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The First Vision and the Qualifying Eye of Faith

By: Christopher - January 17, 2008

In a post a few weeks ago, I suggested that Joseph Smith’s First Vision might be better understood in the context of evangelical (especially Methodist) conversion narratives of early 19th century America.  As a follow-up to that post, I want to now turn the attention to the aftermath of the vision.  That Joseph expressed great surprise that the Methodist minister he related the vision to reacted with “great contempt, saying it was all of the Devil” [1] is commonly recited today, and generally explained by alluding to Smith’s youthful naivety and the arrogance of the learned Methodist minister dismissing all such notions. Joseph’s surprise, however, was more likely a result of his vision being dismissed as “of the Devil” while hundreds of other evangelicals of the day recounted visions and dreams accompanying their conversion experiences without any “great contempt” from ministers and co-religionists. 

Perhaps the difference is not what Joseph experienced, but rather how he described the occurrence.  As historian Susan Juster has noted, “Evangelicals were very careful in the language they used to describe their visionary experiences, always conscious of the porous line separating faith from superstition. They used words like ‘seemingly’ and ‘by faith’ to signal their awareness of the enormous channels of truth and knowledge.” [2] As pointed out by an astute commenter here, Charles Finney, the famed Presbyterian revivalist, qualified nearly every sentence of his visionary conversion narrative by explaining that “it seemed to me a reality.” Primitive Methodist Hugh Bourne likewise described his 1809 vision by explaining that “[i]t seemed as is Jesus Christ embraced me in his arms.  After this he seemed to move to the church at Cloud, and there he sat as he is represented in Isaiah’s vision; and he seemed to put his arms around me, and say that I should reign with him.” [3] These qualifications are conspicuously absent from Joseph’s relation of his vision, though.  Instead, he expressed confidence that he had “actually seen a vision. … I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” [4]

In addition, Joseph affirmed that God had related to him a distinct message-another trigger for suspicion.  That the direct and damning message related to Joseph by Christ (that all churches had gone astray and “there is none that doeth good no not one” [5]) would not sit well with Christian ministers of the day is not surprising.  However, that God communicated a message to Joseph at all was equally suspicious and contemptible.  “In general,” Susan Juster summarized, “visions should be seen-not felt or heard in any physical way-and seen by the ‘eye of faith’ alone. … [E]vangelicals agreed that the more palpable the vision, the greater the suspicion that its source was not divine but pathological in some sense.” [6]

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[1] Joseph Smith, “History-1839,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:273.

[2] Susan Juster, Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 116.

[3] John Walford, Memoirs of the Life and Labours of the Late Venerable Hugh Bourne (London, 1855), 196.

[4] Smith, “History-1839,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:275.

[5] Joseph Smith, “History [1832]“, in The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:7.

[6] Juster, Doomsayers, 114-15.

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18 Comments

  1. I have been reading the FV account for a talk I am giving on Sunday, and upon reading Finney’s account, I was first struck by the many similarities to the Joseph Smith account. The difference, though, is in the certainty, the personal nature of Joseph Smith’s vision, and the concrete language used in his retelling. Quite a dramatic difference.

    I compare that with the discomfort some in the bloggernacle have with those who bear their testimony with the phrase “I know”, which in reality seems to be the most common expression of faith in our testimony meetings (other than “I love my mommy and daddy”).:) We appear to have tapped into a tradition of certainty and absolutism in our professions of faith, no doubt influenced by Joseph Smith’s FV accounts, and the statements of other modern day prophets and apostles.

    Comment by kevinf — January 17, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  2. Christopher,

    Great post. I’ve always been interested in why JS received such a negative response, especially after I read Bushman’s article on the “Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” (BYUS 37 no 1). It really wasn’t that he claimed to have had a vision, because such claims were quite common. Your analysis offers a much more plausible explanation.

    Where does the oft repeated Mormon notion fit into this that the first vision and subsequent visions were rejected by Protestants because they believed that the heaven’s were closed? I know that Missourians later would complain that the Mormons were claiming revelation and visitations as a justification for kicking them out of Jackson County. How does that fit into the larger context of Protestant visionary experiences that seemed quite common?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — January 17, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  3. Chris: Fascinating post. I think you make a good point about the power of language to convey and filter meaning.

    Does Juster discuss how ministers in general reacted to the visionary culture that Bushman describes? Did ministers normally encourage visionary conversion experiences, or did some preachers interpret visions as threats to the establishment?

    Paul, I think you raise good questions that add complexity to the issue. It was JS himself that attributed the rejection of his vision to the “closed-heavens thesis.”

    21 Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them. (Joseph Smith-History, 1:21)

    It’s this statement that makes me wonder if there was a divide between the ways that ordinary people interpreted visions and how the clergy did so. I think it’s important to reconcile this statement with the visionary culture.

    I also think that Paul’s right to note that claims to visions were often interpreted through the lens of fanaticism. I think it’s safe to say that the visionary culture was very much a contested culture.

    Comment by David Grua — January 17, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  4. Very interesting, Christopher. This also gives some context to reported statements by Martin Harris that his view of the plates, etc., memorialized in the Testimony of Three Witnesses statement at the front of the Book of Mormon, was with his “spiritual eyes.”

    Comment by Dave — January 17, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  5. It seems to me that many of the First Vision-like narratives are centered on a conversion-type (or born again) experience. As the Calvinists were Arminianized in the wake of popular Evangelicism, the idea that one could have a vision of the Savior isn’t all that inconsistent…as long as it was witness of being saved. Joseph’s vision, as you say, is so far beyond that (especially the later accounts).

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 17, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

  6. David, thanks for pointing to JSH as the source of the “heavens closed” aspect of the story (I’m only feeling a little bit stupid for missing that). So can someone help me out again? It has been so long since I’ve read the other versions of the first vision, I’m wondering if this idea appears in any of the other versions or only the 1838 cannonized version? If the latter, is it possible that JS was writing then current 1838 Missouri complaints against the Mormons as visionary people into the mouth of the Methodist minister in 1820?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — January 17, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  7. Paul, the earliest known recitation is the 1832 personally written journal entery. It is far more of a sketch than the official 1838 version. There is no “seemed” or “spiritual eyes” statements, but a very matter of fact description. Other than only mentioning having talked with Jesus Christ (with no mention of The Father), the major difference is the strong conversion narrative that is missing in most other recitations.

    To answer your question, the idea that his visions were rejected is also present. He just doesn’t explain exactly who rejected his visionary experience or to what degree. He just says no one believed him.

    Comment by Jettboy — January 18, 2008 @ 11:34 am

  8. Fascinating post, Christopher. Thanks!

    Comment by John Turner — January 18, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  9. Great thoughts. You’ll want to situate this within the contest over “enthusiasm” in this period, which is the elephant in the room. Conforti on Jonathan Edwards is useful here, as is Holifield on Theology in America. Other useful context is regeneration–these visions tended to be, if acceptable, moments of converting regeneration, which could be easily integrated into post-Calvinist orthodoxy (to the extent that term has any meaning).

    You’ll also want to situate this in the evolution of Methodism, something Wigger treats reasonably well, the “croakers” (or whatever they were called) against the less supernaturalistic Methodists of Joseph Smith’s period.

    You’ll also need to situate this within the overlapping and competing idea worlds of folk mysticism and popular religion. For the village seer to claim to see God and Christ and then NOT convert to Methodism would be a significant challenge to a Methodist preacher (much as someone who claims within modern Mormonism to have received a new revelation direct from a visitation by Joseph Smith).

    Groups to whom Smith was often compared by critics, specifically on the grounds of his angelic visitations, were the British Catholic Apostolic Church (Irvingites), Shakers, Swedenborgians, and followers of Joanna Southcote (though this is a little harder to support). These groups all crossed the line between regenerating grace/experimental conversion and the overwhelming enthusiasm that threatened to destroy traditional Christianity.

    Is that Juster book good beyond the discussion you cite? Sounds interesting.

    Comment by smb — January 20, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

  10. Paul, back-projection from the vantage of 1838 is likely, but that criticism is present from Campbell’s first treatment, through Howe, Bacheler, and others. At least since 1830, Smith was being criticized for his enthusiasm/fanaticism/visionary beliefs. I doubt the Missouri resolution is the actual source of such a complaint on Smith’s part.

    Comment by smb — January 20, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  11. “At least since 1830, Smith was being criticized for his enthusiasm/fanaticism/visionary beliefs. I doubt the Missouri resolution is the actual source of such a complaint on Smith’s part.”

