How Joseph Smith’s FIRST VISION Became a Battleground – powered by Happy Scribe
Hey, everybody, and welcome to Saturday divers, where we dive into the words of ancient and modern prophets. My name is Will Perez and when I was in high school at 10th grade, I remember sitting in the back of my European history class and we got to this part of our textbook that mentioned the Mormon migration out of Europe. And I remember the teacher out of nowhere just saying, yeah, we’re going to skip this, don’t worry about it.
They were really weird. They believe in something called The Book of Moron.
And the class laughed and I kind of regret this, I slunk back into my seat, embarrassed when really I wanted to stand up, grab that little man and say, excuse me.
But I didn’t this experience, though, gave me my first real taste of the battleground that is Latter-Day Saint Religion and theology, people on both sides say and write and do nasty things on this battleground. What is the ground zero for the battleground? Well, I would argue that it’s Joseph Smith’s first vision where it all started. Stephen Harper writes that today the vision is a battleground. People negotiate their identities and relationships relative to it as they join or leave the church as they fight for or against the faith.
Today, I just want to dive into the history of the first vision and how it went from being barely shared to becoming a do or die battleground from members of the church. I’m basically going to be walking you through and relying heavily on a great article written by Stephen Harper published in BYU Studies Quarterly entitled Raising the Stakes How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Became All or Nothing. I’ll be using the same eight time categories and titles that Stephen Harper uses, and the full article is linked below.
For anyone that wants the entire read, it’s great. But for those that don’t have that kind of time, if you’re ready, let’s dive. And don’t forget to like the video.
Subscribe to the channel and come back soon for more robust Dovolani Password’s Di di di. The reality is that in the early days of the church, Joseph didn’t share his vision very often from his first attempt to do so with a Methodist minister. We read that he was taken lightly, treated with great contempt and accused of having received revelations from the devil this turn into bitter persecution. People ridiculed him, called him a liar and said he was crazy. Now, he didn’t deny his vision, but it seems that in at least some circles, he learned to shut up about it pretty quick.
Can you blame him? Anyone that’s ever tried to get a teenage boy to bear a heartfelt testimony or share a prayer in seminary can maybe understand why Joseph, a teenage boy, would be hesitant to share this sacred experience, especially considering the persecution he received when he did. Joseph seemed a lot more comfortable printing thousands of copies of the Book of Mormon and publishing the revelations Lord had given to him in the doctrine and covenants. But these were different. He was only the translator and recipient of these, not the actual protagonist.
Harper writes that for much of the time between the vision and the recording of his manuscript history beginning in 1838, Joseph Smith felt torn between revealing and concealing his vision. This began to change when, in the summer of 1832, Sidney Rigdon claimed that God had taken Joseph’s power and authority and placed it upon Sidney. Oh, this place, Joseph, in a position where he had to reiterate and teach the Saints that he alone held the keys and prophetic call of this dispensation.
In this context, it seems he decided to start telling a story, beginning with the first vision. Joseph began writing in eighteen thirty two biography with his counselor and scribe, Frederick G. Williams. And even then you can sense his insecurity and self-consciousness when he tries to write about himself. However, around the same time in the early thirties, he did verbally start sharing his first vision with friends and believers. It seemed easier for him to speak about than to write about.
In fact, evidence shows that he shared this more often than we previously even thought. After the Saints horrible experience in Missouri, Joseph sat down and penned the official 1838 account we generally use today. He was tired of the lies and the rumors and the persecutions the Saints were experiencing, and he intended to put all enquirers after truth in possession of the facts.
Elder Orson Prad was the first to publish an account of Jesus first vision. He really got the ball rolling as far as having it circulated in print. Harper writes that in the 19th century, no one worked harder or more effectively than Orson Pratt to make Latter-Day Saints aware of the vision and install it as their founding event. Pratt is credited with coining the term first vision in 1849, and he preached about it often, even though it wasn’t the universal message being taken to the world by the apostles.
In 1850, one elder, Franklin D. Richards, published The Pearl of Great Price for the Saints in Europe. It wasn’t considered official canonised scripture, but it circulated widely and contained Joseph’s 1838 account of the first vision. It wasn’t until three decades later General Conference October 1880 that President Joseph Smith Nephi to Joseph Smith and counselor to church President John Taylor proposed and submitted that the pearl of great price be officially canonized and recognized as scripture. The Saints unanimously consented, and we had the beginnings of a narrative that was recognized by and embraced by the community of Saints as a whole.
Harper notes that before this, John Taylor, who, by the way, was present during the martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram and penned the beautiful tribute to Joseph Indigency one thirty five, actually spoke very little about the first vision. But after 1880, influenced by Orson Pratt and the Pearl of Great Price, he began speaking very specifically in sermons about the beauty and significance of the first vision and.
