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The First Vision Gets Sunstoned

By: Ben P - July 06, 2011

There has been a lot of books and articles on the First Vision. But the recent article by our own Steve Taysom, which appeared in the newest issue of Sunstone, may be the first that references Mircea Eliade, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Stephen King. Indeed, Steve’s article is a fresh perspective in a debate that grows old quickly, and he demonstrates how theory—and, more generally, tools borrowed from the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies—can give us important insights on traditional narratives. Part of Sunstone’s “Mapping Mormon Issues” series, where they sponsor a researcher to examine and explain controversial aspects in Mormon history, “Approaching the First Vision Saga” attempts to do three things: first, detail the famous accounts and circumstances surrounding Smith’s 1820 theophany; second, outline how past historians, scholars, and amateurs have approached the topic; and third, hint to what a possibly more insightful framework might be.

Crucial to the article is a correct understanding of terminology. Among other scholarly terms, readers will be introduced to the scholarly definition of “myth,” which Taysom defines as “a story that conveys important moral or symbolic truths” (12). The First Vision is thus treated as a “myth” at the heart of the Mormon tradition and, even more so, as a “saga myths” so as to “suggest that each [First Vision] account is best understood as part of a larger collective body, or saga, of similar stories” (13). Apologists often interpret the vision’s importance to mean that it is outside of scholarly criticism, while critics tend to interpret it as meaning if the First Vision can be deconstructed then the rest of the LDS structure would tumble down after it. “Myth,” then, serves as a double function: its added significance places the vision above and beyond humanistic assaults for believers, while for critics it puts the vision squarely within their cross-hairs. No wonder scholarship on the topic has been contentious and polemical.

After detailing the 8 accounts of the First Vision from Joseph Smith’s lifetime (four by JS himself, and the other four by Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, the editor of the Pittsburg Gazette, and Alexander Neibaur), the article then turns to it’s most provocative section, titled, “What Does it Mean?” Here, Taysom elaborates on a theme he touched on earlier: that the stories are more important than the event. Moving beyond the “positivism” that he locates at the center of the apologist/critic debates—meaning, that they were focused on determining the objective reality of the actual vision—the article introduces its audience to yet another term: epoché. Also known as “bracketing,” this approach allows the scholar to “set aside one’s opinions regarding religions’ distinctive truth claims in order to more fully examine the accessible dimensions of those traditions” (20). This provides an opportunity to focus more on the “meaning” than the mere “historicity” of the event: what did the re-tellings mean to both the speaker and the audiences? This line of questioning also bridges the gulf between believing and non-believing authors, for it places the question of “scientific rationality” beyond the scope of the issue. It is, then, a way to appreciate the “mythical” importance of the topic without deteriorating into the endless debate of what did or did not happen.

All in all, it’s a provocative article, and I recommend it to anyone interested not only in the First Vision, but in the debate over methodologies in Mormon studies.

If Steve’s approach demonstrates the recent developments in religious studies, another JIer, Christopher Jones, demonstrated recent developments in historical studies in his recent Journal of Mormon History article. In “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Chris persuasively demonstrates how Joseph Smith’s First Vision narratives were striving to follow typical conversion narratives—especially Methodist narratives—of the day. For me, framing the different accounts of the First Vision as attempts to narrate Smith’s theophany in a way to fulfill a literary genre clears up most of the questions.

Thus, between the tools provided by both historical and religious studies methodologies, not to mention other fields,  Mormon studies is poised to move beyond the mires of traditional historiographical traps. The question that remains, however, is whether Latter-day Saints not familiar with or influenced by academic approaches—including most readers of Sunstone, Taysom’s primary audience—are willing or interested to leave previous debates and traditional bifurcations behind.

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Stephen C. Taysom, “Approaching the First Vision Saga,” Sunstone 163 (June 2011): 12-22.

Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 88-114.



15 Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben. So does Steve offer any conclusions regarding the meaning of the FV or does he primarily lay out what a religious studies approach would look like? Steve of course can answer the question as well. I’m curious to know how Steve differentiates older theories of myth and newer memory methodologies. I seem to remember Steve Harper looking at the FV using memory methodology. And then there are the interesting issues that Robin Jensen is looking at using an orality/textuality frame.

