We are soon approaching the year when weâ€™ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth. As we do so, we should also reflect back on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the legacy of that extraordinarily chaotic period. In The Politics of American Religious Identity, Kathleen Flake vividly illustrates that in 1904 and 1905, the Church was in the midst of deep and grave crisis. Under political duress, two apostles were being excommunicated for involvement with post-Manifesto polygamy. Church leaders in Arizona were arrested for polygamy. One Charles Mostyn Owen, a detective, had posed in temple clothing for the national press. There were rumblings of a federal constitutional amendment aimed at finally stamping out any vestige of polygamy. Perhaps most difficult for the faith of the Saints was that in the face of heated cross-examination from the Senate committee investigating the Smoot issue, President Joseph F. Smith was perceived to have publicly dissembled, if not to have outright lied, about his knowledge of post-Manifesto polygamy. Even more disillusioning for some Saints was President Smith’s testimony to the Senate committee that â€œI have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations. I never said I had a revelation except so far as God has shown to me that so-called Mormonism is Godâ€™s divine truth; that is all.â€? The Smoot hearings had generated an apparent no-win situation for the Church: to satisfy the increasingly vociferous demands of the nation, the Church had to take positions that the membership saw as a betrayal; and to keep up the spirit and faith of the Saints, the Church would risk losing everything. What to do?
One thing the Church did was to reconnect with it earliest origins. It was in this tumultuous era that, for the first time, the First Vision was understood and promoted as a central, theologically significant event in the restoration. In a sense, it replaced polygamy as Mormonism’s link to a robust notion of revelation. As Flake explains: â€œIn the First Vision, Joseph F. Smith had found a marker of Latter-day Saint identity whose pedigree was as great as — and would be made greater than — that of plural marriage for the twentieth-century Latter-day Saintsâ€? (118). The new emphasis shifted focus from Joseph Smithâ€™s latest revelation to his first. It was a way to maintain a sense of real religious difference, even as the Kingdom became one of many mere churches in pluralistic American society. And crucially, the reorientation toward the First Vision â€œchanged the arena of confrontation over difference from social action to theological beliefâ€? — a necessity in the wake of Reynolds.
One of the more tangible manifestations of this shift in orientation was the Church’s decision to purchase the site in Windsor County, Vermont, where Joseph Smith was born, and construct the Joseph Smith Monument. I visited the Joseph Smith Monument a few years ago, on the way back to New York from a road trip to Maine. The site is quite out of the way; even the tiny town of Sharon is several miles away. The surrounding countryside is heavily forested, but the grounds were as well-groomed as any temple site. There are several buildings (a chapel, a home, and a visitors center, as I recall) staffed by smiling senior couples from Payson or Panguitch, of course. In the heart of the compound is the 38 and 1/2 foot tall marble obelisk, with scriptures inscribed at the base. There are markers showing the site of the log cabin the Smith family lived in, and the site of Solomon Mack’s farmhouse. When we were there, we had the place to ourselves, and I doubt that there are ever more than a handful of visitors each day. I’m sure there aren’t many Mormons in the surrounding country. All of which could lead one to question: Why? Why spend all the money and effort to maintain a rather extensive compound that few Mormons will ever see, and few non-Mormons will ever care about? Why celebrate a spot where the Smith family lived for only three years before moving on? Why an austere obelisk? Flake provides some answers to these kinds of questions. She writes:
“The effort to celebrate the legacy of Joseph Smith was meant to signal that the movement he founded had both the intentions and the resources necessary to carry on and to do so on a grand scale.
