Early Mormon apostle Orson Pratt probably did more to keep the memories of the First Vision alive in the LDS Church more than any other person. In our next conversation with Dr. Steven Harper, author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” we’ll talk about Orson’s outsized influence.
Steven: I think it’s likely that if not for Orson Pratt, we would have a much diminished collective memory, as Latter-day Saints of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. He is the foremost selector and relator and repeater of the vision, to use the technical terms that Thomas Anastasio and his colleagues use, for the people who choose what we remember. That happens because someone selects it, someone repeats it often, and relates it to other important components of our shared story. Nobody did that like Orson Pratt did that in the middle of the 19th century. He got the story from Joseph Smith’s own mouth.
Orson Pratt heard Joseph tell his First Vision on his way to Scotland on his mission. Joseph was on his mission to Washington, D.C. to seek redress for Missouri grievances. He and Orson Pratt cross paths in the Delaware River Valley. Orson learns the story from Joseph. He writes it in a missionary pamphlet in Scotland. That circulates all over the globe. Orson, ever after, tells that story. He tells the First Vision often. He tells it early, he coined the term First Vision, as far as we can tell. It’s in his writing in 1849, that those two words are used together for the first time in the historical record. Throughout the mid-decades of the 19th century, other church leaders are not telling the vision nearly as often, and they’re not telling it in the same way. Even though Joseph Smith’s records now and they’ve been published in the Church newspaper, Joseph Smith’s History will be published in the Pearl of Great Price in Britain in 1851. It’ll be canonized in 1880. But in that 30 years, you find quite remarkable variations on the story from George A. Smith, John Taylor, Brigham Young, and others. So, it’s Orson Pratt, who tells the story pretty much the way Joseph tells it and repeats it and keeps it on the forefront of minds. Finally, then, it gets canonized. We remember it the way we remember it today, largely because of the work that Orson Pratt did.
We’ll also talk about how some modern critics view the First Vision. Of course, it’s not just LDS that believe in the First Vision. There are other Restoration Churches that believe. It seems like most lay members of the Church don’t hear much about the LDS Church working on interfaith councils. Fewer know about Mormon schismatic groups. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Casey Griffiths in on an interfaith council with other schismatic groups. We’ll get acquainted with Casey, talk about his new book 50 Relics of the Restoration, and learn more about some of these groups you may not be familiar with.
Casey: BYU has several interfaith dialogue teams. I serve on the team that dialogues with Community of Christ and other restoration breakoffs. Typically, our dialogues will involve us and a familiar set of people from Community of Christ, including Lach MacKay. Andrew Bolton is usually there, too. He’s a former apostle. But sometimes we’ll invite in other groups too, like Daniel Stone has become a really good friend. He’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ–Bickertonite. We found out calling them Bickertonites is kind of as offensive as calling us Brighamites. So we try and keep our terms straight.
GT: See, I don’t mind being called a Brighamite.
Casey: I don’t mind it, either. I think it’s kind of fun, to be honest with you. But, we also work with–in the Independence area, for instance, there’s around 30 plus churches that believe in the Book of Mormon. We’ve tried to reach out to the majority of them. I have a really good relationship with the Remnant Church out there that Fred Larson was the head of until he passed away a little while ago. [There are] a few other groups like the Joint Conference of Restoration Branches and the Conference of Restoration Elders. There’s a whole alphabet soup out there, and they’re all great people that believe in the restoration of the Book of Mormon, but in kind of varying and different ways. I’ve been to see the the Hedrickites, the Church of the Temple Lot. I’ve even stopped and visited the Cutlerites who, I think have eight members right now.
Have you interacted with some of these other churches? Do you have any final thoughts on the First Vision? Were you aware of Orson Pratt’s influence on the entire Church’s memory of the First Vision?