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earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, is found in a short, unpublished autobiography Joseph Smith produced in the second half of 1832.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.
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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this was the earliest known account of the First Vision (1832) - Two years after the Church was formed, and it was unpublished so no one knew about it.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 <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 involve 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 libarally and upbradeth not;information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixeddetermination 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, I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me, <I> strove again to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprung up on my feet, [p. 23]and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking, 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 <me> , and filled me with joy unspeakable, apersonage 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 areforgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; <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.
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 investigate 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. Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him,” I retired to a secret place in a grove and began tocall upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I wassurrounded, and I was enwrapped in a [p. 706]heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. 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 commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that thefulness 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 intheir 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 kingdom. 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, indescribable
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 boretestimony to the same— saying that when he was a youth hebegan to think about these things but could not find outwhich 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 understoood the fulness of the Gospel from beginning to end— & could Teach it & also the order of the priesthood in all its ramifications= Earth & hell had opposed him & tryed to destroy him— but they had not done it= & they <>
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.
- 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?