7. Since there are several different contradictory accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, how did the LDS Church choose the correct one?
The First Vision accounts are not contradictory. No early member of the Church claimed that Joseph changed his story, or contradicted himself. Critics of the Church have not been familiar with the data on this point.
The shortest answer is that the Saints believe the First Vision not because of textual evidence, but because of personal revelation.
The Church didn’t really “choose” one of many accounts; many of the accounts we have today were in diaries, some of which were not known till recently (1832; 1835 (2); Richards, Neibaur). The 1840 (Orson Pratt) and 1842 (Orson Hyde) accounts were secondary recitals of what happened to the Prophet; the Wentworth letter and interview for the Pittsburgh paper were synopsis accounts (at best). The account which the Church uses in the Pearl of Great Price (written in 1838) was published in 1842 by Joseph Smith as part of his personal history. As new accounts were discovered they were widely published in places like BYU Studies.
- For the most common claim about a contradiction, see here: Only one Personage appears in the 1832 account
- Many questions about the First Vision are addressed here: First Vision accounts
If you click on the link that says “Only one Personage appears in the 1832 account” it will take you to a page that says:
the question becomes—Why did the Prophet construct the 1832 narrative in the manner that he did (so as to exclude explicit mention of the Father’s appearance)? A careful analysis of the 1832 First Vision text reveals that it was deliberately constructed on the framework of many scriptural citations. The apostle Stephen’s view of both the Father and the Son is clearly utilized by the Prophet in one section of the 1832 text but, more importantly, Joseph Smith told the actual theophany portion of this narrative in language that very closely corresponds to the apostle Paul’s vision of Jesus Christ (Acts 26:).
Paul did not report that he saw the Father alongside the Son, and so it is logical that this is the reason why Joseph Smith did not explicitly mention the Father’s appearance in his text either. The Prophet’s strong sense of connection with Paul’s visionary experience is referred to by him right in his 1838 First Vision account. The context of this connection is the persecution experienced by both men for speaking publicly about a heavenly manifestation. Joseph Smith relates in his 1838 history that he was informed by a clergyman that his vision was “all of the devil.” This piece of information may help to explain why the Prophet chose to couch his first known written account of his vision in heavy biblical language and imagery. He may have hoped that by doing this his story would have a better chance of being accepted amongst a populace that was steeped in biblical content.
First of all, what difference does it make what language Paul used in relating his vision? Or Stephen? Why not just tell people what he saw? After all, there were many other things Joseph wrote that supposedly “came from God” that weren’t accepted by people. Why “couch” his vision in “biblical imagery?” This is why: Because in order for people to believe that all the other whacky doctrines he taught were “from God” Joseph would have to convince people that he was indeed a “prophet of God” and he had to use flowery language and rhetoric to do so.
Now, as far as Paul seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus: Could it be that Paul didn’t see the Father because the Father didn’t appear to Paul with Jesus? Second, Paul, in his account in Acts 22, said that the soldiers did not hear the voice. This does not necessarily mean they didn’t. He may have thought they did not hear the voice. But just because he told the people they didn’t does not make this a contradiction. Now, if Luke had written, in his own words, that the soldiers did not hear the voice, after writing that they did hear it, that would be a contradiction.
Of course, the position of FAIR–as well as that of many LDS apologists–has been to say that Joseph had forgotten some of the details, he couldn’t remember everything, etc. Uh, what? Maybe it’s just me, but if I had been visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ, I think I would have remembered a little bit about that. And don’t you think that he would have, oh, I don’t know, jotted down a little something about it? Crazy, I know.
At the other link, FAIR again attempts to discredit the apostle Paul by claiming that he gave two different versions of Christ’s appearance to him. A careful reading of the two accounts (Acts 9, Acts 22) shows the two are not different. However, what of Joseph’s “First Vision?” Have the details ever changed? Well, for that answer, I would direct you to a couple of articles from Mormon Research Ministry (Link 1 and Link 2) that go into more detail than I have room for here. Here are some tidbits from Link 2:
Version 3. In 1835, Joseph Smith dictated his own account of the first vision for his personal diary…it appears in the official diary of the Prophet, and this journal entry is accepted as accurate and valid. In this account, which was first published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (VI, No.1, pg. 87), the evil power is mentioned for the very first time. In all previous published accounts (listed below), no evil power was ever mentioned by Joseph. Also, he does not claim that the messengers were God and Jesus, just that many angels visited him. That seems to be a very curious omission.Version 2. In February 1835, the LDS publication Messenger and Advocate recorded the account of the vision that Joseph Smith gave to Oliver Cowdery. In this account, Joseph was 17 years old, the revival is in 1823, and no mention is made of James 1:5. Instead, Joseph claimed he had been wondering if there was a God and if his sins could be forgiven. His only reason for praying was to ask if God did exist. After “11 or 12 hours” in prayer, he was visited by “a messenger from God” who forgave Joseph’s sins. While this vision is given in the Messenger and Advocate as the first vision of Joseph Smith, this story was later revised and published as a second vision from the angel Moroni preparatory to giving Joseph Smith the golden plates.Version 1. The earliest known account of the first vision was written in 1831-32 in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting. This was the version made public by Paul Cheesman in 1965, published later that same year by Jerald and Sandra Tanner in Joseph Smith’s Strange Account of the First Vision. This account had been in the hands of LDS leaders for over 130 years, hidden away in their vaults – presumably because it differs so greatly from the official version. In this account, Smith claimed to be 16 years old and that he already knew that all churches were wrong from reading the Bible. Joseph sought forgiveness, and it was Jesus alone who visited him and forgave his sins.
It should be noted that this account was printed not only in an LDS publication but also during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. No statements by Joseph against the accuracy of this account have been found, indicating his approval of the information given. It was also a second-hand account given by Oliver Cowdery, a witness to many of the key events in LDS history. The same account was also copied unchanged into Joseph Smith’s Manuscript History of the Church and subsequently into the LDS publication Times and Seasons. Since it was copied into so many LDS publications and records without any changes, the account must have been considered accurate and valid to Joseph Smith at that time. This adds quite a bit of significance to the differing details of this version.
Now, how important is it that Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” be accurate? I mean, what difference does it make? It’s just a vision, right. No, not really. Joseph’s “First Vision” is the ground and pillar of the LDS church. Gordon Hinckley thought it of more importance than even the crucifixion. “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred, or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”
Once again, rather than show convincing proof that the “First Vision” was true, they simply attempt to smear the names of true men of God, and equate a 14-year-old money digger and glass-looker with great men like Paul and Stephen.