A Familiar Spirit
by Sharon Lindbloom

At a meeting for LDS Church members in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "God spoke to His prophet in parting the curtains on this dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He introduced His beloved Son, our Savior, our Redeemer, of whom you have sung tonight, and told him to listen to Him. That marked the beginning of this work. That beginning is different from the beginning of any other church on earth. It is unique and different and we never need be ashamed of it. "1

President Hinckley has echoed many other Latter-day Saints in his declaration that the circumstances surrounding the beginning of the LDS Church were unique. However, in order to maintain such an idea, Joseph Smith's alleged visions and revelations must be isolated from the cultural and historical context in which they were supposed to have occurred.

In truth, Mormonism was not unique in either its beginning nor its beliefs.2 It was just one more Utopian community--one more millennial group--that came into existence during a time when such groups were plentiful. The claims and teachings of Joseph Smith were duplicated, not only in groups which predated him, but by several contemporaries as well.

Consider the following:

Emmanuel Swedenborg, who lived approximately 50 years before Joseph Smith, was the founder of The New Church or New Jerusalem Church. He claimed on June 19, 1770, "The Second Coming of the Lord is effected by means of a man to whom the Lord has manifested Himself in Person, and whom He has filled with His Spirit, that He may teach the doctrines of the New Church from the Lord by means of the Word…That the Lord manifested Himself before me, His servant, and sent me to this office,…I affirm in truth." Swedenborg claimed to have been called to his work and set apart through a personal appearance by God. Additionally, Swedenborg wrote: "It has been granted me now for several years to be constantly and uninterruptedly in company with spirits and angels, hearing them converse with each other, and conversing with them. Hence, it has been permitted me to hear and see things…which have never before come to the knowledge of any man, nor entered into his imagination."3

Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, "was the frequent recipient of 'religious impressions and divine manifestations' even during her childhood."4 In 1770 Lee was arrested and put in prison. "…during her imprisonment she experienced a divine revelation in which Christ instilled her with his power and with the authority to preach celibacy and purity and to found a church which would fight Satan's temptations and open the Gates of Heaven to its followers."5 Later, Lee is said to have had another vision in which "the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to her in all his glory. He comforted her and confirmed her sense of mission to spread her knowledge throughout the world."6

Jemima Wilkinson was a prophetess who became known as the Publick Universal Friend. About 1780, when she was 20 years old, Wilkinson became very ill and nearly died. When she recovered, she claimed "she had received a commission from the Holy One, investing her with power of Jesus Christ until his second coming to judge the world--that she had authority to raise up a holy and elect church on earth, who should share with her in the first resurrection, and be present to witness her equal glory with Christ when he should descend in the clouds of heaven…"7

One of the largest millennial groups in the 1820s was the Harmony Society founded by George Rapp in Pennsylvania. Rapp said, "I am a prophet and am called to be one."8 Following this declaration of divine appointment, Rapp claimed an experience with an angel and a gold book: "Father Rapp was the sole eye witness to the…Posey County angel…His head and hair were white, like whitest wool of cotton…And yet he was angelic. He was a farmer with a golden book in his hand."9 According to another historian, "[Rapp] oftentimes informed his followers that God had spoken to him, as centuries before He had spoken to Moses…"10

Barbara Grubermann was the founder and first leader of the Zoar Community, which was brought to America after her death by her successor, Joseph Baumler. Grubermann wrote, "Sometime in my life I was taken severely ill and believed that I would die. This sickness took form of entrances; during these entrances attacks I saw in vision. The first time that I was entranced there appeared a spirit in white clothes and I was frightened and full of terror. And the spirit spoke to me, saying, 'Fear not, for I am sent and have come to teach thee what thou dost not know.' …And I saw an angel step over the wall. He held a small book in his hand. This book he gave me, but I could not open it and returned it to him…At another time I was in the presence of God and Jesus. Their glory was so great that no human can describe it."11

In addition to those who used their alleged visions to establish a following, many lesser-known individuals have reported visions similar in many respects to these and to those upon which Mormonism is founded.

