Those who study the early history of Mormonism sometimes note many startling differences. Among them is a notable absence of references to Joseph Smith’s now-familiar First Vision. One former Bishop noted:

it would appear that the First Vision account as we have come to know it, was virtually unheard of for the first decade of the Church’s existence. What we now regard as pivotal to our claim to divine mandate was absent for the first members. Leaving many questions over what those founding Mormons actually believed about the nature of the Godhead, and what caused them to join the church?

What is now seen as the inaugurating event of the restoration and an essential narrative tool for conversion was, during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, not widely known. It wasn’t a feature of people’s conversions or testimonies, nor was it mentioned in missionaries’ lessons. I think there are a couple of factors that help explain this.

First, Joseph Smith didn’t treat that vision as evidence of his divine calling for many years. It wasn’t until 1838 that he wrote an “official” version intended for imminent publication, and it was a while yet before it was published. I think by the end of his life he had an idea of its usefulness in telling the story of the restoration (including it in the Wentworth Letter, for instance), and only then because the time had come to ask questions such as ‘how did we get here?’ Before then, the Book of Mormon and the revelations he had received (including “The Vision” now found in D&C 76) served as evidence of his calling and tools of conversion.

Another factor is a major shift in how we understand and experience revelation. Today, great visions such as Joseph’s are sparsely distributed, seen as special and out-of-the-norm rather than expected, and those who seek and pursue them are met with warnings and cautions rather than encouragements. As such, we treasure accounts of others’ visions (particularly “official” ones like the first vision), and use them to satisfy our desire for the divine. In that spirit, Elder Neal A. Maxwell called the body of written revealed texts given to us by Joseph Smith a “resplendent revelatory banquet”. We are still ever encouraged to seek personal revelation, but almost always coupled reminders about our limited stewardship and warnings not to expect visions and visitations but to content ourselves with a lifetime of “the still small voice”—and that only in the form of feelings rather than the voice speaking words described in the scriptures.

This presents a stark contrast to Joseph Smith’s teachings about personal revelation. Unlike Elder Maxwell, Joseph taught that the “food” of the gospel banquet were the gifts and revelations offered freely to each saint. Any who intended to repent and be baptized without thereafter seeking or receiving visions for themselves were as foolish as someone who orders dinner, refuses to eat, and expects to be filled. Joseph taught:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God

Knowledge of these things, can only be obtained by experience in these things, through the ordinance of God set forth for that purpose.

Could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam on the relations of man to God & angels. and the spirits of just men in a future state. we should know very little about it.

Could you gaze in heaven 5 minutes you would know more than you possibly can know by read all that ever was written on the subject

Not surprisingly, the scriptures Joseph restored take the same view, over and over promising revelation as the inevitable result of repenting and seeking Christ. Visions and visitation are promised to all of the following:

  • to the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8; 3 Nephi 12:8)
  • to those who love Christ and keep his words (John 14:23)
  • to those who will not harden their hearts (Alma 12:10)
  • to those who repent, exercise faith, bring forth good works, and pray without ceasing (Alma 26.22)
  • to those who press forward, feasting upon the words of Christ given to them through the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end (2 Nephi 31:20-32:6)
  • to those who fear the Lord, and serve him in righteousness and truth until the end (D&C 76:5-10)
  • to those who love God and purify themselves before Him (D&C 76:116)
  • to those who strip themselves of jealousies and fears (D&C 67:10)
  • to those who keep God’s commandments (D&C 93:28)
  • to those who diligently seek God by repenting and coming unto him (2 Nephi 10:17-19)

Notice that all those things are things we can choose to do. None of them include the caveat “…and if God chooses to…”. In Joseph’s system, visions were not meted out per the unknowable and capricious will of God, given to special people and withheld from others arbitrarily. Over and over, Joseph emphasized that God is no respecter of persons and therefore each person was fully authorized to seek him and would find him just as all prophets have if they similarly repented and sought him (see also Lecture on Faith 3:23 ). Any who obeyed the law would receive the same visions and revelations (D&C 130:20). Joseph expected the saints to seek and obtain their own revelations, rather than trying to satisfy themselves by reading his:

¶ St [Peter] exhorts us to make our Calling & Election shure. This is that sealing power spoken of by Paul in other places (See Eph I. 13.14. …) That we may be sealed up unto the day of redemption, this principle ought. (in its proper place) to be taught, for God hath not revealed any thing to Joseph, but what he will make known unto the Twelve & even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to–bear them. for the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor know ye the Lord for all shall know him (who Remain) from the least to the greatest, How is this to be done? It is to be done by this sealing power & the other comforter spoken of which will be manifest by Revelation.

For Joseph, the evidence of the truth of the gospel should be in each saint receiving these things for himself and herself. The visions and revelations of others are helps along that path, but they do not grant us saving knowledge of God; That comes only by personal experience.. I believe that is one reason why he was content to record very little of his own visions, explicitly stating that he could not and would not record everything that he saw and heard if he recorded the vision at all.

Our general fixation on the details of others’ visions is evidence of a great theological shift from Joseph Smith to now.

A natural follow-up question for me would be: “Is this theological shift bad or good or neither or both?”

If Joseph Smith was sent to deliver God’s word to us (D&C 11:21),

…and only by receiving and heeding the teachings God gave us through him can we escape the gates of hell (D&C 21),

…and we should not treat the oracles given through Joseph lightly lest we stumble and fall (D&C 90:5),

…then I would say bad. What was true in Joseph’s day is still true today. If Joseph’s teachings about revelation, which suffused his entire message and mission, are no longer true, then they were wrong as well when he first taught them.

Downplaying the importance of visions is only possible among a people who mostly fail to qualify for them. It is unthinkable in their minds that they could be wrong, therefore they ignore the parts of the gospel that would convict them. Hence Laman and Lemuel, sympathetic to the dominant religion of Jerusalem, could ridicule Lehi for being “a visionary man.” If someone claims to be doing the things in the bulleted list above  but has not found the heavens opening to them, either they or God is a liar.

I very much agree with D. Todd Christofferson’s statement:

Insofar as we can, we want to know what he knew; we want to understand what he understood; we want to draw near to God as he did, for as Nicodemus said of the Savior so we can say of Joseph, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.”