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CES Reply: The First Vision (Part II)

3. In the 1832 account, Joseph said that before praying he knew that there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness of his sins.

4. In the official 1838 account, Joseph said his “object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join”…”(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).”

This is in direct contradiction to his 1832 First Vision account.

Two issues raised here. One is the idea that in 1832 he says he already knew that all churches were false before praying, while in 1838 he said that “it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong,” which you posit constitutes a direct contradiction between the two accounts.

The other issue is Joseph’s purpose for praying – in 1832 he says it is to get his sins forgiven, while in 1838 he says it is “to know which of all the sects was right.”  You insist that this, too constitutes a direct contradiction between the two accounts.

To adequately respond to the first issue, I think it’s helpful to begin by addressing the second issue and then circling back to the first with some additional context under our belts.

In the case of “Forgiveness of Sins v. Which Church is True,” FAIR and others maintain that this supposed discrepancy can be explained by the fact that Joseph, in fact, had two distinct items on his agenda when he knelt down to pray – 1. Which Church is the right one? and 2. As long as you’re at it, can I also get my sins forgiven while I’m here? As much as I respect FAIR, I don’t think that’s the right answer.

To understand why, we must, of course, turn to the uncorrelated wisdom of “Seinfeld.”

In the 130th Seinfeld episode titled “The Calzone,” which originally aired on April 25, 1996, Elaine makes a bet with a character named Todd Gack, with a free dinner put forward as the stakes. Todd says that Dustin Hoffman appeared in the movie “Star Wars;” Elaine says that’s nonsense. Elaine, of course, is correct, so she wins the bet, which means that Todd has to buy her dinner. Over the course of the episode, we learn that Todd has a system of making stupid bets with women in order to get them to go out with him without actually having to ask them for dates.

Todd Gack’s admittedly brilliant system is irrelevant to our discussion, but the “Star Wars” bet is not.

Even with a free dinner at stake, the impact of the bet’s outcome on Elaine’s life is insignificant. It’s a simple academic question, an empty exercise in curiosity. And the impact it has on her eternal salvation? None whatsoever.

True, even without a free dinner at stake, people engage in meaningless pop culture arguments like this all the time, sometimes getting quite heated about them. (“What do you mean Justin Timberlake was in NSYNC, you moron? Everyone knows he was one of the Backstreet Boys!”) But Google now provides instant resolution for most of them, and while the loser in the disagreement may be miffed for a moment or two, such incidents are, under most circumstances, quickly forgotten. (Although Justin Timberlake was, in fact, in NSYNC and not the Backstreet Boys. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

Turning back to the First Vision, saying that Joseph Smith had two different items on his agenda when he went to pray is to reduce the question about the which church is right to the equivalent of the status of Dustin Hoffman’s Jedi pedigree. Joseph wasn’t asking an academic question of idle curiosity; it was a question whose answer could be the difference between heaven and hell. Never mind dinner; in Joseph’s mind, his soul was at stake.

You see that in all of Joseph’s firsthand accounts. “[M]y mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul,” he wrote in 1832. “I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces;” he wrote in 1835. “My mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness… my feelings were deep and often poignant… What is to be done?” he wrote in 1838. “I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future [i.e. eternal] state,” he wrote in 1842.

These are different words, to be sure, but there’s no mistaking the commonality of their underlying meaning. I believe that all these accounts show that Joseph’s deepest desire was to know what he had to do to be saved. That was the one and only item on his agenda in the Sacred Grove.

The question he asked, then, about which church he should join tells us about young Joseph’s theological assumptions. It’s clear in all accounts that salvation and church membership were inextricably linked in his mind. Even in 1832, where he doesn’t specify what question he asked the Lord before his sins were forgiven, he goes on at great length about his concern for the error he sees in all the churches. If they could travel back in time, many modern religionists would counsel young Joseph that a relationship with Christ and forgiveness of sins can happen without belonging to any church whatsoever, but that possibility doesn’t seem to occur to Joseph, nor would it have been likely to occur to anyone in the early 19th Century. Christ without a church in 1820? Who could imagine such heresy? Certainly not an illiterate farmboy who, at that point, had no inkling what the Lord had in store for him.

Why, then, did he ask which church to join? Because he thought he needed to belong to church to be saved from his sins. In Joseph’s mind, “which church is the right one” and “how can I get my sins forgiven” were variations on the same theme, and only minor variations at that. Rather than show inconsistency, the two accounts are remarkably united in their depiction of Joseph’s concern for his soul and his assumptions about what was necessary to save it.

