Changing First Vision Accounts: Conclusion
The evidence available from early sources, including Joseph Smith and his family establish a number of important facts.
First, Joseph did not relate his story consistently, but changed key elements over the years. He changed:
- The date / his age — from 1823 (age 16), to 1821 (age 15), to 1820 (age 14)
- The reason or motive for seeking divine help — from no motive (a spirit appears with the news of gold plates), Bible reading and conviction of sins, a revival, a desire to know if God exists.
- Who appears to him — a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son.
Second, common elements from early accounts raise questions about what appears to be a gradual evolution of Joseph Smith’s first vision story. Did Joseph begin to include a “Christian experience” in the telling of his story because Bauder noticed it was lacking? The earliest accounts given to Chase and Harris do not include this. There is a noticeable shift in the context of finding the gold plates, from 17 year-old money-digger to 14 year-old spiritual seeker. Is this an attempt to put his story into a more socially acceptable context? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as time went on, Joseph omitted uncomfortable but true parts of his history and replaced them with fictitious elements in order to make his story more socially acceptable and spiritually compelling.
One thing is clear, the LDS Church does a great disservice to investigators of its claims by presenting Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of his first vision as the only version of these events. It appears deliberately misleading to offer this account (now canonized as part of LDS Scripture) as an unquestioningly accurate and honest portrayal of its historical origins.
— Joel B. Groat