First Vision Handout

This is a handout that I gave as part of a pre-Mormon Expression presentation on problems in the first vision. The first part is an newspaper article on the problem of first hand accounts.


The First Vision

John Larsen

March 16th 2008


June 23, 2002

Ideas & Trends; For Air Crash Detectives, Seeing Isn’t Believing


HUNDREDS of people watched the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 near Kennedy International Airport in New York on Nov. 12, and in the course of 93 seconds they apparently saw hundreds of different things.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which announced this month that it had gathered 349 eyewitness accounts through interviews or written statements, 52 percent said they saw a fire while the plane was in the air. The largest number (22 percent) said the fire was in the fuselage, but a majority cited other locations, including the left engine, the right engine, the left wing, the right wing or an unspecified engine or wing.

Nearly one of five witnesses said they saw the plane make a right turn; an equal number said it was a left turn. Nearly 60 percent said they saw something fall off the plane; of these, 13 percent said it was a wing. (In fact, it was the vertical portion of the tail.)

The investigators say there is no evidence in the wreckage or on the flight recorders of an in-flight fire or explosion. A plane breaking up in flight, as this one did, might in its last moments produce flashes of fire from engines ripping loose, but the idea that the plane caught fire is a trick of memory, they say.

None of this is surprising, said Dr. Charles R. Honts, a professor of psychology at Boise State University and the editor of the Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology. ”Eyewitness memory is reconstructive,” said Dr. Honts, who is not associated with the safety board. ”The biggest mistake you can make is to think about a memory like it’s a videotape; there’s not a permanent record there.”

The problem, he said, is that witnesses instinctively try to match events with their past experiences: ”How many plane crashes have you witnessed in real life? Probably none. But in the movies? A lot. In the movies, there’s always smoke and there’s always fire.”

As a result, the safety board generally doesn’t place much value on eyewitness reports if data and voice recorders are available. For many investigators, the only infallible witness is a twisted piece of metal.

Benjamin A. Berman, a former chief of major aviation investigations at the safety board, said pilots actually make the worst witnesses, because their technical knowledge can lead them too quickly to identify a mechanical problem that may not have occurred. ”Children make among the best witnesses,” he added, ”because they don’t tend to place an interpretation on what they’ve seen.”

The safety board’s skepticism of eyewitness accounts was deepened by the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island six years ago: hundreds of people saw an upward streak that they assumed was a missile, although investigators said it was the body of the plane itself, streaking upward after the forward portion had fallen off following a fuel tank explosion.

THAT disaster highlighted another pitfall for investigators, Mr. Berman and others say: F.B.I. agents asked witnesses where the missile came from, presupposing the presence of a weapon. ”It wasn’t good aircraft accident investigation,” Mr. Berman said.

There are other well-known cases of witness error, including the crash of a Lauda Air Boeing 767 near Bangkok in May 1991. Witnesses said they heard a bomb and saw the plane fall in flames, but it turned out to be a mechanical problem.

So why do investigators bother asking witnesses at all? Dr. Bernard S. Loeb, who retired as the safety board’s director of aviation safety last year, said, ”In the case of 587, it’s unlikely that the witnesses will provide much to help the investigation, but you never know that when you begin an investigation — where you’re going to get important leads, from the recorders, from witnesses, from the structure itself.”

And in any crash, he said, conflicting witness statements can still be useful. ”What was very clear from the Flight 800 witnesses was that many did see something up in the sky,” he said.

Even if the accounts are likely to be wrong, they are still routinely gathered and evaluated by both the board and police agencies. ”Can you imagine if we didn’t interview the witnesses?” said one current board official.

Mr. Berman, who left the board last year, said investigators may have released the summary of what the Flight 587 witnesses saw just to show publicly that the statements showed ”scatter” — an engineering term for plotted data that does not fit a pattern. A release at this late date is unusual, but a spokesman for the board, Ted Lopatkiewicz, said it was done because it was ready. But, he added, ”I don’t think I’m making any news by saying that eyewitness testimony at a plane crash and probably at many traumatic events is unreliable.”

