There seems to be a minor discrepancy among Mormons today regarding the significance of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.” While modern Mormons are eager to point out all that Joseph learned in that first encounter with Deity in 1820 — the nature of the Godhead, the falsity of other churches and their creeds, and a host of other things — Richard Bushman has recently suggested that Joseph “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and “explained the vision as he must have first understood it, as a personal conversion.”  Perhaps we might be able to better understand the First Vision, then, and what it meant to Joseph Smith at the time, by approaching it in the terms Joseph understood it — as a conversion experience. Because of Joseph’s stated partiality for the Methodist sect, and because it appears that it was a Methodist preacher that influenced him to read and ponder James 1:5, we will analyze it in terms of Methodist conversion narratives of the era.
According to Dee Andrews, there are certain “distinct features” of Methodist conversion narratives.  Though she does not explicitly list all of these features, I have identified 8 common characteristics in a survey of these accounts. Though not all conversion narratives contain all nine features, each characteristic can be found in multiple narratives by Methodist converts, as well as in Joseph Smith’s First Vision.  I will numerically list each general feature and then provide a short analysis/comparison between Joseph’s description of the experience and other early Methodists’ conversion narratives.
1. Conversions generally occur against a backdrop of a “personal crisis.” Examples include family troubles, a recent death, personal concern for one’s salvation, poverty, etc.
- Philip Gatch, as a teenager, became aware of his wickedness and concerned for his salvation after his sister and uncle unexpectedly died within a short span of time.
- Benjamin Abbott became concerned after a series of frightening dreams and visions of hell, complete with demons that “threatened to throw him into a fiery lake.”
- Joseph lamented his inability “to get Religion” and “feel & shout like the Rest” that he saw at the revival meetings, and was left to lament that he “could feel nothing.” He expressed “that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did, for how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had would never know.” 
2. A particular message from a sermon or the scriptures sparks the interest and seemingly jumpstarts the conversion process.
- Abbott attempted to pray after having heard a particularly poignant sermon at a Methodist revival.
- Lucy Watson likewise heard a Methodist itinerant explain that, in order for conversion to occur, “she must first do what was in [her] power, & that God would bless [her] endeavors.”
- Joseph Smith decided to pray after attending a Methodist revival and reading James 1:5.
3. Generally, the conversion experience occurred at the camp meeting or revival. However, there are instances of it occurring only after the individual isolated himself (or herself).
- After months of attending revivals and worrying about his standing before God for some months, Benjamin Abbott finally decided to “retire to a solitary place.”
- Joseph Smith likewise “retired into the place where [he] had previously designed to go” and “looked around” to make sure he was alone.
4. An attempt is made to pray in a manner outside of the person’s ordinary routine.
- Lucy Watson prayed for the first time kneeling down, previously being used to praying standing up or sitting down.
- Abbott and Joseph Smith, meanwhile, both “prayed aloud for the first time.”
5. The Devil (or a dark force) enters the scene, attempts to stop the person from praying, with the potential convert sometimes being thrown to the ground, losing physical abilities and senses, and falling into some sort of fit or convulsion.
- One female convert recalled that her “Nerves and Sinews contracted,” and her tongue “felt like an Iron bar in her Mouth.”
- Preacher Joseph Thomas referred to this as “the jirks.” He described an individual being “deprived of his own power, and sometimes of his speech, as long as it continues on him. He is thus taken with an irresistible force, altogether off his feet and dashed to the ground or floor.”
- In Joseph Smith’s encounter with “the power of some actual being from the unseen world,” he was astonished at the being’s ability “to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.”
6. The convert was always rescued from the adversarial force by what Dee Andrews called a “felicitously timed redemption experience.” 
- After his demonic dreams convinced him he was consigned to hell, Benjamin Abbott awoke to see “by faith” Christ with his extended arms reassuring him, “I died for you.”
- Joseph recalled, “Just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually untill it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.”
7. A vision of heavenly things occurred, leaving the new convert in a state of almost inexpressible joy.
- Lucy Watson “saw Christ ‘by the eye of faith, pass by in that appearance, and [He] gave me a touch with his hand [and then] I felt as if my heart was taken out. … I dare not say I was sanctified … [But] what can this be, but perfect love.”
- Philip Gatch recalled the words of a familiar hymn to describe the impression left upon him after his vision. “Tongue cannot express/The sweet comfort and peace/Of a soul in its earliest love.”
- After his vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, Joseph said his “soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.” 
8. The previous seven characteristics can be found in evangelical conversion narratives of almost any denomination. “The most distinguishing characteristic of Wesleyan conversion, then,” Andrews explains, “was also its most prosaic: the decision to join a Methodist society. … While Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and many Baptists came to their religious experiences after years of familiarity with Scripture and Reformed theology, … Methodists customarily joined Methodist societies after their awakening, in many cases, often after their full conversions.” 
This is important point that might help bridge the divergent views among many Mormons trying to ascertain the primary significance of Joseph’s first encounter with Deity. While Bushman emphasized that Joseph “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and “explained the vision as he must have first understood it, as a personal conversion,” it is still significant that the message relayed by Christ in his vision was not only that his sins were forgiven, but that the Methodist church — or any other church — was not God’s church.
Perhaps Joseph asked “which of all the sects was right” (or, according to one account, “must I join the Methodist Church?”) precisely because he felt that forgiveness of his personal sins was directly tied to his joining a certain church — namely, the Methodists. Thus, while Joseph’s message rejected Methodism explicitly, it “cannot,” in the words of Ann Taves, “be separated from the communities of discourse and practice that gave rise to it” — in this case, it cannot be separated from the Methodist discourse and culture that influenced its occurrence. 
 Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 39.
 Dee E. Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 87.
 I have relied primarily on the 1838 narrative of the experience (the version canonized in the Pearl of Great Price) simply because its length allows for the clearest description. Many of the elements can be found in the other recorded versions of the First Vision. I will cite when I quote from other versions.
Alexander Neibaur Journal, 24 May 1844, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writings(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 461.
 Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 87.
 Joseph Smith, “History-1832,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:3.
 Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 91.
Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 353.
*The various narratives I quote from can be found in the following sources:
Benjamin Abbott, The Experience and Gospel Labours of the Rev. Benjamin Abbott: To Which is Annexed a Narrative of His Life and Death by John Ffirth (Philadelphia, 1801).
John McLean, Sketch of Rev. Philip Gatch (Cincinnati, 1854).
Dorothy Ripley, The Extraordinary Religious Conversion and Religious Experiences of Dorothy Ripley (New York, 1810).
Joseph Thomas, The Life of the Pilgrim, Joseph Thomas (Winchester, Va., 1817).
Lucy Fanning Watson, “Wesley M. Watson Family History By His Mother,” (1803); Watson, “memory and account of New Settlers in the American Woods in 1762 chiefly at Walpole, N.H.” (1825); Watson “Experience & Incidents in the life of Mrs Lucy Watson, who died at German town, Pa 5th June 1834, aged 79 years, ” MS located in Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE.