Friday, 7 February 2014

Book of Mormon Translation

Published 30th December 2013

The beginning of this essay is standard information about Joseph Smith and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. But then it gets bizarre!

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates. Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.” The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture. - Hang on a second Joseph already had an 'interperator', a 'seer stone' that he found long before his prophetic calling? He used it as a young man to look for lost treasure? He is not special, other people had 'seer stones' as well? Does this mean they are everywhere?
Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way. - An instrument given by the hands of an Angel worked the same as a rock he picked up off the ground? and he liked the stone he found better?
Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument. - He looked into a hat with the stone in it and that was how most of the Book of Mormon was translated!? 
The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.” - He didn't need the plates at all? What was the use of the plates?
I have watched several inspirational church movies about Joseph Smith. I have seen a lot of pictures of him translating the Book of Mormon. I have even read plenty of accounts describing Emma Smith, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdrey scribing as Joseph translated. This was never the information given!

Is it just me or are we just telling a nice story, one we want to hear - not one that has truth attached to it?
Concluding Observations:
  • Joseph participated in the spurious practises of treasure seeking as a youth
  • He had 'seer stone(s)' that he used to find buried treasure
  • He later used these stones to translate the Book of Mormon
  • The process involved burying his head into a hat
  • Nobody at the time thought this was unusual
  • This information has not been given to the general church membership
  • A completely different story is promoted in the church

If this information is readily available to the church why is this not been taught?

Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah

Published 17th December 2013

Found this picture as I was searching for something useful to head this post with. I dont think we in 2014 understand how pitted the church was against the United States, or even what challenges faced us because of polygamy. But even now after so many years we are still very sensitive about this topic. 

The churches essay on Polygamy seeks to give some framework to the discussion. 

Firstly this essay generally only talks about Polygamy in a Utah setting. Much of the challenging genesis of this practise with Joseph Smith is not covered. So as an essay it avoids much of the controversy that plaques questions about Polygamy. I don't know if the church intends to publish an essay on Joseph Smiths practise but for the purposes of this blog I will generally only deal with the information given.

I found the referenced resources just as helpful as the actual essay, full of facts which refuted some myths about Polygamy.

In accordance with a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practise of plural marriage—the marriage of one man to two or more women—was instituted among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s. - Note here that Joseph Smith had been practising polygamy many years prior in secret. His death in 1844 was directly related, his command to break the printing press in Naavoo, was because the paper had published accounts of his (and other leaders) practise of polygamy, which he vehemently denied. It is worth noting that the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) believe that Joseph Smith never practised polygamy but that was implemented by Brigham Young.

Thereafter, for more than half a century, plural marriage was practised by some Latter-day Saints. Only the Church President held the keys authorising the performance of new plural marriages. - 'Some' might be a little misleading, the reality was the majority of church leaders practised it, all Prophets did, and most apostles. The last prophet to practise it was Heber J Grant who died in 1945 (only his second wife was still alive when he became president). Polygamy had far reaching effects into Latter day Saint culture.

Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century. The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). - Interestingly this essay dispels this myth in the reference section with this statement: Studies have shown that monogamous women bore more children per wife than did polygamous wives except the first. Generally Monogamous families produce more offspring especially when ratios of men and women are equal as they were in Utah.

In 1890, the Lord inspired Church President Wilford Woodruff to issue a statement that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church. In this statement, known as the Manifesto, President Woodruff declared his intention to abide by U.S. law forbidding plural marriage and to use his influence to convince members of the Church to do likewise. After the Manifesto, monogamy was advocated in the Church both over the pulpit and through the press. On an exceptional basis, some new plural marriages were performed between 1890 and 1904, especially in Mexico and Canada, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law; a small number of plural marriages were performed within the United States during those years. In 1904, the Church strictly prohibited new plural marriages. - One of our biggest myths in the church is that Polygamy ended in 1890. While we have the 1890 manifesto Official Declaration 1 in our Doctrine and Covenants and it seems very clear. Polygamy evolved in secrecy, was hidden from the law, and continued with authorisation by the brethren. Lesser known is the second manifesto of 1904 from Joseph F. Smith that provided for the excommunication of those who continued to practise polygamy. One of our most challenging dichotomies is our Article of faith that says we uphold the laws of the land, when we did not do that in this instance. The other is that despite OD1 and a plea from the Prophet we did not stop.
Today, any person who practices plural marriage cannot become or remain a member of the Church. - Also little known is that we don't allow people to join the church who practise polygamy even if they come from countries or cultures in which it is o.k. Missionary work in Muslim areas is very tricky. It does beg the question if we believe this is a doctrine that we don't practise because it is the law in the US, what problem do we have with people in other countries practising it where it is not the law? The flip side is also true, in an age of changing understanding of families why aren't we advocating for polygamous families with the hope that we can practise this in the future when its legal?
Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people, covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition, willing to endure ostracism for their principles. - Polygamy did really define and make the church what it is today. We moved to the Salt Lake basin to effectively 'leave the United States' to practise plural marriage openly. While we continually try to distance ourselves from it, it is our defining characteristic. 

During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God. Not all, however, were expected to live it. Indeed, this system of marriage could not have been universal due to the ratio of men to women. - It is a myth that many more women existed than men in Utah. In fact there were slight more men.

Still, some patterns are discernible, and they correct some myths. Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time. Church leaders recognized that plural marriages could be particularly difficult for women. Divorce was therefore available to women who were unhappy in their marriages; remarriage was also readily available. - The references state that Utah had very easy divorce laws to allow for the practise. So divorce and remarriage were common. This brings up interesting questions about the principle of celestrial marriage and how it was viewed in that time, also how sealings worked if women were married multiple times? This seems inconsistent with our current views on marriage and its importance to our eternal salvation. It also seems inconsistent with our views on divorse.

After the U.S. Supreme Court found the anti-polygamy laws to be constitutional in 1879, federal officials began prosecuting polygamous husbands and wives during the 1880s. Believing these laws to be unjust, Latter-day Saints engaged in civil disobedience by continuing to practice plural marriage and by attempting to avoid arrest.  - Civil disobedience? Avoiding arrest? Going into Hiding? There is a great story here waiting to be told of the Mormon passive resistance movement!

So some good dispelling of latter day myths here like 'there were more women than men', 'polgamy ended in 1890' and 'polygamy produced more children'. However it really didn't cover the more troubling or conflicting parts of polygamy as it didn't touch on anything prior to 1847. 

It also doesn't touch on Polygamy post 1904 - The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started when the church started excommunicating individuals. Apostle John W Taylor even produced a revelation by his father Prophet John Taylor stating in 1886 that 'the great majority of the church would apostasize and abandon polygamy'. (they are still waiting for us to come back to the practise). The irony is that we as a church condemn and persecute them in the same way we were condemned and persecuted in the late 1800's.

I have lots of questions about this topic. How do we deal with all the secrecy (and dishonesty) that existed with the practise? What do we do with Joseph Smith version of polygamy which seems very different to Brigham Youngs understanding? Why do we currently have such an anti-polygamy stance in the church, which stops us from actively proselyting to Muslim families, and upholding civil rights for alternative families? If we only stopped because of the law why aren't we as a church fighting for changes in marriage law so that we can practise polygamy again? But most importantly - If this is a revelation from God (and essential to our salvation) why is it clouded in so much complexity and shame? 

Concluding Observations:

  • Polygamy is our heritage, we either need to embrace it or admit our ancestors were odd.
  • We need to fight for the rights of others to practise it even if we as a church don't want to.
  • We need to be more open about the history even if it is embarrassing. This shouldn't be a secret.
  • We need to resolve some issues around compliance with the law and compliance with the prophet.

Can we as a church shake off the schizophrenia we have with polygamy?

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Race and the Priesthood

With this essay on Race and Priesthood the majority of the membership could see that that Church was doing something remarkably different. Articles, new-stories, blogs and pod-casts popped up everywhere seeking to make sense of a very different way of talking about this challenging issue in our past.

