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Joseph Smith

The First Vision of Joseph Smith

See what historians have to say about Joseph’s Smith’s First Vision.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision is a compelling entry point into a captivating exploration of history and theology. There are nine known accounts of the profound moment when Joseph Smith encountered Jesus Christ and God the Father, including one in the Prophet’s own handwriting. This article provides a snapshot of scholarly research and devotional statements about Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove.


Learn more in this FAQ about the Prophet Joseph Smith.


There are at least nine First Vision accounts

We know of nine First Vision accounts—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that have yet to be discovered.

“No one knows how many accounts of the First Vision Joseph Smith gave,” said Steven Harper.

“What we know,” he continued, “is that the historical record, as it stands today, includes four primary accounts by Joseph and/or his scribes and five secondary accounts by contemporaries who heard him tell the event.”

The nine versions include accounts either documented or shared by Warren Parish, Howard Coray, Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, Levi Richards, David Nye White, and Alexander Neibaur:

  1. 1832 account
  2. 1835 account
  3. 1838 account
  4. 1842 account
  5. Orson Pratt (1840)
  6. Orson Hyde (1842)
  7. Levi Richards (1843)
  8. David Nye White (1843)
  9. Alexander Neibaur (1844)

Compare accounts. You can see several First Vision comparison charts in this article by John W. Welch and James B. Allen. Similarly, Chapter 2 of Saints Vol. 1 tells the story in narrative form using all known accounts by Joseph Smith.


Not all accounts say the same thing

Various First Vision accounts record a variety of details. In some cases, the story appears to contradict other narratives and each version has something not found in the others. It’s likely that Joseph Smith tailored each account to the audience he was addressing.

Although, Steven Harper says the Prophet may not have been as intentional as we sometimes think:

It’s commonly claimed these days that the differences are best explained by Joseph addressing different audiences.

What’s not known is how purposeful or intentional Joseph was about that.

I don’t know of evidence that would enable us to measure or evaluate his intent. I think it is quite unlikely that Joseph put much forethought into telling the story differently based on his audience.

I think, however, that it is certain that he remembered the same story differently each time he told it. That’s the argument I set forth in my most recent book.

Steve Harper and the First Vision

Joseph never retracted his claims

First Vision details vary depending on which version you read. But one thing that remained consistent over time was Joseph’s assertion that it really happened:

From considering Joseph’s papers as a whole, a key point I take away is that he was consistent and unwavering in testimony. Across the various types of documents and across the years, he doesn’t backtrack about the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, his calling to be a prophet, the reception of divine authority, or the great work and role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

R. Eric Smith, Know Brother Joseph Q&A
Learn more about Joseph Smith and the First Vision in the video produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Only one account is in Joseph’s handwriting

Not only is the 1832 account the earliest on record, but it’s also the only version written in Joseph Smith’s handwriting. However, he didn’t write the full account, and the final section was drafted by Frederick G. Williams.


One account was published in a newspaper

Editor David Nye White interviewed Joseph Smith over the course of two days in 1843. He eventually published the account in a Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette article entitled, “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.”


Orson Hyde wrote one of the accounts

The Latter-day Saint apostle, Orson Hyde, drafted an account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in the early 1840s. After sharing the account of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ visiting Joseph “when he had reached his fifteenth year,” Hyde closes with God providing peace and instruction:

He was further commanded to wait patiently until some future time, when the true doctrine of Christ and the complete truth of the gospel would be revealed to him. The vision closed and peace and calm filled his mind.


The Wentworth Letter mentions the First Vision

One account of the First Vision is found in a brief account of church history provided to John Wentworth in 1842. Joseph’s signature appears on the Wentworth Letter, but we aren’t sure who actually wrote it. (At least one scholar thinks that it was ghostwritten by W. W. Phelps.)

A photograph of Latter-day Saint pioneer W. W. Phelps
William W. Phelps is thought by Bruce Van Orden to have written much of the Wentworth Letter, a document that includes an account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

One account was written just prior to Joseph’s death

Alexander Neibaur visited Joseph Smith in his Nauvoo home in 1844. While there, he heard the Prophet recount his experience in the Sacred Grove. Neibaur would draft his account of the First Vision that same day, roughly one month before Joseph died in Carthage, Illinois.


Joseph shared one account with a suspected murderer

An interesting account of the First Vision was shared with Robert Matthews—a man who initially presented himself as Joshua the Jewish Minister. Matthews had a checkered past that included a murder charge (he was acquitted in 1834), assaulting his adult daughter, and “obtaining money under false pretenses.”


There might be an account in the Bible

Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible includes details that are remarkably similar to the First Vision. In particular, his rendering of the 14th Psalm includes so many parallels to Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove that it’s been called “another account of the First Vision” by Joseph Fielding McConkie, son of the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie.


Joseph’s father mentioned the vision in a blessing

“Joseph Smith Sr. did not keep any sort of history. However, his patriarchal blessings are recorded, “said historian Kyle Walker.”

Walker continued: “A sentence he spoke during Joseph Smith Jr.’s blessing appears to be a reference to his son’s First Vision: ‘The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens: thou hast heard his voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth.’”


Serious historical research began in 1965

Historians weren’t seriously interested in the First Vision until well into the 20th century. Credit for sparking research belongs to Paul Cheeseman who included a largely-unknown account of Joseph’s vision in his 1965 master’s thesis at Brigham Young University.

“In the wake of that find,” wrote John W. Welch and James B. Allen, “historians both inside and outside the Church took new interest in Joseph Smith’s testimony.”


There’s debate about the Methodist revivals

The Reverend Wesley Walters was one of the first people to attack the First Vision from a scholarly perspective. He claimed that the historical record doesn’t reveal unusual religious excitement near Palmyra until after Joseph’s vision, thereby rendering the Prophet’s claims untrue.

Richard Bushman suggests that Rev. Walters’ argument should more clearly state “how near is near and big is big,” pointing to revivalist activity in “nearby Farmington and Phelps (Oaks Corners).

Similarly, Steve Harper says that Joseph’s perception of religious fervor should be viewed in his own context, namely as someone that had yet to see how much more unusual religious excitement in the area would become in the years following his First Vision.


Most research has focused on its historicity

The majority of research into Joseph Smith and the First Vision has been based on its historicity. As Kathleen Flake has written:

Most scholarly attention to the First Vision is dedicated to determining whether it happened or whether whatever happened is reliably described in the few primary accounts we have of it.

Kathleen Flake, “The First Vision as a Prehistory of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Similarly, the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay on the First Vision says that arguments against Joseph’s credibility have typically focused either on memory or embellishment. In particular, did the Prophet’s memory align with what history now tells us about his time and place? And did he embellish the story over time?


We’re not sure when the First Vision happened

Joseph Smith Jr. stated only once in the historical record when the First Vision took place. In particular, the Prophet’s 1838 account of the vision said that it took place “on a beautiful clear day early in the spring of 1820.”

That’s all we know for sure. However, a couple of scholars have used weather data and historical context to suggest that the First Vision occurred on March 26, 1820.

“Joseph Smith would have been working too hard tapping sugar maple trees to have gone to the woods to pray until the temperature got right, and he’d have free time and the first day would have been the 26,” said Steven Harper in an interview with KSL Newsradio.


Joseph’s family knew more than we thought

Several members of the Prophet’s family shared accounts of Joseph’s First Vision. For example, historian Kyle Walker has found several mentions of the First Vision shared by Joseph’s sister, Katharine Smith Salisbury. And William Smith shared an account that conflated the First Vision with a visitation from the Angel Moroni.

While the extent of what Joseph shared with his immediate family appears limited when compared with his published account, he appears to have shared more than just telling his mother that he had learned for himself that Presbyterianism is not of God.

Kyle Walker, “What Did Joseph Smith’s Family Know about the First Vision?

Smith family accounts are late recollections

Family accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision add new details to the story—but they can’t be relied upon as much as the nine main accounts. “The biggest challenge with all Smith family sources is that they are late recollections,” said historian Kyle Walker. “Lucy Mack Smith did not dictate her history until the mid-1840s, some twenty-five years after Joseph’s First Vision. His two siblings’ recollections were not recorded until the 1870–1895 time frame.”


The First Vision sheds light on God’s nature

Joseph’s theophany in the Sacred Grove clarified a number of misconceptions about the nature of God, according to BYU scholar, Andrew Skinner.

In particular:

  • God the Father is a distinct personage, separate from the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • God the Father looks like a man, as does His Son—who is our Savior.
  • God the Father can speak and move.
  • God the Father knows individuals by name.
  • God the Father hears and answers prayers.
  • God the Father bears witness of His Son.
  • Satan and his power are real, but God’s power is greater.
Andrew Skinner, “The Nature and Character of God
A 2017 Face to Face event with President Henry B. Eyring and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland includes a discussion of what we learn about the nature of God from Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

God might have touched Joseph

An account of the First Vision shared by John Alger (Fanny Alger’s brother) claims that Joseph Smith said God touched his eyes.

Charles Lowell Walker records in his journal that John Alger said:

God touched his eyes with his finger and said “Joseph this is my beloved Son hear him.” As soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger he immediately saw the Savior. After meeting, a few of us questioned him about the matter and he told us at the bottom of the meeting house steps that he was in the House of Father Smith in Kirtland when Joseph made this declaration, and that Joseph while speaking of it put his finger to his right eye, suiting the action with the words so as to illustrate and at the same time impress the occurence [sic] on the minds of those unto whom He was speaking.


It didn’t get its name until after Joseph died

Few phrases are more recognizable to Latter-day Saints than the “First Vision.” However, we don’t have any record of Joseph referring to it that way, and the historical record suggests that the term was coined by Orson Pratt in 1849.


Joseph had at least 75 more “visions”

Alexander Baugh has found a total of 76 documented visionary experiences received by the Prophet (including the First Vision).

“As far as historical records indicate, Joseph Smith received more documentable visions than any other prophet, past or present,” wrote Baugh.


Joseph’s lack of emotion appealed to Arthur Henry King

Joseph Smith’s dispassionate recounting of the First Vision story appealed to the British writer, Arthur Henry King. The poet who has been described as possibly “the best-educated man in the history of the church” wrote in 1988:

When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.

Arthur Henry King

Early Latter-day Saints preferred the Moroni story

Joseph Smith’s First Vision is an integral part of Latter-day Saint history today, but it wasn’t always a bedrock event. For example, Joseph’s early followers typically thought of the Prophet’s interaction with the Angel Moroni as the catalyst for his prophetic calling.


It took 60 years to gain prominence

The First Vision didn’t receive a prominent place in Latter-day Saint thought until roughly 60 years had passed. Richard E. Bennett says that this kind of delay isn’t uncommon. For example, it took years (or decades) for the Gospel writers to record their experiences, Martin Luther repeatedly reinterpreted his February 1505 thunderbolt experience, and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead wasn’t canonized until nearly 60 years after it’s receipt.

“One can even make a strong argument that the Church did not reconnect with its own Book of Mormon until later in the mid-twentieth century under the administration of Ezra Taft Benson,” said Bennett.


It’s critically important to church members today

Joseph Smith’s First Vision may not have been a focal point of pioneer Latter-day Saints, but it’s a foundational belief for modern church members. As Steven C. Harper has written, “[it] is exponentially more important to Latter-day Saints now than it was when the Church was restored in 1830.”

For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated:

Our whole strength rests of the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith.”

Joseph F. Smith focused on it

The Prophet’s nephew, Joseph F. Smith, was integral in helping the Church pivot away from polygamy (Joseph’s last vision) and toward the First Vision (his first), according to Jed Woodworth.

