By Stephen C. Taysom
Art by Galen Dara
Or right-click to download audio file here: Approaching the First Vision Saga
Joseph Smith’s First Vision stories constitute a key element of contemporary Mormon self-conception. Anyone seeking to understand Mormonism will have to grapple with the complexities surrounding this event and the stories told about it. This essay introduces the reader to the narratives that represent the event and to their variations, particularly as they have played out from the late-twentieth century to the present.
The existence of multiple accounts of the First Vision has proved a stumbling block for some Latter-day Saints. Smith’s first recounting describes a single heavenly being’s appearance while in later accounts, two appear. In yet another, the two beings are accompanied by concourses of angels. These are just a few of the differences. Critics of the Church use these differences to argue that Joseph Smith fabricated the First Vision. Many other sticky corners exist in the First Vision narratives as well.
This essay is not meant to be a comprehensive historiographical survey of First Vision accounts. Rather, it focuses on the following questions: How did the multiple accounts originate? Where do their narratives match, and where don’t they? How have apologists and critics responded to these differences? How does recent scholarship in anthropology, philosophy, literary studies, and myth studies affect these debates?
This essay also does not attempt to determine what “really happened” to Joseph Smith in the grove. On some level, the stories are more important anyway. As historian of religion Wendy Doniger observes, “More often than not we do not know precisely what happened in history, but we often know the stories people tell about it. In some ways, the stories are not only all that we have access to but all that people at the time, and later, had access to, and hence all that drove the events that followed. Real events and sentiments produce symbols, symbols produce real events and sentiments, and real and symbolic levels may be simultaneously present in a single text.” So it is with the stories narrating the First Vision.1
Theophany, Myth, and the First Vision Saga
Cultural artifacts that Westerners recognize as “religions” often trace their origins to events in which divinity communicates with a mortal. Mormonism follows in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mode by beginning with a theophany—an encounter between a prophet and the divine. As one might easily imagine, reports of such events have generated strong reactions. People kill, willingly suffer death, sacrifice family and fortune, and engage in many other less dramatic activities on the strength of such stories. Though Joseph Smith’s First Vision story is at home in the wider context of theophanic accounts, it originated during the era of the printing press, making the First Vision story especially vulnerable to contestation: a narrative that has tended to attract polarized reactions. For its most devoted promoters, the narrative carries the weight of transcendent truth; for its fiercest detractors, the story is a product of a frontier charlatan’s cynical chicanery.
At this point, it is important to define a term I will be using in this essay to describe the First Vision story, a term that could set some teeth on edge: “myth.” My use of this term follows scholarly, rather than popular, usage to refer to a story that conveys important moral or symbolic truths. On one level, myths are the stories a culture tells about itself and “Others.” More profoundly, myths are the stories that make a culture by constructing, elaborating, validating, and inculcating ideas of self and Other. Bruce Lincoln sums up this definition of myth as “ideology in narrative form.”2 Since historians and scholars have no objective way to revisit or reconstruct the event itself, it is helpful to think of the myth of the First Vision as being separate from the event of the First Vision. We have access only to the mythology—to the various constructions and reconstructions of the narrative that emerged, as all myth does, in response to particular events and contexts. This constellation of accounts purporting to narrate the First Vision, I label “saga myths” in order to convey not only the mythological character of the stories, but also to suggest that each account is best understood as part of a larger collective body, or saga, of similar stories. This essay explores how the saga myths of the First Vision and the ongoing debates about their meaning continue to shape various expressions of Mormonism.
Because myths function as the foundation and legitimator of a culture, people invested in that culture will naturally want to somehow place their myths outside the reach of critique. Many ancient cultures accomplished this act by setting their myths in what the religious phenomenologist Mircea Eliade referred to as “in illo tempore,” Latin for “before history began” or “the dawn of the universe.”3 However, the First Vision myth has its roots in 1820—well after the dawn of the universe—and therefore requires a variant of this method of protection. Gordon B. Hinckley implicitly set the mythology of the First Vision in the in illo tempore category when writing that “in all of recorded religious history there is nothing to compare with it.” Essentially, his words are a taboo against subjecting the First Vision to analysis by comparative disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology, and literary analysis. Hinckley is insisting that the story be treated as “myth”—that is, he is insisting that the story transcends any scholarly attempts to investigate it.
Despite this taboo, apologists and critics seem to share a basic assumption that the most important thing about the First Vision is whether or not it actually occurred. Most of their rhetorical volleys are launched from the cannon of historicity, and, accordingly, most published treatments of the subject have attempted to defend or debunk the First Vision as a purported event in history. However, while the apologetic/critic schema has dominated the literature, it is not the only way writers have treated the First Vision. Some writers—academics primarily—have tried to set aside the question of the First Vision’s historicity and have instead focused on the cultural significance of the First Vision’s mythology.
The remainder of this essay contains two related segments. The first segment I’ll call “What Happened?” where we survey the attempts that apologists and critics have made to prove or disprove the event of the First Vision. The second is titled “What Does It Mean?” where we focus on how the mythology of the First Vision has been debated. Nearly all debates surrounding the First Vision have focused on at least one—but usually both—of these interrelated questions.
A lmost any LDS Church member in any branch or ward in the world today could tell an inquirer a strikingly similar account of the First Vision. Their narratives would be based on what has become the “official” version of the story set in the spring of 1820. On that day, the story goes, Smith went to a grove of trees on his family’s farm in western New York to pray about an issue that had been troubling him for some time. He wanted to know which church was “right.” Most recitations of the vision would probably mention Smith’s struggle with a demonic force that was dispelled only by the appearance of a “pillar of light.” Eventually, the light resolved itself into two separate beings, which the teller of the story would identify as God the Father and Jesus Christ. In the official version, Jesus does most of the talking, telling Smith that all the churches on earth have become corrupted and are devoid of authority and that Smith should join none of them.
As with most myths, this one did not spring forth fully formed; rather it coalesced from separate stories with important differences into what we now recognize as the official, canonical version. BYU professor Milton V. Backman’s 1971 book Joseph Smith’s First Vision lays out the various recitals of the event. And today, readers can access a wide variety of internet resources that catalogue, debate, or harmonize the various versions.4
The earliest known written record of the First Vision story was penned by Smith’s own hand in 1832.5 This version tells the story of a troubled young man who despairs of “the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.” In this account, Smith claims that well before encountering God in the grove, he had concluded that the world “had apostatised from the true and living faith” and that “there was no society or denomination built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.” Based on his reading of the Bible—although without mentioning any particularly inspiring text—Smith decides to pray to God for guidance and forgiveness. This version of the story climaxes with an encounter with one divine being, identified as Jesus Christ, who tells Smith that his sins are forgiven and then confirms Smith’s earlier suspicions about the corruption of Christianity. The vision abruptly closes, and Smith notes that “none would believe my heavenly vision.”
In November 1835, three years after the first version had been written, a man claiming to be “Joshua the Jewish Minister” arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, seeking an audience with the Mormon prophet. “Joshua” was actually Robert Matthews, a religious charismatic who, like Smith, claimed to be a prophet and had taken the name Matthias during his days as leader of a mysterious sect in New York City. Having been charged with murder, among other crimes, Matthews had fled New York before making his way to Kirtland to meet with Smith. Smith eventually discerned the identity of the “Jewish Minister,” but not before offering him an account of the First Vision.6
Smith said that as a young man—”about 14”—he’d been perplexed by the diversity of religious views that existed in his neighborhood. Based on two specific biblical passages— Matthew 7:7 and James 1:5—he had sought God’s guidance. When telling the story to Matthews, Smith added a dramatic detail that he had not included in the 1832 version—an encounter with an invisible, malevolent force immediately preceding his conversation with God. First, he reported, his tongue became swollen, preventing him from praying aloud, and then he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Hoping to find the source of the footfalls, he turned but saw no one. At precisely that instant, a “pillar of fire” descended, in which a divine being was visible. This being did not speak, but soon another being appeared who told Smith that his sins were forgiven and then “testified that Jesus Christ is the son of God.” Besides the two personages, Smith claimed that he also saw “many angels” on this occasion.
Joseph Smith dictated the most detailed and expository variant of the First Vision story in 1838.7 This version eventually became the canonical story included in the Pearl of Great Price and thus is the version most familiar to Latter-day Saints around the world.
Smith’s motive for recounting his story again was essentially defensive. He said he was attempting to counter the false rumors being spread about him and his church by “evil disposed and designing persons.” This account is extremely detailed, particularly in the attention it gives to the religious tensions that permeated Smith’s environment—especially the atmosphere in the home he shared with his parents and siblings.
Smith’s 1838 account details the “war of words and tumult of opinions” that pervaded the region during the Second Great Awakening. A new evangelical mainstream, composed primarily of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, had arisen in the first decades of the nineteenth century, overshadowing the Congregational mainstream that had dominated New England for almost two centuries. The new groups preached an Arminian theology, championing enthusiastic religious expression and, when choosing ministers, often prized charisma above education.
