First Vision Accounts: Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s 1834-1835 Letters
The earliest published account of relevance to the First Vision was a series of letters by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery that appeared in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in late 1834 and early 1835. These letters often closely parallel the later canonical account in Joseph Smith–History (see especially JS-H 1:1-3, 5-10, 26-29), while also differing with it by Oliver identifying Joseph’s first vision as the 1823 appearance of the angel who disclosed to Joseph the existence of the Book of Mormon gold plates. The text that follows duplicates the text of those letters in their published form, including a few spelling irregularities. Numbers in brackets indicate the number of the following page. References or clear allusions to biblical texts are indicated in the notes.
Untitled Notice (from Oliver Cowdery), Oct. 18341
Since it [a letter from Oliver Cowdery] was written, upon further reflection, we have thought that 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, would be worthy the perusal of the Saints….
That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, 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, well worth the examination and perusal of the Saints. To do justice to this subject will require time and space: we therefore ask the forbearance of our readers, assuring them that it shall be founded upon facts.
Letter from Joseph Smith Jr. to Oliver Cowdery, Dec. 18342
Having learned from the first No. of the Messenger and Advocate, that you were, not only about to “give a history of the rise and progress of the church of the Latter Day Saints;” but, that said “history would necessarily embrace my life and character,” I have been induced to give you the time and place of my birth; as I have learned that many of the opposers of those principles which I have held forth to the world, profess a personal acquaintance with me, though when in my presence, represent me to be another person in age, education, and stature, from what I am.
I was born, (according to the record of the same, kept by my parents,) in the town of Sharon, Windsor Co. Vt. on the 23rd of December, 1805.
At the age of ten my father’s family removed to Palmyra, N. Y. where, and in the vicinity of which, I lived, or, made it my place of residence, until I was twenty one—the latter part, in the town of Manchester.
During this time, as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies; but as my accusers are, and have been forward to accuse me of being guilty of gross and outrageous violations of the peace and good order of the community, I take the occasion to remark, that, though, as I have said above, “as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies,” I have not, neither can it be sustained, in truth, been guilty of wronging or injuring any man or society of men; and those imperfections to which I alude, and for which I have often had occasion to lament, were a light, and too often, vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation.
This being all, and the worst, that my accusers can substantiate against my moral character, I wish to add, that it is not without a deep feeling of regret that I am thus called upon in answer to my own conscience, to fulfill a duty I owe to myself, as well as to the cause of truth, in making this public confession of my former uncircumspect walk, and unchaste conversation: and more particularly, as I often acted in violation of those holy precepts which I knew came from God. But as the “Articles and Covenants” of this church are plain upon this particular point, I do not deem it important to proceed further. I only add, that I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man “subject to passion,” and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!…
Letter III, from Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Dec. 18343
You will recollect that I informed you, in my letter published in the first No. of the Messenger and Advocate, that this history would necessarily embrace the life and character of our esteemed friend and brother, J. Smith jr. one of the presidents of this church, and for information on that part of the subject, I refer you to his communication of the same, published in this paper. I shall, therefore, pass over that till I come to the 15th year of his life.
It is necessary to premise this account by relating the situation of the public mind relative to religion, at this time: one Mr. Lane, a presiding Elder of the Methodist church, visited
Palmyra, and vicinity. Elder Lane was a tallented man possessing a good share of literary endowments, and apparent humility. There was a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion, and much enquiry for the word of life. Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. Mr. Lane’s manner of communication was peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect of the hearer, and arouse the sinner to look about him for safety—much good instruction was always drawn from his discourses on the scriptures, and in common with others, our brother’s mind became awakened.
For a length of time the reformation seemed to move in a harmonious manner, but, as the excitement ceased, or those who had expressed anxieties, had professed a belief in the pardoning influence and condescension of the Savior a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects, for proselytes. Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony which had previously characterized the moves and exhortations of the old professors, and a cry—I am right—you are wrong—was introduced in their stead.
In this general strife for followers, his mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians. This gave opportunity for further reflection; and as will be seen in the sequel, laid a foundation, or was one means of laying a foundation for the attestation of the truths, or professions of truth, contained in that record called the word of God.
After strong solicitations to unite with one of those different societies, and seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth from each, his mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind. To profess godliness without its benign influence upon the heart, was a thing so foreign from his feelings, that his spirit was not at rest day nor night. To unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one, was calculated, in its very nature, the more it was contemplated, the more to arouse the mind to the serious consequences of moving hastily, in a course fraught with eternal realities. To say he was right, and still be wrong, could not profit; and amid so many, some must be built upon the sand.
In this situation where could he go? if he went to one he was told they were right, and all others were wrong—if to another, the same was heard from those: All professed to be the true church; and if not they were certainly hypocritical, because, if I am presented with a system of religion, and enquire of my teacher whether it is correct, and he informs me that he is not certain, he acknowledges at once that he is teaching without authority, and acting without a commission!
If one professed a degree of authority or preference in consequence of age or right, and that superiority was without evidence, it was insufficient to convince a mind once aroused to that degree of determination which at that time operated upon him. And upon farther reflecting, that the Savior had said that the gate was straight and the way narrow that lead to life eternal, and that few entered there; and the way was broad, and the gate wide which lead to destruction, and that many crowded its current,4 a proof from some source was wanting to settle the mind and give peace to the agitated bosom. It is not frequent that the minds of men are exercised with proper determinations relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God. They are too apt to rest short of that assurance which the Lord Jesus has so freely offered in his word to man, and which so beautifully characterizes his whole plan of salvation, as revealed to us.
