The Landscapes of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written about the “landscape of history.” I can think of no better metaphor for history, the foggy vista of the past that unfolds before (or behind!) the historian. In a sense, there is only one historical landscape–the past as it really happened–but this landscape exists on a plane far beyond our ability to recover. Instead, we stand on a hill and peer at the past, study it, scrutinize it, but can never perfectly replicate it. The historical landscapes we paint are our version of that perfect Platonic landscape, and each one differs from the next: you see light, I see shade; you see peaks, I see troughs.

A new landscape of Joseph Smith has been painted. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) is the must-have Mormon history of our generation (see John Hatch’s BCC review here, and the T&S symposium here). Bushman’s landscape of Joseph has more light than shade, but it is certainly not the Crayola-creation of Correlation.

It is an interesting exercise to compare two landscapes of Joseph Smith side-by-side. RSR invites comparison with that other seminal landscape of Joseph, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. One event will suffice for this comparison: the First Vision, which contemporary Mormons herald as the singular event of the Restoration, when God and Jesus visited the boy Joseph in 1820.

The 1820s are Mormonism’s murkiest decade. Despite being foundational to the Joseph story, it can be surprising to learn that so little is known. Brodie and Bushman are, of course, painting second-hand landscapes: they do not see the vista with their own eyes but rely on the histories that Joseph and others left behind. Unfortunately, for the First Vision, Joseph’s own landscape is chaotic and fragmentary.

Joseph first wrote of the First Vision in 1832 in terms of a personal conversion, not a call to be a new prophet of God. The modern Church claims that, “Joseph Smith’s first vision stands today as the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Certainly Joseph did not think in such grand terms at the time, and the different versions of the First Vision he described show a struggle to define what exactly had happened to him. In the 1832 account he saw the Lord (Jesus) and was forgiven of his sins; in 1835, an Adversary was present, as was a second divine personage and angels; in 1838 we are given the canonical version familiar to all Mormons, one focused on the apostasy of Christendom and the hope of a Restoration. (Download Dean Jesse’s article on the early First Vision accounts here.)

From history to history, Joseph’s own historical landscape changed, and events took on new meanings. Joseph’s 1820s landscape is well-understood by Mormons today: to the south we see the First Vision, to the north is Moroni, to the east are the gold plates, to the west is the restoration of the priesthood. But it didn’t always look like this. The First Vision, for example, is never clearly described in the 1820s, and as we have seen, its 1830s versions change somewhat from telling to telling. This can be troubling to the believer. Certainly, we ought to be sympathetic to a changing historical landscape (my own history would change from telling to telling as I saw new meaning in it; this does not make me a liar), but Joseph claimed to see God with his own eyes. Can one really remember such a profound event in different ways. And why wait years to tell the story?

As historians, Bushman and Brodie have to make sense of this. For Brodie, the solution is simple:

If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of the members of his own family.

The awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in the neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging. Dream images came easily to this youth, whose imagination was as untrammeled as the whole West (p.25).

Bushman is more sympathetic to the difficult evolution of the First Vision and it is indicative of his position on Joseph as a whole. He reminds us (p.39) that Joseph did not at the time know that he was having the “First Vision” (with the ramifications we now attach to it). He quotes Joseph (p.39): “the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad.” He also suggests (p.40) that the “natural reticence of a teenage boy” was a factor in Joseph’s silence on the Vision (most early converts probably never heard of it). According to Bushman, “he was not interested in notoriety” (p.40).

Only when “Joseph became confident” did more details come out (p.40). Once Joseph had understood his role as the restorer of the Church, the First Vision naturally evolved from a conversion narrative to representing his call as a prophet. That is the First Vision of modern Mormonism, the reason why tens of thousands visit the Sacred Grove every year.

RSR is thus sympathetic to Joseph but also decidedly naturalistic: to understand the First Vision accounts (or lack thereof) we must examine the circumstances Joseph found himself in. The teenage boy felt reluctant to describe the profundity of his experience and only quietly began to glimpse what the First Vision had meant. It was only the mature prophet who felt confident enough to describe the event in all its glory.

So, for Bushman the varying First Vision accounts are not a case (contra Brodie) of Joseph remembering his “half-remembered dream” differently as time went on, and it never really enters Bushman’s history that Joseph did not have the First Vision, that he simply invented and then embellished the “event” as his confidence grew.[1] Instead, Bushman’s Joseph is simply a hesitant prophet in his early years. Brodie, of course, is less sanguine: Joseph is a dreamer at best, a fraud at worst.

That is the fundamental difference between the two histories, and in the hazy landscape of history I suppose either could be “true” from a certain standpoint. They are paintings of a landscape, not the landscape itself (which is irretrievably lost outside of some kind of Cosmic History Book).[2] I heartily recommend RSR, but urge the reader to also give Brodie (and Hill, and Vogel et. al.) a look: for anyone who desires the full historical panorama of Joseph Smith, an honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history requires it. RSR is the new seminal Joseph Smith history. However, it is not, and never could be, definitive. History doesn’t work that way.
__________

1. For Bushman what is important is the fact that Joseph believed it: “to get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself — as a revelator” (p.xxi).
2. A “book” which, in fact, many Mormons believe is open to them (to some degree) through what Terryl Givens calls “dialogic revelation.”

Comments

  1. For the record:

    On the question of the First Vision, Brodie scores more historiographical points. Both histories deal with the “facts,” but Brodie’s interpretation is more reasonable. You see, Bushman commits the cardinal sin of actually believing this stuff about seeing God etc. Because a sober academic history cannot countenance such rubbish, Brodie’s suggestion that it was either a “half-remembered dream” or outright fabrication is emanently more plausible. Non-Mormon readers will sense apologia in Bushman here.

    It is when RSR deals with the more earthy stuff that it really comes into its own. I never understood Joseph’s Zion until I read RSR.

  2. Sure are a lot of new-fangled ‘s cluttering this landscape…

  3. Whaddya know? The code didn’t show up when I posted it…

    I see snippets of code throughout this post in IE 6.

  4. and it never enters Bushman’s mind that Joseph did not have a First Vision, that he simply invented and then embellished the “event” as his confidence grew–

    I think this is both unfair and untrue. Bushman frequently cites Brodie. It has clearly entered his mind that he did no have a First Vision. However, having consulted all the historical–including second- and third-hand accounts like Brodie’s–he concludes what he concludes.

    You make Bushman sounds naive and credulous. You may or may not agree with his assessment of history. But he clearly has had a lot of ideas enter his mind about what ‘really’ happened to Joseph Smith.

    Even if by ‘Bushman’ you mean only RSR and its conclusion… that is not a far assessment, since that works itself includes reference to other explanations of Joseph, like FB’s.

  5. I’m a little confused about what you are really trying to say Ronan.

    When you write in reference to reading Brodie, Hill, and Vogel (!) that [a]n honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history requires it, you lost me.

    Are you saying that people who are honestly interested in whether historical evidence can substantiate whether Joseph had a First Vision or not need to read Vogel’s theory about forging tin plates on Hill Cumorah?

    Does this only apply to people who are, for some reason, trying to collect such historical evidence of whether Joseph had the First Vision or not, or does it also apply to people who simply believe that Joseph had the First Vision, just like he said he did? In other words, is someone who believes that Joseph had the First Vision based on spiritual confirmation of that fact dishonest if that person hasn’t also read Brodie’s and Vogel’s speculations of the ways in which Joseph was a fraud?

    It seems like it would be an interesting exercise for someone who has read only RSR and nothing else to also read Brodie’s and Vogel’s speculations. But required for an “honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history”? Again, you lose me on this part.

  6. Ben,
    Fixed! (Serves you right for using IE, and me for pasting from Word.)

    Norm,
    You’re being unfair to me. RSR is excellent and I “heartily recommend” it as a “must-own” history. I will have to read the First Vision pages in RSR again, but I don’t think he raises fraud as a possibility. He has clearly gone beyond that option, as is his right. Again, RSR is excellent.

    John,
    Hmmmm. Well, if it helps you should know that I have my academic historian hat on here. If the cosmic truth about the First Vision is one’s desire one would have to apply cosmic rules. In Mormon terms: if the Spirit has confirmed to you that Joseph saw God and Jesus in his youth, then no, it is not necessary to read Vogel or Brodie (or even RSR, although I would recommend it simply because I despise this kind of Spirit-does-all laziness). My message is simply to historians: one should have a look at a wide range of landscapes before deciding on the one that best approximates the truth. Professor Bushman certainly did this before settling on his. That’s what historians do.

  7. Okay, fair enough. But let me ask another question to probe your point a little: does “an honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history” require one to read Irving on the Holocaust?

  8. In other words, is there some line beyond which one no longer has to investigate in the interest of an honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history? When does one begin saying you have to read Brodie to be honest but you don’t have to stoop to Vogel, or something similar? In your case, you are saying that one has to read Brodie and Vogel, but surely you aren’t saying one also has to read Utah Lighthouse Ministries in the interest of an honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history, are you? At some point, the material becomes mere rubbish, doesn’t it?

    Granted, this could be an exercise in relativism. That is, for the Vogel crowd, Bushman might be mere rubbish not worthy to be read and considered (or maybe not, just thinking out loud here).

  9. John,

    Good points (alas, Irving!) No, one doesn’t have to read everything. A student of Mormon history (and any history) should, however, read a lot. I guess what I’m saying is that RSR, while brilliant, is not “definitive.” I doubt that Professor Bushman would suggest such a thing (although his publisher might!)

    How widely should we read? It’s totally subjective, I admit. I do not, however, have the low regard of Vogel that you have (get beyond those wretched tin plates, man!)

  10. The tin plates undermine his overall credibility and accentuate the lengths he is willing to go to find some other explanation–any explanation, no matter how speculative or absurd–than that Joseph was telling the truth.

  11. I doubt you would find many historians outside of Mormonism who would find Moroni as anything other than “absurd” (although they might be more polite). Moroni or fake plates? If you weren’t a believing Mormon, which sounds more plausible? (Empathy, John, empathy.)

    Tell me, did Muhammed see Gabriel and fly on a horse to Jerusalem, or did he cobble together the Qur’an from Jewish, Christian and Arabian legends and teachings with which he was familiar? (I know which sounds more plausible to my historically-trained ears.)

    The fact is, miracles (even if they are true, and you and I believe they are) are a scandal to non-believers. Because of this, Vogel’s ideas aren’t going to sound so crazy to many people. Is it possible for you to step outside of your faith and see this for just a moment?

  12. Ronan,

    re-read the exerpt I quoted. I have nothing against you. I merely disagree with your claim ‘it never enters Bushman’s mind’.

    Bushman, as a serious historian has obviously entertained the idea that Joseph Smith fabricated his stories. Or that they originated from psychoses. Or any other number of places. I say ‘obviously’ (to me):
    a) because I’ve heard him speak about it,
    b) because I’ve spoken with him about it,
    c) because RSR makes it clear that Bushman has read NMKMH and
    d) because he cites NMKMH and other works that conclude differently than he does in RSR.

    The fact that he does not AGREE with Brodie–or anyone else–is not a reason to conclude that some ideas have never entered his mind.

    Consider:
    Just because [Norm] has not said here or in his other writings that [he thinks he is a man] is no reason to conclude [he thinks he is a man] is not true

    However, if [Norm] writes now that [he thinks he is a man], it is certainly clear that [he thinks he is a man] unless he is lying.

    Now replace [Norm] with [Bushman] and [he thinks he is a man] with [he has entertained the idea*].

    I think you’ll understand my point. I don’t think Bushman is lying when he shows he’s considered the idea that JS invented/embellished his experience. (Indeed it would difficult to say ‘I’ve come across the idea x’ without having x enter into his head.)

    *the idea in question, viz that JS simply invented/embellished his ‘First Vision’.

    Whether it’s true that Joseph Smith simply invented/embellished is a separate question from whether Bushman considered that explanation. But it is clear to me that that explanation is one that has occurred to Bushman.

    (‘now’ would refer to Bushman’s saying that he has read NMKMH, for example, which is clear from RSR, clearer still from speaking with him.)

    Of course, from what you wrote, you appear to have either not chosen your words carefully in the first place, or to back off from ‘never enters his mind’ in favor of ‘has gone beyond’–which i assume implies he had it enter his mind, before he went beyond.

    If ‘goes beyond’ means ‘skips over without thinking about that option’ then i again would disagree.

  13. It is possible for me to do this. I understand that Moroni is just as absurd to non-believers as Joseph operating a tin factory is (or should be). And since it doesn’t involve miracles (other than the miracle of noone noticing a smeltering operation) it can easily be a speculation more easily believed by people not of this faith. Vogel knows this and therefore knows that he can float such an absurd speculation where the evidence would not otherwise support such a wild theory. After all, the alternative, i.e. that Joseph was telling the truth, is even more difficult to believe. Thus, Vogel can hide behind a far-fetched speculation and pass it off as historical writing. (Where’s Vogel’s empathy, by the way?)

  14. The last time I read Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price, it struck me that in the first verses it appears the main reason Joseph Smith provided his account was to counter the lies and libels that were being spread about him. I did not get the sense that he had been commanded to provide us with the narrative he did — only that he was defending himself.

    It then occurred to me that we could have very well had a LDS Church without ever knowing about the First Vision. The First Vision is a marvelous thing to know about and I’m grateful that we do know about it. But it is not the cornerstone of our religion.

  15. Norm,
    Understood. And I should have been clearer: obviously Richard Bushman has entertained all possibilities. He’s a classy historian. What I meant to say is that he has made a historical judgment: Joseph believed it, Mormons believed it, so we should read the history on Joseph’s terms. (I also think that it is clear that he believes it too, which is fine. I’m a post-modernist: bias is good as long as we admit to it!)

  16. Great discussion. A bit off topic but. . . As mentioned before, Ronan, I would love to hear your thoughts on Mohammed’s vision of Gabriel. I’ve talked to other LDS students-of-the-middle-east on it and have a couple of ideas, but what about yours? Is a post forth-coming? For that matter, what about the broader topic of (non-LDS and historical) mystical visions in general? Their validity? Their purpose (assuming they are/were valid)? Mystics in the Christian tradition? Visions in the non-Christian tradition? Etc.
    Thankew.

  17. Oh! That refered back to Comment #11. Shame on me for not refreshing my browser!

  18. Ronan.

    Okay. I too think it’s clear he believes it. And that he concludes that Joseph himself believed it. I’m not sure if he really explains so much WHY he believes it, as he does why he thinks it’s reasonable to believe it.

    That is, it seems like a clever and, as you say, classy apologia of sorts–a neat set of arguments that a believer could defend herself with to, say, a history professor. Or that a non-believer history professor could use with another in saying his Mormon History scholarship was not wasted time.

    But I think that while it shows bias, it is probably not the complete story of why Bushman believes, as much as it is his best good faith construction of who JS was.

    Of course, he said he had to tone down his bias a lot in the editing process. So maybe he is taking sides. (e.g. ‘refreshment stand’ instead of ‘cider/beer stand’)

  19. Meems,
    That would be a wonderful topic. We shall see. (I will need to sit on a mountain in the lotus position for a few weeks first though, so don’t hold your breath….!)

  20. I think my last comment might have been too strongly worded. I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t think the First Vision wasn’t crucial. What I’m mainly trying to say is that it occurred to me that Joseph Smith’s sharing of the details of that vision may have been optional for him.

    I like Ronan’s use of the word “landscapes” in his title — referring to visions. I sometimes find myself comparing Lehi’s vision of God, sitting on His throne, in 1 Nephi Chapter 1 and comparing that to Joseph Smith’s vision of God. Lehi’s vision seems more panoramic in many ways — but of course he is seeing into heaven.

  21. Norm,
    Understanding! RSR passes the “Advisor Test,” that is, I would have no hesitation sharing it with my hard-nosed, atheist academic advisor. He would get a sympathetic view of Joseph, but also not throw it in the rubbish as a religious tract.

    Danithew,
    What is facinating is that the Church (in arguably its most successful proselytizing era) both survived and indeed thrived without the centrality of the First Vision myth.*

    (*”Myth” as in “good myth” of course, lest I be dragged to Outer Darkness.)

  22. Ronan,

    I should also say that I like your post. Clearly your familiarty with issues of Mormon history exceeds my own. But I think you make a very good case that RSR has changed the landscape, by supplying an additional and contrasting voice to the seminal NMKMH.

    I wonder whether you believe the reception of Bushman’s book, vis-a-vis Brodie’s, would unduly Bushman’s history simply because Bushman is more recent.

    That is, he does seem to show some respect for Brodie’s scholarship (and not the outright contempt that, say Nibley or FARMS does), he does not seem to view her with deference ever. But I do understand that NMKMH has probably been the seminal work on Joseph Smith. In a 100 years do we think this will this have changed? And if so will it be because of the quality of Bushman or another’s work an sich, or rather because of the allure of being more ‘modern’?

    [I have not read NMKMH, bit need to. So I’m not in a position to really discuss it critically.]

  23. Norm,
    RSR is now the seminal work on JS. It overtakes Brodie. (But read Brodie too!!)

  24. First, an anecdote. I was being temple interviewed by a Stake President once in the mid 1980s and he asked: “Do you believe God and Jesus literally visited Joseph Smith in the sacred grove in 1820?”

    I started to hem and haw: “Well, the date is a bit confused in Mormon history, and, I’m thinking it was a vision, not a literal visitation.”

    Him: “What do you mean? Yes or no, did they visit Joseph Smith.”

    Me, getting off track: “Well, it’s called the ‘First Vision’ isn’t it? And Joseph’s different accounts are … well different, possibly reflecting a less than clear sighting or vision, or something like that. Perhaps like a dream during the middle of the day.”

    Him, looking at his watch: “Different? What do you mean? Dream? Yes or no, did it really happen?”

    Me: “Yeah.”

    Second, the First Vision story is a hero myth–follows the Jungian/Joseph Campbellian pattern pretty closely in fact. Perhaps that explains some of its power.

    Many Mormons will frame their own conversion story in virtually the same form as Joseph Smith’s, the vision part usually being replaced with a more tame burning in the bosom. This gives it meaning for other Mormons, it becomes a negotiable currency. The odd thing is, the earliest First Vision account seems to follow the form of contemporary visionary experiences of other Christians in the burnt-over district, so perhaps Joseph Smith was doing the same thing with his own experiences by shaping them to fit the expected form, at least initially.

  25. the earliest First Vision account seems to follow the form of contemporary visionary experiences of other Christians in the burnt-over district, so perhaps Joseph Smith was doing the same thing with his own experiences by shaping them to fit the expected form, at least initially.

    Very, very interesting thought, Ed.

  26. I’d recommend RT and Serenity Valley’s podcast on the First Vision for anyone that is finding this discussion interesting. It really educated me, especially given my limited background in Mormon history.

  27. Ronan,
    I get the sense that you are sceptical about the historicity of the first vision as it is commonly taught in the church. Is that a fair comment?

  28. Gomez,

    No, not really.

