Tending the Garden
Eugene England,
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors

Chapter 8.
Literary Form and Historical Understanding:
Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft

[p.89]”It all began in the year 1820, when a young man named Joseph Smith, Jr., went into a wooded grove to pray.” With these or similar words, recited in a host of languages, Mormon missionaries begin recounting the dramatic story of Joseph Smith’s first vision, that pivotal event which is so central to the message of Mormonism that belief therein has become a touchstone of faith for the orthodox Mormon and Mormon convert. In fact, as James B. Allen wrote in his insightful article on the significance of the first vision, “Belief in the vision is one of the fundamentals to which faithful members give assent. Its importance is second only to belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.”1 Not only does the first vision establish the nature of the Godhead (which Joseph Smith himself would not fully develop in writing until years later) and not only does the vision confirm that all churches are “an abomination” in the sight of God, but it also suggests the need for a restoration and hence a special mission for Joseph Smith. Thus the vision prepares the way for the appearance of other heavenly personages, especially the 1823 and subsequent appearances [p.90]of Moroni and the eventual delivery, of the golden plates and their translation as the Book of Mormon.

Yet, as James B. Allen, Milton V. Backman, Jr., Dean C. Jessee, and others have pointed out in their studies of the event, the first vision was not immediately given the importance in Mormon theology that it would later achieve.2 Indeed, as these scholars have noted, published accounts of the first vision were, from our perspective, surprisingly slow to appear; and early Mormon missionaries placed the Book of Mormon, not the vision of the Father and the Son, at the center of the message to the world. “There is little if any evidence,” Allen asserts, “that by the early 1830s Joseph Smith was telling the story in public.”3 In fact, it was apparently not until some twelve years after the event that an account of the first vision was written. Backman notes in Joseph Smith’s First Vision: “While non-Mormon newspapers of 1830 and later make reference to Joseph’s claim that he had been visited by God, the earliest recorded recital of the First Vision that has been preserved … was dictated by Joseph to his scribe, Frederick G. Williams, between July 20, 1832, and November of that year.”4 This important 1832 account was followed in 1835 by a short recital of the first vision in which Joseph Smith recounted the event, as recorded by Warren Cowdery, to a “Jewish minister” named Joshua, the priestly name adopted by Robert Matthias.5 The third and most important account of the vision, dictated by Joseph in 1838 as part of his History of the Church, underwent several revisions before it was recorded by James Mulholland sometime in 1839.6 The other extant record of the vision as recorded by the prophet Joseph is found in the letter which he sent to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, in 1841.7

As Allen and Backman have pointed out in their studies of these accounts of the vision, the four narratives demonstrate a similarity in general content and a notable difference in particulars. Writes Allen, “The several variations in these and other accounts would seem to suggest that, in relating his story to various individuals at various times, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of it and that his listeners were each impressed with different things.”8 The variations and amplifications in the account of the first vision, as related by the prophet Joseph and retold by a number of his contemporaries, make it clear that Joseph Smith made a succession of significant literary [p.91]alterations in each of the four versions of the event. In fact, a close examination of these accounts reveals that in these renderings of the vision, Joseph Smith, Jr., made literary, structural, and stylistic changes which not only reflect his changing understanding of the event in the Sacred Grove but which also demonstrate that, in the accounts of 1832, 1835, 1838, and the Wentworth letter, he moved from writing of his transcendent experience as a young man influenced by the Protestant tradition of spiritual autobiography to writing profoundly of the event as the leader, restorer, and prophet of a unique religious movement destined to growth and greatness.


When Joseph Smith, Jr., began to shape his recollections of his momentous vision into a narrative that would effectively impart his other-worldly experience to his hard-headed New York neighbors, it is natural that he would turn to a traditional form of spiritual autobiography familiar to him and those around him. In the several religious revivals in which Joseph and his neighbors had participated, they doubtless heard many accounts of the conversion of souls who had strayed but who through grace were “born again.” Though these accounts were delivered orally, dozens of such “born again” experiences of Joseph’s contemporaries in upstate New York and the vicinity9 were eventually published; and the soaring, solemn, and often tedious witnesses of these latter-day St. Pauls-on-the-Hudson are still available in weathered, faded, and cracked tomes.

