Robert M. Bowman Jr., argues that Joseph Fielding Smith knew about the 1832 First Vision account and he wanted "to be made public quietly under the most favorable possible circumstances."

Apr 18, 2020
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Robert M. Bowman, Jr., "Suppression of Documents: Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account versus the Noncanonical Gospels,", April 18, 2020, accessed June 9, 2022

Stan Larson, A. William Lund, Eugene Olsen, Richard Lyman Bushman, Sandra Tanner, Jerald Tanner, James B. Allen, Levi Edgar Young, Lauritz Peterson, M. Russell Ballard, Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Bart Ehrman, Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, Jr., LaMar Petersen, Joseph F. Smith, Steven C. Harper, Earl E. Olson, Paul R. Cheesman, Joseph Fielding Smith
Reading Public

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. 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. 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“Being eclipsed in notoriety and importance by Joseph’s canonical 1838–39 account in the Pearl of Great Price, it went unpublished until 1965 when Paul Cheesman included a transcript of it in his master’s thesis.”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 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.

Who “Found” the 1832 First Vision Account?

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

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. 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. 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.

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.) 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.

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.” 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.” 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. 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.

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. 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.” 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.” 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. Cheesman also thanks Richard Lloyd Anderson and Milton V. Backman Jr., among others, “for their suggestions.” 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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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

Copyright © B. H. Roberts Foundation
The B. H. Roberts Foundation is not owned by, operated by, or affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.