Juvenile Instructor » A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses
 


A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses

By: Ben P - May 29, 2009

As one whose “to-read” pile lends a large shadow over both my desk and nightstand, devotional history books put out by publishers like Deseret Book or Covenant Press don’t usually make the list. However, a couple weeks I decided to download the audio version of a recent “popular” devotional/historical work.[1] While this post is formatted like a standard book review, I hope that it will serve as a “springboard” of sorts to discuss the practice of writing history for the faithful masses.

The book is Matthew Brown’s A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision.[2] Brown has been somewhat prolific of late, publishing several books related to early Church history and temple studies.[3] This work focuses solely on the history behind Joseph Smith’s First Vision, addressing the background, early understandings, doctrinal implications, and two chapters admittedly devoted to apologetic responses to possible critiques (though one could argue the entire book is largely apologetic).

The first thing that struck me was the question of why Brown felt we needed an entire book devoted to this one event. Brown obviously felt this question himself, and devoted the first section to establishing the significance of the First Vision, specifically sharing several quotes from Church leaders implying that the entire mission of the Church is centered on the veracity of this single event[4]—obviously he knew that he had to justify his endeavor. However, as we have discussed on this blog before, the First Vision was not very significant in its time and did not come to be understood as such until a century later.[5] He does touch on the growing significance of the vision, but still leaves the impression that it was a well-known story for many of the earliest Saints.

There are many things to be commended in this book. His discussion of the Methodist revivals during the time period was respectable, and the inclusion of the 1819 Methodist Conference in a nearby village and its possible influence on Joseph provided interesting insights (12-13). His discussion on the Palmyra Register and how it could have shaped Joseph’s understanding of the religious revivals—even noting that one newspaper account used the phrase “excitement of religion,” the same phrase Joseph chose to use[6]—was also new to me (14). Brown’s explanation that Joseph Smith probably did not realize at the time that there was to be a restoration of a Church as well as his reluctance to share the vision with those around them were also admissions that are usually not found in devotional/historical writings (41-42). (A lot of this information, however, is made clear in Quinn’s recent article on the First Vision–a text that Brown does not cite at all.)

However, also present are many of the expected problems normally associated with the genre. Brown relies heavily on later reminiscences to fill in details, though he sometimes prefaces these statements with a reminder that these claims cannot be proven.[7] The most egregious example is probably the reliance on Joseph F. Smith during the first decade of the twentieth century claiming that the vision was received while Joseph knelt under a maple tree (26). Specifically, Brown relies on Orson Pratt as a major source for many important details, at one point appointing him as the “apostle-historian” (27). Brown is somewhat selective in what details he takes from Joseph Smith’s accounts, casually using one account to prove what year the Smiths moved to Palmyra (2-5), yet going through great lengths do dismiss Joseph’s statement in 1832 that the vision happened in his “sixteenth year” (99-101).[8] Caution is a must when using any source, but it is also crucial to be consistent in being cautious with sources.

Perhaps the biggest problem I found with the volume was its inability to place the First Vision within its historical context. Certainly, it made vague attempts to describe Joseph Smith’s culture–it only devotes one, one, paragraph to the religious climate of the day, but at least references Bushman (6-7)–but still made it appear that a claimed appearance from Deity was very radical. Most significantly, Brown did not address at all how Joseph’s narrative account relates to other conversion narratives of the time (something JI’s Christopher has persuasively demonstrated, and something even a glance at Susan Juster’s Doomsayers would have revealed). This would have been especially helpful when Brown discussed the presence of Satan at the Vision—details that seem weird to us today and require extreme intellectual acrobatics to at all explain, but are easily understood when known that many accounts of the day included similar elements. In short, just like many other books of this genre, Brown’s work still fails to bring in what I think is appropriate historical context and rather presents early Mormon events as something that happened in a vacuum. Such an outlook helps fuel our exclusionary and even elitist outlook to the world, and leads us to want to reject any claim for “horizontal” rather than “vertical” sources for truth.

But, I don’t want this post to be a bash on the book—like I said, there is a lot to like about it, and being that it was not written for a scholarly audience it probably should not be measured up against scholarly standards. However, I think this topic brings up several important issues. My experience is that academically trained historians, especially within the Mormon tradition, wish that the faithful masses had a better understanding of the history of the Church; we wish that they would leave back a lot of the “silly” folklore we hear in Sunday school. However, when we write, we often only write for fellow academics, and thus leave the education of the Saints to authors like Brown—an obviously intelligent fellow who is not academically trained (or very scholarly accepted) yet who has a passion for Church history and a desire to write for the common Saint; that in itself should at least garner him some respect.

So…what do we do about this? Is it realistic to expect the average member of the Church to read scholarly works in order to really understand their religious heritage? Is it realistic to expect scholarly-respected work from authors like Brown who aren’t necessarily trained for such a task? Should we (speaking as a wanna-be academic) take a bigger role in inoculating the Saints, or should such an endeavor remain with the ecclesiastical authorities?

I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know and would love to hear others’ opinions.

____________________________________________________

[1] As such, it should be remembered that my “reading” of this book came through the audio format; I did not have the footnotes in front of me (though I did glance over the book in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in order to get page numbers and glance at his notes), and listening while bench-pressing does not always equate to the required focus usually associated with book reviews. Thus, my hope is to capture the general tone or ideas of the book.
[2] Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (Salt Lake City, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009).
[3] Other recent books of his include Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth, The Plan of Salvation: Doctrinal Notes and Commentary, and The Gate of Heaven: Insights on the Doctrines and Symbols of the Temple. Brown has also been active on the apologetics front, writing several articles for FARMS and presenting at several FAIR conferences.
[4] One of the quotes, coming from J. Reuben Clark, argued that “no man or woman is a true member of the Church who does not fully accept the First Vision, just as no man is a Christian who does not accept, first, the fall of Adam, and second, the atonement of Jesus Christ”—a sentiment that (logically and fortunately) is not echoed publically today.
[5] The most significant works on the growing importance of the First Vision are Jim Allen’s article and Kathleen Flake’s important The Politics of American Religious Identity—two works that were largely ignored in Brown’s book (the former is referenced but not engaged, the latter is absent altogether).
[6] However, an obvious critique of this assertion would be that there were almost two decades between the time Joseph read this newspaper account and when he used the same phrase—plenty of time to come upon this oft-used description.
[7] That is, he uses the very same sort of qualifiers that apologists often take “revisionists” to task for.
[8] There are several other puzzling problems with the book, including a sketchy dating of the vision to April 23 (25) and the claim that the Smiths advanced to a respectable income and the “humble middle class” (5-6).

Share and enjoy:


37 Comments

  1. How do scholars reach that audience? I get the sense that one needs to be a general authority or a BYU religion professor (not to say that they can’t be scholars also).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 29, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  2. Brown isn’t a BYU professor, is he? (I honestly don’t know) Plus wasn’t Brown’s major ancient studies? I don’t know what he did graduate work in.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 10:55 am

  3. Actually I did some checking and he did his undergraduate work in history at BYU. It doesn’t look like he went to grad school.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  4. Steve: I don’t think that’s always necessarily the case (or at least I hope not). We may be conditioned for that, but I would hope that if packaged correctly we could do the same.

    Further, I should note that this is a very similar question to what last year’s Bushman seminar when they posited, “What is our obligation?”

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  5. This problem is far from limited to the sub-genre of Mormon history. In my 20th-century American history seminar, the problem came up *constantly.” We read books written by activist-historians whose express intent was to promote a cause of race, class, or gender. They even referred to their biographical subjects as “sisters.” Secular history has its religious hierarchy as well, and we constantly debate as to whether it is wise for this elitism to persist in the academy. In most conversations, popular history (Deseret Book history would fit loosely into this category) is viewed with as a part of utopia–history that should be written but cannot be given the state of the profession. Those who do defend it acknowledge that it’s a luxury only well-established historians can indulge in.

    Frankly, I find most “scholarly” works an utter drag. I can count on one hand the number of scholarly works that were a straight-out joy to read–the others I viewed as merely necessary for my work. I guess my point is that this conversation is only part of a larger conversation about the academy’s relationship to the public.

    Comment by Russell — May 29, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  6. Have you considered the audio series “Joseph Smith’s Prophetic Ministry” published by DB? I think the 13 speakers, each taking a year or period of Joseph’s life, strike a nice balance between faith-promoting and scholarly – of course, some better than others. Speakers include: Richard N. Holzapfel, Richard E. Bennett, Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Woodford, Grant Underwood, Alexander L. Baugh, J. Spencer Fluhman, Steven C. Harper, Ronald K. Esplin, William G. Hartley, Ronald O. Barney, Andrew H. Hedges, and Robert L. Millet.