The denouncement of this policy as underpinned by racism is a very candid move by the Church. Even as recently as February 2012 the newsroom stated that the church didn't know the origins of the Priesthood ban. Indeed when Professor Randy Bott sought to answer questions about this topic during the 2012 presidential election he was rebutted by the church. I was working for his nephew at the time, and this was a huge deal to the family. Professor Bott was head of Religion at BYU, (and former Mission President) he was as knowledgeable as any member could possibly be on this subject. If he couldn't get it right then we all have much to learn.

The essay it very positive and such a great leap forward in our understanding. I applaud it and hope that every member has read and pondered its implications. It is with this in mind that I put my own thoughts to the subject.

Some excerpts worth discussing:

The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend Church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation.  By definition, this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Mormon congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community - Latter Day Saints are fortunate particularly in the United States to not have the racial segregation other churches have on a Sunday morning. 

Despite this modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances. - It is really good that the Church acknowledges in this essay that the ban affected black women as well as men. I worry that when we talk about this issues that we dismiss it as 'just the priesthood' but this meant Celestrial Marriage was unavailable to these families which is huge in our understanding of what is important in this life.

During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. - The essay draws a big line here, that this was not a practise of the Church under Joseph Smith. This has huge implications!

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.- This seems to say that Brigham Young stopped priesthood ordination and didn't give any reasons, then others later put forth theories. This is not Brigham Young, he stated his conviction powerfully and left you in no doubt that this was the way the Lord felt on the subject.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege... In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect. - Nice to have the context but we believe these are prophets of God and willing to stand up to popular belief with revealed doctrine.

In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.- I have issue with this statement, when I tried to follow the reference given it was very difficult to find his actually words. What I did eventually find was him saying yes they would have the priesthood but not until the very end of humanity. So you could equally state Brigham Young said 'black members would not have the priesthood in this life'.

The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel.Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.- This justification was not just societal, it is found in our scriptures; in the Book of Abraham those from 'Africa' where restricted from the priesthood, and God reveals to Abraham that pre-mortal spirits had varying degrees of intelligence. The Book of Mormon is pretty clear that Lamanite skin colour was a sign of disfavour.

1:25-27  Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.  26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.  27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood

3:18,19,22 if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end... 19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all 22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

2 Nephi 5:21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. 22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. 23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood and instituted missionary work among them.- Is it possible that the people to whom the ban applied became harder and harder to justify?

Priesthood and temple restrictions created significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spread in international locations with diverse and mixed racial heritages. Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed racial heritage. In 1975, the Church announced that a temple would be built in São Paulo, Brazil. As the temple construction proceeded, Church authorities encountered faithful black and mixed-ancestry Mormons who had contributed financially and in other ways to the building of the São Paulo temple, a sanctuary they realized they would not be allowed to enter once it was completed. Their sacrifices, as well as the conversions of thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians in the 1960s and early 1970s, moved Church leaders. - Can members lobby for change?

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form. - Great statement, but what do we do with our past prophets statements on these issues or our own modern day scripture?

For me this particular essay questions our understanding of what revelation means and how it is applied. 

Our claim to revelation is with the express benefit of 'not being tossed to and from by every wind of doctrine' - holding to what God wants above cultural, political and social pressures. But this account seems to indicate that Brigham Young was influenced profoundly by his environment. He could stand up to the United States culture on Polygamy but not on Black treatment?

And what do we do with previous 1978 declarations by the current First Presidencies of the time about this issue?

1949: The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organisation, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: "Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to." President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: "The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have." The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

1969: (excerpt) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owes its origin, its existence, and its hope for the future to the principle of continuous revelation. "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man. Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, "The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God....

[These statements by previous Presidencies are total contradictions of this essay.]

With this essay the church seems to have laid the blame for this departure from God's plan squarely at the feet of Brigham Young but this goes against everything we have been taught about the role of the President of the Church. Wilford Woodruff's reassuring affirmation in Official Declaration 1 cant possibly be true: The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. 

Of course the implication is - what does this mean for current positions of cultural, political and social importance? Do we proclaim certain truths now which will be repudiated by future First Presidencies in years to come? Isn't the purpose of a prophet, seer and revelator to advise you on the position God? If we can get this wrong what else can we get (do we get) wrong? 

Concluding Observations:

  • Prophets are subject to the cultural bias of their day just like everyone else
  • Our understanding of revelation by our prophets is going to have to change
  • The Church has made many doctrinal alterations
  • We can not abdicate our responsibility to seek out truth, to the Brethren

How in a church that prides itself on continuous revelation could we get it so wrong?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

First Vision Accounts

Published 26th November 2013

I had been aware that Joseph Smith had given differing accounts of his First Vision. Without anything to refer to I had relegated that interesting tidbit to the kind of changes I make as I retell a story. Different emphasis for different people.

With this essay I took the time to learn a little more about this fascinating part of our history and ponder over the implications. (All of this is from the essay or the links in the essay)

1832 Account. The earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, is found in a short, unpublished autobiography Joseph Smith produced in the second half of 1832. In the account, Joseph Smith described his consciousness of his own sins and his frustration at being unable to find a church that matched the one he had read about in the New Testament and that would lead him to redemption. He emphasized Jesus Christ’s Atonement and the personal redemption it offered. He wrote that “the Lord” appeared and forgave him of his sins. As a result of the vision, Joseph experienced joy and love, though, as he noted, he could find no one who believed his account.Read the 1832 account here.

 I become convicted of my  sins and by searching the scriptures I found  that mand <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that  they had apostatised from the true and liveing  faith and there was no society or denomination  that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as  recorded in the new testament9 and I felt to mourn  for my own sins and for the sins of the world10 for I learned in the scriptures that God was  the same yesterday to day and forever...
<I> considered all these things  and that <that> being seeketh such to worshep him as wors hip him in spirit and in truth15 therefore I cried unto  the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and  toobtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderne ss and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of  fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day  come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled  with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon  me and I saw the Lord16 and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my  statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the  Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those  who believe on my name may have Eternal life <behold> the world  lieth in sin andat this time and none doeth good no  not one they have turned asside from the gospel and  keep not <my> commandments they draw near to me with their  lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger  is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit  them acording to thir ungodliness and to bring to pass  that which <hath> been spoken by the mouth of the prophe ts andAp[o]stles17 behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] wr itten of me in the cloud <clothed> in the glory of my Father18  and my soul was filled with love and for many days I  could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me  but could find none that would believe the hevnly  vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart

Some interesting things to note here. Firstly this was the earliest known account of the First Vision (1832) - Two years after the Church was formed, and it was unpublished so no one knew about it. The account says he came to the conclusion that no denomination was built on the New Testament Gospel, and he mentions only Jesus Christ visiting him and forgiving his sins. He says no one believed his heavenly vision. Age 15

1835 Account. In the fall of 1835, Joseph Smith recounted his First Vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. The retelling, recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe Warren Parrish, emphasizes his attempt to discover which church was right, the opposition he felt as he prayed, and the appearance of one divine personage who was followed shortly by another. This account also notes the appearance of angels in the vision. Read the 1835 account here.

being wrought up in my  mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking  upon <at> the different systems taught the children of  men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong  and concidering it of the first importance that  I should be right, in matters that involved  eternal consequences; being thus perplexed in mind  I retired to the silent grove and bowd down before  the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said  (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive  knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall  find and again, if any man lack wisdom let  him ask of God who giveth to all men libar ally and upbradeth not;68information was what  I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination I to obtain it, I called upon the Lord  for the first time, in the place above stated or in  other words I made a fruitless attempt to pray, my  toung seemed to be swolen in my mouth, so that  I could not utter,69 I heard a noise behind me  like some person walking towards me, <I> strove again  to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seem ed to draw nearer, I sprung up on my feet,and [p. 23]and looked around, but saw no person or thing  that was calculated to produce the noise of wal king, I kneeled again my mouth was opened and  my toung liberated, and I called on the Lord in  mighty prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above  my head, it presently rested down upon my <me>  head, and filled me with joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar  of flame which was spread all around, and yet  nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard  like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ  is the son of God;70 <and I saw many angels in this vision> I was about 14. years old  when I received this first communication;

So in this account he relays that he doesn't know who is right or wrong, but believes he can get an answer from God, is thwarted from praying but then able at which point a pillar of fire with a personage appears, another identical personage appears, forgives his sins and testifies of Jesus Christ. Angels are also present. Age 14.

1838 Account. The narration of the First Vision best known to Latter-day Saints today is the 1838 account. First published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois, the account was part of a longer history dictated by Joseph Smith between periods of intense opposition. Whereas the 1832 account emphasizes the more personal story of Joseph Smith as a young man seeking forgiveness, the 1838 account focuses on the vision as the beginning of the “rise and progress of the Church.” Like the 1835 account, the central question of the narrative is which church is right. Read the 1838 account here.

In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what  is to be done? Who of all these parties are right? Or are they all wrong together? and  if any one of them be right which is it? And how shall I know it?8
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties  of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, First Chapter and fifth verse  which reads, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men  liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.[”] Never did any passage  of scripture come with more power to the heart of man that this did at this time to  mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected  on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did,  for how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had [I] would never know, for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same [p. 2]passage of Scripture so differently as <to> destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to  the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs, that is, Ask of God. I at last came to the determination to  ask of God, concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give  liberally and not upbraid, I might venture. So in accordance with this my determination to ask  of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful clear day  early in the spring of Eightteen hundred and twenty.9 It was the first time in my life that I had  <made> such an attempt, for amidst all <my> anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
After I had retired into the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked  around me and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my  heart to God, I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was <siezed> upon by some power which  entirely overcame me and <had> such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so  that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But exerting all my powers to call upon God to de liver me out of the power of this enemy which had siezed upon me, and at the very moment  when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction, not to an im aginary ruin but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world who had such a  marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being. Just at this moment of great alarm  I saw a pillar <of> light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended  gracefully gradually untill 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.”
My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know  which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner therefore  did I get possession of myself so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who  stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right, (for at this time it had never  entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join. I was answered that  I must join none of them, for they were all wrong, and the Personage who addressed me said  that all their Creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were all corrupt, that “they draw near to me to with their lips but their hearts are far from me, They  teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.”10 He again forbade me to join with any of them and many other thing[s]11  did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time.12 When I came to myself again I  found myself lying on <my> back looking up into Heaven.13 Some few days later after I had this  vision I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist Preachers who was very  active in the before mentioned religious excitement14 and conversing with him on the subject  of religion I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had.  I was greatly surprised at his behaviour, he treated my communication not only  lightly but with great contempt, saying it was all of the Devil, that there was no such  thing as visions or revelations in these days, that all such things had ceased 

So in this account lots more detail, including two personages who seem identifiable as God the father and Jesus Christ. No remission of sins but clear direction that other denominations are wrong and Joseph was to join none of them. Also an inclusion that there was 'many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time' [This was one draft of several before official publishing in the Times and Seasons and inclusion in the Pearl of Great Price at some time later.]

1842 Account. Written in response to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth’s request for information about the Latter-day Saints, this account was printed in the Times and Seasons in 1842. (The “Wentworth letter,” as it is commonly known, is also the source for the Articles of Faith.)4 The account, intended for publication to an audience unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs, is concise and straightforward. As with earlier accounts, Joseph Smith noted the confusion he experienced and the appearance of two personages in answer to his prayer. The following year, Joseph Smith sent this account with minor modifications to a historian named Israel Daniel Rupp, who published it as a chapter in his book, He Pasa Ekklesia [The Whole Church]: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States.5 Read the 1842 account here.

