Latter-day Saint History

How Do These Churches View the First Vision Differently?

The divergence is very stark.

The First Vision of Joseph Smith is an important part of the story of both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ. The two communities, however, have had nearly 200 years of divergence of opinions on the subject. This interview with Dr. Keith J. Wilson discusses the Latter-day Saint and Community of Christ perspectives on the First Vision.

Read more about the Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in dialogue in Restorations: Scholars in Dialogue from Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Table of Contents

Why did you feel it was important to engage in this dialogue?

Back in the mid Nineties I felt the need to engage RLDS online scholars. They were open and invited me back to speak at one of their Book of Mormon conferences. From there the relationships just blossomed and I have spent the last two decades engaging with most of the Restoration branches. Since the Community of Christ is the second biggest Restoration strand, this opportunity was providential.

What did you learn from writing about the First Vision?

I quickly came to recognize that the First Vision was not originally etched in stone, and that its respective position was influenced greatly by the different courses that each of our faiths followed. I marveled over the fact that in my faith we chose to make this event a doctrinal cornerstone and for my Community of Christ cousins they placed it more in a personal experience and context.

The 1838 account was obviously the gold standard.

Why has Orson Pratt been called the “Defender of the First Vision”?

This is a very cogent question that all Latter-day Saints should understand. Orson Pratt quickly realized the importance of the First Vision and wanted it shouted from the rooftops. This was at a time when the Book of Mormon was the principal evidence and message of the Restoration. “The Church” did not have the First Vision during the 1820’s or even the 1830’s.

So, Orson Pratt took it upon himself to promote the First Vision. He had it published in multiple languages. He believed it as it came to him from the mouth of Joseph Smith.

To his dying day he shared his witness of its truthfulness. One year before his death in 1881 he witnessed its Latter-day Saint canonization. He is also the primary reason why we as Latter-day Saints are linked to the 1838 account.

To his title of “defender of the First Vision” we might aptly add, “promoter, advocate, and testator.”

Why does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favor the 1838 account of the First Vision?

Perhaps the best answer to this question is that this was done with the blessing and support of Joseph Smith Jr.

Yes, Joseph did write the 1832 account, but he never distributed it, and it was largely forgotten for about 130 years. However, the Prophet did dictate the 1838 account according to Pratt’s testimony and he allowed it to be printed and distributed.

A few years later when Joseph wrote the Wentworth letter, his account was more brief, but largely paralleled the 1838 account. So, the 1838 account was obviously the gold standard.

Keith Wilson and Katy Pratt Sumsion discuss a comparative analysis of the First Vision between the Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What role did David O. McKay play in raising the importance of the First Vision?

David O. McKay was most responsible for bringing the Church out of obscurity. He did not descend from the Smith family and he unabashedly viewed the Church as truly a worldwide entity. He was very missionary oriented, reflected both in his mantra, “Every member a missionary” and also lowering the mission age to 19 and 21 respectively.

He encouraged every young man to serve a mission and the pamphlet, “Joseph Smith’s Own Story” was given to each missionary to study and memorize. The First Vision became the first tool in each missionary’s conversion kit.

This became David O. McKay’s legacy.

In what ways do you believe that the truth claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rest on the First Vision?

The acceptance of the 1838 account circumscribes in unmistakable terms the doctrine of “a true church.” Unlike traditional Christianity, this cannot be understood as a loose consortium of believers in Jesus Christ. The First Vision proscribes a distinct organization that would come forth from Joseph Smith.

If you believe in the literalness of the First Vision you are bound to believe in a literal restored church here upon the earth. Hence, the First Vision is the fulcrum upon which the Restoration exists.

Real divergence first appears … during the decade of 1950-1960.

In what ways is the First Vision “a virtual treasure trove of doctrinal truths”?

About the turn of the 20th Century, this question was considered deeply by church leaders like B. H. Roberts and Joseph F. Smith. Eventually this question even made it into correlated Church lesson materials suggesting some 15 or 20 truths that are taught in the First Vision.

Topics included among others, the nature of the Godhead, answers to prayer, the reality of Satan, the doctrine of one true church, the doctrine of Christian apostasy, and the concept of personal worth/identity.

“Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, Panama. Mola, cotton textile, year unknown. Image courtesy

How have the doctrines of the First Vision diverged sharply between the two churches?

The uses of the First Vision between our two faiths are remarkably parallel for about one hundred years from 1860-1960. This can be readily seen by comparing references in our parallel church magazines. In fact, both faiths see a remarkable uptick in First Vision citations in the year 1920 which just happened to be the centennial year of the First Vision.

However, real divergence first appears in the linear graphs during the decade of 1950-1960. There, the RLDS begin a sharp tapering off of First Vision references and the Latter-day Saint line shows a dramatic uptick in references.

Why the divergence? This is something for historians to develop, but the short answer for the Community of Christ trajectory is that this is when new leaders begin to distance themselves from the distinctives of the Restoration such as Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle, the literalness of the Book of Mormon, and the 13 Articles of Faith. For the Latter-day Saint line this is precisely the time when David O McKay supercharged missionary work and situated the First Vision as the vanguard of the Restoration.

It was certainly a decade of divergence between the two religious cousins.

The doctrinal uses of the First Vision also paralleled the historical path. For the Community of Christ the vision is no longer a “First Vision,” but has been recast as a personal experience of a young man who is seeking to reconcile his standing with God.

For the Latter-ay Saints, the vision has been drawn into the center point of the Restoration in which God appears in these latter days and commissions a young boy to restore His original Church.

The divergence is very stark.

What do members of your faith community find to be important messages of the First Vision today?

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the First Vision is the nucleus of our faith.

Jesus Christ has returned to this earth again and through a boy prophet has restored His Church prior to His Second Coming. The only thing more central to our faith than the First Vision is the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

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About the interview participant

Dr. Keith J. Wilson hails from Ridgecrest, California. He is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, where he regularly teaches a variety of scripture courses. In 2008 he spent a year at the BYU Jerusalem Center. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU. He also received a PhD in educational administration from the University of Utah. His educational specialty is institutional change, and he researches and publishes about the fundamental changes in Community of Christ.

Further Reading

First Vision Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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