It seems my little satire earlier this week ruffled a few feathers in the ex-Mormon community. Thanks to that, it quickly became the most viewed post in the history of this little, irrelevant web-space. At present, it has garnered nearly twice as much traffic than any other post I’ve written in the last 2-plus years. So, I thought another post on the so-called hidden history of the Church is in order. This time, I’d like to focus in on the First Vision.
The “Hidden” History of the First Vision
I was reading Steven C. Harper’s paper “Suspicion or Trust: Reading the Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” which appears in the Robert L. Millet edited volume, No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), another volume published last year, and fairly accessible to the lay reader. Many critics accuse the Church of hiding the additional accounts of the First Vision that Joseph Smith told. Harper cuts directly into this accusation:
It is vital to recognize that only Joseph Smith knew whether he experienced a vision in 1820. He was the only witness to what happened and therefore his own statements are the only direct evidence. All other evidence is hearsay. With so much at stake, Joseph’s accounts have been examined and questioned. Many have asked if they are credible. To answer that question satisfactorily, seekers need to know all the evidence and examine it for themselves. For several decades now, the Church and various scholars have repeatedly published and publicized the known accounts of Joseph’s First Vision; images of the documents containing his own direct statements are available in the Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But efforts to publish and publicize the historical record of the vision have not been widely accessed by Latter-day Saints generally. Relatively few people have learned of these vital historical documents and their contents. Critics, with the assistance of the pervasive Internet, prey upon that ignorance to try to undermine faith in the vision. The antidote to this problem is to study the accounts Joseph left. (p. 64, emphasis mine.)
Harper’s blast against the notion that the Church is hiding this stuff is backed up by a footnote, which includes, but is not limited to, James B. Allen’s article discussing the different accounts, which appeared in the Improvement Era (official magazine of the Church at the time) in April 1970, Milton V. Backman Jr.’s article reporting on the different accounts that appeared in the January 1985 Ensign, and Richard L. Anderson’s 1996 Ensign article which probes important questions on the First Vision and the historical record. That is three sources which directly discuss the different accounts all published in an official Church publication. Harper also includes reference to Dean C. Jessee’s 1969 BYU Studies article, which includes full transcripts of each account given by Joseph Smith. This article has been recently republished not once, but twice, first in the 2005 anthology Opening the Heavens, edited by John W. Welch, and now just hot off the press in the volume, edited by Harper along with Samuel Alonzo Dodge, Exploring the First Vision. To all of that could be added the YouTube video discussing the different accounts on the occasion of their publication in the Joseph Smith Papers, uploaded earlier this year to the Mormon Channel, an official media arm of the Church, the Joseph Smith Papers themselves (in Histories, Vol. 1), Milton V. Backman Jr.'s 1986 Ensign article discussing the contemporary second hand accounts, his response in the "I Have a Question" segment of the April 1992 Ensign, and this entry on the different accounts found in the Church's online Gospel Topics index. And, of course, they are talked about in this paper by Haper (and this other paper by Haper). The accusation that the Church is hiding this stuff has just got no teeth to it.
Thank You, my Ex-Mormon Friends
Still, thanks to the ex-Mormon’s who took notice, October is well on its way to being a record breaking month for me! So I guess I owe them a hearty thanks for driving up my traffic! I thought I would show my gratitude by acknowledging, and responding, to some of their reactions.
One person complained that my blogpost was nothing more than a straw man. A straw man of what, now? Apparently of the arguments against the Book of Mormon. He wrote: “This blog post is a straw man. He takes a handful of arguments against the Book of Mormon and removes them from their context.” Never mind the fact that my blogpost didn’t attempt to refute any arguments against the Book of Mormon, I apparently removed some such arguments from their context. This same commenter goes on to say that, “If the church really wanted to engage in historical honesty, then these footnotes would appear in our Sunday School manuals or be accurately described in General Conference and the Ensign.” I suppose he missed the link I gave in that blog post, which leads to a page in the FAIR Wiki that provided references from official Church sources, like the Ensign, to all kinds of historical issues allegedly hidden by the Church. (Also see links above on the First Vision.) I guess he might complain that these don’t accurately describe those issues, but I suspect nothing short of writing “therefore, Joseph Smith can’t be a true prophet” will ever be deemed as an accurate representation of these issues for him. The articles in the Church publications are written by some of the very best scholars and historians of these respective topics. To go back to the Harper paper quoted earlier, “These are not bumpkins. They include Ivy League-educated historians who have authored prize-winning books and have studied the documents and their context for decades.” (p. 72)
Another lamented my “almost unbearable” tone. I suppose I “marginalize[d] the pain some of [them] feel after being deceived by TSCC.” I’m not hip on exMo lingo, but I’m assuming that TSCC has some reference to the Church. I fully realize that for some people the shock they experience upon learning that Sunday School wasn’t a full on history course is painful and difficult, and really do empathize with that. I said nothing of the pain, nor of individuals who experience it. I was addressing an argument, and one that I don’t think particularly holds much water. In any event, I can understand why some might take offense to my tone, but when ex-Mormon’s are constantly skewering “TBMs” (True Believing/Blue Mormons), ridiculing my faith as “absurd”, etc. and are completely indifferent to pain that their mocking causes for me and others who still hold these truths sacred, well, then, I’m sorry, but I’m not so sympathetic. Motes and beams, as they say. (Notice that in spite of the evidence available, he/she still claims that the Church is “deceiving” people about this stuff.)
This same commenter goes on to say that “I imagine for the majority of TBM’s, in the end it won’t matter if they learn uncorrelated mormon history on mormonthink.com or at Deseret Book. The outcome is largely the same. Once you read ‘How we got the BOM’ or RSR [Rough Stone Rolling] or the new Brigham Young biography will say to themselves ‘Sh*t, it really is a cult. Smith really was a con man. I’m out.’” One thing is for sure, this person has quite the imagination. I’m going to guess that their only exposure to Turley and Slaughter’s book is from my blog post, because speaking as a “TBM” who has read it, I can’t possibly imagine anyone losing their testimony over anything in there. (And despite the fact that it was a best seller last year, we saw no mass exodus from the Church over it's contents.) It is also hard to imagine how that can be such a foregone conclusion in the case of Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith (RSR), given that the author himself is a “TBM” by all accounts, just as Turley and Slaughter are (and again, these are not bumpkins, as Harper says). The new Young biography is by a non-member, and I haven’t read it, so I won’t comment on that. I find that it is typically quite hard for ex-Mormon’s to imagine anyone who is rational being able to conclude anything but the same thing they have. (So maybe their imagination is not quite as creative as I thought it was.)
Another person just yawned at the contents of my blog, saying that I don’t “cover any of the super sticky topics anyway.” Well, I guess I don’t, though I suspect that what qualifies as a “super sticky” issue is in the eye of the beholder. “Super sticky” stuff usually takes a lot more time and effort than what I have for this blog at the time (I am a working, married student, after all). In any event, this is hardly a good reason to dismiss what I do comment on.
A couple of guys came by and commented on the blog directly. One responded by saying I “assert, erroneously, that this is a widely read publication that every member has access to and has purchased.” But I asserted no such thing. In fact, my point is that books like this are not widely read by the membership of the Church, at least not carefully. Hence, anti-Mormon’s prey on their ignorance of issues they could have known about had they just picked the book up off their coffee table once and a while. (Again, see the Harper quote regarding the First Vision accounts.) And of course, I do realize that it is not on every member’s coffee table (heck, it isn’t even on my coffee table, but that is because I’m missing the coffee table, not the book). In the satire (remember, it is a satire) I talked like everyone had it, but of course I was exaggerating (something people tend to do in satires). My point still is that the book is written not for people like me who read history books anyway, but for the general membership, and it was a best seller at Deseret Book for awhile. And, to add to that, it is not the only book of its kind. I already mentioned No Weapon Shall Prosper, which has, in addition to Haper’s article on the First Vision, articles on Joseph Smith’s participation in “folk magic,” his polygamous marriage to a 14 year old, and a number of other “super sticky” topics. And though it is not an official Church publication, I’ve heard that this book came into fruition at the request of the Brethren, and was meant to be a resource accessible to the general membership, particularly for those who might be struggling with some of these issues. The recent book collecting articles on the First Vision (mentioned above), was also published with the intent of making the historical issues more widely available to the “raising generations” of average Latter-day Saints (p. vi, viii; both citing D&C 69:8). There are several, even dozens, more and as already pointed out, these historical details have been discussed in the Ensign before. Again, this criticism just has no teeth.
Some Closing Thoughts
In the end, none of those who commented on my previous post ever substantially dealt with the fact that, as made clear in that post and this one, none of the allegedly secret details of Church history are actually secret. They are readily available in Church friendly resources, including some official Church resources, and in formats accessible to lay readers. Notice that several of the things I pointed to in this post are available for FREE online, some even on the Church’s official website. The issue is not that they are hidden; the problem is that some people just don’t know where to look. And on that point, I’ll freely admit that the Church could do a better job at making these resources known to general Church membership – but that hardly means that the Church is trying to cover it all up.