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Some critics of Mormonism deny that any reference to Joseph Smith’s First Vision existed prior to 1832. This claim is false: Hostile witnesses had demonstrably heard elements of the First Vision by 1827, and newspaper reports strongly suggest that Latter-day Saint missionaries were alluding to it by early 1831 (i.e., within a year of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
It’s true, however, that Smith’s written accounts of the First Vision don’t come until later. This is scarcely surprising, since his wasn’t a bookish upbringing. His parents, he wrote in his 1832 autobiographical sketch, which is available on josephsmithpapers.org, “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 instructtid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which const(it)uted my whole literary acquirements.”
Moreover, he seems initially to have regarded his First Vision as a private personal experience and not as the mighty dispensation-opening theophany that we now treasure for its doctrinal richness. The fire-and-brimstone sermons around Palmyra, New York, had left him worried about “the all importent concerns for the well fare of my immortal Soul,” he wrote in 1832. “My mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins.”
“Therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy,” he wrote. Significantly, the first divine words that he quotes in 1832 are “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments.”
His public ministry, he may originally have felt, began only with Moroni and the Book of Mormon. And then, in a revelation given at the organization of the church on April 6, 1830, came the Lord’s command: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1).
The Prophet Joseph presented a document called the “Articles and Covenants” — revealed through him in April 1830 — to a conference on June 9, 1830, and Oliver Cowdery read it aloud during another conference on Sept. 26, 1830. It briefly summarizes the story of the Restoration to that point, including an unmistakable reference to the First Vision. Later, it was published in the non-Mormon Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph on April 19, 1831. It is readily available today in Doctrine and Covenants 20:5-12: “After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world.” So reads Doctrine and Covenants 20:5, which refers unmistakably to the First Vision and to the subsequent “weakness and imperfections” confessed in Joseph Smith — History 1:28-30.
Verses 20:6-8 then summarize Moroni’s visit:
“But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness; and gave unto him commandments which inspired him; and gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon.”
Verses 20:9-12 continue in historical sequence, alluding to the Book of Mormon witnesses and explaining some of the significance of the book, “which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also; which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.”
This well-documented history poses a potent challenge:
“Therefore, having so great witnesses, by them shall the world be judged, even as many as shall hereafter come to a knowledge of this work. And those who receive it in faith, and work righteousness, shall receive a crown of eternal life; but those who harden their hearts in unbelief, and reject it, it shall turn to their own condemnation” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:13-15).
For the full text of the 1832 First Vision account, see josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/1.
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