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Trade Paperback
470 pages
Aug 2004
Harvest House Publishers

Becoming Gods

by Richard Abanes

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt  |  Interview



    “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

  1. God’s Latter-day Prophet

  2. And It Came to Pass

  3. Thus Saith Joseph

  4. One God Versus Many Gods

  5. Heavenly Father Is a Man

  6. Siblings from Eternity Past

  7. After All We Can Do

  8. Ye Are Gods

  9. More Than One Wife

  10. The “Christian” Question

    Appendix A: More on Polygamy

    Appendix B: Mormon Questions

    Appendix C: The Biblical Trinity

    Appendix D: “Why I Am a Mormon” by Daniel C. Peterson

    Research Resources




God’s Latter-day Prophet

Joseph Smith was either a true prophet or a conscious fraud or villain.
     —B.H. Roberts (1907), Mormon apologist,
         First Council of the Seventy

Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan.
     —Jeffrey R. Holland (1997), Mormon apostle

The validity of Mormonism rests on the claims of one man—Joseph Smith Jr. I can still remember the first time I heard his name mentioned. I was a senior in high school, and my best friend told me she had met a guy who believed in something called the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith. It claimed that Jesus had appeared to the American Indians centuries before Columbus. She then told me that Smith, when he was only 14 years old, also had experienced not only visions of angels, but even a visit from Christ himself. My initial thought was, Cooooool, man. (It was 1978.)

Then a few years later, while living in New York City, I went to the Mormon Visitor’s Center. It offered a whole series of images depicting this same Joseph Smith. And sure enough, just as my friend had said, Smith had apparently been visited by Jesus Christ and some angel named Moroni. It was a fascinating display, especially the scenes that showed Smith finding the golden plates of the Book of Mormon and translating them. I also found out that there was something called “priesthood authority,” which according to my courteous Mormon guide, had been lost by Christianity but restored through Smith.

“Smith’s pretty important, huh?” I asked.

“Yes, very important,” answered my new acquaintance. “Without Joseph we would not have God’s church restored to the way it was in Jesus’ day. And we would not know the truth about the kind of being God is. He is our Heavenly Father.”

I continued, “Oh, I see. But how do you know what he said is true?”

“Because I have a witness of the Spirit. I bear you my testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and that in answer to prayer he received a vision of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. I know it’s true.”

Forty-five minutes later I was still asking for proof—finally deciding to leave because there was simply nothing left to discuss. I understood at that point that whatever “proof ” I was looking for was not going to be found in that Visitor’s Center. Numerous questions remained in my mind: What was Smith really like? How do we know his story can be trusted? What documentation exists that might support his claims?

These questions were ultimately answered for me over the course of many years as I explored and studied numerous different religions, including Mormonism. They are still valid questions, not only for non-Mormons, but also for Latter-day Saints. And they deserve thoughtful responses.


Joseph Smith Jr. was born in 1805 to Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack, an impoverished but hard-working couple living in Vermont. It was a financially difficult life in New England for the Smiths. So in 1816 the family moved to the Manchester–Palmyra area of New York, where they hoped their battle against poverty could be won.

But within ten years the family’s best efforts to avoid destitution had failed. So they entrusted their survival to money-digging (also known as treasure hunting by means of divination and folk magick [Throughout this book I use the term magick to refer to those rituals, beliefs, and practices associated with occultism as opposed to stage illusions (magic).]. The activity enthralled young Joseph, who quickly gained a reputation among treasure seekers as a skilled digger adept at occult ritual. Many neighbors, however, felt differently about “Joe.” To them he was “an imposter, hypocrite and liar.”

Mormons, of course, see Smith as one of history’s most honorable men. They believe he exemplified a host of praiseworthy traits: patience, kindness, humility, faithfulness, purity, godliness, righteousness, gentleness, honesty, and bravery. He is depicted in LDS literature as nothing less than God’s prophet for the latter-days—a prophet to whom the Christ himself appeared and spoke.

Mormon Point: Smith was never too involved with money-digging. It was not something he enjoyed. In fact, he only started money-digging under pressure from others.


One interpretation current among Mormon historians sees Joseph Smith, Jr., as a reluctant treasure-seeker egged on by his father and neighbors who ill-understood the spiritual purpose of his gifts and twisted them to material ends. This sets up a false distinction between what was inseparable in treasure-seeking (at least, in treasure-seeking as practiced by the Smith family): spirituality and materialism.…Smith eagerly pursued treasure-seeking as a peculiarly tangible way to practice “experimental religion,” as an opportunity to develop his spiritual gift through regular exercise in repeated contests with guardian spirits (history professor Alan Taylor, University of California, Davis).

Despite an attempt to minimize his early involvement in treasure searching, Smith was in reality an aggressive and ambitious leader among the competing treasure seers of Manchester, New York (Dan Vogel, award-winning author and researcher of Mormon history).

Joseph’s calling, as the official story goes, began in 1820 after some unusual religious “excitement” hit the Palmyra area. The revival allegedly converted “great multitudes,” who were then solicited for membership by local churches. This moved young Joseph to ask, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong?” Once Smith decided that God alone could answer him, he supposedly went into a secluded grove to pray.

According to the current LDS version of what happened next, a pillar of light descended and two radiant “personages” appeared. The first one pointed to the other and said, “This is my beloved son. Hear him!”

Joseph asked these heavenly individuals which Christian sect was right and which one he should join. In response, the second personage said to “join none of them, for they were all wrong.” Joseph also was told that all Christian creeds were “an abomination” in the Lord’s sight and that all Christian teachers were “corrupt” because they taught commandments of men rather than doctrines of God.

Smith’s “First Vision” is vital to the doctrinal framework of the LDS faith. Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley admitted as much in 1996. Two years later, he reiterated his position, saying that the “entire case” of Mormonism “rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision.” In 2002, Hinckley added, “Upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this Church.”

Smith’s First Vision is but one reason why Mormons compare their church’s founder to biblical figures like Moses, Joseph (the son of Jacob), and the apostle Paul. Untold numbers of Latter-day Saints actually believe that their salvation, to a limited degree, rests upon Smith. As noted in Doctrines of Salvation by LDS president Joseph Fielding Smith (1876 – 1972), “FAITH IN CHRIST AND JOSEPH SMITH GO TOGETHER.”


  “Jesus Christ excepted, no better man [than Joseph Smith] ever lived or does live upon this earth” (Brigham Young, LDS president, 1862).

“[A]ll men in the latter days—must turn to Joseph Smith to gain salvation.Why?…He alone can bring them the gospel; he alone can perform for them the ordinances of salvation and exaltation; he stands, as have all the prophets of all the ages in their times and seasons, in the place and stead of the Heavenly One in administering salvation to men on earth” (Bruce McConkie, LDS apostle, 1982).

“Like other faithful Latter-day Saints, I have built my life on the testimony and mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith” (Dallin Oaks, LDS apostle, 1996).

“Smith was the greatest prophet who ever lived upon the earth”(James E. Faust, First Presidency, 1997).

“Joseph Smith,the Prophet and Seer of the Lord,has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived” (D&C 135:3).


What was Joseph Smith really like? This question is not easily answered. He exhibited two wholly opposite sides. Smith was kind and sensitive, but also harsh and violent. To some he was humble. To others he was haughty. He could forgive hostile enemies (as long as they repented), yet hold a hateful grudge toward anyone audacious enough to remain his foe. He was both honest and deceptive (see sidebar, page 28).

His virtuous image probably developed in response to his many leadership qualities. He possessed a keen wit, for example—and a good deal of charm, complemented by a liberal dose of charisma. Smith also was a natural speaker, as well as handsome and athletic.

Moreover, Smith possessed an indomitable spirit, a highly active imagination, and uncanny intuition. He also was politically savvy and certainly had religious zeal. Smith’s most valuable asset, however, may have been his facile mind, which could absorb, process, and utilize new information almost instantaneously.

Did these qualities make Smith a prophet, a model Christian, or an admirable person? Not necessarily, say traditional Christians, who see other aspects of Smith’s life and character as proof that he was not divinely ordained. Some evangelicals have gone so far as to paint him as an utter scoundrel devoid of all goodness and integrity.

But there are other plausible portraits of the man. Researcher Dan Vogel, for instance, has posited that Smith may have been “a ‘pious deceiver’ or ‘sincere fraud,’ someone who deceives to achieve holy objectives.” He “may have engaged in fraudulent activities while at the same time believing that he had been called of God to preach repentance in the most effective way possible.”

Something to Consider: Smith and other high-ranking LDS leaders often used deception to conceal their activities. Consider the initiation of polygamy. Smith took a second wife in 1832 or 1833. He took a third wife in 1838 or 1839 and three more wives in 1841. Smith then received a revelation on July 12, 1843, commanding his first wife, Emma, to accept polygamy. Yet, in public, Smith and other Mormons denied polygamy. An 1843 issue of his Times and Seasons periodical, for instance, declared, “We are charged with advocating a plurality of wives.…[T]his is as false as the many other ridiculous charges which are brought against us. No sect has a greater reverence for the laws of matrimony or the rights of private property; and we do what others do not, practice what we preach.”

Mormons, of course, have always accepted Smith as a modern-day Moses above serious criticism. This attitude held sway as far back as LDS president Wilford Woodruff (1807–1898), who noted in his diary that there was “not a greater man than Joseph.” Heber C. Kimball (1801–1868) predicted that this world would some day see Joseph “as a God.” Brigham Young (1801–1877) actually applied to Smith one of the most popular of all Bible verses about Jesus (1 John 4:3):

Whosoever confesseth that Joseph Smith was sent of God…[A]nd every spirit that does not confess that God has sent Joseph Smith, and revealed the everlasting Gospel to and through him, is of Antichrist.

This level of veneration has not diminished in the least among today’s Mormons, who place Smith just below Jesus in religious importance. They even draw parallels between him and Christ: their lives, missions, experiences, persecutions, and deaths.

But to evangelicals, such devotion is excessive and inappropriate because of a plethora of historical documents that cast Smith in a rather unflattering light. Traditional Christians find the evidence so overwhelming that they simply cannot accept even the possibility that Smith was, in any sense of the word, a prophet of God.