A study of some of these accounts reveals a common pattern in their renderings of spiritual awakenings. In the preface to his own account, written about 1670, James Fraser summarized the dominant shape of such spiritual autobiographies, and that of Joseph Smith, Jr., as well, when he wrote that, “I shall reduce what I have met with to these eight heads”:

(1) What hath been the Lord’s carriage to me before I knew any thing of God, or had so much as the form of religion. (2) Some steps of God’s providence while the Lord was drawing me to himself; or some preparation—work to my conversion, while my heart was not fully changed, but had only some appearance of godliness. (3) Some things concerning my conversion, the time and manner; and what immediately followed. (4) Of the sad and long decay that happened thereafter. (5) Relate some [p.92]things touching my recovery out of that decay. (6) Some things that happened immediately after this recovery, for the space of four or five years. (7) Some things relating to my present condition, and some things I have observed in my experience. (8) Some particular mercies I have met with from the Lord at several occasions.10

Within this broader framework there appears to be a pattern peculiar to the conversion experience itself: The sinner, wallowing in the slough of innate depravity, becomes intensely aware of his wickedness; he enters into a period of self-detestation; miserable, he turns for solace to prayer and study of the Holy Writ but generally encounters some kind of satanic opposition; after a period of sincere prayer, however, often in a woods or other secluded spot, he enjoys a supernatural epiphany during which he sees or senses the presence of Christ, obtains forgiveness for his sins, and undergoes a marvelous spiritual change; this experience awakens in him a sensitivity to the presence of God not only in himself but in all outward nature; he is then led to proclaim to others his conversion and his new-found witness for Christ; and, though he still falters from time to time, his ministry begins.

Typical, perhaps, of such experiences is that of Elder Jacob Knapp, of Otsego County, New York. In 1816, at the age of seventeen and four years before Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove, young Jacob gradually became aware of his spiritual degeneracy. “I often repaired to the barn or the grove in the silent hours of the night,” he later wrote, “and poured out my soul in prayer to God.” Disturbed that he seemed to continue in his unregenerate state despite his sincere efforts, he wrote: “At length, one Lord’s day morning, I took my Bible and hymn-book, and repaired to the woods, with a determination never to return without relief to my soul.” In the grove he prayed and read the scriptures and sang, but, he continues, “I felt my vileness; all my sins rose before me like mountains. I thought I had prayed, read the Bible, attended meetings, and done all that was in my power to do; and yet I seemed to grow worse and worse, more and more despicable in the sight of God … I felt myself sinking down into despair.” In the midst of this blackness of spirit, Knapp related, “the earth seemed to open beneath me, and hell appeared to be yawning for my reception.”

Then it happened! Knapp closed his eyes, “expecting to open [p.93]them no more until I opened them in hell”; but suddenly he realized that his load of guilt was gone. “I rose up quickly,” he exclaimed, “turned my eyes towards heaven, and I saw Jesus descending with his arms extended for my reception. My soul leaped within me, and I broke forth into singing praises to the blessed Savior.” At once he became aware that nature seemed also to have undergone a change: “The sweet melodies of the birds seemed to make harmony with my songs, and, as I looked around me, the sun shone with a lustre not its own, the majestic trees, swaying to the gentle breeze, appeared to bow in sweet submission to the will of Heaven. All nature smiled, and everything, animate and inanimate, praised God with a voice (though unheard before) too loud and too plain to be misunderstood.”

Completing the pattern, Knapp rejoices that Jesus had borne his personal guilt and given him a witness that his sins were forgiven. Knapp immediately began to look for the true church of God, and eventually was led by the spirit to become a Baptist minister.

