RS/MP Lesson 1: “The First Vision” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on January 3, 2008
I have been toying with the idea of writing up and posting notes on the Joseph Smith lessons during the next two years. I have convinced myself it is a project worth pursuing for my own ends as well as for the purposes of the site, so I am getting started now. (I will not do a post on the summary of Joseph’s life contained in the manual, since it seems straightforward and basic enough.) The first lesson, as everyone might expect, is “The First Vision: The Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith.”
Those who have read a bit in Mormon history might (or might emphatically not) be surprised to see that almost all of this chapter is taken directly from the Pearl of Great Price, that the several other sources on Joseph’s First Vision are almost entirely ignored. The introductory section of the chapter (“From the Life of Joseph Smith”) does, it should be noted, quote what is usually regarded as the earliest account of the First Vision, written in 1832 (the earliest account, actually, is to be found in D&C 20:5, only in passing, and thus written as early as 1830: “After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world”; cf. Book of Commandments 24:6, dated June of 1830 and published in 1833: “For, after that it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the wolrd”). But because only two paragraphs of this earliest account appears in the lesson, its textual setting is for the most part lost, and it thus serves only to flesh out the Pearl of Great Price account that makes up the bulk of the chapter.
Of course, there are reasons to study the other accounts of the First Vision, perhaps most especially the 1832 account, which provides a great deal of context for understanding how Joseph saw the experience early in his prophetic career (its spirit closely matches that of D&C 20:5). But I think it would be a mistake to take up these alternate accounts instead of what is presented in the manual itself when teaching this lesson, and for several reasons. First, of the several accounts (besides D&C 20:5), only the one quoted in the manual is scriptural, is canon. Far too little thought has been dedicated to the question as to why it is this account that has been canonized over the other accounts (the only answers I have seen to this question in print are far too feeble or assuming to provide any real basis for thinking carefully about what is at stake here). While the other accounts are helpful and certainly quite necessary for serious study, I hope that it becomes clear in the following that we have not yet even begun to consider what is going on in the canonical account. What follows, then, is the start of a serious look at the Pearl of Great Price account as quoted in the manual. (Let me point the interested to two other serious considerations of these same passages: Dennis and Sandra Packard’s Feasting Upon the Word, pp. 51-64; Arthur Henry King’s Arm the Children, pp. 285-293.)
Joseph Smith-History 1:5-26 is quoted in the manual in its entirety, except that verse 6 is excluded. The exclusion of this verse has an interesting effect on the way the account reads: verse 6 undeniably has the harshest things to say about the spirit of the revivals Joseph witnessed, making them sound something like a circus; it is only in verse 6 that there is any discussion of the motives of those involved in the revivals; and verse 6 is the only place where Joseph’s rhetoric becomes a bit excessive. The excision of this verse from the account thus calms down the tone of the whole account: Joseph becomes someone genuinely confused in the midst of those honestly seeking the kingdom of God, misguided though they may be. Though it might of course be that this verse is excluded so as not to offend those who adhere to other religions, there is, I think, a rather beneficial effect for the reader of the account: Joseph was quite likely to have seen the revivalists the way the account in the manual reads, since verse 6 is most likely a reflection of Joseph’s many years of conflict with the sectarian world. In a sense, the account has been “demythologized” (and let me be quite clear that I’m using that word only in scare quotes!).
To the account already!
The story is broken into four parts: Joseph’s finding James 1:5; the beginning of his prayer and the attack of the adversary; his encounter with the Father and the Son; and the response to his mentioning the account. The story thus moves from the public sphere (the revivals, etc.) to a very private double experience (encounter with Satan; encounter with God), and then back to the public (dealing with the revivalists, etc., again). The last word of the text is helpful because it seems to highlight what is the most important point of the whole story: “I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided.” At the very heart of this whole affair is a very particular relationship to scripture, to the written text. That is, it seems to me to be best to read the journey from the public to the private and back to the public as opening up what it means to read the scriptures: how does the scripture (here, James 1:5) play in this curious journey?
First, let me make quite clear how really public the first part of the story is: Joseph casts much of the first part of the account in political language. For example, it is a question of “that region” or even “the whole district” of “country” that was affected; “great multitudes” joined “parties”; when Joseph began to be swayed to the Methodist way, it wa a question of his “mind” becoming “somewhat partial”; Joseph’s primary difficulty was a lack of acquaintance with “men and things”; there was a “cry and tumult”; discussion was a question of “reason and sophistry”; etc. This secular drapery is of some importance: even the introductory phrase “the subject of religion” betrays a kind of passionless university discourse, like the “religion” under discussion (critique) in Derrida and Vattimo’s Religion.
