Great place to start with Richard Lloyd Anderson, Harvard-trained attorney and Berkeley PhD. BYU devotional given in 1983:
“I have spent half of my time studying the sources of the life of Joseph Smith, and the other half studying the words of Christ and the New Testament prophets. I find it hard to believe in the biblical prophets without also accepting Joseph Smith and those called after him. The same reasons that lead a thinking person to accept Peter and Paul as Christ’s servants should also lead that person to accept Joseph Smith as commissioned by Christ.
Here I am going to take Paul as an example because we know more about his life than that of any other New Testament prophet. His main strengths as a prophet are also those of Joseph Smith.
If you forget some comparisons, please remember the principle—that the leading evidences that Paul is a true prophet also support Joseph Smith as called of God. Remembering that fundamental proposition, you can reconstruct this talk anytime with you own examples. Proof of the mission of any true prophet gives the format for identifying a later true prophet.”
Another BYU devotional. This one from Truman G. Madsen in 1978:
This portion of his talk shares the memory of an acquaintance of Joseph. She was present when an area church leader visiting her family twice. Each time the churchman discouraged this person’s father from allowing Joseph to have such good relations with his family.
Critics claim Joseph didn’t share his vision with others till 1832. Simply not true.
“The enemies of Joseph Smith have made out over and over that he was shiftless, lazy, indolent, that he never did a day’s work in his life.10 But a document exists that contains reported recollections about Joseph Smith as recorded by Martha Cox.
One of these comes from a woman, identified as Mrs. Palmer, who knew him in his early life when she was a child.11 As a girl—years younger than him, apparently—she watched him with others of the boys working on her father’s farm. Far from his being indolent, the truth is that, according to this account, her father hired Joseph because he was such a good worker.12
Another reason was that Joseph was able to get the other boys to work. The suspicion is that he did that by the deft use of his fists. It is my belief that one of the feelings he had of unworthiness, one of the things for which he asked forgiveness (and his account shows that he did pray for forgiveness prior to the visitations of Moroni), was this physical propensity.
He was so strong, so muscular, so physically able, that that was one way he had of solving problems. This troubled him. He did not feel it was consonant with the divine commission he had received.13
Mrs. Palmer’s account speaks of “the excitement stirred up among some of the people over [Joseph’s] first vision.” A churchman, she recalls, came to her father “to remonstrate against his allowing such close friendship between his family” and the boy Joseph. But the father, pleased with Joseph’s work on his farm, was determined to keep him on.
Of the vision, he said that it was “the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy.” Later, the daughter reports, Joseph claimed to have had another vision; and this time it led to the production of a book. The churchman came again, and at this point the girl’s father turned against Joseph. But, she adds significantly, by then it was too late. Joseph Smith had a following.14″
Insight into Joseph’s style:
Joseph personally wrote very little. Instead, he used many scribes:
Sandra Tanner, one of the LDS Church’s biggest critics, has been asked many times over the years why she left Mormonism. Of course, each time she shares a slightly different version. Years apart, and depending on the context, Sandra’s stories are slightly different. We wouldn’t expect anything else.
A friend of mine — who has studied ex-Mormons for decades — told me he had seen a list of Sandra Tanner’s many and various deconversion stories. Do these unique deconversion stories — some short, some long, some very detailed, some with dates, some with key details absent — prove Sandra was lying?
Of course not! The same must be said for Joseph. However, LDS critics are not nearly as consistent.
An anonymous letter (in favor of the LDS Church) in response to the Tanners’ book, “Mormonism–Shadow or Reality.”
Commenting on the differences between the various accounts of the First Vision, one non-LDS scholar commented as follows:
“Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between this canonical account [the 1838 account of the First Vision as found in the Pearl of Great Price] and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith’s own hand in 1832.
For example, in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event.
And despite the contradictions, key elements abide. In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain all of from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.”
(Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 171, comment in square brackets added for clarification)
More from Robert Boylan here.
A few personal thoughts about claimed conflict or tension between Joseph’s 1832 and 1838 accounts. Joseph said Lord twice in his 1832 journal. Joseph said separate beings in 1838 account.
Why so many accounts?
Did Joseph change his story?
Why weren’t the accounts identical?
Why don’t more Latter-day Saints know about the various accounts?
Conclusion on First Vision issues:
Critics claim Joseph didn’t report on the First Vision till his first written account in 1832. Not true. At least one account in the area newspaper (in 1831) reported that Joseph had seen God. 4 witnesses were aware of this 1831 account.
