Have the LDS views of the First Vision changed over time?
Evolution of First Vision
Book of Mormon Teachings on God vs Later Scriptures
In 2002, LDS President Gordon B Hinckley, speaking of the first vision, stated "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. If it did, then it is the most wonderful and important work under the heavens." (Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 7, 2002, pages A1 & A6)
This quote illustrates the prime importance that the first vision holds for the LDS church today, but this does not seem to have always been the case.
The Mormon church was incorporated in 1830, the same year as the publication of the book of Mormon. But the first vision wasn’t published in America until 1842, 22 years after it had supposedly taken place. And it wasn’t accepted by the church as official canon until 1880.
Mormon and non-Mormon historians alike have concluded that the First Vision did not appear to be an especially prominent part of Mormonism until the 1880’s, after the original leadership had died off.
Perhaps this is because the conflicting accounts of the first vision had created a little confusion. Between 1845 and 1883, Joseph Smith’s mother, brother, and at least 7 LDS presidents and apostles made statements indicating that Joseph was visited by an angel, not God or Jesus.
Most of these quotes come from official sermons in the Journal of Discourses. Strangely, some of the people who made these statements had, at other times, made statements that do line up with the official story.
This is significant because the church bases some of its key doctrines on the idea that God and Jesus did to Smith, including that God has a human body of flesh, and the anti-Trinitarian belief that God and Jesus are completely separate personages.
And here we have the probable reason why the exact account and importance of the First Vision changed over time, it is because these LDS views of God changed over time. The original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon contains verses that support the traditional Christian views of God, all of which contradict the current Mormon doctrines just described.
It wasn’t until the later scriptures were released: the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, that these traditional Christian beliefs, and the First Vision, morphed into the current Mormon doctrines concerning the nature of God.
Roughly 190 years later, any confusion that might have existed has gelled into a firm set of beliefs. And these beliefs rest so strongly on the veracity of the First Vision, that, as Gordon B Hinckley put it, if it didn’t happen, then the church is a fraud. Weigh those powerful words against the facts, and come check our references at www.ldsvideo.org.