture which Moroni quoted to Joseph Smith, only five of which are mentioned in the 1838 account.(8)This is consistent with the inferences found in both statements under consideration. Concerning the First Vision, Joseph wrote he could not write more “at this time,” and of Moroni’s visits the phrase is those many scriptures and explanations “cannot be mentioned here.” Two things are implied. Pertaining to the First Vision the timing for sharing more information was the issue–that is, it was not to be given “at this time,” but this implies that it is possible further details may be given at some other time. The problem of the details of Moroni’s visits was that this account was not the place for them. Again the inference is that they may well be written about elsewhere. Thus, in Oliver Cowdery’s early rehearsal he gives an extended list of scriptural passages which Moroni rehearsed to Joseph Smith and which Church scholars have studied, analyzed, and written about.(9)

This brings us then to the possible reason why the Lord restricted the information to be included in the 1838 rehearsal. A study of the document leads me to believe that the Lord intended it to be an official introduction to the world of the restoration of the Gospel in this the final dispensation. It was intended to be a missionary tool, to introduce investigators to the basic story. The essentials details of First Vision have been explained many times. Primarily we learn that Joseph questioned which Church was right and God appeared to him in vision to answer that question. He was told two critical things which members and non-members need to know. None of the existing Churches were the Lord’s Church, but Joseph Smith was called to be the Lord’s instrument to restore it and the fulness of his Gospel back to the earth. A general apostasy of the early Church necessitated its restoration. Nor is it necessary for new converts to get caught up in an extended discussion of the many passages of scriptures which Moroni taught and explained to Joseph Smith. Again, the essential facts are that there was a book of scripture written about God’s people who came to the Americas. God called Joseph Smith to bring it to the world because it contained the Gospel in greater simplicity, purity, clarity, and completeness than what was then available in the Bible. It is a second witness that Jesus is the divine Son of God who carried out an infinite and eternal atonement which makes salvation and exaltation possible for all mankind. The Lord simplified this story like he did with the story of creation found several times in the scripture. The most important thing for humans to understand is not the process of how the creation took place, but by whom and why it was created.(10)

Why 1838, eighteen years after the First Vision, before we get an official version? Steven Harper has helped us with this question in an interesting chapter titled “Listening to Joseph Remember.”(11)  He points out that critics and believers alike can see a change in emphasis from the earlier accounts to the 1838 and 1842 renditions. Critics, of course, see this as evidence of evolution and embellishment. Harper’s insight, which should make sense to all of us who have related an important story from our own lives, is that we do not see its full meaning at the time it happens.(12) Joseph did not call this the First Vision in the spring of 1820, precisely because he did not then know it would be either the first of many or that it was to be the foundation of the Restoration. That clarity and understanding grew with time, experience, and greater understanding. So, for Harper the evidence “can just as reasonably be read as evidence of insight.”(13). Therefore, we see the wisdom of God in waiting until 1838 for Joseph to write an official introduction to Mormonism.

In a word the Lord wanted a simple yet direct and powerful account as an initial introduction to the restoration of his Church and Gospel in the latter-days. As written, the 1838 recital keeps the readers attention focused on the fundamental issues. Once understood, believed, and accepted there was plenty of time, and in our day plenty of resources for further “in depth” study. Simplicity and plainness are the operative watchwords here. This is consistent with the way the American prophet’s constructed the Book of Mormon itself–a simple, direct, and plain new volume of scripture. Like Nephi, I glory in the simplicity and plainness of the 1838 version of our origins; yet I am also grateful for the additional knowledge we have relative to those early events. In time, we shall explore one or two in this series.

In the meantime, I rejoice that Joseph Smith was called to be the initial prophet of the Restoration, in this instance because he possessed the wisdom and exercised the obedience necessary to avoid an overly elaborate story which may distract and/or sidetrack investigators, including me, from what is really important in these stories.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let's think together again, soon.


1.  See Wesley P. Walters, New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival. La Mesa, CA: Utah Christian Tract Society, 1967;  and “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra  (N.Y.) Revival,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, 10 (Fall 1967): 227-244; “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue, a Journal of Mormon Thought, 4 (Spring 1969): 60-81. The discovery of the papyrus of the Book of Abraham in a New York museum also contributed to this renaissance of Church history.Two of the more important recent monographs on the First Vision are, Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Stephen C. Harper, eds., Exploring The First Vision. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012, and Steven Craig Harper,  Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012.  

2.  Russell R. Rich, “The Dogberry Papers and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 10, no. 3 (1970): 315-20.  See also, Stephen Kent Ehat, “‘Securing’ the Prophet’s Copyright in the Book of Mormon: Historical and Legal Context for the So-called Canadian Copyright Revelation,” Brigham Young University Studies 50, no. 2 (2011): 4-70.

3.   Joseph Smith-History 1:20, 41. 

4.  Not only did he receive much more information in both of his earliest visions, but in the 9 November 1835 account of the First Vision Joseph says,  “and I saw many angels in this vision.  (Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith's First Vision, p. 43).  In the Wentworth Letter of 1842, he writes: “After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty, and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22d of September A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records unto my hands.”  Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (1 March 1842), 707, emphasis added.

5.  Ronald O. Barney, “Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and His Record, presentation at the 15th annual FAIR conference, Provo, Utah: August 2013.  Available online at:

6.  See Arthur Henry King, “Joseph Smith as a Writer,” in Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent World. Provo: BYU Studies, 1998, 288-293.

7.  There are five separate accounts of the First Vision by Joseph Smith himself and five more by contemporaries who recorded what Joseph said, making this as Steve Harper and Richard Anderson have both observed, perhaps one of the best documented theophanies in history. For examination of the various versions, listed in rough chronological order, see, Paul R. Chessman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith's Early Visions,” Master's thesis, BYU, 1965;  Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275-94; James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision--What Do We Learn from Them?” The Improvement Era 73 (April 1970): 4-13; Richard P. Howard,  “An Analysis of Six Contemporary Accounts Touching Joseph Smith's First Vision,” Restoration Studies, I Sesquicentennial Edition, (Independence, MO: Temple School, 1980), 95-117; Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision,” in Robert L. Millett and Kent P. Jackson, (eds.), Studies in Scripture, The Pearl of Great Price Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985, pp. 303-14;  Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, 15 (January 1985), 8-17; Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, John W. Welch and Erick B. Carlson, eds. Provo, UT.: BYU Press, 2005, pp. 1-35; John A. Tvedtnes, “Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul.” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2 (2012): 73-86; Steven C. Harper, "A Well-Documented Theophany," in Joseph Smith's First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012, pp.31-66.  For a similar list with a few additions not included here, see Harper, pp. 35-36.  

As can be seen from this bibliography these documents have been available in a number of venues by a number of authors for the better part of half a century, yet as Harper observes, "they are little known by most Later-day Saints and others" (pp. 31-32). It was Dean Jessee's view, which I share, that the reason they are not more well known among the Saints is because so few of them read, especially the history of the Church. See Harper, pp. 34-35. Unfortunately, this often includes those who do much of the teaching in the Church's Sunday School, Priesthood, and Young Men and Young Women weekly classes. Consequently, many are surprised, shocked, and sometimes disturbed at the sudden awareness of this and things like the use of the seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon that receive immediate and sensational publicity on the Internet's social media, but which is old, very old, news to the Saint well-read in his own history.

In a recent article David A. LeFere raised another intriguing possibility relating to the First Vision.  He states that, “Even with Joseph’s multiple accounts of the First Vision, we do not have all the details of his conversation with the Lord,” but he thinks he may have found an echo of that dialogue in the JST version of Psalm 14:1-2.  See, David A. LeFebre, “‘Give Me Right Word, O Lord’: The JST Changes in the Psalms,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament, edited by David R. Seely, et al.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2013, p. 358.

8.  Kent P. Jackson, From Apostasy to Restoration. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996, p. 104, see also notes 2-7 on pp. 114-115.   

9. Additional detail about Moroni’s visits may be found in Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, “Letter VII,” and “Letter VIII,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 10 (July 1835): 156-159; 2, no. 1 (October 1835): 197–200.  Kent Jackson has done the most extensive work on Moroni’s message to Joseph.  In addition to the citation above see, Kent P. Jackson, “The Appearance of Moroni to Joseph Smith,” in Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, Studies in Scripture, Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: Randall Book Co., 1985, pp. 339-366;  “Moroni's Message to Joseph Smith,” Ensign, (August 1990), pp. 13-16; “ The Scriptural Restoration,” in Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration, editor not specified. The 34th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005, pp. 221-36. 

For a list of seventeen things Moroni taught Joseph Smith during his first visit to Cumorah, according to Cowdery, see Brian L. Smith, “‘Taught from on High’: The Ministry of Angelic Messengers to the Prophet Joseph Smith,” in  Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration, editor not specified.  The 34th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005, pp 332-345.

10.  See the discussion in Moses 1:30-40; 2:1.

11.  Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, chapter 7, pp. 94-110. 

12.  Many years ago Elder Marion D. Hanks shared a touching story about a girl named Donna who had committed a serious transgression, but was helped through it by her entire ward. Then he said, “A number of years ago Brother Joseph Anderson and I had the privilege of driving with President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., to a solemn assembly in St. George. On the way I related to him this story, it having recently happened then. He thought a long time and had a tear in his eye as he said, ‘Brother Hanks, that is the most significant story I ever heard to illustrate the great importance of our filling our individual obligations in the Church.  When you have thought about it long enough, pass it on to others.’” Marion D. Hanks, Conference Report, April 1966, pp. 152-153, emphasis added.

13.  Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, p. 109. Harper draws on studies of memory in historical writing to make his point about how we gain understanding of the significant experiences in our lives.  On the difference between early and late accounts Harper said of the 1832 version, "Later accounts are more conscious of the vision's significance for all mankind...." Harper, p. 33.


  1. Another great post. Not only do I enjoy reading your well written thoughts I appreciate all the footnotes. I learn a great deal by reading the additional explanations and sources you provide for all of your posts.

    1. Thank you Matt. Funny, my wife said something similar regarding the footnotes for this one as well. I'm glad they are of interest. In some cases they could be expanded, but I am trying to keep things informative but not overwhelming. I'm hoping the footnotes will encourage readers here to search out and read more. Our people are not as historically literate about the Restoration as they can be with the marvelous sources available these days. But one has to pay the price to do the reading. I try to keep at it consistently, and over a lifetime it has paid off.