I was caught flat-footed, a fifteen year old kid alone in a homely bookstore at the edge of Nauvoo, Illinois. She was a sweet grandmotherly type dripping with pity. If I doubted it before, it was now clear I wasn’t in an LDS bookstore despite the temples and angel Moronis gracing book covers all around. I stood in front of a nine-squared quilt hanging on the wall, each square depicting familiar but odd scenes. I understood the shopkeeper’s message loud and clear: Surprise! Joseph Smith made it all up.
I was surprised. My heartbeat quickened—it was my first encounter with an “anti-Mormon” in the flesh. I was a lifelong member of the LDS Church—a teacher’s quorum president for Pete’s sake! I’d read Joseph’s account of the First Vision countless times. I’d seen the film showing barefoot glowing Father and Son floating above the boy from Where the Red Fern Grows. Multiple versions? I knew what she was saying couldn’t be true.
I can’t remember exactly how or when I eventually discovered that there were, in fact, multiple accounts of what Mormons came to call Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Joseph recorded or dictated at least four that we know of. Here’s an excerpt from the first, from his 1832 attempt to begin a history of the church:
…therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life…
This account was re-discovered by church historians in the sixties. In addition to sparking some debates in Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, it received attention in the soon-to-retire church magazine Improvement Era and in a 1971 book by LDS historian Milton Backman.1 It never challenged the official canonized version in the Pearl of Great Price (originally recorded in 1838) for pride of place in LDS thought, though. And so my fifteen-year-old self was caught off guard.
Now the church has made each account widely available through the Gospel Topics essay, “First Vision Accounts.” Images of the handwritten records and transcripts by specialists give anyone with an Internet connection unprecedented access to the raw material. Anyone can analyze the data by asking a number of different questions: What differences do we see? What consistencies? What do these things suggest about the accuracy or intent of the reports? Questions about the reliability of human memory and the limits of the historical record abound.
Not everyone will be interested in these questions. Those who are interested can’t be neatly divided into “apologetic” or “anti” camps, either. Volume three of the Mormon Studies Review features a dialog between two scholars of religion, one Latter-day Saint and one not, who worked together to carefully analyze the recorded accounts.2 It’s a nuanced discussion, not fit so much for Reddit, Buzzfeed, or Twitter. It might fit on a quilt with a lot of fancy needlework, though.
The scholars’ technical language isn’t a smokescreen. It’s the way they go about confronting their own assumptions and seeking common ground. It helps them hold each other accountable. It prevents them from talking past each other. It allows them to draw a “relatively clear distinction between the evidence” from the written accounts and their “interpretations of the evidence,” opening the way to discussing the reasons for their interpretations.3
By reading their exchange, you can begin to see the imaginative element of historical work. You can rid yourself of the fantasy that the past is a simple solid set of facts that everyone can agree on so long as they’re reasonable like us.
By the way, my favorite part of that early account of the first vision? The focus on forgiveness, the moment of grace where the Lord says Joseph’s sins are forgiven. He would seek reassurance on that point yet again.
1. The latter two references are cited in the new Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision accounts presumably because of their closer affiliation with the church. Other discussions at the time included James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 40–41; and Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–94. In 1982 Marvin S. Hill wrote a retrospective on the 1960s First Vision debates for Dialogue.
2. Ann Taves and Steven C. Harper, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts,” Mormon Studies Review 3 (2016): 53–84.
3. Ibid., 76. It also models the method Taves plans to lay out more fully in her book Revelatory Events: Unusual Experiences and the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (forthcoming from Princeton University Press).