It was under Joseph F. Smith’s leadership that the First Vision gained a higher profile among Latter-day Saints:

Under President Smith’s leadership, the First Vision enjoyed much greater visibility and currency. Joseph Smith’s search for the one true and living Church became the first thing missionaries shared with potential converts in this era. Personal revelation had always been critical to conversion, but in the Joseph F. Smith era the First Vision became the archetype for how Latter-day Saints could brave a hostile world through individual personal revelation.

Jed Woodworth, See How the Church Changed in Remarkable ‘Saints 3’

There’s a Joseph Smith Papers podcast

The Joseph Smith Papers Project has a special First Vision podcast. Hosted by Spencer McBride in the style of This American Life, the six-part miniseries begins with the historical context preceding the vision and concludes with its legacy. It features interviews with scholars such as:

  • Brent Rodgers
  • Christopher Jones
  • Elder Legrand Curtis Jr.
  • Jenny Lund
  • Mark Staker
  • Matthew Godfrey
  • Rachel Cope
  • Robin Jensen
  • Steven Harper

Joseph expected an answer

The Prophet’s expectation that God would answer his prayer sets him apart from traditional Christian history.

According to Terryl Givens:

From his initial inquiry in those New York woods to his last revelations, Joseph’s prayers anticipated a personal response, a discernible moment of dialogue or communicated content. This model, which I call dialogic revelation, situates Joseph and the religion he founded well outside Christian understandings of revelation.

Terryl Givens, “‘Lightning Out of Heaven’: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community.”

Others had visions of Christ

Joseph Smith wasn’t the only person in his day to claim a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ. For example, a teenager by the name of Norris Stearns had a vision similar to Joseph’s a few years prior to 1820.

“There appeared a small gleam of light . . . above the brightness of the sun . . . which grew brighter and brighter,” said Stearns. “[I] saw two spirits . . . One was God, my Maker,” and “below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer.”

Others recounted similar experiences, including the revivalist Charles Finney, a 15-year old Elias Smith, and a Methodist by the name of Jacob Young. Asa Wild even published an account only 10 days after Joseph saw the Angel Moroni.


There’s new First Vision artwork

BYU’s Anthony Sweat is both an artist and a historian. He combined both attributes to produce a painting that is true to the historical record, called “The First Visions” (plural).

“It attempts to bring together a cohesive picture, including some aspects not typically depicted in other First Vision imagery,” said Sweat. “[That includes] the Father and Son not appearing simultaneously, the ‘pillar of flame,’ the ‘many angels’ mentioned in the 1835 account, and Satan being cast out in the corner.”

Anthony Sweat’s painting of the First Vision is based on historical research about the Prophet Joseph Smith.

First Vision artwork was slow to catch on

The first artistic rendering of the First Vision wasn’t produced by the institutional Church until 1912—nearly 100 years after Joseph’s theophany in the Sacred Grove. Honor for the first-known image goes to Lewis A. Ramsey who included an illustration entitled, “Joseph Praying in the Grove” in a 130-page book published by the Deseret Sunday School Union, From Plowboy to Prophet: Being a Short History of Joseph Smith for Children


The Sacred Grove made an impression on Gordon B. Hinckley

President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote that he was greatly impacted by a visit to the Sacred Grove in upstate New York:

“It was a tremendously inspirational experience to stand on sacred ground where this dispensation was opened with the visitation of God the Eternal Father and the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ, to the boy Joseph Smith,” said President Hinckley.

“We bowed our heads, and I offered prayer in behalf of the group. I think I shall not forget the experience of this morning in this sacred place.”


The First Vision offers hope

Historian Richard Bushman takes solace in the message of the Restoration. In particular, he appreciates the promise of forgiveness central to Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

To me that is what the 1832 account of the First Vision promises us—a God who will forgive us and lift the burden of sin from our backs.

Latter-day Saint Quotes About Faith

The Church proclaimed its truth 200 years later

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a rare proclamation on the bicentennial anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. It opens with a focus on the reality of Jesus Christ and His love for humanity:

We solemnly proclaim that God loves His children in every nation of the world. God the Father has given us the divine birth, the incomparable life, and the infinite atoning sacrifice of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. By the power of the Father, Jesus rose again and gained the victory over death. He is our Savior, our Exemplar, and our Redeemer.

