Joseph Smith and His Accounts
of the First Vision: Fatal Contradictions?
The origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begins with a remarkable vision of young Joseph Smith in 1820, a profound experience that was retold in several forms over the years. Critics suggest that differences in the accounts are proof of fraud. I respond to some of those arguments here, sharing my perspective as a Latter-day Saint. This is part of "LDSFAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and reflects my personal views, biases and opinions.
On the First Vision, some excellent resources include:
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In the spring of 1820, a young teenage boy, Joseph Smith, Jr., struggled with religious issues stirred by revival activity in the frontier area of upstate New York. Seeking guidance through prayer, he retired into the woods not far from his family's farm and prayed. Exceeding anything he expected, he experienced a vision in which he saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and learned that he would not find what he sought in any existing church. He would later serve as a vehicle to restore the Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth again. This was the beginning of Joseph's prophetic calling that would lead to the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon and other ancient scriptural texts and many modern revelations as well.
Naturally, I cannot prove that Joseph saw anything, and the vision is an obvious target for critics. Critics have charged that differences in the accounts from Joseph point to fraud, and have challenged historical details such as references to religious revival activities prior to the spring of 1820. Are they right? Is there evidence of fraud and deceit in Joseph's accounts of the First Vision. No, I don't accept those charges at all, and offer some reasons why in what follows.
The official version of Joseph Smith's First Vision is available at ChurchofJesusChrist.org as "the Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony." For access to multiple accounts, see History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet by Himself, a useful page comparing various accounts. An excellent discussion is also found in an article of Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Awakenings in the Burned-over District," BYU Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 1969, pp. 301-320. Also be sure to see Elden Watson's pages, "Joseph Smith's First Vision - Introduction", "Joseph Smith's First Vision - A Harmony", and The William Smith Accounts of Joseph's First Vision (William's confusion about details of some of Joseph's visions has been the questionable basis for many attacks on the First Vision).
"Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp Meeting' in 1820" is a contribution by D. Michael Quinn for DialogueJournal.com. Quinn provides extensive documentation about the revival activities in Joseph's area and effectively addresses the common anti-Mormon argument that the First Vision account must be fraudulent based on the allegation that there were no revivals around 1820 in Joseph's area, or based on Joseph's apparent conflation of some later events with events in 1820. I think this needs to be an essential resource to consider in dealing with several issues associated with the First Vision. In addition to providing support for the existence of camp meetings in the time frame Joseph Smith gives, Quinn also demonstrates that it is quite common for people to combine related events from different times in their relation of actual historical events. The conflation of some similar events from different years in sharing an experience does not invalidate the experience.
I also recommend Craig Ray's "Joseph Smith's History Confirmed" (Adobe Acrobat file, 127 kB), an excellent review of the historical data regarding details of Joseph Smith's First Vision account. Yes, there was substantial religious excitement near Palmyra, New York around 1820, consistent with Joseph's account. Ray also shows that eyewitnesses critical of Joseph Smith confirm that he was in the area where he said the First Vision occurred, refuting modern critics who say he was not there.
More recently, Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson offers some great perspectives and documentation in "Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith," FARMS Review, Volume 21, Number 2, pp. 1-21, 2009.
Did Early LDS Leaders Know about the First Vision?
Some anti-Mormons have claimed that Joseph Smith made up the First Vision toward the end of his life, and that other prominent Church leaders were not aware of the story. These allegations are pure fraud, as D. Charles Pyle and Cooper Johnson document in their response at FairMormon.org.
Yes, certainly. One pre-1832 indication pointing to the First Vision is found in the Doctrine and Covenants Section 20, verses 5-6:
After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world; But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness.
Robert Boylan in "'Manifested' in D&C 20:5-6: Further Evidence that D&C 20 Contains an Early Allusion to the First Vision" convincingly explains that the word "manifested" as used in the Book of Mormon and the New Testament is "the language of theophany," the term often used to describe the appearance of deity or a divine vision. Thus, it seems to indicate that Joseph had a theophany that included being given a remission of sins, consistent with later First Vision accounts. Then follows additional details about being entangled in folloies afterwards and having interaction with an angel (Moroni). This is a very concise summary of key elements from his 1838 History, confirming a divine manifestion/theophany.
Extensive additional evidence suggests that Joseph did share his First Vision account with others. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences," BYU Studies, Vol. 9, Num 3 (Spring 1969), pp. 373-404.
The official account of Joseph Smith's History talks about various temptations he faced in his youth and his youthful foibles. Critics charge that the Church has tried to cover up what he originally wrote to make him seem more acceptable. Here's what we have in Joseph Smith History, 1:28:
During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three having been forbidden to join any of the religious sects of the day, and being of very tender years, and persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.
This has been a popular theme of some anti-Mormon writers in this century, including Fawn Brodie and many others. They claim that the stories of angels and heavenly visitations were not "invented" until long after Joseph had written the Book of Mormon and organized a church, and that Joseph made up these accounts to give more glory to his position as a leader of the Church. While the First Vision details most important to us now were not written until 1838, Joseph's earlier 1832 written account does mention seeing the Lord. This remained unpublished for years, though. The earliest reference in LDS publications to the First Vision appears to be Doctrine & Covenants 20:5, which is a relatively vague reference to something that happened in the First Vision, followed by a reference to the angelic visitation that led to the Book of Mormon:
5 After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;
6 But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness;
7 And gave unto him commandments which inspired him;
8 And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon;...
Verse 5 refers to an event where it was manifest to Joseph that he had received a remission of sins--an important aspect of the First Vision account and an aspect given emphasis in the 1832 version. The controversial detail of seeing the Father and the Son was not yet committed to a public declaration at this time, but, as we shall see in a moment, there is evidence that Joseph had told other Latter-day Saints in this era that he had seen God. Some of that evidence comes from the condemnation of critics of his day. Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants was written in April 1830 and widely shared and was included in non-LDS publications of the "Articles and Covenants" of the Church in 1831 and an LDS publication in 1832 (see "First Vision/No reference to First Vision in 1830s publications" at FAIRMormon.org).
