The First Vision in Two Churches

The recently-published Restorations: Scholars in Dialogue from Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a fantastic glimpse into the similarities and differences between the two largest churches that emerged from the legacy of Joseph Smith, Jr. One of the highlights was a discussion between Keith J. Wilson and Lachlan E. Mackay about the First Vision. An interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk with Keith J. Wilson highlighted some of what they had to say on the topic. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

(Unfortunately, Lachlan Mackay wasn’t able to participate to the interview due to his workload, so I will attempt to fill in on a couple key points from the book itself to share his views.)

When did views of the First Vision diverge and how have the diverged between Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Keith J. Wilson explained:

The uses of the First Vision between our two faiths are remarkably parallel for about one hundred years from 1860-1960. This can be readily seen by comparing references in our parallel church magazines. In fact, both faiths see a remarkable uptick in First Vision citations in the year 1920 which just happened to be the centennial year of the First Vision.

However, real divergence first appears in the linear graphs during the decade of 1950-1960. There, the RLDS begin a sharp tapering off of First Vision references and the Latter-day Saint line shows a dramatic uptick in references.

Why the divergence? This is something for historians to develop, but the short answer for the Community of Christ trajectory is that this is when new leaders begin to distance themselves from the distinctives of the Restoration such as Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle, the literalness of the Book of Mormon, and the 13 Articles of Faith. For the Latter-day Saint line this is precisely the time when David O McKay supercharged missionary work and situated the First Vision as the vanguard of the Restoration.

It was certainly a decade of divergence between the two religious cousins.

The doctrinal uses of the First Vision also paralleled the historical path. For the Community of Christ the vision is no longer a “First Vision,” but has been recast as a personal experience of a young man who is seeking to reconcile his standing with God.

For the Latter-day Saints, the vision has been drawn into the center point of the Restoration in which God appears in these latter days and commissions a young boy to restore His original Church.

The divergence is very stark.

There was a divergence in how the First Vision was viewed that saw the most dramatic developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Mackay explained some of what happened in the RLDS Church at that time:

in the 1950s, Community of Christ began to tentatively engage in missionary outreach in Asia, and leaders became increasingly convinced that a message focused on Joseph Smith and the restoration of the one true Christian church would not serve the church well in cultures that were not traditionally Christian. In a greatly oversimplified version of what happened next, church leaders took a step back, reexamined the faith’s core principles, and reformulated the message. In the following decades, the church shifted its focus to center more on Jesus and less on Joseph Smith. This process also resulted in reconnecting the First Vision with its earliest meaning—the story of Joseph’s conversion rather than the foundational event for Joseph’s call to restore the church. (Restorations, 135.)

This resulted in a shift that deemphasized the use of the First Vision in their history and missionary work while it was only becoming more important to Latter-day Saints.

Part of the divergence was the role Orson Pratt played in the use of the First Vision in our Church. He published the first public account of the vision back in 1840 and continued to advocate for the First Vision through the remainder of his life. As Wilson wrote:

Orson Pratt quickly realized the importance of the First Vision and wanted it shouted from the rooftops. This was at a time when the Book of Mormon was the principal evidence and message of the Restoration. “The Church” did not have the First Vision during the 1820’s or even the 1830’s.

So, Orson Pratt took it upon himself to promote the First Vision. He had it published in multiple languages. He believed it as it came to him from the mouth of Joseph Smith.

To his dying day he shared his witness of its truthfulness. One year before his death in 1881 he witnessed its Latter-day Saint canonization. He is also the primary reason why we as Latter-day Saints are linked to the 1838 account.

To his title of “defender of the First Vision” we might aptly add, “promoter, advocate, and testator.”

Orson Pratt played a major role in making the First Vision as central as it is to the story of Latter-day Saints today.

One thing that was important to Keith J. Wilson was to discuss why the 1838/1839 account is the canonical one in the Church today. (As some background, there are several different accounts, including four from Joseph Smith, known as the 1832, 1835, 1838/1839 (history of the Church), and 1842 (Wentworth Letter) accounts.) Wilson explained when asked why we favor the 1838/1839 account:

Perhaps the best answer to this question is that this was done with the blessing and support of Joseph Smith Jr.

Yes, Joseph did write the 1832 account, but he never distributed it, and it was largely forgotten for about 130 years. However, the Prophet did dictate the 1838 account according to Pratt’s testimony and he allowed it to be printed and distributed.

A few years later when Joseph wrote the Wentworth letter, his account was more brief, but largely paralleled the 1838 account. So, the 1838 account was obviously the gold standard.

It’s the account that was designed to be the official account, so it makes sense to use it as such.

On the other hand, Mackay explained some of the logic for why the 1832 account has become the favored version in Community of Christ.

The newer Kirtland Temple orientation movie treats the First Vision differently [than a previous one in Nauvoo]. It is informed by Joseph’s 1832 account, the only one written in his hand, and shares that “Joseph . . . found a secluded grove near his home and poured out his heart in prayer. There he had a vision of Jesus Christ. This personal conversion experience set him on a path that led to the publication of the Book of Mormon, an additional scriptural witness to the Bible, and the founding of the Church of Christ in 1830.”

Community of Christ chose to focus on the 1832 version of the First Vision because it is Joseph’s earliest-known account and is perhaps more accurate but also because we realized that the more expansive language used in the Nauvoo-site movie (“an experience with the divine”) was generating discomfort among visitors and too often becoming an unintended point of contention. (Restorations, 134.)

There are reasons for using different accounts of the First Visions as faith communities.

For more about the First Vision in Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Keith J. Wilson.

4 comments for “The First Vision in Two Churches

  1. I notice that you are misusing the name of the Missouri church. When they refer to their church, they call it “Community of Christ,” not “the Community of Christ.” That is a Salt Lake church usage and appears to be incorrect. In Mackay’s text, he specifically omits the “the.” I have noticed this in other Community of Christ writings. It would be respectful to adopt their usage when referring to their church.

  2. Thank you for pointing that out Bert. I had not noticed that. I have updated the sections of the post that are not direct quotes from Keith J. Wilson to reflect that.

  3. David O. McKay as a young missionary famously was inspired by a carved stone directing “Whate’er thou art, act well thy part.” He said that after seeing that stone, he felt he needed to feature Joseph Smith more prominently in his preaching.

    The April 2020 General Conference seemed somewhat of a last hurrah for Joseph Smith. In the October 2020, Gerrit Gond was the only speaker with any kind of restoration message or mention of Joseph Smith other than as someone who suffered in Liberty Jail.

  4. I have a memory of reading the first vision account in a Community of Christ D&C in the late 80’s or early 90’s and it was pretty much the same except for the last few words which were something like… “or at least I thought I did.” (not exact words but something along those lines)

    As you can imagine this was a very interesting difference to me as a member and a missionary sharing that story over and over. Anyone else here have any info/knowledge on this? I figure the xmos would be shouting this from the roof tops if it was out there, so maybe my memory is wrong, but I cant help but wonder if I am remembering right. This would maybe explain the different versions of the vision if JS “thought” he had the vision but was confused about what he experienced. Maybe I should reach out to their historians and see what they can tell me. They have been helpful in the past.

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