Contemporaneous Reactions to the First Vision

We’ve all read about the first vision, and the negative reaction that many contemporaries had to Joseph Smith’s account. We read in the prophet’s words:

Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.

I remember learning about this, and forming an impression — I don’t recall the details, but it must have been in Sunday School or in Seminary — that the negative reaction had been because preachers at the time had never heard anything like Joseph’s story. It did not fit into their understanding of the world, and they rejected it as strange, unusual, or preposterous.

I’ve since, on occasion, had this idea reinforced. In various church class settings, the idea has been presented: Contemporaneous preachers had never heard anything like Joseph’s unique story. They were reacting reflexively to the unknown and unthinkable. Their defense mechanism was to cast him out and cast aspersions on him. It is an easy image for the mind to digest: A tranquil little middle-earth of peaceful hobbit preachers for whom nothing exciting ever happens, calmly repeating to themselves that the Heavens have been silent since the apostolic age, and suddenly being thrown into consternation by Joseph’s unexpected visitors.

I was a little surprised, then, when I later read Bushman’s account of Joseph Smith’s history. Bushman writes (at 58-59, emphasis added):

Joseph may not have recognized the ill repute of visionaries. The preacher reacted quickly, not because of the strangeness of Joseph’s story but because of its familiarity. Subjects of revivals all too often claimed to have seen visions. In 1825 a teacher in the Palmyra Academy said that he saw Christ [details of this and others] . . .
The visions themselves did not disturb the established clergy so much as the messages the visionaries claimed to receive. Too often the visions justified a breach of the moral code or a sharp departure in doctrine. By Joseph’s day, any vision was automatically suspect, whatever its content. . . The only acceptable message was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph’s report on the divine rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical [whom Joseph told about the vision].

It’s quite a different story than the conventional wisdom I had learned. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Also, it seems to lead to a potentially richer understanding of the First Vision.

Of course, the more correct understanding is easy to spin from both the Mormon and the anti-Mormon perspective. A believing member might think that prior tales of visions were set up by Satan, in order to make the First Vision more easily discredited. A skeptic might believe that Joseph was just parroting what he had heard about the experiences of others. And various middle ground positions exist as well. For example, perhaps Joseph’s expectations (after hearing about others) are what prompted God and Jesus to appear as they did.

12 comments for “Contemporaneous Reactions to the First Vision

  1. That is interesting, Kaimi, and makes a lot of sense. I take it you are drawing from Bushman’s book of 15 years ago. I had heard (perhaps on T&S) that he was producing another, more comprehensive work on Jospeh Smith. Does anybody know if that is correct?

  2. It would be interesting to see the source documents on which Bushman relies for this background. It certainly does seem to put a different context together.

  3. Joseph’s father was among those who had received visions, including, if I remember correctly, one similar to Lehi’s and Nephi’s tree of life dream. In my view, this is why, when Joseph reported to his father the visitation from Moroni, his father believed him.

    While one of Joseph’s concerns in praying for guidance was which interpretation of Christianity to follow by joining a Church, his real concern–in my opinion–was being saved by being forgiven of his sins (a sort of “born again” experience). The only reference I know of in the scriptures to the First Vision (outside the PofGP) is D&C 20:5, where the First Vision’s message of the forgiveness of Joseph’s sins is mentioned, but not the message to refrain from joining other churches. It is interesting that the Pearl of Great Price account mentions the instruction not to join a church, but not the forgiveness of Joseph’s sins. Perhaps this is because the forgiveness of sins was important to him personally, but the message of the apostasy had more universal importance (I believe Bushman makes this point also). The forgiveness of sins is mentioned in other accounts of the First Vision.

    Many of the ministers of those times were rationalists, and discounted revelations and visions. (Some of their concern may have been motivated by a justifiable fear of the “anarchy of revelation”, in Taylor Petrey’s words from another thread here.)But revelations and visions were not unheard of among the common people (along with, for some, an extreme supernaturalist or even, in Michael Quinn’s words “magic world view”). The easy acceptance of contemporaneous revelations and visions to individuals remains true today in certain populations today, even outside of our Church. As a missionary in Mexico 30 years ago, I met many who reported visions and revelations. My mother reported the same to me from her mission experiences over 50 years ago in the Northern States Mission.

  4. Frank:

    Yes, Richard Bushman is working on a history of Joseph Smith, scheduled to be published by Knopf next year.

    To address R. B.’s main point, I certainly don’t know enough about the state of Protestantism in western New York in the 1820’s to question his conclusion.

    A few points however . . .

    In the Church of Christ (an heir to the teaching of Alexander Campbell, although they’ll absolutely reject the label Campbellites), there is a well-developed argument for the closing of the canon and, at least among many of them, belief that God will speak only through the Bible, and that any claim to influence or inspiration from the Holy Spirit, outside the Bible, is false. For them the “that which is perfect” that Paul was speaking of in I Cor 13 is the completed canon (excluding the Apocrypha, of course) of the Bible, and that when that “perfect” thing came, the lesser gifts, such as visions and prophecies ceased. (I know, it’s hard to say it without a gasp.)

    Thus the Bible is become their iron rod with which they beat into conformity unruly humanity who would otherwise be wandering like lost sheep following supposed visions and revelations, etc.

    To the extent that preachers in Palmyra were of this school of thought, then any mention of an experience with the Spirit would be objected to strongly.

    Another end of the Protestant spectrum believes strongly in the gifts of the Spirit, including visions and tongues. For many, such an experience was necessary evidence of a person’s being saved, and was required before the person could be baptized. (This relies heavily on the “these signs shall follow them that believe” from the Great Commission.) If the Methodist preacher were of that school, then it seems likely that the content of the First Vision, and not just its occurrence, would have been the basis for his objection to it. (One difficulty with this interpretation is the language of the PoGP, which has the preacher saying “that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.”)

  5. Interesting that the new DVD of the first vision sent out with the Ensign eliminates the episode where darkness surrounds Joseph Smith and he almost despairs

  6. I saw the Restoration DVD on Friday night. I noted the following differences from the older First Vision movie with Stuart Peterson:

    1. No representation of the influence of the devil, as you mention.

    2. No attempt to physically represent the Father and the Son other than by a shaft of light.

    3. The stuff about the creeds being an abomination is left out.

    4. This one goes beyond the 1V to briefly introduce the BoM, organization of the Church and baptism.

  7. 1. No representation of the influence of the devil, as you mention.

    2. No attempt to physically represent the Father and the Son other than by a shaft of light.

    3. The stuff about the creeds being an abomination is left out.

    Since Joseph himself left one or more of these items out of his other accounts of the First Vision, I suppose I am not too disturbed by the omissions.

  8. Kevin,

    I’d have to go back and check, but I though they did represent the Father and the Son as literal personages, not just shafts of light. They were indistinct and bathed in light, but I though they were there. I make no promises, because I watche dit with my children and they are excellent distractions.

  9. Frank, you are correct: the Father and Son are personages but are indistinct (just watched it last night). I was disappointed that the scene of Joseph being bathed in darkness and escaping was not portrayed in the DVD because I find it essential to many peoples’ testimony to understand that Satan is working directly against the restoration.

    Kaimi, fascinating topic, thanks for starting this thread. I am more inclined to believe R Bushman’s take on the issue, but Mark B also makes some excellent points.

  10. It’s possible they were there; I saw it in a rather large room at Church. But I didn’t notice them. Did anyone else see it yet, and can report on whether there are bodies represented in the light?

  11. Yes, there are clearly two personages represented,in two different shots from different angles in fact.

    Did it bother anyone that the “revival” of religions in the movie occurs a full one year before the First Vision (the family is planting seeds, then a harvest and a winter comes and goes) when JS-H 1:5-7 is very clear that the revival happened in Joseph’s “fifteenth year”, meaning that it had to be occurring sometime in 1820, and not the spring before?

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