Joseph Smith's First Vision was not unique to his day, and evidence suggests he plagiarized themes from other tales to fabricate his own visionary tale.
Norris Stearns (1815) [full text]
Elias Smith (1816) [full text]
Solomon Chamberlain (1816) [full text]
Charles G. Finney (1821) [full text]
Asa Wild (1823) [full text]
- Mormon historian Richard Bushman has identified over 33 visionary tales published between 1783 and 1815. The Visionary World of Joseph Smith [7MB PDF]
- We identify six tales that likely provided material for Joseph's visionary tale.
Comparing Visionary Tales
Norris Stearns (1815) [full text]
Norris Stearns, 2nd edition (1820)Compare the preface of Stearns's book to Joseph's life story: an illiterate youth; commanded to write a book; a prophet.The public are here presented with a book written by an illiterate youth, who has been highly favoured of God, and shown many things, which he is now commanded to write. He earnestly solicits the candid attention of every reader, that it may not stand (as the useless Parenthesis) among the other books of the world; for it is written in obedience to the Divine Command, as a Testimony to show his Calling. Care has been taken, that nothing should be written, but by the immediate command of the Lord; whose Servant and Prophet I am.
The Religious Experience, preface
The religious sentiment of Stearns's father is similar to Joseph's father:
My Father was once a praying man, and belonged to the Baptist Church in Leyden; but not having faith in ceremonial ordinances, and dead forms of religion, he withdrew from their meetings, and was soon given up to the buffetings of Satan, that his soul might be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus.
The Religious Experience, p.5
Comparing the tales:
Norris Stearns (1815) Joseph Smith (1842) Both near the brink of death as I lay apparently upon the brink of eternal woe, seeing nothing but death before me, suddenly at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction Both are interrupted by a light there appeared a small gleam of light in the room above the brightness of the sun I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun Both see the Father and the Son in bodily form I saw two spirits... One was God my maker, almost in bodily shape like a man... below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man... I saw two personages... standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other - This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! Both are unable to describe the appearance I could not describe their glory whose brightness and glory defy all description Both use "pillar" in their descriptions a Pillar and a Cloud a pillar of light
Elias Smith (1816) [full text]
Comparing the accounts:
Elias Smith (1816) Joseph Smith (1842) Both enter the woods in the morning I went into the woods one morning I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day Both see a light a light appeared to shine from heaven I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head Both have a divine encounter My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb, and while thus gloriously led... And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion When the light rested on me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description
Solomon Chamberlain (1816) [full text]
- Solomon visited Palmyra and met with the Smith family in the fall of 1829
- He eventually joined the Mormon church
Comparing the visions:
Solomon Chamberlain (1816) Joseph Smith (1842) Both prayed about denominational concerns and were answered that all were corrupt the angel had made known to me in the vision, that all Churches and Denominations on the earth had became corrupt I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong... all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt
Charles G. Finney (1821) [full text]
- Finney visited Joseph Smith's community in 1831
Comparing the vision accounts:
Charles G. Finney (1821) Joseph Smith (1842) Both are impressed with scripture Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light...I instantly seized hold of this with my heart Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart Both enter the woods to be alone to pray I turned and bent my course toward the woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayers to God...I crept into this place and knelt down for prayer I retired to the woods to make the attempt... having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God Both struggle to pray But when I attempted to pray I found that my heart would not pray... But lo! when I came to try, I was dumb; that is, I had nothing to say to God; or at least I could say but a few words It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally... I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so I could not speak Both overwhelmed by power An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me When immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me Both fall into despair Finally I found myself verging fast to despair at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair Both experience weakness I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees I had no strength; but soon recovering some degree
Asa Wild (1823) [full text]
Comparing the visions:
Asa Wild (1823) Joseph Smith (1848) Both have a divine encounter realizing in a remarkable manner the majesty, greatness and glory, of that Being I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description Both lose capacity It seemed as if my mind, though active in its very nature, had lost all its activity, and was struck motionless, as well as into nothing When immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak Both are told all denominations are corrupt He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt the Personages who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt Both withold additional information and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time Much more the Lord revealed, but forbids my relating it in this way
James G. Marsh (1838) [full text]
BYU professor and Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn's summary of Marsh's vision:
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
- The obituary was written just before the official LDS version.
A comparison of visions:
Marsh's Obituary (1838) Joseph Smith (1842) Both are visited by the Father and Son he talked with God the Father and many of the ancient prophets face to face, and beheld the Son of God coming in his glory I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description... One of them spake unto me... This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! Both use similar phrasing for dating early in the spring of 1832 early in the spring of 
King James Version
The words Joseph Smith uses to describe his vision seem to be borrowed from the Book of Acts, namely apostle Paul's vision of Christ on the way to Damascus.And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me...
