On June 11, 1839, less than two months after his arrival in Illinois from confinement in a Missouri jail, and one month after moving his family into a small log house near Commerce, Illinois, Joseph Smith commenced dictating his history to his clerk James Mulholland.1 At that time some nineteen years had elapsed since Joseph’s First Vision,2 and nine years had passed since the revelation commanding him to keep a history.3 Among the causes of this delay were the frustrating circumstances that confronted the Prophet in writing his history—circumstances that did not end in June of 1839.
By October 29 of that year, when Joseph left Nauvoo for Washington, D.C., to present the Missouri grievances of his people before the federal government, only fifty-nine pages of his history had been written; and six days after his departure, his scribe James Mulholland died.4 When Joseph returned to Nauvoo in March 1840, he lamented the passing of his “faithful scribe,” and expressed disappointment that an adequate record of his Washington trip had not been kept: “I depended on Dr. Foster to keep my daily journal during this journey, but he has failed me.”5 Robert B. Thompson, who was appointed General Church Clerk on October 3, 1840, continued writing the history where Mulholland left off; however, his untimely death on August 27, 1841, saw only sixteen pages added to the manuscript. 6By the time Willard Richards was appointed private secretary to the Prophet and General Church Clerk in December 1841, a mere 157 pages of a history that eventually numbered more than two thousand, had been written.7
Such were the conditions the Prophet Joseph faced in writing a connected chronicle of his past, that two and a half years before his death he apologetically explained:
Since I have been engaged in laying the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints I have been prevented in various ways from continuing my Journal and the History, in a manner satisfactory to myself, or in justice to the cause. Long imprisonments, vexatious and long continued Law Suits The treachery of some of my Clerks; the death of others; and the poverty of myself and Brethren from continued plunder and driving, have prevented my handing down to posterity a connected memorandum of events desirable to all lovers of truth 8
The factors that retarded Joseph Smith’s progress on his history did not prevent periodic beginnings. The Prophet added:
I have continued to keep up a Journal in the best manner my circumstances would allow, and dictate for my history from time to time, as I have had opportunity, so that the labors and sufferings of the first Elders and Saints of this last kingdom might not wholly be lost to the world.”9
On at least three occasions prior to 1839 Joseph Smith began writing his history.10 The earliest of these is a six-page account recorded on three leaves of a ledger book, written between the summer of 1831 and November 1832. An analysis of the handwriting shows that the narrative was penned by Frederick G. Williams, scribe to the Prophet and counselor in the First Presidency. Inasmuch as Williams was converted to Mormonism in the fall of 1830 and immediately left on a mission to Missouri, the writing of this history could not have preceded his meeting with Joseph Smith in mid-1831. Nor was the history written after November 27, 1832, since on that date the ledger book in which it was written was converted to a letter book for recording important historical Church documents. There are many evidences for this assertion.
First, although they were later cut from the volume, the three leaves containing the history match the cut edges and quality and markings of the paper of the page ends. The terminal letters of words severed when the pages were removed also match. The cut page stubs immediately precede the November 27, 1832, letter entry on the first of the remaining pages.
Second, the numbering sequences indicate this arrangement. The pages of the history were numbered one through six and the November 27 letter begins on page “1a.” Both the history and the letter are in Williams’ handwriting. He would not have needed to begin the letter page with “1a” had there not been other numbered pages preceding it. This brings up the third point.
In addition to the commencement of the letter book on November 27, 1832, Joseph Smith also started a daily journal. On that day he records having purchased a book for the purpose of keeping “a minute account of all things that come under my observation.”11 The beginning of the journal and letter book on the same day is of more than coincidental significance. It not only provides the terminal point in dating the earliest known historical narrative of the Prophet’s life, but establishes the start of an important precedent in preserving the history of the Church. By recording important historical Church documents in the letter book, and his own life’s events in the journal, the Prophet set a precedent that continued throughout the remainder of his life. Only the failure of his scribes, or the intrusion of other circumstances beyond his control, interrupted the continuation of this precedent. Significantly, these records provided important sources for the later writing of Joseph’s official history.12
The 1831–32 history transliterated here contains the earliest known account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.13
A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr an account of his marvilous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the son of the living God of whom he beareth record and also an account of the rise of the church of Christ in the eve of time according as the Lord brought forth and established by his hand firstly he receiving the testamony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel the Law and commandments as they were given unto him and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God confered upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him &c——-I was born in the town of Charon in the State of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December A D 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the christian religion at the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Siegnior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructed in reading
andwriting and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements. At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the Scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn insteadof adorn ingtheir profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickeness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of theminds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by searching the Scriptures I found that mandmankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created himthem and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said theit is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclained all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be fron all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and that that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and toobtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of firelight above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy Sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in sin andat this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the Gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevenly vision. . . .
