Early Mormon apostle Orson Pratt probably did more to keep the memories of the First Vision alive in the LDS Church more than any other person. In our next conversation with Dr. Steven Harper, author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” we’ll talk about Orson’s outsized influence.
Steven: I think it’s likely that if not for Orson Pratt, we would have a much diminished collective memory, as Latter-day Saints of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. He is the foremost selector and relator and repeater of the vision, to use the technical terms that Thomas Anastasio and his colleagues use, for the people who choose what we remember. That happens because someone selects it, someone repeats it often, and relates it to other important components of our shared story. Nobody did that like Orson Pratt did that in the middle of the 19th century. He got the story from Joseph Smith’s own mouth.
Orson Pratt heard Joseph tell his First Vision on his way to Scotland on his mission. Joseph was on his mission to Washington, D.C. to seek redress for Missouri grievances. He and Orson Pratt cross paths in the Delaware River Valley. Orson learns the story from Joseph. He writes it in a missionary pamphlet in Scotland. That circulates all over the globe. Orson, ever after, tells that story. He tells the First Vision often. He tells it early, he coined the term First Vision, as far as we can tell. It’s in his writing in 1849, that those two words are used together for the first time in the historical record. Throughout the mid-decades of the 19th century, other church leaders are not telling the vision nearly as often, and they’re not telling it in the same way. Even though Joseph Smith’s records now and they’ve been published in the Church newspaper, Joseph Smith’s History will be published in the Pearl of Great Price in Britain in 1851. It’ll be canonized in 1880. But in that 30 years, you find quite remarkable variations on the story from George A. Smith, John Taylor, Brigham Young, and others. So, it’s Orson Pratt, who tells the story pretty much the way Joseph tells it and repeats it and keeps it on the forefront of minds. Finally, then, it gets canonized. We remember it the way we remember it today, largely because of the work that Orson Pratt did.
We’ll also talk about how some modern critics view the First Vision. To hear the conclusion, sign up for our free newsletter at https://gospeltangents.com/newsletter to check out our conversation with Dr. Steven Harper.
Don’t miss our previous conversations with Dr. Steven Harper.
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….
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….