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Joseph Smith’s First Vision and Methodist Conversion Narratives

By: Christopher - December 19, 2007

There seems to be a minor discrepancy among Mormons today regarding the significance of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.”  While modern Mormons are eager to point out all that Joseph learned in that first encounter with Deity in 1820 — the nature of the Godhead, the falsity of other churches and their creeds, and a host of other things – Richard Bushman has recently suggested that Joseph “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and “explained the vision as he must have first understood it, as a personal conversion.” [1]  Perhaps we might be able to better understand the First Vision, then, and what it meant to Joseph Smith at the time, by approaching it in the terms Joseph understood it — as a conversion experience.  Because of Joseph’s stated partiality for the Methodist sect, and because it appears that it was a Methodist preacher that influenced him to read and ponder James 1:5, we will analyze it in terms of Methodist conversion narratives of the era. 

According to Dee Andrews, there are certain “distinct features” of Methodist conversion narratives. [2]  Though she does not explicitly list all of these features, I have identified 8 common characteristics in a survey of these accounts.  Though not all conversion narratives contain all nine features, each characteristic can be found in multiple narratives by Methodist converts, as well as in Joseph Smith’s First Vision. [3]  I will numerically list each general feature and then provide a short analysis/comparison between Joseph’s description of the experience and other early Methodists’ conversion narratives.

1. Conversions generally occur against a backdrop of a “personal crisis.” Examples include family troubles, a recent death, personal concern for one’s salvation, poverty, etc.

  • Philip Gatch, as a teenager, became aware of his wickedness and concerned for his salvation after his sister and uncle unexpectedly died within a short span of time.
  • Benjamin Abbott became concerned after a series of frightening dreams and visions of hell, complete with demons that “threatened to throw him into a fiery lake.”
  • Joseph lamented his inability “to get Religion” and “feel & shout like the Rest” that he saw at the revival meetings, and was left to lament that he “could feel nothing.” He expressed “that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did, for how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had would never know.” [4]

2. A particular message from a sermon or the scriptures sparks the interest and seemingly jumpstarts the conversion process.

  • Abbott attempted to pray after having heard a particularly poignant sermon at a Methodist revival.
  • Lucy Watson likewise heard a Methodist itinerant explain that, in order for conversion to occur, “she must first do what was in [her] power, & that God would bless [her] endeavors.”
  • Joseph Smith decided to pray after attending a Methodist revival and reading James 1:5.

3. Generally, the conversion experience occurred at the camp meeting or revival.  However, there are instances of it occurring only after the individual isolated himself (or herself). 

  • After months of attending revivals and worrying about his standing before God for some months, Benjamin Abbott finally decided to “retire to a solitary place.”
  • Joseph Smith likewise “retired into the place where [he] had previously designed to go” and “looked around” to make sure he was alone.

4. An attempt is made to pray in a manner outside of the person’s ordinary routine.

  • Lucy Watson prayed for the first time kneeling down, previously being used to praying standing up or sitting down.
  • Abbott and Joseph Smith, meanwhile, both “prayed aloud for the first time.”

5. The Devil (or a dark force) enters the scene, attempts to stop the person from praying, with the potential convert sometimes being thrown to the ground, losing physical abilities and senses, and falling into some sort of fit or convulsion.

  • One female convert recalled that her “Nerves and Sinews contracted,” and her tongue “felt like an Iron bar in her Mouth.”
  • Preacher Joseph Thomas referred to this as “the jirks.” He described an individual being “deprived of his own power, and sometimes of his speech, as long as it continues on him. He is thus taken with an irresistible force, altogether off his feet and dashed to the ground or floor.”
  • In Joseph Smith’s encounter with “the power of some actual being from the unseen world,” he was astonished at the being’s ability “to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.”  

6. The convert was always rescued from the adversarial force by what Dee Andrews called a “felicitously timed redemption experience.” [5]

  • After his demonic dreams convinced him he was consigned to hell, Benjamin Abbott awoke to see “by faith” Christ with his extended arms reassuring him, “I died for you.”
  • Joseph recalled, “Just at this moment of great alarm I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually untill it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.”

