In this week’s chapter in the Come, Follow Me manual, one of the core areas of discussion is “why are there various accounts of the First Vision?” It’s an opportunity to explore the other accounts of the First Vision in a way that is potentially helpful to members of the Church. The section mentions that: “Although these accounts differ in some details, depending on the audience and setting, they are otherwise consistent. And each account adds details that help us better understand Joseph Smith’s experience.” The manual offers a link to the Gospel Topics Essay, which in turn links to the different accounts, and then asks: “What do you learn from reading all of these accounts?” While I’ve offered my thoughts on what the messages of the First Vision were according to what’s actually in the accounts (more or less my response to that final question), I want to take some time to look at a relatively minor example of how “each account adds details that help us better understand Joseph Smith’s experience.”
Within the canonized account of the First Vision, there is an inconsistency that has often stood out to me. In discussing his confusion caused by several Protestant sects proselyting and contending with each other, Joseph Smith states that: “I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” Later, when he is talking about being in the middle of the vision, he states that: “I asked the Personages … which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.” So, which is it? Did he ask himself if they were “all wrong together” before the vision or had it “never entered into [his] heart that all were wrong?” As a missionary, I talked about this occasionally with my companions and one of the more common apologetic moves made in these discussions was that while Joseph Smith may have had the thought that all the Churches were wrong pass through his mind, he didn’t seriously consider it (i.e., it “never entered into my heart”, it only briefly entered his mind). We do, however, have different accounts of the First Vision available that give us a view of what Joseph Smith remembered thinking prior to the First Vision.
The earliest major account is one that was written by Joseph Smith himself sometime around 1832. In it, Joseph Smith makes it clear that his struggle with finding the path to salvation spanned years: “From the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world.” By studying the scriptures and talking with “those of differant denominations” during that time, he states that he “discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository” and that “I found that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” In this account, those were the conclusions that he came to during the time leading up to the First Vision. Thus, in the 1832 account, he indicates that it not only “entered into my heart that all were wrong,” as he put it in the 1838 account, but that it was his conviction going into the First Vision that “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The other two major accounts were recorded in 1835 and 1842, though they are less helpful on the question at hand. The 1835 account was a journal entry recorded by a scribe from a time Joseph Smith told a visitor about “the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon.” This account is relatively neutral and silent on the topic of Christian sects, briefly mentioning that when he was “looking upon <at> the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong” but he wanted to know. Even when describing his vision with the two personages, however, no further mention is made about this concern during this account. The 1842 account is a part of the Wentworth letter—a brief history of the Church and Joseph Smith’s life written for non-members (this is the same document that the Articles of Faith and the Standard of Truth come from). Like the 1835 account, it doesn’t give us a clear answer on the question at hand. He only states that upon examining the different denominations, he felt that “if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.” This only indicates that he felt like there should be one true Church and that he wanted to be a part of it, but doesn’t indicate whether or not he considered the possibility that none of the existing sects or denominations were that one true Church prior to the vision.
There are also several second-hand contemporary accounts written by associates of Joseph Smith. These documents give us a glimpse of what the people around Joseph Smith understood him to be saying about the First Vision. The earliest to be published was Orson Pratt’s and it is similar to the 1842 Wentworth Letter in what it says about Joseph Smith’s thoughts prior to the vision (so, not terribly useful here). More interesting for this discussion is Orson Hyde’s 1842 Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, which, according to one translation, states that “after he had sufficiently convinced himself to his own satisfaction that darkness covered the earth and gross darkness [covered] the nations, the hope of ever finding a sect or denomination that was in possession of unadulterated truth left him.” According to Hyde, Smith’s prayer to the Lord for answers was a direct consequence of this conclusion. Most of the other accounts are more in line with the 1835 and 1842 accounts in not talking about whether or not Joseph Smith considered the possibility of there being no true Church prior to the vision, only stating things like Joseph “was desirous to know what Church to join,” or that he “could not find out which of all the sects were right,” so he turned to God for an answer. The interesting outlier is an account from the journal of Alexander Neibaur, which records that when Joseph Smith went to pray, he and asked the Lord: “Must I join the Methodist Church[?]” This lines up with the 1838 account’s statement that “in the process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them,” though it takes that idea further than Joseph Smith did in his own writings in indicating that he asked specifically about one church during the vision. Thus, of the five contemporary second-hand accounts, one indicates that Joseph Smith concluded that all churches were wrong, three give no statements about conclusions prior to the First Vision, and one indicates that Joseph Smith wondered if Methodism was the Lord’s Church.
