|Mormons on South Park – Part 1: The First Vision|
This South Park episode has Joseph Smith as an adult walking through his hometown with his neighbors discussing that he saw and talked with God and Jesus. One neighbor complains to Joseph Smith that he told his wife Smith’s story and she didn’t believe him. In response, Joseph Smith tells the neighbor’s wife that he was in the woods praying to know if he should be Protestant or a Catholic, when God and Jesus appeared to him and told him to start his own church because “none of the others had it right.” Suddenly the wife believes the story because, as she asks, “why would somebody make that up?”
This depiction of the Joseph Smith’s religious beginnings isn’t exactly how it happened.
To begin with, there are no contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith seeing God and Jesus. Depending on which account you read, Joseph Smith claimed to have had this vision anywhere between 1820 and 1824. However, Joseph Smith did not write about the vision until 1832 – many years after he had left his hometown of Palmyra.
Even in the original version written by Joseph Smith in 1832, he tells a different story than depicted by South Park. Joseph Smith wrote in his diary that the vision occurred in 1822 and that he knew all of the churches were false before he prayed. In answer to his prayer, he said he only saw Jesus Christ (not God the father) and that Jesus forgave him of his sins. There is no mention of Joseph Smith being called a prophet or Jesus telling him to organize a church. (Read Smith’s full account here)
In 1835, Joseph Smith published another version of his vision story, this time saying it took place in 1823. In this account, Joseph Smith said he went to pray because he wondered “if a Supreme Being did exist” and was answered by an angelic messenger that forgave him his sins. Again, it is clear Joseph Smith is describing himself as a teenager when the vision happened, not as an adult, as the South Park episode shows. (Read this account in full here)
Probably the best known account of Joseph Smith’s vision was written by James Mulholland in 1838. Today, this is known as the “official version” of the “First Vision.” Unpublished until 1842, Mulholland’s first-person narrative of Joseph Smith’s vision is now canonized in Mormon scripture as the “Joseph Smith History.”
In this “official” version of the story, Joseph Smith in 1820 goes into the woods to pray and ask God which church to join because he isn’t sure which one is true. In response to the prayer, God and Jesus appear and tell him not to join any church because “they were all wrong” and Jesus Christ tells Smith “that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt.” Even in this official version of the story, Joseph Smith is not called a prophet or told to organize a church. These parts of Joseph Smith’s story did not happen until much later.
The First Vision segment of South Park is entertaining, but it does not represent the truth about the various versions of Smith’s story that he produced over the years. It most closely resembles the official version published by the church, but since that version contradicts Smith’s earlier handwritten accounts, the viewer is given the false impression that it best represents Joseph Smith’s story.