Monday, April 13, 2015

The Wheat and the Tares - Reactions to the First Vision

"A discerning reader responds to a text by breaking it apart . . . 
and separating the divine wheat from the worldly chaff."1 

Why do we respond the way that we do? 

I don't remember when I first realized that there was more than one account of Joseph Smith's First Vision, even though I actually learned of the fact that more than one account existed when I first watched BYU's 1976 production, The First Vision: The Visitation of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith (starring Stewart Petersen):

In all likeliness, most members of the Church living today probably learned that there was more than one account of the First Vision from this video as well, even if this observation generally hasn't been recognized. While the typical Latter-day Saint is familiar with the canonical account of the First Vision in Joseph Smith-History, some events are depicted in this video that are not in the canonical account. For example, the 1835 account of the First Vision (transcribed by Warren Parrish, and related by Joseph Smith to Robert Matthews, "Joshua, the Jewish Minister"), includes the following details (spelling and punctuation standardized):

"my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some person walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not, the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprung up on my feet and looked around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking . . ."2
While the canonical account mentions the binding of Joseph's tongue, it does not mention the noise of somebody walking towards him, or the fact that he sprung up on his feet and looked around. The video, however, includes these details to supplement the canonical account. Thus, all Latter-day Saints that have seen this video have received some exposure to the fact that the canonical account is only a partial account of the First Vision.

The first time I read of the various First Vision accounts was while serving as a missionary in the Florida Tampa Mission. On preparation days I would typically rummage through the Church library's collection of Ensigns and photocopy everything that seemed interesting. One particularly intriguing article was Milton V. Backman's, "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," where he prefaced the various accounts by asserting that, "The four surviving recitals of this theophany were prepared or rendered through different scribes, at different times, from a different perspective, for different purposes and to different audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that each of them emphasizes different aspects of his experience."3

This made sense to me. It still does.

The 1832 account is presumably an initial response to the Lord's direction to document a history (D&C 47; 69), and it provides a very personal account which was written in Joseph's journal. It would seem that this account was written with no intended audience in mind. His introduction relates that he was writing a "history of the life of Joseph Smith Jr.," and adds that it is "also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ," but this isn't to imply that it was written for the Church since it was never published during Joseph's life, nor was it ever edited in consideration for publication. The 1835 account was specifically related to a single individual who claimed to have spiritual revelations of his own and who also sought to be an instrument in implementing a religious kingdom.4 Robert Matthews (or Matthias, or Joshua the Jewish Minister) claimed to spiritually interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dream for Joseph as it related to the latter days. Thus, in a private setting, Joseph related his theophany to a seemingly like-minded religious individual.

The more formal accounts of the First Vision are provided in 1838, 1842, and 1843. The 1838 account was given as a more formal history of the Church and intended for broad usage as a response to the "many reports" disseminated that were incorrect. Joseph wrote to "disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts . . ." Nonetheless, even this, the canonical account of the First Vision, ends with Joseph's acknowledgement of its incompleteness: "many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time." The 1842 account (known as the Wentworth letter) is a more formal discussion of the restoration as a response to a request for a history of the Church, specifically written for public media. The account written for Israel Daniel Rupp in September 1843 was nearly identical to the Wentworth letter and was intended for the public as a history of the Church, and was published in Rupps' book, An Original History of the Religious Denominations At Present Existing in the United States.

Other contemporaneous accounts of the First Vision exist as well. Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde both published accounts of the First Vision in missionary tracts, the former in Scotland, and the latter in Germany. Private interviews, a public sermon, and a newspaper interview also provide contemporaneous accounts of the First Vision tailored to specific circumstances. Subsequent to Joseph's martyrdom, additional reminiscences were provided by Latter-day Saints who learned of the theophany directly from Joseph as well. These subsequent accounts illustrate a degree of knowledge and familiarity with this foundational event beyond the familiar 1838 account among the general membership of the Church subsequent to the Nauvoo era. However, following the 1882 canonization of the The Pearl of Great Price with its accompanying 1838 account of the First Vision, it would seem that familiarity with accounts other than the canonical account seemed to dissipate as one generation passed away and another generation began relying upon the Standard Works for their historical understanding. This is only partially true, however.

For example, Preson Nibley's 1944 hagiographic biography of Joseph Smith includes references to the 1842 Wentworth letter as well as the September 1843 New York Spectator account (originally printed in September 1843 in the Pittsburgh Gazette). Thus, one of the most conservative biographies of Joseph Smith relies upon more than just the canonical account of the First Vision. Although it wasn't until the 1970's and the 1980's (here too) that the accounts of the First Vision began to really garner some deserved attention among Latter-day Saints. During this era, numerous publications in journals and books brought greater visibility of these collected accounts to Latter-day Saints. The increased attention was due, in part, to renewed interest in the First Vision accounts as a result of Paul Cheeseman's rediscovery of the 1832 account as published in his Master's Thesis at BYU.