    Certainly the “truth” of what happened to the boy Joseph is not retrievable historically. As a historian, I have come to terms with that. The soft-focus first vision of today’s church would be problematic for most historians, I think.

    But this is ultimately not a historical exercise, is it? For the “absolute truth” of the first vision, one relies on faith. Ed (#24) sums up my own intellectual hand-wringing on the matter. Like him, I answer “yeah” though.

    I mean, which of the four Gospels represents a more accurate truth? Historically they’re awfully problematic. This doesn’t, however, prevent me from believing with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ.

  29. Ed, I sure hope there are still some old-fashioned Latter-day Saints like me out there in the Bloggernacle who believe that God and Jesus really did literally appear to Joseph Smith and told him what Joseph Smith said they told him.

  30. John,
    I think that Ed answered “yeah” to that question. He may lack your certainty, but he still said “yeah” (isn’t “faith” a lack of “certainty”?) That makes him a good “old-fashioned” Latter-day Saint in my book. You know, one who has faith.

  31. a random John says:

    John F,

    Are you saying that if you were standing nearby in the grove that you would have seen and heard the same thing?

  32. Ronan, you are right, Ed said “yeah” in the end.

    I don’t know where you get “certainty” from. I only said I believe that Joseph Smith was telling the truth.

    arJ: I have no idea.

  33. a random John says:

    John F.,

    I’m just trying to figure out what you mean by, “God and Jesus really did literally appear to Joseph Smith and told him what Joseph Smith said they told him.” Did they come in their physical bodies? Was it a vision that while real, occurred in Joseph’s perception? Did Joseph’s understanding of the event change over time?

    I think you appreciate the complexities of this topic. I don’t understand why you express your “hope” in the way that you do, implying that the participants of this discussion are so focused on the complexities that they can’t appreciate the simple message of the First Vision as well.

  34. Thanks for this post, Ronan. I have appreciated this discussion and have found Ed’s #24 actually very instructive. It is interesting to contrast the idea of mapmaking with the concept of describing the landscape — perhaps we can all agree that the land mass exists but describe the landscape in different terms. Either way, for me, there is a real challenge sometimes in reconciling the faithful self with the historian self. It sounds like RSR makes some interesting inroads here.

  35. Ronan, this really is a well written and insightful post. Thanks.

  36. Ronan’s analogy to the four different gospels is interesting here I think. Here’s my take on that.

    By tracing the First Vision accounts chronologically you can see trends in LDS thinking over time since nothing is told without a context, no narrative exists in a vacuum. Same with the gospels.

    Over time, the First Vision narratives start out focused more on Joseph Smith’s personal situation and by the end they focus more on the event’s (and Smith’s) place in the church. And what of the various details in the different accounts–can you harmonize all of them? You can try, but I think it will not be successful. Each different First Vision narrative account has its own spiritual and theological meaning. I’ve had spiritual experiences that over time changed their meaning for me. I can look back at my original journal entries that describe them in terms that today I find naïve, I might even question some of my initial interpretations of what happened to me.

    With the gospels, you can try to harmonize them, but it’s not very successful. In fact, by trying to harmonize the 4 gospels you actually end up distorting each one of them individually. Mark’s focus is different from John’s. Each of Matthew and Luke took Mark and changed his account in numerous places to suit their theological message and the needs of their communities (this according to the Markan priority theory of gospel formation which seems to be the majority opinion).

    Which brings us ultimately to the Historical Jesus and Joseph. The search for the Historical Joseph Smith is not interested in whether the First Vision occurred or a detailed narrative of it, but with what Joseph Smith said about it over time, as Ronan indicated. In this regard it is similar to analyzing the miracles of Jesus when you’re searching for the Historical Jesus. That Jesus was reported to have performed miracles can be demonstrated historically speaking, what those miracles were is outside the boundaries of historical inquiry.

  37. John (#32),

    The “certainty” I sense in you (say that with Yoda voice) is in how you frame the issue: God and Jesus really did literally appear to Joseph Smith and told him what Joseph Smith said they told him.

