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….
Don’t miss our previous conversation with historian Dan Vogel on the First Vision.
289: Methodist Visions