Did you know that in the early nineteen hundreds, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints was basically put on trial before the United States Senate because Reed Smoot, an LDS apostle, was elected to the Senate and Christian evangelicals and others around the nation just lost it. Although Smoot did not practice plural marriage, the major issue that the church was investigated for was whether or not it continued to practice and endorse plural marriage after the 1890 manifesto supposedly ended it.
Spoiler alert, they kind of did a waps. A long story short, the church passed. Joseph Smith, now president of the church, was even called in to testify before the Senate committee hearings, and he took major steps to help the church align with prophetic direction and make sure that it would fully and completely leave plural marriage in the past. And Reed Smoot was allowed to retain his seat in the Senate. If you want an amazing read on this, you’ve got to check out Kathleen Flake’s book, The Politics of American Religious Identity.
The seating of Senator Reid smoothed the way Flake describes it, because so many saints had sacrificed so much to accept the principle of plural marriage and to live it as revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith ending it threatened to tear the church apart and shake the people’s faith in prophetic authority and revelation. Joseph Smith essentially helped the church transition into the new century by teaching them the importance of the first vision and shifting their focus away from Joseph’s last revelation to his first one.
The first vision was the pre-eminent event of the latter days, and it was always the first vision that was intended to be the unifying event for Gods and to the nation’s not plural marriage. President Joseph Smith succeeded in helping the church navigate through this rocky period. On the one hundredth anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth, he dedicated a beautiful, massive monument to Joseph that commemorated and tied him distinctly to his experience. In the first vision, they visited church history sites like the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the Smith farmhouse in Palmyra and the Sacred Grove.
They didn’t go to Nauvoo, which was notorious for plural marriage. In fact, Joseph Smith would later teach that the greatest crime that Joseph Smith was guilty of was the crime of confessing the great fact that he had heard the voice of God and the voice of his son, Jesus Christ, speaking to him in childhood, that he saw those heavenly beings standing above him in the air of the woods where he went out to pray. That is the worst crime he committed and the world has held it against him.
It all goes back to the first vision.
I’ll summarize this one by saying that in the earlier part of the 20th century, there was a lot of drama at Brigham Young University as the faculty diversified and the university grew, some philosophy started to creep into the school that were contrary to its spiritual priorities and its mission of fostering faith. Some teachers, for the sake of academics, would actually tear down portions of the restored gospel, such as like saying that the first vision was more of a mentor suggestion that an actual historical event.
There is a great controversy over this and ultimately three teachers were fired and others resigned or didn’t renew their contracts with the school. In 1938, President Jay Rubin Clarke, counselor to then church president Highbridge Grant, threw down and delivered the iconic address, entitled The Charted Course of the Church. And Education began to be published and circulated and spread like wildfire, and church intellectuals quickly divided themselves into liberal and conservative camps. In his message, Clark drew a polarizing line around Orthodoxy and talked about two prime things that could never be overlooked, shaded, forgotten or discarded.
The first was that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he was crucified and rose again as the savior of the world. In Brother Clark’s own words. The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is that the father and son, actually, and in truth and very deed, appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods. He essentially went on to say that, Hey, we love you and we’re here for you.
But if you don’t have a full blown conviction of the reality of Joseph Smith’s first vision, then we cannot have you be a teacher for the youth and young adults in this church.
By making the first vision, one of the fundamentals of the faith, Clark drew the battleground lines more clearly than ever before. Shortly after President Clark’s message scholar Dale Morgan would begin his study and research into the accounts of the first vision, he noticed the discrepancy between one of Joseph’s early historical manuscripts of the account and some early letters by Oliver Cowdery that basically led him to conclude that Joseph made up the first vision account. Now, this was a valid conclusion based on the resources that Morgan had, but it’s important to know that sources discovered after the fact would eventually prove him wrong on that point.
However, in 1945, Von Browdy, a protege of Morgan’s and actually the niece of David McKay, published her biography on Joseph Smith entitled No Man Knows My History. She was pretty anti Mormon, and she elaborated on what simplified Morgan’s claims and basically concluded that Jesus first vision was a half remembered dream induced by anxiety. Forn wasn’t a great scholar when it comes to sources or historical accuracy.
Oh, embarrassing, disgusting and pathetic.
I bet nobody likes her, but her book did really well and because she was able to make the argument accessible and appealing, people ate it up both in and out of the church. So this kicked off the theory that Joseph’s first vision account was an evolving story that he continually added to as time went by. By the way, I love Helda scholar Hugh Niblets response to Fawn Brodie sloppy research. Given that her book was titled No Man Knows, My History Niblets response was called No, ma’am, that’s not history, Pough.
Harper writes that Brody’s book began a war of words, it had to be refuted, the sacred narrative of the people was at stake. Basically, we begin a period where mainly scholars started engaging in polemics or strong verbal or written attacks in defense of or in opposition to the first vision, and unfortunately, we become more and more aware that there are sources of Joseph Smith’s first vision accounts that for whatever reason, well intentioned or foolish, are being held back from the public and not allowed to make their way into the narrative.
Oh, I don’t enjoy that. That’s a true thing. So anyway. The battle ground intensified when church president David Omic told the Latter day Saints to proclaim to the world that the church is divinely established by the appearance of God, the father and his son, Jesus Christ to the prophet Joseph Smith. Harpa writes that by 1970, there were over two million members of the church to new primary accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision and a newly contested historiography about the first vision narrative in the fall of nineteen sixty seven.
Reverend Wesley Walters published his article entitled New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra, New York, in which he skillfully argued that based on all the sources he had scoured, he didn’t find any evidence of a major religious revival in Palmyra around the time that Joseph claimed to have had his first vision. So therefore, Joseph’s entire narrative and claim of a divine encounter was put on shaky ground. Walters rightfully concluded that because of his research, any student of Mormon history would be forced to reconsider the reliability of Joseph’s vision story.
Ouch. Well, this lit a fire under emerging LDS scholars and they rushed vigorously onto the battleground names like James Allen and Richard Bushman and Paul Cheesman and Truman Madsen, who in 1968 wrote to President David Omakase saying The first vision has come under severe historical attack. Cheesman would uncover yet another account of the first vision that bolstered its historicity. And this whole process actually led us to become more informed and knowledgeable and confident in our position about the first vision.
Richard Bushman wrote that without wholly considering it, Mr. Walters may have done as much to advance the cause of Mormon history within the church as anyone in recent years.
Thank you. You’re welcome. In fact, at a symposium at Southern Illinois University in 1968, Truman, Madison and Wesley Walters crossed paths and eyeing his name tag, Madson says. So you’re the one who dropped the bomb on BYU. The two struck up a conversation and Madsen thanked Walters, saying they’re giving us all the money. We want to find answers for you. Despite all this scholarly warfare, Harper writes that Wesley Walters landmark attempts to undermine the first vision and the major responses to him by LDS historians didn’t do much to raise the stakes of the first vision because these weren’t generally accessible to mainstream members of the church.
The new records and the historical sources and arguments were waiting for the information age to unleash their true potential. Now, here we are, many more books continued to be published and digested, and then in 2002, church president Gordon B. Hinckley emphatically reiterated, we declare without equivocation that God, the father and his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person, that the boy, Joseph Smith.
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud.
If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens. My job.
Then the internet actually starts becoming a thing. Harper writes that apologetic websites situated new knowledge in support of the collective memory, adding complexity and resolving dissonance with little disruption, critical sites selected and related information in ways that undermined the standard story. Bloggers and bloggers and tweeters and trolls weighed in, some posing as objective analysts, others blatantly bipartisan. Some members were excited about all the new information and studies regarding the first vision it served to strengthen their faith and testimony.
On the other hand, some members felt shocked and betrayed. They felt that these things had been hidden and that they were lied to. Either way, the information age is allowing for the church to be more transparent than ever to share more of its accurate historical sources and records than ever before, making them available to anyone who’s interested in studying them or learning about it for themselves. The Joseph Smith Papers Project officially started putting everything online, thank goodness, because their books are super expensive.
I only have one. In October 2013, all the known historical accounts of the first vision were published together in a new Open Access website, Joseph Smith Papers Dug in November 2013, the church published the essay entitled First Vision Accounts on LDS Dog, which addressed all the issues raised throughout the years. Then in 2016, elder M. Russell Ballard told religious educators that gone are the days when a student raises a sincere question and the teacher says, don’t worry about it, or they have an honest concern and the teacher bears a testimony and moves on.
Basically, he said, because of the information age, our students are now living on the battleground. And he challenged us to get to know the gospel topics essays and familiarize ourselves with them. Like the back of our hand. In twenty eighteen, the church published Saints Volume one, the first of a four part narrative history of the church, full of amazing stories and a treasure trove of accurate sources.
April twenty twenty President Russell and Nelson introduced to the world the proclamation on the restoration of the Fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ Bicentennial Proclamation to the world with a heavy emphasis on Joseph Smith’s first vision and prophetic mission. Can you connect the dots? Harper writes that in the end, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints did not choose only to tell the old story in new ways, nor only to maintain unequivocally that Joseph Smith saw God and Christ in the Grove in 1820, nor only to emphasize the spiritual message in the historical record.
It chose instead to do all these and more.
I personally am fascinated by this history, and I hope you found it interesting as well. The first vision is a battleground. So much rests on its validity. Where do you stand? What will you decide? I leave you with the statement from the Gospel Topics essay on the first vision accounts. Joseph Smith testified repeatedly that he experienced a remarkable vision of God, the father and his son, Jesus Christ. Neither the truth of the first vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone.
Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God insincere, humble prayer whether the record is true. If the seeker asks with real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest. I know it will. Thank you so much for diving with me today. I feel like this was a little more intense than usual, but thank you for being on the channel.
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