First Vision: Different Accounts, Different Audiences

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Anyone who has been around the Bloggernacle for a substantial amount of time is probably aware that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision. In these different accounts, there is often discrepancy between which personages Joseph Smith claimed to have visited him. For example, the 1831 account states that Jesus was the personage while the 1834 account states the personage was Moroni.

A common explanation for this difference in details is that Joseph smith was speaking to different audiences, so he needed to explain the story differently. While I have heard this explanation on several occasions, I have never thought about it much until now.

What purpose would be served by telling one person he saw Jesus, another he saw Moroni, and another he saw God and Jesus? In what ways would these three audiences be different enough to warrant these differences?

5 thoughts on “First Vision: Different Accounts, Different Audiences

  1. This apologetic faces serious difficulties. In particular, both the 1832 and 1839 accounts (the first mentions one personage–“the Lord”–while the second is the familiar narration mentioning two and identifying them as God and Christ) were general histories of the church narrated to Joseph Smith’s scribes for general-purpose church use. In other words, the audience for both accounts was the same.

  2. Furthermore, and to answer your question, it is hard to imagine why Smith would vary the personages in his story depending on the audience. This “he was speaking to different audiences” notion makes sense as a very general point: that is, I think it makes sense to point out that when someone tells a story, he tends to focus on different elements of the story, depending on the point he wants to make to his audience. I know I do this with great frequency when I tell stories. But this observation, while useful in some contexts, is not particularly useful here.

    My sense is that those who offer this particular apologetic usually have not engaged with the actual differences between the visions or the version. They are often just repeating Richard Dutcher’s line from God’s Army, or some such …

    Aaron B

  3. RT and Aaron,

    So how do you reconcile the differing accounts? To leave it hanging is to imply that Smith was a fraud and a bad one. A beef I’ve always had regarding reading scripture too literally or hanging on every word, is that any account can only convey an aspect of what the author experienced. Hence my objection to LDS interpretation of the Godhead based on the first vision.

  4. Steve,

    The first vision narratives are, as you mention, often used in LDS discourse to provide evidence for current teachings about the nature of God. This practice is, however, an extremely tendentious use of the historical data. The various first vision narratives are compatible with a variety of different theologies of God, notably including modalism (in which God is only one person, and the labels “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Ghost” apply to different roles He fulfills). In order to derive support for any one theology of God, we have to select a particular narrative and decide that it–and it alone–is a correct description of Joseph Smith’s experience. Since that selection process seems in large part driven by the fact that the 1839 narrative fits with current LDS theology about God, the argument is profoundly circular.

    But, to your real question: how do I reconcile the differing accounts? I should first state that I don’t feel any special obligation to reconcile them. They aren’t my experience, and they aren’t my narratives. My faith in God and Christ isn’t contingent on determining actually what happened to Joseph Smith when he prayed for a forgiveness of his sins.

    But, from a historical perspective, I find three interpretations to be completely compatible with the evidence. First, as you note, it’s possible to claim that Joseph Smith lied. In fact, this of course fits the data, but I don’t find it convincing. The earliest, 1830 mention of the first vision experience was so profoundly modest that Joseph Smith couldn’t have derived any power or social prestige from it–so why make it up at all? Subsequent versions could certainly be embellishments on the initial experience, but I am skeptical of the theory that Joseph completely invented the story. Nonetheless, the interpretation is possible (and to some persuasive) in light of the documentary evidence.

    A second theory is that visionary experiences simply work differently from ordinary life experiences. In ordinary life, our memory deteriorates as we get further from an event. But perhaps, with visionary and spiritual experiences, the full meaning and nature of the event only becomes clear to us when we reach a point of understanding where we are capable of seeing what actually happened. This approach would mean that Joseph gradually realized Who he was talking with as Joseph’s understanding of the theology of God became more mature. On the other hand, this approach also leaves open the possibility that Joseph never progressed far enough to fully understand the vision, and that some aspects of God are misrepresented even in the latest accounts.

    A third approach would be to suggest that Joseph felt divinely authorized to revise his first vision narrative for didactic purposes. As Joseph discovered additional truths about the nature of God, he may have felt that he was given permission (or perhaps commanded) to use the first vision and other historical narratives to embody those truths in a particular moment from the past.

    I find either the second or the third interpretation plausible and acceptable. However, I know that some within our community would feel quite uncomfortable with the third interpretation. In any case, the second interpretation is not contradicted by any evidence that I am aware of.

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