Looking Deeper into Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Imagery, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Construction of Memory

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Abstract: Critics of Joseph Smith assert that he invented or imagined the First Vision and then deliberately altered the details in his subsequent first-person accounts of the event (also reflected in accounts recorded or related by others) to mislead his followers. That the details of the narrative changed so dramatically between the first version (1832) and the last authorized version (1842) is considered prima facie evidence that Joseph was deliberately inventing and embellishing his narrative to make it more credible. The only thing, say critics, that could possibly explain such divergent, and in some cases, radically different versions of the same event is either incredible forgetfulness or deliberate falsification. This paper, based on close textual analysis and the findings of contemporary scientific research on memory acquisition and retention — particularly memories of dramatic and powerful events — offers an alternative explanation, one that preserves the credibility and integrity of the prophet.

A tenet of modern Mormon criticism is that Joseph Smith invented the narrative of his First Vision and then deliberately altered the details in subsequent retellings over the years to mislead his followers. That the details of the narrative changed so dramatically between the first version (written in 1832) and the authorized version (written in 1838) is seen by some critics as incontrovertible evidence that Joseph fraudulently invented and reinvented his theophany to make it more [Page 68]dramatic, more hagiographic, and more self-aggrandizing.1 This paper, based on evidence from both textual analysis and cognitive neuroscience, posits a possible alternative explanation.

The contours of the story of the First Vision as it was first told are rather straightforward, and known by heart to Mormons the world over: An earnest fourteen-year-old frontier boy named Joseph Smith finds himself confused by the religious contention aflame both in his family and in his community. Reading the epistle of James one day, he is struck by what he sees as the simple admonition to ask God for an answer to his burning question as to which of the many contending sects is true. Taking the scriptural advice literally, he repairs to the nearby woods to pray. He reveals that he has never before prayed vocally, but on this occasion, he does so. As soon as he begins, he is frightened and almost overcome by the presence of some dark power that seems intent on his destruction. In desperation, he calls on God to deliver him; at that moment the heavens open and the darkness is dispelled by a pillar of light descending just above him, the brightness of which he describes as being greater than that of the sun. As the light descends and envelops him, he looks up and sees two beings whose brightness and glory are beyond his powers of description. One of the personages calls him by name and, pointing to the other, says, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Then ensues a conversation in which Joseph asks the question for which he had been seeking an answer. He is told that he should join none of the churches because they are all corrupt. He is also told “many other things” which he says he cannot reveal. The experience overpowers him, and he awakens later to find himself “looking up into heaven,” the vision gone (JS–H 1:20). Although challenged immediately by incredulous hearers and experiencing “bitter persecution and reviling,” Smith nevertheless later affirms his experience: “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true … I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”2

[Page 69]That affirmation, along with the countervailing acceptance and skepticism that have ensued for two centuries, lies at the heart of Mormonism. On that singular event hinges what Mormons refer to as the Restoration — the claim that the original Church of Jesus Christ fell into apostasy and therefore required a restoration in the latter days. From that dramatic beginning in a frontier forest, the panoply of modern Mormonism has unfolded and flowed progressively into the world.

The standard argument against Joseph Smith’s account of his First Vision is that there are many conflicting accounts — or at least, many conflicting details among the accounts — leading to the conclusion that Joseph simply couldn’t keep his story straight. The differences among the various versions are neither subtle nor trivial and lead to multiple and valid questions. Was there a religious revival in the Palmyra area at the time Joseph says? Was Joseph’s intent in seeking divine help for forgiveness of his sins or in acquiring wisdom as to which church he should join? How many divine or angelic personages did he see, and who were they? Was Joseph commissioned by the divine personages to open the Last Dispensation of the gospel? How does one begin to approach a story for which four primary accounts survive (1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842), along with additional documentation by at least five other writers?

As a textual critic, I am convinced that our most productive focus is on the texts themselves. One cannot ignore whatever historical material exists relative to the texts, but since that information is itself often incomplete and open to dispute, what we are ultimately left with are the words of the texts — the vocabulary, syntax, rhetorical devices, narrative patterns, and stylistic expressions of the author or authors. What do these reveal beyond the obvious, surface differences? Do they offer any clues to the resolution of the question of Joseph’s veracity and integrity? What details in the text are most revelatory, both of the reliability of Joseph’s account of his vision and of him as the teller or reliable narrator of his story? In considering such questions, we will first examine the text itself and then consider the vagaries of memory and how memory itself is affected by what we understand of modern cognitive neuroscience in relation to powerful, emotionally resonant experiences commonly called “flashbulb memories.”

An assignment I regularly give students in my Mormon Studies courses at Graduate Theological Union and University of California, Berkeley, is to undertake a close comparative reading of the various versions of the First Vision. I urge them to pay particular attention to the details, especially the degree of rhetorical sophistication and the use of [Page 70]such stylistic devices as imagery, repetition, and symbolism. Generally, they do not see what I hope they will, so I have to point things out as we read the texts together. What follows are examples of the kind of close reading I feel the First Vision texts deserve.

The text I consider the most authentic and reliable, as far as capturing Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove is concerned, is the first, the 1832 version penned by Frederick G. Williams and Joseph Smith himself. It clearly reveals Joseph’s lack of sophistication and expressive skills (something his wife noted in relation to his translation of the Book of Mormon). Joseph acknowledges his stylistic insufficiency in a letter to William W. Phelps, admitting his account is written in a “crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.”3 Of the various versions, to my mind this one rings true in a way later, more consciously constructed, sophisticated, and coherent accounts do not.

