First Vision


CES Letter Reply


The CES Letter seeks to make the case that Joseph Smith made up the First Vision experience. Runnells seek to discredit the First Vision experience by saying that because the first written accounts are 12 years after the fact and there is variation they can't be trusted. Do these criticisms hold up under critique. Let's evaluate.


There are at least 4 different first vision accounts by Joseph Smith, which the Church admits in its November 2013 First Vision Accounts essay:

CES Letter, Page 33


Correct. There are at least four First Vision accounts and they are remarkably consistent despite what the CES Letter tries to claim

More Details

The CES Letter doesn't directly ask the above question but does imply that it's a sign of fraud that details found in one account might not be found in another. 

Let's do a little exercise. Think back to one of the more important days of your life. It could be a graduation, wedding, birth of a child, or anything. Did you share the details of that story with others? If so, did you share the exact same details every time or did you share different details? Perhaps you focused on a certain detail because you thought the person you were sharing it with might appreciate that detail. It's common to focus on different elements when retelling an experience.



In the only handwritten account by Joseph Smith, penned in 1832, but not publicly published until much later, describes the first vision in an unfamiliar way:

...and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life...


    • No mention of two beings.
    • 12 years after the vision happened.
    • Age is 15-years-old (“16th year of my age”), not 14-years-old.
    • No reference to asking the question about which church he should join.
    • No description of being attacked by Satan.

CES Letter, Page 33


When we retell a story on different occasions it's highly unlikely we tell it including the exact same details every time. These variations are marginal and expected.

CES LETTER CLAIM: The 1832 account doesn't explicitly mention Joseph seeing two beings.

REPLY: Every account doesn't need to have every detail

Joseph's 1832 account doesn't explicitly say only one being in the vision. I recently retold the story of Joseph's vision and said 'when Joseph spoke to God in the First Vision.' Only after the fact did I realize I technically didn't specify that Heavenly Father and Jesus had appeared.

The LDS Gospel topics essay makes a similar point below:

A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. . .  the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord."

- LDS Gospel Topics - First Vision

CES LETTER CLAIM: The 1832 account was written 12 years after the event

REPLY: Just because the earliest surviving First Vision document is from 1832 doesn't mean it's a fabrication. 

The reality is there are very few documents pertaining to Joseph Smith before 1830 and no journals (see Larry Morris). The earliest journal of Joseph we have is his 1832 and he includes the First Vision. Additionally, Joseph was poorly educated and not a very good writer. Its quite possible that Joseph preferred the use of scribes due to his lack of education. One can see just how poorly Joseph was educated by reading the spelling in his 1832 First Vision account -- the only account written by his own hand. Joseph wrote in that account: "we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements."

CES LETTER CLAIM: In the 1832 account Joseph said he was 15 during when the First Vision happened

REPLY: This is hardly worth a reply. All of other accounts say he was fourteen or "about fourteen years old" when he had the First Vision. It's entirely possible Joseph got the year wrong in one account by a few months. It's also possible that Fredrick G. Williams got it wrong because the phrase is in his handwriting "in the 16th year of my age" (that is, fifteen years old). 

Below is a screenshot of Fredrick G. William's insertion in the journal.


CES LETTER CLAIM: In the 1832 account Joseph doesn't mention being attacked by Satan

Again, every account doesn't need to have every detail.

The struggle with the adversary is also absent from the 1842 Wentworth Letter account. Much like when we retell stories, this is another example of where the prophet didn't feel the need to include every detail in every account.

CES LETTER CLAIM: In the 1832 account Joseph doesn't mention asking God which church to join

Again and again, every account doesn't need to have every detail.

In the 1832 account, Joseph doesn't specifically mention asking God which church to join. However, Joseph does share in both the 1832 and the 1838 accounts God's answer to that question. In both the 1832 and 1838 accounts the Lord tells Joseph he's not happy with any of the churches and he uses the phrasing from Isaiah 29:13 to describe the churches.

  • Description of Lords answer in 1832 account: 
    • "they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me"
  • Description of the Lord's answer in 1838 account: 
    • “they draw near to me to with their lips but their hearts are far from me"


In the 1832 account , Joseph wrote that before praying he knew there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness for his sins. 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 was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ...

In the official 1838 account , however, Joseph wrote:

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"..."(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).

This is in direct contradiction to his 1832 first vision account.

