Francis Chan has been one of the most popular American evangelical figures of the past decade. He is the author of several influential books, was the pastor of a megachurch in Southern California, and has been featured in all sorts of evangelical media and at major conferences (including some controversial ones). Early this year he moved to Hong Kong, where he has been doing videos that hundreds of thousands of people watch on YouTube. In one of these, dated May 2, 2020, Chan made the following statement (starting about minute 4:00):
Jesus did not die on the cross so that you and I could live ordinary lives. He died so that my soul could be cleansed, so that my body could become completely clean, so that his Holy Spirit would enter into me. And just like I wouldn’t dare ever refer to Jesus as ‘just an ordinary guy,’ none of us would. Are you kidding me? He was a man and, somehow, he was God all at once. You can’t call him ordinary. But don’t you understand? That’s what he’s saying about us now! Like right now you’re looking at a person who is not just a person. Somehow God is in me and there is a sense in which I am like God and man all at once! His Spirit dwells inside of me. It makes no sense then if my life resembles a person who does not have the Holy Spirit in them.
A Lutheran pastor named Chris Rosebrough did a video criticizing Chan’s message. He introduced his critique video as follows: “Here is Francis Chan saying that he’s both God and man. Yes he actually says that.”
Well, to be precise, Chan said that there was a sense in which he was “like God and man all at once.” In context it was difficult to tell if like meant “similar to” or if it meant, like, Southern California surfer dude like. If the latter, which is possible (Chan did seem to say “like” fairly often), then Rosebrough is right. Even if Chan meant “similar to,” what Chan says does appear to cross the line. Note that he makes this statement after referring to Jesus as man and God and then saying, “That’s what he’s saying about us now!” On no reasonable construction of Chan’s statements in context is this true. God is certainly not saying about us the same thing that is true about Jesus being both God and man.
I don’t know if Chan has made similar statements in the past. My guess is that the context of this statement may be a move in the direction of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. At the beginning of the year, another video appeared on YouTube in which Chan expressed a newfound belief that the bread and wine in Communion become “the literal body and blood of Christ.” It is possible that in saying that he was “like God and man all at once,” Chan was attempting to express the concept of theosis or deification, a theological idea associated especially with the Orthodox Church. If so, though, he did not express it very well.
Perhaps at some point Chan will become aware that his statement appears highly problematic theologically and will offer a clarification or retraction. In any case, evangelicals have reason to be concerned about the direction Chan’s teaching seems to be headed.
As I expected, Boylan issued a hasty “response” to the previous post in which he failed to address any of the substantive issues I presented there. Instead, he engaged in a poorly done tu quoque (“you too”) fallacious argument. First, once again, he quoted me out of context, this time in order to avoid addressing my criticism of his earlier post, which was that he had dismissed my whole book on the basis of two sentences in it that made a tangential point without my having engaged a particular Mormon scholar’s treatment of it. He then accused me (without even a hint of justification) of being “intellectually deceptive”!
Next came the tu quoque fallacy: Supposedly I am being hypocritical or something along those lines for excusing myself from addressing Sorenson’s defense of Moroni’s journey in my book, because in a review of a book by Jehovah’s Witness author Rolf Furuli I had pointed out that Furuli had not engaged one of my books. Boylan missed, or ignored, the salient difference: my book that Furuli had failed to engage addressed “many of the issues raised in his book,” which of course is not true with regard to Sorenson’s books in relation to Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions. Furuli’s book was a defense of the New World Translation and of Watchtower interpretation of the Bible; my book, which he did not mention, was a critique of Watchtower interpretation of the Bible including the New World Translation.
Missing from Boylan’s rushed response: (1) any reference to what I explained was the main point of the paragraph he had criticized, (2) any mention of (let alone response to) the lengthy treatment I presented here regarding the plausibility of Moroni’s journey and Sorenson’s defense (the very thing Boylan complained about me not doing in the book!).
Yet Boylan entitled his non-responsive post “Double Standards and Intellectual Laziness.”
Robert Boylan, a Mormon apologist blogger, has written a
series of blistering attack posts attempting to discredit my book Jesus’
Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions. Boylan has described it as a “joke of a
and a “mess of a book,”
and he has churned out at least twenty posts in the past few weeks attacking it
(and at least a couple more posts about me that are not about the book!). Given
Boylan’s quantity (which is not the same as quality) of output, it is doubtful
that I will be able to respond to all of his posts in which I am mentioned (I
tend to be almost Monk-like in writing, laboring long to make everything I
write as close to perfect as I can get it).
In one of his attack pieces, Boylan takes me to task for a
brief comment I made in the book about Moroni’s supposed journey from
Mesoamerica to what is now upstate New York.
Boylan characterizes my comment as “an attempt to call its plausibility into
question.” He quotes part of what I said on the matter, offers a defense of the
plausibility of Moroni’s journey, and lambasts me for failing to interact with
Book of Mormon scholar/apologist John L. Sorenson’s defense. Not content to
make his point, Boylan engages in his usual poke-in-the-eye style of polemical
This only proves again, notwithstanding the attempted appearance of producing a scholarly work, in reality, it is just typical counter-cult “boundary maintenance” that is cleaned up (basically, the literary form of a pig with lipstick—it is still a pig you are trying to make look pretty). The target audience is clearly not informed Latter-day Saints but gullible Evangelicals who know next to nothing about “Mormonism”….
This harsh assessment is rather absurd, given that the book
in question is just 300 pages long but has over 600 footnotes citing 475
sources—including citations from over 230 sources pertaining to Mormon studies.Boylan justifies his dismissive comments about the whole book on the
basis of two sentences in the book that Boylan apparently thinks should
have been turned into a page or more of interaction with a particular Mormon
scholar on the issue. Sorry to disappoint those who wanted a book of three
thousand pages, but I wanted to produce a book people might actually read.
Avoiding the Main Point
Let’s put my full comment about Moroni’s journey on the
The fact that Joseph did not look at the gold plates when dictating his “translation” means that the Book of Mormon need have no relation to the supposed gold plates at all. Joseph’s method of producing the text of the Book of Mormon in effect renders the gold plates irrelevant. There was no need for Moroni, whom the Book of Mormon identifies as its last ancient author, to carry the gold plates (weighing forty pounds or more according to Joseph’s associates, though if they really were gold they should have weighed closer to two hundred pounds) thousands of miles from Central America to upstate New York (a tall order, to put it mildly) in order to bury them for Joseph to discover fourteen centuries later. (The people of ancient Mesoamerica had no pack horses or other beasts of burden, so Moroni would have had to carry the plates, along with the stone spectacles and the breastplate, on his own.) Yet Joseph did not need the plates, the stone spectacles, the breastplate, or anything other than what he already had, his small treasure-hunting seer stone and his hat, along with the divine revelation Mormons claim he received.
As anyone can see by reading the whole paragraph, the point
I was making was that Joseph did not need the plates, the stone spectacles, the
breastplate, or anything else Moroni might have carried from Central America to
upstate New York, in order to translate the Book of Mormon. Of course, it would
be possible. I merely mentioned the difficulty of him
doing so while carrying perhaps two hundred pounds of stuff (and it would still
have been very heavy even if we accept the 40+ pounds estimates for the plates
Joseph had, since the stone spectacles and the breastplate would have added to
the burden). I did not elaborate or argue the point because I was not arguing
that Moroni could not possibly have pulled it off but that he need not have
done so because there was no reason for him to do so. I made this point
explicitly four times in four of the five sentences in the paragraph, three of
which Boylan omitted from his quotation. Although this was clearly the
point I was making, Boylan said nothing about it. Thus, Boylan made
absolutely no attempt to respond to the main point of the paragraph that he
partially quoted. Instead, he focused on arguing that the trip was
“plausible” and “not fantastic.”
Did Moroni Leave the Land of the Lamanites?
Boylan, like most contemporary Mormon apologists, assumes
that Moroni traveled from Mesoamerica (probably starting somewhere in southeast
Mexico or possibly northwest Guatemala) to what is now upstate New York,
depositing the gold plates in the hill near Joseph’s home where he would obtain
them fourteen centuries later. This scenario appears to be required by the
conventional LDS academic model of Book of Mormon geography, according to which
essentially all of the events described in the Americas took place in that
small region of Mesoamerica, and the conventional understanding that Joseph
found the gold plates buried in a box near his home because that is where
Moroni had buried them shortly before his death. Hence, John Sorenson (the LDS
scholar Boylan scolds me for not engaging on the issue of Moroni’s journey),
referring to the gold plates as “the Codex,” wrote, “How did the Codex get to a
hill in New York from southern Mexico after the final battle involving the Nephites?
The obvious answer is that someone carried it there, over a vast distance.”
One problem with this scenario is that there does not seem
to be any basis for it in the Book of Mormon itself. Here are the relevant bits
of information that the narrative provides:
ca. AD 385: The final battle at Cumorah, just
before which Mormon hid most of the plates in the hill Cumorah except the ones
he gave to his son Moroni, who had led an army of ten thousand and was one of a
dozen Nephite survivors (Mormon 6:1-12)
ca. AD 400: Mormon has died along with others of
the few surviving Nephites; Moroni is alone, with no friends or relatives, and
nowhere to go (Mormon 8:1-7)
ca. AD 400—: The Lamanites engage in seemingly
endless warfare with one another (Mormon 8:8)
Undated: Moroni is finished writing about the
Lamanites and is going to hide the record (Mormon 8:13-14)
Undated: Moroni has abridged the record of the
people of Jared (the Book of Ether). He is taking care not to make himself
known to the Lamanites, who are still killing Nephites, and so is wandering to
remain safe from them (Moroni 1:1-3)
ca. AD 421: Moroni adds some final words before
sealing up the records (Moroni 10:1-2)
The precise dates are not particularly important here since
our focus is on the relative dating of these events in relation to one another.
The key passage is Moroni 1:1-3, in which Moroni states that he is randomly
moving around from place to place to keep from falling into the hands of the
Lamanites, who are still killing whatever Nephites still remain. We are not
told when Moroni wrote this, but it would have to be after about 400 and before
about 420. His statement entails that the Lamanite threat remained a
significant issue throughout his wandering, which means that he is not
referring to a journey taking him thousands of miles from the
Lamanite-dominated region. The text does not absolutely preclude such a journey
that does not happen to be mentioned, but the natural reading of the text
is that Moroni’s wandering to stay out of the Lamanites’ grasp continued until
at least close to his death.
One other chronological consideration should be mentioned
here, and that concerns Moroni’s age. There is no precise information about his
age given, but it is reasonable to surmise that he would have been at least in
his 20s if not older when he led an army of ten thousand men. From Mormon 2:3
we are given to understand that Mormon was born about AD 310, making him about
75 years old at the final battle at Cumorah, when he says he was getting old
(Mormon 6:6). This information suggests a rough date of around 350 for the
birth of Moroni, which would make him about 35 years old at Cumorah and a
little over 70 years old when he finished the record.
If Moroni had made a journey from Mexico to Manchester, it
would have begun sometime after AD 400 and been completed shortly after AD 420.
The implication of Moroni 1:1-3 is that he spent at least a considerable amount
of those twenty years, if not all of them, on the run from the Lamanites. Boylan
is flat wrong, then, when he asserts that “Moroni had 35+ years” to make the
trip, “from ~AD 385 with the final battle at Cumorah to AD 421 with the burial
of the plates.” According to Mormon 8:1-7 and Moroni 1:1-3, sometime after AD
400 Moroni was still in the land dominated by the Lamanites and moving around
to avoid capture by them. This means that Moroni had less than twenty years to
make the trip, if we assume that he must have made it (again, Moroni 1:1-3 is
against any such trip occurring).
Since the Book of Mormon provides no information about this
supposed journey, we cannot determine its route. The most direct route for
someone walking from the Veracruz region in southeast Mexico (where Sorenson’s
model would indicate as the starting point) to Palmyra, New York, would be over
2,700 miles. This calculation assumes a route that hugged the western coast of
the Gulf of Mexico up into east Texas, through modern-day Houston, then
northeast through Memphis, Cincinnati, and then along Lake Erie and east to
Palmyra. Of course, this is a best-case scenario and ignores the specific
challenges that Moroni would have faced along the way. If we accept the Mormon
tradition that Moroni traveled through the American Southwest to Utah and then
east before getting to upstate New York, the trip would have been over 5,000
Critics of Mormonism are not the only ones who think Moroni
would not have made the trip. First of all, many Mormons are convinced
that the climactic events of the Book of Mormon took place in the Great Lakes
region where Joseph’s boyhood home was located. There is a bustling
cottage industry devoted to this model of Book of Mormon geography that
produces books, videos, and websites defending this view, and that holds
regular conferences and provides guided tours of supposed Book of Mormon
locations in America.
Second, at least one fairly prominent Mormon scholar who
adheres to the more academically conventional Mesoamerican model has concluded
that Moroni probably did not travel to upstate New York during his mortal
lifetime. Brant Gardner, a Mormon anthropologist who has written a six-volume
commentary on the Book of Mormon, admits in that work that the book’s narrative
suggests that Moroni never left Mesoamerica during his lifetime. Commenting on
Moroni 1:2-3, Gardner observes, “The danger he feels confirms that he is still
Earlier, in his comment on Mormon 8:4, Gardner offers some speculation as to
how the gold plates got to the hill in the Palmyra/Manchester area: “If Moroni
as an angel could take them away at the close of the translation, then as an angel
he could also deposit them within walking distance of Joseph Smith’s home.”
In other words, Moroni as a mortal might have hidden the plates somewhere in or
near Mesoamerica, where they remained until the 1820s when Moroni as an angel
was able to retrieve them and bury them near Joseph’s home! The explanation is
so obviously ad hoc (why rebury the plates rather than simply handing them to
Joseph?) that Gardner himself does not seem confident about it. Rightly so:
Joseph’s accounts of the discovery of the plates tacitly indicate that Moroni
had buried the plates in the hill near Joseph’s future home before Moroni’s
death. This understanding is close to explicit in Joseph’s 1838 statement
reported in the Elders’ Journal:
Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them.
Gardner is at least partially correct: Moroni hypothetically
could have hidden the plates anywhere in Mesoamerica, died, become an
angel, and then miraculously whisked the plates from their hiding place to
Manchester in order to deliver them to Joseph Smith. The reason why no one (to
my knowledge) really believes this is what happened is that Joseph claimed to
have found the plates buried in a stone box in a hill near his home and that
this was the place where Moroni had buried them. It would make no sense for
Moroni to rebury the plates and other artifacts in a stone box in the
ground, and it would even have been deceptive, making it appear as though that
was where they had been buried for fourteen centuries. Moreover, Joseph’s own
statement reported in the Elders’ Journal appears to rule out that
At the end of his commentary, Gardner admits, “There
is no way to know how the plates arrived at Cumorah,”
meaning the place near Joseph’s home that Mormons traditionally have called
Sorenson’s Defense of the Trip’s Plausibility
Boylan’s main criticism in his blog post is that I failed to
engage Sorenson’s argument for the plausibility of Moroni’s journey. As I have
already emphasized, Sorenson’s argument was irrelevant to the point I was
making in my book. My point was that there seems to have been no need for
Moroni to have undertaken such a journey carrying such a heavy load, since
Joseph did not even look at the plates while dictating the text of the Book of
That having been said, Sorenson’s treatment of the matter is
far from successful in defending the plausibility of Moroni making such a
In 1589 three English sailors trekked 3,000 miles from Tampico, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, to Nova Scotia, more or less the same length as the journey Moroni(2) would have made to reach New York. They had been put ashore in Mexico from their privateer ship and decided to try to reach northeastern North America in hope of being found by a ship from Europe that might put in there. The original party was as large as 100 but en route all but three stopped off to join Amerindian groups. Upon completing the nine-month trip, the three men happened upon a French ship in Nova Scotia that agreed to take them back to England. Years later, a royal inquiry in their home country elicited from the only survivor, one David Ingram, his account of the journey through dozens of American Indian “kingdoms.” Some of the story he told is laced with fantastic detail, but the basic facts remain plausible and in some ways confirmed.
Sorenson’s source for this story is a 1979 article in American
Heritage magazine by Charlton Ogburn. According to Ogburn, if Ingram’s
story is true it was “perhaps the outstanding walk in human history.”
One should not pass over this statement lightly. Granted that such a journey
might be accomplished, it would still be an extremely unusual, spectacular
accomplishment. And yet Moroni says nothing whatsoever about it!
Ingram’s journey to Nova Scotia, if it happened, took place in
a period of about twelve months in 1567-1568, reaching England in 1589, not nine
months in 1589, as Sorenson mistakenly claimed.
One fact that Sorenson omits is that Ogburn is not sure that the journey
actually happened, at least the way Ingram told it. Ogburn admits, “I am not so
sure about anything involving Ingram. I seem to have been left in the midst of
intractable, if fascinating, contradictions.”
One of those contradictions concerns the starting point of Ingram’s journey.
Was it near Tampico in Mexico, as the story of Ingram’s fellow sailor Miles
Phillips indicated, or was it on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico in
western Florida, as Ingram’s own account stated? Putting the starting point of
Ingram’s journey in western Florida would, as Ogburn observes, shorten the
journey by some 1,200 miles and make it far more plausible. He concludes that
Ingram’s account was deliberately falsified “to make Ingram’s walk more
credible” as support for the cause of financing the search for a “northwest
passage” across the American continent.
The “fantastic detail” that Sorenson admits to have been part of Ingram’s story
appears alongside descriptions that were either inaccurate or common knowledge,
making it difficult to corroborate that Ingram made the walk at all.
One historian, David B. Quinn, concluded that a French ship likely picked up
Ingram along the Gulf of Mexico or perhaps the Atlantic coast of Florida or
South Carolina, which would have cut the distance they walked by more than
Ogburn himself concludes, rather tentatively, that we should probably accept
Ingram’s story, but its reliability on the question of the actual route
taken seems far from settled. Nathan Probasco points out in his
dissertation that “scholars have long doubted its reliability,” though he
admits, “The walk was clearly possible, whether or not Ingram completed it.”
Probasco concludes, “He probably made the walk, but during his interrogation he
also exaggerated and forgot details.”
Unfortunately, Probasco does not address the issue of where Ingram’s walk
One detail worth pointing out is that Ingram did not make
his journey (whatever its actual course) alone. He started with a large group
of men, most of whom dropped out along the way, and he arrived in Nova Scotia
with two other English sailors. It would be much easier for three men to
make such a long journey together than for one man alone. Three men
would be much less likely to be attacked than one man. They could take turns
keeping watch at night if necessary, work together in complementary ways by
utilizing their differing skill sets, and provide encouragement and moral
support to each other.
Finally, Sorenson’s example of the three sailors walking
from southern Mexico to Nova Scotia completely ignores the difficulty of transporting
the materials Moroni supposedly carried a similar distance. The issue is
complicated by disagreement as to the composition of the plates. The lowest
estimate of their weight according to Joseph’s handpicked witnesses was about
40 to 50 pounds. If they were pure or mostly gold, they would have weighed
closer to 200 pounds. In addition to the plates themselves, Moroni would have
been carrying the breastplate and the stone spectacles. We have even less information
about these objects, but presumably these items weighed close to ten pounds.
One assumes that Moroni would have carried other objects—perhaps a weapon,
surely some personal items—and would have needed one or more sturdy packs in
which to carry all of these things. Accepting the lowest estimate of the weight
of the plates, Moroni’s total load would have weighed at least 50 or 60
pounds, likely more. Given the chronological information we have in the
Book of Mormon (as discussed above), he would have been carrying this
load when he was in his late 60s.
Appeals to supernatural help here are completely ad hoc and
therefore out of order, since the Book of Mormon does not even mention the
journey, let alone indicate any supernatural aid in carrying the plates and
other items. With this in mind, I will offer some very brief answers to the
crucial questions regarding this alleged journey of Moroni from Mexico to
Is it possible? Yes.
Is it plausible? Not really.
Would there have been any point to it? No.
That last point was, as I have explained, the point I was
making in the paragraph of my book that Boylan quoted out of context. Granting
for the sake of argument that such an arduous trip might have been possible for
Moroni, the fact remains that there was no need for him to make it. Joseph was
not going to use the plates when producing the English text known as the Book
of Mormon. The historical evidence also shows that Joseph did not use the stone
spectacles, at least when dictating the translation to Oliver Cowdery.
Yet Joseph claimed, as we documented above, that Moroni had buried the plates
and other artifacts in the hill near Joseph’s future home while Moroni was
still a mortal, then appeared to him in the 1820s to reveal where Joseph would
We are left, then, with the notion, for which there is no
evidence within the Book of Mormon narrative, that Moroni as an old man made an
extremely difficult journey of some three thousand miles on foot, carrying a
load of likely 50 to 60 pounds or more, in order to bury the plates and other
items in the ground near what would become Joseph Smith’s home. The purpose of
this herculean journey was to provide Joseph with the plates as a prop assuring
his family and supporters that they existed, though most of them would never
see the plates and though Joseph did not actually look at the plates when
producing his translation.
No, Mr. Boylan, that’s not credible.
Robert Boylan, “Resurrection vs. First Vision?” Scriptural Mormonism (blog),
April 14, 2020.
Robert Boylan, “Book of Mormon Central, ‘Joseph Smith’s First Vision,’”
Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 23, 2020.
See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions:
Complete Bibliography,” at Academia.edu.
Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining
the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard, 2020),
L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City:
Deseret, 2013), 693.
H. Donl Peterson, “Moroni, the Last of the Nephite Prophets,” in Fourth
Nephi, From Zion to Destruction, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr.
(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1995), 235–49.
This itinerary is mentioned as a serious possibility by Michael R. Ash, “Challenging
Issues, Keeping the Faith: How Moroni and the plates may have made it to Hill
Cumorah,” Deseret News, Feb. 28, 2011 (originally in Mormon Times).
See, e.g., the website BookofMormonEvidence.org.
Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on
the Book of Mormon, Volume 6: Fourth Nephi–Moroni (Salt Lake City: Greg
Kofford Books, 2007), 334.
Gardner, Second Witness, 6:110. Ash, “Challenging Issues,” echoes
Gardner’s statement here in almost the same words, without mentioning Gardner,
as one possible explanation.
Joseph Smith, “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal 1 (July 1838):
Gardner, Second Witness, 6:422, emphasis added. Ash, “Challenging
Issues,” is equally noncommittal, saying that “we may never know if Moroni buried
the plates during his mortal ministry or as an angel.”
Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 693–94; see also John L. Sorenson, An
Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Foreword by Leonard J.
Arrington, Truman G. Madsen, and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo,
UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), 45.
Charlton Ogburn, “The
Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey,” American Heritage
30.3 (April/May 1979): 4–13.
See Nathan J. Probasco, “Researching North America: Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583
Expedition and a Reexamination of Early Modern English Colonization in the
North Atlantic World,” PhD diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2013),
Ogburn, “Longest Walk,” 1 (page numbers cited here for this article refer to
web pages, not the printed magazine).
Bob Seidensticker is an atheist with a blog at Patheos
called Cross Examined. Two days ago (May 20, 2020), another atheist
blogger at Patheos, Jonathan M.S. Pearce, posted “Using Common Sense to Not See
versus Mormonism,” part of a chapter by Seidensticker in a 2017 book that
Pearce edited called Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century. His
thesis is that Christians don’t care about evidence because if they did they
would accept Mormonism:
Many Christians declare that they don’t hold their religious beliefs just because they were born into a Christian environment. No, they believe because of the evidence. Let’s test that claim. If they believe because of evidence, they should accept claims that are better evidenced than those of Christianity such as those of Mormonism. The claims of Mormonism have just such a historical record.
Well! I just happen to have published a book two months ago
that addresses this very argument: Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions:
Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism.
As I point out in the first chapter, Mormons and skeptics are using a very
similar argument. Both start from the same premise: that the evidence for
Mormonism is just as good as if not better than the evidence for Christianity.
From this premise, Mormons conclude that Christians ought to accept Mormonism,
while skeptics conclude that Christians ought to reject Christianity.
Seidensticker is thus using an argument that has become rather popular among
atheists, whose skepticism is aimed primarily at evangelical Christianity. So,
let’s take a look at his argument.
Judging from the skeptic’s piece, apparently I am doing this
blogging thing all wrong. There is not a single reference to any source—primary
or secondary—in the entire post. I counted perhaps half a dozen specific
factual assertions (depending on how rigorously one uses the word specific),
none of them backed up with any sources. There are general, dismissive remarks
made about the four Gospels and a couple of comments about the Book of Mormon. Yet
Seidensticker apparently thinks he has shown that the evidence for Mormonism,
such as it is, is better than the evidence for Christianity. To paraphrase C.
S. Lewis, anyone can seem rational if he doesn’t have to bother with facts.
Documents: First-Century Christianity vs.
The core of Seidensticker’s argument consists of a series of
issues on which he contends that Mormonism has better evidence than
Christianity. The first is “number and breadth of documents.” Mormonism has a
much larger corpus of documents pertaining to its early history than does
Christianity. Indeed it does! Mormonism arose in the nineteenth century, when
literacy was far more advanced (in some ways) than in the first century, and
when books, newspapers, and other materials could be printed cheaply. As I point
out in my book, “Despite Joseph’s relative lack of literary sophistication and
his customary use of scribes (one way in which he and Paul were alike), his
literary output in seventeen years (1827–44) was many times greater than Paul’s
literary output in a comparable period of time (ca. AD 48–65).”
This difference actually accentuates the problems that arise in the documents
pertaining to Mormon origins. With a much larger and more diverse corpus of
documents at our disposal, one would expect (if Mormonism were true) that we
would have abundant documentary evidence corroborating the most important and
verifiable elements of Joseph’s story. Such is not the case. Instead, we have
radically differing accounts of Joseph’s first vision from Joseph himself (differing
on essential elements, not minutia) and external documentation directly
undermining key claims Joseph made (e.g., regarding the unusual revival he said
led to his vision in early 1820, as well as the intense persecution he said he
suffered for many years due to that vision).
Somehow, Seidensticker managed to trumpet the supposedly superior documentary
sources for Mormonism without mentioning the conflicting accounts that Joseph
produced or the fact that the LDS Church suppressed one of those accounts (the
1832 account in Joseph’s own handwriting) for over a century.
Seidensticker also asserts under this first point, “Some of these
accounts of the events in the early Mormon church were written within days or
even hours of the events,” in contrast, no doubt, to the gap between events and
written accounts about them in the Bible. The statement is true but misleading,
because those events with near-immediate records are of relatively minor
significance. The accounts of the foundational events of Mormonism were written
years after they supposedly happened. Notoriously, there is no account of the
First Vision (dated 1820) written until 1832, and no account was made public
until 1840 (by early Mormon writer Orson Pratt). In that
period, Joseph managed to dictate the Book of Mormon and hundreds of
revelations that were published as Doctrine and Covenants, another Mormon
Seidensticker poses this same faulty comparison as a separate
point with the heading “oral history gap.” The Gospels were written, he says,
“perhaps forty to sixty years” after the events they document, only after a
period of oral tradition. Mormonism, though, supposedly “spent no time in the
limbo of oral tradition.” That’s more or less true but a liability, not an
asset: there was no oral tradition regarding the First Vision because the only
person who supposedly had the vision was the same person who waited over a
decade before trying out different stories about it in writing. In the
meantime, as best we can tell, he did not talk about it to others, so there was
no “oral tradition” about it at all.
Oddly, Seidensticker makes the remark, “The Book of
Mormon was committed to paper immediately, which means no time for the story to
grow into legend with the retelling.” Frankly, this makes me wonder how much he
knows about Mormonism. Joseph claimed to have the gold plates in 1827, dictated
over a hundred pages that were then lost, and then dictated a new text in 1829.
The story might well have changed during those two years. More to the point,
the story was supposedly about the histories of people living in the ancient
Americas, ending in AD 421—over 1,800 years before Joseph produced the English
text. If there was no time for the story to grow into legend, it is because it
started out as fiction!
Copies: Ancient Biblical Manuscripts vs. Mormon Publications
The second comparison concerns the “time gap from original to
our best copies.” Here Seidensticker makes the easy point that our earliest
Greek copies of the New Testament books date a century or more after they were
originally written, whereas the Mormon scriptures were published within a few
years after they were written. That is another (generally) true but highly
misleading statement—and its truth actually undermines the credibility of
Mormonism in a big way:
The Book of Mormon was indeed published a year after it was
composed. The problem is that the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 but claims
to have been composed between 600 BC and AD 421!
The Book of Abraham was composed between 1835 and 1842 and
was published in AD 1842, but Joseph Smith claimed it was written some 3,500
Similarly, the Book of Moses was dictated in AD 1830–31,
published in part in 1851 and more completely in 1878, but claims to have been
a first-person account from Moses, meaning it claims to have been written over 3,000
We have zero copies of any of these three alleged
ancient scriptures in any language prior to Joseph’s dictated manuscripts in
the nineteenth century. The one extant manuscript is something of a smoking gun
for Mormonism’s falsehood: The Joseph Smith Papyri fragments include portions
of the manuscript he claimed to have translated in the Book of Abraham, but it
turns out to be a pagan Egyptian funerary text from about the second century
On the other hand, the gap of one or two centuries between
the composition of the New Testament books and our earliest copies is an
extremely narrow one as compared to what is typical for ancient works of
literature. Moreover, Seidensticker’s claim that the time gap for the New
Testament manuscripts “means a long dark period during which undetected
‘improvements’ could’ve been made to the text” is unjustified. We have more
than a dozen manuscript fragments from ca. AD 125–225, including complete or
nearly complete copies of seven of the epistles and almost all of the Gospel of
John. We also have roughly sixty manuscripts from ca. 225–300, including most
of the texts of the Gospels and whole copies of other New Testament books. These
manuscripts are sufficient for scholars to determine what sorts of changes the
scribes made. We also have enough copies that were made independently of one
another to be able to detect any “improvements” that scribes made, because they
show up in some but not all manuscripts. Like
most skeptics, Seidensticker implicitly assumes that the second-century church
was a monolithic ecclesiastical power that controlled the copying process and
imposed its preferred wording on the texts. Nothing could be further from the
truth: the church had no centralized authority and no political or economic
power to manage let alone control the transmission of the New Testament texts.
Cultures: The “Aramaic” Jesus and the Anglo-American Joseph
Seidensticker next claims that the New Testament was “one culture
removed from the oral Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus” because the Gospels were
written in Greek, whereas the accounts of Mormon origins by the first Mormons
were written “in our own language,” that is, in English. It apparently did not
occur to Seidensticker that this comparison works only for English readers. If
your first language is Spanish, sorry—you don’t have access to the original
cultural expressions of Mormonism.
About that “Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus”: Aramaic was a
language, not a culture. The Jewish people in Judea, Galilee, and neighboring
regions generally did speak Aramaic, but many if not most of them could speak
in Greek, and in any case there was no difficulty talking and writing about
Jewish beliefs in Greek, Latin, or any other language.
According to Seidensticker, because the Gospels were written
in Greek, “They can only document the Christian tradition within Greek culture,
a culture suffused with tales of dying-and-rising gods, virgin births, and
other miraculous happenings.” This claim is so ridiculous that it is
embarrassing. News flash: Jews could speak and write in Greek. Most people in
the Mediterranean world were bilingual (including the majority who were
technically illiterate), speaking their native language and either Greek or
Latin (or both). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament,
did not need to create whole new stories for Greek readers in place of the
original Hebrew accounts.
As for the “tales of dying-and-rising gods” business,
frankly, the claim that Jesus was a “copycat savior” created from bits and
pieces of ancient mythological figures (in another post Seidensticker lists Tammuz,
Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal)
is itself a myth. Jesus was a real historical man: that is certain fact. Jesus
actually died by crucifixion: that is also certain fact. His Jewish
followers (all Aramaic speakers!) very soon after his death became convinced
that he had risen from the dead: again, this is bedrock historical fact.
As for Mormonism, it is all too easy to show the cultural
mismatch between the Book of Mormon and its alleged ancient cultural setting in
the Americas. The Book of Mormon has prophets predicting the coming of Jesus
using language straight out of the New Testament in the King James Version.
They preach sermons modeled on the revivalist preaching of Methodist and other
Protestant evangelists and pastors in the Second Great Awakening. Its pages
address such issues as paid clergy, whether infants should be baptized, whether
God had ceased to grant miracles or to bestow supernatural gifts. The cultural
familiarity of all these elements to modern readers is a selling point from the
Mormons’ point of view, but from the perspective of an historian they are compelling
evidence against the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. The culture “gap” between
us and the Bible is actually a good thing, because it confirms the authenticity
of the Bible as a collection of writings from antiquity.
Eyewitnesses: The Gospels vs. the Witnesses to the Gold
Seidensticker makes the common claim that the four Gospels
“don’t claim to be eyewitness accounts.” That is more or less true for the
first three, but not for the Gospel of John (19:35; 21:24-25). The Gospel of
Luke does not claim to be by an eyewitness—indeed, Luke expressly
distinguishes himself from the eyewitnesses—but it does claim to be based on
eyewitness testimonies (Luke 1:1-4). There is ample evidence to support that
As a supposed contrast to the Gospels, Seidensticker points
out that twelve men (whose names we know) gave eyewitness testimony that they
had seen the gold plates. These would be Joseph Smith and the two groups of men
he hand-picked to be witnesses to the plates (a group of three and another group
of eight). Yes, those twelve men all claimed to have seen the gold plates.
Without getting into the particulars—which erode any confidence in these
the groups of three and eight witnesses did see some metal plates that Joseph
had. Does this mean that the plates were ancient plates produced by Israelite
prophets living in the Americas? Does it mean that they contained texts written
in Reformed Egyptian? The eleven witnesses had no knowledge about these things.
The eight witnesses reported that the plates had curious markings or engravings
on them, but they had no way of knowing if the engravings were a genuine
language and said anything meaningful at all, let alone if they contained the
narratives of the Book of Mormon.
All of the really important, foundational events of Mormonism
were “witnessed” (if they happened at all) either by Joseph Smith alone or by
Joseph and a few men he selected. If the First Vision happened, it happened to
Joseph alone. If Moroni made his many visits to Joseph between 1823 and 1829,
no one else saw him. The three and eight witnesses had one opportunity each to
see the plates, with Joseph present, at a time and place he chose. The evidence
for Jesus’ resurrection, for example, is nothing like this. All sorts of people
reported seeing the risen Jesus, on various occasions, with no advance
preparation, individually or in differing groups. The evidence of eyewitness
testimony is much, much stronger for Christianity than it is for Mormonism.
Provenances: New Testament Authors vs. Joseph Smith
This next argument is a strange one. “The New Testament books
were written by ordinary people, not by God himself, or even angels. Joseph
Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was told by an angel about the golden plates,
from which the Book of Mormon was written. That his source document was vetted
by an angel says a lot about the quality of what he started with (or at least
it beats the claims of traditional Christianity).” This comparison is so
bad it can’t even be called an apples-to-oranges comparison. Indeed, ordinary men
wrote the New Testament books, but one thing everyone seems to acknowledge is
that Joseph Smith was also an ordinary man. Yes, Joseph said that an angel told
him about the gold plates; but the authors of the New Testament books said that
Jesus appeared to them (or to the apostles with whom they were associated, in
the case of Mark and Luke).
Seidensticker calls this comparison a matter of “provenance.”
His use of this word is especially peculiar. When talking about texts,
provenance refers to the place of origin or the known history of the text (or
of the manuscripts we have for it). When it comes to provenance, what we know
about the New Testament texts authenticates them in a way that a reasonable
Mormon could only wish were the case for Joseph’s allegedly ancient texts.
Based on internal evidence cross-referenced with external sources, we can date
most of Paul’s epistles to within a year or so (with some uncertainty for a
couple of them). Our manuscript evidence for Paul’s epistles is especially good,
as mentioned earlier, since we have copies of most of them from AD 300 or earlier.
We also know the locations (the cities) of the churches to which those epistles
were sent and in several cases where Paul was when he wrote them. Even
for the six Pauline epistles that many scholars dispute Paul wrote, scholars
universally agree that they originated from the same region and in the first
century. For the rest of the New Testament, we have varying levels of detailed
knowledge of their origins, which is actually what we would expect when
dealing with ancient texts. Nevertheless, scholars across a broad spectrum,
Christian and non-Christian, date all of the New Testament writings to within a
century or less of Jesus’ crucifixion (and most or all of them within seventy
years or so of that event).
The situation is far different for the supposedly ancient scriptures
Joseph Smith delivered to the world. Even Mormons disagree among themselves as
to which part of the Americas was the region in which the Book of Mormon
authors lived and wrote. Locations in North America, South America, and Central
America all have their defenders today. There is no evidence for the existence
of the Book of Mormon prior to the late 1820s. The situation is even worse for
the Book of Abraham, which does not correspond to the text on the surviving
papyrus Joseph claimed to translate, and for the Book of Moses, for which
Joseph did not bother even claiming to have any manuscript or ancient copy.
Martyrs: The Apostles vs. Joseph Smith
Seidensticker questions the historical evidence for the
deaths of the apostles as martyrs. As I detail in my book, “We may
confidently conclude that at least four of the apostles were martyred (Simon
Peter, James the son of Zebedee, James the Lord’s brother, and Paul) and likely
at least two others (Andrew and Thomas).”
We have plausible information about the martyrdoms of four other apostles, but
not strong evidence. As do Mormons, Seidensticker compares the apostles’
willingness to die for their testimonies to the death of Joseph Smith (and one
could add his brother Hyrum). The problem here is that Joseph’s death had
nothing whatsoever to do with the First Vision, Moroni’s visits, or the Book of
Mormon. A mob stormed the jail and killed Joseph and Hyrum because of issues
arising from Joseph’s actions as the political ruler in Nauvoo, including the
reports of his polygamy and his ordering the destruction of a dissident
Christianity is true not merely because some of the apostles
died as martyrs, but because the totality of the evidence, including their martyrdom
but also many other things, shows that it is true. By contrast, the senseless
action of the mob that killed Joseph and Hyrum proves only that mobs can be
senseless. It does nothing to substantiate even Joseph’s sincerity, let alone
the truth of his religious claims.
Naysayers: The Empty Tomb vs. Empty Claims
Seidensticker says that Christian apologists argue “that if
the Jesus story were false, naysayers of the time would have snuffed it out,”
and he asserts that Mormons could say the same thing about their religion. His
argument here is so vague as to be pointless. Let’s be specific. Suppose Jesus
was crucified (as virtually all historians acknowledge). Then suppose that some
days or weeks later, Jesus’ followers began proclaiming a complete fiction that
Jesus had risen from the dead. Christians often point out that if there had
been nothing to the Resurrection story, people at the time could have pointed out
that Jesus’ dead body was still, well, dead. Now, there are ways around this
argument for those who are skeptically inclined, but the point is a valid one
in the context of the evidence we have for Jesus’ burial and for the origins of
the Christian movement in Jerusalem.
Consider the Mormon origins story by contrast. None of its
major claims were public events (as the Crucifixion was, for example), and most
of its major claims involved only one witness (Joseph Smith). There was no way
that anyone could “snuff out” the story of the First Vision by saying, “Hey, I
was there in the woods with Joseph in 1820, and I didn’t see the Father and the
Son!” When Joseph did have others present for his founding acts, he was always
in control. So, for example, he dictated his “translation” of the gold plates
either behind a curtain of some kind or (as he evidently did later) with his
face buried in a hat containing a stone that he said revealed the text of his
translation to him.
Testable: Christianity vs. Mormonism
Seidensticker concludes by asserting that the Book of Mormon
makes testable claims, though they can be falsified, whereas Christianity
supposedly does not. What? Has he even read the Bible? The Bible makes hundreds
of testable assertions of fact that can and have been tested by archaeologists.
Many, many of these statements of fact have been confirmed through the study of
external evidence. A fair number of the Bible’s historical statements remain
disputed, especially for matters of more distant antiquity (three thousand or
more years ago, especially for the periods of the patriarchs and Moses). Here
again, that is exactly what we would expect. Naturally, the further back
in time the reported events, the less external evidence we will have, and the
more difficult it will be to interpret the evidence.
Christians have nothing to fear from a comparison of the
evidence for their beliefs with the evidence for Mormonism. In such a
comparison, done fairly and with the relevant specific information,
Christianity comes out far, far ahead.
Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining
the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa: DeWard, 2020).
Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 293.
Relevant primary-source documents are available at the Joseph Smith Papers
website and in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 5 vols. (Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 1996–2003). See further Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection
and Joseph’s Visions, chap. 8, and the numerous references cited there.
Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of
the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and
See Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith
Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. P. JS 1-4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq,
with contributions by Marc Coenen, H. Michael Marquardt, and Christopher Woods
(Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011).
On the study of the New Testament texts and manuscripts, see Charles E. Hill
and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Stanley E. Porter, How We Got the
New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker
Academic, 2013); Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism,
ed. Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).
See Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second
Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic,
Bob Seidensticker, “Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior,” Cross
Examined (Patheos blog), April 16, 2014.
See Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 49–71, 97–103, and
the references cited there.
Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 152. The evidence has
been competently and fairly examined in Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the
Closest Followers of Jesus (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015).
Serious historical investigation of the First Vision, Joseph
Smith’s story of seeing the Father and the Son in the spring of 1820, properly
focuses on Joseph’s own multiple accounts of the vision as well as the other
accounts from Joseph’s contemporaries, especially those published during his
However, Mormons often appeal to lesser-known accounts that seem to provide
confirmation of the First Vision or at least some aspects of Joseph’s story.
One such account that comes up quite often is a story attributed to a “Mrs.
Palmer.” According to this account, Mrs. Palmer reportedly heard about Joseph’s
first vision early in the 1820s and knew of threats from at least one churchman
against Joseph over the matter.
The Mrs. Palmer Story as Told by Martha Cox
Here is the entirety of the account, which is attributed to
Martha Cox, as it appears in the typewritten version in the LDS Church’s online
The spirit of the Lord remained with Joseph Smith from the time at which he received his first vision. Mrs. Palmer, a lady advanced in years, came to Utah with her daughter who was a teacher in the Presbyterian schools of our State. The daughter taught in Monroe, Sevier Co, died there and is buried in the Monroe Cemetery.
Mrs. Palmer’s father, according to a story told by her, owned a farm near to that of the Smith family in New York. Her parents were friends of the Smith family, which, she testified was one of the best in that locality, honest, religious and industrious, but poor. The father of the family, she said, was above the average in intelligence. She had heard her parents say he bore the appearance of having descended from royalty. Mrs. Smith was called “Mother Smith” by many. Children loved to go to her home.
Mrs. Palmer said her father loved young Joseph Smith and often hired him to work with his boys. She was about six years old, she said, when he first came to their home. She remembered going into the field on an afternoon to play in the corn rows while her brothers worked. When evening came she was too tired to walk home and cried because her brothers refused to carry her. Joseph lifted her to his shoulder and with his arm thrown across her feet to steady her and her arm about his neck he carried her to their home.
