Seeing Joseph Smith Jr.’s First Vision as an Ideology

A child kneeling in a forest while looking up towards a bright ray of sunlight.

by Casey A’Hearn.

The earliest version of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s First Vision is dated the summer of 1832.[1] It begins, “A history in the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account of his marvelous experience.”[2] Two words stick out to me, nearly instantly: history, and experience. This opening sentence evokes the First Vision conceptually as both a history that has happened and a phenomenon experienced. This history of an experience recounted by Joseph Smith Jr. is one simultaneously of beginning and ending. The beginning is the establishment of the latter-day(saints). The ending is the establishment of the latter-day(s). In this case, the beginning is the initiation of a history. The ending is punctuated by an experience. The First Vision is, therefore, a provocative case study for the methods in which religion as ideology is created via interpellation of history and experience.

Althusser writes, “I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing…”[3] If ideology “acts”, according to Althusser, then it must do so through social actors who invoke the ideology in the first place. An ideology, then, becomes a new social entity who interacts with the subject as much as the subject interacts with the ideology.[4] To Althusser, ideology acts like an active entity. Ideology bestows subjecthood to an individual the moment that the individual recognizes and accepts their role as subjects under a Subject. In this way, when Joseph Smith, Jr. invokes the First Vision as “a history”, what he is doing is orienting himself as a subject of History. To Hayden White, histories are often story-types in which facts are “arranged in a specific order and endowed with different weights”.[5] In hailing “a history”, Joseph Smith, Jr. establishes history as ideology. That history is ideologically given the social weight of what it means to call something “a history”, that is factual. He hails as the subject of a History to assure readers of one crucial idea: the First Vision is first a retelling of fact.

When Joseph Smith Jr. referred to The First Vision as “a history”, he interpellated himself as a subject of history. The most foundational story-type of History hailed by Joseph Smith Jr. was that of the Bible. Armed with questions, Joseph was “led… to searching the scriptures..”[6] In calling back to this foundational history, Joseph Smith Jr, aids in the construction of The First Vision a new ideological history. Most importantly, it is a history that is the recipient of the history of the Bible. The First Vision as a history needed to be connected to the Bible to come into ideological and social being. However, this was arguably not the most important part of “a history” that Joseph Smith Jr. was crafting. The invocation of “a history” alludes that Smith’s retelling is “a history” among “many histories”. Joseph Smith claims, “I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ…”[7] Though there are many histories present throughout the world, Joseph Smith, Jr.’s history was connected to a true history, or a true ideology. With no true church on Earth, Joseph Smith Jr. could usher in a new history, a new chosen people, and a new beginning.

Joseph Smith Jr. similarly interpellated his newly established history as an experience. However, unlike “a history” in which only Smith could be the recipient, The First Vision could be a universal experience. This experience was not only to be experienced by himself, but it was also an ending to be experienced by all of mankind. He writes: “behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments… mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken… behold and lo I come quickly.” [8]

Within the narrative of the First Vision is the ending to mankind that Joseph Smith Jr., narrativizes. It was not an ending that was unprecedented. It’s connection to the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, and eschatology is very present. The First Vision’s narrative is interpellated to contextualize real anxieties about the state of the world. Joseph Smith Jr. mentions at length becoming “seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul…”[9] The ending in and of the narrative is that of a universal human experience. That experience that would see the coming of Christ in the latter-days according to Joseph Smith Jr.

In understanding the First Vision as both a history and an experience, we can see the complexity involved in viewing history as ideology can manifest within religion. Meaning is layered, ideology is constructed. Often, ideology is constructed in political, social, and historic ways which call upon these Subjects (religion, history, or experience) as social subjects to reorient the individual as both a subject and a Subject.

[1] Historical Introduction.

[2] History, circa Summer 1832, p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2023,


[4] , 3:46. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains how Ideology “must always work like an empty container.” In this way, ideology is constructed to exist both as an objective “thing” — an empty container — that social actors are subjects of. It exists as a preconceived concept capable of “acting” as Althusser writes. However, as Žižek explains, the neutrality of ideology is never as neutral as it appears. The motivations of social subjects who call upon ideology must be closely considered when constructing “ideology”.

[5] White, 110.

[6] History, circa Summer 1832, p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2023, This quotation is modified by me for flow and clarity within my argument. The entire sentence is as follows: At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] History, circa Summer 1832, p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2023,

[9] History, circa Summer 1832, p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 9, 2023,