The Science of Reminiscence: Joseph Smith Vignettes. I (It’s Conference Time!)

This is the first in a series of posts on memories of Joseph Smith. One should always be cautious with memories, even for immediate events. So much of what we remember is colored by the bio-“technology” of perception and the ability of our brains to fill in the gaps of the past, while simultaneously supplying interpretive links to present worldview and belief.[1] Studies of memory, especially distant memories, suggest that those recollections rarely represent accurate reproductions of past events. Moreover, people who recalled Joseph Smith’s sayings or acts were rarely disinterested bystanders. That said, these memories are interesting for what they may tell us of Joseph but perhaps more about those who remembered him.

Addison Everett[2] heard the Prophet say- that Jesus was ^is^ continually forming worlds for his chosen [children?] to dwell upon – hence, the saying – “In my Fathers house there are many mansions or in my Father’s kingdom, there are many kingdoms” and I go to prepare a place for you.

On one occasion, Joseph said that Jesus would take up his faithful saints to(?) Jerusalem to witness his triumph over his enemies- [image not clear, something to effect that people would fight against the Jews] that would be gathered there.

As regards Noah. he was mobbed and broken up four times while building the ark.

It is the very same Plan – the very same law that will save this world that saved all the worlds we see, and the Savior that redeemed them.

Everett’s report of “many mansions – many kingdoms” echoes Joseph Smith’s remarks in January 1844. Joseph Smith had a long history with speech about Noah beginning with early revelations and the midrashic Bible revisions. Like most other Christians of his time, Joseph Smith almost certainly saw the biblical flood as a global one, covering the earth. The “mobbing” of Noah is impossible to divorce from the Mormon–Missouri experience, and the remarks regarding “other” worlds and the consistency of salvation patterns reflect Joseph Smith’s revelations and preaching that the Christian Gospel was in effect known and practiced by ancient biblical peoples and others. The latter is effectively illustrated in the Book of Mormon and the Bible translation efforts. This idea reflected Mormonism’s unique view of dispensationalism. Many Protestants saw dispensations in terms of cessation-logic at the time. Only later did some deploy it as justification for rehabilitating enthusiasm, etc.

[1] A great example appears in Craig Harline and Eddy Put, A Bishop’s Tale (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000), 18. I choose this volume to make the point because I think it deserves continuing attention, and of course, I like it. Another obvious example is the way Americans reheard-rewrote the events surrounding Andrew Jackson and the War of 1812. The reservoir here is infinitely deep.
[2] This report was apparently made in St. George, Utah. A manuscript of such sayings was copied by Brigham Young Jr. and eventually ended up in the LDS church archives. Everett was born in 1805 in Orange County, New York. He migrated to Nauvoo in 1843, and was a bishop there. Everett was a carpenter by trade, and stayed in Nauvoo until the Temple was finished in 1846. He migrated to Utah, and went to St. George, Utah in 1862. He died there in 1885.


  1. This is great, thanks very much. Looking forward to the series.

  2. This promises to be an interesting series, especially given the opening bit about how memory works, because it invites us to think about people’s stakes in what and how they remember events. This approach helps us to see what people found meaningful for themselves in Joseph Smith–a kind of phenomenology of having a prophet. Is that kind of where you’re thinking of taking this?

  3. Jason K., you took the words write out of my keyboard. Yes, the things that we value, hold on to, may be and often are partly fictive. For most of us, our lives are often built around our own memories, and those of others (Joseph Smith’s or even a Nephi). Those memories are constructed out of the detritus of an unrecoverable past.

  4. How do you think this should affect our understanding of documents we only know through recollection, like the King Follett sermon?

  5. John C., it’s interesting you mention King Follett. Eyewitness reports are generally less reliable than forensic evidence in many cases. But there are degrees of certitude I think, for witness texts. Excluding most of the revelation texts, where text was written during the experience with the cooperation of the speaker (repeating phrases, etc.), King Follett is one of the most reliable Joseph Smith texts. It’s original published form was the result of fusing two quite robust eyewitness reports, by one of those eyewitnesses. There are of course other witness texts for King Follett but most of these are recollective constructions.

    So in terms of distance from the archetype, whatever that might mean, King Follett is comparatively close (excluding the standard church version, however).

    For events known only by recollection, there are bibliographical/historiographic theories at our disposal. In church settings though, I wonder how much appeal such methodologies might have for the rank and file member. We love stories.

  6. I love the Noah story – it’s a nice apocalyptic reference.

  7. It might be worth a movie.

  8. Great stuff. Can’t wait to read the rest. Also gives me a chance to plug my JFS book. Lots and lots of memory studies/theory in that thing.

  9. Great, Steve. Looking forward to the book.

%d bloggers like this: