The Historical Development of the First Vision

In the time and place Joseph Smith grew up, spiritual experiences were rather common among young men of faith. Marquardt & Walters (1994, pp. 50-53) give a number of examples that bear a striking resemblance to Joseph Smith’s 1832 first vision story: a realization of one’s sins, followed by a period of contemplation and mental anguish, culminating in a personal salvation experience. The latter was often accompanied by the appearance of a bright light, seeing and/or hearing Jesus and/or God, and an intense feeling of peace and joy. Joseph Smith’s first experience, as written down by him in 1832, fits this type (Quinn 1994, p. 3).

Initially, though, Joseph Smith’s claim to divine authority did not rest on this experience but on his role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, as described in his early revelations (see e.g. Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p.42). Authority was less structured and formal in the early days of the Mormon church: everybody who “desired to serve God” was “called to the work” (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, p. 7). Joseph Smith was the “first elder”, a primus inter pares.

After the loss of the Mormon colonies in Missouri in the winter of 1833-34, many of Joseph Smith’s followers questioned his leadership abilities and left the fledgling church. His critics started investigating his past and found a number of skeletons in the closet regarding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, such as Joseph Smith’s questionable past as a treasure hunter and accusations of plagiarism (the Spalding-Rigdon theory). Also around this time, the first rumours about adultery and polygamy surfaced (Newell & Avery 1994, pp. 65-66).

One way in which Joseph Smith survived this crisis was by retroactively expanding his earliest revelations, which were recorded in the 1833 Book of Commandments, with visitations of John the Baptist, who supposedly bestowed the Aaronic priesthood on him, and of Peter, James and John, who restored the Melchizedek priesthood (Prince 1995, pp. 1-45; Tvedtness 2000, pp. 21-36; compare section 28 of the 1833 Book of Commandments with section 50 of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants). These divine manifestations enhanced the status of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling.

In 1837 the United States experienced a deep economic crisis (the “panic of 1837”) and Joseph Smith came under pressure once again. Religion and the economy had become intertwined in Kirtland and speculation ran rampant. Church leaders and rich members bought large tracts of land, often with borrowed money, which they then sold with considerable profit to newly arrived converts from England. To meet the huge capital and credit demands that were required for this scheme, Joseph Smith had founded a bank – without a banking license and without sufficient reserves. When the land prices dropped, the market collapsed, the bank went bust and many members lost all their money, as well as their faith in their leader (Hill 1989, pp. 55-67).

Up until that time, the first vision hardly played any role in Mormon theology. That is why one researcher views the 1838/39 account – the account that was published in 1842 and would eventually become the canonized version – as a renewed attempt by Joseph Smith to bolster his claim to divine authority, this time with a prophetic calling that could not be trumped: by God the Father and Jesus Christ in very person (Palmer 2002, pp. 248-251).

Although it is impossible to know with certainty what went on in Joseph Smith’s mind at the time, this historical context provides a plausible explanation for the remarkable development of the first vision from a simple, personal conversion story to the ultimate foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.