What does the First Vision mean in light of a limited view of the apostasy?

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 32479_all_003_01-taylorpeople 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?


  1. Perhaps the significance of the First Vision in light of the limited view of the Restoration (which I agree is the best interpretation of the Restoration) is that it shows Joseph Smith was chosen as the key figure in eventually restoring the priesthood and some information for use specifically in the Latter-days (e.g. the modern form of temple worship), provided he remained able to serve this purpose.

  2. At that lesson, it occurred to me that our Apostasy–>Restoration framework, while it doesn’t map well onto history, works really well as an allegory for (or, perhaps, type of) Fall–>Atonement. That is, maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not it happened, as much as it describes the redemptive process of the church (or the Church).

    Others in our lesson brought up that, even if we buy it as an actually mapping onto history, the idea that the Apostasy was some clean cliff, and that the Restoration is another cliff in the other direction is overly simplistic; rather, apostasy and restoration are smooth curves. There’s not one moment we can point to evincing the loss of Christ’s church (assuming that He had one), nor a single moment that represents its return.

    Which is what I was thinking about yesterday: in light of all of that, what work does the First Vision do in my life? It doesn’t answer particular theological questions (like you said, we give it too much prooftexting authority when we decide it proves that God and Jesus are separate embodied beings). What it does for me, though, is it marks the beginning of a new way to look at God and religion, a way that deeply informs my understanding of and relationship to God.

  3. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    “…does this mean that the First Vision is just another personal revelation?” Yes, I believe that is correct. Even Joseph Smith didn’t consider it much more than that. He rarely shared the experience, and many members never even knew about the event. I believe it has been turned into an Origin Story, a retroactive justification for what followed. That sounds cynical, but need not be. You’re correct that nothing was really restored at that time, but we have burdened it with the weight of being the foundational event in the Restoration. This weight of doctrine causes all sorts of problems in light of Joseph’s multiple versions of the Vision. Perhaps the significance of the visitation is that it has become a handy tool for missionary work. This is the hook the Church has employed for missionaries to begin a dialogue. As such, it becomes the foundation upon which non-members are introduced to the Church, and is given weight beyond what it can bear. That shouldn’t diminish he significance of the Vision for Joseph Smith. However, he didn’t walkaway from the encounter knowing that he would start a new religion, restore truth and authority, and engage in a utopian experiment. Also, for him, at that time, it wasn’t the ‘First’ Vision, just ‘A’ Vision. He had no expectation of further interaction with the divine.

  4. john f (and Turtle Named Mack),

    That’s kind of what I mean by “foreshadowing.” It presaged his later mission as a restorer of priesthood and institutional revelation. But did it do so in a purely personal way or in a way that has significance for the rest of us? I guess he eventually thought it was more than just personal since he thought it was important enough to put it in the official history, but I’m not sure how much more than personal.


    I really like your take on it. Re your point about smooth curves, the part of the lesson that really rang hollow for me was when the teacher identified “100AD” as the beginning of the apostasy. But, like you, as I think more about the story, I think it tells a type of fall and redemption that maps the story our personal experience with God onto an institutional story. I didn’t think consciously about it writing this post, but actually, my D&C post next week deals with that same theme. And that really makes sense as a type or a parallel of personal sin and redemption. Can I identify the moment that I went from being an innocent child to fully formed accountable person? I mean, I guess I could say that, for doctrinal purposes, it was when I became eight years old, but I think we all know that it’s not a light switch on your eighth birthday, but a dimmer switch that, by the time you’re eight, is bright enough to basically discern right from wrong. And even though I was baptized when I was eight, and had a kind of faith then, it’s pretty clear to me that I didn’t suddenly go from no faith to faith, and that I have experienced forgiveness and redemption since my baptism many times, and to a much greater degree than when I was baptized.

    I guess God works with sunsets and sunrises rather than light switches.

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    If the First Vision proves that God is a Man, why doesn’t Moses’ epiphany on Mt. Sinai prove that God is a plant?

  6. I think any analysis of what the First Vision means needs to take into account that a significant amount of testimonies are based on spiritual experiences connected to Joseph Smith’s First Vision account. For that reason alone, I think it will continue to be an effective missionary tool.

  7. Or for that matter, Aaron, why doesn’t John’s Apocalypse prove that Jesus is now made of brass and shoots swords out of his mouth?

  8. “So if that’s the case, does this mean that the First Vision is just another personal revelation?”

    I’ve always had a hard time with seeing the FV as something other than a personal revelation. Especially in light of JS’s earlier descriptions, the other individuals in history who have had similar experiences, and that nothing actually changed for many years. And with that, I’ll admit that I get stuck on Aaron’s logic as well. God is corporeal because JS said so. But why is JS’s understanding of his own experience correct?

  9. Agreed that the First Vision is more of a personal revelation than some origin story, despite teaching it as an origin story in the mission. (“After God and Christ told Joseph Smith not to join any other churches, he told them that he was called to be a prophet to restore the gospel.” Checks the First Vision account ten years after being on the mission; Joseph Smith didn’t say anything about being called as a prophet during the First Vision).

    In re: limited view of the apostasy– I agree with this take. That what was lost was Priesthood and institutional authority, not personal revelation, but my question is do people today really care about Priesthood authority?

    It seems like this was a big concern during the Second Great Awakening, but fast-forward to today, I just don’t get the vibe in the zeitgeist that people think “proper authority” is an important thing. People are looking for churches that fulfill them spiritually and provide friendship.

    So if having the proper authority is our market differentiator in the religious marketplace, but that’s not what people are looking for, what’s our selling point?

    And, no, I don’t think convincing people with a hamfisted summary of our take on the apostasy is going to do it. Again, in the minds of most folks (thanks to the Reformation), you don’t need “authority” or a True Church to have a relationship with God.

  10. As you note, the wide(r) recognition of multiple accounts probably changes the way we connect the First Vision and teachings about the apostasy. My own short version:
    1. Multiple accounts confirm and validate each other for the point that something momentous happened–a theophany.
    2. Multiple accounts do not confirm and validate each other for the details of what happened. It is not clear that the 1838 version is more (or less) correct than the others. Various arguments can be made.
    Therefore, to the extent one is tempted to take some doctrine or principle from a detail of the 1838 account (or any other account), including some rationale about apostasy and restoration, look for more (such as other scripture) to analyze and validate.
    To the extent one takes the occurrence of a theophany from one or more accounts, there’s something there and it’s no small thing.

  11. Great post. Thanks for your valuable insight.

    I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on why God allows his children to sink into apostasy in the first place, as we contend is a pattern through history. The simple answer given in EQ yesterday is that we choose to rebel (see, agency) and he removes his priesthood power when things are thoroughly corrupted. I find that answer persuasive, but incomplete because we simultaneously contend that God has power to influence human events in minute detail (see, e.g., inspiring folks to invent printing presses, religious liberty, America, the internet) to create conditions that are ripe for the fullness of the gospel. Why would God allow his children to wander without the fullness of the gospel (even if the apostasy is only “limited”) for most of modern history given his considerable power to change conditions?

    This is probably a great unknowable, but would be interested in your thoughts.

  12. Jeff, you raise an interesting point. Authority is not as urgent a question for as many people as it used to be, so what’s our “selling point” if the restoration is really primarily about authority? I don’t pretend to know the full answer to the question, but I do have some thoughts about it. Primarily, I have a difficult time with discussions about what makes us unique or what’s our selling point, because I’m not convinced that being unique, that differentiating ourselves from the rest of Christianity, is per se a good thing. I have no problem being different, but I think our differences should be genuine and not contrived. That is, we should differentiate ourselves from others to the extent that it is necessary, based on a key doctrine (and for me, key doctrines are faith, repentance, baptism, priesthood authority, and not that much else), but not based on things that are mostly speculation or things that aren’t really essential, and there are plenty of real differences without us needing to artificially emphasize differences. About selling, I’m convinced that we shouldn’t be trying to convince people to join the church; we should be trying to convince people to believe in Christ, repent, and be baptized. I’ve been persuaded that the restoration is, fundamentally, a call to repent. Repentance is a tough sell, but maybe that’s because it’s not supposed to be sold.

