The New Harmonized First Vision Account

First VisionSunday night, Elder Richard J. Maynes, of the Presidency of the Seventy, delivered a CES Devotional on the First Vision. In particular, he made explicit reference to the four first-person accounts of the First Vision authored by Joseph Smith that we have. [See the text of the four accounts at this handy page at the JSPP site.] He also referenced the Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts.” It is encouraging to see senior LDS leaders incorporate the essays and the scholarship coming out of the Church History Department into their talks and recommend this material to the general membership. This post is about a very new resource that Elder Maynes referenced in his talk: A harmonized narrative of the First Vision posted at the Church History site (within incorporating details from all four primary sources. It was posted there only about a week ago. Wow. It’s not everyday that the Church restates the narrative of its founding event and posts it online.

To give you a sense of how it works, here is the first paragraph, blending quotations first from the 1832 account and then 1835 account.

“At about the age of twelve years,” Joseph Smith wrote, “my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul.”1 Living in upstate New York in the 1810s, Joseph was surrounded by religious discussion and controversy. Religious revivals put the urgent question “What must I do to be saved?” foremost in his mind. But the answer was elusive. “Being wrought up in my mind,” Joseph studied the “different systems” of religion, but “I knew not who was right or who was wrong and considered it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences.”2 His own sins and the “sins of the world” made him “exceedingly distressed.”

Before I give some reasons why harmonized accounts are a bad thing, let me first say that as harmonized accounts go, in this particular context, this is a pretty good narrative. Steven C. Harper, a BYU religion guy, is listed as the author. Harper cuts and pastes from the four primary accounts, adds some quotations from other sources such as Orson Pratt, and adds his own framing and commentary. There are links to each of the four primary accounts at the end of the article as well as footnotes for all the sources, many of them linked as well. As a tool for helping introduce Latter-day Saints to the details of the additional accounts of the First Vision beyond the standard canonized version (the 1838 account), this is a helpful introduction and complement to the “First Vision Accounts” essay linked above.

The problem with a harmonized account, of course, is that it is almost certainly not accurate. If several sources give different accounts with different details of a particular event, you have to weigh each source for credibility then, in light of that assessment, offer a suitably tentative most likely description of what did actually happen, to the extent that one can achieve the requisite degree of confidence in the particular details that are included in that likely description. A harmonization seems intended to avoid such a critical assessment of sources. In essence, a harmonization is designed to protect the sources, not to develop the most likely account of the event under study. The harmonization method might be spelled out like this: I accept all my sources at face value. I ask no questions of my sources. I simply weave all the sources together to create a conflated narrative, minimizing or ignoring the inconsistencies. Try that in an undergraduate history essay and you will probably get an F.

The obvious parallel is the New Testament gospels. Here as well, LDS writers love harmonization. Both Talmage and McConkie used a harmonization approach in their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christmas story we all know and love is a harmonization incorporating separate and largely unrelated accounts from Matthew and Luke. All things considered, we should applaud the “First Vision Accounts” essay for *not* attempting a harmonization. In that essay, each account is described separately, then problematic issues related to the four accounts as a group (memory and embellishment) are addressed. You may or may not agree with the analysis, but it is the right approach.

So if you are the type of person who simply must raise your hand in Sunday School to share your knowledge of LDS history, here’s what you might say when someone brings up the different First Vision sources in your class: “FYI, an LDS scholar just published at the site a fuller account of the First Vision that incorporates details from all four of Joseph Smith’s accounts, plus some other sources. And there are handy links to the four primary accounts as well, to make it easy for you to go read them for yourself. But make sure you read the Gospel Topics essay on First Vision accounts as well.

65 comments for “The New Harmonized First Vision Account

  1. I’m following this discussion (here and elsewhere) with interest. Details from the official version have been used (all my life) to make fairly specific doctrinal points. I’m curious what will come of that. Proof texting from among the several versions for whatever the point of the lesson?

