Joseph Smith’s First [re]Vision and how historians think about the stories people tell

msr3-cover“That quilt shows all the different versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.”

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 GrowsMultiple 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.

 

NOTES

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).

Comments

  1. Thanks for the reading suggestion. I challenge the line “Now the church has made each account widely available through the Gospel Topics essay, “First Vision Accounts.” I consider something widely available when it’s published in the Ensign or discussed in General Conference. An essay that sat tucked away on LDS.org for only the knowledgeable soul to find it, does not equate, in my mind with widely available. Until it reaches mass market delivery we are still stuck.

  2. BHodges says:

    I distinguish between making something widely available versus widely publicizing something, but I take your point. As for being published in the Ensign, the May 2015 issue very briefly notified members that four accounts were available online through the JSPP. They’ve been translated into ten languages (as of 2015). The Gospel Topics essays are also being integrated into Seminary and Institute lessons from what I understand.

  3. Stephen says:
  4. I probably shouldn’t have thrown my frustration your direction. I am from this first wave of historic flashes and it frustrates me at times.

    And somehow I got hit again today. As a person who has watched so many divided homes and families over this I keep wishing for a bolder response than a brief notification and gentle integration into lessons. At 15 you had time to process the matter at 50 well…. Yes there is time to process but because it isn’t widely available and because it is gently being presented those of us who got the sucker punch are kind of stepped over and our pain overlooked/dismissed. I know that last line sounds whiny and self-centered, but I struggle with the gap that will never be filled. Yes it’s up to me now and forever what I do, but a helping hand would have been nice.

    I am glad two opposing scholars get to publicly process their thoughts. I just wish the rest of us could have had the same option.

  5. Oh and I too love the 1832 version. It is my favorite of all of them and for the same reason. This request for forgiveness. We could build a whole strong platform on that alone.

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Good job Blair–and kudos for your Tom essays

  7. Left Field says:

    The ca. 1977 First Vision film included elements of three different accounts. Missionaries showed it to investigators for a couple decades, so I would count that as pretty mass market. Of course the film wasn’t ABOUT “multiple versions,” but it certainly introduced parts of the event not mentioned in the PofGP account. And the New Era article about the making of the film did make quite a point about how the film incorporated additional accounts of the vision.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember that Nauvoo shop and its proprietor. I believe she led a group of people who passed out facsimile editions of the Nauvoo Expositor at the old City of Joseph pageant one year when I happened to attend. I was happy to get one, and still have it in my files.

    I once lectured on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Nauvoo, and noticed her in the audience. But my lecture was not Mormon-specific so I got no push back from her in that setting. Anyway, I enjoyed the memory of a colorful Nauvoo citizen.

  9. I remember the store. The one time I tried to walk over and look inside, it was closed.

  10. The current film at the Church History Museum draws from all of his accounts and is pretty darned good.

  11. Cat,
    The essays are available also through Gospel Library app under Church History tab. That makes them widely available, at least for LDS audience.

  12. Sharon Adams says:

    Somehow I need to acknowledge Cat, in your experience. There is something very significant to feeling like you’ve been sucker punched – and it may seem worse still when others appear unable or willing to acknowledge this. So much of the church experience is based on trust and faith. It becomes very difficult psychologically/emotionally/spiritually/in all ways, actually, to just continue on as if nothing has happened after realizing obvious, finally admitted aspects to what is happening now, and what has happened in the past. I’m all for stopping and acknowledging this – in order to fully process our own experience . . . But perhaps most especially, in our quest to be compassionate and loving in our lives, to be aware of others’ suffering as well.

  13. Sharon – Thank you for courtesy and support. I don’t wear this on my sleeve all the time. I am active in the church and still support it, but the first vision thing did hit hard. Niklas – I do know that the availability is growing, but less than a decade ago it was still considered heresy to bring up the other First Vision Accounts. As for the app, I don’t have an app device. I am not that old, I just don’t carry an app device. Yes. I can find it or reference it.

    To Blair I apologize that this comment thread took off in an opposite direction than you had hoped. I wish for both our sake’s I hadn’t stopped by and read the post. It was clearly a bumpy day for me and I spewed all over your piece.

    Sharon and Blair, thank you for allowing me room to grieve and vent. I hope the book goes far. It may save someone from the multi year pain I have experienced.

  14. “The essays are available also through Gospel Library app under Church History tab. That makes them widely available, at least for LDS audience.”
    Thanks so much for this heads up. And Cat, I too feel/share your pain.