Smith reports that revivals swept through his home region again and again. These revivals were typically non-denominational evangelical affairs led by itinerant ministers. Those “saved” during camp meetings did not have to decide which church to lodge with permanently until after the revival was over and the spirit had had a chance to cool. So local evangelical leaders were often left with the task of convincing those camp meeting converts to join with their particular church.
Several members of Smith’s family, including his mother though not his father, had joined the Presbyterian Church. With a father disinterested in organized religion, and facing a rift between his own preferred denomination (Methodism) and that favored by his mother and siblings, young Joseph Smith felt a keen sense of anxiety and even crisis concerning which denomination to join. Joseph recounts in this version that a specific scriptural text, James 1:5, struck his heart with unprecedented force and led him to seek God’s will on the matter.
Again, this version tells of Smith’s trek to the grove and, like the 1835 account, mentions an overpowering evil presence that binds his tongue. Smith does not mention spectral footsteps in this 1838 account, but he describes being violently “seized” by “some actual being from the unseen world” who refuses to relinquish him until the appearance of a pillar of light dispels it. The pillar contains two divine figures, one of whom introduces the other as “My Beloved Son” and enjoins Smith to “hear him!” The message Jesus delivers in this version of the story conveys disdain for Christendom, its creeds, said to be an “abomination,” and its “professors,” said to be “corrupt.” Smith is instructed to avoid all extant churches because they have no spiritual authority. Smith recounts that he was also told “many other things” which he was forbidden to write. He concludes by recalling that his eager recitation of these events drew the ire of the local “professors” of religion and incited a wave of “persecution” against him.
The years between 1838 and 1842, when the next extant recitation of the First Vision story was written, were tumultuous for Smith and his followers. Smith spent many months in Missouri’s Liberty Jail. The Saints were forced to abandon settlements in Ohio and Missouri and started a new settlement along the banks of the Mississippi River in western Illinois. The new town, which Smith named Nauvoo, would be the last major settlement that Smith would organize before his murder in June 1844.
In 1842, Smith responded to Chicago newspaper editor John Wentworth’s request for information about the Mormon faith. In most respects, the Wentworth Letter’s version of the First Vision is a faithful abbreviation of the 1838 account.8 The most significant difference is Smith’s claim that, in addition to being told to join no existing sect, he was promised that “the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”
Accounts of the Vision by
Others during Smith’s Lifetime
In addition to the four accounts that Smith himself gave, several other people published their own versions, which Smith never refuted. The most frequently cited of these reports are from apostles Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, from a non-Mormon journalist who interviewed Smith, and from LDS convert Alexander Neibaur.
Orson Pratt’s version was originally published in Great Britain in 1840 and is, in fact, the first published account of the First Vision.9 It adheres very closely to the one Smith dictated in 1838–1839, which would become the Church’s official version. Although a Pratt biographer argues that the prose in this account is “simple and discursive,” Pratt employs an artistic narration that casts the theophany in decidedly mystical terms.10 For example, he describes Smith as experiencing a “peculiar sensation throughout his whole system,” feeling his mind being “caught away,” and finding himself “enwrapped in a heavenly vision” that caused him to lose contact with the “natural objects with which he was surrounded.”
Two years later, in 1842, Orson Hyde wrote an account in German of foundational events in Mormon history,11 publishing it in Frankfurt. Like Pratt’s, Hyde’s account is largely a retelling of the 1838–1839 version, but with one significant exception: Hyde recounts that before Smith’s vision, Smith had already concluded that “darkness was covering the earth” and that no church was in “possession of the pure and unadulterated truth.” In this detail, Hyde’s book is in line with Smith’s 1832 account.
In 1843, the editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette published an interview with Joseph Smith in which Smith offered a very brief recitation of his experience in the grove.12 Except for omitting several details, including the wrestle with the “unseen being,” the account is faithful to the 1838–1839 version.
Finally, there is an 1844 journal entry by Alexander Neibaur, containing his recollections of a conversation with Smith in May of that year. The first male Jewish convert to Mormonism—he joined in 1838—Neibaur acted as Joseph Smith’s German teacher.13 He records Smith as adding new details—including a more complete description of God’s appearance and clothing.14 According to Neibaur’s account, it was the Father, not the Son, who told Smith that “there is none who doeth good, not one.”
What Does It Mean?
Stephen King begins his novella The Mist with a sentence he views as something akin to a “Zen incantation.” It reads, “This is how it happened.” King is correct about the mystical power of that sentence. Like a home built of stones that change color as the angle of the sun moves across its face, that sentence can take on a wide variety of nuances. One can easily tell how a narrator is approaching a story by the way he or she voices that initial sentence. The tone might be pedantic, aggressive, insulting, angry, melancholy, joyful, or perplexed.