Fawn Brodie has written that Joseph made up stories of angels in 1834 in response to charges made by E.D. Howe, one of the first anti-Mormon writers. (Did she miss the Articles and Covenants of the Church?) If Joseph's accounts of angelic visitations were fabricated in response to writings by critics, we must wonder how the critics knew of such events in the first place. (See FAIRMormon's entry, "First Vision/No mention in non-LDS literature before 1843.") E.D. Howe quotes Ezra Booth as having said in 1831 that Joseph described "an angel, as having the appearance of 'a tall, slim, well-built, handsome man, with a bright pillar upon his head'" (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 187). If Joseph was telling people about divine visions - even including the pillar of light - how can Brodie say that he waited until years later to make that story up? Howe does not report the First Vision itself, but does express his reluctance to report any of Joseph's supernatural tales (ibid., pp. 75-76, as cited by H. Nibley, Collected Works, Vol. 11, p. 80). The Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph of Aug. 31, 1829 (as cited by Nibley, Collected Works, Vol. 11, p. 82) reported that in 1827, Joseph Smith "had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty" and given information about a golden Bible. Other similar examples cited by Nibley show that the Book of Mormon had the aura of the supernatural (including angelic visitations) even before its publication, rather than as an afterthought invented years later.
Other critical publications of the era referred to claims by Joseph and others of angelic visions, and of personal conversations with Christ or with God Almighty. These stories were circulated long before modern anti-Mormon writers say that Joseph first came up with the idea. One example comes from an 1829 anti-Mormon satire by Abner Cole, who wrote a series of articles called "The Book of Pukei" for a Palmyra newspaper. The satire poked fun at many aspects of the Book of Mormon, including the first vision. The satire is evidence that Joseph's first vision story was known and talked about in 1829 (Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, p. 160). (For refutations of related arguments about the chronology of the Joseph Smith History, please see McGregor and Shirts, pp. 154-171.)
As another example, The Reflector, in Palmyra, New York, reported in 1831 (while describing an event in 1830) that "Oliver Cowdery and 'friends' were preaching in Ohio to the effect that "Joseph Smith had seen God frequently and personally" (R.L. Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences," BYU Studies, Vol. 9, Num 3 (Spring 1969), pp. 373-404, see p. 401 for the quotation - thanks to Stan Barker for this reference). Here is the relevant material from The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 13 (14 February 1831), p. 102, available online from BYU:
BOOK OF MORMON.--Our Painesville correspondent informs us, that about the first of Nov. last, Oliver Cowdery, (we shall notice this character in the course of our labors,) and three others, arrived at that village with the "New Bible," on a mission to the notorious Sidney Rigdon, who resides in the adjoining town. Rigdon received them graciously--took the book under advisement, and in a few days declared it to be of "Heavenly Origin." Rigdon, with about 20 of his flock, were dipt immediately. They then proclaimed that there had been no religion in the world for 1500 years,--that no one had been authorised to preach &c. for that period--that Jo Smith had now received a commission from God for that purpose, and that all such as did not submit to his authority, would speedily be destroyed. The world (except the New Jerusalem) would come to an end in two or three years. The state of New-York would (probably) be sunk. Smith (they affirmed), had seen God frequently and personally--Cowdery and his friends had frequent interviews with angels, and had been directed to locate the site for the New Jerusalem, which they should know, the moment they should "step their feet" upon it. They pretend to heal the sick and work miracles, and had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to do so. The Indians were the ten lost tribes--some of them had already been dipt. From 1 to 200 (whites) had already been in the water, and showed great zeal in this new religion--many were converted before they saw the book. Smith was continually receiving new revelations, and it would probably take him 1000 years to complete them--commissions and paper were exhibited, said to be signed by CHRIST himself!!! Cowdery authorised three persons to preach, &c. and descended the Ohio River. The converts are forming "common stock" families, as most pleasing in the sight of God. They pretend to give the "Holy Spirit," and under its operations they fall upon the floor--see visions, &c. Indians followed Cowdery daily, and finally saw him enter the promised land, where he placed a pole in the ground, with a light on its top, to designate the site of the New Jerusalem. [emphasis added]
Critics rightly point out that this passage contains many statements that do not accurately reflect what Joseph Smith was teaching. The critics argue that this makes the entire story unreliable and means that we cannot take it as support for a First Vision account being spread before 1832. Yes, it does have a rabid anti-Mormon flavor to it with some clear inaccuracies, but as with many anti-Mormon rants, one can still recognize relationships between what was actually taught and the hostile spin, just like the anything-goes propaganda in The Godmakers is generally not just fabricated from whole cloth but is largely based on hostile interpretations of LDS teachings or history. The 1831 passage, though rabid, is a second-hand report of known LDS people who were actually preaching in the time and place described and were probably teaching things related to nearly all of the various points mentioned. Plausible connections to actual events and teachings can be deduced, as follows:
|Statement in Reflector||Link to Actual LDS Events and Teachings|
|Oliver and others carried a "New Bible"||The did carry the Book of Mormon, often described as a "new Bible", though that term is inaccurate. Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon is sacred scripture like the Bible and is definitely new to the world, though ancient in origin.|
|Mormon elders converted Sidney Rigdon in a short period of time around Nov. 1, 1830 in Ohio using the book||A group of Mormon elders taught Sidney Rigdon in October 1830 in Ohio and he was converted in two weeks, at least partially through reading the Book of Mormon. See "Sidney Rigdon" by Bruce A. Van Oorden and Wikipedia's entry for Sidney Rigdon.|
|"Rigdon, with about 20 of his flock, were dipt immediately."||Sidney was baptized by immersion. Over 100 of his congregation would soon be baptized. His rapid conversion and the baptism of 17 others in his flock immediately before his conversion is also described in much detail in a hostile report from the Painesville Telegraph, Feb. 15, 1831.|
|"They then proclaimed that there had been no religion in the world for 1500 years,--that no one had been authorised to preach &c. for that period--that Jo Smith had now received a commission from God for that purpose,"||This is consistent with LDS teachings, though no single date can be accurately given to the Apostasy. However, 1500 years before 1830 corresponds generally with the era of Apostasy and collapse described in the Book of Mormon and perhaps roughly with some aspects of loss of doctrine and authority in the Old World. And yes, a commission from God for the purpose of restoring ancient authority is an extremely accurate description of the message of Latter-day Saint missionaries, then and now. "Commission" is also a commonly used LDS word in this context.|