Elder Jacob Knapp’s experience is not unusual. Other contemporaries of Joseph Smith in New York and New England recorded similar experiences: The Reverend Eleazer Sherman of Massachusetts followed the pattern in 1815; the Reverend Abel Thornton of Rhode Island had his sins forgiven by a still, small voice in May 1820; the Reverend Jabez Swan of New York saw Christ in 1821. Many others in the region left similar witnesses.9 Perhaps a good summary of these kinds of accounts, some of which may even have been familiar to Joseph Smith, Jr.—and to those who would persecute him because of his account—can be seen in the experience of the Reverend John J. Maffit. Maffit was an emigrant from Ireland to New London, Connecticut; in 1821 he wrote eloquently that he had been “the most abject wretch,” clearly doomed to hell,

When lo!—A light from heaven, broke in dazzling splendour thro’ the gloom—dispersed the cloud and shot its loveliest beams through all my powers—I look’d—the current of my sorrows ceased to flow—the mountains disappeared—and all was peace and joy. By faith I distinguished my adorable Savior—felt the efficacy of his death and sufferings—and was warmed by the tide of salvation that overwhelmed my soul. I sunk, by dying love compelled, and owned him conqueror!

Immediately, Maffit noted the loveliness and beauty of the outer [p.94]world and turned to the ministry. Speaking of himself, he concludes the account of his conversion with the soaring words, “See the fetters removed, while his happy spirit bounds with the delighted prospect of exalted liberty!”12

Given the abundance of such spiritual autobiographies, oral and written, in New York and vicinity in 1820, the puzzle is not that Joseph Smith, Jr., would recount a spiritual experience which was in some ways similar to these other accounts, but that his account was so poorly received by those in whom he confided. Indeed, their collective rejection suggests that the story. of Joseph Smith’s experience in the grove, as he related it to his associates in 1820, may have been strikingly different, in some notable way, from accounts of spiritual experiences with which they were already familiar.


It should come as no surprise that Joseph Smith, Jr., at age twenty-eight, twelve years after his experience in the grove, should choose, consciously or unconsciously, to cast his initial written account of the first vision into a literary style and structure similar to familiar conversion accounts spoken and written by his contemporaries. Thus, when Joseph dictated his history to Frederick G. Williams in 1832, he attempted to couch his exalted experience in exalted prose, as his contemporaries were fond of doing. He would thus begin: “A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ [sic] the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand.”13 And in such florid wording Joseph would speak of the professors of various faiths: “I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that Sacred depository [i.e., the Bible].” Young Joseph, then, very conscious of the importance of his account, could not resist the temptation to attempt to match his rhetoric to the event, particularly when doctors of divinity were recounting events of less importance in even higher-sounding phrases.

The language and structure Joseph used in shaping the 1832 [p.95]account demonstrate other similarities to the spiritual autobiographies of his contemporaries. Like them, he found himself becoming “seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul,” which led him, with them, “to Searching the Scriptures.” Like them, he became “distressed,” for he was similarly “Convicted of [his] Sins” and mourned for his sins and for the sins of humankind (156). After being filled with love for God, he, like his contemporaries, suddenly found nature transformed, and he wrote about,

the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses … ; [and] my heart exclaimed all … these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power a being who maketh Laws and decreer and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity (156-57).

Following the well-established pattern in recounting a conversion, Joseph then relates that such recognition of God’s grandeur led him “to obtain mercy” from the Lord. “The Lord,” he continues, “heard my cry in the wilderness” and appeared to him in a pillar of light (157). Consistent with the Protestant pattern, he tells us in the 1832 account of only one personage and continues the familiar form by explaining that the Lord immediately told Joseph, “Try Sins are forgiven thee, go thy way walk in my Statutes and keep my commandments.” Joseph further follows his contemporaries in pointing out that, after the experience, his “soul was filled with love and for many days [he] could rejoice with great joy.”

Then he adds the phrase which makes all the difference between his and the accounts of others, “but [I] could find none that would believe the hevenly vision” (157). The careful reader must suspect that Joseph had told his auditors something more than he had included in his 1832 account of the first vision. It is only in later recountings that we are made aware of those claims that would immediately separate his experience from those of many others in the burned-over district and vicinity.

