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Did Methodist Minister Scold Young Joseph?

As we mentioned in a previous conversation with Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith’s First Vision was quite similar to Methodist visions of Christ of the day.  Dan says it doesn’t make sense for a Methodist minister to question Joseph’s vision.  I asked Dr. Steven Harper, author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” to weigh in on this issue.

GT:  I wonder about this other issue. Methodists were known for having visions, so, it seems a little strange that a Methodist minister would reject Joseph.  Could it have been a Presbyterian minister, because they weren’t as into ecstatic religious experiences, were they?

Steven:  You’re right about that, but it’s probably a Methodist minister. I don’t think Joseph is mistaken about that. Let me give you a potential interpretation of the facts that make sense. So, right now you’re feeling like there’s incongruity in Joseph’s story. If he had reported a vision…

GT:  I’m trying to give Dan’s view.

Steven:  Right. That’s what he’s saying, exactly.

Steven:  Joseph is not attuned to the fine points of debate, even inside the Methodist clergy. He doesn’t know, as a later author put it, that orthodoxy became Methodized, and then Methodism became orthodox. In other words, he’s not aware of what the Methodist ministers are aware of. That means that he thinks that going into the woods and having a vision is evidence of a Methodist conversion.  It finally worked. The Methodists told me that might work. It was a Methodist minister, who said, “If you lack wisdom, ask God. I did everything they said, and I tried it and tried it before and it never worked, and, finally, it worked.” So, Joseph’s initial interpretation of his experience is, “I have now a Methodist conversion.” What you do in that case, is you report it to the Minister. You get validated. He’s shocked when he gets anything but validated, and so that’s the point, right? You’re saying, “Well, wouldn’t a Methodist minister say, ‘Yeah, that was a great vision you had.'”  Not necessarily.

Steven: Right.  Think about reasons why that might not be the default response. This Methodist minister may be aware that Methodism is trending toward enthusiasm, which is not a positive term in those days. That means to be crazy, or it’s beginning to be [thought of as being crazy.]”  There are some in the Methodist ministry, who are trying to pull back from that over-enthusiastic response.  Lorenzo Dow is still going, and he’s still working people into frenzy, but some of the Methodist clergy are saying, “Oh, that’s just a little too weird for me.” It’s also the case that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, has prophesied, “Look. We’re going to grow like gangbusters, and the risk we run is becoming formalists.” We might grow exponentially and get to a point where we’re like everybody else where we speak of God with our mouths, but we deny the power thereof. We have a form of godliness, but we deny His power. “Don’t ever do that,” John Wesley says. So let’s say you’re a Methodist minister, and you’ve been influential in getting this feeling among the people that they can come to Christ. It’s all good until you see maybe some people getting a little excessive for your comfort level, maybe going a little too far. Then one of them comes to you and says, “Guess what? It worked. I saw God and Christ in the woods, and guess what they said? Everybody here, including you, sir, have a form of godliness, but you deny the power, thereof.” That’s the cue for the Methodist minister to say, “[No.]”

Were you aware that Methodists of the day had visions of Christ?  Did a Methodist minister scold Joseph about his vision? Check out our conversation….

Did a Methodist Minister really scold young Joseph Smith about the First Vision?

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Steve!

515: Were Revivals in Palmyra in 1820?

514: Memory Problems with First Vision

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Were Revivals in Palmyra in 1820?

Dr. Wesley Walters was one of the first people to question Joseph’s Smith’s account of the First Vision, saying there were no reports of revivals near Palmyra, NY in 1820 as Joseph Smith claimed.  Is there another way to interpret this?  BYU Professor Steven Harper is the author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” and seeks to answer this issue.  Were there revivals in 1820?

