LDS Discussions Blog
Why are there multiple accounts of the First Vision and what can we learn from them? A deeper look. (April 2, 2020)
The First Vision is arguably the most important event in the history of both Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism. We've covered this in multiple places previously, so if you want a more detailed explanation for the multiple accounts before reading our post here I highly recommend the following two pages:
-The official gospel topics essay on the First Vision with our annotated notes to discuss where the (anonymous) authors of the official church essay are not being fully forthcoming or ignoring the problems that scholars and critics have addressed.
-Our First Vision overview, which incorporates the gospel topics essay but also goes into more detail and (in my opinion) illustrates in a more straightforward way not just how Joseph Smith changes the First Vision accounts, but why he changed them.
On April 2, 2020, the church released an article in preparation for General Conference to cover the multiple First Vision accounts. To a large degree it is the same as the gospel topics essay released years ago, but it also really aims to explain why there are discrepancies in the different accounts in a way that keeps members from looking at what those discrepencies are.
Because of the articles I referenced above, I won't spend too much time here and will reference back to those articles as needed, but I wanted to respond to this article briefly to point out where it is being deceptive, and where it is trying to deflect very important points so that members do not study on their own.
On to the article titled, Why are there multiple accounts of the First Vision and what can we learn from them?:
An earnest study of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision reveals far more than historical retellings of the Restoration’s opening moment — it’s a personal, urgent call to action.
Each of Joseph’s four First Vision descriptions — written at different times for different audiences — “is an indication to all of us to become as a child and ask God, with unwavering faith, for forgiveness,” said Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy and assistant executive director of the Church History Department.
“Like Joseph, we can ask Him where truth can be found and if this Church is true.”
For Latter-day Saints, Elder McKay added, Joseph’s four First Vision accounts are much more than essential history. Each is a modern-day blessing and guide.
“Read the First Vision accounts and glean what you can learn from each one. They are all confirming. You will understand that the First Vision — although a significant part of our Church history — really started as a personal experience and a personal quest for forgiveness and salvation.”
Joseph Smith published two accounts of the First Vision during his lifetime. Two other accounts recorded by Joseph were published by the Church in the 1960s. Meanwhile, five secondhand accounts were written by Joseph’s contemporaries.
This is a fairly standard intro for the First Vision in the church, but you can see how they are setting up the deflections.
Note how they make sure to point out that they were "written at different times for different audiences" in order to preemptively explain why there are differences. The problem is that the 1832 and 1838 accounts were both written for the church, and yet they contain the most crucial and problematic difference: That Jesus and God were actually two separate beings.
So while the author wants members to nod along and be assured there's nothing to see here, the fact is that the two biggest accounts were written for the same audience and they are where we see the biggest problem. This is an intentional rhetorical move that we see in the other church materials that acknowledge the multiple First Vision accounts, and it is a dishonest approach to take.
Elder McKay also notes that the accounts are all confirming, which is also far from the truth. They are only confirming if you read through them quickly and don't look at why the consistencies are there. It is not just in the First Vision where Joseph Smith changes from a trinitarian/modalist view to a separation of Jesus and God. Joseph Smith is also changing the Book of Mormon and his sermons at this same time, which is why the change to the First Vision account is so important.
We have a longer timeline in the First Vision overview, but very briefly:
Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account only references one personage, which is consistent with the Book of Mormon and Bible
In 1832, Joseph Smith writes that the church teaches "the doctrine of the Trinity" in the Evening and Morning Star
Joseph Smith translated the Bible, and in Luke he actually strengthens the idea of the trinity: “All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it.”
The title page of the Book of Mormon states: "And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations"
This mindset does not change until 1835, when Joseph Smith first references the separation of God and Jesus in the Lectures on Faith. In this, Joseph Smith states: "They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory and power: possessing all perfection and fullness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made and fashioned like unto man."
From there we see the change in Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts, along with changes to the Book of Mormon, where Joseph Smith adds "son of" to mutliple references to God in 1 Nephi beginning with the 1837 printing. This now matches the 1838 First Vision account as we have it today, but there is a clear trail of Joseph's evolution of teaching here which does not match a person who saw both Jesus and God in 1820 in any possible way.
