Significance of the First Vision

By January 7, 2008

In elders quorum yesterday, we discussed the first chapter in the new Joseph Smith Manual. Expectedly, it treated the First Vision and the class discussed how the First Vision was the great starting point of the Restoration and Joseph Smith’s prophetic career. This seems to be common today, due to the fact that we have placed the First Vision experience on such a high pedastal that it is always one of the first things we bring up when talking about Joseph. As missionaries, we share this story to anyone who is willing to listen to it. In an oft-quoted statement, President Hinckley explained,

Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision…Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.  (Ensign, Nov. 1998, 70-71).

Historians have demonstrated, however, that the First Vision was not always at the emphatic forefront of Mormon narratives of the Restoration. Richard Bushman’s “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” showed that visions like that experienced by Joseph were not uncommon in the culture he grew up in. In a recent post here at JI, my co-blogger Christopher has skillfully shown how the descriptive language used by Joseph Smith fits within antebellum Methodist culture.  Furthermore, Jim Allen and Kathleen Flake have persuasively argued that the Church did not start emphasizing the First Vision until the turn of the twentieth century. In Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, Jan Shipps argued that placing so much significance on the vision is problematic for several reasons.

  1. It “almost always leads to an over-simplification of the cultural situation into which Mormonism irrupted.”
  2. It “suggests that a more or less complete theological system was revealed to Joseph Smith in embryo, hiding the dynamism of the developmental process by which Mormonism’s present theological system evolved.”
  3. “It obscures the centrality of the story of the appearances of Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon…”
  4. “Most important, telling the story the modern way tends to take the Book of Mormon away from the limelight, making Joseph Smith the focal point of the Mormon Story.”

The end result, in her opinion, is “the effect of making Smith’s spiritual experience serve to legitimate the Book of Mormon,” rather than the other way around (Shipps, 32-33). According to this thought, we should place more significance on the Moroni visits and the Book of Mormon, because that is the real point of departure from Joseph’s cultural surroundings.

So why do we place so much emphasis on the First Vision? I think there are several reasons.

  1. First, it is the first recorded spiritual experience of Joseph, and a convenient and appropriate starting point in narrating the Restoration.
  2. It also exemplifies the heavens being opened again to a prophet of a new dispensation.
  3. Since Joseph’s 1838 account mention him seeing both the Father and the Son, it clarifies (in our minds) the doctrine of the Godhead.
  4. It specifically mentions the other churches’ state of apostasy. This implies the need for a restoration.
  5. It illustrates a fundamental and clearly applicable principle for members and investigators alike: if you have a question, ask God, and he will reveal to you the answer.

I am curious how the readers of the Juvenile Instructor relate to the First Vision.  Is it problematic, as Shipps suggests, to place so much emphasis on the experience? What other potential reasons are there validating our collective emphasis on the First Vision? How does the First Vision fit into our individual identities as Mormons?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Current Events


Comments

  1. I agree with Jan.

    Using the First Vision as a Mormon Ad and doctrinal foundation is difficult because of: 1. Different versions (calm down FARMS fans, I never said inconsistent, I just thought it) and the difficulty in extracting doctrine from those narratives. 2. Many people question Smith’s integrity both in his youth when the vision occurred and later in life when he started writing about it.

    At least with the BoM, there is a tangible book that people can read and judge for themselves.

    Comment by tiredmormon — January 7, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  2. tiredmormon, are you and “Jan” good friends? The points you raise are interesting but not relevant to the average Latter-day Saint. Most Mormons aware of the various FV accounts see little inconsistency in them and choose instead to emphasize their similarities. In addition, few believing Mormons “question Smith’s integrity.” In fact, few non-LDS scholars even bother questioning the integrity of Smith’s 1838 account of the FV, accepting it as a reliable account of what Smith explained occurred in 1820.

    Ben, thanks for this post. I imagine that the First Vision has become so ingrained into Mormon understanding of their identity and foundational story that it would be near impossible to change it back to the Book of Mormon (or to something else) now. I also wonder what we do with the First Vision if we dismiss it or downplay it.

    Comment by Christopher — January 7, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  3. Ben, nice post. I think that it’s relevant to bring Terryl Givens’ arguments in By the Hand of Mormon into this discussion, where he presents evidence that the Book of Mormon was given primacy because it was a sign that the Millennium was near. I’m not sure if emphasizing the First Vision has the same effect (or if we even believe that the Millennium is REALLY imminent anymore).

    Comment by David Grua — January 7, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  4. The Book of Mormon may be “the keystone of our religion”, but revelation and modern prophets underly that keystone. I almost equated it with mortar, but every explanation I hear at church about keystones emphasizes that the keystone doesn’t need mortar. No sense going down that path.

    In reality, without the revelation and restoration of knowledge involved in the first vision, the Book of Mormon, though emphasized in early preaching, is not as significant as the message that prophets exist in the world again. With that also comes the message of personal revelation fitting within that structure of modern prophets with authority.

