The First Vision

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Brian Johnston
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The First Vision

Post by Brian Johnston » 04 Nov 2008, 14:57

Some people have challenges with the different accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision experience. It's a deal-breaker for some people. For me personally, it has been only mildly problematic. It's not as difficult for me as other topics.

I've spent a good chunk of time gathering all the known accounts, putting them side by side, reading and comparing, and thinking about them. Here's my list of versions:

1832 Version written by Fredrick G. Williams for Joseph Smith (probably dictated to Williams)
1835 Version written by Warren A. Cowdery. This was an short, second-hand account in a personal journal.
1839 Official Church Version, approved by Joseph Smith
1840 Version written by Orson Pratt and published in a pamphlet used in Scotland for missionary work
1842A Version written by John Wentworth, very condensed version recorded for inclusion in a history book
1842B Version written by Orson Pratt, in German, for use in missionary work
1843 Version written by David Nye White, a very brief recollection of a conversation Mr. White had with Joseph about the subject.
1844 Version written by Alexander Neibauer, a German immigrant who heard Joseph recite a portion of the story at the dinner table.
1850 Version written by John Taylor, published in the Millenial Star, was John Taylor's "best recollection" of the story they way Joseph told it.
1893 Version written by B.H. Roberts based on an interview with William Smith, who said his version was not the most accurate.

I know a lot of people read pieces of these presented elsewhere and come to the conclusion it was a pre-meditated lie by Joseph Smith to gain attention and power over people. I have a hard time coming to agreement on that. Yes. The accounts have differences. I see Joseph Smith as having sincerely believed his own experiences. I also think that he had some core experience that day. What exactly happened? Only Joseph really knows. Nobody else was there. I think he had some type of core epiphany that day. It may have been a vision. It may have been something else. I think the story perhaps took on different meaning over time, or to say it better, he added meaning to it over time that seemed correct to him. I think deep down he believed his experience, and that there was a core event. I end up seeing Joseph less cynically than others might in the end.

What do you all think?

Is this important? Is it something that's a totally show-stopper for you? Do you think it's an unimportant curiosity?

How can this be reconciled?

My answer for myself right now, is that there was some core experience. It was embellished and given meaning over time. Some of that may have been correct or not, but I want to believe it was a divine interaction of some sorts. The results speak to that (to me at least). I don't know exactly what happened or didn't happen. That doesn't matter so much to me personally as the message or concepts that come out of it. Religious epiphanies are pretty messy, at least in my view. I'm ok with that.
"It's strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone." -John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, speaking of experiencing life.

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hawkgrrrl
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Re: The First Vision

Post by hawkgrrrl » 05 Nov 2008, 10:33

This is a good list, BTW.

Most people who have issues due to First Vision accounts run into problems for the following reasons:
- The 1832 account doesn't mention that God the Father and Jesus were both there and focus on a forgiveness for his sins & weaknesses, not a restoration.
- The First Vision is most commonly referred to as a "visit" in the current church rather than a "vision." People grow up with the literal expectation that this was God & Jesus coming personally to the earth to have a conversation face to face with Joseph (bolstering his prophetic claim above even recorded OT prophets--at least until the Book of Abraham accounts).

I don't have a major issue with this one either. I have had many dreams that could be interpreted as "visions" if I were generously applying that term (which people of our era are more reluctant to do), and I'm a pretty average person. I caution people who insist on the First Vision being a visit to beware of that perception. Maybe it was, maybe not. JS didn't call it a visit. JS's accounts to me are more like remembrance of a significant dream or significant spiritual experience. The details get muddled, but we remember our feelings and what the significance was to us personally.

It's also the general application of the vision to the church (vs. how JS applied it to himself) that causes some strife; the modern church has imbued it (over time it has become imbued) with so much meaning. It is used to signify everything now: corporeal nature of God, that God & Jesus are separate beings, that a restoration was necessary, that priesthood power had been taken from the earth, that prayers are answered dramatically and personally, that the Lord works through the weak and uneducated, etc. But new members in JS's day weren't taught it. They were just told to read the BOM. I think understanding the vision as something significant to JS (why it is in JS-H) is the best context, not inferring its implication for the entire planet and all people who have ever lived or ever will.

I also don't generally agree with the assessment that Joseph was a power-hungry deceiver. To me he seems confused, sincere and somewhat gullible.

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Re: The First Vision

Post by Orson » 05 Nov 2008, 10:55

Yes, in my view this can be a touchy subject. My personal concern is not so much with the differences in the accounts - as much as it is with one specific account being canonized. To me, it would be much easier to dismiss some of the differences as the ‘focus’ that was relevant at the specific time it was recorded – and just flow with the ‘spirit’ of the vision without getting too hung up on details -- IF all accounts were seen as equals. The problem in my mind enters when one account becomes canonized and therefore elevated in importance above all others. This is where Joseph's stated intent: “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong” seems to seriously conflict with the earlier account:

“by Searching the Scriptures I found that [mankind] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament” (stating his knowledge BEFORE he went to pray)

So where does that leave me? How do I reconcile the issue and gain a level of peace about it to improve my relationship with the church? . . .

I guess I apply the phrase from the introduction of the 1830 Book of Mormon: 'if there are mistakes they are the mistakes of man' meaning if some details are not accurate they simply demonstrate the ability of man to insert his fallibility into the work. To me this has become an important lesson on what to do with every word that I read or hear. To me (at least presently) nothing physical is infallible. The scriptures are physical, they exist on paper. Prophets are physical and mortal. It is my job to check everything I hear against the source of spiritual truth, present it to God for my own personal version of verification (or possible clarification). I see this ‘new’ understanding on my part a tremendous blessing, for I now believe what I believe more firmly than I ever have. We are not ultimately held accountable by any other physical or mortal source. It seems so simple when you hear it, but this was a difficult lesson for me to learn.

