There are several First Vision accounts, and we’re going to tackle the 1835 account in our next episode. What distinguishes it from the 1832 account, and the much more famous 1838 account? Historian Dan Vogel will answer that question.
Dan: Yeah, from the 1832 to 1835 accounts, there’s two people. How those two people figure, they both looked the same. They are mirror images of each other. But how he viewed that, it’s not so clear from the description. Even the 1838 account, there’s two personages, but is it God the spirit like in the Lectures on Faith? And Jesus, the tabernacle? Is that how he views that when he’s dictating that? You can’t take the Nauvoo period where God has a body of flesh and bones and the Son also, you can’t take that and read it into this.
That’s why the 1832 account has one Jesus. In the meantime, what happened to make it in 1838? There’s another issue. In 1832 account, he’s already concluded that all the churches are false. In 1838, he hasn’t. He’s praying to ask which church is true. Those contradict each other. You can you can try to harmonize them like Richard Anderson tried, by just making general description so general that they look the same, but they are diametrically opposed. Why does it change?
So, my view on that is that in 1820, or 21, he has concluded all churches are false. He has a born again experience. But the revival he describes where his mother is proselyted to the Presbyterian Church, he says, “I was at this time in my 15th year. My father’s family were proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church namely, my mother, Lucy, my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison, and my sister Sopronia. That’s part of his 1820 [account], but we know that didn’t happen in 1820. We know that they joined in 1824 and 25 revival, because Lucy in her own history says it was after Alvin’s death. After Alvin died, she was grieving and she wanted to have religious community, and she went. They went and actually the Presbyterian minister at the time, Reverend Stockton preached Alvin’s funeral sermon, and implied that Alvin had gone to hell because he hadn’t been baptized. Joseph Smith, Sr. got angry at that, incensed and refused going anymore. Joseph Smith’s family was split. Lucy, like a good convert, is trying to get other people in the family converted. She’s hounding people, and three of her older children do join. Joseph Smith is caught between his parents. He’s ambivalent. He doesn’t want to join a church. He said he was more in tune with Methodism anyway, probably because of the emotional appeal it has and Presbyterianism is a little more conservative and is of the quietest tradition, they call it where the Spirit comes on you and you’re quiet and peace.
GT: Is that what’s happened to Mormons, we’ve become Presbyterians?
Dan: Yeah, yeah. You became the church of Hyrum Smith.
Joseph Smith gave multiple accounts of his First Vision experience. Some people find the differing accounts problematic, while others don’t think they are a big issue. We’ll talk about these First Vision conflicts with historian Dan Vogel and discuss the different perspectives.
GT: For some people, these First Vision conflicts are a big deal and they prove Mormonism isn’t true. And for other people, it’s like, what’s the big deal? Why is this an issue? So I guess my question is, where do you fit in there? I mean, in my mind, would it be inconsistent (and I’m a believer) to say, well, maybe he had something in 1820 or 1821, maybe it was a born again experience. Maybe he didn’t tell everything in that 1832 account, and then in 1838, he’s having these persecutions. Maybe he’s misremembering some things and going to 1824. To me, it’s not it’s not a testimony killer. I’ll put it that way. So number one, where do you fit among those two groups?
Dan: Okay, so my goal is not to kill people’s testimony. I’m just a historian. This is how to look at the documents in a historically minded way.
Dan: Historians look for these kinds of things to show development. Now, some of the details you can write off as memory problems. But you can’t use faulty memory like Stephen Harper does, as an apologetic, to explain away contradictions. You might use faulty memory, like there’s false memory syndrome, where people can actually create false memories, trying to remember vague memories, and it works.
Dan: I mean, an example would be the Spalding witnesses. They have vague memories about a manuscript in the past. We know that what they remembered was wrong. Because they could only remember what they had read in the book of Mormon, and nothing else. We know that the the Book of Mormon is not about the lost 10 tribes. That was a common misconception, but these witnesses that’s gotten into their memory somehow. It’s a vague story, they vaguely remember the names. The memories become sharper, the more they talk to each other. So we know from other methods that they were wrong. Okay. But we don’t use false memory syndrome to prove that they’re wrong. We use that as an explanation of how they got it wrong. Okay.
Dan: So you can’t come up on Joseph Smith, and say, well, there’s these contradictions, and they can all be explained away by this false memory syndrome theory, or else you can never catch anyone making things up or prevaricating, on whatever issue. They could always say, it’s memory. A lot of politicians try that. But it’s not what historians do. It’s what apologists do.
Dan: So I’m not trying to kill people’s testimonies. That’s not my concern. I don’t care about that question. Okay. It’s not that I don’t care about your religion or anything. I don’t care about destroying people’s faith or anything. I’m just trying to get it close to what probably really happened as I can. That doesn’t mean that some people of faith can’t hang on to that faith, but maybe it has to evolve a little bit. I’m just trying to find the facts, and what is probably the best evidence, the best scenario to explain the evidence. It’s not my job to figure out how people of faith, or to what to do with this. I could just point out the problem, and not the answer, maybe. So I think there is a way to hang on as long as you want for people in different ways. It’s a very personal thing.
GT: So you wouldn’t be opposed to somebody that says, Yeah, I think Joseph conflated maybe one or two visions here, conflated 1820 with 1824, and it’s not that big of a deal. Yeah, there’s some contradictions there. But it’s a faulty memory, big deal.
Dan: Well, I think he changed it on purpose to teach a lesson. He’s more concerned–he’s a charismatic leader. He’s not a historian. He could care less about history, facts, keeping the revelations pure as they were originally given. He doesn’t care about any of that. He is trying to get things done, motivate people to do things that they wouldn’t do without this motivation.
Do you think these changes are significant?