The legitimacy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints relies especially upon the reality that Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ in what is referred to as the “First Vision”. In the official Joseph Smith History as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph summarizes the activities leading up to this transformative event. His description includes a summary of the religious excitement in upstate New York, his age as being 14 (15th year), his desire to know which church was true, his interest in the Methodist sect, and his study of the New Testament which lead him to James 1:5 which states:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
In the spring of 1820 Joseph explains that he retired to a place near his home and offered a petition to God to know which Church is true. In the official version he explains that during this petition he is overcome by an evil influence which attempted to prevent his prayer. He explains that he nearly cedes to this influence and fully expects destruction. However, in the final moment of despair he is rescued by the appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ, as two distinct personages. Once he collects his thoughts, he asks which church is true, and he is told that none of them are true. He is told that he must not join any church, for he was called as a prophet to restore a true church to the Earth.
As a missionary for the LDS church, I told this story many times. During each telling I was moved by the significance of this event. Knowing this vision occurred, gave me assurance that God exists, and that Jesus Christ is my Savior. I was certain that the events transpired just has Joseph explained.
Recently, the LDS church has provided more information regarding this sacred event. In the Gospel Topic Essay entitled “First Vision Accounts” the Church provides other written versions of this vision. What is surprising; however, is to learn how these other accounts vary quite dramatically from the official version. The church provides an explanation for these differences, but I question the completeness of this explanation.
There are four first-hand accounts written or told by Joseph Smith. The first was written in 1832, over 12 years after the vision occurred. This version was written by Joseph Smith in his personal journal. He opens the journal by stating: “A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr. an account”. From this opening sentence I believe we are to understand that this record should be considered official in its capacity.
Joseph begins by explaining the nature and size of his family as well as his limited education. He continues by explaining that at the age of 12, he began to have serious concerns regarding his eternal welfare and the nature of religions at this time. This would seem reasonable, considering the activities occurring in what is referred to as the “Burned Over District“. Joseph continues, by explaining that he had “become excedingly [sic] distressed for [he had] become convicted of [his] sins and by searching the scriptures [he] found that mand <mankind> [sic] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised [sic] from the true and liveing [sic] faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”
With this belief that all churches had apostatized from gospel as recorded in the New Testament, Joseph resolved to pray to the Lord for forgiveness and enlightenment. He states:
Therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller [sic] 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 [sic] for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.
The first vision described in 1832 is quite different than the official version found in the Pearl of Great Price. Why is the version which also could be considered official so different? Joseph wrote this version with his own hand. It was 1832, 6 years closer to the event than the version in the PoGP.
Below is a list of some of the key differences:
- Joseph only mentions “the Lord”, as opposed to 2 personages
- Joseph indicates that his age was 15 instead of 14 (his age was written by Frederick G Williams, an official secretary to Joseph Smith)
- Joseph clarifies that his primary purpose was to receive a forgiveness of his sins as he already knew all the churches had apostatized
- Joseph did not describe an attack by an evil force
- While Joseph indicated that he had been studying the scriptures, no mention of James 1:5 was given
Are these differences significant? Why would there be such a difference? Why is the first official record of this most important event not written until 1832? Interestingly enough some of the details correspond very closely to Mormon 1:15 where Mormon states:
15 And I, being fifteen years of age and being somewhat of a sober mind, therefore I was visited of the Lord, and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus.
How is it that both Joseph and Mormon had nearly the same experience, at the same age of 15? Both were ultimately given plates from which to summarize the history of the Nephites and Lamanites as well. Is there a parallel in their stories that must be considered? I ponder greatly upon these questions.