Christianity vs Mormonism: Atheist Bob Seidensticker Cross-Examined

Paul Cézanne, Apples and Oranges (ca. 1900)

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 God: Christianity 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.[1] 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. Nineteenth-Century Mormonism

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).”[2] 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).[3] 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).[4] In that period, Joseph managed to dictate the Book of Mormon and hundreds of revelations that were published as Doctrine and Covenants, another Mormon scripture.

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 years earlier.[5]
  • 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 years earlier.

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 BC.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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[9]) 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.[10]

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 Plates

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 claim.[11]

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 testimonies[12]—suppose 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.[13]

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.[14] 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).[15]

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).”[16] 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 newspaper.

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.


[1] Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa: DeWard, 2020).

[2] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 293.

[3] 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.

[4] Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840).

[5] History of the Church 6:76-77.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] See Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

[9] Bob Seidensticker, “Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior,” Cross Examined (Patheos blog), April 16, 2014.

[10] See Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 49–71, 97–103, and the references cited there.

[11] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

[12] See Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 206–220.

[13] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 298–305.

[14] For the details on these matters, 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); David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

[15] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief, 6 Vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992); 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); Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[16] 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).

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Mrs. Palmer and the First Vision: Doing Research Mormon Apologists Won’t Do

Martha J. Cragun Cox (1852-1932)

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 lifetime.[1] 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 archives.[2]

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[3] 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.[4] It is also included in a similar compilation of memories about Joseph Smith published in 2003 and compiled by Mark McConkie.[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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 happened.

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 not say).[9] 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 family.”[10]

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.[11] 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).[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.[16] Madsen published this lecture in 1989 in a book on Joseph Smith.[17]

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.”[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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 handwritten manuscript.[22] However, the correct date seems to be 1970, as is stated in the Church History Catalog online.[23] The handwritten manuscript is dated 1928-1930 by Catherine A. Brekus in an article published in 2011 in the Journal of Mormon History,[24] 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.[25]

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.[26] “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.[27] Her full name is given as “Miss Anna M. Palmer” in one Presbyterian Church publication[28] but as “Miss Anna B. Palmer” in another such publication (along with that of “Miss Kate McPheeters”).[29] Other publications confirm the name Anna B. Palmer and give the precise date of her death as January 22, 1891.[30]

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 four-year period.[31]

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[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] Palmer moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1828 and died in September 1864.[35] He donated generously to a Central Presbyterian Church (apparently in Buffalo), which is consistent with the family’s Presbyterianism.[36] George’s wife Harriet cannot be our “Mrs. Palmer” because Harriet also died in Buffalo, in 1874,[37] 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.[38] 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.”[39] 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.[40] 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.[41]

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.[42] 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.”[43] 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.[44] 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.[45] 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.[46]

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.”[47] Henrietta was Martha’s “sister wife,” the first wife of her husband Isaiah Cox.[48]

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.[49] 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.[50] 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.[51]

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 form.

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.[52]

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, either.

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.[53]

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.[54]

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.[55]

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.”[56] 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.


[1] For the texts of these accounts, see “First Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,” Faith Thinkers, 2020.

[2]Stories 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.

[3] Martha Cox might have meant either “contend,” as Vogel suggests, or “comment.”

[4] 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.

[5] Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 28.

[6] On 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.

[7] Truman G. Madsen, “Guest Editor’s Prologue,” BYU Studies 9.3 (1969): 235 (235–40).

[8] Robert Boylan, “The Recollection of a Non-LDS Neighbour of the Smith Family Affirming Joseph Smith was Persecuted After the First Vision,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Nov. 21, 2019.

[9]Question: Was ‘money digging’ Joseph Smith, Jr’s primary source of income during his early years?” FairMormon, n.d.

[10] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Early Years, 18​05–19,” 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.

[11] Boylan, “Recollection”; FairMormon, “Question”; Holzapfel, “The Early Years, 18​05–19”; 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.

[12] James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era 73.4 (April 1970): 11 (4–13).

[13] 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 Conference.

[14] Madsen, “Guest Editor’s Prologue,” 235.

[15] 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.

[16] Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith Lecture 1: The First Vision and Its Aftermath,” BYU devotional, Aug. 22, 1978.

[17] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), chapter 1.

[18] Book notice of Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph, in Journal of Mormon History 33.2 (2007): 266 (264–66).

[19] “Death: Fern Cox Anderson,” Deseret News, Aug. 1, 1990.

[20] “Edward Isaiah Cox,” Salt Lake Telegram, Oct. 5, 1940; Missionary Database,

[21] 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, 1985), 101–32.

[22] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 131.

[23]Biographical record of Martha Cox,” Church History Catalog, which states, “Apparently issued in its present form by relatives in 1970.”

[24] 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.

[25] Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:265.