In October 1834 Oliver Cowdery, the editor of the Messenger and Advocate, introduced the first published history of the Church. This work was presented in the form of correspondence between Cowdery and William W. Phelps, and was anticipated as a “full history of the rise of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the most interesting parts of its progress, to the present time.” It was further announced by the editor that “our brother J. Smith Jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensible. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative.”14 In a series of eight letters that followed, Cowdery presented random historical events, beginning in the October 1834 issue of the paper with an account of the priesthood restoration, and terminating in the October 1835 issue with the visit of Moroni to Joseph Smith.
A copy of the eight letters was transcribed into the Prophet’s journal in 1835. On October 29 Joseph recorded that he went with his newly appointed scribe, Warren Parrish, to obtain his “large journal” from Frederick G. Williams. Later that same day Parrish began writing “a history” of Joseph’s life by concluding “President Cowdery’s second letter to W. W. Phelps, which President Williams had begun.”15 A check of the handwriting in the journal reveals the point at which Parrish commenced copying the second Cowdery letter to Phelps. It also shows that Parrish continued writing to the end of the eighth letter. At this point, however, unlike the published account, the journal narrative does not end, but continues in a different style. The transition is marked by a change in handwriting from Warren Parrish to that of Warren A. Cowdery and is prefaced with the following introduction: “Here the reader will observe that the narrative assumes a different form. The subject of it becoming daily more and more noted, the writer deemed it proper to give a plain, simple and faithful narrative of every important item in his every day occurrences. . . .”16 Then follows 142 pages of daily, journal-type entries written in the third person singular, commencing with September 22, 1835, and continuing to January 18, 1836. In this journal, under the date of November 9, 1835, an interview with a Jewish minister is recorded in which Joseph Smith again relates the account of his First Vision:17
Monday Nov. 9th. . . . While sitting in his house this morning between the hours of ten an eleven a man came in and introduced himself to him calling himself Joshua the Jewish Minister. His appearance was something singular, having a beard about three inches in length which is quite grey, his hair was also long and considerably silvered with age. He had the appearance of a man about 50 or 55 years old. He was tall and straight, slender frame, blue eyes, thin visage, and fair complexion. He wore a green frock coat and pantaloons of the same color. He had on a black fur hat with a narrow brim. When speaking he frequently shuts his eyes and exhibits a kind of scowl upon his countenance. He (Joseph) made some inquiry after his name, but received no definite answer. The conversation soon turned upon the subject of Religion, and after the subject of this narrative had made some remarks concerning the bible, he commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, which were nearly as follows. 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, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove gain to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person, or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. . . .
On November 14, 1835, five days after the foregoing narrative, Warren A. Cowdery also recorded the visit of Erastus Holmes of Newbury, Ohio, who inquired of Joseph Smith about the establishment of the Church and was given “a brief relation of his experience while in his youthful days, say from the age of six years up to the time he received the first visitation of Angels which was when he was about 14 years old. He also gave him an account of the revelation he afterward received concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.”18
The writing of the manuscript of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as edited by B. H. Roberts and published in 1902, was begun on June 11, 1839, when Joseph commenced dictating to his clerk James Mulholland. The Prophet’s journal containing the 1835 history was turned over and utilized as Book A-1 of the ensuing multivolume work. Evidence in the opening pages of the “History” shows that Mulholland began writing from a record that had been written the previous year. This is obvious from the references in the “History” on page one to the “eighth year since the organization of said Church,”19 and page eight to “this day, being the Second day of May, One thousand Fight hundred and thirty eighty”20 Furthermore, on April 27, 1838, Joseph records spending the day “writing a history of this church from the earliest period of its existence up to this date;”21 and on May 1–4 he records that “the First Presidency were engaged in writing church History.”22 This last reference compared with the statement on page eight of the history confirms that this was the narrative being written on May 2, 1838.
That the beginning pages of the present manuscript Volume A-1 were incorporated into Joseph Smith’s “History” by James Mulholland in 1839 from the account written the previous year, is plain from the following facts: First, the initial 59 pages of the book are in the handwriting of Mulholland, who did not begin writing for Joseph Smith until September 3, 1838. He discontinued writing during the Missouri incarceration of the Prophet and did not recommence until April 22, 1839. 23Second, on Tuesday, June 11, 1839, Joseph records: “I commenced dictating my history for my Clerk—James Mulholland to write.”24Third, Mulholland substantiates Joseph Smith’s June 11 entry in his own journal with a note on that day stating that he was “writing &c for Church history.”25
The following is the well-known account of the First Vision as it is recorded in this “History” by Mulholland in 1839. That he died on November 3, 1939, precludes his having written the account after that date: 26
Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing persons in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a Church, and its progress in the world I have been induced to write this history so as to disabuse the publick mind, and put all enquirers after truth into possession of the facts as they have transpired in relation both to myself and the Church as far as I have such facts in possession.
