Yesterday in our priesthood class in our ward we had a lesson about the apostasy and the restoration, with a heavy emphasis on the First Vision as the event that ends the apostasy.
One of the class members raised his hand and asked, how do we reconcile a belief in the apostasy with the fact that there was so much faith and spiritual devotion in the world in the middle ages and in the renaissance? I don’t think he was trying to be a rabble-rouser, either, he was being sincere.
When I was a missionary, we used to teach that the apostasy was a loss of true doctrine, a corruption of ordinances, a loss of revelation, a loss of understanding about the fundamental principles of the gospel, and a loss of priesthood authority. Over the past 5-10 years, though I’ve been more and more convinced of a much more narrow view of the apostasy. But I wonder what that means for the First Vision?
A Limited View of the Great Apostasy
Under this perspective, the apostasy was a loss of priesthood authority, and, perhaps, of institutional revelation, but not much more than that. There is documented evidence of plenty of personal revelation in the years, decades, and centuries before Joseph Smith, and I think it is ignorant to dismiss all such visions and manifestations as counterfeit. There are plenty of poets, writers, thinkers, and theologians in the centuries before Joseph Smith that understood the faith, repentance, and the atonement, as well as other principles at least as well as we do now, if not better, and who wrote intelligently, eloquently, by inspiration about the Savior. Yes, there was confusion and disagreement over the finer points of theology, but the restoration hasn’t changed that. All it has done is add another perspective to the cacophony.
It is not disputable that the forms of ordinances such as baptism changed over the centuries, but I don’t think we should be so quick to judge all changes as corruptions. The Book of Mormon appears to document at least two different forms of baptism. The way we do the sacrament has changed since the church was organized. Temple ordinances have changed. The protocol for priesthood ordinations has changed. I’m not suggesting, as some do, that these changes are a sign that the church as apostatized, I’m suggesting that perhaps the changes in the ordinances that happened between the time of the apostles and the time of the restoration are not, by themselves, evidence of apostasy.
Notwithstanding proof-texts from Amos or the letters of the apostles, I’m not aware of any restoration scripture that claims that apostasy was truly a universal loss of truth. I know, I know, “their creeds were all an abomination,” etc. But as I’ve said before, I think that statement is much more justified by the history of the persecution of heretics than by the fact that the creeds don’t get the doctrine all right. Because, let’s face, it, nobody gets the doctrine all right all the time. (The development of LDS doctrine from the Lectures on Faith to Preach My Gospel should be sufficient to back that up.) And that’s fine. As long as you have the basics (atonement, faith, repentance, and authority for ordinances) you’re on the right track and God will eventually correct all your little misperceptions of doctrine. Jesus said that those who repent and come to him will be saved, not that those who believe correct doctrine will be saved. Being wrong isn’t the problem. Being too proud to repent is the problem.
Basically, institutional revelation may have ceased, but personal revelation didn’t, and the knowledge of the fundamental principles of the gospel was never lost. And when it comes to doctrinal error and changing ordinances, I think we live in a glass house and should be very careful before we pick up a stone. Our 20th Century Apostasy narrative was, in opinion, far too influenced by secular historians, which were themselves too biased, writing in the protestant, anti-Catholic tradition.
But when it comes to priesthood authority, the restoration makes a definite claim that priesthood authority was restored (and, by implication, that it needed to be restored, because it was lost). So that’s the view of the apostasy that I’ve come to. It was a loss of priesthood authority, and probably, of institutional revelation. But the other stuff (confusion over doctrine, doctrinal error, changing ordinances) is not so much proof of apostasy as it is a the natural effect human beings running a church, even with divine help, for more than a decade or two.
A favorite quote for this more limited view of the apostasy is John Taylor in 1873:
Say some—“Oh, we are so enlightened and intelligent now. In former ages, when the people were degraded and in darkness, it was necessary that he should communicate intelligence to the human family; but we live in the blaze of Gospel day, in an age of light and intelligence.” Perhaps we do; I rather doubt it. I have a great many misgivings about the intelligence that men boast so much of in this enlightened day. There were men in those dark ages who could commune with God, and who, by the power of faith, could draw aside the curtain of eternity and gaze upon the invisible world. There were men who could tell the destiny of the human family, and the events which would transpire throughout every subsequent period of time until the final winding-up scene. There were men who could gaze upon the face of God, have the ministering of angels, and unfold the future destinies of the world. If those were dark ages I pray God to give me a little darkness, and deliver me from the light and intelligence that prevail in our day; for as a rational, intelligent, immortal being who has to do with time and eternity, I consider it one of the greatest acquirements for men to become acquainted with their God and with their future destiny.
John Taylor, “The Knowledge of God and Mode of Worshipping Him,” 16 Journal of Discourses 194, 197 (1873).
Of course, I’m not saying anything particularly controversial or ground-breaking. The First Presidency issued a statement in 1978 recognizing that God inspired many prophets even during the apostasy. Others have written more eloquently and knowledgably than I have about the problems with the 20th Century Apostasy narrative and the more limited view of the apostasy. See Miranda Wilcox & John D Young, Standing Apart (Oxford U.P. 2014).
What is the Meaning of the First Vision under the Limited View of the Apostasy?
But if that’s the case, then where does that leave the First Vision? The First Vision didn’t restore any priesthood authority and it didn’t restore any institutional revelation, because there wasn’t any institution yet. Even as personal revelation, it was not as unique as we sometimes assume it was. Countless other saw Jesus in vision before Joseph Smith did. (A tangential question is why we sometimes act like the First Vision was not just a “vision,” but a physical visitation, when Joseph Smith never made that kind of a claim, that I can recall). And I haven’t researched it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others also claim to have seen the Father as well. And although we sometimes act like it did, the First Vision didn’t really restore the current contemporary LDS doctrine of the Godhead, either. Yes, Joseph says, in some of the accounts, that he saw two personages, but even after the First Vision, he continued to refer to the Father as Jehovah sometimes, and published the Lectures on Faith, which speak of the Holy Ghost as a shared mind between the Father and Son rather than as a Third Person. And Brigham Young, of course, had all kinds of ideas about the Godhead that aren’t really compatible with contemporary LDS doctrine. If the First Vision really settled the doctrine of the godhead, then the church apparently didn’t get the memo until another 80 years or so later.
So if that’s the case, does this mean that the First Vision is just another personal revelation? Perhaps a foreshadowing of the restoration, but not the thing itself? Comparable to the work of Tyndale? For the record, I’m okay with that. I’m not sure that the First Vision was ever intended to bear the doctrinal weight that we sometimes put on it. But is there more to it than just personal revelation?
And a related question is this: as the history becomes more well known to church members, will the church ever begin to adopt a more limited view of the apostasy? Is it possible, or probable, that the church might de-emphasize the First Vision as the event that began the Restoration (returning, in some ways, to the emphasis on the story of Moroni that was the standard missionary narrative (to the extent that there even was a standard) during and immediately following Joseph Smith’s lifetime)? The history isn’t necessarily new, but its accessibility is. We have the gospel topics essays, but will this newly accessible historical knowledge eventually trickle down into published manuals and missionary lessons? Or has the First Vision just permanently transcended its origin and taken on a meaning as the event that begins the restoration, or as the event that anchors the LDS doctrine of the Godhead?
Will Mormon missionaries 100 years or 500 years from now still memorize and recite the First Vision from the Pearl of Great Price in the first discussion? Will there be talks and lessons about how the First Vision proves the LDS godhead doctrine?