Since Tim’s on hiatus for Lent, I’m doing a guest post so that we can still have an evangelical voice while he’s away. I know you’re excited about that, you don’t even have to say it. Now on to the post!
I’ve always been intrigued by the 1832 account of the First Vision, written in Joseph Smith’s own hand. It says:
marvilous even in the likeness of him who created him (them) and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath thewise man said the (it is a) fool (that) saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and that (that) being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in (the) attitude of calling upon the Lord (in the 16th year of my age) a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the (Lord) opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph (my son) thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy (way) walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life (behold) the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not (my) commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which (hath) been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud (clothed) in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could reioice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart about that time my mother and but after many days
1. No mention of seeing God the Father, only Jesus Christ is described.
2. No direct mention of the other churches being wrong or their creeds being corrupt. The imprecations about the world being in sin, no one doing good, etc. are mostly hyperbolic quotations from the Bible. In fact, believing that all are wicked and no one does good is a soundly Protestant notion.
3. The focus of the account is Joseph Smith’s testimony of God and Christ, his concern for his own salvation, and his joy at the confirmation he receives. I like that.
4. There technically isn’t anything in the actual account of the First Vision here which Protestants would dispute. The introductory paragraph (which I haven’t included above) is another story.
To clarify, I am not arguing that this account contradicts the official canonized 1838 version and I’m not interested in a discussion of such; that has been addressed by LDS apologists in many places. While I do believe that Joseph Smith probably embellished his First Vision account as time went on to adapt to his evolving theology, that isn’t really the point of my post, either.
The question I ask is, could Joseph Smith have had a vision of Jesus Christ in the early 1820s, a vision in which Christ confirmed to him the fallen state of the world and the truth of His goodness and mercy? Couldn’t Smith have subsequently fallen away, for any number of reasons? From an evangelical paradigm which rejects the notion of one true denomination and an ancient worldwide apostasy, is there any reason that could not have happened?
Not only do I think it could have, but I’ve long been uncomfortable with brushing Joseph Smith off as a charlatan from the beginning. There’s a lot about the early trends within Joseph Smith’s movement which impress me, things which strike me as good and praiseworthy and even fitting behavior for a people passionately led by God. I certainly believe Smith was over the edge and on into flaming heresy by the time of his death in 1844, but I think we evangelicals do ourselves a disservice when we try to paint Smith as a wicked deceiver from the beginning. There’s more to this than that.