The traditional LDS perspective of the First Vision is that it was a literal visit from two Heavenly beings to an awake and alert Joseph Smith. Joseph consistently refers to it as a vision, not a visit, and his earlier accounts sound (at least to me) more dreamlike than the 1838 version we have recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. Often, visions in scripture are vivid dreams with a meaning that is applied to a broader group than the individual who has the vision.
What if we take the First Vision in the opposite direction, and consider it as a dream with significance to the dreamer rather than a conscious and world-altering event? If a dream, then it is likewise a foray into the subconscious mind of Joseph Smith. This approach is not to dismiss a divine source for the First Vision; just to explore a Jungian perspective on the elements of the vision without regard to its source, as Jung might have done had Joseph been on his couch.
Jungian dream analysis includes several underlying assumptions:
- that dreams are subjectively meaningful for the individual
- that people, objects, animals, and events in the dream are representative of the dreamer’s inner life (and not to be taken at face value or literally)
- that a proper interpretation of dreams can lead the dreamer to great self-awareness and to understanding the psychological direction of his/her life at a given time
- that some themes, events or characters in a dream are archetypal or representative of collective spirituality, not just reflective of personal meaning
Jung started life as a young man who held to Christian views but found more meaning in understanding religion as a metaphor for human psychological experience.  In keeping with that thought process, I wanted to apply Jung’s views on dream interpretation to Joseph Smith’s First Vision. In Jung’s dream interpretation, there are several elements:
People. People in dreams are almost always a manifestation of a part of the person dreaming. There are seven archetypes one may encounter in a dream:
- The Persona is the image you present to the world in your waking life. It is your public mask. In the dream world, the persona is represented by the Self. The Self may or may not resemble you physically or may or may not behave as your would. For example, the persona can appear as a scarecrow or a beggar in your dream. However, you still know that this “person” in your dream is you.
- The Shadow is the rejected and repressed aspects of yourself. It is the part of yourself that you do not want the world to see because it is ugly or unappealing. It symbolizes weakness, fear, or anger. In dreams, this figure is represented by a stalker, murderer, a bully, or pursuer. It can be a frightening figure or even a close friend or relative. Their appearance often makes you angry or leaves you scared. They force you to confront things that you don’t want to see or hear. You must learn to accept the shadow aspect of yourself for its messages are often for your own good, even though it may not be immediately apparent.
- The Anima / Animus is the female and male aspects of yourself. Everyone possess both feminine and masculine qualities. In dreams, the anima appears as a highly feminized figure, while the animus appears as a hyper masculine form. Or you may dream that you are dressed in women’s clothing if you are male or that you grow a beard if you are female. These dream imageries appear depending on how well you are able to integrate the feminine and masculine qualities within yourself. They serve as a reminder that you must learn to acknowledge or express your masculine (be more assertive) or feminine side (be more emotional).
- The Divine Child is your true self in its purest form. It not only symbolizes your innocence, your sense of vulnerability, and your helplessness, but it represents your aspirations and full potential. You are open to all possibilities. In the dreamscape, this figure is represented by a baby or young child.
- The Wise Old Man /Woman is the helper in your dreams. Represented by a teacher, father, doctor, priest or some other authority figure, they serve to offer guidance and words of wisdom. They appear in your dream to steer and guide you into the right direction.
- The Great Mother is the nurturer. The Great Mother appears in your dreams as your own mother, grandmother, or other nurturing figure. She provides you with positive reassurance. Negatively, this character may be depicted as a witch or old bag lady in which case they can be associated with seduction, dominance and death. This juxtaposition is rooted in the belief by some experts that the real mother who is the giver of life is also at the same time jealous of our growth away from her.
- The Trickster, as the name implies, plays jokes to keep you from taking yourself too seriously. The trickster may appear in your dream when you have overreached or misjudged a situation. Or he could find himself in your dream when you are uncertain about a decision or about where you want to go in life. The trickster often makes you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, sometimes mocking you or exposing you to your vulnerabilities. He may take on subtle forms, sometimes even changing shape.
Setting. This includes the mental state of the dreamer as well as the dream setting. A grove of trees is an interesting archetypal setting. Within Christianity, trees are symbols associated with life and death, knowledge, the love of God, the fall, the crucifixion. In more general terms, trees universally represent the living connection between heaven and earth, the roots extending into the underworld and the branches and leaves reaching into the sky.
Action. This refers to the events that occur in the dream, and the actions of the person the dreamer identifies as the self.
