What are the main differences between the First Vision accounts? Why are they different, and are these differences significant? Dr. Steven Harper is the author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” and he will weigh in on these issues.
Steven: Excellent question. So, the 1832 and 38 are autobiographies. They are strategic memories. Joseph has stress and anxiety associated with strategic retrieval of his memory that he doesn’t have when it’s a spontaneous memory. So, the 1835 telling is a spontaneous retrieval. Joseph is not planning to write anything. He’s not planning to tell the story of his First Vision. He’s talking to this fellow from the east, Robert Matthews, and they start comparing prophetic credentials. This guy thinks he’s a great spiritual leader. He’s heard Joseph is, so, he’s come to see him, kind of to compare notes. Maybe, there’s kind of a subtle competition going on between them. I think, at least Matthews is trying to figure out if he might ally himself with Joseph Smith in some way or other.
Steven: So, they’re very curious about each other and they want to know what’s going on inside each other’s brains. They start swapping credentials for what makes them a prophet. Joseph says, “Well, let me tell you how the Book of Mormon came forth. The first thing that happened is, I was worried about matters that involve eternal consequences, and I worried about it a lot. I had great anxiety. I was distressed and perplexed, and I went to the woods to pray. I saw a fire, and then one personage revealed another. It filled me with joy unspeakable [joy.]” It’s a fast moving, relatively easy flow for Joseph. When you compare it to the autobiographies, you notice that it’s not freighted with the concern about writing. The first thing Joseph does in both of his autobiographies is he offers a disclaimer about why he can’t write well.
GT: So, the 1835 is not written by Joseph.
Steven: That’s right, it’s written by Warren Parrish. Parrish captures it.
GT: Oh, Warren Parrish.
Steven: Parrish captures it and puts it into his journal. Joseph is not writing it. He’s not thinking about writing it. He’s not thinking about, “What’s the beginning of the story, the middle of story, the end of the story. How do I structure this narrative?” He’s just spilling it out. It comes naturally to him, in that sense. It’s much easier work for him when he tells it like that, than it is when he writes it. We now know that he tells it like that quite a bit in this middle 1830s period, much more than we used to think. He’s telling it that way by shortly after, if not at the same time or before, he writes the 1832 autobiography. So, 1835 memory is really cool. I think one of the most telling things about it is, it doesn’t seem to cause Joseph Smith the psychological need to reconcile with or deal with that Methodist minister’s rejection. It’s one of the things I argue in the book is the 1832 memory is an effort to make good with or at least not offend the minister or the whole world the minister represents, and that Joseph isn’t very satisfied with his memory as a result of that effort. Then, I argue that the 1838 memory is an effort to take that minister head on. This is Joseph in the worst year of his life. He is in a persecution mindset. Notice how many times that account says hot persecution, the bitterest persecution.
GT: I know Dan Vogel mentions that.
Steven: It is definitely the present that gives us that version of the past. It’s saturated with persecution. In that mode, Joseph Smith spits venom at the clergy. He calls the Methodists “priests” three times. He knows that that’s a way to offend.
We also talk about the 1842 account. What are your thoughts on First Vision discrepancies? Check out our conversation….
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