Situating Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Modern Mormonism

I remember walking through Nauvoo shortly after returning from my LDS mission and passing by an Evangelical bookstore that was dedicated to challenging Mormon truth claims. Though closed, I couldn’t help but glance in the window to see their merchandise. Prominently displayed on the back wall was a large quilt devoted to the First Vision. This wasn’t the type of faith-promoting souvenir you’d find at the LDS-owned Deseret Book, however; rather, the quilt featured nine squares, each depicting what are arguably the conflicting details from the nine different accounts of the First Vision.[1] That was the first time I had heard of the controversy, so when I returned to my laptop I did as much reading as I could.

HarperGiven I was researching the topic in 2006, I fortunately had a lot of resources at my disposal. A quick search on google revealed partisan essays by Wesley Walters, Hugh Nibley, and a host of other critics and apologists. Most helpful for this recently-returned-missionary, however, was James Allen’s 1980 article on how the idea of the First Vision evolved over 150 years, and Richard Bushman’s just-released biography of Joseph Smith. These debates were my first entrance into the academic study of Mormon history.

I was pleased, then, to read Steven C. Harper’s new book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press), which not only delves into the vision’s narratives more closely, but also places the work of Walters, Nibley, Allen, and Bushman into the long trajectory of the theophany’s tale. Theoretically placing the vision’s historicity aside—though, it must be stated, the book’s tone and framing mostly takes its veracity for granted—the brunt of Harper’s work draws from the literature of memory studies to understand how Latter-day Saints and their critics have addressed the founding episode over the years.

The book is divided into three parts: “Joseph Smith’s Memory,” which focuses on the narratives that came from Smith himself; “Collective Memory,” which traces the evolutions over the following century; and “Contested Memory,” which digs into the passionate, and often partisan, debates over the topic from the past seventy years. Throughout, Harper introduces the reader to lots of dense scientific literature on how memory is consolidated, processed, and expanded, either in individual or group settings. To “remember,” he explains, is a collaborative and contextual activity, more akin to painting a picture with contemporary materials than it is uncovering a dusty photograph from an archival drawer. It is to be expected, then, that details, themes, and lessons evolve over years, decades, and generations.

In the first section, Harper dissects the First Vision accounts left by Joseph Smith between 1830 and 1844. Surprising, and somewhat frustratingly, he does so not in chronological order, but rather according to his broader methodological schema. The 1838/9 account, later canonized, was created in the wake of the Missouri conflict, and was therefore framed by persecution; the 1832 account, the only one in Smith’s own hand, is obsessed with squaring with contemporary Methodist culture. It is the 1835 account, argues Harper, that was spontaneous and organic, not prompted by any external cue. There isn’t much original about these documents to those familiar with the literature, though it is usefully compiled into one place.

What is truly new in First Vision, at least to me, comes in the latter chapters of Part 1 and the brunt of Part 2: while most scholars have argued that the First Vision was basically unknown to average Mormons, Harper persuasively demonstrates that Smith spoke frequently on the topic in the later years of his life, and the story was spread widely by others after his death. The main protagonist was Orson Pratt, who not only coined the term “First Vision,” but spoke and wrote about it frequently; by the 1890s, it has become so ubiquitous within LDS circles that they chose to make it the topic of the stained glass window that went into the Salt Lake City Temple’s Holy of Holies, arguably the most sacred space in the church.

So when Joseph F. Smith came around to re-emphasize the First Vision—a historical argument known best from Kathleen Flake’s work on Reed Smoot—he was not creating it out of nothing—the materials were already present. A “golden era” then followed, as BH Roberts dug out the theological meaning of the vision, novelists popularized the story, and playwrights put it on stage. This was a period of, for the most part, unchallenged celebration of Mormonism’s founding moment.

first vision

This depiction of the First Vision, a batik by Indonesian artist Joni Susanto, demonstrates the globalization of the vision. (source)

The 1940s, however, introduced a new stage, one driven by attacks on both sides. Within the LDS Church, ecclesiastical leaders, including J. Reuben Clark, made belief in the First Vision a fundamental to the faith, drawing a line in the sand for all to follow; conversely, historians like Dale Morgan and Fawn Brodie started to undermine the historical roots of the episode. I was particularly fascinated by how a cadre of LDS scholars, in response to the work by Wesley Walters, organized an official response to try to reaffirm faith and buttress LDS truth claims. These debates remained on the periphery of the Mormon experience, however, until the internet age, and the proliferation of information, forced the LDS institution to finally soften its dogmatic stance. The book closes with the “First Vision Accounts” essay published by the church in 2013 that, to Harper, demonstrated the progress that has come, even if its lack of publicity reflected continued ambivalence.

The structure of the book deserves consideration. Harper’s work as general editor of the Saints volume clearly bled into how he wrote First Vision. Like Saints, which was written for a general audience, First Vision is broken into numerous small, character-focused vignettes. The upside for this approach is clear: the resulting product is exceptionally readable, made possible by Harper’s compelling prose. However, as an academic monograph, First Vision‘s concise chapters often seem to cut off before reaching full analysis; in other words, miniature vignettes are hardly enough to lay out exhaustive arguments, and they often disrupt the chronological flow. It is true that “Leave Them Waning More” is an effective strategy, but I would have, personally, enjoyed a bit more analysis on things like BYU’s struggles with disbelieving students during the 1910s, a fascinating story that deserved more coverage. The work could have also used more cultural context, as besides glances toward Methodism during the 1830s, and evangelical fundamentalism during the 1940s, much of this story is told as if it happened in a vacuum.

One last gripe. Harper, in the introduction, dismisses the partisan work surrounding the vision in previous decades as “obstructive and fruitless.” This is perhaps true. But his position as the twenty-first century objective analyst is not as clearly structured as he might like. In Harper’s story, especially in the final section, there are clear heroes, like James Allen and Richard Bushman, as well those cast in a less flattering light, like Fawn Brodie, who is described as “not a careful historian.” And the way the text closes with stories of modern testimonies build on the First Vision narrative and the institutional church’s begrudging acceptance of a more layered, inclusive, and transparent approach to the topic make Harper’s analysis more a reflection of modern LDS discourse than an analysis of it.

But if First Vision teaches us anything, it’s that dialogue and disagreement is crucial in constructing modern memory. And Steven Harper has done a lot to add to that dialogue. First Vision fills a lot of holes in both LDS and academic communities, demonstrates the use of scientific theories to humanistic studies, and sheds light on a topic that usually only produces more heat.


[1] The store’s back wall also featured thirty-three dolls depicting Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo-era wives, but I’ll share that anecdote for another day.