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.
- It “almost always leads to an over-simplification of the cultural situation into which Mormonism irrupted.”
- 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.”
- “It obscures the centrality of the story of the appearances of Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon…”
- “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.
- First, it is the first recorded spiritual experience of Joseph, and a convenient and appropriate starting point in narrating the Restoration.
- It also exemplifies the heavens being opened again to a prophet of a new dispensation.
- Since Joseph’s 1838 account mention him seeing both the Father and the Son, it clarifies (in our minds) the doctrine of the Godhead.
- It specifically mentions the other churches’ state of apostasy. This implies the need for a restoration.
- 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?