Question: Did William Smith claim that a religious revival led to the Joseph's "first vision" of an angel in 1823?


Question: Did William Smith claim that a religious revival led to the Joseph's "first vision" of an angel in 1823?

William Smith conflates Joseph's First Vision with Moroni's visit in his 1883 biography

William Smith does indeed say in his 1883 autobiography that during a period of religious revival (which he dates at 1822-1823) Joseph Smith prayed to the Lord to know "the path of obedience" and was in turn visited by an angel who told him that "none of the sects were right."[1]

William acknowledged that Joseph's own published history was more accurate than his own recollection

Critics of the Church who wish to use Williams statement to prove that the First Vision didn't happen in 1820 neglect to tell their audience members that directly after making this anomalous statement William adds that,

"A more elaborate and accurate description of [Joseph Smith's] vision, however, will be found in his own history"
(William B. Smith, William Smith on Mormonism [Lamoni, IA: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883], 9).

This notation kicks the legs right out from underneath the stool that the critics are perched upon. William Smith identifies the Prophet's published history (the primary source of information) as being "more...accurate" than his own. This accurate version of events was canonized by the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City three years before William Smith published his erroneous remarks.

William was drawing his own history from an inaccurate source: Oliver Cowdery's 1834 and 1835 history in the Messenger and Advocate

Why was William Smith's recital of historical events so far off the mark? The answer is simple. He was drawing information, at length, from an inaccurate secondary source. A comparison of texts reveals that William was just rephrasing the information found in Oliver Cowdery's deficient Church history articles which were printed in the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate in 1834-35.[2] This is where William got the "1823" date from and the idea that an "angel" appeared during the Prophet's initial visitation.

During a speech that William gave in 1883, his memory of events was much more accurate

It should be noted that during the very same year that William published his autobiography (1883) he gave a speech wherein he discussed certain elements of Church history. This time he was not reworking published information for inclusion in another printed text - he was simply telling other people about incidents that he remembered. This time his recital was much closer to his brother's own account. William said on this occasion,

  • About 4 years after Joseph Smith Sr. went to Palmyra, New York (i.e., in 1820) Joseph Jr. became concerned about religion.
  • Joseph Jr. did not know which way to go; he desired guidance in this area.
  • Joseph Jr. wanted to be prepared for the next life; he wanted to know the "plan".
  • Joseph Jr. said that there was "a lack of wisdom".
  • At that time Mother Smith some of her children belonged to the Presbyterian church.
  • Joseph Jr. went into the "woods" to pray to the Lord for guidance.
  • A bright light appeared like the brightness of the sun.
  • Joseph Jr. received a "vision".
  • In the light Joseph Jr. saw "a personage".
  • "that [B]eing pointed him [i.e., Joseph] out as the messenger to go forth and declare [H]is truth to the world; for ‘They had all gone astray;’ ‘Every man was going his own way'".

(The Saints’ Herald, vol. 30, no. ----, 16 June 1883, 388).

When William Smith relied upon his own memory he got many aspects of the First Vision story correct. When he relied upon a faulty historical narrative he was dead wrong about the details. Critics should take William's advice and quit pointing to his statements as if they had some kind of important significance and turn instead to the Prophet's own published account because it is "more . . . accurate".

Notes

  1. William Smith, On Mormonism, 1883, Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:494–495.
  2. In the Messenger and Advocate, Oliver began describing the “excitement raised on the subject of religion” that occurred in Joseph Smith’s “15th year of his life.” (Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER III," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 3 (Dec. 1834), 42.) In a subsequent issue however, Oliver declares his previous statement as having been “an error in the type—it should have been in the 17th,” and then proceeds to relate the story of Moroni’s visit in 1823. (Oliver Cowdery, "LETTER IV," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 5 (Feb. 1835), 78.) It is apparent that Oliver was originally planning to describe the events of the First Vision, but then switched to a description of the visit of the angel Moroni instead.