…Or, a few thoughts on a recent missionary experience
and the ritualistic invocation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
When I was a missionary I knew I was surrounded by a million Joseph Smiths. Every day I’d anticipate meeting Joseph all around me–on the bus, at a front porch, on the street. When I found a Joseph I was sure all she or he would need is to hear me read James 1:5, hear me recite Joseph Smith’s words, “I saw a pillar of light…” and BLAM! the Holy Ghost would whack them in the heart with feelings of peace, love, joy, and the other fruits of the Spirit. I was even familiar with the folklore which told me that the adversary would certainly try to interrupt me just as I recited Joseph’s words–a phone ring, a visiting neighbor, a barking dog. If only these Joseph Smiths would just recognize that they were Joseph Smiths!
I had the chance to join my local elders the other day for their first appointment with a woman from Nigeria who was visiting a family on my street. The elders tenaciously stuck to their script, I recognized it from the last pair of elders I went along with. The woman we were teaching was very bright and inquisitive, but also cautious, a good combination, I think. At the outset she was chiefly interested in the Book of Mormon. What is this book? How does it compare to the Bible? What is it about?
The elders had other plans. The Book of Mormon itself could wait. First they needed to let this woman know that she was Joseph Smith, out looking for the true Church. I could tell it would take some convincing, though, and given her interest in the Book of Mormon itself, why not start there? Instead, the elders wanted to perform the extra work to place this “investigator” into a particular “seeker” paradigm, when in reality she wasn’t already within that paradigm. So they labored to first create a (somewhat unnatural) tension (which Church?) and then hoped to resolve it by recounting the story of a 14-year-old boy from 1820.
Don’t misunderstand me–I believe what we now call Joseph Smith’s First Vision is a powerful story, especially considering that the various accounts Joseph left on record offer multiple exegetical (and thus homiletical) possibilities which we largely ignore in favor of the “seeker” paradigm.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with this shoe-horned approach is that Joseph Smith’s own words, his account of the First Vision canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, is now ritually employed in a quasi-mystical act of communication, through which the Spirit is expected to inevitably ratify by overwhelming the audience. Our exchange with this particular woman went something like this, wherein our elders tried to turn our friend into a Joseph Smith:
” ‘…This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him.’ How did you feel as I told you about Joseph Smith’s experience?” the elder asked her.
“Well, I thought it was interesting. It actually reminded me of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when he saw, who was it, Moses or someone?”
I interjected, “ah yeah, and Elijah…”
The elder cut in, “Good, yes, but what sort of feelings did you feel while I shared it with you?”
There was an awkward pause as the elder intently looked into her eyes.
“I don’t quite understand what you mean,” she said.
The elder tried to coach her along. “Well, I know sometimes it’s hard to recognize the Spirit, to know what it feels like, but the Spirit gives us feelings of peace and assurance. Did you feel that?”
I felt a bit sheepish for the elder, but after a moment he simply testified that he knows that Joseph Smith is a prophet who really saw God, who was told which Church to join (none yet), and that his example suggests that we all can receive answers to prayers about which church to join, too. But the woman was still a bit confused about that strange exchange about what she felt, and her questions about the Book of Mormon were still unanswered.
I walked away from our meeting realizing, again, that not everyone is a Joseph Smith, and that Smith’s First Vision account can’t be ritualistically invoked as the definitive way to bring on a particular feeling–the Spirit–to coerce any given listener that the somewhat archaic sounding recitation means they must be baptized into our Church. Again, I still fancy the accounts, and I believe they can, in certain cases, invite the presence of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes people just need to hear a little more about how Mormonism will impact their lives today. Or perhaps they’re interested in learning about this strange Book of Mormon they’ve recently heard about in the news.
Sometimes the people we meet simply aren’t having an existential religious crisis, and it may actually be counter-productive to attempt to provoke one. Careful attention to the desires, perspectives, and beliefs of those we teach would help prevent the shoe-horn effect. But that may be asking too much from some very sincere 19-or-21-year-old missionaries.