One topic I have not discussed in my 4 years of blogging is discrepancies in the First Vision accounts. Basically, there are 4 accounts of the First Vision. The account in the Pearl of Great Price is the last account, and comes from 1838. John Dehlin and Richard Bushman discuss these variations in Part 2 of John’s 4 1/2 hour interview with Richard Bushman. I have been publishing the transcripts of the interview serially as I complete the transcripts. This transcript continues immediately after Bushman’s discussion of “the facts” of history.
JD, “Hmmm, well that’s very helpful. Thank you for providing for that sort of overview of that animal we call history. Let’s jump into the first issue, and that’s the First Vision, and I’ll set you up so you can hit the ball out of the park so to speak. I didn’t learn until well after I graduated from college that there was anything other than one version of the Joseph Smith story.
That Joseph–you know that there was a lot of revivals when he was young, there was some confusion in his family about religion, that he attended these revivals and didn’t know which church to join. It’s sort of the little Joseph Smith movie that we all grew up watching. And then when he was 14 a sincere boy goes to pray and he has a vision and God the Father and Jesus appeared to him as two distinct beings. I should mention that before the appearance some evil spirit attacks him, but he sees God and Jesus, and they tell him that none of the churches are true, and that he is to start his own, so that’s what I learned growing up. Tell us how that doesn’t necessarily paint a complete picture.”
Bushman, “Well I think that the heart of this problem has to do with variations in these two major accounts: 1832 and 1838, then there’s some other less complete accounts along the way. What throws people for a loop is exemplified by he says ‘Lord’, as if it was a singular being in the 183 account and the Father and the Son in the 1838. Actually there are many differences, that’s just one in these two accounts.”
JD, “What are some of the others? Just so our–”
Bushman, “Well, for example, there’s no account of Satan overpowering him in the first account, the 1832. 1832 emphasizes he went to seek forgiveness and the first words told him were ‘You are forgiven.’ In 1838, forgiveness doesn’t figure into it at all, and so it goes down the line.”
JD, “And in the 1832 version it says the Lord appeared to me, not God and Jesus appeared to me.”
Bushman, “Right. Right, yeah. That’s the one that usually jumps out at most Mormons. I find this problem perplexing in this way. For some people, this is a huge issue, he couldn’t tell the story right! How could he vary on such a significant item as who actually appeared to him and so on?
Other people say look whenever we tell a story a second time, we always tell it differently, different details spring forth into our minds and so on. So they just can’t even get excited about the problem, so I don’t know what to do about that. But there are two things I have to say. One is the 1832 account really has a different purpose. It is a very naive account. Sentences run on to one another, they’re all compressed. You know spelling is poor. It’s sort of jumpy. It really is a naive story. It’s sort of Joseph unfolding what happened to him.
The 1838 account really is laying down upon the foundation for the organization for the church. It is saying this is how it all got started. So the emphasis is very on ‘none of the churches are true.’ Therefore a new church has to be established. In the first account, there’s not much emphasis on that. Joseph is told that people are wicked, but all sorts of millennialists knew the world was wicked. You didn’t have the sense this institutional corruption that everything in the religious world had decayed. So I see them as really having quite/certain different purposes from beginning to end. That’s one thing I have to say.
The second thing is for me it is a great mystery why Joseph is so reluctant to talk about his visions. I don’t think he ever told Lucy or Joseph Sr., about the First Vision. He explicitly says when she asked him, he said ‘never mind, I’m well enough off.’ I’ve learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” It is not until Moroni commands him that he tells the family about the visit of Moroni and the gold plates. Then he doesn’t put the visit of John the Baptist into the church history until 1838; he doesn’t make that part of the standard story and never writes down the visit of Peter, James, and John.
In 1836, the revelation of the Kirtland Temple he had Warren Parrish write it into his journal, but so far as can be told, he didn’t tell anyone else about it in all of Kirtland. I have no way of explaining that. He’s very concerned to publish immediately his written revelations, the ones that are coming by the Holy Spirit. He collects them, he edits them, he sends them off to the press, he says they are the foundation of the Church, but the visions, visual presentation are just not part of that story, section 76 being the one example, the one exception.
So the way I see it is that he’s holding back on these visionary experiences. He never publishes that 1832 thing, I don’t think we found it until the 1960s sometime. So I don’t know what that means, but I’m not all that surprised that the detailed version of things varies when he’s so reluctant to tell that whole story of the visions anyway.”
JD, “So it’s almost like maybe he was humble about it or felt it was sacred and didn’t want to go about just really harping on it?”
Bushman, “I think so. I think also he was burned by that Methodist minister who told him it was all hogwash, and you know there is a visionary culture, and if you’ve read certain chapters of my book you will know that there are a lot of people who have claimed to be receiving revelations, and I think he thought they were kind of kooks, and he’s not real sympathetic to these extreme emotional expressions of spirituality, and I think he sort of felt that he didn’t want to be associated with that visionary culture, but that’s all speculation, I don’t really know what’s in his mind.”
JD, “So is there any evidence that he told his family about the First Vision prior to 1830?”
Bushman, “I don’t think so. There is in section 20, there is a very slight reference to it in the 5th verse to the time when this elder was received a forgiveness of his sins, when he is sort of recounting the major experiences, so he is making oblique references, but I don’t think that that First Vision story was what really known by many people at all until the mid-30s, and not really publicized until 1840.”
JD, “And that’s something that our listeners are probably going to be really stunned about because now you can’t really do the first missionary discussion without the Joseph Smith story, but it sounds like many converts of the early church, the fact that Joseph had seen God and Jesus didn’t even enter in to their conversion.”
Bushman, “I think it is almost certain that it did not enter into their conversions until later. It’s not absolutely certain they would have known the name of Joseph Smith. He was not presented as the key figure in those first five or six years. The revelation was always in the passive voice; revelation has been received, or God is speaking to his people. But as a personality or a significant figure, there’s no evidence that he even talked about it.
Parley Pratt writes the Voice of Warning in 1837, he never mentions Joseph Smith’s name, he doesn’t even mention revelation until something like page 122. So they were able to preach the gospel without doing much with a story that for us now is the central part of the history.”
JD, “So what was the call if it wasn’t Joseph Smith has seen God and has been told to start a new church? What was the call for people to convert to Mormonism?”
Bushman, “It was fundamentally the restoration of the spiritual gifts, and the building of the city of Zion, and the gathering and preparation for the Second Coming in a place of refuge. They would teach all sorts of other things, just simple gospel principles. They were sent forth to preach repentance to the people, they were not sent forth to teach Joseph Smith. In 1832 Joseph Smith writes an article for a newspaper in which he tries to summarize their beliefs. He doesn’t say anything about himself as a missionary, but talks about gathering to a city of Zion in preparation for the last days.”
JD, “So it’s just basically have faith, preach nothing but faith, repentance, and baptism to these people. The kingdom of God is at hand. You need to follow Christ, and come do it in Kirtland.”
Bushman, “Right, or Missouri.”
JD, “Or Nauvoo.”
Bushman, “The key thing is the restoration of gifts. Revelations are now coming. Spiritual gifts are coming. It’s Mark what 16 something or other, 16:16 I guess. That was an issue that was on people’s minds. Everybody wants to go back to the primitive church, but they knew they didn’t have the gifts of the primitive church. Mormons were saying we do have the gifts, we do have the healings and so on.”
JD, “Hmmm. Ok. People like Grant Palmer like to paint the picture in this way, and even Faun Brodie I think did this. It is sort of like the Smiths were poor in the 1820s, Joseph Smith was always concocting these schemes. He decided that he was going to write a book because maybe he could make money off the book, and so however he wrote it, he wrote this book called the Book of Mormon. Originally with the 116 pages it was going to be a more secular war history, but then when the pages got lost and he wasn’t able to duplicate it, he decided to make it a religious one, and Faun Brodie, I remember her writing that that was some real fortunate thing, because that launched Joseph onto the religion and church because he had to rewrite the book because the pages got lost.
So he writes the book, he sells it, he tries to sell it, and then all the sudden this church things just sort of starts happening and then it starts really snowballing because of his charisma and whatever teachings are in it, and then the way Grant Palmer tries to piece it together is by 1838, there’s some huge, because of the Kirtland Bank scandal whatever, there’s some huge apostasy. Martin Harris gets up and says maybe we didn’t touch or see the plates at all, and so he’s trying to save the church from falling down, and so then he writes a version that’s going to make it sound really authoritative like God really called him to start the church, so he then wrote the First Vision story then, and that’s what stuck with us. That’s the picture that’s painted, that sometimes has teeth for people who are trying to make sense of all this stuff. What would be your response to that depiction be?”
Bushman, “Well I think that there are many sensible and reasonable people who would take that very seriously. We had a seminar, Grant Underwood and I ran a seminar on Joseph Smith for college teachers, non-Mormon college teachers and they were very attracted to Grant Palmer’s view of things, because it’s the way critics, historical critics of the Old and New Testament talk about the writing of things. Faith congeals over time, it doesn’t just spring bull-blown from anyone’s mind.
So, I wouldn’t say it’s dead wrong. What I would say is that there is a huge amount of conjecture involved in that. You’re postulating a lot of things with very few points of evidence along the way. One of the things that Brodie makes a lot of is that Joseph Smith was not religious, and she gets that from the Hurlbut affidavits, that they had no indication that Joseph was religious, but I don’t see how that could be–first of all he lives in a religious culture, saturated with evangelical religion, and as soon as he tells his story in 1832, and this is not long after–this is before the affidavits, man he is involved in religion from the time he is 12 years old. This is a kid that had a private religious life. It is not evident, but he’s really anguished about the state of his soul. He’s really worried about the existence of God, he’s had to go through all the theistic arguments. So I don’t like any history that assumes there was no religion in Joseph Smith’s life.
Then to say I think I’ll write a book, I don’t know, where did that come from? I’m going to write a book that’s translated from gold plates. It’s so far from anything that’s in his immediate environment. What you did if you were a young kid wanting to create a religion, you became a preacher, that is the well-worn path. You go out and get a little congregation and you preach to them and then they begin to support you, and he does very little preaching. He exhorts for the Methodists a little bit but didn’t win any followers as a preacher. So I would say you’ve really got to do a lot of contortions to make that story work.
JD, “Why was he doing anything for the Methodists if he had been told to start God’s one true church?”
Bushman, “Well, why not do something for the Methodists? His wife’s a Methodist, his brother in law is a Methodist. He’s trying to make peace in the family. He doesn’t know–when he goes to the Methodists in the first place, to the Methodist minister. He doesn’t know whether to believe his own eyes. Can he believe that God has appeared unto him? So he goes to the minister to try to figure out what’s happened to him. Finally the minister who dismisses it, persuades Joseph Smith it wasn’t true. He actually had seen things. I don’t think his time to start a new church had anything to do with any other churches. He got very involved with the Masons when he got along. He welcomed all churches into Nauvoo. He preached there and so on.”
JD, “So that universalist background that maybe his father brought in was an important part of him.”
Bushman, “Yeah, now when I say universalist, I don’t mean Universalism the denomination and doctrine.”
Bushman, “I mean universalism in the sense that God reaches out to all people and is not particularistic.”
JD, “Through all faiths and creeds in some way.”
Bushman, “Yeah, right.”
JD, “Ok. And just one last question on this point. Some would just say now look, let’s really strip it down. When you see God and Jesus, that really makes an impression on your mind and so you’re going to at least say who is in the room when you’re having the vision. So the 1832 version, there’s no room for him not just saying who is in the room, or who was in the forest at the time of the vision. Do you have any response to that?”
Bushman, “Well this is sort of what do you think, what do you think sort of thing. Is it possible for him to have abbreviated his account of speaking with the Lord, I mean God the Father says just one word to him, This is my beloved Son and then Christ does all the other speaking so you know, you might get excited about it, you might not.”
