The First Vision of Joseph Smith is one of the defining moments in the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With it began the Restoration of the gospel and the reopening of the communication between God and his children. Even after the contributions of scholars such as Milton V. Backman, James B. Allen, John W. Welch, and Steven C. Harper, most Latter-day Saints are familiar with only the canonized account of this vision recorded in Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price. However, there are other accounts of it recorded by Joseph Smith as well as other secondary sources.
In this short book that is also filled with beautiful illustrations, Matthew B. Christensen attempts to do something that many agree is long overdue: harmonize ten different accounts of the First Vision into one comprehensive account. He begins his book by providing certain criteria that helped him decide which accounts he should or should not use in this harmony. Basically, he chose to use only those that were recorded during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, resulting in ten accounts. He then goes on to summarize each of them, briefly discussing their origins, authors, and content. After these summaries, he describes his method of bringing the accounts together into one, and his organizational plan, which is essentially to keep the canonized version as the “core melody,” and to have the other nine accounts as “accompaniment” in the “harmony” (9). He also notes the limitations to such a task, and comments that though he has tried to ensure a fair portrayal of all the accounts, he is aware that there may be some human error evident in the final outcome.
After these introductory sections, Christensen provides the reader with a color key, which assigns a specific color to each of the different accounts so as to aid the reader when going through the harmony. The next pages contain the harmony itself, and it is in these pages that the reader will be able to read the many different accounts of the First Vision as one flowing version. After this harmony, he offers a short conclusion, including a small section with an invitation from Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon with their promise of a personal witness to the truthfulness of their testimonies.
Those interested in a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, member of the Church or not, will find this an informative read. It offers a new approach to all of the various accounts of the First Vision and uncovers some of the lesser-known details and thoughts of Joseph before, during, and after the event. As a result, it is more varied than the canonized version and even includes a section where all of Christ’s words from the different accounts are together at one time. Visitors at the new exhibition in Salt Lake City at the Church History Museum entitled “The Heavens Are Open” will also encounter a shorter but similar harmonization in the dramatic presentation of the First Vision there.
While it is helpful to see the various accounts harmonized as one, readers will also benefit from Christensen’s encouragement that all readers undertake a serious study of all the different accounts separately. The First Vision is best seen in this light; it is an aid to help curious readers learn and be uplifted by the unified accounts and to encourage them to seek out more involved research about the accounts. Ultimately, The First Vision is intended to strengthen testimony and show that the different accounts are indeed harmonious and accordant.