Practical Apologetics: The First Vision

It’s not surprising that the First Vision has become one of the faith issues that gets kicked around the Internet these days. Visions are personal experiences of one particular person, so little effort or justification is needed for a third party to doubt or disbelieve another’s account of a vision. Most Mormons find it easy enough ignore or reject visions recounted in other Christian traditions without much reflection. As Steven C. Harper notes, “It is vital to recognize that only Joseph Smith knows whether he experienced a vision in 1820. He was the only witness to what happened and therefore his own statements are the only direct evidence. All other evidence is hearsay.” [1] But if accepting or rejecting Joseph’s accounts of his vision is so straightforward, why has the First Vision become so contentious for some people? Let’s consider a few possibilities.

Late publication. The first published account of the First Vision appeared did not appear until early 1842. Known as the Wentworth Letter, it was published in the March 1842 issue of Times and Seasons (hence, “the 1842 account”). It is shorter than but quite similar to the canonized account in the Pearl of Great Price, the one most Mormons are familiar with and that missionaries of an earlier generation memorized word for word. That canonized account was written in 1838 (“the 1838 account”) as part of Joseph’s manuscript history, but not published until later in 1842, also in Times and Seasons.

The issue is whether the memory of an event that occurred 12 or 18 or 22 years earlier is reliable. As Fawn Brodie wrote of the 1838 account, Joseph “was writing not of his own life but of one who had already become the most celebrated prophet of the nineteenth century. And he was writing for his own people. Memories are always distorted by the wishes, thoughts, and, above all, the obligations of the moment.” [2] Even the recent Gospel Topics essay at “First Vision Accounts” acknowledges memory as an issue to be addressed, although the commentary there focuses on showing that the historical record, such as it is, does support Joseph’s report that there were religious revivals in his neighborhood just prior to his 1820 experience.

Embellishment. The essay at also addresses the charge of embellishment. “The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time.” For example, the 1832 account written in Joseph’s own hand refers to “the Lord” appearing to him in vision, whereas the other accounts describe two personages appearing, and in the 1835 account Joseph adds, “and I saw many angels in this vision.”

So do those differing details represent embellishment or simply variation in the recital of a prior event? It is true that some details appearing in one account are not noted in the other accounts. But it’s not really clear what is the standard of comparison. Identical accounts recorded years apart might be more indicative of misrepresentation than some variation in detail. How much variation versus how much similarity is permitted? The commentary finds harmony, not variation: “A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision.” As Richard Bushman notes, “One would expect variation in the simplest and truest story.” [3]

The Late Arrival of the 1832 Account. To a modern reader, the 1832 account is the most interesting. As commentary at the Joseph Smith Papers site explains, “JS’s circa summer 1832 history is the only narrative of the foundational spiritual events of JS’s early life that includes his own handwriting.” As the first account to be written, it is the closest in time to Joseph’s experience of the vision and it is in his own hand, not dictated. By standard historical reasoning, the 1832 account should be the most reliable source, Exhibit A in a case for Joseph’s reliability or at least sincerity.

But as recounted by Stan Larson in the most recent issue of Dialogue, the 1832 account was, at some point, hidden away in the President’s office safe for several decades before finally being published only in the late 1960s, and then only when forced to by adverse circumstances. [4] So the earliest written account of the First Vision, arguably the most reliable of the accounts we have, has only been publicly available for about 50 years. Even more puzzling, this most reliable account was apparently squirreled away for 30 years during mid-century rather than being made publicly available. More fuel for the “they lied to me!” crowd, but the Church is certainly not hiding it now.

Not a Necessary Pillar of Our Faith. The correlated gospel of the modern LDS Church gives prominent place to the First Vision in the story of the Restoration. Interestingly, that was not the story of the Restoration told in Joseph’s day. Indeed, clear through the 19th century the First Vision was not a central part in how the Restoration was recounted. As LDS historian James Allen put it, “the weight of evidence would suggest that it [the First Vision] was not a matter of common knowledge, even among church members, in the earliest years of Mormon History.” [5] Kathleen Flake recounts the emergence of the familiar “Joseph Smith story,” starting with the First Vision, during the first decades of the 20th century. She describes it as “not only a source of doctrine but as the modern L.D.S. Church’s master narrative.” [6]

All of this makes it clear that the central place of the First Vision in the LDS gospel is a somewhat recent development and does not in fact go back to the early years of the Church. The foundational place of the First Vision is a more recent shift in emphasis. An even more jarring perspective on the First Vision (for most modern Mormons) is suggested by Leonard Arrington.

Because of my introduction to the concept of symbolism as a means of expressing religious truth, I was never preoccupied with the question of the historicity of the First Vision — though the evidence is overwhelming that it did occur — or of the many reported epiphanies in Mormon, Christian, and Hebrew history. I am prepared to accept them as historical or metaphorical, as symbolical or as precisely what happened. That they convey religious truth is the essential issue, and of this I have never had any doubt. [7]

Perhaps the ideas discussed above and in the cited sources by various scholars of Mormonism are of some help to any Mormon who finds the First Vision on their issue shelf rather than their testimony shelf. I listed a few additional sources in Note 8.

Earlier installments in the Practical Apologetics series:


1. Steven C. Harper, “Suspicion or Trust: Reading the Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Robert L. Millet, ed., No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues (Deseret Book, 2011), p. 64.

2. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (Vintage Books, 1995; 2d ed. revised and enlarged, orig. pub’d 1971), p. 25.

3. Richard L. Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revised,” Dialogue Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1969):85, quoted in Harper, “Suspicion or Trust,” p. 72.

4. Stan Larson, “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Dialogue Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer 2014):37-62. The article includes the full text of the 1832 account as now published at the Joseph Smith Papers site, details of how the account was first published in the late 1960s, as well as discussion of how the three manuscript pages containing the account were, at some point during the mid-20th century, excised from the book in which they were bound, then several decades later reinserted back into the bound book.

5. James Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980):53, quoted in Kathleen Flake, The Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Univ. of No. Carolina Press, 2004), p. 118.

6. Flake, The Politics of Religious Identity, p. 122.

7. Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” in Philip L. Barlow, comp. and ed., A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (1986), p. 230, quoted in Larson, “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” p. 62.

8. A few good sources on the First Vision that I have not otherwise referenced above include Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969):275-94; John W. Welch and Erick B. Carlson, eds., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (BYU Press, 2005); and Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Deseret Book, 2012).

86 comments for “Practical Apologetics: The First Vision

  1. They saw Jesus raise the dead, and yet did not believe.

    I know apologetics has it’s place. But I’ve never really been that big a fan. There’s no substitute for proclaiming the gospel into the life of an unbeliever and having the Holy Spirit go to work on that person…when and where the Spirit wills.

    Thank you.

  2. “Most Mormons find it easy enough ignore or reject visions recounted in other Christian traditions without much reflection.”
    What’s funny is that reports of visions in Joseph Smith’s day probably enabled his faith that he too could have one. My Church History class at BYU required us to read Bushman’s The Visionary World of Joseph Smith.

    The BYUS blurb focuses on Solomon Chamberlin, but the article is much broader than that.

  3. I have a hard time being charitable towards those who claim the differences in First Vision accounts mean anything in particular. It seems so petty and disingenuous. Teenage boys are piss-poor about recording anything about their lives and no one without a PR department and a teleprompter ever tells the same story exactly the same way twice . You basically have to ignore everything about the context of Joseph’s life and read the accounts like an employee at the Creation Museum reads Genesis to make a big deal about this.

    To take only one example, how many camp meetings does a hick 14 year old have to see to think there’s a big revival going on and get freaked out about Satan sucking the marrow out of his bones in hell because he stole a penny candy? My guess is one.

  4. For me, the changing first vision stories coupled with Joseph Smith’s changing views of the Godhead make it hard to believe it occurred as advertised or at all. Also, it’s clear that Joseph’s mother and others of his family joined the Presbyterians well after 1820 contrary to what is claimed in the official account. So, it’s not surprising there are many who doubt the first vision story like those who doubt other Christian visionary experiences and claims.

    Isn’t living a good life of principle enough?

  5. Howard, living a good life of principle is certainly praiseworthy. Leaving lots of comments counts for something, too.

    I think the term “changing” is a loaded term, since it implies that Joseph was changing his story, which presupposes that any recital of a prior event, even recital told several years apart, needs to be identical, or else the person is “changing their story.” And that is simply a false idea for a variety of reasons. Better to stay with an objective description (there are four accounts from Joseph spanning twelve years; they differ in length and in some of the details) and then make explicit arguments (rather than covert ones) about the nature of the changes and what one can conclude from them.

