Rambling Thoughts on First Vision Study Aids

There are some who are disposed to boredom or complacency in the Church because we “always talk about the same things.” And, that is true, we do. But if this bores you, I would suggest you are just not engaging the topics enough on your own. There is wealth of knowledge that can be learned about every subject we study in Church, and an awful lot of supplementary material in terms of scholarly books and articles, which can help you in digging deeper.

Take for instance, the First Vision. Unless my ward or your ward has somehow already managed to get off course for the year, you should be talking about the restoration, with some particular focus on Joseph Smith and his First Vision this week in Sunday School. Instead of rolling your eyes and thinking “We have all heard this story before…” I would encourage you to explore something new about the vision or its historical background.

The vision is truly one of the more remarkable events in world history, and is couched within a very interesting historical context. Around the turn of the century, the Second Great Awakening was underway and, according J. Spencer Fluhman, “by 1830 the ecclesiastical landscape had been transformed.”[1] Fluhman notes that “Joseph Smith came of age in a religious culture characterized by creative energy, remarkable growth, and rapid change.”[2] At that time, “Protestants enjoyed a period of unprecedented expansion, public power, and cultural influence.” Upstate New York proved to be the most intense area of religious growth and controversy, earning it the nickname the “Burned-Over District.”[3] Joseph Smith was literally surrounded by “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion,” (Joseph Smith – History 1:5), as he put it in 1838.

The religious excitment and growth surrounding Joseph Smith  ca. 1820.
Image from Mapping Mormonism, p. 19, made available online at  http://mappingmormonism.byu.edu/

If this probing of the historical background does not tickle your fancy, then perhaps you might spice up your study by reading one of Joseph Smith’s other accounts on the First Vision to see what new insights you might glean. For instance, while reading the 1832 account, you might discover that Joseph struggled for 2 years or longer over the state of his soul and personal salvation, along with the condition of the religious world at large, before he finally stepped in the grove to pray. You might also notice that a prominent part of the Lord’s message to Joseph (not conveyed in the 1838 [official] account), is that of the personal forgiveness.

There is a lot more I could go into, but I’m not going to do your studying for you. But two fairly new books have become available to help facilitate a more engaging study of the First Vision. The first is Exploring the First Vision, edited by Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper. This volume brings together several of the most important scholarly studies on the First Vision, providing the interested Latter-day Saint with a treasure trove of different ways of approaching the First Vision (see a more detailed review here). The second book, by Harper himself, is called Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts. In this little volume, Harper conveniently summarizes the scholarship of the other volume, and does so in a very reader friendly manner, framing the discussion in terms of a guide for those seeking to better understand Joseph Smith and his vision. Harper also makes an important contribution to First Vision studies in his own right with his important explorations of communication and memory, and how their limitations might impact the reliability of the First Vision accounts. Both of these volumes include transcripts of all the known, contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

In addition to those books, this video documentary series, narrated by Harper and featuring each of the major Fist Vision scholars (whose writings make appear in the Exploring volume):

The Interpreter Foundation has also provided this Roundtable discussion on the topics covered by the lesson manual:

This doesn’t even begin to exhaust the resources available on the First Vision (more can be found in this earlier blog post), but I sure hope that readers will find in these something new and interesting that makes them want to learn more. So this week, rather than roll your eyes and think, “Oh not again…” you’ll show up to Church with something new and interesting to share.   

UPDATE 1/25/2013: Steven C. Harper just published a great article with Meridian Magazine on the First Vision Accounts. Here are a few quotes I especially liked:

"I became clear to me that some people fault Joseph for not telling the truth when they fail to listen carefully enough to understand the truth that he told."

"[The different accounts are] less like photographs of what happened in the grove than they are movies of what that experience in the grove meant to Joseph not only at that time but over time. They tell us what happened that day in 1820 and what it meant as Joseph grew, grained experience, insight, and the ability to discover richer and deeper meanings than he could at the time."

[1] J. Spencer Fluhman, “Origins of Early Church Leaders,” in Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, ed. Brandon S. Plewe et al. (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2012), 12.
[2] J. Spencer Fluhman, “The Spiritual Environment of the Restoration,” in Mapping Mormonism, 18.
[3] See Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969): 301-20; reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 171-197.


  1. For me, this time around talking about the first vision, it was the first time I considered the view point of Joseph's parents. They believed Joseph no questions asked and supported him in every way they could. I don't know if I would have been humble enough to believe that my 14 year old son had had a vision. I think it just goes to show what fantastic people Joseph's mother and father were.


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