tThThis is a summary of a subject that could fill a book (and some have done that). I will look primarily at the three main versions, which have been blended into what is now the official "first vision" story found in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith, Chapter 2).
Note first that there were no mentions of or references to this vision that supposedly occurred in 1820 until many years later, even though much was being written about church affairs. The first official printed version appeared in 1842, but was dated from earlier information, and the versions are here identified by first appearance date. Documentation for this can be found here: MRM.ORG/first vision has a listing of 9 versions. Richkelsey.org has a listing of the versions, and lds-mormon.com/fv.shtml has texts of the main vision versions.
This following summarizes some of the main problems with the various versions' statements.
WHEN? 1832 Smith was 16
1835 Smith was 14
1838 Smith was 15
(Note that names of leaders of revivals mentioned in connection with the first
vision have been researched by Wesley Walters. The actual revival dates
based on church records, were 1824-25, which means Smith would have been 18
when the vision occurred.
WHY? PGP says he wanted to "know which sect was right"
1832 account: He already knew all were wrong from study of the scriptures
WHO? 1832 the Son appeared
1835 two personages appeared, not identified
1838 the Father and Son appeared
WHAT TO DO? 1832 Do not join - churches are all wrong
1835 No instructions; no info on churches
1838 Do not join - churches are all wrong
The other websites mentioned identify other less significant differences between the versions.
LATER QUOTES: The general confusion created by the versions becomes obvious from these:
Apostle Orson Pratt said that God sent an ANGEL to Smith
J of D, Vol. 13, pages 65-66.
Brigham Young said "The Lord did not come...but he did sent his angel.
(J of D, Vol. 2, p. 171)
John Taylor said Smith asked the angel which sect to join
J of D Vol. 20, p. 167
(More could be provided...you get the idea.)
One other account was found in the Messenger and Advocate,(Vol. 1, pp 78-79) and in it it says Smith was seeking to know "if a supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of Him." It was said to have occurred in 1823 (Smith, age 17), and the result was a witness to Smith that his sins were forgiven. A whole different subject is involved in THIS version.
AUTHORITY ISSUE: There is one other obvious problem here with the first vision story. Doctrine and Covenants section 84:21-22 says "And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live." There is no record that Smith had any priesthood authority at the time of the first vision, regardless of whether he was 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18. The Bible likewise indicates that God the Father does not show himself to humans. (Ex 33:20, John 1:18, I John 4:12 I Tim. 6:16, God is Spirit in essence - John 4:24)
“Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith.
He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed
and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds
this world has ever seen."
There is no middle ground.
Joseph Fielding Smith, President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles; later Mormon Church President.
(Doctrines of Salvation, 1954, vol. 1, p. 188).