What does Jesus look like? It’s a question that we can only guess the answer to or speculate about, but one that does come up in a religion that embraces using artistic depictions of members of the Godhead. In general, the scriptures fail to describe his physical appearance in any detail. Joseph Smith documented several visions where he described seeing Jesus and God the Father, though nothing definitive about their appearances comes from the documents on the subject. History and archeology give us some clues, all of which are interesting to explore. At the end of the day, however, we do not really know what Jesus looks like.
Several visions are recorded by Joseph Smith, including the dramatic appearance in the Kirtland Temple recorded in Section 110. Contemporary, first-hand accounts of the 1820s First Vision include the appearance of Jesus, though little in the ways of details. In 1832, Joseph Smith wrote that he saw “a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day” and that “the <?Lord?> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” In 1835, he gave little more detail, only noting that “a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame … another personage soon appeard like unto the first.” The 1838/39 account that is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price today describes them as “two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.” In 1842, he made a similar statement, stating that he “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.” From the first-hand First Vision accounts, we only really learn that God the Father and Jesus have similar appearances and radiate brilliant light and glory.
Other records of Joseph Smith’s visions also fail to give much detail on actual appearance. The record of the 16 February 1832 vision (now Section 76) that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon shared states that “[we] bear reccord … [of the] fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ who is the son whom we saw and with whom we conversed in the heavenly vision.” In describing that vision, they only said that “we beheld the glory of the son on the right of the Father and received of his fulness. … we saw him, even on the right hand of God.” We only learn from this that Jesus is positioned at the right hand of God. At an early meeting of the School of the Prophets in 1833, the minutes noted that: “many of the brethren saw a heavenly vision of the saviour and concourses of angels.” Only a note that it happened, and not much detail of what was seen. A January 1836 vision in the Kirtland Temple (Section 137) gave more description of the throne of God than of God Himself: “I saw the transcendant beauty of the gate that enters, through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire, also the blasing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.” These visions give us more details about the location than about the physical appearance of Jesus.
The closest we get to an actual description is the record of the 3 April 1836 vision in the House of the Lord in Kirtland. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that seeing God in the House of the Lord was a major focus for Joseph Smith, demonstrated by his statement in the dedicatory prayer of the temple that: “we have given of our substance to build a house to thy name, that the Son of Man might have a place to manifest himself to his people.” A week after that prayer was given, a vision came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. As the record states:
They saw the Lord standing upon the breast work of the pulpit before them. and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber: his eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was like the pure snow, his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun, and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the Voice of Jehovah, saying, I am the first and the last. I am he who liveth. I am he who was slain. I am your Advocate with the Father.
This description of Jesus seems to rely, however, on descriptions from the Revelation of John the Divine, who described Jesus as follows:
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters … and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
While the vision in the Kirtland House of the Lord is magnificent, the textual record doesn’t provide new details about Jesus’s appearance than those present in the Bible.
Interestingly, second-hand and later accounts of visions of early Latter-day Saints are more forthcoming. Alexander Neibaur recorded that Joseph Smith told him that during the First Vision, he “saw a fire towards heaven came near & nearer saw a personage in the fire light complexion blue eyes a piece of white cloth drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear.” The visions of Jesus at the School of the Prophets in 1833 were fleshed out in later recollections. Fifty years later, Zebedee Coltrin recalled that he saw Jesus and God, and “when asked about the kind of clothing the Father had on, Bro. Coltrin said: I did not discover His clothing, for He was surrounded as with a flame of fire, which was so brilliant that I could not discover any thing else but His person.” Coltrin, however, described Jesus’s clothing by stating that: “Jesus was clothed in modern clothing, apparently of gray cloth.” John Murdock also recalled a vision he had in those same meetings, stating that: “I saw the form of man, most lovely, the visage of his face was sound and fair as the sun. His hair a bright silver grey, curled in most majestic form. His eyes a keen penetrating blue, and the skin of his neck a most beautiful white.” Anson Call also wrote that he had a vision of Jesus where he saw him as a man with “light and beautiful skin with large blue eyes.” Who knows how reliable any of this is (Coltrin, for example, proved to have an unreliable memory on the ordination of one of the few Black elders in the Church, Elijah Able), but it does demonstrate a pattern of Latter-day Saints seeing Jesus as a white-skinned man with blue eyes.
