The Repost (from Dec 15, 2013)
There are four accounts of Joseph Smith Jr’s first vision story, the story where he saw God that started him on the path of restoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is how you got us Mormons in the world. You can read more about first visions with links to each of the accounts over here: https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts? lang=eng
I’ve read them before and I did so again and the differences have never bothered me. I have decided that it was time to articulate why it never bothered me and it all comes down to personal experience. The kind of experience where I am sure if you were to stop and think about it in your own life you would be able to relate to it.
I am going to use a spiritually moving dream I had (without actually telling you the dream because that’s not the point of this post) as an example because it covers all the bases. When telling this dream to different people I tell it differently. To some I emphasize different points in the dream, some more in the beginning, or the middle or the end. I’ll emphasize the points differently, or be more or less animated. I’ll use different metaphors to describe the same things.
With some people I’ll end up crying, and some not, and with one person in particular I was very mechanical in the telling and actually felt that it was a mistake to tell that person at that time. With some people I’ve left entire sections out because I felt those sections would be meaningless to them. I usually leave out details altogether no matter who I’m telling. I wrote the dream down, but needless to say the way I wrote it down is not exactly the same way I tell it. It’s thinner because details are missing. Since I’ve had the dream I also reflect upon it differently because I am at a different place in my life than I was before and sometimes I share such reflections which changes how I tell the dream. Not once in any telling did I ever lie.
I could use many more examples but I will refrain to avoid writing a novel.
How many times do we do this with other regular mundane life things as well? Do we tell everyone all the details that lead up to the really funny thing that our child did out on the playground? Do we all not edit the little stories of our lives depending on who our audience is? Do we not all sometimes tell only the gist of an event and then wait to reveal another part until we feel safe doing so or until when we feel it’s appropriate or relevant to add the part we held back? Even in a personal journal we know that there’s a possibility that someone may pick it up and read it and thus we may not even feel safe writing every personal thought or feeling down. I know I’ve felt that before and that it’s affected my journal entries.
So, when I read the first vision accounts and that’s what I see in them. They seem humanly consistent to me. I wonder what my spiritual experiences would look like if all my retellings over the years got written down and shown to the world. Perhaps I would look like a liar too.
The real problem is that the church hid these differing accounts. They were unacknowledged for a long long time. That's not okay. It's such a simple thing to explain why there would be different versions. I have often wondered, what if there was more to the vision not revealed? What if he saw Heavenly Mother? Only later did he speak about Her, but maybe Joseph Smith saw her from the beginning and didn't feel safe to speak on it.
Whatever the case, it would have been a simple thing to talk about the different tellings for different audiences, at different ages, etc. The church could have fostered faith building experiences by talking about the different versions openly. Instead, the church hid the truth and thus fostered confusion and doubt, the very thing they were trying to avoid.