CES Reply: Non-Contradictions in Four First Vision Accounts

This is a continued serialization of my latest revision of my CES Letter reply, which you can read in its entirety here. As always, Jeremy’s words are in green the color of life, and mine are in black, the color of darkness.

[Jeremy expresses concern that the first recounting of the First Vision wasn’t written down until] 12 years after the vision happened.

Yeah, why didn’t Joseph write something down about it at a time closer to his experience? Where’s the 1821 or 1822 account?

When the question is asked that way, it become clear how shaky your objection is. The First Vision doesn’t appear in any 1821 or 1822 writings of Joseph Smith because there are no 1821 or 1822 writings of Joseph Smith. Joseph was 15 and 16 in 1821 and 1822, respectively, and he was, by his own description, “an obscure boy… of no consequence in the world” who was “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.” He was uneducated and essentially illiterate. He didn’t write anything down because he wasn’t capable of writing.

PICTURED: The collected writings of Joseph Smith, 1820-1827

From 1820 until 1827, when Joseph started making rumblings about golden plates, nobody anticipated that this worthless kid was going to found a major religious movement, so records about him vary between scarce and nonexistent. And prior to 1830, the only written items we have from Joseph are the revelations he received in connection to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In 1830, he receives a revelation, now D&C Section 20, that there is to be a “record kept,” so that’s probably the first time he gets a sense that maybe he ought to be writing more stuff down.

So with an 1830 commandment to start keeping a record, Joseph begins the process of recording revelations, but he still doesn’t begin keeping a personal journal until 1832.  And what’s one of the first things he writes about when he begins his personal history? The First Vision. That seems like an entirely reasonable timeline for discussion of the event.

• Age is 15-years-old (“16th year of my age”), not 14-years-old.

An error by Frederick G. Williams, yes, as noted previously. There’s no reason to think the error was anything but an honest mistake. 

• No reference to asking the question about which church he should join.

Actually, there’s no reference to any specific question at all. All he says is that he was “calling upon the Lord,” which I think we can safely assume involved sentences with question marks at the end of them. As he begins the account by expressing his eagerness to find a “society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament,” it seems likely that “Which church should I join?” was a question that readily came up. 

• No description of being attacked by Satan.

Satan isn’t mentioned in any of the accounts. In 1835 and 1838, there are references to darkness and to his feeling of doom, but the devil’s presence is drawn by inference, not by any explicit identification. What’s curious is that the 1842 account omits any reference to the satanic part of the vision, either. You’d have thought that if this were all fiction, he’d have gotten his story straight by then, yes?

See, to me, the fact that Joseph doesn’t feel it necessary to recount every detail of the vision every time he tells it is evidence of authenticity, not fraud. A con man gets his story straight at the outset and never varies from it. They also get nervous when the questions go to details they hadn’t thought of yet. Joseph obviously felt no need to remember anything by rote – he could recount all or part of the story without fear that he’d got caught in a contradiction. I think that if this version read precisely like the more familiar 1838 version, it would be more suspicious, not less. That’s not how human beings recount events.

When I wrote this section, I was fresh off a vacation to England and France. I’ve talked about my travels with a whole host of people, and I’ve emphasized different elements of the trip at different times, leaving out some details in one version and adding them to others. That’s how people talk to each other and share memories. Why shouldn’t Joseph be allowed to do that with the First Vision?

What you’re citing aren’t contradictions; they’re excerpts from the whole. If I tell you about my trip to Normandy but not my trip to Paris, does that mean I’m contradicting myself when I tell you, later, that I went to Paris, too?

This Paris vacation selfie contradicts my Normandy vacation selfies. 

 Likewise, Joseph is telling part of the story in each account, although the 1838 account – the “official version” – is the one that clearly seems to be designed to be the most comprehensive. That’s why the details that appear in the other three are all found in the 1838 version. 

2. Contradictions: In the 1832 account 7, Joseph wrote that before praying he knew there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. His primary purpose in going to prayer was to seek forgiveness for his sins.

