I suggest that Joseph Smith unconsciously included many details about his 1820 First Vision in his “translation” of the Book of Mormon which took place almost entirely in April-June 1829, and these details may represent the earliest known accounts of that mystical vision which began the religious movement known as Mormonism.
As I’ve already recently noted here and here, there may be much evidence for the First Vision that predates the currently official earliest published exoteric account of 1832. The accounts earlier than that may be esoteric, mystically hidden in the early hymns and songs of the church, in the similarities of other visions Joseph experienced (as of Moroni), and even earlier, Joseph may have said many things about his First Vision experience in his mystical translation of his earliest writing, The Book of Mormon.
One of the roadblocks with this view, of course, is that many Mormon scholars believe that the Book of Mormon is historical in the sense that it literally dates to ancient times, between 2200 BC and 400 AD, and so it does not relate much of anything about Joseph Smith in the 19th century (except those parts which purportedly prophecy about him in a future tense). I have previously described my thoughts on its historicity. In short, I think that the Book of Mormon was written entirely from Joseph Smith’s 19th century consciousness, but includes perennial “ancient” wisdom, mystical spiritual truth about the human condition and experience as has been interpreted in innumerable holy texts since the beginnings of humanity. And so the Book of Mormon would also relate Joseph’s experience of the human condition, including his mystical experiences such as the First Vision.
Moreover, it was perhaps his mystical experience which is what revealed the nature of the human condition generally, and which is what he “translated” as the Book of Mormon. The entire Book of Mormon may be an interpretation or translation of Joseph’s First Vision. But there seems to be some parts which more clearly relate to that visionary experience of darkness and light that he says he had in 1820 than other parts of the narrative, and it is those particular parts that I’d like to begin to explore in this post. I will start by looking at only one of them, Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 1. I may look at other possible accounts in the text in other posts.
A note about chronology: 1 Nephi may not be chronologically the part of the Book of Mormon that was first dictated by Joseph, if we agree with Mosiah priority theory, which is widely accepted among scholars. It may have come much later on in his translation. But, placing this “First Vision” at the beginning of 1 Nephi does seem to lend credibility to the 1 Nephi priority theory, just as the First Vision account was at the beginning of Joseph’s exoteric history. It’s also possible that this “First Vision” of “Lehi” was also in the original “Book of Lehi” that was part of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon that were lost, and so Joseph repeated it here in this “abridgment” of Lehi’s record (1 Nephi 1:17).
“Lehi’s” vision in 1 Nephi 1
Right in the very first few verses of the Book of Mormon, there is found this vision(s) of a character named “Lehi,” the father of “Nephi”:
5 Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.
6 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift as a token of your appreciation. If every reader gave just $1, it would give life to me and my family. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. —Bryce)-1 Nephi 1:5-6
In Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts he also was praying to the Lord with all his heart, concerned for the sins of the world. And as Joseph prayed, he likewise saw a “pillar of fire,” which was also often noted as “light.”
Here, he says that fire came and “dwelt upon a rock” before him. There is no such mention of a “rock” in Joseph’s First Vision accounts, but in a mystical sense, Joseph himself may have been such a “rock,” a “stone,” a “Peter” (petros/petra), the rock of revelation, of insight, of contemplating the foundation “cornerstone” of Christ within him. Joseph considered himself “Gazelem,” the name he seems to have also given to his seer stone. I have also recently noted that he may have considered his own eyes as “stones,” the seer stones in the “Urim and Thummim,” as connected to the “Lord’s” touching of such stones that they may shine light in Ether 3, which touching also seems to be present in the First Vision. The white stone of Revelation may be the “third eye” of the “All-Seeing Eye” that Joseph Smith claimed to have when looking into his seer stone. Joseph considered himself to be a “rough stone,” as expressed in the title of Richard Bushman’s seminal 2005 biography of the man:
I [am] a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me nor never will be. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.–Diary, June 11, 1843
So the “pillar of fire” that came and “dwelt upon a rock,” may be in reference to that pillar of fire coming down and dwelling upon Joseph, in Joseph, the “rock,” the “stone,” the “cornerstone” of Christ arising in Joseph.
Joseph likewise “saw and heard much” in his First Vision, noting in the 1838 account that “many other thing[s] did [God] say unto me which I cannot write at this time.”
Joseph also perhaps did “quake and tremble exceedingly” in the First Vision, just like it is said here of Lehi. He says he experienced a thick darkness of an enemy, a powerful being from the unseen world with extraordinary power, which bound his tongue, and that he heard walking creeping up behind him, etc. He does say this was a moment of “great alarm,” and in the 1842 secondhand account of Orson Hyde that “peace filled his frightened heart.” So he was fearful, and may have been shaking because of it.
7 And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen.
8 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.-1 Nephi 1:7-8
Lehi returning to his “house in Jerusalem” may be esoteric language for Joseph returning to his own home in Palmyra after his First Vision. “Casting himself upon the bed” may be in reference to his visions three years later which he had in bed at home at night in 1823. That night he was again “overcome with the Spirit” in his visions of Moroni. I have already noted how those visions bear much similarity to the First Vision, and so may be expressions of a very similar kind of mystical experience.
Being “carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open,” seems to mirror Joseph’s experience in the First Vision of having his mind “caught away” into a heavenly realm, and he says in his 1832 account that “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me.” Seeing “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God,” seems to be unique to Lehi’s vision, but perhaps it also happened in Joseph’s First Vision. Perhaps Joseph also interpreted what he saw as seeing God sitting upon a throne, not merely standing in the air (cf. D&C 88:13). The angels singing and praising may be referred to in his 1835 account where he says “<and I saw many angels in this vision>,” and I’ve explored how he may have experienced heavenly music (or Muse-ic) in the vision.