“This is how it happened.” Just what does “it” refer to? When one recounts the First Vision saga (meaning the collection of myths that claim to narrate the experience), “it” might mean simply the event itself. Or “it” might mean the restoration of the one true faith after millennia of spiritual darkness, a restoration this event inaugurated. In the hands of another narrator, “it” might refer to the greatest hoax the world has ever known, or the silliest bit of frontier chicanery ever to wander out of a log cabin. For an academic, “it” might refer to the most important socio-religious expression of faith to come out of the turbulent period known as the Second Great Awakening. “It” might be the process of how a dreamer becomes convinced of his own dream to the point that he instantiates it through the thousands of others who agree to dream it with him and who will do so to their graves. Whatever the “it” refers to, we can be certain that the issue is heavily freighted with titanic arguments. The existence of multiple accounts of the First Vision has provided a battlefield for fierce contestation not just over the particulars of the event, but also over the “authenticity” of Mormonism.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, scores of books and pamphlets have debated the same basic issues with regard to Joseph Smith’s prophethood in general and the First Vision’s authenticity in particular. The advent of the internet has fueled an increasingly vitriolic debate between critics and apologists. The following is a peek into the corner of the internet dedicated to all things “First Vision.”
A simple Google search for “Joseph Smith’s First Vision” yields about 28,000 hits. (In contrast, a search for “Muhammad’s vision” brings up just over 1,700 hits.) The first two items that appear are from official LDS sources.15 The third hit links to a Wikipedia article that is functionally objective and quite comprehensive.16 The fourth link takes the reader to a page dedicated to the First Vision on a website run by Jeff Lindsay, an amateur Latter-day Saint apologist in Wisconsin, offering defenses against various criticisms of the First Vision.17 The fifth hit is the first openly critical of the First Vision’s authenticity. Run by the “Institute for Religious Re-search,” an evangelical Christian effort to deal with “competing truth claims,” the website reproduces an article entitled “New Light on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” by the late Wesley Walters,18 a Presbyterian minister and one of the old guard of the modern anti-Mormon movement. The next hit links to the First Vision page on the website of Mormon Research Ministry, another evangelical group working full-time to discredit the LDS Church.19
The counterparts to such websites are found in Mormon apologetic pages such as those run by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). Though FAIR is not officially associated with the LDS Church, its extensive network of contributors engages in a vigorous defense of traditional Mormon views on subjects such as the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the literal truth of the First Vision. In fact, FAIR’s First Vision web page is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of apologetic work dealing with that subject.20
These websites are a cross-section of the various kinds of groups that publish about the First Vision: official sources, amateur Mormon apologists, evangelical anti-Mormons, and more or less “objective” treatments (i.e. encyclopedias).
Positivism and the Apologetic/Critical Debates
The debate over the First Vision’s authenticity occurs largely in the arena of positivism, which I define as:
• The belief in the objective reality and unity of an externally existing object, idea, or event and
• The ability of human beings to comprehend, reconstruct, or understand said objects, ideas, or events based on agreed-upon methods of critical inquiry.
Positivism claims that the proper application of its methods will lead all persons to the same conclusions. In fact, positivistic investigations imply that they can determine whether or not something actually exists. On the issue of the First Vision’s historicity and the implications of that historicity, both apologists and critics operate on this epistemological plane.
LDS apologists and their (particularly ex-Mormon and evangelical) critics give great weight to the logical condition of the stories themselves. Both sides agree that the most important claim made by the First Vision saga is that some version of the event these sources describe actually happened. If it did, and if the myths can be used to either prove it, or to at least render the events plausible through the deployment of apparently logical defenses, then the entire Mormon worldview is validated. If the myths can be shown to be literally untrue, then, according to the logic of the positivist worldview, the entire Mormon project collapses. Note again that both apologists and critics share this worldview.
Criticism and Response
While hundreds of books, pamphlets, audio recordings, videos, and websites are dedicated to attacking the truth claims of Mormonism in general and the historicity of the First Vision in particular, I have chosen as representative one long-standing critical voice:21 Wesley P. Walters, a Presbyterian pastor who spent decades writing material critical of the LDS Church.
Walters identifies the following basic problems with Smith’s First Vision accounts:
• The story changes with each retelling, and the various versions offer mutually exclusive details.
• There is no evidence of a revival in the Palmyra area in 1820.
• Joseph Smith did not tell anyone about the story until the 1830s.