[26] As late as 1990, by which time the United States had a far more heterogenous population than in the nineteenth century, the name Palmer was the 151st most common last name in America; for a list, see

[27] Catherine R. Watt, “Monroe Presbyterian Mission Sunday-School,” The Church Review (Salt Lake City) 4/1 (Dec. 29, 1895): 43.

[28] 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.

[29] 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).

[30] “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 Church.

[31] Catalogue of Park College, Parkville, Missouri (Cedar Rapids, IA: Superior Press, 1910), 79, 94.

[32] See “George Palmer,”

[33] See Early Mormon Documents, ed. Vogel, 1:307–308.

[34] Vogel, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:308 n. 106.

[35] 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.

[36] 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), 40-41.

[37]Harriet Foster Palmer,”

[38]Harriet Foster Palmer Putnam,”

[39] Memorial of George Palmer, 41.

[40] 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.

[41] A 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.

[42] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady.”

[43] Quoted in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Vogel, 3:265.

[44] “Stories,” p. 2.

[45] “Stories,” p. 3.

[46] “Stories,” pp. 3-4.

[47] “Stories,” p. 4.

[48] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady.”

[49] “Stories,” p. 4.

[50] “Stories,” p. 5.

[51] “Mrs. Margaret Burgess Dixie Pioneer Passes,” Washington County News, Dec. 25, 1919, 1, image at

[52] Vogel, in Early Mormon Documents, 3:266–67 nn. 1–2.

[53] “Stories,” p. 1.

[54] “Stories,” p. 3.

[55] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 104, citing Cox, Autobiography, 100.

[56] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 104.

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Suppression of Documents: Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account versus the Noncanonical Gospels

Joseph Smith’s 1832 History draft

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.[1] 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.[2] We will have occasion to refer to this account in later articles in this series.

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[3] 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.[4]

Who “Found” the 1832 First Vision Account?

In his Acknowledgments page, Cheesman thanked A. William Lund, Eugene Olsen, and Lauritz Peterson[5] of the Church Historian’s Office “for their cooperation and help in making this study.”[6] Cheesman presented the text of the 1832 account with a brief introduction in his appendix D,[7] 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.[8]

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 years.

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.[9] 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.[10] During the course of those sessions, Petersen says that Young told him about the account:

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.[11]

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 investigations.[12]) Petersen also provided his own notes from that discussion, which the Tanners later quoted:

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, unknown.[13]

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 this document.”[14] 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.”[15] 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 F. Smith.[16] 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 he did.

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.[17]

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.[18] 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 contents.”[19] 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.”[20] 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 advisor.[21] Cheesman also thanks Richard Lloyd Anderson and Milton V. Backman Jr., among others, “for their suggestions.”[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26] 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 that century.[27]

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 bear.

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.[28]

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 knowledge.

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.[29] The behavior of LDS leaders in the 1960s, however, shows that they knew otherwise.


[1] For the text of this account, see “First Vision Accounts: Joseph Smith’s 1832 History” (, April 2020).

[2] 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.

[3] 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 scholars today.

[4] “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.

[5] A. 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Cheesman, “Analysis,” 126–32.

[8] Cheesman, “Analysis,” 126.

[9] Stan Larson, “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Dialogue 47.2 (Summer 2014): 57 n. 8.

[10] According to Stan Larson, the specific meeting took place in early February 1953, but the six sessions might have started in 1952. See Larson, “Another Look,” 41, 58 n. 10.

[11] LaMar Petersen, The Creation of the Book of Mormon: A Historical Inquiry (Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press, 1998), xii.

[12]LaMar Petersen papers, 1829–2005.”

[13] 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.

[14] Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 151.

[15] 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.

[16] “2019 Uplift Gathering of Faith—The Bonner Family & Steven C. Harper,” YouTube, April 23, 2019 (1:12–1:16).

[17] Richard L. Bushman, “What Can We Learn from the First Vision,” BYU Hawaii, Devotional, Nov. 15, 2016.

[18] 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).

[19] Larson, “Another Look,” 41.

[20] “Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith remove the 1832 account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision from its original letterbook and hide it in his safe?”, n.d. (evidently 2019, at least in its present form).

[21] Cheesman, “Analysis,” ii, iii.

[22] Cheesman, “Analysis,” iii.

[23] 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).

[24] 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).

[25] For documentation see Part #1 of this series, “Four Contrasts between Joseph Smith’s Four First Vision Accounts and the Four Gospels.”

[26] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7–89.

[27] See the survey of scholarship in Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, TENTS 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 125–27.

[28] See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Synoptic Criticism and Evangelical Christian Apologetics,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 13.1 (Spring 2014): 97–117 (esp. 102–106).

[29] M. Russell Ballard, “Shall We Not Go On in So Great a Cause?” General Conference, April 2020.

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Four Contrasts between Joseph Smith’s Four First Vision Accounts and the Four Gospels

Icons of the Four Evangelists

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).[1] 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 accounts.[2]

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 20:11-18)
  • 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.[3] 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).