9 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.-1 Nephi 1:9-10
10 And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament.
Seeing the One descend from heaven “above the sun at noonday” seems to directly parallel other accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of seeing this kind of extremely bright light. It is interesting that here that God is referred to in the neoplatonic title of the “One.”
Seeing twelve others following him seems to be unique to Lehi’s vision, as there is no mention of it in Joseph’s First Vision accounts, but perhaps Joseph thought he saw this too in the First Vision, or interpreted what he experienced that way. They are perhaps expressions of his Christian knowledge of the twelve apostles/disciples who followed Jesus in the New Testament. They are perhaps emanations of the One, rays from that Light, messengers (apostles) who go out into the world to spread knowledge of the One, even as Joseph himself felt called to do.
11 And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.-1 Nephi 1:11-12
12 And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord.
In this scripture they give Lehi a book and tell him to read it, and he does read it. There is no mention of a book or reading in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, but perhaps he did experience something like that. It seems more explicit in his visions of Moroni, when he saw a “book deposited” written on the “gold plates,” and he was told about the “contents” of that book. This may be related to the archetype of other seers seeing sacred book(s) in mystical vision and altered states of consciousness: terma in Buddhism, the Preserved Tablet (al-Lawhu ‘l-Mahfuz) in Islam, Akashic records in theosophy and anthroposophy, and a “Book of Life” in Christianity and Judaism. In these visionary states of consciousness there seems to be some kind of “record,” a compendium of some sort, perhaps a “block universe” as is posited in some modern philosophies of time and cosmology, what may be a kind of singular repository of all of history, past, present, and future, in one timeless Present moment of an Eternal Now. As I previously considered, there were early hymns in Mormonism that referred to this kind of presentism:
From age to age whate’er took place“Book of Commandments, 1833,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 6, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-commandments-1833/175
was present then before his face
And to the latest years of man
Was plain before him heav’ns plan…
And in another hymn:
There changing time is never known“Book of Commandments, 1833,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 6, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-commandments-1833/184
Nor Sun o’er mountain brow
But God upon his shining throne
Fills one eternal now…
Lehi was “filled with the Spirit” upon reading this “book,” as was Joseph “filled with the spirit of god” in his 1832 account of the First Vision.
13 And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.-1 Nephi 1:13
These “woes” unto Jerusalem might be compared similarly to the abomination and corruption of the various religious sects in Joseph’s First Vision accounts. No one was doing “Good.” It is a kind of apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the wicked, which perhaps Joseph also experienced, as he notes in his 1832 account, “and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to thir ungodliness.” It is perhaps a criticism of the corruption of ego, of the “natural man,” of selfishness, of pride, of the “separate self” which is divisive, alienated, separative, fallen, pushing people away from each other rather than bringing them together in Oneness, in the One. These egos would destroy themselves. They would self-destruct, dying by the sword of their own selfish hands (Matthew 26:52).
14 And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!-1 Nephi 1:14
Lehi saw many great and marvelous things in his vision, as did Joseph. Lehi praises God, perhaps shouting hosannas. Lehi realizes the greatness of God, and that God is merciful to those who come to God. This might be compared to the promise that Joseph received that he would have the gospel revealed to him. God would teach Joseph how to “draw near” to God with his heart, the true “gospel,” coming into a conscious communion and direct awareness of God in Love. Those who come unto God in this way do not “perish,” but realize “eternal life.”
15 And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him.-1 Nephi 1:15
Lehi’s “soul did rejoice,” and his “whole heart was filled.” This closely mirrors Joseph Smith’s First Vision account from 1832: “and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.”
I suggest that Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 1 is an esoteric account of Joseph Smith’s own First Vision in 1820, couched in allegory, metaphor, symbol, narrative, and myth. Joseph was telling his own story and mystical experience, which parallels many other mystical experiences generally in history, as I’ve written about.
It is the same general pattern of mystical experience found the world over, and throughout history, it seems to me. This is not a literal account of a historical man named Lehi who lived anciently in Jerusalem, and literally had this experience, but rather of Joseph experiences of perennial wisdom, the mystical beatific visionary experience that has been discovered and rediscovered by many prophets, seers, sages, mystics, saints, buddhas, and others throughout the world, and yes, perhaps even some real people in Jerusalem at the purported time of “Lehi.”
Setting the story in the ancient past gives it intrigue, interest, mystique (a word related to mysticism); it gets people to notice it and take it seriously. It puts it in story form. It is a kind of pseudepigrapha, it is mythology, but it yet points to real deep spiritual realities, even Joseph’s own experiences of Spirit. Joseph perhaps realized early on that telling his story in the first-person persuaded few people of the gravity of his experience, the weight of its import, so his mind began to reify it in other terms, constructing an ancient allegory and mythology, putting it in terms of ancient peoples, civilizations, characters, channeling his experiences through these characters, perhaps all expressions of his own internal psyche, and his intuition of the fundamental human condition beyond ego. I believe he did this in a contemplative state of altered consciousness, facilitated by his seer stone as a meditation object. Joseph may have “channeled” his experiences esoterically through these ancient characters, just as I recently “channeled” or translated my mystical experiences through Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts.
I suggest that the “First Vision” is an archetypal vision, a Beatific Vision, an Awakening, one that has been had by innumerable people throughout history, and in every part of the world, but they interpret/translate it in terms of their own cultures, their conditioning, their languages, their terminology, their symbolism, their religion, and sometimes in terms of ancient mythological people or recognized figures. They paint their experience of God according to their mind’s understanding.
The image at the top of the post contains the earliest surviving printer’s manuscript copy of 1 Nephi 1: “Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830, Page i,” p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 9, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/printers-manuscript-of-the-book-of-mormon-circa-august-1829-circa-january-1830/5