Joseph Smith–History Insight #14
Joseph Smith was influenced in many ways by his time and culture. He spent his teenage years growing up in western New York’s so-called Burned-over District, which saw not only intense religious revivals and spiritual fervor but also an outpouring of books, tracts, newspaper articles, and oral accounts of the religious experiences of many men and women. It therefore “should come as no surprise,” as BYU English professors Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft wrote in their ground-breaking 1980 study, that Joseph should tell about his First Vision “consciously or unconsciously” using “a literary style and structure similar to familiar conversion accounts spoken and written by his contemporaries.”1
Insightfully, Lambert and Cracroft point out how Joseph’s “florid wording” in his 1832 account–with “soaring, solemn, and often tedious” expressions–attempted to match its rhetoric to the long-standing literary form of “spiritual autobiography.”2 That autobiographic form, which was identified and outlined as early as 1670,3 was a common pattern that many people still in Joseph’s day used to convey with an elevated prose the struggles and sublimity of their spiritual experiences.
Joseph employed yet another approach in his “1835 impromptu recital.” It communicated a “simple and more confident style,” using “spare prose.” This “prefigured the simple eloquence of the 1838 version.”4 And because that 1838–39 rendition5 was intended to introduce a full history of “the rise and progress of the Church,” that telling, understandably, shifted its emphasis away “from the personal to the institutional,”6 being concerned more with Joseph’s wrestle with which church to join and not just being forgiven of his previous sins or follies.
In addition, historian Richard L. Bushman has analyzed other narratives of spiritual experiences contemporary to Joseph Smith.7 Bushman compared Joseph’s 1838–39 account with the reports of visionary conversion experiences in 32 pamphlets published in the United States between 1783 and 1815, finding that “the stylistic similarities,” while interesting and plentiful, in the end “only highlight . . . the differences between Joseph and the host of now forgotten visionaries.” For instance, these “narratives of dreams and miraculous appearances did not imply the construction of any institutional form; they did not propose doctrine; they did not proclaim commandments. . . . They inspired awe at the presence of invisible powers made visible but were an occasion to marvel rather than to act.”8
Adding another high-level historical study to this discussion, in 2011 historian Christopher C. Jones convincingly argued that certain phrases in Joseph’s 1838–39 account find echoes especially in conversion narratives written by Methodist Christians.9 As Jones writes,
Examining Joseph Smith’s first vision in the context of Methodist concerns over the nature of true religion brings its message into sharper focus. While condemning all religious denominations, it spoke to specific Methodist concerns in antebellum America. Yet closer attention to the Methodist context also suggests that Methodism fundamentally shaped Smith’s early religious wanderings in important ways. Heavenly visions at the time of conviction and conversion were, in fact, common among Methodists of the day. And nowhere else did the rhetoric of true religion’s form and power appear more regularly than in both private and public conversion narratives of Methodism’s adherents. As other historians have previously pointed out, Joseph Smith’s earliest recorded recollections of his first vision resemble early American evangelical conversion narratives in both context and content. By focusing more specifically on the Methodist variation of the standard conversion narrative, it becomes clear that Smith’s own narratives bear distinct Methodist markers of influence.10
This all makes sense. In wrestling with the question about which church to join, young Joseph “became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and [he] felt some desire to be united with them” (Joseph Smith–History 1:8). As Jones has explored elsewhere, Methodism played a significant (though certainly not the only) role in shaping early Latter-day Saint religious identity and practice.11
That Joseph would therefore narrate his First Vision in a style that would have been recognizable to him and would have appealed to many of his earliest followers is understandable. Most notably in this regard, an important component in Methodist religious identity was obtaining a “form” and the “power of godliness,” referring to the outward spiritual power that brought vitality to true Christian religious practice. John Wesley himself expressed fears that his followers’ quest for popularity would rob them of “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out,” leaving them as “having the form of religion without the power.”12 Those who lacked the power of godliness were deemed illegitimate, neither having the true form of Christian worship nor possessing the Lord’s power. Similarly, in his 1838–39 account, Joseph wrote that the Lord informed him that the sects of his day “teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19, emphasis added).
The Lord’s words would have resonated with both Joseph himself and anyone who shared a Methodist background or who knew the New Testament. “Over the course of the eighteenth century and during the first decades of the nineteenth, Methodists in both Great Britain and America regularly proclaimed that Methodism uniquely possessed both the form of godliness and the power of true religion. [These words] found expression in Methodist sermons, hymns, ecclesiastical reports, and even in the personal writings of laity and clergy.”13
At the same time, this expression drew particular strength because of its prominence in the Bible: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, . . . having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof; from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:1–2, 5). Thus, for Joseph to report that all Christian sects (not just the Methodists) lacked the power of godliness would have been not only radical but also “particularly offensive” to his contemporaries,14 to say nothing of the fact that in his 1844 testimony, Joseph specifically said that he was told “No” when he asked the Lord if he “must join the Methodist Church.”15
Another common theme in Methodist and other Protestant Christian conversion narratives that is brought out in Joseph’s First Vision account is the individual’s search for forgiveness of his or her sins. This theme is prominent especially in Joseph’s earlier retellings of the First Vision written in 1832 and 1835,16 whereas in the later accounts, Joseph’s quest to determine which church to join is the focal narrative element. Although some have seen this as contradictory, Jones explains how this would not necessarily be so, especially from the perspective of a Methodist conversion narrative.
