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

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. Continue reading

Rediscovering the First Vision

Review of: Matthew B. Christensen, The First Vision: A Harmonization of Ten Accounts from the Sacred Grove (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Inc., 2014). 51 pp., no index. $14.99.

The First Vision: A Harmonization of Ten Accounts from the Sacred Grove is a small book, richly illustrated, which provides even the most diligent students of the vision with a fresh and rewarding experience. Boasting a back dust jacket endorsement from none other than Richard Bushman — the dean of Joseph Smith scholars in the early twenty-first century1 — this small, stylishly designed book is, in my opinion, the best way to introduce Latter-day Saints to the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Continue reading

The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835

Abstract: In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit. Continue reading

Can a Man See God? 1 Timothy 6:16 in Light of Ancient and Modern Revelation

Abstract: Joseph Smith’s First Vision is a favorite target of critics of the LDS Church. Evangelical critics in particular, such as Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, seek to discredit the First Vision on biblical grounds. This article explores biblical theophanies and argues that Joseph’s vision fits squarely with the experience of ancient prophets, especially those who are given the rare blessing of piercing the veil of light and glory, the Hebrew kabod, that God dwells within. Continue reading

Trusting Joseph

Abstract: The “first steps” of Mormon history are vital to the faith claims of the Latter-day Saints. The new volume Exploring the First Vision, edited by Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper, compiles research into the historical veracity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision narrative which shows the Prophet to have been a reliable and trustworthy witness. Ultimately, historical investigation can neither prove nor disprove that Joseph had a theophany in the woods in 1820. Individuals must therefore reach their conclusions by some other means. Continue reading