Joseph Smith–History Insight #13
As historians strive to understand and interpret the past, they are dependent upon the memories of those who were there and who left a record of their experiences. This is especially true of the First Vision, in which we must rely on the memory of the only mortal participant: Joseph Smith. As such, it is important for those wishing to study the First Vision, or any other historical event, to understand both the limits and strengths of human memory. Historian Steven C. Harper has looked carefully at Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts in light of memory studies, trying patiently to “listen” to Joseph remember his experience in each account.1 As Harper explains, “Seekers strive to understand the dynamics of memory in order to listen more carefully to Joseph communicate his memories.”2
Memory is not the simple recall of information and events from one’s life, but is an active process that involves reconstructing the events in one’s mind again and again.3 The complexities of memory are such that it’s not a simple dichotomy between “accurate” and “inaccurate” memories. Nearly all memories have both reliable and unreliable elements in them. In his studies, Harper found that “Joseph’s accounts of his vision acknowledge that his memory was both limited and accurate.”4 Studying Joseph’s accounts about the First Vision with an understanding of both the nature and limitations of memory can help us not only better reconstruct the original vision itself, but also better recognize and understand what the vision meant to Joseph at various points of his life. “Joseph’s accounts of his first vision represent the event as he experienced it, both at the time and over time.”5
“Most memory evaporates,” Harper explains, “but when we focus on something repeatedly, it is processed into a secondary memory.”6 Secondary memories are more stable over time, and are strengthened by making emotional connections to our experiences. Long-term memory is also improved when we are conscious that we are remembering.7 This means that important events in our life can be more easily remembered, but peripheral details often become fuzzy or can slip from our minds altogether.
“Joseph Smith’s accounts of his first vision,” remarks Harper, “abound with these attributes of memory.”8 Joseph indicated both strong emotional connections and a “meta-awareness” indicative that he was deliberately and consciously remembering. His “feelings were deep,”9 and his “mind became seriously impressed.”10 This kind of language saturates his detailed accounts. “Joseph’s memories seem especially keen when they recall thoughts and the strong emotions he associated with them.”11
Yet peripheral details, like his age, the exact day of the event, the time of year when the “religious excitement” began, and so on are all remembered more vaguely. He was “about” 14 years old, it was “sometime” in the second year after they moved to Manchester, and it was “early in the spring” when he kneeled to pray.12 “Joseph Smith’s accounts of his vision show memory that was simultaneously vivid and vague.”13
Joseph’s accounts also illustrate the features of both factual memory (recollections of objective details) and interpretive memory (the meaning or significance that he assigned to the experience.)14 “Interpretive memories grow and change over time because they are shaped by events subsequent to the episode being remembered.”15 Thus, each of Joseph’s accounts reflect different emphases and details in part because they reflect what his vision meant to him at different stages of his life.
For example, the 1838 account has a strong emphasis on persecution, which is lacking in the other accounts.16 This account was written and edited in the midst of the hostilities of the Kirtland apostasy, the Missouri War, and Joseph’s imprisonment in Liberty Jail.17 In the midst of all of this, persecution loomed large on Joseph’s mind, and in his interpretive memory, “It seem[ed] as though the adversary was aware at a very early period of my life that I was destined to be a disturber and annoyer of his kingdom” (Joseph Smith–History 1:20, emphasis added).18
This does not mean Joseph was misremembering or making experiences up. Rather, it simply means that some recollections of his First Vision may not have been as marked and intense as Joseph later remembered them to have been. As Harper put it, “An outward observer would not likely interpret these events as intensely as [Joseph] Smith subjectively did.”19 To the contrary, the fact that Joseph’s accounts bare all the hallmarks—including the limitations—of human memory strongly suggests that these are authentic memories. Meaning, this is not a story Joseph just made up or fabricated. He is remembering a real experience he had in the woods as a boy. As Harper concludes:
Joseph created human memories of his first vision …. The reveal vivid memories of elements of the experience that deeply impressed him—anxious uncertainty prior to the theophany, the epiphany that resulted from reading and reflecting on James 1:5, the feeling of love and redemption from the theophany, the reality of the vision itself. Interpretive and introspective memories are present as well. … The accounts are not, by Joseph’s own admission, a flawless recreation of the event, nor are they “a complete fabrication of life events.” Despite distortions and limits in recounting the experience, Joseph’s accounts generally exhibit continuity. Moreover, they communicate to seekers Joseph’s memories of how he experienced the vision at the time and how he remembered it over time.20
Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9–44.
Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 94–110.
1 See Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 94–110; Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9–44.
2 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 95.
3 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 95.
4 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 95.
5 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 95.
6 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 95.
7 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 97.
8 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 98.
11 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 100.
12 History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], 3.
13 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 104.
14 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 97.
15 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 97.
16 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 103–104.
17 For more details on the events in Joseph Smith’s life in 1838, including the persecutions he faced, see Alexander L. Baugh, “Joseph Smith in Northern Missouri, 1838,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2010), 291–346.
18 History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], 3, addenda, Note B.
19 Harper, First Vision, 18. See pp. 13–19 for a more detailed discussion of how Joseph Smith’s “persecuted present” shaped his account of 1838–39.
20 Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 110.