“Of course, this message was intended for those critics who declared that ‘the Smoot case will abolish Mormonism without war.’ Yet the outside world was not Joseph F. Smithâ€™s only audience. The monument to Joseph Smith also sent a message to the believing but demoralized Latter-day Saints. It was serendipitous that the centennial of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth occurred when the faithful needed something to celebrate — particularly to celebrate Joseph Smith as first in a succession of modern prophets. That Joseph F. Smith seized this occasion is remarkable for two reasons. First, the church was generally defensive about accusations that it worshipped Joseph Smith, not Jesus Christ, and celebration of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth could support such charges. This may have been a contributing factor to the monumentâ€™s design, which was not of Smithâ€™s face or form, but an obelisk. Second, for its first celebration of Joseph Smith outside the Mormon culture region, the church chose an occasion unrestrained by any theological or ecclesiastical associations except those the dedication party would bring with them. Memorialization of a birth is, after all, the blankest of slates upon which to write retrospective meanings. The monument erected in Vermont was susceptible to embodying not only the nature and permanence of the Latter-day Saintsâ€™ claims about their founding prophet, but their claims about the nature and permanence of their church. These claims were both inclusive and exclusive. The dedication ceremony celebrated the Latter-day Saintsâ€™ identity with, as well as their difference from, their host nationâ€? (112).
It’s an interesting analysis, from a terrific book, and we’re looking forward to Professor Flake participating here. If you have any questions for her, please post them here.
Greg, one of the things I’m interested in is whether and how Saints perceived this shift in emphasis, from polygamy to the First Vision. I think Flake’s analysis is quite convincing in hindsight, but I can’t help wondering how it would have felt at the time, how consciously (if at all) the change was made by leaders, and how members reacted.
I think a similar shift in emphasis happened with the increased emphasis on Mormonism’s Christian-ness and the “Come Unto Christ” campaign (if it’s not too crass to call it that) in the late 80s and early 90s. I was graduated from high school the year President Benson gave the first “Come Unto Christ” talk, and I often feel like my sister, who is 12 years younger than I am, came of age in a different church. I don’t mind, really, and I think the changes are salutory, but there’s also some nagging sense of dislocation. I can’t imagine that that sense wouldn’t have been very pronounced among Saints who lived through the manifesto(s).
All of which could lead one to question: Why? Why spend all the money and effort to maintain a rather extensive compound that few Mormons will ever see, and few non-Mormons will ever care about? Why celebrate a spot where the Smith family lived for only three years before moving on? Why an austere obelisk?
I appreciate and agree with Flake’s analysis of some possible answers to this question.
I would also add some perspective by asking, why not? If the Restored Gospel is true, which I believe it is, then the message is very grand indeed. Joseph Smith is a great man and as a prophet of God merits our veneration. He was instrumental in God’s hands in instituting a great work. The obelisk is poetically significant in this sense. Shipping it out there and dedicating it was like a finger in the eye of those who were smugly congratulating themselves with words such as those quoted above: “the Smoot case will abolish Mormonism without war.” It is a symbol of overcoming adversity–and not merely the kind of adversity that this life’s chaos throws at you, but rather a sinister and calculated adversity made of men and under which many of our ancestors suffered tremendously. The experience of the pioneers being forced out of their homes in Nauvoo and moving into the great unknown of the mid-19th century west, literally burying their dead along the way, is not just some quaint story for a primary class. It is a history of immeasurable suffering by many individuals. The fact that 100 years after the birth of JS, the Church was firmly established in the Rocky Mountains (where JS prophesied it would be) and capable of bringing that monument east was a sign of strength in adversity. It is true that it might have been precipitated by the low morale occasioned by the events of 1904-1905. But its meaning, from my perspective, runs far deeper than a political play or morale booster.
I have heard that the obelisk is made of the same granite as the Salt Lake temple. Is that true? If so, it adds another dimension to this “overcoming” theme. . . .
Kristine, your comment implies that there wasn’t an emphasis on Christ before the “campaign.” I fundamentally disagree. Christ is the whole point of the Book of Mormon and is central to JS’s work and teachings as a prophet.
Also, when Flake describes a “shift” in emphasis, I think that can be misleading. It creates the impression, even if not expressly stated, that the Latter-day Saints were not talking about the First Vision before that time. I would venture that the First Vision has always figures into people’s conversion experiences to the Restored Gospel. It is true that such a “shift” is only natural when the other big conduct and lifestyle-oriented teaching is abolished because the emphasis naturally falls on doctrine that is still effective. But the nomenclature of “shift” just invokes the wrong idea; your ancestors and mine were taught the First Vision in their road to conversion just like people today learn about it as they investigate the Gospel. To that extent, I would be interested in some more information on Flake’s perspective of what exactly she means by talking about a “shift” towards teaching the First Vision and whether she has addressed these implications of that nomenclature.
It’s been over twenty years since I was at the JS birthplace, but my recollection is that it was quarried somewhere locally.
There’s plenty of granite in those hills of Vermont.
Mark B., fair enough. I had just heard that and, if it were true, it would be neat. What I had heard specifically is that the obelisk was created in SLC and shipped by rail back east.
A further response about the provenance of the granite for the memorial: It was quarried in Barre, Vermont, according to the following website. (I have no idea how to put a link in here.)
Mark B., thanks. I wonder if there is some other monument back east that was created in SLC and shipped back there by rail?
My understanding is that the First Vision was not emphasized in the early days of the restoration. To my knowledge it was not broadly published until about 1838. The only reference to it in the Doctrine & Covenants is an obscure one, D&C 20:5. I don’t recall seeing a single reference to it in Brigham Young’s sermons (but I do not claim to have read everything he said or wrote). Certainly those who joined the Church before about 1838 did so largely based on the Book of Mormon and the visit of Moroni.
Are you aware of emphasis in the early days of the Restoration of the First Vision?
“I fundamentally disagree.”
Of course you do–*I* said it. Sorry I wasn’t more careful and academic and long-winded–of course I meant to say that there was *increased* emphasis, and I did not mean to imply that we weren’t Christian before or anything of the sort. Please assume that I write as a believing and committed and practicing Mormon, and that I’m not out to undermine the fundamental doctrines of the church every time I open my mouth. Please.
I think ”shift in emphasis” is precisely the right terminology to talk about such things–it implies that they were part of the fabric of Mormonism before, but that they become more prominent and more salient in the day-to-day teaching of the Church at some point in history. I can’t quite see how that’s a problem, unless you’re committed to the notion that the doctrines contained in the current correlated lesson manuals were handed down from the sky with no need of human interpretation and have never varied.
As far as the First Vision in teaching investigators, that has waxed and waned in prominence even over the last half-century. The First Vision was the first and most important thing my dad was told to teach about; in the discussions I learned, it came a bit later. I haven’t checked out the latest iteration of the lessons, maybe somebody can offer a data point there.
The new “Preach My Gospel” plan for teaching investigators leaves the order of the lessons to determination by the missionaries, as they are led, one hopes, by the Spirit.
I remember being taught the same thing (in the early ’70’s): that we could vary the order of the lessons if the needs of the investigators suggested it. I don’t remember ever doing it, though.
John: “Your ancestors and mine were taught the First Vision in their road to conversion just like people today learn about it as they investigate the Gospel.”
I don’t think this is a viable assumption. There’s a bunch of scholarly literature on the history and communication of the the First Vision accounts, and as I recall it wasn’t until Nauvoo that the account became commonly known. I don’t know about your ancestors, but mine (from the accounts I have read) were converted by the merits of the Book of Mormon. In fact, one of my ancestors, Parley Pratt, wrote an fairly extensive missionary tract attempting to sum up the restoration (“Voice of Warning”) and the First Vision is not mentioned. That isn’t a challenge to the veracity of the vision, just evidence of a concrete and identifiable shift in how we tell our story.
David, are you claiming that converts from the very beginning weren’t taught that JS saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in response to his prayer and that they told him to join no Church, for they are all wrong, just because you haven’t seen reference to the “First Vision” as taught by modern-day LDS missionaries in some of BY’s writings or in the D&C? I know that a key focus in the early missionary effort was explanation of Moroni and the coming forth of the BoM, but that is also inextricably connected with JS’s calling as a prophet and his vision.
Greg, there is no doubt that the BoM was the primary tool in the early missionary effort. What I find hard to believe is that, in addition to preaching the BoM, early missionaries remained quiet about JS being called as a prophet and his seeing God and Jesus. What I meant with the statement that your ancestors as well as mine learned of JS’s calling and vision on their road to conversion is that as they discussed the Gospel with missionaries and other Latter-day Saints, the issue would have come up and it would have necessitated their receiving a testimony of it.
I know that things weren’t as institutionalized back then as they are now with correlation. I am also aware of the various versions of the first vision. But I find it likely that the experience was discussed in some form with converts even in the early days. The “early days” as I use it here also includes the Nauvoo period, Greg.
An ancestor of mine, Benjamin Brown, baptized in 1835 (by William E. M’Lellin!), published in 1853 an account of the “testimonies for the truth” that he had received both before and after his baptism. He writes of the restoration of the ancient truths of Christianity, the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit (particularly tongues and healing and prophecy) and he writes of the Book of Mormon. There is no mention of the First Vision.
We’re moving on from “All Indians walk in single file–at least the one I saw did” to “All Indians etc, etc., at least the two I saw did.” A great improvement in the weight of the argument.
John Fowles seems very convinced that early converts must have been taught about the first vision, even if it wasn’t emphasized as much as it is now. I’m not sure why he’s so convinced, it seems entirely possible to me that the story just wasn’t widely known. Maybe Kathleen Flake can shed some more light on this when she comes ’round.
I am looking forward to reading your article on the Magic Flute in the BYU Studies I received yesterday.
My understanding is that in the early days of the Restoration, the First Vision was not widely taught or widely known. Or perhaps, put more precisely, there is no evidence of which I am aware that the First Vision was widely taught or known among converts to the Church before Joseph recorded and published it. My understanding is that even after the publication, this was not heavily emphasized–perhaps it was viewed as Joseph’s personal conversion/rebirth experience, as distinct from an event of historic, worldwide significance.
I would welcome evidence to the contrary.
I was wrong in my earlier post about 1838 being the first date of publication of an account of the First Vision.
“Although no published reports of the First Vision appeared during the 1820s and 1830s, the Prophet included descriptions of his sacred experience in the grove in all four accounts of the rise of the restored Church which he wrote or dictated during the ten year span from 1832 to 1842. And when Joseph published for the first time two different versions of the history of the Church (a brief sketch and then a more detailed history) in 1842, he included in both accounts a description of this vision.”
According to the article, “[t]he earliest known written account of the First Vision was included in an autobiography Joseph wrote in 1832.”
Milton V. Backman Jr., â€œJoseph Smithâ€™s Recitals of the First Vision,â€? Ensign, Jan. 1985, 8
To me the issue isn’t really how or when Joseph told his story in his journals or personal correspondence — it is what it is, and I think there are good explanations as to why Joseph was hesitant to publicly lead out with the First Vision rather than the Book of Mormon. I’m more interested in when the First Vision actually became widely known among the Saints, and when it became appreciated as an immensely significant theological event. Here is James Allen’s article on these issues. He concludes that the First Vision was not widely known until 1842, when the Wentworth letter was published in that other Times and Seasons.
“What I find hard to believe is that, in addition to preaching the BoM, early missionaries remained quiet about JS being called as a prophet and his seeing God and Jesus. What I meant with the statement that your ancestors as well as mine learned of JSâ€™s calling and vision on their road to conversion is that as they discussed the Gospel with missionaries and other Latter-day Saints, the issue would have come up and it would have necessitated their receiving a testimony of it”
I don’t believe that anybody has suggested that the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith was not discussed with investigators/converts during the Kirtland/Missouri/Nauvoo periods. The suggestion is merely that the First Vision did not occupy the place in the teaching that it generally does today.
One additional light to shed on the question may be that the Church was just one among many that claimed to be a restoration of primitive Christianity. One group, well-known to Mormons because it was the source of Sidney Rigdon, the Pratts, etc., was the Campbellites. Given that the notion of a return to primitive Christianity was not unheard of in that era, one can understand why accounts of the First Vision may not have been necessary then as a starting point to discuss the restoration.
As far as I have found the emphasis in the 19th century was on the Book of Mormon and the angel that appeared to Joseph.
But as it was in the days of our Savior, so was it in the advent of this new dispensation. It was not in accordance with the notions, traditions, and pre-conceived ideas of the American people. The messenger did not come to an eminent divine of any of the so-called orthodoxy, he did not adopt their interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith Jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.
