by Stephen C. Taysom
Stephen C. Taysom is an associate professor of philosophy and comparative religion at Cleveland State University.
Religions persist when they are able to adapt to cultural shifts by reinterpreting their own histories—even their origins—in a way that cloaks their changes in a mantle of consistency. The LDS Church’s Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision is, in miniature, an almost perfect cartographic representation of that principle. The essay is a clear signal that, as time goes on, it will become more commonplace to hear in official discourse about the different accounts of the First Vision, but always framed in the language of consistency.
The First Vision essay, unlike some of the other Gospel Topics essays, is overtly defensive in its rhetorical posture, and not without reason. Critics of the LDS Church have often delighted in pointing out that multiple accounts of the vision exist and that those accounts differ, most notably in that only one heavenly being is spoken of in the first account while in later accounts there are two. The critics’ implication (as the essay makes clear via its choice of defensive strategies) is that Joseph Smith had fabricated a story and then embellished it as time went on.
The essay1 makes several points in its attempt to defend the historical reality of the First Vision. First, it takes the position that the existence of multiple accounts of the First Vision is something that is—or at least should be—well known to Latter-day Saints. This is in response to a long-standing criticism that the Church actively hides, or at least obfuscates, parts of its history so that it may present a more coherent and seamless narrative. The essay asserts that the various accounts “have been discussed repeatedly in Church magazines, in works printed by Church-owned and Church-affiliated presses, and by Latter-day Saint scholars in other venues” since at least the 1960s. As evidence, the essay cites an article from a 1970 Improvement Era, a book published in 1971 by Bookcraft, an Ensign article from 1996, and another book published by Deseret Book in 2012. The assertion that the multiple accounts of the First Vision have been mentioned “repeatedly” (at least four times) is thus literally true, but it does not satisfactorily address the reality that many Mormons were aware of only one version.
Most Latter-day Saints are exposed to Church teachings through three venues: the LDS scriptures, Gospel Doctrine and priesthood/Relief Society manuals, and general conference addresses. The essay does not cite a single instance in which the multiple accounts of the First Vision are mentioned in these sources. In fact, the publication you would think most likely to offer such a reference, the Church’s official Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, cites only the canonical 1838 version. A footnote indicates that although the quotations used in that chapter came from “the official scriptural account [. . .] on several occasions Joseph Smith wrote or dictated detailed accounts of the First Vision.” However, it does not indicate that any differences exist among the versions. A typical reader or class participant, even one assiduous enough to read the footnotes, would not learn from this source anything other than that there is an official version of the account and that “detailed” accounts were given at other times. So, while the LDS Church may not have actively attempted to hide the fact that multiple accounts of the First Vision exist, its curricular and scriptural architecture gave its members no reason to suspect that contradictory versions exist. The Gospel Topics essay is unpersuasive in its attempt to make the case for the “common knowledge” argument, though it does show that the Church has not been entirely silent on the matter.
The second point the essay makes is in response to the criticism that the variations among the versions are evidence of “embellishment” and fabrication. The essay argues that the variations are minimal and normal. “[. . .] the various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story,” it argues, “though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details.” The second sentence is true enough. The first sentence, however, is fraught. Whether or not the accounts present a “consistent” story depends entirely on how much weight is given to which details, which raises the question: How do we decide which details are important?
One way to answer that question is to make a distinction between the two types of variation in the First Vision accounts. The first is what we’ll call “contradiction”: a detail that is mutually exclusive to something in another account or accounts. If a contradiction exists between two versions, then one of the versions might be true, or both might be false; but both cannot be true. The second type, we’ll call “diversity of detail,” in other words, the presence of details in some versions that are not mutually exclusive to details in others.
The essay attempts to defuse potential contradictions by addressing what is probably the First Vision narrative’s most famous contradictory element: the presence of only one supernatural being in Joseph Smith’s first account (1832). As the essay frames the issue, “critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—‘the Lord’—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.”
This section of the essay attempts to recast this rupture as “a basic harmony in the narrative [. . .] three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision.” If the essay really believed that this represented a harmony rather than a rupture, then it would not need to expend any energy in making its case: it would be self-evident. But it is not self-evident and the essay must, and does, attempt to eradicate the contradiction.
It does so by moving this discontinuity from the contradiction category to the diversity of detail category by arguing that because Joseph referred to only one being, that didn’t mean there weren’t others present. The essay offers two ways to read more than one being into the 1832 account. The first is by encouraging us to read the account in light of the “later accounts” that include descriptions of two beings. By the lights of accepted historical practice, this is a strange request; it is logically incoherent and violates normal rules of historical interpretation. In fact, if any of the accounts should be given priority and/or the power to color one’s reading of the other accounts, it would be the version closest to the event itself.
Then the essay takes one more step: “the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared.” That is true; it is possible that two beings were present. It is equally possible that ten beings were present. Or a million. Or one. Setting aside the fact that reading the 1832 account in such a tortuous manner is historically unorthodox and bizarre, it is obvious that the reading is driven by the a priori assumption that two beings had to be present, because if this wasn’t the case, a contradiction exists.
As a piece of historical analysis, the Gospel Topics essay fails. But it is not intended to function as historical analysis; it is intended to function as a form of religious apologetics, and in this way, and by those rules, it succeeds. It manages to create a rhetorical space in which fundamental inconsistencies in one of Mormonism’s most important origin stories are claimed never to have been denied, hidden, ignored, or deemphasized. It also manages to assert (though not actually argue) that the entire corpus of First Vision narratives is characterized by consistency, redefining evident inconsistencies as incidental details.
The essay will change few minds. But it can potentially shift how the First Vision is thought of among Mormons: away from a single event with one story toward a single event with a constellation of mutually supportive tellings.
1 Published without attribution, this essay assumes an official ecclesiastical voice. Although one or more historians employed by the Church no doubt drafted the piece, the various layers of bureaucratic approval that the essay certainly went through make it impossible to know what the author(s) wrote and what the hierarchy added, subtracted, or changed. For these reasons, I refer to the essay as if it were, itself, a volitional agent (e.g. “the essay does” rather than “the author does”).