I’ve begun teaching adult Sunday School once a month at my congregation in downtown Toronto. The other three weeks, we’re going through the Enduring Principles, but my week is “Church History Sunday.” I’m working without a manual, but I’m planning to write out what I do and post it here as a resource for anyone interested.
I started last week at the beginning by asking my class the question: “How does our history begin?” Now, I was prepared for people to take this as a trick question. I thought I might get answers like “actually, since Christ founded the church, our history begins with the ministry of Jesus in Palestine,” or I thought someone might want to push back further to Eden or even the Pre-Existence. Instead, I instantly got the answer I was fishing for, “with a young man praying in a grove,” one of the class members volunteered immediately.
Exactly. This is how we today always start our story. With the “First Vision.” I next asked “What is the story of the First Vision?” and I had one of the folks write each detail on the whiteboard. The class came up with these details, which I’ll put into order: 1820s, revival meetings, confusion of sects, James 1:5, grove, prayer, vision, personage, creeds an “abomination,” don’t join any sect, found the church. The only details I had on my list that didn’t get volunteered were: “confronted by dark powers” and “pillar of light.” The class clearly knew the story from memory.
We know this story well. I next asked: How do we know it? Where does this story come from? A different class member volunteered, “It was published in the church newspaper.” Bright class! Exactly the traditional account comes from the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo in 1842. (In the LDS Church, this article has been added to a canonized booklet called the “Pearl of Great Price,” a Utah compilation that isn’t part of the Community of Christ tradition.) I had the class read selections from the account to refresh everyone’s memory, which was already pretty good except “remembering” the additional detail of a commission to found the church.
This is the story we tell when we begin to tell our overall story. This is the story we traditionally tell when we’re doing missionary work. My next question to the class was: Why are we using a version from 1842? The church had missionaries from the beginning. It had a newspaper beginning in 1832 and it published tracts and broadsides from the start. Earlier accounts of stories, by and large, are more historically accurate than later retellings. Why are we using such a late version of this pivotal story?
This time I either stumped them or they weren’t as ready to speculate, so they waited for me to supply the answer. My answer is that the earliest missionaries did not tell this story. It was not published in the church’s first newspaper. The earliest members were totally unacquainted with the “First Vision,” and during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the story did not occupy the critical foundational place that it now occupies. (An example of this unfamiliarity is William McLellin, one of the original apostles who left the church in 1837, had no knowledge of the “First Vision,” see Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey, eds., The William McLellin Papers, 1854-1880, xxv-xxvi.)
I then explained that although the story wasn’t widely known among members in the 1830s, earlier accounts do exist. The earliest version is from the Kirtland Letter Book and is written in Joseph Smith’s handwriting in 1832. We then read this account and noted some of the differences from the details we’d already written on the whiteboard. The 1832 account is as follows:
At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God
thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that of adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul
thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind the contentions and div[is]ions the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind
my mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins, and by searching the scriptures I found that 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
and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God
for I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and inteligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created
and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said fool saith in his heart there is no God
my heart exclaimed all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity
and when I considered all these things and that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in attitude of calling upon the Lord a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god
and the opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy walk in my statures and keep my commandments
behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life
the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not commandments
they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud in the glory of my Father
and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me, but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart”
(From Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 4-6.)
Obvious differences are the inclusion of young Joseph’s concern for over his own sins and salvation and his assurance that his sins were forgiven. Also, in the earlier account, his own scripture reading had convinced him that contemporary Christian sects had practices that were not in keeping with the precedents described in the New Testament. Although we hadn’t written “Two Personages,” another difference is that there is no indication of multiple personages in the earlier account. I then passed out a chart based on information compiled by Richard P. Howard from six versions of the First Vision story (published in Restoration Studies, vol. 1, 107-117; revised and made into a chart by Mark A. Scherer). The chart illustrates an evolution in the details concerning the way the story was remembered and told, from the unfamiliar 1832 account up to the familiar 1842 account.
My point in highlighting the evolution was not to discount or deconstruct the experience. I don’t believe that Joseph Smith told the story different ways because he was “just making it up.” Rather, we should understand that the story was told at different times, to different audiences, for different purposes. It’s clear that memory is also elastic. When our class “remembered” that Joseph had been charged to found the church, they weren’t “lying.” Despite the fact that everyone knew this story so well and none of the accounts includes this detail, our own memories supplied the detail because we know this story as the pivotal precursor to the foundation of the church. Our memories “fixed” the story we know so well by adding details that didn’t originally exist. Likewise, as the theological speculation in Nauvoo turned to the nature of God, Joseph’s later retellings of the story began to include the memory of multiple, distinct “personages.”
I then suggested to the class that we today in the church are also a very different audience than anyone in the 1830s and 1840s, and that the significance of this experience has presumably evolved for us as well. For example, our class balked at the detail that the creeds of fellow denominations are called “an abomination” in the traditional 1842 account. Class members had three or four ways they rationalized that term in order to soften or delete it because as a faith community, we no longer believe we have to call everyone else “false,” in order to claim to possess truth ourselves.
I had intended to ask the class for other enduring truths or elements of the First Vision story that still have meaning for our church, our congregation, and ourselves as individuals today. However, as you can imagine, the lesson had already run long, so I just supplied my own answers, which were: personal search for the divine in all things, continuing revelation, God’s love for all people, open faith without set creeds, hope for forgiveness/salvation.
I ended with the open-ended question that started the lesson. If early church members were unfamiliar with the First Vision story — if it did not originally hold the place in the narrative that it does now — “How does our history begin?”