So the 1832 relation of the first vision is strongly reminiscent of similar accounts by other spiritual individuals. In strained language, Joseph recounts his experience as if it were primarily a vision granted [p.96]to assure him of his personal redemption and the need for all to repent, and not to assure him of the apostasy of all churches and the need for a Restoration.

In Joseph’s 1835 impromptu recital of the first vision, as recorded by Warren Cowdery,14 the prophet creates a kind of transition between his first published account of the vision, with its traditional form, its formal grammar, syntax, and diction, and its long, convoluted, and soaring sentences, and his more carefully edited 1838 account. By 1835 he had come to a better capacity for expressing the uniqueness of his experience, which he was able to render in language and form more appropriate to his prophetic role and the destiny of the restored church.

In the 1835 account, Joseph begins to shift the emphasis of the experience from the forgiveness of his personal sins to his greater concern regarding the “different systems” of religion in the world, and he notes that it was “of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment” (158). And while he is traditional in recounting his visit to “the silent grove,” and was moved to do so, as were his contemporaries, by his reading of a particular scripture, he nevertheless introduces into the 1835 account the suggestion of specific satanic influence (pointing out that he was thwarted in his desire to pray aloud by a swollen tongue and by a noise behind him, “like someone walking towards” him in the grove), and he describes the unique experience of seeing two personages, as well as angels, in his open vision (159).

Also of significance in this 1835 account is the simple and more confident style of the narration: “I kneeled again,” Warren Cowdery records Joseph as saying; “my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head” (159). Such spare prose, in contrast with the prose of 1832, prefigures the simple eloquence of the 1838 version and combines with the shift in content to make the 1835 version less derivative and in many ways more effective than the 1832 account.


By the time Joseph Smith dictated the 1838 version of his first vision, the transition from plow-boy to prophet was complete. This [p.97]account of the original theophany thus takes on a significance far different from the earlier versions.15 Not only is this account, which apparently underwent several drafts, an interesting index to the changing ideas of Joseph Smith regarding his prophetic role in the Restoration, but it is also a narrative that achieves an interest and a meaning of its own, even apart from the man who first articulated the experience.

If the first vision as it came to be shaped in 1838 were simply an expanded recounting of Joseph Smith’s revelatory experience, then there is much in the structure and style of the piece that raises questions. For instance, one of the important differences immediately apparent between this and the earlier versions is its restrained, straight-forward, matter-of-fact style. The 1832 version, as we have seen, was characterized by an elaborate, complicated syntax and a highly elevated, florid diction. One might argue that the change in style between 1832 and 1838 is merely a matter of the passage of time, that as the experience became further removed in time, so the sensory details simply faded away. However, it should be remembered that this same narrative includes a remarkably full and complete description of the Angel Moroni, a heavenly manifestation also many years past, yet vividly recalled.

But even more significant is the fact that the impressive, powerful, and overwhelming manifestation of the Savior in the Kirtland temple (see D&C 110) was relatively close in time. When Joseph dictated the lines of the 1838 version, not two years had elapsed since he had heard again the voice which had first spoken to him in the grove and in response to which Joseph had written with eloquent and poetic grandeur: “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah” (D&C 110:3).

The metaphorical language and the elaborate figures of speech are not only appropriate in this Kirtland vision of 1836 but, as language, are remarkably successful. Only a poetic diction and a figurative language can carry the burden of the extraordinary, experience being rendered here. And in that sense the metaphors and similes that Joseph uses are right: the eyes of fire, for instance, remind us of the frequent use of light and lightning to describe the face of [p.98]the divine. Indeed, the heavenly pillar of Joseph’s first vision is interchangeably referred to as one of light or of fire. Furthermore, the equation of the voice with the rushing of great waters suggests not only irresistible power and volume, but a terrible beauty and, in the end, a source of life as well.