So with that understanding, the apparent contradiction about whether or not he had decided that all the churches were wrong prior to praying becomes far less problematic. The 1832 account spends more time detailing the specific problems with all the churches than the 1838 account, indicating that Joseph still believed in the importance of joining a church to gain access to the atonement. True, he doesn’t explicitly say that any church membership is necessary, but he didn’t have to – those reading his account in 1832 would have had the same assumptions, and neither Joseph or his audience would have even considered the modern/post-modern idea of an effectual Christian life outside the boundaries of organized religion. Even if all the churches were wrong to one degree or another, surely Joseph would still have felt it necessary to join the best one – or the “most correct” one, to borrow a phrase from earlier in your letter and later in his life.

The other interesting thing about Joseph’s 1838 statement that “it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong” is that, if you apply the kind of legalistic standard necessary to make those words some kind of indefensible contradiction of the 1832 account, you would then have to say they are also a contradiction of what he had to say just eight verses earlier in the 1838 account.

Verse 10 of Joseph Smith History:

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? [Emphasis added]

What? He had previously considered the possibility that the churches could be “all wrong together?” But doesn’t he say just eight short verses later that “it had never entered into [his] heart that all were wrong?” Doesn’t this prove your point?

No, it reveals your assumptions, which are incorrect.

You approached this with the unspoken and unchallenged assumption that if the First Vision were true, every account of that vision would have to identical, or at least close to identical, which is seldom, if ever, how people recount similar events over long spans of time. Furthermore, you erroneously assumed Josephs’s accounts would have to conform with your own modern understanding of religious culture that are at odds with the culture in which Joseph found himself. No reader in 1832 would have read Joseph’s emphasis on forgiveness of sins in that account as any kind of contradiction with a desire to know which church to join. They “knew,” or assumed, anyway, that forgiveness of sins couldn’t happen outside the boundaries of a church.

So how does one reconcile JSH 1:10 with JSH 1:18? The key phrase, I think, is “entered into my heart.” He had clearly intellectually considered the possibility all churches were in error in verse 10 (and in the 1832 account,) but the idea doesn’t really sink in – i.e. enter into his heart – until verse 18. I think all of us have had this experience – things happen that we choose not to believe even when we get the information, but we don’t allow our intellectual knowledge to “enter into our hearts.” I’m betting you probably had a similar experience in researching church history – you’d stumble upon a distressing fact and say to yourself “That can’t be true!” and, after a period of struggle, and perhaps even mourning, there finally comes acceptance. It enters in to your heart.

When that happens, we can all identify with Amulek from the Book of Mormon, who once said of his own testimony, “I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.” (Alma 10:6)

Make up your mind, Amulek! Did you know or didn’t you know?! That’s a direct contradiction!

5. Other problems:

The dates / his ages: The 1832 account states Joseph was 15 years old when he had the vision in 1821 while the other accounts state he was 14 years old in 1820 when he had the vision.

You are correct. Joseph’s incorrect age was written in by Frederick G. Williams as a marginal note above Joseph’s handwriting in the 1832 account. There’s no reason to assume it’s anything other than an honest mistake. If you’re expecting infallibility in the 1832 account, you’re in serious trouble. The grammar alone in that thing is truly atrocious.

The reason or motive for seeking divine help – Bible reading and conviction of sins, a revival, a desire to know if God exists, wanting to know which church to join – are not reported the same in each account.

Not to be rude, but this is a truly bizarre complaint with some very strange assumptions. In which account, for instance, does Joseph claim that he went into the woods to pray solely because of a revival? He also mentions his birthplace in both the 1832 and 1838 versions. Should this be interpreted as a claim that he was seeking divine help because he was born in Vermont? Because he left out his birthplace in the 1835 and 1842 versions, should we then presume that he couldn’t really have been born in Vermont because this was not “reported the same in each account?”

You act as if these elements, all of which come into play at different times in the overall story, are all completely unrelated non sequiturs – in a previous version of your letter, you said they were “all over the map.” No, “all over the map” would be one version where Joseph prayed because he was dared to by Hyrum, and another where he prayed because he thought that it would help him find buried treasure, and yet another where he thought prayer was the only way to ward off elephants. (Another mention of elephants! Could it be mere coincidence?)

Your elements aren’t all over the map; they’re all part of the same map, or at least different maps covering the same territory. Revivals lead to Bible reading, which leads to a desire to know more about God, which leads to a conviction of sins, which leads to a desire to know which church to join to be forgiven. All steps on the same journey; all plot points on the same map. True, some accounts/maps don’t have all the same plots pointed in the other accounts/maps, but all the points are consistent across the accounts. The fact that different maps drawn at different times don’t look like photocopies of each other shouldn’t be surprising at all. Your map of the “lands of Joseph Smith’s youth” don’t have all the same points on them that other maps of the same territory do. Does that make either of those maps contradictory or fraudulent? Does it mean that Jacobsburg doesn’t really exist?

Who appears to him – a spirit, an angel, two angels, Jesus, many angels, the Father and the Son – are all over the place.

