According to Mormon accounts, Joseph Smith’s career as a prophet began with a revelation known as the First Vision.
This story narrates how Smith, at just the age of fourteen, asked God which church he should join. As Smith prayed a bright pillar of light appeared above his head. Two figures, which Smith described bearing a “brightness and glory defy all description”, appeared above him in the air and one pointed to the other saying, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” These figures were God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son. Smith asked God the Father and Jesus Christ which church he should join, but he was told to join none of them. He was informed “that all their creeds were an abomination in his [Father God’s] sight; that those professors were all corrupt.”
The First Vision showed how Smith was chosen to be God’s prophet in the latter days. Integral to this vision is that all Christian churches were false, a point that motivated Smith to be God’s means through which the original church would be restored.
It would not be long until Smith had another visionary experience. According to this story, Smith was seventeen when an angel appeared in his room one night. This angel was Moroni, the same individual who had buried the ancient golden plates. Moroni informed Smith that God had important work for him to do. These golden plates not only existed but also provided an account of the former inhabitants of the Americas. It was also said to provide the fullness of the everlasting Gospel. The angel revealed where the plates were hidden. They could be found under a stone on a near-by hill called Hill Cumorah. Smith obeyed the angel’s instructions and went to the hill to dig up the plates. But he was then told to return each year on that same date for further instructions. In 1827, when Smith was twenty-one, he was allowed to take the plates along with items buried next to them: a breastplate and the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim were a pair of crystals set in a metal frame like eyeglasses and were to be used to translate the plates.
Smith began translating the plates in 1828. Apparently, he looked into the Urim and Thummim and witnessed the text of the translation appear. He would then dictate the words to his scribe, Martin Harris. Smith also later used the magic seer stone to translate the plates. He did so by placing the stone in the crown of his hat that he held up to his face. The words of the translation would then appear in the stone. After transcribing many pages of text, Smith’s scribe Harris asked permission to take the manuscript home to show his wife. Smith agreed, but the manuscript later disappeared. Smith resumed his dictation of the plates in 1829 with Oliver Cowdery as his scribe. The dictation occurred at a rapid pace and the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.
There are several versions of Smith’s First Vision that differ in the details and make it challenging to know exactly what happened (1). Because the differences are tough to piece together to produce a coherent version, some scholars have suggested Smith fabricated the First Vision (2).
What are some of the differences? For example, in one account, Smith claims to have learned that all the churches had fallen astray after reading the Bible. But the official account says that before the vision, Smith had no idea any of the churches were wrong or had fallen astray. In one version, one of the figures to appear said “This is My Beloved Son, hear Him”, but this is missing in another account. In one account, only Jesus appears, but in the official version there are two personages. Elsewhere it is said that Smith saw angels and not divine beings. Accounts also differ regarding Smith’s age: one account says he was fourteen when he had the vision, another says he was sixteen. In the earlier accounts of the First Vision, we read that Smith’s sins were forgiven. However, this is neglected in later versions. Jerald and Sandra Tanner sum up some of these differences saying that,
“We have now examined three different handwritten manuscripts of the first vision. They were all written by Joseph Smith or his scribes and yet every one of them is different. The first account says there was only one personage. The second account says there were many, and the third says there were two. The church, of course, accepts the version which accepts two personages…At any rate…it becomes very difficult to believe that Joseph Smith ever had a vision in the grove” (3).
But Mormons will no doubt argue back that differences in the accounts don’t undermine the historical core to the overarching story, which is that Smith did have some sort of vision.
The account of Smith’s obtaining the golden plates and transporting them home has not gone unchallenged either. Problematic here is the weight of the golden plates Smith collected that make the story suspect. According to an account provided by Smith’s mother, Smith outran robbers who tried to steal the golden plates from him (4). But estimates have put the weight of the golden plates, which were made of solid gold, as high as 200 pounds (90kg). This makes it very unlikely that Smith could simultaneously outrun his attackers (Smith was attacked three times on his way home) and sprint several miles carrying such an enormous lump of weight. Even on the lower end of estimates, ranging anywhere from 60 (27.21kg) to 30 pounds (13.6kg), this feat seems unlikely.
- Peterson, LaMar. 1998. The Creation of the Book of Mormon: A Historical Inquiry. Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press. p. 1-10.
- Tanner, Jerald., and Tanner, Sandra. 1987. Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (5th ed.). Utah Lighthouse Ministry. p. 143-162.
- Tanner, Jerald., and Tanner, Sandra. 1980. The Changing World of Mormonism. Chicago: Moody Press. p. 156.
- Hedges, Andrew. 2001. “Take Heed Continually”: Protecting the Gold Plates. Available.