Monday, June 27, 2016

"When Joseph Smith Saw a Vision of Heavenly Mother" Corrected


LDS Living posted an article claiming that Joseph Smith saw a vision of Heavenly Mother. The same problematic information was related by Fiona Givens (as posted by Jana Riess) at Flunking Sainthood (with Religion News Service). I worry that this little "discovery" will make its rounds throughout the Bloggernacle and be received uncritically. The problem with the assertion, at least in the evidence provided, is that it simply isn't true...not without some unwanted baggage anyways. Both articles provide a quotation from the journal of Abraham H. Cannon (of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: 1889-1896). Both articles neglect to provide the context for the quotation provided and both authors were apparently unaware of the other accounts of the same event that contradict the details in Cannon's journal. The event described is provided from Zebedee Coltrin, that took place following a conference in New Portage, Ohio, on May 7, 1834 (see HC 2:64). 

The quotation provided by LDS Living is as follows:
"One day the Prophet Joseph Smith asked him (Zebedee Coltrin) and Sidney Rigdon to accompany him into the woods to pray. When they had reached a secluded spot Joseph laid down on his back and stretched out his arms. He told the brethren to lie one on each arm and then shut their eyes.
"After they had prayed he told them to open their eyes. They did so and they saw a brilliant light surrounding a pedestal which seemed to rest on the ground. They closed their eyes and again prayed. They then saw, on opening them, the Father seated upon a throne; they prayed again and on looking saw the Mother also; after praying and looking the fourth time they saw the Savior added to the group. He had auburn brown, rather long, wavy hair and appeared quite young" (Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, 25 Aug. 1880, LDS archives).
This seems pretty straight forward until you look at the other accounts and the context of the above quotation. First, the other accounts are provided below (in chronological order of the account), followed by a brief assessment of the problem, and then discussion of the context of Cannon's journal:
Once after returning from a mission, he [Zebedee Coltrin] met Bro. Joseph in Kirtland, who asked him if he did not wish to go with him to a conference at New Portage. The party consisted of Prests. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and myself. Next morning at New Portage, he noticed that Joseph seemed to have a far off look in his eyes, or was looking at a distance, and presently he, Joseph, stepped between Brothers Cowdery, and Coltrin and taking them by the arm, said, "lets take a walk." They went to a place where there was some beautiful grass, and grapevines and swampbeech interlaced. President Joseph Smith then said, "Let us pray." They all three prayed in turn--Joseph, Oliver and Zebedee. Bro. Joseph then said, "now brethren we will see some visions." Joseph lay down on the ground on his back and stretched out his arms and the two brethren lay on them. The heavens gradually opened, and they saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a light house, and on the throne were two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments. They were the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind he ever saw. Joseph said, They are our first parents, Adam and Eve. Adam was a large broad shouldered man, and Eve as a woman, was as large in proportion.
The above account comes from a meeting of High Priests in Spanish Fork on February 5, 1875.1 There is a slightly different version of this same account from the Spanish Fork High Priests Meeting in the N.B. Lundwall papers (Harold B. Lee Library, Special Colletions, BYU). This secondary account has the following prefatory information: "Thomas Matley, Ward Clerk, recorded the following address made at a meeting of the High Priests in Spanish Fork, Utah, February 5, 1878[5]. Copied from the High Priests's [sic] Record of Spanish Fork Branch, from April 29, 1866 to December 1st, 1898 by E. Cecil McGavin." The account is provided below:
“On my return from a mission to Kirtland I met Joseph and he asked me would I like to go to the conference as he was going the next morning.  I replied that I would.  We started next morning and went to New Portage, and put up with the presiding Elder of the Branch.  Next morning Joseph asked me and Brother Oliver Cowdery if we would take a walk with him in the wood lot.  We agreed to do so, and in a short time reached a place where some wild grape vines made a pretty arbor over our heads.  Joseph said, ‘Let us kneel down here and pray’.  After praying Joseph stretched himself on his back upon a grassy spot with his arms extended like one upon a cross.
“He told me to lie by his side with my head resting upon his arm, and Oliver in like manner upon the other side.  We did so, all three looking heavenwards.  As I looked I saw the blue sky open.  I beheld a throne, and upon the throne sat a man and a woman. Joseph asked us if we knew who they were.  We answered, ‘No’.  Joseph said, ‘That is father Adam and mother Eve’.  Their heads were white as snow and their faces shone with immortal youth.”2
The next account was also related by Zebedee Coltrin and was given during one of the meetings of the 1883 reinstatement of the School of the Prophets, which was under the presiding direction of John Taylor. Coltrin related the following information on October 11, 1883:
"Once after returning from a mission, he [Zebedee Coltrin] met Bro. Joseph in Kirtland, who asked him if he did not wish to go with him to a conference at New Portage. The party consisted of Prests. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and myself. Next morning at New Portage, he noticed that Joseph seemed to have a far off look in his eyes, or was looking at a distance, and presently he, Joseph, stepped between Brothers Cowdery, and Coltrin and taking them by the arm, said, "lets take a walk." They went to a place where there was some beautiful grass, and grapevines and swampbeech interlaced. President Joseph Smith then said, "Let us pray." They all three prayed in turn--Joseph, Oliver and Zebedee. Bro. Joseph then said, "now brethren we will see some visions." Joseph lay down on the ground on his back and stretched out his arms and the two brethren lay on them. The heavens gradually opened, and they saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a light house, and on the throne were two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments. They were the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind he ever saw. Joseph said, They are our first parents, Adam and Eve. Adam was a large broad shouldered man, and Eve as a woman, was as large in proportion.3
This next account was recorded by Oliver B. Huntington on March 2, 1885, as related to him directly by Zebedee Coltrin:
…had been copying in the tithing office and took dinner with the bishop in company with the Patriarch Zebidee Coltrin who told of the time he had with the Prophet Joseph, who invited him and Oliver Cowdery out into the fields one day and upon a very beautiful place in a grove, where the grass was thick and matted. He laid down upon his back and stretched out both arms and bade them to lay down with their heads upon his arms and see some visions which they did and saw the heaven open and in it a great golden throne and on it a man and woman with hair as white as snow. Joseph told them that the man and woman was father Adam and Eve. They saw other things.4
In each of the accounts provided above, there is consistency in relating that Oliver Cowdery was with Joseph and Zebedee, not Sidney Rigdon as the Cannon journal account relates. Of more importance, each of these accounts specifically identify the vision of the Father and Mother as Adam and Eve. Thus, the Cannon journal account is alone in identifying "the Father" and "the Mother" as well as the Savior. One can easily understand why the assumption is made that Joseph saw Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother (along with Rigdon/Cowdery and Coltrin) based on Abraham Cannon's journal entry, but with the context of the other accounts it is clear that the Father and Mother referred to was Adam and Eve. Unless the authors (Wagner and Givens) wants to argue in favor of the Adam-God doctrine, then the uncritical assumption that Joseph saw our Heavenly Parents is inaccurate and both authors should update their commentary on this quotation.