• Joseph Smith lied about being persecuted by the Methodists for narrating his vision.
Walters contends that all four problems raise “serious questions about the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision story” and justify “questioning both the person and the truthfulness of the story.”22
If Joseph Smith actually had an experience with the divine, Walters argues, he would have narrated that experience and committed it to paper much earlier than 1835, and he would have told many more people about it. Historians on all sides of the debate agree that the First Vision “had little, if any, importance in the 1830s.”23 No published descriptions emerged during that time, and Mormon missionaries (who may not have been aware of the vision) apparently didn’t tell potential converts about it. To critics, this situation indicates that the story was Smith’s invention: he had not yet mentioned it because he had not yet constructed it.
Those who support Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims offer two main defenses. Historian Richard Bushman has speculated that the sacred nature of the experience might have disinclined Smith to speak of it “too openly” or frequently.24 Consistent with Bushman’s proposal is the fact that in some accounts, Smith claims that he was commanded to keep some information revealed during the vision secret. This motif of divinely mandated secrecy appears in the scriptures Smith later published, including the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses. That fact helps Smith’s defenders argue that God placed a similar restriction on Smith with regards to the First Vision, thus accounting for the relatively late appearance of the story in the historical record and the infrequency with which he recounted it. Bushman also argues that Joseph Smith was proud and “did not like to appear the fool.”25 Aware of the risible potential of his story, Smith decided to keep quiet.
A second defensive strategy argues that many Mormons during the 1830s knew of Smith’s experience in the grove and that missionaries actually did use it in their proselytizing efforts. But though oral accounts abounded, they were rarely recorded. Hugh Nibley, Mormonism’s most famous apologist, argues that his own ancestor, the afore-mentioned Alexander Neibaur, heard a detailed recitation of the First Vision from Smith himself but “seems never once to have referred to the wonderful things the Prophet told him” for the simple reason that it was a “sacred and privileged communication; it was never published to the world and never should be.”26
This second defense appears to be a minority view among Mormon apologists, however. Bushman, for example, holds that “most early converts probably never heard of the 1820 vision.”27 James Allen and John Welch also agree that Joseph Smith “did not relate the account of his First Vision very widely”—something they attribute to the “hostile reactions of clergy and the violent opposition from neighbors” that Smith claimed accompanied his initial recitals of the vision in 1820.
Another common criticism holds that if the First Vision were an actual event, Joseph Smith’s reports of the experience would have been more uniform. This criticism rests on the idea that if one is crafting a narrative based on an actual event, the narrative’s contours will be shaped and limited primarily by the narrator’s memory of the event itself. But if a narrative is created without a historical referent, the teller will unconsciously allow him- or herself greater freedom to manipulate the story. It is a common maxim that invented stories tend to get longer and more elaborate through the process of telling and retelling. Biblical scholars apply this maxim as part of the constellation of techniques they use to identify the earliest versions of individual texts—as well as entire books—of scripture. Critics of the First Vision work from a similar premise when they contend that Smith’s First Vision story grew more elaborate as he tried to accommodate new developments in Mormon theology.
Smith’s defenders have responded to these criticisms in a way that suggests they view the criticisms as “alien traditions”—which Edward Shils defines as external philosophical, sociological, theological, or ritual systems. For defenders of any given tradition, simply becoming “aware of the existence of alien traditions” can spark defensive action. An encounter with “alien traditions” can lead to a loss of faith for adherents who find the implicit or explicit critiques the alien traditions offer compelling.
This dynamic can be seen in some Mormons’ reactions to the discovery that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision. Consider, for example, a contributor to PostMormon.org who uses the name “Troubled Wife”: “I was totally TBM [True Believing Mormon] until I read unnerving and differing accounts of the first vision.”28 Or “Rainfeather” writing on ExMormonForums.com: “The first thing which really took me by surprise was the different versions of the First Vision. I’d never even heard a rumor that there was more than one.”29
A tradition confronted by alien traditions may respond to the threat by becoming “more rigid than it had been previously.” Adherents “might also struggle to refute the alien tradition by rational arguments.” Or, alternatively, “the alien tradition may be assimilated by adaptation, with the assertion that implicitly the alien tradition was always contained within the challenged tradition.”30 Matthew B. Brown’s recent A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision, employs all of these strategies.