  2. Dave, is it OK to say that I think you’re wrong on this one? There is no single best way to represent a text or a series of related texts. It all depends on what use you’re aiming for, and who your audience is. In some cases, you choose the one version you think is best (I’ve done that in my published work). In other cases, you put put texts in parallel (I’ve done that too). For some purposes, a harmonization will be useful; devotional gospel harmonies are nearly as old as the gospels themselves. If an editor thinks that each document contains unique and valid elements (I’ve run into that before), then some degree of harmonization is necessary to represent the version of the text the editor thinks is best, even after asking hard questions, especially if the editor’s aim is a readable text for instructional purposes.

  3. Yes, there are problems with harmonization, but every history book is a harmonization. In the case of Joseph’s own varied statements about the First Vision, can one be more credible than another? Even if written by another person, presumably they are writing what Joseph told them.
    The harmonized account by Steven Harper has already helped me in one way: I’ve wondered about Joseph’s varied reasons for going to the grove: was it to find forgiveness of his sins, or to know which church he should join? While these questions are not far apart, they put a different spin on his purpose. The harmonization brings these two questions together: He wanted to be saved, and he worried about finding the right church that would lead to his salvation.

  4. I tend to agree that harmonized accounts, while they have their place, are usually a bad thing. Certainly they obscure different contexts for each account and what one is doing with the account. That said, I think for pedagogical reasons having a harmonized account is important to help people understand what’s going on and why it’s not a problem. In the same way the harmonized approaches to the four gospels in the New Testament are very helpful for casual readers but can distort the underlying texts.

  5. “It is encouraging to see senior LDS leaders incorporate the essays and the scholarship coming out of the Church History Department into their talks and recommend this material to the general membership.”

    While I’m not against it, I don’t see why this is supposed to be such a good thing. It seems like a pretty sad state of affairs when church leaders feel compelled to cite scholars rather than the other way around.

  6. Does how we treat 4 accounts written by one person as an adult (between the ages of 26 and 36) about a single event differ from how we would treat 4 accounts from 4 different (unknown) people about a 3rd person’s entire life?

  7. “It’s not everyday that the Church restates the narrative of its founding event and posts it online.”

    I know this isn’t your main point, but I can’t help pointing out that seeing the first vision as the church’s founding event is a pretty recent thing. It was really the publication of the Book of Mormon that was the church’s founding event. I know we’ve used the first vision rhetorically as the founding event–both historically as well as theologically: (1) as the event that ends apostasy (like in missionary discussions, for example), and (2) as the event that proves our theological doctrine rather than as narrative (like talks that use the first vision to make a point about the separate nature of the Father and the Son, for example), as Christian mentioned.

    But I wonder if more familiarity with the different accounts might temper that kind of rhetoric. I’m not saying that our Godhead doctrine is wrong, just that I’m skeptical that the first vision is really the source of a doctrine, even though it has at times been pressed into its service.

  8. No, it really is a good thing. It sets a good example of considering multiple versions and various possibilities in the course of seeking inspiration or devotional significance, rather than insisting on one unchanging text. Let the church leaders and the scholars (and all other interested parties) be in conversation with each other.

  9. I don’t think the church insists on one, unchanging text. Rather, they simply deny academics and scholars the privilege of changing and pluralizing them. This seems perfectly okay to me.

  10. I tend to see the Book of Mormon as more foundational but what we mean by that varies. As others noted it kind of depends what one is arguing for or in more teaching settings what you’re trying to contextualize. Certainly there are things in the various first vision accounts that are theologically significant – such as question of the number of entities present.

  11. I agree with Jonathan here. I think having GAs have more knowledge of history and theology is important. Especially if only to contextualize how certain some things are. For instance there are lots of “folk traditions” people assume have a basis. To my eyes this is part and parcel of “study it out in your minds.” With all the responsibilities of authorities having that data in an easy to digest fashion without having to read dozens of sometimes difficult books is important. Otherwise we’d just have a few figures like Elder Oaks familiar with all of this.

    The other thing I think is helpful is in knowing when these folk traditions are false so they don’t get promulgated. Even in unfortunately too many manuals (thinking particular of the institute manuals) there’s bad data. Having good data is important. If only to give less ammunition to our critics who get riled up with any mistake they can cast as “dishonesty.”

  12. Meh. The original disciples were all ignorant fisherman. I don’t think they felt any need to consult with the Greek philosophers.

