Home » Mormonism » Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the First Vision

Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the First Vision

While it seems like this blog might generally be a comparison and contrast between Orthodoxy and Mormonism, generally favoring first visionOrthodoxy when the two are contrasted, I have also mentioned that not all my posts about Mormonism are unfavorable.  This is a post (perhaps the beginning of a loose series of posts) that explain why a lot of anti-Mormon* arguments don’t seem to work with me.

See, I don’t really “click” with a lot of the disaffected Mormon crowd.  I don’t hate Mormonism, I don’t think it’s evil or demonic, and I don’t think it is “so easily dismissed.”  I generally approach Mormonism as a religion that I love, but think is for the most part incorrect.  So I don’t particularly like reading anti-Mormon* stuff or dwelling on the historical problems of Mormonism, etc. because I just think it’s mostly a waste of my time – I think we can decide whether Mormonism is correct by examining its theology alone, especially contrasting it with other major theologies in the world.

One thing that a lot of critics of Mormonism seem to think is an obvious kill-shot to Mormonism is the fact that Joseph Smith’s ideas, visions, and interpretations shifted over time.  Let’s examine one in particular:  the differing accounts of the First Vision.  Now I’m not going to do a side-by-side analysis of all the different accounts because other people have done this way better than I could, but I want to address the idea that a person’s interpretation of a mystical event can shift over time.

To put it frankly, I think it can.  Take this very interesting account written at one of my favorite Thomistic philosophy blogs about Julian of Norwich.  Julian was an early English mystic and theologian who was very insightful and brilliant.  At the beginning of her theological career, so the post states, she asked for a year of mortification in order to gain insights into pain, sin, and suffering, and she was granted such.  During a year of near-fatal illness she experienced a series of visions, and when she recovered from the illness she wrote an account of her visions known as the “Short Text.”  However, as stated in the blog post:

After she had written the Short Text, she did not stop thinking about her experiences, but, in fact, continued to think them through all her life, improving her interpretation of them and working out their implications more thoroughly. As she did so, she began to revise her Short Text, eventually giving us a work almost six times as long.

A full understanding of my point probably requires you, the reader, to at least skim through that post, but the point is this.  Mystical experiences, as reported by mystics themselves, are intense and overwhelming.  And, much like our memories of more mundane things, it is impossible for the human mind to remember every detail about those experiences.

As a student of psychology, the research on memory seems to suggest that when we recall an event that has happened to us, it is not an accurate metaphor to say that we are “reaching back” or “retrieving” an exact memory duplicate of the event.  Rather, we sort of reach into our memories with an agenda, and use the memory traces to build a narrative as we recall it.  Our memories are easily distorted, changed, re-filed, and subjected to new interpretations and analyses.  Retrieving a memory can actually change it.  New memories can interfere with old memories.

As such, when Julian of Norwich reflected on her visions, her interpretation and analysis of those visions shifted and changed, especially when she approached her memories with new or deeper questions.  Details that seemed less important suddenly took on new importance, and vice-versa.

Similarly, Joseph would “tweak” his own revelations and stories frequently over time.  But for him, this process was just an extension of the original revelatory process.  It could have been that Joseph’s cognitive power simply overloaded when he first experienced these things, and a full appreciation of his revelations only came through a long period of checking and rechecking them.

Therefore, in my opinion, the fact that through Joseph Smith’s life he seemed to tell the story of his First Vision differently, even with wildly different details and shifting purposes, is not immediately a sign that he was just making it up as he went along, or that he was a liar and charlatan.  Maybe he was, but can we immediately conclude that just because he gave different accounts of his vision?  It is not fair to expect anyone who has such an intense experience to be able to keep all the facts straight, especially if they are constantly challenging, changing, or re-interpreting their worldviews (as Smith frequently did to his own ideas).  In other words, I wouldn’t expect a person who had a real, authentic vision to be able to keep a steady narrative and interpretation of it through their whole lives.

