The Elder’s Quorum this past Sunday was Lesson 1 from the Joseph Smith manual. It consists almost entirely of direct quotes from Joseph Smith-History, and it’s material that everyone in Elders Quorum has seen several dozen times. How do you go about teaching the very familiar?
I tried a broad approach of bringing in new information to keep people interested, and weaving it into the lesson, while still sticking to the basic lesson contours. I was very worried going in, that the entire class would go to sleep anyway. It helped that the classroom — err, stage — was freezing, which lessened the likelihood of dozing.
We started out with the most interesting tidbit I could think of to try to generate some up-front interest and wake the class up:
When was Joseph Smith-History written? 1838. How many times did Joseph Smith record his First Vision experience? A total of eight. (The JS-H version is one of the last.) Are the descriptions all the same?
And from there, we launched into a discussion of Joseph Smith’s purposes in recording his experience. His early writings on the First Vision emphasized the personal nature of it all. They tend to break down into, “I saw God, and was forgiven of my sins.” In fact, as Dean Jessee suggests, Joseph seems at first almost not to get the whole prophetic calling part of it all. It was not until later that Joseph seemed to understand the broader meaning, and that later, deeper understanding is evident in the 1838 description of the Vision. We talked about the possibility of Joseph Smith growing into the realization of the broader import of the First Vision, and what that might mean. (I meant to bring my copy of Opening the Heavens, but accidentally left it at home, so I didn’t have the exact text of the early descriptions, but we still discussed the overall idea.)
From there, we switched to the JS-H text, and read the initial few paragraphs, up to the point where Joseph talks about the religious climate of the time. And here, we detoured again, into some historical background. We talked a little bit about the Second Great Awakening, and the Burned-Over District. And we discussed follow-up questions:
What does it mean that Joseph’s vision took place at a time when much of the country was embroiled in urgent religious debate and spiritual self-examination? That the place where the vision occurred was practically the epicenter of the phenomenon? That nearby people like Campbell were arguing for a broad return to Biblical principles? (Quite a few early church converts were Campbellites.) How does it link to the family history as “seekers” or as unaffiliated Christians? (Close relatives like Solomon Mack and Lucy Mack Smith prized their spiritual independence.) And we briefly discussed the chronology. What was Joseph’s family life like in 1820? (Financially unstable, that’s what!) What was the work that they were doing to survive?
In the context of that history, we talked about James, and about the Vision itself. About the spiritual import of God’s commandment not to join other churches. About the reasons for Joseph going into nature to seek God — are we supposed to find God in nature, too? About the meaning of Satan’s attempted interference. And about the place of the Vision in our religious framework. Very familiar ground, almost all of it, but the class was into the discussion, and it went well.
We had just a moment for reactions to the vision, and briefly talked about historical context. It was the Second Great Awakening, and of course the preachers were hostile. (It wasn’t just Joseph Smith; as Bushman notes, everyone was claiming to have visions and dreams.)
And then, we flat ran out of time, and the lesson ended. So there was some material that we just weren’t able to get into. But I think it went well, overall. We covered some very familiar ground, but in a somewhat new way. And hopefully, class members took away information that enriches their understanding of the First Vision.
I didn’t hear a single snore.