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Did Joseph Smith Forget his Age when he Saw God? Evidently.

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In the 1832 account, Joseph’s scribe Frederick G. Williams inserted a clause saying that Joseph was 15 when the vision came, whereas his 1835 and 1842 accounts as well as an 1843 secondary account all say “about 14” and his 1838 account says “in my fifteenth year”, or fourteen years old.

Those are historical facts. They are not disputed by well-informed individuals. It is the decision about what they mean–how the facts should be interpreted–that is continually being contested in books and articles, online, and in the hearts and minds of partisans and seekers. There are sound, intelligible reasons why we might expect Joseph’s accounts to vary. It is not good seeking to conclude based on nothing more than assumptions that the variations should be interpreted to mean that Joseph was not trustworthy. The limits of communication and the dynamics of memory contributed to the variety in the accounts. Seekers will at least want to be open to these and all other possibilities.

Those who trust Joseph tend to interpret faithfully the historical facts he left us, whereas those who distrust him interpret them skeptically. Skeptics who begin with certainty that the vision never happened as joseph said it did are unwilling to explore the variety of possibilities that the historical documents offer. Believers who are unwilling to examine all of the evidence prevent themselves from fuller understanding and appreciation of Joseph’s experience and are often unaware that they may have unfounded assumptions masquerading as testimony. Ironically, this unexamined sense of certainty makes their faith vulnerable. For some, the unfounded part of their testimony will crumble when eroded by the evidence, leaving them wondering whether any part of their formerly certain knowledge was true after all.

Seekers discern the difference between historical facts that others can verify and interpretations of those facts that are specific to subjective interpreters. And seekers discern the difference between what is assumed and what is known. Some assume that we have access to all Joseph said or wrote. We do not, but even if we did, it would not be sound to assume that it would represent that all he experienced. We have the equivalent of a few puzzle pieces and are not able yet to discern exactly how the completed puzzle will look. Seekers would rather acknowledge the missing pieces and actively, if patiently, search for them than pretend to know what they must look like.

Another LDS historian has said about this subject: “The question of the dating of the First Vision is an issue that lends credence to Joseph Smith’s claims, rather than undermining them. In the criticism of others, it has been pointed out that Joseph Smith was not consistent in the dates he assigned to this first experience: in the 1832 document it was in his “16th year,” in the 1835 recital he was “about 14 years old,” and the 1834 version was a mass of precision and ambiguity: “in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty . . . in my fifteenth year . . . between fourteen and fifteen years old or thereabouts . . . a little over fourteen years of age.” If Joseph Smith had been dictating a contrived “improvisation” to the dupes who were acting as his scribes, it would have been no problem for such a charlatan to select an arbitrary date for the First Vision and then stick to it. This would especially be no problem for a young man who (according to the Tanners) had been able to dictate the convoluted narrative of the fictionalized Book of Mormon. On the contrary, the variations in dating indicate that here was a man trying to reconstruct events from his early life that he originally regarded as of significance to himself alone, but now have become of interest to people who are his followers and curious inquisitors…

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  1. Jonathan Wilcock Reply

    The handwriting in the insertion does not even appear to be in Joseph’s handwriting. Andrew Hedges at BYU said that the hanwriting is Fredrick G. Williams’. That would mean that Williams inserted the year, which makes the fact that it’s the wrong year even more understandable.

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