  6. Dave:

    I have to respectfully disagree with you and say that the differing first vision accounts coupled with his evolving views of god, suggest that the official account of the first vision is not reliable. As an attorney, if I can show how a witness materially changed his or her story over time, and especially changed the story to be more fantastical and grandiose over time, then my job of discrediting the witness is made a lot easier. Here we have an evolving story that doesn’t correspond to what historically happened. It doesn’t correspond to what was taught about God (god was a spirit in the 1835 lectures on faith). Material details about what happened are different in each account. So, I think those advocating the truth of the canonized account frankly are the ones who need to be careful.

  7. Interesting post. I think Dave is right about “changing” being a loaded term, but there is, I think, space for a reasoned discussion (or at least speculation) about the changes. To Owen, I think that when people like Gordon B. Hinckley make comments about the First Vision being the cornerstone of our faith (and, if proven false, our faith is based on nothing), it sort of makes the First Vision a big deal. Also, I think the problem with Mormon Apologetics generally is that the truth claims the church often and repeatedly makes preclude, ostensibly, any sort of nuanced view, thus making the apologetic approach to gospel issues seem ineffectual and irrelevant in light of the church’s “either/or” approach to most gospel controversies. It’s really the church’s absolute truth claims that cause so much agon for its members. We really ought to just ease off some of this stuff and leave it more in the hands of individual members to work out. Even the church leadership is subtly backing away from the “literal” claims of the Book of Mormon in its latest statement about DNA and B of M historicity. I hope that that is a continuing trend.

  8. theoldadam – I think you miss the value apologetics can have on believers (or more especially, people who want to believe but also want to have that belief make sense logically). I value these types of articles for myself as a student and also as a teacher (as a parent or in sunday meetings). Growing up, when I encountered a challenging aspect of the church or it’s history, my parents encouraged me to study it out and come to my own conclusions. As an aid, though, they pointed out authors who they had found to be reliable and helpful. For someone who’s been out-of-the-loop on gospel scholarship in the last decade or so, these types of articles help me get an overall grasp on the picture of the issue at hand, and then point me in the direction of what the author deems are most reliable sources on the subject. I appreciate these newer blog posts pointing me towards recent articles/books in Mormon scholarship that I may have missed.

    Dave – thanks for the overview and analysis.

  9. I don’t completely agree that the church is no longer hiding the 1832 account. At the very least, they are deemphasizing it still. Until the 1832 account is canonized alongside the 1838 account, and the church manuals and other church publications contain the 1832 account, I just don’t see that they aren’t still hiding it. For scholars and those that search for it, sure, you can find it now, and its readily accessible, but for the regular member at church that doesn’t go searching, you wouldn’t be exposed to it.

  10. Howard, I understand why you are inclined use the analogy to courtroom testimony, evaluation of credibility, and even rules of evidence. But analogy is not always a sound method of reasoning. Rules of evidence and procedure are designed for legal cases to determine specific issues of criminal or civil liability. Questions of fact or opinion regarding science, history, philosophy, or religion aren’t well suited for the courtroom and courts rarely attempt to settle disputes of fact in those areas. When expert witnesses are qualified by the court and offer their opinion on a scientific or religious matter that somehow must be addressed in a case … you generally get experts on both sides of the issue.

    Differing details in separate accounts that witnesses or defendants give may undermine their credibility. But those accounts are generally much closer in time, days or weeks rather than years or decades apart, and the changes relate to a specific legal issue before the court (like whether a defendant was away from the scene of a crime at a specific time). Joseph’s accounts were years apart. There was no one specific question at issue — the vision touches a wide variety of issues so the context of an account naturally elicits different details. And a memory or an account of a quotidian event (I was at my mother’s house eating a piece of pie, not at the house where the crime occurred) is much more straightforward than a memory or account of a vision, which is not a daily event. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Those recounting visionary accounts generally struggle with language to express the event. Readers struggle to understand that language.

    If there is an analogy to legal procedure, it would be that each one of us is a trier of fact for our particular religious question and that we make our own rules about what, to each of us, is admissible and persuasive evidence. So you are as entitled as the next guy to use that legal approach (or any other) to make your own evaluation about the First Vision or any other LDS issue, although some approaches are more defensible than others. (I threw in the Arrington quote to make it clear there is a wide spectrum of opinion about the First Vision that is compatible with full LDS belief.) But it’s wrong to press that legal approach as a sound method for objectively resolving what is a religious question, not a legal question.

  11. I fail to see what Hinckley saying the vision is super important has to do with how well the event was recorded. I’m thinking of, well, every important event recorde in the scriptures–none of it is exactly courtroom-ready testimony. That’s a different genre.

    And Joseph’s “evolving” understanding of God? Again, let’s get real: what you’re describing is much more consistent with someone who is discovering or learning about something than someone who is a talented storyteller making things up. Sometime try comparing how high school students, undergrads, grad students, and professors write about the same topics. Talk about evolving understandings! We believe in mortal prophets, not that every one of them is Jesus.

  12. The August Physics Today has a wonderful article on Leonardo’s understanding of what we now call buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure. Since I read it last night, the juxtaposition with this blog essay on studying accounts of Joseph Smith’s vision is fun to think about. Comparison of what Leonardo wrote in this notebooks over a twenty year span is a major part of the article. For example:

    Leonardo also realized that heavy objects put on top of flexible containers such as bags or bellows further intensify the jets of water that flow from the vessel openings. In many notes, he considered how an external weight affects the power of water within a container. On folio 148 verso of the Codex Madrid I, Leonardo said the weight that rests on water “pushes proportionally” in all the parts of the container, just as water does by itself. That assertion is wrong, but the issue is not a simple one. Probably by means of continuing experimentation, Leonardo gradually became aware that “every part of the bag is equally affected by the weight that rests on it,” as he wrote on folio 169 recto of the Codex Madrid I in about 1495. Some years later, circa 1508, he was fully aware that the weight of an object put on top of a container transmits a “uniform power” to the water within the container and that the uniform power adds to the “unequal power that lives with water by its nature.” That understanding is substantially equivalent to Pascal’s law, which states that external pressure is transmitted equally throughout a fluid and that earlier pressure variations thus remain unchanged.

  13. The courtroom is an interesting comparison.

    “Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical [1838] account, and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith’s own hand in 1832… Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer or historian would expect to find contradictions in competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide.” Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, 171

  14. Ben S. A fair enough comment, and I understand the commenters’ points about memory, recollection, writing, etc. But this was God Almighty appearing to someone. I’d like to think that if that had happened to me, I’d be able to remember whether one or two personages appeared to me and what they said. We’re not talking about trying to remember a car accident, folks. Those who are making the case about the inability to recollect are kind of making the doubters’ point for them. Just sayin’.

  15. JohnnyS, you’re assuming, I think, that “if that had happened to [you],” you’d be as competently observant as if you had opened your door to find a couple of cookie-selling Girl Scouts standing there. It could just as well be that you’d be so mentally/emotionally/spiritually overwhelmed that you couldn’t immediately understand and interpret what was happening to you. It takes survivors of ordinary mortal trauma days or months or even years to sort out their impressions in order to impose a coherent narrative. I would suppose a theophany would be at least as disconcerting as an automobile accident or a battlefield firefight.

  16. Ardis, A fair enough point and to some extent I agree with you. But even a cursory look at how much emphasis the Mormon Church puts on the role of “prophet, seer and revelator” and how much emphasis it puts on the special place that both Joseph Smith and the First Vision have in our theology (though as Dave points out, that came a bit later) reveals the great importance of a prophet’s role. If we can’t trust a prophet’s account to be accurate because even he, as a mortal, would have been mentally/emotionally/spiritually overwhelmed, I don’t know where that leaves us in terms of the special place we give prophets in our church. If they’re just as susceptible to mortal failings/responses/emotions as the rest of us, one could argue that their prophetic authority/power is actually more diminished than the church claims and that our own spiritual experiences/revelations are just as valid, exactly as valid, as theirs. And if that’s the case, one could further argue that an individual’s spiritual experiences and their effects on our conscience trump the revelations of anyone else, including the prophet’s. I’m not trying to be contrarian here, just trying to tease out what I think are the reasonable implications of your observations.

  17. “Even more puzzling, this most reliable account was apparently squirreled away for 30 years during mid-century rather than being made publicly available. More fuel for the “they lied to me!” crowd, but the Church is certainly not hiding it now.”

    Really, Dave? You are puzzled that the church concealed an account of the first vision that differs in numerous respects from the canonized version?!? C’mon. Even Terryl Givens and numerous other Mormon scholars have frequently acknowledged that the church has tried to suppress unsavory aspects of its history and attacked those who dare write articles on those subjects. Sure, the church is changing, but that is due primarily to the Internet, not to a sudden epiphany regarding the value of being honest about your history and the questionable nature of some of your truth claims.

  18. The older I get, the less I care whether Joseph did or did not see what he alleged. I’m comfortable with my own conclusions about the nature of God. I try to trust those experiences (my own) and move forward.

    I’m concerned about what God or Jesus or the angel allegedly said to Joseph: that all the religions were wrong, and not only wrong, but an “abomination” and “corrupt.”

    There are some things that are corrupt abominations: torture, rape, human sacrifice, Perry Como. The sincere efforts of people to approach God are not corrupt abominations, usually.

    Maybe one of the accounts includes a God who seems to care more about the sincere (though sometimes misguided) efforts of his children to approach Him?

  19. Josh, the text actually reads: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; …” (JS-H 1:19). That judgment was addressed to the creeds, not to the various denominations.

  20. Dave,

    I’m certainly open to persuasion and very interested in a gentler reading of the text. It’s my experience that God loves all of his children and is pleased by efforts of faith.

    How would you distinguish between creed and denomination? Where can we point the ire of God rather than my family and friends?

    (absolutely no snark intended, genuine question)

  21. JohnnyS, you’ll adjust your objections, but you’re not going to adjust your conclusions. Fine. I acknowledge your response, but find it remarkably obtuse and not inviting of further discussion. You have a bad case of the “Yeahbuts.”

  22. Josh, thanks for the comments. A creed is simply a document. It purports to define doctrine, generally detailed statements about the nature and attributes of God. The most notable of the creeds emerged from the turmoil of the 4th and 5th centuries, when political and religious intrigue plagued both Roman government and church administration. Creeds were primarily political documents dressed up in theological language.

    Denominations are institutions. They can adopt or decline to adopt any given creed, and individuals likewise can subscribe to or decline to subscribe to a creed. In the 4th and 5th centuries, the strategy was to draft a creed you political/religious opponents would not or could not sign, then depose and exile them. Things often got quite violent. The more I read about the history of the creeds, the less respect I have for them.

    Good reads: Jesus Wars: how four patriarchs, three queens, and two emperors decided what Christians should believe for the next 1500 years (that’s really the title) by Philip Jenkins. When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Richard Rubenstein. And maybe Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God.

    As for friends and family: current leadership bends over backwards to say nice things about other churches. The language in the canonized account of the First Vision sounds harsh, but you have to compare it to what contemporary Christians said about each other in the early 19th century. It seems unfair that other Christians blithely ignore the nasty things their religious ancestors said and did, but expect Mormons to own up to every single thing that was ever said by a Mormon. The fair thing to do is to look at what current leaders say. And don’t forget the Bible is filled with God saying harsh things to just about everyone.

  23. Ardis: Wow. I didn’t even say that they were my conclusions. I apologize if my reply to your response offended you in any way. I seek further conversations and knowledge and to understand how and why other people think the way that they do. I’m sorry that I failed to communicate that effectively.

  24. Thanks Dave. I can live with your explanation.

    My concern is that the language of the First Vision is setting up a cult: “Us” with our charismatic leader ordained by God, and “Them” who are an abomination and corrupt. It’s my experience that that type of thinking is spiritually corrosive.

    You’re absolutely right that “current leadership bends over backwards to say nice things about other churches.” That’s certainly a happier path for individuals … and organizations too I suspect.

    Thank you for the references. I’ll look some of these up. Again, thank you for your response.

  25. Josh Smith — one meaning of abomination in Joseph’s day was polluted or evil/wicked religious doctrines ( The idea is that God had issue with the false doctrines that had crept into the creeds of the current Christian denominations (taking people farther away from the correct notion of deity), and the contention and confusion that resulted from the various versions of corrupted truths. This article examines the First Vision statement in relation to creeds (including related statements from the other First Vision accounts that don’t mention the word “creeds”):

  26. You misunderstand me, JohnnyS. You say, “I don’t believe because A”; somebody answers A, and you say “Yeah, but B.” Somebody answers B, and you say “Yeah, but C.”

    It isn’t that you don’t believe because A, B, C … ZZZ — it’s that you don’t believe. You aren’t seeking knowledge — you may want us to think you are, you may even have fooled yourself that you are … but you aren’t. “Yeah, but …” is a giveaway.

  27. Ardis: I won’t waste your or anyone else’s time on arguing with you. How nice for you that you can tell so much about a person from one comment regarding a blog post. That must be a wonderful gift. Best of luck to you.

  28. ““Them” who are an abomination and corrupt”

    The “them” is the creeds, not the people. Terryl Givens has talked about how this kind of pugilistic rousing rhetoric and phrasology was common to religious discourse at the time, and it’s an accident of history that it was canonized. It likely sounds much stronger to us than it did at the time.

  29. I wonder if Joseph’s subsequent visions contaminated his memory of his first vision. D&C 76 reports a vision of the Father and the Son. That alone–to say nothing of other potential unreported visions–might have been enough to cause him to misremember details of his early teenage experience.

  30. Exactly one week shy of 43 years ago, I saw Frank Robinson hit his milestone 500th home run. I have the rain check framed on my wall where I sit. I sat in Section 4, Box G6, Seat 3 on the third base side. I’ve told the story dozens, probably hundreds of times over the years. Sometimes I tell a short version, sometimes I tell a longer version. Sometimes I say the ball landed in the left field bleachers; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I mention that the homer was hit just before midnight in the bottom of the ninth; sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I say that Memorial Stadium nearly emptied after Frank grounded out in the eighth, most of the spectators thinking he wouldn’t get another at bat. Sometimes I mention Boog Powell’s two-out RBI hit that extended the inning, enabling the Orioles to bat around and give Robinson another shot in the ninth. Sometimes I say that after the stadium emptied in the eighth inning, my father, brother and I left Box G6 and moved down to the front row next to the Oriole dugout.

    More to the point, sometimes (but not always) I say that I saw not one, but two Frank Robinson home runs that day. I can’t even get the story straight about how many home runs he hit? Perhaps someone checking the box score might find another flaw in my tale. . Robinson went 1 for 4 in that game–I couldn’t have seen him hit two home runs. But homer #499 was hit in the first game of a doubleheader.

    Maybe I even get some things wrong. For decades, I’ve been telling my listeners that Robinson grounded out in the eighth inning. I just did it two paragraphs ago. But at this moment, when I looked up the box score, I discovered to my chagrin, that he flied out to center. I guess I’ll be telling the story differently from now on.

    I’ve added embellishments to my story over the years. Robinson’s later career and others who have hit 500 or more home runs provide additional context and understanding to the importance of the event. On September 13, 1996, I happened to be in Tiger Stadium watching the Orioles and Tigers play again exactly 25 years later. They showed Robinson’s 500th home run on the stadium screen, and as Robinson ran back into the dugout, my family could be seen leaning over the rail screaming like maniacs. I’ve been known to add that to my story. I met Robinson once at a book signing, and I told him I was there. Sometimes that makes it into my story. I don’t doubt that I’ve added new details to the story after reading other accounts or talking to others who were there.

    None of that means that I wasn’t where I say I was on September 13, 1971. It’s just how normal humans tell truthful accounts of their lives. I’m more suspicious when people tell invariant accounts.

    “Joseph Smith says he saw the Lord” is an accurate, if abbreviated summary of the canonized account. Yet we read that in 1832 Joseph said “I saw the Lord,” and people scream bloody murder, claiming it contradicts his other accounts. I don’t get it.

  31. Left Field — I think you’re minimizing the problem a little. The issue is not the extra detail (or even the conflicting detail) of the 1838 account. It’s that the 1838 account represents beliefs that would have contradicted his 14-year old expectations. And it’s these surprising details that we would most expect to find their way into his earliest accounts, but did not.

    As an example, in your story, if something completely contrary to your current understanding had happened in the game — like Frank Robinson hit for the opposing team, it seems unlikely you would have forgotten that detail. Or to use another example listed above, you might not remember if one or two girls scouts came to your door, or what color hair they had, but if they were selling hot dogs that day, you would probably remember the hot dogs.

    In the same way, its unlikely that (as we hear in church) Joseph emerged from the sacred grove knowing that God and Jesus were distinct, each with physical bodies (a teaching that would have contradicted his Trinitarian upbringing). If he had emerged with this understanding, we would see evidence for it much sooner that we do.

  32. As a recovering member of the “lied to me” crowd, different versions of the first vision never bothered me. The versions are thematically similar and as Left Field points out above, the words we choose to describe an event differ each time the story is told. Not a big deal from my perspective – at least not enough evidence from differing accounts to make a case that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

    I do see how the church’s sole reliance on the canonized version of the story could cause consternation for some, however. The whole reason there is such a thing as a “lied to me” crowd is because a chasm develops between “what we were led to believe” and “what really was.” The issue isn’t that varying accounts of the story negate the reality of “something” having happened. The issue is that people feel deceived when they learn the mental narrative they have constructed in their own mind does not account for additional or differing details found in the other versions. Because the church has, in the past, pushed the canonized version and excluded the fact that there are several other accounts -people (rightly or wrongly) feel the church has dissimulated a critical point of restorational history.