So I guess I'm starting to see all these 'discrepancies’ as clues, items that God wants us to pay attention to. I think they are there for a reason and they can lead us to higher versions of the truth. I try to always ask myself “what does this mean?” or “what are the implications?” For the most part I have come to grasp that God speaks to all men according to their personal understanding, no human voice is infallible.
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I first found faith, and thought I had all truth. I then discovered doubt, and claimed a more accurate truth. Now I’ve greeted paradox and a deeper truth than I have ever known.

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Brian Johnston
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Re: The First Vision

Post by Brian Johnston » 05 Nov 2008, 12:27

We really emphasize this experience today in missionary work. Hawkgrrrl made a good point. Back in that day, it was not a focus. They pushed the BoM. They preached new theological ideas. A big part of the early Church experience for converts and members were the manifestation of gifts of the Spirit. Lot's of journal entries talked about speaking in tongues, blessings, visions, dreams, prophecies, etc.

Our Church may now be partially the victim of our own interpretations of Joseph's "First Vision" experience -- taking meaning that Joseph didn't even pull from it.
"It's strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone." -John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, speaking of experiencing life.

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Re: The First Vision

Post by LYN » 05 Nov 2008, 13:10

Valoel, I was thrilled to see a discussion on history started. I never expected anything to come on your election day as I figured that would take precedence over any other topic.The First Vision is a great place to start. I respect the fact that you put so much time and effort into comparing the different versions. It is only mildly problematic for me, as well. I agree that it was embellished and given meaning over time, and possibly even right away. I actually entertained the thought early on in my membership that pretty much as soon as he told his family, meaning could have been given to this experience that was more grandiose than real . Like you said, nobody knows but him. It's just that he was only 14 and came from a family that was religious and had high hopes for him so it isn't difficult for me to believe that they may have played a significant part in influencing him and helping him to interpret the experience right from the start. I know that I sound skeptical and I don't mean to because I do believe "something "transpired for him.

I really appreciate you starting us off as this is exactly the kind of stuff that I want and need to see different perspectives on. It helps me to think things through in a positive and healthy way.
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Re: The First Vision

Post by Old-Timer » 05 Nov 2008, 21:50

I just know that I don't remember detail very well - especially as time passes. I am a "big picture guy". I remember the feeling and the general experience, and, because of that, I tend to imbue my current perceptions and understanding into past events - since it all blurs in my mind after a while.

I think I understand how details would be added as understanding came, since I see much of myself in what I know of the accounts. I really can relate on a very personal level. Those whose memories work differently would have a much harder time reconciling something they never experience personally. I understand that, but I think the important thing for them is to realize that there are those whose personalities in this regard can validate (or add a degree of validity) to the First Vision accounts.
Last edited by Old-Timer on 11 Nov 2008, 22:55, edited 1 time in total.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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Re: The First Vision

Post by tortdog » 10 Nov 2008, 09:55

The same criticisms of the accounts of the First Vision also apply to the gospels in the NT. There are differences. Also, was Joseph Smith trying to emphasize a part of the experience to the select audience? How often do we "get it right" when we try to remember something in the past?

What seems most important to me is the contemporaneous testimony (speaking legally not spiritually) of those who encountered Joseph Smith at the time of the First Vision. And one must question as to why Joseph Smith would make the story up as well. To what benefit?

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Brian Johnston
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Re: The First Vision

Post by Brian Johnston » 11 Nov 2008, 10:29

A big thing for me was to realize that most of these accounts are highly condensed versions for a specific audience -- either for a single paragraph in a history book, for a part of a newspaper article, or for a missionary tract. The missionary tracts were written by other people who heard the story from him in parts.

I just can't build a sinister picture of deception when I read the accounts and look at the history. I can imagine that an experience took on new meanings and purposes over the two decade long "ministry" of Joseph Smith. Is that completely and 100% "honest" in a legal testimony sense by today's standards? Yeah, I know what people are getting at.

It just seems to boil down to a basic, overall decision about Joseph that everyone has to make at some point in their own studies. Was he generally sincere about believing his own revelations and experiences (true or not is a separate issue), or was he just a secular genius who manipulated people for personal gain? You can really build up a rational case either way, and get all kinds of evidence to support your belief. I sincerely don't fault people who take the cynical route. It is a possiblity.

I believe he that he believed though. That's the conclusion I come to when I look at the whole.
"It's strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone." -John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, speaking of experiencing life.

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hawkgrrrl
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Re: The First Vision

Post by hawkgrrrl » 11 Nov 2008, 17:16

I had a dream in college that was very vivid to me. I wrote it down at the time because it was so realistic and hard to shake.

A few months later, I was talking about that dream with someone and I realized that there was more going on in that dream that what hit me at the time. When I recorded it, I was very focused on the beginning and end of the dream. But in this conversation, some details from the middle part of the dream really came to the forefront of my mind and struck me as helpful to understand what was going on in my life at that time. I realized that there was a lot more to the dream than I had first thought, and it actually helped me to get my head around some thing and get some needed direction in my life.

If you look at my original account and what I would have said about it later, the accounts would be very different. Dreams, spiritual experiences, feelings, and relationships are all very fluid and hard to describe. Meaning changes over time. Results may vary.

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Re: The First Vision

Post by Old-Timer » 11 Nov 2008, 22:57

Hawk, I am the exact same way with my Patriarchal Blessing. I describe it slightly differently just about every time I talk about it, because I focus on whatever part is weighing on my mind at the time.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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