You are here

Of Contrasts, Apologies, and Authenticity: The First Visions of Joseph Smith and Ellen White in Comparison

TitleOf Contrasts, Apologies, and Authenticity: The First Visions of Joseph Smith and Ellen White in Comparison
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsHolland, David F.
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsFirst Vision; Seventh-day Adventists; Smith, Joseph, Jr.; Vision; White, Ellen

In the antebellum United States, a young American Christian was confused by the conflicting religious messages that swirled through the surrounding culture. The teenaged seeker sought the Lord in prayer, pleading for a message of light and love to break through the darkness. This plea was answered with a mighty vision, a revelation that brought both immediate peace and the promise of further guidance. The experience not only marked the visionary awakening of an earnest adolescent supplicant; it also eventually helped anchor the messaging of a global religious movement that would come to boast millions of members around the world. The adherents to that movement eventually began calling this epiphany the “first vision.” Various narrations of the vision were recorded by the prophet at different moments in time, critics arguing that the variations conveniently reflected doctrinal evolutions within the emerging church. Such criticisms notwithstanding, a familiar form of the experience has settled into the culture of the faith, serving as an orienting narrative in explaining the rise of a new church, a church ordained to usher in the millennial day.

The outlines of this story should sound rather familiar to Latter-day Saints. But in this case, the young prophet at the heart of the account was not Joseph Smith but Ellen White; the church that coalesced around this revelation was that of the Seventh-day Adventists rather than that of the Latter-day Saints; and the year in which the vision took place was 1844—six months after Smith’s passing. There are, then, two monumental “first visions” on the religious landscape of the United States, each one lying at the heart of a major American religious movement’s origin story, and each serving as the great inflection point in the biography of a nineteenth-century prophet. The similarities between the structure of the Adventist story of adolescent theophany and that of its Latter-day Saint counterpart seem almost to overdetermine a juxtaposition of the two experiences, and yet close scholarly comparisons have been hard to come by.