Monday, July 4, 2011

The First Vision in the Formative Years of the Church

July 4, 2011
by Tim Barker

Joseph Smith's First Vision (per wiki commons)

In studying the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the significance of Joseph Smith's "First Vision" can hardly be overstated.  Initially, however, the importance of this event appears to have been less appreciated for its profound significance and relevance.  Terryl Givens has noted that the "timing and the naming of the event assign it absolute primacy in the founding of Mormonism, [yet] the vision was described by the young Joseph and apparently interpreted by him at the time as a private experience with no greater implications for the world at large or for Christian believers generally."1  After all, while Joseph was forgiven of his sins and instructed to remain detached from all of the existing churches, the Lord promised that at some future time the fullness of the gospel would be made known to him.  When Moroni visited him three years later he learned that the time was nigh for the gospel to be preached to the world, preparatory to the second coming of the Messiah, and that he would be instrumental in translating a record containing the fullness of the everlasting gospel.  Accordingly, the angelic ministration of Moroni seems to have been initially understood as the catalyst for providing Joseph with a course of direction and a specific commission, rather than his sacred experience in the grove.2  It was only with hindsight that the importance of the First Vision began to take its rightful place in restorational theology.  For example, Joseph didn't publish an account of the vision until 1842, two years before his martyrdom; however, this sacred experience was documented and shared in a number of instances prior to this time. 

In 1832 Joseph recorded his experience for the first time in his first letterbook under the title, "A History of the Life of Joseph Smith Jr."3  Three years later, a Jewish minister named Robert Matthews, more commonly known as Matthias the Prophet, but introducing himself at this time as Joshua the Jewish Minister, came to visit Kirtland, Ohio.  Joseph related an account of the First Vision to Matthews on November 9, 1835, which was recorded in his personal journal by Warren Parrish, his scribe at that time.4  The following week Joseph also related his vision to an investigator of the restored gospel, named Erastus Holmes.5  The 1838 history prepared by Joseph includes the portion of LDS scripture known as Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, and was published in the Times and Seasons on March 15, 1842.Two weeks previous to the familiar account of Joseph Smith's history, the Times and Seasons included a letter written by the Prophet to the Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth regarding the "rise, progress, persecution and faith of the Latter-day Saints."7  This narrative also detailed the events of the First Vision.  Interestingly, this account appears to rely, to some extent, upon verbiage used by Orson Pratt in his recitation of the vision as published in his 1840 booklet, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records.8  Two years later, Orson Hyde published his German missionary tract, Ein Ruf aus der Wueste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (A Cry from the Wilderness, A Voice from the Dust of the Earth), which was much more reliant on Orson Pratt's account.9  

In addition to the above mentioned accounts, there are four other known contemporary accounts that were documented during Joseph's life.  In July 1843, Israel Daniel Rupp requested that Joseph supply him with a sketch of the history of the church.  Joseph's response was completed by September of that year, and published by Rupp the following year in 1844 before the Prophet's death.10  This account was similar to the Wentworth Letter.  On June 11, 1843, Levi Richards recorded in his journal a portion of a sermon delivered by Joseph Smith regarding the First Vision, while in Nauvoo, Illinois.11  Two months later David Nye White interviewed the Prophet and recorded an account of the First Vision in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette.12  Lastly, Alexander Neibaur recorded an account of the First Vision in his diary on May 24, 1844, while visiting with Joseph at the Prophet's home.13  Aside from these documented accounts, there are other contemporary records that allude to Joseph's First Vision, as well as reminiscences from others who recorded their accounts subsequent to the Prophets' martyrdom.

Mrs. Palmer, a Presbyterian lady, recalled many years after the fact, that prior to Joseph's "second vision" and the time that he "began to write a book," there was an "excitement stirred up among some of the people over the boy's first vision..."14  In 1824, Joseph Smith, Sr., is reported to have discussed the First Vision with Martin Harris in response to the latter's inquiries.15  Two years later, Joseph Knight learned of the vision directly from Joseph Smith.16  The 1833 Book of Commandments (BC 24:5-6, now D&C 20:5-6) alludes to this event in stating that after it "truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world; But after truly repenting, God ministered unto him by an holy angel..."17  These "Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ" were received in approximately April 1830,18 and were subsequently published in The Telegraph in April 1831,19 and in the Evening and Morning Star in June 1832.20  In November 1830, during their missionary efforts in Ohio, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and Ziba Peterson were reported to have taught that Joseph "had seen God frequently and personally."21  A few months later, on January 6, 1831, Lucy Mack Smith wrote a letter to her brother and sister-in-law, using language consistent with the April 1830 revelation and Joseph's subsequent 1832 account, indicating that Joseph, after "repenting of his sins and humbling himself before God," was visited by the angel Moroni.22 

In the fall of 1831, Joseph moved in with the John Johnson family in Hiram, Ohio.23  Previous to his move, however, he had apparently informed somebody where he had seen the vision in the woods, since the subsequent land owners purposely never laid an axe into those trees (except to remove dead timber) since "Joseph Smith claimed to see a vision," in a particular "piece of wood[s]," and they "never felt disposed to mar its sacred silence or beauty."24  After moving into the John Johnson home, on November 1, 1831 Joseph received a revelation during a conference, wherein, the Lord stated that He had "called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments."25  Lorenzo Snow asserted that he first saw and heard Joseph Smith while in Hiram, Ohio, and noted that Joseph declared the things that the "Lord had manifested to him, to the dispensation of the Gospel which had been committed to him, and to the authority that he possessed."  This discourse was in the presence of about 250 people. Lorenzo recalled that Joseph had "a conversation with Jesus, the Son of God, and had talked with Him personally, as Moses is said to have talked with God upon Mount Sinai, and that he had also heard the voice of the Father..."26 

The following year missionaries in Pennsylvania taught that Joseph had repented of his sins and kept himself apart from Christian denominations, "owing to the numerous divisions among them, and being in doubt what his duty was, he had recourse prayer."27  This explanation is consistent with elements found in various accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.  In October of 1832, the Reverend Benton Pixley wrote that some Mormons, those who have seen the third heaven, claim to "converse with the Lord Jesus face to face."28  On March 2, 1833, Richmond Taggart wrote a letter to the Reverend Jonathan Goings, indicating that the previous week Joseph Smith had preached in Newburg, Ohio, that he had seen Jesus Christ and the Apostles and had conversed with them.29  Later that year, in August, a Missouri newspaper recorded that the Mormons (presumably Joseph) have "pretended revelations from heaven," and "personal intercourse with God and his angels..."30  On November 8, 1833, Joseph Capron related that Joseph, in years past, had claimed to make the "highest pretensions to piety and holy intercourse with Almighty God."31

The prophet visited a branch of the church in Pontiac, Michigan, in October 1834.32  Both Edward Stevenson and Joseph Curtis were present when the prophet spoke, and years later recalled that Joseph bore powerful testimony of the First Vision.  Stevenson stated that Joseph testified "in the midst of many large congregations...with great power concerning the visit of the Father and the Son, and the conversation he had with them."33  In December 1834, Oliver Cowdery described in further detail the difficulties that the prophet labored under with respect to evaluating the disagreements and tension among the competing Christian churches.34  That same month, Joseph received a patriarchal blessing from his father, who had stated that while in his youth, Joseph had heard the Lord's "voice from on high from time to time," and that "The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens..."35  News of the First Vision had reached Massachusetts by this time.  Samuel W. Richards recalled that he had "heard the report that a young man in the west named Joseph Smith had been visited by God[,] and His Son Jesus Christ was with Him."  He states that two missionaries visited his parent's home shortly afterwards, confirming this report.36

On May 31, 1835, Joseph delivered a discourse entitled, "This is my beloved Son; hear ye him!"  According to W.W. Phelps, it was "one of the greatest sermons I ever heard."  The discourse was about three and a half hours long, and "unfolded more mysteries than I can write at this time."37  In October 1835, W.W. Phelps may have alluded to the First Vision, in writing to Oliver Cowdery.  He stated that all the sects in Christendom had been striving for power during the last fifty years, and asked, "where will you find a man of God?  Where will you find a servant of the Lord, who can prevail by prayer and faith, and unstop the bottles of heaven in a drouth?"38  That same month a hymn written by Phelps was published in the Messenger and Advocate (also included in the first LDS hymnal in 1835).  The song written by Phelps discussed the world being in darkness, Joseph seeking a better way, and hearing the voice of the Savior.39  As previously noted, the following month Joseph shared his experience with Robert Matthews and Erastus Holmes. 

Near the end of 1836, Parley P. Pratt wrote a letter to church leaders in Canada, stating that he had attended one of the "most interesting meetings I ever attended [which] was held in the Lord's house Sunday before last."  He stated:
One week before, word was publicly given that Brother Joseph Smith, Jr. would give a relation of the coming forth of the records and also of the rise of the Church and of his experience.  Accordingly a vast concourse assembled at an early hour.  Every seat was crowded, and four or five hundred people stood up in the aisles.  Brother Smith gave the history of these things, relating many particulars of the manner of his first visions, and the spirit and power of God was upon him in bearing testimony, insomuch that many, if not most of the congregation were in tears.  As for myself I can say that all the reasonings in uncertainty and all the conclusions drawn from the writings of others...dwindle into insignificance when compared with living testimony.40
Also while in Kirtland, John Alger recalled an instance of Joseph sharing the First Vision.  His account adds additional information in that God the Father touched Joseph's eyes and declared to him, "Joseph this is my beloved Son," after which Joseph immediately saw the Savior.41  Some time in 1837, or possibly 1838, Joseph shared his experience with Mary Isabella Horne and a few others.  Horne later recorded, "I heard him relate his first vision, when the Father and Son appeared to him; also his receiving the gold plates from the Angel Moroni."42  In 1837, Orson Pratt had also apparently shared the First Vision as a missionary to William Appleby.43 

During 1838, the official history of the Church was begun by Joseph and recorded by his scribes.44  The following year, Wandle Mace recorded that Lucy Mack Smith shared some family stories with him, stating that in years past Joseph would teach the family the "pure principles of the gospel as revealed to him by the angels, and of his glorious vision of the Father and the Son, when the father said to him as he pointed to his companion, "This is my beloved Son, hear Him.""45   At some point, whether in Ohio or Illinois, John Taylor learned of the First Vision directly from Joseph.  While in France, Elder Taylor wrote a letter to the editor of the Interpreter Anglais et Francais, stating that he would relate the words of Joseph Smith as near as possible as Joseph had related them to him.  John Taylor described the events of the First Vision, and stated that Joseph, "believing in the word of God...retired into a grove, and called upon the Lord to give him wisdom in relation to this matter [the diversity and disagreement amongst Christian churches].  While he was thus engaged, he was surrounded by a brilliant light, and two glorious personages presented themselves before him, who exactly resembled each other in features, and who gave him information upon the subjects which had previously agitated his mind.  He was given to understand that the churches were all of them in error in regard to many things; and he was commanded not to go after them; and he received a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be unfolded unto him..."46 

Throughout this period and into the Nauvoo era of church history some non-LDS newspapers and books published elements of the First Vision story that were somewhat garbled and frequently mixed with Joseph's later experiences with Moroni.  For example, the Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer discussed the religious revivals that Joseph described, and then provided the solution to Joseph's concerns in the form of the angel Moroni.47  J.B. Turner repeated this information in his 1842 book on Mormonism.48  Other publications took note of official church publications, such as the Wentworth letter and Joseph Smith's history published in the Times and Seasons,49 yet these publications excluded information on the First Vision in their accounts.  Reverend Henry Caswall, Professor of Divinity at Kemper College in St. Louis, spent three days in Nauvoo, and in conversing with a Latter-day Saint Elder, noted that Joseph had "received revelations ever since he was fifteen years of age..."50  William Smith, the prophet's brother gave several recollections of the First Vision and Moroni's visit many years later.51  Orson Pratt, who had published his account of the First Vision in 1840 would later remark in a sermon in 1869 that Joseph experienced the First Vision in approximately April 1820.52  This was apparently known by others, since Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley published in 1861 that Joseph experienced the First Vision in April 1820.53

While some of the above information may have some ambiguities and inaccuracies and may relate to other experiences, still, it is clear that the First Vision was taught to Latter-day Saints and potential converts in the formative years of the Church.  At a minimum, Joseph had discussed his experience in sermons to hundreds of people in 1831, 1834, 1835, and 1836.  Recognizing the import of the vision, and to correct the many conflicting reports circulating, Joseph decided to write an official history of his experiences.  "Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons...I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church..." (JS-H 1:1).  Accordingly, an account of the First Vision was published for all audiences of those facts that Joseph deemed most important.  It was never claimed to be a comprehensive account since the Wentworth letter, published two weeks previous to the official history, included unique details; however, it was meant to be the official version.  Since it was first canonized in 1880, it has become the most familiar and commonly cited account.  And why shouldn't it?  It was put forth as the official account, and is the only canonized version of the story; all other accounts are supplemental. 

