I’ve been writing a lot about Joseph Smith and his First Vision recently, even offering a new translation of his First Vision, and the reason is that I see that this man was a genuine and radical prophet-mystic of our times, one who founded the religious movement known today as Mormonism beginning back in 1820 in New England, who is thus the mystic of my own cultural tradition, and who I feel is still largely unknown to us, both within the tradition and without. We have almost entirely lost his contemplative nature, and his mystical profundity. I want to help unveil that profundity, which is also our own.
In a recent Facebook conversation with my LDS historian friend Don Bradley (who just published a groundbreaking new book about the lost 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon which you should definitely check out!), we were discussing the nature of the First Vision, and how it seems to tie Joseph in much more closely to Christ than we have thought in the past. How close? I perceive that Joseph was Christed, or experienced Christification, as they may be termed in the Christian tradition.
What do these terms mean? Here is one definition offered by Rev. Jordan Cooper, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Watseka, IL, and a Lutheran Theologian:
Christification is the ontological union of God and man, initiated through the incarnation, which the Christian partakes in through faith. Through this union, that which belongs properly to Christ, namely divine incorruptibility and immortality, is transferred to the believer by faith.https://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/defining-christification/
He goes on to say:
What is meant by “ontological” is that this union is not purely relational, nor is it an external union, or a simply union of wills (Ritschl); it is a union of the substance of God with the substance of man in such a way that the two interpenetrate one another, but are not confused.https://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/defining-christification/
This is a pretty good definition, except I don’t think this divinity is “transferred” to the person, so much as it is unveiled, uncovered, realized, recognized, awakened, actualized in the person. It is mystical union, a realization of ultimate at-one-ment, of oneness, of nonduality. In more simple terms, one sees one’s Self in Christ, as Christ. This does not mean one sees the historical man Jesus in one’s self, but rather as Christ, just as Jesus experienced Christ, and Paul experienced Christ, and as many more have so realized this unification in God or Ultimate Reality. It is that consciousness of being One in God, that Anointed Consciousness, that Christ Consciousness, that awareness of being so fully identical with Reality itself that there is no difference, no separation, no distinction. One is Reality, One is God.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that one’s ego is God, or that one’s particular body-mind is God, or has become God, at least not in God’s essence. I don’t think that’s what it means. I think it means that one realizes one’s true Self in the essence of God, which has emanated/manifested itself as the particular body-mind that you find yourself in now, God as incarnated (existence) its Self (essence) into you and all body-minds, even all beings, all things, the totality of the cosmos. The Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh, and you realize you are that Word (John 1).
I think Joseph Smith experienced this in his First Vision experience, which was his radical founding mystical experience. And I think this can be seen in the details of his accounts. As Don Bradley recently noted in his talk at the FairMormon Conference, “the First Vision was an endowment and an enactment [and epitome] of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In other words, the First Vision was the Gospel, all the way up to and including at-one-ment and theosis/deification/divinization in “Christ,” becoming at-one in “Christ” and the “Father” (John 17:21-23).
What are the clues to this Christification, his Christening? I think there are many, which show that Joseph did not merely “see” and “speak” with Christ, but was actually at-one in Christ, experiencing Christ in and as his Self. Here is a list of features in the First Vision which seem to indicate this:
- passing through a dark ego death/crucifixion of self
- letting go, surrendering and submitting his will to God
- the dark “cloud” veil of his ego-self was rent, pierced through like a nail, and he passed through it into the Presence of God
- his mind being caught away or raised up to a “heaven,” as a resurrection/ascension
- seeing the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend, “gracefully” and “gradually” onto himself, perhaps like a dove in Jesus’ baptism
- being baptized by Fire (Holy Ghost), being born again of and in that Spirit, being filled by God’s Spirit
- being filled with Light, Peace, Joy, and Love unspeakable
- seeing God as a “person” with “light complexion blue eyes”
- standing by God’s (right) side, resembling God exactly in features/likeness
- being touched/pointed to by God’s “finger”, an Anointing gesture
- God speaking to the “second” personage
- being declared by God “my son” / “my Beloved Son”
- seeing the Savior after being touched/pointed to by God
- After God says “hear him,” it is Joseph who begins to speak
- having his sins forgiven, therefore being sinless, stainless, blameless
- saying “I am the Lord of glory”
- saying “I was crucifyed for the world”
- understanding that the religions and their authorities were wrong and corrupt
- he received the “Promise,” being exalted by the right hand of God
- “I come quickly as it [is?] written of me in the cloud <clothed> in the glory of my Father”
- “the Lord was with me”
It would take too long in this article to go over each of these points in detail, but I will highlight what I think are the strongest details of Joseph’s Christic union.
God seems to have “touched” Joseph’s eyes with his “finger” (which may have been Joseph’s own finger) in the Charles Walker account from John Alger, immediately before speaking. This seems to directly parallel the 1838 account of God “pointing” to the Son immediately before speaking. The touching/pointing may have been the same intuition, interpreted two different ways. In other words, God “pointed” to Joseph, touching him, and revealing to him his Sonship, that he was the “Beloved Son.”
When God speaks to greet Joseph, in the 1832 account he says “Joseph <my son>.” In the 1838 account when God speaks it is strikingly parallel: Joseph, “this is my beloved Son.” The son/Son in both instances may have been one and the same—Joseph. God’s “son/Son” was Joseph, the one God pointed to and touched. Joseph was filled with God’s Love, and so was that Beloved.
I also find an interesting detail in David White’s 1843 account of the vision. In most accounts God speaks to Joseph to introduce the Son, but in this account when God introduces the Son, he does so in the second-person point of view, speaking to the “second” personage:
…and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, “Behold my beloved Son, hear him.”-“Interview, 21 August 1843, extract,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 25, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/interview-21-august-1843-extract/1. Emphasis added.
So was God speaking to Joseph or to the “second” personage? Perhaps both, at once, because perhaps they were the same person. It is perhaps similar to God’s voice in Mark and Luke at Jesus’ baptism when God says, “You are my Beloved Son” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; cf. Ps. 2:7). God is speaking to Jesus, revealing to him his Sonship. In other words, the “second” person in Joseph’s accounts may have been Joseph himself, and God was speaking to him too, revealing to him his Sonship, and that God was his “Father.” In the Charles Walker account, it is only after God touches/points his eyes, and says “Joseph this is my beloved Son, hear him” that Joseph said he then “immediately saw the Savior.”
God unveiled the “Son” to Joseph as himself: identified him by touching/pointing at him, speaking to him as the “second” personage, calling him by name, saying that he was God’s “son/Son,” and then Joseph saw the Savior. The later appearance of the “Savior” seems to correlate with the 1835 account of the “second” personage appearing soon after the first, as well as David White’s 1843 account, and Alexander Neibaur’s 1844 account. That “second” person, if synonymous with Joseph himself, is said to have stood to the side of the first (right side?) in Neibaur’s account, taking that Christic position at the right hand of God.
Additionally, in several of the accounts, after God introduces the “Son,” he says “hear him” or “hearken ye him.” It is then that Joseph immediately speaks. Yes, Joseph. It is not a separate “Son” or Jesus that begins to say anything when invited to “hear him,” but Joseph himself. He is perhaps hearing his self/Self speak. It is perhaps his “lower self” speaking to his “higher Self.” In the David White account he says, “I then, addressed this second person, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join.'” There is an interaction between the “Son” and his “Father,” the “Father” perhaps as it is expressed or manifested through the “Son.” This would not be dissimilar to the way Jesus addressed and pleaded with the “Father” in the intercessory prayer (John 17), even though on multiple occasions he said that the “Father” was in him, and that if you saw him you also saw the “Father” (John 14:9-11, 20). The lower incarnate finite mortal self “speaks” to and communes with the higher transcendental Divine Self at-one in God or Ultimate Reality, and this is perhaps known as prayer.
I know that some of the chronology here doesn’t seem to match up the events in the First Vision that we are familiar with. We think God and the Son first appeared to Joseph, and only then did God introduce the Son, and then the Son speaks to Joseph. But I suggest that all of these events may have happened in a timeless (eternal) space, outside of chronological spacetime, and may have been an instantaneous and simultaneous intuition, insight, revelation, unveiling. It didn’t happen chronologically, but in order for Joseph to tell it in language, to communicate something of it to others, he had to interpret it into some kind of chronological order, which seems to separate it all out into time, one event happening after another in a sequence. That may not have been what happened in the vision itself at all. It may have all come flooding into him at once, in an “eternal now” as an early Mormon hymn puts it:
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
Or in another hymn is likewise the idea of everything being revealed at once in a “present” moment:
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…
What about the standing? Joseph says he saw these personages “standing above me in the air” (1838 account, perhaps “stood” repeated in the 1842 secondhand Orson Hyde account). Joseph was on the ground, kneeling perhaps, or perhaps already flat on his back as he indicates finding himself after the vision ended. How could he be the “second” person, if he saw them standing above him. I think this goes back to the mystical realization that God is not identical to our ego-personality or particular body-mind. His “mind” was perhaps “taken away” from those natural objects when he was caught up into “heaven,” perhaps like Paul, being “out-of-body” (2 Cor. 12:1-6). So God could very well have been “standing above” Joseph’s material body on the ground, while Joseph experienced himself at-one in God as well. The “standing” itself is likely not literal anyway, but a metaphor for God’s presence and powerful stature, which stands hierarchically “above” the mortal incarnation of the Son in the flesh.
Furthermore, Joseph may have referred to God as an other in the third person, similarly as Paul referred to a “man” who was caught up to the third heaven, so as not to “boast” about himself as being identical to God, or so as not to have others mistakenly think he thought that he was Christ himself, and crucified him for blasphemy. In Joseph’s exoteric interpretation/translation of his mystical experience, now from the point of view of the egoic body-mind, God truly was above and beyond him. Only in Joseph’s essence, his inner nature, his divine nature, his true Self, was he identical to or at-one in God, and the “Son.”
Finally, in the 1842 firsthand account Joseph says that the persons “exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.” If Joseph was that “second” person, then that means he saw himself resembling God exactly in features and likeness, something not unheard of (Gen. 1:26). It could also help explain the lack of a “second” person at all in the earliest account in 1832. In that vision Joseph says he simply saw “the Lord.” He may not have counted himself as the “second” person present in that account. Although in the 1838 firsthand account Joseph said that God defied “all description,” in the secondhand account in 1844 Joseph does describe the Godly person who appeared “in the fire” as having “light complexion blue eyes.” It just so happens that many people described Joseph by those very same characteristics, as noted by the Joseph Smith Foundation:
He had blue eyes and light hair, and very fine white skin.-Jane James, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal 16, no. 12 (December 1905): 553.
President Joseph Smith was in person tall and well built, strong and active, of a light complexion, light hair, blue eyes, very little beard…–Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 31-32.
He was a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out upon his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead.-Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 380-81.
His hair was of a light brown, blue eyes and light complexioned.-“Reminiscences of Mrs. F. D. [Jane Snyder] Richards,” San Francisco, 1880. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 11.
He was a fine looking man, tall and well proportioned, strong and active, with a light complexion, blue eyes, and light hair, and very little beard.–Journal of Wandle Mace, Brigham Young University Library
I grant that this mysticism is exceptionally difficult to fathom, perhaps even inconceivable for those who have never had a mystical experience, but I perceive that it is pointing in the right direction of what happened in Joseph Smith’s First Vision. I have experienced similar things myself.
Some may wonder where God’s “body” is in my new translation of the First Vision. I submit that Joseph not only “saw” God and Christ in his vision, but that he at-oned with them, in them, as them, without separation or division whatsoever, being Christified himself, being wholly (holy) redeemed from the Fall, seeing and awakening to his true Christic Self within him just as Paul (Gal. 2:20), but which his mind subsequently (and perhaps rightly) translated/interpreted into dualistic imagery and common Christian religious symbolism that he and his contemporaries were familiar with. God’s “body” was his own body, which he saw in Divine Light.
And I suggest that this does not place Joseph on a pedestal as a “God” that we should worship, but rather I think that Joseph was simply a person who realized God in him, as countless mystics and contemplatives have so realized throughout history and all around the world. We may all also realize God living within us, that we are all at-one in this Ultimate Reality, in this “universal Christ.”
As Paul said millennia ago, do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that God lives in you? (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; D&C 93:35). How might you know it?
The artwork at the top of the article is by Daniel B. Holeman.