First Vision Accounts: Joseph Smith’s 1839 History
The account of the First Vision included in Joseph Smith–History in the Pearl of Great Price derived from a manuscript History produced in 1839. This 1839 manuscript was in turn based on an 1838 manuscript that is not extant, which explains why the account itself states that it was the eighth year since the Church’s founding (in 1830) and why one finds it dated to both 1838 and 1839.
Images of the manuscript and an unedited transcript may be viewed at the Joseph Smith Papers website, which labels the manuscript “Draft 2.”1 The 1839 account is presented here as it reads in that manuscript along with additions that Joseph Smith authorized between 1839 and 1842 that were incorporated into the first published edition in the 1842 Times and Seasons.2 Modern verse numbers in Joseph Smith–History (1:1-27) are shown in bold type. Corrections apparently made at the time the manuscript was first produced are shown here without any markings. Changes written directly into the manuscript in different ink (typically above the line) are shown with angle brackets, e.g., <often as>. Since contemporary readers are mostly familiar with the Pearl of Great Price book Joseph Smith–History, the addition that now constitutes most of JS-H 1:20 but that did not make it into the 1842 printed edition is also shown in the main text, though with double angle brackets, i.e., << like this >>. Other additions, deletions, or other changes that arose after the account was first published in 1842 are shown in footnotes or notes appended at the end.
Spelling and punctuation are regularized throughout with the intention of clarifying the meaning. Headings and paragraph breaks have also been added for the sake of readability and reference. Footnotes provide information about the textual differences (other than spelling, grammar, and inconsequential punctuation) between the 1839 manuscript and the current edition. For the reader’s convenience, footnotes draw attention to biblical quotations or allusions (KJV). Also included are some notes regarding “Draft 3,” the version Joseph dictated to Howard Coray in about 1841. These notes draw attention only to significant differences between Draft 3 and the main text. Page numbers shown in brackets refer to the page that follows, unlike what one finds in the Joseph Smith Papers.
1 Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and3 designing persons in relation to the rise and progress of the Church <of Jesus Christ>4 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 to5 disabuse the public mind, and put all enquirers after truth into possession of the facts as they have transpired in relation both to myself and the church, as6 far as I have such facts in7 possession.
2 In this history I will8 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 organization of said9 church.10
In about four years after my father’s arrival at Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester in the same County of Ontario, 4 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 died May 14th of 1823 in the 25th year of his age15), Hyrum, myself, Samuel Harrison,16 William, Don Carlos, and my sisters Sophronia, Katharine, and Lucy.
5 Sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester,17 there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodist,18 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 [p. 2] multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, some crying, “Lo here” and some,19 “Lo there.”20 Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.21 6 For notwithstanding the great love which the converts to22 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 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.
7 I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother Lucy, my brothers Hyrum, Samuel Harrison, and my sister Sophronia.23
8 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,24 still I kept myself aloof from all these25 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 was26 the confusion and strife amongst27 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.
9 My mind at different28 times was greatly excited,29 the cry and tumult were30 so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all their powers of either reason or sophistry31 to prove their errors, or at least to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.32
10 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? And33 if any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
11 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 to34 all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”35 12 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,36 would never know. For the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same [p. 3] passage37 of Scripture38 so differently as <to> destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. 13 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 last39 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.
Joseph’s First Vision
14 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.
15 After I had retired into40 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 such41 astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue, so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. 16 But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized 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 light42 exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun,43 which descended gradually until it fell upon me. 17 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.”44
18 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 wrong45) and which I should join. 19 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 sight46; that those professors were all corrupt; that47 they “draw near to me to with their lips but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men,”48 “having a form of godliness but they deny the power thereof.”49 20 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 lying50 on my back, looking up into heaven.
Note B: Joseph’s Mother (JS-H 1:20)51
<< When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; or52 else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy? >>
21 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 beforementioned 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 thing53 as visions or revelations in these days, that all such things had ceased with the [p. 4] apostles, and that there never would be any more of them.
22 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>54 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 sufficient55 to excite the public mind against me and create a hot56 persecution. And this was common among all the sects: all united to persecute me.57
23 It has often caused me serious reflection, both then and since,58 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 maintenance 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 as59 to create in them a spirit of the bitterest60 persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and was often61 cause of great sorrow to myself.
