Information on the life of the prophet Joseph Smith Jr., his family and the First Vision have flooded almost any social media platform offered by technology, at libraries, museums and in lecture halls.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is hosting a bicentennial celebration this year in honor of the First Vision, recorded as happening in the spring of 1820. The remembrance of the event, a turning point for the restoration of the church, will also be hosting a unique general conference the first weekend of April.
Over the past few years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has opened the floodgates of information through its website, manuals, videos and podcasts on Smith and his journey to the Sacred Grove — the location of the First Vision — and beyond.
No one has been more involved with these processes than Spencer W. McBride, church historian of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Joseph Smith Papers podcasts
For nine months of 2019, McBride researched and spoke with scholars and read their work on the prophet. He went through Smith’s papers so his church-sponsored podcasts were transparent with information for the public understanding of why this bicentennial celebration is so important to church members.
McBride’s “The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast” is a six-part miniseries from the Joseph Smith Papers Project that explores the history and legacy of Smith’s First Vision, according to the church website.
The podcast recreates the world in which Smith was seeking answers to the pressing questions of his soul, church information states.
Part of McBride’s podcasts include information on the four documented accounts of the First Vision either by the hand of Smith, or written down by scribes and note takers.
“I’m passionate as a historian and I love being able to distill it [historical information],” McBride said. “In writing it [the podcast] I wanted it to be helpful for church members no matter where they are in their process, even new to church history.”
McBride said he has been overwhelmed with the response.
Referring to the various accountings of the First Vision, McBride said, “As a member I love reading the different ways Joseph Smith described his feelings. It filled his soul with joy unthinkable. It’s about us connecting with God.”
McBride says he goes to the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York yearly and considers it very meaningful as he shares the accounts of the First Vision.
The 1832 account
“Joseph started having questions at age 12 as stated in the 1832 account of the First Vision,” McBride said. “It took him years of thinking and studying.”
McBride said the question is, “How does that affect us as church members?”
“It is reassuring for many people who are spiritually seeking,” McBride said. “It shows that it takes time.”
The record shares Smith’s experience of seeing God and Jesus Christ he said occurred in the early spring of 1820. It wasn’t until 12 years later in 1832 that Smith wrote down the account.
“It was a rough draft and he never finished his writing down what happened,” McBride said.
It was the earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Smith’s own handwriting, according to church history records. It is found in a short, unpublished history that Smith produced in the second half of 1832.
In the account, Smith describes his consciousness of his own sins and his frustration at being unable to find a church that matched the one he had read about in the New Testament and that would lead him to redemption. He emphasized Jesus Christ’s atonement and the personal redemption it offers.
Smith wrote that the Lord appeared and forgave him of his sins. As a result of the vision, he experienced joy and love, though, as he noted, he could find no one who believed his account, according to church history.
Smith says in the account that he believed in the gospel as taught from the Bible, but felt the churches were not living or professing those teachings correctly.
“My intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly, for I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository,” Smith wrote in the 1832 account. “This was a grief to my soul.”
In this account he says that from age 12 to 15 he pondered many things in his heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.
“My mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins, and by searching the scriptures 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament,” Smith wrote.
He said he “cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.” As he was in that attitude, he said he saw a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noonday come down from above and it rested on him.
“I was ﬁlled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord,” Smith said.
He records the following, “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.”
Smith said he continued, “Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside 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 according to their 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 is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.”
It should be noted that in this accounting, Smith does not refer to the powers of darkness that overcame him prior to the pillar of light.
He also puts his age at 15 years old.
“We don’t know why Joseph wrote 1832 the way he did,” McBride said. “It was never published.”
It would be three more years before he gave another accounting of his experience in the grove.
The 1835 accounting
In the fall of 1835, Joseph Smith recounted his First Vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. Church history information says the retelling, recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe Warren Parrish, emphasizes Joseph’s attempt to discover which church was right, the opposition he felt as he prayed, and the appearance of one divine personage who was followed shortly by another. This account also notes the appearance of angels in the vision.
“Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon 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 swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me, like some person walking towards me. I strove again to pray but could not. The noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprung up on my feet and looked around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking,” Smith said.
He said his tongue was then loosened so he could speak and he saw a pillar of fire above his head.
“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 unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. And I saw many angels in this vision. I was about fourteen years old when I received this first communication.”
McBride said because different points were emphasized or reported differently from one accounting to another, many of Smith’s critics have latched on to those things to discredit his experience.
The 1838 account
It wasn’t until the 1838 version that an accounting of the vision became official. It is the accounting that has been canonized by the LDS Church as is added to the book of scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price.
It can been found in Joseph Smith – History 1:5-20.
“One thing that is apparent to me is how Joseph’s understanding grew in time with visions,” McBride said. “Joseph Smith wasn’t a record keeper as a boy. But when he was asked to keep a record the first thing he writes is the First Vision.”
The 1842 account
This accounting came about from an inquiry by John Wentworth, an editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, regarding the beliefs of the church. The letter also included the first writing of the church’s Articles of Faith, also canonized and added to the Pearl of Great Price.
From the “Comprehensive History of the Church,” Elder B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the First Council of the Seventy wrote: “The letter is one of the choicest documents in our church literature; as also it is the earliest published document by the Prophet personally, making any pretension to consecutive narrative of those events in which the great Latter-day work had its origin. … For combining conciseness of statement with comprehensiveness of treatment of the subject with which it deals, it has few equals among historical documents, and certainly none that excel it in our church literature.”
In this accounting, following his studying and pondering on the subject of religion Smith wrote, “I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord. While fervently engaged in supplication, my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday.”
Smith continued, “They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”
The podcast talk about what was happening around Smith and his family from the economy to weekend revivals. They bring a deeper understanding to the boy and his destiny.
“It’s useful for us to look at what it was really like,” McBride said. “They were just coming out of winter with renewed life. It’s a metaphor for the restoration.”