    As I talk with non-member friends, they find both the first vision and the BoM equally improbable. In my mind, the one can’t exist without the other, and the first vision was, well, first. Perhaps also the early church emphasis on the BoM had to do with the lack of uniqueness in the “conversion narrative” of Joseph Smith as pointed out in Christopher’s post, compared to a truly unique claim to new scripture in the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by kevinf — January 7, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  5. Very interesting post in my opinion. Provides a good topic for some discussion. On my mission nearly 36 years ago in Germany we would use the Voice out of the Dust a fair amount as an introduction to the gospel. We used that one for investigators more interested in America and the ‘Wild West.’ Also for intellectuals it seemed more appealing, although for the latter those discussions usually ended up going nowhere. Sometimes you just have to use whatever best gets you in the door and then try to let inspiration play its role a little later.

    Comment by Spencer Gold — January 7, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  6. What kevinj said in #4. I agree that the Book of Mormon is a tangible evidence of prophetic activity, but I think – more importantly – that it is absolutely unique and audacious. That audacity is, I believe, why it was stressed so much in the early church.

    The First Vision, otoh, is seen very differently now than it was back then **by Christians who also have lost the primacy of such narratives**. Now, it’s not just the claims within the vision that twist their knickers; it’s the vision itself. I say this a bit tongue in cheek, but it appears that the focal point of the Church’s emphasis is whatever torques the critics the most in that time – and that it is not defined by the Church, but rather its critics. Iow, we tend to respond most to whatever is being criticized most vocally.

    Comment by Ray — January 7, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  7. I believe that the first vision is only but one of many signs that was required to accompany the Great Restoration of the True Gospel.

    Comment by California Star — January 8, 2008 @ 12:31 am

  8. Ben, I think your point #5 really gets at the heart of why the First Vision is given central billing today. It encapsulates and explains our epistemology. Scriptural texts are important to us, but the essence of our religion is not textual interpretation, but rather experiences and narratives more or less like the First Vision.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — January 8, 2008 @ 2:43 am

  9. If it’s not petty, it’s just not a post from Christopher.

    I do know Jan, through years at MHA. She is wonderful.

    As for “Most Mormons aware of the various FV accounts see little inconsistency.” I must disagree (from my own personal experience). Having grown up in Utah, lived in a dozen wards, served a mission, been in leadership callings…most members I know have no idea of multiple FV accounts. Back when I was TBM and a priesthood leader, I had several people who came across these accounts relate frustration and shock. I guess your statement could be true for your little troop of BYU history undergrads though…but you may want to venture outside of that bubble before you make such sweeping generalities.

    And I understand why members would like to get away from the BoM, and rely on visions, with all of the debate over DNA and such. After all, it is impossible to prove that a vision never occurred.

    Comment by tiredmormon — January 8, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  10. tiredmormon-

    My “little troop of BYU undergrads”? Outside of my wife and one or two of my co-bloggers, I regularly associate with very few BYU undergrads.

    And thank you for noting my pettiness. Now that you’ve publicly noted it, I have a reputation to live up to. I’ll do my best.

    Regarding the actual argument of your comment, I admit that my anecdotal evidence is no more valid than yours. But I’m afraid you misread my comment. I didn’t suggest that most members know about multiple FV accounts, only that most who do don’t have much trouble with them (nor with “all of the debate over DNA and such”).

    Comment by Christopher — January 8, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  11. Guess you didn’t catch it the first time:

    “Back when I was TBM and a priesthood leader, I had several people who came across these accounts relate frustration and shock.”

    Comment by tiredmormon — January 8, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  12. I know that rapid fire, successive posting is a blogging sin, but please indulge me.

    When you say that most members (that know about FV accounts and DNA and such) don’t have much trouble, I assume your talking about faithful members who stay in the church, not former members. It seems that your argument only considers the set of members that find out and stay, and not those that find out and leave. To say that those who find out and stay anyway are not bothered by the above is obvious bootstrapping and self-serving. Or are you really saying that the majority of those members of the church that find out about the above have no problem and remain faithful. I just want to understand…

    Some would counter that no one leaves the church on historical or doctrinal grounds (it is all about personal sin) but that is silly-talk, right?

    Comment by tiredmormon — January 8, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  13. Some would counter that no one leaves the church on historical or doctrinal grounds (it is all about personal sin) but that is silly-talk, right?

    Yes, it is silly talk, and I don’t entertain any such notions.

    We both are presenting anecdotal evidence without anything to substantially back up our assertions. We’ve clearly had different experiences in regard to those who know of the above-mentioned issues and their collective reactions. I’m going to end my part of this threadjack now.

    Comment by Christopher — January 8, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  14. Umm…

    You gave the anecdotal assertion, not I. My only argument was that your anecdote was unreliable – as I proved with my anecdote. Anecdote, Anecdote, Anecdote.

    And way to end the discussion, real mature.

    Comment by tiredmormon — January 8, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  15. Kettle, meet pot.

    My own experience is quite simple: The more literal a member is, and the less they know about the scriptures overall, and the more “infallible” their view of prophets is, and the more “black and white” there worldview is, the more likely they are to be bothered and disconcerted and shocked by things like the multiple accounts of the FV and BofM arguments. Others, not so much.

    Iow, it’s not the “facts” that throw them; it’s their existing perspectives.

    Comment by Ray — January 8, 2008 @ 6:02 pm


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