Objects or Symbols. These could be archetypes (symbols common to all cultures) or symbols with unique personal significance to the dreamer. A simple archetype is light (e.g. a pillar of light) dispelling darkness and creating safety.
Emotions. These reveal information important to the interpretation of the dream. In Joseph’s own words (1832 version): “I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”
Animals. These represent our basest human instincts.
In considering the various accounts of the First Vision, the elements that have a Jungian significance are: the Persona (with a possible link to the Divine Child given the age of the dreamer), the Shadow, the Wise Old Man, and consideration for setting, action, and emotions. There are no versions in which the vision included female figures or animals, so those elements will be considered irrelevant for this analysis.
Setting. JS was yearning for forgiveness of his sins (1832 version) and spiritual enlightenment (all versions). He sought “wisdom” from God directly in a grove of trees. He was also obsessed with his personal welfare and salvation. This emotional setting (pre-vision) carried into the “dream” state.
Immediately in the 1838 account, Joseph is confronted by a Shadow type. Based on Jungian analysis, this Shadow is Joseph’s repressed negative side, his weaknesses and subconscious flaws. These flaws “bind” his dream self (the Persona), making it impossible for him to move (to progress) or speak (to represent his own interests). In other words, in order to continue to seek enlightenment, Joseph must confront and overcome his own flaws that are holding him back and making progress impossible. (Often, dreams make funny little puns like this. You are “wrestling with your demons” figuratively in life, so in a dream state, you do so literally).
When he is released from his Shadow side, he finds the enlightenment he seeks in the form of light and a visit from either the Lord (1832) an angelic messenger (1835) or God the Father & the Son (1838). Regardless, these are familiar archetypes for the Wise Old Man: an authority (what bigger religious authority could he envision than God or Jesus?) who gives direction or wisdom or advice. He petitions for forgiveness of his sins (1832) and to know how to obtain salvation/which church to join (1838). Of course, these archetypes also represent parts of our own personality. In other phrasing, Jung might say that Joseph has tapped into his inner wisdom, his internal wellspring of creativity and enlightenment.
We all know the specifics of the answer he was given as recorded in the 1838 version. Consider that advice from a Jungian perspective, and there is a subtle change. Joseph asks which external source of truth is right for him to follow. He is told to stop looking outside himself for enlightenment because those sources of wisdom are not correct and are corrupted by others’ perspectives. He is left to wait for further inspiration (or to find wisdom from within as Jung would see the God figure as a manifestation of Joseph’s inner wisdom, his spiritual side, the Wise Old Man).
This approach shows the First Vision an example of a classic hero myth: the quest for spiritual wisdom. The hero must first reconcile his double nature (the Shadow and Persona) in order to transcend and achieve enlightenment. Interestingly, the endowment is another, more outward telling of this same story, personalized for attendees.
So, what do you think? Personally, I find this perspective to create more consistency between the four recorded versions of the First Vision.
- Is a Jungian view of the First Vision useful? Does this add meaning for you?
- Do you consider dreams and visions too dissimilar for this type of approach to be of value? Is it troubling to consider a non-literal interpretation of the First Vision?
- Do you think Jung is onto something in his views or is he off track in conflating the psyche with religion? 
- Would Joseph Smith find our use of the First Vision as a missionary tool unsettling given its context and personal meaning to him? After all, missionaries preached using the Book of Mormon in Joseph’s day, not the First Vision account.
 According to Murray Stein, a Jungian training analyst and author, Jung believed that theological constructs and the words associated with them referred to structures within the psyche and vice-versa. Thus religion reveals our inner states, and our inner states reveal our religion.
 From a Catholic criticism of Jung: “What was his attitude towards Christianity? In answering this, one must always remember that wholeness for him is only possible when we integrate the negative shadow and dark side with the more acceptable, conscious ego. In other words the pursuit of goodness cannot lead to wholeness. In his work Psychology and Alchemy Jung wrote: “Christian civilisation has proved hollow to a terrifying degree. The inner man has remained untouched. His soul is out of key with his external beliefs.” Wholeness and not holiness is what matters. . . His ambivalence towards Christianity is seen when on the one hand he recommends his patients to return to the Church to which they belonged and on the other hand he writes: “there is no Deity, no submission or reconciliation to a Deity. The place of the Deity seems to be taken by the whole man.” . . . The whole man must achieve three things. Firstly, he must meet with his shadow and learn to live with the more terrifying aspect of himself. Secondly, he must meet with the archetypes of the collective unconscious especially through dream work. Thirdly, if he is fortunate enough, he will in the end find that pearl of great price, the archetype of wholeness, the self.”