Despite the numerous LDS publications that include various accounts of the First Vision during the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as the 1976 BYU film, and the more recent LDS video The Restoration, some members are surprised to discover that accounts, other than the canonical account in the Pearl of Great Price even exist. Unfortunately, some of those members that fall into this category have become disillusioned.

I reiterate my question. Why do we respond the way that we do?

My discovery of the various accounts of the First Vision was a like a burst of light into my life and a new appetite developed to learn and discover as much as I could about this foundational event. To me, the study of these accounts provided a more comprehensive understanding of the First Vision. Certainly, there are plenty of Latter-day Saints who have responded similarly. On the other hand, some members have approached these accounts skeptically and cynically. A relatively new scenario has emerged in recent years wherein individuals learn of the various accounts of the First Vision for the first time, after years, or even nearly a lifetime of membership, and are provided with a pretense that these accounts have been "hidden" by the Church because of the contradictory information between the accounts. Further, Joseph Smith is asserted to have embellished the story with each retelling so that the accounts became more grandiose as the story evolved and grew further distant from his Protestant Trinitarian upbringing. For whatever reason, these criticisms seem to be too easily received by some Latter-day Saints as 'the real story' of the First Vision.

I suggest that one of the most influential factors in our response to this information (and to information in general) is based upon the atmosphere and narrative in which we learn of the 'facts' rather than the influence that the facts themselves might actually have upon us. The problem with both responses discussed above is that our reactions to the 'facts' have been framed by the research and interpretations supplied by somebody else. In other words, it isn't necessarily the facts that incite a response, so much as the compelling interpretation of these facts, or it may be that the sole interpretation provided may be the only interpretation conceived of. In my case, it was a narrative provided by Milton Backman, for others, it has been framed by Fawn Brodie, whose posited thesis has been repeatedly emphasized by critics outside of the Church (as well as critics within the Church in more recent times). I'd venture to guess that most of these individuals who accept the latter narrative are likely unfamiliar with its origination.

Brodie's approach to the First Vision was published in her 1945 book, No Man Knows My History, which led to her eventual excommunication in 1946. Brodie was Elder David O. McKay's niece and admits to having grown up with a faithful father and a faithless mother (a "heretic" according to Brodie). In the genre of "Freudian psychology" Brodie's book was written as a pyschobiography of Joseph Smith, which, according to Vardis Fisher (New York Times Book Review), she asserted as "indisputable facts what can only be regarded as conjectures supported by doubtful evidence." Fisher also wrote that Brodie's book is "more a novel than a biography, because she rarely hesitates to give the context of a mind or to explain motives which at best can only be surmised."5 A prime example is her evaluation of the First Vision. She wrote that Joseph's "awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging."6 In other words, the only answer acceptable to Brodie is that Joseph Smith made the whole thing up.

Contrast her explanation with Joseph's candid explanation: "I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation" (JS-H 1:25).

Nonetheless, Brodie's arguments regarding the First Vision have provided a compelling interpretation for those adopting a critical view of this event. She notes that there are contradictions between accounts and that Joseph's evolution of the nature of God underlies the accounts. "But there are two manuscript versions of the vision between 1831 and the published account in Orson Pratt's Remarkable Visions in 1840 which indicate that it underwent a remarkable evolution in detail. In the earlier, which Joseph dictated in 1831 or 1832, he stated that "in the 16th year of my age . . . the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord." By 1835 this had changed to a vision of "two personages" in "a pillar of fire" above his head, and "many angels." In the published version the personages had become God the Father and His son Jesus Christ, and the angels had vanished. Joseph's age had changed to fourteen."7 She also asserts that Joseph's family and early Mormons did not know of the First Vision.

Backman's explanation for the disparity between each of the accounts has more to do with Joseph's selectivity in retelling his experience to different audiences under different circumstances, while Brodie's underlying assumption is that Joseph should have been consistent in each retelling of his experience for it to have a mark of authenticity. The fact that different accounts exist, according to Brodie, illustrates the evolution of his story. These competing narratives critically demand that a reader be discerning. What are the facts versus what is the narrative? Is the narrative sustainable? Does the narrative provide the best interpretation based on the underlying evidence? Is the narrative corroborated by other information not taken into consideration by the authors?

The best source for answers, especially when it comes to religious claims, is to turn directly to the Lord for guidance. For many of us these efforts prove sufficient. One would hope that it would be sufficient for everybody, but for those who have become disillusioned, it is necessary to separate facts from narrative and engage in critical investigation. Accordingly, the only appropriate recommendation is to turn directly to the original and contemporary sources and study these accounts in context. Conveniently, the Joseph Smith Papers has the earliest extant documents for each of these accounts available online:

1832 - Journal
1835 and here - Matthias, or Joshua "the Jewish Minister"
1838 - Canonical account
1840 - Orson Pratt
1842 - Orson Hyde (translated from German)
1842 - Wentworth Letter
1843 - Israel Daniel Rupp
1843 - Levi Richards Journal
1843 - David Nye White, Pittsburgh Gazette
1844 - Alexander Neibaur journal

There are additional accounts of the First Vision, as was previously mentioned, but the list above represents those accounts that were published or documented contemporaneously with Joseph's life.

Between the competing narratives, one must consider how the evidence favors the plausibility of each approach. Was Joseph selective in what he shared based on circumstances, or did his conception of God evolve as potentially illustrated with each retelling of the experience? The argument made by Brodie is that Joseph's conception of Deity evolved from a Trinitarian perspective into a uniquely Mormon conception of distinct personages within the Godhead. Ultimately, the 1832 account becomes the pivotal case in point for sustaining this argument. However, rather than a surface and superficial observation that one personage is mentioned in 1832 and two personages mentioned in 1835 and thereafter, the question can be boiled down to whether Joseph actually believed that one physical personage comprised the Godhead, or whether he had any other motive for limiting the 1832 account to the details provided therein.

The 1832 First Vision Account

Scholars date the journal entry documenting the First Vision account to the summer of 1832.8 Joseph and Emma had moved into the John Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio in September 1831 and lived there for approximately one year. Most of the Sections in the Doctrine and Covenants from 65 to 81 were received while in Hiram, Ohio, with the last Section (99) received in Hiram, in August 1832. Among these revelations include one of the most important revelations in this dispensation, Doctrine & Covenants Section 76, known as "the vision" (received Feb 1832). While translating the New Testament with Sidney Rigdon acting as scribe, the two were engaged in translating John 5, and with others present, saw a glorious vision, in which it was declared:
We, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, being in the Spirit on the sixteenth day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two—
By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God—
Even those things which were from the beginning before the world was, which were ordained of the Father, through his Only Begotten Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, even from the beginning;
Of whom we bear record; and the record which we bear is the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Son, whom we saw and with whom we conversed in the heavenly vision.
. . . 
And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.
And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness;
And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever.
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.
In this theophany, both Sidney and Joseph see and bear record of Christ being on the right hand of God. In addition to this remarkable account, Lorenzo Snow subsequently related an experience that he remembered from this time period. In a discourse entitled, "Grand Destiny of Man," President Snow recalls hearing a sermon from Joseph while in Hiram, Ohio when he "was about eighteen years of age." Having been born in April 1814, President Snow would have been eighteen years old in 1832, which matches the location and timing perfectly with Joseph's whereabouts. Lorenzo Snow asserted that Joseph delivered this sermon to approximately 250 people under a bowery (which would seem to imply spring or probably summertime). He reported that during this sermon, Joseph "testified that he had a conversation with Jesus, the Son of God, and had talked with Him personally, as Moses is said to have talked with God upon Mount Sinai, and that he had also heard the voice of the Father . . ."

