Do you believe that God the Father, the Son, and maybe even the Holy Ghost visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820?
Or did Joseph have a vision of them?
Does the difference matter? Do you base your testimony, your faith in the existence of God, your continued participation in Mormonism, on a visit of Deity to a young farmboy?
Hearing about the First Vision growing up, I thought if only I had a time machine, I could go back to the spring of 1820 to the grove of trees where Joseph had his epiphany and observe the same thing I saw depicted in LDS paintings, stained-glass windows, and Church films about Joseph’s history: Two Men in white descending amidst brilliant light, talking to Joseph.
Now, after reading accounts of other visions Joseph and others had, I think that if Joseph had this experience as he recounted in his final written version, and if I had been able to time travel back to the First Vision, I would have seen Joseph talking into thin air. Why I still believe Joseph Smith told the truth about what he saw has to do with the understanding I now have not only of church history, but of visions in general.
As regards Church history, every primary account I have read of visions occurring in the first generation of the restored Church, including the Angel Moroni visiting Joseph while his siblings were in the same room, has been an entirely subjective one, where others present report not seeing the phenomenon.
As regards visions in general, scientists have performed experiments to determine that visions can be induced from a variety of stimuli, including lack of food or sleep, stress overload, imbibing liquor or other mind-altering substances, schizophrenia, and of course, meditation and prayer!
So, given the different accounts of the First Vision, it’s apparent to me that Joseph had an experience where he saw spiritual beings around the time he said he did. I believe Joseph entered a forest, knelt down, prayed aloud, had oppressive feelings followed by the overcoming of those feelings accompanied by a vision of heavenly beings, whether those beings were angels, Jesus alone, or Jesus and God the Father. That he remembered his vision differently at different times based on later spiritual experiences and theological reflection is very likely.
Now listen carefully to the varying language used to describe this experience by later commentators, who are usually trying to make a theological point (the Father and the Son are separate, corporeal, look alike, etc.) which Joseph never made in his History. “The Father and the Son appeared to the young farmboy”, “God the Father and the Son came down to Joseph”, “Joseph saw God”, etc. These are not all saying the same thing, although life-long Church members have been conditioned to ignore the differences.
In essence, did God the Father and Jesus Christ ride a celestial elevator downwards from Kolob to Palmyra , or did Joseph have a vision? I have no trouble accepting the latter interpretation, especially since the later accounts of heavenly visions followed the same pattern.
I can even accept the possibility that a naturalistic explanation of Joseph’s visions may be valid, in that his experiences may have had physiological roots. God can still be the ultimate cause of these experiences, no matter their immediate trigger.
What do you think?