The last note here is that the article quickly states that "two other accounts recorded by Joseph were published by the church in the 1960s." The problem is that the 1832 account, which is the most troublesome for the church, was only published after the account was carefully cut out of Joseph's letterbook and stored in the church's vault to conceal it from members. Only after its existence leaked out did they tape it back in and hand it to a believing member to write about, acting as if nothing had happened in the interim. The church knew the 1832 account was a problem, and the only reason we know about it is because of a church leader who let it slip out during a talk with a member of the press.
Back to the article:
The Church celebrates the unifying message of the multiple First Vision accounts as part of its popular Gospel Topics Essays selections:
“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.”
We cover this in both our annotated gospel topics essay and our First Vision overview, but this is a very dishonest way to keep members from looking into these accounts beyond correlated materials.
The accounts do not tell a "consistent story" because they literally evolve from Jesus and God being one being to Jesus and God being separate beings. There is just nothing consistent about that considering that it is such a foundational event in church history. In addition, while historians do expect changes in emphasis and "unique details," there would be no expectation that the crowning detail would completely change.
This is such a nonsensical argument that is used by apologists, but the church routinely uses it because they know that it is their best chance is to keep members from looking past correlated materials. It took me a decade after I knew the church was not true to fully dive in, because I was terrified of what I might find and what they might mean for me and my family. So imagine a believing member who has doubts and reads this - it might be enough to keep them from looking further because they have trusted church leaders as authorities who would never deceive them. The problem, just as we learn throughout history, is that leaders will often lie to keep those who are elevating them in line. Back to the article:
There is scriptural precedent for such variations. Consider the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration.
“Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication,” the essay notes. “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.”
A couple of quick points here, because this is another point often used:
1. Joseph Smith changes the biggest detail in the entire story - that he saw one personage in 1832 to seeing both God and Jesus in 1838. That's not a small detail, and you simply would not forget that a decade later. Furthermore, why would God allow Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon or strengthen the New Testament translation with a trinitarian/modalistic view if that was not correct? It is willfully dishonest to claim otherwise, and there are other details that change which are significant as well, but this one is just simply unforgettable.
2. The gospels were written many decades after the events took place and were not written by the actual apostles, so of course the details might vary as their story had been retold for 65-110 years before being written down. Most members do not understand that the New Testament gospels were written long after Jesus' death. The most accepted estimate of when they were written are Mark in about AD 65-70, Matthew and Luke AD 85-90, and John AD 90-110. They were written by anonymous authors who were compiling the oral history of Jesus' life, with Matthew and Luke using Mark's gospel as the foundation to build upon, and John's gospel being completely separate (and likely the least historical of the four gospels given what we do know about them). Please read biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman or David Bokovoy to look at how biblical scholarship gives us such great insight into how the gospels were produced and what that tells us about the Book of Mormon.
3. It is generally believed by scholars that the author of Luke also wrote Acts, which means that the author of Acts was retelling Paul's vision, not Paul himself. The difference is that what we have from Joseph Smith is from Joseph Smith, and not from an anonymous author writing down his story 70-90 years later. In other words, this comparison is just a nonstarter, but it's used by apologists to brush away legitimate concerns in Joseph's changing story.
Back to the article:
Links to each of the First Vision accounts, along with detailed summaries, are found in the essay:
The 1832 Account is the earliest known account of the First Vision and “the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand.”
The 1835 Account is Joseph’s recounting of his theophany to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio.
Perhaps the most familiar narration of the First Vision is found in the 1838 Account that focuses on young Joseph’s prayerful question about which church is right (Joseph Smith-History 1:5-20).
The commonly called “Wentworth Letter” included Joseph Smith’s 1842 Account. It was primarily intended for audiences unfamiliar with the Church and its guiding beliefs.
