How Did Mormonism Begin?
INCONSISTENT CLAIMS OF THE FIRST VISION
Neither Mormon missionaries nor its leaders will reveal the erratic details of the origin of Mormonism. There are several factors that cripple Smith’s explanation of what surrounded his “first vision.” It is odd how Joseph Smith did not even record his “encounter” with the Personages (God the Father and Jesus the Son) until 1838, eighteen years after he claimed it happened (J. Smith 47). In the meantime Joseph did have conversations with many of his associates about it before then. The Institute for Religious Research in Grand Rapids, Michigan, provides information of how the accounts greatly varied by the time the official record was accepted (Groat).
In 1827 Joseph Smith, Sr. and Joseph Smith, Jr. gave a statement to Willard Chase as related in his affidavit. They claimed that several years before obtaining the plates a spirit appeared to Joseph in a vision telling him of a record on gold plates. When Joseph went to get the plates, the spirit was transformed from a toad to a man. It struck Joseph twice and instructed him to return in a year. This was an account given several years in a row. They also stated that Joseph was seventeen years old (1823) when the spirit first appeared. At the age of twenty-one Smith obtained the gold book by using the seer stone he found in Willard Chase’s well. There was no mention of any revival. He retrieved the gold plates while out with his wife but hid them in the woods. He approached Martin Harris, who was financially wealthy, and told him that God gave the instruction that Harris was the one to offer financial assistance in producing the Book of Mormon.
Later in the same year (1827) Martin Harris gave an account to Reverend John A. Clark, as detailed in his book Gleanings by the Way, written in 1842. He also does not mention any religious revival. After an evening of money-digging (treasure hunting), Joseph was visited by an angel in a vision who told him he had been chosen to be a prophet and bring forth a record on gold plates. Before Joseph was able to get them he must first travel to Pennsylvania to meet the woman who would be his wife. After marrying her, he must wait until the birth of their first child. Once the child reached two years old, Joseph could get the chest with the gold book. Joseph was allegedly eighteen years old (1824) when the angel first appeared. Joseph met Emma Hale in 1825 and married her on January 18, 1827. His first child was born, but was only six months old when Joseph told his family. He and his father disobeyed the angel and searched for the chest using Joseph’s clairvoyance. They found it, but the angel appeared and knocked Joseph to the ground and he was reprimanded. Some time later another divine encounter informed him that he could go alone to get the chest and bring it home, but it could not be opened until his son was two years old. Meanwhile, Joseph was to begin translating the plates using the spectacles but was to leave the gold book in the chest. Joseph would dictate words to Martin Harris while looking through the stones, but they had to be separated by a suspended blanket during the dictation (Clark).
In 1830 Joseph Smith was interviewed by Peter Bauder. Smith offered no conversion experience or manifestation of God. He simply claimed an angel told him where to find a hidden treasure. He returned once a year for several years before finally getting the plates. The angel took the plates after they were translated (Bauder 36-38).
In 1832 Joseph Smith attempted his first “official” retelling of the “first vision.” He stated that he began seriously studying the scriptures at twelve years old but was determined that all churches were wrong. He did not mention a revival. He omits the money-digging details. This time he affirmed that he was fifteen years old when the vision occurred and did not record the location. In this account, he only includes a vision of Jesus Christ as he underwent a “Christian experience.” Jesus told him that his sins were forgiven. He again prayed at age seventeen and was visited by an angel who told him about the gold plates and told him again that his sins were forgiven. At this same time he stated in section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants that no man can see the face of God without the priesthood and live. This was obviously different than the account he gave in 1838.
In 1835-36 the story changed again. Joseph Smith in his diary said he had a vision when he was fourteen years old. There were two personages but the one appeared and then the other. One of them testified about Jesus but neither was identified as Jesus. He saw many angels in this first visitation and had another vision with angels later when he was seventeen years old. Again there was no mention of a revival (Jessee 75-77).
There are several more explanations Joseph Smith and others offered during the next few years, each one differing from the last. Their sporadic reports are enough by themselves to invalidate any viable accuracy or truth. A thorough list along with their sources may be attained from the website of the Institute of Religious Research (www.irr.org).