The First Vision has been a center of both faith and controversy. While millions of Latter-day Saints affirm it as the beginning of the Restoration,1 others see it as an ever-growing fish tale. The multiple accounts of the First Vision vary in detail, with Joseph Smith’s earliest written account (1832) lacking some of the elements found in his later accounts.2 However, some of these elements—particularly the appearance of God the Father as part of the First Vision experience—are laced throughout Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These historical threads ultimately culminate in his translation of Psalm 14, which weaves together many of the elements supposedly lacking in Smith’s earliest account of the First Vision.
But why bring these threads together in Psalm 14? What was its connection with his First Vision? A basic comparison of Psalm 14 with elements of the First Vision shows that elements of this psalm are found in the background of the vision, as Joseph Smith narrated it, and even in the words of Deity spoken within the vision itself.
When Alexander Neibaur recorded Smith’s telling of his First Vision in 1844, he recalled the divine answer to Smith’s question “Must I join the Methodist Church[?]” to be “No = they are not my People, all have gone astray there is none that doeth good no not one, but this is my Beloved son harken ye him.”3 Over two decades later, Brigham Young offered a similar telling of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: “Joseph was naturally inclined to be religious, and being young, and surrounded with this excitement, no wonder that he became seriously impressed with the necessity of serving the Lord. But as the cry on every hand was, ‘Lo, here, is Christ,’ and ‘Lo, there!’ Said he, ‘Lord, teach me, that I may know for myself, who among these are right.’ And what was the answer? ‘They are all out of the way; they have gone astray, and there is none that doeth good, no not one.’”4
Both of these later, secondary accounts appear to capture a genuine feature of Smith’s first encounter with Deity. In Smith’s 1832 account, the Lord is said to declare to the young boy, “<behold> the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments.”5 The italicized portions of these various sources are quoted from the King James Version (KJV) rendition of Psalm 14:3: “They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (emphasis added).6 Earlier in the 1832 account, Smith paraphrases Psalm 14:1: “Well hath the wise man said <it is a> fool <that> saith in his heart there is no God.”7 This psalm apparently had a significant impact on the way Smith recalled his first heavenly visitation.
As mentioned above, Smith would further connect Psalm 14 with his First Vision through his inspired translation or revision of the Bible. Sometime between July 1832 and July 1833, Joseph Smith completed this inspired Bible revision.8 It was during this period that he recorded both his 1832 account of the First Vision and his new rendition of Psalm 14 (see table 1).9 The most probable dates of completion for the translation of Psalm 14 (January or February 1833) and the writing of the 1832 account (July–September 1832) put the two accounts within four to seven months of each other.10 When the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of Psalm 14 is compared to the various First Vision accounts, it shows “a distinct overall affinity with the First Vision story.”11
Table 1. Joseph Smith’s Inspired Changes to KJV Psalm 14
|Psalm 14:1–7 |
|Psalm 14:1–7 |
(JST; changes are bolded)
|1. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.||1. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no man that hath seen God, because he sheweth him self not unto us, therefore there is no God. behold they are corrupt; they have done abominable works, and none of them doeth good.|
|2. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.||2. For the Lord look down from heaven upon the children of men, and by his voice said unto his servant, seek ye among the children of men, to see if there are any that do understand God. And he opened his mouth unto the Lord, and said; behold all these who say they are thine.|
|3. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.||3. The lord answered and said, they are all gone aside, they are together become filthy. Thou canst be hold none of these that are doing good, no, not one;|
|4. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? Who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.||4. <all> they have for there teachers, a <are> workers of eniquity, and there is no knowledge in them. They <are they> who eat up my people, they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.|
|5. There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.||5. they are in great fear, for God dwells in the generation of the righteous. He is the counsel of the poor, because they are ashamed of the wicked, and flee unto the Lord for there reffuge.|
|6. Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge.||6. Then <they> are ashamed of the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge,|
|7. Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.||7. O that Zion were established out of heaven, the salvation of Israel. O Lord, when wilt thou establish Zion? When the lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, Isreal shall be glad.|
JST text from “Old Testament Revision 2,” 85–86, Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 5, 2022, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/92.
David LeFevre similarly perceives the changes in JST Psalm 14 as “autobiographical expressions” of the First Vision.12 He also notes the “subtle and appropriate shift in theology” in JST Psalm 14 relative to the KJV:
In the KJV, the Lord is the one looking down and seeking to know the current state of things while, in the Prophet’s revised psalm, the Lord is instructing his servant about what is happening. . . . First, the Lord asks his servant to consider if anyone around him understands God. The servant’s reply is that they all claim to speak for God, but it is a response of confusion and uncertainty, just as Joseph felt prior to his vision. Then the Lord states his position on these people: as Joseph can readily see, . . . they live in apostasy, work iniquity, and lack the knowledge of the truth.13
Such parallels have been explored in detail only between JST Psalm 14 and the 1832 First Vision account. Matthew Brown noted sixteen parallel phrases or concepts between these two texts,14 but extensive comparison has yet to be made between this JST psalm and other accounts of the First Vision or between other, related, portions of the JST and the First Vision. Numerous elements found in later accounts appear in JST Psalm 14, indicating that the fundamental First Vision narrative remained far more consistent across time than has been assumed. Systematic comparison below will demonstrate several major parallels between JST Psalm 14 and the various primary and secondary accounts of the First Vision and also between other JST passages intertwined with Psalm 14 and the First Vision accounts.
“There is no man that hath seen God” (JST Ps. 14:1)
- King James Version: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”
- Joseph Smith Translation (1832/33): “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no man that hath seen God, because he sheweth him self not unto us, therefore there is no God.”15
- Smith, 1832: “I . . . could find none that would believe the hevnly vision.”16
- Smith, 1838/39: “He treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them” (JS–H 1:21).
- Neibaur, 1844: “The Methodist priest . . . said this was not a age for God to Reveal himself in Vision[.] Revelation has . . . ceased with the New Testament.”17
By making a small expansion to Psalm 14’s opening passage that introduces the idea of theophany, and of its rejection, Joseph Smith resituates the entire psalm, implicitly placing the psalm’s subsequent dialogue between the Lord and his servant in the context of a theophany and making the immediate matter of dispute not whether God exists but whether God appears to human beings. Smith’s revision connects the biblical “fool’s” denial of God with the “fool’s” lack of experience of God and with his rejection of anyone having seen God. Consequently, those who reject the occurrence of theophanies become the “fool” in question.
Smith himself reported encountering such persons when he initially attempted to share his First Vision. While others’ rejection of Joseph’s vision is briefly acknowledged in the 1832 account, it is described in greater detail in his 1838/39 history. After describing the vision to “one of the Methodist preachers” (JS–H 1:21)—possibly George Lane18—Smith was taken aback by the minister’s vehement a priori rejection of his theophany. Joseph similarly told Alexander Neibaur of such a ministerial rejection in 1844. So when Smith expands Psalm 14:1 to incorporate the rejection of theophanies, this expansion makes the psalm more accurately reflect his own experience after the First Vision.19
Joseph first changes Psalm 14 by importing into it a statement from elsewhere in the Bible, one he had already encountered twice in his work on the JST—“No man hath seen God” (John 1:18; 1 Jn. 4:12). While Joseph did not report what prooftexts the Methodist minister who criticized his vision employed, the statement “No man hath seen God” provided perhaps the readiest prooftext a biblically literate listener could invoke to justify rejecting Smith’s theophany.
Significantly, several months before Smith’s circa–January/February 1833 revision of Psalm 14, he had already revised the Johannine passages he would import into the psalm—John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12—transforming them from potential prooftexts against his theophany into passages supporting it. In its KJV form, John 1:18 reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Smith’s revision (in the handwriting of Sidney Rigdon) adds a condition on which the Father can be seen: “<And> no man hath seen God at any time, except he hath born record of the son. For except it is through him no man can be saved.”20 In Smith’s rendition, God the Father can be seen, with the proviso that he always bears record of the Son to those privileged to see him. This, as Smith would describe it in later First Vision accounts, is precisely what occurred in his own theophany when he saw two personages, one of them attesting to the identity of the other, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS–H 1:17). In an exact echo of John 1:18, the KJV of 1 John 4:12 reads, “No man hath seen God at any time.” Smith again qualifies this with a proviso in his translation: “except them who beleive [sic].”21 In both alterations—made, respectively, between fall 1831 and February 16, 1832, and between February 16 and March 24, 1832, several months before Smith’s earliest recorded account of the First Vision,22 God the Father is made visible. And in each alteration, a condition is presented on which the Father can be seen—a condition met by Smith in his First Vision: before he saw the Father, he exercised faith and became one of “them who believe,” meeting the condition specified in JST 1 John 4:12; and he heard the Father bear “record of the Son,” meeting the condition specified in JST John 1:18.
Given Smith’s changes to these passages—in each case qualifying the apparent absoluteness of the statement “No man hath seen God”—it is intriguing that he imports this very phrase into the beginning of his revised Psalm 14. Having revised the two Johannine passages to stipulate conditions on which human beings can see God the Father, he puts any objection to his own theophany based on the unrevised passages on the lips of the “fool” who denies God in Psalm 14:1.
Joseph thus wrestles with the Johannine phrase “No man hath seen God” three times in his 1832–1833 Bible revision, each time in a way that seems to relate to his First Vision and that possibly serves to defend it against any who would use this phrasing to refute it. In his third engagement with the phrase, in Psalm 14, he adapts the psalm to change the “fool” from a village atheist23 to (as we will see in the succeeding verses) a “teacher” who claims to be part of the Lord’s people, but who, in denying God’s power to show himself, effectively denies God’s existence.24
Fascinatingly, it appears Joseph began this implicit defense of the First Vision in his Bible revision even before he recorded any formal accounts of the First Vision. His changes to the KJV of John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 attest that he had already shared the vision before these fall 1831–spring 1832 JST revisions—and had it rejected by critics employing these biblical prooftexts.
Joseph’s 1832 changes to these Johannine texts and his related 1833 changes to Psalm 14 also enhance the existing evidence for elements of Joseph Smith’s First Vision that appear in later accounts. Smith’s 1832 account does not (1) describe Smith seeing God the Father, (2) narrate the voice of the Father declaring the Son, or (3) discuss Smith sharing his theophany with a Protestant minister who rejected it, yet Smith does include these elements in his 1838 account. However, evidence for the Father’s involvement in the First Vision occurs first in the 1832 account itself, when Smith describes “receiving the testamony from on high” at his First Vision.25 The phrase “the testimony on high” was often used in the nineteenth century to refer to testimony borne by the Father of the Son, such as at the Mount of Transfiguration, when a voice (identified explicitly as God the Father in 2 Peter 1:17–18) testified of Jesus from heaven—“This is My Beloved Son” (Matt. 17:5).26 In line with such evidence in Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision, Smith’s revisions to the Bible discussed here evidence that all three of the supposedly late-developed elements of the First Vision actually predate even this “earliest” First Vision account. His fall 1831–spring 1832 revisions of the Johannine passages on seeing God the Father add conditions on which the Father may be seen, allowing for Joseph to have seen the Father as part of the First Vision on those conditions, including the condition of the Father declaring his Beloved Son. And his 1832–1833 revision of Psalm 14:1 reinforces that God can be seen and puts contrary use of the Johannine passages on the lips of a sectarian “fool.” These early 1830s revisions preserve one side of a largely lost conversation, a conversation in which a sectarian critic had once rejected Smith’s theophany, and which Joseph later responded to repeatedly and forcefully. Indeed, Smith would identify that conversation explicitly in his 1838/39 account of the First Vision as a conversation with “one of the Methodist preachers” (JS–H 1:21).
Steven Harper concludes that Joseph’s “1832 and 1838/39 memories are best read as responses to the Methodist minister.”27 This is also the best way to read the consistent pattern of changes Joseph made involving the phrase “no man hath seen God” in the JST of 1 John 1:18, 1 John 4:32, and Psalm 14:1.
“Behold they are corrupt” (JST Psalm 14:1)
- King James Version: “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”
- Joseph Smith Translation (1832/33): “Behold they are corrupt; they have done abominable works, and none of them doeth good.”28
- Smith, 1832: “I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.”29
- Smith, 1838/39: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt” (JS–H 1:19).
- Smith, 1842: “They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.”30
- Richards, 1843: “received for answer that none of them were right, that they were all wrong, & that the Everlasting covena[n]t was broken.”31
- White, 1843: “I then, addressed this second person, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join,’ He replied, ‘don’t join any of them, they are all corrupt.’ . . . When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since.”32
The 1832 account seems to describe a general prevalence of apostasy and wickedness, while the later accounts are more specific regarding the Christian churches of the day. This portion of the JST falls more in line with the 1832 account. However, this verse is more of an introduction by the psalmist than speech from the Lord himself. Similar language, however, is attributed to the Lord in verses 3 and 4 (which are addressed in greater detail below).
“Behold all these who say they are thine” (JST Psalm 14:2)
- King James Version: “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.”
- Joseph Smith Translation (1832/33): “For the Lord look down from heaven upon the children of men, and by his voice said unto his servant, seek ye among the children of men, to see if there are any that do understand God. And he opened his mouth unto the Lord, and said; behold, all these who say they are thine.”33
- Smith, 1835: “Being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking <at> the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and concidering it of the first importance that I should be right.”34
- Smith, 1838/39: “My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. . . . I asked the Personages . . . which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join” (JS–H 1:18).35
- Smith, 1842: “I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully.”36
- Richards, 1843: “Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same— saying that when he was a youth he began to think about these these things but could not find out which of all the sects were right— he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right.”37
- White, 1843: “There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join. . . . I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join.’”38
- Neibaur, 1844: “Mr Smith then asked must I join the Methodist Church.”39
- Brigham Young, 1867: “Joseph was naturally inclined to be religious, and being young, and surrounded with this excitement, no wonder that he became seriously impressed with the necessity of serving the Lord. But as the cry on every hand was, ‘Lo, here is Christ,’ and ‘Lo, there!’”40
Rather than determining before the heavenly encounter that all people had “gone aside,” the servant (Smith) offers “all these who say they are thine” as examples of those who “understand God” (JST Ps. 14:3). The servant is under the impression that at least someone among those claiming to be the Lord’s is legitimate. While the 1832 account may give the impression that Smith had his mind made up before entering the grove, the 1832/33 JST translation and later First Vision accounts indicate that he still assumed a divinely authorized people or church was in existence somewhere.
“Workers of eniquity” (JST Ps. 14:4)
- King James Version: “Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.”
- Old Testament Revision 2 (1832/33): “<All> they have for there teachers, <are> workers of eniquity, and there is no knowledge in them. They <are they> who eat up my people, they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.”41
- Smith, 1838/39: “The Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt” (JS–H 1:19).
While the 1832 account focuses on a kind of general apostasy and wickedness, the 1838/39 account is more pointed and focused with its blame. Harper argues that by this time, Smith “remembered to reject and replace the minister and the authority he represented. Smith’s 1838/39 perspective is enlarged and institutional. From that point of view the vision was not simply another manifestation of Christ to a born-again soul. It was an indictment of apostate churches and their creeds—not simply the marvelous acts of Joseph Smith but the story of ‘the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’”42
However, this rejection and replacement of the Methodist minister is found in JST Psalm 14. The “corrupt” professors the Lord rejects in the 1838/39 account (or the “corrupt” churches of White’s interview43) parallel and appear to be reflected in the “teachers” the Lord rejects as “workers of eniquity” in the revised Psalm 14. The divine condemnation of other churches and their leaders found in the 1838/39 account is thus already present in Smith’s 1832/33 translation of Psalm 14.44
“O Lord, when wilt thou establish Zion?” (JST Ps. 14:7)
- King James Version: “Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.”
- Old Testament Revision 2 (1832/33): “O that Zion were established out of heaven, the salvation of Israel. O Lord, when wilt thou establish Zion? When the lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, Isreal shall be glad.”45
- Revelation through Joseph Smith, April 6, 1830 (D&C 21): “Him [Joseph Smith] have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in Mighty power for good & his dilligence I know & his prayers I have heard yea his weeping for Zion I have seen & I will cause that He shall mourn for her no longer for his days of rejoicing are come.”46
- Smith, 1842: “I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”47
- Orson Pratt, 1840: “[Smith] was expressly commanded, to go not after them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine—the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him.”48
- Orson Hyde, 1842: “He was also told that he should not join any of the religious sects or denominations, because all of them erred in doctrine and none was recognized by God as his church and kingdom. He was further commanded, to wait patiently until some future time, when the true doctrine of Christ and the complete truth of the gospel would be revealed to him.”49
Smith’s inspired additions regarding Zion seem to have in mind this promise of the future restoration of God’s Church and kingdom on earth. Yet this connection of the Lord’s servant’s longing for Zion in JST Psalm 14 and Joseph Smith’s seeking after the restored Church are not obvious until the key is provided by the revelation Joseph received when his quest for that Church was fulfilled. On April 6, 1830, the day the long-promised Church was established, this revelation (D&C 21) equated Joseph’s longing for the restored Church with his longing for Zion.50 The cry of the servant in JST Psalm 14:7, who elsewhere parallels Joseph, thus mirrors Joseph’s own “weeping for Zion,” and the rejoicing that accompanies Zion’s coming in this passage mirrors Joseph’s rejoicing when Zion’s day has come.51
JST Psalm 14 connects the concept of Zion with the First Vision narrative, making the ending of the servant’s theophany brim with anticipation of Zion’s establishment. Thus, as early as 1832/33, Smith associated his first encounter with Deity with the future hope of Zion: “a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”52
After comparing Joseph Smith’s First Vision with the divine encounter experienced by the Lord’s servant in JST Psalm 14, it is difficult to disagree with Joseph Fielding McConkie’s judgment: “The JST rendering of this Psalm reads like another account of the First Vision.”53 The several parallels between JST Psalm 14 and the various First Vision accounts provide potentially fruitful avenues of historical and theological exploration. If, as the evidence signifies, Joseph Smith modeled JST Psalm 14 after his First Vision experience, this offers insights into the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation; and the new translation, in turn, opens a window onto how he understood his vision in 1832–1833.54 Already by 1831–1832, Joseph Smith’s translation of John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 intimates that he connected his First Vision with the idea of seeing God the Father and of God the Father bearing witness: “This is My Beloved Son” (JS–H 1:17). In his 1832/33 translation of Psalm 14, Joseph reinforces that God the Father was part of the First Vision and weaves in further elements of the First Vision that will not appear in his formal accounts thereof for several years.
All of this attests to a much more consistent First Vision narrative than is often assumed. John Welch and James Allen have observed, “There is . . . striking consistency throughout the [First Vision] narratives; they combine impressively to give a consistent and coherent picture. A high percentage of the elements . . . sporadically appear in multiple accounts, both early and late, showing a high degree of independent, cumulative, concurrent corroboration among these accounts.”55
This observation holds even beyond the formal accounts of the First Vision. From Joseph Smith’s inspired 1831/32 translation of John 1:18 to his private 1844 testimony to Alexander Neibaur, Joseph’s words give evidence that the Father had borne witness of the Son. And from his 1832/33 translation of Psalm 14 to that same testimony to Neibaur shortly before the martyrdom (and even Brigham Young’s recollection after the martyrdom), he affirms that the Son told him, “All are gone aside,” and none were doing good, “no, not one.” Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible thus bears witness that he was consistent in attesting to these events from the beginning of his prophetic career to the end.