Ep 92 – Joseph’s Myth Plus Justin Clark

On this episode, we cover the evolution of the first vision accounts spurred by an 1841 interview with Joseph’s brother, Reverend William Smith. From the 1829 revelation included as D&C 20 today, to the mid-1830s, to the John Whitmer history in 1838, to the History of the Church printed in the Times & Season in 1842, Joseph story looks less like an actual occurrence and more like a the coming-of-age story to a mythological figure. Was it God and Jesus who appeared, was it the angel Nephi, did the Sacred Grove even happen? These questions and more pose serious challenges to the claims of divine provenance of the young prophet. After that we have on Justin Clark from the Reason Revolution podcast to talk about the rise of the freethought movement in 19th and 20th-century America.


1832 First Vision Account

1835/6 First Vision Account

1841/2 First Vision Account

Several Remarkable Visions Orson Pratt

MormonThink First Vision Essay

MormonThink Nephi or Moroni Essay

LDS First Vision Essay

John Whitmer History Introduction

1841 William Smith Interview p.410


Reason Revolution with Justin Clark

We Talk About Dead People Sidney Rigdon

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Deluded fanatics, religious imposters, ignorant knaves, and wretches of the adversary. In spite of their endless efforts to be taken seriously, the religious society of the 1830s and 40s considered the Mormons to be a nuisance at best and fanaticism hell-bent on the subjugation of the American people at worst.

The truth of the matter is, from the Florida Keys to the Great Lakes and west to the Mississippi, the popular press had been following the Mormons with some fascination and loads of skepticism since its inception and meteoric uprising in Ohio. The conflict in Missouri had only spurred the uprising of hundreds more publications showing the Mormons in less-than-favorable light.

The joy historians have today with how new the Mormon religion is and how documentable its uprising is compared to other religions is a joy which journalists shared when the religion was truly in its infancy. The hundreds of indexable newspaper articles we have today had to be collected and printed by people who took fascination in the tides and forces of public movements like Mormonism, and it’s thanks to those valiant journalists that we know so much of Mormonism from sources other than church chroniclers and propagandists.

It’s to be expected though, this widespread public fascination with Mormonism. They weren’t just a Christian sect with their own interpretation or translation of the Bible, they were claiming to have new scripture which comprised a third testament of Jesus to the Native American peoples. If it was to be believed by the wider populous that Joseph was a true prophet, he needed an incredibly miraculous story to sell his divine provenance.

We’re going to spend the historical portion of today’s episode walking through something a lot of Mormons have trouble with when they begin studying Mormon history. In episodes 32 and 33 we spent a bit of time talking about the versions of the first-vision story and we’ve touched on the topic a few times throughout the 3.5 years we’ve been doing this, but let’s take a step back and examine the context from which these first-vision accounts arose. This is particularly relevant to our timeline in 1841 and I’ll illustrate why by the end of the history segment today.

The earliest account we have of the first vision is found nestled in Oliver Cowdery’s revelation included in today’s D&C as section 20. This was likely recorded in the Summer of 1829 or possibly right after the Church was created in April 1830, but wasn’t published until 1833 as Chapter 24 of the Book of Commandments. In BoC 24, it tells of Joseph’s heavenly manifestation as such after naming him an elder of the Church alongside Cowdung Allover Cowdery:

“6 For, after that it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;

7 But after truly repenting, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness, and gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave unto him power, by the means which were before prepared, that he should translate a book;

8 Which book contained a record of a fallen people, and also the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles; 

9 And also to the Jews, proving unto them, that the holy scriptures are true;”

No dating on this holy angel manifestation, no appearance of God and Jesus, no reading of the bible in James 1:5, no telling Joseph that all the religions are led astray and their professors corrupt, no Sacred Grove, no appearance of the Gold Plates, just a book, nothing all that remarkable which would set Joseph above any of his religious contemporaries.

Possibly in 1832, Joseph penned his own account and this is the only account of the first vision experience from Joseph Smith, every other version before and after this claimed 1832 version were dictated to a scribe or were recalled from hearing Joseph preach his history to prospective members. This supposed 1832 version had a fair amount added to it by Frederick G. Williams in his handwriting, but we’ll only focus on what Joseph himself wrote of the visionary account. The reason I keep saying possibly 1832 and claimed 1832 is because there is no actual dating on this account and Mormon historians know that Frederick G. Williams became Jo’s scribe in Feb or March 1832 and they basically surmise that one of his first tasks was helping Jo to create this history. It may be later than 1832, but it’s definitely not older. The Joseph Smith Papers has narrowed this account to July of 1832 when Hingepin Sidney Rigdon was in error and led astray, they don’t discuss a possible causal link between Rigdon preaching against Joseph’s divinity and the crucial timing of this history being penned but I think we can draw correlations to the point of some causation in this instance.

His supposed 1832 account reads in part: 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 sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament…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 <Here Freddy Willey added ‘in the 16th year of my age’> a piller 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 crucifyed 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 asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments…

Then it switches again to Freddy Willey to tell of the bedside appearance of the unnamed angel.

and it came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord

 came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by th[e] commandments of God and kept by the power thereof”

This is the earliest full account we have of Jo’s history and the only which is from his own hand. This was written 10 years after the claimed occurrence and was never actually published. However, this 1832 account is rather important for shaping how Mormon missionaries approached investigators in the early 1830s. Prior to this they only had vague references of the history of the Gold plates coming into Joseph’s possession after an angelic manifestation. This 1832 account essentially codified the story and provided a place where elders and missionaries could fall back on when preaching of Jo’s divinity.

The next accounts come out of 1835 and 36. They don’t differ all that substantially from the 1832 account except for pushing the date to slightly earlier around 1820-21 and changing the earliest manifestation where Jo had previously claimed to see the heavens open and witness god, these 35 and 36 accounts changed that to angels and then to God the father appearing in the sacred grove, and also changed the setting to the woods instead of the bedside manifestation.

These subsequent accounts were each given at times when there was strife existing in the ranks of trusted Mormon elites. The 1832 account came along when Rigdon was claiming Jo was in apostasy and had lost the keys. These accounts came in the wake of the Zion’s camp debacle and amidst the uprising and popularization of the Spalding theory with the widespread distribution and consumption of Mormonism Unvailed by Eber Howe. Each time one of these social pressures caused people to question Jo’s divinity, another version of the first visions would come forth, each time becoming more grandiose and miraculous.

Finally, the Mormons were chased from Ohio and resettled in Missouri where there was already a significant chapter of Mormons who’d been living there since around 1832. It was during this time in 1838 that Joseph decided he needed a canonical account of his first vision experience to pass to his followers and progenitors. Beginning in 1838, Jo began dictating his personal history to multiple scribes.

When Jo and Rigdon first made their way to Missouri in early 1838, they purged the Missouri leadership and removed a number of people who were thought to be in error, including D-Day David Whitmer, Ollie Cowdung, and most importantly, John Goebbels Whitmer. This is important because John Whitmer had been given the esteemed office of first official church historian. He’d compiled notes from the previous 7 years from when he was initially given the job in 1831, and started copying them into his single history notebook. But, when John Goebbels Whitmer was excommunicated, Jo and the leadership knew that they would no longer have access to his notes on early church history, thus a new history of the church needed to be composed.

Jo began the dictation of his history in early 1838 in response to loosing this powerful resource from John Whitmer. However, 1838 was a bit chaotic for the Mormons, as was 1839 during their exodus from Missouri to Illinois, so the project was put on hold for a brief time.

Once the Mormons had settled in Illinois, the project was picked back up with John Corrill and Elias Higbee as official Church historians, while Willard Richards, Joseph Smith, and Hingepin Rigdon all worked together to compile the history which they had documentation of, but many mysteries still existed. Beginning in mid-1840, this group of historians and editors fervently conducted their efforts in earnest to push out a systematized and streamlined history of the Church which people could use when telling the history of the Gold Bible, Joseph Smith, and the Saints to those who inquired after such information.

However, the original history of the Church from John Goebbels Whitmer was an important resource in the hands of an apostate, Jo and Rigdon wanted it for a couple reasons. If they could have Whitmer’s history, it may shed some useful light on details they didn’t have, had forgotten, or didn’t have documentation of. Whitmer’s history was an invaluable resource for what it contained, and that’s a tough commodity to let go of. It’s even tougher to leave that commodity in the hands of someone who’d been excommunicated from the church.

Back in 1838, Jo and Rigdon wrote to the excommunicated Whitmer in hopes of getting the history from him.

From JosephSmithPapers.org on their historical introduction of the Whitmer History:

“After his estrangement from the church, Whitmer refused to relinquish the manuscript for printing. Two months after Whitmer’s excommunication, JS and Sidney Rigdon wrote him:

‘We were desireous of honouring you by giving publicity to your notes on the history of the Church of Latter day Saints, after such corrections as we thaught would be necessary; knowing your incompetency as a historian, and that your writings coming from your pen, could not be put to the press, without our correcting them, or elce the Church must suffer reproach; Indeed Sir, we never supposed you capable of writing a history; but were willing to let it come out under your name notwithstanding it would realy not be yours but ours. We are still willing to honour you, if you can be made to know your own interest and give up your notes, so that they can be corrected, and made fit for the press. But if not, we have all the materials for another, which we shall commence this week to write[.]’

There is no record of Whitmer responding to the condescending letter, and church leaders soon made other arrangements. John Corrill and Elias Higbee had already been assigned as historians, and within three weeks of writing to Whitmer, JS himself began to prepare a new history with the assistance of Sidney Rigdon and scribe George W. Robinson.”

These men would share a similar letter exchange in the future concerning the Whitmer history, but ol’ John Goebbels never coughed up the goods. Whitmer’s history of the Church remained in RLDS archives until Dean Jessee and later the Joseph Smith Papers project were granted access to copy and publish it online.

Now we have to be careful when referring to the history of the Church as an actual history. Never forget, history is written by the victor and the history of the Church was compiled at a time when dissent and persecution were at the greatest levels ever experienced by anyone in the church prior to this time. But people were constantly asking and small articles were being published in Chicago and England telling the history of Mormonism the way the Mormon elite wanted it to be told.

While on his mission in Europe in 1840, Orson Brain-Powered Pratt published a little booklet titled Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions which included a copy of Joseph’s history the way it would be printed in the Times & Seasons beginning in 1842. This shows us that even though the Joseph Smith history we know wasn’t published until 1842, they were working on it and had functional drafts to publish in other outlets like Orson Pratt’s booklet. Think of it as an official statement release from the Church in the early 1840s that members, non-members, and media outlets could use in any format they wished.

All of this discussion about the various versions of Joseph’s history surrounding the first visions leads us to what happened in early 1841, an interview. This interview we’re about to read through is why we’ve spent so much time talking about the progression of versions of the first vision and why this subject was particularly relevant in 1841 and is just as relevant to us as we’re progressing through 1841. This was a public statement issued by Joseph’s younger brother, Crazy William Smith, and was given aboard a steam-boat on the Ohio river. Here’s a few relevant excerpts from the interview, which I’m reading from Francis Kirkham’s A New Witness for Christ in America v.2 2nd edition published 1967:

“[The statements] present briefly one of the most remarkable exhibitions of the obliquities and follies of the human mind in its religious speculations which the history of this age records.

Joseph Smith, now 35 years of age, is the eldest of five brothers, all born at Norwich, in the state of Vermont… In the year 1816 or 1817, the whole family removed to the state of New York, and lived sometimes in Palmyra, and sometimes in the adjacent town of Manchester. They were in rather low circumstances, and followed farming. About the year 1823, there was a revival of religion in that region, and Joseph was one of several hopeful converts. The others were joining, some one church, and some another, in that vicinity, but Joseph hesitated between the different denominations. While his mind was perplexed with this subject he prayed for divine direction, and afterwards was awaked one night by an extraordinary vision. The glory of the Lord filled the chamber with a dazzling light, and a glorious angel appeared to him and told him that he was a chosen vessel of the Lord to make known true religion. The next day he went into the field, but was unable to work, his mind being oppressed by the remembrance of the vision. He returned to the house, and soon after sent for his father and brothers from the field; and then, in the presence of the family—my informant one of them—he related all that had occurred. They were astounded, but not altogether incredulous. After this, he had other similar visions, in one of which the existence of certain metallic plates was revealed to him, and their location described—about three miles off, in a pasture ground. The next day he went alone to the spot, and by digging discovered the plates of a sort of rude stone box. They were eight or ten inches long, less in width about the thickness of panes of glass, and together made a pile of about five or six inches high. They were in a good state of preservation, had the appearance of gold, and bore inscriptions in strange characters on both sides. He brought them home, but was unable to read them.

(Comment on William’s ability to remember the plates with so much detail, but didn’t seem to include the ever-important detail of Jo telling him about the Sacred Grove experience when he saw God and Jesus in human form.)

He afterwards made a facsimile of some parts of the inscription, and sent it to professor Anthon of New-York city. The professor pronounced the characters to be ancient Hebrew corrupted, and the language to be degenerate Hebrew, with a mixture of Egyptian. He could decipher only one entire word. After this, Joseph Smith was supernaturally assisted to read and to understand the inscription; and he was directed to translate a great part of it. The pages which he was not to translate were found to be sealed together, so that he did not even read them and learn their contents. With an assistant to correct his English, he translated so much of the transcription as now makes the Book of Mormon. He kept the plates a long time in his chamber, and after translating from them, he repeatedly showed them to his parents and to other friends. But my informant said he had never seen them. At length he was directed to bury the plates again in the same manner—which he accordingly did.