CES Letter, Page 33


Joseph conveys in both accounts that he struggled with determining which church to join. It's entirely possible he may not have exactly recollected whether he though to join no church before or after his prayer.  It's clear that Joseph walked away from the First Vision knowing that he should not join any church.

Prior to the sacred grove Joseph listened to the various arguments, studied the scriptures, formulated his own opinions, and and sought answers. Joseph entered the grove in confusion with with hunch that mankind had "apostatized" (1832 account) and he left the grove with a revelation that "entered into the heart" (1838 account) that he should join none of the denominations. John Tvedtnes provided the following insight about these two descriptions: "I see no real contradiction between Joseph Smith believing, when he went to pray, that he should join none of the churches, and the Lord confirming that thought by revelation. After all, he went into the woods to get an answer. If his mind was already made up and he merely needed confirmation, this fits the pattern described in D&C 9:8, where the Lord said, “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.” The point of the official published version of Joseph Smith’s story is that he received a revelation on the issue. But even that version does not preclude the idea that he had already determined the answer and needed confirmation."

Joseph's Study and Doubt About Which Church to Join

Prior to entering the grove Joseph was in "intimate acquaintance with those different denominations." (1832 account) He listened closely to the debates between the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists (1838 account) and felt conflicted about which church to join. "In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? who of all of these parties are right or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?" (1838 account)

Joseph searched the scriptures as he struggled to know what faith to join. "While laboring under extreme difficulties caused by the different parties of religionists, I was reading the Epistle of James."

Through his "intimate acquaintance" (1832) of the local religions Joseph had a hunch that he shouldn't join any of the churches. "By studying the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but had apostatized." (1832) Still, Joseph wasn't certain and sought further answers. An 1832 newspaper, the Fredonia Censor said Joseph had "not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them, and being in doubt what his duty was, he had to recourse [to] prayer." Joseph wrote in his 1835 journal, "I knew not who was right or wrong and considered it the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequences." Oliver Cowdery said in 1835 that Joseph had the "determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion."

The Sacred Grove - A Revelation

The sacred grove is where the Lord gave Joseph a clear answer through revelation. Joseph said of the experience, "it never had entered into my heart that all were wrong." Note the phrase 'entered into my heart.' Joseph uses this language elsewhere to refer to revelation. The Lord will tell us in our "heart and mind" by the "spirit of revelation" (D&C 8:2-3). In the 1838 account the James passage struck him as if a revelation with "more power to the heart of man." This was the answer Joseph had been looking for.

1838 Account Differences

Historians in all fields of study regularly encounter documents that disagree on certain points. Historian Larry E. Morris wrote a book on Lewis and Clark and described this challenge. Morris related how John Colter went hunting on September 23, 1804 and, despite there being four accounts written the next day, they all gave different accounts on what he killed. Morris said, "of the four accounts they're all different. The one thing they agree on is that he killed at least two elk... to me that's a good feel of what historians deal with. Even when you have people recording it on the date it really happened you have interesting differences" Morris added.

Similarly, John Tvedtnes described the varying accounts of Paul's First Vision. "We have several accounts of what happened to Paul in three books of the New Testament. Not surprisingly, these accounts are at variance one with another. Indeed, there are fewer differences between the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision than between the five different accounts of Paul’s first vision and his trip to Damascus."

Interestingly, Joseph contradicted himself in the 1838 account. In verse 12 he asked "are they all wrong together?" and in verse 20, while speaking to the Lord, he said "it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong." Thus, one needs to look at the other accounts to get an overall theme. One of the common themes was that Joseph felt confusion before entering the grove.



No one - including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about the first vision from twelve to twenty-two years after it supposedly occurred. The first and earliest written account of the first vision in Joseph Smith’s journal was 12 years after the spring of 1820. There is absolutely no record of any claimed “first vision” prior to this 1832 account.

CES Letter, Page 34


As stated previously, just because we don't have documents from the 1820s in our possession describing Joseph sharing his First Vision experience doesn't mean he didn't share his experience like he said. It's entirely possible he shared his experience and then became more reticent about sharing it widely after being mocked.

CES Letter Argument From Silence (Logical Fallacy)

This is an argument from silence, a logical fallacy. Just because there isn't any documentation of the first vision prior to 1832 doesn't mean it didn't happen. Nor does it mean that it was never discussed. Joseph's 1832 journal is his very first journal and he included his first vision in that journal. The above point would be more meaningful had he been keeping an extended journal over a long period of time and neglected to include anything about this.