  13. What’s interesting to me is that I think Stephen Harper, of all people, would be very, very aware of the problem of combining accounts. I just finished Laura Harris Hales’ compilation of essays, “A Reason for Faith,” and Stephen Harper has a really thorough essay where he analyzes each First Vision account in light of what neuropsychologists have learned about memory in the last two decades. He basically points out that:

    1. Memory is not fixed when it’s first “experienced” but takes time to form
    2. How we recall something depends on the cue or trigger that leads to the recalling of memory

    He develops these implications in suggesting that Joseph’s 1832 account emphasized traditional conversion narratives of the time, and may have been rejected by Joseph later in his life as he developed as a prophet in favor of narratives that emphasized God’s work and call. The 1838 account was formed in a period of intense persecution and so Joseph’s telling is defensive. His argument is really, really interesting and nuanced, but I highly recommend reading it.

    All this is to say that I doubt Harper is ignorant of these critiques; he makes a strong case for why each one is individual. I wonder if Harper, in authoring this, is trying to respond to a popular appeal to see them together? And it is, in its’ own way, interesting to see how the differences combine. But I imagine he also hopes readers will read each one individually. (Perhaps they should add a caveat and emphasis about that towards the end of the combined account?)

  14. Jeff G, true. But Paul was very well schooled in philosophy and theology and the scriptures, and used it to great effect. I don’t think every prophet needs that background, but the ones who have it can reach a different audience and do different things. There’s good evidence that Nephi, too, had some scribal training and formal education and it allowed him to do amazing things with Isaiah. Again, not a necessity; just a difference. From God’s perspective, it’s probably good to have diversity of background that allows them to reach different audiences like they do.

  15. Really bad idea, and this is an especially poor execution.

    One of my testimonies of Joseph comes from the authenticity of his words (not to be confused with my familiarity with his words). I find that authenticity in each individual account, in its original state.

    This crude paraphrase lacks any immediacy, any sense of groping for the words to convey an ultimately inexpressible experience — it’s the sense of seeking for those impossible words that helped me embrace the differences in the various accounts. Here, that feeling after words, the sense that “this still isn’t quite right, but it’s the best I can do right now” is entirely absent — instead, the facts are there, in a plodding, utilitarian fashion, arranged in a tidy order, as if Joseph’s seeking and the vision that came as a result were completely inevitable, as if Joseph’s experiences could be reduced to a neat, comprehensible, entirely ordinary and predictable chain of ultimately mundane events.

    There is no charm, no sense of the numinous, nothing authentic here, merely a pedestrian account more suitable to a textbook guaranteed to bore its readers than to the religious literature that Joseph’s own words achieve. Yet I suppose that uninspired teachers who think they’re being bold to incorporate something new will embrace this dreary account … and investigators and young people will have a new barrier to gaining a testimony of the Restoration.

  16. Frankly, witnesses who change accounts from one telling to another are easily impeached in court as not being truthful. With all of the other changes Joseph Smith made along the way, such as changes in his views on the godhead, changes to the d&c revelations to suit his other changes, etc., I don’t think it’s wise to highlight how Joseph Smith changed his story multiple times on the “first” vision(s).

  17. Exiled, that’s a problem with the court system. It depends upon unreliable witness accounts and assumes shifts are due to deceit when the cognitive science is quite different. Likewise how believable witnesses are seen often has little to do with the witness and more things like the angle they are seen at, how they are dress and other features. There’s quite a bit of scientific literature on the problem of witnesses. This site has a nice overview of some of the issues.

  18. “In general if someone’s accounts don’t change at all, probably they’ve been coached.”

    –Clark Goble

    Hmmmm. Interesting point. Does God coach his witnesses to make sure they get the story straight, or is more of a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” kind of a guy. Deep, Clark.

  19. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    JKC (#8), I would agree that the First Vision was not a central event in the early LDS Church story, but I think it has become a foundational event in the current LDS narrative of the events of the early LDS Church.

    Ardis (#11), I suspect you read the accounts with an eye for detail and nuance that eludes most readers. Keeping in mind that newspapers were once aimed for an 8th-grade reading level, I’m guessing many readers are quite happy with a harmonized version, regardless of the loss in authentic tone or the blurring of detail from the different accounts.

