(This is an excerpt from Joseph Smith's First Vision by Steven C. Harper.
Joseph Smith’s first vision may be the best documented theophany in history. In the 1830s and 1840s Joseph wrote or caused scribes to write five known accounts declaring that the Lord opened the heavens upon him. Four of these five documents were later copied at least once, sometimes more, resulting in revisions each time. Five other known writers documented the event during Joseph’s lifetime. Scholars would be thrilled to have that much primary and secondary documentation of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, or Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.
Joseph Smith worked hard to document his experience in the grove, and scholars have worked hard to raise awareness of his several accounts. The Church and various scholars have published and publicized these documents repeatedly for half a century now. Images of the documents containing the primary accounts are in the Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The accounts are being published again and put online as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (josephsmithpapers.org).
Even so, they are little known by most Latter-day Saints and others. Strangely, some believers do not want to know the plentiful historical record. They can hardly be troubled with Joseph’s efforts to capture his sublime experience. Some critics, meanwhile, assert that the documentary richness shows Joseph to be a fraud. But seekers are not satisfied with either of these approaches. They thirst for all the evidence and examine it for themselves. They read, remember, and ponder Joseph’s descriptions. They seek understanding and verification. This presentation of the accounts is for them.
The first vision accounts were created in specific historical settings that shape what they say and how they say it. Each of the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision has its own history. Each was created in circumstances that determined how it was remembered and communicated and thus how it was transmitted to us. Each account has gaps and omissions. Each adds detail and richness.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Steven C. Harper, pp. 31-2