Memory and the First Vision

How do we account for differences between the various accounts we have on record of the First Vision?  What role does memory play in how it was presented over time?  How have we viewed those accounts since they were first recorded?  These are big questions that are central to our understanding of Joseph Smith’s experience.  Steven C. Harper took a look at these questions and more in his book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press, 2019) and also sat down recently for a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring to talk about his book and the First Vision more generally.  What follows in this co-post is a summary of his remarks with some commentary, but I recommend taking the time to read the full interview here.

Dr. Harper’s book is divided into three parts, the first of which delves into the issue of autobiographical memory.  In his interview, Harper talked about how the field of memory studies needs to be taken into greater account by historians of the First Vision:

There are many untested, unproved assumptions about memory that are taken for granted in scholarship about the First Vision.

It’s common, for example, to see the assumption that memories decay at predictable rates. It’s a maxim that recent memories are accurate and distant memories are inaccurate. Those are reassuring things we tell ourselves, but they are unfounded.

Memories are much more unpredictable than that. They are based on many more variables than the passage of time.

He goes on to explain more about how memories are formed and influence the accounts that are created: “People somehow store traces of some of their past experiences, and when something in the present provides a cue, a memory gets made that mixes some of those traces of the past with present concerns and motivations.”  Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision are excellent examples of this process.

In looking at the first-person accounts of the First Vision, Harper discussed some of how the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s life (the present concerns and motivations) when each account was recorded and the experience itself (those traces of the past) mixed together.  For example, he “argued that the account in Joseph’s 1832 autobiography is best understood as a frustrated attempt to reconcile two things: One was to answer the Lord’s commands to Joseph to tell his story and the other was Joseph’s need to heal the youthful psychological pain of being rejected by the minister after telling his vision.”  Likewise, the 1838 account that we have in the Pearl of Great Price was also a strategic memory or retelling.  When he worked to tell both of these accounts, it “always retrieved the trauma of being rejected by the minister,” though he worked through that trauma in different ways in the two accounts.  The 1835 account—a record in his journal of a conversation he had, written down by a clerk—was, in contrast, an oral telling that was “cued without much forethought and thus free of the psychological need to respond to the minister’s rejection.”  Memories recorded at different times and to meet different needs tend to come out differently, which is part of how Steven Harper approaches the different accounts we have of the First Vision.

The second part of First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins focuses on the story between 1840-1880 of how the First Vision came to be seen as our origin story.  While Harper notes that “we now know that Joseph Smith told the story of his vision earlier and more frequently than we used to think,” and evidence discovered since James Allen’s seminal publication on the subject in the 1960s “shows that Joseph began telling the experience at least by the early 1830s,” it was still not as commonly known among the Latter-day Saints of the first generation in the Church as it is today.  Even the name we use was of a later origin: according to Harper, “it was apparently Orson Pratt who coined the term ‘first vision’ in 1849 to describe the event.”  He said that: “I think readers will be surprised by the plot twists that combined to lead Latter-day Saints to think of the First Vision as our genesis. It was not inevitable.”  It was, instead, a process of coming to talk about the First Vision and to view it with the intensity that we do today.

The third part of the book “tells the story of the contest over the First Vision” between believing and non-believing scholars during the middle of the 20th century.  Fawn Brodies’s 1945 biography No Man Knows My History and an article in the 1960s by Reverend Wesley Walters challenged the traditional Latter-day Saint narrative of the First Vision in some sophisticated ways.  This, in turn, sparked “a cadre of faithful historians” like “James Allen, Richard Bushman, Dean Jessee, [and] Milton Backman” to study the issue more closely and publish scholarship about the First Vision, such as in the articles of the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies and a 1980 volume of the Journal of Mormon History. A lot of the modern understanding of the First Vision in the academic field really emerged from this contest of scholarship.

In the interview with Kurt Manwaring, Steven Harper was asked the intriguing question: “What would Joseph Smith think of the important role the First Vision plays in the Church today?”  It was intriguing to me, because, as I’ve discussed before, it seems that in the early Church, the focus was much more strongly on the Book of Mormon as the founding narrative of the movement.  Harper responded that:

Great question. I wish I had a great answer. I’m not sure. I think he would be pleased that we have recently emphasized the lesson he learned: “I had found the testimony of James to be true, that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain and not be upbraided.”

Joseph’s best known account is characterized by a defensive persecution complex, and I think he might be pleased that we have grown out of our persecuted past enough to begin to put less emphasis on abominable creeds and corrupt professors and more emphasis on the Christ-centered redemption narrative emphasized in his 1832 and 1835 accounts.

