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Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/Criticisms/Overview
Joseph Smith's different accounts of the First Vision
I am not worried that the Prophet Joseph Smith gave a number of versions of the first vision anymore than I am worried that there are four different writers of the gospels in the New Testament, each with his own perceptions, each telling the events to meet his own purpose for writing at the time. I am more concerned with the fact that God has revealed in this dispensation a great and marvelous and beautiful plan that motivates men and women to love their Creator and their Redeemer, to appreciate and serve one another, to walk in faith on the road that leads to immortality and eternal life.
—Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Hath Not Given Us the Spirit of Fear,” Ensign, Oct 1984, 2 off-site
Prothero (2003): "in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing"
Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (2003):
Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical [1838 PGP] account and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith's own hand in 1832. For example, in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions or competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide. In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain aloof from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.
Joseph Smith gave a number of different accounts of the First Vision to a variety of people. Some assert that differences in the accounts show that he changed and embellished his story over time, and that he therefore had no such vision.
The Church has published information about the various First Vision accounts since at least 1970. Critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often seek to point out differences between the various accounts which Joseph Smith gave of his First Vision. In defense of their position that the Prophet changed his story over a six year period (1832 to 1838) they claim that the earliest followers of Joseph Smith either didn’t know about the First Vision, or seem to have been confused about it. The Church, however, has discussed the various accounts in a number of publications. Joseph Smith's various accounts of the First Vision were targeted at different audiences, and had different purposes. They, however, show a remarkable degree of harmony between them. There is no evidence that the early leaders of the LDS Church did not understand that the Prophet saw two Divine Personages during his inaugural theophany.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions
"First Vision Accounts," Gospel Topics, located on lds.org.
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration.3 Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.(Click here for full article)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "LESSON 6: Joseph Smith—History 1:1–20," Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, (2013)
Just as Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his vision in his multiple accounts, the Apostle Paul emphasized different aspects of his vision of the Savior to different audiences (see Acts 9:1–9; Acts 22:5–11; Acts 26:12–20). Why do you think Joseph Smith and Paul emphasized different things each time they related the accounts of their visions?(Click here for full article)
Milton V. Backman, "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," Ensign, (January 1985)
On at least four different occasions, Joseph Smith either wrote or dictated to scribes accounts of his sacred experience of 1820. Possibly he penned or dictated other histories of the First Vision; if so, they have not been located. The four surviving recitals of this theophany were prepared or rendered through different scribes, at different times, from a different perspective, for different purposes and to different audiences.1 It is not surprising, therefore, that each of them emphasizes different aspects of his experience.(Click here for full article)
James B. Allen, "Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision - What Do We Learn from Them?," Improvement Era, (April 1970)
Nevertheless, it can now be demonstrated that the Prophet described his experience to friends and acquaintances at least as early as 1831-32, and that he continued to do so in varying detail until the year of his death, 1844. We presently know of at least eight contemporary documents that were written during his lifetime.
Dennis B. Neuenschwander, "Joseph Smith: An Apostle of Jesus Christ," Ensign, (January 2009)
Joseph's vision was at first an intensely personal experience—an answer to a specific question. Over time, however, illuminated by additional experience and instruction, it became the founding revelation of the Restoration.(Click here for full article)
There are essentially three arguments against the first vision. The minister to whom Joseph reported the event announced that there were no such things these days. More than a century later Fawn Brodie wrote with literary grace to mask historical deficiencies that Joseph concocted the vision years after he said it happened. Then a generation later Wesley Walters charged Joseph with inventing revivalism when a lack of historical evidence proved that there was none, and therefore no subsequent vision as a result. So by now it has become a foregone conclusion for some there are no such things as visions, and Joseph failed to mention his experience for years and then gave conflicting accounts that didn’t match historical facts.
- Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 171.