|The world (except the New Jerusalem) would come to an end in two or three years.||The destruction of the world and the establishment of a New Jerusalem are themes in LDS scripture. Since Joseph had said that destruction would come in "not many years" and LDS scriptures quote Christ as saying he will come "quickly," it's not difficult to see unjustified guesses of short time periods being offered. Placing a date on that time is still irresponsible, if such a thing were said, but it is the kind of speculation that members and leaders could make.|
|"The state of New-York would (probably) be sunk."||I'm not aware of a basis for the sinking of New York as a teaching in 1830. However, recorded in 1832, Doctrine and Covenants 84:114 mentions New York and some other cities, saying "warn the people of those cities with the sound of the gospel, with a loud voice, of the desolation and utter abolishment which await them if they do reject these things." The destruction of a city by sinking does occur in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 9).|
|Smith (they affirmed), had seen God frequently and personally. Cowdery and his friends had frequent interviews with angels.||Joseph Smith had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, and had received many revelations and had had many visions. Cowdery and his friends Martin Harris and David Whitmer saw the angel Moroni, and Cowdery had also seen John the Baptist as an angel. Other experiences with angels occurred.|
|Cowdery and others "had been directed to locate the site for the New Jerusalem, which they should know, the moment they should 'step their feet' upon it."||Certainly it was an LDS concept that there would be a new Jerusalem and that it would be located on the American continent. Also Doctrine and Covenants 42, recorded February 9, 1831, five days before the article in The Reflector, is addressed to the elders of the Church and states, "62 Thou shalt ask, and it shall be revealed unto you in mine own due time where the New Jerusalem shall be built."|
|Further details...||Healing, preaching to the Indians, and new revelations were all part of the Church. Hyperbole may be seen in statements about taking a 1000 years to complete the revelations for the Restoration, but it is LDS doctrine that revelation will continue throughout the Millennium. The statement about Christ himself signing documents is clearly hyperbole or misunderstanding, but we do declare that Christ himself spoke to Joseph Smith and gave him revelation....|
It is true that we have little in writing from Joseph Smith before 1832, when he wrote his earliest account of the First Vision, and it is true that the main account we use of the 1820 First Vision was written in 1838. We must remember that the stories of heavenly visitations were both sacred, private, and controversial, so he had little incentive to publish them at the time. His first experience telling a minister about them in public led to immediate persecution, persecution which persisted throughout his life. However, we do have evidence that he had told others of this experience long before 1832, including ample evidence that his story of angelic and divine visitations were a major reason for the persecutions he faced before 1832. (See, for example, Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 9, Spring 1969, pp. 373-404.)
Further evidence hinting at the First Vision comes from the 1833 publication of A Book of Commandments (precursor to our Doctrine and Covenants), which contains a revelation dated June 1830 (before the 1832 account of the First Vision). It is section XXIV:6-7:
6. For, after that it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins; he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;
7. But after truly repenting, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness, and gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave unto him power, by the means which were before prepared, that he should translate a book; . . .
The holy angel apparently refers to Moroni, who came to Joseph after a previous sacred experience: "after that it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins." I believe this may be a reference to the First Vision, where receiving a remission of sins was a key feature in Joseph's 1832 account two years after this revelation was written. (Thanks to Robert Boylan for pointing out this passage to me.)
Some LDS people may have been really surprised when Jerald and Sandra Tanner distributed a report in 1961 claiming that they had "discovered that the teaching that God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith was not apart of early church doctrine until after the death of Brigham Young" ("Joseph Smith Speaks on the First Vision," Jerald and Sandra Tanner, available in the BYU library, as cited by Nibley, Collected Works, Vol. 11, p. 89). They quote Brigham Young as saying:
"The Lord did not come . . . . But he did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith, Jun., . . . and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong."What Brigham Young actually said in Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 171, is this:
But as it was in the days of our Savior, so was it in the advent of this new dispensation. It was not in accordance with the notions, traditions, and pre-conceived ideas of the American people. The messenger did not come to an eminent divine of any of the so-called orthodoxy, he did not adopt their interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven in power and great glory, nor send his messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek, the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But he did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith, Jr., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that he had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before him.Brigham does not deny that the Lord came nor that he sent angels, but says that these two forms of revelation did not occur in a certain way - with visible pomp and splendor from the armies of heaven. He appears to be saying that these visions were private and personal, not meant to impress the masses. He then affirms that God did send an angel to Joseph, and that God informed Joseph that he should not join any sect. (If he had meant that an angel told Joseph not to join any church, the phrase "and informed him" should be "who informed him.") By carefully leaving out most of a critical sentence, the Tanners make it seem like Brigham simply said the Lord did not come to Joseph. May I simply suggest that we be very cautious of the methods used by anti-Mormon writers. (For a discussion of the rest of the Tanners' report, see "Censoring the Joseph Smith Story" by Hugh Nibley in Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, published by FARMS, Provo, Utah, 1991.
Further, the mention of angels instead of heavenly beings in some accounts is also easily understood as a generalized term that encompasses all heavenly beings, especially those that appear to mortals. When one sees two divine beings, they can be called angels, even when they are God the Father and the Son. This usage is actually Biblical, for Jacob in Genesis 48: 15,16 speaks of "God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day" as "the Angel which redeemed me from all evil." Why would Jacob call God an Angel? Because, like Joseph Smith, he had seen God (see Gen. 48:3; Gen. 35:9; Gen. 28: 11,12). That's the sort of thing that many prophets have experienced, no matter how much our critics deny it.
Do reliable documents written or approved by Joseph contradict each other? No (a possible exception: in one place the wrong town may have been mentioned), but the accounts focus on different aspects of a significant and overwhelming experience. This is not real evidence of fraud, any more than Paul's varying accounts of his first vision in the New Testament make Paul a deceiver. Hundreds of details are associated with any major event in history or in one's life, and which ones are included and given focus is a function of the mindset, purposes, and maturity of the writer. The 1832 version was a private writing as Joseph began working on a history of the Church. It focused on what may have been most important to young Joseph at the time: being told by Christ that he had been forgiven of his sins. The 1832 does not speak of seeing God and Christ, but mentions seeing "the Lord." The 1838 account speaks of seeing two Beings, the Father and the Son, and notes that the Father introduced the Son to Joseph, saying "Hear Him!" From then on, the message was presented by the Son, who has directed the restoration of His Church from the beginning. Critics cry foul, but the two documents are compatible. Leaving something unsaid is not the same as a contradiction. Later versions of the account were intended to let others know of the apostasy and the call to restore the Church of Christ, and did not discuss the personal aspect of Joseph's sins being forgiven.
Apparent differences in chronology between the 1832 and 1838 accounts can also be explained in terms of differing levels of detail and selection of events to emphasize. According to an article by Richard L. Bushman, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 6/2 (1994):129:
Nothing in the 1838 account contradicts the protracted chronology of the 1832 story. In the later version, Joseph says that the revival started the contention; how long it took before the conflicts broke out, or how long before his questions came to a head is not indicated. In fact, the chronologies of the two would coincide if one word in Joseph's 1839 account were changed. If the text read "sometime in the second year after our removal to Palmyra," rather than "after our removal to Manchester," the stories would blend. Two years after the removal to Palmyra, Joseph was twelve, the year in the 1832 account when his mind became "seriously imprest."
A newly popular argument against Joseph Smith is that the chronology of the First Vision story given in the "official" 1838 account of that event is incorrect, suggesting that he fabricated the story long after the spring of 1820, when he said that the First Vision occurred. In particular, Joseph wrote that there was intense religious activity in his part of upstate New York (which would include Palmyra and nearby Manchester, though he does not state which towns had the activity) preceding the time of his prayer to know which church was true. Methodists are mentioned in particular. Some critics argue that the religious revivals Joseph mentions did not occur in 1820, a year for which we have no definitive records of revival activity in Palmyra, but later in 1824 and 1825. They note that a letter from Oliver Cowdery said that Rev. George Lane, a Methodist, had been influential on Joseph, obviously prior to the First Vision. Reverend Lane was in Joseph's area for major revivals in 1824-25. Pointing to an alleged absence of religious activity in 1820, long-time anti-LDS writer, Wesley Walters, brands Joseph's story as "a gross fabrication." The argument, as usual, is quite deceptive. Matthew Roper offers an answer in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol 4. (1992), pp. 78-92, where he critiques recent charges from Mr. Walters:
... Joseph Smith never claimed that the religious excitement was confined to 1820. 1820 was the year given for Joseph's initial vision, but the religious excitement which had influenced him clearly occurred before that time. Joseph described this religious excitement as occurring "some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester" (Joseph Smith-History 1:5), in other words, sometime between 1819 and 1820. The Smiths moved to Manchester in 1818.  Walters's work is largely irrelevant in light of the works of more responsible historians...  Milton Backman has demonstrated that in the summer of 1819, Methodists held a significant conference in Vienna just a few miles from Joseph's home. The meeting was attended by more than a hundred ministers of the Methodist faith, including the Reverend George Lane.  Backman also provided evidence of substantial increases in church membership among Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist congregations in the regions surrounding Palmyra and Manchester.
Since Joseph Smith did not write the account of this revival until 1838, he might have learned about the extensive nature of this religious quickening months or years after the events occurred. Accounts of the enlivenments which occurred in New York in 1819 and 1820 were advertised in Palmyra, and the number of conversions occurring in the area east of Lake Cayuga and in the region of Albany was enumerated in the local newspaper, the Palmyra Register. 
References used by Roper:
- Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 40.
- Ibid.; Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision through Reminiscences," Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 373-404; Richard L. Bushman, "The First Vision Story Revived," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 82-93; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 43-64; Peter Crawley, "A Comment on Joseph Smith's Account of His First Vision and the 1820 Revival," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (Spring 1971): 106-7; Marvin Hill, "The First Vision: A Critique and Reconciliation," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 31-46; Paul R. Cheesman, The Keystone of Mormonism: Early Visions of Joseph Smith (Provo: Eagle Systems International, 1988), 20-37.
- Backman, Joseph Smith's First Vision, 198.
- Ibid., 200; cf. 192-210.
