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CES Reply: The First Vision (Part I)

First Vision Concerns & Questions: 

“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that [First] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”
– Gordon B. Hinckley, The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith

I have sympathy for a number of your issues, as some of them I found troubling when I first learned about them, too. But for the life of me, I cannot empathize with any degree of concern about the different accounts of the First Vision. I don’t know when I discovered that there were different accounts, as the information was completely untroubling to me.

I think it may have been on my mission, because we repeatedly showed the movie “The First Vision,” complete with Joseph throwing a handful of seeds in the air, and the narration of the movie drew from both the 1838 account and the 1842 Wentworth Letter, and I wanted to know where the non-1838 language had come from. This was in a pre-Internet world, and I would only have had access to official church stuff. I found an article, probably in the Ensign, that compared the accounts, and my reaction was along the lines of, “Oh, okay. So that’s where that stuff came from.” It didn’t occur to me that I should find this the least bit troubling. (It may be the 1832 account wasn’t in that piece – that’s the only one with anything that could be taken as a significant contradiction with the other accounts. We’ll get to that when you do later in your letter.)

You’ve heard the standard apologetic line, I’m sure – i.e. Joseph was writing for different audiences and therefore emphasizing different elements of the same experience – but to drive this point home in a way that would feel less like a FAIR article, I wanted to personalize it a bit.

I’ve been writing a blog for almost nine years now – has it really been that long? Wow! – and I cover a wide variety of topics. The Church comes up, of course, as do politics and pop culture, along with esoterically weird topics like the identity of William Shakespeare. (I believe William Shakespeare was a pseudonym of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Please don’t hold that against me.)

Yet over the course of almost a decade, on only one occasion on my blog have I recorded a “mission story” from beginning to end. I did it early in the blog’s history – the first week, in fact. The story is not one of earth-shaking significance. I just think it’s pretty funny, and, to me, it illustrates the daily sorts of absurdities that missionaries have to deal with, and it humanizes my mission experience in a way I find delightful. Yes, it’s light and silly, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve told it over the years in all kinds of settings – in many conversations, in Sunday School lessons, even from the pulpit. It makes for a great icebreaker before talking about truly spiritual things – a good joke to tell before you get into the meat of your talk.

So here’s the story, as I recorded it online on August 19, 2007, a little more than 18 years after these events take place:

_________

A Religious Treatise

A Sunday blog entry requires some deep religious treatise, which calls to mind my Mormon missionary days in the land of Scotland lo these many years ago. I was training a new missionary in the paradise known as Drumchapel, a Glasgow slum where a guy sold drugs out of his sweetie van and the nighttime sky was aglow with flames from burning cars in the middle of the street. Needless to say, it was a pretty rough area, and the church building was right in the worst part of town. Missionaries dreaded being assigned to “The Drum,” and the office had even changed the name of the area to “Milngavie” to soften the blow of being condemned to the gulag of the Scotland Edinburgh Mission. It turned out to be no worse than any other place in Scotland. No matter where I was, the omnipresent rain always soaked me to the bone as I knocked on doors for ten to twelve hours a day. It wasn’t really that cold, but I was always wet, so there was no way to truly keep warm.

One day, my companion and I were invited in to the home of a church member after a long day of slogging through the streets, and he let us sit next to his freshly-lit coal fire in the living room. It was fairly late in the day, and the stifling warmth of the room was intoxicating. It also made it next to impossible for me to keep my eyes open.

We sat and listened patiently as he rambled on and on about something or other, and my mind started to wander. He wasn’t expecting either of us to speak, which was a welcome relief, but I also started to panic as my eyelids started to droop, and once the drooping begins, there’s no way to snap back into full consciousness. There are some techniques that produce some positive results, like tightening your sphincter as hard as you can, but their effects are only temporary. I struggled valiantly to stay alert, but I knew it was a lost cause. I’m not sure if I nodded off completely, but at some point in the middle of the conversation, I felt it necessary to make the following announcement:

“I have a cousin with Down Syndrome.”

I said this apropos of nothing, interrupting the church member in mid-ramble. Everyone in the room stopped and looked at me, which startled me back into the real world. My companion was aghast. I was aghast. It was an entirely inappropriate thing to say, and I wasn’t, at the time, even sure if it was true.