One of the things that seems highly significant in comparing the texts is the imagery related to epistemology, that having to do with cognitive and spiritual ways of knowing. All the accounts use language relating to inquiry, searching, and finding truth, but their respective uses of rhetoric and imagery are quite different. For example, in the 1832 version the word “mind” occurs three times and “heart” five times. Thus, Joseph speaks of his mind becoming “seriously imprest” “with regard to the … wellfare of [his] immortal Soul,” but then speaks of pondering “many things in [his] heart,” an expression that echoes Mary’s encounter with divinity in her Magnificat.4

The clear focus of this first version is on emotional or spiritual — as opposed to cognitive or rational — experience. For example, Joseph’s association of “mind” in this version is not with light or enlightenment but with “darkness” and “distress,” whereas the associations with “heart” are linked with the more positive words “considers” and “exclaims.” Although there is one negative association with “heart,” it is presented in God’s words, not Joseph’s (God says, “Their hearts are far from me”). The account ends with what I consider an exultant summary of the entire experience, one clearly centered on the heart: “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 in the hevnly vision [Page 71]nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart,” a framing, as pointed out earlier, that echoes Mary’s theophany. That “nevertheless” illustrates Joseph’s determination throughout his life to seize the light in the face of darkness.

In the primary 1835 version, the emphasis shifts to cognitive processes, with no mention of “heart” at all. Thus, Joseph is “wrought up” and “perplexed” in his mind, and he speaks of “the different systems taught the children of men,” suggesting systematic thought and possibly belief. Further, he speaks of “a realizing sense” and seeking and finding as he searches for “information” with a “fixed determination,” all of which suggest rational processes. As with the 1832 account, this one ends with Joseph being filled with “joy unspeakable.”

Whereas the 1832 version emphasized the heart, and the 1835 version focused more on the mind (with no mention of the heart), the 1838 version includes references to both mind (four times) and heart (five times) but leans more heavily on reason and ratiocination than on intuitive or heart-based knowing. Thus, Joseph speaks about “inquirers after truth,” “facts as they have transpired,” “priest contending against priest,” “strife of words,” and “contest about opinions.” In addition, he speaks of “great excitement” of mind; “serious reflection”; an inability to “come to any certain conclusion”; Presbyterians who, in contending with Baptists and Methodists, use “their powers of either reason or sophistry to prove their [respective] errors”; and Baptists and Methodists “endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.” This “war of words” and “tumult of opinions” leaves Joseph wondering (that is, trying to figure out) who is right and who is wrong and, the ultimate question, “How shall I know it?” In other words, he is left bewildered by this flurry of verbal, cognitive, and rational conflict.

There are references to the more emotional, intuitive, or spiritual ways of knowing in the 1838 version, including Joseph’s having “deep and often pungent” feelings, the passage in James entering “with great force into every feeling of [his] heart,” and his offering up “the desires of [his] heart to God,” but clearly, as in the 1832 version, the major focus is not on the heart but rather on the mind.

After focusing on the contrast between heart and mind imagery in my classes for a number of years, I read Steven C. Harper’s Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (2012). I was pleased to see that he had arrived at the same conclusion I had. He writes, “When we listen to Joseph carefully, we also hear his subtle but significant distinction between his mind and his heart … Each of his accounts [Page 72]narrates a struggle between his head and his heart.” He adds, “What seems like inconsistency in Joseph’s story can be interpreted as the very point he intended to communicate, namely that his head and his heart were at odds, and he desperately needed wisdom from ‘God in order to discern which, if either, he should favor.’”5 I differ from Harper in that I believe Joseph’s use of heart and mind imagery, especially in the 1832 version, is not conscious but rather an inadvertent, unconscious revelation of the deep inner conflict between his rational and intuitive faculties which led to his young mind and heart becoming troubled.

What I think accounts for the dramatic shift from the heart to the mind between 1832 and 1838 (with a short interval in 1835) is that by the early to mid-1830s, Joseph was in the process of establishing a rational theology for his new religion. This was influenced not only by the criticism and persecution he had experienced over his initial telling of the First Vision, but also by people like Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, two close associates who possessed skills of reasoning, rhetoric, and expression significantly superior to Joseph’s.

Discussion of rhetoric and style alone does not address the criticism of the substantive differences and discrepancies among the various accounts of Joseph’s seminal visionary experience — those having to do with his age, his reason for seeking guidance, the identification and number of heavenly visitors, the presence of a dark or demonic power, etc. In other words, it isn’t just the imagery; a number of significant details change with each telling. Harper addresses such criticism under the category of “Invention and Embellishment,” as this is the common charge among those dismissive of Joseph’s claims. The consensus among those who do not consider Smith a prophet is that the First Vision was an invention created by the young Joseph, that as time and circumstance dictated, he continued to revise and embellish his original story, apparently forgetting what he had written earlier — or believing no one would compare the versions and expose him. My belief is that there is an alternative explanation for the wide variation of key elements in the respective versions of Joseph’s theophany.

Other factors are relevant in considering the variances in the accounts: the autobiographical details of Joseph’s life during each of the accounts (events in his personal life might have affected his memory, or even his motives, as he shaped his narrative); the cultural milieu in which each version was related; and the nature of the audience to which [Page 73]the accounts were directed. The intended audience frequently affects the delivery of a story, address, or sermon — one wouldn’t recount the story of Noah and the Flood or Jesus being tempted of the Devil in the same way to a seminary class as one would to a scholarly audience. The details, narrative flow, rhetorical flourishes, and tone would differ — either slightly or dramatically. In each respective version, Joseph wrote both with a specific purpose as well as for a specific audience.

In his first account, Joseph seems to be writing in response to a command to begin a history of the Church (D&C 85:1–2) rather than with a definite audience in mind. Essentially, he seems intent on recalling and recording the facts and impressions of the vision as he remembered them at the time. It is also important to keep in mind that, as Richard Bushman reminds us, “At first, Joseph was reluctant to talk about his vision.”6 Given the skeptical — even hostile — responses he received when he did begin telling what happened, it would have been natural for him to be even more reluctant to speak of his experience; that reluctance would likely have affected both his memory and his selection of specific details when he began his initial record of what happened.

In contrast to the unspecified general audience of the 1832 account, the two 1835 versions (one on November 9th and the other on November 14th) were addressed as responses to requests from two individuals: “an eccentric visitor from the east”7 and Erastus Holmes. Based on the accounts, the circumstances of the inquiries — although similar — seemed to have dictated different tellings. The first began immediately with the visionary experience, whereas the second covered Joseph’s experience from age six to fourteen when he received “the first visitation of angels.” It is probable that, having already experienced negative response to his claim to having seen God and Christ, Joseph chose the more generic, less specific “personages” and “angels” for these accounts.

The 1838 account, like the one from 1832, was written as a result of a desire to record the particulars of the vision in a history of the Church commenced by Joseph and Sidney Rigdon. Variations of this account, which constitutes the current official version found in The Pearl of Great Price, are are found in “Times and Seasons” (15 March 1842) and constitute the current official version found in The Pearl of Great Price. As with the first account, this version appears to be directed to a general audience. A polished orator and preacher, Rigdon’s influence [Page 74]may account for the more elevated vocabulary, sophisticated rhetorical style, and narrative structure of the 1838 account.

The influence of the various scribes who assisted — either by writing or transcribing the oral dictation or speech — must also be considered. Undoubtedly, some were more reliable recorders than others. Any changes during the printing of the various accounts might also explain some minor differences as well as stylistic infelicities.

However, as important as all these factors are in accounting for variations in the texts, the most significant may be the nature of memory itself. The scientific understanding of memory is relatively modern, although attempts to understand and classify it go back at least as far as Aristotle, who was the first to posit that upon birth the human brain is a “tabula rasa” — a blank slate on which experience imprints memories. Over the intervening centuries, various hypotheses about what we remember and how we remember it didn’t significantly advance the understanding of memory until the past two centuries when serious scientific research began to expand our understanding of this central human function.

Although we now know much more about the brain and memory than in the past, there is still much to learn and many erroneous assumptions to correct. As LDS scientist Jeffrey Bradshaw states:

There are many popular, persistent myths about the way the brain works — for example the erroneous idea that we use only a small percentage of the brain or exaggerated notions about people’s being right-brained or left-brained. Here, I will touch briefly on only two of these: 1) the myth that the human visual system works like a simple camera, and 2) the myth that human memory works like today’s computer “memory.” The first thing to know about such human sensory and cognitive processes is that they are active, not passive. Visual data is not simply taken in passively as in a simple camera that focuses the light from an entire scene through the lens and onto a sensor; memory is not laid down in the brain as simple traces of experience that, in principle, could be retrieved intact at a later time, like a series of bits in computer memory. Instead, the brain relies not only on complex feedback mechanisms that shape learning based on past experience but also on [Page 75]feedforward mechanisms that direct cognitive processes by anticipating future experience.8

Bradshaw’s last point is worth considering in relation to Joseph Smith’s versions of the First Vision. The skeptical and hostile responses he received when he first felt emboldened to tell his experience to people outside his family could certainly have “direct[ed his] cognitive processes by anticipating future experience.”

Modern cognitive neuroscience has completely revised our understanding of memory. In such books as Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory9 and Memory Distortion10 and William Hirstein’s Brain Function,11 studies reveal memory to be both more complex and more subtle than most people assume. Considering the nature of the First Vision in relation to what is currently understood about memory should cause even the most sophisticated and skeptical textual scholar to be cautious in making judgments about the consistency of the Prophet’s various accounts of his experience.

Cognitive neuroscientists have found that, by and large, memories are constructed, not remembered — or at least are a combination of remembered facts and largely unconscious invention; at any given moment we are not likely to be able to distinguish between the two. Israel Rosenfeld (1988) argues that memory is always constructed and that the circumstances surrounding the event affect what and how we remember: “Recollection is a kind of perception, … and every context will alter the nature of what is recalled12 (emphasis added). These findings suggest that caution should be exercised in judging an account based on memories.

A particular type of memory — created from dramatic and emotionally powerful (and often disturbing) events — is referred to as a “flashbulb memory” in popular parlance. Cognitive neuroscientists have found these memories to be among our most unstable and [Page 76]unreliable remembrances. Scientific studies across a broad demographic demonstrate that participants in or witnesses to such events have the illusion that they are recalling them with fidelity and precision when in fact the opposite is more likely to be true. The more powerful or disturbing the event, the less reliable the memory and the more likely the recalled experience will morph into even more elaborate or contradictory retellings over time. This phenomenon is described in such books as Affect and Accuracy in Recall13 and Trauma and Memory14 as well as in scholarly articles in scientific journals.15 The authors of these studies document the neurological processes that cause inadvertent false, inconsistent, and contradictory memories. Such misremembrance is surprising, for we tend to feel that we would recall such dramatic events with the most accuracy and consistency. Such “fictions of memory” regarding significant emotional events are not deliberate inventions but rather are influenced both by physiological processes occurring at the time of these events and the later more routine, reconstructive processes involved in recall and retelling.

While such memories are common to us all, we are seldom confronted with a question about the accuracy of our recollections, simply because it is generally assumed that our memories of such events are accurate. The dramatic re-telling likely disarms our normal skepticism, and we mistakenly assume that something so vivid is not likely to have been invented. There is also wide latitude for exaggeration or invention of narratives that serve the purpose of binding families, groups, and communities together.

For those who are prominent or in the public spotlight, however, such misremembrances can be embarrassing, precisely because we hold such figures to a higher standard of veracity. Additionally, in the twenty-first century such memories can be checked by audio, video, and other eyewitness accounts. Examples of distorted memories of highly unusual [Page 77]or dramatic events and experiences include President George W. Bush’s misremembered account of hearing the news of the attacks on 9/11; Hillary Clinton’s assertion that she came under sniper fire during a trip to Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996; Ronald Reagan’s false remembrance that he was present at the liberation of Auschwitz; Mitt Romney’s mistaken remembrance of seeing his father “march with Martin Luther King;” and, more recently, TV anchor Brian Williams’ misremembrance of what happened during a dramatic US Army mission in Iraq 2003 that he accompanied as a reporter for NBC. Once such stories are told (and usually believed) by the teller and listener alike, unconsciously elaborating on them with successive tellings becomes almost inevitable.

This does not mean that any particular memory is inaccurate, conflated, or subject to unconscious transformation, nor does it mean that there are not those who deliberately invent, fabricate, or exaggerate autobiographic episodes. That such deliberate fabrication happens makes it easy to confuse memories of unusual or remarkable experiences with outright falsification. And there is no question that trusted public figures are, and should be, held to a higher standard, but we should be careful not to rush to judgment when retellings of memories prove not as accurate as one would prefer. Of course, we have no audio or video recordings of the First Vision, but even if we did, they likely would not allow us to reconstruct exactly what transpired that day in the Sacred Grove or instruct us how to communicate or relate what was experienced. In truth, our experience, like the Prophet’s, would also be subject to the idiosyncrasies of memory, and our ability to describe it would be constrained by the limitations of language and meaning, as recent studies of eyewitness testimonies show.16

Joseph’s varied remembrances of what transpired in the Sacred Grove appear to be the result of such a phenomenon: he was surprised, astonished, and likely even shocked by an overwhelmingly dramatic encounter with the forces of both darkness and light. In relation to the first, which was so threatening that he feared for his very soul (“I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction”), he [Page 78]recounts, “Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” (JS–H 1:15–16). “Thick” seems a particularly potent adjective, especially when one considers that its meanings include “marked by haze, fog, or mist” and “extremely intense.”17 At the point of being overwhelmed by this dark “power of some actual being from the unseen world,” Joseph was delivered by an even more dramatic and powerful presence, one of light and glory. Whatever the nature of this experience, for a teenage boy, it must have been both wondrous and overwhelming.

Like others who have powerful emotional, physical, or spiritual experiences, it would not have been unusual for Joseph to consider if what he had seen was real. Note that following his theophany he says, “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven” (emphasis added). This indicates an awareness of a physical and psychological break between his state after his experience and what transpired during it. Such an amazing, vivid experience may indeed have seemed dreamlike to him at times, both because it was unlike anything he had ever experienced and because there was almost instant — and nearly universal — skepticism that such experiences were possible or could be of divine origin.

It would have been natural for Joseph to be ambivalent about telling others what he had seen and heard, especially when he soon discovered that he was “hated and persecuted for saying that [he] had seen a vision.” Such reactions likely caused him not only to be more cautious in sharing his experience but also more careful in the way he did so. Given the hostility and rejection he faced, it is also possible that he began to be uncertain as to the particulars of what he had seen and possibly at times even doubtful about the entire experience. The difference between vision and dream, as the scriptures make clear, is not always easy to distinguish. In the face of negative, skeptical, and accusatory responses, Joseph says he felt like Paul who, like himself, was persecuted for claiming a theophany, being “ridiculed and reviled” and accused of being “dishonest” and even “mad” [JS–H 1:24]). In light of such hostile reception, it would have taken considerable resolve for Joseph not to entertain some self-doubt.

One of the things we know about memories of dramatic and traumatic experiences is that over time they not only tend to become distorted, but they can also become conflated with other, especially similar experiences. Thus, it would not be surprising if Joseph’s recollection in 1832 of what had happened in Palmyra eighteen years previously was [Page 79]not influenced by the various appearances of Moroni close to the time of the First vision, just as his 1838 account may have been influenced by the visitation of other heavenly messengers, including John the Baptist, Moses, Elijah, and Peter, James, and John, among others. The most likely influences would have been his other theophanies. In his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, “Latter-day Appearances of Jesus Christ,” Joel A. Flake records:

In 1832, Jesus Christ again appeared in a vision to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.

Both men saw and conversed with him (D&C 76:14) and also witnessed a vision of the kingdoms to which mankind will be assigned in the life hereafter. The Lord also appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in April 1836 in the Kirtland Temple shortly after its dedication and manifested his acceptance of this first latter-day temple (D&C 110:1–10).

A revelation pertaining to the salvation of the dead was given to Joseph Smith in an earlier appearance of Jesus Christ and the Father in the Kirtland Temple on January 21, 1836: “The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld … the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son” (D&C 137:1, 3). Joseph Smith said that visions were given to many in the meeting and that “some of them saw the face of the Savior” (HC 2:382).

Joseph Smith also recorded other occasions when Church members beheld the Savior. On March 18, 1833, he wrote of a significant meeting of the School of the Prophets: “Many of the brethren saw a heavenly vision of the Savior, and concourses of angels, and many other things, of which each one has a record of what he saw” (HC 1:335). He wrote of a similar experience of Zebedee Coltrin (HC 2:387) and on another occasion reported that “the Savior made His appearance unto some” at a meeting the week after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple (HC 2:432).18

According to what cognitive neuroscientists say about the unconscious construction and reconstruction of highly emotional [Page 80]or dramatic memories, such an abundance of heavenly visions and visitations could indeed account for some of the discrepancies among the various versions of the First Vision.

As we begin to understand more of the ways in which the brain constructs memories, particularly of highly emotional or dramatic events, it seems plausible that any discrepancies in Joseph’s varying accounts of the First Vision may have more to do with the vagaries of memory, as he recalled his initial powerful vision at different times over the course of his life, than that he deliberately falsified, invented or changed the particulars of that experience. Of course, we will never know for sure what explains the differences in the Prophet’s various First Vision narratives, but the discovery of the unique way in which spectacular experiences are imprinted on our cognitive and limbic systems, along with the evidence from the texts themselves, provide a reasonable defense of the prophet’s intention and integrity. Most importantly, it is consistent with what believers consider the necessarily dramatic inauguration of the Restoration, an event so important in the history of humankind that it required a visitation by the Father and the Son to a humble American farm boy.

1. See “Scientific Literature on Memory and Recall” at MormonThink.com which tries to take some of what scientists say about memory recall and apply it to Smith, but does so in a manner that attributes the differences among accounts to Joseph Smith’s deliberate self-serving manipulation and deception. http://mormonthink.com/firstvisionweb.htm#memoryrecall.

2. See my “Joseph Smith and the Face of Christ,” unpublished MS; copies available upon request at bobrees2@gmail.com.

3. “Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832,” Church History Library (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City), http://josephsmithpapers.org/papersummary/letter-to-william-w-phelps-27-november-1832.

4. Original spelling, grammar, and syntax are retained in all quotations from this narrative

5. Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 92, 93.

6. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (NY: Knopf, 2006), 39.

7. Harper, 41.

8. “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be: Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity,” Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David H. Bailey, eds., Body, Brain, Mind, and Spirit. Science and Mormonism Series 2 (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation), in preparation.

9. Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

10. Daniel Schacter, ed., Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains and Societies Reconstruct the Past (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

11. William Hirstein, Brain Function: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

12. Israel Rosenfield,The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain (NY: Basic Books, 1988), 89.

13. Eugene Winograd and Ulrich Neisser, eds., Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “Flashbulb” Memories (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

14. Austin Sarat, Nadav Davidovitch, and Michal Alberstein, eds., Trauma & Memory: Reading, Healing, and Making Law (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

15. Examples include Patrick S. R. Davidson, et al., “Source Memory in the Real World: A Neuropsychological Study of Flashbulb Memory,” Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 27:7 (Oct., 2005), 915–929; Michelle L. Roehm, “An Exploration of Flashbulb Memory,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 26:1 (June 2015), 1–1 6.

16. Laura Engelhardt, “Commentary on a Talk by Barbara Tversky and George Fisher, ‘The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony,’” Stanford Journal of Legal Studies, 1:1, 25–30; John Bohannon,”How Reliable is Eyewitness Testimony? Scientists Weigh In,” Science (Oct. 3, 2014); http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/10/how-reliable-eyewitness-testimony-scientists-weigh; Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts,” Scientific American (Jan. 1, 2010), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/#.

18. Joel A. Flake, “Latter-day Appearances of Jesus Christ,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Jesus_Christ#Jesus_Christ:_Latter-Day_Appearances_of_Jesus_Christ.

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About Robert A. Rees

Robert A. Rees (born November 17, 1935) is an educator, scholar and poet. He teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley. Previously he taught humanities at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz and was a Fulbright Professor of American Studies in Lithuania (1995-96). Rees is the author of No More Strangers and Foreigners: A Mormon-Christian Response to Homosexuality (1998), “‘In a Dark Time the Eye Begins to See’: Personal Reflections on Homosexuality among the Mormons at the Beginning of a New Millennium” (2000), “Requiem for a Gay Mormon” (2001) and, most recently with Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children (2012). He is the editor of Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings In Honor of Eugene England (2005), The Reader’s Book of Mormon (2008), and Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons (2011). Rees, has served as a bishop, stake high councilor, Institute teacher, and a member of the Baltic States Mission Presidency. He is the co-founder and current vice-president of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, which addresses malnutrition among Latter-day Saint children in the developing world.

14 thoughts on “Looking Deeper into Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Imagery, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Construction of Memory

  1. Thank you for your article, Robert. I appreciate how we have begun to deeply investigate how Joseph’s mind and consciousness were involved in his First Vision experience. It seems we may have only just begun to investigate what neuroscience, neurobiology, cognitive science, psychology, phenomenology, etc., might teach us about Joseph’s divine experiences in the beginnings of the church.

    I’m curious if you have considered that the First Vision may have been a profound mystical experience in a visionary altered state of consciousness within Joseph’s mind, and may not have necessarily occurred physically in the grove. In the 1842 account, for example, Joseph notes that “my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision” (corroborated by Orson Pratt’s secondhand account). The Orson Hyde account also notes that “the natural world around him was excluded from his view, so that he would be open to the presentation of heavenly and spiritual things.” This may have all taken place within Joseph’s consciousness.

    Mystical experiences in the mind can produce significant and powerful emotional and mental sensations and intuitions, which often seem paradoxical, illogical, and irrational to the one experiencing them. Mystical experiences are often categorized as ineffable or indescribable, perhaps because they occur when the brain is functioning in a non-ordinary altered state of consciousness, and so the phenomena subjectively experienced may be related to neural activity in areas of the brain that are pre-conceptual and/or pre-linguistic (even as Brant Gardner has suggested may have been happening in Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon with the seer stone). The mystical experience may even be so powerful as to be beyond language, unable to be described using the common symbols of language and vocabulary with which one is familiar. For example, if the experience was beyond time and space, how would one relate in a chronological way what happened where one didn’t experience time, and what distinct objects could be present where there was no space?

