Multiple Accounts of the First Vision
The first point we must illustrate to better understand why the accounts differ slightly is that the account of the first vision was a reflection on events that happened 10 years prior to them being formally recorded. Think about how long its been since you went to the movies. Did you go to the movies 2 months ago or was it really 6 months ago or 1 month ago? The exact time table becomes blurry in retrospect. This is a factor most people who aim to be critical of the first vision all try to downplay. Using this logic, we can simply come to the conclusion the timeline is not whats important to focus on here.
So how do we look at these accounts to figure out what is important? We must begin to look at the first vision as simply a conversion story, Joseph Smith was our first and also our model convert to the LDS church. After all, Joseph Smith didn't found the church, he just restored it through communication with divine authorities. Noah may have built the Ark, but it was God who directed this operation. The same logic can be applied here. When Joseph first received the vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ he was between 12-15 years old. (1820's)When he was recording this Vision, things changed because his understanding of what he saw grew. God promised he would reveal many things to Joseph Smith. By 1850 many things were very clear to Joseph Smith. It is apparent that Joseph Smith never intended to prepare a single comprehensive account of the first vision. Joseph instead gave various accounts to different people when asked about his conversion story.In each account,he highlighted different points. He did not change the story, but he did however touch on different points.
Most people take the account that was published in 1832 of the first vision (Which was written as part of an autobiography) and they like to point out that it only mentions one personage (Jesus) but it doesn't disprove the presence of two. It just doesn't mention the second. We educatedly speculate that at this point, God the Father had not shown him enough to come to this conclusion.
We know he did not receive the Aaronic (Levitical) Priesthood until 1829 and the Melchizedek Priesthood wasn't conferred on him until at least 1830. This supports the idea that the fullness of the gospel was still in process. Given that this was a time of shaping the church, it is important to understand that Joseph Smith's way of thinking probably was still centered in the Protestant churches where he grew up.
Lets start looking at this as a conversion story and begin dissecting what Is important from the varied accounts. Beginning with 1832 we have an element that is unique to the other accounts:
" At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul"He feels guilty, is concerned about how God feels about his trespasses. In this account he relates that Jesus Christ extends a hand of redemption and commission's him with work to do.
"he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life"He related a this similarly in an 1835 account simply saying :
"he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee."By 1839 the published account illustrates his concern for which church to join saying
" which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, "Lo here" and some Lo there. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist;"By 1835 we can see that he was reading his bible and certian verses became increasingly significant to him.
"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."He followed this logic and sought a way for redemption and knowledge. We know in every account that this led him to the woods to pray. Some accounts mention the adversary working against him seeking the truth, others do not. It is consistent in all accounts from 1832 to 1850 that he had a heavenly vision. As of 1832 he shows us he an answer to his initial inquiry of redemption.
"and he spake unto me saying Joseph
thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life"
"My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner therefore did I get possession of myself so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right, (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join."It is true that Joseph testified that God the Father and Jesus Christ the son were independent beings, not manifestations of a Triune Godhead which was the most widely accepted view embraced at the time. He testified also, that the churches that existed in the current dispensation were in a state of Apostasy and that a restoration of truth was essential to understanding God's plan.
It is important to look at the version that was canonized in the Pearl of Great Price in context. It is known as the Wentworth Letter. It was written to "disabuse the public mind" and related to a newspaper that was inquiring about the church. (John Wentworth, Editor and Proprietor of the Chicago Democrat.) It can be seen as the most accurate account that touched on the most defining points.