Book Review: First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins
Review of Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2019). 262 pp. + index. Print: $35.00. Ebook: $14.00.
Oh, how lovely was the morning! Radiant beamed the sun above. Bees were humming, sweet birds singing, Music ringing thru the grove, When within the shady woodland Joseph sought the God of love.
George Manwaring’s beloved hymn “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” is deeply embedded in the shared cultural memory of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the opening lines in the first stanza to the concluding lines of the fourth (“Oh, what rapture filled his bosom, / For he saw the living God.”), when Latter-day Saints imagine Joseph Smith’s First Vision, they very frequently imagine it the way poetically captured by Manwaring. Or, they remember it the way it is depicted in films such as The Restoration or Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration.
How the First Vision has been remembered and told (and contested) throughout Latter-day Saint history and in the memory of generations of Latter-day Saints, beginning with Joseph Smith himself on down to the digital age of post-2000, is the focus of Steven C. Harper’s new Oxford University Press monograph First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins. This volume, as Harper makes clear, does not seek to determine whether Joseph Smith had a vision of deity “early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (Joseph Smith–History 1:15). It does not stake out a claim for or against the reality of Joseph’s vision since “the historian’s tools are unfit for the task of determining the veracity” of visionary claims. What the book does try to “evaluate [is] the culture of his vision memories.” It seeks to “examine the environments in which Smith consolidated his memories, as well as the culture those memories created, at least in part” (p. 3).
This book, therefore, does not engage the event itself (which cannot be accessed by historians), but the recorded memories of it (which can). To that end, Smith’s vision is a subjective reality in all that follows. The goal is to explain how he remembered his first vision, how others have remembered it, and what difference those memories have made over time. The book tells what Smith’s various vision records reveal about the nature of memory both individual and collective, about the culture of Mormonism, and about the cultures in which it emerged and has since lived. (p. 4)
In First Vision, Harper builds on earlier work he and others have undertaken on the question of how the relationship between event, mind, and memory shaped Joseph’s retellings of his vision over his life,1 as well as how the First Vision was remembered and retold over the course of Latter-day Saint history.2 This, of course, is a wholly worthwhile exercise. After all, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, Joseph Smith was a flesh-and-blood human being with a human brain that functioned like other human brains. We should expect his mind, his memories, and his sense of identity to have been molded by the same forces that mold every other human being’s mind, memories, and sense of identity. As such, we can rightly ask what the neuroscience of memory might illuminate when it comes to Joseph Smith’s autobiographical narrative(s) about his foundational visionary experience.
This is the focus of Part 1 of Harper’s book, aptly titled “Joseph Smith’s Memory” (pp. 9–44). Here Harper analyzes the four primary accounts of the First Vision left by the Prophet over his lifetime, providing insight into the historical and personal forces at play behind each retelling. These accounts were not created in a vacuum, Harper reminds us, but were a direct response to external stimuli and fashioned new occasions for relating memory. That being said, “Joseph Smith never simply retrieved static data about [that] external stimuli he experienced,” Harper stresses, since “that is not how memory works. Like everyone else, he actively reconstructed his experience, using knowledge he already had to understand new experience and give it meaning consistent with his present purposes” (p. 14).
Part 2 of First Vision (“Collective Memory,” pp. 47–181) shifts focus away from Joseph’s primary retellings of his vision and looks at how his vision was consolidated in the shared memory of his followers. Beginning even in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Latter-day Saints were retelling their Prophet’s vision and were making exploratory attempts to assign it theological and historical significance for the Restoration as a whole. The importance of Joseph’s First Vision continued to percolate slowly in the collective memory of Latter-day Saints in the immediate decades following his life. It would not until the late nineteenth century (1880) that a canonical version of the First Vision would emerge in the form of the preservation of the 1838/39 account in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith—History 1:5–20). The decades thereafter witnessed a “golden age” (pp. 141–158) that firmly planted the canonical rendition of the First Vision in the collective mind of Latter-day Saints, including the best and brightest of Latter-day Saint thinkers.
The third and final part of First Vision (“Contested Memory,” pp. 185–258) recounts the “war of words and tumult of opinions” (JS–H 1:10) over the authenticity and credibility of Joseph Smith’s visionary claims in the twentieth century to the present. Here the stage becomes packed with polemicists and historians who spearheaded the attack and manned the bulwarks when it comes to Joseph’s truth claims: Dale Morgan, Fawn Brodie, Hugh Nibley, Sandra Tanner, James Allen, Dean Jessee, Wesley Walters, Richard Bushman, John Dehlin, Daniel Peterson, and Jeremy Runnells, to name some of the key players who are highlighted in this section. With commendable evenhandedness, Harper outlines the respective arguments of these individuals while narrating how the contest over the First Vision has influenced the recent ways the Church has told Joseph’s story in a modern world dominated by (often highly misinformed) Internet populism (pp. 239–258). Even when Harper gently chides some of these actors for their shortcomings, such as the naiveté of Sandra Tanner and Paul Chessman (pp. 198–201, 204–206) or the highly questionable historical fundamentalism of Wesley Walters (pp. 211–224), he never allows invective to spill across his writing.
The primary scholarly value of Harper’s volume is its extended discussion of how the science of memory might inform our evaluation of Joseph Smith’s retellings of his First Vision. If there is any apologetic value in First Vision to speak of (Harper, after all, is a committed Latter-day Saint who has vocally defended the credibility of Joseph Smith’s claims3), it is, from what I can tell, principally in two ways.
