Editor’s note: This blog post is the introductory section of Roger Nicholson’s December 2013 article in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835). The full article may be read on the Interpreter website.
Joseph Smith made his first known attempt to write a history of the Church in 1832. Some of the account was written in Joseph’s own hand and the rest by Frederick G. Williams. Joseph’s history describes his first vision, Moroni’s visit, the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript, and the arrival of Oliver Cowdery. Joseph never completed it beyond that point, and it was never published during his lifetime.
A few years later, in 1835, Joseph produced an account of his First Vision in his journal. He told about how he described the vision to a visitor, a non-Mormon stranger, who had stopped by his home. This is the second known account of the vision written in the first person. Neither the 1832 account nor the 1835 account appear to have received any public circulation. The formal account of the vision would not be written until 1838. This is the account contained in the Pearl of Great Price.
Between 1832 and 1835, Oliver Cowdery, as editor of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate (hereafter Messenger and Advocate), determined that he would write an account of the history of the Church and publish it in installments. This account is both curious and confusing because the first and second installments describe clearly recognizable events leading up to Joseph’s First Vision and Moroni’s visit, but they do not mention the actual visit of the Father and Son. Taken together, the first two installments seem to imply that Joseph’s “first” vision was that of Moroni. For example, the Wikipedia article, “First Vision,” summarizes the Cowdery account as follows:
Therefore, according to Cowdery, the religious confusion led Smith to pray in his bedroom, late on the night of September 23, 1823, after the others had gone to sleep, to know which of the competing denominations was correct and whether “a Supreme being did exist.” In response, an angel appeared and granted him forgiveness of his sins. The remainder of the story roughly parallels Smith’s later description of a visit by an angel in 1823 who told him about the Golden Plates. Thus, Cowdery’s account, containing a single vision, differs from Smith’s 1832 account, which contains two separate visions, one in 1821 prompted by religious confusion (the First Vision) and a separate one regarding the plates on September 22, 1822. 
This summary, of course, is not consistent with the story of the First Vision and Moroni’s visit as two distinct events that Joseph described only two years earlier, nor does it match the account that he told in late 1835, less than a year after Oliver’s account was published. What, then, are we to make of Oliver’s convoluted account? Does it really describe a “single vision” as the Wikipedia article claims?
Oliver’s account does indeed raise some questions. Was Oliver unaware of Joseph’s First Vision? Was Oliver in possession of Joseph’s 1832 history? If so, why did Oliver not include the vision in his own history? The answers to these questions may be deduced by examining and comparing Joseph’s 1832 history with Oliver’s 1834/1835 history and with Joseph’s subsequent 1835 journal entry.
To read the rest, please visit
on the Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture website.
 Wikipedia, s.v. “First Vision,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vision as of 27 October 2013. Wikipedia articles are often modified, and this text is subject to change. The date “1821″ referred to with respect to Joseph’s 1832 account is based upon the insertion by Frederick G. Williams of the phrase “in the 16th year of my age,” thus indicating that Joseph was 15 years of age rather than 14. Joseph, however, later corrects his age to 14 in his 1835 journal entry.