Nonsense. One account only explicitly mentions one personage, and another mentions as an afterthought that angels were there, too. That’s the sum total of any differences. Hardly all over the place.

The historical record shows that there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820. There was one in 1817 and there was another in 1824.

That may be why none of Joseph’s First Vision accounts mention a revival.

There are records from his brother, William Smith, and his mother Lucy Mack Smith, both stating that the family joined Presbyterianism after Alvin’s death in November 1823 despite Joseph Smith claiming in the official 1838 account that they joined in 1820; 3 years before Alvin Smith’s death.

You’ll have to provide links to such records, as I can find no sources that offer any date whatsoever as to when the Smiths became Presbyterians. Even Joseph is vague on this point –  the 1838 account only says that Joseph’s family were Presbyterians as of 1820, not that this was the year that they joined. In fact, Joseph’s statement to his mother right after the First Vision that he had learned for himself that Presbyterianism was not true would suggest that the Smith family’s Presbyterian affiliation preceded the First Vision.

Why did Joseph hold a Trinitarian view of the Godhead, as shown previously with the Book of Mormon, if he clearly saw that the Father and Son were separate embodied beings in the official First Vision?

He didn’t. As shown previously in my reply, the Book of Mormon does not demonstrate that Joseph Smith held a Trinitarian view of the Godhead.

Like the rock in the hat story, I did not know there were multiple First Vision accounts.

This implies that the Church must have been actively withholding this information from you, which is demonstrably false. It was readily available for anyone interested in the subject. If I could find it on my mission from an Ensign in the late 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find.

I did not know its contradictions or that the Church members didn’t know about a First Vision until 22 years after it supposedly happened.

They didn’t? Even though Joseph began writing about it 12 years after it happened, was having documented conversations about it with non-members 15 years after it happened, and wrote a lengthy history of it 18 years after it happened that was later canonized as scripture?

I was unaware of these omissions in the mission field as I was never taught or trained in the Missionary Training Center to teach investigators these facts.

Facts aren’t the issue; your assumptions are. The facts as you taught them in the mission field are consistently represented in all four of these accounts. Yet you assume that all four accounts need to be identical, or near identical, to be accurate. If I apply that standard to my own missionary journal and my blog, I would have to conclude that most of my mission probably didn’t happen.

And then we have your graphic:

FirstvisionAgain, sorry to be so dismissive, but this graphic is irredeemably stupid.

To begin with, you have been discussing four accounts of the First Vision, but only three of them are represented by this graphic, which ignores the 1842 account in the Wentworth Letter. Instead, we suddenly get a mention of “Joseph to Erastus Holmes” in 1835, a nine-world journal entry written five days after the previous version cited in the graphic where Joseph, in his journal, made a passing reference to the experience as his “first visitation of angels.” Apparently, even in an off-handed reference own journal, he had to describe every element of the vision in order to demonstrate that it had actually happened. Given that he had, in fact, recorded all those elements in his journal just five days earlier, the obvious explanation here is that he didn’t feel the need to repeat himself in such a terse entry. By that reasoning, every time Joseph would have mentioned the vision in conversation even in passing, he’d be contradicting himself.

This graphic also maintains that Joseph didn’t mention the Father or the Son in the Nov. 9 1835 account. Even though two personages appear and the second forgives his sins the way that “the Lord” did in the 1832 account, we’re to assume these were only “angelic beings” and not the Father and Son because Joseph didn’t specifically label them here as “Father” and “Son.” But in the same text, after describing the two personages, Joseph goes on to say “and I saw many angels in this vision” as an addendum. Wouldn’t that suggest that the two identified personages were something other than angels? Isn’t it Christ who forgives sins? This graphic is trying to manufacture a contradiction that doesn’t exist.

Perhaps the pettiest distinction made in this goofy graphic is that Joseph included mention of a pillar of “fire” in some versions, but a pillar of “light” in others. Both words appear in the 1832 version, but the word “fire” is crossed out, suggesting Joseph was uncertain as to which would be the better word to use. The 1838 account uses “light” and not “fire,” yet it describes the light as “above the brightness of the sun,” which, in scientific terms, means “pretty darn bright – fiery, even!”

This is a meaningless distinction. It’s a writer choosing between two very similar words, not conspiratorial evidence of fraud.

Tomorrow: The Book of Abraham

CES Reply: The First Vision (Part I)
CES Reply: The Book of Abraham (Part I)

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  1. You will have another essay tomorrow? Am I to assume that you did this in a day? Cause that would really piss me off. Please tell me that you are going to denounce the CES letter piece by piece. It’s logic, or laugh thereof made me so mad that it took me a week to read. I would have to cool off and try again another day.

    May I post a few links to this? I am proud to say that I met you once.