    Comment by Rick — May 29, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  7. Russell: I think that wider context is very applicable; thanks for bringing it up. (although I think I take a little more joy in reading academic books than you apparently do :) )

    Rick: I actually did consider that series, and maybe will consider it again when I finish my current audio lecture series on early Platonism. I should say that Steve Harper’s recent commentary on the D&C is a great example of being written for the common Saint, faith-promoting, and still very historically accurate.

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  8. Sorry, Ben. What I meant to say if that I really like your question and I am brainstorming about the strategies. I’ve published a few things in the religious educator. I’d like to eventually do such things at a book level. I wonder what that process would be like or how I would be received.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 29, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  9. I saw an interesting discussion on facebook yesterday. Someone noted Truman Madsen’s passing, and in response someone else replied “the church is now scholarless, which is sad considering there were too few already…”

    My mouth dropped open in shock at that statement, but the ensuing discussion made it clear that the writer’s definition of “scholar” probably included Hugh Nibley and Truman Madsen and ended there. Another participant in the discussion clarified the definition of scholar as a charismatic teacher with a number of publications that are not too difficult to read (or listen to, in the case of Madsen). I’m not sure that I would agree, in fact I strongly disagree with that definition (a certain female BYU professor with a large, devoted following would fit that definition, but it might be a stretch to call her a scholar) but that does seem to be a common definition in Mormon culture.

    By the way, in regards to this statement in the original post:

    Brown’s explanation that Joseph Smith probably did not realize at the time that there was to be a restoration of a Church as well as his reluctance to share the vision with those around them were also admissions that are usually not found in devotional/historical writings

    I recall hearing that explanation, either from the female professor I mentioned above, or from James Allen. I wish I could remember which it was.

    Comment by Researcher — May 29, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  10. Researcher: You address perfectly the tension I am hinting at.

    I can’t speak for the female professor (who I’m sure we all know who you’re talking about), but James Allen has a whole article on the development of First Vision thought. Thus, I wouldn’t put it past the former to mention it (though I doubt it), but I’m sure the latter would have taught it.

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  11. That is very interesting, Researcher. So has Richard Bushman not gained that status? Why not?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 29, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  12. Great review, Ben. Thanks. I’ll be by a little later to offer my thoughts, but I wanted to quickly respond to Steve (#11):

    So has Richard Bushman not gained that status? Why not?

    My own guess? I’d say there are two related reasons. (1) Because his RSR unfortunately caused more than one reader to doubt JS’s prophetic calling because it introduced them to complex and sometimes difficult subjects they were not previously aware of. And (2) because he does not teach at BYU. As a result, a much smaller audience has had the chance to hear him explicitly bear his testimony and thus be assured that he isn’t out to challenge or destroy faith. My own father struggled a bit with RSR until Dr. Bushman gave a fireside in my home stake and then sealed my wife and me in the Manhattan temple just a couple of months later. After that, my dad picked up RSR again and finished it, this time regularly calling me to tell me how much Bushman’s testimony shone through.

    Another example to demonstrate this point. At the beginning of the year, I taught a Sunday School lesson in my ward as a general introduction to the D&C. I encouraged class members to learn the history behind each revelation and to pay close attention to the language used by JS to communicate God’s revealed word. At the end of the class, I offered to any who were interested a photcopy of an article by Bushman published in the first volume of the Religious Educator on “the narrow little prison of language.” A number of ward members took me up on the offer. in the following days, I received two emails, both saying the exact same thing—that they had no idea “that guy who wrote the JS bio” was Mormon, but now that they knew he had a testimony, they were eager to read RSR. The following Sunday, another ward member approached and said essentially the same thing, this time asking why Bushman didn’t teach at BYU. He had assumed that if a “scholar” of LDS church history was a faithful member, they would want nothing more than to teach in the BYU Religious Ed. department.

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  13. Thanks Christopher, very interesting. Shows a lot of layers to this whole dynamic.

    What about Terryl Givens (Jack Welch, Dan Peterson)?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 29, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  14. Interesting Chrstopher. I think it a silly way to judge, but the fact is that many are willing to read the difficult only if they feel that can trust the aims of the author. Of course part of me wonders how much these people actually get from the books. It reminds me of all the people with unread Nibley tomes on their shelves.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  15. Re: Teryl Givens. My guess is that for many Mormons, he simply is not even on their radar. Those interested in apologetics and “defending the faith” may be familiar with him because of his 2 or 3 articles (more? less?) in the FARMS Review. I do remember Givens speaking at a BYU devotional a couple of years ago, and at the end one of the two students in front of me remarked to his friend that he “didn’t care for the intellectual approach to the gospel.”

    Again, Jack Welch and Dan Peterson may hold some credibility among those interested in apologetics, but I don’t think most LDS have any idea who they are.

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  16. Chris: thanks for the anecdotes–very revealing to this topic.

    This reminds me of Helen Whitney’s choice when making The Mormons to not label various commentators as Mormon or not, so that everyone would have to be listened to. (but this also led to several of my family and friends being disgusted with that “anti-Mormon” Kathleen Flake :) )

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

  17. Clark, I agree that its a silly approach. But I also can’t fault someone for not wanting to read something that will challenge their faith or testimony. My father, who is genuinely interested in LDS history but not in exploring the difficult areas of the church’s past, consequently is usually only interested in books written by those he trusts as faithful authorities.

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  18. Ben: thanks for the clarification that it was undoubtedly James Allen.

    The facebook discussion also touched on some of the points addressed in this discussion, namely, whether a person would have to be in the BYU religion department (ensures an audience of a certain size), and the fact that some people will only touch a writer’s work if they are sure that he (she?) is faithful first, and a scholar second.

    Some points that came up in an ensuing discussion with my husband included the role of Deseret Book and whether highly recognizable characters such as Nibley and Madsen would have to pass on in order to allow a newer crop of scholars (whatever your definition of scholar may be) to be taken seriously.

    Some names mentioned in the discussions: Robert Millet, Susan Easton Black, Dan Peterson, Richard Bushman, James Allen, Stephen Robinson, J. Stapley.

    Comment by Researcher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  19. Some names mentioned in the discussions: Robert Millet, Susan Easton Black, Dan Peterson, Richard Bushman, James Allen, Stephen Robinson, J. Stapley.

    Wow, that puts J in some pretty impressive (for the most part) company! :)

    I am interested in the notion that someone has to be from BYU or publish with Deseret Book to be taken seriously in the Mormon mainstream. Is there anyway we can move away from that? Is it even a possibility?

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  20. Ben, keeping with the direction this is going, but also getting back to Brown’s book: based on your review, and my own brief browsing of the book in the bookstore recently, it appears that Brown presents much of the same information as Mike Quinn did in his Dialogue E-Paper a couple of years ago (i.e. “His discussion of the Methodist revivals during the time period was respectable, and the inclusion of the 1819 Methodist Conference in a nearby village and its possible influence on Joseph provided interesting insights.”)

    It doesn’t appear that Brown cites or acknowledges Quinn’s work anywhere. This may be because he is simply not aware of it (which seems unlikely to me) or because Quinn is such a controversial figure among most faithful Mormons (and particularly disliked among Brown’s cohort of apologists). Is citing Quinn in a DB publication too controversial?

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

  21. (BTW, if Brown does indeed cite Quinn and I just missed it, please feel free to correct me).

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  22. Chris: You’re absolutely right, both in that Brown is saying a lot of the same thing as Quinn, and that he doesn’t cite it anywhere.

    Whether Brown would have wanted to cite it or not, I don’t think the publisher (Covenant, but I believe they are under the umbrella of DB) would allow it. At Linda Newell’s presentation at MHA, she mentioned that until a few years ago, her Mormon Enigma was not allowed to be cited in any DB–perhaps it’s the same for things like Quinn or Dialogue articles (with few exceptions). Looking over Brown’s footnotes, he doesn’t cite any non-faithful sources (except a few early anti- sources for his historical narrative).

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  23. Wow, that puts J in some pretty impressive (for the most part) company!

    Very funny. Richard Bushman was an example of a non-BYU academic scholar, and J. was an example of a non-academic scholar. (If I understand correctly that he does not teach or plan to teach at a university.)

    Comment by Researcher — May 29, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  24. Wow. That’s really silly Ben. I’m surprised DB would do that.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  25. As am I, Clark. She said it was Jill Derr who stood up to DB so that Mormon Enigma would be cited in Women of Covenant.

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  26. Ben, as you and I discussed, it seems to me that historical writing with for a lay LDS audience by scholars is significant but largely neglected. Books like Brown’s (at least as you’ve described it) are important for an LDS readership because they introduce new material, ideas, perspective, etc. without destroying the comfortable, institutionalized, devotional narrative. It seems to me that this kind of writing (at least when well executed) can and should introduce readers to some of the historical questions while avoiding the underhanded tactic of exposure for shock and effect. Some scholars seem inclined almost to highlight the ignorance of non-scholarly readers; perhaps instead they should work to gradually stimulate critical interest and to cultivate a more personal tone/voice through which they identify themselves with their readership.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 29, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  27. This is an important subject, Ben, and one that deserves the kind of thoughtful treatment that you have offered here. I’m not sure I have much to add, except to say that Brown’s book on the temple is quite good and that I was shocked by the quality of Steve Harper’s book on the D&C. Not only was it accurate, but it actually contributed some important interpretive insights, particularly in the context of temple theology.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 29, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  28. We ought to get Steve on here to give us some insights.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 29, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  29. This is an excellent thread, Ben. I’m sure you raise an historiographical and pedagogical dilemma which perplexes many of us, and often. As a sort of perverse contre-temps, though, I would say that at this stage of Mormonism’s development, Joseph Smith’s First Vision has taken on a life of its own, to the point that it is now utterly immune from history or its historical setting. I say this even though I have devoted untold hundreds of hours to the subject over the past three decades.

    What Christopher portrays about his father’s approach to faithful history surely typifies the needs and choices of most members of the Utah Church, at least. I expect that this divide will always exist, and that we will always have dual histories. Each will expand, probably, but never to the point of very productive overlap.

    I really want to be wrong, here, but I’m afraid that I am probably not.

    Now for something completely different (should this be offered in a separate comment?). In relation to the interesting phenomenon of the devil attempting to ruin a nice spiritual experience (in the spirit of “the presence of Satan at the Vision” mentioned in the post), I would like to share a highly obscure spiritual experience from an extremely rare Reformed Methodist compilation. Its charm is obvious, and the parallels pleasing, so far as they go . . .

    And one morning, when I awaked up, after I had been praying the night before, my burden was all gone, and I felt as though I had peace with my God. And the inside of the house looked like heaven to me. Then I had calculated to speak to no soul in the house about it. Then I got up, and went out door [sic], and it looked as if the grass and stones and sky, and every thing praised the Lord. And I for the first time gave glory to [p. 162 ends] God for his mercy, that he had pardoned my sins. And it was in me to go to my barn and cry to God for a witness. I went and then I prayed with all my might to God for the witness, and as I was praying, it seemed as though I almost beheld the goodness before it came down, and seemed to come on my head, and descend right down through my body, and it seemed as though flesh and skin, and all opened, and my teeth snapped together, and the tears run, and I cannot tell how I felt, but knew my sins were forgiven, and this was the witness of it. And then this operation went off almost, and I prayed God to send it again more powerful, I was a man of a strong constitution, and as it went through me the second time, I came very near falling. And something said, how do you know but what it came from the devil; and something struck on the barn floor like a man, but I did not see any thing, but I said, satan depart from me, for I know that my sins are forgiven. A week or two after[,] I heard brothers Brandow and Pitts preach about the Holy Ghost, that I must receive it after I was justified. One morning brother Brandow was at my house, and stayed all night, and in prayer time he prayed for the Holy Ghost; and I prayed and cried to God for me to receive that blessing. It appeared as soon as I began to get that living faith to my Saviour that he had promised it [sic]. Then it descended [p. 163 ends] on my head, and went all through me, until it got down to my knees, and the sweat and tears dropped down on the floor, although it was a very cold day, and went through me even down into my toes, and it held me an hour and a half, before the operation left me; and I never felt such a blessing before in my life, and felt different, and clear from all sin, and was born again; and my flesh and all was made over again.

    ["The Experience of JACOB LOUCKS taken from his own words, July 27, 1817, who is a man of no learning, and of the nation called High Dutch." Born at Nine Partners, Dutchess County, New York, May 3, 1774. Signed in type at the end with his "X" mark (in place of a signature). The full account from which the extract above is taken occupies pp. 161-65 of: William Pitts (1774 - ?). The Gospel Witness: Containing Evidence that the Holy Ghost is Given to All That Believe. Together with the Journal of a Travelling Preacher; And the Religious Experiences of Several Persons. To Which is Subjoined A Sermon, Delivered by an Indian. By William Pitts, Preacher of the Gospel. Catskill [New York]: Published by Junius S. Lewis and Co., for the Author [U. C. Lewis, printer, Newburgh], 1818.]

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 29, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  30. If you want a doozey of a parallel, check out Norris Stearns account in Richard Bushman’s “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” article (BYU STudies). He talks about his vision being a “pillar of light” and “brighter than the noonday son.”

    Comment by Russell — May 30, 2009 @ 12:07 am

  31. Just for the record, Matthew Brown does have a degree in history.

    Comment by Trevor — June 8, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  32. Trevor: comment #3 already established that. We were just emphasizing that he doesn’t have any graduate training in history. But thanks for pointing it out nonetheless.

    Comment by Ben — June 9, 2009 @ 12:17 am

  33. Sorry, I apparently missed that.

    I do feel that you missed the point of the book. It was aimed at the average church member who only knows as much about the First Vision as they’ve heard about in church, and possibly read about in the Pearl of Great Price. This kind of member is not interested in reading history books, and when they encounter anti-Mormon claims that shake their faith, they need a book like this to turn to.

    Yes, it may not have included all the work that has been done by historians on this topic. But I don’t think it’s necessary that it does. And you may not have noticed, since you were listening to it, that there was a list of recommended books in the back for those that are interested enough to read a more “scholarly” approach.

    For a review of this book from my point of view, see today’s FAIR blog post:

    http://www.fairblog.org/2009/06/17/a-pillar-of-light/

    Comment by Trevor — June 18, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

  34. Trevor: I appreciate your remarks and the link to your review–it is always good to two sides.

    However, I stand by my critiques (and in fact I thought I was pretty nice in my critiques). It is selective in being critical with some sources while not with others (especially in dealing with Orson Pratt). It is highly speculative in some instances while making problematic leaps in others, and dismisses critics for doing the exact same thing. It largely fails in placing the vision within its historical context (beyond the Methodist convention, but all of that was said in Quinn’s recent article), not even giving mention to the conversion genre that JS was obviously employing when writing his account. His conclusion that the first vision was more talked about than we give credit is a stretch when you look at his sources (especially the chronology shown in the back).

    I know this was written for “the average church member,” but that is the problem: the tone of this book (and other similar books) does not do an adequate job. Like other apologist books, it is largely reactive than it is proactive–which I see as the biggest problem. Lets just tell the Saints the story, the accounts, the documents, the context, and then there will not be as much of a need for apologetics. Most significantly, the tone of this book makes it sound like any critique can be settled easily and pain free; the issue is much more complex than that. True “pastoral” history, in my opinion, involves admitting that some of these things are problematic, and then treating them as complex, illusive, and rich like most things dealing with humanity is.

    Like you, I see a wide divide between scholarly writing and the lay audience–a divide this thread was designed to address. This post was not meant to be a bash on the book, but rather an honest look at the deficiencies of both the genre this book represents and our (scholars) inability to reach the lay membership. Brown deserves kudos for his attempt, but I am certain we can do a much better job..

    Comment by Ben — June 18, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

  35. And you may not have noticed, since you were listening to it, that there was a list of recommended books in the back for those that are interested enough to read a more “scholarly” approach.

    Though I listened to most of it, I did sit down with a hard copy before I wrote the post so that I could see all his appendixes and book list (which was highly selective, IMHO–it doesn’t reference Quinn’s article that says many of the same Methodist stuff he acts is “new” here).

    Comment by Ben — June 18, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  36. [...] issues have particular relevance to Mormon history. As I’ve written elsewhere, Mormon historians often only focus on writing for fellow Mormon historians, and then bemoan the [...]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Historical Fundamentalism and Mormon History — November 1, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  37. [...] For one such example, see Ben’s “A Pillar of Light, The First Vision, and History for the Masses,” juvenileinstructor.org, 29 May 2009. Ben notes that “academically trained historians, [...]

    Pingback by Faith-Promoting Rumor » The Dumbing Down of Mormon Books, Made Easy! — January 5, 2011 @ 2:44 pm