Joseph Smith the seer ushered in the dispensation of the fullness of times. His role was known and prophesied of anciently. The Lord promised Joseph of Egypt that in the last days a “choice seer” would come through his lineage and would bring his seed to a knowledge of the covenants made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2 Ne. 3:7; JST Gen. 50:27–28). “That seer will the Lord bless,” Joseph prophesied, specifically indicating that “his name shall be called after me” (2 Ne. 3:14–15; see also JST Gen. 50:33). Significantly, in the revelation received during the organizational meeting of the Church on April 6, 1830, the first title given to the first elder was that of seer: “Behold, there shall be a record kept . . . and in it thou [Joseph Smith] shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (D&C 21:1).
In the Book of Mormon, Ammon defined a seer as one who possessed “a gift from God” to translate ancient records (Mosiah 8:13; see also 28:11–16). However, the seeric gift is not limited to translation, hence Ammon’s additional statement that “a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have” (Mosiah 8:16). In actuality, a seer is a see-er.Among other gifts and powers, he sees visions, which visions are seen with spiritual eyes. This study attempts to compile and analyze all of the known visions, visitations, or visual revelations experienced by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Visions can take various forms. Personal visitations or appearances of deity, angels, or even Satan and his emissaries certainly come under the heading of visions. Visions can also include seeing vivid images where the veil is lifted from an individual’s mind in order to see and comprehend the things of God. Certain dreams could be considered visions, particularly when heavenly or spiritual messages are conveyed. Finally, certain revelations received through the Urim and Thummim mediums such as the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone may also be classified, in the ancient sense, as visions.
While the visions received by Joseph Smith were also revelatory experiences, revelations were not always visionary. Hence, in researching Joseph Smith’s visions, I attempted to distinguish between visions and other kinds of inspiration or revelation. More often than not, when a vision was involved, the wording of the source material indicated that a vision—not a more general “revelation”—had been received. However, in some instances, the visual nature of the experience was not quite clear, so I made some judgment calls whether a particular revelation involved a vision based on the graphic detail in the account and the perceptual circumstances of the manifestation.
This difficulty in determining what actually constitutes a vision is illustrated by the following example. In January 1841, Joseph Smith gave a detailed description of the Apostle Paul’s physical appearance and mannerisms:
He is about five foot high; very dark hair; dark complexion; dark skin; large Roman nose; sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated and then it almost resembles the roaring of a Lion. He was a good orator active and deligent [sic], always employing himself in doing good to his fellow men.
A cursory reading of the Prophet’s statement might lead to the conclusion that his knowledge of Paul’s physical characteristics could have been learned only by means of a vision. However, the Prophet’s description resembles depictions of Paul found in familiar apocryphal writings.Thus, while Joseph may have received an actual vision of Paul, he possibly gained his understanding of the ancient Apostle’s appearance from the traditional Christian literature of the day and accepted it as accurate. Due to this ambiguity and in the interest of cautious scholarship, I have not included the Prophet’s statement on Paul among the visions listed in the appendix below.
Three major points became apparent as I researched Joseph Smith’s visions. First, and perhaps most remarkable, is the sheer number of visions the Prophet received. The majority of these visions are not found in the standard works but pervade the Prophet’s own history and the records kept by contemporaries who were present when a vision was received or when Joseph Smith spoke about his sacred communications. A major purpose of this study is to document those visions not generally known. As I began collecting the accounts of the visions, I realized that any attempt to total the number of visions would risk excluding some, since evidence of visions relies upon documentation, and some visions may have been purposely unrecorded. Of one vision Joseph remarked, “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.”
Second, the Prophet was privileged to receive so many visions that it appears they became almost commonplace experiences for him. For example, in 1843 he said, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.”Perhaps because his visionary experiences were so frequent, he often left out details or failed to record certain events altogether.
Finally, in a number of instances, others witnessed Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Sidney Rigdon, Heber C. Kimball, Frederick G. Williams, John Murdock, Zebedee Coltrin, and others were present when the Prophet had visions, often seeing the manifestation with him. The recorded statements of these witnesses and co-participants give additional testimony and credibility to the reality of the Prophet’s seeric experiences.
For the sake of clarity and organization, the Prophet’s visions will be discussed in a historical context using two periods: 1820–30 and 1831–44.
Joseph Smith’s Visions, 1820–1830
Joseph Smith’s visions between 1820 and 1830 fall into three of the broad categories mentioned earlier: personal visitations of deity, angels, and Satan; visions received via the seer stone and the Urim and Thummim; and visions opened to the mind. One vision in particular seems to be in a category of its own.
Ammon said that through a seer “secret things [shall] be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light” (Mosiah 8:16). Joseph Smith brought to light many truths he learned from heavenly beings, and he learned to distinguish those truths from their opposites through his encounters with Satan.
The First Vision. The most magnificent and certainly the most historically and doctrinally significant theophany occurred in the Sacred Grove in spring 1820, when the Father and the Son—and “many angels,” according to Joseph’s 1835 account—ushered in the opening of the Restoration. This initial spiritual manifestation has appropriately come to be known among Latter-day Saints as the “First Vision,” a title that recognizes that more visions soon followed. Although Joseph Smith was privileged to have additional visions of the Father and the Son later, the First Vision is the only known instance during this ten-year period that the young prophet was privileged to have a vision of either of these two members of the Godhead. Historical evidence demonstrates that the Restoration was brought to pass primarily through the ministration of angels and other forms of revelation rather than by direct appearances of either of these two supreme deities.
Visions of Heavenly Messengers. Of the heavenly messengers who personally appeared to the youthful prophet in the years 1820–30, Moroni was the most regular visitor. Best known are the three visits that occurred during the night of September 21–22, 1823; the appearance while Joseph returned from work in his father’s field the next day; the meeting with Moroni at the Hill Cumorah; and the four annual visits that subsequently took place each September until 1827. However, in total over twenty appearances by the last survivor of the Nephite nation can be documented.
One of Moroni’s visits, in particular, is worth recounting. During Joseph and Emma’s move from Palmyra, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in December 1827, Joseph protected the plates and the other Nephite artifacts by placing them in a barrel of beans. Shortly after departing, he and his wife were accosted by a group of men intent on taking the plates. After a thorough search, the men left empty-handed, and the couple and the plates eventually arrived safely in Harmony. A year and a half later, because of increased persecution, Joseph and Oliver were forced to leave Harmony, departing for Fayette, New York, around June 1. David Whitmer came from Fayette to transport them to his father’s home. However, on this move, the plates were not in their possession. Prior to the trio’s departure, Joseph had returned the plates and sacred relics to Moroni, who had informed him they would be returned upon arrival at the Whitmer homestead. Soon after the party’s departure by wagon, Moroni paid them an interesting visit. David Whitmer told the following incident on numerous occasions over the years. One account reads:
“When I was returning to Fayette with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old fashioned wooden spring seat and Joseph behind us, we were suddenly approached by a very pleasant, nice looking old man in a clear open place, who saluted us with ‘Good morning, it is very warm,’ at the same instant wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation and by a sign from Joseph I invited him to ride if he was going our way, but he said very pleasantly, ‘No, I am going to Cumorah.’ This was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant, and as I looked enquiringly at Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared so that I did not see him again.”
. . . “He was, I should think, about 5 feet 9 or 10 inches and heavy set. . . . He was dressed in a suit of brown, woolen clothes; his hair and beard were white. . . . I also remember that he had a sort of knapsack on his back, and something was in it which was shaped like a book. It was the messenger who had the plates.”