Letter IV, from Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Feb. 18355
In my last, published in the 3d No. of the Advocate I apologized for the brief manner in which I should be obliged to give, in many instances, the history of this church. Since then yours of Christmas has been received. It was not my  wish to be understood that I could not give the leading items of every important occurrence, at least as far as would effect my duty to my fellowmen, in such as contained important information upon the subject of doctrine, and as would render it intelligibly plain; but as they are, in a great house, many vessels, so in the history of a work of this magnitude, many items which would be interesting to those who follow, are forgotten….
You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our brother J. Smith Jr’s, age—that was an error in the type—it should have been in the 17th. You will please remember this correction, as it will be necessary for the full understanding of what will follow in time. This would bring the date down to the year 1823.
I do not deem it to be necessary to write further on the subject of this excitement. It is doubted by many whether any real or essential good ever resulted from such excitements, while others advocate their propriety with warmth.
The mind is easily called up to reflection upon a matter of such deep importance, and it is just that it should be; but there is a regret occupying the heart when we consider the deep anxiety of thousands, who are lead away with a vain imagination, or a groundless hope, no better than the idle wind or the spider’s web.
But if others were not benefited, our brother was urged forward and strengthened in the determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.6 And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him. This, most assuredly, was correct—it was right. The Lord has said, long since, and his word remains steadfast, that to him who knocks it shall be opened,7 & whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely.8
To deny a humble penitent sinner a refreshing draught from this most pure of all fountains, and most desirable of all refreshments, to a thirsty soul, is a matter for the full performance of which the sacred record stands pledged. The Lord never said— “Come unto me, all ye that labor, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,”9 to turn a deaf ear to those who were weary, when they call upon him. He never said, by the mouth of the prophet— “Ho, every one that thirsts, come ye to the waters,”10 without passing it as a firm decree, at the same time, that he that should after come, should be filled with joy unspeakable.11 Neither did he manifest by the Spirit to John upon the isle— “Let him that is athirst, come,”12 and command him to send the same abroad, under any other consideration, than that “whosoever would, might take of the water of life freely,”13 to the remotest ages of time, or while there was a sinner upon his footstool.
These sacred and important promises are looked upon in our day as being given, either to another people, or in a figurative form, and consequently require spiritualizing, notwithstanding they are as conspicuously plain, and are meant to be understood according to their literal reading, as those passages which teaches us of the creation of the world, and of the decree of its Maker to bring its inhabitants to judgment. But to proceed with my narrative.
On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him, had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.
At length the family retired, and he, as usual, bent his way, though in silence, where others might have rested their weary frames “locked fast in sleep’s embrace;”14 but repose had fled, and accustomed slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him—he continued still to pray—his heart, though once hard and obdurate, was softened, and that mind which had often flitted, like the “wild bird of passage,”15 had settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven from its purpose.
In this situation hours passed unnumbered—how many or how few I know not, neither is he able to inform me; but supposes it must have been eleven or twelve, and perhaps later, as the noise and bustle of the family, in retiring, had long since ceased. While continuing in prayer for a manifestation in some way that his sins were forgiven; endeavoring to exercise faith in the scriptures, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a purer and far more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room. Indeed to use his own description, the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming and unquenchable fire.16 This sudden appearance of a light so bright, as must naturally be expected, occasioned a shock or sensation, visible to the extremities of the body. It was, however, followed with a calmness and serenity of mind, and an overwhelming rapture of Joy that surpassed understanding, and in a moment a personage stood before him….
Cowdery proceeds to recount the appearance of the angelic messenger of the Lord announcing the Book of Mormon.
1 Untitled notice, Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1.1 (Oct. 1834): 13. The periodical may be viewed at https://archive.org/details/latterdaysaintsm01unse/page/13/mode/2up.
2 Joseph Smith Jr., Letter to “Brother O. Cowdery,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1.3 (Dec. 1834): 40.
3 Oliver Cowdery, “Letter III: To W. W. Phelps, Esq.,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1.3 (Dec. 1834): 41–43 (relevant portion 42–43).
4 Referring to Matt. 7:13-14, which Cowdery paraphrases here.
5 Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV: To W. W. Phelps, Esq.,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1.5 (Feb. 1835): 77–80.
6 Cf. James 1:27, “Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
7 A reference to part of Matt. 7:7, “knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
8 A reference to Rev. 22:17b, “And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
9 Quoting Matt. 11:28 exactly.
10 Quoting Isa. 55:1a almost exactly.
11 An allusion to 1 Peter 1:8b, “ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
12 A quotation from Rev. 22:17a.
13 Another quotation (inexact) from Rev. 22:17b.
14 This phrase occurred in a poetic version by George Burder of John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, according to an article in The Universal Magazine 9 (March 1808): 219–20, but seems to have been used also in very different contexts.
15 Apparently a familiar expression but not, it seems, an allusion to a specific text.
16 The “consuming…fire” is likely an allusion to descriptions of God as “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Heb. 12:29); cf. Exod. 3:2, “…the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” The expression “unquenchable fire” comes from John the Baptist’s warning that God would judge the wicked “with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12; cf. Luke 3:17).