Further information on revivals in Joseph's area in 1819-1820 is reported by Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Awakenings in the Burned-over District," FARMS Paper BAC-97, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997, reprinted from BYU Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1969, pp. 301-320. Backman notes that one writer in 1820 reported that year to have had more reports of religious revivals than any previous era ("Revivals of Religion," The Western New York Magazine, Vol. 3, Aug. 1820, p. 91, as cited by Backman, 1969, p. 320). Backman states that the region from Albany to Buffalo was "the ecclesiastical storm center of America at the time of one of the most remarkable visions unfolded to mankind" (p. 320). After reviewing evidence from numerous sources, Backman concluded (p. 320):
The most reliable sources of the early nineteenth century show that Joseph Smith's brief description of the historical setting of the First Vision is in harmony with other contemporary accounts of the religions excitement which took place in the area where he lived and of the great revival which continued in New York in 1819 and 1820. Indeed, the Mormon Prophet penned a reliable description of an awakening which occurred in the Burned-over District at the time he launched his quest for religious truth.The significance of the 1819 revivals is also discussed by Larry C. Porter in BYU Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, p. 330:
The presence of some 110 ministers and their bishop, Bishop R. R. Roberts, at the Genessee Conference meetings, representing the New York, Pennsylvania, and the Upper and Lower Canada districts, must have created at least a moderate stir in the immediate neighborhood (Minutes of the Annual Conferences, 1819, pp. 50-52). This places Reverend George Lane within a fifteen mile vicinity of Manchester, attending the largest Methodist meeting of the year in western New York, among a great number of Methodist ministers, at a time when Joseph Smith was aware of "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" ("some time in the second year  after our removal to Manchester").A recent resource on this topic is the work of Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith," FARMS Review, Volume 21, Number 2, pp. 1-21, 2009. Here's the relevant excerpt:
The other main negative claim against the First Vision is also historically wanting because it oversimplifies Joseph Smith's story and then refutes the simplification. Reverend Wesley Walters died probably believing that he had disproved Joseph's First Vision story because he so well documented spectacular religious conversions in Palmyra during 1824 and 1825. The oversimplification emerged when he made a point of finding no evidence of such religious activity in Palmyra just before 1820, when Joseph Smith dated the First Vision (JS-H 1:14). By contrast, Brigham Young University professor Milton V. Backman Jr. showed that critics were not careful in reading the Pearl of Great Price account, which did not mention one localized revival but a sustained "unusual excitement" with the most substantial conversions not in the Palmyra area but in "the whole district of country" (v. 5). Yet a Walters associate still thinks that "the excitement of religion that Joseph Smith mentioned in his official account was the Palmyra revival of 1824-25." However, according to Joseph Smith's handwritten 1832 history, such a conclusion is based on looking for the wrong thing in the wrong time period. Even the Pearl of Great Price account shows that Joseph Smith had been investigating churches over a "process of time" (v. 8). But Joseph's 1832 report states that his period of confusion lasted "from the age of twelve years to fifteen," which would extend from December 23, 1817, to December 23, 1820.
These broad brackets mean that Joseph was intensely searching during the years 1818 and 1819, up to early 1820, the time of the First Vision (JS-H 1:14). We now know that a large Methodist camp meeting was held near Palmyra during June 19-23, 1818. This is found in the diary of Aurora Seager, a young circuit rider who left entries concerning these dates: "On the 19th I attended a camp-meeting at Palmyra. The arrival of Bishop Roberts, who seems to be a man of God and is apostolic in his appearance, gave a deeper interest to the meeting until it closed. On Monday the sacrament was administered; about twenty were baptized; forty united with the Church, and the meeting closed." The harvest of forty new Methodists indicates an estimated crowd of at least 400 on the campground, with saturated sermons during five days from the visiting Methodist bishop and about a dozen senior preachers, all declaring to a largely unchurched crowd the need for Christ and personal repentance. None in the small village of Palmyra and vicinity would be ignorant of this great gathering for that area, broadly coinciding with the family's settlement on their farm. According to Joseph, in that period an unusual religious excitement arose with the Methodists (JS-H 1:5), and the 1818 Palmyra camp meeting shows that his recollection had a factual basis. [Footnotes in Anderson's article.]
Information from Aurora's diary is found in Reverend E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D. D. (New York, 1880), 21-22, microfiche at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
The slam-dunk arguments Walters offered were ultimately based on sloppy reading of the text, a pattern I have seen far too often. When one is looking for the wrong thing at the wrong time, the lack of evidence found does not sound a death knell for believers. When those challenging arguments come, it may just pay to exert a little faith and patience before getting too far bent out of shape.
Oliver Cowdery also recounted some of Joseph's experiences in an 1834 publication (Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1834, p. 13), explaining that around the time of Joseph's fifteenth year (1819-20), a "Mr. Lane, a presiding Elder of the Methodist church, visited Palmyra and vicinity," and that Joseph's mind "became awakened." It is hard to believe that Joseph in the early 1830s would confuse an 1819-1820 event with an event in 1824 or 1825. (It is somewhat ironic that many LDS critics also tend to paint Joseph as some kind of a genius capable of keeping track of numerous events and places so that he could fabricate the extremely complex Book of Mormon while maintaining internal consistency in the text.)
In addition to 1819 revival activity near Joseph's home (the revivals in Vienna), there were revivals in Palmyra during 1816-1817 (as well as later in 1824-25). The 1816-17 activity could have been part of the religious excitement that impressed Joseph. In fact, his 1832 account says that his religious searching started "at about the age of twelve years." He turned 12 on Dec. 23, 1817, a year in which a large revival occurred in his town of Palmyra (Joshua Bradley, Accounts of Religious Revivals in Many Parts of the United States from 1815 to 1818, Albany, New York: G.J. Loomis, 1819, p. 223, as cited by Richard L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's Testimony of the First Vision," Ensign, April 1996, pp. 10-21). Further, Joseph didn't say the revivals were in the town of Palmyra or Manchester, but "in the place where we lived." If the "place" includes the "vicinity" of Palmyra, then there is newly discovered evidence of revival activity in 1820 as well. According to an article by Richard L. Bushman, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 6/2 (1994):122-133, cited at 126-127 (fn. 3):
Walter A. Norton has discovered a Palmyra Register article in the 28 June 1820 issue that reported the death of an intoxicated man in Palmyra village and claimed he obtained liquor at "a camp-meeting held in this vicinity." When criticized, the editor exonerated the Methodists from blame, as if they were the chief users of the campground, but asserted that the dissolute frequently resorted to the campground for liquor, implying that the grounds were commonly in use. "Comparative Images: Mormonism and Contemporary Religions as Seen by Village Newspapermen in Western New York and Northeastern Ohio, 1820-1833" (Ph.D. Diss., Brigham Young University, 1991), 255.
Also, according to Milton V. Backman, Jr.:
In June 1820, the Palmyra Register reported on a Methodist camp meeting in the vicinity of Palmyra because an Irishman, James Couser, died the day after attending the gathering at which he became intoxicated.
("Awakenings in the Burned-Over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision," BYU Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1969, p. 309, referring to "Effects of Drunkenness," Palmyra Register, 28 June 1820, as cited by Davis Bitton, "The Charge of a Man with a Broken Lance (But Look What He Doesn't Tell Us)," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. 257-272.)
Donna Hill in her outstanding biography, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, (Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977, pp. 49-50) reviews several aspects of the revivals mentioned by Joseph. So many revivals in western New York during the first half of the 1800s that it was called the "Burned-over District." Between 1816 and 1821 had more than any other previous period. In 1820, the Palmyra Register, read by Joseph's family, reported revivals in the eastern part of the state in spring and summer, and other parts later in the year, and this may also have made an impression on Joseph. The great climax was between 1825 and 1827. "The evidence is that there was fervent religious activity just as Joseph said, but whether or not it was as intense as in other periods is not so significant as the fact that to the youthful Joseph that activity was of utmost importance.
The Methodists had the greatest influence on Joseph, and the historical records show that they were especially active and held many large gatherings, often with multiple preachers. Joseph and his family may have come at first to sell cakes or other items, but attendance for religious purposes became an important factor for at least some family members. Donna Hill explains how these revivals worked for Methodists:
Where the [Methodist] church had no meetinghouses, such as in Palmyra and Manchester in 1820, traveling ministers came about every two weeks, and preached in a school or in some settler's cabin, or when weather permitted, under the open sky, in a clearing or a grove in the forest... From two or three hundred to several thousand people would come from miles around, bringing their children and effects in wagons. They pitched tents, built cook fires and prepared to stay for several days, exhilarated by the festivities, which were social, convivial and even somewhat commercial, as well as religious.
(Hill, pp. 49-50.)
General confirmation of widespread revivals in the US in 1820 and beyond comes from an evangelist, Charles Finney, in a letter entitled, "The Folly of Attempting to Sustain True Religion Without Revivals" (Letters On Revivals--No. 25), printed in The Oberlin Evangelist, February 18, 1846 (available online at GospelTruth.net, as viewed June 20, 2004):
It was remarkable to see to what an extent the revivals in this country from 1820 to 1840 influenced the public mind, developed reforms, and brought up as from the depths of oblivion the great truths and principles that are the sheet-anchor of every government of opinion under heaven. The fact is, those revivals affected all classes of the community. They affected the whole country and have extended their influence throughout all Christendom.
Finney wrote this after Joseph Smith wrote his history, and provides possible indirect confirmation for Joseph's statements about the significance of revivals at that time.
So far, the First Vision accounts appear consistent and reasonable in terms of timing of the revival activity. All of this is confused by a couple of letters from Oliver Cowdery which spoke of 1823 as a year of great revivals which led to the First Vision. The date of 1823 makes little sense and certainly contradicts the accounts putting the First Vision in 1820. Critics may view the mention of 1823 as evidence for the 1824-25 time setting for the revivals that Joseph mentioned. While we can't explain why Oliver wrote what he did (probably just an innocent error, confusing the date of Moroni's visit with the date of the First Vision), we can rule out 1824-25 as the date of the First Vision on the basis of independent evidence. This evidence comes from Joseph's mother, who apparently did not know much of the First Vision story for some time. In an interview with Howard and Martha Jane Coray after Joseph's martyrdom, Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, describes clearing a farm, Joseph telling the family of visits from the angel Moroni, and then the death of her son Alvin at the end of 1823. After Alvin's death, Lucy was comforted by the revivals in the area - apparently the well documented 1824-25 revivals. She tried to involve Joseph in this activity, but "He refused from the first to attend the meeting with us. He would say ... it will do you no hurt to join them but you will not stay with them or long, for you are mistaken in them." (Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of her history of Joseph Smith, as cited by Richard L. Anderson in "Joseph Smith's Testimony of the First Vision," Ensign, April 1996, pp. 10-21.) It appeared that Joseph had already had his First Vision before the revivals of 1824-25 and knew that he should join none of the existing churches.
If the revivals that led to the First Vision actually occurred in 1824-25, then Joseph's account of the coming of the Book of Mormon was also fabricated and altered in later years, for Joseph wrote that he was visited by the angel Moroni in September of 1823. After four successive annual visitations from Moroni, Joseph received the golden plates in 1827. However, Joseph's chronology for visits from the angel Moroni is confirmed by other sources that indicate that Joseph's brother, Alvin, knew of the angel Moroni before his death on Nov. 19, 1823. Three sources, Lucy Mack Smith, William Smith, and Joseph Knight, Sr., all indicated that Alvin knew that Joseph had been visited by Moroni before Alvin's death or that Alvin was alive when Moroni visited Joseph (see Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 1844-45, LDS Archives, pp. 46-48, 51-52; William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883, pp. 8-9; and Dean Jesse, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," BYU Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Aug. 1976, p. 31 - all as cited by Larry C. Porter, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1995, pp. 133-135)
If Alvin had heard of Moroni by 1823, then Joseph was already well past the stage of religious confusion and doubt that was stirred by the local revivals and led to his First Vision. Trying to place the origins of the Restoration in 1824-25 rather than in 1820 is simply unjustified.
Along these lines, I recently (July 2001) received e-mail with this summary of the attacks made by some professional anti-Mormons, the Tanners, on this topic:
Please be aware that the Tanners are not completely honest in their research nor presentation of Mormonism. I highly recommend you get a copy of They Lie In Wait To Deceive volume 5 (soon to be published and in LDS bookstores) when it comes out. It documents massive deception on the part of the Tanners in regards to their background as well (especially) their research. Unlike Ed Decker and some others, the Tanners don't do much "commission" deception. Their deception is fundamentally "omission"; leaving out evidence and facts in order to paint any picture they wish to paint.I've experienced many examples of anti-Mormon attacks appearing to be powerful and convincing only because of what they deliberately left out. They leave out quite a lot when it comes to attacking the Joseph Smith story.