  15. SHenneman says:

    Whenever I hear about this topic, the excellent German film The Lives of Others comes to mind. At the beginning, the main character, Ulrich, a member of the East German Stasi, is holding a man prisoner. The prisoner continually gives his alibi of a certain day, which is word for word unchanged on every retelling. Ulrich tells a class he is teaching that this is how he knows the man is lying: those telling the truth reformulate their stories, recall different details, whereas those lying have prepared sentences they fall back on under pressure.

    It doesn’t prove anything about Joseph Smith, but it does suggest that those who dismiss him out of hand based on the existence of multiple differing accounts are not thinking very hard about the reality of human recollection.

  16. Cat, I guess I’m a day late and probably more than a few dollars short, but I also want to acknowledge that regardless of how wide “accessible” or publicized this information is, it can still feel like a sucker punch. I’m absolutely NOT one of those “beyond a shadow of doubt” persons, and I never have been, though I envy them. From my earliest memories, I had a complicated relationship with God. And yet, my beliefs were the simpler, Primary-level understandings.

    As I’ve wrestled with the humanity (as in, “To err is human…”) of the Restoration, I’ve certainly had significant periods when the bitter winds of doubt and disbelief chilled my soul. And yet…ultimately, I keep coming back to the same conclusion; it’s that very humanity that gives me hope that one such as I, imperfect, frequently doubting, ever questing, ever rotating the puzzle pieces for great clarity, can have room in the Kingdom. I don’t fault any of our leaders for their approaches. Many of them are coming from their own faithful, believing frameworks. Others, like B.H. Roberts have been more expansive and analytical in their approaches.

    Yes, it would be more comfortable to be one of the ninety-and-nine who are able to remain in place. But I’m grateful for a Shepherd who comes after the many of us lost “ones” who wrestle with the Lord, with ourselves, with the frailties (the “humanity”) of our prophets, but sincerely long for what is good and true. Hang in there, Cat. Your voice, your wrestlings are of value to the other sheep who probably have more than a little goat in them!

    By the way, as a lefty, I’ve often wondered what God has against goats and left-handers. One time while pondering this, I received the very distinct impression that the Lord loves goats as well.

    And so that I’m not completely complicit in threadjacking; I’d love to find that quilt. It sounds beautiful.

  17. I too love the 1832 account. I find myself much better able to identify with Joseph there than in the detached language of the Joseph Smith: History version.

    “This account was discovered by church historians in the sixties.”

    This summary of the 1832 account’s provenance is extraordinarily generous to the church. These pages were cut out of Joseph’s journal and hidden in Joseph Fielding Smith’s safe somewhere between 1921 and 1935. Only after Jerald and Sandra Tanner got wind of it and pushed for more information was this account eventually revealed.

    I regret that I was not taught the 1832 account in my more formative years. It would have helped me identify much better with Joseph as a real human being as opposed to a heroic mythical figure.

    I regret that I was not taught there were multiple versions. It would have helped me have much more realistic understanding and expectations of the role of prophets.

    I am angered that church leaders withheld this information. It’s hard not to see this withholding as self-serving. By only admitting to one version, church leaders were able to insist on much more literal belief and obedience.

    And I am angered by modern church leaders’ refusal to issue an institutional apology. This is one of those things that the church needs to repent of. I hope that the JSPP and the essays are the first step in that process. It won’t be complete if they’re the last.

  18. BHodges says:

    Cat: no worries. I appreciate your perspective and I’m glad you have a place to talk a little bit about it here.

    Brent: I don’t remember off the top of my head the source for the description of JFeS cutting pages out. Where are you recalling that from? Thanks for the comment.

  19. “I am angered that church leaders withheld this information. It’s hard not to see this withholding as self-serving.”

    I hear a lot of that, and yet I don’t know that it accurately represents past leadership’s motivations. Though my family is much too rebellious to hold much in the way of leadership positions, we’ve had the opportunity to know the apostles and prophets of earlier periods on a personal basis. They were fairly regular people doing the best they understood to strengthen the faith of the members. They lived in a positivistic world. Yes, in hindsight it was paternalistic, but in our post-modern, self-esteem centric reality, we tend to see many actions of past generations as if they were imbued with dark motives; and of course, we are the enlightened altruistic ones.

    If we want future generations to not judge our narcissism too harshly, perhaps we might more generously model compassion and giving the benefit of the doubt to our forebears.