Why Are There Multiple Accounts of the First Vision and What Can We Learn from Them?
Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer
- When an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details.
“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.” —Steve Harper, BYU Church history professor
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove.
Seek Clarity and Understanding in Each Account
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.”
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.”
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.’”
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.”