Did Mormonism Start with the First Vision?

By October 6, 2014

During the past week, several of JI’s permabloggers have begun writing short intros to the birth of Mormonism for theses, dissertations, or articles. All of us expressed a desire to start the narrative after 1820, the year generally attributed to Joseph Smith’s First Vision.  I chose to begin my introduction with the publication of the Book of Mormon, since Smith’s new scripture was the first public document that expounded or represented any sort of definite set of beliefs or peculiar message to Mormonism. Others chose events at Kirtland, and others remain undecided on how to begin their chapters or articles. I was surprised with how difficult it was to begin my narrative without starting with the First Vision, and I wondered if any of JI’s readers felt the same way. I have not gone back and counted up the numbers of articles on Mormonism that mention the First Vision although it doesn’t directly reflect the topic at hand, but I feel like most books and articles have at least some sort of cursory reference to Joseph Smith’s theophany. This makes sense for several reasons, it is, after all, what Joseph Smith chose to include first and accentuate in his 1838 account of the First Vision, published in 1842. The 1838 account has been canonized and is often quoted in official and informal discourse as the authoritative source to examine Joseph Smith’s story. It is also written quite elegantly, and coincides with Smith’s religious seeking.

Where do you begin if you’re giving a brief history of Mormonism, but your topic doesn’t address Joseph Smith or early Mormonism? Is it necessary to start with the First Vision? What are advantages or disadvantages of referring to the First Vision over other key events in the birth of Mormonism? I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks.




Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins


  1. I would suggest that any proper comprehensive consideration of “Mormonism” must necessarily start at the real beginning, with exposition of the “War in Heaven” the “Plan of Salvation”, the creation of this world, and the story of Adam and Eve.

    Rings oddly famililar…

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — October 6, 2014 @ 11:48 am

  2. I assume hope Jim is kidding.

    I think the starting point probably depends on the larger subject which the overview of Mormon history is intended to introduce the reader. So someone writing about Mormonism in a particular locale, for example, might open with a vignette about the first missionaries or the earliest converts there, and use that as a way to quickly note that the converts (likely) learned of JS’s heavenly visitations/visions, his recovery and subsequent translation of the record that was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, and the church’s early growth and movement. You could then transition from those initial conversions in the given locale to a larger discussion of Mormonism’s larger missionary efforts; the ways in which what happened at the (moving) geographical center of Mormonism affected life for ungathered/not-yet-gathered converts; and the ways in which Mormonism changed in each locale.

    Comment by Christopher — October 6, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

  3. Seems like the angel is the place early Mormons started their story.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 6, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

  4. Interesting question Joey, and like Christopher said, it depends on the nature of the project. For my dissertation I technically start with Plato but I begin my chapter on young JS with Joseph Sr. I look for various clues about Joseph Sr.’s religiosity, arguing that it was very influential on Joseph Jr. Then I talk about the first vision and Moroni.

    For my book on early Mormonism in Philadelphia, like Christopher suggested, I begin (my intro) with the missionaries entering the area. Chapter one then focusses on the religious history of the area (Quakers and Methodists) and then for chapter two I give an overview of Mormonism up to 1838, when they missionaries enter. I’m rewriting that chapter right now. What I decided to do is to start with the 1839 First Vision account, arguing that JS framed that account according to issues that he was dealing with at the time (1839). I argue in my dissertation that JS seemed to have a heightened concern over Methodism in the 1839 account and that JS (in many ways) was framing the vision in opposition to contemporary Methodism (the Methodists had gone astray). This then sets the groundwork for my next chapters where I talk about the missionaries’ message in the area, where lots of Methodists joined.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 6, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

  5. Thanks, Joey, for raising this question. I am one of those trying to avoid starting with the FV, and I’d be interested to hear what others think..

    Comment by Saskia — October 6, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

  6. I think for the most part the question has much to do with 20th and 21st century LDS culture–I would guess for both LDS and non-LDS historians. When Parley publishes that first(?) account of the “first vision”, it is just one interesting account of several remarkable visions. I don’t think I’d rule out an academic starting there (I’m pretty sure that is where my MA thesis started–though I wouldn’t do that now, I think Steve has a good argument for starting there), but I think that for the most part it is anachronistic.

    Or just consider this a lengthy second to Stapley’s comment.

    Comment by janiecej — October 6, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

  7. Thanks, all, for the comments.

    Christopher: I like your thinking. My work, on gathering and race, is much broader in scope and so I started with the Book of Mormon. I started macro and went micro- sort of the opposite of your geographic origins approach, but I think similarly effective.

    Stapley: Agreed, from what I’ve seen/read. I think it’s interesting that the angel is so often referred to, but the Book of Mormon itself was used relatively infrequently in pamphlets, tracts, etc.

    Steve:I’m looking forward to reading both your dissertation and your Philly book! (P.S. Let’s have MHA in Philadelphia already!)

    Comment by J Stuart — October 6, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

  8. Good point about the angel being the usual starting point for the early Mormons but for my purposes William Appleby said that Orson Pratt mentioned the First Vision while proselytizing in the New Jersey c. 1839 and Pratt again mentions the First Vision in an 1840 tract. So the First Vision seemed to have become part of the narrative by that time.

    (Sorry, just thinking out loud about how I want to frame all this).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 6, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  9. I started my thesis with the Second Great Awakening since most of the major tenets of the faith answered questions that arose during that period.

    Comment by G. Jones — October 6, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

  10. J Stuart, interesting question. As George Cobabe’s comment suggests, the decision as to where to begin the narrative of Mormonism is fraught with possibilities. Back when I read Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People I was struck that he chose to begin his narrative with Joseph Smith meeting “Joshua the Jewish minister” during the Nauvoo period. I did a quick survey through one-volume treatments of LDS Church history and discovered that the most common starting point of narration was the beginning of the Church’s Great Basin period after the Nauvoo exodus. Here’s the post and I hope this isn’t too spammy:


    Comment by BHodges — October 6, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

  11. PS- For my thesis on intellectual disabilities in Mormon thought and history (1830-1900) I began at Nauvoo where the play “The Idiot Witness” was put on. It was a nice starting point to situate LDS views of intellectual disability within the wider cultural context.

    Comment by BHodges — October 6, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

  12. Well, this has certainly given me food for thought. Thanks for the link ^^, I read it with great interest.

    Comment by Saskia — October 6, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

  13. Like others mentioned, I think it depends on your focus. If it’s JS, then it is 1820. If it is a revelatory/restorationist movement, then probably angelic visitations. If the institution, then either when they started baptizing in 1829 or the organization in 1830. etc.

    Personally, I think Mormonism started with Parley Pratt’s 1840s pamphlets. Everything else was a prelude. 😉

    Comment by Ben P — October 6, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

  14. BHodges: Thanks for posting that link! It is certainly relevant, not spam. Also, you forgot to include your “Award Winning Thesis.” 😉

    Comment by J Stuart — October 7, 2014 @ 8:09 am

  15. I stared my book with the scene of vigilantes gathering early one morning to drive the Missionaries out of their community. But it fits the subject matter. I guess that means I agree with Chris.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 9, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

  16. God revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ to Adam and gave him priesthood authority. Adam was the first prophet on the earth. By revelation, Adam learned of mankind?s proper relationship with God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost; of the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; and of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. Adam and Eve taught their children these truths and encouraged them to develop faith and to live the gospel in all aspects of their lives. Adam was followed by other prophets, but over time the posterity of Adam rejected the gospel and fell into apostasy, choosing to be unrighteous.

    In this message is our only hope of teaching Mormonism. No assumptions. No kidding.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — October 11, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

  17. Either you didn’t and don’t understand the post, Jim, or you’re being intentionally obtuse and self-righteous. Tone it down a notch or take your sermonizing elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — October 12, 2014 @ 8:43 am


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