Today’s guest post is from Shannon who has guested with us before.
A couple of days ago I was perusing the March 24, 2017 issue of the Mormon Times and noticed an article titled Remembering the First Vision (read article here). It is authored by Daniel Peterson and is a short recitation of some interesting observations about various accounts of the First Vision. However, I was so stunned by the first two paragraphs that I had to read them twice just to make sure I wasn’t reading them incorrectly.
Some years ago, two Latter-day Saint writers arrived separately at the conclusion that Joseph Smith’s First Vision probably occurred on Sunday, March 26, 1820. (See “Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning: Sun 26 Mar 1820?” ) In other words, this coming Sunday may mark the 197th anniversary of the commencement of the Restoration.
Of course, we can’t be certain of the date. Unlike most of Joseph’s fundamental visions, it was received alone. (See “Many of Prophet’s revelations were shared experiences,” Feb. 24, 2011.) Nonetheless, the anniversary must be near at hand, and this seems a good time to reflect on that pivotal event. Fortunately, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made excellent resources available for such reflection, including a collection of various accounts of it that supplement the familiar 1838 narrative found in Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price in “First Vision Accounts” in the Gospel Topics section of lds.org. For obscure reasons, Latter-day Saints have neglected these other versions of the story thus far. But we no longer have any excuse for doing so.
Was I reading this right? Surely Mr. Peterson was not saying that March 26th should become a day of veneration in our church. Well, it looks like that is what he is saying. He may be trying to fool himself about an end result with disclaimers like “of course, we can’t be certain of the date”. I assume he knows who his audience is and that they will take whatever is written in the Mormon Times as “the Gospel truth”. I naively believe that most of the days of wild fabrications about the First Vision are over. I guess I must be wrong. As I looked more carefully at the Meridian Magazine article that provides the dating Mr. Peterson uses, the imposition grew even larger.
I made a rough count of the lines in the Meridian article and out of a total of 246 only about 30 addressed the issue of determining the exact date from known sources.
The First Vision is fundamental to our religion, but what was the date on which it occurred? All that we have known about the date is that it “was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring” of 1820 (JSH 1:14). It has been assumed that this brief description could only be used to narrow down the date to have been within the period of late March to early April, with a Sunday being the most likely day on which a farm boy would have been able to actually go to the woods to pray.
Years ago, Meridian Magazine published an article by Dr. John P. Pratt which stated that evidence from the Enoch calendar implied that by far the most likely date for the First Vision was Sunday, March 26, 1820. When I learned of his proposed date, my interest in this problem was immediately rekindled. Two decades ago, about the time my book April Sixth was published, it occurred to me that the First Vision might have happened on April 6, 1820. Knowing that the vision had been on a beautiful day, I sought weather records to verify whether that date was at least a candidate. To my delight I found that detailed weather records had been kept only eighty miles from Palmyra, but to my disappointment I found it had snowed the night before April 6, and had been cloudy and freezing weather all that day. I did not pursue the study further. Thus, when I recently learned of Pratt’s proposed date in March, I immediately sent to the National Archives for the microfilms of the weather journal, which resulted in the results published here.”
The authors then spend about 210 lines going through some largely irrelevant expositions on the weather in the area and how maple sugar is made. I say irrelevant because their jumping off point is the one sentence from Joseph Smith’s 1838 history. They have narrowed the “early spring” to about a three week window and not even considered the possibility that it may have occurred in a different year. From an 18 year look back, early spring could mean anything from The 1st of March to late April. The whole section on how maple sugar is made is really put there to just puff up the piece. Reference is made to an “Enoch Calendar” which one is left to guess as to what that is and then the authors tip their hand as to their real methodology–they reveal just how badly they wanted the date to be April 6, because wouldn’t that be so fun and special? This is an excellent example of conclusions in search of evidence and devotional writing masquerading as history. (you can read both articles here.)
This all reminds me of the story of Parson Weems. Mason Locke Weems was a book agent and author and an ordained minister in the Protestant Episcopal Church, (hence the title Parson). He is most famous to us today as the author of the first popular biography of George Washington and the originator of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, a story first published in 1809. That story was a complete fabrication of Parson Weems. Americans for decades and decades, have retold the story, eaten cherry pies by the carload, taught school children, and given speeches all based on a story that isn’t true. Interestingly, for fans of Arnold Friberg’s famous painting Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge, that is also a Weems fabrication. You can read more about Parson Weems and the cherry tree story here.
It seems almost unbelievable that in the modern day, scholars would tolerate popularizing and promoting false or misleading history. I wonder if Daniel Peterson understands the damage he is doing. I am sure Mr. Peterson is a nice person, but I have to question his ability to see the bigger picture here. The general membership of the church has been taught things that are false or have not been given the whole story. The excuse usually given is that the author is trying to protect those who are “weak in the faith”. The various accounts of the first vision are a prime example of this phenomenon, and here Mr. Peterson is doing it again. I sometimes wonder if the real cause of the prevarications are, in fact, the author’s weakness in the faith. When are we ever going to learn our lessons from the past? These kinds of false stories always seem to come back to bite us. All of the controversial topics in the Gospel essays are an attempt at damage control, an attempt to correct past errors. Is there going to have to be an essay in the future to correct the error that the First Vision occurred exactly on March 26, 1820?
Upon further reflection, I wonder if there is a different and an additional way to look at this? At the end of the day though, I wonder what difference it really makes. I get frustrated when I know things are being taught that are not true because historically it has been a catalyst for people leaving the church. Parson Weems had a good motive in fabricating the cherry tree story. He loved George Washington and wanted others to hold him in high regard, just as he did. He wanted school age children to learn an important lesson about being honest. And in the decades following, no one in the Washington family did anything to disprove the story.
The same could happen with the First Vision dating. While there is much debate in the historical community about the exact date–with some saying it might have taken place a full year later or even as much as four years later–no one can say that it absolutely could not have happened March 26, 1820. There are many people in the modern day who don’t believe that there was a world wide flood or that Moses really turn his staff into a snake but still hold the Bible to be scripture. There are many other examples in the scriptures of events that carry with them some serious historical doubt.
- In the end, am I and those like me getting upset for nothing?
- What level of untruth are we willing to tolerate?
- Am I just fooling myself in thinking that someday we will hear only truthful history being taught in the average LDS Sunday School?