Before I move on from discussing the First Vision, I wanted to share something that I find exciting. Once in a while in Mormon studies journals, special volumes focus on the First Vision—such as the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies and a 1980 volume of the Journal of Mormon History. These volumes, along with a few other essays, books, and articles published from time to time form the backbone of the academic discussion about Joseph Smith’s earliest visionary experience. The latest volume of BYU Studies, as it turns out, is the next volume to focus on the topic of the First Vision, featuring papers presented at the conference “The First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr.: 200 Years On”, held at the Huntington Library earlier this year and a few other notable articles as well. It’s a stellar issue with authors that run the gamut from general authorities to notable Latter-day Saint scholars to academic Evangelical Christians, etc., and builds upon previous scholarship to flesh out the context and our understanding of the First Vision in some interesting and satisfying ways.
Many of the papers featured in the journal focus on the context of the culture in which the First Vision occurred. For example, Richard L. Bushman wrote about how Joseph Smith’s words reveal his reaction to modernism and skepticism in the cultural milieu of his time. George M. Marsden wrote about how Joseph Smith’s understanding of the Millennium fit within the various premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial views of Christian groups contemporary to his time. John G. Turner discussed the background of early Latter Day Saints and Presbyterians being strongly at odds with each other, focusing on a Presbyterian minister who served in Palmyra around the time that the Smith family lived there. In addition, David F. Holland compared and contrasted the first visions of Joseph Smith and Ellen White (an 1844 experience that led to the founding of the Seventh-day Adventists), yielding some interesting insights about both, while Rachel Cope discussed three women of various religions who were roughly contemporary to Joseph Smith and their diverse experiences with divine revelations, exploring how their inner histories shaped their experiences. Each of these discussions add insight and depth to the context of Joseph Smith’s visionary experience.
One of my favorite articles providing context for the First Vision was John H. Wigger’s discussion of the context of Methodism in the early 19th century United States, focusing on how they were transitioning from a charismatic religion that displayed intemperate zeal in expressing spiritual gifts and visions to a more respectable and refined religion. This resulted in a rupture within the movement, with some (both among preachers and members) supporting the “old Methodism” (leading to groups such as the Pentecostals) and others supporting the more educated and cosmopolitan “new Methodism” that is the mainstream version of that religion today. Joseph Smith had considerable contact with Methodism and it is estimated that roughly one third of the first generation of early Church converted from Methodist backgrounds. Thus, Methodism can be seen as an important part of the context in which Joseph Smith approached God in prayer and experienced a vision in western New York and how his experiences were viewed by contemporaries. As Wigger put it:
Joseph Smith’s first vision occurred just as this divide [between Old and New School Methodists] was becoming readily apparent in western New York.
This is not the same as saying that Methodist supernaturalism led directly to Smith’s first vision. Correlation does not imply causation. But correlation can demonstrate context, and movements need a receptive context in which to take root. The divide between the supernaturalism of early Methodism and the respectability of middle-class Methodism formed a backdrop against which Smith’s audience could situate his visions and revelations. Whether they believed him or not, they would have understood that he stood in a long line of visionaries who also had their critics.
While this isn’t all new information, it was still an interesting paper with a lot of great details.
A few of the other articles focus on how the First Vision became such an important story to Latter-day Saints over time. Steven C. Harper of Brigham Young University discusses many of the key moments that led to the First Vision being our “all or nothing” proposition, such as Orson Pratt’s efforts to keep the memory of the vision alive, Joseph F. Smith’s work in shifting attention away from polygamy and towards the First Vision during a difficult transition period for the Church, and other important events in the twentieth century that have led to it being viewed as central to the Church today. Likewise, Richard E. Bennett of Brigham Young University discussed how the story of Moroni and the Book of Mormon was the dominant founding narrative of the Church through most of the nineteenth century, but that vision faded in importance as the First Vision was emphasized in response to both the end of plural marriage and the rise of modern philosophy (including, notably, the theory of evolution). (As an aside, this history might be interesting to explore in comparison with the current de-emphasizing of Moroni as the Church’s symbol in favor of the Christus.) Together, these historians flesh out and build upon the work of James Allen in analyzing how Latter-day Saints have viewed the First Vision over the years.