Meanwhile, five secondhand accounts were authored by a few of Joseph’s contemporaries who had heard the Prophet speak about the First Vision. Seek clarity and understanding in each account
For these I highly recommend that readers check out our First Vision overview page (will open in a new tab). We cover the differences quickly and only cover big ones, but we look at why Joseph Smith made the changes in greater detail, which is so important to understanding the changes themselves.
I won't repost them all here (we briefly covered them above), but the change to the godhead can be seen in revisions to the Book of Mormon along with evolutions in his sermons/teachings leading up to the changes in 1835 that culminate with the 1838 First Vision account. Back to the article:
Anyone studying the multiple First Vision accounts can follow Joseph Smith’s example by prayerfully seeking divine clarity and understanding, said Elder McKay.
“And just as it did with Joseph, God’s light and His intelligence and His glory will descend gradually upon us, and we will have knowledge and truth and understanding. We will come to see and comprehend the Father and the Son.”
In a “Joseph Smith Papers” podcast, BYU Church history professor Steve Harper acknowledged that the First Vision revealed that God and Christ are separate and embodied. That’s important.
“The real resonance of the First Vision today is to know that it’s the nature of God to give to those who lack wisdom, to answer those who are in distress, to come to the aid of His children who are desperately needing reassurance of His love, and that they’re not cast off because of their sinfulness.
“God is responsive. God isn’t cold, heartless. The God that reveals Himself to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove is a God who answers teenagers in times of trouble.”
I just want to look at one line here attributed to BYU historian Steve Harper: "BYU Church history professor Steve Harper acknowledged that the First Vision revealed that God and Christ are separate and embodied. That’s important."
This is simply not true. The 1832 First Vision, which is the only one written by Joseph Smith himself, talks of one personage which matches Joseph Smith's (and the Book of Mormon's) teachings at the time. What the church is saying here is flat out, 100% untrue. They know it's a lie, because they have access to the same information that we do, and yet the repeat it because they know full well that if members begin realizing that Joseph Smith changed the godhead 15 years after the First Vision supposedly happened, everything else falls apart.
I will say this again in the nicest way I can: The church is flat out lying here, and they are doing so without even posting the 1832 First Vision details because they know they are lying to you. If this makes you uncomfortable, please read our First Vision overview where we detail the change Joseph Smith made not just to the First Vision account, but to the Book of Mormon and other teachings as well - this is well detailed and not just a one-off slip of the tongue, and the church absolutely knows it.
Back to the article:
Each of the multiple First Vision accounts provides different perspectives and was articulated to a different audience. And, yes, there are inconsistencies in the narratives.
But such anomalies need not be troubling, said Elder McKay, pointing to multiple versions of his own personal conversion experience that have shaped his knowledge — both retrospectively and prospectively.
“It was such a profound experience that I made a contemporaneous record of it in 1979.”
Twelve years later, in 1991, he recorded his experience again. Thirteen years passed, and he recorded it once again in 2004. Then in 2019, he recorded his personal experience for the fourth time.
“So just like Joseph Smith’s First Vision, I have four written accounts that I have created of my own first foundational experience. They differ, and there are inconsistencies — and the 1991 and 2004 accounts have historical errors. And yet it happened. I was there.”
This is another strawman argument. There are many inconsistencies in the First Vision accounts that any reasonable person would not get worked up over - that's not the point. The point is that Joseph Smith changed some of the most important elements of the story including seeing just one figure versus seeing a separated God and Jesus. You simply do not forget that.
I could write-down my experience meeting celebrities at an event I worked at 25 years ago as a teenager, which at the time was one of the coolest weekends I ever had. There will absolutely be details that are not correct, but I would not mistake who I met that day. Elder McKay is creating a 'study' in order to prove no one could get the details right later on, which is absolutely the worst way to prove a hypothesis. What Elder McKay is teaching here is confirmation bias - if you want something to be true, you can just create a "test" that you know you'll fail to prove your preexisting belief right.
I don't know what else to say - we are not talking about small details here. To quote the amazing movie Office Space, when Michael messes up their scheme to slowly siphon off money over a long period time, he calls it a "mundane detail" as the group goes into full panic over the problem they are facing.
Michael: "I must've put a decimal point in the wrong place or something... I always do that. I always mess up some mundane detail."
Peter: "Oh! Well, this is not a mundane detail, Michael!"
And while I am focusing on Joseph Smith changing the godhead in his First Vision accounts today, please note there are other significant changes including that Joseph Smith claimed in 1832 he already knew the other churches were not true, but in 1838 he changes that to praying to know which is true. That might seem small on a quick read, but Joseph not only changes the godhead, but the entire reason he went out to pray in the first place. Those are significant discrepancies, and the fact that we can trace the evolution of these changes gives us a great insight into why he changed them and what he was seeking to accomplish. We detail this in the priesthood restoration timeline, which is very similar in how Joseph Smith retrofits details into the revelations in order to change his evolving teachings.
The church wants you to believe that every inconsistency is small and unimportant, but the biggest difference is literally the crowning event in the entire history of the church. Elder McKay knows this, Steve Harper knows this, and the author of this article knows that. They are intentionally deceiving members, and calling it anything less is not being honest with you. They are not idiots - they know exactly what they are doing in the gospel topics essays, in their "now you know" videos, and in articles like this one. Back to the article:
Others might ask why Joseph Smith did not create a record of an event as momentous as the First Vision until 12 years after its occurrence.
Consider the many dramatic events in young Joseph’s life that were not recorded until 1832: Almost losing his leg as a child. Moroni’s visit. Joseph’s courtship and marriage of Emma Smith. The death of their first four children.
“Joseph did not make any sort of historical record,” said Elder McKay, “until the Lord gave him the commandment: ‘There shall be a record kept among you.’”
This is another common response to issues with church history: Because Joseph Smith did not write anything down early on, it means that we can't question it's validity. But just as we outlined above, the problem goes well beyond that.
Why didn't Joseph Smith did tell anyone else about the First Vision? We outline that again in our overview, but the fact is that these kinds of visions were common in his day, yet he still never told anyone in the church about it for over a decade.
This is so dishonest I can not believe in the year 2020 they are still using it when a quick Google search reveals just how blatantly dishonest they are being. Just because Joseph Smith didn't personally write it down doesn't mean he wouldn't have been teaching such an important event - witnesses that God and Jesus were separate beings would have been the most important event in the history of man since Jesus' death.
Instead Joseph Smith taught a trinitarian/modalistic view in the Book of Mormon, in revelations, and in his sermons. Joseph Smith believed they were one until he changed around 1835. This is something we show in our overview by looking at how his teachings evolved, and what we summarized above.
So the biggest question I would ask the church is this: If Joseph Smith saw both Jesus and God as he claimed, why in the world was he teaching to his church that they were one? Was he lying to members about what he saw then or was he lying to members after he made the change? No reasonable person would argue that Joseph Smith could confuse seeing both God and Jesus separately, which is made even more clear by the church cutting the 1832 account out of the letterbook until word of its existence leaked out.
Keep in mind that Joseph Smith claimed this event happened in 1820 (or around then depending on the account), and yet this did not appear in any church materials until 1842. This event was not mentioned in Joseph Smith's early teachings, the 1830 Book of Commandments, the Doctrine and Covenants, or any missionary materials. No one had any idea this event happened until Joseph Smith began talking about it in the late 1830s when he wanted a scribe to take account of Joseph Smith's life.
