The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently announced it has translated into ten languages the four known accounts by Joseph Smith of the First Vision.
The LDS Church has not tried to hide the fact that there are multiple accounts. The four versions have been publicly available to read on LDS.org for some time.
Being available for the first time in ten widely spoken languages significantly increases the number of church members who can read all four accounts for themselves. The Church follows the reliable and scriptural pattern of making as much as possible available to as many as possible and then to invite all us to come and decide for ourselves.
One skeptical viewpoint is that Joseph Smith started with one small story and continued to embellish upon it until he reached a First Vision involving God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
Why did Joseph Smith not tell what happened in the Sacred Grove the same way, with all the same details, each time he told it?
According to two Joseph Smith Papers scholars interviewed by the Deseret News, “each firsthand account was related by Joseph at a different time in his life, under different circumstances, and for different audiences. The accounts vary in detail, offering different perspectives of the same event, but relate a consistent story overall.”
Far from being a fraudulent embellishment, the different versions show us why people may choose to keep the full details of their private moments to themselves.
In the account we have in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith admits that still he has not (as of 1838) said all there is to say about what happened in the Sacred Grove.
“and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” Joseph Smith-History 1:20
We can speak from personal experience about not sharing everything. Many members of the church have received moments of revelatory light or heaven-sent comfort that they keep to themselves. This is how we are with our Patriarchal Blessings. We may vaguely refer to it in a sacrament talk, we may even tell a few people about some of the specifics of our blessing, but we know the blessing is for ourselves only. We keep it sacred.
The same Holy Spirit who gives revelation to us also constrains us from sharing with others what was given to us, what was meant only for us. Nephi experienced this constraint by the Spirit, to not write all he knew.
“And behold, I, Nephi, am forbidden that I should write the remainder of the things which I saw and heard; wherefore the things which I have written sufficeth me; and I have written but a small part of the things which I saw.” 1 Nephi 14:28
After writing about the coming of Christ to the Nephites, Mormon was about to write the greater things of the God, which great things would be to our condemnation if we did not keep it, but Mormon was forbidden to write them.
“And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation. Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” 3 Nephi 26:9-11
I can also speak from experience. There was a time when an answer to a prayer came to me in a moment of need and I knew the answer came from God. I recognized the answer I received was meant for me only. If I were to openly tell about my questions and my answers then I would open myself to doubt and even ridicule. There are others, I am sure, who would be edified by a testimony of receiving answers to prayer. I choose to not share all I know because what I know is a part of me and, like Mary, I have “kept all these things, and pondered them in [my] heart.” ( Luke 2:19) In my experience, the greatest spiritual experiences we can have are meant to make it so we know that God loves us, that He knows us and that He is there for us. We keep this in our heart.
We may look at the First Vision as being the beginning of the Restoration. I don’t think Joseph Smith saw it this way. He had a question that he pondered in his soul. In faith he went to God in prayer for an answer. It was for Joseph. A few years later he would receive the gold plates and with help he would translate it and with help he would publish it. The Book of Mormon was beginning of the restoration of truth to all the world. The Book of Mormon was for the world, the First Vision was for Joseph. Keeping certain details to himself he shows how sacred it was and remained to the prophet.
By reading the four accounts of the First Vision I see a man who desired to impress a certain lesson on a certain audience and he only told as much as he felt was needed to make the point clearly. I don’t doubt Joseph Smith. I feel a kinship with him. By keeping what he knew to himself he honored God who gave to him all he knew. By sharing with us what he felt was right he showed he loved us all enough to share what was sacred to him.
When Joseph Smith shared the true story of the First Vision, he shared part of his soul. He shared only a part at first. Slowly, and surely under God’s commandment, he shared more and more until he had given all that God called him to give.