    Comment by David G. — July 6, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  2. Thanks Ben, I’ve been meaning to get to these.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  3. David: he is primarily providing a framework in which such conclusions can be reached. I’d love to see him offer some of his own conclusions—a follow-up article or blog post, perhaps?

    He doesn’t deal too much with memory, though he does imply it at times. And yes, Steve Harper is currently working on the FV and memory, though I imagine that is on the backburner right now as he is heading out to Jerusalem for the next year.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 6, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  4. Steve Harper will be presenting “Accounts of the First Vision” at FAIR in August.

    Comment by DavidC — July 6, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  5. Nice little bite-sized heads-up, Ben, thanks.

    Comment by BHodges — July 6, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  6. Thanks for the write-up Ben. The folks at Sunstone asked me to write this, as you mentioned, as part of their Mapping Mormon Issues Initiative. The essay isn’t intended as an ideological statement, nor is it pretending to make a major new contribution. Rather, it’s purpose is to familiarize readers with the basic contours of the debate about the FV. And, because I wrote it, it came out sounding heavily theoretical. Go figure.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 6, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  7. Thanks for the summary of Steve’s article, Ben, and the mention of my own. I was finally able to read Taysom’s piece yesterday, and I think it’ll be quite useful. I wish I had access to something like that—which so succinctly lays out the historiographical/theoretical debates—when I was writing my article. Well done, Steve.

    Comment by Christopher — July 7, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  8. While exploring the meaning of the First Vision is fine and dandy, I don’t see how it allows us to skip over the question of whether the First Vision actually happened or not.

    Who wants to explore the meaning of something that never actually happened?

    Comment by James — July 7, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  9. James: I think that’s the point. It is impossible to determine whether the even ever happened. The only person who could say for sure was Joseph Smith, so all we have is coming from him. You can run around in circles determining the exact facts of what happened. That’s why Steve argues that one should shift focus from the “positivist” mindset and instead determine what the stories–or “myths”–meant to both the teller and the audience.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 7, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  10. I guess I just don’t see how exploring the meaning of the myth replaces the need to determine if the myth has factual basis. I’m not trying to be boneheaded here, I just think that by avoiding one question (did the FV happen?) by asking another (what is the meaning of the FV?) seems out of order.

    Comment by James — July 7, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  11. James, the question of whether the First Vision happened is no doubt important for believers/potential believers. Taysom (my understanding) is talking about some ways to explore the issue academically. These are not the same thing.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  12. Thank you Steve. I can appreciate an attempt to explore the meaning of the FV as disinterestedly as possibly.

    I may have been tripped up by the last paragraph of this post, which I read as inviting non-Sunstoner LDS types to leave behind the question of historicity.

    Thanks.

    Comment by James — July 7, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  13. Right, I think Ben’s last paragraph is referring to MHA and Sunstone types (those engaged with Mormon scholarship in one way or another) and not a plea for Mormons to stop believing in the veracity of the Frist Vision.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  14. James, I appreciate your comments and I don’t see your questions as obstinate or provocative. As Steve F and Ben have suggested, I’m dealing with how one might approach this issue within the arena of academic discourse. The way a practitioner approaches it may be very different. This article is absolutely not an attempt to get believers to move beyond historicity or to accept a symbolic reading of the FV stories. As an academic, I’m basically punting on the issue of historicity and focusing on what belief (or disbelief) in the vision means to believers (or disbelievers). If that makes any sense.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 7, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

  15. Friends,

    I’m very grateful to learn of Steve’s work. We’re clearly thinking along similar but not identical lines. I’ve got an essay under review just now that sidesteps the question of historicity and asks instead about what Joseph’s accounts tell us about his internal experience at the time and especially over time as he remembered it. I expect that to be the first question I’ll deal with in a book-length treatment that seeks to understand the ways the saints have “remembered” and found meaning in the vision over time. But as Ben mentioned much of that work will have to wait till I get back from the Jerusalem Center in a year.

    I’m very pleased to learn that serious work is being done on the vision. Outside of Quinn’s recent Dialogue online piece, I don’t know of anything serious on the vision in a generation. Keep it up.

    Steve

    Comment by Steve Harper — July 16, 2011 @ 6:39 pm