Of particular interest is the strategy of assimilating the alien traditions. Defenders of the First Vision often argue that all the accounts are describing the same event, each account containing some of the details while the 1838 account contains all (or most) of them. Though one cannot possibly argue that the accounts are uniform, it is possible to argue, as Brown does, that “instead of becoming more elaborate . . . over time just the opposite was true.” He explains that variations in detail are undeniable but that “the core elements of the story remained the same while there were many details that could be included at the discretion of the storyteller.”31
Brown’s defense raises another question, however. Who decides what these “core elements” are, and how? This line of apologetic defense is vulnerable to a charge of begging the question. Apologists want to argue that it is unimportant that some elements of the story have changed because those elements are not core; but apologists’ criterion for determining whether or not an element is core seems to be simply whether or not the element has changed.
A more sure-footed tack, one apologists adopted very early in the debate, is to focus on context. In a 1985 Ensign article, Milton Backman writes that “One can better understand and appreciate the different emphases in these testimonies by examining their individual historical setting.”32 In other words, it is logical to expect that a true story would change shape to fit the parameters of audience, location, time of day, and even the narrator’s mood. This approach neutralizes the charge that Smith provided varying narratives because he was concocting fiction.
Backman returns, however, to the least nuanced and most logically difficult apologetic defense: harmonization. Harmonization has long been a tactic employed by religiously conservative students of the New Testament who seek to solve the “synoptic problem”—the fact that there are three bundles of narratives describing Jesus’s life and actions that often rearrange the order of the events in ways that can be quite jarring for those who regard the Bible as being literally true.
Much like defenders of the First Vision, biblical harmonists argue that the authors of the Four Gospels are telling different parts of the same story. So, for example, if in one gospel Jesus cleanses the temple at the beginning of his ministry and in another gospel cleanses it at the end of his ministry, harmonists claim that Jesus cleansed the temple multiple times. This effort is driven by a theological presupposition that the Bible is not just a book, it is a repository of sacred power—an extension of God himself. As such, it simply cannot be contradictory. If the Bible is to function as God’s authoritative word, it cannot contain what critical scholars insist that it does contain: separate, impressionistic narratives spun out from imperfectly remembered events written—or even outright invented—for purposes that had more to do with the social context in which the narratives were crafted than with the earlier events they claim to describe.
Harmonizing the First Vision accounts seems to play a similar role for some Mormons: it aims to protect the saga from appearing disjointed and ad hoc. This must be done because apologists, like critics, adhere to the idea that a lack of uniformity among accounts usually indicates a lack of “truth.”
The most sophisticated harmonization of the First Vision accounts comes from James B. Allen and John W. Welch in a chapter from their 2005 compilation, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844. Allen and Welch share the common apologetic premise that “the differences in the accounts may be grossly overemphasized,” that “no single account tells the whole story,” and that “all the details in each of the accounts add significantly to the entire picture.”33 Allen and Welch also insist that no one account is “incompatible with other accounts.”34 Unlike other apologetic harmonizations, however, Allen and Welch are very forthcoming about the way that a priori assumptions constrain the results of their work. “Latter-day Saints,” they write, “believe that Joseph Smith was telling the truth each time he related his experience.” A reader who works from that belief, Allen and Welch maintain further, will inevitably find a great deal of “collective value and consistency” in the “composite story of Joseph’s sacred experience.”35
As an example of the difficulties harmonization can raise, consider Backman’s assertion that even though Smith’s 1832 account mentions only one being, this “does not mean that in 1832 Joseph said that only one personage appeared or in any other way disclaimed the appearance of two personages” (emphasis added).36 Backman proposes, in other words, that even though Smith actually saw two beings, he chose to refer to only one. This approach certainly harmonizes the 1832 account with the others. The logical difficulty here is in offering compelling grounds for accepting Smith’s account of seeing two beings as “what really happened.” By the principle Backman has adopted for his harmonization, we would need to be prepared to read the canonical account of the First Vision, too, as partial and selective. In other words, we would need to accept the possibility that Smith actually saw beings ranging in number from three to infinity.
Epoché and the
Although the apologetic/critical debates have dominated discussions of the First Vision’s authenticity, methods developed in the academic discipline of religious studies offer yet another approach to the historiography of the First Vision saga.
Traditionally, religions have been studied normatively—that is, either by insiders committed to the faith’s claims or by outsiders seeking to critique them. But in the mid-twentieth century, American universities began creating departments of religious studies—academic units designed to study religion as cultural objects created by human beings through the methodologies of history, anthropology, sociology, literary studies, feminist studies, and the like.
In this vein, many scholars of religion employ an approach called epoché, or “bracketing.” The aim is to set aside one’s opinions regarding religions’ distinctive truth claims in order to more fully examine the accessible dimensions of those traditions: to “understand religion without necessarily having to explain it, much less refute or promote it.”37 Epoché allows for “the devout theologian and the confirmed atheist [and everyone in between] to participate in religious studies, provided they are capable of ‘bracketing’ their personal positions when researching or reporting on their work.”38 This approach has detractors within the field but does function as the basic model for teaching religious studies in American college classrooms.
