How Joseph Smith’s differing accounts of the First Vision reveal the doctrine and dealings of God

Elder Kyle S. McKay is a believer in the First Vision of Joseph Smith.

That was the first thing the General Authority Seventy and assistant executive director of the Church History Department wanted his audience to know as he shared insights and commentary about Joseph Smith’s First Vision during a Facebook live event for the Church History Museum.

Many of Elder McKay’s “Ph.D-brilliant friends” in the Church History Department have explained to him that historians must research dispassionately, bringing no preconceived ideas with them.

“I am not dispassionate about the First Vision,” Elder McKay said in his remarks on Thursday, Sept. 24. Although the First Vision is a matter of history, it is more than just history. It constitutes what Paul called “the things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), Elder McKay said.

Although his primary purpose Thursday night was not to refute the arguments thrown up by critics of the First Vision, he said, he was aware that some of his remarks would do just that because he has had some of the same questions. “However, we come to different conclusions, the critics and I, mainly because we start from different places,” he said. “I take as my pattern the boy Joseph who entered the grove and asked God with unwavering faith. If you would have knowledge of the deep things of God, from God, then you must ask God with unwavering faith.”

The First Vision, by Kenneth Riley.
The First Vision, by Kenneth Riley. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Some of the things that the critics of the First Vision bring up can fall into two categories, Elder McKay explained. “No. 1: the timing of Joseph’s recording of the First Vision. Why did it take so long if it was such a significant event? No. 2: the differences, the various discrepancies, maybe even some errors in one or two of the accounts. I’ve had those questions,” he said, “and so I will address them.”

Elder McKay asked listeners, “If you saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, in a secluded grove, would you write about it? I would. Would you wait 12 or 18 years to write about it? I wouldn’t, and I don’t think you would either.” One reason not to wait: “You don’t have to go into debt to buy a pen and paper,” he said.

Joseph Smith had to borrow money to buy a quill and a little bottle of ink during the translation of the Book of Mormon. “Your world is not Joseph’s world. Moreover, his world, his tradition both in his family and for the time, was not one of making a recorded history,” Elder McKay said.

Joseph never wrote about the dramatic and traumatic events in his life. He never wrote about his 7-year-old experience almost losing his leg. He didn’t write about the First Vision, the death of Alvin, the visitation of Moroni, his courtship with and marriage to Emma. He did not write about the birth or the death of his children.

“He wrote nothing historical until the Lord commanded ‘there shall be a record kept among you’ (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). And even then, it took him two years to start obeying that commandment. Joseph simply did not write. The fairer question would be why didn’t Joseph write about anything? And in context for his time, it becomes clear.”

Joseph, as well as Emma, understood his lack of writing capacity. Emma observed he couldn’t put together three coherent sentences, and Joseph was keenly aware of his weakness in writing. In a letter written to W.W. Phelps in November 1832 he wrote, “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison … of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”

“Joseph simply didn’t have words, he didn’t have the capacity to communicate what happened to him in the grove in the spring of 1820 and neither do you,” Elder McKay said. “It surpasses comprehension and expression.”

Fortunately, there are four accounts that Joseph either wrote or dictated to others.

The 1832 account

The account produced in 1832 was written by Joseph’s scribe, Frederick G. Williams, but the actual First Vision itself is in Joseph Smith’s handwriting. The account is personal, autobiographical and reflective, Elder McKay said.

The 1832 account account of the First Vision is on display as part of the Church History Library's "Foundations of Faith" exhibit.
The 1832 account account of the First Vision is on display as part of the Church History Library’s “Foundations of Faith” exhibit. Credit: Church History Library

One of the things Joseph focuses on in the 1832 account is that he was distressed for his own sins. “This was one thing that is consistent through all of his accounts. He was troubled. He wanted freedom from sin. He wanted forgiveness. He wanted salvation. And how to get it he did not know. He did know this: there was a God. … He also knew and trusted the scriptures.”

One of the discrepancies that arises in the 1832 account is that Joseph said the event happened in his 16th year of age, or in other words, when he was 15. All the other accounts that mention age specifically put him at 14 years of age and that includes the 1838 account which is now scripture.

“The simple explanation for this: He got it wrong. I’m OK with that,” Elder McKay said. “We’ll learn more about how easy it is to get things off by a little bit. This is a nonmaterial error regarding a nonmaterial fact.”

