Between 1832 and 1843, Joseph Smith wrote and recounted on a number of occasions a visionary encounter with the divine that occurred during his youth. While details vary among the known accounts, Smith wrote that at about age fourteen he became concerned over his personal salvation and, confused by the variety of competing creeds, took the matter up in prayer in a nearby grove of trees where Smith claimed to have been visited personally by God the Father and Jesus Christ who forgave him of his sins and informed him that all Christian churches had gone astray. There is ongoing debate regarding the multiple accounts that Smith gave of his experience, which vary in both details of the heavenly visitation and the nature of his inquiry. Faithful scholars tend to emphasize a basic harmony between the accounts, while those who are skeptical tend to emphasize their disparity, calling into question the veracity of Smith’s claim.
Religious historians agree that claimed encounters with divine beings were not uncommon during this heightened spiritual period, pointing to charismatic religious figures like Charles Grandison Finney, Elias Smith, and Anne Lee, who also claimed to have visionary experiences. Although Smith’s theophany was not emphasized during the early years of the church, Latter-day Saints in the 20th century began referring to Smith’s encounter as the “First Vision,” placing it at the foundation of what believers call the “restoration of God’s true church in the fullness of times.”
Most of the debate surrounding Joseph Smith’s claim to have experienced a vision of God and Jesus Christ center on two troublesome areas: the lateness of Smith’s reports, with the earliest known written record being 1832, some twelve years after the event reportedly occurred, and the discrepancies between Smith’s various accounts of the event. Historians Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven Harper attempted to harmonize the various accounts in their co-edited volume, Exploring the First Vision. Decades earlier, historian Milton Backman defended the events of the First Vision in his book, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts. Skeptics of the First Vision account include former CES Director, Grant Palmer, whose 2002 book, An Insiders View of Mormon Origins, concluded in his final chapter that Smith’s various accounts portray a developing narrative that challenges Smith’s claims about the event. Among the various articles published on the topic, a classic that discusses the historical debate is Marvin S. Hill’s “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation.”
See Gospel Topics Essay: “First Vision Accounts.”