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….