    Exiled (#12) and responses, certainly different accounts from a single individual, several years apart, about a first-person experience is a different matter than four independent, contemporaneous third-person reports. Harmonizing accounts is problematic in either case. Differences in detail in successive accounts can be viewed as undermining credibility (inconsistent details) or supporting it (we expect some variation in successive accounts, particularly if delivered to different audiences). So weighing the different accounts is no simple task. That’s not really the focus of my post.

  20. No, Dave, you don’t understand at all what I’m saying — It isn’t detail and it isn’t nuance; it isn’t content at all, really, but voice. It’s poetry vs. the machine-translated user manual for your TV. Joseph Smith’s own words carry conviction and the power to convict — and I’m not the only one to have gained a testimony through Joseph’s account: Arthur Henry King left a beautiful account of his recognition of truth in Joseph’s words, and there are many other such testimonies. This soulless paraphrase has the form of Joseph Smith’s account(s) but denies the power thereof.

    I’m not a fan of gospel harmonizing, but at least when people make a mashup of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they use the text of scripture instead of writing their own uninspired prose. Joseph’s words are not at all difficult to read; they didn’t need to be paraphrased, even in a harmony.

    But I won’t push it anymore, here. If you think I’m concerned over a loss of detail, you don’t understand me at all.

  21. Generally I am against harmonization of separate accounts. We Mormons have harmonized the Gospels, which is essentially creating a new Gospel, one that is not in the text. (A paradox there somewhere.)

    Having said that, history making is often the harmonization of diverse sources. Individuals often give differing and sometimes even conflicting accounts of the same event in the same telling. The different versions of the FV over a period of years is, I think to some degree, to be expected.

    The harmonization of the FV accounts is also to be expected. The Gospel Topics essay was good, and I will use it as my source for discussing FV accounts.

  22. I agree the individual accounts are more powerful, but when I picked up a harmony last year (forget by whom) it was an amazing experience.

  23. I’m with Ardis on this. It makes perfect sense to me that Joseph’s telling of the story varied — different details in each one. I would rather have four original and honest re-tellings from the original source than a harmonization.

  24. The original apostles may have been mostly ignorant fisherman (though I think we sometimes overplay their ignorance–there is nothing to suggest that they were educated in elite institutions, but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to think they may have had some level of rabbinical instruction) but they confined their message almost entirely to repentance and faith. Where they spoke of “history” it was either (1) recounting events they themselves witnessed or (2) recounting the Jewish traditions, such as Moses that were pretty uncontroversial. They expounded on the theological meaning of historical events, but they largely didn’t try to write a history.

    Now, things are a little different. We’re no longer dealing with apostles who can tell church history from their own memory; instead, our apostles have to rely on written histories for their account of church history. Others have written our history, but as we go along, we find places where previous historiographers got things wrong, or where there is new information, and it’s a good thing, I think, for the brethren to be making an effort to have the best available and current information. None of this means that the brethren need to be constrained by the work of professional historians, or that they can’t disagree with or overrule their conclusions; it just means that they are making an effort to “study it out in their minds” as Clark says, by gathering the best available information.

  25. Right. My point was just that I have wondered if perhaps some of the emphasis the first vision has gotten as the foundational event has been due in part to ignorance of the different accounts, and whether increased familiarity may temper that some, and perhaps return us to a view of church history closer to the early saints, where the first vision was not that central and the Book of Mormon truly was considered the keystone.

  26. That maybe sounds too negative. I don’t mean to suggest that our current emphasis on the first vision as a foundational even is wrong. My comment is one of curiosity, not criticism.

  27. By coaching I was more thinking of criminal cases. But a good example of such things in a Mormon context would be say the memorized missionary discussions in the 80’s and early 90’s. Of course coached testimonies don’t mean they are wrong. And typically attorneys (prosecutors and defendants) want testimonies that are coached. It’s the ones where they don’t know what will be said that are the danger to them.

    My point is just that Joseph’s differing accounts are typical for real witnesses of real events.

  28. Ardis, what you outline is why I don’t like harmonized accounts. You lose voice. However that’s not the only reason to study things like the First Vision or other events with multiple differing accounts. Sometimes the facts, or at least information, have other implications.