24 However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had had62 a vision. I have thought since that I felt much like Paul63 when he made his defense before King Agrippa and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light and heard a voice,64 but still there were but few who believed him. Some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad,65 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 unto66 him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
25 So it was with me: I had actually 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.67 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,68 I was led to say in my heart, Why persecute <me>69 for telling the truth?70 I have actually seen a vision, “and who am I, that I can withstand God?”71 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 dare72 I do it—at least, I knew that by so doing I would offend God and come under condemnation.
26 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 until further directed. For73 I 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 I continued to pursue my common avocations74 in life until the twenty first of September, One thousand eight hundred and twenty three, all the time suffering severe persecution at the hand75 of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision.
Note A: Joseph’s Illness
When I was 5 years old or thereabouts, I was attacked with the Typhus fever; and at one time, during my sickness, my father despaired of my life. The doctors broke the fever, after which it settled under my shoulder; and Dr. Parker called it a sprained shoulder and anointed it with bone ointment, and freely applied the hot shovel, when it proved to be a swelling under the arm, which was opened and discharged freely.; after which the disease removed and descended into my left leg and ankle, and terminated in a fever sore of the worst kind. And I endured the most acutest suffering for a long time under the care of Drs. Smith, Stone, and Perkins of Hanover.
At one time, eleven doctors came from the Dartmouth Medical College at Hanover, New Hampshire, for the purpose of amputation, but young as I was, I utterly refused to give my assent to the operation, but I consented to their trying an experiment by removing a large portion of the bone from my left leg, which they did. And fourteen additional pieces of bone afterwards worked out before my leg healed, during which time I was reduced so very low that my mother could carry me with ease. And after I began to get about, I went on crutches till I started for the State of New York, where my father had gone for the purpose of preparing a place for the removal of his family, which he effected by sending a man after us by the name of Caleb Howard, who, after he had started on the journey with my mother and family, spent the money he had received of my father in drinking and gambling, &c.
We fell in with a family by the name of Gates who were traveling west, and Howard drove me from the wagon and made me travel in my weak state through the snow 40 miles per day for several days, during which time I suffered the most excruciating weariness and pain, and all this that Mr. Howard might enjoy the society of two of Mr. Gates’s daughters which he took on the wagon where I should have rode. And thus he  continued to do day after day through the journey. And when my brothers remonstrated with Mr. Howard for his treatment to me, he would knock them down with the butt of his whip.
When we arrived at Utica, N. York, Howard threw the goods out of the wagon into the street and attempted to run away with the horses & wagon, but my mother seized the horses by the reign, and calling witnesses, forbid his taking them away, as they were her property. On our way from Utica I was left to ride on the last sleigh in the company (the Gates family were in sleighs), but when that came up I was knocked down by the driver, one of Gates’s sons, and left to wallow in my blood until a stranger came along, picked me up, and carried me to the town of Palmyra.
Howard having spent all our funds, my mother was compelled to pay our landlord’s bills from Utica to Palmyra in bits of cloth, clothing, &c, the last payment being made with the drops taken from Sister Sophronia’s ears for that purpose.
Although the snow was generally deep through the country during this journey we performed the whole on wheels, except the first two days, when we were accompanied by my mother’s mother, Grandmother Lydia Mack, who was injured by the upsetting of the sleigh, and not wishing to accompany her friends west, tarried by the way with her friends in Vermont. And we soon after heard of her death, supposing that she never recovered from the injury received by the overturn of the sleigh.
Note C: Joseph’s Parentage
Joseph Smith Sr. was born July 12th, 1771, in Topsfield, Essex County, Massachusetts. His father, Asael Smith, was born March 7th, 1744, in Topsfield, Massachusetts. His father, Samuel Smith, was born January 26th, 1714, in Topsfield, Massachusetts, His father, Samuel Smith, was born January 26th, 1666, Topsfield. His father, Robert Smith, came from England.
2 “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons 3.10 (March 15, 1842): 726–28 (what is now JS-H 1:1-14); 3.11 (April 1, 1842): 748–49. See also the earlier article in the same volume, “Church History,” 3.9 (March 1, 1842): 706–10 (706–707 on the First Vision), commonly called the Wentworth Letter, which also includes the text of what later became the Articles of Faith.