Joseph's late efforts in emphasizing its importance seems to correlate with his increased teachings in identifying the true character of God, and the Godhead.  In April 1843, Joseph taught that "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit."  (D&C 130:22).  The following year, Joseph taught that it is the "first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty, the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another..."54  Before Joseph had died, he had successfully elevated the significance of the First Vision to its rightful place in restorational theology as its foundational event.

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1 Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9-10
2 Interestingly, Joseph was not the only person who claimed to see a vision of the Father and the Son around this time period.  As cited by Richard Bushman, several others had made similar claims (see Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 40-41).  In connection with the information above, perhaps Joseph did not consider his vision to be a completely unique event considering others in the vicinity claimed similar experiences.  At any rate, while he certainly felt the personal significance of the First Vision, his call to the work went forward under the direction provided by the angel Moroni. 
3 Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Revised Edition; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, and Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 9-12.  This letterbook is mostly in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, however, the account of the first vision is in Joseph's handwriting.  Dean Jessee and Milton Backman have noted that the reason Joseph recorded this account was probably in accordance with the direction received from the Lord that a record should be kept amont the Latter-day Saints (see BC 22:1; D&C 21:1).  The delay for recording the event is likely due to a number of contributing factors, such as Joseph's lack of education, the frontier life atmosphere,  the fact that most 19th century autobiographies were generally written many years later, etc.  For additional information, see Dean C. Jessee, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):294; and Milton V. Backman, "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," Ensign (Jan 1985):8-17; available online here).
Joseph Smith, Jr., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals Volume 1:1832-1839, Gen Eds., Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard L. Bushman, Vol Eds. Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian's Press, Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2008), 86-87, 94.  Milton Backman indicated that Warren Cowdery recorded this dialogue in Joseph's journal (Ensign (Jan 1985):8-17; available online here); however, he subsequently clarified that Warren Parrish was the scribe - see Milton V. Backman, "Verification of the 1838 Account of the First Vision," in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations From God (Monograph Series, Vol. 14; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 239, 243 (available online here).
5 Smith, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals Volume 1:1832-1839, 100; also printed in the Deseret News 2/15 (May 29, 1852):57
6 Joseph Smith, Jr., "History of Joseph Smith," Times and Seasons 3/10 (Mar 15, 1842):726-728.  John Welch and James B. Allen have noted that the timing of the documentation of this account may have been in April-May 1838, September 1838, or June 1839; see James B. Allen and John W. Welch, "The Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820," in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo, UT: BYU Press, Brigham Young University, 2005), 47.  According to Dean Jessee, while this account was prepared by the Prophet, it was actually penned by his clerk at this time, James Mulholland; see Jesse, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," 275
7 Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons, 3/9 (Mar 1, 1842):706-707; Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 241-243; Joseph wrote this account with the understanding that it was for John Wentworth's friend, "Mr. Bastow," who was writing a history of New Hampshire.  Joseph requested that he "publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation" (Ibid, 242).  Mr. Bastow, is probably George Barstow, author of The History of New Hampshire: From its Discovery, in 1614, to the Passage of the Toleration Act, in 1819 (Concord, NH: I.S. Boyd Publisher, Cambridge Press: Lyman Thurston & Wm. Torry, 1842); however, this book never included Joseph's history. Assuming that this is the correct reference, it is unclear as to why Joseph's history was not included although a few reasons are possible. Barstow's book was published in June 1842, and the "Wentworth Letter" was published in the Times and Seasons in March 1842. While it is uncertain as to when Joseph finished the letter (obviously some time prior to March 1842), there may have been insufficient time to get this history, and perhaps a response by Barstow, included into the publication in time.  