Scholars reassess different accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

03.02.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

Joseph Smith himself recorded or dictated at least four accounts of what Latter-day Saints have come to call his First Vision. The first known account was part of his attempt to write a history of the church in 1832. Here’s an excerpt: 1832firstvision
…therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy <way> walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life…
This account was discovered by church historians in the 1960s. In addition to sparking some debates in Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, it received attention in the soon-to-retire church magazine Improvement Era and in a 1971 book by LDS historian Milton Backman. ((The latter two references are cited in the LDS Church’s new Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision accounts. Other discussions included James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 40–41; and Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 275–94. In 1982 Marvin S. Hill wrote a retrospective on the 1960s First Vision debates for Dialogue.)) It hasn’t challenged the official canonized version in the Pearl of Great Price (originally recorded in 1838) for pride of place in LDS thought. Recently the LDS church made each account (and a few other secondhand accounts) more widely available than ever as part of a Gospel Topics essay called “First Vision Accounts.” Images of the handwritten records and transcripts prepared by specialists provide unprecedented access to the raw material for anyone with an Internet connection. (Thanks, Joseph Smith Papers Project!) Anyone can analyze the various accounts by asking about differences, consistencies, and what these things suggest about the accuracy or intent of the reports. How reliable is human memory? msr3-coverNot everyone will be interested in these questions, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that those who are interested can’t be neatly divided into apologetic or anti-Mormon camps. Volume three of the Mormon Studies Review features a dialog between two scholars of religion—one Latter-day Saint and one not—who carefully analyzed the recorded accounts together. ((See Ann Taves and Steven C. Harper, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts,” Mormon Studies Review 3 (2016): 53–84.)) Assessing the accuracy of “experience-based” witness accounts is difficult. It calls for more nuance than you typically get with Reddit, Buzzfeed, or Twitter. The technical language these scholars use isn’t a smokescreen. It helps them expose their assumptions and to identify and explain their interpretive differences as they seek common ground. It helps them hold each other accountable. It prevents them from talking past each other. It allows them to draw a “relatively clear distinction between the evidence” from the written accounts on one hand, and their “interpretations of the evidence” on the other. Then they can offer more specific reasons for their interpretations. ((Ibid., 76. They make good use of a model Taves will lay out more fully in Revelatory Events: Unusual Experiences and the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (forthcoming, Princeton University Press).)) By reading their exchange we begin to see the imaginative element of historical work, ridding us of the fantasy that the past is a solid set of facts everyone can agree about so long as they’re reasonable like us.


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