Steve Harper on “Memory and the First Vision”, Lecture at the Salt Lake Mormon Studies Student Association, January 28, 2010

By January 29, 2010

We had a great crowd tonight. Somewhere between 50 and 60 were in attendance. The SLMSSA would like to thank the Mormon Times for putting up a notice about the event beforehand which likely drew a number of attendees. We were pleased to have Steve Harper, professor of religion at BYU presenting on what insights memory studies can shed on the First Vision. Stay tuned to the SLMSSA website for details about future lectures and events.


I’ve never been more intellectually excited as I have been while studying this issue. I hopt to interest you in some of the same issues about Remembering Joseph Smith’s First Vision. A few questions: What do you know about what is commonly called Joseph Smith’s First Vision and how do you know it? The answers necessarily deal with memory—ours and that of Joseph Smith. I think there are some fallacies about his vision because few have investigated it in light of scientific findings regarding memory. I’ve thought of these issues and this is the beginning of my inquiries on this. Thinking about Joseph’s memory and ours in light of finding in the relatively new field of memory studies. I’m not the first to try and get inside the mind of JS. Who could resist trying to get inside the mind of Joseph Smith’s fascinating mind? We think of I. Woodridge Riley’s work as maybe the first attempt to prove JS’s mind. Fawn Brodie’s 1945 book, No Man Knows My History was an important landmark. She cast his vision as an ambitious variation on what was a common visionary experience in Joseph Smith’s time and place, noted that as far as she could tell it went unreported to family and press in the 1820s and experienced a remarkable evolution in detail over time (expressed in her Second Edition, which was released after the 1832 and 1835 accounts were discovered in the 1960s. She said that “the awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood” (25).

I want to focus on Dan Vogel’s book, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. I’ll be in dialogue to some degree with Vogel tonight.  He says that the historical record, “cannot be taken at face value because accounts are so often tainted by a recorder’s subjective beliefs. The historian’s task is to determine, as best he or she can, what really happened” (xv). He continues, “When Smith fails to mention foundational visions until years after the event and gives conflicting and anachronistic accounts of them, how certain can one be that he relates events as he experienced them at the time?” (xv) He uses the “least embellished” account (1832), implying that the earliest memory is the most accurate (30). He parts with Brodie, rejecting the suggestion that Smith invented the vision in the 1830s. It was a typical conversion experience (Vogel argues) and was less concrete than Joseph later implied (30-31).

Then, I think of Richard Bushman’s two books on Joseph Smith. I’m influenced by this statement by Bushman, “My method has been to relate events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative.”

It’s explicitly subjective, “how early Mormons perceived the world.” Both Bushman biographies richly integrate all existing accounts to describe experience and simultaneously suggest how Joseph subsequently remembered it. Bushman is the only historian of the first vision whose work analyzes and represents Joseph’s accounts in light of how memory works.

If Vogel is vastly superior a historian to Riley and Brodie, Bushman is vastly superior to Vogel.

Bushman equates subjectivity with history, looking at events as experienced by the participants. He is conscious of the psychology of memory. Bushman told me that last year when Sam [research assistant?] interviewed Bushman, “The Hermeneutics of suspicion feels what we have to find out is the truth and since I cannot trust you I have to disregard the appearance that you present to me and find below what is really there which I can judge, I know what’s really there. The Hermeneutics of Trust begins with the position that we never can find out the truth, what really happened. Everything we know in this life is seen through someone’s eyes. All you have is the way this person saw it or that person saw it. There is no absolute truth somewhere out there that isn’t seen through human eyes. And so the purpose of history is not to find out what really happened but to…collect the way the set of human observers have described what they think happened looking at it through their particular set of eyes…It’s lovely. It means you are sort of becoming introduced to the inner lives and the inner thoughts and the way of looking at the world of all these different people…And frankly when I read history I don’t want to have the historian reduce whatever happens to the modern, common sense view what the possibilities are, I want to know what Mohamed thought was happening to him and what Buddha thought was happening to him, not some modern, scientific view of it. And I, as a historian is to explain to the world what Joseph Smith understood was happening to him.” (Interview of Richard Bushman, 2009)

Joseph Smith’s accounts of his vision provide the best access to his mind. Joseph used the word “mind” nearly 20 times in his accounts and then when he’s exploring his own mind, remembering what was in his mind in the days leading up to the experience. An initial glance suggests that this was a more frequent use of the word “mind” than in the rest of his corpus. The accounts are remarkably introspective. The earliest known account he left, 1832 account. He’s using the language of the revival culture. He describes a personalized experience, he is “convicted of my sins”, etc.

This account describes how he was filled with the spirit of God,  and “spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.” He wrote it in his own hand. As a result of the vision, “my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me.”

