Joseph Smith's First Vision/Joseph Smith's early conception of God
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Some critics claim that Joseph began his prophetic career with a "trinitarian" idea of God, and only later developed his theology of the Godhead. What do we know about Joseph and the early Saints' views on God?
Joseph and the early Saints were not trinitarian, and understood God's embodiment and the identity of the Father and Son as separate beings very early on. This doctrine is apparent in the Book of Mormon, and in the earliest friendly and non-friendly accounts of such matters from the Saints.
Such texts demonstrate that the supposed 'evidence' for Joseph altering his story later is only in the eyes of critical beholders.
Joseph's account here focuses on the remission of his sins. However, critics who wish to claim that in 1832 Joseph had only a vaguely "trinitarian" idea of God (and so would see the Father and the Son as only one being) have missed vital evidence which must be considered.
One should first note that in the 1832 account of the First Vision, Jesus announces to Joseph that he will come "clothed in the glory of my Father." The Book of Mormon (translated three years earlier in 1829) also contains numerous passages which teach a physical separation and embodiment (even if only in spirit bodies, which are clearly not immaterial, but have shape, position, and form) of the members of the Godhead. (See: 3 Nephi 11:, 1 Nephi 11:1-11, Ether 3:14-18.)
The Book of Mormon also begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi--thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.
Between June and October 1830, Joseph had dictated his revision (the "Joseph Smith Translation") to Genesis. The first chapter of Moses was dictated in June 1830 (about a month after the Church's reorganization), and began:
- 2 And [Moses] saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence.
- 3 And God spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?
- 4 And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease.
- 5 Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.
- 6 And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all (Moses 1:2-6)
Here already, God distinguishes himself from the Only Begotten, Moses sees and speaks with God face to face, and says that Moses was created "in the similitude of mine Only Begotten."
Joseph's rendered Genesis 1:26 as:
- And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and it was so....And I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them. (Moses 2:26-27.)
There can be no doubt that Joseph understood "in mine own image" to refer to a physical likeness, rather than merely a moral or intellectual one. The JST of Genesis 5:1-2 reads
- In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; in the image of his own body, male and female, created he them (Moses 6:8-9, emphasis added)
Thus, by 1830 Joseph was clearly teaching a separation of the Father and Son, and insisting that both had some type of physical form which could be copied in the creation of humanity.
Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also noted that other Christian denominations took issue with the new Church because of its teachings about God, noting that in 1830:
- the different denominations are very much opposed to us.... The Methodists also come, and they rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith comes in contact with this principle.
Anti-Mormon writers in 1831 noted that Joseph claimed to have received "a commission from God"; and the Mormons claimed that Joseph "had seen God frequently and personally." That Joseph's enemies knew he claimed to have "seen God," indicates that the doctrine of an embodied God that could be seen was well-known early on.
John Whitmer would also write in 1831 of a vision enjoyed by Joseph in which Joseph saw Christ as separate from the Father, for he "saw the heavens opened, and the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Father making intercession for his brethren, the Saints." (emphasis added)  Of this same experience, Levi Hancock wrote:
- Joseph Smith then stepped out onto the floor and said, 'I now see God, and Jesus Christ at his right hand, let them kill me, I should not feel death as I am now.' (emphasis added) 
Furthermore, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were to receive a revelation of the three degrees of glory in the same year as Joseph's 1832 account was written; it clearly teaches a physical separation of the Father and Son, bearing witness of seeing both. (See DC 76:14,20–24.)
Two of Joseph's close associates reported their own visions of God in the winter of 1832–1833. Both are decidedly not in the trinitarian mould.
- Joseph having given instructions, and while engaged in silent prayer, kneeling...a personage walked through the room from East to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did, and Joseph answered that this was Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother. Afterward Joseph told us to resume our former position in prayer, which we did. Another person came through; He was surrounded as with a flame of fire. [I] experienced a sensation that it might destroy the tabernacle as it was of consuming fire of great brightness. The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw him....
- He was surrounded as with a flame of fire, which was so brilliant that I could not discover anything else but his person. I saw his hands, his legs, his feet, his eyes, nose, mouth, head and body in the shape and form of a perfect man. He sat in a chair as a man would sit in a chair, but This appearance was so grand and overwhelming that it seemed that I should melt down in His presence, and the sensation was so powerful that it thrilled through my whole system and I felt it in the marrow of my bones. The Prophet Joseph said: "Brethren, now you are prepared to be the apostles of Jesus Christ, for you have seen both the Father and the Son and know that They exist and that They are two separate personages.
- During the winter that I boarded with[Bro[ther] Joseph... we had a number of prayer meetings, in the Prophet’s chamber.... In one of those meetings the Prophet told us if we could humble ourselves before God, and exersise [sic] strong faith, we should see the face of the Lord. And about midday the visions of my mind were opened, and the eyes of my understanding were enlightened, and I saw the form of a man, most lovely, the visage of his face was sound and fair as the sun. His hair a bright silver grey, curled in a most majestic form, His eyes a keen penetrating blue, and the skin of his neck a most beautiful white and he was covered from the neck to the feet with a loose garment, pure white, whiter than any garment I had ever before seen. His countenance was the most penetrating, and yet most lovely. And while I was endeavoring to comprehend the whole personage from head to feet it slipped from me, and the vision was closed up. But it left on my mind the impression of love, for months, that I never felt before to that degree.
In the School of the Prophets, the brethren were taught that
- "There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things, by whom all things were created and made, that are created and made. . . . They are the Father and the Son--the Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfection and fulness, the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle. (Lecture 5:1–2)
Here, the separateness of the Father and Son continues to be made clear.
A skeptical news article noted:
- They believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts; and that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself....
Evidence that is absent
In addition to all the non-trinitarian evidence above, as Milton Backman has noted, there is a great deal of evidence that we should find, but don't. For example, no one has
- located a publication (such as an article appearing in a church periodical or statement from a missionary pamphlet) written by an active Latter-day Saint prior to the martyrdom of the Prophet that defends the traditional or popular creedal concept of the Trinity. . . .
- Moreover, there are no references in critical writings of the 1830s (including statements by apostates) that Joseph Smith introduced in the mid-thirties the doctrine of separateness of the Father and Son.
- [note] David L. Paulsen, "The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives," Brigham Young University Studies 35 no. 4 (1995–96), 6–94. (Key source)
- [note] Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Matthews, and Scott H. Faulring (editors), Joseph Smith's New Translation Of The Bible: Original Manuscripts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2004), 82.
- [note] Lucy Mack Smith, The History of Joseph Smith By His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, edited by Preston Nibley, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1956), 161. AISN B000FH6N04.
- [note] Palmyra (New York) Reflector (14 February 1832): 102.
- [note] F. Mark McKiernan, An Early Latter-day Saint History: The Book of John Whitmer (Independence, MO.: Herald Publishing House 1980), 67, punctuation corrected; cited in Robert L. Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy, Tension, and Tradition," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 3 (Summer 1989), 49–68.
- [note] As cited in Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism," footnote 12.
- [note] The current D&C 76 vision was first published in Evening and Morning Star, Independence, Missouri, July 1832.
- [note] 3 October 1883, Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book 1883 (Palm Desert, California: ULC Press, 1981), 39; cited in Paulsen, 34.
- [note] "An Abridged Record of the Life of John Murdock Taken From His Journal by Himself," (typescript) Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 13; cited in Paulsen, 35.
- [note] Truman Coe, “Mormonism,” Cincinnati Journal and Western Luminary (25 August 1836). Reprinted from Ohio Observer, circa August 1836. off-site See Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Truman Coe’s 1836 Description of Mormonism," Brigham Young University Studies 17 no. 3 (Spring 1977), 347-55. See also Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:47.
- [note] Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Joseph Smith's First Vision: Cornerstone of a Latter-day Faith," in To Be Learned is Good, If ..., ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987).; cited in Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism," 59.