Assessing Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Assessing Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Using Michael R. Licona’s historiographical approach (designed to test Jesus’ Resurrection) for Joseph Smith’s First Vision
In Michael R. Licona’s book, The Resurrection of Jesus, he examines various theories of the Resurrection. Each theory is based on the same established “bedrock” of historical facts. These facts are generally agreed upon by all relevant scholars, so what is primarily in question is the interpretation of the facts, or the hypotheses. He uses a historiographical model to assess each theory (more on this below). This paper will use Licona’s same approach, but for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (hereon shortened to “LDS” or “Mormon” church) First Vision (“FV”). In Mormon thought, the FV holds much the same place as the Resurrection does for the evangelical church. It is the foundational event by which the rest stands or falls. As Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th president of the LDS church notes: “I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.”
The two hypotheses to be considered are: The LDS Hypothesis: That God visited Joseph Smith in 1820, as Joseph Smith–History notes. Or, the Alternative Hypothesis: That God did not visit Smith as he claimed. The implication of the former is that Mormonism is true, while the latter calls into serious question the core claims of the LDS church.
The research of this paper is greatly indebted to Robert Bowman and his excellent book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, which provides his own comparison between each of these religion-making events.
As noted above, the FV is to Mormonism what the Resurrection is to the evangelical Church. If either event is found to be false or fabricated, then the resulting beliefs crumble. According to Joseph Smith–History, shortly after the time of the New Testament, the church became corrupt, and the message of the truth was lost.  The FV is God’s process of restoring the church to his truth. This happened in the “latter days” of human history (in the early nineteenth century), where God as the Father and the Son appeared to a teenage Joseph Smith. Soon after, and for the next several years, the angel Moroni also appeared to Smith approximately a dozen times, giving him the golden plates and other information. Before the angel took back the golden plates, Joseph Smith used the plates to write down these new revelations from God. All content from Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price is either new revelation or biblical passages “likened” or modified to fit within the LDS doctrine. Without the FV, according to Mormon doctrine, the entire church would still be apostate.
Assuming a set of important agreed-upon facts, Licona’s approach is a means to test different hypotheses to see which is most reasonable. “While absolute certainty eludes us,” he notes, “adequate or reasonable certainty is attainable. When we say that a hypothesis is ‘true,’ we mean that it corresponds with a fair degree of accuracy to events and/or conditions in the past.” The criteria he uses are: (1) plausibility, (2) explanatory scope, (3) explanatory power, and (4) less ad hoc. Licona’s approach is “to weigh hypotheses using only the historical bedrock.”
The following is a brief summary of Licona’s findings where he examines the Resurrection hypothesis when compared to other naturalistic hypotheses. The historical bedrock facts Licona used were: Jesus the miracle-worker and exorcist, Jesus as God’s eschatological agent, Jesus’ own predictions of his death and resurrection, Jesus’ death by crucifixion, Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, the conversions of Paul and James, and the empty tomb. From here, he assesses five major naturalistic hypotheses of the Resurrection (those of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Lüdemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Pieter Craffert) before applying the same assessment to the “Resurrection Hypothesis.”Using his five-fold criteria, he concludes that the Resurrection hypothesis is the only one “to fulfill all five criteria.” It is “not only superior…it outdistances [sic]” the competing hypotheses “by a significant margin.”
This paper will compare two hypotheses: The LDS Hypothesis and the Alternative Hypothesis. To do this, Licona’s 5-part evaluative criteria will be applied to the agreed upon historical facts surrounding the FV.
Part of the difficulty in this kind of investigation is that so many of the key historical facts surrounding the FV are not verifiable. In following Licona’s approach, this paper is only concerned with interpreting the historical facts agreed upon by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars. The facts used for this paper are: (1) the spiritual revival that happened in Palmyra, New York in the early 1820s; (2) the persecutions of Joseph Smith throughout his life; (3) Joseph Smith’s reputation as a treasure-hunter; and finally, (4) the delayed publication of the FV.
- Spiritual Revival in Palmyra, New York
The LDS church uses the spiritual revival that occurred in Palmyra, New York—where Smith lived at the time of the FV—as the setting for God’s appearance to Smith where he told him that all other churches are corrupt (Joseph Smith–History 1:5). However, there is a problem with this fact. The official LDS record, Joseph Smith–History, indicates that the revival took place just before the First Vision (1820). But most likely the revival did not occur until 1824–25. Robert Bowman cites a 1967 article by Wesley Walters, which shows church records referencing this later time, as well as statistical growth corresponding to ‘24–25 and not the earlier time mentioned by Smith. Discrepancies aside, this fact can still be used. Even assuming the later date, Smith was very likely still in the area at the time, and so it could be possible that the revival still somehow influenced Smith.
- Social Turmoil of Joseph Smith
The LDS church is clear on the fact that Smith was persecuted throughout his life. From a non-LDS point of view, the word “persecution” may be too strong. However, it is clear that Smith had a difficult time being accepted throughout his life and he often experienced social struggles. Examples of this include: being accused of practicing magic (1825–26); not being accepted by his future father-in-law for the same reasons (1827); being run out of Jackson County, Missouri, with the rest of his followers (1833); and lastly, being imprisoned on charges of treasons (1844) on killed in a mob riot for his support of polytheism and polygamy (1844). This fact is relevant for either hypothesis. Either Smith was a prophet in the line of those of the Old Testament, persecuted for calling people back to God; or he was engaged in other activities his societies did deem appropriate.
- Joseph Smith Was a Treasure-Hunter
In today’s context, “treasure-hunter” can be pejorative. But it was not uncommon in the early nineteenth century, and the LDS church does not hide the fact. This is relevant due to the way Smith deciphered new revelation from God, using the Urim and Thummim. His process for locating buried treasure was very similar to his process of “interpreting” the gold plates and divination.
- The Delay in Publicizing the First Vision
In Joseph Smith–History, Smith claimed the FV happened in the year 1820 (1:5–20). But this was not made known to any of his followers until 1832. There is one potential exception to this, and that is the Methodist preacher he told several days after the event happened. Yet, the FV is the foundational event for which everything else in Mormonism was built upon. So, why delay telling his followers about such an important event?
Taken together, the LDS Hypothesis can be understood in this way: (1) the spiritual revival(s) in Palmyra were the impetus that caused Joseph Smith to search for the truth, which resulted in God appearing to him in 1820 (Joseph Smith–History 1:5). Consequently, (2) Smith was persecuted, as many of the Old Testament prophets were, for being the godly voice calling the rebellious men and women to turn back to God. The fact that (3) Smith was a treasure-hunter has no direct impact on the formation of LDS church; this was simply his life before God called him to his prophetic/leader role. And (4) the FV was not immediately made known to his followers, likely, because Smith was still mulling it over; or, perhaps due to the persecution he experienced in his life, he was afraid to mention it until some time had passed. With this hypothesis in mind, the following section will apply Licona’s four-part historiographical method to the LDS hypothesis, assigning either a Pass (P) or Fail (F) to each section (and, if needed, Tentative (T) until both hypotheses are evaluated).
- Explanatory Scope
The LDS hypothesis potentially accounts for all four facts. Smith lived during the Second Great Awakening, which was characterized by revivals and “reports of supernatural manifestations.” Likewise, the Old Testament prophets often experienced persecution for doing nothing more than calling God’s people back to him (cf. Heb. 11:35b–38). If Smith was truly telling the entire church that they were wrong—correct or not—he would most likely be persecuted for it. And both the treasure-hunting and delayed report aspect are potentially acceptable. For the treasure-hunting, this can be explained away as a part of his life before being called into God’s service, and if he were truly afraid or simply contemplating the meaning of the vision, it could be the case that he chose to hold it back. For explanatory scope, the LDS Hypothesis is Tentative (T), depending on the results of the Alternative Hypothesis.
- Explanatory Power
If there is potential within the scope of the LDS Hypothesis, its explanatory power is nowhere near as strong. In short, the question here is how much of the facts need to be shoehorned to fit into the hypothesis. As noted above, the revival timeline is a problem. There is no good evidence that a typical (for the time) revival happened during the time-period Smith reported. It could be that Smith mis-remembered. There is good evidence of a revival during 1824–25. Of course, this would put the FV before the revival, and so it would no longer function as the cause that pushes him toward contemplating on the existing churches. Alternatively, Smith could have meant a small, personal revival that would not have shown up statistically. But this is very much not the way he described it (calling it “unusual” and “great excitement” in Joseph Smith–History chapter one).
As with scope, persecution can potentially fit within explanatory power. However, there are many reasons for persecution (or, to put it more neutrally: someone not being accepted by society). If, say, it were discovered that Smith’s behavior was anything but completely upright and moral, then the persecution argument would fail. In a similar way, the treasure-hunting fact fits as long as his behavior was markedly different before and after his encounter with God (i.e. an about-face conversion). To this point, the LDS Hypothesis could possibly earn a Tentative for explanatory power.
But Smith’s delay in reporting the FV has the hardest time surviving this category. Before Smith revealed the FV, he published the entire Book of Mormon (1830). It seems quite unlikely that he was still scared of being ridiculed for receiving a vision from God when he’d been visited by an angel (multiple times) who gave him golden plates to miraculously translate and then publish to the world. Likewise, it is hard to imagine he was still processing the FV when so many other miraculous visits had since occurred. Considering the analysis of the last fact, the LDS Hypothesis fails (F) in its explanatory power.