  13. Christian, great comment.

    PLM, you’re right, I don’t know the answer to that. But I suspect that the beginning of an answer might lie somewhere in Sam’s point about above about apostasy and restoration not being so abrupt. Perhaps there really isn’t that big of a difference, from a long-term perspective, between what we enjoy now and what was available, as least through personal revelation, before the restoration. That’s not to say that what we enjoy isn’t wonderful and significant, just that I’m not sure that God really did leave his children without access to the most important and significant things for most of modern history.

    I also think we overestimate God’s propensity to intervene.

    But I don’t know. It’s a good question.

  14. jstricklan says:

    I. JKC, in responding to Jeff, you make an interesting point: “About selling, I’m convinced that we shouldn’t be trying to convince people to join the church; we should be trying to convince people to believe in Christ, repent, and be baptized. I’ve been persuaded that the restoration is, fundamentally, a call to repent. Repentance is a tough sell, but maybe that’s because it’s not supposed to be sold.” I agree with you that the point is repentance, but I don’t know that we shouldn’t “sell” it, or that we shouldn’t be trying to convince the people to join the Church. (I capital “C’d” it on purpose, you’ll see why.) The thing is, as long as salvation is considered only an individual act, then individual repentance and an individual relationship with God is all you need — and you don’t need a church, or a community, or for heaven’s sake authority to mediate anything, thank you very much. I believe this is one of the primary messages of the restoration, and I support our emphasis of it.

    But it is also not the whole story, is it? Because salvation is not solely individual; it is (and always has been) a community act. To start with, take Jesus’ fundamental commandment that he gives the apostles in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Without others to love as Jesus loved us, we cannot fulfill the commandment. Throughout the scriptures, God’s grace is mediated through a community, and often so is sin — particularly if you consider the words of the Old Testament prophets railing against the injustice of Israel. Our saving ordinances cannot be done by yourself. I could go on, but you get the point: in Mormonism, as in the scriptures, salvation is intensely individual and intensely communal at the same time. The church, as well as the Church (which is intended to safeguard the church), provides us with the opportunity to do that work. And there is enough work that, as Elder Uchtdorf mentioned in a recent talk about missionary work, we could really use the help. (So maybe we’re actually hiring more hands instead of selling consumers something, but there’s still a persuasive aspect. So close enough?)

    II. Which leads me back to an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while. I’m remarkably poorly read on the apostasy for someone who thinks it’s really important, but it seems to me that the Restoration is about new wine in new bottles. If God could have just redeemed traditional Christianity, it seems he would have (and, arguably, he tried over and over.) What would traditional Christianity’s flaws be in that scenario? I would argue the union with Empire achieved under Constantine is a pretty good candidate — traditional Christianity has found it very hard to shake off the militant messianic strand of Israelite belief, despite the actual Messiah’s best efforts while among us — but it also might be the deep conviction to Platonic doctrines (omnipotence, God as a Platonic ideal into which all beings return, etc.) that also obscure the dignity of humanity as God’s children (and not just his favorite playthings.)

    The Church, then, as a capital “C” organization, would have a special duty to be a community where Christians hear other ideas than Christian Empire and anti-human Platonic ideals. (We probably fail at those duties.) The First Vision, repurposed as an origin story, serves that goal, but so does the personal revelation that it began as: God was going to speak to an ordinary kid, and so all those crazy saints in the sticks who stuck it to the authorities of the Imperial Church (this time we’re talking pre-reformation unified Western and Eastern Christianities, similar in their mindsets) were just as important as the Pope or the various Bishops.

    Mormonism does poorly as an Imperial Church. (For example, the Deseret Period ended in total collapse.) Perhaps the role of the Church is to disrupt traditional Christianity’s traditionally close-minded views on those (and perhaps other) ideas. In that effort, there are a lot of people and churches involved in the Restoration — Leo Tolstoy can give you a pretty good survey in “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” but this goes way beyond Christianity — but perhaps the Church is to play a special role in the Restoration, and the First Vision kicks it off, even if we’ve had to repurpose it to make it fit.

    I’d be interested in pushback on these ideas. They’re (obviously) underdeveloped and too long. But then, JKC, you did ask for thoughts…

  15. jstricklan,

    On your first point, I guess I have a lot of faith that if a person truly repents, the desire to join the church will come from the spirit, from within. Maybe too much faith. I don’t know. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be inviting people to be baptized, just that baptism should be seen primarily as formally memorializing repentance (making a covenant of repentance and obedience to God) and only secondarily as a gateway to church membership. In my experience as a missionary, I think my companions and I too often had it backwards.

    On your second point, you raise some interesting issues. I don’t know that I am all that committed to the idea that metaphysics are all that important. Your point about union with the state and the power thereof is more persuasive. And your idea that the church is bad at empire, but good at disruption is an intriguing one. It’s been years since I read that Tolstoy essay, but I remember it being really good.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    Just a plug for Christopher Jones’ excellent article, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in the JMH. You can download the entire article here. I think it is incredibly germane to this question.

  17. It really bothers me that in the 1838 version of the First Vision, the one that we have missionaries memorize, almost as soon as God gets done telling Joseph that he shouldn’t join any of the churches, God goes on this rant about how ALL of the leaders of current religions are corrupt hypocrites. First of all, ALL of them, really? And second, doesn’t it seem unfair of God to take away the Holy Ghost and then criticize people for not having the Holy Ghost (and trying to do the best they can in its absence)? If God is not a jerk, how do you reconcile that?

  18. JKC

    Appreciate your insights, but people can find the gospel of repentance and baptism as well as a community in which to bear one anothers burdens and serve in other churches. I’ve seen it first hand in the lives of my non-Mormon friends who are active I their Christian congregation. So why Mormonism over other denominations if theyre showing faith in Christ, repenting, going into the waters of baptism to make a covenant, enjoying the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and are embedded in a community of other followers in another church?

    Our answer is we’ve got the proper authority to make these things valid, but as mentioned earlier people don’t really care about authority. What’s more they will tell you that their actions feel valid in the sight of God because they feel and experience the fruits of the spirit.

  19. Stapely, what an awesome article. I only skimmed it and will have to read it more carefully later, but I notice that it confirms my suspicion that Joseph’s claim to see both the Father and the Son was not unique.

  20. Joni, I get the frustration. But keep in mind that in the 1838 version the claim is never made that God took away the Holy Ghost, just that they had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof, so we may or may not be comfortable with making such a broad statement about churches, but he doesn’t say that God himself took away the Holy Ghost, so at least that hypocrisy isn’t there. Though, I take your point that the way the missionaries often teach it, it follows a discussion of apostasy where it is often said that God “took” the priesthood away once things got really bad.

    On your other point, it doesn’t exactly say globally that all religious leaders were corrupt. Remember, Joseph writes of going to God with a local question about which of “all the sects”–which he has identified as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists–is right. So when God responds to that question by saying that “all their creeds” were an abomination, and that “those professors” were corrupt, he’s saying that the creeds and ministers of the Methodist, Baptists, and Presbyterians operating in Western New York were wrong. I also think there’s some hyberbole going on here, for rhetorical effect. But I take your point.

    And to that point, I don’t think I ever quoted that part as a missionary, and I can’t remember any of the missionaries I’ve taught with over the past 5 years or so doing so either. I mean, it’s the only account that’s officially canonized, but the missionaries already leave out the part about Satan binding his tongue, because that just sounds weird, so it’s not like we have to be married to using the canonized account verbatim without leaving anything out.

    Jeff, like I said, I have confidence (maybe too much) that the fruit of repentance will eventually lead people to the church. Maybe that’s naïve of me. I certainly think it possible that the Lord calls some people to serve other places, and I have no doubt that there are many good people doing many good things in other churches. In my experience, I can share my testimony of repentance and grace, and of the Book of Mormon, and sometimes that results in people joining the church, but I can’t sell the church. It just doesn’t work for me. When I’ve tried, it’s a stupor of thought.

  21. I believe that for most people, religious conversion comes from ecstatic experiences. Doctrine serves not to create those experiences, but to contextualize them. The most effective context for spiritual manifestations changes over time. A heavy emphasis on authority as the rationale for Joseph Smith’s revelations might have been appropriate at one time, because it responded to the questions that many seekers had in sorting out their faith. Discourses about authority seem much less important now. It certainly is not a persuasive reason to be a Mormon for me, and I am hard pressed to think of people I have known who talk about authority as a big factor in their conversions.