— Acts 22:6-7
At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. Acts 26:13-14
Full TextsNorris Stearns (1815) ^
At length, as I lay apparently upon the brink of eternal woe, seeing nothing but death before me, suddenly there came a sweet flow of the love of God to my soul, which gradually increased. At the same time, there appeared a small gleam of light in the room, above the brightness of the sun, then at his meridian, which grew brighter and brighter: As this light and love increased, my sins began to separate, and the Mountain removed towards the east. At length, being in an ecstasy of joy, I turned to the other side of the bed, (whether in the body or out I cannot tell, God knoweth) there 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!!
The Religious Experience
As quoted in The Visionary World of Joseph Smith [7MB PDF]
Elias Smith (1816) ^Not long after these things passed through my mind, I went into the woods one morning after a stick of timber; after taking it on my shoulder to bring it to the house, as I walked along on large log that lay above the snow, my foot slipped and I fell partly under the log, the timber fell one end on the log and the other on the snow, and held me, as that I found it difficult at first to rise from the situation I was then in. While in this situation, a light appeared to shine from heaven, not only into my head, but into my heart. This was something very strange to me, and what I had never experienced before. My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb, and while thus gloriously led, what appeared to my understanding was expressed in Rev. xiv. 1. "And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads." 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. My mind was calm and t peace with God through the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. The view of the Lamb on mount Sion gave my joy unspeakable and full of glory. It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation, as every thing earthly was gone from me for some time.
Solomon Chamberlain (1816) ^
[I] found Hyrum walking the floor, As I entered the door, I said, peace be to this house. He looked at me as one astonished, and said, I hope it will be peace, I then said, Is there any one here that believes in visions or revelations and he said Yes, we are a visionary house. I said, Then I will give you one of my pamphlets, which was visionary, and of my own experience. They then called the people together, which consisted of five or six men who were out oat the door. Father Smith was one and some of the Whitmer’s. Then they sat down and read my pamphlet. Hyrum read first, but was so affected he could not read it. He then gave it to a man, which I learned was Christian Whitmer, he finished reading it. I then opened my mouth and began to preach to them, in the words that the angel had made known to me in the vision, that all Churches and Denominations on the earth had become corrupt, and no Church of God on the earth buy that he would shortly rise up a Church, that would never be confounded nor brought down and be like unto the Apostolic Church. They wondered greatly who had been telling me these things, for said they we have the same things wrote down in our house, taken from the Gold record, that you are preaching to us. I said, the Lord told me these things a number of years ago, I then said, If you are a visionary house, I wish you would make known some of your discoveries, for I think I can bear them.
A Short Sketch of the Life of Solomon Chamberlain
As quoted in The Visionary World of Joseph Smith [7MB PDF]
Charles G. Finney (1821) ^
North of the village, and over a hill, lay a piece of woods, in which I was in the almost daily habit of walking, more or less, when it was pleasant weather. It was now October, and the time was past for my frequent walks there. Nevertheless, instead of going to the office, I turned and bent my course toward the woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.
But still my pride must show itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. Yet probably there was not a person on earth that would have suspected such a thing, had he seen me going. But so great was my pride, and so much was I possessed with the fear of man, that I recollect that I skulked along under the fence, till I got so far out of sight that no one from the village could see me. I then penetrated into the woods, I should think, a quarter of a mile, went over on the other side of the hill, and found a place where some large trees had fallen across each other, leaving an open place between. There I saw I could make a kind of closet. I crept into this place and knelt down for prayer. As I turned to go up into the woods, I recollect to have said, "I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there." I recollect repeating this as I went up: ;"I will give my heart to God before I ever come down again."
But when I attempted to pray I found that my heart would not pray. I had supposed that if I could only be where I could speak aloud, without being overheard, I could pray freely. But lo! when I came to try, I was dumb; that is, I had nothing to say to God; or at least I could say but a few words, and those without heart. In attempting to pray I would hear a rustling in the leaves, as I thought, and would stop and look up to see if somebody were not coming. This I did several times.
Finally I found myself verging fast to despair. I said to myself, "I cannot pray. My heart is dead to God, and will not pray." I then reproached myself for having promised to give my heart to God before I left the woods. When I came to try, I found I could not give my heart to God. My inward soul hung back, and there was no going out of my heart to God. I began to feel deeply that it was too late; that it must be that I was given up of God and was past hope.
The thought was pressing me of the rashness of my promise, that I would give my heart to God that day or die in the attempt. It seemed to me as if that was binding upon my soul; and yet I was going to break my vow. A great sinking and discouragement came over me, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.
Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord.
Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. Then shall ye seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before; but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence, of trusting at that moment in God's veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God's word, and God's voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me.
Charles G. Finney
Memoirs of Revival of Religion, Ch. 2
Asa Wild (1823) ^Remarkable Vision and Revelation:
as seen and received by Asa Wild, of Amsterdam, (N. Y.)
Having a number of months enjoyed an unusual degree of the light of God's countenance, and having been much favoured of the Lord in many respects, and after having enjoyed the sweetest, and most ravishing communions with Him; the Lord in his boundless goodness was pleased to communicate the following Revelation, having in the first place presented me with a very glorious Vision, in which I saw the same things:
In the first place I observe that my mind had been brought into the most profound stillness, and awe; realizing in a remarkable manner the majesty, greatness and glory, of that Being before whom all nations are as the drop of the bucket. It seemed as if my mind, though active in its very nature, had lost all its activity, and was struck motionless, as well as into nothing, before the awful and glorious majesty of the Great Jehovah. He then spake to the following ourport; and in such a manner as I could not describe if I should attempt. -- He told me that the Millennium state of the world is about to take place; that in seven years literally, there would scarce a sinner be found on earth; that the earth itself, as well as the souls and bodies of its inhabitants, should be redeemed, as before the fall, and become as the garden of Eden. He told me that all of the most dreadful and terrible judgments spoken in the blessed scriptures were to be executed within that time, that more than two thirds of the inhabitants of the world would be destroyed by these judgments; some of which are the following -- wars, massacres, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, civil, political and ecclesiastical commotions; and above all, various and dreadful judgments executed immediately by God, through the instrumentality of the Ministers of the Millennial dispensation which is to exceed in glory every other dispensation; a short description of which may be seen in the last chapter of Isaiah, and in other places. He also told me, that every denomination of professing christians had become extremely corrupt; many of which had never had any true faith at all; but are guided only by depraved reason, refusing the teaching of the spirit [illegible lines]... which alone can teach us the true meaning [illegible lines]... He told me further, that he had raised up, and was now raising up, that class of persons signified by the angel mentioned by the Revelator XIV. 6, 7, which flew in the midst of heaven; having the everlasting gospel to preach, that these persons are of an inferior [social] class, and small learning; that they were rejected by every denomination as a body; but soon, God will open their way, by miracles, judgments, &c. that they will have higher authority, greater power, superior inspiration, and a greater degree of holiness than was ever experienced before [illegible lines] ... divine grace and glory
Furthermore he said that all the different denominations of professing christians constituted the New Testament Babylon; and that he should deal with them according to what is written of IT, in the book of Revelation: that he is about to call out all his sincere children who are mourning in Zion, from oppression and tyranny of the mother of harlots; and that the severest judgments will be inflicted on the professors of religion; which will immediately commence in Amsterdam, and has already commenced in different parts of the world, and even in this country. And though their operations at first are gradual, and under cover, yet it will soon be generally seen that it is the immediate execution of divine vengeance upon an ungodly world.
Much more the Lord revealed, but forbids my relating it in this way. But this, I have written and published, by the express and immediate command of God: the truth and reality of which, I know with the most absolute certainty. -- Though I have ever been the most backward to believe things of this nature; having been brought up in the Calvinistic system, and having had a thorough understanding of the same, and was fully established in the belief of it for several years after I experienced the love of God in my heart: but finding the Calvinists did not understand the glorious depths of holiness, and conformity to the divine character in heart and practice, which I saw was our privilege and duty I joined the Methodist Church, which I found had much clearer and more scriptural views on these and some other points than the Calvinists; though I soon saw that they as a body, were very corrupt, having departed much from their primitive purity and holiness. I also saw that their first founders did not travel into all that was their privilege; and that vastly greater depths of holiness might have been experienced even by them. Yet I thank God for what light I have received through their instrumentality, but know that much greater and more glorious light is about to burst upon the world."
Amsterdam, October, 1823.
James G. Marsh Vision (1838) ^OBITUARY.
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.
Joseph Smith's Official Vision (1842)In accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being--just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—"This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!"
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof."
He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home.
Joseph Smith - Mormonism founder
ConclusionEither God was trying to restore the true Christian church to dozens throughout New England or Joseph's tale is a copy-cat among many.
There is no compelling reason to accept the First Vision as an actual historical event:
- There are no witnesses
- Joseph did not keep his story straight
- Joseph brought it up a decade after it allegedly happened
- It is patterned after the visionary experiences in New England during the early 1800's
<< First Vision
- BYU professor and Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn's summary of Marsh's vision: