Response: Joseph Smith did provide various accounts, but they are not inconsistent and the reasons for the differences make sense.
Professionals who are experienced in interviewing eye-witnesses will tell you that authentic eye-witnesses typically do not share all or even most of the facts surrounding what they have seen the first time they recount the experience. Nor do they tell the story exactly the same way each time. In fact, when eye-witnesses repeat a story in exactly the same way, it is usually because they have rehearsed it. It frequently takes hours of interviewing before all the details come out. When it comes to sharing spiritual experiences, the tendency to have additional details come out over time is even more pronounced. There are many reasons for this, and each of them could apply to Joseph Smith’s differing accounts of the First Vision:
1) Eye-witnesses will consider the audience and will usually provide only those details that are appropriate for the audience. For example, Joseph Smith wrote his l832 account in his personal journal, suggesting that he was writing reflectively and did not have a larger audience in mind.
On the other hand, his 1838 account was intended for publication so that all seekers of truth “could be in possession of the facts.” Think of how you would share your most personal spiritual experiences with your family members, for example, and compare that to how you would share the same experience with a larger audience.
2) Eye-witnesses will consider the point(s) being made and will usually only provide information germane to that point. If the witness wants to make another point using the same experience, different details frequently emerge. Joseph initially processed his first vision as a personal experience in which he received a forgiveness of sins, and this is how he told the story. Later versions were intended to make other doctrinal points and are told accordingly.
[First Vision Depiction]
3) Eye-witnesses will generally process the experience according to their larger understanding of what happened. As the understanding of the event evolves, details that seemed less important become more important, and information that was not explained earlier will come out to reflect the witness’ enlarged understanding. This was particularly true for Joseph Smith, who understood considerably more about God, his nature and his purposes at the end of his life than he did in 1820 or even in 1838.
[Close-up on 2 Personages]
For example, as a youth, Joseph said he saw two personages, but does that mean he understood at that time that the personage of the Father was composed of flesh and bones? Probably not. That understanding did not come until many years later. It would be surprising if Joseph had not shared new details and emphasized different aspects of the experience as his understanding expanded.
4) People who have spiritual experiences often feel constrained by the Spirit about what and how to share the knowledge they have gained, if at all. Joseph Smith once said: “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.” (TPJS, p. 305).
In a revelation received in August 1831, Joseph Smith was instructed:
“Remember, that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constrait of the spirit” (D&C 63:64). In the case of the First Vision, we do not know how much Joseph was allowed to share initially. One would normally expect Joseph to share more details after he was authorized to explain more to the Church.
5) People frequently feel that they simply do not have the language or the ability to fully explain what they have experienced. Late in his life, Joseph said: “It is my meditation all the day & more than my meat & drink to know how I shall make the saints of God to comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge, before my mind” (WJS, p. 196). Sometimes, words simply do not do justice to the experience and it takes time to try to capture the experience in language.
[1838 Account, pg 3, line 22]
In the case of the First Vision, even the 1838 version explains that the experience “defies all description.”
6) In recounting any experience, individuals have to rely on personal memory. When individuals share events from their past, what comes into their mind will generally be different each time the event is recounted, thus providing additional or various details with each rehearsal.
Joseph Smith’s first vision may be the best documented theophany in history. In the 1830s and 1840s Joseph wrote or cased scribes to write five known accounts declaring that the Lord opened the heavens upon him. Four of these five documents were later copied at least once, sometimes more, resulting in revisions each time. Five other known writers documented the event during Joseph’s lifetime. Scholars would be thrilled to have that much primary and secondary documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, or Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.
Joseph Smith worked hard to document his experience in the grove, and scholars have worked hard to raise awareness of his several accounts. The Church and various scholars have published and publicized these documents repeatedly for half a century now. Images of the documents containing the primary accounts are in the Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The accounts are being published again and put online as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (josephsmithpapers.org). Even so, they are little known by most Latter-day Saints and others. Some critics, meanwhile, assert that the documentary richness shows Joseph to be a fraud. But seekers thirst for all the evidence and examine it for themselves. They read, remember, and ponder Joseph’s descriptions. They seek understanding and verification.
The first vision accounts were created in specific historical settings that shape what they say and how they say it. Each of the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision has its own history.
Each was created in circumstances that determined how it was remembered and communicated and thus how it was transmitted to us. Each account has gaps and omissions. Each adds detail and richness.
The Primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision are these:
* 1832 – autobiography written on the first pages of a book used by Joseph Smith to record letters he sent and received
* 1835 (November 9) – entry in Joseph Smith’s journal by his scribe, reporting Joseph’s account of the vision to a visitor, reproduced in 1834-36 history
* 1838 – account scribed by George Robinson and copied into Joseph’s History by James Mulholland and later revised, presumably by Joseph, and copied again by Howard Coray about 1841; published in the Times and Seasons newspaper on March 15, 1842; redacted by Willard Richards later that year; later excerpted in the Pearl of Great Price.
* 1842 – Joseph Smith letter to John Wentworth, published in the Times and Seasons Newspaper on March 1, 1842; reproduced in 1843 for Israel Daniel Rupp’s An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States