Additionally, Joseph's history may have been beyond the scope of what Barstow intended to publish. Joseph requested that his account be published in full, but he did not include any information about his family having lived in Lebanon, New Hampshire; as such, Barstow may have chosen to leave it out altogether for these reasons.  For additional information regarding records of the Smith family in New Hampshire, see Craig N. Ray, "Joseph Smith's History Confirmed," (Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research [FAIR], 2002); available online here.  Also see Dean C. Jessee, "The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," in Opening the Heavens, 17.
8 Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of The Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 3-6.  While some of the verbiage is consistent, there are important aspects included and excluded from each of the two accounts.  Clearly Orson Pratt obtained his information from Joseph, and the similarity in these accounts suggests to me, that either there is a missing record from which both accounts incorporated information, or Joseph may have preferred Orson Pratt's eloquent articulation of the experience and borrowed some verbiage in drafting his letter to Wentworth and Barstow.  This pamphlet was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1840, and was reprinted the following year in London and New York.
9 Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wueste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde ("A Cry from the Wilderness, A Voice from the Dust of the Earth"; Frankfurt, Germany, 1842).  This booklet was published in 1842, although it was completed in 1841; see Times and Seasons 2/23 (Oct 1, 1841):551. Orson Hyde wrote to Joseph noting that "I have written a book to publish in the German language, setting forth our doctrine and principles in as clear and concise a manner as I possibly could. After giving the history of the rise of the church, in something the manner that Br. O. Pratt did, I have written a snug little article upon every point of doctrine believed by the saints" (Ibid, 551).
10 Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Period 1, History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet By Himself, Ed. B.H. Roberts (7 Vols.; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1912), 6:9-10.  Joseph received a copy of Rupp's book (I. Daniel Rupp, An Original History of the Religious Denominations At Present Existing in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: J.Y. Humphreys; Clyde and Williams, 1844), 404-410), on June 5, 1844 (see History of the Church, 6:428).  Joseph wrote to Rupp, stating "...I feel very thankful for so valuable a treasure.  The design, the propriety, the wisdom of letting every sect tell its own story, and the elegant manner in which the work appears, have filled my breast with encomiums upon it..." (HC 6:428).
11 Levi Richards Diary, June 11, 1843, as cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Monograph Series Vol. 6; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 215;  Jessee, "The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," 24
12 David Nye White, "The Prairies, Nauvoo, Joe Smith, the Temple, The Mormons, etc." (interview on August 29 (30?), 1843) The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette 58/3 (Sep 15, 1843); reprinted in Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith (2 Vols.; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 1:444; reproduced online here.
13 Alexander Neibaur Diary, May 24, 1844; typescript available online here.
14 Truman G. Madsen, "Guest Editor's Prologue," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):235; also see "Stories from the Notebook of Martha Cox, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson," Church Historian's Library, Salt Lake City, UT, and Lee C. LaFayette, "Recollections of Joseph Smith," Church Historian's Library, Salt Lake City, UT, as cited in Hyrum L. and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts From Over 100 People Who Knew Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1999), 1-2
15 Willard Bean, A.B.C. History of Palmyra and the Beginning of Mormonism (Palmyra, NY: Palmyra Courier, Co., 1938), 35; also see "A Biography [Autobiography]  of William Pilkington, Jr. written by Himself," MS, L.D.S. Church Historians Office, Salt Lake City, UT, 42; as cited in Rhett S. James, The Man Who Knew: The Early Years, A Play About Martin Harris 1824-1830 (Cache Valley, UT: Martin Harris Pageant Committee, 1983), 114, fn 76
16 Autobiography of Joseph Knight, Jr. (Church Archives), 1, as cited in Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1984), 72
17 Book of Commandments, For the Government of the Church of Christ (republished verbatim; Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Tribune, 1884), 27-28; available online here.  See the "Kirtland Revelation Book" in Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard L. Bushman, Gen. Eds., Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, Steve C. Harper, Vol. Eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations - Manuscript Revelation Books (Facsimile Edition; Salt Lake City: The Church Historian's Press, Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 26-29 (D&C 21 discusses the need to keep a record; D&C 20:5-6 in the Kirtland Revelation Book is missing the pages showing these verses).  This verse alludes to the First Vision as each of the elements of the verse bears similarity to different aspects of the First Vision experience.  First, Joseph  had received a remission of his sins, consistent with the 1832, 1835, and 1840 accounts; second, he was caught up in worldly matters, consistent with the scriptural account in JS-H 1:28-29; and third, Joseph repented and was visited by an angel, consistent with the scriptural account in JS-H 1:29-30.
18 Scott H. Faulring, "An Examination of the 1829 "Articles of the Church of Christ" in Relation to Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants," BYU Studies 43/4 (2004):57-91; available online here.
19 The Telegraph (Painesville, OH), 2/44 (Apr 19, 1831); reproduced online here.
20 Evening and Morning Star 1/1 (Jun 1832):2; available online here.
21 "Book of Mormon," The Reflector (Palmyra, NY), 2/13 (Feb 14, 1831):102; available online here
22 "A Gospel Letter. Written by Sister Lucy Mack Smith, the Mother of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Elders' Journal 4/3 (Nov 1, 1906): 61; compare with Joseph's 1838 account following the First Vision in JS-H 1:28-29.
23 Joseph had moved in with John Johnson on September 12, 1831 (History of the Church 1:215).  On October 11, 1831, a conference of the Elders was held at the Johnson home (History of the Church 1:219), and the revelation in November 1831 received during conference was probably also at the Johnson home.
24 Susa Young Gates, "Memorial Monument Dedication" Improvement Era 9/5 (Mar 1906):380-381; also see George E. Anderson, "Boy in the Picture of the Sacred Grove," Improvement Era 24 (Nov 1920):4-15, as cited in Rand Hugh Packer, History of Four Mormon Landmarks in Western New York: The Joseph Smith Farm, Hill Cumorah, The Martin Harris Farm, and The Peter Whitmer, Sr., Farm (Master's Thesis; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1975), 56-58; also see David F. Boone, "A Man Raised Up: The Role of Willard W. Bean in the Acquisition of the Hill Cumorah," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1-2 (2004):24-37
25 History of the Church, 1:221-224; D&C 1:17 (previously BC 1:4).  This reference could relate to other revelations received, however, if the declaration is literal, then the First Vision is the only known instance during the prophet's life through November 1831, in which the Lord Himself spoke directly to Joseph "from heaven." 
26 Lorenzo Snow, "The Grand Destiny of Man" (a discourse delivered by President Lorenzo Snow at the Mill Creek Ward Meeting House on July 14, 1901), Deseret Evening News (Jul 20, 1901), 22; available online here.
27 "Mormonism," The Fredonia Censor (Fredonia, NY), 11/50 (Mar 7, 1832); available online here; this article was reprinted from the Franklin Democrat (Franklin, PA), circa Feb-Mar 1832.  This account alludes to the First Vision as the elements of this account are consistent with the First Vision experience.  Joseph repented of his sins, kept himself aloof from the Christian denominations because of the divisions in Christianity,  and doubted what he should do; accordingly, he had "recourse" prayer.  These elements are strongly apparent in the 1832 and 1838 accounts.  According to H. Michael Marquardt, the missionaries were probably Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson who preached in Franklin, Pennsylvania on February 11, 1832 (see H. Michael Marquardt, The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844 (Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2006), 310-311).
28 Reverend Benton Pixley, "Intelligence Respecting Mormonites: To the Editor of the Christian Watchman" (Oct. 12, 1832), The American Eagle, 2/21(?) (Apr 23, 1833); reproduced online here.  Originally in the Christian Watchman (1832), this letter was reprinted in a number of newspapers including: Independent Messenger (Nov 29, 1832), Ohio Atlas and Lorain County Gazette (Dec 6, 1832); Christian Messenger (Feb 1833), Jamestown Journal, 7/346 (Feb 13, 1833); and Missouri Intelligencer (Apr 13, 1833) - per Dale Broadhurst.  The reference to the third heaven provides evidence that the "Vision," or the revelation contained in D&C 76 was taught by missionaries in 1832.  Whether the reference to those who "converse with the Lord Jesus face to face," refers strictly to Joseph Smith and the First Vision, or to Joseph and Sidney's vision of the three degrees of glory, is uncertain.  Since we do not have any other record of the Savior speaking to Joseph face to face following 1820 through the date of this letter, it would seem to be applicable to the First Vision. 
29 "Rev. Richmond Taggart to Rev. Jonathan  Goings," (Mar 2, 1833), American Baptist Historical Society, Jonathan Goings Papers, Rochester, New York, as cited in Gregory A. Prince, Power From On High: The Development of the Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 8.  The reference to Joseph having seen the Apostles would seem to relate to the reception of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John. 
30 "Mormonism," The Western Monitor (Aug 2, 1833); reprinted in Missouri Intelligencer 17/7(?) (Aug 10, 1833); reproduced online here.
31 Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, Or, A Faithful Account of that Singular Imposition and Delusion From its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, PA: Eber D. Howe, 1834), 258-259
32 History of the Church, 2:168
33 "Autobiography of Edward Stevenson," Typewritten manuscript, Church Historian's Library, Salt Lake City, UT, as cited in Andrus, They Knew the Prophet, 95-96; also see Edward Stevenson, "The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon," Millennial Star 48/22 (May 1886):341, and Edward Stevenson, "Incidents of My Early Days in the Church," Millennial Star 57/47 (Nov 21, 1895):747-749. Joseph Curtis notes in his journal that it was the Spring of 1835 when Joseph came to Pontiac, Michigan with his parents and "told of his first prayer and vision."  However, Curtis also notes that while there, Joseph Smith Sr., the Patriarch, gave blessings to "several heads of families," including his father, Nahum Curtis (recorded in Ivan Y. Haskill, Experiences of Payson Pioneers (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1995), 85-109; a portion of this is available online here).  The 1835 reference appears to be an error, however, considering that Stevenson noted that Joseph Sr. pronounced blessings in 1834 while visiting Pontiac, recalling that "The power of his priesthood rested mightily upon Father Smith.  It appeared as though the veil which separated us from the eternal world became so thin that heaven itself was right in our midst.  It was at one of these meetings held during this time when I received my patriarchal blessing under the hands of Father Smith;" as cited in Mark L. McConkie, Father of the Prophet: Stories and Insights from the Life of Joseph Smith, Sr. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993), chapter 3; also see HC 2:168 for Joseph's visit to Pontiac, MI, in October 1834.
34 Oliver Cowdery, "Letter III. To W. W. Phelps, Esq.," Messenger and Advocate 1/3 (Dec 1834):42-43. Cowdery combines aspects of the First Vision background with events surrounding Moroni's visitation to some extent (also see Messenger and Advocate 1/5 (Feb 1835):78).  See a partial analysis by Matthew Brown, "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories," FAIR Conference 2006; available online here, and see further discussion in his presentation here; also see Elden Watsons discussion of the subject here.
35 Joseph Smith patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. in Patriarchal Blessing Book No. 1, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah
36 Samuel W. Richards, "Joseph Smith, The Prophet," Young Woman's Journal 18/12 (Dec 1907):537 
37 W.W. Phelps, "Dear Wife and Children," Letter from W.W. Phelps to Sally Phelps and children, Kirtland, OH, June 2, 1835 (www.josephsmithpapers.org; available online here). The subject of discourse was suggested to the prophet by W.W. Phelps, who recorded that it happened "last Sabbath."
38 W.W. Phelps, "Letter No. 11." Messenger and Advocate 2/1 (Oct 1835):195
39 W.W. Phelps, "Hymns," Messenger and Advocate 2/1 (Oct 1835):208; Hymn 26 in Emma Smith, A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter-day Saints (Kirtland, OH: F.G. Williams & Co., 1835), 33
40 Parley P. Pratt to LDS Leaders in Canada, November 27, 1836, Kirtland, Ohio; as cited in Richard L. Anderson, "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Translators," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, Ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Monograph Series, Vol. 7; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 226-227; available online here.
41 Charles L. Walker, Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, Ed. A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson (2 Vols.; Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755-756 (recorded by Walker on Feb 2, 1893).  FAIR dates this event to any time between May 1831 and November 1833 (see here); although I'm uncertain as to how this determination was made.  Joseph Smith, Sr. lived in the Kirtland area from 1831 through 1838 (Alger indicates that it was at Joseph Smith Sr.'s home in Kirtland where the Prophet made this declaration). 
42 "Testimony of M. Isabella Horne," Woman's Exponent 39/1 (Jun 1910):5-6; republished in Young Woman's Journal 31/4 (Apr 1920):212.  FAIR dates this event to August 1837 (see here); however, Horne indicates that she first met the Prophet while he was in Canada in the fall of 1837, but also notes that they moved to Quincy, Illinois the following year, as did Joseph.  She indicates that the testimony of the vision was given while visiting in Sister Walton's home.  Whether Sister Walton lived in Canada or in Quincy, or both, may provide support for properly dating the event.
43 William I. Appleby, Biography and Journal, 30-31, LDS archives; as cited in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents (5 Vols.; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003), 1:145-147
44 Joseph's clerk, or General Church Recorder, George W. Robinson wrote the earliest portion of the History of the Church.  He was appointed General Church Recorder on September 17, 1837, and began writing the history in April 1838.  By May 2, 1838, he had written what is now Joseph Smith-History 1:1-60 (see vs. 60).  The First Vision is recorded at JS-H 1:5-20.  He was released from this calling on October 3, 1840, but prior to his release James Mulholland began writing for Joseph on September 3, 1838.  Interrupted by Joseph's Missouri imprisonment, he commenced writing again on April 22, 1839.  The documentation made by George Robinson was copied into the Manuscript History of the Church Book A-1, by James Mulholland, and is now the only extant documentation available, and the First Vision account is in the hand of James Mulholland; see Dean C. Jessee, "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History," BYU Studies 11/4 (Summer 1971):439-442, 449-450, 464 (available online here).
45  Wandle Mace Autobiography, 45-46 (typescript available online here).
46 "Letter From Elder John Taylor, To the Editor of the Interpreter Anglais et Francais" (Boulogne-sur-mer, June 25th, 1850), Millennial Star 12/15 (Aug 1850):235-236
47 "Origin of the Mormons," Peioria Register and North-Western Gazetteer, 5/23 (Sep 3, 1841); reproduction available online here.  According to Elden Watson, this published information is the first known account provided by the Prophet's brother, William Smith, who appears to have mixed up this information - see an analysis on some possible reasons for this confusion here
48 J.B. Turner, Mormonism in All Age: or the Rise, Progress, and Causes of Mormonism with the Biography of its Author and Founder, Joseph Smith, Junior (New York: Platt & Peters, 1842), 14
49 See for example: Daniel P. Kidder, Mormonism and the Mormons: A Historical View of the Rise and Progress of the Sect Self-Styled Latter-day Saints (New York: G. Lane & P.P. Sanford, 1842), 334; John Hayward, The Book of Religions (Portland, ME: Sanborn & Carter, 1851; originally Boston, MA, 1842), 260.
50 Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of The Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1842), 17
51 See an analysis of the William Smith accounts by Elden Watson here.
52 Orson Pratt, "Mormonism" (Feb 24, 1869), Journal of Discourses, 12:353 (available online here).  Orson notes that the experience occurred when Joseph was "about fourteen years and four months old."  
53 Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley had published their two volume work on their visit to Utah, first in French in 1860, and then in English in 1861, noting that Joseph had his first vision in April 1820; see, Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley, A Journey to Great Salt Lake City (2 Vols.; London: W. Jeffs, 1861), 1:503
54 Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 345

In addition to the above cited sources, much of the information in this post was derived from the following sources:
FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) - see here.
BYU Studies:
James B. Allen and Leonard J. Arrington, "Mormon Origins in New York: An Introductory Analysis," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):241-274
Dean C. Jessee, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):275-300
Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Awakenings in the Burned-Over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):301-320
Richard L. Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences," BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969):373-404
Dean C. Jessee, "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History," BYU Studies 11/4 (Summer 1971):439-473
Dialogue:
James B. Allen, "The Significance of Joseph Smith's "First Vision" in Mormon Thought," Dialogue 1/3 (Autumn 1966):29-45
Richard L. Bushman, "The First Vision Story Revived," Dialogue 4/1 (Spring 1969):82-93
Marvin Hill, "The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation," Dialogue 15/2 (Summer 1982):31-46; and again 34/1-2 (Spring/Summer 2001):35-53

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