7. A vision of heavenly things occurred, leaving the new convert in a state of almost inexpressible joy.

  • Lucy Watson “saw Christ ‘by the eye of faith, pass by in that appearance, and [He] gave me a touch with his hand [and then] I felt as if my heart was taken out. … I dare not say I was sanctified … [But] what can this be, but perfect love.”
  • Philip Gatch recalled the words of a familiar hymn to describe the impression left upon him after his vision. “Tongue cannot express/The sweet comfort and peace/Of a soul in its earliest love.”
  • After his vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, Joseph said his “soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.” [6]

8. The previous seven characteristics can be found in evangelical conversion narratives of almost any denomination.  “The most distinguishing characteristic of Wesleyan conversion, then,” Andrews explains, “was also its most prosaic: the decision to join a Methodist society. … While Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and many Baptists came to their religious experiences after years of familiarity with Scripture and Reformed theology, … Methodists customarily joined Methodist societies after their awakening, in many cases, often after their full conversions.” [7]

This is important point that might help bridge the divergent views among many Mormons trying to ascertain the primary significance of Joseph’s first encounter with Deity. While Bushman emphasized that Joseph “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and “explained the vision as he must have first understood it, as a personal conversion,” it is still significant that the message relayed by Christ in his vision was not only that his sins were forgiven, but that the Methodist church — or any other church — was not God’s church.

Perhaps Joseph asked “which of all the sects was right” (or, according to one account, “must I join the Methodist Church?”) precisely because he felt that forgiveness of his personal sins was directly tied to his joining a certain church — namely, the Methodists. Thus, while Joseph’s message rejected Methodism explicitly, it “cannot,” in the words of Ann Taves, “be separated from the communities of discourse and practice that gave rise to it” — in this case, it cannot be separated from the Methodist discourse and culture that influenced its occurrence. [8]

_____________________________

[1] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 39.

[2] Dee E. Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 87.

[3] I have relied primarily on the 1838 narrative of the experience (the version canonized in the Pearl of Great Price) simply because its length allows for the clearest description.  Many of the elements can be found in the other recorded versions of the First Vision. I will cite when I quote from other versions.

[4]Alexander Neibaur Journal, 24 May 1844, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writings(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 461.

[5] Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 87.

[6] Joseph Smith, “History-1832,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:3.

[7] Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 91.

[8]Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 353.

*The various narratives I quote from can be found in the following sources:

Benjamin Abbott, The Experience and Gospel Labours of the Rev. Benjamin Abbott: To Which is Annexed a Narrative of His Life and Death by John Ffirth (Philadelphia, 1801).

John McLean, Sketch of Rev. Philip Gatch (Cincinnati, 1854).

Dorothy Ripley, The Extraordinary Religious Conversion and Religious Experiences of Dorothy Ripley (New York, 1810). 

Joseph Thomas, The Life of the Pilgrim, Joseph Thomas (Winchester, Va., 1817).

Lucy Fanning Watson, “Wesley M. Watson Family History By His Mother,” (1803); Watson, “memory and account of New Settlers in the American Woods in 1762 chiefly at Walpole, N.H.” (1825); Watson “Experience & Incidents in the life of Mrs Lucy Watson, who died at German town, Pa 5th June 1834, aged 79 years, ” MS located in Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE.

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23 Comments

  1. Excellent post. What does the last sentence mean?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — December 19, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

  2. You might also be interested in the similarities (grove of trees, face-to-face encounter with Jesus, etc.) between Joseph Smith’s account of his vision and an account of a prayer and vision left by Charles Grandison Finney, found here. Finney, who became a powerful preacher of religious revival, particularly in New York’s Burned Over District, was a Presbyterian (rather than a Methodist) and a contemporary of the Mormon prophet.

    One of the major differences between the accounts is that Finney leaves open the possibility that his face-to-face encounter was a figment of his imagination. As far as I can tell, JS always maintained the opposite.

    Comment by Brandon — December 19, 2007 @ 3:14 pm

  3. Thanks, Jonathan. The last sentence basically means that Joseph Smith’s First Vision is best understood in terms of the culture that gave rise to it. In Joseph’s case, that culture (or “communities of discourse and practice”) was evangelical revivalism. Though by 1838, the vision has taken on new and significant meanings in JS’s mind, he continued to describe it in language (“discourse”) reminiscent of Methodist conversion narratives.

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  4. Brandon, thanks for bringing Finney into the discussion. I’m familiar with his experience and its striking similarities to Smith’s vision.

    Regarding your second paragraph, I have a follow-up post planned that will address that issue.

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  5. Nice post. I’d be interested in seeing a little more about how you interpret the “jirks.” There were two forms of involuntary movements that were fairly common in evangelical revivals: the “slaying power” which rendered the participants in a death-like state for minutes up to hours and what I have seen described as “jerks,” which typically involved involuntary jumping up and down and kicking the ground. I have been meaning to do a post contrasting the “slaying power” with various conversions in the Book of Mormon, but I am not certain that Joseph’s demonic confrontation, or at least his description of it, is consistent with these more common revivalistic experiences.

    I believe I have heard both Greg Prince and Brian Stuy have ammassed significant collections of early 19th century conversion narratives.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 19, 2007 @ 3:25 pm

  6. J., I don’t think Joseph Thomas’s description of the “jirks” is entirely consistent with other descriptions of the “jerks.” Generally speaking, both the slaying power and the jerks are the result of wrestling with “the Spirit,” not the Devil. Thomas seems to be describing something different, though related, here.

    I assume the collection of conversion narratives by Prince and Stuy are Mormon conversion narratives? And I think your post on “slaying power” sounds great. I’ll look forward to it.

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

  7. Hm. What you have cited from Thomas’s narrative appears to be a bit ambiguous, but I haven’t read the account in whole so will differ to your interpretation.

    I’m not sure if they are in his Papers at the UU, but I seem to remember Prince saying that he has collected very many first-vision like accounts Evangelical conversions. Same with Stuy, though I don’t know if he has deposited his research papers anywhere.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 19, 2007 @ 3:41 pm

  8. …that is to say, have you seen anything explicitly referencing a dark or satanic force in these accounts? I have read very many, so I could easily be projecting revivalist fervor onto the narratives you have presented.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 19, 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  9. ugh. That should have been, “I haven’t read very many…” Sorry about that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 19, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

  10. I suspect that the “jerks” are manifestations of the Holy Spirit as discribed in:
    D&C 85:6

    Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest, saying:

    and

    3 Nephi 11:3

    And it came to pass that while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.

    Comment by Howard — December 19, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  11. J., there are accounts that specifically refer to the devil and dark forces. Benjamin Abbott became convinced that the devil was behind him “with his hand just over my head, threatening to take me away both soul and body.” According to Dee Andrews, another preacher, William Glendinning “was so distraught by ‘Lucifer’s’ alarming presence during his conversion that he suffered a nervous breakdown.”

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2007 @ 4:50 pm

  12. Thanks. No question how they felt there!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 19, 2007 @ 5:01 pm

  13. This makes me think that T.S. Eliot’s words on poetry could just as well apply to conversion narratives:

    No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

    Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
    The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1922

    In other words, we often spend too much time looking at how similar or different Joseph’s narrative was to previous narratives, when really we could benefit from looking at both simultaneously. In “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism” Bushman focuses a lot on how similar Smith’s narrative was to other narratives, whereas Givens in “By the Hand of Mormon” tends to focus on the areas where it was radically different than what had come before. But, as T.S. Eliot said, “And he [the poet] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

    Or something. The application isn’t exact, but this post made me think of it. Brighter minds than mine might make a better connection.

    Comment by Ivan A. Wolfe — December 19, 2007 @ 7:44 pm

  14. God speaks in the language of the hearer – and usually acts within the culture of the hearer. At least, that’s been my experience.

    Comment by Ray — December 19, 2007 @ 8:07 pm

  15. J. Stapley and Christopher-

    For more on satanic visions among Protestants, read the first chapter of Christine Leigh Heyrman’s _Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt_,” (if you haven’t already). Interesting stuff.

    Comment by Brandon — December 20, 2007 @ 4:41 pm

  16. Enjoyed reading this post — great research.

    I found it interesting to learn recently that the phrase “above the brightness of the sun” is a common trope in early 1800s visions. [I think Bushman illustrates this in his biography but there are many more examples]. Brigham Young’s brother Phinehas included something akin to that language in describing an 1820s, pre-Mormon conversion vision. Many evangelicals also employed it to describe a theophany or other encounter with God or angels.

    Perhaps the use of common motifs helps illustrate how Joseph was partly (but not fully) constrained by his surrounding culture in his attempts to explain what he saw.

    Comment by John Turner — December 31, 2007 @ 12:06 pm

  17. John, thanks for the comments. In my more complete analysis of this subject, I briefly discuss the use of the phrase, “above the brightness of the sun.” And your last point that Joseph was at least partly constrained by his surrounding culture in the development of Mormonism is exactly what I was trying to get across in this post. Thanks for summing it up so clearly.

    Comment by Christopher — December 31, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  18. [...] like that experienced by Joseph were not uncommon in the culture he grew up in. In a recent post here at JI, my co-blogger Christopher has skillfully shown how the descriptive language used [...]

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  23. I thank you ,for this article, Its people like you, that builds LDS converions. I know with out a shadow of doult, That Joseph Smith Seen and heard GOD the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
    I know The book of Mormon is another testament of JESUS CHRIST.I know that he died for me.

    Comment by william embrey — March 11, 2010 @ 10:31 am