In this edition, when the Father and the Son appear, Christ testifies of Himself and says “none doeth good. … They draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”

The 1832 edition has as its main focus Joseph’s pursuit for personal forgiveness and salvation, but “none doeth good” shows that there was a conversation about the creeds of the day or which church is right, Elder McKay explained. It serves as an important tie to the 1838 account, which seems to be almost exclusively about what church is right.

Also in this account, Joseph makes the statement, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord,” which gives some people pause. “This language actually helps us to understand language in some of the other accounts, and it helps us to understand the dealings of God with His children,” Elder McKay said.

In the 1835 account Joseph sees a personage appear in the midst of a pillar of flame and then another personage soon appears like the first. In an account Joseph related to a reporter, David Nye White, Joseph recounts that a “glorious personage” appears in a light, then another personage, and the first personage says to the second “Behold my beloved Son, hear him.”

These accounts are consistent with His doctrine where the Lord testifies and reveals the Father and the Father testifies and reveals the Son, Elder McKay said. In 3 Nephi 11:32 Jesus says “ I bear witness of the Father and the Father beareth witness of me and the Holy Ghost beareth witness of the Father and me.”

Closeup of Joseph Smith handwritten account of First Vision
Closeup of Joseph Smith handwritten account of First Vision Credit: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In the First Vision, “the Lord God revealed the Lord Jesus, as He had done and testified of Him at His baptism, at the Mount of Transfiguration, and then of course [God] showed Him, [God] revealed Him, to the Nephites at the Bountiful temple after His resurrection. This is consistent with the various accounts and also with His doctrine and dealings.”

The 1835 account

The 1835 account is a journal entry written by Joseph’s scribe Warren Parrish. It captures a conversation between Joseph and Robert Matthews, who was an eccentric religionist of that day, Elder McKay said. He had heard of Joseph and asked him to recount some of his experiences, which Joseph did.

This is the only account where Joseph records that he “saw many angels” as the heavens were opened. “This again points us to God’s dealings with His children,” Elder McKay said and directed listeners to Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants where, after saying “we beheld the glory of the Son,” Joseph and Sidney Rigdon saw the holy angels and those who are worshiping God and the Lamb. This experience is consistent with what Lehi saw in 1 Nephi 1:8 and Alma the Younger recounting his experience to his son Helaman in Alma 36:22.

“If the heavens are opened to you and you are privileged to see God the Father, it is likely you will see numberless concourses of angels. … Joseph’s experience was consistent with that,” Elder McKay said.

Joseph also records in 1835 that he knelt in the sacred grove with a “realizing sense” that the Lord had said “ask and you shall receive” (James 1:5).

Elder McKay explained that the suffix “ize” means “to make or become.” For Joseph it was “made real” to him that if he asked, God would answer.

According to the 1832 account, Joseph had been wrestling with questions for three or four years. “During the three or four years before his battle with darkness in the grove, Joseph had already fought and won the battle against darkness and doubt simply to get to the grove with a certainty that if he asked, God would answer. That is unwavering faith. That is also stirring to my soul,” Elder McKay said.

The 1838 account

This account is an attempt at creating a history for and of the Church. It is written at a time of intense persecution and hardship. Joseph is responding to what he calls “evil disposed and designing persons” and “his language is pretty harsh,” Elder McKay noted.

This is also the account recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. In it, Joseph says, “How to act I did not know.” “That’s why he went to the grove,” Elder McKay said. “This is the link back to the personal journey for salvation, the quest for forgiveness.” In essence, Joseph is saying “I know I need it. I just don’t know how.”

The 1838 version highlights Joseph’s quest to find out which church is true. “Why did he need to know?” Elder McKay asked. “Well, so he could find out how to come unto Him and be saved.”

The 1842 account — the Wentworth Letter

Elder McKay explained that in 1842 Joseph wrote a letter to John Wentworth, relating his experience in the sacred grove. Wentworth was an editor for the Chicago Democrat and had asked for Joseph’s experiences on behalf of his friend, George Barstow, who was writing a history of New Hampshire. Joseph had received the groundbreaking treatment to his infected leg as a young boy while living in New Hampshire. Barstow wanted input from Joseph, which he gave.

It was written for influencers and opinion leaders, Elder McKay said, during a time of relative peace for the early Saints “so the language is toned down a little bit.”

