Memory and the First Vision

How do we account for differences between the various accounts we have on record of the First Vision?  What role does memory play in how it was presented over time?  How have we viewed those accounts since they were first recorded?  These are big questions that are central to our understanding of Joseph Smith’s experience.  Steven C. Harper took a look at these questions and more in his book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press, 2019) and also sat down recently for a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring to talk about his book and the First Vision more generally.  What follows in this co-post is a summary of his remarks with some commentary, but I recommend taking the time to read the full interview here.

Dr. Harper’s book is divided into three parts, the first of which delves into the issue of autobiographical memory.  In his interview, Harper talked about how the field of memory studies needs to be taken into greater account by historians of the First Vision:

There are many untested, unproved assumptions about memory that are taken for granted in scholarship about the First Vision.

It’s common, for example, to see the assumption that memories decay at predictable rates. It’s a maxim that recent memories are accurate and distant memories are inaccurate. Those are reassuring things we tell ourselves, but they are unfounded.

Memories are much more unpredictable than that. They are based on many more variables than the passage of time.

He goes on to explain more about how memories are formed and influence the accounts that are created: “People somehow store traces of some of their past experiences, and when something in the present provides a cue, a memory gets made that mixes some of those traces of the past with present concerns and motivations.”  Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision are excellent examples of this process.

In looking at the first-person accounts of the First Vision, Harper discussed some of how the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s life (the present concerns and motivations) when each account was recorded and the experience itself (those traces of the past) mixed together.  For example, he “argued that the account in Joseph’s 1832 autobiography is best understood as a frustrated attempt to reconcile two things: One was to answer the Lord’s commands to Joseph to tell his story and the other was Joseph’s need to heal the youthful psychological pain of being rejected by the minister after telling his vision.”  Likewise, the 1838 account that we have in the Pearl of Great Price was also a strategic memory or retelling.  When he worked to tell both of these accounts, it “always retrieved the trauma of being rejected by the minister,” though he worked through that trauma in different ways in the two accounts.  The 1835 account—a record in his journal of a conversation he had, written down by a clerk—was, in contrast, an oral telling that was “cued without much forethought and thus free of the psychological need to respond to the minister’s rejection.”  Memories recorded at different times and to meet different needs tend to come out differently, which is part of how Steven Harper approaches the different accounts we have of the First Vision.

The second part of First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins focuses on the story between 1840-1880 of how the First Vision came to be seen as our origin story.  While Harper notes that “we now know that Joseph Smith told the story of his vision earlier and more frequently than we used to think,” and evidence discovered since James Allen’s seminal publication on the subject in the 1960s “shows that Joseph began telling the experience at least by the early 1830s,” it was still not as commonly known among the Latter-day Saints of the first generation in the Church as it is today.  Even the name we use was of a later origin: according to Harper, “it was apparently Orson Pratt who coined the term ‘first vision’ in 1849 to describe the event.”  He said that: “I think readers will be surprised by the plot twists that combined to lead Latter-day Saints to think of the First Vision as our genesis. It was not inevitable.”  It was, instead, a process of coming to talk about the First Vision and to view it with the intensity that we do today.

The third part of the book “tells the story of the contest over the First Vision” between believing and non-believing scholars during the middle of the 20th century.  Fawn Brodies’s 1945 biography No Man Knows My History and an article in the 1960s by Reverend Wesley Walters challenged the traditional Latter-day Saint narrative of the First Vision in some sophisticated ways.  This, in turn, sparked “a cadre of faithful historians” like “James Allen, Richard Bushman, Dean Jessee, [and] Milton Backman” to study the issue more closely and publish scholarship about the First Vision, such as in the articles of the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies and a 1980 volume of the Journal of Mormon History. A lot of the modern understanding of the First Vision in the academic field really emerged from this contest of scholarship.

In the interview with Kurt Manwaring, Steven Harper was asked the intriguing question: “What would Joseph Smith think of the important role the First Vision plays in the Church today?”  It was intriguing to me, because, as I’ve discussed before, it seems that in the early Church, the focus was much more strongly on the Book of Mormon as the founding narrative of the movement.  Harper responded that:

Great question. I wish I had a great answer. I’m not sure. I think he would be pleased that we have recently emphasized the lesson he learned: “I had found the testimony of James to be true, that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain and not be upbraided.”

Joseph’s best known account is characterized by a defensive persecution complex, and I think he might be pleased that we have grown out of our persecuted past enough to begin to put less emphasis on abominable creeds and corrupt professors and more emphasis on the Christ-centered redemption narrative emphasized in his 1832 and 1835 accounts.

I like to think, in other words, that he would be pleased by the recent turn toward the story’s application for sinful, anxious teenagers who also need to know that people like them have successfully sought and find the God of love.

It was an insightful response.

There is a lot of great information in the interview, and I recommend going on over and reading it in full.  There is some fun speculation about how Joseph Smith might tell the story of the First Vision today, some discussion of what is meaningful about the experience for us, and a taste of what current scholarship about the First Vision is discussing. As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the year Joseph Smith said the experience occurred, it’s worth looking at what one of the foremost experts on Joseph Smith’s First Vision has to say on the subject.

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