Witness statements can be more valuable in crashes of small planes that don’t have flight data recorders or cockpit voice recorders, Mr. Berman said.

Mr. Loeb said his experience with witnesses had led him to question the reliability of criminal convictions based on eyewitness identifications. In Illinois, he noted, a commission appointed by the governor recommended in April that the death penalty not be applied to murder convictions based on a single eyewitness identification.

Mr. Loeb said his personal experience also played into his skepticism. Recently he and his wife saw a two-vehicle collision, and unlike plane crash witnesses, they both saw it from the same angle. Within moments, they disagreed about what they had seen. Among other key details, Mr. Loeb said he could not recall whether one of the vehicles had been a truck or an S.U.V.

Modern Official Statements

Gordon B. Hinckley, “First Presidency Message,” Ensign, February 2007

“We have a perfect knowledge of the nature of God that has come through the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph. He saw God. He heard Him speak. He saw His Son. He heard Him speak, and he could speak to Them. There was no question in his mind about the true nature of God. What a tremendous thing that is.”


True to the Faith, 2004

“For your testimony of the restored gospel to be complete, it must include a testimony of Joseph Smith’s divine mission. The truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the truthfulness of the First Vision and the other revelations the Lord gave to the Prophet Joseph.”


Ezra T. Benson, “Fist Presidency Message” Ensign, April 1993

“The appearance of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith is the greatest event that has occurred in this world since the resurrection of the Master. As the restored Church of Jesus Christ, we humbly and gratefully bear this witness to all men. It is the truth, intended for all of our Father’s Children.”


Gordon B. Hinckley, Interview with Helen Whitney April 2007

“Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them…That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.”


“Approach Church History” Official Church Press release July 5th 2007

“But to deny the Church’s miraculous history is to deny its very foundation. During an interview for the recent PBS documentary “The Mormons,” Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian and a member of the high-ranking Quorum of the Seventy, was asked why Mormon history is taken so literally and not simply treated as a myth. In response he said that viewing history as a “figment of language or … imagination” takes away its essential meaning. From the perspective of believers, for example, Joseph Smith’s miraculous visions give real meaning to their lives not because of their symbolic value, but because they actually happened”


Modern Importance of First Vision

  • God hears and personally answers prayers
  • There is a personal devil that attempts to stop the progress of the work.
  • The Mormon concept of Godhead as opposed to the Trinitarian view.
  • Separating Joseph from his questionable past.
  • Distinguishing from classic reform movements: “New wine in new bottles.”


Key Accounts

First Person Accounts (Joseph Smith)

  • 1832 From Kirtland Letter Book
  • 1835 From Joseph Smith Diary, Nov. 9, 1835.
  • 1838 From James Mulholland “Journal” (Official Version, edited)
  • 1842 From Wentworth Letter in Times and Seasons


Other Key Contemporary Accounts

  • 1835 Oliver Cowdery: From Messenger and Advocate
  • 1840 Orson Pratt: An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions
  • 1842 Orson Hyde: Ein Ruf Aus Der Wüste (A Cry from the Wilderness)
  • 1843 Pittsburgh Gazette Interview


Key Changes

  • Internally significant event becomes externally significant
  • Joseph Looks better and better
  • The internal events become bigger or more poignant
  • The supporting events become larger
  • The key event moves from an internal to an external event
  • The events described become more concrete as time passes.
  • Account evolves to match contemporary doctrinal innovations