There are many reasons why Christians reject Joseph Smith. First, his religious teachings diverged from those beliefs that have long been accepted by Christians as biblically sound. Second, his life was rife with behavior that impugns his character so severely that any claims about his being a prophet must be dismissed. Third—which we will now examine in detail—historical data suggests that today’s official First Vision story is fraudulent.

Which Vision?

LDS prophet David O. McKay (1873–1970) described Smith’s First Vision as foundational to Mormonism. His point was made even more cogently in 1961 by today’s LDS president, Gordon B. Hinckley: “Either Joseph Smith talked with the Father and the Son or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in a blasphemy.”

Given this admission, it is noteworthy that the First Vision is greatly lacking in verifiable facts and consistency of detail. The saga, in fact, evolved during Smith’s life, which directly challenges the LDS claim that he “told but one” First Vision. Today’s official version of the story did not even exist when Mormonism was founded (1830).

Evangelicals, therefore, cannot help but be troubled by comments like the one made in 1984 by LDS apostle James E. Faust:

There are several other accounts of the magnificent vision near Palmyra recorded by the Prophet’s associates or friends before the Prophet’s death, who, at various times, heard the Prophet recount the First Vision. These accounts corroborate the First Vision as written by Joseph Smith himself.

But this is untrue. Although Smith and his first followers told many tales, none of them were about the Father and Son appearing in 1820. As for the account “written by” Smith in 1832, it bears little resemblance to the version espoused by today’s Mormons. According to the 1832 version, Smith went into the grove in his “sixteenth year.”

Notable and Quotable: “The First Vision of 1820 is of first importance in the history of Joseph Smith. Upon its reality rest the truth and value of his subsequent work” (LDS apostle John A. Widtsoe.

“The First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith constitutes the groundwork of the Church which was later organized. If this First Vision was but a figment of Joseph Smith’s imagination, then the Mormon Church is what its detractors declare it to be— a wicked and deliberate imposture” (LDS apostle Hugh B. Brown).

“We declare without equivocation that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith.…Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud” (LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley).

Moreover, there is no allusion to “two personages” in Smith’s 1832 version. Joseph, instead, sees only “the Lord” (Jesus). God the Father is mentioned nowhere. And the phrase “This is my beloved Son, hear him” also is missing. In its place is a simple admonition from Christ: “[M]y son thy sins are forgiven thee. [G]o thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments.”

Even the main message of today’s version—that all the churches in Joseph’s day were false—is absent. Instead, Jesus rails against a world that has “turned aside from the Gospel” and “lieth in sin.” Smith briefly mentions Christianity’s fallen state only in passing. But instead of claiming that this news came from Christ, Smith says he learned about Christendom’s errors through personal Bible study at the age of 12— two years before his vision supposedly occurred.

Other early accounts of the First Vision, contrary to Faust’s claim, are equally inconsistent with today’s official version of the story. LDS apostle Orson Pratt, for instance, during one lecture (about 1839), reportedly said that two personages had indeed appeared to Joseph, but that they “declared themselves to be angels.”

As late as 1888, LDS Church historian Andrew Jenson still held this understanding of the First Vision. In The Historical Record he wrote, “The angel again forbade Joseph to join any of these churches.” Jenson then quoted Smith’s History of the Church account (1842), but added the qualifying word “angel” as follows: “Many other things did he (the angel) say unto me which I cannot write at this time.”

Did You Know? Smith came precariously close to losing his church in 1838 through the defection of several high-ranking leaders. They included First Presidency counselor Frederick G. Williams, Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, and LDS apostles John F. Boynton, Luke Johnson, Lyman Johnson, and William McClellin, as well as some 30 other elders (for example, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Hiram Page, and Jacob Whitmer). It was after this traumatic year that Smith dictated a new history—one that was decidedly more impressive than anything he had thus far told.

For decades most Mormons seemed rather confused about the First Vision. They often blended it with today’s official version of yet another sacred encounter—Smith’s 1823 vision of an unidentified angel, later to be named Moroni (see chapter 2). This angelic visit was probably the real first vision, since for many years it was the only vision about which Smith, his family, or his followers ever spoke.

An Interesting Fact: Not a single piece of published literature (Mormon, non-Mormon, or anti-Mormon) from the 1830s mentions Smith having a vision of the Father and Son. The most striking fact is that many important LDS works were published during this decade, yet none of them refer to the Father and Son appearing to Smith. Such works include The Evening and the Morning Star periodical (1832–1834); the Book of Commandments (1833); the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate publication (1834–1836); the “Lectures on Faith” series of teachings (1834–1835); Doctrine and Covenants (1835); and Parley Pratt’s Voice of Warning missionary pamphlet (1837).

Joseph’s own mother, in an 1831 letter to her older brother (Solomon Mack Jr.), explained that her son’s first vision was indeed that of a “holy Angel.” Lucy makes no mention of either God the Father or Jesus Christ appearing to Joseph. Within a year, however, Joseph privately began reworking his tale into a vision of Christ (the 1832 account). This vision later turned into a visit by Jesus and the Father.

Something to Consider: Doctrine and Covenants 84:21-22, which is an 1832 revelation from God to Joseph Smith, tells us that without Mormonism’s so-called“Melchizedek Priesthood”(see chapter 10) “no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.” But according to today’s version of the First Vision, Joseph Smith saw the face of God in 1820—many years before he supposedly received the Melchizedek Priesthood. Oddly, no one seems to know with any certainty just when or how Smith received this “priesthood,” since LDS references to the event are not only vague, but also contradictory. None of Smith’s earliest converts had even heard about this priesthood or seen it conferred on any LDS leaders until 1831.

But to make room for this Father–Son vision and the angel vision, Smith had to backdate his Father–Son vision to 1820. That change was finalized in 1839, perhaps in response to the dissent then plaguing the LDS church (see sidebar, page 31). This easily explains the discrepancy between today’s official First Vision and the versions of it told by early Mormons, who taught that the First Vision involved an angel (or angels).

Historical data also suggests that there was no 1820 revival in Palmyra that converted “great multitudes.” Church records only show revivals in 1816 to 1817 and 1824 to 1825. The latter event actually prompted Smith and several members of his family to join Christendom. This would have been an odd thing to do if Jesus had already told young Joseph that all of the churches were wrong.

Finally, there is evidence (from 1829 and 1830) that Smith’s first experience may have been a dream about a spirit that visited him three times in one night. This story is strikingly similar to what is today presented by Mormons as Smith’s second vision. In one of the earliest public references to Smith (August 1829), a New York newspaper reported, “In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith, of Manchester, Ontario county, reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty.”

Another local paper ran a similar story, this time attributing the “spirit of the Almighty” aspect of Smith’s tale to Martin Harris (Smith’s early benefactor). Then, in May 1830, this same publication explained that Smith himself had said he “‘was commanded of the Lord in a dream’” to find some golden plates. Such language would have been consistent with the way people in Smith’s day, including Mormons, often spoke of their dreams as visions and vice-versa.

Did You Know? In 1893, Edward Stevenson noted in his Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon that in 1834 he heard Smith testify “with great power concerning the visit of the Father and the Son, and the conversation he had with them” (page 4). The significance of his recollection, however, is questionable since it is a very late reference that may have been tainted by the official First Vision version, which by 1893 had been circulating for many years.

Even more intriguing are the recollections of several persons who claimed that Smith’s first tale had nothing to do with God or an angel. These persons maintained that Smith’s original story involved a dream or vision of a bloody ghost dressed as a Spaniard. (Such a phantom, coincidentally, would have been consistent with the beliefs of that era’s money-diggers, who often sought treasure buried by Spaniards. )

These multiple reports certainly trouble evangelicals, but of even greater concern is the fact that Smith was an occultist. He, along with many early Mormons, regularly engaged in divination, astrology, fortune-telling, magick, and other occult practices.

Mormon Magick

John L. Brooke of Tufts University has noted that early Mormons were not just superstitious, but “attuned to the supernatural powers of witchcraft.” Historian D. Michael Quinn has made a similar observation, citing numerous documents as proof of his position. One piece of evidence was written by Joseph’s own mother, who unflinchingly refers to how her whole family engaged in ritual magick. She revealed their occult practices while making a defense for her family against charges of laziness:

[L]et not my reader suppose that…we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac[,] drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business[—]we never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation but whilst we worked with our hands we endeavored to remember the service of & the welfare of our souls.

Soothsaying is foretelling the future by means of occult tools (for example, tarot cards). It was quite popular among early LDS women, many of whom practiced it in various ways (for example, palmistry and tea-leaf reading).

Drawing magic circles relates to a ritual used to gain power over spirits invoked by an occultist. The Ancients Book of Magic explains that when contacting these spirits, a magician must draw a circle within a circle, which forms a barrier impassable by demons. This is exactly what Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr. did while money-digging.

Finally, Lucy mentions the “faculty of Abrac,” which refers to the deity regarded by the second-century Basilidians as the “chief of the 365 genies ruling the days of the year.” It is from the name Abrac (or Abraxas) that we get the word abracadabra.

An Interesting Fact: Peasants in the Middle Ages believed that the word abracadabra guarded them from injury, danger, demons, and disease, especially the plague. Abracadabra was written in a triangle, dropping one letter in each line until only one letter remained. The parchment on which this formula had been inscribed was then worn around the neck by someone who had fallen ill. Then, it was thrown backward over one’s shoulder into a stream running eastward. The bearer hoped his or her malady or other troubling circumstance would likewise depart. The“faculty of abrac” refers to the seventh line down from the top:

a   b   r   a   c   a   d   a   b   r   a

a   b   r   a   c   a   d   a   b   r

a   b   r   a   c   a   d   a   b

a   b   r   a   c   a   d   a

a   b   r   a   c   a   d

a   b   r   a   c   a

a   b   r   a   c

a   b   r   a

a   b   r

a   b


The depths to which Joseph and his family were immersed in occultism is best illustrated by the objects they used in conjunction with their beliefs: 1) a magick dagger, 2) three magick parchments, and 3) a Jupiter talisman (which Joseph had with him for protection, ironically, on the day he was murdered in 1844).