First, Harper’s overall discussion about how human memory influences autobiographical narrative and identity, as well as collective cultural remembrance, easily disarms accusations of any kind of skullduggery on either the part of Joseph Smith or the Church. The documentary record shows no signs whatever of Joseph Smith’s conscious deceit. This is widely recognized even by non-Latter-day Saint historians of American religion, who may not accept Joseph’s truth claims but afford him sincerity in believing he had visionary experiences.4 Additionally, with Harper’s explanation there is no need to posit farfetched claims of a conspiracy in the Church to “suppress” differing accounts of the First Vision. Rather, as Harper himself explains, the adoption of a canonical “official” version of the First Vision in institutional publications, artwork, drama, and curriculum had nothing to do with deception and everything to do with the replacement of Latter-day Saints who knew Joseph Smith with those who did not. The subsequent generations of Latter-day Saints “which knew not Joseph,” as it were, did not consciously seek to “suppress” accounts of the First Vision that diverged from the canonical rendition, but instead “selected, related, and generalized knowledge from their environment and made it ‘consistent with their ongoing experience.’ At points in that process, their collective memory prioritized coherence over accuracy, as collective memories usually do” (pp. 111–112).
This is to say that conceited Internet polemicists who spin lurid (and lucrative) yarn about the Church’s supposed deception over Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts are largely uninformed about both how human memory works and the historical record.5
Second, it is illuminating that those who know the historical sources relating to Joseph Smith’s First Vision best have tended to remain believers. Take, for instance, the contrasting cases of Sandra Tanner and James Allen (pp. 198–201, 204–205). Tanner lost her faith in Joseph Smith at age nineteen after “wrongly assum[ing] that if she did not know about a source, it did not exist” (p. 201). Contrast this with James B. Allen, who around the same time joined the history department at Brigham Young University with a freshly-minted PhD in history from the University of Southern California. His impression upon reading Joseph’s 1832 account of the First Vision was that the young man was telling the truth (p. 205), and so he set out to conduct pioneering work on the historical sources underlying the First Vision that still holds up to this day.6 (Allen, now 92, has remained a committed Latter-day Saint.7)
Then there is Wesley Walters, who is to be credited for (unintentionally) galvanizing phenomenal historical research into the First Vision by the likes of believing Latter-day Saints such as Richard Bushman (PhD, Harvard) and Milton Backman (PhD, University of Pennsylvania), to name just two.8 This research (particularly Backman’s) has buttressed the historicity of the First Vision in ways that would perhaps otherwise have gone unarticulated had it not been for Walters’ (consciously ironic) skepticism (p. 224).
To be clear, this does not mean that the reality of the First Vision has been somehow “proven.” Nor does it mean that the apologetic arguments for the credibility of Joseph Smith’s claims are automatically correct. Nor is it meant to diminish the accomplishments of skeptical historians such as Dale Morgan. Rather, my point is that, all things being equal, if an honest questioner or seeker has to decide who to trust as a reliable guide in the foreign country known as the past, the safer bet would be to side with Joseph Smith’s sympathizers, who by far are more academically qualified, have produced better scholarship, and are more knowledgeable of the historical record than his critics. A glance at the academic background of the personalities mentioned by Harper in First Vision bears this out (even if Harper himself does not make this point explicit):
Joseph Smith Skeptic
Joseph Smith Sympathizer
Dale L. Morgan
BA, Commercial Art, University of Utah
Hugh W. Nibley
PhD, Classics, University of California, Berkeley
Fawn M. Brodie
MA, English, University of Chicago
James B. Allen
PhD, History, University of Southern California
High school diploma
Milton V. Backman, Jr.
PhD, History, University of Pennsylvania
Wesley P. Walters
ThM, Covenant Theological Seminary
Dean C. Jessee
MA, History, Brigham Young University
Grant H. Palmer
MA, History, Brigham Young University
Richard L. Bushman
PhD, History, Harvard University
BA, Brigham Young University
Truman G. Madsen
PhD, Philosophy, Harvard University
PhD, Clinical Psychology, Utah State University
Daniel C. Peterson
PhD, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, the University of California, Los Angeles
Overall, Harper’s treatment in First Vision is excellent. He demonstrates an obvious command of the primary sources and secondary literature, and writes with clarity and coherence. One of the few weaknesses I did notice in the volume is the omission of a few important sources. For instance, Harper omits any mention of Milton V. Backman, Jr.’s 1985 Ensign article “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.” The same goes for Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 1996 Ensign article “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision.” How these important pieces fit in the historiography of the First Vision needs to be more fully explored, and Harper missed an opportunity to do so in this instance. At the very least, Backman’s and Anderson’s articles further demonstrate that the Church, as an institution, made attempts to grab the First Vision bull by the horns much earlier than is often supposed,9 and undermine claims of an institutional conspiracy to suppress knowledge of the different accounts.
But these few weaknesses do not dramatically detract from what is otherwise an interesting and important study that has set a new high-water mark in First Vision historiography.
See for instance the interviews with Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Richard T. Hughes, John G. Turner, and Ann Taves in the remade docudrama Joseph Smith: American Prophet.
The closest one might get to evidence for conspiracy is the excision of the 1832 account from Joseph Smith’s letterbook sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Stan Larson, “Another Look at Joseph Smith’s First Vision,”Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 37–62, esp. 39–43. However, the motivation or reasoning behind this excision is a matter of speculation, as no evidence currently exists conclusively demonstrating who made the excision and why (notwithstanding Joseph Fielding Smith’s supposed “uneasiness about [the 1832 account’s] contents”). Cynics who are predisposed to paint the Church in as bad a light as possible, of course, are free to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Joseph Fielding Smith, or to otherwise assume nefarious intentions on his part, but this is not based on any hard evidence, and other plausible interpretations of the facts behind this incident are available. See also Harper’s discussion of this episode on pp. 198–202.
Richard Lyman Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,”Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 82–93; Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidence and Contemporary Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1971).