For years, critics have pointed to the differing accounts of Joseph Smith's so-called "First Vision" as proof that the Mormon founder made up his boyhood encounter with the divine.
But a high-ranking LDS leader said Sunday that those varying versions do just the opposite.
"Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication," Richard J. Maynes, of the Utah-based faith's Presidency of the Seventy, told a global audience of Mormon young adults. "To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well-documented."
In his address, streamed via the Internet across the world from the Mormon Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City, Maynes reviewed the four accounts — dating from 1832, 1835, 1838 and 1842 — that Smith either wrote or dictated during his life.
The most widely circulated version came in 1838. This canonized piece tells of a 14-year-old Smith seeking God's help in guiding him to the true Christian religion while the boy prayed in the woods in 1820 in upstate New York. In it, Smith asserts that he saw two physical beings, God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, who tell him to join none of the day's churches and instruct him that the pure gospel would be returned to the Earth through him.
In earlier accounts, however, Smith tells of seeing only one divine personage and that he originally sought forgiveness of his sins.
Despite the apparent discrepancies, Maynes said, these versions "make Joseph's First Vision the best-documented vision in history."
"It is a blessing to have these accounts," he said. " … They together tell Joseph's consistent, harmonious story."
Maynes noted that the Bible, too, offers differing takes on the Apostle Paul's visionary Christian conversion on the road to Damascus.
The Mormon leader urged his audience to read an essay The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published about the First Vision accounts. That article says the versions "tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail."
"When an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years," the essay states, "each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details."
This essay is one of nearly a dozen the LDS Church has published in recent years to explain and explore the sometimes sticky aspects of Mormon history and theology.
Maynes' Sunday address can be seen as part of a continuing push by LDS leaders to spread the word about these essays to members and outsiders alike. They have said these topics will increasingly become part of the church's curriculum. In fact, Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard recently urged LDS seminary teachers to "know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand" and use the information to answer students' sincere questions.
Before Maynes spoke, his wife, Nancy, shared the story of her conversion to Mormonism and said Smith's vision "rang true" to her. She was introduced to the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, by her husband-to-be, a returned LDS missionary who wanted to date her. He ultimately baptized her and, a year later, they married in the Manti Temple in central Utah.
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