Now that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole of the various accounts out there, do we have an answer to the original question at hand? Did Joseph Smith ask himself if they were “all wrong together” before the vision or “had [it] never entered into [his] heart that all were wrong?” Most of the accounts are ambiguous, only stating that he was looking for the church that would lead him to salvation and that he couldn’t figure out which one was the correct one, so he went to God to ask. Those accounts don’t answer the question either way. At least one secondary account mentions that he seriously considered the possibility that the Methodists were the group God wanted him to join (which is also mentioned briefly in the 1838 account), which doesn’t preclude the possibility that he also considered at some point that they might all be wrong, only that he strongly considered the idea that the Methodist church was the Lord’s church at some point along the way. And, finally, two accounts seem to indicate that Joseph Smith concluded that all the churches were wrong.
I believe, based on the above, that Joseph Smith did at least ponder the possibility that the Christian churches were “all wrong together” prior to the First Vision. The 1832 account is the account written closest to the time of the event itself and the only one we have in Joseph Smith’s handwriting, so that account has some pretty good weight behind what it says. And that account says that Joseph Smith concluded that “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament” prior to the First Vision. Orson Hyde’s later, secondary account seems to back up that idea with his statement that “the hope of ever finding a sect or denomination that was in possession of unadulterated truth left him.” Along the way towards making that conclusion, Joseph seems to have flirted with the idea of becoming Methodist, but ultimately chose to not join prior to the First Vision because of a lack of certainty. Thus, the earlier statement in the 1838 account that he asked, “who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” seems to be backed up more strongly in the other accounts than his later statement in the 1838 account that “at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.” I don’t know why Joseph Smith wrote the latter statement, but in light of the 1832 account, I don’t think that saying that Joseph Smith didn’t seriously consider the possibility that “all were wrong” (as a few of my missionary companions suggested) is a correct assessment of the situation. And we can at least get that much of an answer because there are several contemporary accounts available to us and “each account adds details that help us better understand Joseph Smith’s experience.”
- Chad Nielsen, “The First Vision–A Close Reading”
- I mentioned this one above, but it’s a blog post that I feel is important for looking closely at what Joseph Smith actually claimed happened during the First Vision.
- Chad Nielsen, “First Vision Resources”
- If you really want to explore the First Vision in-depth, this post has a lot of links to resources, blog posts, and scholarly articles compiled together in one place.
 Someday, I would love to have a Sunday school manual that looks at the event of the First Vision using all of the accounts in concert to explore what Joseph Smith said he experienced rather than approaching it like we have one account of the First Vision and some historical curiosities on the side. Even looking past the history prior to the time the Church acknowledged the existence of the 1832 and 1835 accounts, the Church gave their blessing to publishing the 1832 account for the first time in a 1965 BYU Master’s Thesis and followed this up by openly publishing the 1832 and 1835 accounts in BYU Studies in 1969 and then including a discussion of the various accounts in the Church’s main magazine in 1970. With that in mind, it feels like the Church has moved at a glacial rate to embrace those accounts since then. For example, it seems like a major missed opportunity that in the Teachings of the President of the Church: Joseph Smith, first published in 2007 (approximately 40 years after the Church openly published the 1832 and 1835 accounts), they devoted an entire chapter to the First Vision, but asides from one quote from the 1832 account in the chapter introduction, the chapter simply quoted the 1838 account. This seems to be the pattern for Church publications—mentioning the other accounts in the peripheries or as historical curiosities but keeping the focus on the 1838 account. It makes sense to a certain extent, given that the 1838 account is officially scripture while the others are not (despite some effort on Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s part to have the whole Wentworth Letter canonized), but I enjoy exploring the many accounts of the First Vision.
 JS-H 1:10.
 JS-H 1:18.
 “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2
 “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/25.
 ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 706, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/1
 “Appendix: Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840,” p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-orson-pratt-an-interesting-account-of-several-remarkable-visions-1840/5/
 “Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry out of the Wilderness), 1842, extract, English translation,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/orson-hyde-ein-ruf-aus-der-wste-a-cry-out-of-the-wilderness-1842-extract-english-translation/1
 “Interview, 21 August 1843, extract,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/interview-21-august-1843-extract/1.
 “Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843, extract,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/levi-richards-journal-11-june-1843-extract/2.
 “Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, extract,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/alexander-neibaur-journal-24-may-1844-extract/1.
 JS-H 1:8.
 See JS-H 1:8, which indicates that he felt too confused by the religious contentions to settle on joining them. He did end up flirting with a certain Methodist later on named Emma Hale, though.
Memories are not based on exactly what happened, but instead are a blend of experiences (current compared to past) and one’s knowledge of the world. And as time goes on, new experiences can alter that memory even more (which is why eyewitness testimony is considered so unreliable). With that understanding, it’s anybody’s guess (including Joseph Smith’s in 1832 or 1838) as to what he was really thinking at the time of his experience.
Not sure how this would go over in Sunday School but it would certainly get people talking!
I would to have us consider an account of the First Vision that was included in D&C 20:5-6.
the account is brief. The revelation that account is a part of was given soon after the organization of the church on April 6, 1831. I would like to recommend the book by Terryl Givens and Brian M. Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price (Oxford University Press, 2019). This book gives some other insights into the development of the various First Vision accounts that can be considered. I am not going to even try to summarize them here. There are also parallels in the New Testament to Joseph Smiths vision accounts in the accounts of the apostle Paul’s vision in Galatians Chaper1, the earliest, around the 50’s ad to his vision accounts in Acts 9,22,27, the latest, around the 80’s ad. There are differences in those accounts which could also be argued over to those so inclined. Mark, I completely agree with your comments on memory. Bart D. Ehrman in his Book Jesus Before the Gospels, Harper Collins Publishers, 2016 goes into a detailed discussion into how memory affects how events are remembered.
Also take a look at Steve Harper’s book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins, as well as his article in BYU Studies Quarterly last year, “Raising the Stakes: How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Became All or Nothing.”
Although others have sometimes made a big deal of the question of how many personages JS saw in his vision (1832 reporting only one and 1838 reporting two), I’ve long thought the difference as to the question “Which church is right?” [the title of an old missionary tract we used in the 60s, at least] more significant. More significant because it was not a question or an answer in the 1832 version, having already been decided by JS, but was a significant part of the 1838 version. Also, more significant because of the relative theological insignificance of two personages appearing, just as they had appeared in the NT Stephen’s vision, despite what significance Truman Madsen and many others have tried to make out of it. (I suppose it would be significant if the experience were a visitation rather than a vision, but that’s another question.)
One of the issues rarely addressed is what is even meant by the question “Which church is right?” Which church teaches correct God-given doctrine? practices? Which teaches only correct God-given doctrine or practices? (Hint: none and still none if all teachings by adherents of any particular church are included in the concept of what “the church” teaches.) Maybe which church, if any, is a church founded by Christ himself? But more likely from current viewpoint, which church has actual priesthood authority derived from Christ himself? Perhaps, it could also mean nothing more than “Which church is right for a particular inquirer at a particular time?” The latter possibility includes an entertaining possibility as to what might have been meant if JS did actually ask whether he should join the Methodist church.
While I would naturally tend to think the earlier version in JS’ handwriting more accurate, there is still a significant time lapse between ca. 1820 and 1832 during which one could reasonably expect ordinary memory modification to have happened. There is good reason to credit one’s contemporary written memoranda of one’s observations over much later memory, even if analysis of the meaning of such observations might legitimately change over time. As I understand it we have no such contemporary writing by JS about the vision or his motivations or what he asked or experienced.
Maybe the inconsistencies or incompleteness of some accounts don’t have much eternal significance. See Roger Terry’s “Frau Ruster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance” in Dialogue Vol 40 No 3, also posted a year or so later on Patheos.
Also, I didn’t see Stan Larson’s “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision” Dialogue Vol 47 No 2 in your linked list of sources. Perhaps it should be added.
Great points and suggestions everyone, and thank you for bringing the Stan Larson article to my attention, Wondering. I have added it to the list.
Those are good questions to bring up Wondering. As far as the question of “which church is right?”, there are some indications of what Joseph Smith was interested in knowing (or that he remembered being interested in knowing) in the different accounts. In the 1832 and 1835 accounts, he is concerned primarily with how to gain salvation for his soul, so the question of which church is correct seemed rooted in the question of which church would be able to lead him to salvation. Given the fixation with following “what I found contained in that sacred depository” and being built on the “gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament” in the 1832 account, Joseph seems to have believed that whichever church matched what was recorded in the New Testament would be the one that had the ability to lead him to salvation (and that none of them did). In the Wentworth Letter, the answer he records from Jesus also gives an indication: “All religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as His Church and kingdom.” So, in that case, both acknowledgement by God and correct doctrines were the key factors in being “right.” Of course, even finding those answers just kicks the can down the road to other questions–how do we know what the correct doctrines are that we need to believe? Is the New Testament consistent enough and detailed enough for a church to follow everything in there with precision and without deviations and elaborations? And (ultimately), what is required for salvation and what is the role of a church in fulfilling those requirements? Based on the last question, I suspect the priesthood authority (and, by extension, saving ordinances) is the primary concern for the Church today.
I suspect that Joseph Smith did not consider all of the sects to be wrong previous to the vision, and that his mention of it later is his future self projecting onto his earlier memory. Because if all of the sects were wrong that reasonably means that all of Christianity and the Bible are wrong.