  33. We don’t know that he didn’t remember, only that in 1832, he didn’t mention it. And I could be mistaken, but I don’t think any of his accounts specifically mention a physical body. That’s a modern extrapolation. (For that matter, I don’t know how you know just by looking if the body was physical or not. Doctrine & Covenants 129 seems to suggest that you can’t tell by looking.) And it seems perfectly reasonable that if he had seen things unexpected that he didn’t yet understand, that he might have initially glossed over that part, emphasizing the elements that he understood and could explain.

    If two girl scouts came to my door selling hot dogs, that in itself might make an interesting story. But if the girl scouts also warned me that my house was on fire, I might skim over the hot dogs, perhaps because (1) the hot dogs were less important than the fire, (2) mentioning the hot dogs might make my story less believable, or (3) the hot dogs could lead to an unnecessary tangent when I was trying to talk about my house fire. Years later, the hot dogs might seem more important, as the impact of the fire fades into the past, or perhaps if this turned out to be the first time girl scouts had initiated their now wildly-successful door-to-door hot dog enterprise.

  34. I wrote a SLTribune column once about a northern Utah man who survived 24 hours buried by an avalanche, and then was found and pulled out by his own father (one of a large number of men in the search party). The next day I received email from the family of that man — his own son, much less his grandchildren, had never heard about their patriarch’s dramatic near-death adventure early in the century. It wasn’t that anybody was deliberately hiding anything; it was only that somehow, the man had never thought to tell his children, and with the passage of time, the family history was forgotten.

    I don’t mean to minimize the very real distress of the “lied to me” crowd. And I’m fully aware that tellers-of-stories after the fact have distorted our understanding of Joseph Smith’s reports. E.g., modern teachers use Joseph Smith’s account to “prove” things — like demonstrating that God and Jesus are two distinct personages, both bodies of flesh and bone — that Joseph never said and never taught and perhaps didn’t fully comprehend in the moment or for long afterwards. But no reasonable person should fault Joseph and his narrative(s) because of the use that other people have tacked on to his story.

    The “lied to me” crowd could also allow their understanding to mature by considering one very real fact of Church history. We have a lot of it. Tons — literally tons — of paper, much of it from our earliest days, is housed in the Church History Library alone, never mind other repositories. No one person, no group of people, knows everything that appears in those records. Much of it was forgotten soon after the history occurred. Like the avalanche survivor, people who did know aspects of the history never thought to pass it along orally, and many of those who inherited the paper records of those events didn’t read, study, understand, or promulgate what is found in them. Some things that were known at the time were not talked about because they seemed trivial — but with the passage of time, as those records are unearthed and studied for the first time, modern historians realize that those early trivialities are significant because of later events.

    We’re digging it out as fast as we can, and fitting it together and trying to understand it all. Discoveries have, are, and will continue to be made. The “lied to me” crowd could pause to consider that much of what appears to be new to them is not a result of anybody’s deliberate hiding or distortion, but rather of everybody’s forgetting and misunderstanding and misuse. That is true of a great many topics, including accounts of Joseph’s First Vision.

  35. Conclusions that we reach are built on assumptions, including those that we are not aware of. Here are a few I’ve wondered about:

    1) Why do we assume that it would be easy to distinguish the number of individuals who appeared? It could well be that the light was so blindingly bright that the whole scene looked a lot like a uniform glow. Sure, modern artwork makes it look easy to discern multiple figures, but artwork doesn’t equal reality.

    In response to the counter-argument that Joseph had other visions where he identified the messengers, and that he should have been able to in the First Vision, I respond: Why? Why would we assume that the “brightness” of one experience would be similar to others? For all I know, God and Jesus may have been particularly luminous that day. Perhaps Joseph’s eyes were especially dilated from fear, making everything especially bright, clouding his ability to perceive things clearly.

    So it could be that there were aspects of Joseph’s vision that were a little ambiguous, and that with additional experience, he gained greater understanding of what had happened.

    2) Why should we assume that the details of a divine experience will remain the same over time? We make analogies to courtroom drama, but let me tell you, witnesses often get things wrong, change their stories, remember additional details – and are not necessarily lying deliberately.

    3) Is there really a big distinction about whether God and Jesus were “actually there,” rather than just in Joseph’s imagination or visible by “spiritual eyes?” The truth is that all visual images, and all sensation, are processed by the brain. There really is no way that Joseph could know whether divinity was “actually there,” or whether he was imagining the whole thing–because both could have left the same imprint on his central nervous system and/or his spirit. Believe me, there are people in the world who are 100% certain they have seen things that others would simply write-off as hallucinations. Who is right? Our senses are imperfect.

    I think the bottom line is that the First Vision is a matter of faith and narrative. The modern Church and its leaders have decided to make the First Vision a central part of what it means to have a “testimony.” It needn’t be, and wasn’t always, that way. Narratives like this tend to degenerate to the simplistic possible form for ease of comprehension and transmission (missionary work). In actuality, all history and all truth is but a simplified version of reality, so it woudl always be possible to criticize any church narrative for leaving out important details. While I often wish the “Church” and its culture could embrace a more nuanced view of the First Vision – its conflicting accounts, etc. – I recognize that such nuance (though appealing to historians) would do little to nurture faith or teach beyond that of the current narrative.

    So let us examine our assumptions, recognize that none of us has all the answers, none of us really “knows” what happened in the First Vision in any traditional historical sense, and that nothing will ultimately prove or disprove the experience. Believing that the First Vision did NOT take place requires faith that the experience did NOT happen, just as believing that it DID happen likewise involves faith. Ultimately, the whole thing is a matter of faith, whether you want to admit that or not.

  36. Addendum to prior comment: Those who do not believe in the First Vision must have faith in rejecting multiple historical accounts that it did in fact occur, while those who accept it must have faith to accept the accounts as indeed occurring. The First Vision forces us to believe, one way or the other, whether we like it or not.

  37. Great comment left field!

    Now, if only we could get all of the 4 gospels to tell the same story.

    Or, if only Luke himself would have been consistent in telling the story of Mary encountering Jesus on the morning of the resurrection. Others say that Mary actually saw the risen Lord and knew he was alive. Yet Luke says they saw a vision of Angels telling them the Lord had risen.

    Or better yet, if Cleopas and the unnamed 2nd traveler could have been more consistent in telling the disguised Lord what it was that they had been told by the women who claimed to have seen a risen Lord….but they don’t.

    Ahh what to do….it throws the whole account of the resurrection of Jesus into question, or at the very least, throws into question the credibility of Mary and Luke.

    If only people would always tell the whole story in it’s completeness, every time.

    I wonder what Nephi’s first version of his wanderings in the desert and the dealings of God was like. Was it anything like the account he wrote after 40 years of contemplating what had happened to him?

    I know personally some who have had visions, and who describe how nearly impossible it is to speak of things that take place in a higher sphere, while using the language and limitations of a lower sphere. And it often takes them years of pondering and pleading to finally understand what was given to them, in a place or moment that does not seem bound by laws of time/sequence/order we come to rely on so much when relating something.

    Perhaps Joseph wasn’t too unlike those lamanites that actually were baptized by fire, but didn’t know what to call it when it happened, or even what it was that had happened. It may have taken him some reflection before what occurred that day was plain in his mind.

    One final example. Even though the Nephites in 3rd Nephi are told to “Behold my Beloved Son” three separated times, they only understood it on the third time. But even understanding it didn’t quite do much. For out of heaven descended a being, who though performing a supernatural act, apparently seemed so ordinary in a sense, that they merely assumed it to be an angel. That Being needed to declare to them exactly who he was, in language very clear, before they all fell down and worshipped.

    So did Joseph only see an angel? Did he think that was all he saw for some time? Did he see an angel and two beings? Did multiple things happen simultaneously in a way that a telestial mind just doesn’t comprehend without great reflection?

    And no matter what actually truly happened….you’ve always got Left Field’s analogy above for why you wouldn’t really expect to hear the same thing every time anyway.

  38. Ardis, agree with most of what you said. The “lied to me” crowd (myself included) need (or needed) to take a deep breath.

    But the institutional church – prophets, seers and revelators – contribute to the misunderstanding. Messages that result in the average joe limiting curiosity to “church approved materials”, failure to acknowledge flaws or nuance in correlated products, and making improperly strong statements or conclusions that do not comport with the historical record – taken together – provide raw materials for many, many people to build a really sweet house on a foundation of sand.

  39. And what I said answers your “But,” Aaron T. Your statement implies that absolutely everything — the actions of men, the dates and places of history, every field of science, whatever — is laid wide open to prophets, seers and revelators at every moment. Nothing in scripture or prophetic text supports that.

    These men are no more conversant with the millions of pages of available historical records than anybody else. Unless they have made (or caused to be made) a special study of any particular issue, they can only repeat what they themselves assumed or were taught or reasoned out — they don’t know, and no thoughtful person expects them to know, facts and stories and events they did not live through, and that had been forgotten or not completely understood in the moment. Improperly strong statements? I hope you hold the ridiculously naive and equally strong charges of, say, that “letter to a ces director” to the same high standard of demonstrable evidence!

    The recent gospel topics essays do in fact, if not in explicit wording, acknowledge flaws in what has been previously taught — the very fact that they commissioned these essays, to have historians sort through the history and figure out what did happen, and why, acknowledges the need you express. They aren’t failing to address those issues. Might there not also be additional projects in the works that haven’t been publicly announced yet? Give the projects that have come out recently without prior announcement, projects that obviously took months if not years of prior work, I would put my money on the proposition that more is in the pipeline.

    I wish all this work had been started 10 — or 30 or 50 — years ago. It’s going on now, though.

    And while some historical narratives may have been shaky, there are other ways of knowing gospel truth that are bedrock solid. I don’t know any believer who has a testimony of or even through church history. My testimony has sure footings elsewhere.

  40. I wish the work would have started earlier too, but I’m glad it’s going on now.

    My statement makes no implication of obligatory omniscience. When I say improperly strong statements, I’m thinking of the “it’s either all true or all a lie” memes, or talks like the one Elder Holland gave on the Book of Mormon in 2009. Given what we are still learning – and as you point out, what may be now in the works – there should be a little more humility, understanding and tempered language on all sides.

  41. “I wish all this work had been started 10 — or 30 or 50 — years ago. It’s going on now, though.”

    Perhaps this is your wish, but the institutional church made a conscious decision decades ago not to explore these issues, and actively discouraged its members from doing so on their own. Brother Oakes openly admonished members to stay away from “alternate voices” like Dialogue and Sunstone. And Brother Packer displayed contempt for historians “who wish to tell everything.” As he famously said: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” But who do we trust to decide what is useful? Those who make a conscious decision to conceal the existence of alternate accounts of the First Vision, excising them from the historical record and squirreling them away in a safe in their office, because they are inconsistent the canonized party line?

    Mormon scholar Terryl Givens laid bare this practice when he said that there is a “”discrepancy between a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System
    and Sunday school manuals, and a less-flattering version universally accessible on the Internet … The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less than forthcoming to begin with.”

    It is disingenuous to suggest that the church was oblivious, until recently, to the discrepancies between Correlation’s homiletic version of church history and the evolution of church doctrines and what is actually contained in the historical record. Indeed, 40 years ago the church shut the door to its archives to prevent scholars and others from bringing those discrepancies into the light of day. And twenty years ago, several Mormon scholars and intellectuals were given the boot because they published inconvenient truths about the church’s past. If the Internet had not succeeded in undermining these practices, one must wonder whether the church’s recent embrace of “glasnost” would have ever occurred.

  42. I dunno. The First Vision film that we showed everybody and their uncle back (in the Carter Administration) when I was a missionary included elements of at least three different First Vision accounts. And an article in the New Era told all about it. Aside from a little inconsistency about his exact age at the time of the vision, the various accounts pretty much hang together and tell the same story.

    If people made a conscious decision to conceal the “alternate” accounts on the theory that they were somehow embarrassing, they’re just as clueless as the people who claim the documents cast doubt on the story. I have my doubts that the accounts were deliberately concealed, and I especially have my doubts that we can divine the motives of those who allegedly did it. But I’m willing to be educated if we actually have some knowledge of that.

    And as Ardis said, the actions of later people are irrelevant. Read the accounts without all the later baggage of claimed “suppression” and “discrepancies” and “inconsistencies with the party line.” I find them all mostly remarkable in their authenticity.

  43. Left Field, as Dave noted in his post, the article by Stan Larson in the most recent issue of Dialogue describes, in considerable detail, the church’s efforts to conceal the 1832 account of the first vision. The evidence that it was in fact suppressed is overwhelming. Further, it only saw the light of day in the late 1960s after LeMar Petersen leaked information about it to Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Once the cat was out of the bag, the church had no choice but to acknowledge its existence.

    I agree with you that the 1832 account, along with the other versions of the First Vision, do not necessarily mean that Joseph fabricated his story or that he didn’t have a profound spiritual experience of some kind. But when a church deliberately attempts to conceal information such as this, two very adverse consequences inevitably follow: (1) the world will presume that what it was attempting to hide undermines its belief system, and (2) the church’s credibility goes down the toilet. The frustrating thing about all of this is that it was clearly foreseeable. As Brother Givens said, when you are something less than forthcoming and you are caught in the act, people will naturally feel a sense of betrayal and they will be less likely to believe you in the future.

  44. This is interesting to me as I’m fully in the “they lied to me” crowd, and yet I still believe. I’m troubled with that because I don’t know if it’s some deep, subconscious need for me to belong to what I thought I believed my whole life and I’m intellectually a coward to choose what is the easiest path (retrenchment?) or it is actually the Spirit bearing witness to me. Here’s another issue: what about the Golden Plates and translation? We were led to believe that the Plates were integral to the translation process but accounts point to a top hat and seer stone as more to the truth? These two issues may seem unrelated but how many of these issues are there? To me the issue is the same. I’m not meaning to be snarky or denigrating; does anyone else see this or feel this way?

  45. I never had to listen to “alternate voices” to learn Mormon history, and nothing in my quite orthodox, compliant spirit ever whispered that I was doing anything “unapproved” by reading everything I could lay my hands on — and as a practical matter, my only sources of Mormon history in my teens and early adulthood (1970s) was what was on my orthodox parents’ shelves and what I could buy at the local (Las Vegas) LDS bookstore — not DesBk, but not weird or underground or fringey in any way. I still managed to learn all this stuff that seems to freak out people today, and I never once was discouraged by anybody from doing that.

    I think many if you, a crowd typified by EFF, don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about. You didn’t try to learn about history until you somewhere learned that you “weren’t supposed” to learn about history. This tiny clutch of quotations you throw around all the tine — you didn’t hear them when you genuinely tried to learn history, they weren’t used as barriers to your trying to learn history. No, you heard them for the first time when you sought out people and places whose intentions were to persuade you to give up your faith, to accept their doctrine that the Church didn’t want you to know the truth, or that the Church was afraid of the truth. This tiny handful of out-of-context quotations that you love to wave around did exist, of course, but we’re not generally known and were not used to discourage reading … until you and people like you began to flight them around as if they were significant Mormon doctrine.

    I was there, reading and learning and digging for more, without hindrance from anyone. You weren’t there, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I do know what I’m talking about. You don’t. Now go ahead and rant about my arrogance, here or wherever your kind hangs out. You’d be better off reading legitimate Mormon history, but you won’t do that. It’s enough for you to pretend the Church is hiding it all from you. You can lead a fool to history, but you can’t make him read.

  46. Louis – I think what you are feeling is natural. It took me a long time to become comfortable with some of these things, but I’m happy to say that it is possible to remain a faithful LDS even after confronting these issues. Your faith and paradigms may change, but so be it.

    If you are bothered by the stone and the hat, may I suggest I book that I have really liked? Brant Gardner’s “Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon” really shows that some of the “weird” things that bother a lot of people were really just a part of the magic 19th century worldview. He also discusses the translation, of course, and I just felt closure after reading this book. So much of it finally made sense. Perhaps it will help you. I also quite liked Gardner’s podcasts on mormon stories, which cover similar ground.

    There really is no easy path once you learn about this stuff. It’s hard to leave the Church, and it’s hard to stay with cognitive dissonance – UNTIL you find a paradigm that fits the pieces together. I can attest that patience on these issues can bear fruit.

  47. Thanks for the words, PP. Ardis, if my questions or concerns were what warranted your response, I did not mean to be confrontational. If they did, I would suppose your confidences isn’t that strong, either, judging by your tone on the comment. Again, I don’t mean to stir anything up in the ways of negativity or in a mean spirit. Accept my apologies if I did so.

  48. I hadn’t seen your comment when I started writing mine, Louis. I was responding to the tired claims of earlier commenters, who trot out their two or three shopworn lines as if they were announcing something new or important or even true.

    You’re fine. Hang in there.

  49. Another thought I’ve had about my particular journey, for what it’s worth, is that when I do participate again (I believe that’s where I’m heading-took a year off for personal reasons) my testimony is going to be strong and real. There were some attachments I had which have been knocked away of the sort that held me back.

    Also, I’m currently the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything which culturally brings about a whole new plethora of questions and contemplation. It’s been painful but I’m grateful for the struggle at the same time.

  50. Louis, let me echo PP’s recommendation: Gardner’s “Gift and Power” is an excellent and thorough treatment of the Book of Mormon translation issue. I, for one, think it is the last word on the subject. When you are reared on Seminary and Sunday School manuals containing pictures of Joseph tracking the engravings on the plates with one hand while the other is poised to write on paper the English translation of what he reads, feelings of disillusionment upon learning that it didn’t really happen that way are only natural.

    I also recommend Professor Harrell’s book, “This is My Doctrine.” It effectively demonstrates how what is taught as doctrine in the church—not just today but also during Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon times—changes and evolves over time (not always for the better, I might add). Indeed, after you read the chapter about the frequency with which Joseph modified his ideas regarding the nature of the Godhead, it makes it a bit easier to understand some of the differences in his various accounts of the First Vision.

    PP is right: there is no easy path through this stuff. Cognitive dissonance is tough, but if you can find a way to live with it, it definitely makes life a lot more interesting.

  51. I’m a professional translator. I use software presented on an LCD screen, which is made of plastics and rock-derived components, to do my work. Sometimes the glare is pretty bad, so I do things to block ambient light. Yesterday I looked pretty stupid at my daughter’s soccer practice trying to do some work on my iPad–hunched over trying to block the sun. It would have been easier, but I couldn’t find my hat as I was leaving the house.

  52. Ardis I always love your comments and especially in this post!

    I adopted a rule while serving my mission in Mississippi and having a baptist preacher uncle, that I was going to learn the gospel and doctrine and even some of the harder stuff on my own- and on my own terms! My goal has been to avoid being broadsided by some of these issues, innocolated my small and simple and repeated studies, personal studies (even ongoing studies some 14 years after the mission and while rising 6 children). Yet I try to squeeze the studies in drip by drip, consistently. For me it has been work, there has been sweat at times, but my belief in the gospel has been strengthened along the way, and my love for church history has only grown.

    Despite some of the issues in the past, I’m in awe at the church’s essays, the Joseph Smith Papers and so many quality works on Mormonism coming out. Ardis’ approach to study legit church history and retain the believing heart has also worked for me. So hang in there, I’m not sure the correct approach to all this but just wanted to share mine..

  53. What a surprise….Ardis blows her stack and shows her true colors in a post about church history.

    See the problem is this Ardis. In the same string of comments, you tell commenters that they can’t expect church leaders to know everything about church history and that we’re being unfair by expecting church leaders to have an accurate view of the historical record. They were just repeating the same stories they were told you say. You then blast commenters for not knowing everything there is to know about church history and take personal and uncharitable shots at anyone who says they feel like they were told stories that weren’t accurate.

    The only thing that surprises me is that Times and Seasons admin and commenters who don’t know better allow you to spew your venom unchecked. I thought T&S had a comment policy. It apparently doesn’t apply to everyone equally.

  54. “we’re being unfair by expecting church leaders to have an accurate view of the historical record”
    “You then blast commenters for not knowing everything there is to know about church history”

    Actually, Ardis didn’t say either of these things. In fact, if you go back and read, you will discover that she said pretty much the opposite.

  55. Venom is evidently in the eye of the reader, because there was none in any comment as it left my keyboard. Calm down and try again, Aaron.

  56. And, thank you, Louis, and n8c, and Left Field, and any other generous commenters I may have missed.

  57. Aaron T: If you’ll read this charitably, I think maybe I can clear up one point where my ambiguity may have led to your misunderstanding.

    I *did* say that I had learned history in the 1970s, and excused Church leaders for telling a simplistic version of history, as if I were talking about precisely the same thing. I used the same words to refer to at least three different things.

    2014 knowledge of history: We know a great deal more about a great many things today than we’ve ever known before, in large measure because Church leaders have commissioned studies, or at least made sources available to anybody to pursue their own studies. We’ll know more next year, and more the year after that, and even if we don’t individually manage to keep entirely up to date, there is a new standard of knowledge that is available and that, more and more, we’ll all be expected to know before we teach or complain or revise.

    1970s knowledge of history: (I pick the 1970s because that’s when I began to read history; you can pick any date prior to the current resurgence of scholarship and it will work as well.) While we didn’t know nearly as much about controversial matters in 1974 as we know in 2014, people who made an effort to read freely available materials *did* have at least a general awareness of multiple accounts of the First Vision, Mountain Meadows, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the vast difference between the published Book of Abraham and the rediscovered papyrus fragments, etc.

    Simplistic history of manuals and talks: By this I mean everything you can legitimately complain about in the “but they didn’t TELL me about that!” category. These are the Church history equivalents of Bible stories for children who can’t yet read the scriptures. These were simplified stories, all with a clear moral, none of which touched controversial issues that didn’t have a gospel moral.

    When I say I learned history as a teenager, I mean that I rose above the simplistic history to become very familiar with the 1970s level of knowledge. I don’t know why more people didn’t rise to the 1970s level. I fault people in general for being content to settle for the simplistic history when the 1970s level was available. I fault people for complaining that “they didn’t TELL me about that!” — the Church could and maybe should have told you about that, but nobody but you stopped you from learning about it on your own.

    I forgive Church leaders — and everybody else — for not having a 2014 level of knowledge any earlier than 2014. Until very recently Church leaders can’t be held accountable for not knowing the facts about the origin of the priesthood restriction, or for not having a modern understanding of Mountain Meadows, because they hadn’t yet commissioned the ransacking of the Church archives to find out what we now know. Some of them may have had a 1970s level of knowledge, and some of them may have had only a simplistic level of knowledge based on what they had heard as young people but had not yet studied themselves.

    What I complain about is two fold:

    People faulting Church leaders for leaving Church members with a simplistic version, when those Church members *could* have informed themselves to a 1970s level on their own. I did. Many people did. The Church bears some responsibility for leaving us with a simplistic view, but it’s our own fault if we didn’t take advantage of better knowledge that was available, much of it in the Church magazines themselves.

    People complaining that a 2014 level of knowledge wasn’t presented to them before 2014. The Church wasn’t *hiding* this stuff — we didn’t *know* this stuff. Please apply the standards that were applicable to whatever date you’re complaining about, and don’t be so unrealistic.

    My apologies to T&S permas for the length of this comment, and for somewhat monopolizing the thread. And my apologies for whatever my ambiguities contributed to rancor here. I don’t apologize for not accepting the skewed and unreasonable accusations of people who aren’t willing to bear their own share of responsibility for not having taken charge of their own historical education, though.

  58. Ardis, thanks – that clears up most of what my temperature was up about. As I said early on – there should be a little more humility, understanding and tempered language on all sides because it’s complicated.

    I bare responsibility for being surprised by some of the more challenging parts of church history (although, as I said – the different accounts of the first vision never really bothered me). But in my defense, I honestly did not know that I needed to go deeper. I assumed (naively), that since the church was providing me years length curriculum on church history through seminary, sunday school, etc – that I had what I needed. Most people in the “lied to me crowd” are not professionals like you. We are the unwashed masses. While you were knee deep in the nuance and detail, we were holding down soul sucking jobs, going to school full time, and just trying to survive. Even if we had figured out we needed to dig deeper – many of us simply did not have another hour in the day to do so. We had accounting exams to study for, or a church calling to take care of.

    Some of us get sensitive about this because we honestly feel like we were trying to do everything right. We knew we weren’t experts, but we thought we had this stuff by the horns. We were wrong. I should have either not assumed I had it by the horns, or I should have simply done more.

    But know this….whoever bears this or that part of the blame – the feelings of betrayal and hurt are real – right or wrong – they are real.

    Gotta run.

  59. Thanks for the comments, everyone, and for your commentary, Ardis. There is more LDS history out there now than ever before, but it has always been available to anyone with a library card. History, alas, is an acquired taste — few teenagers can be induced to read even one book of LDS history. So I would think most LDS who later come across historical issues would respond “Wow, I need to read some LDS history” (written by historians, not bloggers and amateurs) rather than a sense of frustration or betrayal. And the same folks who complain that the Church adopts black-and-white thinking often expect history to give black-and-white answers. From a Google search. History is messy. Keep reading.

    I am not denying the Church has created some of its own problems. This is not the place to detail them; I do that from time to time in other posts. The practical point of this post (hint: “practical apologetics”) is that there are better sources within the Church and they are more available than ever before and they are making their way into the curriculum. Yes, the Church is a generation or two late in delivering quality product. Yes, leaders should have spent more time reading LDS historians in the 70s, instead of marginalizing them or worse. Yes, I have some sympathy for those who are surprised by what they read in LDS history. But hey, you can’t change the past and there isn’t much use complaining about it. Promise yourself you will teach your kids better LDS history than you were taught (good luck with that) and move on. Don’t replace one simplistic narrative (the Church doesn’t make mistakes) with another (the Church always lies).

  60. Dave, that’s a good point and I will do better to remember, re: replaceing one simplistic narrative with another…I think I’ve been somewhat guilty of that. Thanks.

  61. This captures my experience:

    I think many if you, a crowd typified by EFF, don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about. You didn’t try to learn about history until you somewhere learned that you “weren’t supposed” to learn about history. This tiny clutch of quotations you throw around all the tine — you didn’t hear them when you genuinely tried to learn history, they weren’t used as barriers to your trying to learn history. No, you heard them for the first time when you sought out people and places whose intentions were to persuade you to give up your faith, to accept their doctrine that the Church didn’t want you to know the truth, or that the Church was afraid of the truth. This tiny handful of out-of-context quotations that you love to wave around did exist, of course, but were not generally known and were not used to discourage reading … until you and people like you began to flight them around as if they were significant Mormon doctrine.

    I was there, reading and learning and digging for more, without hindrance from anyone. You weren’t there, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I do know what I’m talking about. You don’t. Now go ahead and rant about my arrogance, here or wherever your kind hangs out. You’d be better off reading legitimate Mormon history, but you won’t do that. It’s enough for you to pretend the Church is hiding it all from you. You can lead a fool to history, but you can’t make him read.

    Excellent point.

    Howard, as an attorney who tries a case now and again, I have to say that we have dramatically different ideas of what change is in testimony. I see people all the time trying to make contradictions out of nonsense …

    As for ” is canonized alongside” — err, what you are saying is that until we gather everything together in huge volumes, add it all to the cannon of scripture, and change everything we currently have in distribution … I find that sort of comment annoying because it presupposes so many things, but it requires exactly what I’m pointing out en masse given that that there are so many variant texts on so many things.

    The First Vision film that we showed everybody and their uncle back (in the Carter Administration) when I was a missionary included elements of at least three different First Vision accounts. And an article in the New Era told all about it.


    And Joseph’s “evolving” understanding of God? Again, let’s get real: what you’re describing is much more consistent with someone who is discovering or learning about something than someone who is a talented storyteller making things up. Sometime try comparing how high school students, undergrads, grad students, and professors write about the same topics. Talk about evolving understandings! We believe in mortal prophets, not that every one of them is Jesus.

    JohnnyS — you know. I’ve buried three children. You’d think my memories of each of the deaths would be pretty etched forever in my mind without variance. But the fact that when I read things that I’ve written they vary more than Joseph Smith’s writings do doesn’t mean they didn’t die or that I did not experience it. I can only suggest that real life experience does not agree with your callow suppositions.

    JohnnyS, you’ll adjust your objections, but you’re not going to adjust your conclusions. Fine. I acknowledge your response, but find it remarkably obtuse and not inviting of further discussion. You have a bad case of the “Yeahbuts.”

    Honestly, until we get people showing up to Sunday School or other meetings who have actually read the lesson material, I’m not sure we will ever get deeper lesson material than we are getting now.

    Just saying.

  62. Though with iPads and apps and such, we may yet get some sort of super large “consolidated doctrinal materials library” that we can all schlep around with us wherever we go. ;)

  63. Fair enough, Aaron T. I understand you better now, when you note that you didn’t know that you didn’t know, that you (entirely reasonably) thought you had been properly prepped by your routine Church classes. Since I haven’t pursued any adult studies in, say, most areas of science, or in modern methods of government, I suppose I would feel equally cheated if it suddenly became important to me to know the truth, and I discovered that my education in those areas was wrong, or too simplistic to be of current use.

    For purposes of reference, I note that I graduated from high school in 1976, that I have been my own sole support since I was 16 (even paying room and board to my parents once I had my first job). I wasn’t able to afford more than two years of university, and have never received any degree. I have been as busy as anyone else in the years since high school, serving as a missionary and in other callings, and working to support myself. I am self-taught as a historian, only beginning work in the field as a researcher (really, not much more than a transcriptionist) in 1999, and, because I lack any formal training, still wouldn’t consider myself a professional. I have a knack, a talent, a good memory, and I work very hard, most of that work being done on my own time. I’d prefer to be judged for the quality of my work, but I don’t want anyone to have the wrong idea that I had any special advantage in acquiring knowledge.

    Dave, your comment #64 summarizes the entire post and comment thread very well. It has been a very useful — practical — experience taking part in it. Thank you.

  64. I have a hard time believing that the leaders will soften their tone like some of the commenters have said. It’ll probably continue to be a good cop bad cop thing – excommunicate some then appease the rest to a point.

  65. Ardis:

    Sorry if I offended you. My clumsy point is that religion and logic don’t mix and maybe practical apologetics means focusing on provable life principle claims instead of getting caught up with what happens to us in 100 years or whether or not Joseph Smith did what the Church claims? Is that being a jerk still?

  66. There have certainly been some hints and suggestions that standard Church materials/classes are not sufficient. I wish there had been more.

    Marion D. Hanks, “Theological Illiterates”, Improvement Era (September 1968): 42
    “No one knows anything about Christ’s work simply by being born a member of the Church, and often he knows little about it after years of unmotivated exposure in meetings or classes. He must learn. And learning involves self-investment and effort. The gospel should be studied ‘as carefully as any science.’ The ‘literature of the Church’ must be ‘acquired and read.’ Our learning should be increased in our spare time ‘day by day.’ Then as we put the gospel truth to work in daily life, we will never find it wanting. We will be literate in the most important field of knowledge in the universe, knowledge for lack of which men and nations perish, in the light of which men and nations may be saved”

    “I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed. [When Elder Holland quoted this, he used the word “uninspired.”] It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis…. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.”- Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, (Deseret Book, 1982): 524

  67. Admin note: I deleted one comment and two replies. You can make comments but not extended speeches (I call it “soapboxing”). And remember there is a real live person with tender feelings who posted each comment and checks back once per hour to read responses.

    Carry on.

  68. In some ways, my early interests in church history parallels Ardis’. In my teens and twenties (in the ’70s and ’80’s), I read whatever I could get my hands on. I learned church history to study for representing my released-time seminary in the “seminary bowl” quiz game. I took several church history classes at BYU. I read Dialogue and Sunstone in the BYU library. I read from the Journal of Mormon History and Utah Historical Quarterly. I even attended a couple of Mormon History Association meetings. I took every opportunity to visit church historical sites from Palmyra to Mountain Meadows. This just as an amateur “history buff.” I didn’t have a state of the art 70s-80s understanding of history, but I guess I was pretty well informed of what was known at the time. I never thought of anything I was reading to be forbidden or edgy or unapproved. It was all mostly stuff available through “churchy” channels. Obviously, other people didn’t necessarily have the same level of interest, but I didn’t imagine anything was being hidden.

    A funny thing just occurred to me while thinking about this discussion. A lot of the so-called problematic issues of church history I’ve “learned” twice. I learned it once in the normal course of pursuing an amateur interest in church history, and I “learned” it again a decade or two later, when it was presented with much hand-wringing and arm-waving. In some cases, in the context of hand-wringing and arm-waving, I didn’t initially recognize it as the same information.

    As I mentioned before, I distinctly remember learning about additional accounts of the first vision in the October 1977 New Era. I don’t know if I had read about other accounts before, but I think this stuck with me because it would be brought to mind every time I saw the First Vision film on my mission and afterwards. There was no reason to be surprised or alarmed that there were other accounts. Why wouldn’t there be other accounts? Later after my mission, I’m sure I read other recountings of the first vision. It all seemed very faith-affirming and fascinating to learn new details about the event. The fact that the accounts differed wouldn’t have been something that would have been remarkable at all. Of *course* they weren’t identical. What authentic historical accounts are?

    Then a couple of decades later, I start reading about “MULTIPLE FIRST VISION ACCOUNTS!” Discrepancies! Troubling! Why didn’t the church tell me about this? Some people seem genuinely alarmed just by the fact that other accounts exist.

    Huh? How did this get to be an “Issue”? It was all just interesting history when I had been reading about for the previous 15-20 years.

    Along about the same time as the First Vision dust-up, I started hearing about the “stone in the hat.” Stone in the hat? I’d never heard about a stone in a hat. What in the world is that all about? Then after looking into it, I realized that I did indeed know about the stone in the hat. I had just forgotten about the hat. I had known that sometimes, Joseph used two (seer?)stones in a silver bow as some sort of spectacles, and sometimes, he had used a single seerstone. I knew all about the seerstone. In fact, it seemed to me a bit less weird than the spectacles. I’m sure I’d read about the seerstone being used in conjunction with a hat, but I guess the hat seemed like a fairly minor detail and it had escaped my memory. A clever way to exclude light, but not exactly the essence of what constitutes use of a seerstone. I still don’t get why one stone is supposed to be an embarrassment the church should want to suppress, but two stones attached to a breastplate and used as spectacles is supposed to be the sanitized faith-promoting version.

    When I first started hearing about Joseph Smith’s polyandry, I was puzzled. I had no idea what that was about. But when I investigated what all the fuss was about, I realized that I indeed knew about the polyandry. It just hadn’t occurred to me to call it that, and I didn’t recognize it with all the hand waving that went with it.

    It seems that the context in which history is presented has a lot to do with how it is processed.

  69. I think you’re right, left field. Context does matter. Unfortunately, in the past, the context was threat of excommunication to those who told a history that differed from the extremely sanitized history the Church put out. Thankfully it is getting better. To a believer, the various contradictions do not matter. However, these are still issues that trouble some and I think the point of this blog entry is to maybe try and understand those who have questions. Frankly, I don’t think you can fault someone who questions multiple and contradictory first vision accounts.

  70. William, I guess they missed me in the big excommunication purge.

    Let me hazard a guess. You learned what you want to call “multiple contradictory first vision accounts” and similar “unsanitized history” from hand-wringers and arm-flappers? Not from all the edgy places like BYU Studies and the New Era and ordinary LDS bookstores where people like me and Ardis learned the *same* “unsanitized” history 30 or 40 years ago? That’s what I thought.

    If you’re one of those I mentioned who think that the mere fact of “multiple first vision accounts” are somehow a problem, then I can’t help you. If you think the accounts we have are “contradictory” in any substantive way, then I can’t help you with that, either. You just may be Exhibit A for how arm-flapping and hand-waving influences the perception of history.

    I will agree with you on one thing. There are plenty of genuinely troublesome issues. Plenty. Ardis wrestles with them on her blog all the time. But if you’re hand-wringing about first vision accounts, then you haven’t seen troublesome yet.

  71. Dave #64 – We need some more straight shooters around here. I’m sorry to have to correct you, but why are you saying things like, “There is more LDS history out there now than ever before, but it has always been available to anyone with a library card”?

    Always available? In your OP, you said that “the 1832 account was, at some point, hidden away in the President’s office safe for several decades before finally being published only in the late 1960s, and then only when forced to by adverse circumstances.” How is that “always available?”

    In truth, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know that well-meaning church leaders have not simply destroyed certain documents along the way. We don’t know that there aren’t still documents hidden away. We don’t know that well-meaning, wealthy church members didn’t buy up important documents for their private collections, as certain people tried to do in the 1980s with Hoffman.

    But we do know that there have been apostles who have ripped things out of books and hidden them away in vaults. We do know that there have been apostles that have tried to buy potentially important historical documents for their private collections. We do know that there have been apostles who have warned members not to read journals like Dialogue and Sunstone. We do know there have been apostles who have been bent on excommunicating historians they did not like. We do know that Leonard Arrington was released without any recognition or vote of thanks, and that some church leaders weren’t happy with what he was doing. We do have statements by apostles saying that historical fact should be secondary to faith-promotion. Out of the **thousands** of references to the First Vision and BOM of translation that exist in Church publications, we could probably count on two hands the number of times the multiple accounts or stone/hat issues have been presented. These things trouble people and undermine confidence that similar things haven’t been done without our knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the leaders in the Church have never made a sincere, full confession that one could call worthy of repentance.

    So let’s be honest truthseekers here. Let’s celebrate the great things in our history–including the calling of the Prophet Joseph, the Restoration, and the coming forth of new scripture, even the Book of Mormon. But let us not hesitate to freely acknowledge where we and the Church have been wrong, and perhaps still are wrong. It simply makes the damage worse when we try to defend the indefensible.

  72. PP, I’m not sure why you think I am defending the indefensible when I have freely acknowledged problems (but did not dwell on them — not the focus of this post or discussion). From my #64: “I am not denying the Church has created some of its own problems. … Yes, the Church is a generation or two late in delivering quality product. Yes, leaders should have spent more time reading LDS historians in the 70s, instead of marginalizing them or worse. Yes, I have some sympathy for those who are surprised by what they read in LDS history.”

    The 1832 account was hidden away for 30 years. But LDS history wasn’t hidden away. There is more of it now than forty years ago, but there was plenty back then. The biggest problem is getting fuller, more balanced treatments of historical events into the curriculum, and that finally seems to be happening. Of course, those who want the Church to fail tend to be irritated, even upset, when the Church makes progress by publishing documents, posting candid essays at, and upgrading its curriculum.

    How about you be a straight shooter, PP, and acknowledge the positive changes being made with the JS papers project and the new essays?

  73. Yes, Dave, I applaud the good work being done with the JS papers project and the new essays. And no, I’m not a straight-shooter; I’m a pious pontificator as anyone from BCC will tell you. What we need are fewer comments saying that church history has “always been available to anyone with a library card,” and more level-headed discussion where people don’t accuse each other of bad motives, stupidity, or laziness, as I’m seeing in many of the comments around here. We need people like you to be straight-shooters, Dave, not random commenters like me.

    Integrity is a precious thing. It earns trust, and once done, much can be forgiven. Likewise, institutions can repeatedly act in ways that lack integrity. When they do so, people will hesitate to trust them. To regain that trust, much has to be done. As we learn in church, it is much better not to make the mistakes in the first place. If mistakes are made, repentance is necessary–which includes acknowledging the mistakes before those offended.

    The Church’s JS papers project and new essays are steps in the right direction toward regaining that trust and repenting. Hopefully other steps will follow. Hopefully the church leaders will decide to release the 25 page versions of the essays, rather than the short ones currently on the website. Hopefully contrition and open acknowledgement of prior mistakes will occur. Until then, it’s simply a question of trust as to whether important items of church history haven’t been destroyed or hidden by good intentions.

    One last thing: I want the church to succeed, and believe it will. Publishing documents, posting candid essays, and upgrading curriculum are all positive developments. Confession and contrition will go a long way as well. President Uchtdorf’s remarks were a big step forward. Hopefully they will be seen as the beginning of the repentance process, rather than being a premature end.

  74. Well said, PP.

    I agree that the church does deserve some credit for the positive steps taken in recent years, but one must wonder whether this change was motivated by the honest realization that its past practices were wrong or whether the change was forced upon it by the bright light of the Internet.

    Even giving the church the benefit of the doubt on this point, a few essays and some changes in the curriculum are not, standing alone, enough to repair the serious damage done to the institution’s credibility. What would really help in this regard would be an admission by someone in a position of authority that the church has made some serious mistakes in the manner in which it has portrayed its history and the evolution of its teachings. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I have a lot more faith and trust in ecclesiastical leaders who are willing take ownership of their errors instead of telling me that I should not question their actions and I should simply submit to their will just as Christ submitted to the Father.

  75. After I left my two prior comments, something occurred to me: If others like me insist that the Church repent, then it is only fair to ask me and others to forgive–without condition. Didn’t Christ teach that we should forgive regardless of whether the wrongdoer asks for forgiveness? If I’m honest, I guess I need to admit that I haven’t been forgiving unconditionally. So I must forgive.

    And…perhaps I should be a little slower to judge as well. I don’t know all the circumstances of why church leaders acted the way they did. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, withholding judgment.

    And…maybe I should be a little meeker, a little more merciful, a bit more pure in heart, a bit more of a peacemaker, a little more righteous, a little less angry, a little slower to be offended, a little more willing to turn the other cheek, a little more willing to pray for church leaders who I feel do me wrong, and a little more exacting about the beams in my own eyes.

    I can’t change the Church, but with Christ’s help, I can change myself.

  76. Just wanted to say, I was too young at the time to have been reading the 1977 New Era, and my parent’s too old, and as I am the eldest child it wasn’t hanging around the house. It’s only very recently that the church website search engine has become even halfway sophisticated enough to bring it up in a keyword search that wouldn’t have buried it in 100s of entries (having done the rounds with Left Field on this before the search engine improvements, though multiple first vision accounts are not and were not my issue).
    Also to say, that a library card might have provided useful information for those in the US, and especially in Utah, but please don’t make the mistake of thinking that US published books are routinely available in Britain. They aren’t. Books are published separately in this country, a common language notwithstanding. Amazon has improved availability enormously. A limited selection of books was available from the one LDS bookstore and, as imports, were prohibitively expensive for many members, as well as being predominantly hagiographic biographies, and writings of GAs. That hasn’t changed much. Take a look at what is currently available from them under nonfiction (historical) and weep:

    I’ve spent the last couple of years perusing backissues of BYU Studies, JMH, and UHQ online, as well as various past articles from dialogue. Thank you internet.

  77. Thanks for the reply, PP. At the risk of threadjacking my own post, I will note that institutions, including the Church, are not people. They do not have a conscience. They don’t love you. They cannot repent. They will not say they are sorry. They are institutions, not people. (While corporations are legal persons for some purposes, they are not real people.) The idea that the Church should issue some sort of apology for past historical sins is simply naive.

    So the proper goal, should an institution go astray, is to reform it. If a practice is broken, fix it. If false or misleading statements were made, they can be corrected. The proper and achievable goal for those who think the Church needs to change the way it teaches its history is: pretty much what it is starting to do now with the new essays, with books like Massacre at Mountain Meadows, and with mild inoculation working its way into the curriculum.

  78. Dave – I won’t be the dreaded threadjacker, but I think you would generate a really spirited discussion with a post devoted to whether the Church can or should repent/apologize. I’ll look forward to it!

  79. Each new manual should definitely include a public statement of repentance from the authors of the previous one!

    Wait, are you guys saying Mormons practiced polygamy? Mormons!?! Next you’ll be telling me the Pope wears funny hats.

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