In scene from film, young Joseph Smith looks for answers in the Bible while his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, works at the table. His reading of James 1:5 led to his prayer in the Sacred Grove and the First Vision.
In scene from film, young Joseph Smith looks for answers in the Bible while his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, works at the table. His reading of James 1:5 led to his prayer in the Sacred Grove and the First Vision. Credit: Photo copyright Intellectual Reserve Inc.

There is again evidence of Joseph’s unwavering faith, as he writes, “I had confidence in the declaration of James.”

Joseph also recounts that he received a promise from the Father that the fulness of the gospel would at some future time be made known unto him.

After giving insights into Joseph’s fourth account, Elder McKay made the event “present and personal” by sharing an experience of when he was preparing to serve a mission to Japan in 1979.

Soon after entering the missionary training center, the young elder realized he couldn’t testify with any certainty. It caused him concern or “a little bit of the anxiety Joseph might have been experiencing in my own little world,” Elder McKay said. He decided to exercise a particle of faith and take Moroni up on his challenge in Moroni 10:3-5. He knelt down and said, “Heavenly Father, I’m going to read this. Right now I can’t say that I know, and I need to know. When I’m done, I expect to know. I expect to be given a witness that is undeniable and unshakeable.” Elder McKay said he wanted a visitation.

At the end of three weeks, the young Elder McKay finished the Book of Mormon and knelt by his bed to pray for a witness. The feeling that came over him, Elder McKay recalled, can best be described with words such as love, joy, comfort, peace, assurance. “It was overwhelming. It caused me to weep into my pillow.”

The young elder took it as a precursor to the heavenly witness he was expecting but no heavenly messenger appeared. He then asked the Lord to send a voice, but there was no sound. Although he still felt “that wonderful feeling,” Elder McKay said he was confused he hadn’t received the witness that he had sought.

Several days later at a mission conference, the young elder sat with his head in his hands, elbows on his knees, as the speaker invited the missionaries to read Doctrine and Covenants 6. His head shot up as he heard the words of the Lord to Oliver Cowdry. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?”

It was as though the Lord were telling him that he needed to learn the language of the Spirit, Elder McKay recalled. “That experience was and is to me beautiful and foundational, and I continue to build upon it and learn from it.”

Elder Kyle S. McKay offers insights and commentary on the First Vision in a Facebook live event at the Church History Museum on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.
Elder Kyle S. McKay offers insights and commentary on the First Vision in a Facebook live event at the Church History Museum on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Credit: Screenshot

Coincidentally, Elder McKay has recorded that experience four times through his life. First, in his missionary journal in 1979, then again in 1991, then in 2004 and finally last year in 2019. The version he shared during his remarks was roughly the 2019 version, he said.

He then read to listeners his 1979 journal entry which included misspellings and language more common to a 19-year-old. The 1979 version is roughly 200 words while the 2019 version is about 750, Elder McKay said. The 1991 and 2004 versions contain historical factual errors. In one version, he identifies the meeting as an MTC devotional. It was actually a mission conference. In the other, he misidentifies the speaker.

“Do those two errors in those two versions and whatever embellishment might appear to some, does that blow up the entire account? Am I making this up? Anyone who listens to this is left to judge for themselves. I will just tell you that it happened — just as I recorded in 1979, just as I recorded in 2019 and just as I recorded in ‘91 and ‘04.”

This experience has helped him to understand Joseph’s experience, Elder McKay said. “The differences and discrepancies and even some errors in nonmaterial facts, they simply do not bother me.”

One of the most important applications of the First Vision, Elder McKay said in conclusion, is that God is responsive to His children. He quoted President Russell M. Nelson who said, “If Joseph Smith’s transcendent experience in the Sacred Grove teaches us anything, it is that the heavens are open and that God speaks to His children. The Prophet Joseph Smith set a pattern for us to follow in resolving our questions” (October 2018 general conference).

Elder McKay reminded listeners that the First Vision is an individual child’s quest for salvation and forgiveness. By placing this event at the beginning of the Restoration, God “is taking a child, this 14-year-old child, and placing him in our midst and inviting us to become like him. With so many words and so many ways, including the placement of that First Vision at the beginning, God is saying to us: ‘You come to me in a secluded place, and with unwavering faith, you ask me for forgiveness. Ask me for truth and light and knowledge. Ask me using the words of your mouth, and if you ask with unwavering faith, I will come to you. I will forgive you. I will give you light and knowledge and truth.’”