The idea of Jesus being a Caucasian male tends to align with an underlying idea of universal whiteness presented in Joseph Smith’s translations. The Book of Mormon portrays Jesus as white. When he visits the Nephites after his resurrection, “they did pray unto him … and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof.” Nephi also described Mary, the mother of Jesus, as being “exceedingly fair and white.” Beyond this, the descendants of Lehi are depicted as being white (Nephi notes that the Europeans he saw coming to the Americas in vision were “white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people”), with darker skin coming to the Lamanites as part of a curse: “The Lord … had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. … Wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” Joseph Smith inserted similar ideas into Genesis during his New Translation of the Bible project, stating that a “people of Canaan” were going to be cursed for slaying the people of Shum, and “a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.” The underlying assumption in much of these narratives is that whiteness is a sign of righteousness while darkness is a sign of wickedness.
These narratives combined with assumptions about race in 19th century America to cause many Latter-day Saints to believe that Jesus was white. Perhaps George Reynolds stated it most bluntly in an 1868 Church publication when he wrote that: “We understand that when God made man in his own image and pronounced him very good, that he made him white” and that God’s “favored servants,” including “all His prophets and apostles belong to the most handsome race on the face of the earth,” and that “in this race was born His Son Jesus, who, we are told was very lovely and ‘in the express image of his Father’s person.” Assumptions like these may have been why Joseph Smith felt comfortable comparing his brother Alvin’s physical appearance to both Seth and Adam, stating that: “his brother Alvin … was a very handsome man. Surpassd by none but Adam & Seth.” Statements like the one Reynolds wrote are disturbing, however, there is context to be understood here.
Modern depictions of Jesus are rooted in the Later Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). If we take the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 to represent Jesus, then he would have been ordinary in appearance for his time and place: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He was Jewish, as noted in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “It is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah.” That likely meant that he was a dark-skinned, brown-eyed Middle-Easterner. Depictions of Jesus were sparce and late in coming during the early Christian era. The earliest artistic depictions of Jesus come from the 3rd Century AD, such as the artwork at Dura-Europos, and aren’t very detailed, with the most notable features being dark hair and, in some cases, a scruffy, short beard (which was in keeping with the expectations for philosophers in the Greco-Roman world). As Christianity became more established in the Roman empire however, Jesus began to be depicted using both standard imagery for gods and emperors in the Roman world. The chief God of the Greco-Roman pantheon, Zeus/Jupiter, was depicted as sitting on a throne with long hair and a beard. This was a well-known image and being clean-shaven and short-haired was considered important in their society because long hair and a long beard were considered godly and not to be replicated by mere mortals. Thus, the imagery of Jesus as being a European man with long hair and a luxuriant beard was born out of a symbolic co-opting of Zeus’s imagery to make Jesus look like a god in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity.
While initially symbolic, the imagery became ingrained in European Christian thought in the coming centuries. One influential document in this regard was the fraudulent mediaeval text, “Publius Lentulus Letter,” which presented itself as a description of Jesus by a Judean governor and contemporary of the Christ. Jesus is described in the letter as a “man of stature somewhat tall, and comely, with a very reverend countenance,” wavy brown hair that was parted “in the midst of his head” and a “thickish” beard, “in colour like his hair, not very long, but forked.” His physique was described as “most excellent” and having “singular beauty, surpassing the children of men.” While the letter is regarded today as a fake, composed centuries after Jesus’s death, it was influential for a long time in supporting the notion that Jesus was Caucasian.
Thus, artwork, particularly in northern Europe, has frequently depicted Jesus as a white man and that tradition has carried over into the Church. That many early Church members embraced notions of white supremacy that had been used to justify enslaving black Africans (co-opting them to justify barring Blacks from the priesthood and temple rituals in the Church) only served to reinforce the idea that Jesus and his chief disciples must have been white, as indicated by Reynold’s statement.
Give the history traced briefly in the above paragraphs, I am doubtful that Jesus would have had fair skin or blue eyes. He was not European, and particularly not northern European, after all. That being the case, what, then, are we to make of the descriptions of Jesus in 19th century Mormon visions as having white skin and blue eyes? At this point, I can think of three major explanations that could be explored. First among these is to question the reliability of the accounts—many of them are second-hand or recorded decades after the event. Memory can be a slippery thing and is shaped by events that have happened since the moment being recalled and by the beliefs and needs of the person recalling the memory, which may be the case here. A second option is to point to the fact that many of these recollections dwell on the fact that Jesus was radiant, glorious, and cloaked in light or fire. Perhaps that light had the effect of causing the eyes of the individual observing the vision to perceive Jesus as fair-skinned and blue eyed, regardless of his actual physical appearance. Not having been a participant in these visions, it is difficult to say what was seen.