Listen around the 1:27:00 mark:
Short introduction about Joseph’s First Vision accounts written by himself or his scribes during his lifetime:
A graphical comparison of the details of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision.
Short introduction about accounts written by others during Joseph’s lifetime:
Short introduction with a focus on the familiar 1838 account:
Joseph’s First Vision may be the most well-documented theophany in history. Five of the eight documents are unique with three being copies of previous ones. Five other known writers documented the event in Joseph’s lifetime. Joseph published two known accounts in 1839 and 1842.
Scholars would be thrilled to have that much direct and indirect documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and Paul on the road to Damascus.
Speaking of Paul, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote about the many parallels between Paul’s and Joseph’s accounts here.
Both gave their accounts at different times, in different settings, with differing details. Complementary accounts, not obvious fraud.
Both can still be considered prophets. Worth reading.
Couple background videos about Joseph’s First Vision:
Joseph provided accounts throughout his life and many written accounts. Below is a graphic published in the Improvement Era in 1970. The same information was published in BYU Studies in 1969.
Richard Anderson wrote of the First Vision and details surrounding Joseph’s accounts in the April 1996 Ensign. Click here.
Matthew Grow shares his insight in Rome in 2016:
Ron Barney was the executive director of the Mormon History Association when he gave this talk:
Joseph’s story got abroad in the early days. He published his account to put an end to rumors and falsehoods. Joseph was never eager to share the First Vision. This may seem strange with us. But this is consistent with how he handled many other events.
For example, Joseph didn’t tell his father of his nightly Moroni visitations until Moroni told him to do so (the next day, after Joseph collapsed crossing the fence). Joseph likely wouldn’t have told anyone — and followed this pattern with his 1st Vision — unless instructed by the angel.
Joseph was religiously private. Joseph hesitated giving details about the translation of the Book of Mormon when asked for particulars by Hyrum. Joseph tried to teach church leaders to keep sacred experiences sacred. Joseph taught in 1835 before the Kirtland Temple dedication, “If God gives you a manifestation, keep it to yourself.”
April 3, 1836: Savior appeared to Joseph and Oliver. They received keys from Moses, Elias, and Elijah. Elder Pratt included this (Joseph Smith’s) journal entry into D&C 110, but not until 1876. But most don’t realize the Joseph discreetly kept the record of the event to himself. Joseph told few if any of the full scope.
Oliver was also disinclined to speak of the awesome 1836 event. Oliver had already shown this behavior: visited by the Savior in 1829 and shown the plates in a vision, Oliver shared this to virtually no one.
Not until November 1852 was this account published in the Deseret News. This was entirely consistent with Joseph. He shared little.
Matthew 17 contains the Transfiguration. Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John to tell no man. This type of event was not to be spread abroad.
According to Hugh Nibley: “From his own account [in the 1838-39 account of the First Vision] it is apparent that he would not have told it publicly at all had he not been “induced” to do so by all the scandal stories that were circulating. It was a rule among those possessing the Gospel in ancient times that the greater teachings not be publicly divulged.”
Likewise, no narrative exists from Joseph or Oliver relative to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The record shows Joseph and Oliver discussed it, but determined sharing was not appropriate.
Steven Harper: Four Accounts and Three Critiques of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Joseph Factual and interpretive (what vision meant over time) memory plays a role in Joseph’s individual accounts.
Criticisms that Steven Harper addresses:
1) Critics — from the first minister to today’s critics — denounced Joseph’s First Vision a priori. It just couldn’t have happened. Reasonable people know this, they say. This view is from a skeptical interpretation or hermeneutic. Latter-day Saints tend to have a hermeneutic of trust.
2) Joseph didn’t share First Vision story till 1840. False: written accounts exist from 1832. Other details were shared by others in 1820 and certainly before 1840. Critics’ methods assume how a person, such as Joseph, must have acted if the accounts were true. Joseph was criticized and persecuted. He didn’t share this story much in the early years.
A few days after Joseph’s vision, Joseph shared his story with the Methodist minister (who had been involved in the area’s religious upheavals). This minister showed great contempt. Joseph said in his 1832 account that “he could find no one” who would believe.
3) No revivals in Palmyra in 1820. Perhaps true, but you can’t prove a negative. But Joseph talked about the activity across the “district” and didn’t specify 1820. Many camp meetings were held in Manchester and the area in years around and including 1820. Joseph was factually accurate when you read the text of Joseph’s own report.
Brett McDonald also created a video, explaining the historical evidence behind the First Vision (from start till 43:00).