In this history I will present the various events in relation to this Church in truth and righteousness as they have transpired, or as they at present exist, being now the eighth year since the organisation of said Church. I was born in the year of our Lord One thousand Eight hundred and five, on the twenty third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor County, State of Vermont. (Note A 131) My father Joseph Smith Senior (See Note E page 2. adenda.) My Father left the State of Vermont and moved to Palmyra, Ontario, (now Wayne) County, in the State of New York when I was in my tenth year. or thereabout.
In about four years after my father’s arrival at Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester in the same County of Ontario. His family consisting of eleven souls, namely, My Father Joseph Smith, My Mother Lucy Smith whose name previous to her marriage was Mack, daughter of Solomon Mack, my brothers Alvin (who i
s now deaddied Nov 19th 1823 in the 25 year of his age) Hyrum, Myself, Samuel-Harrison, William, Don Carloss, and my Sisters Sophonia, Cathrine and Lucy. Sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country, indeed the whole district of Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, Some crying, “Lo here” and some Lo there. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist, for notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great Zeal manifested by the respective Clergy who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased. Yet when the Converts began to file off some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the Priests and the Converts were more pretendedmore pretended than real, for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued, Priest contending against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another (if they ever had any) were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.
I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My Fathers family
waswere proselyted to the Presbyterian faith and four of them joined that Church, Namely, My Mother Lucy, My Brothers Hyrum, Samuel Harrison, and my sister Sophonia.
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness, but though my feelings were deep and often pungent, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. But in process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them, but so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations that it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. My mind at different times was greatly excited
forthe cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists and used all their powers of either reason or sophistry to prove their errors, or at least to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand the Baptists and the Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right? Or are they all wrong together? And if any one of them be right which is it? And how shall I know it? While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, First Chapter and fifth verse which reads, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man that this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did, for how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, would never know, for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passage of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs, that is, Ask of God. I at last came to the determination to ask of God, concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally and not upbraid, I might venture. So in accordance with this my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful clear day early in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
After I had retired into the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me anti it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had siezed upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an imaginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being. Just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended
gracefullygradually untill it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) “This is my beloved Son, Hear him.” My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner therefore did I get possession of myself so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right, (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join. 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, that they draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them and many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again I found myself lying on my back looking up into Heaven. (B Note P 132) Some few days after I had this vision I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist Preachers who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement and conversing with him on the subject of religion I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior, he treated my communication not only lightly but with great contempt, saying it was all of the Devil, that there was no such thing as visions of revelations in these days, that all such things had ceased with the Apostles and that there never would be any more of them. I soon found however that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion and was the cause of great persecution which continued to increase and though I was an obscure boy only between fourteen and fifteen years of age or thereabouts and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, Yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient lyto excite the public mind against me and create a hot persecution, and this was common among all the sects: all united to persecute me. It has often caused me serious reflection both then and since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy of a little over fourteen years of age and one too who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintainance by his daily labor should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day so as to create in them a spirit of the bitterest persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and was often cause of great sorrow to myself. However it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a Vision. I have thought since that I felt much like Paul didwhen he made his defence before King Aggrippa and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light and heard a voice, but still there were but few who beleived him, some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad, and he was ridiculed and reviled, But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision he knew he had, and all the persecution under Heaven could not make it otherwise, and though they should persecute him unto death yet he knew and would know to his latest breath that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise. So it was with me, I had actualy seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak unto me, or one of them did, And though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true and while they were persecuting me reviling me and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart, why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision, “and who am I that I can withstand God” or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen, for I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dare I do it, at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God and come under condemnation. I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the Sectarian world was concerned, that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but continue as I was untill further directed, forI had found the testimony of James to be true, that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain and not be upbraided 27
In summary, a study of the writing of Joseph Smith’s history indicates that while the official account of his First Vision was not compiled until relatively late in his life, the apparent time-lag between the vision and the recording of the event is more presumed than real. Considering the youth of the Prophet, the frontier conditions in which he lived, his lack of academic training, the absence of any formal directive to motivate him to write, and the antagonistic reception he received upon first relating the experience, it is not strange that he failed to preserve an account of his First Vision during the decade between 1820 and 1830. However, once directed by an 1830 revelation to keep a history, Joseph acted with all the dispatch that time-consuming responsibilities and frustrating difficulties would allow. This seems particularly evident when these factors are viewed within the framework of the surviving fragmentary beginnings of the history, and the mass of historical data preserved by the Prophet during the final fourteen years of his life. On three known occasions, prior to 1839 when Joseph Smith undertook the official chronicle of the events of his life, he presented his First Vision narrative as an integral part of the effort to keep a history.