    Perhaps God communed with Joseph entirely within his mind and consciousness, in a spiritual mystical vision, much the same way as it seems he did on numerous other occasions, in such a way that was far beyond ordinary eyewitness description of an mundane consensus “objective” reality event. This could also help explain why the various accounts all differed, even greatly, as Joseph may have been groping to better describe an ineffable experience that could not simply be communicated in language, and which even he struggled to understand and process. It may have been like trying to describe the color red to a blind person, or what salt tastes like.

    I’m interested in your thoughts about this. Again, thank you for your work in helping to open up this conversation and study.

    • There may be some merit to your ideas, but I personally think they look beyond the mark and frankly they diminish a very explicit doctrine of the restored church: God the Father and Jesus Christ have real bodies of flesh and bone that are integral and important parts of their being (D&C 130).

      Christ visited his apostles (and many others) after his resurrection and told them that he was no ghost. He asked for and ate food to prove it. He even had them touch him and feel the wounds in his flesh. He did likewise with the Nephites and Lamanites he visited shortly thereafter in the Americas.

      I don’t think there is any good reason to think that God the Father and His son Jesus Christ were not physically present during the visit to Joseph Smith that we commonly call the First Vision.

      On the other hand I do think it legitimate to wonder what kind of state Joseph Smith was in during the First Vision. The scriptures indicate that physically enduring the Celestial glory of God is not trivial (Moses 1:2).

      • Tom D., thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        Reconciling a “mystical” First Vision experience that may have occurred within Joseph’s consciousness with our traditional understandings is unquestionably difficult, and is certainly different than what we have conventionally thought. As we learn more about what may have occurred in that event, we may need to rethink our assumptions, and adjust our current understandings. If it is more true that Joseph experienced the First Vision in his mind’s eye, with his spiritual “third” eye, rather than his physical eyes (as many other of his divine visions seem to attest), then that means a lot, and could teach us much more, including about the nature of God. It seems to me that we should not ignore or reject this possibility, simply because it differs from our current understanding. There are many great and important things yet to be revealed to us, when we are ready to receive them (Article of Faith 9).

        As Joseph noted in his 1842 account, if his “mind was taken away from the objects with which [he] was surrounded,” then it is possible that even he seemed to know that his experience was not occurring in a physical objective reality, but in a more spiritual heavenly realm, quite apart from his natural physical surroundings in the grove. Orson Pratt’s secondhand account is even more descriptive, inserting the word “natural” before “objects”: “his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.” Pratt’s use of the word “caught away” rather than “taken away” also recalls other spiritual visions of the mind, such as Nephi’s, where he too was “caught away in the Spirit of the Lord” to an exceedingly high mountain (1 Nephi 11:1). There are many other scriptures that speak of one being “caught up” in the Spirit (3 Ne. 28:13; D&C 88:96; D&C 101:31; D&C 109:75; Moses 1:1; Moses 6:64; Moses 7:27). It seems that these experiences did not happen in a physical space, but in a heavenly spiritual space in the minds and consciousness of the seers and visionaries.

        How might we reconcile this with our understanding of God having real bodies of flesh and bone, and even flesh and blood (Ether 3). That’s an important question, and one that I think delves into very deep and sacred space, and we should approach it with the utmost respect and care. One of the singular insights gleaned from mystical experiences is the oneness of God with the mystic. God is not perceived as a separate “Other,” but is at-one with the visionary. The prophet-mystic does not see God as a separate being apart from himself or herself, but as a total unity and complete union of himself/herself with the Divine, where the human and the Divine meet and combine in utter Oneness. It is the ultimate atonement (at-one-ment), theosis, deification, and divinization (which are important Mormon teachings). The human is not separate and independent from God, but one with the Divine, or God. At times it is even helpful to not think of them as two separate ideas that are one with each other, but simply that there exists One, and that One is God. What does it mean to be “Christ,” the “Messiah,” the “Anointed One”? We may need to ponder much more on these thoughts, and consider how the mystical insight might apply in the Mormon paradigm, and what Joseph was trying to teach the Saints, even in the temple. This may open us up to new insights and understandings, and even bring us closer to God ourselves.

        It should be strongly emphasized that even though the First Vision may not have taken place in a physical space in the grove, that in no way implies that the experience was not real, or did not actually take place. Another common aspect of the mystical experience is the absolute utter conviction of its reality, objectivity, and realness. Mystics often describe it as being far “more real than real,” or feeling as if it is even much “more real” than ordinary everyday waking physical reality. They don’t describe their experiences as merely being like a “sweet dream,” but as being the most intensely real experience that can be experienced in mortal life. Even extreme “physical” experiences do not seem to compare even remotely to the unitive mystical experience of God.

        I think it is also important to recognize that we too may have such personal direct communion with the Divine. It may be that it is our physiology acting in unique ways with physical reality, particularly within our mind and consciousness, of which we may only now be beginning to understand the full extent, that is precisely what enables us to walk back into the presence of God. Instead of God residing in a magical supernatural realm quite separate from us and remote in the cosmos, or even outside the cosmos, God may be much much closer than we have realized, in a space that we can each apprehend, the same as Joseph did. As our primary hymn notes, “Some say that heaven is far away, but I feel it close around me as I pray” (“A Child’s Prayer”). It seems that is what Joseph was trying to do throughout his life—prepare the Saints to bring them back into the direct presence and communion of God, that God may speak to each and every one of us personally and individually. God excludes no one. “Come unto me… and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

        What we typically consider real and true may also need rethinking. Even what we consider to be our ordinary physical reality is not as straightforward as we usually think it to be. Neuroscience is finding that our mind may be actually constructing our perceptual subjective reality in real-time every moment, based on prior experiences, something which also affects our memory, as Rees has so well shown in this article. We don’t see reality “as it is,” but rather as our mind makes it appear to us to be. I believe we should take neuroscience, cognitive science, and the fields of psychology seriously, and not brush them aside as nonsense, as inapplicable to the gospel, or as seemingly reducing such divine experiences to mere imagination or fabrication “in the mind.” I perceive that is simply not the case, and it may even be offensive to those many scientists and researchers that make it their life’s work and mission to investigate such inner subjective realms of the mind and brain, and how these relate to our everyday reality.

        It seems to me that the “natural man” or the physical carnal “flesh” cannot endure the presence of God, because that is not where God ultimately resides, and that is not where communion with God takes place. It seems to me that God resides in a higher dimension or more comprehensive and perfect realm that we may only now be beginning to apprehend that is an even more complete or fundamental reality than the “physical” reality with which we are familiar. I perceive that such understandings do not diminish our doctrines, but rather they exalt them to higher spheres, and perhaps may reveal deeper and richer understandings of Joseph’s teachings.

        • My sincere thanks to Tom D. and Bryce for your thoughts. I am glad we are all in basic agreement as to the “what”–i.e., that God the Father and Jesus Christ “did in reality” speak to Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:25). As to the “how,” of course we still have much to learn “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
          I know of no more encouraging statement to each of us in this respect — novices in spiritual matters though we are — than the following from Joseph Smith: “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but he will make known unto … even the least Saint … as fast as he is able to bear [it]” (Words of JS, 27 June 1839, p. 4).

  2. Thanks for this well-written and timely paper. You have made some very good points, one being that memory is fluid. And that, as an explanation for the varying First Vision accounts, works well also with Bryce’s suggestion that the First Vision may have been an internal rather than a physical experience. Sacred visions are often portrayed in scripture as dreamlike experiences, and sacred dreams are seen as “vision[s] of the night” (Job 33:15). Lehi also equates visions and dreams (1 Nephi 8:2). If Joseph’s First Vision was a dreamlike “imaginative” (not to be confused with “imaginary”) experience, it was not limited by space and time to a single scene, as Bryce noted. Joseph could have seen angels, God alone, and the Father and the Son together, all in a dreamlike amorphous mix, and would not have necessarily reported all of what he experienced each time. Joseph didn’t seem to be able himself to understand how he was experiencing visions (see D&C 137:1). And, in fact, when he and Sidney Rigdon had the next great vision of the Father and the Son (which also included angels, and even the prince of darkness), it was with “the eyes of [their] understandings” (D&C 76). The prophet Lehi’s great inaugural vision that opened a previous dispensation was also similar in important ways to Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and it was apparently not a physical experience (1 Nephi 1:7-13). While lying on his bed Lehi was “carried away” in a “vision” and “thought he saw God sitting upon his throne.” He also saw angels and “one descending out of the midst of heaven” whose “luster was above that of the sun” and who “came down and went forth upon the face of the earth.” In this dreamlike experience, he saw extreme brightness, the Father, the Son, and angels, just as Joseph Smith reported from his inaugural vision. As you noted, Joseph says that when he “came to [himself] again” he found himself “lying on [his] back, looking up into heaven,” which would have been similar to Lehi’s supine posture in his bed. Such a posture would not have been conducive to a face-to-face conversation with God or anyone else; but in an internal (“imaginative”) vision, the posture of the body is irrelevant. That Joseph “came to [himself]” suggests he was in an altered state of consciousness. Perhaps similarly, he later had a vision of Moroni after falling unconscious to the ground (JS-H 1:48). This is not the way we have tended to assume the First Vision happened, or the way it is portrayed in paintings (with Joseph kneeling, etc., despite what he says in JS-H) but as you wisely state, “there is still much to learn and many erroneous assumptions to correct.” Thanks again for moving the conversation forward.

    • I don’t have a source for this, but someone has argued that the 1st Vision has the characteristics of a Near Death Experience. In short, they didn’t come down to him, he went up to them.

      • Joseph may have considered that a possibility as well, having said regarding a later vision: “whether in the body or out I cannot tell.” I should clarify that an imaginative vision, as traditionally understood, is a vision seen by means other than the physical eye. It is not necessarily any less real or believable than regular visual perception.

        • Well put, Stan. In giving “a reasonable defense of the prophet’s intention and integrity” in the Prophet’s successive recountings of the First Vision, Rees also provides more reasons to believe that these accounts represent, not merely a “sweet dream of a pure minded boy” (as the father of Martha Fox called it), but rather an actual “visitation by the Father and the Son.”

          • Exactly, Jeff. Thank you. It was more than just a visual experience, than a dream. He felt God’s love, presence, and deliverance, and had his questions answered. Its effect on him is evidence that it was a divine manifestation. The exact manner and content of that visitation is probably unknowable, even incomprehensible, to us presently. That’s OK. The manifestation served primarily as a witness, a Pauline conversion, for HIM. His quoting of James suggests that we can each have our own divine witness, our own “first vision.” Mine was in my teens, and was entirely non-visual, but I felt an assurance of God’s love that has sustained me. The great witness of the Restoration for us, of course, was the revelation of the Book of Mormon. It was the marvelous work attested by many witnesses, the evidence of Joseph’s divine calling given by missionaries from the beginning, and is still present as a testimony for us.