Joseph saw God and Jesus (2 unique individuals) in 1820. At the outset and for a variety of reasons (mostly persecution), Joseph told few people about this event. But Joseph shared much, much more than critics want to acknowledge. And he was consistent in his accounts of the vision.
Brian Hales shares information to rebut the CES Letter — the latest aggregated tract critical of LDS truth claims.
Brian Hales points out in the above video (starting at 4:25) that Joseph (w/ Sydney Rigdon) saw “the plain separateness of” God and Jesus, as they saw the 3 degrees of glory in vision (D&C 76). Their joint vision occurred on February 16, 1832. This vision occurred around 6 months before Joseph personally penned his first account of the 1st Vision.
Joseph did not hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead when he wrote his first account in the summer of 1832. How could he? Joseph saw God and Jesus separately several months before on 2/16/1832 recorded in D&C 76. He was neither a Trinitarian in 1832 — at the time Joseph recorded his First Vision story — nor earlier. The historical record is clear on the basis of recorded visions.
Critics assert that Joseph didn’t tell others about his first vision for years. And that his accounts weren’t consistent. The research shows otherwise.
Consider this timeline from the YouTube video below:
This speaker, Matthew Brown, at the 2004 FAIR Mormon conference showed below that Joseph did share his 1st Vision account with many others than the Methodist minister. The entire video is good. The first vision discussion starts at 18:40.
At 20:50 of the below video Matthew Brown points out that Joseph’s father and mother reported (verbally and in print) that Joseph was mistreated and persecuted in 1820 (after his first visitation from heaven took place) by religionists.
At 21: 09: A non-Mormon Smith neighbor is also quoted in 1820 who witnessed a religionist’s reaction. This religionist was a Presbyterian minister instructed the non-Mormon neighbor’s father to not allow his son to associate with the Smith boy. The minister continued, saying that Joseph “must be put down or else he would someday convince others to follow after him.” Not persecution? Would you have wanted to share your first vision with lots of folks after that?
These above accounts aren’t in alignment with many LDS critics’ claims. Critics claim that the 1st Vision didn’t exist until 1838, and wasn’t generally known by Latter-day Saints till 1840.
Further facts (at 22:10 in video): Joseph’s own town newspaper published in 1830 that Joseph Smith had seen God personally.
Missionaries from 1830 on taught that Joseph saw God and Jesus (as separate beings) in a grove of trees in 1820. The phrase, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”, was generally known.
Was Joseph’s experience known only to a few individuals? No! The opposite is true. In 1831 Joseph told a crowd of over 200 people about his earliest manifestation. And in 1834 he related it in a midst of many large congregations.
In addition to clarifying who knew about the First Vision before 1840, Matthew Brown shares much about the misconceptions regarding Joseph’s early days and ministry. So, watch the entire video…
Did early LDS leaders misunderstand the First Vision, as critics suggest? Nope.
Early friends and associates of the prophet were familiar with Joseph’s First Vision story. Read the link below:
A friend posted this in a discussion group:
“Use this handy chart. The First Vision Accounts are numbered 1-8. If it’s not on the list (for example, Cowdery’s 1834-35 letters to the editor, which is a Book of Mormon origin story) it’s not a FV account. Antis like to throw those in to make the differences seem larger than they are. Letters A-P are the various story points.
1) Letter Book, 1831-32, Joseph Smith
2) Jewish Minister, 1835, Joseph Smith
3) Official Version, 1838-39, Joseph Smith
4) Pratt tract, 1840, Orson Pratt
5) Hyde tract, 1842, Orson Hyde
6) Wentworth letter, 1842, Joseph Smith
7) N.Y. Spectator, 1843, Joseph Smith
8) Neibaur diary, 1844, Alexander Neibaur
A) Religious excitement: 3,8
B) JS’s concern for his soul: 1,4,5,6,8
C) Disillusionment w/existing churches: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
D) Which church was right: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
E) JS searches the scriptures: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
F) JS prays: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
G) Strange force of opposition: 2,3,4,5,8
H) Appearance of light: 1,2,3,4,7,8
I) Appearance of Deity: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
J) Two personages: 2,3,4,5,6,7,8
K) Forgiveness of sins: 1,2,4
L) Testimony of Jesus: 1,2,3,7
M) Join no church: 1,3,4,5,6,7,8
N) Gospel to be restored: 4,5,6
O) JS filled with love: 1
P) Unsuccessful in getting others to believe:1,3,8
With respect to the age question, every FV account which mentions age (as originally written) has him at 14 years old. The only outlier is the 1831-32 Letter Book account – which has him at 15 in an inclusion – which was added after the fact, in somebody else’s handwriting.”