    We should want to deemphasize the elements of our doctrine that are less relevant to seekers today. That does not mean that we should bastardize our faith. I, for one, have very good, very deep reasons for being a Mormon, and those reasons have practically nothing to do with the nature of the Great Apostasy. Emphasizing authority in the language of nineteenth-century religious disputes (as we continue to do) seems unlikely to help many people recognize the power of the Spirit as they experience it today. The Holy Ghost’s authority is evident when people feel it; we ought to give them a context for that experience that makes sense in terms that people care about now.

  22. Excellent post, and the comments have been quite good, too. A few random thoughts and observations:

    1. I would argue in favor of, perhaps, an even more limited view of the apostasy than what is being advocated here. While I agree that it is best described as a loss of priesthood power, I would argue that such a loss was intended from the beginning. There is scant evidence that the original twelve apostles ever gave any thought to choosing successors, except for replacing Judas (putting aside Paul’s decision to simply invite himself to the party), since they firmly believed that Christ never meant for there to be more apostles and that His return was imminent. After all, how can there be just “twelve judges in Israel” if there are more than twelve apostles?

    2. Consistent with what others have observed, Joseph made reference to his first vision only infrequently and didn’t portray it as the seminal event of the restoration. Rather, it was only elevated to its modern status in the early 20th Century by his nephew, Joseph F. Smith, who used it to fill the void created by the church’s about face on polygamy, theocracy and millenarianism. This is chronicled well in Kathleen Flake’s “The Politics of American Religious Identity.”

    3. As others have noted, the differences in Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision are not inconsequential. While some can be written off to the inherent fallibility of human memory, a more compelling explanation is that Joseph frequently re-imagined that experience in order to make it fit with his evolving ideas about the Godhead. I’m not suggesting he was being deceptive; rather, I’m postulating that as his ideas about the nature of celestial beings changed, so did his perception of his past experiences.

    4. For additional perspectives on the morphing of LDS ideas regarding the apostasy, I highly recommend the essays collected in “Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy.”

  23. “The Holy Ghost’s authority is evident when people feel it; we ought to give them a context for that experience that makes sense in terms that people care about now.”

    I like this very much. It’s all about conversion (being changed by Christ) not about intellectual conviction. The doctrine helps us understand the Spirit, but you can’t use doctrine to force the spirit to come.

  24. In my fourth point, above, I meant to say that I was simply echoing JKC’s recommendation regarding this collection of essays.

  25. Thanks for sharing that comment, FarSide. As I hinted at in the OP, the only claim about authority that the restoration explicitly makes is that was restored, implying that it needed to be restored. That it was lost is an implication of the claim that it needed to be restored. If your point was that it may not have even been intended to continue, that’s certainly plausible, for the reasons you suggest.

    “I’m postulating that as his ideas about the nature of celestial beings changed, so did his perception of his past experiences.” I think that’s the best explanation of the real major differences. To me, that suggests that it was truly a visionary experience rather than a concrete, physical visitation. But I wasn’t there, so what do I know?

  26. I suppose I hadn’t considered the possibility that God only meant that ALL the Protestant ministers in Western New York circa 1820 are corrupt. But I still find that hard to swallow. I was taught the vision of Church history that everything from Christopher Columbus to the U. S. Constitution to that volcano in 1815 were specifically designed by God to get Joseph Smith into the right place, at the right time, in the right circumstances to restore the Church. (I really dislike the idea of Joseph being some sort of Super Special Chosen Being, a la Luke Skywalker, but that’s neither here nor there.) So God wanted ALL of the religious leaders at that place and time to be terrible, hypocritical people – God allowed these terrible hypocrites to lead a lot of good people astray, including members of the Smith family – JUST to maneuver Joseph into the exact position that he’d ask the right question so that God could kick-start the Restoration? I dunno, it doesn’t make Him seem like any less of a jerk.

  27. Also, I wonder how our claims of Exclusive Authority must look to people outside the Church.

    Q: Why does your church have the authority to seal families together forever, and ours doesn’t?
    A: Because we say so, and we have the authority to say so, and you know we have the authority to say so because we say we do.

    That kind of logic gets awfully circular, awfully fast…

  28. I am not so sure that all God’s authority was lost among humans before the Restoration. During Jesus’ ministry he never claimed that the priesthood of the recognized priests (like John the Baptist’s father) had been lost and needed to be “restored.” I cannot identify a time in history when somehow God decided to stop recognizing the authority of priests everywhere in Christianity. And why would God stop recognizing ordinances or blessing people for participating in them?

    In my mind, the Restoration is more like a “system restore” command on a computer. Sometimes a computer becomes so cluttered with things that it is better to have it revert to it’s factory status–but that doesn’t mean that the cluttered computer was without “power” to do what computers do (a computer priesthood): it just couldn’t do it as effectively or well as it could after a system restore. I don’t have a problem acknowledging divine recognition of rites in other religious traditions, whether the authority comes from the “priesthood of all believers” (bottom up) or via laying on of hands traceable to Jesus or to angels (top down), or in some other way. I do believe in a “restoration” of priesthood through Joseph and others, a new and improved infusion into the human family of God’s power and authority. I just don’t think I have to believe that all other ministers, rabbis, priests, imams, or the like were and are completely without divine approval for their work and rites. Maybe I am wrong. But for today that is how I see it.

    Of course, another analogy of the Church’s restoration might be an operating system “upgrade” written by programmers (i.e., computer Deity). Thus the restored Church today is not only quite different from the Church administered by the original apostles, but it is quite different from the organization in Joseph’s and Brigham’s time.

  29. Interesting and potentially enlightening analogy, David. Re divine authority exercised by other ministers, I’m reminded of the revelation telling Sidney Rigdon that he baptized into repentance before coming into the church, so it’s not like there isn’t precedent for the idea.

  30. The harsh words toward other sects related in the FV take on a different flavor in light of the Christopher Jones article referenced above. In the FV Jesus was taking their scriptural catch-phrase (especially the Methodists) and turning it around on them. It would be like if someone prayed about Mormonism and God told them that the Church was ‘looking beyond the mark,’ or ‘not true and living.’

  31. J. Stapley says:

    That is a really interesting observation, Jared*.

  32. Thanks!

    Just to extend it a bit, per the article, it seems that just as Joseph had his vision (the power), which was the kind of experience the Methodists had encouraged, they were turning against that kind of thing. Thus, I think the rebuke can be seen as less of a blanket condemnation, and more of a targeted ‘inside baseball’ critique whose context has been lost.

  33. I should be at the point where the phrase “maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not it happened…” with regard to church doctrine and history doesn’t bother me, but nonetheless…

  34. It was not uncommon in the 19th century and earlier for churchmen to speak in strong negative terms about the authority or lack thereof in other churches. Pope Leo XIII famously termed Anglican ordinations absolutely null and utterly void, and it would not have been hard to find very negative views about Catholicism among 19th century American Protestants. Some sort of defect in the Catholic Church was assumed by all Protestants since the time of Luther. It was therefore understandable for a young boy to want to know which parties were right or if they were all wrong together. And if you ask that question, one possible answer is that they were all wrong together.

    A basic different between Latter-day Saints and Protestants is that Protestants worked on the assumption that Christianity could be successfully re-formed from then present elements, while Latter-day Saints work on the assumption that something was lost and needed to be divinely restored. Restoring a painting can mean cleaning a painting, but if part of the painting has been lost or taken away, a good cleaning won’t suffice to restore the missing pieces, which is particularly important if those pieces are plain and precious.

  35. Professor Lockhart says:

    Apostasy also divorced people from a embodied God who is our Father who wants us to become like him, line upon line, precept upon precept.

    Joseph was able to restore the Priesthood ordinances, church organization and principles that serve as the earthly vehicle toward that purpose over the course of his life thanks to that vision.

    If we only reduce the priesthood as the authority to give the sacrament or baptize, etc. without any understanding of our relationship to God (and the eternal destiny that is the ultimate goal in these ordinances/church organization) then it’s a small apostasy of a sort on it’s own.

    If you’ve ever had a major revelatory event in your life, you know it becomes the foundation for testifying the truth of other principles. That’s true for the first vision and then church.

  36. “Q: Why does your church have the authority to seal families together forever, and ours doesn’t?”

    The answer here is not so much about authority as it is about what each church considers important, relevant, or meaningful. So the answer is not a circular argument about authority, but goes to the heart of what each church believes about the eternal nature of families or lack thereof.

    Belief and authority are related. The Restoration is not just about authority, though authority is very important. Latter-day Saints do not claim the authority to transubstantiate the bread at the sacrament table because we have a different belief about that ordinance.

    The Restoration can be viewed as about the whole nature of things: about God, the heavens and the earth and all things that in them are. The restoration is a whole and continuing package, not just a belief about a few doctrines. We believe God will yet reveal many great and important things.

  37. I am a convert, raised as UCC Protestant, visited Temple Square (because it was free) on a family vacation at age 15, taught by missionaries, & had to wait until 18 to be baptized, after which my dad kicked me out of the house. Growing up, I prayed to a spirit – what I understood God to be. I did not “expect” direct answers to prayers, because I had been taught not to. For me, understanding the nature of the being to whom I was praying was life-changing, as was the expectation that my prayers could be answered. To me, the end of the apostasy was that the heavens were open & that “I” could receive revelation for myself, now that I knew how.

    Joni, my extended family includes Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, & Catholics, & when the subject of eternal families sealed together comes up, they all collectively shake their heads, because “those things are done away with in the hereafter”. Every one of them believe we will all be gender neutral angels for the eternities, playing our harps – if all goes well. Most Protestants disavow the need for “authority”, as we were taught in catechism class, but my Catholic relatives will only argue the point that they, & only they, have any “necessary” authority, & therefore my church “can’t” claim authority from God.

  38. “So God wanted ALL of the religious leaders at that place and time to be terrible, hypocritical people”

    Don’t be ridiculous. God wanted all those people (leaders and followers and non-believers) to repent and believe the good news of the coming Restoration.

    One definition of corrupt in the 1828 Noah Webster dictionary was to become vitiated or to lose purity, to become defective and void. That can be read not as a personal indictment of the religious leaders, but as an indictment of the religious systems they represented and advocated, an indictment that was common in religious arguments of the time. Each denomination believed the others to be in some way defective, otherwise there was no reason to have so many separate denominations.

  39. Great article. It’s writing like this, and the subsequent discussions that keep me coming back to BCC. I’m not much of a commenter, but regularly read here and this (and previous articles) have given me a lot of hope for the coming year of study.

  40. Andrew R. says:

    In nearly 50 years I have never been given the impression that the Heavens were closed to individuals. People could still pray, and receive answers. Indeed we (the Church) acknowledges the Lord’s hand in many things during the Apostasy that led to, and allowed to happen, the Restoration.

    What could not happen was that individuals could not be bound to Christ by priesthood ordinances, and the covenants made therein.

    The First Vision was a means to start the process, with many, many more subsequent visions.

  41. stephenchardy says:

    Among the first accounts of the restoration was that written by Oliver Cowdery. In it, he begins the story of the restoration with the visit of Moroni. Not the First Vision. As has already been stated, the First Vision was elevated in importance over time, both in Joseph’s own memories, and in the collective memories of the church. It seems that at first it was mostly regarded as a personal experience, and not one for universal application.

  42. Comments above suggest that the most important aspect of the Restoration may be the concept of authority. I am prone to think this myself. However, have we ever resolved the question of why the voice and direction of Deity to mankind itself is insufficient license, jurisdiction, power, or commission to authenticate the actions which God so directs? The “power of God’s word” is not to be found in Divine Will, but in a separate source of power? (Somewhere in BCC I recall that this concept has been discussed – not sure how it was resolved.)

    Three models of authority (priesthood):
    (1) Priesthood of all believers. The authority to act for God arises from the consent of believers. (Bottoms-up)
    (2) Delegable priesthood. Authority which is individually delegable to others.
    (3) Priesthood of Divine Will: Psalms 33:6. “By the word of the LORD, the heavens were made.”

    I suppose that none of these models are immune from the periodic need for a restoration, or version upgrade.

    I am biased to the delegable model since the concept of a unique line of authority (a royal pedigree) has great authenticity, assuming that line remains pure, unfettered by mutual excommunications and contention.

    I do not want to divert the discussion from Restoration to Priesthood. …just wanted to add a quick thought.

    Great post, indeed…! Back to the topic at hand.

  43. Thanks to everyone for commenting and sharing your thoughts, lots of really interesting insights.

    Jared*, I agree with J. Stapely. Great insight. I had similar thoughts as I read through the article last night. I wonder if section 84’s statement in 1832 that “in the ordinances thereof [of the Melchizedek priesthood] the power of godliness is manifest,” and that “without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh” also harks back, in a more idiosyncratic way, to the Methodist obsession with the denying the power of godliness while maintaining a form of it. If the first vision is supposed to be an example of “the power of godliness,” then by the fact that it happened before any restoration of authority, it sets up “the power of godliness” as a charismatic gift independent of authority, and this seems to be how Joseph portrays it in his 1838 account. Yet six years earlier, in 1832, the revelation that is now section 84 frames “the power of godliness” as something that, if it doesn’t exactly come from the authority of the priesthood, doesn’t happen without the authority of the priesthood. Unless maybe the first vision is not itself the “power of godliness,” but a foreshadowing of it.

    Professor Lockhart, I’m not sure I follow you. I agree with you that Joseph Smith did restore those things, and that they are not ends in themselves, but vehicles for a greater goal. But I’m not sure I understand what you mean by he did that “thanks to that vision.” If the first vision hadn’t happened, and Moroni’s visit had been the first spiritual manifestation, I’m not sure that the church would really look any different in terms of the authority, ordinances, and organization that were restored.

    I’m not sure if, when you mention “an embodied God” in the first line of your comment, that you are suggesting that the First Vision establishes doctrinal points about the nature of the Godhead. I’m not sure that it does. Later revelations do, so I’m not arguing with you that God’s corporeality is substantively important to the restoration; I’m just not sure that the First Vision really stands for that proposition.

    On your point about priesthood without an understanding of our relationship to God being an apostasy of its own, I agree that priesthood ordinances, while they are important, are not an end themselves, but a means to become one with God. Are you suggesting that in this post, I’m reducing priesthood to an end itself without a proper understanding of our relationship to God? I don’t see it that way.

    On your last point, I have had deeply important spiritual (maybe even revelatory) experiences in my own life, and I agree with you that such experiences change the way a person sees things. But I also know that my perception of such experiences changes as I grow and learn, just as Joseph Smith’s apparently did.

    Leo, ” The restoration is a whole and continuing package, not just a belief about a few doctrines.” Great point. I agree. I don’t think it’s fair to call Joni’s comment “ridiculous,” but I think you make a good point about how “corrupt” does not need to mean devoid of all truth and goodness. I think it needs to be read in light of Joseph Smith’s later statements that there was some truth in all the creeds, though they all contained some things he could not subscribe to.

    Marivene, Thanks for sharing your experience. I think its important. Maybe one way to look at the First Vision is not so much as the functional thing that begins the restoration, but as a sort of archetype for the praying man or woman. The point would be not that the heavens were closed until it opened them, but that the heavens are open, and any person can get an answer to a prayer.

    stephenchardy, That’s what I mean. Cowdery is a good example of what the story of the restoration would look like without the First Vision. And it doesn’t look that different. I’m not saying that the First Vision doesn’t matter, or that we should just ignore it, but perhaps it’s not the indispensable sine qua non that our lessons and manuals have sometimes portrayed it to be, and perhaps Moroni’s visit is more foundational than those lessons and manuals have portrayed it, as a sort of expected next step that logically had to follow the First Vision. Oliver also came to the restoration through the story of the angel and the gold bible, not through the story of the first vision, so it makes sense that when he wrote the story of the restoration, that’s what he began with.

  44. Thanks for the comment, advisor. No, I don’t believe that the question have ever been resolved. Of course, the restoration is heavily biased toward the delegable model, but I think we should also be open to ways in which the other models might affect how we think about how priesthood actually works.

  45. Jared,

    Your post resonates on many levels. Do Mormons have a lock on faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost? All of these concepts were important in traditions that pre-dated mormonism. Countless people exhibited faith and repentance. Many were baptized by immersion. Many had visitation, saw Jesus Christ, and were filled with the Holy Ghost.

