First Vision Timing and Prophetic Confidence

This month I have studied more deeply Ann Taves’s academic paper on “First Vision Controversies: Implications for Accounts of Mormon Origins” from a special edition of BYU Studies on the First Vision commemorating the 200 year anniversary of it.

In it she summarizes research that raises the question of when Joseph Smith’s First Vision occurred but then goes on to discuss changes in the voice used in Joseph Smith’s first revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I found the second topic to be more insightful, but I thought it perhaps good to give my views on the first.

Timing

She recaps what has been debated in academic circles for over half a century. Did Joseph Smith’s First Vision as later canonized in The Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith–History 1:5-20 occur in 1820? The vision as recorded by Joseph Smith is:

So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God….

…I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

(Verses 14-17. Underlining added.)

Ms Taves writes:

As you presumably all know, Latter-day Saints traditionally assumed this revival took place in 1820, since Smith said he was fifteen at the time. Fawn Brodie called this dating into question with the publication of No Man Knows My History in 1945, and Wesley Walters, a Presbyterian minister, marshaled considerable evidence to suggest that the revival in question actually took place in 1824–25.

(Ann Taves, “First Vision Controversies: Implications for Accounts of Mormon Origins” BYU Studies Quarterly — 59:2, page 78.)

In addition to Joseph Smith’s accounts of his First Vision (of which he recorded four during his life) written in 1938, she presents two other categories of evidence for perhaps other dates:

  • Historical documents from the perhaps 1815 to late 1820s, such as newspaper reports of religious organization activities such as camp meetings, conferences and preachers, and reports of others in town who knew Joseph Smith gathered later by those investigating Joseph Smith’s background.
  • A draft history of Joseph Smith’s Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, the full copy of which can be found in the Joseph Smith Papers (I particularly suggest reading the excellent Historical Introduction.)

(The paper also contains a couple of instances of references to Oliver Cowdery, a very early supporter of Joseph Smith who provides many other useful insights into early church history. However Oliver did not meet Joseph until April 1829, so his knowledge would be second hand at best.)

My impression of these sources in the order above are:

Other Historical Records

The evidence found by searching historical newspapers and other sources from the 1820’s is very impressive, given how few sources there must really be due of the age, and the nature of record keeping and the undeveloped area at the time. There are connections to names of famous ministers mentioned by various people, camp meetings in and around Joseph Smith’s home, and statements of individuals who remembered things Joseph was supposed to have said or experienced.

The evidence gathered, when combined with Mother Smith’s (or Oliver’s) history does seem to suggest the date for the first vision might have been closer to 1824. And although this type of evidence is the first order evidence in most cases, rather than Joseph Smith’s memories recorded in 1838 and Mother Smith’s in 1844-45, I don’t find it compelling.

There is no written account of the First Vision located so far that was produced in the decade of the 1820’s, the first one being written by Joseph in 1832. Only in combination with Joseph’s or Mother Smith’s history does this body of evidence have any weight because it is simply too sparse a record to pinpoint a very private happening for one obscure boy who lived in the area. Although potentially supportive or discouraging, it is not evidence that is likely to ever give a date for the First Vision.

Mother Smith History

The 1902 edited and published version of Joseph Smith’s history presented the 1820 date, but this is not what was originally recorded by Mother Smith when she dictated her manuscript history in 1844. It seems quite clear her history does not speak of the First Vision at all, but rather the first miraculous event in Joseph’s life is the visit of what is clearly the Angel Moroni in September 1823, the same date Joseph lists for what might be termed his second vision.

In a related article to Ms. Taves in the special issue of BYU Studies, Steven C. Harper notes how Moroni’s vision was viewed as the beginning of the church until the turn of the 20th Century when Joseph F. Smith as president of the church begins preaching it much more directly and clearly as the beginning of the church.

Mr. Harper explains that the negative reaction caused by Joseph’s initial telling of his experience perhaps result in Joseph not telling this story.

Joseph Smith reported that a few days after his first vision, he “happened to be in company” with a Methodist preacher who had stirred many souls (including his). “I took occasion to give him an account of the vision,” Joseph remembered eighteen years later. “I was greatly surprised at his behaviour, he treated my communication not only lightly but with great contempt.” The minister said the story was of the devil, visions had ended with the Apostles, and there would never be another one.

“Telling the story,” Joseph eventually explained, “had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion and was the cause of great persecution.” So apparently he turned inward and thought much about whether to tell, whom to tell, and how to tell his experience.

“Raising the Stakes: How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Became All or Nothing” By Steven C. Harper, BYU Studies Quarterly — 59:2 Page 22

I wonder if Joseph never shared very fully with his Mother or his Father his First Vision, when a youth. It is possible, and such a possibility might explain the absence of a record of this event in Mother Smith’s own history. His subsequent hesitancy in sharing the First Vision supports this idea quite clearly.

Possibly Some Mixed Memories

I do think it is interesting to consider if perhaps some of Joseph’s memories associated with his First Vision might have been things that happened in 1823 or 1824. For example, as Ms. Taves quotes Marvin Hill:

[Lucy] said she attended the revival with hope of gaining solace for Alvin’s loss. That kind of detail is just the sort that gives validity to Lucy’s chronology. She would not have been likely to make up such a reaction for herself or the family or to mistake the time when it happened. I am persuaded that it was 1824 when Lucy joined the Presbyterians.

Ms. Taves also quotes Dan Vogel in relation to minister’s reaction to Joseph’s vision, wondering if perhaps Joseph told of the visit of the Angel Moroni, not the First Vision.