For example, they spend much time in their books "proving" that there was no religious revival in Palmyra in the year 1819-20; the time in which Joseph Smith claimed there was a revival, and this revival caused him to pray, and then came his First Vision. However, what the Tanners fail to mention, is that Joseph Smith DID NOT CLAIM the revival occurred in the village of Palmyra. Indeed, there WERE religious revivals in at least 12 locations within 30 miles of his farm in the years 1819-20; one which took place at the Baptist Stone Church of Manchester. The Smith farm was in the township of Manchester; not Palmyra as many people (including most Mormons) believe.
The Tanners use a common false assumption most Mormons have (there was a religious revival in PALMYRA in late 1819-early 1820) and then "prove" there was no revival in Palmyra in those years. This is called the "strawman technique". The Tanners are experts at it. Indeed, just about all of their "proofs" are based upon this technique.
In summary, while some imperfections and unresolved issues exist in the records we have, there is no justification for rejecting Joseph's accounts of the First Vision on the basis of data for religious revivals. Revivals were held in the area in 1816-17, in 1819, and even in 1820. George Lane was accessible to Joseph in 1819. Joseph's date of 1823 for Moroni's visit is confirmed by other evidence, ruling out 1824 or later as the time of Joseph's quest for truth and the beginning of the Restoration. Those who claim that Joseph's date of 1820 for the First Vision proves he is unreliable just aren't being careful in their analysis.
2006 Update: "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp Meeting' in 1820" is a valuable contribution by D. Michael Quinn for DialogueJournal.com. Quinn provides extensive documentation about the revival activities in Joseph's area and effectively addresses the common anti-Mormon argument that the First Vision account must be fraudulent based on the allegation that there were no revivals around 1820 in Joseph's area, or based on Joseph's apparent conflation of some later events with events in 1820. I think this needs to be an essential resource to consider in dealing with several issues associated with the First Vision.
In addition to providing support for the existence of camp meetings in the time frame Joseph Smith gives, Quinn also demonstrates that it is quite common for people to combine related events from different times in their relation of actual historical events. The conflation of some similar events from different years in sharing an experience does not invalidate the experience.
Not at all. The way we interpret major experiences in our lives changes with time, and the details that we emphasize in a story vary according to our audience and our purpose in relating the event. Joseph's First Vision experience was a rich and overwhelming event in which many truths were learned and extensive information was provided. The full significance of that sacred experience might not have even been clear to Joseph for many years. At different times and for different audiences with different needs, Joseph may have interpreted and emphasized details of that event in different ways, focusing on the forgiveness of his sins or the realization that he should join no church or the plain truth that God and Christ were distinct individuals that he saw. Leaving out some details while emphasizing others at different times does not make him a liar.
If we reject Joseph Smith for offering various accounts that emphasize or exclude different details of the same experience, then by that standard we would also have to reject the Bible. For example, Luke 24:4 says that two angels appeared at the empty tomb to several women, while Matthew 28:2 mentions just one angel. Anti-Mormon writers would have riotous fun with this "contradiction" if it occurred in the Book of Mormon. However, we can give the Bible the benefit of a doubt by suggesting that both Matthew and Luke were describing the same event, but that Matthew overlooked the second angel in his account.
If we reject Joseph Smith for giving different details of a divine vision, then we must also reject Paul for his differing accounts of his vision on the road to Damascus. Paul relates this story three times in the Bible (Acts chapters 9, 22, and 26), and each time there appear to be differences, even contradictions. There are many details that differ between the three accounts. A well-known problem concerns the other witnesses who were with Paul. Look at the three accounts:
-- Acts 9:7 --
And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
-- Acts 22:9 --
And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
--Acts 26:14 --
And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me. . .
Did the others hear the voice or not? Did they fall or remain standing? Does it really matter? Anti-Mormon critics would revel in an apparent contradiction of this magnitude in the Book of Mormon or in the history of Joseph Smith, but they are quick to gloss over such problems in the Bible. I think we need to be generous with Paul and recognize that the peripheral details are not essential for his message. Perhaps the apparent contradictions just relate different aspects of a single story, with others who may have heard the voice and may have been standing initially, but then later fell and did not hear part of the message. Frankly, it looks like a minor contradiction, perhaps resulting from a lapse in memory concerning details of the event, but it does not bother me because I do not require the Bible to be infallible in minor details to still be scripture from God.
For your information, there are several more differences in the three accounts of Paul's vision worth noting. Some of the differences seem minor and easily compatible. For example, Acts 9 and 22 simply say the light that Paul saw appeared around him, while Acts 26 says the light was around him and those that were with him. All three agree that the Lord said, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" and that Paul said, "Who art thou, Lord?". However, in Acts 9, the Lord says "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" before Paul responds, while Acts 26 has the Lord say that after Paul responds, and Acts 22 makes no mention of that statement from the Lord.
More analogous to the Joseph Smith First Vision accounts, the accounts in Acts 9 and 22 conclude by telling of how Paul regained his sight and make no mention of statements from the Lord about Paul's future mission. Later, though, in Acts 26, Paul does not even mention his blindness and his miraculous recovery, but says instead that the Lord prophesied to him of his future mission among the Gentiles. If Paul were Joseph Smith, critics would accuse him of fabricating new twists to his story and contradicting himself, but I feel it's more fair to believe that both Paul and Joseph were relating different parts of their visionary experiences. Initially, Paul may have been most concerned about the healing of his eyes (as Joseph seems to have been most concerned about the forgiveness of his sins), while later his recollection of the Lord's words about his mission to the Gentiles became a more important part of the vision (as did the explanation of Joseph's future mission).
Also worth noting is the fact that Paul, like Joseph, seems to have waited several years before recording his vision. It may have been 24 years from the time of that vision until the time it was written as we have it in the Bible (Richard L. Anderson, as quoted by Milton V. Backman, "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," Ensign, Jan. 1985, pp. 8-17). We should not criticize Joseph for waiting to make a full record, not only because of Paul's precedent, but because young Joseph was in difficult circumstances, lacked academic training, and had been strongly rejected already for sharing it with others. But once he understood that he needed to make a history, he did so quickly.
The standard that would rashly condemn Joseph Smith for differences in focus in his First Vision accounts might also condemn Paul for his various accounts which also differ in focus and may even contain a genuine contradiction or two. Conclusion: be careful about judging others rashly and making a man an offender for a word. Seek to understand honestly, not just to find reasons to condemn. The Bible is true, in spite of some minor problems, and Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts, as given directly by him, are also true. How can you know that for sure? Read the Book of Mormon - it's the evidence of Joseph's divine calling as the Prophet of the Restoration. If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.
Apparently there is a publication (a newspaper, I believe) called the Amboy Journal in which a minister, Joshua McKune, claimed that Joseph Smith sought membership in the Methodist church at Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1828. That issue is dated April 30, 1879 (according to Marvin Hill in Dialogue, Vol. 15, No.2, pp. 37-41, 1982). A later issue of the same publication dated June 11, 1879, cited Michael Morse, a brother-in-law to Joseph Smith, in support of that claim. This evidence has been used by the Tanners and other anti-Mormons as proof that Joseph cannot be trusted about the First Vision, otherwise why would he join another church 8 years after being told that they were all wrong and that he should join none of them?
How seriously must we take the claims of two critics of Joseph Smith coming forward 35 years after his death, during a time of intense anti-Mormon sentiment? 1879 was near the peak of anti-Mormon hostility over the polygamy issue, a time when the newspapers and politicians were calling for the destruction of the Church. Is there any contemporary, credible evidence that Joseph became a Methodist? I'm not aware of any.
It is possible, of course, that Joseph attended other churches after the First Vision. I would not expect Joseph to simply attend no church at all until the Restoration had taken place. I don't mind attending other churches when time permits or when there is no LDS church around or when I am with others of another faith. And even if someone signed him up for the membership roles of another church - a well-meaning family member, perhaps, who did not yet understand the full implications of what Joseph had shared with them of the First Vision - it's no reason to think that Joseph was not sincere about his experience.
The Book of Mormon has multiple passages that clearly show that Christ and the Father are separate beings, though they are one and together are one eternal God or one Godhead. Thus, there is written evidence from 1829 that official LDS doctrine saw Christ as a real, tangible, resurrected Being separate from the Father and subordinate to Him.
Joseph's 1832 version of the First Vision states that he saw "the Lord." It does not say he only saw one person, but indicates that he saw Christ. In the later official version, he mentions two personages, but it was primarily Christ that he spoke with. The two accounts differ in the degree of detail, but are not contradictory. I can meet with two people and later mention having met with one of them without being wrong or misleading. Joseph saw Christ. He spoke with Christ. That Christ was introduced by the Father is an important and very sacred detail, but the brief 1832 account focused on Christ.
In 1835, another version of the First Vision account by Warren Cowdery indicates that Joseph saw the Father and the Son as separate Beings:
1835 Account, Written by Warren A. Cowdery. Monday Nov. 9th...
While sitting in his house this morning between the hours of ten and eleven a man came in and introduced himself to him calling himself Joshua the Jewish Minister. His appearance was something singular, having a beard about three inches in length which is quite grey, his hair was also long and considerably silvered with age. He had the appearance of a man about 50 or 55 years old. He was tall and straight, slender frame, blue eyes, thin visage, and fair complexion. He wore a green frock coat and pantaloons of the same color. He had on a black fur hat with a narrow brim. When speaking he frequently shuts his eyes and exhibits a kind of scowl upon his countenance. He (Joseph) made some inquiry after his name, but received no definite answer. The conversation soon turned upon the subject of Religion, and after the subject of this narrative had made some remarks concerning the bible, he commenced giving him a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, which were nearly as follows. Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.
He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. . .
The differences in detail between early versions of Joseph's experience are not contradictions, and the idea that he saw two personages was not a novel development in the late 1830s.
Other useful works include:
"Four Accounts and Three Critiques: FairMormon.org" by Steven Harper
Overview of First Vision Issues (PDF from FairMormon.org)
Joseph Smith's History Confirmed (Adobe Acrobat file, 127 kB) - Craig Ray's excellent review of the historical data regarding details of Joseph Smith's First Vision account. Published 2002.
Versions of Joseph Smith's History - many early accounts, including a table for comparing the key elements of the First Vision Story.
Excellent pages by Elden Watson include: "Joseph Smith's First Vision - Introduction", "Joseph Smith's First Vision - A Harmony", and The William Smith Accounts of Joseph's First Vision (William's confusion about details of some of Joseph's visions has been the rather flimsy basis for a lot of anti-Mormon attacks).
Just the Facts, Please - an excellent article by Richard Bushman in FARMS Review of Books. Bushman offers a credible response to Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters' book, Inventing Mormonism, which tries to refute Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision. (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, 1994.)
The Historicity of the First Vision - discusses charges of Wesley P. Walters.
Arthur Henry King on Joseph Smith's History - A British scholar of English literature, twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth, was so impressed with the clarity and honesty manifest by Joseph Smith's history that it began his path to conversion as a Latter-day Saint.
Can a Man See the Face of God and Live? - Stanley D. Barker's answer to a common question about Joseph Smith.
Did Early Church Leaders Know about the First Vision? - a response by D. Charles Pyle and Cooper Johnson to deceptive arguments by Gerald and Sandra Tanner.
A FAIR Analysis of MormonThink page "Moroni's Visitation" - dealing with some rather shallow criticisms about the details of Moroni's visitation to Joseph Smith.
"Moroni as Angel and Treasure Guardian" - an excellent article at the Maxwell Institute by Mark Ashurst-McGee. This article addresses charges that Joseph initially saw Moroni not as an angel of God but as a treasure guardian.
Book of Mormon Evidences (by Jeff Lindsay)
Elden Watson's Site, a pro-LDS site with several examples of Edward's insightful writings.