Plausibility is about how well the hypothesis aligns with the background beliefs. In this case, this would be Christianity. A helpful comparison is to consider how Christianity fared when it first emerged. Its background beliefs were Judaism. Jesus never claimed to do away with the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Unlike Mormonism, Christianity was not a change of course for Judaism but a fulfillment of it. The resurrection was the central event in Christianity. When describing its proof, Paul posted a challenge to all listening to go and investigate it (1 Cor. 15:6–7). There is good proof, including the testimony of hundreds who directly witnessed the resurrected Jesus. Smith, too, claimed to have seen the risen Lord. But what evidence is there for this claim? Did anyone else see this? Or did God give him a message that could be verified (Duet. 18:22)? Is there any independent proof? If the FV is as important as Mormon leaders claim it is, then why did Smith wait until after he’d already received the plates and published other Scriptures before revealing it? This alone defeats all plausibility of the Mormon claims.
- Less ad hoc
Is the LDS Hypothesis guilty of saving the facts from some other more natural conclusion? The two facts—persecution and delayed reporting—are most in jeopardy of being understood in another way, absent the LDS Hypothesis. Consider how many times the church moved its base in Smith’s life. In most cases, there was some disagreement with the local authorities or citizens.  Smith’s life ended in prison, two days after he was arrested on charges of treason.The mob that killed him was angry about his teachings on polygamy and polytheism. But if the FV element is removed, then these facts no longer lead to a prophet—they lead to a charismatic opportunist. Likewise, the delayed report of the FV seems to be nothing but ad hoc, as if Smith needed a grander story, some moral platform for his followers to lean into. The LDS Hypothesis fails the ad hoc test.
Below is the summary of the LDS Hypothesis:
|Scope||Power||Plausibility||Less ad hoc|
As seen above, the LDS hypothesis fails three out of four categories. Below is the Alternative Hypothesis, positing that God did not visit Joseph Smith in 1820 (the FV). If God did not speak to Smith, then the implications are that the FV is either his fabrication or imagination.
- Explanatory Scope
The revivals, in the end, do not strongly favor one hypothesis over the other. Even if a revival did happen in 1820, as Smith said, the Second Great Awakening had been going on for years. Revivals were not uncommon. In fact, Smith’s story in the beginning was not too different from others, like Charles Taze Russell. And, for that matter, the country was growing. Today’s Midwest States were still the frontier in the early nineteenth century. Law and order was not established (or controlled). A “snake oil salesman” could make a living by moving on before he was caught, without his reputation preceding him. It is not hard to see how a charismatic leader could build up a following and live a “persecuted” life by continuing to move from place to place. At its most charitable, the explanatory scope of the Alternative Hypothesis could possibly tie with the LDS Hypothesis. However, when one compares the rise of Joseph Smith with other New Religious Movements, such as Adventism (c.1830), Dispensationalism (c.1830), and, as indicated above, Jehovah’s Witness (founded by Russell, 1870), the story of Smith does not seem all that unusual. As such, the Alternative Hypothesis ultimately wins out due to how common other movements like this were at the time.
- Explanatory Power
Similar to the analysis of the LDS Hypothesis above, if the question of explanatory scope bends toward the middle, the question of explanatory power does not. While the LDS church downplays the treasure-hunting element of Joseph Smith’s history, it aligns more powerfully with the Alternative Hypothesis. Consider the creation of the Book of Mormon. An angel visited Smith and gave him directions on where to find hidden, golden plates. It was not possible the plates could have been found or retrieved by ordinary, human skill (Joseph Smith–History 1:52–53). The language on the plates themselves was “Reformed Egyptian,” which is not (then or now) a known language with any known translation. Instead of looking at the plates to translate, he used his seeing stones (which did not require looking at the plates), also given to him by the angel to ascertain the (Joseph Smith–History 1:56). And then, when the “translation” was complete, the angel took the golden plates back. For anyone who has kids, this does not at all seem far-fetched. The burden of proof is most clearly on the LDS Hypothesis here. And, as noted above, there is no proof, other than Smith’s testimony, the Alternative Hypothesis passes.
Persecution would be likely given Smith’s questionable behavior. This fits well with the Christian context he was emerging from. Likewise, his treasure-hunting activities were closely tied to magic and divination, and so this would have been frowned upon by the Christian community. The Alternative Hypothesis, that Smith was not visited or instructed by God, passes.
- Less ad hoc
The delayed reporting of the FV is likely the most ad hoc component here. This has already been discussed above. But there’s no viable reason why Smith would delay for over a decade in reporting such an important component whilepublishing other fantastical elements (e.g. the entire Book of Mormon). As such, the delayed reporting makes most sense to the Alternative Hypothesis.
