There are many unanswered questions surrounding the life and teachings of Joseph Smith. One thing is certain, his claims, life, and stories are now firmly engrained in the claimed truth of Mormonism. The late Gordon Hinckley, President of the LDS until his death, commented, “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision…Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration.”
That is placing considerable weight and emphasis on something that has had a convoluted and unclear past. According to the LDS Church the First Vision occurred in 1820, but the first published account did not appear until early 1842. It is puzzling to say the least that if the Mormon Church was created upon a mandate from God The Father and Jesus, why was it not part of the original dialog or canon of the church?
Equally damning perhaps that in 1834-35 as the leadership of the church attended the “School of Prophets” there was no mention of the vision anywhere in the seven lectures included in the course. This school sought to teach church leadership the core doctrines and beliefs of the church. Despite these lectures’ discussions regarding the nature of God there is no mention of Joseph seeing or conversing with God or Christ.
During this same period, 1835, the LDS Church printed their canonized Doctrine & Covenants. A book of scripture that contains many of the churches most controversial and important doctrines. In the preface for this book it mentions that it includes, “the leading items of religion which we have professed to believe.” How does a religion supposedly built upon a heavenly mandate fail to mention that as a leading item of their belief?
The easiest answer to the above question is that is wasn’t important until it needed to be… At the time of the First Vision’s publication in the LDS periodical “Times and Seasons,” the Church was in a state of chaos. Members of the church’s leadership were being excommunicated and many more had become opponents of the church. Ironically, the first few handwritten accounts of the “First Vision” chronicle not a visitation from God and Christ but rather “angels” that gave Smith assurance that his sins had been forgiven. Considerably different that what is taught today.
The other interesting component of the “First Vision” story is the fact that most church leaders did not even teach this story until the mid-1870’s. In an 1850 letter by John Taylor, the third LDS President, wrote explaining that Joseph Smith was visited by “two personages” making no mention of God, Jesus Christ, nor any damnation of Christianity.
With so many questions and discrepancies surrounding this event why would church leaders place so much emphasis on this story? Again, Gordon Hinckley explains the paradox involved, “I would like to say that this cause is either true or false. Either this is the kingdom of God, or it is a sham and a delusion. Either Joseph talked with the Father and the Son, or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in blasphemy” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Reports, October 1961, p.116).
In the second point made, Joseph Smith does in fact make overt gestures to join the Methodist Church in the Harmony Township, in 1828, by signing up for the probationary classes. This is less than one year since being lead to the Golden Plates by the “Angel Moroni.” Additionally, despite the alleged story of a visitation from God and Christ, his family in 1824 joins the Presbyterian Church. Further damning, according to Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith was “baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church” (Interview With The Father of Joseph Smith, The Mormon Prophet…1870).”
Why would a prophet of God that has been instructed not to join any Church by God The Father and Jesus Christ, having been told that all Christianity is an “abomination” allow himself and his family to join three of those blasphemous churches?