In this fascinating account, Whitmer gives some idea of Moroni’s physical stature and more unexpectedly demonstrates that angels are occasionally given to amusement when executing their missions among mortals. This incident further illustrates that celestial glorified messengers can appear in a telestial form and condition.
Moroni was not Joseph’s only seeric tutor. Statements and testimonies by some of the Prophet’s contemporaries reveal that the young seer was visited and taught by numerous ancient prophets and apostles. In the Wentworth Letter, published in March 1842, Joseph Smith stated, “After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September, A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands.”
Three major points stand out in this statement. First, Joseph Smith received “many visits from the angels of God.” Second, these angels visited him to unfold events that would soon transpire. And third, these visits occurred before he obtained the plates in September 1827 and thus took place concurrently with his years of instruction by Moroni at Cumorah. Orson Pratt stated that during the years 1823–27, Joseph “was often ministered to by the angels of God, and received instruction concerning the work that was to be performed in the latter days.”George Q. Cannon taught that during these preparatory years Joseph “was visited constantly by angels. . . . He had vision after vision in order that his mind might be fully saturated with a knowledge of the things of God, and that he might comprehend the great and holy calling that God has bestowed upon him.”
Joseph never mentioned publicly, as far as we know, who these angelic ministrants were, but his close associates spoke of these appearances. John Taylor gave some indication of their identity in these two typical statements:
And when Joseph Smith was raised up as a Prophet of God, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi and others of the ancient Prophets who formerly lived on this Continent, and Peter and John and others who lived on the Asiatic Continent, came to him and communicated to him certain principles pertaining to the Gospel of the Son of God.
The principles which he had, placed him in communication with the Lord, and not only with the Lord, but with the ancient apostles and prophets; such men, for instance, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Adam, Seth, Enoch, and . . . the apostles that lived on this continent as well as those who lived on the Asiatic continent. He seemed to be as familiar with these people as we are with one another. Why? Because he had to introduce a dispensation which was called the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Lucy Mack Smith had fond memories of Joseph’s maturing years and recalled some of the things her son learned from these interviews, particularly from the ancient American prophets. “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined,” Lucy said, continuing:
He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.
The Prophet left specific record that on May 15, 1829, John the Baptist appeared and conferred Aaronic Priesthood keys and authority upon Joseph and Oliver Cowdery. Besides Joseph’s brief account describing this visitation, Oliver Cowdery also left his written testimony of that event. Significantly, by the time John the Baptist appeared, Joseph had received numerous heavenly visitors, but this was one of Cowdery’s first visions. When Cowdery wrote about the incident five years later, his words still expressed exhilaration and spiritual elation. “The vail was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message,” he wrote.
What joy! what wonder! what amazement! . . . our eyes beheld—our ears heard. . . . Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, “I am thy fellow servant,” dispelled every fear. We listened—we gazed—we admired! ‘Twas the voice of the angel from glory—‘twas a message from the Most High! and as we heard we rejoiced, while his love enkindled upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! . . .
. . . The assurance that we were in the presence of an angel . . . is to me, past description, and I shall ever look upon this expression of the Savior’s goodness with wonder and thanksgiving.
The appearance of Peter, James, and John and their bestowal of the Melchizedek Priesthood upon Joseph and Oliver followed. While Joseph and Oliver left no record of the exact date of this event, the traditional view is that the higher priesthood was conferred during the visitation of these ancient Apostles in late May or early June 1829, approximately two weeks following the bestowal of the Aaronic Priesthood.
Another heavenly visitor whom Joseph Smith saw during the 1820–30 period was an angel who is not identified in surviving records. This messenger appeared during the first week of August 1830 to instruct Joseph concerning the emblems of the sacrament. Newel Knight and his wife, Sally, had traveled from Colesville, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to visit Joseph and Emma. Both women had been baptized, but neither had been confirmed nor had yet partaken of the sacrament. Joseph authorized both ordinances and “set out to procure some wine for the occasion,” wrote Newel Knight. “He had gone only a short distance, when he was met by a heavenly messenger and received the first four verses of the revelation” (that is, D&C 27:1–4). The Prophet returned to the small group, which also included John Whitmer, prepared some wine in accordance with the instructions from the angel, partook of the sacrament, confirmed the two sisters, and “spent the evening in a glorious manner.”
Visions of Satan. Joseph had at least two personal encounters with Lucifer during the 1820s. The best-known confrontation occurred prior to his theophany in the Sacred Grove, when Satan sought to physically destroy him. The other confrontation with Satan is mentioned only briefly, in Doctrine and Covenants section 128. In verse 20, the Prophet wrote of hearing “the voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light.” Clearly, he heard Adam’s (Michael’s) voice and also saw the devil. Satan’s appearance also seems to be associated with the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood since Joseph refers to Peter, James, and John’s appearance on the Susquehanna in the very next sentence. Simply interpreted, Satan appeared as an angel of light, hoping to deceive Joseph and Oliver in some manner and thereby thwart the restoration of authority. Satan’s presence, however, was detected by Michael, who informed Joseph and Oliver of the deception, concluding the incident.
Visions through the Urim and Thummim
During this early period, the youthful prophet received many visions through the medium of “Urim and Thummim”—sometimes a seer stone and, more particularly, the Nephite interpreters. Both of these instruments apparently operated in much the same spiritual manner, and through them Joseph received an undetermined number of visions in addition to the translation of the Book of Mormon. The young prophet obtained a seer stone, described as dark brown in color, while digging a well for Willard Chase around 1822.This discovery occurred only two years after the First Vision and one year before Moroni’s first visits. Joseph made use of the seer stone for five years before obtaining the Nephite interpreters from Moroni in 1827. Latter-day Saints should not be surprised to learn that prior to being engaged specifically in the work of the Lord—that is, prior to beginning the work of the translation of the plates—the youthful Joseph apparently recognized that God had given him visionary powers enabling him to see supernatural visions in a wide variety of areas. Between 1822 and 1827, he successfully obtained an unspecified number of visions by means of the seer stone. He even gained a reputation for such activities, which may explain why men such as Josiah Stowell, who lived more than one hundred miles away, near South Bainbridge, New York, sought out Joseph Smith and employed him to locate buried treasure in the fall of 1825.
Several examples of Joseph’s ability to receive visions by means of a seer stone illustrate the power associated with the Prophet and this instrument. Martin Harris steadfastly believed Joseph possessed an uncanny ability of seership. This was perhaps due in part to the following incident:
I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth, and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. . . . I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him—I said, “Take your stone.” I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat—the old white hat—and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look [to] one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me.
Joseph’s use of the stone may have also encouraged him to propose marriage to Emma Hale. At Joseph’s annual visit to the Hill Cumorah in September 1826, Moroni told him that he could have the plates the following year if, in Joseph Knight’s words, “he Brot [sic] the right person.” Knight recounted this conversation further:
“Who is the right Person?” The answer was you will know. Then he looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, Daughter of old Mr Hail of Pensylvany, a girl that he had seen Before, for he had Bin Down there Before with me. . . . He came to me perhaps in November and worked for me until about the time that he was Married . . . and I furnished him with a horse and Cutter to go and see his girl Down to Mr. Hails. And soon after this he was Married and Mr Stowel moved him and his wife to his fathers in Palmyra Ontario County.
David Whitmer learned during his very first meeting with Joseph that, by means of the seer stone, Joseph was able to see in detail actions many miles away. In late May of 1828, at the request of Oliver Cowdery and Joseph, David traveled from Fayette, New York, over one hundred miles to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to take the two men back to his father’s farmhouse so they could complete the translation. As he neared Harmony, he was surprised to meet Joseph and Oliver, who “were coming toward me, and met me some little distance from the house.” David reported further:
Oliver told me that Joseph had told him when I started from home, where I had stopped the first night, how I read the sign at the tavern, where I stopped the next night and that I would be there that day before dinner, and this was why they had come out to meet me, all of which was exactly as Joseph had told Oliver, at which I was greatly astonished.
Moroni gave Joseph possession of the plates, breastplate, and interpreters on September 22, 1827. When Joseph Smith first put on the spectacles, “his entire past history [was] revealed to him,” David Whitmer recounted. This experience, Whitmer believed, helped Joseph recognize the greater supernatural power God had now given him.Joseph Knight Sr., who was at the Smith home in Palmyra when Joseph returned from the Hill Cumorah, remembered conversing with Joseph about the sacred relics the morning after he gained possession of them. “It is ten times Better than I expected,” he remembered Joseph saying. He recalled further the Prophet’s particular fascination with the spectacles. “He seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummem then [than] he Did of the Plates,” wrote Knight, “for, says he, ‘I can see any thing; they are Marvelus.’” Indeed they were, for as the Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, recalled, by means of the instrument “the angel showed him many things which he saw in vision.” These tools were not used for trivial or spectacular sensations. One major purpose of the spectacles (and perhaps also the seer stone) was to help protect the plates and Joseph’s life. Lucy said her son “always kept the Urim and Thummim about his person” so “he could also ascertain, at any time, the approach of danger, either to himself or the Record.” Lucy Mack Smith and Martin Harris mention three incidents where the plates were kept safe because of information received by means of the Urim and Thummim.
Soon after acquiring the ancient relics, Joseph wondered how he could proceed without some personal assistance, particularly financial aid, so that he could devote himself entirely to the work of translation. The answer came in a vision through the holy interpreters. During one of his interviews with the angel Moroni, probably in September 1827, Joseph asked who could assist him. He was told “to go and look in the spectacles, and he would show him the man that would assist him.” The man he saw was Martin Harris. A short while later, the Prophet told Harris what had been made known to him. The Palmyra farmer later recalled how the message “struck me with surprise. I told him I wished him to be careful about these things. ‘Well,’ said [Joseph], ‘I saw you standing before me as plainly as I do now.’”Martin subsequently received a testimony of Joseph Smith’s divine calling to translate the Book of Mormon and later gave liberally of his wealth to the work.
Joseph Smith never detailed the method or procedure of translation.However, Martin Harris, who assisted with the translation of the first 116 pages in 1828, and David Whitmer, a firsthand observer who lent assistance beginning in June 1829, gave some particulars. Harris gave the following testimony to Edward Stevenson:
Sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.
David Whitmer stated a similar procedure for the translation:
Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.
Clearly, the main purpose of the interpreters was to assist the seer in the translation of the Book of Mormon. The testimonies of Emma Smith and David Whitmer agree that the Prophet used the Nephite interpreters to translate the first 116 pages, after which this instrument was returned to the angel in consequence of the incidents surrounding the lost manuscript. Thereafter, the seer stone was used, both instruments being essentially a “urim and thummim.”In essence, every time Joseph translated he was seeing some kind of vision. Furthermore, in the Doctrine and Covenants at least nine revelations were received by means of the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone—sections 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Since it is likely the information was conveyed to the Prophet in much the same manner as the translation of the Book of Mormon (that is, the words would appear in some fashion within the instruments), perhaps these revelations could be better described as “visions” received through the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone. Soon after the translation of the Book of Mormon was complete, visions using the seer stone as a medium seemed to cease. David Whitmer remembered Joseph saying that “we would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord.”
Visions Opened to the Mind
Documentation exists for three visions received in the mind of the youthful prophet during the ten-year period of 1820 to 1830, each associated with his initial interviews with Moroni. The first two occurred in conjunction with Moroni’s inaugural appearance on the evening of September 21–22, 1823, in the Joseph Smith Sr. log house. In the Prophet’s 1839 history, he related that as the heavenly messenger was telling him about the gold plates, “the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it” (JS-H 1:42). In the 1842 Wentworth Letter, he added that during this initial interview he was informed about the ancient American inhabitants and “shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people. ”A similar experience occurred the following day at the hill. After determining where the stone box was located, and after removing the large stone that covered it, Joseph made several attempts to obtain the record. As Joseph began to pray, Moroni appeared. He then told the young seer to
“Look!” and as he thus spake he beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates. All this passed before him, and the heavenly messenger said, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.”
In a very real sense, what Joseph experienced on these three occasions was a “vision within a vision” since he received visual instruction at the same time he was in the presence of a celestial personage.
A Unique Visionary Experience
A well-known vision of this period warrants a brief examination, but it is difficult to classify and explain. After the completion of the translation, Joseph returned the plates to Moroni, who appeared a very short time later at a location near the Whitmer farm to show the plates to the Three Witnesses. The plates were then loaned back to the Prophet, who showed them to the Eight Witnesses, who were in the vicinity of Manchester. The Prophet and Oliver Cowdery then went to Cumorah to return the record for the last time. While at the hill, an unusual phenomenon took place. Brigham Young explained:
I believe I will take the liberty to tell you of another circumstance that will be as marvelous as anything can be. This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. . . . Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited [returned] these plates. . . . When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it.
The incident is substantiated by two other statements made by Brigham Young and recorded by William H. Dame and Wilford Woodruff.Others of the Prophet’s contemporaries giving similar reports included Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and David Whitmer.
Summary of the 1820–1830 Period
This decade was distinguished by the following: First, the most significant experience of Joseph Smith during this period was the personal visitation of the Father and the Son, who opened the latter-day dispensation with a personal appearance. This vision is also the only recorded appearance of the two supreme beings during the decade of the 1820s. Second, the period is characterized by a series of visitations from heavenly messengers, including ancient prophets from both hemispheres who appeared to indoctrinate and teach the young seer. Third, Joseph had at least two spiritual encounters with Satan, the first being a vision involving a destructive force immediately before the appearance of the Father and the Son, and the second, a more subtle appearance where Satan was disguised as an angel of light. Fourth, around 1822, Joseph Smith began to receive visions by means of a seer stone. Later, in 1827, he received the Nephite spectacles. Both of these instruments acted as a Urim and Thummim, and by them Joseph Smith received divine light and knowledge. Evidence further suggests that the entire translation process of the Book of Mormon and the receipt of several early revelations through the Urim and Thummim were in essence visionary experiences. Fifth, the Prophet had visions opened to his mind, albeit rarely, during this time period. Sixth, the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery experienced a singular visionary phenomenon when they returned the plates to the Hill Cumorah.
Joseph Smith’s Visions, 1831–1844
From 1831 to 1844, Joseph received personal visitations from the Father and the Son together, the Son alone, other heavenly beings, and Satan. The Prophet also received visions where the method of receiving the vision is not clearly recorded. Examples of those visions will be discussed according to subject or event.
Visions of Beings
Joseph the seer continued to have visions of heavenly and satanic personages. These experiences gave him increasing knowledge of the unseen world.
Visions of the Father and the Son. During the first five years of the 1831–44 period, Joseph Smith was privileged to see both the Father and the Son in vision on at least four occasions. On June 4, 1831, during a four-day conference held in Kirtland, Joseph had a vision of these two beings. Levi Hancock was present and stated that the vision occurred in a schoolhouse on the hill above the Isaac Morley farmhouse, about one mile northeast of the Newel K. Whitney store. Hancock reported that the elders were meeting together when Joseph “stepped out on the floor and said, ‘I now see God, and Jesus Christ at his right hand, let them kill me, I should not feel death as I am now.’”Hancock’s wording suggests a vision similar to that experienced by Stephen, who saw the Father and the Son before being stoned before Jewish accusers (Acts 7). Considering the persecution Joseph was continually experiencing, he must have considered death a long-desired relief from his sufferings.
Joseph Smith and his spokesman, Sidney Rigdon, saw the Father and the Son in 1832 in the vision now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants section 76. Often, discussion of this vision focuses on the degrees of glory, perdition, and the attendant requirements for each. However, the highlight of the section is a vision of the Father and the Son, the premortal life, and Lucifer’s fall. The vision of the two supreme members of the Godhead was apparently of considerable length. The manifestation led them to write, “The glory of the Lord shone round about. And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness; And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever” (D&C 76:19–21). So powerful was the vision of what they both saw and heard, they chose to bear testimony of the Savior, a testimony declaring “that he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (D&C 76:22–23).
On March 18, 1833, God the Father and the Son also made a brief personal appearance to members of the School of the Prophets. Two eyewitnesses left a dramatic record of their experience. The first comes years later from Zebedee Coltrin:
At one of these meetings after the organization of the school, . . . when we were all together, Joseph having given instructions, and while engaged in silent prayer, kneeling, with our hands uplifted each one praying in silence, no one whispered above his breath, a personage walked through the room from East to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did, and Joseph answered that is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother. Afterward Joseph told us to resume our former position in prayer, which we did. Another person came through; He was surrounded as with a flame of fire.
In the presence of this personage, Coltrin “experienced a sensation that it might destroy the tabernacle as it was of consuming fire of great brightness.” Joseph Smith identified this personage as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and Coltrin gave the following description:
I saw His hands, His legs, his feet, his eyes, nose, mouth, head and body in the shape and form of a perfect man. . . . This appearance was so grand and overwhelming that it seemed I should melt down in His presence, and the sensation was so powerful that it thrilled through my whole system and I felt it in the marrow of my bones.
On another occasion, Coltrin stated that as the Father passed through the room, the “glory and brightness was so great . . . that had it continued much longer, I believe it would have consumed us.”The second testimony of this vision comes from John Murdock:
During the winter that I boarded with Brother Joseph . . . we had a number of prayer meetings, in the Prophet’s chamber. . . . In one of those meetings the Prophet told us, “If we could humble ourselves before God, and exercise strong faith, we should see the face of the Lord.” And about midday the visions of my mind were opened, and the eyes of my understanding were enlightened, and I saw the form of a man, most lovely, the visage of his face was sound and fair as the sun. His hair a bright silver grey, curled in most majestic form; His eyes a keen penetrating blue, and the skin of his neck a most beautiful white and he was covered from the neck to the feet with a loose garment, pure white: Whiter than any garment I have ever before seen. His countenance was most penetrating, and yet most lovely. And while I was endeavoring to comprehend the whole personage from head to feet it slipped from me, and the vision was closed up. But it left on my mind the impression of love, for months, that I had never felt before to that degree.
On January 21, 1836, Joseph Smith was more in heaven than on earth. That day he received at least two, and possibly three, visions of different events. In one of these visions, he saw “the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son” and those who became heirs of the celestial kingdom. It is this portion of the vision that has been canonized as section 137. However, in addition, Joseph observed William E. McLellin proselyting in the South, Brigham Young working in the Southwest, and others bringing about the redemption of Zion. He also saw the Twelve standing together in a foreign land (probably Great Britain). The Prophet indicated they were “much fatigued, with their clothes tattered and feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold Him. The Savior looked upon them and wept.”Subsequently, he observed that the Twelve had successfully accomplished their work on earth and had entered the celestial city, where the Savior embraced and kissed each one and then crowned them in the presence of God the Father. This vision left such a powerful impression on the Prophet, wrote Heber C. Kimball, “that he never could refrain from weeping while rehearsing it.”
Visions of the Son. In addition to the four appearances of the Father and Son during this five-year span (1831–36), historical sources reveal that Joseph Smith saw Jesus Christ separately on four occasions. Thirteen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Rollins was present when one of these visitations transpired. She remembered the event occurring in 1831, at a meeting of Saints held at the Isaac Morley farm, where the Prophet was the main speaker. She recalled Joseph speaking very solemnly during the meeting. “All at once his countenance changed and he stood mute,” Rollins recounted. “Those who looked at him . . . said there was a search light within him, over every part of his body. I never saw anything like it on the earth. I could not take my eyes off of him. He got so white that anyone who saw him would have thought he was transparent. I . . . thought I could almost see the bones through the flesh.” The Prophet stood silent for several minutes before he asked those present if they knew who had been in their midst. Martin Harris told them it was the Savior, to which the Prophet responded that God had revealed that truth to Martin. He then said, “Brothers and Sisters, . . . the Savior has been here this night and I want to tell you to remember it. There is a vail [sic] over your eyes for you could not endure to look upon Him.”
During an intimate meeting in Kirtland on December 18, 1833, the Prophet experienced a singular vision of the premortal Jehovah ministering to Father Adam in mortality. Scribe Oliver Cowdery noted that while Joseph Smith was setting apart his father, Joseph Smith Sr., as Patriarch to the Church, “the visions of the Almighty were open to his view,” and he beheld a great ancient council meeting at Adam-ondi-Ahman held three years previous to Adam’s death. “The Lord appeared unto them,” Cowdery recorded, and “administered comfort unto Adam.”In July 1839, during a meeting with the Twelve and the Seventy, Joseph Smith briefly recounted the vision. “I saw Adam in the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman,” he said. “The Lord appeared in their midst, and he (Adam) blessed them all.”
Joseph Smith had two additional visions of the Savior during the week of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. The Prophet’s history for March 30, 1836, three days after the formal dedication, states that “the Savior made His appearance,” while “angels minestered unto others.”Although Joseph did not give any additional information concerning this manifestation, Harrison Burgess, a member of the Seventy, was present and provided the following recollection:
I was in a meeting for instruction in the upper part of the [Kirtland] Temple, with about a hundred of the High Priests, Seventies and Elders . . . and I beheld the room lighted up with a peculiar light such as I had never seen before. It was soft and clear and the room looked to me as though it had neither roof nor floor to the building and I beheld the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Roger Orton enveloped in the light: Joseph exclaimed aloud, “I behold the Savior, the Son of God.” Hyrum said, “I behold the angels of heaven.” Brother Orton exclaimed, “I behold the chariots of Israel.” All who were in the room felt the power of God to that degree that many prophesied, and the power of God was made manifest, the remembrance of which will remain with me while I live upon the earth.
On Sunday, April 3, 1836, Joseph and Oliver, perhaps feeling that a manifestation was about to take place, retired to the veiled Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits in the Kirtland Temple, where a glorious vision of the Lord was opened to them. As stated in Doctrine and Covenants section 110, the first and second elder saw Jesus Christ “standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit. . . . His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun” (110:2–3). This occasion is the last documented vision of Joseph Smith seeing the Lord Jesus Christ. Including the First Vision, there is documentation for five visions of the Father and the Son together, and four visions of the Savior individually, totaling nine.
Visions of Other Heavenly Beings. During his years as Church President, Joseph Smith also had visions of, manifestations about, and visitations from ancient prophets and apostles and other heavenly messengers. Father Adam was among the prophets most frequently seen. As stated above, Joseph heard Adam detect Satan as an angel of light during the 1820–30 period. In addition, on at least three instances Joseph Smith saw Adam in vision during the decade of the 1830s. The two most familiar accounts are included in scripture. Joseph saw in vision the great council at Adam-ondi-Ahman, where Adam and other patriarchs—including Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah—as well as all of Adam’s righteous posterity, assembled three years prior to Adam’s death (D&C 107:53–57).
Joseph later saw Adam in his vision of the celestial kingdom, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 137. Concerning this vision, Heber C. Kimball stated that Joseph also “saw Adam open the gate of the Celestial City and admit the people one by one.”The most personal account of Adam in vision is not recorded in scripture. In April 1834, the Prophet held a conference of the Church at New Portage, Ohio. There Joseph asked Oliver Cowdery and Zebedee Coltrin to walk with him “to a place where there was some beautiful grass, and grapevines,” Coltrin later recounted. The Prophet then requested they each pray in turn. After praying, Joseph said, “‘Now breth[r]en . . . we will see some visions.’” Joseph laid on the ground, and Oliver and Zebedee rested their heads on his outstretched arms. “The heavens gradually opened,” Coltrin recalled, and the brethren “saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a light house, and on the throne were two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments.” These personages were “the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind” Coltrin had ever seen. Joseph called them “our first parents, Adam and Eve.” Coltrin remembered Adam as a “large broadshouldered man, and Eve as a woman . . . large in proportion.” That the Prophet knew Adam’s visage is also evident from a brief statement he made in January 1843, while reminiscing about his deceased brother, Alvin, where Joseph called his oldest brother “a very handsome man, surpassed by none but Adam and Seth.”
The Prophet also saw other angelic ministrants and prophets during this period. As the Kirtland Temple neared completion in early 1836, an outpouring of spiritual appearances by heavenly beings began. On January 21, at a meeting held in the not-yet-dedicated temple, angels ministered unto those present, the Prophet reported, “as well as my self. . . . For we all communed with the h[e]avenly host’s.”Bishop Edward Partridge stated that “a number saw visions & others were blessed with the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.” Oliver Cowdery called the scene “too great to be described, . . . therefore, I only say, that the heavens were opened to many, and great and marvelous things were shown.” Recorded in the Prophet’s journal for the next day, January 22, is a comparable occurrence: “The heavens were opened, and angels ministered unto us. . . . [They] mingled their voices with ours, while their presence was in our midst.” On January 28, Joseph saw another glorious vision, which he did not describe.
Divine messengers attended the dedicatory services of the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836. As the Prophet read the dedicatory prayer, “we, having our heads bowed,” Truman O. Angell later testified, “felt a sensation very elevating to the soul.” At the completion of the prayer, President Frederick G. Williams arose “and testified that midway during the prayer an Holy Angel came and seated Himself in the stand.”Heber C. Kimball could see the personage from where he sat, describing him as “very tall . . . [with] black eyes, white hair, and stoop shouldered; his garment was whole, extending to near his ankles; on his feet he had sandals. He was sent as a messenger to accept of the dedication.” After a midday adjournment, the first thing Joseph Smith did was announce to those assembled that “the Personage who had appeared in the morning was the Angel Peter [who] had come to accept the dedication.” David Whitmer testified that at the dedication he also saw angels in the house.
On the evening of the dedication day, the priesthood quorums again met in the temple. It was during this meeting that a pentecostal outpouring transpired. The Prophet’s history states:
A noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels, which fact I declared to the congregation. The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple), and were astonished at what was taking place.
Two or three days later, the leading brethren and quorums met to perform anointings. On this occasion, noted Heber C. Kimball, another heavenly personage appeared—“the beloved disciple John was seen in our midst by the Prophet Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and others.”
The most significant manifestation during this spiritual season in Kirtland occurred a week after the dedication, when the Lord appeared and accepted the temple and the sacrifice of the Saints. Then, following that theophany, the great lawgiver, Moses, appeared and bestowed the keys of gathering. His appearance was followed by a personage, whom the Prophet simply called Elias, who restored the keys associated with the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham. Finally, Elijah, an ancient Israelite prophet, bestowed the keys of the sealing power upon the first and second elders, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (D&C 110:11–16). So ended the week in which, according to Orson Pratt, heaven and earth were brought so close together that “people were blessed as they never had been blessed for generations and generations that were passed and gone.”
Several of Joseph Smith’s close associates left record of an angel, whose identity was not recorded, visiting him on several occasions. The purpose of these appearances was to encourage the Prophet to move ahead with the principle of celestial marriage. According to one of the Prophet’s plural wives, this angel appeared three times between 1834 and 1842.Another plural wife, Eliza R. Snow, described an angel that “stood by him with a drawn sword, [who] told him that, unless he moved forward and established plural marriage, his Priesthood would be taken from him.” Documents currently available do not record Joseph Smith receiving visitations from heavenly beings after 1842.
Visions of Satan. The Prophet encountered the adversary face-to-face during the 1830s and 40s. In 1831, while returning to Ohio from his first excursion to Missouri, the Prophet received a revelation at McIlwaine’s Bend on the Missouri River. This revelation came, according to the Prophet’s history, after W. W. Phelps saw Satan, in broad daylight, moving in power upon the surface of the water. Although the record does not indicate how much of this manifestation the Prophet also saw, he knew distinctly who was involved and what had taken place in the vision.
A more direct encounter took place shortly after the Prophet moved into his home in Far West in 1838. Heber C. Kimball related the incident:
One of his children was taken very sick; he laid his hands upon the child, [but] when it got better; as soon as he went out of doors, the child was taken sick again; he again laid his hands upon it, so that it again recovered. This occurred several times, when Joseph inquired of the Lord what it all meant; . . . he had an open vision, and saw the devil in person, who contended with Joseph, face to face, for some time. He said it was his house, it belonged to him, and Joseph had no right there. Then Joseph rebuked Satan in the name of the Lord, and he departed and touched the child no more.
As early as June 1839, Joseph Smith instructed the Twelve, prior to their departure to England, how to differentiate messengers of God from messengers of Satan. At the time the Prophet gave these instructions, Parley P. Pratt was imprisoned in the Columbia, Missouri, jail, and did not receive these instructions until returning from Great Britain in 1843, when the Prophet taught these principles to him personally. On that occasion, William Clayton recorded Joseph’s words, which now comprise section 129, outlining the three grand keys for discerning spirits. This revelation shows that the Prophet evidently had firsthand experience in such matters. When Heber C. Kimball returned from his first mission to Great Britain, he and Joseph took a walk down by the Mississippi River. Heber told the Prophet how he, Orson Hyde, and Willard Richards had been buffeted by Satan when they first arrived in Preston, England. The Prophet then told Brother Kimball about his own contests with the prince of darkness, in which Joseph saw Satan “face to face” and was “handled and afflicted” by him.
