What is the real story of Joseph Smith's First Vision?
General First Vision Info
Other Visions and 1834 Account
Problems Dating the Official Version
1832 Handwritten Version
The most well known account about Mormonism is probably the First Vision, wherein Joseph Smith received a message from heavenly personages when he went into the woods to pray about which religious denomination was correct.
Vision stories like Joseph Smith’s were apparently not uncommon in those days. Between 1815 and 1824, at least 4 different people living in the same area as Smith describe their own visions with elements later to be found in Smith’s first vision.
Incredibly, one account published in the very newspaper that the Smith family would have subscribed to stated that “every denomination of professing Christians had become extremely corrupt”, a major feature in Smith’s vision. Even Smith’s own father had numerous visions concerning religion.
Today there is an official version of the First Vision in LDS scripture, but a quick look at the different accounts given during Joseph Smith’s life shows that the story evolved over time.
Although the First Vision was supposed to have taken place in 1820, when Smith was 14, the account was not written down until 1832. In this account, the only one written in his own handwriting, Smith describes a meeting with Jesus in which the Lord expresses a general anger about the ungodliness of the world, and tells Joseph that he is forgiven of his sins.
Two years later, Oliver Cowdery, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, wrote an account in the official LDS publication regarding the origins of the church. In this version, in 1823, in Smith’s 17th year, Smith went into his bedroom to pray whether or not God even existed at all. An angel appeared to him telling him his sins were forgiven and then went on to describe the existence of the Golden Plates.
Obviously, this account, which Cowdery claimed Joseph Smith helped write, cannot be reconciled with the traditional first vision. Especially since Smith was not told about the Golden Plates until three years after the first vision.
The next one, dictated in 1835, had Joseph claming only have seen angels, but clearly distinguishing this First Vision from the later vision concerning the Golden Plates. When this diary entry was copied into the official History of the Church, all mention of the angels was omitted.
Finally, in 1838, Smith dictated the account which became church canon in the Pearl of Great Price. This time, he described himself being bound by an evil spirit, but then being set free by two beings who identified themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ. They then told him that all religious groups were corrupt and forbade him from joining any of them.
Further problems arise from the official version, most notably chronological inconsistencies concerning a massive revival in the area, where Smith was living at the time, Smith family religious activities, and the presence of certain individuals in town. By piecing together various details in the account, it would seem impossible that the First Vision could have occurred before 1825, two years after the Golden Plates vision.
Also, Smith claimed to have suffered persecution for telling people about his vision after it happened, but no record exists of him telling anybody until the 1830’s. And most revealing, no anti-Mormon literature even mentions the First Vision until 1843.
For what was ostensibly a very important event in Joseph Smith’s life, he seemed unable to keep even the most crucial details of his story consistent. LDS apologists chalk up these differences either to poetic license, innocent mistakes, or retooling the story for a particular audience. There’s more on the first vision at ldsvideo.org.