[1] 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.

[2] 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, 2019).

[3] If 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.

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The Last Word Has Not Been Spoken on the First Vision

Joseph Smith’s First Vision, woodcut by J. Hoey (1873)

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,[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] The February 2020 issue of the LDS Church’s official flagship magazine, the Ensign, included four articles on the First Vision.[4] 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.[5] On April 3, the BMC website posted a list of the entire series.[6]

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.[7]

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,, where you can also get a free excerpt of more than thirty pages from the book.


[1] M. Russell Ballard, “Shall We Not Go On in So Great a Cause?” General Conference, April 2020.

[2]Prophet Introduces a New Proclamation to the World: ‘The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” Newsroom (LDS), April 5, 2020.

[3] The First Vision (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020).

[4] “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.

[5] 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.

[6] BMC Team, “Twenty Insights and Evidences on Joseph Smith and the First Vision,” Book of Mormon Central (blog), April 3, 2020.

[7] Robert Boylan, “Articles Interacting with Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions (2020),” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 6, 2020.

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How Do We Know Jesus Died on the Cross? The Strong Hand in Defense of the Historicity of the Crucifixion

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.[1]

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.[2] 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 earlier traditions.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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 favor.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.”[11]

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.”[12]

The vast majority of modern Jewish scholars also have freely acknowledged not only that Jesus was crucified but that he died while on the cross.[13]

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.[14]

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 thereafter.[15] 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![16]

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 awfully good.


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.


[1] 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

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] 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), 54–66.

[6] 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).

[7] 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).

[8] See the online Table of Contents, Livy, History of Rome, Volume I: Books 1–2, Loeb Classical Library 114,

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, 12.

[12] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: Harper, 1995), 5.

[13] 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).

[14] 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,”, 2017.

[15] Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bantam, 1965).

[16] Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983).

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Did the First Vision of Joseph Smith Happen 200 Years Ago?

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 following material:

  • 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, is untrustworthy
  • 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.

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Was Mary Magdalene Far from or Near the Cross? A Case Study in Gospel Differences

Rubens, Descent from the Cross (1917)

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, including specifically Mary Magdalene, were looking or watching “from a distance” (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; cf. Luke 23:49; 24:10]). However, John states that the women were “standing by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25). Is this a contradiction? Should we try to harmonize this difference, or should we understand the difference in another way?

This particular difference in the Gospel accounts may seem somewhat trivial. On the other hand, since there are many such minor differences among the Gospels, we ought to have some method for handling them. In this article, I will use this particular difference to illustrate a proposed method for investigating Gospel differences, including apparent discrepancies or seeming contradictions. In this method, we consider openly and fairly both harmonizing and non-harmonizing approaches to determine which approach works better in any particular case. We are not going to assume that harmonization is the only proper approach. Nor are we going to privilege non-harmonizing approaches, whether authorial error, literary artistry, or theologically intended revision (often called “redaction”). Rather, we will ask in each case which of these approaches seems to do a better job of accounting for the available evidence. We will also be open to the possibility that in some cases we do not have enough information to draw a confident conclusion as to how to explain the differences.

Not All Harmonizations Are Equally Plausible

In considering a harmonizing approach, we should acknowledge that some harmonizations are better than others. Given a particular case of Gospel differences, we might know of more than one proposed harmonization, and we should analyze them to see if one is better than another. Continue reading

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Did Moses Literally See the Face of God?

Moses speaks with God – Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke “face to face” with Moses, but Exodus 33:20 says that Moses could not see the Lord’s face. Is this a contradiction?

Two preliminary observations may be helpful. First, we should notice that Exodus says that the Lord “spoke” with Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), not that Moses saw God face to face. There may be a difference, and as we shall discover there is indeed a difference. Second, it is significant that the two allegedly contradictory statements appear in the same passage. Exodus 33:11 says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”[1]  Exodus 33:20 says that the LORD told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” It does not seem likely that the author of Exodus 33 contradicted himself in the space of just ten verses. Such contradiction in close proximity within the same passage is possible yet would be extremely surprising, as compared, say, to statements appearing in different books written by different authors. If it seems that these statements in Exodus 33 are contradictory, perhaps we are misunderstanding one of them.

Reading Exodus 33 in Context

The expression “face to face” can, of course, be used literally of two human beings seeing each other’s faces at the same time. However, in Exodus 33 that is not the case. Continue reading

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30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month

In the Apologetics Book Club on Facebook this month, I am doing a series entitled “30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month.” So far we have highlighted six key books in ancient and medieval church history. The series will feature 15 books from the first through the nineteenth centuries and 15 books from the twentieth century.

If you’re not a member of the ABC group, you can join any time and catch up on the series. Please also spread the word. The group started at the beginning of the year and so far we have 376 members. Here is a link to the group:



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