  29. I believe there are other reasons why harmonization of the four gospels and the First Vision is a bad idea.

    As to the gospels, not only were they composed some 40+ years after the events they purport to describe, they were written by people who were primarily concerned with advancing a particular belief system, not providing an accurate historical account of what actually transpired. For example, most scholars do not believe that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt in order to escape Herodian infanticide. Rather, the authors of Matthew were actually making a typological comparison between Christ and Moses to give the Savior’s mission added credibility. Further, Pontius Pilate’s behavior as described in the New Testament is not credible given how swiftly the Romans had dispatched others who had laid claim to messianic status. Rather, he was likely portrayed in a more favorable manner because Christ’s followers were trying to distance themselves from the Jewish revolt in 66-70 AD. These efforts at harmonization are grounded in the false premise of scriptural literalism, which sadly is an article of faith that CES shows little inclination to relinquish.

    As to harmonizing the First Vision, that effort is equally futile albeit for different reasons. First and foremost, is the very nature of the event they purport to describe. What actually happened here? Did Joseph have a dream? How long did it last? Was he conscious during the experience the way Christ’s disciples were when they witnessed Him perform a miracle? Frankly, I don’t believe Joseph ever knew. There’s a reason it’s called the First Vision, not the First Visitation. I don’t doubt that Joseph experienced something, but when it is difficult or impossible for you to describe the nature of an event in terms that your fellow mortals can grasp, harmonizing various accounts of that event is much more difficult.

    Second, the various accounts of the First Vision differ in so many important respects that Mormon apologists look like Cirque du Soleil contortionists when they try to harmonize/reconcile them. Even making allowance for the passage of time and the fact that only one account was written by Joseph’s hand, the differences suggest that there was something more going on here. That perhaps Joseph’s memory of his vision was altered (or enhanced) by his evolving theology regarding the nature of the Godhead, a phenomenon that has been well documented in recent memory studies. But again, CES’s lack of imagination renders it seemingly incapable of entertaining such a possibility, which is, again, sad.

  30. I tend to think critics exaggerate the differences greatly. (For example referring to only one being in one account isn’t a contradiction with the other accounts that describe two)

  31. There several ways to read disagreeing accounts. One is to attempt to harmonize, which has obvious problems (such as ignoring obvious discrepancies that may teach us something if viewed through a different lens). A different method (and different lens) is to read chronologically. What were the circumstances under which the various accounts were given. A good example of this approach is Greg Prince’s recent analysis of the First Vision accounts in JMH. He is able to use this approach to raise good questions and make a few well-considered observations. The point is that Joseph gave different accounts that conflicted in some ways. Why? That question can never be answered by the harmonizers because they are intentionally avoiding that very question. Indeed, that is the purpose of the harmonizing approach. Which is why I don’t find it very useful.

  32. Far Side,

    What else can CES do? The scripture writers recorded the flight into Egypt. Some or most modern-day “scholars” say it didn’t happen. Were they there? Did they talk to anyone who was there? Did they talk to anyone who talked to anyone who talked to anyone who was there? Did they review the Egyptian customs records? Or the Nazareth census records? Do they disbelieve this one matter,or do they disbelieve generally? No scholar can prove or disprove the flight into Egypt — and they shouldn’t try. I think CES would be unfaithful if they taught the flight into Egypt didn’t happen. Besides, what is the harm in teaching it?

    I would rather have matters of faith taught by people of faith. Scholars can provide sometimes helpful context, but that’s all.

  33. ji,

    I would hope that some day CES would realize that the scripture writers did not, in fact, “record” the flight into Egypt.

    CES is reading the scriptures as if they were written by 21st Century Americans who were schooled in historiography and who placed a premium on getting their facts straight. They were not and they did not.

    The scriptures were written by people who told stories and passed on oral traditions to their children with the primary purpose of conveying important moral principles. If you were to confront the authors of Matthew and ask them—”Did the flight into Egypt really occur?”—they would look at you quizzically and say: “Fellow, you’re missing the whole point of the story.”

    The evidence that numerous stories in the Bible are not factually accurate—indeed, that they never occurred—is overwhelming. And, at the risk of ruining Christmas for you, Christ wasn’t really born in a stable or cave—that was myth concocted about 200-300 years after He was born. And it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem. Arguably, Luke’s real purpose in telling this story was to contrast an earthly king—”In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”—with arrival of a heavenly one.

    You ask: “What is the harm in teaching scriptural literalism?” Apart from the fact that it’s just not true, such a simplistic approach to sacred texts robs them of much of their meaning. But, sadly, many Mormons equate literalism with truth and can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance of letting it go. They think if that if the scriptures are not factually accurate then they must have been written by fraudsters, in which event the whole house of cards begins to crumble. This, to me, is not genuine faith.

    Is it possible that some of the events that religious scholars dismiss today actually occurred? Sure. But to refuse to entertain the idea that they did not and to consider alternative explanations for their origins is to cheat yourself out of much of what the scriptures have to offer.

  34. I think CES should engage more with the fact the canon was put together around 200 BCE. Plus, the Book of Mormon is pretty clear that the text is corrupt (not to mention mention missing scriptures). While I don’t think they have to adopt all the claims by people embracing the Documentary Hypothesis (in the details there’s a *lot* of speculation from relatively little evidence – mostly late textual) Anyway assuming the Old Testament is (a) a direct record by the people involved at the time rather than later people compiling traditions and (b) very trustworthy seems to go at odds with both the evidence but even scripture.

  35. To add, I don’t think that means rejecting the flight into Egypt. Just that one can give the benefit of doubt to scripture while acknowledging the nature of the history is complex.

    Right now there’s a movement in terms of “vaccination” for LDS church history. However really compared to issues with the Bible, LDS history is pretty minor. While people psychologically tend to react differently to something that happened 100 years ago rather than 2000 years ago (whether that makes sense or not) I think we should be preparing people for the obvious historical issues that are far more widespread on the internet than anti-Mormon materials. You don’t even need to change what you see as likely – just contextualize it by noting the issues of transmission.

  36. I think CES is getting better. While there are problems with CES particularly at BYU they’re engaging with history and scholarship a lot.

    That said I think simply rejecting anything about Moses is a bit more dubious, although I can understand those who do. As for the stable, while I’ll admit I don’t follow all the literature I’ve never heard of dating Luke to 300 AD. Typically it’s dated to the 1st century.

    While I disapprove of literalism, I think simply assuming everything is later myth is first often just wrong, and second misses how history was dealt with. Type settings are common. Now that does mean that authors are fitting events to common patterns. (Although to a degree that happens even today – when we talk about “the narrative” in the press it’s effectively the same sort of thing) There’s a false dichotomy between a naive literalism reading texts as if they were written by a 21st century author and the secular tendency to discount most religious beliefs.

  37. Sorry, that second sentence should read, “while there were problems with CES particularly at BYU they’re engaging with history and scholarship a lot better of late.”

  38. Clark, first let me say that I don’t know if I am doing this “nested comments” thing correctly. I guess I’ll find out after this is posted.

    Second, I was not suggesting that the scriptures are devoid of historical content or that their lack of historicity in certain places provides a basis for discounting religious beliefs. Indeed, my point was the opposite—when you entertain the possibility that a particular episode in the scriptures is a myth, it allows you to probe for the author’s actual meaning.

    Third, I was not suggesting that Luke was written around 300 AD; rather, the basis on which many scholars reject the stable/cave story is a misinterpretation/mistranslation of the word “manger,” which occurred about 250 years after Christ and evolved into our current Creche mythology. There is an excellent analysis of this issue in Kenneth Bailey’s book, “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.”

    By the way, one of my favorite parts of Christmas each year is the country-by-country display of nativity scenes at the Washington, D.C. Temple Visitors Center. As Ronald Reagan once said after he was told by an aide that a moving story he told in a speech about a World War II veteran wasn’t true: “Well, it should be!”

  39. FarSide,

    When you quote me, please do so honestly. It will make for a better conversation.

  40. My apologies, ji. It was not my intention to mischaracterize what you said.

  41. Ah, I misunderstood you on Luke. You were more talking about the poor bringing their animals into their home at night. Is that right? Yeah, the way it’s presented in popular culture is probably wrong.

    Regarding the question of realism, I’m a little more skeptical that all Jewish traditions were taken as the equivalent of Aesop’s Fables where all that matters is the ethical angle. That’s not to deny there are aspects that are like Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Just that I think there’s a tendency on one side to assume everything is accurate and there an assumption on the other to assume most is late additions borrowed to make the point more poignant. I am just skeptical of that.

  42. Fair point, Clark. I would nevertheless recommend that you check out Bailey’s book. He is both a devout Christian and an exceptional scholar. Among other things, he uses several Middle Eastern translations of the New Testament to strip away the Western veneer that has been super-imposed on the scriptures. Frankly, from both a scholarly and spiritual perspective, his work rivals that of any LDS author I have read (in my not-so-humble opinion).

  43. ji, one more thing.

    After re-reading my response to your comment regarding the historical accuracy of Joseph and Mary’s escape to Egypt, I realize that it was unnecessarily strident and also dismissive of your viewpoint. For that, I also owe you an apology. (Too many Diet Cokes today, I guess.)

  44. Yeah, they do try to get a lot of mileage out of that “only one being” thing. Despite the fact that he didn’t say “only one;” he said he “saw the Lord.”

    “I went to the White house and met the President” and
    “I went to the White House and met the President and First Lady”

    can both be accurate and truthful accounts of the same event. It’s not a hard concept, really.

  45. Clark 17.1:

    I don’t know how you can say the accounts aren’t contradictory. Which was it, one being or two or many angels or Moroni (some accounts say the first visitation of a heavenly being was from Moroni)? How is that not incredibly contradictory? I know this is a site for believers, but to say there is no contradiction is like saying the light is green and then saying it was red or maybe yellow.

  46. No, Clark. Joseph’s wildly divergent accounts are not typical for “a real witness of a real event.” If you can’t perceive that, I’m not going to be the one to explain it to you.

  47. To me, the handwritten version has a “voice” of conviction; some also find it in the later versions. I don’t find it in the “harmonization.”

    The contradiction among the versions interesting to me is not the one or two beings issue (which may or may not be a contradiction). The two personage canonized version is now frequently cited in defense of anti-trinitarianism, but is not needed, in view of Stephen’s vision recorded in the New Testament. (Though some anti-trinitarians who are strict mono-theists simply deny that Stephen saw two distinct beings and others deny that Jesus was God/a God. I don’t know what trinitarians do with Stephen’s vision.) What might be foundationally more significant than the appearance of a second being, who only introduces the first, is the fact that in the first, handwritten version of the vision, JS did not pray to find out which church to join or which was right. He had already determined that none were. Instead, he went to pray for forgiveness of his own sins. The canonized version changes fundamentally the nature and content of the prayer and the response by making them a matter of seeking information as to what to do/which church to join, rather than relief from the burden of guilt. I have not grasped what various harmonizers are doing with this contradiction or what the critics of contradictions are doing when they focus on numbers of personages rather than the basic content of the prayer and the response.

    Could JS have been describing two very different events? Maybe there was a first vision and a second vision that have been assumed to be the same, but were different responses to different prayers. Maybe memory changed. Memory research in the last few decades has shown that it does that and that a revised (or implanted) memory may bear no relationship to actual historical events, but have the same emotional/psychological/reality for the person as any memory of actual events. This could lead to an authentic voice of conviction in an account that has little or no correspondence to historical reality.

  48. I think the differences in number of people presents has been addressed a couple of times. Unless you’re going to respond to those explanations I’m not sure why you keep bring it up.

  49. “Try that in an undergraduate history essay and you will probably get an F.”

    Good thing reality is not an undergraduate history essay.

  50. I, for one, am glad that a harmonization is at least possible, and do not mind that it exists.
    As for why Joseph Smith didn’t have a memorized speech to relate the experience, every time it came up; I believe is due to the persecution he received right after it happened. A wonderful thing happened to him, and when he shared it everyone, he was beaten down by everyone but his family. So when it came time to start sharing the experience again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was trying his best to judge what he could say which would be true enough, for whom he was writing to.