Joseph and Frederick G. Williams wrote this account a decade before any others were published. It was unknown until published in a masters thesis in 1965. 3 years after, an eccentric visitor from the east inquired, in this account Joseph cast the vision as a first of a series that led to the translation of the BoM. Opposition in the grove, fruitless attempt to pray, couldn’t speak, one divine personage appeared followed shortly after by another. “I saw many angels.” “I was about 14 years old.” A week after dictating this account, another inquirer came and he told him about it.

The account most familiar with the LDS, the one in the Pearl of Great Price. Another, the Wentworth letter. And there are other contemporary hearsay accounts. Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde published a version in German, etc. I want to talk about memory and how it might help us understand these documents and open up new ways for us to think of them, we’ve been narrow minded in the way we think about Jospeh’s accounts, both believers and non believers.

Memory is interpretative, a dynamic process.  Memories are a mixture of past and present. It is assumed that memory is static, like the contents of a filing cabinet or a video we just replay. There are no scholars of memory who think of memory that way. And we know that if we think about it for a minute that that’s not the way it works. Memory is not the wax tablet Plato thought it was, it is a selective and interpretative process.  We store, select, interpret, and integrate information. “We are active agents in the remembering process, such that what we remember depends on the process that we ourselves engage in when we encounter a thing or an event as well as the properties of the thing or event itself”

Major finding over past 100 years, memory is a multi-component rather than monolithic entity. Types of memory:

Sensory Store: Apparently unconscious retrieval of sensory information held for about a second while we decide what to attend to.

Short-Term Memory: Paying attention to something transfers it from sensory store to short term memory. Has limited capacity and decays quickly.

Long-Term Memory: Continuing to rehearse information transfers it to the long-term store.” Or secondary memory.  It has unlimited capacity, does not necessarily deteriorate over time.

Two types of long-term memory:

Episodic-Remembering specific events

Semantic-general knowledge about the world, facts, concepts

We process information at different levels, the more deeply we process information when we encode it, the more meaningful and memorable the information is likely to be.

Memories are mixtures of past and present. Whatever is influencing us in the present influences the nature of the memory and retrieval. This is the case of the first vision.

“Merely to remember something is meaningless unless the remembered image is  combined with a moment in the present affording a view of the same object or objects. Like our eyes, our memories must see double; these two images then converge in our minds into a single heightened reality.”

Our earliest memories consist of images. Infantile amnesia, can’t remember what you did when you were 6 mo. Why? Some think perhaps it is because we don’t have the background experience to be able to meaningfully interpret that experience and thus it is not remembered.

Dean Jessee, “When we have an experience and we relate it one time and later on we might see it in a different light due tto events that have taken place in our own lives. I think that may have played a part into it also.” (Interview with Dean Jessee)

Episodic memories, autobiographical ones, are not either accurate or inaccurate, they are both.

“It is not the case that the meaning around which autobiographical memory is organized is a complete fabrication of life events. There is a fundamental integrity to one’s autobiographical reflections”

Emotion is a major catalyst of memory. Memory is subjective. Historians are in the business of describing subjective pasts—that’s the only kind there is. Historians must abandon the fallacy that subjective=unreal, inaccurate, inherently flawed. If we all go to the Jazz game, we can sit in the same row at the same time and have completely different memories of the event. Memory is subjective. Joseph’s vision was subjective. They describe his memories. We must stop substituting our subjective analysis for taking Joseph’s subjective memories at face value. He saw a vision, not a half-remembered dream, a vivid, emotional vision. When we study his accounts of it in light of how memory works, we find exactly what scientists of memory have come to expect.

Memory is sensory, short term, long-term. It’s constructed on what you focus on. Episodic Memory is both reliable and unreliable. There is fundamental integrity in the reflection, even though they may be wrong about the particulars. In the 1832 account, Joseph says, “At about the age of 12 years…” 1835: “I was about 14 years old…” 1838: “Sometime in the second year…early in the spring of  1820”

Joseph processed this emotional experience on a deep level

“My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice…” All the accounts are richly descriptive of Joseph’s mental world—lots of cognitive words—mind, pondered, reflected, engaged, laboring. The epiphany with James 1:5 especially memorable.

Memory is a combination of the past and present—interpretative.

Subsequent experience gives the 1832 account meaning. It emphasizes keys given to Joseph. He had just had a revelation on keys, he might have been conscious of Sidney’s declaration that we’ve lost the keys. Joseph declares, the Keys are given to me. Interesting that we’ve got a very likely present influence influencing the recollection of the past as memory studies would expect. You don’t see much emphasis on Church until 1838. Is it because it’s a preoccupation in his present? Finding meaning from present circumstances in the First Vision? I don’t know that we’ll ever know, but not surprising if we see a mix of past and present. That’s what memory is.