But, on the plus side, at least I was wide awake.

_________

All right, story over.

It just so happens that I anal-retentively wrote in my missionary journal every single day of my mission. My father, at the time, was the president of the company that is now FranklinCovey, so of course I had one of those ubiquitous Franklin Day Planners, which was little more than a glorified page-length calendar in a leather binder. Every day from September 2, 1987 to September 21, 1989 has at least a page-length entry, and some are even longer. I kept a pretty meticulous record which could probably come in quite handy if someone needed to prosecute me for anything I did between late 1987 and late 1989.

So as I tried to think of a response to your First Vision concerns, I thought I’d dig through my journals, specifically the three months in early 1989 when I served my time in the Drum.  I thought it might be helpful to see how the 1989 Jim Bennett and 2007 Jim Bennett recorded the same event in different versions separated by a long period of time.

But here’s the problem: this didn’t make it into my missionary journal at all!

I was genuinely surprised by this. I checked and double-checked, but there’s no hint of the story anywhere. Given how much emphasis I had placed on this story since I’d come home, I couldn’t imagine that this wouldn’t have merited at least a single sentence along the lines of “Almost fell asleep in a member’s house today – yikes!” But as I read the journal, I realize that goofy 1989 Jim Bennett thought that what ought to be recorded more than anything else was his stupid feelings. There are a whole lot of entries where that dumb kid gives whole entries about “Woke up discouraged, but that just told me I needed to exercise more faith. I’m always happier when I trust in the Lord…” blah blah and blah.

I also spend a lot of time bearing my testimony to myself and way way WAY too much time mooning over the girl who dumped me right after I got home. All of that now is completely useless to me.  As I sat there and I read through it, only snippets of actual events pierced the emotional weather report, and, even then, they were usually just catalysts for more emotional navel gazing – “So and so seemed upset with me tonight at the fireside, and I felt intimidated and insecure…” I don’t care what you felt, you dork! What fireside? Why on earth would I waste my time writing about being intimidated and insecure? Why did I think I would want to look back on all my post-adolescent mood swings, all of which sound drearily the same as they’re recorded over the space of twenty-four months? Maybe this wouldn’t have been useful in a court of law after all.

But the absence of this story demonstrates my point. When I tell this story over two decades after it happened, I do so because it constitutes one of my most precious mission memories. But it was so unimportant to me at the time that I didn’t even bother to record it in my meticulous daily journal. Using your logic, you could easily make the case that the story must not have actually happened – if this was such a big deal to me, why is there no written record of it until 2007?

We’ll likely return to this as we move on through your First Vision objections.

2. No one – including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about the First Vision for twelve to twenty-two years after it supposedly occurred. The first and earliest written account of the First Vision in Joseph Smith’s journal was written 12 years after the spring of 1820. There is absolutely no record of a First Vision prior to 1832.

There’s a clear logical fallacy at work here. Specifically, your first sentence in this paragraph is in no way proven by your second and third sentences. Even if 1832 constitutes the first time there’s any written record of the event, that doesn’t mean that no one had ever heard about the First Vision until Joseph finally took pen to paper twelve years after it happened. If all people know is what they have written down, then most of us don’t know anything at all.

So why would there be no written record of the First Vision until 1832? Joseph gives some clear clues on that score in the 1838 account, which is canonized scripture in the LDS Church.

Beginning with Verse 20 of Joseph Smith History from the Pearl of Great Price:

When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was.

Here it is –  the first opportunity for Joseph to unburden himself of this great secret, and to the person to whom he was closer than anyone else in in the world, the one person more likely than any other to believe his astonishing tale – and what does Joseph do?

I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.”

Reticence to share was his initial reaction, which is not at all surprising when we remember that we’re talking about 14-year-old kid here, one who has just experienced something overwhelmingly difficult to process. And events shortly thereafter would make him even more gun-shy about spreading the word.

He finally gets up the courage to tell a Methodist minister about the vision, and the minister blows him off “with great contempt” and makes him feel foolish for sharing it. He soon discovers that talking about the vision brings him nothing but trouble.