The below chart summarizes the grading of both hypotheses, updating a LDS Hypothesis’ explanatory scope based on the Alternative Hypothesis’ explanatory scope analysis:
|Scope||Power||Plausibility||Less ad hoc|
Some will not be persuaded by these findings. The LDS church puts a high emphasis on the “burning in the bosom,” as a form of proof and confirmation. Others, similarly convinced from the outset, will not see the need for such effort to show what they already believed to be the case. The greater point to be made here is not the true or false claims of the LDS church, but the true or false claims of the Resurrection of Jesus. After his historical investigation, Licona notes: “The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true.” He continues, if one puts aside worldview questions, by simply examining the data, “the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.”
In the case of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, this is completely not the case. The FV and the Resurrection are often put, by their respective followers, on the same level of importance. Each are claimed to be world-changing events. But when one follows the evidence, it is clear that the two events could not be further from one another, in either significance or likelihood.
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 See Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
 Licona, Resurrection, 278
 “The First Vision,” Church History in the Fulness of Time Student Manual (2003), 29–36, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times/chapter-three?lang=eng, accessed April 10, 2023.
 For those unfamiliar, Joseph Smith–History is a part of official LDS scripture, found in Pearl of Great Price. The following summary is found in Joseph Smith–History.
 Licona, Resurrection, 467.
 Ibid., 469.
 Ibid., 281–463.
 Ibid., 469–600.
 Ibid., 606; Licona adds a fifth criterion (illumination) not used in this paper. He considers it a “bonus” category that does not count for or against his findings.
 This section could be expanded by comparing more hypotheses. Such as the hypothesis that Joseph Smith was in fact visited by spiritual beings, but they were demons. Another further nuance could be to consider whether Joseph Smith made up the visions.
 Consider the event itself: Joseph Smith was the only witness. Following this, no one was every physically present when the angel Moroni visited. And the plates in Smith’s possession were never directly seen by anyone else (a few others were allowed to put their hands on them, but the gold plates were still covered with a cloth).
 Joseph Smith–History 1:5-26.
 Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 10 (1967): 227–44, cited in Bowman, Resurrection, 234–237.
 “Trials and Persecutions,” The LDS Church website, https://history.churchofjesus christ.org/content/trials-and-persecutions?lang=eng, accessed April 8, 2023.
 Bowman, Resurrection, 168–70.
 “Treasure Seeking,” The LDS Church website, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/ study/history/topics/treasure-seeking?lang=eng, accessed April 8, 2023.
 “Urim and Thummim,” Joseph Smith Papers website, https://www.josephsmithpapers. org/topic/urim-and-thummim, accessed April 8, 2023.
 Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection, 172; the reference to “interpreting” is due to the fact that he did not actually look at the gold plates, which supposedly contained “Reformed Egyptian,” but instead focused on his seeing stone, which then revealed to him the message. In other words, he did not interpret so much as he received the message.
 “First Vision Accounts,” LDS Church website, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/ study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng, accessed April 10, 2023.
 “Trials and Persecutions,” LDS Church website, https://history.churchofjesuschrist .org/content/trials-and-persecutions?lang=eng, accessed April 13, 2023.
 Steven C. Harper, “Raising the Stakes,” BYU Studies website, https://byustudies.byu. edu/article/raising-the-stakes-how-joseph-smiths-first-vision-became-all-or-nothing/#footnote-143-backlink, accessed April 13, 2023.
 There is nothing wrong, per se, with treasure-hunting itself. But the practice in the early nineteenth century included forms of divination. Additionally, while the LDS church is open about Smith’s treasure-hunting vocation, he never produced any viable proof to show that his treasure hunting was successful. So either he had no basis (divination) for his special skills, or he was simply guessing about where treasure may have been buried.
 “The Book of Mormon,” LDS Church website, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/ content/the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng, accessed April 13, 2023.
 Consider: “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial,” LDS Church website, https://www.church ofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/joseph-smiths-1826-trial?lang=eng, accessed April 13, 2023; Joseph I. Bentley, “Legal Trials of the Prophet,” Faith Answers Informed Response website, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/conference/august-2006/legal-trials-of-the-prophet-joseph-smiths-life-in-court, accessed April 13, 2023; Joseph I. Bentley, “Road to Martyrdom,” BYU Studies website, https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/road-to-martyrdom-joseph-smiths-last-legal-cases/, accessed April 13, 2023.
 Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection, 170.
 The Book of Mormon includes two sections in its introduction, “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.” But as Bowman has investigated in his book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, all eleven provide highly suspect proof (209–220).
 Rachel Nielsen, “What if I Don’t Feel a Burning in the Bosom?” LDS website, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2014/06/what-if-i-dont-feel-a-burning-in-the-bosom?lang=eng, accessed April 14, 2023.
 Licona, Resurrection, 608.