While forgiveness for [Joseph Smiths] sins preoccupied the earlier account [of the First Vision], and the concern with which church was right consumes the later narrative, within the Methodist tradition, the two were not mutually exclusive questions. In fact, they were closely linked with one another. Perhaps Joseph Smith asked “which of all the sects was right” precisely because he felt that forgiveness of his personal sins was intimately tied to his joining a certain church.17
In certain important ways, however, Joseph’s First Vision story diverged from what was typical of contemporary nineteenth-century Methodist conversion narratives. For example, Jones points out that, like Joseph Smith, Methodist converts sometimes described visionary experiences of seeing the Lord. Unlike Joseph Smith, however, they frequently described their visions with guarded or sometimes deliberately vague language.
Methodists of the day carefully qualified the nature of their visionary experiences with phrases like “by faith, I saw . . .” or by affirming that it was just a dream. . . . Joseph Smith, by contrast, affirmed unambiguously that “it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a vision. . . . I had actually seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me. . . . I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” It was thus not necessarily a matter of what Joseph Smith experienced, but rather how he explained it [that offended many contemporary Christians]. The straightforward and sure language he used to describe his vision filtered its meaning, making it more threatening to the Methodist minister in whom he confided.18
From all of this it is apparent that Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts sometime align with and at other times react against what Jones calls “a community of discourse” that had been circulation in the early nineteenth century. The Prophet’s repition of the Lord’s use of phraseology from 2 Timothy 2:5 in particular “directly challenged Methodist claims to possess the form and power of godliness. Such a message resonated with those [Joseph] Smith attracted to the Mormon religion, many of whom criticized the Methodists as having rejected their heritage as a people who [once had more openly] embraced visions, dreams, and miraculous religion.”19
Just as the biblical authors consciously shaped their writings according to ancient literary conventions to best communicate their message,20 so too did Joseph make “literary, structural, and stylistic” choices in testifying of his experience. More than reflecting any fundamental change in his “understanding of the event in the Sacred Grove,” these choices reveal a deliberate effort on the Prophet’s part to present his narrative in ways that would resonate with the needs and familiar speech patterns of his particular audience(s).21
While Joseph may have imitated some familiar literary or narrative conventions of the day, his depiction of the First Vision is anything but derivative or banal. Because he tailored his words authentically to meet the needs of his listeners and readers, his words speak powerfully. Careful readers of especially the 1838–39 account (now canonized in the Pearl of Great Price) have noticed the simple yet profound manner in which the Prophet communicated his experience. As Lambert and Cracroft have concluded:
[T]he 1838 account [of the First Vision] seem[s] remarkably plain and unadorned. [It] employ[s] for the most part, brief subject/verb structures, and simpler coordinating connectives, rather than the more complicated subordinating connectives of the earlier versions. The language itself is less high-blown and far more natural and restrained, using fewer and simpler adjectives and adverbs and concentrating more on nouns and verbs to carry the burden of meaning. Indeed the prose is so free from emotionally loaded words and phrases as to make us almost forget the cosmic significance of the events being recounted.22
This linguistic honesty deeply impressed Dr. Arthur Henry King, an English language stylistician trained at the Universities of Cambridge and Lund. One of his skills was detecting linguistically whether or not people were telling the truth. King’s reaction as he read Joseph’s 1838–39 account of the First Vision for the first time is therefore noteworthy:
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.23
So how did Joseph Smith relate the experience of his First Vision? Obviously, this is not a simple question, and the answer is somewhat equally complex. But this much is clear: Joseph communicated effectively, literarily, personally, institutionally, purposefully, meaningfully, honestly, privately, publicly, sincerely, authentically, and spiritually. As a result, two centuries later, his surviving accounts of his First Vision experience continue to resound in every language, culture, and listening ear.
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.
Arthur Henry King, “Joseph Smith as a Writer,” in Arm the Children: Faith’s Response to a Violent World (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1998), 285–293.
Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31–42.
1 Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 35.
2 Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form,” 33.
3 See Memoirs of the Rev. James Fraser of Brae, Minister of the Gospel at Culross, as quoted and discussed in Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form,” 33. While Fraser identified eight stages in the prototypical story of a pilgrim’s spiritual progress, more recent expositions compress these into five stages. See Virginia Brereton, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women’s Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6, quoted in 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): 101.
4 Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form,” 37.
6 Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form,” 39–40, even taking on qualities of “mythic narrative.”
8 Bushman, “Visionary World,” 193.
9 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 88–114.
10 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 90.
11 Christopher C. Jones, “We Latter-day Saints are Methodists”: The Influence of Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University (2009).
12 Quoted in Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 89, see also 91n7.
13 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 89.
14 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 90.
16 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “The 1832 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #2 (February 6, 2020); “The 1835 First Vision Account,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #3 (February 11, 2020).
17 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 110–111.
18 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 113–114; cf. Pearl of Great Price Central, “Why Was Joseph Smith Initially Reluctant to Tell Others About the First Vision?” Joseph Smith–History Insight #12 (March 12, 2020).
19 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 114.
20 See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011); The Art of Biblical Poetry, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011).
21 Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding,” 32. For a detailed discussion of the audience for the nine main first- and second-hand accounts, see James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 37–77. See also, “Episode 5: ‘It Caused Me Serious Reflection’,” The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.
22 Lambert and Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding,” 38.