And in another coincidence, many people in Joseph Smith's area claimed these visions around this time. LDS historian Richard Bushman counted dozens of these accounts, and we even noted in our Saints review how Solomon Chamberlin visited the Smith family in 1829 and told them about his miraculous vision experience. Just look at this amazing recollection from John Taylor:
"Dissatisfied with the religions he had tried, Chamberlain prayed for further guidance, and in 1816, according to his account, "the Lord revealed to me in a vision of the night an angel," whom Chamberlain asked about the right way. The angel told him that the churches were corrupt and that God would soon raise up an apostolic church. Chamberlain printed up an account of his visions and was still distributing them and looking for the apostolic church when he stopped in Palmyra." (John Taylor, Nauvoo Journal, Jan-Sept 1845, BYU Studies 23 no.3, p.45. Referring to A Sketch of the Experience of Solomon Chamberlin, Lyons, New York, 1829)
This is a massive problem for Joseph Smith's credibility, which is why the church leans so heavily on the fact that Joseph Smith did not write about other things at the time to avoid the evidence we do have. The problem is that those other things the articles references were known about - Moroni's visit was talked about, the death of their children was well known, and his marriage to Emma and disapproval from Emma's father was obviously no secret. I hope I am making it quite clear how ridiculous of an argument this is, and how obvious it would be to any church historian to know how flimsy and deceptive it is, especially at a time when we can research this information on Google so easily.
The final part of the article:
As a disciple, Elder McKay’s own decades-long study of the accounts of the First Vision has blessed him with “an appreciation for Joseph Smith’s mindset and his heartset when he entered that grove.”
Just making it to what is now known as the Sacred Grove marked young Joseph’s victory over doubt and uncertainty.
“Joseph didn’t enter the grove out of curiosity — he entered the grove with unwavering faith.”
This church article is very short, and for good reason: If they made it much longer they would have to back up their claims with actual evidence using the text of the changes, Joseph Smith's teachings, or contemporary accounts they he never spoke of it for well over a decade.
I am no longer a believing member, but I am still a member of record. Since I began researching the church about two years ago, I have been floored to find out that the church history I was taught as a convert is not only untrue, but even the church's own documentation shows the narrative is impossibly wrong.
This entire article is a setup to inoculate members from looking deeper into the First Vision, and it's so frustrating that I have loved ones that will read it and nod along, because they don't know what else is out there. The church does a great job of making members afraid to look, and using our own cognitive dissonance against us by labeling that uncomfortable feeling as "the adversary."
But the reality is that if this church is true, you have NOTHING to fear by reading our research on this website. If the church is true, you should be able to have these discussions with those who have left without feeling uncomfortable, because if the church is true you have nothing to fear.
As Apostle James Talmage said, "The man who cannot listen to an argument which opposes his views either has a weak position or is a weak defender of it. No opinion that cannot stand discussion or criticism is worth holding." It's interesting how the church never speaks this way now that the internet has given us all such easy access to uncorrelated materials.
This article really hits home for me because the church is celebrating the 200th anniversary of an event that almost certainly never happened in any way, and historically couldn't have happened in 1820 in the first place. As we discuss in more detail in our overview, the revivalist movement in Joseph Smith's area didn't occur until 1824, which is a huge problem considering that Joseph claimed to see Moroni in 1823. The timeline simply can not be reconciled, which is again why the church makes bold declarations without addressing the evidence against them.
It gets messy when you get into it, which is why the church works so much harder to keep members from looking than they do in teaching the members the true and full history of the church. And at the end of the day, that tells me all I need to know about the confidence the leaders have in their own truth claims.
To leave the article with a positive note: I am glad that the church references the gospel topics essay. Most members do not even know these essays exist, and while the First Vision essay leaves a lot of key facts out, I wish all members would read these essays and follow the footnotes, because the footnotes often times reveal a lot of damaging information about the church's truth claims that they would rather not be seen. I'm also glad they ask members to read the different First Vision accounts, even if they tell them *how* to read them by deflecting the problems away and framing why changes happen before the members read them.
The problem, of course, is that we're in the year 2020 and the church is still blatantly misleading members on their own history, telling them what their emotions mean, and demonizing those who actually do research these issues further than the correlated materials allow. The First Vision is far from the biggest problem for Mormon truth claims, but given our ability to outline how Joseph Smith created and retrofitted this integral event, it is a giant red flag for the truth claims of the church both then and now.
I hope everyone who made it this far will check out our other writings, because the First Vision really is not even in the top five or ten of problems with Mormon truth claims. It is incredibly difficult to give ourselves permission to look, but once you do everything begins to make a lot more sense, and all of those questions you've "put on the shelf" all those years will be answered.