  51. Again, I’m really familiar with the accounts. I seem different emphasis and different things discussed. You’ll have to spell out your argument. There’s differences, no doubt. That the differences are massive contradictions I’m a bit more skeptical of. Not mentioning in one account all the people you mention in an other isn’t really a contradiction by any stretch of the imagination. In one account he said he saw many angels in the vision.

  52. I’m not sure the first version of the first vision (sorry, couldn’t resist) makes the separation you make. Feeling his sins is definitely emphasized more in several of the versions. His concern for his soul which is partially tied to sin is also tied in the first version to the different denominations. It’s not spelled out quite as it is in the later ones, but there definitely is a connection there. However I agree he doesn’t present himself as praying to find out but more as finding no answer he thinks he has no alternative but pray directly. The emphasis is quite different.

  53. Clark (21.1), Your response as to seeking forgiveness may be accurate, but it does not address the contradiction that I find troublesome. That is, in the first version Joseph had already determined before the prayer and vision that none of the churches were right, while in the canonized version he had not been able “to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong” and prayed to find out “which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.” Cf., from the 1832 version:

    “by searching the scriptures I found that mand did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament”

    I have not found any satisfactory “harmonization” of this conflict, though one can be attempted by distinguishing what was in Joseph’s mind as a result of searching the scriptures from what had entered into his heart. That seems weak to me. Is there a better solution? I suspect natural memory modification as an explanation of the different accounts, but that preserves honesty at the expense of accuracy (which BTW is OK with me).

  54. JR, that’s definitely a contradiction and presumably his memory shifted on that point. I don’t see that as a major point as the basics are the same – he was studying the religions and couldn’t decide among them and went to God to see what to do about it. The only difference was the strength of his frustration. In the first one he’s so frustrated he doesn’t think any will do and in the latter he downplays this frustration to ask which one he should join.

    It’s differences like this that I think get downplayed in the harmonization and is why I dislike harmonization. But at the same time I don’t see it as a huge difference.

  55. Clark, Your resolution may be what happened, but it is contrary to the language of the first version. “In the first one he’s so frustrated he doesn’t think any will do” is not consistent with “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ…” Your version reflects a tentative conclusion; there is nothing tentative about Joseph’s conclusion as reported in the first version. The first version leaves no room for praying to find out which church was right and reports no such prayer. The difference (even if not “huge”) is enough to make some of us who find authenticity in the first version quite uncomfortable with the use made (by the Church, and by us as missionaries decades ago) of the contrary point of the canonized version. It is enough to draw into question the wisdom of insisting on the historicity of [a particular version – harmonized or not – of] the “founding events” of the Church as if such detailed historicity were necessary to avoid the entire Restoration being a fraud. The harmonization effort is one hinged to historical claims which at the detail level may be often misperceived, misunderstood, misremembered, or misreported, and yet seem to me quite unnecessary to Joseph’s ultimately expansive and still open-ended vision [a different use of the word :) ] of the nature and destiny of mankind individually or as the family of God and of the possibility of a Zion society. Rather than attempt harmonization, for some of us, it is better to acknowledge conflicting reports, changing memory, loose language, and that ” there have been times when … leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes” and move on to what matters more.

  56. JR, if someone demands total consistency I can’t help them beyond noting that’s not how memories or testimonies work psychologically. The details will always shift around a bit. To me that’s minor. If it’s not to others I probably can’t convince them beyond pointing to the literature in psychology and cognitive science.

  57. Clark, I agree. That is precisely why it is, for some, more helpful to point to literature on memory, cognitive science, etc. and to acknowledge differences in the accounts, than it is to attempt a harmonization that doesn’t quite work.

  58. Yes, that’s why I dislike harmonization as it tends to be poor at communicating why there should be differences. I wish the articles by the church dealt with the psychology of memory more. What harmonization does do though is suggest the consistent parts are the key parts. Again not necessarily the most accurate since a memory might become more fixed later and then repeated and strengthen with repetition. Typically, although not necessarily universally, earlier memories are more accurate than later ones.

  59. Harmonization is a poor word. I would prefer compilation or combination. Both are more accurate and more indicative of the purpose of merging them together.

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