She remembered the excitement stirred up among the people over the boy’s first vision, and of hearing her father content that it was only the sweet dream of a pureminded boy. She stated that one of their church leaders came to her father to remonstrate against allowing such close friendship between his family and the “Smith boy,” as he called him. Her father, she said, defended his own position by saying that the boy was the best help he had ever found. He told the churchman that he always fixed the time of hoeing his large field to that when he could secure the services of Joseph Smith, because of the influence that boy had over the wild boys of the neighborhood, and explained that when these boys worked by themselves much time would be spent in arguing and quarreling which often ended in a ring fight. But when Joseph Smith worked with them the work went steadily forward, and he got the full worth of the wages he paid. She remembered the churchman saying in a very solemn and impressive tone that the very influence the boy carried was the danger they feared for the coming generation, that not only the young men, but all who came in contact with him would follow him, and he must be put down.
Not until Joseph had a second vision and began to write a book which drew many of the best and brightest people of the churches away from them, did her parents come to a realization of the fact that their friend, the churchman had told them the truth. Then her family cut off their friendship for all the Smiths, for all the family followed Joseph. Even the father, intelligent man that he was, could not discern the evil he was helping to promote. Her parents then lent all the aid they could in helping to crush Joseph Smith; but it was too late, He had run his course too long. He could not be put down. Mrs. Palmer recognized the picture of Joseph Smith placed among other pictures as a test, and said of him that there was never a truer, purer, nobler boy than he before he was led away by superstition.
Mormon Apologists’ Treatment of the Mrs. Palmer Story
The story of Mrs. Palmer enjoys widespread circulation
evidently due to its inclusion at the beginning of a popular LDS book entitled They
Knew the Prophet that was first published in 1974 and was reissued in 2002.
It is also included in a similar compilation of memories about Joseph Smith
published in 2003 and compiled by Mark McConkie.
According to Truman Madsen, the story was discovered by one of the dozens of LDS
researchers recruited in the 1960s to answer the historical challenge to the
First Vision raised by Presbyterian scholar Wesley P. Walters.
Madsen’s comment explains why the Mrs. Palmer story is of interest: “It is the
only document yet discovered in which someone outside the church has recorded
hearing of Joseph Smith’s first vision at the time he had it.”
However, this statement is inaccurate, because the outsider—Mrs. Palmer—did not
produce the document, as we shall explain. Robert Boylan expresses the apparent
value of the statement more accurately: “This is important as it is a report of
the words of a non-Mormon neighbour of the Smith family who witnessed the
reaction of one of the persecutors of the young Prophet after his first vision,
showing that Joseph Smith was indeed the recipient of some form of persecutions
as a result of his claims of heavenly visions.”
Indeed, this is apparently still the only document yet discovered (more than
fifty years after Madsen’s comment) that reports a specific non-Mormon
individual saying that he or she had heard about the First Vision soon after it
Given the apparent importance of the story, one would think
that LDS apologists who appeal to it in defense of the First Vision would
provide as much detail as possible about Mrs. Palmer and her account. What we
are usually told, however, is only that the account came from someone named
Mrs. Palmer as recorded by someone named Martha Cox. When additional information
is provided, sometimes it is simply erroneous. The LDS apologetics website
FairMormon, for example, claims that the account reported what “Martha Cox’s
father said” about Joseph Smith, and it describes Martha Cox as “a
contemporary” (seemingly of Joseph Smith, although the FairMormon article does
BYU scholar Richard Neitzel Holzapfel states that Mrs. Palmer’s remembrance is
“one of the earliest word pictures of Joseph Smith by someone outside the
Not one of the many secondary sources that I have found that
appeal to the story in defense of Joseph or his first vision give any
indication as to when it was written. Boylan, FairMormon, and even BYU
professors Holzapfel and Daniel C. Peterson refer to the Mrs. Palmer story
without giving any indication of its date.
An early reference to the story by James Allen in a 1970 Improvement Era
article gives somewhat more information, referring to Mrs. Palmer as “an
elderly woman” when she made her statement, but also giving no date (possibly
because at the time its date had not been determined).
Matthew Brown, in his book on the First Vision, dated Mrs. Palmer’s reference
“between April 1820 and September 1823,” meaning of course when she would have
heard it originally, without giving any indication as to its actual written source,
merely citing Mark McConkie’s compilation.
When Madsen first mentioned the story in 1969, he
acknowledged some difficulties in placing any weight on it:
The document has raised many questions and brought to the surface many differing philosophies of history when shown to professionals. In general they agree that we do not know enough about it to rely on its complete authenticity. We can summarize our knowledge of it by saying this is a late recollection of a Mrs. Palmer and that it is apparently not in her words but someone else’s (unknown) who recorded it.
Madsen apparently overcame these qualms later, though
without providing any new or additional information to warrant regarding the
account as reliable. Indeed, Madsen seems to have been confused as to the
origin of the account. In a BYU devotional lecture in 1978, Madsen appealed to
the story without any caveats at all. In the lecture, which can be heard on
YouTube, Madsen erroneously claimed that the account was given in “a document
from a woman who herself was a Presbyterian.”
This statement was corrected in the printed version of the lecture as follows:
But a document exists that contains reported recollections about Joseph Smith as recorded by Martha Cox. One of these comes from a woman, identified as Mrs. Palmer, who knew him in his early life when she was a child.
Madsen cited from this “document” reports both of Joseph’s
industrious work ethic and of the opposition he received from a “churchman” due
to Joseph’s “first vision.” Once again, he gave no information as to the
identity of Mrs. Palmer or the date when the account was received or written.
Madsen published this lecture in 1989 in a book on Joseph Smith.
One of the very few cautionary remarks about the story comes
at the end of a book notice of the Mark McConkie 2003 compilation that includes
the story. The author of the notice comments about Mrs. Palmer that “she has no
known birth date or death date and the only information about her is that she
lived in the Palmyra area and possibly Monroe in Sevier County.”
That is more information than is given in all of the Mormon apologists’
sources I have cited combined.
Looking for Mrs. Palmer
The source of the account is a typescript entitled “Stories
from Notebook of MARTHA COX, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson” (Church History
Library, call no. MS 658). Fern Cox Anderson (1903-1990) was a Mormon
schoolteacher in the Salt Lake City School District.
Her father, Edward Isaiah Cox (1874-1940), was a lifelong Mormon who resided
most of his life either in Bunkerville, Nevada, or in Salt Lake City.
His mother, Martha James Cragun Cox (1852-1932), was the author of the notebook
in question. Martha was also a lifelong Mormon, having been born just outside
Salt Lake City in 1852 and married Isaiah Cox, a polygamous Mormon who already
had two wives, in St. George, Utah, in 1869. After retiring from teaching in
1920, she devoted her time to temple work in St. George and elsewhere in Utah.
The document is not dated. According to LDS historian Lavina
Fielding Anderson, a typescript of Martha’s undated autobiography,
“Biographical Record of Martha Cox,” was produced in 1979 based on the
However, the correct date seems to be 1970, as is stated in the Church History
Catalog online. The
handwritten manuscript is dated 1928-1930 by Catherine A. Brekus in an article
published in 2011 in the Journal of
while the LDS Church History Library gives 1928 as the date it was written. According
to Dan Vogel, Martha Cox made a notation in her “Biographical Record” dated
September 18, 1929, stating that the “Stories” document was a group of “little
stories of the prophet” that she had copied into a memo book and given to the
daughter of President Joseph F. Smith.
According to these historians, then, Martha Cox’s account
was first written in 1928, then copied in the “Stories” document by hand in
1929. From Madsen’s comment in 1969 cited earlier, evidently the document was
discovered in the 1960s by one of the LDS scholars combing through records
looking for information validating the First Vision story. Eventually “Stories”
was copied in a typescript in 1970, the year after Madsen first announced its
discovery and the same year that James Allen quoted from it in his Improvement
Era article. It may well be that it was Allen who discovered the
handwritten manuscript in the late 1960s and asked to have the typescript
prepared. Perhaps Fern Cox Anderson, whose name is given in the typescript of
the “Stories” document, was the one who produced the typed copy.
Already, we have some serious reasons to be concerned.
Evidently, this story was not written down until 1928, more than a century
after Mrs. Palmer supposedly heard her father and the minister talking about
the First Vision. Moreover, the story comes to us from a lifelong member of the
LDS Church as part of a group of faith-promoting stories about Joseph Smith.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that this information is not disclosed by
any of the Mormon apologists who cite the story in support of the First Vision.
While the identity of Martha Cox is easily known, the same
cannot be said for Mrs. Palmer.
“Stories” introduces her as “Mrs. Palmer, a lady advanced in years,” who had
moved to Utah with her daughter. It states that the daughter taught at
Presbyterian schools in Monroe, Utah, where she died and was buried.
The daughter of “Mrs. Palmer” is very likely the “Miss
Palmer” mentioned in an article in the Salt Lake City-based Christian
periodical The Church Review entitled
“Monroe Presbyterian Mission Sunday-School,” which states that “Miss Palmer and
Miss McPheeters” ran the Sunday school in Monroe in the 1880s and that in 1891
Miss Palmer died.
Her full name is given as “Miss Anna M. Palmer” in one Presbyterian Church
but as “Miss Anna B. Palmer” in another such publication (along with that of
“Miss Kate McPheeters”).
Other publications confirm the name Anna B. Palmer and give the precise date of
her death as January 22, 1891.
Still more precise information appears in a Park College
catalogue. Park College, located in Parkville, Missouri (just outside Kansas
City), was at the time a Presbyterian college; in the twentieth century it
became religiously unaffiliated and is now called Park University. The
catalogue states that Anna B. Palmer graduated from the school in 1882 and
taught music there until 1887. She then moved to Monroe, Utah, under the auspices
of the (Presbyterian) Home Board until her passing on January 22, 1891. This
information places her in Monroe only from 1887 until her death in 1891, which
would mean that her mother, “Mrs. Palmer,” had moved to Monroe during that
Identifying the daughter’s mother “Mrs. Palmer” turns out to
be much more difficult. We have no information about her first name, maiden
name, or date of birth or death. The several sources cited here referring to
Anna B. Palmer do not give any family information. The only information we have
other than Anna’s identity is that Mrs. Palmer’s father owned a farm near the
Smith farm in the 1820s.
There was a George Palmer
who was born in Rhode Island in 1792 and moved to Palmyra and who married
Harriet Foster of Palmyra on March 24, 1817. We do not have any information
about George Palmer owning a farm. However, he was a tanner in partnership with
Henry Jessup, his neighbor in Palmyra, from 1814 to 1828. Jessup’s name does
come up in connection with the Smith family. He was the “Deacon Jessup” at
Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra whom Joseph Smith harshly criticized as
a hypocrite, according to his mother Lucy Mack Smith’s memoirs.
In 1830, two years after George Palmer had moved out of the area, Jessup was
part of a committee from the church sent to investigate the inactivity there of
Lucy and her two children who had joined the church years earlier.
Palmer moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1828 and died in September 1864.
He donated generously to a Central Presbyterian Church (apparently in Buffalo),
which is consistent with the family’s Presbyterianism.
George’s wife Harriet cannot be our “Mrs. Palmer” because Harriet also died in
Buffalo, in 1874,
and because according to the typescript Mrs. Palmer was a child when she knew
Joseph in the 1820s. Nor can “Mrs. Palmer” be one of their daughters, since of
course Palmer was her married name.
One might wonder, then, if “Mrs. Palmer” had been a child
who married one of George and Harriet Palmer’s sons. Their “eldest child” was a
daughter, also called Harriet, who was born in 1818, whose married name was
Putnam, and who died in 1853.
This means that any sons would have been younger than ten years old when the
family moved to Buffalo in 1828. This fact makes it extremely unlikely that any
of George’s sons married the woman called Mrs. Palmer. We know, in fact, that
this was not the case. George did have three sons: Harlow, who “died of the
cholera in 1852, leaving one child,” and George and Oscar, both of whom “died
in 1846, unmarried.”
Another source identifies Harlow’s wife as Emily and states that she died in
1852 or 1853 (one presumes also due to cholera). Emily’s family, the Bancrofts,
evidently never lived in the Palmyra area.
This means, despite the tantalizing connection of George Palmer to Henry Jessup
in Palmyra, that “Mrs. Palmer” cannot have been related to his family. At
present, I do not have access to documentation to identify the Mrs. Palmer
mentioned by Martha Cox.
Who Told Martha Cox the Mrs. Palmer Story, and When?
The typescript of the “Stories” says nothing about when,
where, or from whom Martha heard Mrs. Palmer’s story. It would be a mistake to
assume or infer that Martha heard it directly from Mrs. Palmer. Indeed, the
evidence rather strongly suggests otherwise. Martha lived in St. George, in the
southwest corner of Utah over 150 miles from Monroe where Mrs. Palmer
reportedly lived, until about 1881. Martha then spent most of the next three
decades living in Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico.
During this time when Martha did not live in Utah, Anna B. Palmer (and her
mother, assuming the story is accurate) arrived in Utah in 1887 and lived in
Monroe, where Anna died in 1891. By the time Martha had returned to Utah in
1911, Mrs. Palmer would certainly have been deceased. The chronology, then,
proves that Martha almost certainly did not hear the story directly from Mrs.
Palmer (or from her daughter Anna).
This conclusion is confirmed by the glaring vagueness of
Martha’s reference to the lady as simply “Mrs. Palmer,” with no first name or
initial. In her biographical record, Martha named some of the individuals from
whom her stories about Joseph Smith reportedly derived: “Jesse W. Crosby, Allen
J. Stout, Joseph I Earl, Aunt Esther Pulsipher, Margaret Burgess, Mrs. Palmer,
a Presbyterian lady whose family lived near the Smiths’ in New York.”
In this list of six names, Mrs. Palmer is the only one for whom Martha did not
provide a first name.
Almost all of Martha’s other stories contain indications as
to the circumstances of their origin. In the midst of recounting stories from
Jesse W. Crosby, Martha says, “Bro. Crosby told us,” making explicit that he
gave this particular story in her hearing.
Another story is credited to “an old man named Mc or Mack,” dated “about the
year 1884,” and said to have been told at dinner in “the Muddy Valley,” a
location in Nevada where Martha lived at that time.
Her next story is attributed to “an old man by the name of Jack Reed” living in
1881 in St. Thomas (at the time a town in the Muddy Valley). The rest of
Martha’s account about Reed makes it clear she was getting it secondhand at
best, since she mentions different men who visited Reed and reported back what
he had said. The next story begins, “In 1892 George Hawley of the Reorganized
Church came out to Bunkerville, Nevada,” where Martha had lived, along with his
lawyer, to enter into a legal dispute with LDS Church leaders in the area. It
is clear from the account that Martha was not present during the late-night
argument she reports them having.
Martha’s next story is about a conversation between Joseph
Smith and “a brother named Cutler” in Montrose (in Iowa, directly across the
Mississippi River from Nauvoo) shortly before Joseph was killed. This story
probably refers to Alphaeus Cutler, who was a close associate of Joseph in
Nauvoo and who later in 1853 founded the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite). Martha
comments parenthetically at the end of this story, “A young girl named
Henrietta Janes of Montrose sat near enough in that meeting to hear every word
of the above conversation and has told it to us.”
Henrietta was Martha’s “sister wife,” the first wife of her husband Isaiah Cox.
The next story is about Sylvester H. Earl receiving a
blessing from Joseph Smith in Jacksonville, Missouri. Martha also makes
explicit her source here: she says it was Sylvester’s son Joseph I. Earl.
Her next story, she says, was related by “Aunt” Esther Pulsipher, indicating
that Martha heard it directly from Esther. The story is about Indians visiting
Joseph in Nauvoo when she was about nine years old. The account leaves it
unclear as to whether Esther witnessed this visit herself. Martha then narrates
two stories she says came from Allen J. Stout (a fairly well-known figure in
Mormonism), but she gives no information as to when or where he told the
stories. The language Martha uses (“The question…was asked of Allen J.
S[t]out”) suggests she did not hear it directly from him. Finally, Martha
recounts two stories from Mrs. Margaret Burgess, daughter of William McIntyre,
about her recollections of Joseph in Nauvoo when she was a child there.
This person was Margaret Jane McIntire Burgess (1837-1919), who was seven years
old when Joseph died. She married Melanchthon Burgess in 1855 and they settled
in St. George in 1861, where Martha Cox may well have met her and heard her
tell her story personally.
Two lines of evidence, then, lead us to conclude with an
extremely high degree of confidence that Martha Cox did not hear the story
about Mrs. Palmer from Mrs. Palmer herself: (1) Martha did not live in Utah
during the period when Mrs. Palmer would have lived there, and (2) the Mrs.
Palmer story is the only one for which Martha does not give any information to
explain how she heard the story.
When did this story start being told in Utah? It could not
have been told any earlier than 1887, the year that Anna B. Palmer and her
mother arrived in Utah. According to Martha’s story, Mrs. Palmer was about six
years old when she first met Joseph Smith in Palmyra, apparently sometime
before the First Vision. This would imply that she was born sometime around
1812 or so and would make her roughly 75 years of age in 1887. If it was Mrs.
Palmer’s daughter Anna who told the story, she would have done so before her
death in 1891. This possibility seems rather likely since it would explain why
Martha’s story mentions the daughter. Yet Martha would not have heard it from
Anna directly, as we have already explained. If Mrs. Palmer herself told people
in Utah the story, it seems reasonable to guess that she would have done so
before 1900, when she would have been in her late 80s. Thus, we can conclude
that the story must have been told between 1887 and 1900, and more likely
sometime closer to 1890. This indicates an approximate gap of seventy years or
so between the First Vision and when Anna or Mrs. Palmer started telling people
in Utah about Mrs. Palmer’s recollections of Joseph Smith. It also indicates an
approximate gap of roughly twenty years between the story first being told in
Utah and when Martha Cox heard it, which probably was not until after 1911 when
she moved back to Utah, and a gap of roughly forty years between Anna or Mrs. Palmer
telling the story in Utah and Martha writing it down in 1928 or so.
Let us now reconstruct the chain of transmission for this
story as best we can, acknowledging that we do not have precise information in
this regard. The story begins with a girl of about seven years of age who
reportedly heard her father and a minister talking about Joseph’s first vision
(ca. 1820, assuming the standard date for the First Vision). Roughly seventy
years later, this girl, Mrs. Palmer, now over 75 years old, or her daughter
Anna, tells one or more unknown persons in Utah about what she heard. Then,
roughly forty years later, another woman, Martha Cox, herself now just over 75
years old, writes down this story, based on what she had heard from one or more
unknown persons (probably not the same persons who had heard it from Mrs.
Palmer or Anna) within the previous twenty years or so. The chain of
transmission thus looks like this (assuming Mrs. Palmer actually heard her
father talk about the First Vision):
Mrs. Palmer’s father (ca. 1820) > Mrs. Palmer > Anna B. Palmer (ca. 1890) > unknown > unknown > Martha Cox (1928) > “Stories” excerpts by Martha Cox (1929) > typescript (1970)
There are obviously manifold opportunities for
misunderstanding, confusion, and reinterpretation in these four or five (or
more) generations of telling the story through a period of well over a century
(assuming the typescript is reasonably accurate). The naïve assumption that is
at least implicit in Mormon apologetic use of this story is that Martha Cox
heard the story directly from Mrs. Palmer and then wrote it down as she had
told it. That assumption does not fit the facts. In particular, the fact that
the story would have passed through an unknown number of unknown oral
recitations by Mormons even prior to Martha Cox hearing it and later writing it
down should give any serious researcher pause. One must take seriously the
possibility that the story became altered in some way before taking its current
What Is the “First Vision” in the Mrs. Palmer Story?
We have assumed up to now, as all Mormons apparently do,
that the “first vision” mentioned in Martha Cox’s account of Mrs. Palmer’s
story is the First Vision, the appearance of deity to Joseph Smith in
1820. However, Dan Vogel has proposed a different interpretation. Pointing out
that “Palmer’s account is thirdhand and filtered through a traditional Mormon
mind,” Vogel suggests that the “first vision” from Mrs. Palmer’s perspective
was more likely to have been the first appearance of the angel in 1823 and that
the second vision was the angel’s releasing the gold plates to Joseph in 1827.
Vogel’s suggestion has some merit. Cox does say that
Joseph’s troubles began when he “had a second vision and began to write a book.”
This wording seems to make the connection between the second vision and the
Book of Mormon almost immediate, which does not fit easily the nearly five-year
gap between 1823 and Joseph’s first attempts to dictate the book in 1828. It
also fits the known facts somewhat better, since Joseph did receive quite a bit
of attention beginning around the end of 1827 and early in 1828 in regard to
the gold plates.
Of course, as Vogel agrees, for Martha Cox the expression
“first vision” could only refer to the appearance of the Father and the Son in
1820. This is the story as Martha wrote it, and it is the only version of the
Mrs. Palmer story that we have. While the evidence might not be strong enough
to validate Vogel’s suggestion, the lack of specifics in the account and the
fact of multiple stages of transmission mean that we cannot rule it out,
Assessing Martha Cox’s Stories
One thing that no Mormon apologist seems to have done is to
review the other stories that Martha Cox told about Joseph Smith to see how
credible her stories tended to be. As one might expect, all of the stories are
“faith-promoting” in the extreme. In one story, a Mormon neighbor of Joseph in
Nauvoo recalled that Joseph had the best hay and the best orchard. “If an
inferior cow was by any means shoved on to him it would be but a short time
before she became a first class milker.” Joseph could build fence twice as fast
as most men, and yet he was orderly and cleaned up after himself.
In another story, entitled “Retribution,” an old man named
Jack Reed living in Nevada boasted at a meeting of people seeking to drive
Mormons out of the valley that he had been “a member of the mob at Carthage
Jail and helped to kill the Prophet. He went home from that meeting a very sick
man.” The story goes on to say that Reed died of the “Mormon Curse” that had
also befallen other members of the Carthage mob. The curse took the form of a
disease in which worms ate away at the men’s bodies. The flesh fell off Reed’s
body bit by bit, yet it left him the power of speech until the very end so he
could keep telling people about the Mormon Curse.
Apparently there are some even more fantastic stories in
Martha Cox’s full autobiographical notebook. Lavina Fielding Anderson, in her
biographical study of Cox, admits that some of these will strike even Mormons
today as lacking in credibility:
She sometimes records tales that we
would question today—Jacob Hamblin, for instance, saying that Joseph Smith
taught him the earth was convex at the north pole to receive a new planet, the
impact of which will cause the mountains to melt, the seas to change positions,
and the earth to reel to and fro, obviously prophecies of the last days.
Anderson comments regarding Martha Cox’s writing that “her autobiography becomes a valuable index to the ordinary member’s understanding of the gospel during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” This assessment seems eminently fair-minded. While there may be some truth to some of Martha’s stories about Joseph, it is difficult to assess their historical accuracy. This problem applies especially to the story about the Mrs. Palmer, about whom we know so little and whose story passed through multiple stages of transmission before getting into Martha’s notebook. Madsen’s original assessment that the account has not come down to us in Mrs. Palmer’s own words and that we cannot “rely on its complete authenticity” was right. The bottom line is that the Mrs. Palmer story does not constitute reliable evidence that anyone in the 1820s knew about the First Vision or about Joseph being persecuted during that period of time due to his telling others about it.
For the texts of these accounts, see “First
Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,”
Faith Thinkers, 2020.
from Notebook of Martha Cox, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson,” p. 1,
Church History Catalog, MS 658. The text also appears in Early Mormon
Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003), 3:265–67.
It has been reproduced here directly from the online archive.
Martha Cox might have meant either “contend,” as Vogel suggests, or “comment.”
 Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen
Mae Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet: Personal
Accounts from over 100 People Who Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
1974; Covenant Communications, 2002), 1–2.
Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those
Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 28.
this massive project, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s
Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa,
FL: DeWard, 2020), 235–36, and the sources cited there.
Was ‘money digging’ Joseph Smith, Jr’s primary source of income during his
early years?” FairMormon, n.d.
Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Early Years, 1805–19,” in Joseph Smith, the
Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and
Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University;
Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 1–22.
Boylan, “Recollection”; FairMormon, “Question”; Holzapfel, “The Early Years,
1805–19”; Daniel C. Peterson, “The Sibling Scandals of the Resurrection,” Interpreter:
A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 11 (2014): xxvii–xxviii;
Daniel C. Peterson, “What
Joseph Smith’s Neighbors Thought of Him, Even When They Disagreed with His
Religion,” LDS Living, Nov. 9, 2019. See also “Character:
Was Joseph Smith weak in character while gifted in revelation? How did he
‘influence’ people?” Joseph Smith Foundation, March 4, 2013. The story is also
cited to document that Joseph worked hard, sometimes without citing it in
reference to the First Vision, e.g., “Chapter 1, Joseph Smith,” in Presidents
of the Church, Teacher Manual, Religion 345 (Salt Lake City: Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005), 5.
James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First
Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era 73.4 (April 1970):
Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First
Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 195, 208 n. 4.
Brown’s 2004 FairMormon Conference presentation had given a reference to Martha
Cox’s autobiography but without any date or explanation: “Historical
or Hysterical: Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources,” 2004 FairMormon
Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith Lecture 1: The First Vision and Its
Aftermath,” YouTube, posted Aug. 17, 2018. As of April 2020, this video (which
has only the audio with a photo of Madsen) had well over 100,000 views.
Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
1989), chapter 1.
Book notice of Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph, in Journal
of Mormon History 33.2 (2007): 266 (264–66).
“Death: Fern Cox Anderson,” Deseret News, Aug. 1, 1990.
“Edward Isaiah Cox,” Salt Lake Telegram, Oct. 5, 1940; Missionary
On Martha Cox, see Lavina Fielding Anderson, “A
‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady: Martha Cragun Cox,” in Supporting Saints: Life
Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, edited by Donald Q. Cannon and David
J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center,
Catherine A. Brekus, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency,” Journal of Mormon History 37/2 (Spring
2011): 62 n. 8 (59–87). Brekus is a religious historian at the University of
Chicago specializing in the study of women in American religion.
Catherine R. Watt, “Monroe Presbyterian Mission Sunday-School,” The Church Review (Salt Lake City) 4/1
(Dec. 29, 1895): 43.
Sara I. McNeice, “Two Decades in Utah,” Home
Mission Monthly 14/7 (May 1900): 153. The title page of the volume states
that it was published by the Woman’s Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian
Church, New York.
Notices of Palmer’s death appears in The
Twenty-First Annual Report of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian
Church in the United States of America, May 21, 1891 (New York:
Presbyterian House, 1891), 24, 157; see also 147 for both Palmer and
McPheeters. The notice describes Miss Palmer as “a most consecrated and
successful teacher” (24).
“Obituary record of the Alumni,” in Catalogue
of Park College 1906-1907 (Parkville, MO: Park College Press, 1907), 109;
see also “To the Auxiliaries,” Woman’s Work for Woman 6.3 (March 1891):
85, published by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Societies of the Presbyterian
of Park College, Parkville, Missouri (Cedar Rapids, IA: Superior Press,
1910), 79, 94.
See Early Mormon Documents, ed. Vogel, 1:307–308.
Vogel, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:308 n. 106.
 Josephus Nelson Larned, A
History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, Volume 1 (New
York: Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), 262–64.
Memorial and Family History of Erie County,
New York, Volume II: Biographical and Genealogical (New York and Buffalo:
Genealogical Publishing Company, 1906-1908), 360; Memorial of George Palmer (Buffalo: Courier Printing House, 1864),
Fanny Cooley Williams Barbour, Spelman Genealogy: The English Ancestry and
American Descendants of Richard Spelman of Middletown, Connecticut, 1700
(New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Co., 1910), 249–50.
search of volume
1 of the book Palmer Families in America, comp. Horace Wilbur
Palmer, ed. Nellie Morse Palmer (Neshanic, NJ: Neshanic Printing, 1966), failed
to turn up any candidates. Volumes 2 and 3 are not at present accessible to me.
One presumes that George Palmer of Palmyra and Buffalo is likely listed in one
of those volumes.
The second article in the recent Book of Mormon Central
(BMC) series of “Insights” on the First Vision is entitled “The
1832 First Vision Account.” In that account, Joseph reported seeing only
“the Lord” Jesus, not of the Father and the Son.
This notable difference, along with other issues pertaining to the 1832
account, is an important issue in assessing the historical reliability of the
official account in Joseph Smith–History.
We will have occasion to refer to this account in later articles in this
How Was the 1832 First Vision Account Found?
In this article, however, our focus will be on the document
itself. The account was never published, quoted, or even mentioned in any LDS
publication for 133 years after it was written. Although the account has been
the subject of much discussion since 1965, what does not seem to have received
much attention is how this account became public information. The BMC article
has only this to say: “Being eclipsed in notoriety and importance by Joseph’s
canonical 1838–39 account in the Pearl of Great Price, it went unpublished
until 1965 when Paul Cheesman included a transcript of it in his master’s
thesis.” But how was is that Cheesman became the person to make this document
known to the public?
