During a 10-year period (1832–42), Joseph Smith wrote or dictated at least four accounts of the First Vision. These accounts are similar in many ways, but they include some differences in emphasis and detail. These differences are complementary. Together, his accounts provide a more complete record of what occurred. The 1838 account found in the Pearl of Great Price is the primary source referred to in the Church.
In the spring of 1820, after much scripture reading and contemplation, 14-year-old Joseph Smith followed the counsel in James 1:5 to “ask of God.” He entered a grove of trees near his home and prayed to know which church was right. In response, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him in what is now known as the First Vision. This sacred experience began the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and is one of the cornerstones of Latter-day Saint faith.
Joseph Smith did not prepare a single, comprehensive account describing everything he experienced and learned from his initial vision but, rather, he presented several accounts at different times. In the 1838 account—which he prepared as the official version for the Church—he wrote, “Many other things did [the Lord] say unto me, which I cannot write at this time” (Joseph Smith—History 1:20).
Like the vision of the Apostle Paul of the New Testament, Joseph Smith's vision was a profound experience. The New Testament gives three accounts of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, each with a different emphasis and different details. Likewise, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his vision according to the audience he was addressing and his understanding of the event.
Different scribes prepared each account of the First Vision, often years apart. Each account reflects a particular perspective for distinct audiences and purposes. For example, the 1838 account was written for the Church's official history, while another was a letter in response to questions from a newspaper editor. Joseph Smith also related his experience to early converts and others, at least four of whom wrote what they learned from him. These accounts complement each other.
The oldest account, written in 1832, was part of an autobiography. This account emphasized Joseph's quest for religious truth and his desire to be forgiven of his sins. Therein, Joseph stated that the Lord said to him, “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.” Some people have claimed that this account contradicts other accounts because it does not explicitly mention two personages. However, the 1832 account does not say that he saw only one personage, nor does it in any way disclaim the appearance of two.
Another account comes from a conversation Joseph Smith had in November 1835 with a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. A brief summary of this conversation, including a description of the First Vision, was recorded in Joseph Smith's diary by Warren Cowdery, one of Joseph's scribes. One detail unique to the 1835 account is Joseph Smith's statement that in addition to two personages, he saw many angels. When telling the story of the First Vision, some early Church leaders occasionally said that an angel told Joseph Smith not to join any of the churches. However, in their sermons, these same leaders often used Lord, Christ, personage, messenger, and angel interchangeably. The same is true of Old Testament prophets (see Genesis 32:24-30; 48:16).
The 1838 version is found in the Pearl of Great Price, a book of canonized scripture in the Church. The Prophet intended this account to be the primary one for the Church, and it contains a detailed description of the historical setting. The emphasis of his description is different from the 1832 account. In 1832, he concentrated more on his search for forgiveness, and in 1838 he emphasized God's declaration regarding the true Church.
The fourth account by the Prophet was included in a letter he wrote in 1842 to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat. In this account, Joseph Smith included a statement implied in the other accounts but not specifically stated—that he was told that the fulness of the gospel would be made known unto him in the future.
Church Magazine Articles
The Prophet’s accounts of his first vision offer us a picture that is rich in testimony and supported by history.
Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy