The Smith Family and the First Vision

One of the more interesting points of contention about the history of the First Vision is how much Joseph Smith’s family knew about the First Vision.  During his lifetime, only 4 accounts of the First Vision were published in English – Orson Pratt’s “A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions” in 1840, the official history of the Church that began to be published in the Times and Seasons  in 1842, the Wentworth letter (also published in the Times and Seasons in 1842), and an interview with David Nye White that was published in the Pittsburgh Weekly in 1843.  Other contemporary accounts were recorded in private journals, unpublished histories, or were published in German.  The best-known accounts from Joseph Smith’s family were recorded years later and often seem to conflate the First Vision and Moroni’s visit, which has given rise to the thought that he may not have told them much about the First Vision.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, however, Kyle Walker discussed some reminiscences from Joseph Smith’s younger sister, Katherine Smith Salisbury that indicate that he may have told more to his family than was previously thought.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, with excerpts and some discussion.

In explaining what the accounts from Katherine say, Walker stated the following:

Katharine recalled the persecution directed towards the family that was a direct result from Joseph telling the Methodist minister about his First Vision.

She even recounted a story about how this especially impacted her sister, Sophronia, who was ostracized from her peers ever afterward, and it ended up impacting her physical and emotional health. That detail is not mentioned in any other source. Katharine also mentions that this Methodist minister shared Joseph’s First Vision story with other ministers in the Palmyra vicinity, which increased persecution for the family.

Finally, Katharine refers to the First Vision in several sources, and says that Joseph shared with the family that he was visited by a heavenly messenger who told him not to join any of the existing churches.

While the extent of what Joseph shared with his immediate family appears limited when compared with his published account, he appears to have shared more than just telling his mother that he had learned for himself that Presbyterianism is not of God.

This recently rediscovered information runs counter to conclusions previously stated by Richard Lyman Bushman and Steven Harper that Joseph Smith didn’t tell his family much about the First Vision by indicating that he may have talked about it with his family and his community.

Granted, Smith family accounts have some problematic aspects to them.  As Walker explained:

The biggest challenge with all Smith family sources is that they are late recollections. Lucy Mack Smith did not dictate her history until the mid-1840s, some twenty-five years after Joseph’s First Vision. His two siblings’ recollections were not recorded until the 1870–1895 time frame.

Certainly memory is impacted with time, and what is in print can also impact the way family members may have recollected these events. Notwithstanding, many details that Katharine shares are unique from any published account, adding credibility to her recollections.

Similarly, William recalled details that correspond to some of Joseph Smith’s more obscure accounts of the First Vision, which William would not have had access to during his lifetime.

Given that the accounts were late (sometimes very late) and the people who told them had accessed to some published accounts, they aren’t always the most reliable historical documents.  The only potential reference from a family member that was recorded during Joseph Smith’s lifetime that has been identified is a line from a patriarchal blessing given to him by his father, which noted that: “The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens: thou hast heard his voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth.”

As mentioned above, another problematic aspect of the family accounts is that they often seem to blend the First Vision with the visit of Moroni.  As Walker noted: “Some scholars have been dismissive of [William Smith’s] accounts because he conflated Joseph’s First Vision with his initial visitation with Moroni,” though Walker “saw great value in his accounts”.  In the original draft of Lucy Mack Smith’s memoir, when she came to the events of the First Vision, she only recorded that:

One evening we were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousand opinions in existence as to the truths contained in scripture. Joseph who never said many words upon any subject but always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature.

This After we ceased conversation he went to bed <and was pondering in his mind which of the churches were the true one> an but he had not laid there long till <he saw> a bright <light> entered the room where he lay he looked up and saw an angel of the Lord stood <standing> by him The angel spoke I perceive that you are enquiring in your mind which is the true church there is not a true church on Earth No not one Nor <and> has not been since Peter took the Keys <of the Melchesidec priesthood after the order of God> into the Kingdom of Heaven The churches that are now upon the Earth are all man made churches Joseph there is a record for you and you must get it one day get it There is a record for you and Joseph when you have learned to keep the commandments of God but you cannot get it untill you learn to keep the commandments of God <For it is not to get gain> But it is [p.336]to bring forth that light and intelligence which has been long lost in the Earth.[1]

Later drafts and the 1853 published version insert Joseph Smith’s account from the official history that was published in the Times and Seasons in 1842, stating that “the following extract from his history (Times & Seasons) will show, more clearly than I can express, the state of his feelings and the result of his reflections.”[2]  It’s not entirely clear whether this was inserted by the compilers and editors of the memoir or if it was done at Lucy Smith’s request.  Acting on the belief that it was her choice, however, Kyle Walker suggested that she chose to use a published version rather than recording her own account because “I think it was because she knew so little about the details of his First Vision. I agree with Steven Harper and other scholars who indicate that Joseph was reluctant to talk about all the details of his First Vision during the years 1820–1830, because he initially saw it as a private, personal experience,” while the events of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon “came to dominate their memories of this time period.” So, it seems that while they may have known more than we previously assumed, they still were likely limited on what they had been told.

That being said, Kyle Walker did explain why he thinks that Joseph Smith’s family knew at least some about the First Vision:

The children had copies of their Mother’s history. Yet many of the items they share in their recollections do not follow the 1842 history. Some of the details that Katharine mentions about both the First Vision and Moroni’s visits are not found in any other source.

Similarly, what William Smith relates about his brother’s First Vision are found in lesser-known accounts, which he did not have access to during his life.

So, I conclude that this information came from Joseph Smith directly either during William’s youth, or afterward when he heard his brother recount details of his First Vision in Kirtland or Nauvoo.

Also, unlike William, Katherine did clearly differentiate between the First Vision and the visits from an angel that led Joseph Smith to the golden plates, describing the “experience of the Lord appearing unto him, and of his seeing both the Father and the Son” before talking about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon when talking about it in 1894.[3]

Knowing about these accounts from Katherine Smith Salisbury does add to our understanding of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and what he may have said to his family about it.  For more reading from the interview, follow the link here.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, ed. Lavina Fielding Anderson (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 335-336, http://signaturebookslibrary.org/lucys-book-03/.

[2] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 73, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed June 24, 2022, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1845/80

[3] Oscar Case Reminiscence, cited in Kyle Walker, “Smith Family Recollections of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History (2021) 47 (2): 1-22.

4 comments for “The Smith Family and the First Vision

  1. Chad, thanks for bringing this to our attention. It’s really interesting how a consensus opinion started to form, and then arguing against what may seem like a minor point takes a lot of work and dealing with imperfect sources.

  2. This family perspective is an interesting new approach. Thanks to Kyle, Kurt, and Chad.

  3. How do I access the article on scholarly publishing collective website? I created a login, but it still says I don’t have access to the article.

  4. My understanding is that you need a Mormon History Association membership to access it.

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