A Pillar of Light

Celebrating 200 Years of the First Vision

An Exhibit in the BYU Library
L. Tom Perry Special Collections Gallery
August 2019 - June 2020
With generous support from Robert and Lisa Wheatley.

Section 1: Great Awakenings

Throughout the 18th Century, America experienced two major religious revivals known as "Great Awakenings." Enthusiasm for all things spiritual spread across the United States and the frontier territories. Jonathan Edwards, Ann Lee, Thomas Campbell, and Lyman Beecher were among many of the prominent religious figures of the era. One region of the Second Great Awakening was western and central New York, an area that became known as the "Burned-over District" due to the intense religious excitement. Several religions trace their roots back to this region, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith.

Jonathan Edwards

Known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), Jonathan Edwards focused on the grace of God in his speeches and writings. He was an advocate of the Great Awakening movement, supporting it in his book Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, written in 1742.

Mother Ann Lee

In 1774, Mother Ann Lee and a small following of converts emigrated from England to New York. Lee, the leader of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or the “Shakers,” taught that celibacy and confession of sin was necessary for salvation. For “Shakers,” the shaking and trembling of the body was the manifestation of sin being purged from the soul.

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher was a notable Presbyterian minister who authored several religious books. Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, would later write Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Lucy Mack Smith attended and joined the Presbyterian Church before being baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Section 2: Religious Faith of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith

Both Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith, Sr. were raised in households of faith, although the particulars of the faith they were taught differed. They also grew up in a country of increased religious pluralism, and throughout their lives they struggled to know which of the competing churches to join. Once Lucy and Joseph married, the pressures of adult life such as family death and illness began to weigh heavily on their minds. With these painful reminders of mortality constantly before them, they were concerned for the welfare of their souls and those of their family. When the Smiths relocated to New York in the winter of 1816-1817, Palmyra was amidst an intense Presbyterian revival. Lucy would eventually join that denomination and bring her children, Hyrum, Sophronia, and Samuel with her to church. During these worship services, Alvin, Joseph Jr., and William would remain on the family farm with their father, who refused to join a specific denomination.

Circuit Riders

Circuit riders of the Methodist Episcopal Church, like this one shown here, were clergy assigned to travel around specific geographic regions to minister to settlers and organize congregations. Riders like this would have been prevalent in the early 1800s in the area where Smith family lived.

John Wesley

John Wesley is credited as the founder of the Methodist movement. Lucy Mack Smith, and subsequently Joseph Smith Jr., were briefly interested in Methodism as they struggled to find a religion suited for their personal needs.

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney was a Presbyterian leader during the Second Great Awakening. Later in his life, he wrote of his experiences as a preacher. Today, we derive the term “Burned-over District,” from his Memoirs.

Section 3: Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision

When Joseph decided to walk into the trees near his home to pray, he wanted to first know the state of his own soul, and second, by extension, which church had the truth which could lead him closer to redemption. In response to his sincere yearning for truth, God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in a vision. There are nine primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: four firsthand accounts from Joseph himself and five accounts from Joseph’s contemporaries who heard him speak about this experience. By collectively studying the accounts, readers can harmonize the details for an expanded understanding of the event.

The First Visions - Anthony Sweat

Firsthand Accounts recorded by Joseph Smith or under his direction

1. Joseph Smith History, summer 1832:

The 1832 account is the only version that includes Joseph Smith’s own handwriting. It is the earliest and most personal account of the First Vision given by Joseph Smith. In it, Joseph recounted seeing “the Lord,” but he lamented that no one believed his vision. It was recorded in an unpublished autobiography written by Joseph Smith in the latter half of 1832.

2. Joseph Smith journal, 9-11 November 1835:

In 1835, while Joseph Smith was living in Kirtland, Ohio, he recounted the First Vision to a visitor who introduced himself as Joshua. This guest of Joseph’s, originally named Robert Matthews, was an American who had lately converted to Judaism. The Prophet’s scribe, Warren Parrish, recorded this telling of the First Vision in Joseph’s journal. The account includes the feeling of darkness Joseph had, hearing footsteps as he knelt to pray. Joseph then describes attempting to pray again and a visitation of two divine personages in a “pillar of flame,” as well as the presence of angels.

3. Joseph Smith History, vol. A-1, 1838:

This best-known account of Joseph Smith’s first vision opened what was to become a six-volume history of his life. This account of the event came about during a time of severe opposition, both inside and outside of the Church, and was the first known account by Joseph that was intended for a general audience; it was later canonized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Pearl of Great Price. As a prelude to the vision, this account includes a lengthy discussion on the “religious excitement” of the time in the district and surrounding area where the Smiths lived. This is the first account Joseph prepared which was specifically for the general public to read.

4. “Wentworth Letter,” Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842:

In the early 1840’s, John Wentworth wrote a letter asking leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to send a written Church history. The sincere response, printed in the Times and Seasons in 1842, has become known as the “Wentworth letter.” In this account, Joseph shared that the two divine beings looked “exactly” alike.

Secondhand accounts written by others who listened to Joseph share his experience

1. An interesting account of several remarkable visions… / Orson Pratt (1840):

This was the earliest published account of the First Vision. It was published as a pamphlet in Scotland in 1840 by Orson Pratt. Shown here is an 1841 version of the pamphlet in which Pratt recounts the details of Joseph’s vision.

2. Ein Ruf aus der Wüste [A cry out of the wilderness] / Orson Hyde, German translation (1842):

In 1842, Orson Hyde published a German version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. He primarily used Orson Pratt’s “An Interesting Account” as the foundation for the translation.

3. Levi Richards journal, 11 June 1843:

Levi Richards heard the Prophet speak of his earliest vision while attending a church meeting on June 11, 1843. Later, Richards recorded his summary of the experience in his diary.

4. David Nye White interview with Joseph Smith, Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 15 September 1843:

David Nye White, an editor of the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, visited Nauvoo, Illinois in August of 1843. White interviewed Joseph Smith during the visit. In his report later published in the Gazetter, White quotes Joseph’s first-person narrative in which Joseph explained he prayed near where he had left his axe in a stump.

5. Alexander Neibaur journal, 24 May 1844:

Alexander Neibaur, a German immigrant and convert to the Church, visited Joseph Smith in May 1844. After listening to Joseph recount his vision, Neibaur recorded the account in his diary.

Additional Sources Regarding the Various Accounts of the First Vision

First Edition Pearl of Great Price (1851):

The First edition of the Pearl of Great Price included an account of the First Vision. The Pearl of Great Price was canonized as scripture by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1880.

Gospel Topics Essay on the various accounts of the First Vision:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published an essay in 2013 regarding the various accounts of the First Vision.

Section 4: Acquiring the Land of the Sacred Grove

In 1907, George Albert Smith purchased the Joseph Smith, Sr. farm from William Avery Chapman. Seven years later, President Joseph F. Smith called Willard Washington Bean on a mission to Palmyra, where Bean was tasked with caring for the farm, spreading the Gospel, and acquiring more historical sites. Elder Bean played a crucial role in acquiring Church historical sites such as the Hill Cumorah, the Martin Harris and Peter Whitmer farms, and parts of the Sacred Grove.

Willard Washington Bean

After receiving a mission call, Willard Washington Bean, his wife, and two young children moved to Palmyra in 1915. During his twenty-four years as a missionary in Palmyra, Willard Washington Bean wrote an autobiography, which was later compiled into a book by his granddaughter Vicki Bean Topliff, from which this image are taken.

Images of the Sacred Grove and surrounding land by George Edward Anderson.

Section 5: Centennial Commemoration of the First Vision

In 1920, the Church commemorated the centennial anniversary of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision through special musical performances, poetry, and pageants. Many Church organizations and prominent members published articles about the event in Church periodicals and some included their personal thoughts in their diaries. This was a landmark event, ushering a second century of Latter-day Saint faith and foreshadowing the growth of the Church over the next 100 years.

"Opening the Gate Beautiful to Women" / Author unknown - found in Relief Society Magazine,vol. 7, 1920

This commemorative article from the Relief Society Magazine celebrates the many blessings brought to women as a result of the First Vision. Susa Young Gates, founder and editor of the magazine during this period, is thought to be the author.