Each of these artifacts contains magick markings. Consider the parchments (owned by Joseph’s brother Hyrum). Although they contain symbols copied from various occult sources, most of the drawings were lifted from astrologer Ebenezer Sibly’s 1784 New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences.

The symbols were used not only in connection with magick, but also with the occult beliefs associated with Jewish kabbalism. And it is now believed by researchers of Mormonism that this mystical religious system, which influenced medieval magick, inspired several of Smith’s ideas about God, humanity, creation, and salvation.

The Smiths also believed in astrology, as did most early Mormons. Consequently, Hyrum’s dagger and Joseph’s talisman are inscribed with astrological markings. The talisman bears the sign of Jupiter, a cross for the spirit of Jupiter, and the Jupiter orbital path. Why? Because Smith was born under Jupiter’s astrological influence.

Notable and Quotable: “The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion” (Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 1992, page 99).

Interestingly, Joseph chose to organize his church on April 6, 1830, a day known in folk magick as the beneficial “DAY-FATAL-ITY,” which in 1830 coincided with an alignment of Jupiter and the Sun. He even entered into various marriages and introduced new doctrines on days that had astrological significance to him.

Joseph the Glass-Looker

As for his money-digging, Joseph Smith was not alone in this pursuit. Many of his associates, before and after converting to Mormonism, used seer stones to hunt for buried treasure. These stones were thought to be enchanted tools by which anyone could locate lost items, missing people, or hidden wealth.

But such exploits often brought consequences. In 1826, for example, Smith was arrested in Bainbridge, New York, for being a “disorderly person and an impostor.” He had broken the law by hiring himself out as a money-digger to a Josiah Stowell. Consequently, he was brought to court as a glass-looker—“one who, by peering through a glass stone, could see things not discernible by the natural eye.”

During the court “examination,” Smith admitted to having “a certain stone” that he used to find buried treasure. Several witnesses were then produced, which led to a “guilty” judgment. However, because of his age, he was allowed to make “leg bail.” In other words, he was released on the condition that he get out of town.

For years Mormons decried this story, including in their objections a court transcript published by Fraser’s Magazine (1873). It was all anti-LDS propaganda concocted to smear Smith’s good name, they said. Then, in 1971, evidence for the validity of the 1873 transcript was unearthed by religion researchers, who found the bill for the 1826 court case presided over by a Justice Albert Neely. Its authenticity was beyond dispute.

Interestingly, before Neely’s bill surfaced, LDS apologist Hugh Nibley noted that if the previously published transcripts of the court case (for example, in Fraser’s Magazine) were ever proved authentic, it would be “the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.” Popular LDS author Francis Kirkham echoed the same sentiment. Both Kirkham and Nibley knew, of course, that Scripture condemns divination and many other occult practices.

So when it comes to the occultism in LDS history, it is not just a matter of evangelicals refusing to excuse a few minor errors of judgment by Smith and others. It also is an issue of mainstream Christians agreeing with the pre-1971 observations made by Mormons like Kirkham and Nibley. Their comments remain applicable since no statements of repentance by Smith have ever been found.

According to history professor Alan Taylor, it was by Smith’s agency that “treasure-seeking evolved into the Mormon faith.” Jan Shipps, history professor emeritus at Indiana–Purdue University, agrees that there is “little room for doubting” that Smith’s seer stone use “was an important indication of his early and continued interest in extra-rational phenomena and that it played an important role in his spiritual development.”


Mormons handle concerns about Smith in varying ways. For example, when it comes to the different versions of the First Vision, some Latter-day Saints feel perfectly satisfied in saying that each version is merely emphasizing a different aspect of the event. Granted, this might explain some minor deviations, but it cannot reconcile versions so at odds with each other that an evolution of the story is obvious.

LDS author Richard Bushman disagrees. He has no problem with the First Vision, explaining, for example, that the 1832 version fails to mention God the Father because in 1832 Joseph did not see that as a very significant element of the story. Bushman also suggests that in 1838, Joseph suddenly realized “how significant it was that the Father had appeared.” Then, according to Bushman, once Smith grasped the importance of having seen God the Father, he began talking about it.

But this kind of after-the-fact defense seems not only desperate, but far-fetched. Is it reasonable to assume, without any corroborating statements from Smith, that he simply overlooked such a monumental event as God the Father appearing? Is it reasonable to assume that the contradicting versions of the vision are just descriptions of different aspects of the event? Evangelicals think not.

Notable and Quotable: “[W]e cannot be certain about the First Vision. We cannot know that it occurred or, if it occurred, when or what Joseph experienced.…Neither Joseph Smith nor any other Latter Day Saint analyst has satisfactorily accounted for the discrepancies among the accounts on the point of the number and identity of the personage(s) appearing to him in the First Vision” (Richard P. Howard, historian for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Church).

It also should be noted that a few Mormons have responded to critics by falsely citing documentation in hopes of proving the story. Consider LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley’s popular book Truth Restored, which boldly depicts the 1820 revival as a historically verified event:

One week a Rochester paper noted: “More than 200 souls have become hopeful subjects of divine grace in Palmyra, Macedon, Manchester, Lyons, and Ontario since the late revival commenced.” The week following it was able to report “that in Palmyra and Macedon…more than four hundred souls have already confessed that the Lord is good.”