Practicing epoché in relation to the different accounts of the First Vision means asking questions about the First Vision’s “meaning,” rather than its historicity—to focus on what the First Vision narratives meant to those who heard them, or what sort of symbolic truths the narratives contain, not on the question of the accounts’ historical veracity.
Although epoché is intended to create a common ground for insiders and outsiders, believers and non-believers, scholars who apply the tools of epoché to the First Vision can still be easily divided into those who believe Joseph Smith actually experienced the divine and those who believe he probably did not. A representative example of the believing group is the late LDS Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, who apparently applied this principle in his professional scholarship and personal life. He writes that he “was never preoccupied with the question of the historicity of the First Vision—though the evidence is overwhelming that it did occur. . . . I am prepared to accept [it] as historical or metaphorical, as symbolical or as precisely what happened. That [it conveys] religious truth is the essential issue, and of this I have never had any doubt.”39
Arrington’s statement is representative of a subset of Mormons who value the First Vision stories primarily for their mythical components—for the moral meaning and ideology encoded within the narratives. For people in this category, the existence of different accounts of the vision is unimportant and perhaps completely irrelevant. Literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard argues that many thinkers believe religious myth must be “raised from the ruins to which it has been reduced by rational, demythologizing, and positivistic thought.”40 Arrington’s acceptance of Smith’s vision, “whether it is literally true or not,” would seem to comport with the goals Lyotard describes.41
This mythical view differs substantially from the positivist critique of the First Vision already discussed in that it does not grant the last word to scientific rationality. It protects mythological truth claims by rendering them un-falsifiable. Hence, though Arrington mentions “overwhelming” rational evidence for the First Vision, he immediately suggests that such evidence is irrelevant. Utah State University professor of philosophy Richard Sherlock similarly suggests that those engaging in positivistic apologetics should ask themselves, “Is there any conceivable fact or set of facts that might be discovered about Joseph Smith that would cause one to lose faith in the church? If the answer to that question is yes, then I submit you have placed your faith in hock to the historian, that you are willing to believe the church is true to the extent that you have not found any human evidence to contradict it.”42 Regarding the First Vision in particular, Sherlock argues that the canonized, 1838 account of the First Vision is the “one account [that] is true because it bears witness to the faith of the church better than any other.”43 Note that Sherlock is not saying that the 1838 account is the most accurate description of what happened in the grove. For Sherlock, calling the account “true” is not an assessment of the account’s literal veracity. Sherlock calls the account “true” because it is “better” than the other accounts at witnessing to the Church’s faith. By what criteria this account is “better” than the others, or what exactly Sherlock understands the Church’s faith to be, is not clear.
Jan Shipps, an eminent non-Mormon scholar of religion, wrote a now famous essay in which she carefully lays out all of the objections raised by positivist critics of the First Vision saga and observes that “if the foregoing conceptualization of the events in Joseph Smith’s youth which includes the visions as an integral part of his life is not completely congruent with what really happened, it does nevertheless assist us in understanding his complex personality.”44 Shipps seems relatively uninterested in what really did or did not happen. Instead she focuses on the story’s potential for further expanding her understanding of Smith’s intellect. Whether Smith saw divine beings in the grove is much less important than the stories Smith later told about that experience.45
Hayden White, a theorist of historical narrative, went to great lengths to demonstrate how positivist historians fail to acknowledge the “literary, even mythical, truth” that attaches to historical narrative.46 White argues that “the dual conviction that truth must conform to the scientific [positivist] model or its commonsensical counterpart has led most analysts to ignore the specifically literary aspect of historical narrative and therewith whatever truth it may convey in figurative terms.” White’s critique echoes the sentiments expressed by scholars who employ epoché to study the First Vision saga from outside the positivist paradigm.47
Joseph Smith claimed to have seen God, and that claim continues to drive the expansion of a demographically successful religious movement. The grandiosity of Smith’s claim and the growth of Mormonism will ensure that the First Vision saga will continue to stir debate and scholarly analysis for the foreseeable future. While displaying ambivalence about the existence of multiple versions of the story, the LDS Church demonstrates continuing and absolute allegiance to the First Vision’s historicity. The first chapter of the 2007 priesthood and Relief Society course manual deals entirely with the First Vision. Although the chapter contains only material from the canonical 1838 version, a chapter footnote states that “on several occasions the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote or dictated detailed accounts of the First Vision.” The manual emphasizes, however, that the 1838 account printed in the book “is the official scriptural account.”48
Some details of the non-canonical narratives have proved irresistible, finding their way into even official Church productions. In the 2005 film, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, which was “produced under the direction of the First Presidency as part of the Church’s commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth,”49 (and shown in the Church’s Joseph Smith Memorial Building) one can hear the unmistakable sound of twigs snapping under malevolent feet just before evil forces set upon Joseph. Most of those who see this film will likely not recognize those footsteps as homage to the officially forgotten 1835 narrative.
1. Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), xv.
2. Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 147. Sounding a note that seems particularly appropriate to the present context, Lincoln also provides a helpful corrective to the modernist view of scholarship as qualitatively superior to myth when he writes that “scholarship is myth with footnotes” (209).
3. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 1996), 32. The phrase is literally translated as “in that time.”
4. For the purposes of this essay, readers are directed to the most recent and comprehensive collection of versions of the First Vision: Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo: BYU Studies Press, 2005), 1–33.
5. Smith wrote this as part of an intended history sometime in 1832. Jessee, “Accounts,” 4–7.
6. This account was dictated by Joseph Smith to his scribe Warren Parrish, who recorded it in Smith’s journal. Jessee, “Accounts,” 7–8.
7. This represents another interrupted attempt to record a history of the Church, which was begun in 1838 and finished in 1839 in the hand of James Mulholland. Jessee, “Accounts,” 12–17.
8. According to Jessee, the Wentworth Letter was published only in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons, where it appeared on 1 March 1842. Jessee, “Accounts” 17–18.
9. Jessee, “Accounts,” 19–21.
10. Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), 67.
11. Jessee, “Accounts,” 21–23.
12. This version was also later republished in the New York Spectator magazine. Jessee, “Accounts,” 24–25.
13. For an introduction to Neibaur’s life and work, see Fred E. Woods, “‘A Mormon and Still a Jew’: The Life of Alexander Neibaur,” Mormon Historical Studies 7, nos.1–2 (Spring/Summer 2006): 23–34.
14. Jessee, “Accounts,” 25–26.
15. The first of these, http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,104-1-3-4,00.html simply provides the text of the 1838 account. The second, http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=33e605481ae6b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____ , is actually a link to Backman’s 1985 Ensign article that harmonizes the different versions of the First Vision Story. Both URLs accessed 4 May 2011.
16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vision (accessed 4 May 2011).
17. http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_first_vision.shtml (accessed 4 May 2011)
18. http://www.irr.org/mit/first-vision.html (accessed 4 May 2011).
19. http://mrm.org/first-vision (accessed 4 May 2011).
20. http://en.fairmormon.org/First_Vision/Accounts (accessed 4 May 2011).
21. Jerald and Sandra Tanner make very similar arguments in their classic anti-Mormon work, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake: UTLM, 1966). Most other anti-Mormon critics simply repeat the basic material popularized by Walters and the Tanners.
22. Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” http://www.irr.org/mit/first-vision/fvision.html (accessed 4 May 2011). Published versions of this document have circulated for decades, but the version most easily accessed today is found online at the website above.
23. James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1, no. 3 (Fall 1966), 33.
24. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (New York: Knopf, 2005), 75.
26. Hugh W. Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1991), 55–101, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=52 (accessed 4 May 2011).
27. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 39.
thread/17649/P40/#317207 (accessed 2 December 2010).
b6c421d7eb6d745679066322d (accessed 2 December 2010).
30. Edward Shils, Tradition, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), 98.
31. Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, Ut.: Covenant Communications, 2009), 143–144.
32. Milton V. Backman, “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, ( January 1985), 8.
33. James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith in 1820,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens, 38.
34. Ibid., 70.
35. Ibid., 52.
37. Hillary Rodrigues and John S. Harding, Introduction to the Study of Religion (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2009), 80.
38. Ibid., 11.
39. Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” in Philip L. Barlow, ed., A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 230.
40. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982–1985 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
41. Arrington, “Believer,” 230.
42. Richard Sherlock, “The Gospel beyond Time: Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge,” Sunstone, July-August 1980, 20.
44. Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History, 1 (1974), 30.
45. Ibid., 29.
46. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 48.
48. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake: LDS Church, 2007), 35 fn4.
49. http://lds.org/events/info/0,8197,726-1-571,00.html (accessed 4 May 2011). The film was released by the LDS Church on DVD in 2010 as part of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Visual Resource DVD. The film is located on disc 3, and the First Vision sequence runs from 10:45-13:11.