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Willie Holdman
"Joseph Smith's First Vision" in the Palmyra Temple, created by Tom Holdman.

Certain critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gleefully point out that at least four different first-person accountsof Joseph Smith’s First Vision are known to exist. This, they argue, demonstrates that Joseph simply couldn’t get his story straight — which, in their minds, suggests that he was just making it up on the fly. Moreover, they claim, the LDS Church has sought to hide these differing accounts, which proves it to be dishonest and, thus, unreliable in its assertions not only on this subject but more generally.

On the whole, though, such critics are creating difficulties and fomenting scandal where, in fact, none exists.

Two accounts of the First Vision, which is when he prayed in a grove of trees about which church to join and Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, were published during Joseph’s lifetime. One, generally known today as Joseph Smith — History, was canonized as a part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880 and is, accordingly, by far the most familiar retelling among church members.

Provided by Brigham Young University Museum of Art
LDS artist Minerva Teichert's "The First Vision" (1934) depicts key moment of the Restoration.

Two other accounts, recorded in Joseph’s earliest autobiography as well as in a later journal, were essentially lost and forgotten until the 1960s, when historians working for the LDS Church rediscovered them and very quickly published them. Since that time, these various narratives of the First Vision have been extensively discussed by Latter-day Saint leaders and scholars, not only in academic journals and books published by Brigham Young University and other church-affiliated presses but — beginning at least with James Allen’s April 1970 article on the subject in the Improvement Era — in the church’s official magazines.

In other words, believing Mormon scholars and leaders have known about, and have openly spoken and written about, the various First Vision accounts for at least 50 years. There’s been no scandal, no suppression, and the often exaggerated if not altogether invented discrepancies between them have been thoroughly examined.

“Critics of Mormonism,” observed Stephen Prothero, a non-Mormon scholar of religious history at Boston University, in his 2003 book “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon,” “have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical 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.”

In fact, some criticisms of the First Vision accounts — and perhaps Prothero’s own sympathetic observation itself — reflect simple logical error. For example, if the 1832 account mentions Jesus only, that doesn’t mean — contrary to certain critics — that the Father didn’t appear. And if an account describes a “vision of angels,” that’s entirely compatible with a vision of the Father and the Son also. (In fact, the Lord himself is sometimes referred to, biblically, as an angel.) As a parallel, if I say that I met Frank at the party, I’m not thereby denying that I also met John. And, for that matter, Jane, Bob, Ellen and Stan, as well.

The official Gospel Topics essay on the subject from the LDS Church (and online at lds.org) titled "First Vision Accounts" provides a judicious and historically informed perspective:

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“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. 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.”

For further information and references on this issue, see the Gospel Topics essay titled “First Vision Accounts” on lds.org) and also FairMormon’s “Response to 'Letter to a CES Director: First Vision Concerns & Questions'" online at fairmormon.org.