3 The words “disposed and” were omitted in the Times and Seasons article (3:726) and in early editions of PGP but are found in the current edition of JS-H.
4 The words “of Jesus Christ” were added in the 1839 manuscript above the line in different ink. The religion’s name took four different forms in the 1830s: “the Church of Christ” (1830–34), “the Church of the Latter Day Saints” (1834–36), “the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints” (1836–38), and finally “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” adopted in April 1838 (D&C 115:3-4). Later, the spelling of “Latter Day” was changed to “Latter-day.”
5 Later editions replaced “so as to” with the shorter “to.”
6 The word “as” is changed to “so” in the Times and Seasons article (3:727), the wording found also in the current edition of JS-H.
7 Later editions added “my.”
8 Later editions changed “will” to “shall.”
9 The Times and Seasons article adds “the” before “said” (3:727), as does the current edition of JS-H.
10 That is, 1838, when Joseph dictated this version.
11 Coray’s Draft 3 starts at this point with material roughly paralleling what is found here.
12 The 1839 History here included a reference to a “Note A” composed in 1842 about Joseph’s illness, leg operation, and journey from Vermont to New York. This material was not included in any of the published versions. See “Note A” below.
13 Notes written above the line in different ink indicate that a “Note E” (actually “Note C”) was to be inserted here, with the words “My father” then beginning a new sentence. This material was not included in any of the published versions.
14 The words “or thereabouts” were added to the 1839 manuscript. It is difficult to tell when this insertion was made; it is not made in the much darker, sharper ink characters of most of the other later corrections. However, this addition seems to have been inserted after the 1842 Times and Seasons article (which does not include it) and apparently was never included in any printed edition. See also the note on JS-H 1:22.
15 In the 1839 History manuscript, the words “is now dead” were crossed out and the words “died May 14th of 1823 in the 25th year of his age” added above the line in different ink. The Times and Seasons article has just “is now dead” (3:727). The current edition of JS-H has the longer parenthetical comment but corrects the date of Alvin’s death to November 19th and his age to “the 26th year.”
16 The Times and Seasons article placed a comma after the name “Samuel” here and in a later paragraph (JS-H 1:7), not understanding that Samuel Harrison was one brother’s name.
17 Coray’s Draft 3 states here, “I being about 15 years old” (cf. JS-H 1:7).
18 The Times and Seasons article changed “Methodist” to “Methodists” (3:727), the word found in the current edition of JS-H.
19 Later editions changed “some” to “others.”
20 “And then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or, lo, he is there, believe him not” (Mark 13:21; similarly, Matt. 24:23; cf. Luke 17:21, 23).
21 The Times and Seasons article changed “Baptist” to “Baptists” (3:727). Early editions of JS-H in PGP had “Baptists’” (with an apostrophe). The current edition of JS-H has the original wording, “Baptist.”
22 The Times and Seasons article replaced “to” with “for” (3:727). The current edition of JS-H has the original word, “to.”
23 Coray’s Draft 3 lacks any parallel to this paragraph (JS-H 1:7).
24 The word “pungent” is found here in the 1839 manuscript, in the Times and Seasons article (3:727), and in early editions of PGP. Perhaps Joseph meant to say “poignant,” as later editions of the History say.
25 The Times and Seasons article changed “these” to “those” (3:727); the current edition of JS-H has the original word “these.”
26 Later editions changed “was” to “were.”
27 Later editions changed “amongst” to “among.”
28 Later editions omitted “different.”
29 The word “for” originally appeared here but was crossed out, apparently by the original scribe.
30 The Times and Seasons article changed “were” to “was” (3:727); the current edition of JS-H has the original word “were.”
31 Later editions changed “either reason or sophistry” to “both reason and sophistry.”
32 Coray’s Draft 3 lacks any parallel to this paragraph (JS-H 1:9).
33 The Times and Seasons article omits “And” here (3:727), as does the current edition of JS-H.
34 The Times and Seasons article replaced “to” with “unto” (3:727); the current edition of JS-H has “to” (which is also the word found in the KJV).
35 James 1:5 exactly as in the KJV.
36 Later editions added the word “I” here, though the sentence, if punctuated as shown here, makes sense without it.
37 Later editions changed “passage” to “passages.”
38 The Times and Seasons article omitted the words “of Scripture” (3:728). Those words are found in the current edition of JS-H.
39 The Times and Seasons article changed “I at last” to “I at length” (3:728), the wording in the current edition of JS-H.
40 Later editions replaced “into” with “to.”
41 Later editions added “an.”
42 On the expression “pillar of light,” see “First Vision Accounts: Joseph Smith’s 1832 History,” n. 24.
43 In Paul’s account to Agrippa of his vision, he says, “I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me” (Acts 26:13).
44 In the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father speaks from heaven to the disciples, telling them, “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; cf. Matt. 17:5).
45 In place of the parenthetical comment found here in the 1839 History, Coray’s Draft 3 reads, “for I supposed that one of them were so,” i.e., that one of the sects was right.
46 Possibly an allusion to Jesus’ statement, “For that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
47 The Times and Seasons article omitted “that” here (3:748); it is included in the current edition of JS-H.
48 Cf. Matt. 15:8-9, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
49 Cf. 2 Tim. 3:5, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof; from such turn away.”
50 The Times and Seasons article changed “lying” to “laying” (3:748); the current edition of JS-H has “lying.”
51 This material comes from “Note B,” a later addition to the History that did not make it into the 1842 published edition of the account. This material constitutes most of what is now JS-H 1:20. Coray’s Draft 3 does not include this material. “This redaction came a little too late to be published with the rest of the story in the Times and Seasons in 1842.” Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), K 94 (loc. 1304). It is also not found in early editions of JS-H in the PGP.
52 Later editions omitted the word “or” here.
53 Later editions changed “was no such thing” to “were no such things.”
54 The words “or thereabouts” appear above the line in the 1839 manuscript, but not in the usual much darker ink of other late additions. Inexplicably, the JSP omits these words in its transcript of the manuscript. The words were omitted from the Times and Seasons article (3:748) and are also omitted in the current edition of JS-H. Coray’s Draft 3 reads here, “about fifteen years old.” See also the note on JS-H 1:3.
55 The 1839 manuscript originally had “sufficiently,” and the ending -ly was at some point crossed out.
56 Later editions changed “hot” to “bitter.”
57 Coray’s Draft 3 lacks any parallel to the next three paragraphs (JS-H 1:23-25).
58 Later editions changed “It has often caused me serious reflection both then and since” to “It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since.”
59 Later editions changed “so as” to “and in a manner.”
60 The Times and Seasons article changed “bitterest to “hottest” (3:749), found also in early editions of JS-H in the PGP. Later editions, including the current edition of JS-H, have “most bitter.”
61 Later editions added “the” here before “cause.”
62 Later editions changed “I had had” to “I had beheld.”
63 The original wording of the 1839 manuscript was “felt much like as Paul did,” but the words “as” and “did” are crossed out, possibly by the same hand (this seems clearer for “as” than for “did”).
64 Another allusion to Acts 26:13-14, “I saw on the way a light from heaven…I heard a voice.” The Times and Seasons article put the words “saw a light and heard a voice” in quotation marks (3:749).
65 In Acts 26:24, Festus is quoted as accusing Paul of being “mad.”
66 The Times and Seasons article replaced “unto” with “to” (3:749), as did early editions of JS-H in the PGP; the current edition of JS-H has “unto.”
67 Later editions omitted “or one of them did,” found in the Times and Seasons article and in early editions of JS-H in the PGP. This is perhaps the most significant alteration made to the 1839 account in later iterations.
68 Cf. Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:11, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
69 The Times and Seasons article omitted the word “me” here (3:749), as did early editions of JS-H in the PGP; it is found in the current edition of JS-H.
70 A possible allusion to Gal. 4:16, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?”
71 Cf. Acts 11:17, “What was I, that I could withstand God?” The 1839 manuscript actually used quotation marks here, making the fact of intended quotation explicit, as did the Times and Seasons article (3:749).
72 Later editions changed “dare” to “dared.”
73 The Times and Seasons article (3:749) and editions of JS-H in the PGP omitted “For.”
74 Later editions (though not the Times and Seasons article or early editions of JS-H in the PGP) changed “avocations” to “vocations,” which is a potentially significant difference.
75 The Times and Seasons article (3:749) and editions of JS-H in the PGP changed “hand” to “hands.”