    I think everyone here (so far) actually believes that Joseph received a theophany in the early 1820s. We’re just wondering how to understand what is is that “Joseph Smith said” when he in fact said different things at different times about the event. This does not, IMO, constitute a betrayal of what it means to be an “old fashioned” Mormon. We are (well I am) just Godwrestling, but still applying faith.

    And, again, the purpose of the review was simply to point out the different approaches that Brodie and Bushman take without taking intellectual sides. (Of course a believing Mormon is going to take sides, but I was writing simply as a historian.)

  38. I can’t help but post these excerpts from the 1832 account, for me the most intimate, immediate and moving version of the First Vision. In early 1800s frontier revival meetings there was something called the “mourner’s” bench where new converts went to pray next to others who prayed with them–I hear echoes of that below.

    I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world … therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and … I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph thy Sins are forgiven thee … and my Soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me ….

  39. not on this thread says:

    I think it’s interesting that by moving the central issue of the restoration from the ETB “Book of Mormon” to the GBH “First Vision,” the church has effectively nullified hard data as a factor in determining truthfulness.

    That is, if the restoration rests upon the Book of Mormon, “the keystone of our religion,” but the premises of that keystone: Lamanites, real people, chariots and Samuel the Lamanite don’t hold up under the physical evidence, some people may develop concerns about the church’s truth claims.

    However, if the restoration rests upon the First Vision, then it rests upon an event that simply cannot be proven or disproven based on the evidence, any more than can the Visitation by the Blessed Mother at Fatima or Mohammed being spirited away by a whirlwind or Elijah being taken up by a chariot.

    The goal posts for truth have moved.

  40. The differing versions of the First Vision have never bothered me that much. I mostly think they are within the natural variation of recounting events, with different emphasis at different times. At the same time, I can allow that Joseph understood the experience differently as time passed and he made mental connections with other parts of the restoration.

    As to what a video camera would capture if it were there with Joseph, who knows? It should be noted that prophets having some uncertainty about what actually happened during their spiritual experiences is not uncommon in scripture. For Pete’s sake, they sometimes don’t even know if they were in their own body or not. As long as actual communication happened, I’m not that concerned about the physical form and details.

  41. #39:

    I don’t think the First Vision has received new emphasis under President Hinckley. It’s been pretty central for the last century.

  42. I agree with Jared. The fact that there are different accounts doesn’t bother me much. The only thing that bugs me is the emphasis on the 1938 version to the exclusion of the earlier versions, with the insistance that it represents the literal-gospel-truth-last-word foundation of our faith, with any ambiguities swept under the rug. Ed Snow’s anecdote was a great example of that.

  43. A couple of thoughts.

    Anyone reading Brodie needs to realize that most of her footnotes don’t agree with her text. She is really, really bad about finding a source that says one thing and citing the source for the exact opposit.

    Next, some stories footnoted as known to be false, but useful to illustrate the way Brodie thought about Joseph Smith, are later not so footnoted (e.g. the story of Joseph trying to fake walking on water).

    ….

    As for the first vision accounts, I find them consistent, but then I’m a trial lawyer and I take a lot of depositions of people, compare them to statements they’ve made (and interviews they’ve given me before and after the depositions) and the testimony of other witnesses.

  44. Some good example clips about Brodie:

    http://adrr.com/living/broadie.htm

  45. Corrado Misseri says:

    I am changing the subject a bit. I have read RSR and have a question concerning Bushman’s account of John Taylor wounding in Carthage jail. The book states (pg.550) “John Taylor was hit in the thigh and fell against the windowsill, breaking his watch.” All other accounts that I have read state that John Taylor’s watch was hit by a bullet, including the T&S, July 15, Aug. 1, 1844 reports. If Bushman is right, how did the often told and official church story about the watch being hit by a bullet get started and propogated? Can anyone help me?