In his 1894 autobiographical account of a visit of Joseph Smith to Pontiac, Michigan, Edward Stevenson reports the words of Joseph Smith's 1834 sermon:
Here are some of the Prophet’s words, as uttered in the schoolhouse. With uplifted hand, he said, “I am a witness that there is a God, for I saw Him in open day, while praying in a silent grove in the spring of 1820.”
He further testified that God, the Eternal Father, pointing to a separate personage, in the likeness of Himself, said: “This is my Beloved Son, hear ye Him.” Oh how these words thrilled my entire system, and filled me with joy unspeakable, to behold one who, like Paul the apostle of olden time, could with boldness testify that he had been in the presence of Jesus Christ!
DCP introduces this information with the observation that:
DCP wrote:It's sometimes alleged by critics that Joseph Smith came up with the idea of a visit of two personages--the Father and the Son--rather late.
OK, well, that Stevenson account looks like decent evidence that the "critics" are wrong, or, to take it out of a polemical context and restore the discussion to its proper historiographical context, that historians might add this to their evidences that Smith was claiming a visit of two "personages" in 1834.
Here's the problem, and it is a real problem:
Contamination of memory. Mr. Stevenson is recounting this event in 1894. By this time, not only would Joseph Smith's 1838 First Vision account of two personages, in one form or another, been known for many years (the Joseph Smith History was canonized in 1880 as part of the PoGP), but also the hymn "Joseph Smith's First Prayer" which would appear in the Sunday School Union Songbook. Also, there was C. C. A. Christensen's painting of the First Vision, completed by 1878 and now lost.
If we look more closely at Stevenson's account, we see how its language is reminiscent of both the Joseph Smith History (canonized as part of the PoGP in 1880) and the hymn.
Stevenson wrote:With uplifted hand, he said, “I am a witness that there is a God, for I saw Him in open day, while praying in a silent grove in the spring of 1820.”
Joseph Smith History wrote:14 So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty.
Manwaring wrote:Oh, how lovely was the morning!
Radiant beamed the sun above.
Now for the two "personages":
Stevenson wrote:God, the Eternal Father, pointing to a separate personage, in the likeness of Himself, said: “This is my Beloved Son, hear ye Him.
Joseph Smith History wrote:When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
Manwaring wrote:While appeared two heav’nly beings,
God the Father and the Son,
“Joseph, this is my Beloved;
Stevenson's emotional reaction to Joseph Smith's alleged 1834 First Vision account is reminiscent of Manwaring's poetic description of Smith's reaction to seeing the Father and Son, which is absent from Smith's 1838 First Vision account:
Stevenson wrote:Oh how these words thrilled my entire system, and filled me with joy unspeakable, to behold one who, like Paul the apostle of olden time, could with boldness testify that he had been in the presence of Jesus Christ!
Manwaring wrote:Oh, what rapture filled his bosom,
For he saw the living God
In my view there is enough similarity here to warrant the acknowledgment of the possibility that Stevenson's recollection of 1834 has been deeply colored by accounts of the First Vision that subsequently circulated widely within the LDS Church. As prominent historians of Mormonism have recognized, the late 19th century was the time when the First Vision's prominence and significance as an inaugural event of the Restoration really started to take off. The canonization of the PoGP, the Manwaring hymn, and the Christensen painting all reflect that reality. So too does Stevenson's account.
Now, I cannot say that Stevenson made up the story of personally hearing Smith testify of his First Vision. And we cannot completely discount the possibility that he mentioned two personages, but there is a very high probability that his memory of 1834 was contaminated by a later conception of the First Vision, the popularity of which (in the LDS Church) was exploding in Stevenson's own time.
In other words, DCP is not treating Stevenson's account in a historically responsible way. It would be more scholarly by far to acknowledge, at least, the possibility of contamination, given the information provided above.