This is an account written by Norris Stearns of Greenfield, Massachusetts, published in 1815, five years before Joseph Smith’s First Vision experience, in a pamphlet titled The Religious Experience Of Norris Stearns Written by Divine Command. The 35 page pamphlet can be read in its entirety online at this link. Here is an excerpt of part of his vision:
“At length, as I lay apparently upon the brink of eternal woe, seeing nothing but death before me, suddenly there came a sweet flow of the love of God to my soul, which gradually increased. At the same time, there appeared a small gleam of light in the room, above the brightness of the sun, then at his meridian, which grew brighter and brighter: As this light and love increased, my sins began to separate, and the Mountain [of sin] removed towards the east. At length, being in an ecstasy of joy, I turned to the other side of the bed, (whether in the body or out I cannot tell, God knoweth) there I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them. One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a Cloud. In looking steadfastly to discern features, I could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place. Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man-His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining. His Father’s will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love!! I was filled with the sacred flame, and the glory of God; I thought one spark more in my soul would have destroyed this mortal frame!! I was happy!!! happy!!! happy!!! I wanted ten thousand tongues to sing their sweet, their glorious praise!! It was a heaven here below for the space of half an hour!! But how infinitely short must I come of describing their glory, for want of language to paint my feelings! For the joys of Heaven so far surpass all bounds of description, or human conception, that christians here below come infinitely short of forming a competent idea of the joys that await the righteous: ‘Eye hath not seen, Ear hath not heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive of those good things, the Father hath prepared for them that love him.'”
A non-vocal conversation takes place with God, which discusses Norris’s sins. After the vision ends, Norris says that he felt the flow of love to his soul for three days, and at other times felt a sense of joy and gladness within.
There are many similarities in this account to Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Some of them could include:
- Finding oneself in a very low place, on the brink of destruction
- Suddenly feeling a change
- Seeing a light at a distance, or the light being small
- The light growing brighter and brighter
- The light being above the brightness of the sun
- Feeling one’s sins disintegrate or disappear
- Feeling the love of God, and intense joy
- Feeling separate from one’s body, like one’s mind was taken to a different place
- Seeing two persons or spirits
- The persons being indescribable, and glorious beyond words
- The persons being described in terms of fire and flames
- The mention of a “pillar” in association with the fire/flames
- Believing one has witnessed God the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ
- The two persons seemed similar to one another
- The fire/flame seeming to fill oneself
- The thought that one might be destroyed by the fiery encounter
- Feeling that it was heavenly
- The encounter being indescribable, unable to be written
- One’s feelings being indescribable, ineffable
- Quoting scripture
- A conversation with God
- Feeling the love of God and great joy in the days following
Because this experience preceded Joseph’s by some five years (and preceded Joseph’s first written account by some 17 years), and took place nearby, some have thought that Joseph may have plagiarized Stearns’ published account (as well as others). While that could be possible, I do not think that happened.
As I’ve begun to show on this website, these profound experiences of divine grace and communion, involving intense bright light, are much more common than we have considered before. Joseph did not plagiarize Stearns’ account if he had an experience that was similar himself, which I believe to be the case. I accept Joseph’s profession of sincerity that he did, indeed, have a vision of God, and could not deny it. Norris Stearns likewise probably had such an experience. We too may have similar experiences of God.
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