Joseph's Reluctance to Share the Experience Widely

Additionally, Joseph may have been reticent to share his experience much. He was a young boy when the experience happened. In his 1838 history Joseph describes how he returned home after the first vision "and as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” (JSH 1:20) That was an excellent opportunity for Joseph to share the most monumental experience of his life. Instead he appeared shy.

Eventually Joseph mustered up the courage to share the experience Joseph said, "I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days." (JSH 1:21). From then on Joseph said, "I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true;" (JSH 1:25)

1832 Watershed Year for Record Keeping

Joseph Smith's First Journal

The year Joseph began his first journal was a watershed one for early Mormon record-keeping. In addition to beginning a journal in 1832, Joseph also produced his first narrative history, in which he gave an account of his First Vision and of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. That same year, clerks began keeping minute books, to record deliberations and decisions of Church councils, as well as a letter book, to keep copies of the prophet’s outgoing and incoming correspondence. If Joseph was not the most accomplished journal-keeper from 1832 to 1834, he was nevertheless the driving force behind an impressive effort to keep a broad set of records documenting both his activities and those of the young Church.”

-, Joseph Smith's First Journal


Four First Vision Accounts

1832 Account

1835 Account

1838 Account

1842 Account

CES Letter Core Question

Despite the emphasis placed on it now, the first vision does not appear to have been widely taught to members of the Church until the 1840s. Why is this?

Despite the emphasis placed on it now, the first vision does not appear to have been widely taught to members of the Church until the 1840s, more than a decade after the Church was founded, and 20 years after it allegedly occurred.

James B. Allen, former BYU Professor and Assistant Church Historian explains :

There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision...The fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days'

CES Letter, Page 34

Historian D. Michael Quinn provides additional reason why Joseph and the church may have waited to share his experience more broadly.

"Critics tend to overlook the fact that non-Mormon newspapers reported in 1829-31 that Smith had seen God and that he had even had recorded a version of his experience as early as 1832. His delay until 1842 in publishing the account of the first vision echos the actions of Protestant ministers of his time who waited decades to describe their personal visions of deity. Joseph Smith's first vision became a missionary tool only after Americans grew to regard converse with God as unusual."

- Mormon Hierarchy, Origins of Power. Ch. 1

Other Problems

Who appeared to Joseph?

  • Who appears to him? Depending upon the account, a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels or the Father and the Son appear to him – are all over the place.

CES Letter, Pages 34-35

Joseph's First Vision accounts are remarkably consistent. Of the core four accounts, only the 1835 account mentions seeing "many angels" in addition to the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. 

How old was Joseph when he had the Vision?

  • The dates/his ages: The 1832 account states Joseph was 15-years-old while the other accounts state he was 14-years-old when he had the vision.

CES Letter, Pages 34-35

This is answered above under section #1. More details coming from Foundational Texts of Mormonism page 380 where Ronald O. Barney addresses this. "Smith would be superhuman if his memory remained constant and undeviating year after year."

What was his reason for praying?

  • The reason or motive for seeking divine help – Bible reading and conviction of sins, a revival, a desire to know if God exists, wanting to know which church to join – are not reported the same in each account.

CES Letter, Pages 34-35

Much like all of us, Joseph apparently had numerous things he was praying about. He wanted to know which church to join and how to have his sins forgiven, both related concerns.

Was there an 1820 revival in Palmyra?

  • Contrary to Joseph’s account, the historical record shows that there was no revival in Palmyra, New York in 1820. [FairMormon concedes](
    While these revivals did not occur in Palmyra itself, their mention in the local newspaper would have given Joseph Smith the sense that there was substantial revival activity in the region.

    There was one in 1817 and there was another in 1824. There are records from his brother, William Smith, and his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, both stating that the family joined Presbyterianism after Alvin’s death 11 in November 1823 despite Joseph Smith claiming in the official 1838 account 12 that they joined in 1820 (3 years before Alvin Smith’s death).

CES Letter, Pages 34-35

Methodist Camp Meeting - Joseph Smith

An engraving of a Methodist camp meeting in 1819 (Library of Congress)

dAccording to Historian D. Michael Quinn, small newspapers of this era rarely reported on local events. See his full quote below:

"There is a reasonable explanation for the lack of local reference to religious revivals in or near Palmyra, and for why the village newspaper ignored the “camp-meeting” of June 1820 until someone died. Aside from paid advertisements, it was unusual for small newspapers of this era to report local events.

In his book about New York State’s village newspapers, Milton W. Hamilton explained more than forty years ago that “the editor’s definition of his function included neither the purveying of neighborhood gossip nor the describing of outstanding happenings in the immediate vicinity.” Why? Because small-town editors assumed that local residents would not “pay for information which they could secure by word of mouth from their neighbors.”

According to Hamilton, not until 1827 did a village newspaper start to regularly include local events, an editorial practice that took years to become common in rural newspapers of New York State.

. . . Since Palmyra’s editors did not regard a local camp-meeting of ten thousand participants as newsworthy in 1826, it is reasonable to conclude that the previous editor of the village newspaper likewise ignored an attendance of at least a thousand at Palmyra’s forest-revival in 1820.

Source: D Michael Quinn,  Joseph Smith’s Experience Of A Methodist “Camp-Meeting” In 1820

Possible Conflated Memories

Additionally, it's possible Joseph conflated memories from the various events that occurred around that time. Quinn's article highlights numerous examples of this happening in 19th century America.

As a historian who has analyzed original narratives and revised documents that anachronistically changed Mormon developments, I have another perspective about the fact (and it is a fact) that Smith’s official narrative about 1820 included circumstances which occurred during Palmyra’s revivals of 1824-25. Merging (conflating) circumstances from similar events that happened years apart will certainly confuse the historical record and will perplex anyone trying to sort out basic chronology. Nonetheless, conflation of actual circumstances from separate events is not the same as fraudulent invention of events that never occurred. Conflation also is not the combination of an actual event with a fictional event. Instead, it is very common for memoirs and autobiographies to merge similar events that actually occurred, due to the narrator’s memory lapses or her/his intentional streamlining of the narrative to avoid repeating similar occurrences."

Source: D Michael Quinn,  Joseph Smith’s Experience Of A Methodist “Camp-Meeting” In 1820


Further Details

Clearly the Methodists in the vicinity of Palmyra were holding “camp-ground” meetings. Since they did not have a chapel yet, they would meet in the woods on Vienna Road. These articles from the Palmyra Register refer to such meetings.


These “camp-ground” meetings were not otherwise advertised in the Palmyra Register, but were mentioned only because a death occurred at one of them. This demonstrates that religious meetings did occur that were not publicized and otherwise documented in the historical record.

It is impossible to prove something did not happen. The lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

Pomeroy Tucker (an anti-Mormon writer) stated that “protracted revival meetings were customary in some of the churches, and Smith frequented those of different denominations…” 

Larger religious “revival” activity is documented in the Palmyra area in 1817-1818 and 1824-1825.

Joseph Smith never used the term "revival" in his descriptions, rather saying there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists." To a 14 year old who had been concerned about religion starting at age 12 after the 1817 revival, the ongoing camp meetings in the town where he lived would certainly have qualified as "unusual excitement on the subject of religion."

If the 1838 account mixed some historical details from the 1817-1818 revival with the circumstances surrounding the 1820 First Vision prayer, it would not be evidence of deception or a fabrication of the narrative. It would be a small discrepancy in Joseph’s memory, not unexpected in light of all the details that are consistently recounted.

Critics seem to focus on this point but it is not a strong argument against the validity of the First Vision accounts. If Joseph fabricated the whole story, memory lapses would be unexpected.

Emphasis upon this point by those hostile to Joseph Smith demonstrates an overall weakness in their argumentation. If they had more convincing evidence supporting their allegations, they would likely be focusing there rather than upon this small issue.

Trinitarian View?

  • Why did Joseph hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead, as shown previously with the Book of Mormon, if he clearly saw that the Father and Son were separate embodied beings in the official first vision?

CES Letter, Pages 34-35

This is incorrect. This is addressed in the Book of Mormon section. There are numerous scriptures and and statements by Joseph indicating he didn't hold a Trinitarian view. 


As with the rock in the hat story, I did not know there are multiple first vision accounts. I did not know of their contradictions or that the Church members did not know about a first vision until 12-22 years after it supposedly happened. I was unaware of these omissions in the mission field, as I was never taught or trained in the Missionary Training Center to teach investigators these facts.

CES Letter, Pages 34-35