  3. Although science is only beginning to understand the mechanisms by which Spirit, spirit, and matter meet in the prophetic mind, it should be apparent that nothing in Robert Rees’ excellent article leads to the inexorable conclusion that the First Vision was merely a function of Joseph Smith’s own physiology interacting with the physical world. To believe otherwise, is to deny the Prophet’s testimony that God the Father and Jesus Christ “did in reality speak to [him]” (JS-History 1:25). He knew not only that he had seen a vision, but also that the source of his revelation was divine. He also “knew that God knew it, and [he] could not deny it, [and] that by so doing [he] would offend God, and come under condemnation” (ibid.). That God in reality speaks to man is also my testimony as a scientist and as a believer.

  4. Brethren,
    An interesting discussion, to be sure. Joseph was a mystic and the mystic experience finally cannot be reduced to words alone although we can’t escape trying to name and define such experiences to whatever extent our poor vocabulary and style permit. it seems to me that if Joseph were as brilliant (and cunning) as some say and he was and actually hoping to perpetuate a fraud, he would have done a much better job of telling what happened. The fact is, the simplest explanation seems the most plausible to me: there was a different motive, a different setting, and a different context for each of the narratives, which in fact is what one would expect from an authentic narrator. If all of the accounts harmonized perfectly (or even nearly so), that would be more suspect than what we have.

    Thanks for your good thoughts.


  5. I think some are overcomplicating things. What would be the point of Joseph having some dream thing when the crucial question is the rejection of the Nicene creed?

    Joseph was the founder of a dispensation. We have a couple of other records of Dispensation founding visions: Moses and Enoch. Plus, we have the Three Nephites vision. Moses and the Three Nephites also couldn’t tell if they were in body or out, and it seems particularly odd for the Three Nephites to be restricted to a vision only.

    The hypothesis seems to be that if someone had been walking through the woods and run across Joseph during the 1st vision, that they would have found him catatonic or apparently dead, as his spirit or mind was caught up in heavenly things.

    Yet we know that many if not most scriptural encounters with Deity have involved the glory of God being placed on the human, or transfiguring them for a short time, so they can bear the presence of God.

    I suspect that rather than some “mystical” experience, Joseph was simply transfigured, and anyone who saw him before he “came to himself” would have seen him glowing like Moses did.

    Whatever happens during transfiguration probably really messes with our human sense. Indeed, anything outside our telestial frame of mind would be… weird, from our point of view. Just consider the physics of the Garden Of Eden, where apparently the 2nd law of thermodynamics was not in effect. Or exactly how does a resurrected body manage to, you know, be invulnerable? Once we start discussing that level of divine power, I have no idea how it would feel. How would being transfigured feel, especially after the fact? It’s got to mess with our minds to some extent. I mean, ask Shadrach, Meshac and Abednego about how they felt while in the fire and yet not being burned. Would they say they were in the body or out of it? I don’t know.

  6. And then, there is the very real possibility that the 1838 account was via revelation itself, with the Holy Ghost “bringing all things to his remembrance” as Jesus told His Apostles in John 14:26.

    I think that such would also explain how he was able to remember the scriptures that the Angel Moroni quoted to him and noting the differences.

    Just a thought.

  7. For the most part the discussion thread on this paper is completely tangential to the point of the paper itself, and everyone seems to assume the paper’s soundness (except perhaps Glenn). I’m not getting it, so can we please back up?

    The most significant feature of this article is its attempt to explain variations in accounts of the First Vision by “the vagaries of memory.” (By “variations” I mean only those differences central to the vision itself—which are the only ones of spiritual and theological significance). The paper does not try to determine which account represents the *best* memory of what occurred in the vision, but merely casts a question over all of them. Simply put, Joseph remembered the vision differently at different times—and that helps explain the different accounts. The problem is that the paper ends with an affirmation of the Father and Son appearing in the vision, when nothing in the paper that I see justifies such an affirmation. If Joseph simply remembered differently at different times, what is the reason for thinking he remembered correctly *this* time? The paper does not provide one. In fact, by the paper’s standards there is no reason to believe this.

    But this internal inconsistency is not the most important point. The larger point to me is that the paper sets itself up as a defense of the Prophet, even though the defense reduces to this: Joseph was not a deceiver, he was just repeatedly confused. Isn’t that the actual upshot of the article?

    This kind of “defense” seems completely unnecessary. For one thing, differences in context and purpose are sufficient to explain every variation in Joseph’s description of the vision proper. For another (and putting all other issues with the references to memory research aside), the Spirit would obviously have exercised huge influence during the First Vision (close to an unprecedented degree in the history of the world, it is fair to say) and no research on memory has come close to approximating *that* and the influence it would have on memory. Indeed, Joseph’s case is unique enough that it would seem to render memory research (particularly the highly generalized summary of it appearing here) virtually irrelevant in understanding the First Vision. For example, how study subjects remember what they were doing and who they were with when they first learned of the attacks on 9/11 (the kind of question asked in “flashbulb” studies), has precious little to do with whether Joseph could remember whether one or two divine persons attended him and whether there were no angels or many angels who attended as well. Completely unlike standard (and countless) incidents of memory that have been studied experimentally, the Spirit was a crucial and overpowering element in the First Vision. No theory of memory accounts for the Spirit and its effects on prophets’ memories (no one has even conducted an experiment on it—how would one?), so isn’t it true that no current theory of memory can really hope to apply meaningfully to that event? How could it if it doesn’t even attempt to account for such a significant variable?

    In short, I don’t see how the paper’s discussion of memory permits *anything* in the way of a conclusion about Joseph’s memory of the First Vision. And thus I don’t see how it supports the idea that variable accounts of that event are largely, or even partly, due to his repeated confusions.

    If I am missing something, I’m sure someone out there can tell me what it is.

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