Although the reference to “a Rochester paper” seems to add some validity to Smith’s tale, the citation is highly misleading since the periodical quoted (the Rochester Religious Advocate) did not even exist in 1820! It began publication in late 1824. As for the text Hinckley quotes, it is from an early 1825 article wherein a revival of 1824 to 1825—not 1820— is being discussed (see this chapter’s notes 68, 74, 76–78, and 130 for a brief discussion of this revival and its relation to the LDS story about Smith).

Using Paul’s Vision

The propagation of such erroneous information is but one reason why evangelicals view the First Vision with so much consternation. Mormons, however, cannot understand the problem. They see virtually no difference between the First Vision accounts and the experience of Paul the apostle on the road to Damascus. Here is the argument presented by LDS apologist Michael Hickenbotham:

Historical evidence indicates that Joseph Smith was reluctant to speak or write of the first vision because of the ridicule he received about it when he first shared it with others and because of its sacred nature.…[T]hose who are critical of Joseph’s delay in recording the first vision should consider the fact that Paul’s “first known mention of the Damascus appearance [of Christ] is in 1 Corinthians 9:1, written about two dozen years after it happened.”…It is interesting to compare later, more complete accounts of Paul’s vision as found in Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; and 26:13-18. Not only do they differ in details but they conflict in some of these details. Similar problems may be found in the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection.

But Hickenbotham’s claim about “historical evidence” is inaccurate. There is no evidence at all from that period (about 1820 to 1824) verifying persecution against Smith. In fact, there is none before 1827 to 1828 (in other words, when he began to claim he had experienced visions of an angel).This absence of historical data suggests that “no one at that time and for a long time thereafter was aware that he was supposed to have had the vision.”

Hickenbotham’s remark about the time gap between Paul’s vision and 1 Corinthians 9:1 no way relates to Smith’s First Vision. The problem is not that Joseph was not talking about his vision, but that he was talking about it. And it did not match today’s official version about the Father and Son appearing in 1820.

Finally, Hickenbotham’s appeal to the discrepancies in Paul’s accounts cannot be compared to Smith’s First Vision. The alleged contradictions in Acts were long ago resolved by scholars analyzing the Greek texts. The discrepancies in Paul’s account involve modern ignorance of the Greek wording used (see sidebar, page 43). Unlike Paul’s accounts, Smith’s tales were told in English.

And it should not be forgotten that Joseph’s mother, a sister, and two brothers joined the Presbyterians during the 1824–1825 revival and remained members until 1828. Joseph himself, during this same period, may have gotten involved with several denominations—in opposition to the supposed 1820 vision, wherein he learned that all of the churches were corrupt and that he should join none of them.

Explaining the Origin of the First Vision

Mormons, however, are quick to accept rationalizations for Smith’s contrasting stories. Their alternative is not pleasant, according to Gordon B. Hinckley: “If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.”

Of course, no one can say with certainty how Smith created his tales. But non-LDS explanations are more plausible than those offered by Mormons. Fawn Brodie (author of the famous biography of Joseph Smith No Man Knows My History) speculated that the First Vision was perhaps “the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood.”

Brodie’s theory would satisfactorily explain things. The 1800s produced many religious tales bearing great similarity to the official First Vision— the version Smith ultimately adopted. Interestingly, many of these accounts were circulating in and around Palmyra, both in print and by word of mouth— and they predated Smith’s story by years.That Smith blended elements of these stories into his own tale is plausible.

Something to Consider: Acts 9:7 states that the men with Paul “heard” Christ’s voice, while Acts 22:9 says they “heard not” his voice. A contradiction? Hardly. The Greek word akouo that is translated as “heard” and “heard not” actually means “to hear.” But in English we lose the Greek nuances. The meaning of akouo depends on how it is used (whether it is followed by the accusative or the genitive case). In Acts 9:7, akouo is used with the noun “voice” in the partitive genitive case, which indicates that those with Paul “heard” the sound of the voice. In Acts 22:9, akouo is used with the noun “voice” in the accusative case, which relates to the hearing of something with an understanding of the message being relayed.

Therefore, the verses are saying different things—that is, Paul’s companions heard the sound of the voice (9:7), but they heard not the voice’s message (22:9). As an analogy, one might think of hearing someone shouting from another room. One may akouo (partitive genitive case) the sound, but not akouo (accusative case) the message.

As for other minor variations in Paul’s accounts, they are not at all like those in Smith’s tale, because they create no fundamental change in Paul’s account. At most, they are expansions of the story to include what happened to others (for example, in Acts 22:9 we are told that those with Paul also fell down). But Paul never substantially altered what he said happened to him. Joseph, however, did indeed make such a change—much to the confusion of early Mormons.

Such a theory boldly challenges LDS apostle James Faust’s contention that critics of the First Vision “find it difficult to explain away.” His assertion is further weakened by yet another theory of Brodie’s, which posits that Smith’s story might have been “created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging.”