A third article covered some interrelated territory with Harper and Bennett’s work, but in a very different way. In what was, perhaps, my favorite article of the periodical, Anthony Sweat discussed the evolution of artwork depicting the First Vision over time (complete with figures showing much of the artwork he talked about). He discussed how much of the artwork was initially shaped by a Tiffany Glass stained glass window in the Salt Lake City Temple, with Joseph Smith on his knees, shielding his eyes, in a summer woodland in front of God the Father and Jesus Christ in white robes. While Joseph Smith was usually depicted wearing dark brown clothing in earlier stain glass windows and paintings, it gradually became more standard for him to wear a white shirt with brown pants, though still in a similar position to the Tiffany Glass window. This has become the case so much, that Sweat was able to take a highly abstracted version made up of basic geometric shapes in the standard colors around BYU and find that students recognized it as a depiction First Vision. Sweat also discussed how depictions of the vision have become more common as the First Vision has become more important to Latter-day Saints. He went on to discuss possibilities of how the event might be depicted in the future, since we have more accounts (and thus more details) of the vision available to artists today and as we become a more multi-cultural, global faith. Included in this part of the article was a beautiful oil painting by Anthony Sweat that focused on including less commonly featured parts of the story, such as the light appearing to be fire, many angels being present, the experience taking place in the woodlands in early springtime (rather than summer), Satan fleeing, and even an ax in a stump. It was a fascinating study in how artwork and symbolism about the First Vision has developed over the years.
Perhaps the most challenging paper for believing Latter-day Saints (and likely one of the most impactful essays in the ongoing discussions about the First Vision) published in this volume of BYU Studies is Ann Taves’s piece that continues the debate over when (or if) the events Joseph Smith described in his First Vision accounts occurred. From analysis of the timing of religious revivals in the area, Lucy Mack Smith’s history in its original form, and the earliest religious documents Joseph Smith produced, Taves suggests that Joseph Smith may have not had his first experiences with the Lord speaking to him directly until 1829 and explores the implications of Joseph Smith communicating first with Moroni rather than with the Father and the Son. She ends with listing many different interpretive possibilities opened by the First Vision controversy. The article challenges the official Church narrative of how events unfolded, but it was very interesting from the perspective of historical analysis.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also get to hear from the current Church Historian, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. While perhaps the least interesting in the way of presenting scholarship on the subject of the First Vision, I still appreciated it as an articulation of how the Church is currently approaching the First Vision. I felt that it wouldn’t have been too out of place as a general conference talk, truth be told, focusing on what the vision means to the Church today (with emphasis on revelation) and how the Church shares information about Joseph Smith’s experience through several different means these days. (Actually, I’m quite surprised, in retrospect, that the Church Historian didn’t talk at the special general conference commemorating the 200th anniversary of the year Joseph Smith said the First Vision occurred.) Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia took a different approach to understanding the importance of the First Vision to Latter-day Saints, examining it through the lenses of history and prehistory, metanarrative and mythos, discussing how the vision is ritualized by Church members and, ultimately, what the First Vision tells us about religion rather than history. Both are important ways of looking at the subject.
There are other interesting articles in the issue as well, such as Richard J. Mouw’s view of the First Vision from a (relatively generous) Evangelical point of view and an exploration of when Joseph Smith may have arrived at the conclusion that God has a tangible body of flesh and bone by John W. Welch. All told, the volume is a worthwhile read (or listen, if you go to the Huntington Library site to listen to the recordings of the conference, though you’ll miss out on the articles by Turner, Welch, and Sweat that way) and will likely be a landmark publication in the historiography of the First Vision. And, since BYU is shifting towards making online content of BYU Studies available for free, you can easily access the articles without even having to pay.
Lead image: Ben Crowder, “Let Him Ask of God,” 2019, used as the cover of the BYU Studies 59:2.
 John Wigger, “Methodism as Context for Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 59:2 (2020), https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/methodism-context-joseph-smiths-first-vision