“…by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ…”

In the official 1838 account , however, Joseph wrote:

“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join”…”(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).”

This is in direct contradiction to his 1832 first vision account.

If it is, it’s also in direct contradiction to what he wrote in the canonized 1838 account – just eight versus earlier:

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?  [Emphasis added]

How could he ask if they were all wrong in verse 10 and then say in verse 18 that it had “never entered into his heart” that they were all wrong? Remember, this was the definitive version that Joseph was writing for the History of the Church, and it undoubtedly had more than a few proofreading eyes on it before it was published to the world at large. So either Joseph and his scribes were just too lazy to notice he directly contradicts himself in the course of a few paragraphs, or there’s something else going on here.

The key phrase is “entered into my heart.”

We can have confidence in what Joseph means by this because it is not the only time he uses variations of this phrase. Here’s what he says about his experience reading James 1:5.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. [JSH 1:12, emphasis added]

This is a phrase Joseph uses to describe something more powerful than mere intellectual assent. He’s describing a spiritual experience, where the feelings of the heart complement and contribute to clarity of mind. It’s a concept that shows up in the Doctrine and Covenants, too:

Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground. [D&C 8:2-3, emphasis added]

I think all of us have had this experience – things happen that we choose not to believe. Even when we have solid information, we don’t allow our intellectual knowledge to become wisdom and “enter into our hearts.” He’s describing the very human process of denial, much like Amulek from the Book of Mormon, who once said of his own testimony, “I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.” (Alma 10:6)

Make up your mind, Amulek! Did you know or didn’t you know?! That’s a direct contradiction!

In the case of “Forgiveness of Sins v. Which Church is True,” you’re hung up on a false dichotomy. Joseph was preoccupied with what he needed to do to prepare to meet God. You see that in all of Joseph’s firsthand accounts.

“[M]y mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul,” he wrote in 1832. “I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces;” he wrote in 1835. “My mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness… my feelings were deep and often poignant… What is to be done?” he wrote in 1838. “I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future [i.e. eternal] state,” he wrote in 1842.

These are different words, to be sure, but there’s no mistaking the commonality of their underlying meaning. I believe that all these accounts show that Joseph’s deepest desire was to know what he had to do to be saved. That was the one and only item on his agenda in the Sacred Grove.

The question he asked, then, about which church he should join tells us about young Joseph’s theological assumptions. It’s clear in all accounts that salvation and church membership were inextricably linked in his mind. Even in 1832, where he doesn’t specify what question he asked the Lord before his sins were forgiven, he goes on at great length about his concern for the error he sees in all the churches. The possibility that a church might not be necessary doesn’t seem to occur to Joseph, nor would it have been likely to occur to anyone in the early 19th Century. Christ without a church in 1820? Who could imagine such heresy? Certainly not an illiterate farmboy who, at that point, had no inkling what the Lord had in store for him.

In Joseph’s mind, “which church is the right one” and “how can I get my sins forgiven” were variations on the same theme, and only minor variations at that. Rather than show inconsistency, the two accounts are remarkably united in their depiction of Joseph’s concern for his soul and his assumptions about what was necessary to save it.

So with that understanding, the apparent contradiction about whether or not he had decided that all the churches were wrong prior to praying becomes far less problematic. The 1832 account spends more time detailing the specific problems with all the churches than the 1838 account, indicating that Joseph still believed in the importance of joining a church to gain access to the Atonement. True, he doesn’t explicitly say that any church membership is necessary, but he didn’t have to – those reading his account in the 19th Century would have had the same assumptions, and neither Joseph nor his audience would have even considered the modern/post-modern idea of an effectual Christian life outside the boundaries of organized religion. Even if all the churches were wrong to one degree or another, surely Joseph would still have felt it necessary to join the best one – or the “most correct” one, to borrow a phrase from earlier in your letter and later in his life.

Tomorrow, we we discuss why people didn’t hear about the First Vision until later than Jeremy thought they should have.  In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!