The political flavor of the account is important because Joseph, even as he is obviously a part of the situation (“I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit”), never quite gives himself to it: “I kept myself aloof from all these parties”; “I often said to myself”; “I was one day reading….” The last of these is most important because it is as Joseph reads, as he gives himself silently to a text, that he has an entirely non-political experience: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power in to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again….” Lest the point be missed, Joseph here even points out that this “private” reading of the subtracted itself from the political readings of the same text: “for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”
Joseph’s relation to the text, then, was unique: he had discovered a scripture that was generic enough (from an “epistle of straw,” as Luther put it, and his point was precisely that James was not partisan enough) that it genuinely excepted itself from the public dialogue. What Joseph then set out to do is remarkable: “At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God,’ concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.” Those last three words, I think, say a great deal: Joseph was leaving the public realm entirely, wagering something in a venture that would, as he would soon see, force the situation to change entirely. Joseph’s wager, interestingly enough, was a serious faithfulness or fidelity to the text, to the scripture. One could even say that he was about to stage the scripture, to enact it as if it were a script. This staging, it is clear from the last words of the text, already quoted above, changed the situation by introducing a truth: “I had found the testimony of James to be true….”
Joseph then goes into the woods to make the attempt, to stage the scripture. The emphasis of the privacy of the experience is clear: “having looked around me, and finding myself alone.” Three times in the first paragraph of this part of the story, the word “attempt” appears: Joseph was attempting something, tempting or trying something, putting God or, really, the text on trial. And the attempt was specifically “to pray vocally,” to give voice to what had been, thus far, something only in his heart or in his mind. What then opens up is a brief account of the two encounters (with Satan; with God) that is riddled with psychoanalytic language, almost clinical in its appeal. Temporality breaks down (the tension of the phrase “it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” marks this point) as Joseph loses his inability to speak: “I was seized upon by some power with entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak.” This experience deserves closer attention.
Joseph’s experience is very like a number of others. Isaiah, in the presence of God, finds he cannot speak until a white stone (with a new name?) is pressed to his lips. Zacharias is struck dumb in his vision in the temple until he is able to write the name of his son, at which point he is released from the binding. Joseph seems to have been in a similar situation: seized upon by the adversary, his tongue was bound until the light would rest on him and his name would be spoken directly to him from God. This aphasia of sorts before the throne of God is a rich topic that deserves further attention (my four lectures on Isaiah 6 explore this theme quite a bit). At the very least, Joseph tells us this about the binding: it was nothing “imaginary” but was “the power of some actual being from the unseen world.” In a word, it was an encounter of the real, a real encounter, one that shattered the fragile imaginary order of pure visibility: face to face to with God, or at least on his way to being face to face with God, the political situation/world Joseph had so recently been a part of was shattered by the reality of this experience. The encounter with Satan is a kind of preparatory encounter with the real…
The light then comes and Joseph’s name is spoken. Interestingly, so soon as this happens, Joseph’s account draws on the language of the imaginary relations all over again: “My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right….” It is of great importance, it seems to me, that Joseph here notes that “at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong”: his sudden recourse to the imaginary is a consequence of his inability to symbolize any non-political possibility. That is, though he maintained a relatively uncommitted position in his explorations of the revivalists’ doctrines, he had as yet not glimpsed the possibility of anything non-imaginary, non-political, non-secular. The answer from the Son is thus of great significance: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.” Something entirely other is about to be thrust upon the world, and the situation is about to change… in fact, it has already begun to do so because Joseph has traveled this road by his radical fidelity to the text.
So soon as Joseph returns from his experience, he brings up the two featured sects from the first public part of the story: he tells his mother that he has learned that Presbyterianism is not true, and he speaks with the Methodist preacher and recounts his story to him. The dialectical play of the political scene is again brought forward, but Joseph is subtracted from the play: “a boy of no consequence in the world,” he soon finds that it “was common among all the sects” to persecute him. It is interesting that it is here precisely that he makes mention of his socio-economic status: “how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day….” Joseph’s exceptional role, as faithful one, breaks down even the economic order of the world.
This relation to the text is absolutely fascinating: staging the text, Joseph left the world, or at least began to force the world to change, and this because the text had ushered him into the presence of God, to witness the Father and the Son. Such radical faithfulness made him a genuine exception to the dialectical play of the political, secular world, and that made him the focus of so much persecution. But is this not the same position of every Latter-day Saint, to be radically faithful to the text by living it in such a way that the world itself is called on to change? Have we not the privilege of entering into the presence of the Father and the Son, even during this life? But then, of course, if we dared to be that faithful to the scriptures, we might have to face the same persecution Joseph did, and none of us wants that, right?