    Are all of these things that people experienced before us fictitious? And are all our friends in other faiths who experience this – are they all deluded? I have a hard time believing so.

    I’m beginning to understand the “Restoration” as what Mormonism brought that was uniquely Mormon. To me, it’s the following: (1) the concept of an embodied God, which Christianity had abandoned; (2) the concept that ordinary people can progress to become Gods themselves (similar ideas exist in Eastern Orthodoxy – theosis – but with differences.); (3) the means to achieve these items through new temples and temple ordinances (which Christianity had largely abandoned).

    So my idiosyncratic view of the Restoration is this – let’s stop talking about how we Mormons are the only ones with a valid baptism, (since so many people have had very meaningful baptisms, and I can’t fathom how a merciful God would assign zero value to those ordinances). Let’s start talking more about the things in which we are demonstrably unique, which really set us apart from traditional Christians, and for which we have strong arguments that we’re truly adding something valuable lacking in other traditions.

  46. I see nobody wants to answer my questions about what significance the First Vision might have 100 or 500 years from now. Maybe we’ll have to get Steve Peck to create a time traveler to get those answers.

  47. FGH,

    Thanks for sharing. I’m sort of torn by your idea that we focus more on the things that make us unique. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t throw it in people’s faces that we don’t think their baptism was valid, and I agree with you that God doesn’t assign zero value to such baptisms. I personally think that there is a place in Mormonism for such baptisms as a “baptism by water, unto repentance.” But if we really do think that such baptisms, though not worthless, are not sufficient, then I think we ought not to try to hide that belief, either.

    As for the issues that make us unique, there is sometimes, I think, a temptation to go beyond the mark. I think it would be a mistake, for example, to start talking about faith, repentance, and baptism as just steps to get to the temple where the real action is, rather than as the means of conversion and salvation, which is the real action, and which can strengthened and deepened through additional ordinances in the temple. Not that you’re proposing that, but a de-emphasis on the things that are not unique and an emphasis on the things that are unique could easily lead that way. I think the primary emphasis should always remain on personal conversion. For those that have not experienced it yet, it can be by way of invitation. For that that have experienced it, they can be drawn to us as they see that we really “get it.”

    But what do I know? In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  48. Clark Goble says:

    Haven’t read the comments yet but a few thoughts on the post. First off I think lack of authority that embraced a certain type of revelatory role is more significant than you suggest. Both Catholics prior to the reformation and of course Protestants afterwards were open to personal revelation. Yet there were pretty severe limits on the potential revelations especially among Protestants who tended to reject the tradition in Catholicism in preference to the text itself. When you have that combined with numerous sects and individual views then doctrinal differences take a slightly different role. Arguably even the Catholics had a Pope to decide such matters even if the theology of the Pope isn’t quite enough to resolve everything. But among Protestants there’s nothing like that. Even the Creeds which even Protestants tended to accept were seen as interpretations out of scripture rather than directly coming from God.

    All those elements seem pretty significant to the LDS notion of apostasy. i.e. authority goes a long way.

    Second thing I should note is we give change in ordinances a bit too much thrust I think. Again authority is of course key to LDS (and Joseph’s) understanding. But the Didiche (most likely 1st century and one of the older Christian extant documents) gives a compelling reason why things like baptism by sprinkling likely evolved. (Lack of water in desert areas — it has three types of baptism with “living water” (i.e. fresh from river) being best, but allowing more stagnant water or even drizzling if there wasn’t enough. Again it’s that issue of the interplay of authority and doctrinal development that seems so important. Although you’re completely right that it isn’t absolute (as our own history shows with things like blacks and the priesthood).

  49. JKC –

    I suppose there are many routes one could take with some of these ideas. One is to join with other Christians in promoting faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost – to accept their ordinances as valid, to essentially say that other churches can do a good job saving people – and to make our mark in offering what we uniquely offer: a path to exaltation. This would satisfy the pluralistic tendencies many of us have to recognize the good in others, and it would also satisfy President Hinckley’s admonition: “‘You bring with you all the good that you have, and let us add to it.” I don’t think we really do that – we ask people to leave behind much of the wonderful parts of their former faiths so that they can become completely Mormon.

    It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the goals of all this. It’s not about the numbers, how many people are labeled as Mormon. It’s about how many people turn to Christ and the Father, and ultimately choose paths to (1) be saved; and (2) be exalted. What if missionary work allowed proselytes to stay in their own faith tradition – and focused on building up their testimonies of Christ and the Father? And said, by the way, we have a path for you to get exalted if you choose – a way to truly add to the light you already have.

  50. JKC, in the year 2525, if man is still alive, I imagine people will be asking “Joseph who? What restoration?”

  51. Poppies in Blossom says:

    This has been a very interesting discussion. I enjoyed reading the OP and the comments. As a young Mormon woman who doesn’t really understand the point of priesthood authority and leans toward a priesthood of all believers model, I have had an increasingly hard time wrapping my head around the need for a restoration. The priesthood is so tied up with temple ordinances, polygamy, and hierarchy that the idea leaves me cold when compared to the spiritual experiences and miracles of ordinary believers whose only authority comes from their faith. I think Jeff’s point about needing to extract some other kernel of meaning from the restoration for modern people for whom authority doesn’t resonate or for whom the fruits of authority have been negative is a salient one.

    I suppose that if the answer to the question “restored what?” doesn’t speak to a person’s soul, then it could be that the church isn’t for them at that time. I don’t know. But I know it’s a difficult point for me when what was restored led to doctrines and practices that leave me in doubt of god’s regard for me.

  52. Great discussion. One question though: Given this group’s agreement that the FV led more to a restoration of authority/revelation-guided Church leaders and less to some intense awakening out of a spiritual dark age, how do we reconcile the fact that those prophets, seers, and revelators possessing the keys of the restored priesthood (e.g. Taylor as quoted in the OP) were the ones who developed and continue to preach (albeit to a lesser degree) the apostasy narrative that many of us here view as flawed and simplistic?

    I just feel like the embrace of the Church’s traditional apostasy narrative by leaders past and present undermines the authority/revelation that many view as the most, or perhaps only, worthwhile thing that came out of the restoration.

  53. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – an other interesting question tied to apostasy and authority is how much was given even in the 1st century Church. Nibley argues (largely following Clement as I recall) that there were inner teachings and perhaps what we’d call priesthood keys that simply weren’t passed on. i.e. it was less a falling away than a simply not giving to the people. There are some problems with this view of course.

    Turtle (11:31) I’m not sure Joseph only saw it as just an other personal revelation. While we can debate how much he saw his call tied to that vision versus Moroni’s there certainly is an element of a call to it. The bigger thing, even in the early (1832) account is the idea of a loss of connection to God by culture in general. There’s also that strong millennialist aspect which, while hardly uncommon, seems pretty significant too. But you’re right that in terms of shaping the Church, the vision didn’t play the role it had come to by the late 19th century.

    ReTx (12:00) The common phenomenology of angels and so forth as human like embodied beings is pretty common. The more complex theological view of people like Aquinas just isn’t common. That said I think it fine to question Joseph’s own interpretation of his vision. Especially since given the later accounts it develops as he gains more doctrine that reinterprets the vision. For instance now we see it as an argument for materialism but I think that itself depends upon later revelations of the 1830’s.

    Jeff (12:19) I think there’s an element of call even in the early accounts, but I tend to agree that the significant call to do something specific doesn’t occur until Moroni visits some years later. It’s not a prophetic call from what I can see and has pretty big differences from say Lehi’s in the Book of Mormon.

    To your latter point of priesthood authority, I think that was always a hard sell since Protestants – especially Evangelical sorts – have always has the idea of a priesthood of all believers. But it’s certainly true that the elements Mormons consider the most significant have far less weight in secular societies not to mention non-Christian societies. Not just authority but many aspects we as Mormons see as so important about our religion.

    jstricklan (2:12) Great point. If repentance and turning to God is all that matters then most of what we find even in the NT doesn’t make a lot of sense. The place of community and community salvation is an important part of the OT and arguably (although more ambiguously) the NT as well.

    Joni (2:58) I tend to agree that there’s an element where the apostasy is primarily due to God rather than the people. That said, a little hyberbole is pretty common in religion – both the Palestinian 1st century form and the early American evangelical forms such as Joseph was exposed to. That said, as JKC later notes, the Holy Ghost wasn’t taken away in Mormon theology. However I don’t think that invalidates your point. Either way God is kind of responsible for what develops.