Verses 21 and 22:

I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.

It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.

So when bullies are mocking you for talking about seeing God, what do you do? You stop talking about it. Certainly your family stops talking about it. But that doesn’t stop others for making fun of you for it, which, according to Joseph, they did – and some of it even leaked over into records of the time.

There’s a tidbit from The Reflector, a Palmyra newspaper that mocked the Mormons in February of 1831 for claiming that “Smith (they affirmed), had seen God frequently and personally.” Other possible earlier references pop up, too, although they’re more obscure than that. And, really, 1831 is just a year before 1832, so this doesn’t really move the needle much closer to a contemporaneous version. Why didn’t Joseph write something down about it at a time closer to his experience? Where’s the 1821 or 1822 account?

When you ask the question that way, you start to realize how shaky your premise is. The First Vision doesn’t appear in any 1821 or 1822 writings of Joseph Smith because there are no 1821 or 1822 writings of Joseph Smith. Joseph was 15 and 16 in 1821 and 1822, respectively, and he was, by his own description, “an obscure boy… of no consequence in the world” who was “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.” He was uneducated and essentially illiterate. He didn’t write anything down because he wasn’t capable of writing.

But those who were mocking and persecuting him weren’t all illiterate. Why don’t we have any contemporaneous accounts from them? After all, don’t most people make note in their journals all the scorn they heap on obscure boys of no consequence in the world? (“Dear Diary: Went back and teased that no-good Joseph Smith again today because he claims to have seen the Father and the Son in a vision, which, as we all know, violates Trinitarian doctrine..”) Don’t newspapers always publish investigative reports of the crackpot theories put forward by teenage day laborers? (Dateline: Palmyra, where obscure 15-year old Joseph Smith, a boy of no consequence in the world, has still not recanted his deistic blasphemies…) It isn’t until 1831 when The Reflector decides to throw in a First Vision-flavored jibe in its list of grievous sins against the Mormons, and the casual way it’s included in a laundry list of Mormon offenses suggests that the charge is nothing new, as if maybe people have been talking about it for a long time.

From 1820 until 1827, when Joseph started making rumblings about golden plates, nobody anticipated that this worthless kid was going to found a major religious movement, so records about him vary between scarce and nonexistent. And prior to 1830, the only written items we have from Joseph are the revelations he received in connection to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In 1830, he receives a revelation, now D&C Section 20, that there is to be a “record kept,” so that’s probably the first time he gets a sense that maybe he ought to be writing more stuff down.

That revelation also includes this nugget of info in verse 5:

After it was truly manifested unto this first elder[ i.e Joseph Smith] that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;

And when was was it “truly manifested unto” Joseph that he had received a remission of his sins? In the 1832 account, Joseph says this happened when the Lord appeared to him. Quoting Joseph from his 1832 account:

“I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.”

That would make verse 5 an 1830 direct reference to the First Vision, which negates your contention that there are no references to the First Vision until 1832. The 1838 account actually corroborates the idea in verse 5 that after the vision, Joseph was “entangled again in the vanities of the world.” Rather than contradicting each other, the references and account of the First Vision are actually quite consistent, even though they don’t all reference the whole experience in every account.

So with an 1830 commandment to start keeping a record, Joseph begins the process of recording revelations, but he still doesn’t begin keeping a personal journal until 1832.  And what’s one of the first things he writes about when he begins his personal history? The First Vision. That seems like an entirely reasonable timeline for discussion of the event.

Consider, for instance, that not only were there no written accounts of Joseph’s First Vision prior to 1832, there were no written accounts of anything in Joseph’s personal history. In the 1832 journal entry that constitutes the first account of the First Vision, he also states that he “was born in the town of Charon [Sharon] in the State of vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805.” Near as I can tell, this is the first time Joseph wrote about the date and place of his birth, and he waited until more than 26 years after the event to do it. So, using your logic, we should therefore presume that no one – including Joseph Smith’s family members and the Saints – had ever heard about Joseph Smith’s birth until 26 years after it supposedly occurred.

Tomorrow: First Vision – Part II

CES Reply: A Rock in a Hat
CES Reply: The First Vision (Part II)

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