Smith’s Occultism

With regard to Joseph Smith’s occultism and money-digging, in 1987 Gordon B. Hinckley simply opted to criticize those who had begun investigating such matters, accusing them of trying to “ferret out every element of folk magic and the occult in the environment in which Joseph Smith lived to explain what he did and why.” He went on to seriously downplay Smith’s questionable activities:

[T]here were superstitions and the superstitious. I suppose there was some of this in the days when the Savior walked the earth. There is even some in this age of so-called enlightenment.…[S]ome hotels and business buildings skip the numbering of floor thirteen. Does this mean there is something wrong with the building? Of course not. Or with the builders? No. Similarly, the fact that there were superstitions among the people in the days of Joseph Smith is no evidence whatever that the Church came of such superstition.

This response, however, does not take into consideration the intensity of Smith’s occult beliefs and practices. He spent his life immersed in occultism, its rituals, its principles of magick, and its so-called powers of protection. Spiritually speaking, there was far more being embraced by Smith than some harmless superstition comparable to the tradition of skipping a building’s thirteenth floor.

Similar arguments, though, have come from LDS defenders such as Sam Katich, whose work has been distributed by the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR).

In one article focusing on Smith’s Jupiter talisman, Katich challenges the very idea that Smith even owned it. (This argument has been refuted by a variety of persons, including respected scholar D. Michael Quinn.) Most interesting about Katich’s article, however, is his response to the disconcerting what-if scenario—that is, what if Smith did indeed possess the Jupiter talisman?

[T]he presence of such artifacts are meaningless from the perspective of our current culture and understanding and they do not serve to prove or disprove Joseph as a prophet.….[S]uch an item would have been a protection against enemies, witchcraft, and sorcery. It could also have been used as an amulet of luck, love, protection, healing, astrology, or ritual magic as it was used by thousands of other Americans who customarily wore the then in-vogue amulets or talismans. One must wonder, if Joseph were to have had a lucky rabbit’s foot in his pocket, would it be argued that he had a bizarre fascination with rabbits and worshiped the Velveteen Rabbit god?

Like Hinckley, Katich dismisses Smith’s occultism as trivial—as if it existed independently of an all-encompassing occult worldview. The truth is that Smith, in his forays into occultism, was hardly on par with someone who lightheartedly carries a rabbit’s foot. He and his family, friends, and followers were full-blown occultists who, as part of their religious faith and practice, engaged in activities condemned by God.

Other Mormons have sought to distance Smith from occultism by suggesting that 1) his work as a money-digger is comparable to the labor undertaken by “gold miners, or silver miners, or coal miners”; and 2) his association with magick and occultism was limited to those years prior to his call from God and guidance of the LDS Church.

First, however, money-diggers were not miners. They were nonprofessionals seeking buried treasure via divination and magick. As researcher Dan Vogel has noted, it was Smith’s “unparalleled reputation as a treasure seer that drew Josiah Stowell to hire Smith, not as a digger, but as a treasure seer to locate treasure.” Second, Joseph, his family, and many of his followers continued practicing magick, divination, astrology, and soothsaying long after the LDS Church was founded in 1830.

Did You Know? Brigham Young used a divining rod to find “where the Temple should be built” in Salt Lake City (Anthon H. Lund Journal, under July 5, 1901). A 1981 Sunstone magazine article revealed that the divining rod came from Oliver Cowdery via Phineas Young (brother-in-law of Oliver Cowdery and brother of Brigham Young), and that Brigham “had it with him when he arrived in this (Salt Lake) valley and that it was with that stick that he pointed out where the Temple should be built.”

D. Michael Quinn notes,

The most prominent use of a rod in Utah occurred in 1847 when BrighamYoung evidently used Oliver Cowdery’s rod, which he had received from his brother Phineas Young, and “pointed out” where the Saints’ new temple should be built (Lund, 1901). But in the twentieth century, church leaders have largely ignored divining rods, and there is no evidence that they were used in divination after…1868. Still, some rural Mormons have continued to use rods in searching for underground water, minerals, and gas (Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, page 206).

Surprisingly, some Mormons have used false statements to defend Smith. One example of this approach comes, again, from Sam Katich, who wrote, “Joseph certainly was never one to advocate or encourage Church members to engage in magical arts.” He adds, “The magical heritages of some early nineteenth-century members quickly faded into what most certainly did not persist in later LDS culture.”

In reality, though, Smith did indeed encourage occultism among his followers, many of whom used divining rods to find buried treasure. In fact, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were given their rods by Smith “as a symbol of gratitude for their loyalty.”And in April 1829, Smith actually received a revelation praising Oliver Cowdery’s divining talents as a God-given “gift” (see chapter 3, pages 88–89)

Smith also encouraged use of seer stones after the church had been organized. On December 27, 1841, he went so far as to display one of his own stones to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Brigham Young later reminisced that Smith said that “every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one.”

The Magick Continues

As for Katich’s assertion that the magical practices of “some” members “quickly faded” from “LDS culture,” this also is false. He attempts to prove his point by noting that early LDS Church discipline was meted out to individuals for using seer stones, fortune-telling, and magic. For example, he cites the case of a William Mountford, who was disfellowshipped for practicing “black art.”

