Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [first] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.
Four Different Accounts
There are at least 4 different first vision accounts by Joseph Smith, which the Church admits in its November 2013 First Vision Accounts essay:
In the only handwritten account by Joseph Smith, penned in 1832, but not publicly published until much later, describes the first vision in an unfamiliar way:
...and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of fire 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...
- No mention of two beings.
- 12 years after the vision happened.
- Age is 15-years-old (“16th year of my age”), not 14-years-old.
- No reference to asking the question about which church he should join.
- No description of being attacked by Satan.
In the 1832 account, Joseph wrote that before praying he knew there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness for his sins.
...by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ...
In the official 1838 account, however, Joseph wrote:
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join"..."(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).
This is in direct contradiction to his 1832 first vision account.
No one - including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about the first vision from twelve to twenty-two years after it supposedly occurred. The first and earliest written account of the first vision in Joseph Smith’s journal was 12 years after the spring of 1820. There is absolutely no record of any claimed “first vision” prior to this 1832 account.
Despite the emphasis placed on it now, the first vision does not appear to have been widely taught to members of the Church until the 1840s, more than a decade after the Church was founded, and 20 years after it allegedly occurred.
James B. Allen, former BYU Professor and Assistant Church Historian explains:
There is little if any evidence, however, that by the early 1830’s Joseph Smith was telling the story in public. At least if he were telling it, no one seemed to consider it important enough to have recorded it at the time, and no one was criticizing him for it. Not even in his own history did Joseph Smith mention being criticized in this period for telling the story of the first vision...The fact that none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision is convincing evidence that at best it received only limited circulation in those early days.
- Who appears to him? Depending upon the account, a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels or the Father and the Son appear to him – are all over the place.
- The dates/his ages: The 1832 account states Joseph was 15-years-old while the other accounts state he was 14-years-old when he had the vision.
- The reason or motive for seeking divine help – Bible reading and conviction of sins, a revival, a desire to know if God exists, wanting to know which church to join – are not reported the same in each account.
Contrary to Joseph’s account, the historical record shows that there was no revival in Palmyra, New York in 1820. FairMormon concedes:
While these revivals did not occur in Palmyra itself, their mention in the local newspaper would have given Joseph Smith the sense that there was substantial revival activity in the region.
- Why did Joseph hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead, as shown previously with the Book of Mormon, if he clearly saw that the Father and Son were separate embodied beings in the official first vision?
As with the rock in the hat story, I did not know there are multiple first vision accounts. I did not know of their contradictions or that the Church members did not know about a first vision until 12-22 years after it supposedly happened. I was unaware of these omissions in the mission field, as I was never taught or trained in the Missionary Training Center to teach investigators these facts.