Revised 31 August 2015
Why 1838, eighteen years after the First Vision, before we get an official version? Steven Harper has helped us with this question in an interesting chapter titled “Listening to Joseph Remember.”(11) He points out that critics and believers alike can see a change in emphasis from the earlier accounts to the 1838 and 1842 renditions. Critics, of course, see this as evidence of evolution and embellishment. Harper’s insight, which should make sense to all of us who have related an important story from our own lives, is that we do not see its full meaning at the time it happens.(12) Joseph did not call this the First Vision in the spring of 1820, precisely because he did not then know it would be either the first of many or that it was to be the foundation of the Restoration. That clarity and understanding grew with time, experience, and greater understanding. So, for Harper the evidence “can just as reasonably be read as evidence of insight.”(13). Therefore, we see the wisdom of God in waiting until 1838 for Joseph to write an official introduction to Mormonism.
As can be seen from this bibliography these documents have been available in a number of venues by a number of authors for the better part of half a century, yet as Harper observes, "they are little known by most Later-day Saints and others" (pp. 31-32). It was Dean Jessee's view, which I share, that the reason they are not more well known among the Saints is because so few of them read, especially the history of the Church. See Harper, pp. 34-35. Unfortunately, this often includes those who do much of the teaching in the Church's Sunday School, Priesthood, and Young Men and Young Women weekly classes. Consequently, many are surprised, shocked, and sometimes disturbed at the sudden awareness of this and things like the use of the seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon that receive immediate and sensational publicity on the Internet's social media, but which is old, very old, news to the Saint well-read in his own history.
11. Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, chapter 7, pp. 94-110.
12. Many years ago Elder Marion D. Hanks shared a touching story about a girl named Donna who had committed a serious transgression, but was helped through it by her entire ward. Then he said, “A number of years ago Brother Joseph Anderson and I had the privilege of driving with President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., to a solemn assembly in St. George. On the way I related to him this story, it having recently happened then. He thought a long time and had a tear in his eye as he said, ‘Brother Hanks, that is the most significant story I ever heard to illustrate the great importance of our filling our individual obligations in the Church. When you have thought about it long enough, pass it on to others.’” Marion D. Hanks, Conference Report, April 1966, pp. 152-153, emphasis added.
13. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, p. 109. Harper draws on studies of memory in historical writing to make his point about how we gain understanding of the significant experiences in our lives. On the difference between early and late accounts Harper said of the 1832 version, "Later accounts are more conscious of the vision's significance for all mankind...." Harper, p. 33.