Richard Bushman, eminent LDS historian, writer of the Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling, and editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, recently submitted to a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) in the ex-Mormon forum. I thought a comment he made about the First Vision accounts was interesting.
As a preface, there are varying accounts of the First Vision, now considered a foundational event of Mormonism. The LDS Church recently put out an “essay” on the accounts that makes a decent starting point for those interested in learning more. The 1838 account has become the “official” account by virtue of being published in the Pearl of Great Price under Joseph Smith—History, but its reliability has been questioned due to its anonymous authorship and the lengthy time period (approx. 18 years) that passed between the First Vision and the time the account was written.
So on Reddit, Bushman, as familiar with the accounts as anyone, weighed in:
I am very much impressed by Joseph Smith’s 1832 History account of his early visions. This is the one partially written in his own hand and the rest dictated to Frederick G. Williams. I think it is more revealing than the official account presumably written in 1838 and contained in the Pearl of Great Price. We don’t know who wrote the 1838 account. Joseph’s journal indicates that he, Sidney Rigdon, and George Robinson collaborated on beginning the history in late April, but we don’t know who actually drafted the history. It is a polished narrative but unlike anything Joseph ever wrote himself. The 1832 history we know is his because of the handwriting. It comes rushing forth from Joseph’s mind in a gush of words that seem artless and uncalculated, a flood of raw experience. I think this account has the marks of an authentic visionary experience. There is the distance from God, the perplexity and yearning for answers, the perplexity, and then the experience itself which brings intense joy, followed by fear and anxiety. Can he deal with the powerful force he has encountered? Is he worthy and able? It is a classic announcement of a prophet’s call, and I find it entirely believable.