Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/Prophet's mother said First Vision was of an "angel"
The Prophet's mother—Lucy Mack Smith—wrote a letter in 1831 which indicates that her son's First Vision consisted of seeing an "angel" instead of Deity. This documentary evidence demonstrates that the Prophet's story evolved over time; his claim to have seen God was a relatively late addition to his story.
Lucy Mack Smith's 1831 letter does NOT say that her son's first heavenly visitation was from an angel. Her letter not only contains an easily recognizable First Vision storyline fragment, but also cites a text that refers directly to the First Vision experience. Lucy's intent was NOT to focus attention on the First Vision, but rather on the heavenly manifestation associated with the Book of Mormon. There is no evidence that the letter was hidden or "suppressed"—the first publications of it were all by LDS authors in works supportive of the Church.
The full text of the letter in question (written on 6 January 1831 in Waterloo, New York to Lucy's siblings) can be found in Benjamin E. Rich, ed., Scrapbook of Mormon Literature (Chicago: Henry C. Etten and Co., 1913), 1:543–46.
Anyone who reads the full text of this letter will soon discover that its stated purpose is to introduce the Book of Mormon to Lucy's siblings, to prepare them to receive a copy of it when it was presented to them, to explain that the book represented the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and to summarize how it came forth in their day. The letter says absolutely nothing about Joseph Smith's encounter with the Book of Mormon "angel" being his FIRST spiritual manifestation.
Critics fail to mention that Lucy's 1831 letter not only contains a very distinct First Vision storyline theme ("the churches have all become corrupted...the Lord hath spoken it") but it also closely paraphrases a section of the Articles and Covenants of the Church that is recognized by LDS scholars as the earliest published reference to the First Vision experience. This material was recorded by April 1830 and is reproduced below:
- D&C 20:5-8 (April 1830)
- (verse 5) "After it was truly manifested unto this first elder [i.e., Joseph Smith] that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world; (verse 6) But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness; (verse 7) And gave unto him commandments which inspired him; (verse 8) And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon."(DC 20:5-8
Compare this with Mother Smith's letter:
- LUCY'S LETTER (January 1831)
- "Joseph, after repenting of his sins and humbling himself before God, was visited by an holy angel whose countenance was as lightning and whose garments were white above all whiteness, who gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high; and who gave unto him, by the means of which was before prepared, that he should translate this book."
Compare both of the above sources with the Prophet's 1832 First Vision narrative:
- FIRST VISION ACCOUNT (September-November 1832)
- "I felt to mourn for my own sins....[The Lord said during the First Vision,] 'thy sins are forgiven thee'....after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things....I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me....the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters."
Critics also fail to point out that almost exactly two months before Lucy Mack Smith wrote her letter, four LDS missionaries (Oliver Cowdery, Orson Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr. and Ziba Peterson) were publicly teaching that Joseph Smith had seen God "personally" and had received a commission from Him to preach true religion. It is specifically stated in the newspaper article that records this information that the missionaries made their comments about 1 November 1830 - shortly after the Church was formally organized. Critics who do acknowledge this newspaper article attempt to dismiss it by calling it a "vague" reference, despite the clear wording that the missionaries taught that Joseph "had seen God frequently and personally."
Not published until late?
Although Abanes indicates that the letter was “unpublished until 1906” [Becoming Gods, 32], he does not indicate where, or by whom. First published by Ben E. Rich, President of the Southern States Mission, the letter has been long available to interested students of LDS history: Elders Journal 4 (1 November 1906): 60-62 [Southern States Mission, Chattanooga, Tenn.]. It was later published in Rich, Scrap Book of Mormon Literature, 2 volumes (Chicago: Henry C. Etten and Co., no date [Vogel suggests 1913]): 543-5; also by Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America. The Book of Mormon, 2 Volumes, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Brigham Young University 1942; 1960), 1:66.
It should be noted that the Lucy Mack Smith letter was not even available for publication until just shortly before it appeared in print because it was in a descendant's possession. The introduction to the letter published in the Elders' Journal states: "The following very interesting and earnest gospel letter written by Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet Joseph, to her brother, Solomon Mack and his wife, was presented to President Joseph F. Smith a few weeks ago by Mrs. Candace Mack Barker, of Keene, N[ew] H[ampshire], a grand-daughter of Solomon Mack, to whom the letter is addressed. Mrs. Barker stated that it was her desire to place the letter in the hands of those who would appreciate its contents and preserve it as she felt it properly deserved." (Elders' Journal, vol. 4, no. 3, 1 November 1906, 59)
- [note] The Palmyra Reflector, vol. 2, no. 13 (14 February 1831) [Palmyra, New York].
- [note] For example, Richard Abanes, in his anti-Mormon work Becoming Gods, boldly declares in the main body of his text on page 34 that "[n]ot a single piece of published literature" mentions the First Vision, yet in an endnote at the back of the book on page 338 acknowledges this newspaper account. He attempts to dismiss this by claiming that the reference is "vague," yet acknowledges that "as early as 1831 Smith might have been starting to privately tell select persons that he had at some point seen God."