I have suggested before that the earliest accounts we may have of Joseph Smith’s First Vision may not be the explicit exoteric ones beginning with the earliest extant account of 1832, but the earlier esoteric accounts hidden in the mystical and allegorical text of the Book of Mormon itself, “translated” between April-June 1829. As I considered before:
The entire Book of Mormon may be an interpretation or translation of Joseph’s First Vision.
And the book may also be reflective of Joseph’s life generally, particularly his spiritual life. My previous exploration was about “Lehi’s” vision in the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon, and how it seems to mirror Joseph’s First Vision. This article will be about how “Lehi’s” dream of the “Tree of Life” in 1 Nephi chapter 8 (and “Nephi’s” vision of the same in chapters 11-14) seems to do similarly, containing many details that are similar to his later First Vision accounts.
But first, there is a mention in 1 Nephi chapter 2 that may also be a reference to the First Vision. It is written that “Lehi” took his family out of Jerusalem and into “the wilderness,” leaving behind their inheritance and precious things, which some family members thought was because of the “foolish imaginations of [Lehi’s] heart.” This may be in reference to Joseph’s father having to sell the family farm to pay debts from speculating on ginseng and being cheated in business dealings, forcing the Smith family to move. In the book, “Lehi’s” son, “Nephi,” is then said to have an encounter with God that reassures him:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.-1 Nephi 2:16
Joseph later described himself as being young when he had his First Vision, around 14 years old. He is also described by neighbors as being physically large or “big-bodied,” even as a teenager. Joseph also describes his own deep interest in religion and wanting to know the things of God, beginning around the age of 12. When he was about 14 is when he said he “cried unto the Lord,” and then said “the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness” (1832 account). Joseph then describes his First Vision of God as a visitation, which also softened his heart, described in one account as “peace filled his frightened heart” (Hyde’s 1842 account).
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life vision of “Lehi” in 1 Nephi chapter 8 is one of the most significant and most well-known visions in the Book of Mormon. It is noteworthy that Joseph’s mother, Lucy, reported that her husband, Joseph Smith Sr., had a very similar dream which was purportedly recounted to the family long before the publication of the Book of Mormon, in about 1811, soon after a family move (Joseph would have been about 6 years old).
Many have speculated that Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream-vision is the likely source of “Lehi’s” dream-vision in the Book of Mormon. That may be true, but it may also include elements from Joseph’s own First Vision experience incorporated with his father’s dream-vision, as I’ll describe below. Thus, it is perhaps not a coincidence that “Nephi” the son of “Lehi,” also had the same vision of the Tree of Life, mirroring Joseph’s and his father’s visions.
Lehi’s vision begins:
And it came to pass that while my father [Lehi] tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.-1 Nephi 8:2
It is interesting that Joseph seems to equate dreams with visions, being interchangeable. He also once thought that his visions of “Moroni” may have been a “dreem of Vision” (1832 account), but then seems to have doubled down on the reality of the vision/visitation, despite it possibly being in a dream. A dream, a vision, a visitation, they all seem somewhat synonymous to Joseph, mystical experiences that should be taken seriously.
…for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.-1 Nephi 8:4
Joseph’s First Vision also begins in an experience of darkness, a “thick darkness,” also described in other accounts as “the powers of darkness,” and a “dark cloud,” and, as I mentioned above, he also thought of himself as praying in a “wilderness.” This may relate to the “dark night of the soul” that is common in mystical experiences, or the darkness within which God is often said to live. It might also relate to the “dark abyss” that is common in mythology, as part of the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell.
I have often written of this experience of “darkness,” emptiness (sunyata/kenosis?), nothingness, abandonment, void, an openness, a vastness. It may seem like a “cloud of unknowing,” uncertainty, being lost, a Great Mystery, a stillness/silence of mind where there are no thoughts left in consciousness, and therefore it may seem like a “darkness” of mind, a loss of ego-self and identity (there are no thoughts present there with which the ego can identity itself, and so the ego itself is gone, annihilated, “suddenly destroyed,” crucified, no-self), etc.
And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.-1 Nephi 8:5-6
Joseph also describes seeing a man (and then another man) in the First Vision, as dressed in “white cloth” (Neibaur’s 1844 account), which came and “stood before him” (Hyde’s 1842 account). Joseph also notes in his First Vision that these persons “spake unto me” (1832 and 1838 accounts). In his 1832 account he also said that the man said to “walk in my statutes and keep my commandments,” or more generally, to follow him. None of these details seem to appear in Joseph Smith Sr.’s dream-vision as recounted by Lucy Mack Smith.
