Evidence Against Mormonism: Joseph’s Vision Not Original

Here’s a post from SpongeBob SquareGarments at RFM:

Having visions in the early 1800s wasn’t that strange.

In modern times if someone said they had a vision it would seem extraordinary, or more likely not believable. However in the early 1800s having visions wasn’t perceived to be all that uncommon. Even Joseph Smith’s father claimed to have had a vision – namely the Tree of Life vision. People believed in magic, seer stones, divining rods, etc. and people claiming to have visions weren’t seen as all that strange. Like much of Joseph’s work, the first vision is strikingly similar to someone else’s story. The following are accounts of visions similar to Joseph’s First Vision. Note: All of these accounts appeared in print before Joseph’s First Vision was published.

“I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them. One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a cloud. In looking steadfastly to discern features, I could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place. Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man—His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining. His Father’s will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love.”

Was this a previously unpublished version of Joseph Smith’s “first vision,” one might ask? No. It was the claim of one Norris Stearns, published in 1815, in Greenfield, Massachusetts—not far from where the Joseph Smith Senior family lived in Vermont.

The most intriguing aspect of Stearns’ “vision,” is how he described the Father and the Son as two separate, distinct, human personages. LDS faithful, of course, have long asserted that that was one of the “truths” that had been lost from the world until Joseph Smith’s First Vision. It was a major point in the late apostle Hugh B. Brown’s 1950’s sermon “Profile of a Prophet.” But Joseph may have merely been inspired by Stearns, or some other contemporary source.
Reference: http://nowscape.com/mormon/vision.htm

Pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman’s comments
Even pro-LDS historian Richard Bushman, is intrigued by the similarities between Joseph’s account of the First Vision and Norris Stearns’ vision saying that Joseph ‘adopted it as his own’ in referring to the written account of Stearns’ vision.  (link)

Critic’s Comment: Bushman is basically saying that Joseph liked the words Norris Stearns used when he described the vision that Norris had. Joseph liked them so much that he used the same phrases to describe his own First Vision experience. While we applaud Professor Bushman’s acknowledgment that the similarities of the Stearns’ vision and Joseph’s First Vision are too serious to ignore, we believe that it is more probable that Joseph simply borrowed the whole vision story from Stearns, not just the description.

In 1816 a minister by the name of Elias Smith published a book in which he told of his conversion. Notice how similar it is to Joseph Smith’s first account: “… I went into the woods … a light appeared from heaven…. My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb…. The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly…. It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation …” (The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816, pp.58-59).
Alexander Campbell wrote the following on March 1, 1824, concerning a “revival in the state of New York”: “Enthusiasm flourishes…. This man was regenerated when asleep, by a vision of the night. That man heard a voice in the woods, saying,
‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ A third saw his Savior descending to the tops of the trees at noon day” (The Christian Baptist, Vol. 1, pp.148-49).
Reference: http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changech6.htm

ASA WILD, 1823
Asa Wild claimed to have a revelation which is very similar to the story Joseph Smith published. It was published in the Wayne Sentinel (the paper to which the family of Joseph Smith apparently subscribed) on October 22, 1823: “It seemed as if my mind … was struck motionless, as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah. He then spake … He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt….”
Reference: http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changech6.htm

SOLOMON CHAMBERLAIN, 1816 An Account by LDS Historian Richard Bushman
Meridian Magazine has recently published an article by famed LDS historian Richard Bushman giving another person’s account of a vision which is remarkably similar to Joseph’s First Vision but preceded Joseph’s First Vision by four years. The article, abridged by Meridian but with a link to the full article, is here:

As per this article, one Solomon Chamberlain was on a quest for the true religion and gave the following account

QUOTE (Meridian Magazine @ )
Dissatisfied with the religions he had tried, Chamberlin prayed for further guidance, and in 1816, according to his account, “the Lord revealed to me in a vision of the night an angel,” whom Chamberlin asked about the right way. The angel told him that the churches were corrupt and that God would soon raise up an apostolic church. Chamberlin printed up an account of his visions and was still distributing them and looking for the apostolic church when he stopped in Palmyra.

Now there are known to have been several accounts by Joseph Smith of his first vision, one in which it was an ‘angel’ who communicated with Joseph, another in which it was Christ alone, and the official canonized version, which included both the Father and the Son. All of these accounts were recorded some time after the establishment of the Church. The account of Solomon Chamberlain, as recounted by Bushman above, is so similar to that of Joseph’s own account, particular his earliest version, that one is left to wonder if Joseph did not appropriate this vision for himself.