While this account doesn't indicate that Joseph saw God the Father, it does indicate that he heard God the Father as a separate and distinct Being from the Savior; however, this sermon, coupled with D&C 76, provides strong evidence of the physical distinction between the Father and the Son both in sight and sound. By carefully reviewing the full 1832 First Vision account, it also becomes more clear that Joseph's limited inclusion of only seeing Christ was prefaced early in his account for whatever purpose he had in mind in emphasizing his meeting with the Savior. He writes [spelling and grammar standardized]:
A history of the life of Joseph Smith, Jr., an account of his marvelous experience and of all the mighty acts which he doeth in the name of Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God, of whom he beareth record, and also an account of the rise of the Church of Christ . . . 
In other words, Joseph emphasizes that the purpose of this history is to bear record of Christ, "the Son of the Living God." Joseph then summarizes by outline the history to follow:
Firstly: he receiving the testimony from on high [the First Vision], 
Secondly: the ministering of Angels [Moroni]
Thirdly: the reception of the holy priesthood by the ministering of Angels [John the Baptist] to administer the letter of the Gospel, the Law and the commandments as they were given unto him and the ordinances, 
Fourthly: a confirmation and reception of the High Priesthood after the Holy Order of the Son of the Living God [Peter, James, and John], power and ordinances from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the Spirit, the Keys of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him and the continuation of the blessings of God to him. . .
Shortly afterwards, Joseph relates his vision [spelling and grammar preserved]:
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 <behold> the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit  them acording to thir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which <hath> been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud <clothed> in the glory of my Father.
While Joseph only mentions seeing the Savior, it is important to observe that Joseph declared that he was "filled with the spirit of God," which was distinct from the Lord opening the heavens and seeing the Lord [the Savior] who would come clothed in the glory of His Father. While a degree of ambiguity could justify Brodie's interpretation, she would also have to explain away D&C 76 as well as Lorenzo Snow's remarkable memory and account of Joseph sharing his First Vision with approximately 250 people around the same time frame as this journal entry. Further, if the shift in doctrine were as distinct as Fawn Brodie characterizes this change, one is left to wonder why nobody picked up on this significant change for an entire century following Joseph's death. Fawn Brodie was the first to suggest Joseph's evolution of Deity, and it is only reasonable to suppose that those who both revered and resented Joseph wouldn't have missed such a significant evolution in his teachings. This would seem to be the case, especially later, when Joseph declared so boldly:
I will preach on the plurality of Gods. I have selected this text for that express purpose. I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years.
I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit, and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural: and who can contradict it?9
In other words, Joseph declares that he has always taught the distinct separation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and that the Elders have been teaching the same for fifteen years. If any of this assertion were untrue, it could have easily been refuted by those that were present in the early days of the Church. So the question arises, did Joseph's conception of Deity, in terms of physical distinction, actually evolve? If so, why is this observation lacking from all those who knew Joseph and accepted or rejected him? Why did it take 100 years before somebody would notice this apparent change in doctrine?

The journal in which this account was recorded was later used by Orson Hyde and Oliver Cowdery and either of them could easily have recognized a shift in Joseph's vision, especially Orson Hyde who published his German tract with an account of the First Vision in it. From the existing evidence, it seems that the accusation regarding the evolution of the First Vision, based on the 1832 account is lacking evidential support, and Backman's thesis becomes more plausible. Joseph declared that the purpose of the account was to bear testimony of the Son of the Living God, which is precisely what this account contains.

While there is more to address in terms of reconciling the First Vision accounts, it seems sufficient at this point to conclude that Joseph's conception of Deity did not change from 1832 to 1842 based on the corresponding information relevant to this journal entry, and that Backman's argument for a selective telling in each circumstance seems more plausible. As previously noted, the canonical account included Joseph's comment that, "many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time." Although this comment does not address the changes that Brodie is concerned with, it does provide evidence that Joseph was selective in what he did share. As previously noted as well, one can clearly understand that the audience and purpose for each recital was under different circumstances, although a degree of speculation must occur in order to try to determine why certain information was included or excluded. On one occasion, Joseph said that "The way I know in whom I can confide--God tells me in whom I can place confidence."10 While this didn't always prove to be true, nonetheless it illustrates Joseph's belief that he felt the need to be selective in what he did share.

1 David Ainsworth, Milton and the Spiritual Reader: Reading and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Routledge, 2008), 58
2 Joseph Smith, Jr. 1835-1836 Journal, November 11, 1835; Joseph Smith Papers
3 Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Joseph Smith's Recitals of the First Vision," Ensign (January 1985)
4 Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)
5 Vardis Fisher, "Mormonism and Its Yankee Prophet," New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1945, as cited by Newell G. Bringhurst, "Applause, Attack, and Ambivalence - Varied Responses to Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History," in Utah Historical Quarterly 57/1 (Winter 1989), 57; and Fisher as quoted in Robert A. Rees, ""Truth is the Daughter of Time": Notes Toward an Imaginative Mormon History," Dialogue 16/3-4 (Autumn 1983): 17
6 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 2nd Ed. Revised and Enlarged (New York: Vintage Press, 1995), 25; she later remarked that Joseph "began the story of his life with the fabulous vision of the Father and the Son, which in 1842, when the account was first published, dated back twenty-two years. Whether this was an elaboration upon a vivid childhood dream or a fantasy woven out of half-remembered miracle tales does not matter. Dream images came easily to him and with such intense color and luxuriant detail that the matter of accuracy or chronology was of no importance (pg 275). It doesn't take much effort to see Fisher's objections as remarkably accurate; Brodie freely imposes whatever explanation she deems appropriate as Joseph's motives. 
7 Ibid, 24
8 History, circa Summer 1832, Joseph Smith Papers,!/paperSummary/history-circa-summer-1832&p=1, accessed April 12, 2015; Frederick G. Williams wrote the majority of this journal entry, and he was appointed as Joseph's scribe on July 20, 1832, accordingly, this entry would have been recorded on or after July 20, 1832; see; accessed April 13, 2015
9 "Sermon in the Grove," June 16, 1844, Thomas Bullock account, Book of Abraham Project; accessed April 13, 2015
10 Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1977), 301

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