On this website we have already looked at some of the possible origins of “First Vision”.  The LDS Church recently posted a defense of the different contradictory accounts Joseph Smith gave at different times.  The Mormon Disclosures blog did an overview of the problems with their approach:

Gordon B. Hinckley taught the First Vision of Joseph Smith is “the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.”
(Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 227, emphasis added.)

In other words by Hinckley:  “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church.” (General Conference, Oct 2002)

The LDS Church recently put out a new article in its Topic section to address critical analysis of the multiple First Vision accounts written and published by Joseph Smith.  In the rebuttal Topic article, they have made a few claims which will be addressed below.

Consistent Story

Claim:  “The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail.”

Generally, the article argues the consistency is found in that “Joseph Smith testified repeatedly that he experienced a remarkable vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.“  And that: “A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. “

Here are the words from the actual accounts.

1832 version:  “I saw the Lord”

1835 version: “a personage appeard in the midst…another personage soon appeard like unto the first…and I saw many angels in this vision” (sic)

1838 version:  “I saw two personages… One of them spake unto me calling me by name and said ‘This is my beloved Son, Hear him.’ “ (sic)

1842 version: “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other”

The number of personages, the angels and events surrounding his first vision change (see the table below).  A more consistent thread through the versions is that he never actually names the personage(s) appearing. The claim that Joseph Smith testified specifically that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him is not founded in his own words.  He repeatedly said “personages”. Only in the 1832 account did he say the being was “the Lord”. Never did he say “God”.  In the 1838 version, he stated that one of the personages was a “Son” using the phrase found in the gospels when Jesus was baptized, implying that the personage was Jesus Christ.  Other LDS leaders taught that the personages were in fact God the Father and Jesus Christ.  Why wouldn’t Joseph Smith have clearly taught this?  Given that he named Moroni specifically in his 1823 and subsequent visions, it stands to reason he would have named God and Jesus.  One could possibly mistake the idea of a father and son vision for Mormon and Moroni.

It’s important to note that earlier accounts refer to an angel, a spirit, many angels, or the Lord. The story in its present form with the Father and the Son, did not appear until 1838.  Why did it take 18 years before Joseph Smith finally implied that the Father and the Son appeared to him?

Version Sins Forgiven Personages Pillar of Fire Angel(s) Beings named Told No True Church
1832 Yes 1 No 0 “the Lord” Yes
1835 Yes 2 Yes Hosts No No
1838 Yes 2 No 0 “Son” Yes
1842 No 2 Light only 0 No Yes
1835** No 0 No Angels No No

**The Topic article fails to mention that Joseph Smith wrote about his First Vision a second time in 1835, found athttp://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/journal-1835-1836?p=38.

It’s also interesting to note that the version found in the Pearl of Great Price was edited over three times (seehttp://josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision   firsthand items 4-6) before it was finally edited a fourth time and published in theTimes and Season, March 15, 1842, vol. 3, no. 10, pp. 727-728, 748-749, 753.  Joseph Smith worked on perfecting his account over many years.

The variations and differences are explained by the LDS Church in the Topic article by increasing insight and by emphasis on different aspects.

Increasing Insight

Claim: “Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience.”

That Joseph Smith increased his insights into his own vision over time, based on further experience is undermined by the change in his central claims in the early and later versions.  He named the one personage “the Lord” in the 1832 version and later did not name him again.  The motivation for inquiring in prayer and his answer that he should join no church changed considerably between the versions.  What is really changing, over time, is Joseph Smith’s claim on divine right.  The general progression is from lower claims of divinity to more and more grandeur claims of direct connection to God.  As his followers believed in his claims, he strengthen the divine nature and increased the embellishment in his accounts.

Changing Emphasis & Memory

Claim: “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.”

Emphasizing different aspects is one thing. Contradicting statements between versions are another.

Besides the changing number of beings and angels, besides the changing conditions of pillars or light, of being forgiven or not, there are a few contradictory points found in the various accounts.  One of those, the revival of the 1820s has been noted in the Topic article.  There are several others.  For example, his study of apostasy and his claims of persecution.

Apostasy or not?

In the 1832 account, Joseph wrote:

“by searching the scriptures I found  that mankind  did not come unto the Lord but that  they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith” (sic)

In the 1838 account, he wrote:

“for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.”

Persecution or not?

In the official version Joseph claims he was persecuted by all the churches in his area “because I continued to affirm I had seen a vision.”  However, Orsemus Turner, an apprentice printer in Palmyra until 1822, was in the same juvenile debating club with Joseph Smith. He recalled that Joseph “after catching a spark of Methodism …became a very passable exhorter in evening meetings” (History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, 1851, p. 214). Thus, instead of being opposed and persecuted as his 1838 account claims, young Joseph was welcomed and allowed to exhort during the Methodist’s evening preaching. Furthermore, no one, either Mormon or non-Mormon, seems ever to have heard of Joseph’s encounter with two divine Personages until the 1830s. (See this admission in Dialogue, Autumn 1966, pp. 30-31; Saints Herald, June 29, 1959, pg. 21.)It’s hard to be persecuted at the time when you don’t even disclose the event for another decade.

Confusion or creative license? 
Any 14 year old boy who studied the bible regularly, who had received a vision of God and Jesus would not get as confused as Joseph Smith seems to have become.

His shifting emphasis included remembering new phrases like “this is my Son” almost 18 years after the event.   How bad of a memory or shifting of emphasis must one have that when exactly two shining “personages” appear to you, and one says “This is my beloved Son, hear him” that you mistake it for a single personage, then an angel, and then a chorus of angels, then God the Father and Jesus?

This is like saying “I had lunch with a White House intern the other day. No, wait, it was all of the White House interns. No wait, it was the Vice President. No wait, it was the President who introduced me to the Vice President by name and told me he loved me.”

Joseph Smith’s mother said about her son, “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith The Prophet, Lucy Mack Smith).

Joseph had a propensity to imagination and stories.  Could the evolving emphasis, contradictions and differences be more about creativity than the Creator?

Faith, Not Fact

Claim: “Neither the truth of the First Vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone.”How does the LDS Church expect members to find absolute truth?  Through inexact feelings.  “Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true. If the seeker asks with the real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest.”

The LDS Church prefers that you use feelings of faith to accept and believe the First Vision, and that you not analyze the various accounts using logic and rational thinking alone.   If we apply this same advice to other events in history, then it opens a conundrum.

Joseph Smith’s claim that “I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” is not all that different than the claim made by prophets in other world religions.  If Mormons are to ignore historical issues and pray about the truth of Joseph Smith’s Vision, then they should acknowledge the Muslims who’ve pray aboutMuhammad’s First Revelation when the angel Gabriel visited him and revealed a verse in the Quran.  If Mormons are to dismiss inconsistencies in Smith’s accounts, then they should likewise ignore the issues in Scientology of soul discovery, E-meters, auditing and more; and study determinedly about the truthfulness of Hubbard’s religion.  If LDS members accept Joseph Smith’s increasing divine claims in his accounts, they should open their hearts to miraculous claims by the millions following recently deceased mystic Sathya Sai Baba.  When one primarily uses feelings to overcome historical inconsistencies and logical flaws, then one either holds to personal biases to remain faithful, or opens oneself to believing all kinds of diverse and strange claims.The LDS Church prefers you rely on feelings they define for you.  Feelings are more easily manipulated than facts. They’ve had over a century to correct the facts, and they still can’t quite spin them right.