The Book of Mormon is Mr. Smith’s professed translation of the inscription on the plates; and it bears the name of Mormon, because a Jewish Christian of the 4th century, bearing the name Mormon, is the alledged[sic] author of the inscription…. (goes on to tell basic plotline of BoM)

Mr. Smith, with no great difficultly, persuaded his parents, his four brothers, and a few others, to acknowledge his prophetic character, and to embrace his views; but from the mass of the people he met with ridicule and opposition. At the end of three or four years he could number only a hundred followers. Afterwards he was more successful; and now—A.D. 1841—he has perhaps 15,000 adherents. A large body of them reside at Nauvoo, in the state of Illinois, where Mr. Smith himself lives and has fixed the center and capital of the sect. The rest are scattered over the United States, and in Europe. Three heads of the sect are now laboring in England, Scotland, and Ireland, where they meet with much success.”

Once again, no mention of the sacred grove with God and Jesus appearing to Joseph. This is his younger brother giving the interview in 1841 when the story of God and Jesus in the Sacred Grove had been circulated to a few individuals and printed in the Chicago Tribune. How did his own brother, who witnessed these powerful times in the 1820s just forget that detail about his brother’s story? He was there! He saw Jo’s legs refuse their faculty and collapse in the front yard of their home. He saw the plates and left an incredibly detailed description of their size. He saw Jo disappear into the woods 2-4 times throughout 1823-27 and come back with unbelievable stories of his great trials with the spirit whose charge was guarding the sacred gold plates. William Smith is one of the few contemporary accounts who could provide details of Jo’s story pre-1830 and at this crucial time when the History of the Church was being compiled to be published in the Times & Seasons, William couldn’t relay the details of Jo’s theophany in the Sacred Grove.

Look, if you have kids and you come into the kitchen only to find the cookie jar with the lid off and 6 cookies missing, if that kid thinks they are in trouble, chances are they’re going to lie. It was their infant sibling who took the cookies, it was the cat, it was their favorite super hero on Paw Patrol, or, maybe the more inventive of the kids out there will say it was their imaginary friend who snuck in and took the cookies. Some of the more audacious children out there may go as far as providing an explanation instead of blame shifting, maybe that imaginary friend wanted the kid to have a cookie and told them to steal the cookies. People, kids especially, are going to lie when it serves their best interest. Many people don’t lie when they’re in trouble or when doing so would be better for them, but society doesn’t tend to favor those kinds of people in the short term because facts don’t matter.

But Joseph’s story matters! The first thing those nice young men and women will tell you when you ask what the Book of Mormon is will inevitably come to the story of a young man who went out in the woods and prayed to God to ask which of all the religions was true. After struggling with the adversary, God answered by appearing with his son, Jesus, in a pillar of light over this 14-year-old’s head to tell him that all the religions are false and that he would restore the one true religion to the continent in the latter days. The angel Moroni appeared to Joseph in his room one September night 3 years later and gave him instructions of where to find gold plates which contained the history of an ancient people on the American continent and 4 years later he attained the plates. This story is a fabrication published 22 years after the actual incident. The ability we have to chart the progression of Jo’s theophany to becoming a legendary tale of Joseph Smith being actually visited by God and Jesus in the woods and the appearance of an angel to being the angel Moroni appearing to Moroni delivering the plates and taking them back when finished and being seen as an old man walking on the side of the road by Jo and friends. All of the points we plot from the original draft of the story in 1829 to 1832 to 1835 and 36 and then now the 1842 version which is broadly used as the standard narrative, each of these points demonstrate the evolution of a legend. It all never happened.

Objections can be raised, like the fact that the angel was reported as the angel Moroni as early as 1831 in an affidavit in Mormonism Unvailed, but was changed to the angel Nephi when it was published in the 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons, the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price, and even in the memoir of Lucy Mack Smith, they all report the angel as Nephi, but it was changed again to Moroni in the 1852 HoC printed in the Deseret News. That’s tantamount to Lucas saying Han Solo’s father is Mace Windu who cut off Solo’s legs at the mouth of a volcano. More objections can be provided in that some Mormon historians have document more than 55 occurrences of an angel meeting with Jo from 1823-1831, as if a person hallucinating something dozens of times instead of 4 times makes the hallucination more plausible.

But those are just incidental objections to the story, the main problem is that it’s obviously a fabrication. It’s made up! Each time something would come up in Mormon history where Jo needed a larger and more grandiose story to make his claim to divine provenance more unique, the story evolved. Jo’s genesis story as prophet was just as important to people in the 1840s as it is to Mormonism today and Jo recognized that.