The third option is to consider the idea that Jesus may appear differently to different people so that they will recognize him according to their expectations and focus on the message being presented. The Book of Mormon states that: “the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” Likewise, the Lord stated in the preface revelation for the Doctrine and Covenants that “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Joseph Smith also taught in 1839 that: “we may come to Jesus <?& ask him?> he will know all about it.— If he comes to a little child, he will adapt himself to the <?Language &?> capacity of a little child.” Each of these give an indication that Jesus adapts to the language and needs of the people he communicates with. What’s to say that he doesn’t do this with how he appears in visions as well?
After all, we do have the example of the Holy Ghost displaying itself as a dove in vision when Jesus was baptized. We read that John the Baptizer saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” and heard “a voice from heaven.” In the Gospel According to St. Luke, this is stated in even more tangible terms: “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Joseph Smith even spoke in 1843 about John the Baptizer “beholding the Holy Ghost descend upon [Jesus] in the sign of the Dove.” The Prophet clarified that the “Holy Gh[o]st is a personage in the form of a personage,”  and thus: “The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a Dove but the sign of a Dove was given to John to signify the Truth of the Deed.” The Holy Ghost is confined to an anthropomorphic spirit body, but was able to display the appearance of a dove descending onto Jesus as a sign to John the Baptizer. It is entirely possible that Jesus is able to do similar things while appearing in visions to people, as is beautifully suggested in the Alfed Burt carol, “Some Children See Him”:
Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus’ face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.
As stated at the outset, however, attempts at knowing what Jesus looked like are speculation and conjecture. Our scriptural canon gives us no real definitive statement on Jesus’s description, which gives us artistic freedom to imagine his appearance. And the Church has become more open to different depictions, sharing artwork in recent years depicting Jesus not only as lily white but (to use the words of the carol), also bronzed and brown, with skin of yellow hue, and dark.
 “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3
 “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/25
 “History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2],” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-june-1839-circa-1841-draft-2/3
 ““Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 707, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/2
 “Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76],” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/vision-16-february-1832-dc-76/2
 “Minutes, 18 March 1833,” p. 17, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-18-march-1833/2
 “Visions, 21 January 1836 [D&C 137],” p. 136, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/visions-21-january-1836-dc-137/1
 “Prayer of Dedication, 27 March 1836 [D&C 109],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/prayer-of-dedication-27-march-1836-dc-109/1
 “Visions, 3 April 1836 [D&C 110],” p. 192, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/visions-3-april-1836-dc-110/1
 Revelation 1:14-16, KJV.
 “Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, extract,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/alexander-neibaur-journal-24-may-1844-extract/1
 School of the Prophets Salt Lake City Minutes, 3 Oct. 1883.
 John Murdock Journal, 13, cited in Ensign, January 1993, 37.
 The life and Record of Anson Call, 22-23.
 3 Nephi 19:25.
 1 Nephi 11:13.
 1 Nephi 13:15.
 2 Nephi 5:20-21.
 Moses 7:6-8.
 George Reynolds, “Man and His Varieties,” Juvenile Instructor, 15 October 1868, 157, https://archive.org/details/juvenileinstruct320geor/page/156/mode/2up.
 “Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-1-21-december-1842-10-march-1843/131
 Isaiah 53:2, NRSV.
 Hebrews 7:14, NRSV.
 Cited in John Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 2016), 255.
 For a more detailed discussion of the racist notions mentioned here, see the author’s previous post, “Reconsidering the Curse of Ham,” https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2020/09/reconsidering-the-curse-of-ham/
 2 Nephi 31:3.
 D&C 1:24.
 “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 4 August 1839–A, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. 73, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-between-circa-26-june-and-circa-4-august-1839-a-as-reported-by-willard-richards/11
 Matthew 3:16-17, NRSV.
 Luke 3:21-22, NRSV.
 “Discourse, 29 January 1843, as Reported by Willard Richards–B,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-29-january-1843-as-reported-by-willard-richards-b/1
 “Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-1-21-december-1842-10-march-1843/163
 “Discourse, 29 January 1843, as Reported by Franklin D. Richards,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-29-january-1843-as-reported-by-franklin-d-richards/3
 See “The First Vision,” Anthony Sweat, https://deseretbook.com/p/17×23-first-visions-framed-textured-paper?ref=Grid%20%7C%20Search-31&variant_id=188118-framed-textured-paper
 See “Sopheap Nhem, “Early Morning with the Savior,” https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/exhibit/iac-2015-tell-me-the-stories-of-jesus?lang=eng#mv63
 See “Christ on the Cross,” by Emile Wilson, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/christ-on-the-cross-emile-wilson?lang=eng#1; “Christ Praying in Gethsemane,” by Emile Wilson, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/christ-praying-in-gethsemane-emile-wilson?lang=eng#1; “The Last Supper,” by Emile Wilson, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/exhibit/atonement-of-christ?lang=eng#mv4