A Synopsis of Key Textual Problems


  1. In the 1832 account, Joseph’s study of the scriptures beginning at the age of 12 led him to believe that the Christian sects were all wrong “I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized 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”
  2. In the 1832 account, Joseph proclaims God to be “omnipresent” a statement consistent with the 1832 Mormon acceptance of Trinitarianism but in conflict with later doctrinal innovations and tellings of the event.
  3. 1832: “In 16th year of my age”. Early lack of concrete occurrence. Important because of external details later added to the narrative.
  4. “Pillar of fire” came down and “rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god”. Joseph uses language indicating and internal event that was experienced by him but not necessarily real outside of his mind.
  5. “I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and…” Use language consistent with biblical events. See especially the baptism of Jesus and the Martyrdom of Stephen.
  6. “he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.” Key element is personal standing with God, not the beginning of a world revolution in religion. Consistent with early interpretations of “Church” (i.e. not a formalized organization but a community of believers).
  7. Second element is the eminent destruction of the world due to wickedness. Claims that helped whip fervor and attract converts but proved to be untrue.
  8. “I could find none that would believe the heavenly vision”. No evidence this occurred.



  1. “I knew not who was right or who was wrong…” Changed Joseph’s position from knowing to humbly inquiring. Changed to make himself look like a better character.
  2. “Silent Grove” introduced vs. 1832 “wilderness” (figurative?). Begins construction of aggrandizing event and sacred space.
  3. Introduces quotation of James 1:5: moving from abstract to concrete interpretation of events.
  4. “My toungue 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.” Introduction of demonic intervention. Change from farm boy praying for forgiveness to significant event. Demonic activity very prevalent in early church.
  5. Pillar of Fire above head…personage in pillar: external event.
  6. “and filled with unspeakable joy” Increasing in the grandiosity and significance of the event.
  7. “Personage”… “He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision”. Personages distinct from God. Angels added in for effect also not differentiated from key personages.



  1. Firmly established concept of Church first vision inaugurates the Church, event defined in context of Church.
  2. Further externalization: “unusually excitement”, “all sects in the region”, “great multitudes united themselves”; no external evidence of these events, but establishes Joseph as a key player in a grand event.
  3. 15th year—again stated concretely, however in conflict with prior accounts. Does Joseph not know but thinks he knows, or does he intentionally bend the facts?
  4. “I kept myself aloof” & “I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit.” Joseph as the superior to conflict, dispassionate observer. Joseph aware of theological issues.
  5. “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man that his did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.”: Hyperbole & Exaggeration
  6. “Beautiful clear day early in the spring”: More concrete, yet not consistent with external facts. (Also not consistent with lush green modern retellings.)
  7. “First time in my life…to pray vocally”: Self aggrandizing? Even possible? Another off the cuff Joseph one liner zinger.
  8. “Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God”: Now Joseph contending with evil forces and Joseph himself overpowers the evil.
  9. Pillar of light “exactly overhead”, “brightness of the sun”, “descended gradually”. Completely external event now. No longer internal vision but an eyewitness event.
  10. Jesus & God: matching doctrinal innovations.
  11. “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that they all were wrong”—lie?
  12. Message changed from personal forgiveness (1832, 1835) to condemning existing churches. Personal forgiveness dropped completely—again aggrandizing Joseph.
  13. “I cannot write at this time”: by this time Joseph had figured out to give himself “outs”. Shows how Joseph had started to figure out the system.
  14. “Excited great deal of prejudice”, “persecution which continued to increase”, “men of high standing would take notice”, “attract the attention of the great ones”: delusions of grandeur? No internal or external evidence. By this time most of the early church members had left.
  15. “or one of them did”: Deleted from modern version for obvious reasons.



  1. Specific Theological Inquiry. Again, we have moved from internal individual event to one with global theological impact.
  2. “Summum bonum of perfection”: hyperbole not consistent with earlier interpretations or existent evidence. However, consistent with Nauvoo period rhetoric.
  3. Directly address more sophisticated theological nuances not understood in 1832. No longer concerned with scriptural purity.
  4. God referred to in 3rd person by personage. Personage and God implicitly distinct.
  5. Promised now that Church would be established in the future. Complete the transformation of internal to external event.

External Context

Notable Non-Mentions

In all of the following, no mention is made of a first vision that can be distinctly separated from the later visit of Moroni, or no mention is made at all. Compare with the claim by Joseph that he was hotly persecuted and great men took note of an insignificant farm boy.

