Sunday, February 01, 2009

Testimony of the First Vision? Why should I? and Why I Don't Have One.

Both my gospel doctrine and Elders quorum classes today spent the bulk of the time discussing the 1838 account of Joseph's vision found in the Pearl of Great Price, and in both classes the importance of 'having a testimony of the First Vision' was especially stressed. While I do believe that Joseph Smith was visited by God and Christ in 1820, I neither find my testimony of that event having any eternal, salvific, nor existential importance, nor do I consider my own beliefs about the event to necessarily constitute a testimony of the account as recorded in Joseph's 1838 account.

As James Allen has shown, the first account of the First Vision was not written until a very short version penned by Joseph Smith in 1832. Up until that point, no Latter-day Saint mentions nor seems to be aware of the vision. Knowledge about the vision did not become well known until the late 1830s and was mentioned in any official LDS publications until the early 1840s. The vision was not a part of LDS scripture until 1880 and was not utilized in an a sermon by LDS leaders until 1883. It wasn't until midway into the 20th century that the vision began to hold the 'foundational' status as it does in the Church today.

There seems to be at least two problems with the rhetoric today from LDS leaders concerning the importance of having a testimony of the First Vision as a foundation event for Latter-day Saints. As just noted, the Vision did not seem to have the level of importance in the early days of the Church as it does today. For most Mormons of the early 19th century, the foundational event of the restoration was not the virtually unknown vision of God and Jesus that Joseph had in 1820, but was rather the highly publicized visitation of Moroni in 1823. This was, for the early saints, the first and significant event that heralded Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, and it continued to be until the First Vision came into prominence in the early 20th century.

Second, even if the account was well known in the early days of the Church, I don't understand why it should stand above and of more importance than other revelatory experiences of Joseph. The event itself had no major significance among New England Christians in the early 19th century. Far from the uniqueness of the event claimed by many Latter-day Saints, the reporting of a vision of God and/or Christ was rather common among revivalist Christians.  If Joseph was ridiculed for speaking of his vision, it was not because it was unheard of, but perhaps because it was common, and thus easily dismissed by others at the end of the Enlightenment (it would be akin to reporting a UFO sighting today). Furthermore, the Vision itself did not necessarily teach any new doctrines or truths. While still seeing two distince personages, Joseph did not seem to leave the vision with anything but a traditional concept of God and the Trinity. Evidence points to Joseph still believing that God the Father did not have a physical body and was still of unique oneness with the Son. It was not until later revelations that Joseph began to see the Godhead in ways more akin to how we conceive them today. As there was nothing of special foundational importance in the Vision itself, any other revelation or event could care just as much, or even more, importance than the First Vision. As far as the restoration of the Church goes, in Joseph's own accounts, it was the visitation of Moroni that marked the beginning of the restoration. As far as doctrinal or salvific matters go, the more publicized visions and revelations of Joseph Smith seem to be far more crucial to Latter-day Saints - such as the visitation of Jesus in the Kirtland Temple.

Also, in Joseph Smith's own accounts, the Vision is rarely understood as a foundational event for the Church as a whole, but rather as a very personal experience for the young Joseph, and perhaps only foundational for his own spiritual growth. His first accounts of the vision either barely mention (or omit altogether) anything about seeking to know which Church to join. Rather, Joseph focuses on his deep personal desire to receive salvation, and the assurance from Christ that his sins had been forgiven. It wasn't until his 1838 account that Joseph began to portray the vision of having any significance for others outside of his own personal salvation. If this event were foundation for anyone, it would not be for me, but for Joseph only.

Do I have a testimony of the First Vision as recorded in 1838 (found in the Pearl of Great Price)? Maybe, but I can't say for sure. There are two reasons why I am a bit skeptical of taking Joseph's 1838 account wholeheartedly as it is recorded. The first is the simple fact that remembered events change and evolve over time. Joseph experienced this vision when he was 15 and this account was written 18 years latter when was was 33. It would be very difficult for anybody to recount an experience they have had with any level of high clarity after this amount of time - even for an event such as this. As with any memory, redaction, revision, and addition are common and generally the rule. This is especially evident when comparing the 1838 account to other earlier (and later) accounts.

Another reason to possibly question the specifics of the 1838 account is the contect of the account itself. Joseph begins the account saying that it is being written in response "to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons." Rather than being targeted at non-Mormons, it is very likely that Joseph was responding to dissenters from within the Church. Joseph wrote this account in the midst of the Kirtland Apostasy where nearly 1/2 of the Church was beginning to Joseph with David Whitmer and others leading the charge that Joseph was a fallen prophet who had exceeded that which they believe God had commanded him to do. According to Whitmer and others, Joseph's duty was to translate the Book of Mormon and establish the Church, and nothing else. That, they believed, was his prophetic role. His actions subsequent to that were not divinely charged and were acts of a fallen prophet. Joseph needed to reassurt and solidify his prophetic authority. In doing so, he presented his account beginning with the First Vision, and not the visitation of Moroni as he had done earlier. Furthermore, this account utilized and retold the vision in a manner that set aside the very personal salvific import that it had for him previously, and instead told the experience in a manner that would strengthen his prophetic role. Whether this was done consciously or sub-consciously would be a matter of speculation.

Do I have a testimony of the First Vision? I don't know - because I'm not really sure what happened in the grove that day, nor do I really care. From all of the accounts (and Joseph's use of them), what happened in the grove was a special and unique experience for Joseph and Joseph only. It was what perhaps gave him the strength he would need to carry on when his struggles became unbearable. It was only under pressure that he used this private experience for anything but himself.

Rather than caring about a testimont of the First Vision, we should hope to have a testimony of our own visions and experiences - something powerful and private for ourselves that can help us when we need something to turn to and depend on.


  1. The evolution of Church history. Always fascinating.

  2. lol, Why are there so many links from my blog to this post??? :) Not that I am NOT totally into you and everything...

  3. While I don't have a particular strong testimony of this singular experience either, I do understand the importance.

    Your two points 1-time gives perspective. This experience is a concise way to define our purpose as a church and the difference between us and all other forms of organized religion. In other words, this is just an easier way to understand the purpose of the gospel. Whether or not that was understood by the early church doesn't make it a less concise explanation today.

    2-I think the other reason why it stands as a more important event is because of the presence of the Father.

    I wish more people understood the history like you pointed out though. I think it helps clarify the adolescent stage the church was in. They didn't truly understand themselves and had to do some self defining and put the eternal principles they were given into practice in this temporal world.

  4. I think some of the points you made should be applied to a lot of scripture. A lot of what was recorded was written down years after the fact, but people still treat it as word for word truth that is 100% accurate.


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