20. Contradictory Versions of First Vision

There is a great deal of confusion around the details of Joseph's first vision, of which there is absolutely no record for the first decade following when it supposedly occurred (Spring of 1820). During that time, Joseph spoke only about angelic visitations in conjunction with the discovery of the gold plates. In fact, numerous individuals recorded that Joseph saw an angel rather than the Father and Son:

William Smith - "He accordingly went out into the woods and falling upon his knees called for a long time upon the Lord for wisdom and knowledge. While engaged in prayer a light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees where he was. It appeared like fire. But to his great astonishment, did not burn the trees. An angel then appeared to him and conversed with him upon many things. He told him that none of the sects were right..." (William Smith On Mormonism, by William Smith, Joseph Smith's brother. pg. 5 (1883))

Brigham Young - "Do we believe that the Lord sent his messengers to Joseph Smith, and commanded him to refrain from joining any Christian church, and to refrain from the wickedness he saw in the churches, and finally delivered to him a message informing him that the Lord was about to establish his kingdom on the earth..." Journal of Discourses, Vol. 18, pg. 239

Brigham Young - "[When Mormonism began] the Lord did not come - but He did send His angel." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. II, p. 171).

John Taylor - "None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 167 (1879))

Church Historical Record - "The angel again forbade Joseph to join any of these churches, and he promised that the true and everlasting Gospel should be revealed to him at some future time. Joseph continues: 'Many other things did he (the angel) say unto me which I cannot write at this time'." (Church Historical Record, Vol. 7, January, 1888) [Note that in this quote the first reference to "the angel" was later changed to "the Holy Being" and the second reference to "the angel" was changed to "the Christ"]

The earliest known account of the First Vision was given in 1831 or 1832. As Joseph dictated to his secretary, Frederick T. Williams, he saw Christ but there is no mention of God the Father in his vision:

"I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of 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 Lord 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 at 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 according to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father 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 hevenly vision…" (Dean C. Jesse, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," Brigham Young University Studies, 9:280, 1969, from the "Kirtland Letter Book, 1829-1835")

In the second known account of Joseph's first vision, he related the tale to Joshua the Jewish Minister, which was recorded by his secretary, Warren A. Cowdery on November 9, 1835. This time, he described seeing two personages and many angels, and also pushed back his age at the time of the vision from 16 to 14:

"A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication…" (Dean C. Jesse, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," Brigham Young University Studies, 9:284)

Over the years Joseph's story changed from an event in the year 1823 to 1821 to 1820. Depending on the account Joseph gave, it was either a spirit, an angel, two angels, many angels, Jesus, and finally, the Father and the Son. For such a momentous event, it seems to me that one's recollection would be much clearer, had it actually occurred.

If something happened that Spring morning in 1820, there is no record of it in Joseph's home town, despite his later claim that:

"22 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects-all united to persecute me.

23 It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself." (Joseph Smith History, pp. 22-23)

Nor is there any mention of the First Vision among the records of Joseph's family until after his story was published in 1831-1832. And why did Joseph subsequently join a Methodist Sunday School after having been commanded by Christ himself that he:

"…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 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." (Joseph Smith History, Vol. 1, p. 19)

References

Dunn Like Smith?

Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 24-25

Origin and History of Mormonism: The Story As Told by Mormons

Various accounts of the first vision, contemporary with Joseph Smith

Apologist Response

Hugh Nibley argued that one possibility for the early silence on Joseph's first vision is that he considered the experience sacred and didn't share it broadly:

"The argument of silence is always a suspicious one, yet how much more suspicious when we are told (Brodie, p. 14) that there are no detailed descriptions of the revivals in Palmyra and Manchester when they were at their wildest? If the press ignores the revivals at their wildest why should it not ignore a mere episode of the movement? Joseph Smith specifically says it was the ministers who united to persecute him--it was persecution from the pulpit (not as Brodie insinuates, a sort of militant mob movement). But, says Brodie, these same newspapers '"in later years gave him plenty of unpleasant publicity." In later years he was an important public figure with a large following--their silence at this time merely proves his own statement that he was "an obscure boy" and anything but news…

"A million people in London and Paris could have sworn affidavits that Joseph Smith never told them a thing about the angel; the entire city of Peking and large areas of the Central Sudan could honestly report that they had never been informed of Moroni's visit. That Joseph Smith should not noisily divulge the great and sacred things he had been ordered to keep secret does not seem possible to Brodie. If the first vision was so "soul shattering" how, she asks triumphantly, could it have "passed totally unnoticed in Joseph's home town." It never occurs to her that there are things, especially if they are of a transcendent and "soul-shattering" nature, which one does not run off to report to the press and the neighbors. Joseph reported his vision only to his family and to a minister he thought he could trust. It was the minister who caused the trouble." (Hugh Nibley, No Ma'am, That's Not History)

An anonymous LDS Historian (believed to be D. Michael Quinn) offered the following thoughts regarding the inconsistencies around the first vision:

"The First Vision experience of Joseph Smith, Jr. had no significance for his later claims about the Book of Mormon, his prophetic calling, or the concept of a divinely restored priesthood and church. In fact, every description by Joseph Smith of this early vision indicates that he regarded it as a personal experience to be connected with Mormonism only because it had occurred to the translator of the Book of Mormon and the first president of the new church.

"Nowhere in any version of the First Vision can one find that Joseph Smith was referred to as prophet or agent of restoration, or that he was to deliver any message to any one (unlike the first chapter of the writings of virtually every Old Testament prophet). Several of Joseph Smith's accounts of this experience indicate that his primary object in prayer was to obtain forgiveness of sins and his lesser object was to know about his religious affiliation. Joseph Smith's communion with Deity answered both concerns, and his accounts of the experience indicate that he was willing to accept it as the 'Final Vision' rather than the first of many to come…

"The question of the dating of the First Vision is an issue that lends credence to Joseph Smith's claims, rather than undermining them. In the criticism of others, it has been pointed out that Joseph Smith was not consistent in the dates he assigned to this first experience: in the 1832 document it was in his "16th year," in the 1835 recital he was "about 14 years old," and the 1834 version was a mass of precision and ambiguity: "in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty . . . in my fifteenth year . . . between fourteen and fifteen years old or thereabouts . . . a little over fourteen years of age." If Joseph Smith had been dictating a contrived "improvisation" to the dupes who were acting as his scribes, it would have been no problem for such a charlatan to select an arbitrary date for the First Vision and then stick to it. This would especially be no problem for a young man who (according to the Tanners) had been able to dictate the convoluted narrative of the fictionalized Book of Mormon. On the contrary, the variations in dating indicate that here was a man trying to reconstruct events from his early life that he originally regarded as of significance to himself alone, but now have become of interest to people who are his followers and curious inquisitors…

"I see no problem with viewing the 1832 description as Joseph Smith's emphasis upon only a part of an overwhelming experience, and the absence of specific reference to two personages does not prove the later accounts to be fiction. Likewise, the most dramatic evidence of Christ's resurrection is John's claim that the apostles touched the wounds in His side and hands (John 20:20, 25-28; cf. I John 1:1), whereas that most crucial evidence of the historicity of Christ's resurrection is not mentioned in the earlier Gospels of Matthew and Mark, nor in the letters of Paul, Peter, James, or Jude. Even when mentioned in Luke's Gospel (Luke 24:39-40), it could be understood that the apostles saw, but did not touch the wounds.

"In a similar light, I am unimpressed with the Tanners' polemical distress concerning the 1835 account of the First Vision: "As if this is not bad enough, Joseph Smith states that there were 'MANY ANGELS IN THIS VISION.' Neither of the other versions indicate that there were `many angels'" (page 147). That is no more disturbing than to acknowledge that only three of the four Gospels mention that Christ was in the wilderness forty days after His baptism, and that only Matthew and Mark stated that angels ministered to Him there (Matthew 4:11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:13). As for the outrage of the Tanners that Joseph and others sometimes referred to the First Vision as a visitation of an angel or angels (pages 154-55), the King James version of the Bible (which was the source for the religious terminology of Mormon leaders as well as for most English-speaking ecclesiastics) often used the terms "man," "angel," "God," and "Lord," interchangeably to identify the same personage in an epiphany or vision (e.g., Genesis 18:1-3, 19:1, 17-18,32:24-30; Exodus 3:2-6; Joshua 5:13, 6:1-2, including page headings)." (Response to the Tanners by a Latter-Day Saint Historian)

In an Ensign article, Milton Backman suggested that the differing accounts of the first vision simply emphasize different aspects of the experience:

"[T]he account [of the First Vision] was repeated several times and in several different ways, even by the Prophet, and…although each narrative emphasized different ideas and events, none is incompatible with other accounts. There is a striking consistency throughout all the narratives, and if one wishes he may combine them into an impressive report that in no way contradicts any of the individual reports. Moreover, the descriptions given of events related to the vision but that happened outside the grove are consistent with our knowledge of contemporary events. (James B. Allen, "Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision", Improvement Era, April 1970, pp. 11-12)

"[A]ccounts of the First Vision were prepared at different times, for different audiences, and for different purposes. Each of them emphasizes different aspects of the experience… "Since the 1838 recital [of the First Vision] was included in the Pearl of Great Price, an investigation of the publications of this history helps one better understand principles concerning the formation of scriptures. Joseph Smith was responsible for many changes in punctuation, spelling, and other similar revisions in his manuscript history. After a portion of this history was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, additional textual refinements were made by editors acting under the authorization of Church leaders. These revisions were apparently made in the interests of grammatical quality, clarification, and consistency. Several short paragraphs were also added that had been included as notes in the manuscript history prior to the Prophet's martyrdom. All these alterations were in harmony with precedents set by Joseph Smith in his textual revisions of latter-day scriptures. In no instance was there a change in the basic message recorded in the manuscript history concerning the historical setting of the First Vision or the truths unfolded during this remarkable experience. But changes were made in an effort to convey the truths unfolded by God in the latter-days in the best and clearest language that man could fashion." (Milton Backman, "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision", Ensign, January 1985, pp. 9, 17).