Joseph’s accounts include both factual and interpretive memory. Joseph likely conflated memories in two ways

-He compresses time (compare 1832 to 1838) and conflated events (the portion in the 1838 account where Joseph tells his mother that he learned for himself that Presbyterianism is not correct is inserted into the original account. It may be that he’s conflating two events. The Presbyterian conversation may have taken place at another time).

-He filled in gaps in his episodic memory from his semantic memory.

[Steve brought up the example of the 1832 version which seems to point to Joseph only seeing one personage. He says, in effect, “The Lord opened the heavens to me and I saw the Lord.” Steve mentioned that perhaps Joseph didn’t have the vocabulary, the conceptual framework to do anything but call each personage in this version “Lord”. Perhaps he really is talking about two people here. He said that this would also be consistent with other versions that have one appearing then the other.]

Summary observations

-Was the first vision a half remembered dream? Richard Bushman, “Brodie speaks of Joseph’s vision as a sort of half-remembered dream. It’s an evocative phrase and shows some of her poetic nature. But if you read Joseph Smith’s accounts of his visions they are reamarkably concete and detailed. And if you have a dream and you wake up in the morning wanting to remember it by 9 o’clock in the morning you’ve forgotten most of it. And you just have little pieces of it still in your head. But especially with the account of Moroni, you know he’s talking about clothing and where he stands, what he looks like. It’s a very real remembrance. So call it a dream if you wish, but it is not half-remembered. It’s fully remembered. It’s details. Concrete details.” (Bushman interview, 2009)

How certain can we be?

Vogel says, “When Smith fails to mention foundational visions until years after the event and gives conflicting and anachronistic accounts of them, how certain can one be that he relates events as he experienced them at the time?”

We can be certain that:

-Joseph’s accounts are very representative of his dynamic memory

-That there is fundamental integrity to Joseph autobiographical reflections

-That he may be wrong about many particulars

-That his factual memory of the vision and subsequent experiences combined to create Joseph’s dynamic interpretive memories of his experiences.

-That Joseph likely filled in the gaps in his episodic memories with semantic memories.

We must recuperate the historical value of subjectivity ala Bushman. Joseph’s vision accounts are undeniably subjective. All remembered things are. It was his vision. He knew it, and he knew that God knew it, and he could not deny it.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fantastic! Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 29, 2010 @ 8:54 am

  2. Jared’s report: First and best.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 29, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  3. Great work Jared! I’m sorry I missed it.

    Comment by Brett D. — January 29, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  4. Thanks, all, it was a good evening.

    Comment by Jared T — January 29, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  5. Thanks for posting this, Jared.

    What sort of response did this elicit? (Is there a Q&A at these events?) I really like what Dr. Harper is doing here—utilizing science to shed new light on a well-worn debate—but I wonder what the underlying purpose is. It appears that Harper presented this as additional data to defend Bushman’s interpretation against the likes of Brodie and Vogel. Is that in fact how he approached this?

    While that may be a worthwhile endeavor, I wonder what else application of memory/sensory studies can tell us about JS’s recitals of the first vision or Mormon history more generally?

    Comment by Christopher — January 29, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  6. What will happen when Jared moves on to his doctoral program?

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — January 29, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

  7. One person has written elsewhere that “The only idea he presents that is worthy of discussion is ‘Smith got details wrong in the 1838 version’. The idea that Bushman has this subjectivity stuff all laid out for us and all the questions answered is nuts. Any one worth their salt knows you don’t lump all the gospels of the New Testament together to get the correct story. Why would you lump all the First Vision accounts together to make the correct story? The 1832 account is historically to most significant.

    I am very disappoint in Harper. With the entire Smith collection at his finger tips and this is the best he can come up with…….. we are in a heap of trouble.”

    The above accurately dismisses any relevance Harper may have attempted to bring to the subject.

    Comment by Jake Starkey — January 29, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  8. Thanks Jared! Great job. A number of Joseph’s sermons can a should be analyzed in a similar way. A number of them are based on reports with varying temporal distance from the archetypes.

    Comment by WVS — January 29, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  9. Chris, there was not formal Q&A, the crowd was mainly a more senior group, and thought it a very interesting presentation. Your questions are good, I see what he’s doing here as saying that past discussions of the First Vision have framed this as a question of whether Joseph was telling what really happened. That the seeming contradictions in the accounts prove that he was lying, and therefore, a fraud. A more useful approach, epitomized by Bushman, is trying to understand the experience on its own terms. If we cease to see this as a question of “What really happened” and think instead of what it meant to him, memory studies help to not only account for some of the proposed contradictions, but give us insights into what the experience meant to him and how the concerns he had when he recounted the experience influenced how he told the story and how memory studies allow us to interpret that influence as a function of memory rather than an active desire to deceive and embellish.

    Was there a bit of polemic there that could be dispensed with? Probably. I do think he tried to stick to the memory angle, a lot of that was somewhat complex and I wasn’t able to capture it well in my notes, so it’s not being represented as well here. ALso, I had some of the full quotes used from the interviews with Bushman, so I was able to present them. So, part of this is a function of the imperfection of the notes. However, I think you’re right, there might be too much focus on that aspect.

    I felt probably a little more tentative about the last powerpoint slide that says “We Can Be Certain That” there at the end of the notes. I wonder if the powerpoint might have been developed with a certain type of audience in mind, one that might be more responsive to pitting Vogel and Bushman, etc.

    It’s also important to note that Steve felt this was a jumping off point, not a set of ideas that he’s fully borne out, so Jake and Co. might do well to keep in mind the ongoing nature of the project before coming to some determination about its value. Those observations seem fairly premature and short-sighted to me.

    And, again, keeping that in mind, I think this avenue of inquiry has some good potential for shedding light on other aspects of Mormon history as you hint at.

    Comment by Jared T — January 29, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  10. Mark,

    The world will end 🙂
    Or, less interestingly, life will go on.

    Thanks WVS!

    Comment by Jared T — January 29, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  11. And let me add, that I thought that Quinn was one of the first to talk about (not to long ago) Joseph Smith conflating elements of his experience in producing his FV narrative. I didn’t see that anywhere referenced, and I’d like to get Harper’s take on that perspective.

    Comment by Jared T — January 29, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  12. Thanks once again, Jared T., for your effort to transcribe an interesting event for those who couldn’t be there.

    This concept of memory as a dynamic process rings true. For example, reading the recorded memories in my father’s journals as an interpretive process has been helpful in understanding what was going on in his heart and mind at a particular time. And Bushman’s brilliant use of Joseph’s revelation texts in his writings has done more for me than anything else to understand the personality of Joseph Smith.

    However, the matter of the historicity of the First Vision seems different. Setting aside the matters of what the First Vision means doctrinally, there is great importance attached to the issue that it occurred at all. So, I was pleased to read Jared T.’s comment that his perception is that Harper views this only as a jumping-off point. For such a multi-faceted matter as the First Vision, the “memory as window to the soul” seems to be an inadequate (not invalid) approach; I’m excited to see how LDS scholars continue to develop this approach in relation to other methods.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by Hunter — January 29, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  13. Thanks for the notes, Thursday night classes prevent me from witnessing these events so thanks for being my memory.

    Comment by BHodges — January 29, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  14. The science of memory does not, of course, address every question about the First Vision in general and the 1832 account in particular — but it does shine light on such things as how Joseph could have concrete vivid memories of some aspects and then more vague memories of other aspects (such as how old he was).

    Harper told about a personal vivid memory he had when he was 14 and told us he remembered some parts precisely and other parts only vaguely — but he did NOT tell us the specifics of why or what made the memory so important to him. The science of memory explains why he remembered that event, but he has his own reasons for only sharing part of the event with us. He said he remembered things his Dad told him word for word.

    But he didn’t tell us ANY of those words.

    Likewise, memory only explains some of the quirks and differences in Joseph’s accounts. Other factors also come into play.

    (BTW, great event Jared!)

    Comment by Michael De Groote — January 29, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

  15. My take on using ‘Science’ (Memory science) in discussing the FV, and the ‘Rules of Engagement”.
    If you use ‘Memory science’ in support of your arguments about the FV, then you invite ‘The other side’ to use ‘Delusion science’ on equal footing in their arguments.

    Comment by Bob — January 30, 2010 @ 9:47 am

  16. The contrast between Vogel and Bushman is really interesting. While I’ve not read all of Vogel’s book I have talked with him about the methodology and in some ways I agree with him. I think the questions of “what actually happened” really matter and ought matter more than perceptions. (With the question of “when” a perception matters – do we care of perceptions at the time, a decade later or more?) That said I obviously prefer Bushman’s writing because he at least allows the possibility that the reality behind Joseph’s claim is real. Whereas Vogel clearly takes naturalistic assumptions verging on scientism. Beyond those basic assumptions though, I think in methadology I’m just much more sympathetic to Vogel than Bushman.

    The issue of memory is interesting and is one reason why many of the interesting questions are probably unanswerable with any confidence. And why history will never be a science…

    Comment by Clark — January 31, 2010 @ 2:24 am


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