The Theological Content of the First Vision

The Come Follow Me curriculum for this week covers the First Vision—something with which many of us struggle. My purpose of writing is to explore what can be understood theologically from the First Vision, for above all: the First Vision speaks about God (the literal meaning of the word “theology”).

The 1838 official version of the First Vision provides a pivotal Latter-day Saint perspective on the nature of God, and the 1832 a distinct perspective, less LDS-specific. While it may be argued that the 1838 version, being 18 years after the purported event, exhibits theological development beyond the actual experience itself, I do not believe that the content of either should be ignored.

Part I: Seeing God

Once Joseph Smith overcomes the adversary, the vision itself begins with this statement:

When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (JS-H 1:17)

Latter-day Saints often propose that this is (1) a physical visitation, and (2) it reveals the corporeal nature of God the Father. But the evidence from the scripture itself points to being explicitly a vision and not a physical visitation: (a) Joseph entering an alternative state of being through the experience with the adversary, and (b) in verse 20, when Joseph “came to himself again” after the experience. The usage of the word “vision” at the time meant something experienced with “second sight” or “spiritual eyes.” Further evidence is found in the Book of Moses/Pearl of Great Price, where in around 1831, Joseph Smith would translate the experience of Moses seeing god as such:

But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:11)

If Joseph Smith understood that his personal experience in 1820 was a physical visitation, then his interpretative extrapolation of Moses’ account would likely not have included the above statement.

In 1832, Joseph’s understanding of the First Vision was distinct: he “saw the Lord”, with no mention of two personages. It seems unlikely that a physical singularity of actually seeing both the Father and the Son in vision would be casually omitted from his first account of the vision. Later, in 1834-5, Joseph Smith and his associates stated explicitly that God the Father is a personage of spirit, the Son a personage of tabernacle (having a physical body), and the Holy Ghost as the shared mind between them, and not a distinct personage of spirit (Lectures on Faith, No. 5). Later, Joseph Smith would redefine the Godhead as God the Father and the Son having physical, tangible bodies, and the Holy Ghost a “personage of spirit.” (D&C 130:22).

The fact that the First Vision was a vision, seen within the spiritual eyes within the mind and heart of Joseph Smith (see D&C 8:2-3), should not diminish the theological content of the First Vision, but it certainly demands us to rethink our literalism of the nature of God. Stephen in scripture also saw the Father and the Son in vision while being martyred (Acts 7:55-56). Thus, one cannot impute from the First Vision as it is expressed in either version the corporeal nature of Godhead as Joseph Smith understood it in 1843 as reflected in D&C 130.

Why is this important? While our LDS doctrine literalizes and concretizes the idea of God into an exalted human, such ontology (nature of being) cannot be reconciled with the Christian idea of God as being all powerful, all knowing, entirely good, present everywhere, and unchangeable/incorruptible. Joseph’s understanding of God was distinctly anthropomorphic: he humanized God in a way that Protestant Christians would find unacceptable. But was he wrong to do so? If we must choose between the incomprehensible, fully transcendent God, who is outside of creation and “not us”, versus a God who is somehow deeply human, which would be better? In the last two years of his life, Joseph Smith began constructing a unique theological anthropology: that God and humanity are of the same genus and species in very close relationship. Although this cannot be imputed from the first vision, we can see from the 1832 account the deep relationality and love between God and humanity.

The truth of this part of the first vision is that Joseph Smith experienced God in person, unmediated by scripture, dogma, religion, or priesthood; and this God self-manifested in the mind and heart as a “Vision”—a spiritual experience. He did not understand the theology of the Trinity or any other Christian doctrine that might shape his theological understanding, although later he attempts to justify what he experienced in his somewhat naïve understanding of who or what God was—a naiveté that Michelangelo shared on his Sistine Chapel ceiling, by the way (or perhaps Michelangelo was surreptitiously showing that God the Father was a construct within the human brain, but that is another topic). So as Joseph framed his experience, over time, we see variability in defining who or what he saw—a key attribute of the spiritual experience is ineffability (See William James Varieties of Religious Experience).

Part II: Why Did Joseph Go to the Grove?

The 1838 account states that Joseph Smith explicitly desired to know which church was true:

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, 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. (JS-H 1:18)

But the earlier 1832 account has a different take:

My mind become exceedingly distressed for I become 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 built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world. (From the Joseph Smith Papers, with corrections).

These two accounts are contradictory and irreconcilable on this point of motive for going to the Grove. Prior to going to the grove in the 1832 account, he was already convinced that there was no church that matched his understanding of the New Testament, but he was concerned about his sins, and was seeking forgiveness for them. The 1832 account is both more credible on this account, as well as being less polemic against other religions: the more typical experience of theophany (See Amos in the Book of Mormon) is concern for sins. As well, Joseph certainly did not know all the societies and denominations of the world in order to have made a comprehensive conclusion to reject all religions, so the 1832 account expresses his opinion, not a divine judgment of world religion—an important and useful distinction that enables us to be more ecumenical and syncretic in interfaith dialogue.

Part III: The Polemic Rejection of Religion

The next part of the vision details the divine judgment against religions of Joseph Smith’s day:

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof. He again forbade me to join with any of them…” (JS-H 1:19-20)

The 1832 account is quite distinct:

Behold, the world lieth in sin and 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. (From the Joseph Smith Papers, with corrections)

The 1832 version appears prophetic in nature, in the style of the King James Bible. Jesus comes to take away “the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) and to “reprove the world of sin.” (John 16:8) the “turned aside” language appears nineteen times in the Bible. The lips and heart language appears in Isaiah 29:13 (in both accounts). “I come quickly” and the cloud language comes from the Book of Revelation. In other words, the words and language of the Lord in the 1832 account derive entirely from scripture, tends to be characteristic in pattern toward prophetic call to repentance. In contrast, the 1838 account condemns the religions, creeds, and professors of the day in a novel way that does not appear in scripture.

There is some merit to the unique portions of the 1838 account. The condemnation of creeds needs to be framed in terms of how Joseph Smith understood the problem of creeds. In 1843, he notes:

…the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time. (History of the Church, V5, 215)

In other words, Joseph Smith is concerned not as much with the content of creeds–in fact, he produces a creed in the Articles of Faith—but his concern is with the dogmatic constraint of the creed that prevents any ongoing revelation, whether sacred or secular. To Smith, the gospel is cosmic and universal, that all truth is contained in the gospel. This is not a dogmatic constraint, but rather, an invitation toward openness and syncretism: if anything is found to be true, then it is part of the Gospel, for the Gospel is “truth.” The paradox of Joseph Smith creating a creed is that he finds it useful to declare what the Church believes in simple terms, while being open to the possibility of it being tentative (a “creed” is a statement beginning with any “I believe” or “we believe”, as the word “creed” comes from the Latin “credere”/to believe). Thus, a creed, or any statement of “I/we believe” should be understood as tentative as well, with the possibility of learning more, line upon line, precept upon precept. A creed becomes a scaffolding to approach building our knowledge of truth, but it is not the truth itself.

In this context, those who profess creeds as the definitive and absolute truth are corrupted by the dogmatic constraint of the creed. The man-made scaffolding becomes the object of worship and revered as truth, when it is essentially the “commandments” or philosophies of men, mingled with scripture. Note that there isn’t a problem with philosophies or commandments of men, but when they are taught as if they were the doctrine of Christ, and held as absolute, dogmatic constraints on what we believe, then we have entered the sphere of corruption and idolatry.

Thus, although it is unlikely that the 1838 account accurately reflects the theological content of the actual First Vision as the young 12- or 14-year-old Joseph Smith experienced, the 1838 official narrative can be understood as a legitimate concern with the dogmatic certainties of the Protestant religions with which Joseph Smith was familiar in his time and place.

Part IV: Closing the Vision

The vision closes with a wrap up statement, and then Joseph Smith “comes to himself”:

He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.” (JS-H 1:20)

The content of the First Vision is brief, comprising only of three verses of text (or less). Understood as a vision, a theophany, it appears to be a prophetic call to return religion to its more divine origins: toward openness to God, toward intimacy with God as experience, and toward seeking truth wherever it may be found. When understood as a physical visitation, it stands as a singularity, unlike any other event in the history of God’s dealings with humanity as recorded in Scripture. In a closer reading of the text, however, coupled with observing Joseph Smith’s evolving understanding of God, the idea that the First Vision was physical singularity does not appear to be supportable.

I believe we should take the first vision, in both versions, as a personal call to holiness and a prophetic call toward open truth-seeking. Understood this way, the First Vision becomes accessible to us all, as we seek discernment in our spiritual experiences. It becomes a call to relationship with God as we seek truth in all things.

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