Steven:  Do you know there weren’t? No. You know that there’s no evidence in the newspaper, for example. So, Wesley Walters takes the geographical area to be Palmyra village, and he shows that there are no newspaper accounts of camp meetings in the Palmyra village area in the 1820 window. That’s what he knows. So let me be crystal clear. The fact is that he overstated it. Milton Backman did find a reference to a camp meeting in early 1820 in a Palmyra newspaper. So, Wesley Walters knows that the facts are, that in the records he researched, there was little to no mention of unusual religious excitement in Palmyra village in 1820. Well, what he doesn’t know is, is there unusual is excitement in the ‘whole district of country where we lived,’ right? That’s Joseph’s line. Joseph doesn’t say Palmyra village. He says, ‘the whole district of country, indeed the whole region of country.’

Steven:  Joseph locates the unusual religious excitement around Manchester, which is actually where his family lives. They don’t live in Palmyra, at the time of the vision or within a couple of years of it. So, you can’t decide whether something’s anachronistic or not, if you are deciding all the parameters of that.  You can’t be too close-minded about what Joseph means. One danger is not listening to Joseph well enough, deciding what he means. This is, I think, a problem with quite a lot of people, believers, unbelievers. They think they know what he means before they know what he means. So, I’m not sure I know everything he means, but I am more inclined to let him explain himself.  I’m inclined to listen to him and trust him. I believe he tells an accurate story. Now, I’m not saying it’s not distorted. I think he probably did blend memories about Presbyterianism. The idea of saying, “Mom, I know for myself Presbyterianism isn’t true.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a later 1820s memory.

GT:  Yeah. Because doesn’t his mother and sister join the Presbyterians about 1823?

Steven:  We don’t know when they join. That’s another thing people assume.  We do not know when they joined. The records don’t exist. We know when they leave the Western Presbyterian Church. We don’t know when they join. If we did, it might help us sort through some of these things. Assuming that we know when they did is a problem.

Can we find evidence of revivals in 1820?

Steven:  People set out to see what other evidence there might be and among these people was Milton Backman, a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. [He’s a] well-educated Latter-day Saint. He dug into the ‘whole region of country.’ He used Joseph Smith geographical scope. Joseph used the Methodist term: the whole district of country seemed affected by the unusual religious excitement. So, where Wesley Walters cast his net small in Palmyra Village, a few miles north of Joseph Smith’s farm, Professor Backman cast his net wide around the whole area of country, the whole district.

Steven:  What he found was lots of evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion. The word revival comes up often, as if that’s the measuring stick. A revival is the measuring stick. What often happens is people think a revival equals a camp meeting. All those things are related, but they’re not all the same thing. If you confuse them for the same thing, you might mistake what you’re looking at. So, there is evidence for a camp meeting in the newspaper in Palmyra in 1820. Professor Backman found it.  He quoted in his resulting article and work. But is that an unusual excitement on the subject of religion? Professor Backman didn’t think that one mention of that was, but he found plenty of examples of spikes in church attendance and church membership in various churches within a [radius of] 5, 10, 15-mile concentric circles. He found, in other words, evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the region or district of country that Joseph was saying.

Steven:  He, [Professor Backman] also, didn’t circumscribe it so much in time, as Reverend Walters did. Joseph didn’t say it happened in the first days of 1820. Joseph gives more possible time for that unusual excitement. If you reach back into mid-1819, you find Methodists having conference meetings within a day’s walk of Joseph’s home, hundreds of Methodist ministers convening in this area.  They’d have their conference meetings, and then they would spread out into the villages and preach. That happens in 1819. It happens again in 1820 within, again, a day’s walk. It’s not credible to argue that Joseph Smith could not have any basis for concluding that there was unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the district of country where he lived. That’s simply hiding evidence. Now, how you interpret that evidence that’s up to you, but to say it doesn’t exist is irresponsible.

What do you think?  Is Joseph’s memory accurate enough?  Check out our conversation….

Dr. Wesley Walters said there was no evidence of revivals in Palmyra until 1823-4. But Joseph lived in Manchester in 1820. Were there revivals there?

Don’t miss our previous conversation with Steve!

514: Memory Problems with First Vision

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Memory Problems with First Vision (Part 1 of 5)

Critics of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account claim that Joseph changed his accounts over the years, resulting in contradictions between the four primary accounts.  Could there be other ways to explain these discrepancies?  Dr. Steven Harper from BYU has written a book called “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” that seeks to answer some of these questions.

Steven:  I decided that the first part of the book would be about Joseph Smith’s memory. How did he consolidate? How did he form his memories of the First Vision? And what’s the nature of those memories? The premise, really, from the beginning is that memories are not what we often think they are.  Memories aren’t like some kind of data that you can record to a DVD or keep in a file folder somewhere where you just retrieve it, and it’s the same data every time. We talk about memory that way, but that is not how it works. An autobiographical memory, like Joseph’s memories of his First Vision, are real-time creations.  He produced the memory every time he told the memory or recorded it. He produced it out of the past, for sure. There were components of memory that he used, but he also always had some present context that was very essential to the way the memory was shaped. This is what we all do. We might think we don’t. But this is what we all do. We have a present situation. It prompts us in some way or other to think about our past. We gather up pieces of the past, and we fuse them together, and form them in a way that makes sense in our present, and that addresses the needs of our present. That’s how Joseph Smith came up with his memories of the First Vision. So, people might ask, are they accurate or inaccurate? It depends on what you mean.

Steven:  Memories are accurate, and memories are inaccurate, both.  They’re not perfect or distorted. They’re both of those things. There’s no way around that, not for anybody. So, memories are what they are. His [Joseph Smith’s memories] are fascinating. The first chunk of the book tells about how he formed those memories.  What was the present context, in which he formed each of his various memories of his First Vision that we have record of? Then the second part of the book is how a collective memory first formed. How did the earliest Latter-day Saints besides Joseph Smith, who came to know about his vision, remember it? What roles did they have? How did that work? That part goes up through the canonization of Joseph Smith’s history in the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. Then, the third chunk of the book is about contested memory. It’s about the fight over what the First Vision means.  [The fight] over whether Joseph’s memories are accurate or inaccurate or distorted or made up or half-remember dream, as Fawn Brodie said, or all the various claims. The stakes have really been raised on the First Vision in the last 50 years or more, and so that’s a compelling story.

GT:  Yeah, definitely. I’m curious, because you’ve got a background in history, and you’re going into all this memory stuff, which sounds more like a scientific thing. Did you consult with a neurologist or a memory expert, or something, as you wrote this book?

Steven:  I did. When I first started, I talked a lot to my brother, who’s a psychologist, a Ph.D. psychologist. I said, “What about this idea? What about that?”  He said, “That would work. That’d be good.” He pointed me in the right directions. “Here are some things you need to read. Here are some things you need to stop assuming.”  One thing that historians commonly assume is that memories are like something that you can carbon date, that there’s kind of a predictable rate of radioactive decay attached to a memory. You’ll hear people talk about it like that.  “Well, this memory was 18 years after the vision, so it’s not as good as one that was 10 years or 12 years after the vision.” There’s no basis for making that judgment. It’s an assumption. But there’s no good criteria that’s testable or verifiable.  It’s unscientific, in other words.

GT:  Doesn’t that fly against the normal training of a historian, though, because usually you say the first accounts are the best accounts, and then they get worse as time goes on.

Steven:  That’s my point. That’s the assumption of a historical method.  On what is it based?

GT:  I mean, don’t we have centuries of historians that do it that way?

Steven:  Maybe so, but a point I want to make in the book is, it’s much better to take each memory on its own merits, evaluated itself.

What do you think of Dr. Harper’s scientific approach to history?  Check out our conversation….

Critics allege problems with Joseph Smith’s memory of First Vision, but does science tell us more about the First Vision memories?


Don’t miss our previous conversation with historian Dan Vogel on the First Vision.

291: 1835 Account of First Vision

292: First Vision Conflicts

290: Making a Case for Melchizedek Priesthood in 1831?

289: Methodist Visions

288: Why “Pious Fraud” Ticks off Everyone

287: Dan Vogel Was a McConkie Mormon!