Joseph's Objective For Praying
CES Letter Core Question
Did Joseph give contradictory reasons for going in the grove to pray?
While Joseph Smith’s personal study did not identify any sect that replicated the ancient church, he may have hoped that a denomination unknown to him still held the truth.
1832 account states: "I found that 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" (italics added). The key here is that Joseph’s own studies and limited exposure to religious organizations had not identified one that he should join. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have hope that somewhere beyond his personal experience the true church could be found.
The 1838 accounts states: "My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.” He apparently believe that somewhere on the earth the true religion was still operating.
The CES Letter states that Joseph Smith’s “primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness of his sins.” If that were the only reason for Joseph’s praying, it is curious that the Lord told him: “the world lieth in Sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.” Clearly an underlying question was which religious organization he should join because Joseph’s personal studies had not identified one to support.
Elder Henry B. Eyring explained in 1997:
"From studying the various accounts of the First Vision, we learn that young Joseph went into the grove not only to learn which church he should join but also to obtain forgiveness for his sins, something he seems not to have understood how to do. And in more than one account the Lord addressed the young truth seeker and said, "Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee."*
The ambiguities in the statements from the 1832 and 1838 accounts could support a contradiction as asserted in The CES Letter, but if so, it has no practical significance. The 1832, 1838, and 1842 accounts all include direction from the Lord that religious groups were in error. The 1835 is very brief. If this is the best evidence of “contradictions” in the various First Vision accounts, then the claims of The CES Letter are not very convincing.
There is no indication that Joseph believed that all religions throughout the world were wrong when he entered the grove to pray.
Harper, Steven C. Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Seeker’s Guide to the Historical Accounts. Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2012.
Harper, Steven C. “Suspicion or Trust: Reading the Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” In No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues. Edited by Robert L. Millet. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011.
Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839. Volume 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers. Edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012).
Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002).
John W. Welch, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011).
Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Richard L. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, eds., Histories,Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories 1832–1844. Vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers. Edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012).
“Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity,” The Joseph Smith Papers, http://josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision.
Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper, eds., Exploring the First Vision (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2012).