In 1838, then, when Joseph turned again to describing his first vision, he could have written in considerable detail regarding those heavenly figures that appeared in the pillar of light in 1820. But as he dictated, he was content with the simple statement, “I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) …” (163). Indeed, although the sentences of the 1838 version are technically long, they are freer from embellishment, affectation, and rhetorical flourish than the versions of 1832, 1835, or Doctrine and Covenants 110. In comparison, the sentences in the 1838 account seem remarkably plain and unadorned. They employ for the most part, brief subject-verb structures, and simpler coordinating connectives, rather than the more complicated subordinating connectives of the earlier versions. The language itself is less high-blown and far more natural and restrained, using fewer and simpler adjectives and adverbs and concentrating more on nouns and verbs to carry the burden of meaning. Indeed the prose is so free from emotionally loaded words and phrases as to make us almost forget the cosmic significance of the events being recounted.

There are other differences among these accounts, differences less subtle and more significant. For instance, the prologue to the 1838 version announces a striking shift in emphasis regarding the purpose of Joseph’s narrative. As noted earlier, in the 1832 account the emphasis is on Joseph himself. It is “a history of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. [and] an account of his marvilous experiences and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Ch[r]ist …” But in 1838, Joseph was writing about “the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” with the purpose of presenting “the facts as they have transpired in relation both to myself and the Church as far as I have such facts in possession” (10). The subtle shift in emphasis from the personal to the institutional is significant.

The prophet’s concern in the 1838 version, then, is not so much his own sins as it is the question, which church is right? In 1832 Joseph wrote, “I became convicted of my Sins … and I felt to mourn for my [p.99]own Sins and for the Sins of the world” (156), and so he went to the woods, he notes in that version, to “obtain mercy.” But by 1838 the concern for personal sin and expiation has almost entirely disappeared. Indeed it is no longer a question of sin; it is a question of knowledge. It is not Joseph’s own soul that is the focal center, but rather the direction in which all must turn in order to find salvation.

A third important consideration in this most complete version is the relative space given to the separate events. Considering the central nature of the first appearance of the Father and the Son, one might think of it as forming a sort of structural highlight within the narrative itself. Interestingly, the vision as such is given comparatively little space, a fact made plain when we set that episode alongside some of the other parts of the narrative. For instance, Joseph devotes well over twice as many words to the persecution that followed the vision as he does to the actual vision itself. And the experience with Moroni takes up more than four times the space given to the original theophany. While word counting alone is not a sure indication of the relative significance of any particular event, we cannot forget the human tendency to elaborate those matters that are most important. Thus the rhetorical context of the first vision makes clear that Joseph’s inquiry and the subsequent persecution seem to be at least as significant in the plan of the narrative as the heavenly appearance.


Indeed the first vision’s larger setting in the Joseph Smith story has become a matter of deep significance for Mormons as they reiterate the well-known story in church services and in missionary discussions. For while the first vision is an important matter itself, its telling almost always anticipates the recounting of the appearances of several other heavenly messengers. Thus the appearances of the Angel Moroni and John the Baptist are also fundamental, well-known, and important parts of the account and together form a recital so familiar as almost to shape a litany which could be repeated in concert by most gatherings of Mormons. It gathers up in itself the essential beginnings not just of the theology, the literature, and the authority, but of the whole religious movement. It reiterates in a profound way [p.100]the origins not just of another church or even another movement, but of a whole new religious tradition.

The Joseph Smith story in its completeness is, then, not just a series of interesting episodes in our historical literature. It has come to function on a deeper level of our collective psyche as the true narrative of the sacred origins of this last dispensation. As a recitation, the several visions have their own significance and function within the culture, a significance that transcends the particular experience of any one person. Even more than institutional beginnings, the Joseph Smith story relates how, by the interposition of supernatural beings, the new dispensation itself came into being. Furthermore, the story is a narrative, the acceptance or “knowing” of which is a mark of true initiation into the fold of the church and an experience which can be, in essence, repeated “in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or reenacted.”16

One recognizes here, of course, the language of Mircea Eliade in his discussion of the structure and function of myths. Eliade’s revealing analysis is important to our discussion. For if it is true that Mormonism represents a new religious tradition, then a narrative of mythic dimensions that relates the origins of that tradition becomes imperative for the true believers. The concern here is with the remarkable way in which the Joseph Smith story functions in the patterns that Eliade outlines for a religious myth. That mythic narrative, he points out, has several characteristic qualities as it functions in certain societies:

In general it can be said that myth … (1) constitutes the History of the acts of the Supernaturals; (2) that this History is considered to be absolutely true (because it is concerned with realities) and sacred (because it is the work of the Supernaturals); (3) that myth is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; … (4) that by knowing the myth one [possesses] a knowledge that one experiences ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification. [In the case of the Joseph Smith story, going out by oneself into the woods and expecting answers to prayer]; (5) that in one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or reenacted.17

[p.101]Understanding Eliade’s criteria for a mythic narrative helps us to understand the shifting emphases in the narrative of Joseph Smith, to understand why the later versions move towards an emphasis on religious origins and away from concerns with private absolution, and to realize why the Joseph Smith story is presently told more in the straight-forward manner of religious mythos and sacred history and less in the received model of spiritual autobiography.

Eliade’s pattern also helps explain the important function and form of the canonized story (Joseph Smith-History) in the LDS Pearl of Great Price, with its narrative series of epiphanies and persecutions. The 1838 version thus becomes at once a paradigm of the religious experience by which one may confirm the reality of the new dispensation, and a religious experience itself. The proper telling and hearing of the narrative allow one, in a sense, to “relive” for oneself the sacred origins of one’s faith.

Thus it is appropriate that the narrative be less and less characterized by received modes of personal interior experience, and more and more characterized by an emphasis on common experience and tangible actuality. That the events be real is of the utmost importance, and it is that actuality that becomes more and more a part of the sacred history of 1838. Thus the rather vague, “the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness,” of the 1832 account (157) becomes in 1838 the definite “beautiful clear” spring morning in the woods of the Sacred Grove, details which are now essential in the standard recitation of the story, (162). Such need for reality helps explain, too, why Joseph makes particular his struggles of that morning, that he was about to succumb “not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world” (163; emphasis added). The experience as we finally have it, then, is cosmic in its significance, yet thoroughly set down on the solid stuff of worldly experience.

The difference between a sacred narrative of this sort and a work of secular fiction can perhaps be best underlined by repeating a few lines from a novelist’s attempt to render Joseph Smith’s experience of the first vision:

He saw first an intimation of brightness far out in the universe: it grew like the softness of morning, like a gentle flowering out of utter darkness, as if heaven were overflowing the wastelands of night as brilliance spilled from God’s robe as He walked. For a long moment the light spread and [p.102]gathered strength and then suddenly fell downward in a broad beam of terrible splendor, in a great and blinding pillar that touched the earth and lay far out in a white column of eternity. Then, with startling swiftness, two persons appeared in this stupendous shaft of light, the Father and the Son; and they were exactly alike in countenance and in the incandescence of their glory. They walked down the beam as down a highway of light; and one called the prostrate lad by name and pointed to his companion and said, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!”

And the vision ends: “The voice died away in echoes that rolled in solemn music, and the highway of light slowly faded, with Father and Son standing as vanishing silhouettes against the infinite. The light closed like a shutter to a thin wraith of holiness and slowly withdrew to the lone glittering point of a star.”18

The difference is obvious. It is not a difference that is entirely explicable by the fact that one writer was a nineteenth-century farmboy and the other a twentieth-century professional, for as has been shown, Joseph Smith had considerable skill with the poetic language of the religious experience. It is not appropriate either to ask which account is preferable, for separate literary modes have separate functions. The fictional account by Vardis Fisher in Children of God draws deeply on the techniques available to the imaginative writer in order to engage the reader’s imagination—but in the end, that is all, for whether the experience recounted is either historical or sacred is not an essential concern of the novelist.