Michael Quinn, in his book “The Mormon Hierarchy : Origins of Power” mentions that in 1838 a 14 year-old Mormon boy had a vision of God and Jesus and talked to them “face to face.”

“7 May, 1838. James G. Marsh, 14-year-old son of the president of the Quorum of Twelve, dies. The Elder’s Journal issue of July notes that at age nine this boy “had a remarkable vision, in which he talked with the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory.” No publication at this time had yet referred to Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son.”
(D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p.628)

It’s interesting to note that this boy’s first vision-type story was published just before Joseph Smith’s secretary wrote the “official” first vision story with the Father and the Son.

Joseph Smith was the editor of the Elders Journal when the boy’s obituary appeared:
Elder’s Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Far West, Missouri, July 1828

Vol.1, No.3, p.48
DIED on the 7th of May last, James G. Marsh, second son of Thomas B. Marsh, aged 14 years, 11 months and seven days.

From early infancy he manifested a love and reverence towards his Heavenly Father, while his parents diligently taught him the first principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And having a thirst for knowledge and a love of good principles, he eagerly embraced the gospel, and was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, early in the spring of 1832, being between eight and nine years of age.

His great love of knowledge led him to take hold of every opportunity to read the most useful books, and as he was a lover of the gospel, he made himself well acquainted with the sacred writings, and even at this early age, he had become well skilled in profane as well as sacred history.

It seems that the Lord had respect unto this lover of righteousness, for when he was but about nine years of age, he had a remarkable vision, in which he talked with the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory.

Is it just a coincidence that shortly after the above was published, Joseph Smith’s secretary first penned the Father and Son apparition version of the “first vision” story? Smith’s first vision story wasn’t published until five years later in 1842, but it was written just after this obituary in the summer of 1838.
Reference: http://www.i4m.com/think/history/first_vision.htm

The following is an interesting article on the First Vision which is remarkably similar to the account of an evangelist, Charles G. Finney.

Piecing Together the First Vision
by Paul Derengowski
Anyone familiar with the beginnings of Mormonism is aware of the great importance that Mormons place upon the foundational experiences of their first president and prophet Joseph Smith. In fact, the whole Mormon belief structure rises or falls on his testimony: one’s salvation hinges upon the reception or rejection of it. There is no middle ground. The question arises, however, about whether Joseph Smith’s spiritual experience, known as his “First Vision,” was truly that unique. The unusual religious experiences common in his day convinces objective readers of the non-originality of his story. This is especially true when one examines the striking parallels between Smith’s First Vision and the conversion experience of the well-known lawyer-turned-evangelist, Charles G. Finney.

Parallel #1: Spiritual Straits
Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805. Later, his family moved to Palmyra, New York, in the western part of that state. “Central and Western New York in the early nineteenth century was a ‘boom’ country with all the characteristics of the recently settled and rapidly expanding community.” With that expansion of new settlements the atmosphere was fertile for religious revival. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were only a few of the more established denominations vying for the souls of men during the excitement of settling the new territory.

It was during the religious fervor of the day that Joseph Smith became perplexed concerning his spiritual destiny. Viewing all the religious competition of the day confused him. He did not know which denomination to join. Therefore, upon reading James 1:5 he set out to ask God which denomination was correct and with which one he should align himself. This supposedly occurred in the spring of 1820. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley p. Walters, however, report that newspaper accounts, religious periodicals, church records, and personal narratives show no signs of a revival in Palmyra in 1820; the closest date for a revival was 1824-25. This greatly increases the likelihood that Smith’s story was modeled after Finney’s.

Charles G. Finney, on the other hand, was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut in 1792. As a youth his parents also moved to Central New York where he grew to maturity. Although he spent time in service in the local Presbyterian Church as a choir director, Finney did not trust ministerial advice, much less God Himself. In fact, he often scoffed at the dogmas and practices of those who claimed to be Christians. However, at the age of 29 he began to experience serious spiritual despair that culminated in a need to personally seek the face of God. This occurred in October of 1821, while he was serving his apprenticeship in Adams, New York.

Parallel #2: graphic Groves
One clear, spring morning, Joseph Smith journeyed west of his parents’ farm into a “beautiful grove” to petition God regarding his dilemma. After “having looked around…and finding [himself] alone, [he] kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of [his] heart to God.” It was supposedly the first time in young Joseph’s life that he had ever endeavored to “attempt to pray vocally.”