Vogel also observes that Smith’s statement that a Methodist preacher treated his vision with contempt makes more sense in 1824–25 than in 1820, especially if we consider the possibility that “Smith actually related his 1823 and 1824 encounters with the heavenly messenger”—that is, the revelation of the plates—to the minister rather than the Lord’s forgiveness of his sins.

This seems particularly plausible in light of Jeremy Talmage’s analysis of many other visions published in the period which have common elements to the First Vision which do not appear to have generated such negative reactions from established religious leaders. (“Effusions of an Enthusiastic Brain”: Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the Limits of Experiential Religion. BYU Studies Quarterly — 59:1)

Conclusion On Timing

Considering the above, I conclude that:

(1) Any of the elements about timing of the First Vision present little to question if Joseph experienced the First Vision as he described it. His subsequent behavior demonstrates it was to him for a long time a private event. Given that it was, it is unlikely evidence from any other quarter would be sufficient to change the timing for it that he outlined.

(2) That does not mean elements of his memories might have happened at other times. I find the ability to find such realism in accounts to be greater evidence for their truth than for their untruth. The ability to “walk into” such stories, as I have written elsewhere, and find supporting evidence and multiple perspectives provides greater support, not less.

I am not disturbed by the multiple differing accounts of the Savior’s life in the Gospels; I feel the same way about the multiple accounts of the First Vision and other supporting narratives.

Finding One’s Voice as a Prophet

Ms. Tave’s analysis of Joseph’s early revelations as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants was insightful to me. I have noticed, but not analyzed the changes in voicing that occur through them. Through this analysis, I have come to appreciate what a weight Joseph likely had to take on to speak in the name of the Lord.

Section 1 and 2: The Lord’s Voice is Very Clear

The Doctrine and Covenants is a collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations, most ordered chronologically. Section 1, though, placed as a Preface to the book, was not recorded until 1831 by which time Joseph had recorded about 70 total revelations.

Although the revelation does not contain the name Jesus Christ, it is clearly him that is speaking, similar to other revelations received before 1832. And the directness of it is some of the most forceful language in any of the revelations that the words written are God’s. It begins in a very strong voice:

Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.

For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated….

Behold, this is mine authority, and the authority of my servants, and my preface unto the book of my commandments, which I have given them to publish unto you, O inhabitants of the earth.

Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Section 1 verses 1, 2 and 6.

The section concludes with a very strong statement from the Lord about the ability of Joseph to speak in his name:

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

D&C Section 1:38

Section 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants is an extract of Moroni’s scriptural discourse to Joseph in his Second Vision in 1823, wherein Moroni’s quotes Malachi 4:5-6. It is interesting to consider if Joseph through this observed someone speaking in the Lord’s name for the first time.

Section 3: A Tentative Voices

But Joseph did not start his revelations in this voice, as Ms. Taves points out. Section 3 was recorded in July 1828. Ms. Taves notes:

If we look at the first recorded revelation, which Smith proclaimed in July 1828 in the wake of the loss of the manuscript, we find that the speaker does not disclose its identity. It addresses Smith directly in the first person but refers to God and the Lord in the third person. The speaker refers ambiguously to “my People the Nephities [sic] and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Lamanites.”

Ann Taves

For example, the first reference chronologically to the name Jesus Christ is found in this section, but it is in 3rd person in the last verse:

And that the Lamanites…may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved. Amen.

D&C 3:20

Also, the section contains a statement where the speaker identifies very clearly who the revelation is directed to, but unlike later passages, it does not identify the speaker by name.

Behold, thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.

But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work;

D&C 3:9-10

Ms. Taves attempts to make the case that Joseph might have thought the person speaking in this revelation might have been Moroni or Nephi, one of the ancient Nephite Prophets.

Although an interesting idea, it triggers in me the thought that it likely required a great deal of confidence for Joseph to write and speak in the voice of the Lord; something he did not take on lightly. This view is supported, I think, in the next two revelations.

Sections 4 and 5: Growing Confidence

Section 4 was received seven to eight months later, in February 1829. This relatively short section is an exhortation to serve God. The nature of the message is not one that demands a clear speaker identify.

Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.

Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C Section 4:2-3

Yet the voice is strong and more direct than section 3.

Section 5 moves even further, but not yet to full voice. It was given the following month, in March 1829. It begins with a stronger statement of who is speaking, but without identifying directly who the speaker is:

Behold, I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., have got the plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me;

D&C Section 5:1

The next verse becomes even stronger in the identification, naming the Lord, God:

And now, behold, this shall you say unto him—he who spake unto you, said unto you: I, the Lord, am God, and have given these things unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and have commanded you that you should stand as a witness of these things;

D&C Section 5:2

Even with this growing clarity of identifying who is speaking, this section does not name Jesus Christ as the speaker.

Section 6: The Full Voice of Jesus Christ

By April 1829, in the fourth revelation Joseph has written, the voice of who is speaking becomes clear and unambiguous. In verse 2 it is unmistakable: “Behold, I am God.” But in verse 20 it becomes even more definite, in a passage that is echoed in many subsequent revelations, building on the tentative identification in Section 3:

Behold, thou art Oliver, and I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires; therefore treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I am the same that came unto mine own, and mine own received me not. I am the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.

D&C 6:20-21

This voice is clear through all the remaining revelations Joseph and his successors published. (Note that the voice changes in other sections that are headed as visions, minutes, prayers, and epistles).

Conclusion

I’ve learned through this analysis to consider how elements of our stories might be affected by time, but also how we can find elements of our own growth through things recorded over time. I accept the dating of Joseph’s First Vision as happening in the spring of 1820 (and with a sense that perhaps God enjoys providing evidence of the order in the universe, it might have been on April 6th); but I think the impact of it and the responsibility due to it dawned upon him slowly.

Thanks for reading. I’d love any impressions this might have generated.

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