The following post is a follow-up to the podcast conducted with Dr. Steven C. Harper on the First Vision. It addresses one of the most common–and central–concerns about the differences among the various First Vision accounts: did Joseph Smith see one being or two?
Did Joseph Smith see one divine being or two in his first vision? The question may seem absurd to Latter-day Saints who can quote the memorable line from the canonized account: “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’”
But seven years before those words were written by his scribe, Joseph penned in his own hand, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” In this earliest known account of the vision, critics are quick to point out, Joseph describes the appearance of only 1 divine being. Or does he? Having studied all the available evidence carefully, I have concluded that what Joseph Smith struggled to communicate has not been understood by most critics or believers—and it won’t be until we learn to listen to him more carefully.
Joseph’s accounts of his vision are descriptions of a revelatory event and also, as religion scholar David Carpenter described revelation, of “a process mediated through language.” The very language whose communicative inadequacies Joseph lamented, in other words, is necessarily the means by which we must receive the signals he sent about the nature of his partly indescribable experience. Knowing that he had an important story to tell, Joseph was concerned by the limits on his ability to communicate clearly. His earliest known account begins with a disclaimer in which he explains why he felt that his ability to communicate in writing was inadequate. His parents’ large family, he said, “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 instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.” In this passage we hear Joseph preparing us for the rough composition of his subsequent narrative. We hear the tension between his knowing that it was vital for him to communicate his singular experience and his sense of inadequacy to communicate it clearly. With that recognition we are prepared to hear Joseph’s marvelous story in crooked, broken, scattered, imperfect language. It is a bit like listening to someone speak in a language they have learned but not yet mastered.
When we listen to Joseph carefully we hear him explain that he saw at least two divine beings in the woods but not necessarily simultaneously. In 1832 he wrote, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1839 account says clearly, “I saw two personages” and the 1842 account adds, “two glorious personages.” The distinction between the 1832 account’s apparent reference to only one being—the Lord—and the 1839’s unequivocal assertion of two beings has led some to wonder and others to criticize Joseph for changing his story. But it may be that we just need to listen more carefully to Joseph tell the story. It may be that we have assumed that we understood his meaning before we did.
Joseph’s 1835 account provides the clearest chronology. He said, “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down up me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.” Two secondary accounts also say that Joseph first saw one divine personage who then revealed the other. In the 1835 account Joseph also added as an afterthought, “and I saw many angels in this vision.”
There is nothing in the accounts that requires us to read these variations as exclusive of each other. In other words, there is no reason to suppose that when Joseph says, “I saw two personages,” he means that he saw them at exactly the same time for precisely the same length of time, or that he did not also see others besides the two. Moreover, because the 1835 account and two of the secondary statements assert that Joseph saw one being who then revealed the other, we can interpret the 1832 account to mean that Joseph saw one being who then revealed another, referring to both beings as “the Lord”: “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
We cannot be sure but it seems plausible that Joseph struggled in 1832 to know just what to call the divine personages. Notice that the first instance of the word Lord was inserted into the sentence after the original flow of words, as if Joseph did not know quite how to identify the Being.
In 1842 Joseph said that he “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.” It seems most likely to me that Joseph meant all along to communicate that he envisioned a divine being who revealed another one, but that he struggled to characterize them precisely from what he called his narrow prison of paper, pen, and ink.