    No doubt you are correct. I’m just curious about the charge that the “heaven’s are closed” as a reason for rejecting the first vision. Is that a charge a Methodist minister would have made and if yes, why, given the variety of visions and manifestations that burst into the open during the second great awakening? Would the Methodist minister have denounced all of them, even those that led the receiver into Methodism? Or what was unique about JS’s report that would have prompted this response? Christopher’s post offers some great analysis. However, not everyone in JS’s day believed that the heavens were closed, so what counted as a legitimate visitation and which sects among the Protestants would have counted it as such? Was “the heavens are closed” something a Methodist would have said and why? I really have no bigger point to make with these questions, I’m just curious. The “heavens closed” thing shows up in the new first vision DVD and it never sits quite right with me because of the “visionary world” that surrounded Smith. It can also create the false impression among LDS that we had/have a corner on claims to heavenly manifestations.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — January 20, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  12. Personally, I think if the “heavens closed” wording had been something like the following it would make much more sense:

    “I was told that the heavens were closed for me to see what I claimed I saw.”

    We focus on the nature of the vision and how it differed from “acceptable visions” of the time (and rightly so), but we tend to downplay Joseph’s reputation among many – and that of his family. Even if their general acceptance of the supernatural hadn’t put them at odds with the general population, Joseph’s dabbling at divination would have put him at odds with the religious elite, at the very least.

    Comment by Ray — January 21, 2008 @ 12:22 am

  13. Also, I think the rejection of the organized religions alone explains why it was rejected by the leaders of those religions. After all, that still – to this day – is the hottest hot-button issue behind most Protestant objections to Mormonism. Other things are trotted out in the attacks, but underlying all of them is the claim that they are wrong.

    Comment by Ray — January 21, 2008 @ 12:25 am

  14. Paul, I see what you’re saying. Wigger suggests that by the 1820s, many Methodists were mainstreaming, seeking respectability over enthusiasm (Holiness comes quite a bit later, in part in response to this respectability). I think Smith appropriated a phrase that puts his peers in a poor light while being basically true to his convictions. If closed heavens is a code word for a closed canon, then Smith was absolutely correct when compared with Reformed Christianity, even in its most evangelical and revivalistic faces. He was claiming to be a prophet in a way that Reformed Christians couldn’t accommodate (which is why critics grouped him so readily with the other prophets and prophetesses, generally distinguishing them from enthusiasts within the Reformed tradition, even the “extremists” like Chas Finney, Lorenzo Dow, and the like.

    A long way of saying that closed heavens was correct if by it he meant no more Biblical prophets and new revelations. His Protestant critics wouldn’t have used quite the same phrase to describe their objection to his vision(s), but this was nonetheless a critical distinction for everyone involved.

    Comment by smb — January 21, 2008 @ 12:53 am

  15. Thanks all for the feedback and comments.

    David, Juster doesn’t discuss the clergy’s response to visionary claims.

    Paul, interesting thoughts regarding the timing and context of the 1838 reference to persecution. I think others have answered your questions as well as I could, so I won’t respond at length here. Regarding the question, “Is that a charge a Methodist minister would have made?”, that’s difficult to say because Methodism was in a state of change, accomodation, and flux during this era. It is possible a Methodist minister would make such a claim. My personal feelings are that JS emphasized the persecution and characterized other Christians of the day as disbelievers in visions and miracles to establish a distinct Mormon identity as the true Christian religion, complete with miracle and spiritual gifts.

    Comment by Christopher — January 21, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

  16. Sam, thanks for the extensive input and suggestions. Juster’s book is fantastic and illuminating, though her treatment of JS and Mormonism in the last chapter is disappointing.

    You are quite right that the debate over “enthusiasm” during this era is the elephant in the room. Thanks for pointing that out. In my fuller treatment of the vision, I examine it in that context.

    Regarding Wigger’s work … While Wigger does treat the evolution of Methodism fairly well, he unfortunately doesn’t treat at length the various Methodist schisms of the era, including the Reformed Methodists, Primitive Methodists, and Protestant Methodists (that many of Mormonism’s early converts (and leaders) came from). John Turner’s work on Brigham Young and his experience with the Reformed Methodist Church (the initial research was presented at the ASCH Conference a few weeks ago) is an important contribution to the subjects of both Methodist schisms and early Mormonism, as well as the enthusiastic and charismatic culture of antebellum America.

    Comment by Christopher — January 21, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  17. Yes, Wigger seems fairly superficial if basically correct. When/where is John Turner’s work being published?

    also, anyone read this? it sounds like great fun.
    http://www.buy.com/prod/disorderly-women-sexual-politics-and-evangelicalism-in-revolutionary/q/loc/106/30152314.html

    Comment by smb — January 22, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  18. My understanding is that John’s long-term goal is to publish a book-length semi-biographical treatment of BY (meaning not a comprehensive bio, a la Arrington’s BY: American Moses), examining the impact of his experience with Reformed Methodism in shaping and influencing BY’s religiosity.

    Comment by Christopher — January 22, 2008 @ 11:54 am