The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World

The Sacred Grove is a popular tourist site

The Church doesn’t track of how many people visit the Sacred Grove. However, it does keep tabs on who visits the Hill Cumorah visitor’s center, and assumes that most of those tourists visit the Sacred Grove.

“That ranges between 150,000 to 200,000 visitors per year,” said Jenny Lund, former director of the Church’s Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department.


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Further reading

First Vision resources

Sources

Alexander Baugh, “Seventy-Six Accounts of Joseph Smith’s Visionary Experiences,” 2005.

Andrew Skinner, “The Nature and Character of God,” April 11, 2006.

Anthony Sweat, “The First Visions.”

Anthony Sweat, “Visualizing the Vision: The History and Future of First Vision Art,” 2020.

Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 2005.

Don Bradley, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision as Endowment and Epitome of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or Why I Came Back to the Church),” 2019.

Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith,” October 2002.

John W. Welch and James B. Allen, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” 2005.

Joseph A Cannon, “The Gospel in Words: Reflections on Arthur Henry King,” Feb. 18, 2010.

Kathleen Flake, “The First Vision as a Prehistory of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” 2020.

Kurt Manwaring, “Know Brother Joseph Q&A,” April 21, 2021.

Kurt Manwaring, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Angel Moroni,” Feb. 20, 2023.

Kurt Manwaring, “Latter-day Saint Quotes About Faith,” March 30, 2023.

Kurt Manwaring, “Prophets and Apostles in the Sacred Grove,” Jan. 28, 2020.

Kurt Manwaring, “See How the Church Changed in Remarkable ‘Saints 3’,” April 10, 2022.

Kurt Manwaring, “Steve Harper and the First Vision,” July 7, 2020.

Kurt Manwaring, “The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast,” Jan. 6, 2020.

Kurt Manwaring, “Was William W. Phelps a Ghostwriter for Joseph Smith?,” June 12, 2022.

Kurt Manwaring, “What Did Joseph Smith’s Family Know About the First Vision?,” June 15, 2022.

Legrand R. Curtis Jr., “The First Vision and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” 2020.

Mary Richards, “Could Joseph Smith’s First Vision Have Happened on March 26, 200 Years Ago?,” April 3, 2020.

Paul R. Cheeseman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions,” 1965.

Richard Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,” 2012.

Richard Bushman, “What Can We Learn From the First Vision,” Nov. 15, 2016.

Richard E. Bennett, “Not the First but the Second: Changing Latter-day Saint Emphases on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” 2020.

Steven C. Harper, “Steve Harper—First Vision,” Oct. 9, 2019.

Steven C. Harper, “First Vision: Memories and Origins,” Aug. 12, 2019.

Steven C. Harper, “Raising the Stakes: How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Became All or Nothing.”

Terryl Givens, “‘Lightning Out of Heaven’: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community,” Nov. 29, 2005.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Gospel Topics Essays: First Vision Accounts.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Saints, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846,” September 4, 2018.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” April 5, 2020.

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, Extract.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Appendix: Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, ““Church History,” 1 March 1842.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Historical Introduction: Conversations with Robert Matthews, 9–11 November 1835.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2].”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “History, circa Summer 1832.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “‘I Had Seen a Vision’ (The First Vision Podcast, Episode 6): Transcript.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Interview, JS by David Nye White, Nauvoo, IL, 29 Aug. 1843; in David Nye White, “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 15 Sept. 1843, [3].”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Journal, 1835–1836.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Levi Richards, Journal, 11 June 1843, Extract.”

The Joseph Smith Papers, “Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry Out of the Wilderness), 1842, Extract, English Translation.”

Walker Wright and Don Bradley, “‘None That Doeth Good’: Early Evidence of the First Vision in JST Psalm 14,” 2022.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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