The Radio Free Mormon podcast took on the First Vision in a recent episode. RFM is hitting his stride as a podcaster. He’s well researched, entertaining, and uses his attorney skills to present a logical argument with razor sharp precision. He does a very good job in this episode arguing that the creator of the dramatized history recently produced by the Church, Saints, intentionally exaggerated the harmonies and downplayed the discrepancies of the multiple First Vision accounts. Especially the 1832 and 1838 accounts.
Deception and Gaslighting
RFM’s conclusion is that the Church intentionally withheld information with the purpose to deceive Saints readers concerning the First Vision accounts. He closes the episode playing the Weird Alma hit song “Gaslighting”. That song points out what I think is valid from a certain perspective that the Church seems to be changing the narrative on certain issues while implying this narrative has always been the view and glossing over the change from previous narrative.
I would like to propose an alternate way of looking at this that may help someone feeling gaslighted feel better and look on Church leaders with a bit more empathy. At least it might make you not want to bang your head against a wall like the people in the Weird Alma song.
In the RFM-Weird Alma version, there is an assumption that the Church is a monolith with all Church leaders and supporting historians viewing all the historical information the same or very similarly.
My alternate proposal is something like this. Let’s imagine the creation of Saints as a production by committee. For simplicity, in our hypothetical let’s say it’s a committee of two. 1) One who holds a traditional view of the First Vision, ie the 1838 account, and a skeptical view of any accounts that aren’t completely in harmony of it, ie the 1832 account. 2) Another who recognizes the differences in the two accounts and who may lean towards the 1832 account being more accurate.
If you can picture that, you can easily picture a revision and negotiation and approval process that ends up with some sort of compromise. Neither is fully satisfied. The output is more transparent than prior versions but not as transparent as a critic might expect it to be. But no one is intentionally deceiving. No one is gaslighting. I believe at the FairMormon conference last year, I heard BYU scholar and lead historian for the Saints project Steven Harper say the revision and approval process for Saints took three years. I don’t know if my hypothetical is complete fantasy. But, I view it sort of like that. And that’s why it’s easier for me to have empathy for the Church in its desire to be more transparent about history. That’s a process that I think will take decades. We’re on the right path.
Vision or Visitation?
Something I learned from the podcast came from the Orson Hyde pamphlet written in German in 1842 titled A Cry Out in the Wilderness, which adds an interesting perspective to the First Vision.
The adversary then made several strenuous efforts to cool his ardent soul. He filled his mind with doubts and brought to mind all manner of inappropriate images to prevent him from obtaining the object of his endeavors… At this sacred moment, the natural world around him was excluded from his view, so that he would be open to the presentation of heavenly and spiritual things. Two glorious heavenly personages stood before him, resembling each other exactly in features and stature.
This account implies that Orson Hyde in 1842 perceived the First Vision as a visionary event not an actual visitation. Interesting. Does that change anything? I think it softens some of the takeaways we have about the First Vision but it in no way implies it didn’t really happen or that it’s a valid religious event.
All this leads me to take a 30,000 ft view of the First Vision and think about the discrepancies and what it really means. I think there are two main discrepancies that have a potentially strong impact on the meaning of the First Vision event.
In the 1832 account, there seems to be just one personage: Jesus. It does have one ambiguous sentence where some LDS try to harmonize with the first “Lord” being God the Father and the second “Lord” being Jesus Christ.
I was ﬁlled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.
I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I think the easiest reading is that he is only seeing one personage here.
What’s the impact of this discrepancy?
- It means he’s lying because if he saw two personages, he would have said he saw both in the 1832 account, so then he must have made the whole thing up. Maybe. But I think it’s reasonable to think the 1832 account is likely the most accurate to the actual experience and the 1838 account was how he reprocessed it later. Either misremembering or embellishing or drawing out meaning he hadn’t understood previously.
- It strikes out the meaning that we as a church have taken from the First Vision related to our understanding of God. That the trinity is incorrect. That God the Father and the Son are two separate personages. That they have bodies of flesh. My argument on this is that this knowledge never would have been understood solely through the First Vision. Joseph didn’t touch the bodies and most likely they didn’t appear physically at all. So he wouldn’t know through the First Vision God has body of flesh. I also disagree that the First Vision gave him information that the trinity is incorrect. The First Vision is very similar to what the martyr apostle Stephen saw. And trinitarians are just fine with that. I believe a trinitarian could have the First Vision the same way Joseph did in the 1838 account, seeing both as separate, without changing their understanding of the trinity. So regardless of the discrepancy and how many personages appeared, it doesn’t have impact on our doctrine.
Which Church is True
The other main issue coming out of the discrepancies between the accounts is concerning the idea of Joseph’s motivation for praying and what he was told regarding which church is true.
The context for the 1832 account is that Joseph came to conclusion that no existing churches perfectly represent the teachings of the Bible. He then prays primarily with motivation of seeking repentance and sees the vision of Jesus Christ.
Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life. Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me. And mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth, to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.
There’s not as strong as implication as is in the 1838 account that the primary reason for the Vision was to declare all churches not true and that Joseph would be starting the true one. Some LDS scholars even maintain that the sense we have about LDS exclusivity wasn’t there in the early church and even that D&C 1:30 was meant to emphasize the “living” aspect not the “true” aspect of the church in terms of distinguishing it from other Christian faiths.
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually
In the 1838 account, Joseph has a hunch one of the existing churches is true and his motivation to pray is to find out which one. In the vision, he asks which is true. Christ answers in language that is more clear than the 1832 account that none are true, and there is more of an implication that there should be one true church which Joseph will start.
My conclusion on this is that the 1832 account can come close to harmonizing with the 1838 account with these two notable exceptions. I think the reasons for those exceptions could be due to reprocessing, understanding better, misremembering, or embellishing. I can’t say for sure, but I believe the 1832 account is likely more accurate to the actual experience. But also that the differences in the accounts don’t have huge, significant impact in terms of changing the meaning.