When about  fourteen years of age I began to reflect  upon the importance of being prepared  for a future state, and upon enquiring  the plan of salvation I found that there  was a great clash in religious sentiment;  if I went to one society they referred me  to one plan, and another to another; each  one pointing to his own particular creed  as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right,  and that God could not be the author of  so much confusion I determined to inves tigate the subject more fully, believing  that if God had a church it would not be  split up into factions, and that if he  taught one society to worship one way,  and administer in one set of ordinances,  he would not teach another principles  which were diametrically opposed. Be lieving the word of God I had confidence  in the declaration of James; “If any man  lack wisdom let him ask of God who giv eth to all men liberally and upbraideth  not and it shall be given him,”3 I retired  to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently en gaged in supplication my mind was taken  away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a [p. 706]heavenly vision and saw two glorious  personages who exactly resembled each  other in features, and likeness, surround ed with a brilliant light which eclipsed the  sun at noon-day.4 They told me that all  religious denominations were believing in  incorrect doctrines, and that none of them  was acknowledged of God as his church  and kingdom. And I was expressly com manded to “go not after them,”5 at the  same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future  time be made known unto me.

Much shorter account, no identities of the identical personages, a charge that the gospel will be made known to Joseph. Age 14.

So a few overall observations: It took almost a decade (more if you conclude that the 1838 account was not published till 1842) for the general membership to learn about the First Vision. There are some important differences between the accounts, including number of people, their identities, presence of angels, forgiveness of sins, and what the person(s) revealed to Joseph. It does feel like there is some progression in these accounts both in detail and in importance. Also it is curious that there aren't more accounts. None that date back to the original year 1819 either by Joseph, his family or others in his community.

One of the most interesting Historian comments accompaning the 1832 account says:
In the early 1830s, when this history was written, it appears that JS had not broadcast the details of his first vision of Deity. The history of the church, as it was then generally understood, began with the gold plates. John Whitmer (First church Historian) mentioned in his history “the commencement of the church history commencing at the time of the finding of the plates,” suggesting that Whitmer was either unaware of JS’s earlier vision or did not conceive of it as foundational.

The First Vision is also not dated. (We know the exact day of Moroni's first visit - 21 September 1823) With Joseph's attention to detail and this being a monumental event. Why did he not record it till 13 years later? Why did no one in his family record it? Why don't we have a date?

The essay goes on to include Secondhand Accounts. Besides these accounts from Joseph Smith himself, five accounts were written by contemporaries who heard Joseph Smith speak about the vision. Read these accounts here.

Orson Pratt 1840
he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two  glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. He was informed, that his sins  were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects,  which had for some time previously agitated his mind,  viz.—that all the religious denominations were believing  in incorrect doctrines; and, consequently, that none of  them was acknowledged of God, as his church and king dom. And he was expressly commanded, to go not after  them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine— the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be  made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew,  leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace, inde scribable

Orson Hyde 1842
Two glorious heavenly personages stood before him, resembling each other exactly in features and stature. They told him that his prayers had been answered and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing. He was also told that he should not join any of the religious sects or denominations, because all of them erred in doctrine and none was recognized by God as his church and kingdom. He was further commanded, to wait patiently until some future time, when the true doctrine of Christ and the complete truth of the gospel would be revealed to him. The vision closed and peace and calm filled his mind. 

Levi Richards 1843
Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same— saying  that when he was a youth he began to think about these  these things but could not find out which of all the sects were  right— he went into the grove  & enquired of the Lord which  of all the sects were right—  re received for answer that  none of them were right,  that they were all wrong, &  that the Everlasting covena[n]t  was broken= he said he understo ood the fulness of the Gospel  from beginning to end— & could  Teach it & also the order of  the priesthood in all its ram ifications= Earth & hell had opposed  him & tryed to destroy him— but  they had not done it= & they <never would>

None of these accounts seem to give any confidence that the First Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ knew about the First Vision prior to 1840.

Concluding Observations:

  • It seems that what we regard as the founding event of our history, was unknown to the first members (and apostles) of the Church till at least 1840. 
  • The First Vision is pivotal to our understanding of God and Jesus Christ as separate individuals but that is unsupported by the first account. 
  • The accounts seem to increase in detail and importance, becoming more convincing over time.
  • No supporting information: records, dates, witnesses, journal entries, testimonials, for the First Vision seem to exist prior to 1832.

So what are we to make of the 'First Vision' story that we base our faith upon?