There are five primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Joseph Smith was the first prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes referred to as Mormons. Because there are differences in the accounts, some have used this information to condemn the accounts as evolving stories. Others see in the differences evidence of their truthfulness.
Joseph Smith was a teenager when choosing a religion became something of a trend in his area. His own family became involved in the process of visiting churches and revivals to decide on a church and some of them had settled on a church. Joseph, however, could not seem to come to a decision. He wanted to find a church, but the information he received as he listened to sermons and spoke with ministers was contradictory. It didn’t make sense to him that they all said they were right but they didn’t agree on what was true. He wondered how anyone could really know the truth.
In the process of trying to decide how to identify the true church, he wondered if they were all wrong, but that was too hard to accept—he wanted one of them to be true. Finally, he began to study the Bible for clues. He was fourteen years old when he came across a scripture that would change his world and the lives of millions of people from his time to the present.
James 1:5 says that if you lack wisdom, you can ask of God, and He will give you what you lack. In other words, if you don’t know what is true, ask God. Who is more qualified to tell you what is true? God knew what church was true.
Joseph decided to take the question to God as the Bible suggested. He went into woods to pray, his first attempt at praying aloud. There he saw a vision of God and Jesus Christ. God introduced Jesus Christ and instructed Joseph to listen to Him. He asked which church was true—because he really wanted one to be true—and was told none was entirely correct and so he must not join any of them. Later, as an adult, he would receive an angel who would tutor him in preparation for being the prophet who led the restoration of the church.
He would tell a few others of his experience. In his youth, he did not anticipate the anger his account would arouse in the local ministers. Since all he had wanted was the truth, he likely presumed they would be excited to know what was true, but of course, they were not, since their careers revolved around their current churches. It is likely this experience caused him to be more cautious in revealing all the details of his experience.
He did not, as far as we know, put the account into writing until 1832, two years after the church was formed. He wrote this account in a book he used to record correspondence. Joseph was not well educated, having lived in areas without schools most of his life. His father had given him the basics of reading, writing, and math, but he had only three years of formal schooling as a child. Most of his time was spent helping his struggling family make a living, not getting an education.
Anyone who has tried to record an emotionally intense and very significant experience knows the frustration of getting the experience onto paper. Even skilled writers struggle with matching the emotional impact to the ability to write about it. For someone with little training in the written word, it is a nearly impossible task. Joseph wrote that no one really knew his history—he simply could not completely record it in a way that accurately conveyed it.
Steven C. Harper, an official historian for the Church and an adjunct professor at the Church-owned Brigham Young University, has spent extensive time researching the question of the five accounts of the vision. He has spoken with the leading experts in the subject and handled the original documents himself. He has written several books on the subject and recently wrote an article outlining some of his findings.
Steven C. Harper, “Listening to Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Meridian Magazine
In the article, Harper explores one of the major points of controversy: How many beings did Joseph Smith see? His first account states that he saw the Lord. In 1838 and 1842, he writes that he saw two personages. The 1835 account, which is the most detailed concerning this event, says that he saw one personage and then another appeared. This account also mentions the presence of angels.
Each account was written for a different purpose and a different audience. As any writer or speaker knows, this impacts how much you reveal and how you word it. As an example, I often tell, when writing or speaking, of my first teaching assignment as a new church member. It’s a complex story and it teaches three distinct principles. I never tell the entire story. I select which events and which details to include based on the lesson I am teaching through that story. The fact that I leave out some important details does not mean they didn’t happen—it means they weren’t needed for that specific audience or lesson.
Harper notes that we don’t know that Joseph saw both beings at the same time or for the same amount of time. The picture traditionally shown is just a picture, not a photograph or movie of the actual events. It also appears Joseph didn’t know how, initially, to refer to the second personage since in the 1832 account, he wrote, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” The first instance was an insertion made after the initial sentence was written. It appears he decided to refer to the other personage as the Lord also and so was speaking of two beings, not one.
To fully understand the events of that day, we have to look beyond the specific words and into the heart of a young boy struggling to find the truth. The article referenced here goes into greater detail on that subject.