As a missionary one criticism I heard from some individuals who were not friendly [antagonistic] towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was that there were four accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision (there are more but none of the others are first-hand and people who were attacking me as a missionary and the church I belong to only brought up 4). Because the versions all differ to some degree, these individuals believed that this proved that Joseph Smith made up his experience.
I always thought this was a strange argument to make, particularly because the Gospels cover the Savior’s ministry but do not tell all the same stories and in the same way. There are repeats (with significant differences) of stories in the Old Testament. What individual recounts a story in exactly the same way on subsequent retellings?
I know why certain individuals brought up the existence of multiple versions of the First Vision – they were trying to use it as justification for their own disbelief or they were trying to instill doubt in the minds of us missionaries. There is nothing inherently wrong with doubts but sometimes people let doubts become stumbling blocks to their faith. The best way to overcome doubts is to seek the Lord earnestly in prayer. We can also study what others have written about matters or discuss the issues with others, preferably people we trust, but the Lord is the source of truth and seeking His inspiration should not be neglected.
I view the multiple accounts of Joseph’s vision as great resources to better understand Joseph’s experience. He spent more than a year contemplating the nature of Christ’s gospel, his need for repentance, the nature of God and the universe, and many other things. He did not simply decide to pray one day, he worked toward that time for more than a year. We are richly blessed by the different accounts of his vision.
If you want to know more about the First Vision and the various accounts, Jeff Lindsay’s post is a great place to start.