Richard Brothers tells of his experience in 1791: "I was in a vision, and being carried up to heaven, the Lord God spoke to me from the middle of a large white cloud."12

In 1801 Benjamin S. Young received a vision in which "…'God himself in Shape like a man' appeared at his bedside in a dream and told him that he was 'to be mortified & brought down.'"13

Reportedly, "In 1801 Benjamin Abbott first published an account of a theophany in which both the Father and Son spoke to him."14

Eleazer Sherman spoke of a vision he experienced in 1815. He said, "I sunk down in tears, and sorrow overwhelmed my sinking soul. While in distress, I heard as it were a soft and pleasant voice saying to me, Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world: And then was presented to my mental view the dear Saviour, from his birth to his death."15

In 1816 Elias Smith of New Hampshire published an account of his morning vision which occurred in the woods: "While in this situation, a light appeared to shine from heaven…My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb…The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any earthly thing."16

In 1821 Benjamin Putnam of Vermont wrote of his vision which happened in his fourteenth year: "I instantly had a view as I thought, of the Lord Jesus Christ with his arms extended in an inviting posture."17

Within Joseph Smith's own family there were numerous reports of visions and appearances of Christ. Smith's maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, reported visions and voices calling him to redemption. Smith's maternal aunt, Lovisa Mack, reported a vision of the Savior. Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also claimed a vision of Christ, and on another occasion "knelt in a grove to plead with the Lord that her husband would find the truth and had received a beautiful vision that brought peace to her soul." Smith's father claimed "the Lord has often visited me in visions and in dreams."18

Add to these this account by Joseph Smith of his 1820 experience: "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other--This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!"19

And then, three years later, "While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room…immediately a personage appeared at my bedside…He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness…his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning…When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me. He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God…that God had a work for me to do…"20

Sound familiar?

In this early period of American history, claims of angelic visits and commissions by God were so commonplace that Joseph Smith and his newly founded church did not even attempt to use his supposed visions as proof of his exclusive prophetic calling. While a professor of history at Brigham Young University and a member of the LDS Church, D. Michael Quinn wrote, "It has been long recognized that the first vision was not published or used in any proselytizing tract until the church was a decade old, and that it was not used regularly as a Mormon proselytizing tool until fifty years after these revivalistic theophanies…Joseph Smith's first vision became a missionary tool only after Americans grew to regard converse with God as unusual."21

Far from being unique and different, as President Hinckley and other Church members declare, Joseph Smith's supposed visions--those upon which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was built--fit easily into the historical framework of early America. Smith's pronouncement that he had conversed with God and angels was not regarded as remarkable, extraordinary, or unusual. Even today we hear of would-be prophets making similar visionary claims. We would do well to recognize that their stories, along with Smith's, are not unique, but are instead quite consistent with the musings of Solomon: That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So, there is nothing new under the sun.22

  1. Church News, 11/7/98 p. 2
  2. This article will discuss only the claim that Joseph Smith's First Vision was unique. Doctrinal parallels with some of the other groups mentioned include but are not limited to: pre-existence, intermediate spirit world, multiple heavens, extra-biblical revelations, baptism for the dead, eternal marriage, the apostasy of the Christian church, the importance of Native Americans, a leader who speaks for God, exclusivity of the group, calling outsiders "Gentiles," etc. A bibliography will be provided upon request.
  3. Marguerite Beck Block, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenbogianism in America, p. 38; p. 11 respectively
  4. Steven J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. p. 80
  5. Yaacov Oved, Two Hundred Years of American Communes, p. 40
  6. Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons, p. 23
  7. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective, p.207
  8. Karl J. R. Arndt, George Rapp's Harmony Society: 1785-1847, p. 15
  9. Marguerite Young, Angel in the Forest, pp. 13-15
  10. V. F. Calverton, Where Angels Dared to Tread, p. 75
  11. Catherine R. Dobbs, Freedom's Will: The Society of the Separatists of Zoar -- An Historical Adventure of Religious Communism in Early Ohio, pp. 19-25
  12. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 12
  13. Stein, p. 166
  14. Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p. 269, ftnt. 13
  15. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, pp. 52-53
  16. Quinn, Early Mormonism, p. 12; Marquardt and Walters, p. 51
  17. Quinn, Early Mormonism, p. 12
  18. Dale Morgan, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, p. 225; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, p. 18; Jaynann M. Payne, Joseph Smith Jr. Family Reunion (Oral Presentation), pp. 1, 49
  19. Joseph Smith--History 1:16,17
  20. Ibid. 1:30-33
  21. Early Mormonism, pp. 113-114, ftnt. 2. Quinn no longer teaches at BYU and is not now a member of the LDS Church.
  22. Ecclesiastes 1:9