I like to think, in other words, that he would be pleased by the recent turn toward the story’s application for sinful, anxious teenagers who also need to know that people like them have successfully sought and find the God of love.

It was an insightful response.

There is a lot of great information in the interview, and I recommend going on over and reading it in full.  There is some fun speculation about how Joseph Smith might tell the story of the First Vision today, some discussion of what is meaningful about the experience for us, and a taste of what current scholarship about the First Vision is discussing. As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the year Joseph Smith said the experience occurred, it’s worth looking at what one of the foremost experts on Joseph Smith’s First Vision has to say on the subject.

20 comments for “Memory and the First Vision

  1. No matter how you try to rationalize, it all comes down to one question: If you had an intimate visit with the Divinity, wouldn’t the details be etched in your memory? You can have all the discussions you want about the vagaries of memory, but I think we are talking about an experience (vision) that is so unique that the description of the event would be consistent.

    The reason why this issue is important to me personally is in the 1960’s the missionary discussions were built around the First Vision. It was used as a set up for discussing a wide range of LDS beliefs. If it was merely a dream, subject to memory issues, then the foundation of the Church is altered substantially.

  2. Steve Harper was on the Faith Matters podcast a couple of months ago and it’s really worth listening to. Personally, I find Tim and Aubrey Chaves to be somewhat annoying podcast hosts, but I do appreciate the work they are doing and they have lined up some fantastic guests and a very impressive advisory board. I thought Steve’s interview on Faith Matters was refreshingly honest, nuanced, and well-informed — not quite what I was expecting from someone who had spent most of his career working for the institutional church. I enjoyed the podcast so much I bought Harper’s book. Haven’t gotten that far into it but I expect it will be equally informative. Thanks for the review.

  3. @rogerdhansen

    No, I wouldn’t expect the details to be etched in memory. That’s often not how transformative experiences work. You remember the big picture much better than the details. You remember the emotions and the general imprint much better than the details.

    Further, and perhaps more importantly, the different accounts of the first vision aren’t inconsistent with each other. One may intentionally or unintentionally leave out even important details of remarkable experiences–that doesn’t make them inconsistent.

  4. Even the three accounts in Acts of Saul/Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus are inconsistent with each other. While I agree with Dsc’s first paragraph above, I must disagree with the second. It may be a correct way to resolve the issue of the early version reporting only “the Lord” and not two personages, but I am unable to find consistency between the version that says JS had already decided before going to the grove that none of the churches he knew was right and the version that says he went to pray about which was right. I’ve not yet found anyone explaining how that is consistent with the later version. Have I missed the explanation?

  5. @Wondering

    Even the 1838 account has Joseph wondering “are they all wrong together?” To the extent there is any inconsistency, it is the level of certainty of the conclusion that he had already reached. The 1832 account includes an answer to the question articulated in the 1838 account, which implies that the question was asked. Thus, the only inconsistency is between did Joseph already conclude that all churches were wrong and seek confirmation, or did he did he come to an ambiguous conclusion and ask if which was right or if all were wrong. This seems like a trivial difference to me.

  6. Dsc, I’m not sure about your interpretation of “are they all wrong together?” or that a statement implies a question, but yours is certainly the best (the only) effort I’ve seen to explain those aspects of the 1832 and 1838 accounts as consistent. Thanks.

  7. My difficulty with the various versions of the first vision isn’t that memory erodes, its that memory is known to ‘grow’ and that growth ends up moving away from what actually happened (listen to Gladwell’s podcast on Brian Williams for an example/better expansion). We’ve based some pretty fundamental doctrine on JS’s ‘growing’ memory (ie nature of God).

  8. lehcarjt, I’m not convinced the Church’s doctrine on the nature of God is based on JS’s “growing memory” of the first vision. Truman Madsen (and others) claimed that Joseph learned it from the First Vision, but as nearly as I have yet discovered Joseph did not make that claim. BTW, I think Madsen’s famous lecture on “what Joseph learned” referred only to the 1838 version and was really a lecture on what Madsen could read into that 1838 version. Perhaps I’m wrong.
    As to memory “growing,” per Elizabeth Loftus’ research it takes only a seed planted by a trusted friend or relative and periodically reinforced and adding details for a time to create a memory (as real to the individual as any other) out of a complete fabrication. Yes, it seems it is not merely a question of erosion.

  9. By nature of God (which is kind of a vague, I’ll admit), I meant that God has a physical body. Is that what you meant as well? If that teaching came from somewhere other than the FV, I’ve never once heard evidence of it. I’ve always liked Madsen’s stories although I’ll admit that it’s been years since I’ve read anything from him. I’ll have to look up his lecture to see if that is what he is talking about.

    The fascinating thing about memory growth to me is that retelling the story over and over out loud or in our own heads, is one of the fundamental things that changes it from a story to a true memory (using my own language rather than anything even vaguely scientific). Which seems to go right along with what happened to JS. So for me, it isn’t that JS didn’t have a vision, it’s that the vision was unlikely to have been anything like what we use as a teaching tool, creator of doctrine.

  10. By nature of God (which is kind of a vague, I’ll admit), I meant that God has a physical body. Is that what you meant as well? If that teaching came from somewhere other than the FV, I’ve never once heard evidence of it. I’ve always liked Madsen’s stories although I’ll admit that it’s been years since I’ve read anything from him. I’ll have to look up his lecture to see if that is what he is talking about.

    The fascinating thing about memory growth to me is that retelling the story over and over out loud or in our own heads, is one of the fundamental things that changes it from a story to a true memory (using my own language rather than anything even vaguely scientific). Which seems to go right along with what happened to JS. So for me, it isn’t that JS didn’t have a vision, it’s that the vision was unlikely to have been anything like what we use as a teaching tool, creator of doctrine.

  11. Lehcarjt, I don’t recall anything in any version of the First Vision that entails, states or demonstrates the tangibility of bodies of any “personage(s)” who appeared to JS whether by “vision” or “visitation.” The BoM and the NT give us Jesus having a tangible body after the resurrection. The 1834-35 Lectures on Faith purported that the Father is a “personage of spirit, glory, and power” (5:2c) and that the Son is a “personage of tabernacle” (5:2d) who “possess[es] the same mind with the Father; which Mind is the Holy Spirit” (5:2j,k); We reach God the Father having a physical body in D&C 130 (1843) some years after the latest version of the First Vision.
    As far as seeing 2 “personages” is concerned, the First Vision is no more unique than Stephen’s NT vision at his martyrdom.

    Tangentially, D&C 84:21-22 (from 1832) tells us that “without the ordinances [of the “greater” (the Melchizedek) priesthood] … the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; [22] For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.” While it’s hard to tell, both the antecedent of “this” and the meaning of “power of godliness” being unclear, v. 22 seems to some to be an explanation of what is meant by the “power of godliness” being manifest unto men in the flesh. But whatever it means, this seems to say that in the First Vision, JS did not see the face of God either in JS’ flesh or God the Father’s flesh, whichever “flesh” v.21 is referring to. At that time he knew nothing of the greater priesthood and had received none of its “ordinances.”

  12. That’s just fascinating. Any idea where we picked up the idea that God has a physical body? It’s definitely deeply entrenched as a doctrine now.

  13. It is explicit in D&C 130 which is described as “Items of instruction given by Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Ramus, Illinois, April 2, 1843”. I don’t know when it was either revealed to JS, or an understanding developed by him from the ideas of separate personages, Jesus being the image of his Father, inheriting what the Father has, universal resurrection, the NT’s “we shall be like him” 1 John 3:2, etc. I’ll leave it to a real historian or theologian to figure out when JS first articulated that doctrine and/or where he got it.

  14. Joseph Smith did bring it up in other sermons and settings in the Nauvoo era, but not much before then that I know of. It’s a good question, about when he started teaching it in public, and I feel like I should know the answer, but my usual resources are largely on my laptop, which is out for repairs at the moment.
    The closest we get to a First Vision account having God be represented as a corporeal entity is a late, second-hand account given around the 1890s where the speaker recalled hearing Joseph Smith say that God touched his eyes. Given how late the recollection is, however, it isn’t reliable as a source.
    Most of the efforts to tie our belief in a corporeal God to the First Vision came after Joseph Smith’s death. I seem to remember Orson Pratt saying something along the lines and that George Q. Cannon was really the one to push that idea, but again, I would need to dig into the issue more once I have my full resources back to verify.

  15. Thanks, Chad.
    Even if JS said that “God touched his eyes” that does not necessarily tell us anything about God’s physicality.
    E.g. “And Saul also went home to Gibeah; and valiant men went with him, whose hearts God had touched.” 1 Samuel 10:26
    or, for a parallel example — some were shocked when a former bishop of mine told us he had heard the voice of the Lord. In later private conversation with him, it became clear that he did not mean that there were any sound waves that were perceived by his physical ears. Instead, he meant he had responded spiritually to thoughts, feelings, or impressions that he took to be the will of the Lord —
    or the old hymn by W Spencer Walton (1850-1906) “O, touch mine eyes, that I may see”.
    Nor could we, without more context, be at all sure that the alleged statement by JS referred to God the Father or to the Lord Jesus “who is also a God” per the Bible dictionary on the Church website, and who, the Church teaches, is the God who created the earth.
    When you can, tell us where to find that 1890 account so we can look at context.