And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.-1 Nephi 8:7-8
Here it may seem like “Lehi’s” vision departs from the First Vision, for in the popular 1838 account, the darkness was gone once the light appeared. This may be where Joseph begins combining his father’s vision with his own vision, for Joseph Smith Sr.’s vision begins “I thought… I was travelling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren.”
But elements of the First Vision still seem to appear here, because Joseph also described how his prayer in the grove was: “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy” (1832 account). And when he found himself in darkness, he prayed fervently for deliverance from that darkness, and “the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up” (Hyde’s 1842 account).
We don’t know how long Joseph was “pouring out his soul” (Pratt’s 1840 account) before the light appeared in his First Vision, but if “Lehi’s” dream is any indication, it could have been a long time, perhaps what seemed like hours. Or this could refer to how Joseph felt like he had spent a long time in “darkness” already in his life, years in frustration and anxiety, prior to his mystical vision.
And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.1 Nephi 8:9-10
Such a large and spacious field doesn’t appear in the First Vision, but it may be related to that same darkness that he had described previously. It may be the same open vastness of consciousness that I described above. Mystics have often described pure consciousness as an open, large, vast, empty, spacious field of awareness; “openness,” “vastness,” “spaciousness” are often words that are used. It is boundless or infinite, being unconditioned, uncolored, unqualified by the thinking mind. There are no perceptible forms there, the thinking mind having come to stillness/silence, and so it is quite “barren” or empty. Joseph may have experienced this in his First Vision as part of the experience of “darkness.”
It says that “Lehi” saw a tree, which had fruit that made one happy. Such a “tree” doesn’t appear in Joseph’s First Vision, at least not as that particular symbol. As we learn later in “Nephi’s” vision of the tree in chapter 11, the tree was a representation of the “love of God” (1 Nephi 11:22, 25). Joseph very much did experience Love in his First Vision. He said he met the “Beloved Son” (1838 account, which I’ve suggested was his divine Self), and that his “soul was filled with love” (1832 account). That experience of Love seems to have been very desirable or blissful to Joseph.
And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.1 Nephi 8:11
This seems to be a superlative experience beyond what words can describe, of ineffability. Joseph did note in his First Vision that God’s “glory and brightness defy all description” (1838 account), and later that it left him in a state that was “indescribable” (Pratt’s 1840 account). Joseph also describes his First Vision in terms of whiteness, the person he saw being dressed in “white cloth” (Neibaur’s 1844 account). But this might also be reference to the brightness of the light in the vision, which was “above the brightness of the sun at noon day” (1832 and 1842 accounts), and that the brightness was of such an intense “magnitude” (Pratt’s 1840 account) that it seemed to illuminate all things.
And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.1 Nephi 8:12
Partaking of the Love of God is described as “most sweet,” but also as filling his soul with “exceedingly great joy.” Joseph, in his First Vision accounts, also described the light in such terms, that it instantly “filled me with joy unspeakable” (1835 account), and after the vision that he “could rejoice with great Joy” (1832 account).
“Nephi” notes later that the fruit itself might represent “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36). Joseph noted in a 1829 revelation that the “greatest of all the gifts of God” was “eternal life” (D&C 14:7). We might consider, then, that what Joseph experienced of this light that he “partook” of in the First Vision was also that gift of knowing the Love of God, which is also knowing “eternal Life” (John 17:3).
I suggest this eternal life is the gnosis that one’s ultimate being extends beyond the everyday ego-self identity and mind, and is the timeless Whole, it is the One beyond the mortal body (I also wrote about this before here). It seems that Joseph’s ego-mind fell away from consciousness in his First Vision (what he calls his “mind” being “taken away” or “caught away,” or that the “darkness gave way from his mind” in Pratt’s 1840 account), revealing his true timeless divine nature as the One Great Whole, the nondual at-One Reality, the eternal Singularity, the Love of God. He was “filled” and suffused with that Love, realizing that his Self was that Love, that Beloved Son.
This article is getting lengthy, so I’ll conclude this part for now, and continue my commentary on the First Vision in “Lehi’s” vision in a series.
(To be continued…)