There are a number of accounts of the first vision. I find that reading the different accounts gives a more complete understanding of what happened to Joseph at this time.
1832 Recital of the First Vision
This 1832 account is the earliest known recital of the First Vision which was dictated by the Prophet Joseph Smith to a scribe and recorded and preserved. The Prophet dictated it to Frederick G. Williams between the summer of 1832 and the end of November of that year, and the handwriting has been identified as Williams' by Dean C. Jessee, a member of the staff at the LDS Church Historian's Office.
A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr an account of his marvelous 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 testimony from on high secondly the ministering of Angels thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Angels to administer the letter of the Gospel - the Law and commandments as they were given unto him - and the ordinances, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinance from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him.
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 Senior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labor hard for the Support of a large Family having nine children 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 benefit of an education Suffice it to Say I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements.
At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul which led me to Searching the Scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in the 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 situation of the world of mankind the contentions and divisions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living 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 today 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 majesty 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 majesty and in the Strength of beauty whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous even in the likeness of him who created them and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man Said it is a fool that Saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power a being who maketh Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and 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 to obtain 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 pillar of fire light 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 my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned aside 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 according 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 is 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 heavenly vision …
Nevertheless I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my Soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be written and my Fathers family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions.
1835 Recital of the First Vision
In 1835 Joseph Smith related his experience in the grove to a visitor to Kirtland, a man named Matthias. This account was recorded by Warren Cowdery.
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 swollen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me.
I strove again 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.
1838 Recital of the First Vision
The account of the early history of the Church, including a description of the First Vision, which appears in the Pearl of Great Price was originally dictated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1838. The manuscript copy located in the Church Historian's Office is in the handwriting of James Mulholland, who was Joseph's scribe in 1839. (This account is not given here. It can be found in the Pearl of Great Price).
Extract from Wentworth Letter
A selection from Joseph Smith's history prepared for non-Mormons and known as the Wentworth Letter. It was first published in 1842.
At the request of Mr. John Wentworth, Editor, and Proprietor of the "Chicago Democrat," I have written the following sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints, of which I have the honor, under God, of being the founder. Mr. Wentworth says, that he wishes to furnish Mr. Bastow [George Barstow], a friend of his, who is writing the history of New Hampshire, with this document. As Mr. Bastow has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation.
I was born in the town of Sharon Windsor co., Vermont, on the 23rd of December, A.D. 1805. When ten years old my parents removed to Palmyra New York, where we resided about four years, and from thence we removed to the town of Manchester.
My father was a farmer and taught me the art of husbandry. When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.
Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; "If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him," I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.
They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to "go not after them," at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.
Orson Pratt's Account of the First Vision
A selection from Orson Pratt's An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840, the first known publication of the First Vision.
Mr. Joseph Smith, jun. who made the following important discovery, was born in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, Vermont, on the 23rd December, A.D. 1805. When ten years old, his parents, with their family, moved to Palmyra, New York; in the vicinity of which he resided for about eleven years, the latter part in the town of Manchester. Cultivating the earth for a livelihood was his occupation, in which he employed the most of his time.
His advantages for acquiring literary knowledge, were exceedingly small; hence, his education was limited to a slight acquaintance, with two or three of the common branches of learning. He could read without much difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand; and had a very limited understanding of the ground rules of arithmetic. These were his highest and only attainments; while the rest of those branches, so universally taught in the common schools, throughout the United States, were entirely unknown to him.
When somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old, he began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same.
He saw, that if he understood not the way, it would be impossible to walk in it, except by chance; and the thought of resting his hopes of eternal life upon chance, or uncertainties, was more than he could endure. If he went to the religious denominations to seek information, each one pointed to its particular tenets, saying- "This is the way, walk ye in it;" while, at the same time, the doctrines of each were in many respects, in direct opposition to one another.
It also occurred to his mind that God was the author of but one doctrine, and therefore could acknowledge but one denomination as his church, and that such denomination must be a people who believe and teach that one doctrine, (whatever it may be,) and build upon the same. He then reflected upon the immense number of doctrines, now in the world, which had given rise to many hundreds of different denominations.
The great question to be decided in his mind, was-if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it? Until he could become satisfied in relations to this question, he could not rest contented. To trust to the decisions of fallible man, and build his hopes upon the same, without any certainty, and knowledge of his own, would not satisfy the anxious desires that pervaded his breast.
To decide, without any positive and definite evidence, on which he could rely, upon a subject involving the future welfare of his soul, was revolting to his feelings. The only alternative, that seemed to be left him was to read the Scriptures, and endeavor to follow their directions. He, accordingly commenced perusing the sacred pages of the Bible, with sincerity, believing the things that he read.
His mind soon caught hold of the following passage:- "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." -James 1:5. From this promise he learned, that it was the privilege of all men to ask God for wisdom, with the sure and certain expectation of receiving liberally; without being upbraided for so doing. This was cheering information to him; tidings that gave him great joy.
It was like a light shinning forth in a dark place, to guide him to the path in which he should walk. He now saw that if he inquired of God, there was not only a possibility, but a probability; yea, more, a certainty, that he should obtain a knowledge, which, of all the churches, was the church of Christ. He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord.
At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance.
He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence.
It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness.
He was informed that his sins were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects, which had for some time previously agitated his mind, viz.-that all the religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines; and consequently, that none of them was acknowledged of God, as His church and kingdom. And he was expressly commanded, to go not after them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine-the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace, indescribable.
Orson Hyde's Account of the First Vision
A selection from A Cry From the Wilderness, A Voice From the Dust of the Earth, written by Orson Hyde and published in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1842. Elder Hyde was called on a mission to Jerusalem in 1840 to dedicate that land for the return of the Jews, leaving New York City in February, 1841. After accomplishing his mission in Jerusalem, he traveled to Germany where he published an account of the First Vision in the German language. The translation below was made by Justus Ernst in 1960 and is located in the LDS Chuch Historian's Office. Fist foreign language account of the first vision.
Joseph Smith, Jr., to whom the angel of the Lord was sent first, was born in the town of Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, on the 23rd of December, 1805.
When ten years old, his parents with their family, moved to Palmyra, New York, in the vicinity of which he resided for about eleven years, the latter part in the town of Manchester. His only activity was to plow and cultivate the fields. As his parents were poor and had to take care of a large family, his education was very limited. He could read without much difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand; and had a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic. These were his highest and only attainments; while the rest of those branches, so universally taught in the common schools throughout the United States, were entirely unknown to him.
When somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old, he began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind; he perceived that it was a question of infinite importance. He saw, that if he understood not the way, it would be impossible to walk in it, except by chance; and the thought of resting his hopes of eternal life upon chance or uncertainties, was more than he could endure.
He discovered a religious world working under numerous errors, which through their contradicting nature and principles, gave cause to the organization of so many different sects and parties, and whose feelings against each other were poisoned through hate, envy, malice and rage. He felt that there should be only one truth, and that those who would understand it correctly, would understand it in the same manner. Nature had gifted him with a strong, discerning mind and so he looked through the glass of soberness and good sense upon these religious systems which all were so different; but nevertheless all drawn from the scripture of truth.
After he had sufficiently assured himself to his own satisfaction that darkness was covering the earth, and gross darkness the minds of the people, he gave up hope ever to find a sect or party that was in the possession of the pure and unadulterated truth.
He accordingly commenced perusing the sacred pages of the Bible with sincerity, believing the things that he read. His mind soon caught hold of the following passage- "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." James 1:5. From this promise he learned that it was the privilege of all men to ask God for wisdom, with the sure and certain expectation of receiving liberally, without being upbraided for so doing.
And thus he started to send the burning desires of his soul with a faithful determination. He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father's house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal.
However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. They told him that his prayers had been answered, and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing.
He was told not to join any of the religious sects or any party, as they were all wrong in their doctrines and none of them was recognized by God as His Church and kingdom. He received a promise that the true doctrine-the fulness of the gospel-should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace indescribable.
Non-Mormon Editor's Account of the First Vision
An early non-Mormon publication of the First Vision based on an interview with Joseph Smith by the editor of the Pittsburg Gazette who visited Nauvoo in 1843. This account was published in the New York Spectator, September 23, 1843.
[According to the editor of the Pittsburg Gazette, Joseph Smith said]:
The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it. He revealed himself first to me when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy. I will tell you about it. There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join.
While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament promiscuously on these words, in James, Ask of the Lord who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not. I just determined I'd ask him. I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join?
Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, Behold my beloved Son, hear him.-I then addressed this second person, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? He replied, "don't join any of them, they are all corrupt." The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back and it was some time before my strength returned.
When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since.
Alexander Neibaur's Recording of Joseph Smith's Testimony
On May 24, 1844, shortly before the death of the Prophet, Alexander Neibaur heard Joseph relate his experience in the sacred grove and recorded in his journal his impressions of what Joseph said on that occasion.
After Dinner . . . called at BR. J.S. met Mr. Bonnie. Br. Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival Meeting, his Mother, Br. and Sisters got Religion. He wanted to get Religion too, wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing, opened his Bible of the first Passage that struck him was if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberallity & upbraideth not.
Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself Down, his tongue was closet cleaveth to his roof-could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile-saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire, light complexion, blue eyes, a piece of white cloth Drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear after a while a other person came to the side of the first.
Mr. Smith then asked, must I join the Methodist Church. No, they are not my People, have gone astray There is none that Doeth good, not one, but this is my Beloved Son harken ye him, the fire drew nigher, Rested upon the tree, enveloped him comforted I endeavored to arise but felt uncomen feeble - got into the house told the Methodist priest, said this was not a age for God to Reveal himself in Vision Revelation has ceased with the New Testament.
Selections from the Writings of Edward Stevenson
One of the early converts who heard Joseph Smith bear his testimony concerning the appearance of the Father and Son and who listened to the three witnesses preach that an angel showed to them the plates form which the Book of Mormon was translated was Edward Stevenson. The following two accounts were recorded by Stevenson in the early 1890's.
The first appeared in his manuscript, "The Life and History, Elder Edward Stevenson," 19-23, located in the Church Historian's Office; and the second reference is quoted from his Reminiscences of Joseph, The Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, 1893).
The following year after the organization of the Pontiac [Michigan] Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of L. D. Saints, in 1834, we had the pleasure of having a visit from the Prophet Joseph Smith: a plain but noble looking man, of large frame and about 6 feet high. With him was his Father, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, whose sister Sophia Kellog lived in our settlement.
A great stir was made in this settlement at so distinguished visitors. The meetings held were crowded to see and hear the testimonies given which were very powerful. I will here relate my own experience on the occasion of a meeting in our log School House. The Prophet stood at a table for the pulpit where he began relating his vision and before he got through he was in the midst of the congregation with up lifted hand.
I do not believe that there was not one person present who did at the time being, or who was not convicted of the truth of his vision, of an Angel to him his countenance seemed to me to assume heavenly whiteness, and his voice was so piercing and forcible for my part it so impressed me as to become indelibly imprinted on my mind.
In those meetings, the Prophet said the gifts and signs should follow believers now as they did the ancient Saints in the days of our Saviours administration, and said he by this shall ye prove me to be a true Prophet. The three witnesses bore their testimonies as to seeing the Angle, and hearing his voice. There were many who were baptized. The visit of this man of God to our house and the testimonies of the 3 witnesses left a lasting remembrance with us and will stand as a witness against those who were so favored above many.
In that same year, 1834, in the midst of many large congregations, the Prophet testified with great power concerning the visit of the Father and the Son, and the conversation he had with them. Never before did I feel such power as was manifested on these occasions.
John Taylor's Testimony of Joseph Smith's Visions
In a discourse delivered in Salt Lake City on December 7, 1879, John Taylor testified that Joseph informed him of the appearance of the Father and Son and of the visitation of the Angel Moroni, Nephi, and other heavenly messengers. See John Irvine, reporter, Journal of Discourses, XXI (London, 1881), 161-63, from which the following selection has been taken. Italics inserted by the present author.
Now, we will come to other events, of later date; events with which we are associated-I refer now to the time that Joseph Smith came among men. What was his position? And how was he situated? I can tell you what he told me about it. He said that he was very ignorant of the ways, designs and purposes of God, and knew nothing about them; he was a youth unacquainted with religious matters or the systems and theories of the day.
He went to the Lord, having read James' statement, that "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." He believed that statement and went to the Lord and asked him, and the Lord revealed himself to him together with his Son Jesus, and, pointing to the latter, said: "This is my beloved Son, hear him."
He then asked in regard to the various religions with which he was surrounded. He enquired which of them was right. for he wanted to know the right way and to walk in it. He was told that none of them was right, that they had all departed from the right way. that they had forsaken God the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that could hold no water.
Afterwards the Angel Moroni come to him and revealed to him the Book of Mormon, with the history of which you are generally familiar, and also with the statements that I am now making pertaining to these things. And then came Nephi, one of the ancient prophets, that had lived upon this continent, who had an interest in the welfare of the people that he had lived amongst in those days.