"The Messenger of Morn" by Orson F. Whitney

In 1904, Orson F. Whitney published his epic poem Elias: An Epic of the Ages. As part of this poem, Whitney included a section titled “The Messenger of the Morn,” a retelling of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820.

Section 6: Reception of the First Vision

Since 1820, the First Vision has been talked about, researched, and explored in a variety of ways. Scholars have discussed its historicity, theology, and impact on believers. Artists have represented the event in a myriad of artistic media, including comics, drama, music, paintings, poetry, and stained-glass. Photographers also tried to capture what the Grove may have looked like on that spring morning in 1820.

"Joseph Smith's First Prayer" in Children's Primary Hymn Book (1880)

After seeing C.C.A. Christensen’s painting of the First Vision, George Manwaring penned the poem, “Oh How Lovely Was the Morning.” The 1880 Children’s Primary Hymn Book was among the first to include the song, which was retitled "Joseph Smith's First Prayer."

Stained Glass Portrayal of the First Vision, Salt Lake Second Ward chapel, Salt Lake City, Utah

One unique artistic medium used to portray the First Vision is stained glass. This was done in several chapels and temples over the past two centuries, but only a handful still exist today in chapels in Utah (4) and California (2), as well as the Salt Lake Temple, Redlands California Temple, and Palmyra New York Temple. The one in the Church History Museum today is from the Adams Ward in California. Shown here is a replica of the stained-glass window located in the Salt Lake Second Ward meetinghouse.


Additional Resources

Below is some of the most recent research about Joseph's vision by premiere scholars in the field.

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling / Richard L. Bushman (2005)
Exploring the First Vision / eds. Samuel Alfonso Dodge and Steven C. Harper (2012)
First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins / Steven C. Harper (2019)

Section 7: Personal Accounts of the First Vision and Sacred Grove

The Sacred Grove is a place of historical significance, but for many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visiting the Sacred Grove is an event of individual significance as well. Some members who have visited the Grove or who reflected on the First Vision share the deep spiritual impact each has had in their life. The First Vision can also be viewed as a template for each one of us as we seek divine guidance in our lives. By studying the First Vision we learn several principles such as the importance of applying scripture to our life, God’s ability to limit Satan’s power, and the eagerness God has in answering our prayers.

The Sacred Grove: Testimonies

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints share their testimonies of the events that occurred at the Sacred Grove.

The Sacred Grove: Being There

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints share their memories of what it is like to visit the Sacred Grove.

Testimonies of the First Vision – found in Sketches Commemorating the Centenary of the Prophet Joseph Smith's First Vision / by Brigham Young University, 1920

“The Vision is one of the most profound revelations of the ages.” – Joseph Keeler (BYU faculty and administrator)

“This vision has encouraged the faith that God will reveal Himself also to me, as my life shall call for divine guidance.” – Mildred Boyer (college student)

“…[T]he vision showed God to be a personal being…[and] assured [us] that God is a God of miracles today as much as yesterday; and that He still speaks to His children to teach them the way of happiness.” – Heloise Day (college student)

“That first vision has brought to me the great truth that God, the creator of all things, is not a mythical spiritual essence, but a glorified personage…. To this God I can pray, sure of a hearing, and sure of an answer.” – Marie Searle (high school student)

“Joseph Smith’s first prayer in the grove…brought the Gospel again to man.” – Lydia Hudson (sixth grade)

“Joseph Smith’s first prayer proves to me that there must be a Mother in Heaven; for if there is a Father and Son, there must be a Mother.” – Inez Taylor (seventh grade)

“The vision also proves to me that there is a hereafter; because we know that Christ was crucified, and we also know that Joseph Smith saw Him…with an immortal body.” – Newell Bown (seventh grade)

Watch the Exhibit Lecture Series

Putting the First Vision in the Pensieve, or How Joseph Remembered Steven C. Harper

Visualizing the Vision: A History of First Vision Art Anthony Sweat

The First Vision: A Comparative Analysis Between the Community of Christ and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Dr. Keith Wilson and Katy Pratt Sumsion

William Tyndale, Joseph Smith, and James 1:5 Jan Martin

The First Vision Goes to the Movies Casey Paul Griffiths

How has the First Vision changed your life?