Just picture how this all came about though.

So, Brother Joseph, tell us again about how you got the gold plates.

Well, brother, I’m glad you asked. My soul was racked with that great question, which of all religions is true. An angel appeared to me while I was supplicating by my bedside and he told me the lord would deliver an ancient record of the early inhabitants of this continent. Finally, after years of instruction, the angel directed me to the place where the record was buried with the seer stones which helped me to translate the inscriptions into the Book of Mormon.

Who was this angel who appeared to you?

It was the same Nephi who wrote the first books.

Why would it be Nephi, wasn’t Moroni the prophet who buried the abridged Gold Plates in hill Cumorah?

Well Nephi appeared to me, but it was the angel Moroni who directed me to their resting place.

How do we know this was a good spirit which appeared to you?

Because God appeared to me and assured me it was an angel of the Lord.

Wait, what? God appeared to you? When?

Yes God appeared to me, it was a couple years before the angel appeared.

Was it Jesus or God?



Yes, both God and Jesus appeared to me before the angel did and told me that I would start the one true religion.

But brother Joseph, I thought you were caught up in the sin and failings of life at the time, how do we know it was actually God and Jesus and not familiar spirits?

Well, when God appeared to me he told me my sins were forgiven.

You mean God and Jesus, right?

Yes, of course, just like I said earlier, God and Jesus appeared and told me my sins were forgiven and that all religions are evil and their professors corrupt.

Did you tell anybody of this when it happened?

Well, I told my family, but nobody would believe me then so I waited until now to tell all of you about it…

Hmmm…. Seems legit… Pass the pipe, you’re totally babysitting.

Long-time listeners will know that we’ve talked about the first-vision accounts and the historical issues with them in the past. But it’s worth rehashing at this time when the Mormons were doing everything possible in Nauvoo to be seen as a legitimate religious movement and this very story was one of the main points the missionaries and elites used to sell the prophet to those who were skeptical.

However, we have to put ourselves in the mindset of these people at the time when the stories were told. Likely, none of the people hearing Jo’s story in the 1840s were aware of his 1832 account which was unpublished at the time. Most of them had probably never heard about the 1835 or 36 version but only had the section from D&C by Oliver Cowdery to fall back on. Jo expanding on the details of the D&C version seems acceptable when we don’t have all the other versions with which to compare to chart the progression of the story.

But the story MATTERS! If the very story you use to sell the prophet’s divinity is a fabrication, how can the religion itself not be a fabrication? The answer seems rather clear to yours truly, because it is a fabrication. Mormonism may be a world religion with 16 million claimed adherents today and 10s of thousands of salesmen pushing the product on the unwashed masses, mostly to third-world countries without internet access lately, but it was made up. I pity the person who’s stuck with the burden of proof that Joseph was a legitimate prophet of gods. That’s something which is much harder to prove today than it was during Jo’s life.

What was a prophet to these 19th-century Christians? A person who speaks for God. A person who gives divine revelations, predicts the future, and leads people as the prophets of old. Jo claimed to be all of those things and when challenged he would just pile a lie on top of another lie because facts didn’t matter then and they apparently don’t matter now. But we can check this stuff now. We can use information from the church itself to prove Jo was lying at some level. Maybe lying is too inflammatory a word to use, maybe a better interpretation would be misremembering. But that means that a person who supposedly had an open conduit to gods somehow couldn’t remember the most important moment of his life at least when it came to the details of the angel’s name, the time it happened, whether it was an angel or god or gods in the Sacred Grove, you know, just minor details that one usually forgets. This isn’t what Jo had for breakfast or the name of a person who’d hired him 10 years ago, this is GOD giving you the most important mission of your life, nay giving you the entire purpose of your life, how the hell does somebody just misremember that?! A representative for God, you would think, should be an honest person, but I’ve yet to find a single example in Jo’s life where he was stalwart, honest, and forthcoming in his dealings with his fellow men. Instead we have a career of chaos punctuated by 42 arrests or court hearings, and the only constant was Jo’s ability to lie on the spot to serve his needs at that given moment. Seeing these later progressions and developments of Jo’s theology put into proper context paints a picture of somebody not constrained by truth or the morality of his time, but that’s merely my deduction from seeing the crime scene of Mormon history laid out in front of me. We must never forget who Jo really was.

Reason Revolution Ep 36 Origins of Mormonism, Utah Mormon culture, secular Mormonism, the power of storytelling

We Talk About Dead People Special Episode after 28 talking about Sidney Rigdon

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