If Latter-day Saint missionaries have ever chatted with you about our faith, they’ve probably told you about the prophet, Joseph Smith, and the vision he had of God the Father and Jesus Christ in the Spring of 1820. We refer to this experience as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and you can read what Joseph Smith said about it in our scriptures.
But this recollection of the vision is not the only one. There are basically 4 First Vision accounts that Joseph either wrote himself or that were recorded by a scribe. But here’s the catch—while the gist of each record is essentially the same, there is some variation when it comes to the details. And to some believers (and non-believers) that’s a little concerning. If Joseph is telling the truth, shouldn’t every record of his First Vision be the same? Let’s take a look.
I think the non-Latter-day Saint author, Stephen Prothero, said it best:
The first record we have of the First Vision was written by Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams probably in the Summer of 1832, which would be like 12 years after the event actually happened. This leads me to an important point about Joseph Smith: He was not a fan of writing. He called it a “little narrow prison.” His own wife said he wasn’t good at it. Even most of Joseph Smith’s personal journal was written down by a scribe.
Anyways, the 1832 version is short. Frederick wrote that Joseph was 16 at the time. A pillar of fire or light rests upon him. Joseph is filled with the Spirit of God and wrote: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” The Lord forgives him of his sins and says the world has strayed from the gospel.
Next we have the 1835 account. This is an interesting one. A guy who introduces himself as Joshua the Jewish Minister meets with Joseph, and Joseph tells him about his vision. Meanwhile, Joseph’s scribe, Warren Parish, is writing everything down. In this retelling, Joseph says he’s “about fourteen years old” at the time of the vision. He talks about an encounter with evil he had just before the vision. Pillar of light. Two personages appear to him. Once again, his sins are forgiven. He is told that Jesus is the Christ, and he sees “many angels in this vision.”
Next we have the 1838 version: This is the one canonized in The Pearl of Great Price. It was written for a general audience, for the purpose of being published. He gives more detail in this account than any others. He talks about the encounter with evil, the pillar of light, God the Father and Jesus Christ, his sins are forgiven and he’s told the world has strayed from the gospel, but no mention of seeing any other angels in his vision.
The last version is from an 1842 letter to a newspaper editor named John Wentworth. We’re not sure if Joseph actually wrote this account but in any case, he signed off on it. We also know that this account borrows a lot of language used by an apostle named Orson Pratt in a pamphlet published about Joseph Smith in 1840 in Scotland. So it’s not wholly an original retelling.
In this version, he once again sees two personages, surrounded by brilliant light. He’s told not to join any church and that the fullness of the gospel would soon be revealed to him. He omits his encounter with evil here, doesn’t talk about other angels or his sins being forgiven.
If you want to read any of these different accounts, check out the links in the description. The Church has published all of them. Keep in mind though that there’s a difference between contradictions and omissions. For example, according to the 1832 account, Joseph was 15 or 16 years old. In other accounts, he’s 14. Obviously yes, that’s a contradiction, he can’t be 14 and 16 at the same time. Somebody is obviously mistaken there. But omissions are different. Just because Joseph talks about seeing angels in one account, but doesn’t mention them in another, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It just means he didn’t talk about them.
In the short 1832 account, this is up for debate but it appears Joseph only talks about seeing one personage: Jesus Christ. In the other accounts, he talks about two personages, God the Father and Jesus Christ. But just because he doesn’t mention God the Father in the 1832 account doesn’t mean God the Father wasn’t there. And considering God the Father’s minimal role in even the most detailed account, I’m not bothered Joseph doesn’t mention Him in the short 1832 account.
In the 1832 account, Joseph is worried about his sins. In the 1842 account, he’s worried about which church he’s going to join. So which is it? Well, the 1838 account harmonizes both of those motivations.
In summary, antagonists of Joseph Smith believe these differences are evidence that he made the whole thing up. And you’re certainly free to believe that if you wish. Personally, I agree with Professor Prothero: it’s much ado about nothing. I think this is just a case of a guy telling a multi-faceted and deeply personal story to different people, for different purposes, in different contexts, and in different decades.
Interestingly, as kind of a brief aside, we see the same kind of differences in the multiple accounts of Paul’s vision of the Savior on the road to Damascus. As contexts change, Paul presents his story slightly differently. And that’s fine! As Prothero said, it’s to be expected. If you want to dive deeper into Paul’s accounts I’ll leave a link in the description so you can do that. But the point is: If you don’t have a problem with Paul, you shouldn’t have a problem with Joseph.
- Analysis of Paul’s accounts of his vision: https://bit.ly/2MwvA8A
- The Church’s ‘Gospel Topics’ essay: https://bit.ly/2KzaRj9
- Read the 1832 account here: https://bit.ly/305JNgK
- Read the 1835 account here: https://bit.ly/2YSypIA
- Read the 1838 account here: https://bit.ly/2YLBHgx
- Read the 1842 account here: https://bit.ly/2H4s8OO
- If you want to dive deeper: https://bit.ly/2KO4rvr
- From our friend Steven Harper: https://bit.ly/2ZbZAgQ
- From our friend Jeff Roundy: https://bit.ly/2KyOdaE
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I am not worried that the Prophet Joseph Smith gave a number of versions of the first vision anymore than I am worried that there are four different writers of the gospels in the New Testament, each with his own perceptions, each telling the events to meet his own purpose for writing at the time.”
And President Hinckley brings up a good point. For example, bear with me here and take a look at the story of Christ’s empty tomb as it appears in each of the four gospels. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James go to the tomb. There’s an earthquake, one angel descends and rolls back the stone. The guards pass out. In Mark, Mary, Mary, and Salome go to the tomb. The stone is already rolled away. The angel is already chillin’ inside. And there’s no mention of guards or an earthquake. In Luke, it’s Mary, Mary, Joanna, and “other women” that go to the tomb. Stone is already rolled away and this time there are two angels. No guards, no earthquake. And in John, it’s just Mary who goes to the tomb. No angels, no guards, no earthquake.
All four accounts are VERY different, but that doesn’t really bother most Christians, because the message is the same: Jesus wasn’t in the tomb. We get it. Likewise, the accounts of the first vision vary a little bit, but I don’t think it’s a big deal, because the message is the same: Joseph Smith had a vision of the Savior, Jesus Christ.