  • All local newspapers
  • Alexander Campbell
  • E.D. Howe: 1834 Mormonism Unvailed
  • J.B. Turner: 1842 Mormonism in All Ages
  • John Whitmer History
  • John Corrill 1839 History
  • Sydney Rigdon
  • Evening & Morning Star
  • Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate
  • Book of Commandments
  • Book of Mormon
  • Doctrine and Covenants


Notable Individuals who Reported the First Vision as an Angelic Visitation

All of these notables were intimate acquaintances with Joseph Smith, were in the Church inner circle and held important Church office. From their writing it can be determined that they were unaware of the First Vision as a theophany. Nearly all other contemporary accounts and accounts up to the 1870s have the “first vision” as an angelic visitation among other angelic visitations. It carried the status of the “first” of many visions.

  • Oliver Cowdery
  • Martin Harris
  • Orson Pratt
  • Parley Pratt
  • Orson Hyde
  • William Smith
  • Lucy Mack Smith
  • George A. Smith
  • Heber C. Kimball
  • Brigham Young
  • John Taylor (later changed)
  • Wilford Woodruff


Selected Apologetic Response


Maxwell Institute (FARMS) on 3/13/08

“Why do Joseph Smith’s various accounts of the first vision differ so much?


“There are fewer differences between the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision than between the five different accounts of the apostle Paul’s first vision and his trip to Damascus (Acts 9:1-30; 22:5-21; 26:12-20; Galatians 1:11-24; and 2 Corinthians 11:32-33) or in the various accounts of Christ’s resurrection found in the four gospels. (For example, did the men with Paul hear the voice but see no man, as in Acts 9:7, or did they see the light but not hear the voice, as in Acts 22:9?) Indeed, there are no blatant contradictions between Joseph Smith’s accounts–only different emphasis–as would be expected when someone recounts an event from his life at different times and in different circumstances.

“Thus, for example, the fact that Joseph says in one account that he saw “the Lord” and in another that he saw “two personages” is not contradictory, only a matter of emphasis. And there is no real contradiction between Joseph Smith believing, when he went to pray in the grove, that he should join none of the churches, and the Lord confirming that thought by revelation. After all, he went into the woods to get an answer. If his mind was already made up and he merely needed confirmation, then it fits the pattern in D&C 9:8, where the Lord told Oliver Cowdery, “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.” The point of the “official” version of Joseph Smith’s story is that he received a revelation on the issue. But even that version does not preclude the idea that he had already determined the answer and needed confirmation.”


Fair Wiki on 3/13/08

“Joseph Smith’s various accounts of the First Vision were targeted at different audiences, and had different purposes. They, however, show a remarkable degree of harmony between them. There is no evidence that the early leaders of the LDS Church did not understand that the Prophet saw two Divine Personages during his inaugural theophany.”


Fair Brochure “The First Vision” on 3/13/08

“The critics claim that Joseph’s story of his vision evolved and that the first recorded account tells of one personage, rather than two. Nothing in the 1832 account states, however, that there was only one personage. If you tell someone that you had visited with the President of the United States, does this mean that the Vice President and First Lady were not present? Just because this early account mentions only one personage, we should not assume that there was only one personage.”


“Should we reject the Resurrection because the Apostles could not agree on how many angels were at Christ’s tomb (see Matt. 28:2, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4, and John 10:12)?”


“Richard Lloyd Anderson has observed that many of the criticisms against Joseph Smith’s vision apply equally as well to Paul’s vision. For instance the critics attack Joseph Smith because the earliest known record of his vision wasn’t given until a dozen years after it happened. The first

record of Paul’s vision, however, which is found in 1 Corinthians 9:1, wasn’t recorded until two dozen years after it happened. And just as the most detailed description of Joseph’s vision was one of his later accounts, so likewise, Paul’s most detailed account of his vision was the last of

several recorded. The details in both accounts are expanded because they are geared to different audiences.8 The critics reject Joseph Smith’s vision for standards that they would not dare apply to the Bible.”