Now, as far as Cannon's journal, the context of the quotation needs to be addressed as well. The journal entry is not a report from Abraham H. Cannon, or Zebedee Coltrin. Elder Cannon records the account based on this story's retelling by Pres. Peterson of Richfield, UT. Where President Peterson obtained this information is not certain, but it is recorded in Elder Cannon's journal on August 25, 1890,5 three years after Coltrin had died. More likely than not, Pres. Peterson heard a second-hand account of this story that slightly morphed, or perhaps he was present when Coltrin related the information, but remembered the details incorrectly. Of the various accounts, this is the only account that is problematic in interpretation. While the other accounts leave out the vision of the Savior, it is possible that this detail in Peterson's retelling was accurate, since Oliver B. Huntington noted that "They saw other things." However, without the other accounts, it is clear that individuals can, and have, drawn false conclusions from this isolated telling.

It should be noted that I'm not arguing against the existence of a Heavenly Mother, or against the idea that Joseph might have seen Heavenly Mother. My sole argument in this post is regarding the interpretation of the account in Abraham H. Cannon's journal in support of Joseph seeing Heavenly Mother. The additional accounts, as well as the context of the Cannon entry, should be conclusive enough to demonstrate that the vision with Zebedee Coltrin was not of our Heavenly Parents, and thus, this quotation should not be circulated without the added context.


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1 Salt Lake School of the Prophets: Minute Book 1883, ed. Merle Graffam, (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press, 2000), 102-103
2 N.B. Lundwall Papers, Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library, L. Tom Perry Special Collections. Copy of typescript in my personal posession.
3 Salt Lake School of the Prophets, 64
4 Oliver B. Huntington, The History of the Life of Oliver B. Huntington, Written by Himself, typescript (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press), 25
5 The date cited for Cannon's journal by LDS Living is incorrectly listed as Aug 25, 1880, however, the correct date is Aug 25, 1890; see An Apostle's Record: The Journals of Abraham H. Cannon, ed. Dennis B. Horne (Clearfield, UT: Gnolaum Books, 2004), 152-153

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