So I think that approaching the First Vision by challenging the differing accounts is the wrong approach.  Some more interesting questions, to me, are:  Can there be two Gods?  Was it necessary to call a prophet to course-correct Christianity in the early 19th Century?  Do the differing accounts of the First Vision paint a coherent picture that justifies its own existence (in other words, does the information we learn from the First Vision and subsequent revelations really seem worth all the trouble of God and Jesus coming down to give it)?  Does the modern LDS church put too much weight on the First Vision by teaching its missionaries to memorize it and use it as emotional and intellectual leverage (i.e. if you feel good when I tell this account slowly and dramatically, then this vision really happened, therefore Joseph Smith is a prophet and the LDS church is true and you should get baptized, preferably before I get transferred out of this area).

Part of my approach to this subject comes from having had my own experiences that I felt were in a sense “mystical,” and it is certainly the case that my interpretation of them has changed considerably over the years.

*I hate the term “anti-Mormon” for the same reasons that almost everyone else does, too.  But here I’m using it in the broader sense of something that is opposed to Mormonism – nothing more.


6 thoughts on “Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the First Vision

  1. I feel similar regarding many of Joseph smiths revelations that his interpretation of them can change over time and what he said could still be accurate. But I don’t agree about changing who is appearing before you in the vision. That is a detail that changes that is very fishy to me. I had an experience that led me out of Mormonism and ultimately helped lead me to Orthodoxy. The way I tell the dream sometimes changes, my interpretation changed over time, and other details I focus on more than others depending on who i speak with but there are important details that never change each time I tell it. The story of Joseph seeing God the Father with a body is core LDS doctrine, and it is one of the most unstable details to his story.

  2. I explored the issues surrounding the “First Vision” as I perceive them a while back on my blog. I would likely write it differently now just as I think we should expect a mystic to make minor alterations to his recounting over time. However, while I think there is a category of minor alterations that can be dismissed, I believe there are some major changes between Smith’s vision accounts that, as Orthojaxy states, are fishy. For example, that Smith speaks of only one personage, Jesus, at a point in time where he still has unitarian beliefs and believes there is only one God seems to be quite distinct from seeing both the father and the son as two distinct personages.

  3. Yes, I appreciate both comments and agree, we can’t allow a mystic to completely alter the details of a story (Betty Eadie comes to mind). And there’s no magic threshold that separates fishy changes from legitimate changes. Certainly this will differ based on whether you think a person is a prophet, among other things. My only point here is to point out that making changes as you relate a mystic experience, on its own, does not AUTOMATICALLY discount the experience.

  4. I have a difficult time believing that Joseph could forget or be confused about the fact that both the Father and the Son appeared to him, floating in the air in blazing glory. That’s the final, official version of the story. It seems that such an earth-shattering experience would be seared into his memory and consciousness forever if that’s what really happened. I’m not sure what to make of a claim that the original, mystical experience was more inchoate and fuzzy in the details, requiring reflection and time to sort through the experience to get at what it was that actually happened.

  5. I do not think we should discount the possibility that Joseph embellished his vision over time. I think Joseph was certainly a prophet, but also very invested in his own prestige and personality. I have always considered Joseph a combination of sincere mystic and arrogant jackass, and the two mix more often than not. I think this is part of both the problem and promise of Mormonism, once one gets past the concept that this is even a possibility. I think the Church should stop presenting Joseph as a Saint, and present him as a man.

    For some reason the potentiality of being both divinely inspired and a gargantuan jerk seems to offset most people, but it has always seemed to be simply a reflection of human nature, from King David to the Apostles (original). Thomas doubted, but he was still an Apostle. Peter denied Christ. And so on…

    I think the Church’s problem is attempting to do what all religions do, which is whitewash its history which is a natural reaction, but gives the pretense of covering things up. I think it is just natural reaction, but men are men, and we should consider Joseph’s failures as much as his vision, and learn from both sides of this. This is likely why I am still Mormon, because I can hold both views without discomfort. This is also not for everyone, so I am not criticizing or condemning.

  6. I think more pertinent than the vision accounts themselves is how they related to Joseph’s ideologies corresponding chronologically to each vision and how he lived after experiencing such visions. I believe that being placed in these contexts is what truly damns his claims, in the light of which he seems to be little more than a product of his environment.

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