Similarly, Charles Finney knew of a “grove of woods” that lay north of Adams. He set forth one morning for work and was compelled that he must accept God or die. He “turned and bent [his] course for that grove of woods, feeling that [he] must be alone and away from all human eyes, so that [he] could pour out [his] prayer to God.”

Parallel #3: Paralyzed Prayers
Not long after Joseph began his petition “the enemy” subdued him. He could not speak, for his tongue had been bound. Hearing noises in the woods near him, Smith assumed that other persons were walking around in his presence. He tried several times to make his requests known to God, but without success. The young inquirer despairingly supposed that he was “doomed to destruction.” He had never before encountered such supernatural strength.

In like manner, Charles Finney determined to give his heart to God, but upon making his petition he found that he could not pray. When he attempted to pray he became “dumb,” having “nothing to say to God.” Rustling of leaves nearby led him to believe that other individuals were in his presence. Ultimately that thought led him to such a sense of conviction of personal wickedness that it took possession of him. Charles attempted to pray several times without success, leading him to the verge of despair. He recollected that “a great sinking and discouragement came over me at this point, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.”

Parallel #4: Lofty Luminaries
Upon deliverance from the clutches of the enemy, Joseph witnessed a pillar of light descending upon him until it enveloped him. He became filled with the “spirit of God,” causing him also to be “filled…with unspeakable joy.” At this time both God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, of which Joseph petitioned them “which of all sects were right — and which I should join.” He was admonished that he should join none of them, for they were all wrong! The experience lasted “one brief hour.”

Charles envisioned a light also, but it was scripturally caused. Reflecting upon Jeremiah 29:12–13, the passage “seemed to drop into [his] mind with a flood of light.” With that he was convinced that he could perform his vow of accepting God that day. In the midst of such spiritual ecstasy he left the woods and returned to the village. After dinner Charles wished to “pour out [his] whole soul to God.” He retired to the Counsel room of his law practice, where it was dark, but “it appeared to [him] as if it was perfectly light.” In that “lighted” room he came face to face [emphasis his] with Jesus Christ. No words were exchanged, but Finney “fell down at his feet and poured out [his] soul to him.” Shortly thereafter, Charles received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost, which he characterized as a “wave of electricity” or “waves of love.” The event lasted until late in the evening.

Parallel #5: Rejected Reports
Joseph shared his visionary experience with those whom God had previously denounced as “wrong” and “corrupt.” To his surprise he was treated lightly and with great contempt. Although only a boy of young age, he soon found that his visions and revelations were not welcomed, and that “men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against [him],” creating “bitter persecution.” Being satisfied in mind that he had seen a vision, however, Smith endured, thereafter translating the Book of Mormon and starting the Mormon Church.

Charles, too, endured persecution for sharing his experience. Certain young men in his neighborhood had been warned to avoid him, for he “was a very careless young man about religion.” To associate with Finney was tantamount to diverting oneself away from conversion. The neighborhood’s opinions caused him to doubt his own eternal security. He perceived that others thought of him as possibly delusional or even “crazy.” Nevertheless, after falling asleep the day of his conversion, and then awaking, he experienced “the great flow of the love of God” in his heart. Finney even visited Joseph Smith’s community in 1831.

Conclusion of the Finney Comparison
The role that Joseph Smith plays in Mormonism cannot be underestimated. His character is central to the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the salvation of its members. Important is his testimony regarding what he saw on a spring, New York morning in 1820. At first glance his experience seems extraordinary. However, upon further review, similar experiences shared by others of his the day, coupled with chronological problems, seem to negate the uniqueness of Joseph Smith’s testimony. More important, the parallelism between Smith’s testimony and Charles G. Finney’s prior written declaration seems also to negate Smith’s story as original.
Did Joseph Smith really see anything? Only God knows for sure. Yet, based on the above, one conclusion at which readers could arrive is that Joseph Smith did not see anything at all. More than likely, he culled from the experiences of others, Charles Finney specifically, editing and reshaping them to form his own First Vision.
Reference: http://www.watchman.org/lds/firstvsn.htm

Summary: It is plain to see, then, that the story Joseph Smith penned in the early 1830s is not much different than the visions related by others. It was only when he added the part about the Father appearing with the Son that the story began to sound somewhat unique.

For more problems on the First Vision:

So, do you think ole Joe borrowed some aspects of his FV tale from these folks or what?

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