    Jeff (3:06) Again I just don’t think it can be only authority but also that idea of what authority enables and the temple ordinances that were lost.

    FarSide (3:46) I think the record is so missing it’s hard to say what was going on in the 1st century. Primarily we get Paul’s view but that just isn’t the focus of his letters. I think there’s a compelling case to be made that the apostles just didn’t intend to create a permanent Church. (See Nibley again among others)

    To your point (3) if we have more theoretical apparatus to interpret with, we’d always reinterpret what happened. How I view events from my youth changes as I come to better understand biology and human nature. It’s not that the basic facts changes but I’m able to better grasp significance to parts of my experience I couldn’t at the time. So it’s not just muddled memory at play. Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this re-imagining. Rather I think it’s looking at implications of parts of the memory.

    DavidH (6:11) Again a good point regarding Aaronic priesthood. I think though the question is without prophets what authority could have persisted? So far as I can tell Protestants claimed no authority beyond the authority of the Bible. That is there was a break even with Catholic claims. And as others noted Protestants denied the Catholic claims of authority. And protestants by and large was who Joseph was exposed to at the time.

    Jared (8:05) Love that observation.

    JKC (7:51) I think “power of godliness” is the key issue. You’re right that while not quite authority it also seems tied to it. My sense is that it is much more this idea of progression to be like God which was very allegorized within the Protestantism of the time. There were still elements of the doctrine of divinization in Protestant even if not nearly as pronounced as in eastern Christianity. But even the eastern forms, which in some ways are closer to Mormon thought, don’t quite line up with how fullthroated our notions are. It’s hard not to read the First Vision in light of John 13-16.

    JKC (7:53) A place where I think the Church struggles conceptually with authority is the distinction between gifts of the spirit and priesthood blessings. Oaks, a few conferences ago, tried to deal with it but wasn’t completely successful. So there is still tension there with the other models being part of the Church, but in tension with the more delegatable notion of priesthood.

    FGH (8:07) I think we have to distinguish between meaningfulness and effectatious. How meaningful any rite or practice is tends to be very personal and tied to expectations. However I think the LDS conception of baptism goes beyond just that role. Which is why we don’t recognize others’.

  54. The whole notion that Joseph Smith restored “priesthood authority” is problematic, since the modern LDS definition of “priesthood” did not exist in the ancient world, in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon. Look it up. Priesthood then, as now (for all other religions), was either the condition of being a priest (just as parenthood is the condition of being a parent) or the body of those priests (similar to how neighborhood is a body of neighbors). Priesthood defined as an abstract authority that can be held (or withheld) is a uniquely modern Mormon concept and did not really evolve until about 1835. Indeed, the word “priesthood” was totally absent from early Mormon documents until 18 months after the Church was organized. See William Smith’s fine Dialogue article (issue 46.4) on the development of the idea. Or take a look at the series of posts (17 of them) on authority that I did in 2015. The first of the series can be found at http://mormonomics.blogspot.com/2015/09/authority-part-1-introduction-and.html. The development of the Mormon concept of priesthood is interesting, and it has far-reaching ramifications when viewed historically and linguistically. I am pulling together an article that I will be submitting to Dialogue soon that will address the history, linguistics, and implications of what the earliest documents tell us about authority. When you get into the documents, you realize that the later accounts of “priesthood restoration” (which are all we have, by the way) are anachronistic in perplexing ways.

  55. Mark N., you may be right, but what’s the fun in that?

    Poppies in Bloom, you ask some really important questions. I don’t have answers to them, certainly not that I could explain in a mere comment, but they are important questions.

    MH, I don’t know, I’m not aware of any statement by any church leader making an unambiguous claim to have received revelation defining exactly what the apostasy was. The 20th century apostasy narrative that became dominant was largely developed by Elder Roberts’ Outline of Ecclesiastical History, relying on secular history. That is, I don’t think he ever intended it to be a definitive statement of the apostasy that could never be revisited, but rather as an attempt to bring the secular history that was then in circulation to bear to understand the historical context for the restoration. I think Roberts was an impressive thinker, especially as a self-educated scholar, but he wasn’t a professional historian, and the sources he relied on were even at the time a bit outdated. Talmage used Robert’s work in his The Great Apostasy, but again, Talmage was not a professional historian, and neither Roberts or Talmage ever claimed any kind of revelatory confirmation for the version of history they relied on. Standing Apart, linked to in the OP, has some really good essays on this. I respect your feeling that the somewhat uncritical reception and use of that narrative by the church undermines its authority, but, respectfully, I think that puts a revelatory stamp on that narrative that I don’t think the church ever really claimed.

    I won’t respond to all your points, Clark, but thanks for reading and sharing.

    rkt, Thanks for commenting. I remember reading at least some of those posts. You’re right that our notions of priesthood authority didn’t spring forth fully formed, but developed over time. Bill’s article is a treasure, and does a great job explaining that development. Your article sounds interesting. I look forward to reading it.

  56. Poppies comments really struck me as being important. Especially in understanding why we lose so many of our youth. I also, have no idea what to do with it.

  57. Clark Goble says:

    rkt (10:09) I think it’s a bit more complex than that. Authority, especially in the ancient world where it was hard to verify, has to be respected and trusted. That’s why people operating on authority from say kings often had proof they had the authority they have. Likewise transmission of authority seems a real thing. It’s not hard to make an abstraction from that of priesthood as an abstract ‘thing.’ We might complain about reifying the notion and that’s probably just as true today – as if priesthood were an independent thing rather than just authority and the recognition of authority.

  58. JKC: “I don’t know, I’m not aware of any statement by any church leader making an unambiguous claim to have received revelation defining exactly what the apostasy was.”

    I appreciate your response, but I have to disagree. While I’d have to comb through a slew of past general conference talks, manuals, and other publications, my suspicion is that the traditional apostasy-as-darkness narrative comes up quite often. After all, you and I both taught it on our missions at the behest of our leaders, they at their leaders, and so on all the way up (it’s also worth noting that more recent material, such the section in Preach my Gospel that affirms God’s presence during the Great Apostasy, does not re-write the narrative). If my suspicion is correct, then to say that such materials, unless explicitly declared revelations, don’t reflect a common definition of apostasy on the part of the Church and its leaders just seems off to me.

    Does anything the Bretheren approve of represent something uninspired unless there is an accompanying, explicit “I wish to declare a revelation on the matter” moment? I can’t say that your stance is a disingenuous one, but I’m wary of this logic potentially allowing members to take a buffet approach to Church history and teachings by declaring the good as revelatory and the unseemly, though coming from the would-be revelators, as uninspired and therefore disposable.

  59. JKC,

    OK, I’ll amend ridiculous to merely unfair. Still, God wanting anyone to be terrible or bad is clearly contrary to LDS doctrine and to say so is a serious distortion of Church belief.

  60. MH, Of course they reflect a common definition of apostasy. My point is that that common definition was, from the beginning, based on secular history, and never had the status of revelation. Are you making a kind of respondeat superior argument, here? That the 20th century apostasy narrative is attributable to every president of the church for the last 70 years or so because the missionary department put pieces of it into the missionary lessons? It strikes me as a pretty big stretch, but even if it is attributable to them, I still don’t think its fair to say that they implicitly claimed revelatory confirmation for that narrative.

    No, I don’t think it is necessary to always say “thus saith the Lord” to speak a revelation, but where the claim isn’t made, then in my view it’s fair game to question the teaching at issue without questioning the credibility of the church’s claim to revelation. I’m actually not all that concerned about the “cafeteria Mormon” argument, because the reality is that we are all cafeteria Mormons, whether we recognize it or not. But seriously, what is the problem with concluding that “the unseemly, though coming from the would-be revelators, [is] uninspired and therefore disposable”? I don’t think you are saying that we should be stuck with the mistakes of church leaders and not be able to let them go, are you?

  61. JKC: “I don’t think you are saying that we should be stuck with the mistakes of church leaders and not be able to let them go, are you?”

    Truth be told, that is what I’m saying with regards to the subject we’re discussing. That being said, I’m conscious of the different thresholds people have regarding the leeway afforded to those claiming the prophetic mantle.

  62. Put differently, MH, I agree with you that church leaders can receive and give revelation without explicitly saying so. But when they don’t say so, I don’t think the default is that they are giving revelations. Church leaders do a lot of talking. Homiletics is a huge part of their calling, and declaring doctrine and much smaller part. So when a church leader doesn’t explicitly say whether what he’s saying is homiletics or declaring revelation, we need to look at context to determine whether there is some implicit claim of revelation, but most of the time, it’s just homiletics. So in my view, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim that a given teaching was claimed to be a revelation, not the other way around.

    So what’s the proof that the church claimed that the 20th century apostasy narrative was the result of revelation?

    That is was repeated in general conference talks? That doesn’t do it for me. Most of conference is homily–good, useful, valuable, inspiring, but not intended to declare doctrine.

    That is was in church magazines and manuals and missionary lessons? That doesn’t do it either. None of these have the status of canon. Missionary lessons is closer, but still falls pretty far short, in my opinion.

    That it was in a book published by a church official? Nope. We all know the story of Mormon Doctrine.

    So it just doesn’t persuade me. But, hey, we don’t have to agree on everything.

  63. Interesting thread. Good comments. I do believe, however, that we are over-analyzing what is a simple concept. Either They appeared to Joseph Smith…or They didn’t. Likewise, either we have faith in this event…or we don’t. That the First Vision led to the restoration of the Priesthood, and the re-establishment of Christ’s True Church on earth are also matters of faith. We can discuss the intricacies for an eternity, but at the end of the day, we choose to believe or not. What constitutes a ‘complete’ apostasy (and subsequent restoration) and when did it begin and end, is theoretical minutiae. It makes for great debate, but it doesn’t answer any prayers.

    Poppies: Food for thought (kind of off-topic)… Have you ever wondered why women are not required to have the Priesthood in order to obtain their endowments, whereas it is absolutely necessary for us men? And how does that relate to attaining full Celestial blessings? I don’t know the clear-cut answer, but in the ‘Gospel according to Me’ I believe it boils down to our Heavenly Father understanding that we men need the Priesthood to help self-govern ourselves that much more than do women. So feel free to blame us men for the need for His Priesthood. But that’s just me.

  64. MH, I’m honestly a little surprised that you’d admit to that, but I appreciate your honesty. I confess I don’t understand why that would be desirable. I’d much rather have a church where we can move on from mistakes rather than be stuck with them. And that strikes me as much more consistent with the church’s repeated disclaimer of an infallibility doctrine.

  65. JKC, understood. Also, I had to look up the meaning of a respondeat superior argument, but it seems to accurately describe my view.

  66. AV, you’re absolutely right that this kind of discussion, while interesting, is probably not a substitute for a decision on whether to believe the church’s claims, and that that kind of decision needs to come from prayer.

    For the record, I do not agree with the argument that women are more naturally spiritual or righteous than men as a justification for a male-only priesthood. But I’m not going to elaborate because that’s a topic from another post. I appreciate that you’re not trying to speak for the church on that point, and thanks for making that clear. I just want to put it out there that I don’t agree, because it is something that I feel pretty strongly about.

  67. Yeah, sorry for the legal jargon!

  68. MH, thanks for being such a respectful commenter. While we may not agree on the substance here, I appreciate that we can understand each other’s views. That’s thanks to you.

  69. One issue to consider is that Joseph Smith is but one of many individuals who claimed to have had God or Christ appear to him, and who claimed to have a mandate from them. Why can we so easily discount these other testimonies? For that matter, why do people so easily discount the testimony of Mr. Denver Snuffer – the former lds member who has provided detailed narratives of his visitations this decade with Christ (who told him the LDS church was in apostasy)? Many of the same arguments people use for Joseph having a vision (how could such good come from anything but God? etc.) could also apply to other people blessed with visions of the divine.

  70. JKC, January 10, 2017 at 7:51 am, touched on one of the numerous problems I have trying to understand D&C 84:19-22, that problem is created by the language of that section and the way we usually teach the first vision. Verse 22 seems to tell us that no man [presumably including all humans and not merely physically adult males] can see the Father without the authority of the priesthood [or its ordinances — the antecedent of “this” is not entirely clear]. Yet, JS, in at least the 1838 version, reports seeing the Father. Perhaps the single sentence structure of verses 21-22 means that the “power of godliness” referred to in this sequence of verses is “seeing the face of God, even the Father, and” living [in the flesh – presumably the man’s and not the Father’s]. If that were the case, then the “power of godliness” referred to is not connected to what 19th century Anglicans or Methodists or dictionary writers thought “godliness” was. It may be connected to the language of 2 Timothy and 2 Peter, but doesn’t appear to be connected to what they seem to have meant by “godliness” or its “power.” What “godliness” is and what its “power” might be, or how any such power is “manifest” [i.e., “Plain, open, clearly visible to the eye or obvious to the understanding; apparent; not obscure or difficult to be seen or understood.” per Webster 1828], is not a subject of Christopher Jones’ article. Those devotional LDS sources I have so far reviewed seem to conflate “power of godliness” with priesthood or power of priesthood or the power of God, without any discussion of the language of D&C 84:19-22 or how, if at all it is conceptually related to 2 Peter or 2 Timothy, rather than merely using a phrase derived from them. This may not be the place for it, but maybe someone can someday attempt to unpack the language of D&C 84:19-22 at BCC in a way that means something more than “priesthood is important” whether or not we understand words like “power”, “godliness”, “manifest”, and whether or not we can make sense out of both our canonized FV narrative and D&C 87:21-22. To me it’s clear only that I can’t do it and do not need to get hung up on the recent GA use in our stake conference of familiar phrases from those verses that do not appear to mean anything relative to what he was trying to motivate us to do.

  71. FGH, I agree with you that we should not be quick to automatically dismiss claims of miraculous manifestations, or even divine mandates from people other than Joseph Smith. In fact, I think that’s exactly what the 1978 First Presidency statement stands for. As for Snuffer in particular, though, I’m not persuaded.

    JR, I’ve heard the explanation what Joseph Smith was somehow ordained at the moment of the first vision without realizing it. That doesn’t really work for me. You might be tempted to say that the idea of priesthood as a necessary antecedent to receiving the “power of godliness” developed after the first vision, but that doesn’t really work for either, because section 84 actually predates the canonized account of the first vision by about 6 years, so the development would have to be in reverse. It’s not an overly satisfying explanation, but to me, this just supports the idea that the First Vision was really a vision, and not a visitation as it is sometimes assumed to be. That is, Joseph Smith saw a representation in vision of the father and the son, rather than actually seeing the face of god. Maybe that’s too fine a distinction, but it seems to me to be consistent with the visions of Jesus and sometimes even of the Father as well that have been reported by countless others in scriptures and in history. In any case, I agree with you that there’s no need to get hung up by church leaders using those verses in homiletics.

  72. Clark Goble says:

    How would one distinguish between a vision and a visitation? (Honest question not trying to be trollish) Even if you thought you touched a being, such as became important later on theologically, there’s no guarantee you’re really touching rather than just being in a visionary state. That same problem pops up, for instance, in debates about the witnesses of the plates.

  73. Clark Goble says:

    JR, D&C 84:22 might seem problematic at first (although the hints of the endowment are interesting). However to me it always seemed like it was saying something important yet not really. After all it doesn’t say the person seeing God has to have the priesthood. It says the power of the priesthood is necessary to see God. But of course God and Jesus have that priesthood so presumably they could (like any angel in later LDS materialist theology) show themselves to anyone. That is it’s really not a restriction at all.

    I think it best read as a kind of fragmentary introduction to the notions in the endowment rather than an actual prescriptive claim about God/angels. That is the “and live” talks more about final judgment and whether you’ve ascended to a state where you can be taken and pass through into celestial glory. If you can’t then you are effectively dead in a certain sense.

    The problem as I noted is that for later Nauvoo materialist theology there’s really no distinction between a celestial resurrected being and the Father. This makes sense as of course the resurrected Christ showed himself to several people we’d likely say didn’t have the priesthood. We might quibble that perhaps they did (maybe Mary was endowed) or note that Jesus isn’t the Father. But at that point it really is quibbling.


    I’m not saying my conclusions must be right, but I hope you’ll give a listen. I’ve written a series of articles unraveling the contradictions surrounding our LDS great apostasy views. They really aren’t ours, they were just adopted by the early saints from Protestant reformers who needed to vilify the Catholic Church in order to make their theology work. Modern theologians (save Mormonism) have abandoned this old reasoning in leau of dispensationalism. (which LDS scripture more fully supports)

    8 Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you [my servants], with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—
    9 For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—
    10 Therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began. (D&C 86:8–10)

    If wickedness “took” the priesthood from a lineage, then Israel surely would have lost their priesthood just as quickly as the Catholic Church did. The scriptures teach that neither was the case. (read (D&C 84:17–18, see also Abr 1:4, 2:11). Even Lucifer in the endowment has priesthoods that the Father honors to some extent. And scriptural history is pretty clear that just because new priesthood keys are given or restored, or a new covenant is made, does not mean all others on earth were invalid.

    There is SO much more scriptural, logical and circumstantial evidence in LDS scripture and Western history to make the points that the “restoration” was really just a new covenant with a new people which had nothing do with any type of 1500 year old apostasy (more to do with the coming rebellion/apostasy and end of the gentile dispensation). Apostasy is the hallmark of mortal men, and every priesthood dispensation has fallen in it to some degree from the moment it is instituted. God could have just as easily told Elijah, Jeremiah, Nephi or the Maccabees that the Israeli sects and religions of their day were “all wrong” and mired in creeds and dogma. That does NOT mean that God did not honor his priesthood covenant with those people, and that he would not continue to honor them as a people until their full time/cycle was up and an end-cycle prophet was sent to separate the wheat from the tares and warn of the coming field burning at the end of the season.

    my article and its partner articles go over them in poorly written but meticulous detail

  75. Clark Goble says:

    LW, one needn’t even look to that verse. We accept the idea that the Aaronic priesthood is through the line of Aaron and that is still as valid for Jews today as it was at the time of Christ. The bigger issue is less the idea of priesthood proper than of the essential sealing keys.

  76. Clark (10:05am), if D&C 84:22 seems like “saying something important yet not really” then the same goes for vv. 19-21. They are all connected. Seeing God is only one of the problems, in any event. These verses are so laden with undefined Mormon-speak rather than English that they really don’t seem to be saying anything other than “priesthood is important.” But that conclusion is not particularly satisfying. In addition to the seeing God problem, the problems include at least confusion (though in varying degrees) as to (a) what is the “gospel” that is “administered” as opposed to the Church or the ordinances that are “administered”? It does not seem to be the same thing in LDS usage that is meant in the rest of the English speaking world. (b) what are the “mysteries of the kingdom”? what “kingdom”? God’s? or the Church? or the “celestial kingdom”? what is a key to mysteries? something by which to decipher a code and discover what they mean? or a key to unlock a door to the “kingdom”? in that case, what do “mysteries” have to do with it? Of course, “mysteries of the kingdom” might be a mere foreshadowing of those limited things in the endowment which are not to be disclosed elsewhere, but I doubt that is what JS understood by this language at the time of Section 84. (c) “even” in “even the key of the key of the knowledge of God” implies that there is only one key spoken of in v. 19 and may imply that “the mysteries of the kingdom” and the “knowledge of God” are the same thing. Are we then talking about man’s knowing God? or having knowledge about God? or sharing in God’s knowledge? That latter might make more sense if the mysteries and the knowledge in question are the same thing, but I doubt anyone has understood this language that way, (d) “therefore” connects v. 19 to the “power of godliness” being manifest in the ordinances of the greater priesthood. There seems to be no “therefore” about it (in the sense that word is commonly used) unless v. 20 is a tautological restatement of v. 19, or unless the “power of godliness” means something entirely different that it did in 2 Peter or 2 Timothy from which the phrase seems to be derived. (e) v. 21 compounds the problem of divining any meaning of the phrase “power of godliness” by asserting that it is not apparent “unto [not “in”] men in the flesh” (presumably, humans in this life, though possibly following resurrection), without the ordinances and authority of the greater priesthood. But, to the contrary, if we assume a meaning consistent with 2 Peter and 2 Timothy, there seem to be a good number of persons who perceived a power in that kind of godliness of others or even of themselves during the time when we say the priesthood and its ordinances were not on the earth. So then, what is the “power of godliness” in these verses and why use a term that creates confusion rather than meaning. The best I’ve been able to do with the whole sequence is to categorize all of it as merely seeming to say “something important, yet not really” or as saying only “priesthood and its ordinances are important and here is some gratuitous, incomprehensible language that may lull some of you into thinking you know why.” Neither is very satisfying.

  77. john q public says:

    Clark… I think your completely mistaken to assume that most LDS people or even theologians accept that verse to mean what it says. That the Aaronic Priesthood persisted through the gentile dispensation (30AD to 1830AD) just as it did during the dispensation of Israel.

    Combine that verse with D&C 84:23–27, and what difference is there between the priesthood in the two dispensations? I don’t think you’ve fully thought through the implications of what you are saying. Many, many jews and their congregations were essentially assimilated into the Catholic Church… From D&C 68:14–20 and D&C 107:16,69,76 we can assume the same the same policy existed in the primitive church and that uncountable Jewish synagogues were assimilated into Catholicism… there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the Catholic Church was not chalked full of Priesthood— and to suggest that God at some point just “took away all their keys” is ridiculous. Israel was twice as wicked as the Gentile Church, and did god take away their keys? No… the keys remain until the end of their covenant dispensation, when an end-time messenger is sent to divide the wheat from the tares and warn that the torch is going to be passed to another people…


  78. john q public says:

    Clark. Not sure why I’m even getting in this discussion…. but really look at 84:19,26–27. They keys come with the priesthood office. Do Mormon’s get a separate ordination so they can have the “keys” to be able to perform an authorized baptism or confirmation, etc? No. Holding the necessary office, gives you the keys. Only with the dispensation head do we have any kind of record of individuals being given keys apart from the priesthood itself and priesthood office (Peter, Joseph).

    What you and the predominate LDS narrative is saying is that Peter got the keys and priesthood, and then started ordaining congregations and giving them the priesthood and keys (by the thousands)… but somewhere in the first 4 centuries God decided to “take away the keys” (but not the priesthood, you’re saying) from the tens of thousands of people or more who held them because they all adopted mistaken doctrines? Not because they were actually wicked, but because they held incorrect theological views…… BUT at the same time he allowed Israel to keep their “keys” from the time of Moses even though the High Priests themselves were often as wicked as sin. Or are you saying “NO.. god only took away the Catholic priesthood and keys… the Jews got to keep their Aaronic priesthood… but not their keys”. lol?

    There are answers in our scriptures to possibly reconcile this contradictory (and frankly crazy) cultural worldview …. but the current narrative? It’s inconsistent. its crazy. D&C 86:8–10 is only one of many.


  79. Yes, Clark, like I said, the distinction between a vision and a visitation may be too fine to mean much at all.

    Clark, LW, and john q. public: Interesting thoughts, but I think we may be getting pretty far afield from the original discussion, which was focused on what the first vision in particular means under a more limited view of the apostasy. If somebody else wants to post somewhere about section 84, about seeing God, about Lance’s overlapping covenant model (I think there’s an essay on that in Standing Apart, if memory serves), etc., that’s probably a better place for that discussion. I’ll probably go ahead and close comments soon, so if anybody wants to, now’s the time to get in any last words.

  80. Our doctrines about the apostasy, whether we see it as narrow or expansive, are post hoc explanations for the phenomenon of latter-day revelation. What matters is that revelations are actually happening. The historical background might be interesting, but it’s not of central importance. The meaning of the First Vision turns on the fact of continuing revelation, both to prophets and to individuals. What will the First Vision mean one hundred years from now? If we still have a sense of vital, living revelation in the Church in one hundred years, then the First Vision will still be a crucial emblem of God’s hand in our lives; it will stand for the proposition that God is with us. On the other hand, if we develop a sense that the historical antecedents that we have attached to the First Vision are somehow crucial to its meaning, then we will be in a phase of declining spirituality.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the original post and the questions it raises. The OP is excellent. I just want to argue that the meaning of the First Vision should not depend on these particular historical questions.

  81. Loursat, that’s an excellent comment and a good note to end on. Thanks.

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