JD, “So at the end of the day you just have to accept it on faith. Either he’s a liar or he’s telling the truth. But you’re also saying that it’s reasonable, that it’s not an open and shut case that there was deception or elaborate storytelling, that a reasonable person could conclude that the stories don’t have to be inconsistent.”
Bushmen, “See I go along this far with this line of thinking, that is his purposes for writing the story did change as the years went by and that affected the way he told the story. He’s in a different position in 1838 than he is in 1832. He really is beginning to emerge as the founder of a church by 1838. There’s been a lot of emphasis on loyalty to Joseph during those apostasy years. So his own self-conception is changing and that’s going to affect how he’s going to write that story.”
JD, “So he wasn’t a strong figurehead leader in the church from 1830-1838? Like I’m trying to understand exactly what his role was then if it wasn’t as a strong figurehead.”
Bushman, “Well I think he’s a powerful figure. He is the one who speaks for God. And people almost immediately acknowledge that he had that charismatic gift. Why they did that so fast, I don’t know. But when he said, ‘thus saith the Lord’, they believed it from those very early years, so I’m not minimizing that, but I think that the authority was in the gift, rather than in the man. It was like the Irvingites in Britain. They would hear about people who had gifts and they would go search the kingdom to find these people, and then just sort of listen to the gifts. But they’re not interested in them as persons, they’re just channels for the will of the Lord. I think initially that Joseph is kind of a channel. But as the years went by, he becomes more powerful as a person, and he creates this whole structure where he’s the president of the High Priesthood, he has all these bureaucratic roles, not just his charismatic roles. All that would makes him a more prominent figure.”
JD, “So what this strikes at is the perception that sometimes seems to be encouraged today which is that the Church is the same yesterday, today, and forever, that Adam and Eve were doing temple ceremonies just like we are now, that baptism was going on in the Old Testament times just as it is now, that everyone was not only plural married in the temple, but plural married, and that deacons were always 12 years old passing the sacrament with white bread.
You know there’s sort of this mentality today that I feel like comes out of CES [Church Education System], that everything is and always was as it is, and it sounds like the church, and our perceptions of the structure and the hierarchy and all this rigidity of what some would call a corporate church today wasn’t anything like the 1830-1838 experience.”
Bushman, “Well, I think that is true, that we do want to make the case that things have never been different. But the strange thing is that within our own culture, we always leave room for radical change because of the principle of revelation. Things are always the same–you only need one revelation and then that’s it, you just conform to it.
It’s only because conditions change and transformations need to be made that you need revelation at all. So I think we’ve always prided ourselves on adaptations and I personally think that the point of a prophet is how do you apply the principles of God enunciated in scripture in the conditions of our time, and that requires constant interpretation and re-interpretations.
The chief criticism, or one of the chief criticisms of my book by the kinds of people you’ve identified as critics is that I see Joseph as growing into his office as prophet, but I think he definitely grew into his office as prophet. He didn’t know from age 14 on that he was the prophet of the Lord and that was the end of it. I think he had to stumble around, he had to find his way. That’s part of the wonder of his life.”
JD, “And so change being the only constant is something that we would all do well to sort of absorb into our perspectives.”
Bushman, “Yeah, the word only I think distorts is a little. It’s sort of like the Constitution, which the courts are always revising, but it doesn’t mean that the Constitution changes or is insignificant, that it’s just putty in the hands of the judges. It’s an anchor, and I think the scriptures serve the same way there. They are anchors, everything had to just grow out of them and be adjusted to the modern age.”
JD, “But part of the genius, it seems to me like part of the genius of both the Constitution and scriptures and even the Book of Mormon (and I learned this in my American Heritage class at BYU) is that there was enough broad, I don’t want to say vague, but enough general language to allow those documents to stretch, to conform to needed changes.”
Bushman, “Yeah. Precisely. And sometimes the scriptures are hugely specific about ‘go on a mission to such and such a place’, but usually they are just kind of a perspective on the world.”