  16. Here’s the full quote from the diary of Charles Walker: “2nd Feb Thurs [1893] Cold and chilly. Attended Fast Meeting…. Br John Alger said while speaking of the Prophet Joseph, that when he, John, was a small boy he heard the Prophet Joseph relate his vision of seeing The Father and the Son, That God touched his eyes with his finger and said ‘Joseph this is my beloved Son hear him.’ As soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger he immediately saw the Savior. After meeting, a few of us questioned him about the matter and he told us at the bottom of the meeting house steps that he was in the House of Father Smith in Kirtland when Joseph made this declaration, and that Joseph while speaking of it put his finger to his right eye, suiting the action with the words so as to illustrate and at the same time impress the occurrence on the minds of those unto whom He was speaking.” (Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755–56 [recorded 2 February 1893]).
    Like I said, it’s given sixty years after the time that Alger said he heard Joseph Smith say this (so not the most reliable memory), and, as you indicated, Wondering, there are ways to interpret God touching eyes.

    As far as use for demonstrating God has a body, Orson Pratt used it in 1849 for the first time to demonstrate that God the Father and Jesus were two separate entities (Millennial Star, October 15, 1849, p. 310). George Q. Cannon was the next to use the vision for doctrinal purposes beyond affirming Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet, stating that it could be used to teach children about the nature of God in 1880 (Editorial in Juvenile Instructor, July 15, 1880, p. 16) and stating in 1883 that: “This revelation dissipated all misconceptions and all false ideas, and removed the uncertainty that had existed respecting these matters. The Father came accompanied by the Son, thus showing that there were two personages of the Godhead, two presiding personages whom we worship and to whom we look, the one the Father and the other the Son. Joseph saw that the Father had a form; that He had a head; that He had arms; that He had limbs; that He had feet; that He had a face and a tongue with which to express His thoughts.” (Journal of Discourses 24:371-72.) (See James B. Allen “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.) So, it took a while for Latter-day Saints to use the First Vision as a proof text for the nature of God having a body or at least the appearance of a human. At least when James B. Allen was looking at it, those are the earliest times he could find.

  17. Thanks. While some may purport that those instances are the earliest reports of God the Father having a physical body, they are not necessarily such reports at all.

    There is nothing in the quotation from Cannon that is inconsistent with God not having a physical body. For all that he said there, it remains consistent with the idea of a “spirit body” as in Ether 3:16.

    John Alger was born in 1820 and joined the Church with his parents in 1832 and is reported by Charles Walker to have told his story in 1893. If it was told as reported and if it happened when Alger was a “small boy” it would seem that he would have been near 12 years of age or older. My 60 year old memories from when I was 12 are few and not nearly so detailed, despite two of them having been emotionally devastating and critically determinative of a life-long poor-at-best relationship with my father. As you noted, the details about God’s touching eyes with his finger are really not reliable. Even if they were, such touching tells us nothing about having a physical body if we accept the Book of Ether story of Jesus touching the stones presented by the Brother of Jared.

    It seems somewhere along the line, someone decided to try to force the First Vision reports (including Charles Walker’s third-hand story) into meaning God the Father had a physical body. Though I was raised as a Church member and gave this sort of thing more thought than most teenagers I knew, I cannot recall ever hearing the First Vision used that way, though it was commonly used to show the Father and the Son as separate “personages.” I wonder why anyone needs to try to make it mean even more than the 1838 version claims.

  18. Thanks, Chad, It’s a helpful article. I see as to the First Vision and tangibility Welch relied on the report of John Alger’s late statement and assumed that it meant tangibility, even though Welch also noted the accounts of Brother of Jared and of Jehovah/Jesus’ premortal writing the 10 commandments on stone. Then he followed up with speculation. While there is nothing to say that any touching in the First Vision was tangible, there is also nothing to say it was not — if it occurred. There is, as far as I know in the latter category, only Joseph’s allowing publication of the Lectures on Faith in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, with its clear contrast between the Father as a personage of spirit and the Son as one of tabernacle. Of more interest on that tangent are documents of events after the First Vision which remains, in each of its recountings I’m aware, of quite inconclusive on that tangent..I’ll have to study Welch’s article further.

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