(Journal of Discourses, 1855 2: 171.) Brigham Young
The Gospel has gone forth in our day in its true glory, power, order, and light, as it always did when God had a people among men that He acknowledged. That same organization and Gospel that Christ died for, and the Apostles spilled their blood to vindicate, is again established in this generation. How did it come? By the ministering of an holy angel from God, out of heaven, who held converse with man, and revealed unto him the darkness that enveloped the world, and unfolded unto him the gross darkness that surrounded the nations, those scenes that should take place in this generation, and would follow each other in quick succession, even unto the coming of the Messiah.
(Journal of Discourses, Wilford Woodruff 1855, 2: 197.)
Some one may say, “If this work of the last days be true, why did not the Saviour come himself to communicate this intelligence to the world?” Because to the angels was committed the power of reaping the earth, and it was committed to none else.
(Journal of Discourses, Orson Hyde (1854) 6: 335.)
Joseph Smith had attended these meetings, and when this result was reached he saw clearly that something was wrong. He had read the Bible and had found that passage in James which says “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not,” and taking this literally, he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all these denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong,â€”they had all gone astray, transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant, and that the Lord was about to restore the priesthood and establish His Church, which would be the only true and living Church on the face of the whole earth.
(Journal of Discourses, George A. Smith (1863) 12: 334.)
Do you not think it would have been well for the Lord to have come down to consult our opinion about these things first? But he did not do it, and we knew nothing about it until the elders brought us word. Then we had nothing to do about it, did we? We knew nothing about it until God sent the messengers among us, did we? I think not. Did we know any more when we came here? Who of us knew how to build temples or thought about such thing? None. Who knew how to administer in them! None, not even Joseph or any other man, until God revealed it. We talk about being baptized for our dead; what avail would that have been if God had not directed it? Do you think, you are going into a Temple to accomplish anything except God direct it? No; what you might do would amount to nothing at all.
(Journal of Discourses, 20: 167 (1879) John Taylor
David wrote My understanding is that even after the publication, this was not heavily emphasizedâ€“perhaps it was viewed as Josephâ€™s personal conversion/rebirth experience, as distinct from an event of historic, worldwide significance.
This is reasonable. I just think it is likely that people talked about it, even if it didn’t occupy the role in formal teaching about the Restoration that it does today.
Marc D., thank you for that exposition. Very uplifting.
Maybe in retrospect it is more important than it was to the early church. I have to admit that when I hear of people seeing or talking to God, I donâ€™t even bat an eye. My reaction would be similar if I wasnâ€™t LDS. However, if someone told me that they had been called of God, received a book by an angel and translated it with the power of God, my interest would be perked. I might even read it.
I donâ€™t know how many people were â€œtalkingâ€? to God back in the day, but I imagine that not too many were doing what Joseph did.
I agree J. Stapley. It was not all that rare in the 18th and early 19th century for a person to be confused about religion or sorrowful for their sins, pray for relief, then have a heavenly vision in which they are granted forgiveness and called on a mission to preach the word. But even in those less modernist times, people just didn’t get books from angels.
Greg Call is right on track here. Richard Bushman has found that there were many contemporaries of Joseph Smith who reported visions of Jesus. What set Joseph apart was producing the Book of Mormon. Other visionaries immediately set themselves up as preachers. No others tried to present themselves as translators, a category the society reserved exclusively to learned divines in the Eastern cities or Europe. The First Vision was not seen as exceptional to Joseph’s contemporaries, but the Book of Mormon was, which is why early missionairies emphasized that rather than the First Vision. This will all be treated in detail in Richard’s forthcoming JS biography.
Note that the early missionairies DID teach that Joseph was a prophet. However, the sign of his prophetic calling was producing the Book of Mormon, not the First Vision experience as in the modern church.
Let me throw a little wrench into this mix. When I was on my mission in Norway many years ago I came across a group of Lutheran dissenters who followed the teachings of Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771- 1824). Hauge had a vision on 5 April 1796 (2 days after his 25th birthday) while working on his father’s farm (gee, does this sound familiar?) (the farm was in my first area near Sarpsborg) and received a commission from God to preach to the people of Norway and Denmark (they were all one country at that time). He is generally referred to as the “Renewer of the Church” for he went preaching everywhere about “the living faith,” the personal commitment to the Lord that transforms the believer’s life. He was imprisoned for his beliefs (this really sounds familiar). For more about Hauge see the following link: