As one whose “to-read” pile lends a large shadow over both my desk and nightstand, devotional history books put out by publishers like Deseret Book or Covenant Press don’t usually make the list. However, a couple weeks I decided to download the audio version of a recent “popular” devotional/historical work. While this post is formatted like a standard book review, I hope that it will serve as a “springboard” of sorts to discuss the practice of writing history for the faithful masses.
The book is Matthew Brown’s A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision. Brown has been somewhat prolific of late, publishing several books related to early Church history and temple studies. This work focuses solely on the history behind Joseph Smith’s First Vision, addressing the background, early understandings, doctrinal implications, and two chapters admittedly devoted to apologetic responses to possible critiques (though one could argue the entire book is largely apologetic).
The first thing that struck me was the question of why Brown felt we needed an entire book devoted to this one event. Brown obviously felt this question himself, and devoted the first section to establishing the significance of the First Vision, specifically sharing several quotes from Church leaders implying that the entire mission of the Church is centered on the veracity of this single event—obviously he knew that he had to justify his endeavor. However, as we have discussed on this blog before, the First Vision was not very significant in its time and did not come to be understood as such until a century later. He does touch on the growing significance of the vision, but still leaves the impression that it was a well-known story for many of the earliest Saints.
There are many things to be commended in this book. His discussion of the Methodist revivals during the time period was respectable, and the inclusion of the 1819 Methodist Conference in a nearby village and its possible influence on Joseph provided interesting insights (12-13). His discussion on the Palmyra Register and how it could have shaped Joseph’s understanding of the religious revivals—even noting that one newspaper account used the phrase “excitement of religion,” the same phrase Joseph chose to use—was also new to me (14). Brown’s explanation that Joseph Smith probably did not realize at the time that there was to be a restoration of a Church as well as his reluctance to share the vision with those around them were also admissions that are usually not found in devotional/historical writings (41-42). (A lot of this information, however, is made clear in Quinn’s recent article on the First Vision–a text that Brown does not cite at all.)
However, also present are many of the expected problems normally associated with the genre. Brown relies heavily on later reminiscences to fill in details, though he sometimes prefaces these statements with a reminder that these claims cannot be proven. The most egregious example is probably the reliance on Joseph F. Smith during the first decade of the twentieth century claiming that the vision was received while Joseph knelt under a maple tree (26). Specifically, Brown relies on Orson Pratt as a major source for many important details, at one point appointing him as the “apostle-historian” (27). Brown is somewhat selective in what details he takes from Joseph Smith’s accounts, casually using one account to prove what year the Smiths moved to Palmyra (2-5), yet going through great lengths do dismiss Joseph’s statement in 1832 that the vision happened in his “sixteenth year” (99-101). Caution is a must when using any source, but it is also crucial to be consistent in being cautious with sources.
Perhaps the biggest problem I found with the volume was its inability to place the First Vision within its historical context. Certainly, it made vague attempts to describe Joseph Smith’s culture–it only devotes one, one, paragraph to the religious climate of the day, but at least references Bushman (6-7)–but still made it appear that a claimed appearance from Deity was very radical. Most significantly, Brown did not address at all how Joseph’s narrative account relates to other conversion narratives of the time (something JI’s Christopher has persuasively demonstrated, and something even a glance at Susan Juster’s Doomsayers would have revealed). This would have been especially helpful when Brown discussed the presence of Satan at the Vision—details that seem weird to us today and require extreme intellectual acrobatics to at all explain, but are easily understood when known that many accounts of the day included similar elements. In short, just like many other books of this genre, Brown’s work still fails to bring in what I think is appropriate historical context and rather presents early Mormon events as something that happened in a vacuum. Such an outlook helps fuel our exclusionary and even elitist outlook to the world, and leads us to want to reject any claim for “horizontal” rather than “vertical” sources for truth.
But, I don’t want this post to be a bash on the book—like I said, there is a lot to like about it, and being that it was not written for a scholarly audience it probably should not be measured up against scholarly standards. However, I think this topic brings up several important issues. My experience is that academically trained historians, especially within the Mormon tradition, wish that the faithful masses had a better understanding of the history of the Church; we wish that they would leave back a lot of the “silly” folklore we hear in Sunday school. However, when we write, we often only write for fellow academics, and thus leave the education of the Saints to authors like Brown—an obviously intelligent fellow who is not academically trained (or very scholarly accepted) yet who has a passion for Church history and a desire to write for the common Saint; that in itself should at least garner him some respect.
So…what do we do about this? Is it realistic to expect the average member of the Church to read scholarly works in order to really understand their religious heritage? Is it realistic to expect scholarly-respected work from authors like Brown who aren’t necessarily trained for such a task? Should we (speaking as a wanna-be academic) take a bigger role in inoculating the Saints, or should such an endeavor remain with the ecclesiastical authorities?
I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know and would love to hear others’ opinions.
 As such, it should be remembered that my “reading” of this book came through the audio format; I did not have the footnotes in front of me (though I did glance over the book in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in order to get page numbers and glance at his notes), and listening while bench-pressing does not always equate to the required focus usually associated with book reviews. Thus, my hope is to capture the general tone or ideas of the book.
 Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (Salt Lake City, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009).
 Other recent books of his include Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth, The Plan of Salvation: Doctrinal Notes and Commentary, and The Gate of Heaven: Insights on the Doctrines and Symbols of the Temple. Brown has also been active on the apologetics front, writing several articles for FARMS and presenting at several FAIR conferences.
 One of the quotes, coming from J. Reuben Clark, argued that “no man or woman is a true member of the Church who does not fully accept the First Vision, just as no man is a Christian who does not accept, first, the fall of Adam, and second, the atonement of Jesus Christ”—a sentiment that (logically and fortunately) is not echoed publically today.
 The most significant works on the growing importance of the First Vision are Jim Allen’s article and Kathleen Flake’s important The Politics of American Religious Identity—two works that were largely ignored in Brown’s book (the former is referenced but not engaged, the latter is absent altogether).
 However, an obvious critique of this assertion would be that there were almost two decades between the time Joseph read this newspaper account and when he used the same phrase—plenty of time to come upon this oft-used description.
 That is, he uses the very same sort of qualifiers that apologists often take “revisionists” to task for.
 There are several other puzzling problems with the book, including a sketchy dating of the vision to April 23 (25) and the claim that the Smiths advanced to a respectable income and the “humble middle class” (5-6).