But a number of points contradict Katich's argument and render his example irrelevant. First, LDS leaders routinely went public with condemnations of activities that they themselves privately practiced (for example, polygamy—see chapter 9). So their public actions in this case mean little.

Second, notice the reason for Mountford's condemnation. It was for “black art”—magic used for purposes not ordained by God. Early Mormons viewed occult practices that were properly handled as white magick. Hence, it was not Mountford’s activities that were intrinsically wrong to LDS leaders, but rather his misplaced motives and wrong uses of magickal arts.

Third, Mountford was not simply involved with divination. He, along with several Mormons from Staffordshire, England, were actually building their own personal altars and praying to a deity they addressed as SAMEAZER. This conflicted with LDS teachings about God.

Fourth, LDS leaders believed that some practices (for example, polygamy, seer stone use, receiving revelations) were only for leaders who had the spiritual maturity and right to engage in such things. Moreover, LDS tools of divination were supposed to be consecrated to God. In fact, when Joseph Smith was given some Staffordshire seer stones, he did not condemn them, but said that they were an “Urim and Thummim as good as ever was upon the earth.” However, they had been “consecrated to devils.”

The truth is that many early Mormons, particularly those who founded the church, practiced occultism. And many Mormons practiced occultism well into the 1900s, contrary to Katich’s claim. Smith himself continued his occult activities until his death. He used his seer stone not only to “translate,” but also to receive revelations and give blessings (for example, in 1830, 1835, and 1842).

As late as May 1844, Smith gave a seer stone to LDS apostle Lyman Wight “as part of a secret ordination for Wight to perform a special mission.” Even Brigham Young knew the value of seer stones to Smith, explaining in 1855 that Joseph had five stones, three of which he used throughout his entire religious life.

These facts flatly contradict LDS apologists, who maintain that “no type of stone [was] involved in receiving revelation or translation” after 1829 and that Smith’s seer stone was “not operational in Joseph’s religious activities.” Rather, according to D. Michael Quinn,“Smith did not regard his seer stones simply as relics of his youth. Rather, as church president Smith continued to discover new seer stones.”

It is history itself, therefore, that refutes LDS claims that God took young Joseph Smith, “a man innocently caught up in the superstition of his day, and turned him in the right direction.” Smith began his career as an occultist, and he never stopped being one.

But seeking to distance Smith from the occult is understandable. Today’s LDS Church denounces all divination, astrology, magick, wizardry, necromancy, séances, and spiritualism. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes the following:

Latter-day Saints reject magic as a serious manipulation of nature and are advised to avoid any practice that claims supernatural power apart from the priesthood and spiritual gifts of the Church (see Devils; Satanism). They are also counseled against using any fortune-telling devices. Both so-called white and black magic can be Satanic.

Equally relevant is a 1992 letter signed by the LDS Church’s First Presidency and sent to all general and local priesthood leaders:

We caution all members of the Church not to affiliate in any way with the occult or those mysterious powers it espouses. Such activities are among the works of darkness spoken of in the scriptures. They are designed to destroy one’s faith in Christ, and will jeopardize the salvation of those who knowingly promote this wickedness. These things should not be pursued as games, be topics in Church meetings, or be delved into in private, personal conversations.

In other words, the beliefs and practices of early Mormons (including Smith and his entire family) were, at best, contrary to modern LDS teachings. At worst, their activities were satanic. Christians can only view such a spiritually dark and doctrinally inconsistent past as irreparably damaging to all LDS claims of being a biblically sound church whose founding prophet–leader was led by God.


A concluding word must be said about Smith’s various moral and ethical failures (see notes 28–30 for this chapter). Faithful Latter-day Saints either 1) justify them, or 2) view them, on the whole, as no more disconcerting than Abraham’s lying (Genesis 12:10-16), David’s adultery (2 Samuel 11), or Peter’s betrayal (Matthew 26:69-75).

But what Mormons seem to be missing is that the moral lapses of these biblical characters were exceptions in their lives. In Smith’s case, however, there appears to have been an ongoing pattern of ungodly behavior and attitudes. This pattern seems to have been linked to what historian D. Michael Quinn has labeled “theocratic ethics.”

This philosophy, which was adopted by Smith and other early LDS leaders, placed early Mormon concepts of right and wrong on a level above both civil laws and biblical mandates. In other words, since Smith was directly receiving divine guidance, it followed that right and wrong were whatever Smith said was right and wrong. This subjective standard of morality became particularly useful when Smith began to secretly practice polygamy (see chapter 9 and appendix A).

Evangelicals see such actions as a further indication that Joseph Smith could not have been a prophet. Scripture tells us that those who habitually practice sin in an unrepentant manner and make sin their normal pattern of life are not of God (1 John 3:6-10).

And yet it cannot be denied that this same Joseph Smith somehow produced a quite remarkable book, the Book of Mormon—which in many ways not only points to Jesus Christ, but also exhorts the world to live righteously before God. This fascinating volume of LDS scripture will be the focus of our next chapter.

Excerpted from Becoming Gods by Richard Abanes. Copyright © 2004 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.