Visions of Zion
Although Kirtland was the hub of Mormonism between 1831 and 1838, Joseph focused on the establishment of Zion in Missouri during these years. Through revelations and visionary experiences, the Lord revealed many truths to this modern-day seer about the land where the New Jerusalem would be established. In June 1831, just four months after moving to Ohio from New York, Joseph received a revelation in which the Lord instructed Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, and thirteen pairs of elders to travel to Missouri, where “the land of their inheritance” would “be made known unto them” (D&C 52:5). Joseph later stated that the commandment to travel “to the western boundaries of the State of Missouri” was received “by a heavenly vision” and that the main purpose of the expedition was to “designate the very spot which was to be the central place for the commencement of the gathering together of those who embrace the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.”Soon after the elders’ arrival in Missouri in mid-July, the Prophet alluded to another vision, giving the precise location of Zion: “He manifested Himself unto us, and designated, to me and others, the very spot upon which He designed to commence the work of the gathering, and the upbuilding of an ‘holy city,’ which should be called Zion.”
Visions Received during Zion’s Camp
The Prophet received two unusual visions in 1834. Following the expulsion of some 1,200 Latter-day Saints from Jackson County in 1833, the Prophet called for a contingent of Saints to travel to Missouri and there assist the exiled Saints in reclaiming their lands. The expedition, known as Zion’s Camp, was led by Joseph Smith. After traveling for over a month, on June 3, 1834, near the Illinois River, the expedition came across some peculiar mounds. While surveying one of these formations, the Prophet received a remarkable vision. Seven members of the camp wrote about this event, now known simply as the Zelph story.Regardless of the many differences in these accounts, Joseph received some divine understanding concerning Zelph, apparently through visionary means, as noted in the following published report:
We encamped on the bank of the river until Tuesday the 3rd during our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up by the ancient inhabitants of this county, Nephites, Lamanites, &c., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river, accompanied by the brethren. . . .
On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three alters, . . . and human bones were strewn over the surface of the ground. The brethren procured a shovel and hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot discovered [the] skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs was a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Brigham Young retained the arrow and the brethren carried some pieces of the skeleton to Clay county. The contemplation of the scenery before us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the spirit of the Almighty I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us, was a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Omandagus, who was known from the hill Cumorah, or Eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains. His name was Zelph. The curse was taken from him, or at least, in part; one of his thigh bones was broken, by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle years before his death. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.
Joseph received at least one other vision while leading Zion’s Camp. It illustrates how the Prophet could receive a vision at almost any time and on almost any matter. Nathan Tanner stated that while traveling with the camp
I had the pleasure of seeing him [Joseph] in a vision when he saw the country over which we had traveled in a high state of cultivation. This was while he was riding, and when he camped, he had a wagon run out in the middle of the corral of wagons, and got up into it, and told the camp what he had seen while in the Spirit. It was glorious and grand to hear.
Visions of Church Organization
The Prophet received visionary instruction concerning Church structure and organization. During the first part of February 1835, Joseph Smith called for a meeting of the men who had participated in Zion’s Camp. Brigham and Joseph Young met with the Prophet a week prior to the meeting. At that time, President Smith told the two brothers, “I have seen those men who died of the cholera in our camp; and the Lord knows, if I get a mansion as bright as theirs, I ask no more.” As Joseph Young remembered this meeting, the Prophet “wept, and for some time could not speak.” This vision apparently included information about the organization of the Council of the Twelve and the Quorums of Seventy. After Joseph Smith told the Young brothers about his vision, he informed Brigham that he would be called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, not yet organized, and “proceeded to enlarge upon the duties of [the Twelve’s] calling.” Turning next to Joseph Young, the Prophet said, “Brother Joseph, the Lord has made you President of the Seventies.”These councils were organized later in the month—the Quorum of the Twelve on February 14, 1835, and the Seventy on February 28. The following month, the Prophet dictated section 107, which connects these councils to a visionary experience. “And it is according to the vision showing the order of the Seventy, that they should have seven presidents to preside over them, chosen out of the number of the seventy” (D&C 107:93). Perhaps it was in part this vision of Church councils to which Joseph Smith referred when, according to Parley P. Pratt, he explained to the Twelve shortly before his death, “I have now finished the work which was laid upon me, by committing to you all things for the building up of the kingdom according to the heavenly vision, and the pattern shown me from heaven.”
Visions of the Future
Joseph Smith saw events in the near and distant future. The year 1831 opened with Joseph Smith and several other leading elders receiving a unique vision of the Church in the future. Among these elders was Sidney Rigdon, who was converted to Mormonism in Kirtland in November 1830 by four missionaries en route to Indian Territory on the western borders of Missouri (see D&C 32). Soon after his conversion, Rigdon journeyed to New York in order to meet the Prophet. He took with him Edward Partridge, who was not yet baptized. The two men arrived at Lucy and Joseph Sr.’s home on the Seneca River on December 10, 1830. They stayed for several weeks and were present at the conference held in Fayette during the first week of January. Fourteen years later, while addressing the Saints in Nauvoo, Rigdon reflected on this conference and recalled how small the Church had been in 1831. He remarked, “All the members met in conference in a room twenty feet square”—referring to the Whitmer farmhouse. Then continuing, he added, “We knew fourteen years ago that the Church would become as large as it is today,” for, “we saw by vision the Church of God, a thousand times larger.”
The Prophet received another interesting vision either prior to his departure to Ohio in January 1831 or while en route. Like Rigdon, Newel K. Whitney encountered Mormonism through the preaching of the missionaries on their way to teach the Lamanites. After joining the Church, Whitney was unable to travel with Rigdon and Partridge to New York to meet Joseph Smith and instead remained behind, apparently petitioning the Lord to bring Joseph to Ohio. According to Whitney family tradition, Joseph had a vision of Whitney praying for the Prophet to come to Kirtland. When the Prophet and his company pulled up in front of Whitney’s store on February 1, Joseph
alighted, and springing up the steps, walked into the store. Upon seeing Whitney the Prophet said, “Newel K. Whitney! Thou art the man!” meaning that he was the person whom he had seen in his vision. The storekeeper “could not call [Joseph] by name” so he enquired as to who he was. With obvious reference to his vision the Mormon leader responded, “I am Joseph, the Prophet. . . . You’ve prayed me here; now what do you want of me?”
The experience no doubt helped confirm in Whitney’s mind the power that attended the youthful prophet.
Joseph’s visions of the future included views of kingdoms and eternal worlds. Doctrine and Covenants sections 76 and 137 are the best examples. He also saw the tragic events of the last days as well as the glories of the Resurrection.
On July 2, 1839, the Prophet addressed several members of the Twelve prior to their departure to Great Britain. During his remarks, he referred to some of the things the Lord had revealed to him concerning the wickedness of men, future wars, and the destruction that awaits the disobedient. “I saw men hunting the lives of their own sons,” Joseph explained, “brother murdering brother, women killing their own daughters, and daughters seeking the lives of their mothers. I saw armies arrayed against armies. I saw blood, desolation, fires. . . . These things are at our doors.”
Tragic visions such as these were offset by more hopeful visionary experiences. While speaking at the funeral of Lorenzo D. Barnes in 1843, Joseph Smith reflected on the death of some of his own family members, particularly his father. He discussed the sanctity of the body and the need for a proper and honorable burial, and then he stated his desire to be buried beside his father and mother and other family members and friends. “Would you think it strange if I relate what I have seen in vision in relation to this interesting theme?” he asked.
I actually saw men, before they had ascended from the tomb, as though they were getting up slowly. They took each other by the hand and said to each other, “My father, my son, my mother, my daughter, my brother, my sister.” And when the voice calls for the dead to arise, suppose I am laid by the side of my father, what would be the first joy of my heart? To meet my father, my mother, my brother, my sister; and when they are by my side, I embrace them and they me.
Visions of Temple Patterns
Like Moses, David, and Solomon, who obtained divine knowledge pertaining to the construction of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness and temple in Jerusalem, Joseph Smith received visionary understanding on the architectural design, construction, and function of four temples—Kirtland, Independence, Far West, and Nauvoo. Joseph received a divine commission to erect a temple in Kirtland in late 1832, several months before the pattern was revealed to him (see D&C 88:119–20). The Lord instructed the Saints to build “after the manner which I shall show unto three of you” (D&C 95:14). Those three, according to Truman O. Angell, the temple’s primary craftsman, comprised the First Presidency of the Church. Frederick G. Williams, the Prophet’s Second Counselor, told Angell, “Joseph received the word of the Lord for him to take his two counselors . . . and come before the Lord and He would show them the plan or model of the House to be built.” Williams continued:
We went upon our knees, called on the Lord, and the Building appeared within viewing distance. I being the first to discover it. Then all of us viewed it together. After we had taken a good look at the exterior, the Building seemed to come right over us, and the Makeup of this Hall [the lower auditorium] seemed to coincide with what I there saw to a minutia.
Scriptural evidence indicates that the patterns for the Independence, Far West, and Nauvoo Temples were also given in vision. Concerning the temple in Jackson County, the Lord stated on August 2, 1833, “Verily I say unto you, that it is my will that a house should be built unto me in the land of Zion, like unto the pattern which I have given you” (D&C 97:10). On June 25, 1833, over a month before receiving section 97, Joseph Smith had sent Church leaders in Jackson County detailed instructions concerning the size, features, and function of the temple complex in Independence plus an explanation of the layout and arrangement of the city of Zion. From this information, one might infer that Joseph Smith received the pattern of the city of Zion together with the vision shown to him for the temples of that early era.
Concerning the temple at Far West , Joseph Smith received the following set of instructions:
But let a house be built unto my name according to the pattern which I will show unto them. And if my people build it not according to the pattern which I shall show unto their presidency, I will not accept it at their hands. But if my people do build it according to the pattern which I shall show unto their presidency, even my servant Joseph and his counselors, then I will accept it at the hands of my people. (D&C 115:14–16; see also vv. 10–13)
This particular revelation specifically states the pattern would be given to the First Presidency. Any such revelation was not documented but must have been received before the summer of 1838, when the cornerstones were laid and construction began.
The Nauvoo Temple stood as a crowning monument to the life and mission of the Prophet. God was the architect, but Joseph was the engineer. “And I will show unto my servant Joseph all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof, and the place whereon it shall be built. And ye shall build it on the place where you have contemplated building it, for that is the spot which I have chosen for you to build it” (D&C 124:42–43). Three other temple-building passages specifically state that the pattern would be revealed by the Lord, and the Prophet’s history makes it clear that a pattern was indeed given. In February 1844, the Prophet called on William Weeks, temple architect. In Weeks’s drawings, Joseph Smith noticed semicircular windows in the half stories separating the upper and lower halls. The Prophet politely instructed Weeks that the windows should be completely circular. Weeks protested, stating that circular windows “were a violation of all the known rules of architecture.” Determined to have circular windows, Joseph responded, “I wish you to carry out my designs. I have seen in vision the splendid appearance of that building . . . and will have it built according to the pattern shown me.”
Holy writ teaches that certain dreams can be visions or views sent from God. Ancient scripture contains numerous examples of God communicating to his servants visually through dreams. However, an examination of the historical sources leads to the conclusion that Joseph Smith did not receive most of his divine understanding through dreams in the night. Apparently, God chose more direct methods of communicating to him. Although the Prophet told of some of his dreams, he did not usually detail or interpret what he envisioned in those dreams.
On October 9, 1843, Joseph Smith spoke at the funeral services of James Adams. “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes,” he remarked, “you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”He was privileged to view the heavens not just for five minutes but for extended periods on many occasions. As far as historical records indicate, Joseph Smith received more visions than any other prophet, past or present. His receiving numerous visions occurred in part because he was called and appointed to bring about the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21).
But Joseph’s calling as a seer also came because of his spiritual capacity and sensitivity. As Brigham Young taught, “There are thousands in the world who are natural born Seers, but when the Lord selected Joseph Smith to be his vice-regent and mouthpiece upon the earth in this dispensation, he saw that he would be faithful and honor his calling.”
Extolling the visionary gifts of Joseph Smith, President John Taylor penned a poem entitled “The Seer,” which was later set to music by Ebenezer Beesley. A portion of its first stanza follows:
The seer;—the seer:—Joseph the seer—
I’ll sing of the Prophet ever dear:
His equal now cannot be found,—
By searching the wide world around.
With Gods he soared, in the realms of day;
And men he taught the heavenly way.
The earthly seer! the heavenly seer,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He gazed on the past, on the present too;—
And ope’d the heav’nly world to view.
Appendix: The Visions of Joseph Smith
The following collection of historical documents attempts to bring together all the known visions of Joseph Smith with the exception of various forms of visionary inspiration received as part of the translation of the words of the Bible, Book of Mormon, or Pearl of Great Price, which are too numerous to mention here. Synopses of visions are arranged chronologically. In the left-hand column is the date, either exact or approximate, Joseph Smith received the vision. In the right-hand column is a close paraphrase of each vision taken from a document judged to be the most comprehensive account available. The source for this account follows each paraphrase. Some details in a paraphrase may derive from a second source, listed in the footnotes. Following each main source is the date when the document was written. Date spans indicate the period of time within which the vision was received, not the length of the vision. A “ca.” (circa) before a date means the date is unknown but assumed based on historical evidence. Footnotes do not include every known account of each vision, but instead give some sources where readers can go to learn more. Because this collection depends on record keeping and the preservation of historical documents, the list should not be taken to represent an exhaustive set of Joseph Smith’s visions.
|Spring 1820||God the Father, Jesus Christ, and many angels appeared to Joseph Smith. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|September 21–22, 1823||The angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on five separate occasions. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|September 21–22, 1823||Joseph Smith saw the location of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|September 21–22, 1823||Joseph Smith was shown the ancient inhabitants of “this country.” Main source: Joseph Smith (1842).|
|September 22, 1823||Joseph Smith saw the prince of darkness and his innumerable associates. Main source: Oliver Cowdery (1835).|
|September 22, 1823–September 22, 1827||Joseph Smith received many visits from God’s angels. Main source: Joseph Smith (1842).|
|September 22, 1824–September 22, 1826||Joseph Smith met with Moroni at three annual intervals. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|September 22, 1826||Joseph Smith saw that he should take Emma Hale with him to the Hill Cumorah the following year. Main source: Joseph Knight (ca. 1833–1847).|
|Early 1827||Moroni instructed Joseph Smith near the Hill Cumorah. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|September 22, 1827||Moroni delivered the plates and sacred relics to Joseph Smith. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|Late 1827||Joseph Smith saw his “entire past history” through the Urim and Thummim. Main source: David Whitmer (1884).|
|Late 1827–Early 1828||At various times after receiving the plates, Joseph Smith saw when he or the plates were in danger. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|Late 1827–Early 1828||Joseph Smith was shown the man who would assist him in translation, Martin Harris. Main source: Martin Harris (1859).|
|1827–1828||Joseph Smith was shown the location of a pin lost by Martin Harris. Main source: Martin Harris (1859).|
|June–July 1828||Moroni took the Urim and Thummim from Joseph Smith. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|June–July 1828||Moroni returned the Urim and Thummim to Joseph Smith. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|Summer 1828||Moroni took the plates and, again, the Urim and Thummim from Joseph Smith. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|September 22, 1828||Moroni returned the plates and the Urim and Thummim to Joseph Smith. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|May 15, 1829||John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|ca. May–June 1829||Satan appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel of light. Main source: Joseph Smith (1842).|
|ca. May–June 1829||Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Main source: Joseph Smith (1830).|
|May–June 1829||Joseph Smith saw David Whitmer en route from Fayette, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Main source: David Whitmer (1884).|
|May–June 1829||Joseph Smith gave the plates to Moroni before proceeding to Fayette, New York. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|May–June 1829||Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer saw Moroni along the road to Fayette, New York. Main source: David Whitmer (1886).|
|May–June 1829||Joseph Smith received the plates from Moroni after arriving in Fayette, New York. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|June 1829||Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer saw an angel who showed them the plates and other sacred relics. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|June 1829||Joseph Smith and Martin Harris saw an angel who showed them the plates and other sacred relics. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|June 1829||Moroni delivered the plates so that Joseph could show them to the Eight Witnesses. Main source: Lucy Mack Smith (1845).|
|ca. June 1829||Joseph Smith returned the plates to the angel. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|August 1830||Joseph Smith received a revelation on the sacrament from a heavenly messenger. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|January 1831||Joseph Smith and others saw by vision the growth of the Church. Main source: Sidney Rigdon (1844).|
|January 1831||Joseph Smith saw in vision the face of Newel K. Whitney. Main source: Orson F. Whitney (1885).|
|June 3–6, 1831||Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ. Main source: Levi W. Hancock (before 1883).|
|June 1831||By heavenly vision, Joseph Smith was commanded to travel to western Missouri and there designate the location for a temple and central gathering place of Zion. Main source: Joseph Smith (1835).|
|July 1831||Joseph Smith and others were shown where the temple at Independence and the city of Zion would be located. Main source: Joseph Smith (1835).|
|1831||Joseph Smith identified the presence of Jesus Christ in a meeting of the Saints. Main source: Mary Elizabeth Lightner (1905).|
|February 16, 1832||Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon saw the Son of Man on the right hand of God, events in the premortal life, and postmortal glories. Main source: Joseph Smith (1832).|
|May–June 1832||Joseph Smith was shown the mode of travel he and Newel K. Whitney would take after leaving Greenville, Indiana. Main source: Joseph Smith (1839).|
|March 18, 1833||Joseph Smith identified the physical presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ in the School of the Prophets. Main source: Zebedee Coltrin (1883).|
|June 1833||Joseph Smith, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon viewed the plan for the Kirtland Temple. Main source: Truman O. Angell (1885).|
|ca. February 1834||Joseph Smith saw the pattern and organization of Church councils. Main source: Joseph Smith (1834).|
|April 18, 1834||Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Zebedee Coltrin saw Adam and Eve. Main source: Zebedee Coltrin (1870).|
|May–June 1834||Joseph Smith saw land passed over by Zion’s Camp in a high state of cultivation. Main source: Nathan Tanner (1884).|
|June 1834||By vision, Joseph Smith was taught about Zelph, a Lamanite warrior. Main source: Wilford Woodruff (1834).|
|ca. February 1835||Joseph Smith saw the postmortal condition of those who died in Zion’s Camp and the order of the priesthood. Main source: Joseph Smith (1835).|
|ca. 1835||Joseph Smith saw Christian martyrs’ condition. Main source: Edward Stevenson (1893).|
|January 21, 1836||Joseph Smith saw the celestial kingdom, some of its inhabitants, the Twelve in foreign lands, the Savior standing in their midst, the redemption of Zion, and many other things that the tongue of man cannot fully describe. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|January 22–23, 1836||Visions of God attended Joseph Smith through the night. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|January 28, 1836||Joseph Smith saw a glorious vision in the Kirtland Temple. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|January 28–29, 1836||Visions of the Lord attended Joseph Smith through the night. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|March 27, 1836||Joseph Smith beheld the Kirtland Temple filled with angels. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|March 27, 1836||Joseph Smith identified the presence of John the Beloved in the Kirtland Temple. Main source: Orson F. Whitney (before 1889).|
|ca. March 30, 1836||Joseph Smith saw Jesus Christ and angels in the Kirtland Temple. Main source: Harrison Burgess (before 1885).|
|April 3, 1836||Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery saw Jesus Christ, Moses, Elijah, and Elias in the Kirtland Temple. Main source: Joseph Smith (1836).|
|April–May 1836||Joseph Smith saw Frederick G. Williams’s daughter and her family en route to Missouri. Main source: Caroline Barnes Crosby (before 1885).|
|April 6, 1837||Joseph Smith saw the future of Kirtland. Main source: Wilford Woodruff (1837).|
|Summer 1837||Joseph Smith was blessed with glorious visions during an illness. Main source: Mary Fielding (1837).|
|September 1837||Joseph Smith was shown in vision the enlargement of Zion’s borders. Main source: Mary Fielding (1837).|
|March 1838||Joseph Smith saw William Marks carried away by an angel. Main source: Joseph Smith (1838).|
|March–October 1838||Joseph Smith saw Satan face to face. Main source: Heber C. Kimball (before 1869).|
|Before 1839||Joseph Smith was shown the pattern for the temple in Far West, Missouri. Main source: Thomas B. Marsh (1838).|
|April 11–12, 1839||Joseph Smith saw the means of escape from Liberty Jail and danger awaiting Stephen Markham. Main source: History of the Church (1845).|
|Before July 2, 1839||Joseph Smith saw persecutions and judgments that would occur prior to the Second Coming. Main source: History of the Church (1845).|
|Before March 4, 1840||By the visions of the Almighty, Joseph Smith saw the end of the United States if she disregards cries of virtuous citizens. Main source: History of the Church (1845).|
|August 6, 1842||Joseph gazed upon the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Main source: Anson Call (ca. 1854).|
|August 15–16, 1842||Through dream and vision, Joseph was persuaded against traveling to the “Pine country.” Main source: Joseph Smith (1842).|
|Before 1843||At least three times since 1834, an angel appeared to Joseph Smith and commanded him to enter into the practice of plural marriage. Main source: Joseph B. Noble (1869).|
|Before January 20, 1843||Joseph Smith dreamed that he was in the Illinois statehouse among enemies. Main source: History of the Church (1845–46).|
|Before April 16, 1843||Joseph Smith saw in vision the resurrection of the dead. Main source: Wilford Woodruff (1843).|
|Before May 19, 1843||Joseph Smith dreamed that writing and compiling the history of the Church must move forward. Main source: History of the Church (1854–56).|
|Before February 3, 1844||Joseph Smith saw himself in a dream swimming safely in troubled waters. Main source: Wilford Woodruff (1844).|
|Before February 5, 1844||Joseph Smith saw in vision the pattern for the Nauvoo Temple. Main source: History of the Church (1854–56).|
|June 1844||Joseph Smith saw in vision what would happen to the Saints if the Nauvoo Expositor press was not destroyed. Main source: George Laub (1845).|
|Before June 13, 1844||Joseph Smith dreamed that he escaped a pit where his enemies had thrown him. Main source: History of the Church (1854–56).|
|June 26–27, 1844||Joseph Smith dreamed that his life was threatened. Main source: History of the Church (1854–56).|
|Date Unknown||Joseph Smith saw the common progenitors of several early Church leaders. Main source: Heber C. Kimball (1856).|