Guest Post: Jeff Turner, “The First Vision in Mormon Missions”

By July 23, 2015

[We are pleased to have yet another guest post from Jeff Turner, incoming PhD student at the University of Utah. See his previous posts on early Mormon missions here and here.]

E5J19.pd-P3.tiffAs I was looking through some old JI posts today, I thought, ?There?s a ton of posts on the First Vision!? So it only made sense to write another one.

Kathleen Flake and James Allen have provocatively argued that the First Vision grew in usage around the turn of the twentieth century.[1] I hope to add to this story from the narrow lens of the use of the First Vision in Mormon missions.

In 1840, Orson Pratt wrote the first missionary tract that contained an account of Smith?s vision. It reads: ?He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, hut a short distance from his father’s house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavoured to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind; and he was enabled to pray, in fervency of the spirit, and in faith. And, while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he, at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be at a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and, as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness, and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around, was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but, perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hopes of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending, slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and, immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. He was informed, that his sins were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects, which had for some time previously agitated his mind, viz.?that all the religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines; and, consequently, that none of them was acknowledged of God, as his church and kingdom. And he was expressly commanded, to go not after them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine?the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace, indescribable.?[2]

I found the passage uncannily familiar-yet-foreign. Allen finds that the account ?describes in more detail, for example, the problems running through young Joseph?s mind? [and] takes on a more dramatic air than any recorded story told by Joseph himself.?[3] Whatever the reading, Pratt?s pamphlet was a missionizing success as it went through multiple editions and was translated/transposed into a variety of languages.[4] These editions seem to peter out around the 1851 publication of the Pearl of Great Price, another potential missionary tool (although maybe not as explicitly missionary-minded as Pratt?s pamphlet).

Mentions of the First Vision in missionary diaries are sparse throughout the decades before the Pearl of Great Price?s canonization in 1880, and so it?s difficult to determine how popular the story was, and how it might have been used. However, it does seem that canonization amongst a climate of ?religious identity crisis? in the polygamy court-case years had an impact on the adoption of the account in missionary practice. As the First Vision gains traction in Mormon culture more broadly, so too does it gain traction in the mission field just before the turn of the century. But this is still a grass-roots/bottom-up implementation of the Vision.

Now, hopefully, to add to the above-mentioned story. At the same time that the Reed Smoot hubbub is taking place, missionary training is becoming more centralized. Mormon universities begin offering missionary training classes, the first church-wide missionary manuals come into existence, and (after some troubles) the church makes a strong effort to subsidize materials and living expenses.[5] In 1910, the Church publishes a missionary tract with the account of the First Vision found in the Pearl of Great Price.[6] These centralizing developments further entrench the First Vision as a missionary tool that became institutionalized in the 1925 Mission Home and subsequent missionary training developments.[7]

With such an emphasis on the First Vision in the mission field, might the process of forgetting polygamy and remembering the character of Joseph Smith been aided by new blood? That is, what role do converts, having heard a pure account of Smith?s conversion and restoration, perform in reimagining their new Mormon past their new Mormon identity with it? I?d love to hear your thoughts and reactions? so please discuss!

_____________________________________________

[1] Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought”, Journal of Mormon History, 7 (1980): 43-61, and James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Mormon Thought,” in The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past, ed. D. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 37-52.

[2] Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840), 5.

[3] Allen, ?The Significance of Joseph Smith?s ?First Vision? in Mormon Thought,? 48.

[4] David J. Whittaker, “Orson Pratt’s [An] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions: A Seminal Scottish Imprint in Early Mormon History”, Mormon Historical Studies, 5 (2004): 79-100. See also the ?Historical Introduction? at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/appendix-orson-pratt-an-interesting-account-of-several-remarkable-visions-1840?p=3.

[5] See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), chapter 11, and Richard O. Cowan, “‘Called to Serve’: A History of Missionary Training,” in Go Ye into All the World: The Growth and Development of Mormon Missionary Work, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Fred E. Woods (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2012), 23-44..

[6] Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1910), and Dennis A. Wright and Janine Gallagher Doot, “Missionary Materials and Methods: A Preliminary Study,” in Go Ye into All the World: The Growth & Development of Mormon Missionary Work, ed. Reid L. Nielson and Fred E. Woods (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2012), 91-116.

[7] For the second half of the twentieth century, see John-Charles Duffy, “The New Missionary Discussions and the Future of Correlation”, Sunstone, 138 (2005): 28-46.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Great post. I do think it’s aided significantly by “new blood.” The Smoot Hearings occur during a kind of perfect storm of church centralization and just as most Latter-day Saints who knew Joseph Smith personally as adults had passed away (Benjamin F. Johnson was one of the last, for example, dying in 1905). The cultural memory shifts in a kind of feedback loop: missionaries pass on the pure Joseph story to converts, converts reinforce that story back within their own congregations.

    Comment by John Hatch — July 23, 2015 @ 10:56 am

  2. Thanks, John. I don’t know how I would structure a study of the feedback loop you described, but that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in.

    Comment by Jeff T — July 23, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

  3. […] Turner, a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, explored the growing use of the First Vision in missionary discussions at the turn of the twentieth century this week at the Juvenile Instructor […]

    Pingback by Mormon News, July 20?24 | Signature Books — July 24, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

  4. Thanks, Jeff.

    Comment by David G. — July 27, 2015 @ 9:05 am

  5. […] Em 1840, Orson Pratt publicou o primeiro relato impresso da Primeira Visão, em seu panfleto intitulado Um Interessante Relato de Diversas Visões Extraordinárias e da Recente Descoberta de Registros Americanos. A publicação de 31 páginas também constitui o primeiro uso documentado da visão de Joseph Smith para fins de proselitismo. A ideia original de Pratt de combinar os relatos sobre o Livro de Mórmon e a primeira Visão ganharia espaço no mormonismo, mas apenas viria a tornar-se norma por volta de 1925. […]

    Pingback by Orso Pratt e o uso missionário da Primeira Visão | Vozes Mórmons — July 28, 2015 @ 12:11 pm


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