However, the Joseph Smith story as we have come to know it in Mormon society is expected not only to excite interest and pleasure but to reveal an exemplary model for human activity of the highest significance—to support or to change our values and our assumptions about humanity, God, and the world. The Joseph Smith story, as Mormons have canonized it, is repeated, not as an aesthetic or historical artifact, but as a kinetic experience, meant to bring about either a religious reinforcement or a spiritual reformation in the life of the narrator as well as the listener. Its present shape and form make clear that it is not just a fantastic part of a remarkable religious history. It is, in the best sense of that word, a religious myth functioning to identify and mold a remarkable religious tradition.

We can perhaps better understand now why the prophet Joseph wrote as he did in his letter to John Wentworth in 1841. At the height [p.103]of his prophetic power, secure in the vision of the future of the Restoration, Joseph succinctly stated the essentials of the mature account of the divine origins of the church: First, “upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment”; second, “I had confidence in the declaration of James: ‘If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God'”; third, “I retired to a secret place in a grove”; fourth, the theophany itself, “I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day”; fifth, “They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom”; and finally, “And I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”19 Again, the plain style and the sense of origins combine to impress and to testify.


In celebrating the origins of Mormonism, it is appropriate to mark 1830 and Fayette, New York, as the time and place of institutional beginnings. But as we do so, it is even more appropriate to remember that the true origins of Mormonism center not so much in the Whitmer farmhouse as in that grove of hardwood trees where, as the Joseph Smith story declares, “two heavenly personages” appeared to mark a beginning, not merely of an institution but of a religious experience which continues to be recreated in the life of each Latter-day Saint.


[p.103]1. James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 29.

2. See ibid.; Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971); Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275-94.

3. Allen, “Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision,'” 30.

[p.104]4. Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 122.

5. Ibid., 125.

6. Ibid.

7. The Wentworth Letter is readily available. The version used in this essay is “The Wentworth Letter,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 295-96; see also “Extract from Wentworth Letter,” in Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 168-69.

8. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision,'” 42.

9. See Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950), 138-50, for a discussion of Joseph Smith in the context of western New York society.

10. James Fraser, Memoirs of the Rev. James Fraser of Brae, Minister of the Gospel at Culross, Written by Himself as quoted in G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), 39-40.

11. Jacob Knapp, The Autobiography of Elder Jacob Knapp (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1868), 14-15; see also Cross’s discussion of Knapp in The Burned-over District, 196-97; Eleazer Sherman, The Narrative of Eleazer Sherman (Providence, RI: n. pub., 1832), vol. 1; Abel Thornton, The Life of Elder Abel Thornton (Providence, RI: n. pub., 1832); Jabez Swan, The Evangelist; or, Life and Labors of Reverend Jabez S. Swan, ed. Rev. F. Denison (Waterford, CT: n.pub., 1873). For other related accounts and testimonials, see Alfred Bennett, Memoir of Alfred Bennett, ed. H. Harvey, 3d ed. (New York: n. pub., 1852), 29ff; Abel Stevens, The Life and Times of Nathan Bangs, D.D. (New York: n. pub., 1863); Levi Parsons, Memoir of Reverend Levi Parsons, comp. Daniel O. Morton (Poultney, VT:n. pub. 1824); Matthew Gardner, The Autobiography of Elder Matthew Gardner, ed. N. Summerbell (Dayton, OH: n. pub., 1874).

12. John N. Maffit, Tears of Contrition (New London, CT: n .pub., 1821), 51.

13. Backman, “1832 Recital of the First Vision,” in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 155; see also Jessee, “Early Accounts,” 278; parenthetical citations in the text refer to this and other accounts in Backman.

14. Backman, “1835 Recital of the First Vision,” in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 158-59; see also Jessee, “Early Accounts,” 184.

15. Backman, “1838 Recital of the First Vision,” in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 160-67.

16. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 19.

17. Ibid., 18-19.

18. Vardis Fisher, Children of God: An American Epic, 19th ed. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939), 8.

19. Backman, “Extract from Wentworth Letter,” in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 168-69.