It needs to be understood that the 1832 account was not
merely “eclipsed” after the publication of Joseph’s 1838–39 account. Rather, it
was never known to the public even before his official account was
published, nor was there any public reference to it for more than 120 years
afterward. Paul R. Cheesman
made the 1832 account public knowledge for the very first time at Brigham Young
University (BYU) in 1965. This is a rather surprising way for the document to
be first revealed. One might have expected the LDS Church to make an official
announcement of the discovery of a hitherto unknown account, written in
Joseph’s own hand earlier than any other known account, of the foundational
event of Mormonism. Instead, the document was referenced in an appendix of a
student thesis at BYU. Curiosity about how this “discovery” took place seems to
be in order.
The Joseph Smith Papers, the monumental project of the
Church Historian’s Office, offers no explanation of the document’s discovery in
its long, two-page “Source Note” on the 1832 History (which the BMC Insight
article cites). It does, however, provide some interesting background
information. The three leaves of paper containing the History were cut
out of the book in which it had been written. “Manuscript evidence suggests
that these excisions took place in the mid-twentieth century.” Church
Historian’s Office inventories in Nauvoo (from 1846) and Salt Lake City (1855)
show that the book had been in that office’s custody continuously since the
time of Joseph Smith.
Who “Found” the 1832 First Vision Account?
In his Acknowledgments page, Cheesman thanked A. William
Lund, Eugene Olsen, and Lauritz Peterson
of the Church Historian’s Office “for their cooperation and help in making this
Cheesman presented the text of the 1832 account with a brief introduction in
his appendix D,
where he offered the following explanation:
This account was found in a journal
ledger in the Church Historian’s office in Salt Lake City. The pages had been
cut out but were matched with the edge of the journal to prove location. This
was done in the presence and with the agreement of Earl Olsen and Lauritz Peterson
of the Church Historian’s office.
That is all Cheesman says about how he came into possession
of the account.
One might suppose that Cheesman had been given permission to
peruse some materials in the Church Historian’s Office for the purpose of writing
his master’s thesis, was looking for accounts of the First Vision, and as a
result found the document. On this hypothesis, Olsen and Peterson (at least)
would have been unaware of the document before Cheesman found it. However, it
is also plausible that Cheesman did not himself discover the book or the pages
of the History. Rather than saying, “I found this account,” or a more
academically impersonal “This author found the account,” Cheesman wrote, “This
account was found.” His wording at least leaves open the possibility that
Cheesman did not discover the account on his own while rummaging around in the
Church Historian’s Office.
What is not plausible is that no one in the Church
Historian’s office for over a century had leafed through Joseph’s earliest
records to see what was there. In particular, Joseph Fielding Smith (the
grandson of Joseph’s brother Hyrum) had been part of the Church Historian’s
Office since 1901 and its head since 1921, and he remained so until he became
the LDS Church President in 1970. It is highly unlikely that he knew nothing
about the account despite having access to the office’s holdings for over sixty
years before it became public knowledge. Similarly, A. William Lund, whom
Cheesman thanked for his help, had been in the office for over fifty-five
Evidence of Suppression of the 1832 First Vision Account
Of course, we do not have direct, irrefragable proof that
Smith, Lund, or others suppressed the 1832 account. In the nature of the case,
if anyone in the office knew about it and was suppressing it, we would not
expect to have any testimonies directly from them in support of that fact.
Smith evidently did keep diaries, but LDS researcher Stan Larson’s request in
late 2012 to read the diaries was denied.
The best we could hope for, then, is multiple testimonies from outsiders to the
suppression. This, we do have.
LaMar Petersen, a former Mormon, reported that he and his
wife spent six sessions with Levi Edgar Young in 1952, when Young was the
senior president of the group of LDS leaders known as the Seventy.
During the course of those sessions, Petersen says that Young told him about
He told us of a “strange account”
(Young’s own term) of the First Vision, which he thought was written in
Joseph’s own hand and which had been concealed for 120 years in a locked vault.
He declined to tell us details, but stated that it did not agree entirely with
the official version. Jesus was the center of the vision, but God was not
mentioned. I respected Young’s wish that the information be withheld until
after his death.
After Young died (December 13, 1963), Petersen told Jerald
and Sandra Tanner about this discussion with Young. (Five years later, Petersen
was excommunicated from the LDS Church, reportedly because of his troubling
Petersen also provided his own notes from that discussion, which the Tanners
His curiosity was excited when
reading in Roberts’ Doc. History reference to “documents from which these
writings were compiled.” Asked to see them. Told to get higher permission.
Obtained that permission. Examined documents. Written, he thought, about 1837
or 1838. Was told not to copy or tell what they contained. Said it was a
“strange” account of the First Vision. Was put back in vault. Remains unused,
After hearing about it from Petersen, the Tanners wrote to
Joseph Fielding Smith requesting a copy of this account of the First Vision.
“Our letter was never answered, and we had almost given up hope of ever seeing
Then it surfaced in Cheesman’s thesis. This is certainly an interesting
coincidence, if indeed it is a coincidence. The Tanners requested from the
Church Historian’s Office a copy of the “strange account” in 1964. Their
request was ignored. The very next year, the account was made public, 133 years
after it was written, for the very first time, in a BYU master’s thesis, having
been “found” in that same Church Historian’s office (obviously, some time
before the thesis was submitted). This does not look like a mere coincidence or
happenstance. It appears that Smith or other staff members of the Church
Historian’s Office knew about the 1832 History but suppressed it until
1964, when they chose to make it available through Cheesman’s thesis that was
finished the next year. The question is why they did so at that time.
Steven Harper, a scholar who has published extensively on
the First Vision, has given an account of an interview he and Samuel A. Dodge
did in 2009 with James B. Allen, Cheesman’s thesis adviser. According to Allen,
Cheesman asked Allen if he could write his thesis on the First Vision, telling
him, “I have found another version of Joseph Smith’s first vision.” Harper
explains, citing the statement in Cheeman’s thesis quoted earlier, that
“Cheesman had been shown the document in the Church Historian’s Office.”
Although Cheesman did not actually say that someone else had shown it to him,
his wording, “This account was found,” likely implies that was what had
happened, as we noted earlier. Harper’s recounting of his interview with Allen
offers no explanation for who showed Cheesman the account or why. In a public
meeting, Harper has suggested that Smith knew about the 1832 History but
withheld it from the public due to a defensive posture borne out of the
martyrdom of his grandfather Hyrum and the bad experiences of his father Joseph
This psychological explanation (which carries with it an appeal to pity)
implicitly acknowledges that the 1832 account of the First Vision appeared
damaging to the LDS Church’s claims. What it does not explain is why Smith
suppressed it for so long and then just happened to authorize its release when
Why Was the 1832 First Vision Account Released in 1965?
In 2016, Richard Bushman argued that the 1832 account and
several other previously unknown accounts were discovered by Mormon historians
searching “for earlier references to the First Vision”:
The discovery of nine versions of
the First Vision is the result of work by historians in response to a challenge
from critics of the Church. The standard account found in Joseph Smith’s
History of the Church is so rich and interesting that for many years we were
content to rely on it alone. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, a
number of critics of Joseph Smith, including Fawn Brodie author of a biography
of the Prophet, asked why was the account of the First Vision not written until
1838. Brodie thought that so spectacular an event should have been recorded
earlier—if it had actually happened. Brodie hypothesized that Joseph Smith made
up the whole story in 1838 to reinvigorate belief at a time when many of his
followers were falling away. The first vision, she argued, was a fabrication
meant to strengthen the faith of his wavering followers.
Church historians of course could
not leave that challenge unanswered. They thought Brodie made a weak argument
but without evidence of an earlier account, her conjecture might persuade some.
And so the hunt was on. The historians began to scour the archives for earlier
references to the First Vision. And sure enough, one by one, other accounts
began to turn up, one in 1835, another as early at 1832, and others scattered
through his life. Brodie’s claim that Joseph had said nothing about the First
Vision until 1838 was effectively dispelled. He wrote the first of these
accounts in 1832 as a start on a history of the church which he hoped to
continue in a daily journal.
The evidence we have considered strongly undermines
Bushman’s explanation. The “Church historians” almost certainly knew about the
1832 account long before 1964 and most likely before the 1945 publication of
Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith.
The proposed connection between Brodie’s 1945 book and the surfacing of the
long-lost account twenty years later in 1965 is obviously weak. Moreover, the chronological
difference between an initial First Vision reference in 1832 and one produced
just six years later in 1838 is not all that great. Either way, the fact
remains that Joseph apparently told no one about the First Vision until after
he founded the LDS Church in 1830.
However, Bushman was probably right in thinking that the
historians were concerned about critics. As Larson comments in a rather
understated way, “There are no available records of the reasoning behind the
decision to keep the 1832 account from becoming widely known, but the history
of denying researchers access to the account suggests some uneasiness about its
The critics of concern were most likely the Tanners.
An anonymous article at the FairMormon website suggests that
Smith heard that Cheesman was writing a thesis on Joseph’s visions and
“surrendered the account knowing that it would be in trusted hands.”
This suggestion is not so much wrong as too vague. The account was already
“in trusted hands”: it was in the possession of the Church Historian’s Office.
What the FairMormon author apparently means was that Smith trusted Cheesman and
his faculty adviser James Allen to write about the 1832 account in a manner
supportive of the First Vision.
What seems to have happened is that Smith or one or more of
his assistants decided that in light of the Tanners’ knowledge of the
document’s existence, the Church Historian’s Office needed to control the
release of the document and to make it appear that an enterprising student
“discovered” it. In this way, the Church could maintain plausible deniability
regarding the charge that it had suppressed the account.
A consideration of the people whom Cheesman acknowledges as
helpful to his thesis adds support for this explanation. Three or four men from
the Church Historian’s Office (Lund, Olson, and Peterson) are mentioned in the
Acknowledgments page, but not Joseph Fielding Smith. The lack of any
acknowledgment of Smith is striking, given that he was the head of the office.
The omission makes sense, however, if Smith had previously suppressed the
account and had arranged for others in the office to help Cheesman obtain it so
as to keep his name from being part of the record of its “discovery.”
The BYU scholars involved in Cheesman’s work are also
noteworthy. We have already mentioned James B. Allen, Cheesman’s thesis
Cheesman also thanks Richard Lloyd Anderson and Milton V. Backman Jr., among
others, “for their suggestions.”
Allen, Anderson, and Backman went on to do almost all of the important
scholarly writing on the First Vision over the following couple of decades.
This narrative creates a reasonably strong case for thinking
that Joseph Fielding Smith did in fact know about the account for years prior
to Cheesman’s thesis and tried to suppress knowledge of its existence. When he
found out that the Tanners knew about the account, he appears to have arranged
for the account to be made public quietly under the most favorable possible
circumstances and in such a way as to make it appear that it had been found
accidentally by a student. In short, the evidence shows that most likely the
1832 History was leaked, not discovered.
Were Authentic Gospel Accounts about Jesus Suppressed?
I have argued that the LDS Church suppressed Joseph’s
earliest account of the First Vision until more than 130 years after he had
written it, allowing it to become public knowledge by leaking it so as to make
its sudden appearance seem fortuitous. Those who are zealous to defend the LDS
religion but recognize that the evidence supports this conclusion might wonder
if the same sort of accusation might be made against the early Christian
church. After all, the New Testament contains only four Gospels, and yet we
know that there were many other “gospels” written that the early church did not
include. Was this a case of suppressing inconvenient or embarrassing
information? The short answer is No. I have written on this question at some
length elsewhere, so here I will simply be summarizing some key points.
First, the canonical Gospels are much earlier than the
noncanonical gospels. As I documented in Part #1 of this series, biblical
scholars generally date the four New Testament Gospels to the second half of the
first century, between the 60s and the 90s.
All of the noncanonical gospel texts, on the other hand, are generally dated to
the second century or later. Bart Ehrman, for example, in his book Lost Scriptures, discusses the dates of
seventeen gospels not included in the New Testament, and he dates none of them
to the first century.
The only debated exception is the Gospel of Thomas, which a small minority of
scholars argue was originally written in the late first century. Most scholars
date the Gospel of Thomas to the second century, typically around the middle of
Second, the noncanonical gospels claim to be written by
first-century followers of Jesus, but historians unanimously agree that these
authorship claims are false. No scholar working in the field thinks that the
apostle Thomas wrote the Gospel of Thomas or that Mary Magdalene wrote the
Gospel of Mary. That conclusion is obvious since, as almost everyone agrees,
these books were written in the second century, too long for any of Jesus’
original followers to have still been alive. Scholars debate whether these
names were attached to the books for the purpose of deliberate deception or as
a way of identifying the followers of Jesus the real authors wanted to honor.
Either way, those gospels were not written by the persons whose names they
Ironically, whatever one thinks about the origins of the New
Testament Gospels, they do not have this problem. None of the Gospel writers
refers to himself by name or states in a clear way who he is. We presume, of
course, that Luke’s original reader (“Theophilus,” addressed by Luke in his
preface, Luke 1:1-4) knew who the author was. That may well have been the case
also with the other three Gospels’ original readers. In any case, the four
canonical Gospels do not identify their authors in any clear or specific way.
This means, for example, that if you are skeptical that the apostle Matthew
wrote the First Gospel, that does not mean that the Gospel is fraudulent,
because it doesn’t make any claims about its author. Christians are therefore
free to consider various theories as to the authorship of the Gospels without
questioning their authenticity.
The truth is that the early church did not suppress the
noncanonical gospels. They rejected them as scripture, and rightly so, but they
did not destroy them or keep them locked away somewhere. For the first three
centuries of its existence, the early church had no political power anywhere in
the world and had no means for preventing various religious groups from
teaching false doctrine or producing fraudulent scriptures. The texts the early
church rejected as scripture were fictions produced in the second century (and
later), not authentic writings of the apostles or their associates.
By contrast, the 1832 First Vision account was the earliest
account, written by the visionary himself, and indeed the one account that was
in Joseph’s own handwriting. Yet the LDS Church authorities kept this document
locked away for more than a century and said nothing about its existence. When
a few people found out about it and asked to see it, they were refused. Only
when the LDS Church decided that they could no longer successfully suppress
knowledge of the account’s existence did they arrange for it to be made public
Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, Mormons often speak as if there was never anything disturbing or problematic about the 1832 account. So, for example, M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS Church, gave an address at the April 2020 General Conference in which he said that they were “blessed to have four primary accounts” of the First Vision, including the 1832 account. The behavior of LDS leaders in the 1960s, however, shows that they knew otherwise.
See Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions:
Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard,
2020), 223–28, 249–56. For a free excerpt from the book, see the Faith Thinkers website.
Paul R. Cheesman (1921–1991) had recently begun teaching in the Department of
Religious Education at BYU in 1963, and he continued on its faculty until 1986.
He later became best known for his many articles and books defending the Book
of Mormon archaeologically, although his work is considered passé by LDS
“History, Circa Summer 1832,” in The
Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844,
ed. Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L.
Jensen (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 4.
William Lund (1886–1971) was an assistant Church historian for almost sixty
years, beginning in 1908. See Albert L. Zobell Jr., “In Memoriam: A. William
Lund (1886–1971),” Ensign, March 1971. Lauritz Peterson (1916–1999) was
an historical researcher for the LDS Church who was part of the staff of the
Church Historian’s Office in the 1960s. I have been unable to locate any
information on a Eugene Olsen involved in the Church Historian’s Office. E.
Earl Olson, whom Cheesman also mentioned (see below), was an assistant there
from 1965 to 1972.
Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early
Visions,” Master’s thesis (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1965), iii.
Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith’s Strange Account of the First
Vision: Also a Critical Study of the First Vision (Salt Lake City: Modern
Microfilm, 1965), 4, underlining and all-capitalization removed. LDS scholars,
after the document was made available for study, determined that it was
probably penned in 1832.
Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism
(Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 151.
Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2019), 204, citing an interview of James B. Allen by
Samuel A. Dodge and Steven C. Harper, 2009, and Cheesman, “Analysis,” 126.
Other parts of the interview with Allen are quoted at length, and the interview
is dated July 27, 2009, in two inset text boxes in James B. Allen and John W.
Welch, “The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU
Religious Studies Center, 2012), 42, 44.
“2019 Uplift Gathering of Faith—The Bonner Family & Steven C. Harper,” YouTube,
April 23, 2019 (1:12–1:16).
Richard L. Bushman, “What Can We Learn from the First Vision,” BYU Hawaii,
Devotional, Nov. 15, 2016.
Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945; 2nd ed., 1971). In the second edition, Brodie
referred to the 1832 account and some of its differences from the canonical
account (24). The only change she made to her conclusion was that Joseph may
have invented the story “to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and
money-digging” sometime after 1830 instead of sometime after 1834 (25).
Did Joseph Fielding Smith remove the 1832 account of Joseph Smith’s First
Vision from its original letterbook and hide it in his safe?” FairMormon.org,
n.d. (evidently 2019, at least in its present form).
James B. Allen wrote three articles on the First Vision in 1966, 1970, and
1980, the latter two more recently reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel
Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center,
2012), 41–89, 227–60. Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote an influential early article
entitled “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through
Reminiscences,” BYU Studies 9 (1969):
1–27, and more recently wrote “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision
Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First
Vision, 91–169. Milton V. Backman Jr. wrote at least four articles and
essays on the First Vision, the entry “First Vision,” in Encyclopedia of
Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:515–16, and
the first full-length book on the multiple accounts, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary
Accounts, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971, 1980).
Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komozsewski, “The Historical Jesus and the Biblical Church: Why the Quest Matters.”
In Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of
History: Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins, ed.
Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski; Foreword by N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2019), 17–42 (esp. 25–32).
 For documentation see Part #1 of this series,
“Four Contrasts between Joseph Smith’s Four First Vision Accounts and the Four
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books
that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2003), 7–89.
See the survey of scholarship in Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, TENTS 11
(Leiden: Brill, 2014), 125–27.
See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Synoptic
Criticism and Evangelical Christian Apologetics,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 13.1 (Spring 2014): 97–117 (esp.
The first article in the recent Book of Mormon Central “Insight”
series provides an overview of “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First
Vision.” These include the 1838/1839 canonical account in Joseph Smith–History (part
of the collection known as the Pearl of Great Price) and three other accounts
given by Joseph, two of them earlier than the canonical account (1832, 1835)
and one of them later than it (1842).
The main point of this article is to assure Latter-day Saints that the
existence of these other accounts, despite any differences between them and the
official account, should not be troubling to them. As an analogy meant to
underscore this point, the article makes the following comparison between Joseph’s
multiple accounts and the four Gospels:
As with the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, the four primary accounts of the First Vision can be read individually to appreciate the nuance and subtle differences that they communicate in each retelling or they can be read together in harmony to appreciate them as an organic whole.
We will consider how nuanced or subtle the differences are
among Joseph’s primary accounts as we proceed through this series. There are
serious differences among those accounts that cannot plausible “be read
together in harmony,” notably regarding what Joseph was seeking to know when he
had the vision and who and what Joseph saw. For now, though, we should point
out some relevant differences between the Gospels and Joseph’s firsthand
1. The Gospels had four different authors, unlike
Joseph’s firsthand accounts.
As the reader presumably already knows, the four Gospels in
the New Testament were produced by four different authors. Although biblical
scholars hold differing opinions as to the identity of the authors of the
Gospels (none of which actually names its author), everyone agrees that they
were four different individuals. By contrast, of course, the firsthand accounts
of the First Vision were all produced by Joseph Smith himself.
A more appropriate comparison, one would think, would be
between the four Gospels and various accounts by persons other than Joseph.
2. The Gospels were written longer after the events they
narrate than Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision.
By the most conservative estimates in contemporary biblical
scholarship, the earliest of the Gospels was written in the late 50s, at least
25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection in either AD 30 or 33. Most
scholars date the Gospels between the 60s and the 90s, which would be roughly
30 to 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection.
On the other hand, Joseph’s firsthand accounts were all
written between 1832 and 1842, a narrow period of time 12 to 22 years after the
date of the First Vision (1820). Thus, the latest of Joseph’s accounts was
written a shorter period of time after the event it narrates than the earliest
of the four Gospels.
3. The four First Vision accounts by Joseph Smith are all
firsthand accounts, which is not the case with all of the Gospel accounts.
By definition, all of Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision
were firsthand accounts and thus present themselves as eyewitness testimonies
of what he said he personally witnessed. This is not the case with all of the
accounts in the four Gospels.
According to the traditional attributions, the Gospels of
Matthew and John were produced by apostles, whereas associates of apostles
produced the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Assuming Matthew was in some sense the
author of the Gospel that bears his name, he would still not have been giving a
firsthand, eyewitness account of everything recorded in his Gospel. Matthew
would not have been present during the events leading up to Jesus’ birth and
infancy (Matt. 1–2) and probably did not witness most of the events that preceded
Matthew’s call to follow Jesus as one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9). The
traditional view is that Mark composed his Gospel based on the apostle Peter’s
recollections in his oral preaching. Luke explicitly distinguishes himself from
the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly life (Luke 1:1-4). Luke makes it clear in
that preface that he consulted and used multiple sources in writing his
account, and most scholars think that is true of the Gospel of Matthew as well.
Only the Gospel of John presents itself as based entirely or even predominantly
on the eyewitness testimony of its author (John 19:35; 21:24-25).
4. The Gospels are often narrating different though
related events, whereas Joseph’s First Vision accounts all claim to report the
very same event.
By definition, those accounts that Mormons recognize as
First Vision accounts are accounts of the same event—a specific vision that
happened to Joseph on a particular day in 1820. The Gospels, of course, often
narrate the same events, and one can see this easily in parallel passages such
as the three accounts of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River (Matt.
3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22) or the accounts in all four Gospels of the
miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:33-44; Luke 9:12-17;
John 6:1-14). However, in many cases the Gospels are narrating different though
similar events that occurred around the same time but that involved different
participants. This is notably true of several of the Resurrection appearances
reported in the Gospels:
Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene alone (John
Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road
to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
Jesus appearing to the eleven disciples (and
perhaps others) on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20)
Jesus appearing to seven of the disciples at the
Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (John 21:1-23)
No specific Resurrection appearance is reported in all four
of the Gospels.
Luke and John do give parallel accounts of Jesus’ first appearance to the men
disciples gathered together in the house in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43; John
20:19-23). On the other hand, Matthew does not mention this appearance,
reporting instead an appearance in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). John does have an
appearance in Galilee, but it is a different one than Matthew’s (John 21:1-23).
It can be very difficult to harmonize these accounts, but that is not
surprising since they are about different events that happened to different
groups of people, told from different individuals’ perspectives, and written up
by different authors. Luke tells us that there were an uncounted number of
these appearances that took place during a period of forty days (Acts 1:3).
Why these contrasts between Joseph’s First Vision
accounts and the Gospels matter
The relevance of these four contrasts between Joseph’s
firsthand accounts of the First Vision and the four Gospels is simple to
understand. In light of these contrasts, we would expect it to be easier, not
harder, to harmonize Joseph Smith’s accounts than it would be to harmonize the
four Gospels’ parallel accounts of a particular event such as Jesus’
crucifixion or burial. Yet such is not the case, as we will see in subsequent
posts in this series. The most significant difficulties in harmonizing the
Gospels arise when trying to fit together different events narrated in
different Gospels, such as the various appearances of Jesus to differing
individuals and groups found in Matthew, Luke, and John. Such difficulties
should not be surprising when the accounts come in different books written by
different authors reporting different events.
In the case of the First Vision, on the other hand, we have
four accounts written by the same author reporting the same event. Yet the
difficulties in harmonizing Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision with one
another (as well as with other accounts produced by associates during his
lifetime) are far more serious than any such problems in the Gospels’ accounts
of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This is one of several ways in which the
historical evidences for Jesus’ resurrection turn out to be much stronger and
more secure than the historical evidences for Joseph’s first vision. This point
is developed fully in my new book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions:
Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (DeWard, 2020).
For the complete texts of these and other relevant accounts produced during
Joseph’s lifetime, see “First
Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,”
at the Faith Thinkers website.
For the information presented here about the Gospels, see especially the mainstream textbook by Mark Allan Powell, Introducing
the New Testament: A Historical Literary, and Theological Survey, 2nd ed.
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018); the evangelical textbook by Andreas Köstenberger,
L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, The
Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd
ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); and, for an agnostic scholar’s
perspective, Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to
the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press,
we exclude the Long Ending of Mark (16:9-20) as a later addition to the Gospel,
as the vast majority of New Testament scholars do, Mark gives no narration of
any Resurrection appearances, at least none that has been preserved.
According to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints (LDS), in the early spring of 1820 the Father and the Son
appeared to their founder Joseph Smith Jr. when he was a boy. At its General
Conference in April 2020, the LDS Church’s leaders commemorated the
bicentennial of this event, known as the First Vision, which it believes
occurred exactly 200 years ago. The Acting President of the Quorum of the
Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, M. Russell Ballard, gave an address at their
recent General Conference rehearsing the story,
and several other speakers at the conference also commented on the First
Vision. The church’s current Prophet, Russell M. Nelson, read a new
proclamation entitled “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus
Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” in a video recorded in “the
Sacred Grove,” the woods near Joseph’s boyhood home where he said he had
experienced the First Vision.
In the past three months or so Mormons have produced a
flurry of new materials referencing the First Vision. The LDS Church produced a
new curriculum manual devoted entirely to the First Vision.
The February 2020 issue of the LDS Church’s official flagship magazine, the Ensign,
included four articles on the First Vision.
Throughout February and March of this year, the pro-LDS organization Book of
Mormon Central (BMC) produced a series of twenty “Joseph Smith–History Insight”
articles about the First Vision on the related website called Pearl of Great
Price Central. On
April 3, the BMC website posted a list of the entire series.
Anticipating the attention that the First Vision would
receive this year, at the beginning of last year I started work on a book that
would, among other things, examine the historical evidence pertaining to the
First Vision. That book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining
the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism, was published late last
month (March 2020). One Mormon blogger, Robert Boylan, has already written a
lengthy series of posts attacking the book.
In light of the recent spate of materials produced on the
First Vision, I will be producing additional resources on the subject to
supplement the information presented in my book (which has just one chapter on
the First Vision itself). Some of these resources will appear on the Faith
Thinkers website, such as the new series of articles on “First
Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision.” That
new series presents primary-source accounts of the First Vision from Joseph
Smith and his associates with informative notes about textual changes and about
the use of the Bible in those accounts. Six of the articles in that series are
already online. Other resources will appear here on The Faith Thinker blog.
Book order information: Currently, Amazon has a very
limited number of copies of Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions and
is estimating about three weeks for shipment. Faith Thinkers now has copies of
the book in stock that you can order from us directly. We are working on being
listed as an Amazon seller but that might take several days or even longer
because of the way things are going there. If you would like to order a copy
directly from us, you can do so from our website homepage, https://faiththinkers.org, where you can
also get a free excerpt of more than thirty pages from the book.
Russell Ballard, “Shall We Not Go On in So Great a Cause?” General Conference,
First Vision (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
“Palmyra, New York, USA”; “Eight Truths from the First Vision”; “Celebrating
the Restoration”; and Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for
Personal Revelation,” Ensign, Feb. 2020.
The articles in this series are all anonymous. Regardless of who authored the
articles, they are clearly based mainly on the work of Steven C. Harper, who
has emerged in the past several years as the leading LDS historian on the First
Vision. Harper’s works on the First Vision are cited in a majority of the
articles in the series.
It is surely one of the oddities in the history of human thought that millions of people today deny that Jesus died on the cross. The historical evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate is about as strong as it could be for any historical event in the ancient world. However, today many skeptics and most Muslims dispute this historical fact. We should therefore be prepared to present good reasons in defense of this fact, which is so basic to our hope as Christians (1 Peter 3:15). I can think of no better day to reflect on the evidence than Good Friday.
Four considerations combine to make the case that the death of Jesus on the cross is certain historical fact. You can remember these different evidences by thinking of them as four “aces” in a hand of cards, representing an extremely strong “hand” for the defense of the Crucifixion as historical fact:
Accepted as fact in all our ancient sources
Accurate information in the Gospel accounts
Acknowledged by atheists and other non-Christians
Ad hoc nature of alternative theories
It is not necessary for us to have this kind of support for
each and every reported fact in the Bible in order for us to be rational in
accepting those reports. However, when we do have such evidence, we should
point it out to those who challenge the Bible. In this case, the evidence is so
strong that we may confidently say that those who deny the historicity of
Jesus’ death on the cross are the ones who are not thinking rationally.
Let’s take a look at each of these four considerations. Much of the information here is presented in my new book Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, which goes into more detail especially regarding the alternative theories.
Accepted as Fact in All Our Ancient Sources
That Christ died on the cross was stated in writing very
soon after the fact. Paul refers to Christ’s crucifixion in his early epistles
between about AD 48 and 55 (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23; Gal. 6:12, 14), roughly
15 to 25 years after Jesus died.
In the context of ancient literacy and technology, having documentary evidence
that soon after an event is excellent. Paul in these same epistles says that he
was reminding his readers of what he had told them in person about Christ’s
crucifixion when he founded their churches (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1). This
information pushes the earliest known accounts back even closer to the event.
The death of Christ by crucifixion is as amply attested from
a variety of sources as one could ask. Of course, this event is narrated in
some detail in all four Gospels (Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). There
are explicit references to Christ’s death on the cross not only in the Gospels
and Paul, but also in Acts (2:23, 36; 4:10, etc.), Hebrews (6:6; 12:2), 1 Peter
(2:24), and Revelation (11:8). Outside the canonical writings of the New
Testament, Christ’s crucifixion is mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas (55) and narrated
in the Gospel of Peter (10-22). These apocryphal gospels are usually dated in
the early to middle second century but are sometimes thought to preserve
References to Jesus’ crucifixion also occur in the writings of early
second-century apostolic fathers such as the Epistle of Barnabas and several of
the epistles of Ignatius.
In addition to these multiple references to the crucifixion
of Jesus from canonical and noncanonical Christian sources, we also have
references in non-Christian literature from the late first and early second centuries.
Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the 90s, reported that “Pilate, at
the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross” (Antiquities
of the Jews 18.63). Tacitus, the Roman historian writing about AD 115-117,
mentioned that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of
Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (Annals 15.44). The expression “the
extreme penalty” in this context is clearly a euphemistic reference to
crucifixion, since it was intended to be the worst possible way to be killed.
Those who doubt not only that Jesus died on the cross but that he even existed
have labored strenuously to discount the authenticity of these references, but
sober scholarship is simply not on their side.
The bottom line is that Christian (both canonical and
noncanonical), Jewish, and pagan Roman authors within less than a century after
the fact agreed that Jesus died on the cross. There is no contrary report from
any source. In a major 2011 academic, encyclopedic reference work on Jesus,
Joel B. Green concluded, “Multiple strands of evidence—from Christian, Jewish,
and Roman sources—undergird the claim that among the data available to us
regarding Jesus of Nazareth, none is more incontrovertible than his execution
on a Roman cross by order of Pontius Pilate.”
Accurate Information in the Gospel Accounts
The Gospels provide detailed information about Jesus’ death
by crucifixion that can be corroborated from archaeology and from other
external sources. Such information pertains to the who, when, and
where of Jesus’ death.
Who: All four Gospels identify Pontius Pilate
as the ruler who was responsible for ordering Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt.
27:2-24; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-24; John 18:29–19:22). This fact is confirmed
by the epistle of 1 Timothy (6:13), as well as by Josephus and Tacitus. This
identification is consistent with the historical evidence that Pilate was the
governor of Judea (his official title was “prefect”) from AD 26 to 36.
When: We can narrow down the date when Jesus
was put to death to two possible dates that are three years apart. The Gospels
inform us that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath (i.e., on a Friday)
during Passover week. Based on ancient Jewish calendar conventions (tied to the
phases of the moon) this narrows down the possible dates during Pilate’s tenure
in Judea to four of the years from AD 26 to 36, of which only AD 30 and 33 are
plausible. Therefore, virtually all scholars identify either AD 30 or 33 as the
date of Jesus’ death. The AD 33 date seems to have better arguments in its
The uncertainty about the exact year of Jesus’ death is not unusual for figures
of ancient history. For example, the date of Roman historian Livy’s death (AD
12/17) is uncertain by five years.
Where: We can determine with surprising
specificity the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels report that
the Romans crucified Jesus just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at
Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John
19:17). We know where Golgotha itself was—an area of land just outside the
northwest part of Jerusalem once used as a rock quarry. Thus, we are able to
identify the location where Jesus was executed to within a half-mile radius at
worst, and we have a very likely exact spot preserved in Christian tradition
that fits the archaeological evidence.
The correlation of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death with
specific people, places, and events known from outside sources provides powerful
evidence for its historicity.
Acknowledged by Atheists and Other Non-Christians
Based on the sorts of evidences we have mentioned, one New
Testament scholar concluded, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence
of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a
deception which are sometimes put forward.” The scholar who made this statement
was not a zealous conservative Christian. It was made by Gerd Lüdemann, a New
Testament scholar who happens to be an atheist.
Bart Ehrman, a former Christian who is now an agnostic,
observes that the fact that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who was crucified during
Pilate’s rule as governor in Judea “is the view of nearly every trained scholar
on the planet.”
John Dominic Crossan, a radically liberal New Testament
scholar (and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar) who denies Jesus’ bodily
resurrection, acknowledges, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is
as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
The vast majority of modern Jewish scholars also have freely
acknowledged not only that Jesus was crucified but that he died while on the
In short, the death of Jesus on the cross is an historical
fact acknowledged by a consensus of scholars of almost all ideological
perspectives. Any time you can get atheists, agnostics, theological liberals,
Jews, and orthodox Christians to agree on something about Jesus, you are likely
finding what some scholars call “historical bedrock.” This support from
scholars who have no religious commitment to the Bible or to the traditional
Christian faith shifts the burden of proof entirely on anyone who for religious
reasons denies the historicity of the Crucifixion.
Ad Hoc Nature of Alternative Theories
By far the most widely held theory denying Jesus’ death on
the cross comes from Islam. According to the Qur’an (or at least some
translations of it), the Jews claimed to have killed Jesus, but “they slew him
not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”; rather, “Allah took him
up unto Himself” (4:157-158). One popular Muslim tradition explains that
someone else was crucified by mistake. Judas Iscariot seems to have been the
most often suggested victim.
The main reason why these Muslim denials of the Crucifixion
are not credible is that they are based on Muhammad’s statements in the Qur’an
six centuries after the time of Jesus. For sober historians, the first-century
and early second-century sources (both Christian and non-Christian) attesting
to Jesus’ death by crucifixion are orders of magnitude more reliable than a
single seventh-century text. The Qur’an is, naturally, the primary source for
understanding the teachings of Muhammad, but it is not a credible or reliable
historical source of information about what happened to Jesus in the first
century. In order to overcome this obvious disparity, some Muslims cite the
so-called Gospel of Barnabas as early documentary evidence for the view that
Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place. However, this apocryphal gospel dates from
the 1300s and has no historical credibility whatsoever.
The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the temple and around
Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have
known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. In addition
to the watching eyes of the Roman and Jewish leaders, presumably Jesus’ friends
and family would have known if he had been crucified or not. This reasonable
presumption is confirmed in the Gospels, which give us two independent accounts
informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his
mother) witnessed his death and burial (Luke 23:49-56; John 19:25-27, 38-42).
To get around this evidence Muslims have often claimed that
God miraculously made whoever the crucified man was look exactly like Jesus. Of
course, there is no evidence for this claim, either. It is an ad hoc
explanation conceived rather desperately to save an untenable claim. Worse
still, as even some Muslim scholars have noted, it makes God party to a
deception that became, supposedly, the mistaken foundation for the Christian
belief that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.
Some skeptics have proposed a very different theory. They
have sometimes admitted that the Romans crucified Jesus but speculated that he
survived the ordeal, merely passing out or becoming unconscious on the cross.
This “swoon” theory reflects a naturalistic dislike of the notion that Jesus
rose from the dead. What exactly happened varies from one skeptic’s account to
another. In some stories, Jesus revived only for a short time and died soon
In other versions, Jesus lived for many years after his crucifixion. For
example, according to the book Holy
Blood, Holy Grail, after his crucifixion Jesus married Mary Magdalene,
moved to the south of France, and had children!
The swoon theory involves cherry picking only those elements
of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial that seem to help the
theory and rejecting or modifying those elements that don’t. For example, all
versions of the swoon theory make much of the fact that Mark reports that
Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead after being on the cross only for
about six hours (Mark 15:25, 33-34, 44). However, in the same passage Mark also
reports that a centurion verified Jesus’ death (verse 45) and that the tomb was
sealed with a stone (verse 46). Why should we accept Mark’s report about
Pilate’s surprise but not his report about the centurion and the sealed tomb?
In a way, the ad hoc nature of the alternative theories
regarding Jesus’ crucifixion constitutes a backhanded compliment to the case
for its historicity. If all of the theories to explain away the evidence are
this fanciful (and they are), the case for Jesus’ death on the cross must be
Although many non-Christians accept the fact of Jesus’ death
on the cross, if they are thinking people that fact puts them in something of a
predicament. Once it is established as historical fact that Jesus died just
outside Jerusalem by crucifixion, we have eliminated the most common theories
offered by non-Christians regarding the resurrection of Christ. No position on
the subject that discounts this fact deserves to be taken at all seriously. Nor
can the problem be finessed away by asserting that Christians cannot prove with
absolute certainty (akin to working a problem in mathematics) that Jesus died
on the cross. We do not have the capacity to demonstrate with that kind of
absolute, one hundred percent certainty much of anything in history or in any
other area of life. This limitation on human knowledge is no excuse for
refusing to follow the evidence where it leads. In this case, it leads without
serious basis for doubt to the conclusion that Jesus died on the cross.
Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining
the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing,
2020), 63–71. For information about this book, see https://faiththinkers.org.
 On the dates of Paul’s epistles, see, for example, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993); John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook, Handbooks for NT Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012). Of the seven Pauline epistles that virtually all biblical scholars agree Paul wrote (Rom., 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., 1 Thess., Phm.), there is essentially no dispute over their dates except for Galatians, sometimes dated ca. 48-49 and sometimes ca. 53/54. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9, Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 22–29.
On the controversial matter of the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, see Simon
Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas:
Introduction and Commentary, TENTS 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 125–27.
Gathercole shows that current scholarship generally favors a date in the middle
third of the second century. For the texts and introductions, see Bart D.
Ehrman and Zlato Pleše,
The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2011).
The Epistle of Barnabas is typically dated in the early second century, though
any date between 70 and 130 is considered possible. The epistles of Ignatius
are dated between about 105 and 115.
See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Jesus and
Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974),
19–53; Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?
The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012),
Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus,” in Handbook
for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter
(Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3:2383 (3:2383–2408).
 See Harold W. Hoehner, “The Chronology of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Holmén and Porter, 3:2339–59, and the references cited there, and Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Joan E. Taylor, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of
Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial,” New
Testament Studies 44.2 (April 1998): 180–203; Marcel Serr and Dieter
Vieweger, “Golgotha: Is the Holy Sepulchre Church Authentic?” Archaeological
Views, Biblical Archaeology Review
42.3 (May/June 2016): 28–29, 66.
Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to
Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 17. See also his The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical
Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 50.
John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?
(New York: Harper, 1995), 5.
Notable examples include Joseph Klausner, Jesus
of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. H. Danby (London: Allen
& Unwin, 1927); David Flusser, Jesus,
trans. R. Walls (New York: Herder, 1969); Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (London: SPCK,
1983); Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of
Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity
(New York: Knopf, 1999). See further David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on
the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017).
Jan Joosten, “The Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas,” Journal of Theological Studies
61 (2010): 200–215; Gerard A. Wiegers, “Gospel of Barnabas,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited
by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson,
3rd ed. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Online, 2014). See also my discussion of
the Gospel of Barnabas in “What Are Good Sources about Jesus? The Bottom-Line
Guide to Jesus, Part 2,” IRR.org, 2017.
Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: A New
Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bantam, 1965).
Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983).
Some Mormons believe that yesterday—March 26, 2020—marked the 200-year anniversary of the First Vision, in which Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the woods near his home. If the First Vision had taken place in the spring of 1820, March 26 was a possible day for the event. However, there are many reasons to question whether the First Vision happened at all, including some evidence against any date in 1820. In particular, Joseph’s account of the First Vision in Joseph Smith–History correlates the vision with “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” (JS-H 1:5), that is, an unusual revival, that he says led to his going into the woods to pray on that early spring day in 1820. Joseph’s description of the revival contains a number of specific elements that allow us to identify the revival as one that took place in 1824-25, not in 1820. The case for an 1824 date of the revival is much, much stronger than I had realized before I began researching the matter for my book. Indeed, I had originally considered not even giving the matter any serious weight. The evidence changed my mind.
The evidence comes first of all in the form of very specific
details from Joseph’s own account, as well as from Joseph’s associate Oliver
Cowdery, Joseph’s mother Lucy Mack Smith, and (many years later) Joseph’s
brother William Smith. All of these LDS sources provide details that cohere
with the detailed account of the 1824-25 revival by George Lane, the Methodist
minister that was one of the main leaders of that revival—and the minister
mentioned by both Oliver and William as having been involved. This documentary
evidence confirms the finding more than half a century ago by Wesley Walters that
church membership statistics showed that 1824-25 was almost certainly the period
of the “unusual excitement.”
In Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining
the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism, I devote ten pages to the
issue of the revival (pp. 234–44). In this section of the book I present the
An analysis of the chronology in Joseph
Smith–History and why the date of the revival matters
A review of the seminal 1967 article by Wesley
Walters and the efforts of a large team of some forty Mormon scholars that
were recruited to mount a response
A list of 12 points of agreement regarding the
revival between Joseph Smith–History and Oliver Cowdery’s 1834–35 account in the
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger & Advocate
A rebuttal to the claim of some LDS apologists
that Oliver’s account, which identifies George Lane as a leader of the revival,
A list of 6 points of agreement between Lane’s
account of the 1824-25 revival and the accounts by Joseph and Oliver
Evidence that both William Smith and Lucy Mack
Smith dated the revival shortly after the death of her son Alvin (which would
mean it took place in 1824), and documentation of the LDS Church’s efforts to
suppress this information from Lucy’s memoirs
An explanation of why LDS efforts to identify a
revivalist setting for the First Vision in 1818-20 instead of 1824 do not work
If the revival that Joseph claimed had led to his prayer and
the First Vision took place in 1824 rather than in 1820, this would mean that
Joseph’s account of the setting and context of the First Vision is erroneous.
It would be a serious problem for Joseph’s whole account, since he claimed that
the angel Moroni appeared to him in 1823 three years after the First Vision—but
a year before the revival that supposedly led to the First Vision. This is not
the only problem with the First Vision story, but it is a very serious problem
indeed. It certainly makes moot the claim that we can date the First Vision to
March 26, 1820.