At the end of class, students will be able to:
- Describe the religious and cultural context in which Joseph Smith had his First Vision.
- Compare the various accounts of the First Vision.
- Summarize the relevance of the First Vision to contemporary Mormon belief and practice.
Vermont, New York, and Religious Liberty
Joseph lived in Vermont until he was about 10. In Vermont, there was no state-established church. Rather, each town could select its own minister, effectively establishing a church. Most towns chose a Congregationalist (or “Puritan”) minister.
When he was 10, Joseph’s family moved to New York. Outside of the four counties closes to New York City, New York did not have an established church. That didn’t mean total religious liberty, though: the New York legislature refused to charter any church that wasn’t either Anglican or Dutch Reformed. As late as 1775, th New York legislature denied a charter to a Presbyterian church. Source.
Joseph Smith writes that, when he was 12 years old, “there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” JS-H 1:5. Two or three years after that, when he was 14, there was a full-fledged religious revival. [For a compelling case that he conflated two or more revivals in his telling, see Michael Quinn here.]
How did Joseph and his family react to the revivals? Have class member read JS-H 1:7-8.
And how did Joseph react? He decided to pray.
He went into a grove a trees behind his house, possibly because he had “no hope of privacy in the little cabin filled with children and household activity” (Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 39).
He found an open spot and started to pray.
Read JS-H 1:15-16.
Shouting Methodists and Prayer
Note here that Joseph wasn’t making this up: going to the woods to pray seems to have been a not-uncommon shouting Methodist thing to do. And remember that Joseph was partial to the Methodists.
In fact, his experience (which we’ll get to in a minute) followed a fairly common ecstatic Methodist form: a person went to the woods to pray for forgiveness. According to Staker, at some point, they “expected that ‘the power,’ meaning the power of God or the Holy Spirit, would come as they prayed, causing them to fall to the ground, binding their tongues, making it impossible to speak, and sometimes accompanying these manifestations with jerks and trembling.” See Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 135.
Alternatively, according to Christopher Jones, the idea of the Devil impeding a would-be convert’s prayer was common, if not ubiquitous. Jones, 105. [Note that the Jones article provides an excellent overview of Methodist conversion and how Joseph’s conversion reflected and differed from the Platonic Methodist experience.]
But Joseph rejected the ecstatic/devilish interruption as the experience he was looking for, believing, instead, that it was a manifestation of the devil; pushing through, he experienced his vision.
What does it mean that the First Vision followed a common (or, at least, a not-uncommon) pattern, that it wasn’t sui generis? And what does it mean that his experience broke with that tradition?
Versions of the First Vision
Joseph recorded four versions of the First Vision in his lifetime (two published and two unpublished). The earliest version he recorded was in 1832, twelve years after his First Vision. He wrote another in 1835 and one in 1842. The one we’re most familiar with—the one we find in Joseph Smith History—he wrote in 1838. (If you want to give more detail about the context of each recorded version, the link provides that context.) In addition, there are five contemporaneous versions written by individuals who knew him.
Divide class into 4 groups (or, if you have a really big class, 9 groups). Give each group a copy of one version of the First Vision, pen and paper. (You can copy and paste all 9 from links from this site, or you can copy and paste from this site.) Have each group summarize the salient points in the description.
Bring class together. Have each group present their version of the First Vision. What do these accounts have in common? How do they differ?
We can sometimes learn important things from how different accounts of the same event complement and contradict each other. What can we learn comparing versions of the First Vision?
[N.b.: if the class is uncomfortable with the fact that the versions have significant differences, maybe spend some time discussing the different goals underlying the various tellings, and Joseph’s progressive understanding of his prophetic role (line upon line). I don’t personally find that line of thought terribly interesting, but I think it does have some value and explanatory power if it’s needed.]
Note that, when Joseph saw Heavenly Father and Jesus, it wasn’t The First Vision. It was merely (ha!) a revelatory experience. Looking back from almost 200 years later, we see its part in the development of what is now a worldwide church. But at the time, Joseph had to process it from his experience as a 14-year-old boy. We believe that we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. There’s no reason Joseph, upon seeing his vision, would have the same interpretation as we have. [In fact, JKC beat me to the punch here. You may want to read his excellent post on a limited apostasy and the relevance of the First Vision in that context, and incorporate his insights and questions into your lesson. If you have time, anyway.]
And initially, Joseph didn’t talk much about the vision. Early converts likely didn’t hear anything about it. Bushman, 39.
One exception, though: read JS-H 1:21.
Ask the class: Why would Joseph have told a Methodist minister about his vision?
[Again, remember, he was 14: he doubtless wanted spiritual guidance. Also, from Bushman, 40: “Newly reborn people customarily talked over their experiences with a clergyman to test the validity of the conversion.”]
Note, too, that the minister’s response wasn’t because of the uniqueness of Joseph’s story; rather, visionary experiences were tremendously common, but by 1820, visionaries were viewed with suspicion. Bushman, 40-41.
In the last minute(s) of class, pass out papers and pencils (or have students pull out their phones and open a notetaking app), and have them write a one-minute paper. Possible prompts:
- How does the First Vision affect your religious practices?
- What can you learn from Joseph Smith’s progressive accounts of his First Vision?
- What in the lesson stood out to you?
(Alternatively, choose one question and have students answer it orally to the person sitting next to them.)
Note: Lesson 3 of the lesson manual is available here.