First Vision Accounts

Yes, I finished another book, Joseph Smith’s First Vision – A Guide to the Historical Accounts By Steven C. Harper.

It is a rather short book that I read in preparation for a Doctrine and Donuts discussion on first vision accounts.

Steven Harper’s book is neither ground breaking nor controversial. It is, nevertheless, informative. Rather than just citing portions of Smith’s accounts, Harper prints the full document transcriptions as well as photographic reproductions of the full documents. While these reproductions are relatively small, it is possible to follow along with the transcriptions, view manuscript corrections, and see changes in handwriting.

Harper discusses the historical context of Joseph Smith’s first vision accounts as well as touches on memory science and typical criticisms. He explains historical analysis methods in a way that helps readers develop skills to separate historical fact from insinuation as well as from the memory interpretation of the autobiographer.

Harper asks:

Is [memory] reliable? The answer, as it turns out, is not simply yes or no. It is both. To assume that a person’s memory is either reliable or unreliable is to create a logical fallacy called a false dilemma. Memories of our past “including predictable distortions,” so much so that one scholar described them as “true but inaccurate.” But he also concluded, based on his experiments, that “it is not the cast that the meaning around which autobiographical memory is organized is complete fabrication of life events. There is a fundamental integrity to one’s autobiographical reflections.” (pg 95, quotes from C.R. Barclay, “Schematization of Autobiographical Memory” in D.C. Ruben’s Autobiographical Memory)

When reading the Gospels, there is a tendency to harmonize the events and timeline of each. While correlating the various accounts can inform our understanding, each Gospel account is best read on its own rather than contorted into harmony. Each writer communicates their intended message best when standing alone.

Similarly, Joseph Smith’s first vision accounts allow us to see him moving from an inexperienced youth to a mature leader that has developed the tools to understand and communicate his experience. The differences in the accounts also reveal the effects of his external circumstances at the time of the retelling, incorporating both factual and interpretive memory in a way that is meaningful at that point in time.

When a young man, the 1832 account shows Smith’s concern for his soul. The account is brief and the language is uncertain. It also reflects the language of Methodist “enthusiasm” of the time.

While in the midst of persecution in Missouri and Ohio, Joseph’s 1838-39 account uses harsh language.

“many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing person” he said, “induced [him] to write his history.” In the intensely hostile environment of the 1838 account, Joseph remembered learning that professors of Christianity were corrupt and their creeds abominable to God. But then time and extreme opposition sank deeper into the past, giving Joseph a different perspective.

When he revised the 1838 account a few years later (1842), Joseph’s flight from Kirtland, Ohio, the Saint’s expulsion from Missouri, and his own painful sojourn in jail and Liberty, Missouri, were a few years behind him, and the Saints were beginning to thrive in comparative peace in Nauvoo, Illinois. … There he remembered learning in the vision “that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines.” … In 1838 he felt defensive against growing opposition, a few years later he felt renewed … and desired to tell history to positively influence public opinion rather than condemn Christianity. (pg 103-104)

It is unfortunate that a rather hostile account with respect to our Christian brethren is the one that became canonized. Recognition of this difference between the accounts and understanding the circumstances may help us understand our fellow Christians.

In the end:

Those who trust Joseph tend to interpret faithfully the historical facts he left us, whereas those who distrust him interpret them skeptically, Skeptics who begin with the certainty that the vision never happened as Joseph said it did are unwilling to explore the variety of possibilities that the historical documents offer. Believers who are unwilling to examine all of the evidence prevent themselves from fuller understanding and appreciation of Joseph’s experience and are often unaware that they may have unfounded assumptions masquerading as testimony. Ironically, this unexamined sense of certainty makes their faith vulnerable. For some, the unfounded part of their testimony will crumble when eroded by the evidence, leaving them wondering whether any part of their formerly certain knowledge was true after all. (pg 114)


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