Resources for Studying the First Vision

Anthony Sweat, The First Visions

We are coming into the final week leading up to General Conference. Personally, given these turbulent last few weeks and months around the world, I am very much looking forward to getting some prophetic guidance at this time. I am also looking forward to the celebration of the Restoration that President Russell M. Nelson has said will be part of this conference.

If you haven’t gotten the chance to study the First Vision and the Restoration yet, now is the time to start! To that end, I made the following list of recommended reading on the First Vision. This is far from a comprehensive list of resources—for that, I recommend the bibliography on Pearl of Great Price Central. Here, I recommend a few resources for expanding your study, based on the level of interest and knowledge you may already have.

I should note, I am assuming most readers are already familiar with resources available from the Church, such as the Gospel Topics Essay, the Church History Topics essay, the relevant chapters in Saints, vol. 1, the Joseph Smith Papers, and various Ensign articles. And so my recommended reading here only includes additional resources beyond these excellent items from the Church itself.

Beginners

If you are wanting to just take an initial step toward deeper study of the First Vision, but are not ready to do a lot of reading or to dive into complicated historical studies, here are just a few recommendations:

Christensen, Matthew B. The First Vision: A Harmonization of 10 Accounts from the Sacred Grove (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2014). I previously reviewed this book for Interpreter. Christensen takes all the contemporary accounts of the First Vision and splices them together into one coherent narrative. It is an easy, simple way to get introduced to the different accounts and to see how studying them all together provides a fuller view of Joseph’s experience in 1820. I especially recommend this book as a way to introduce youth to the multiple accounts of the First Vision.

Muhlestein, Kerry. I Saw the Lord: Joseph’s First Vision Combined from Nine Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2020). Like the last book, this book seeks to present a fuller view of the First Vision by drawing all the contemporary accounts. Muhlestein’s execution, however, is somewhat different than that of Christensen: rather than simply splice the accounts together, Muhlestein retells the story in his own words, occasionally quoting directly from the primary sources, weaving in all the details documented from each of the accounts. It is a short, easy-to-read narrative, that provides a more complete understanding of the First Vision. I consider this is another great option for introducing youth, especially, to what we can learn by engaging the different accounts of the First Vision.

Halverson, Taylor and Lisa Halverson. Beautiful Truths from the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2020). This is a short book with lots of beautiful images to help you visualize the experience of the First Vision as you read about some of the truths that are either explicitly taught or logically derived from the Joseph’s 1820 vision.



Intermediate

If you feel like tackling the First Vision in a little more depth, exploring common and sometimes difficult questions about the First Vision and the historical record, but are still looking for relatively easy-to-read resources that don’t require a major time commitment, these are what I would recommend:

Harper, Steven C. Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012). Steven C. Harper is one of the leading experts on the First Vision today, and in this short book written for the average Latter-day Saint, Harper explores the cultural and historical background of the First Vision, discusses each of the accounts (and provides full transcripts of them), reviews their differences and similarities, responds to criticisms of the First Vision, and discusses insights we can gain if we try to “listen” to Joseph communicate and remember rather than impose preconceived notions and assumptions—and he does it all in under 130 pages! Very readable and engaging.

Brown, Matthew B. A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009). This book is a little longer—just under 180 pages if you don’t count the appendices, just under 250 pages with the appendices. But don’t let the length scare you—Brown writes in a simple, easy-to-understand, and engaging way. The first part of the book (chapters 1–5) provides historical background and context leading up to the First Vision, tries to reconstruct the Vision from the different accounts, and then discusses its aftermath (including the principles and truths we can learn from the Vision). The second part (chapters 6–9) provides some more in-depth studies on specific questions and phrases used in the different accounts, provides an analysis of the earliest (1832) account available, and responds to criticisms. The appendices provide various extraneous material of interest, including each of the contemporary accounts of the First Vision, and some of the more in-depth analysis supporting claims made in the body of the text.

Bennett, Richard E. 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2020). This book provides a bit of a different approach. Bennett steps back from the First Vision itself and provides background on the world in which the First Vision occurred. Bennett talks about key people and events throughout the world ca. 1820, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig von Beethoven, Henry Clay, and Alexander von Humboldt. Bennett then concludes with a chapter on Joseph Smith and the First Vision within the context of the Second Great Awakening. It is a longer book (about 340 pages), but for those already familiar with the more traditional studies on the First Vision, this may book may be the refreshing approach you are looking for.

Expert

If you already have some background on First Vision studies and are interested in really diving deeper into historical analysis of the accounts, context, and historical legacy of the First Vision, here a few recommendations:

Backman, Milton V., Jr. Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1971; 2nd ed., 1980). Backman’s book was the first serious, book-length study of the First Vision. Although it is older and somewhat out of date, it largely holds up after 40+ years. Backman provides lots of helpful details on the religious atmosphere at the time of the First Vision. He discusses the settlement of Palmyra and the surrounding area, the different denominations present in the area at the time and their main doctrines, the Second Great Awakening, the religious excitement of 1819–1820, and the nature of religious debates at the time. Backman also discusses the different accounts, responds to criticisms, etc.

Dodge, Samuel Alonzo and Steven C. Harper, eds. Exploring the First Vision (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012). This is another one that I’ve written a more complete review of for Interpreter. A collection of the most significant papers on the First Vision by Dean C. Jessee, Milton V. Backman Jr., Richard Lloyd Anderson, Richard Lyman Bushman, James B. Allen, John W. Welch, Larry C. Porter, and Steven C. Harper. These papers provide in-depth analysis of the different accounts and their background, the historical setting and religious excitement, the significance of the First Vision throughout Latter-day Saint history, and respond to criticisms.

Harper, Steven C. First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019). Harper explores how the First Vision’s been remembered. Harper first looks at how Joseph Smith remembered it over time by analyzing each of the first-hand accounts, considering how Joseph’s circumstances at different points in his life influenced how he remembered it. Then Harper looks over how Latter-day Saints as a community have remembered it over the last 200 years. This involves discussing how it gained a prominent place within our collective memory, and even discusses how attacks on the vision’s validity galvanized responses that have shaped how the Vision is memorialized by Latter-day Saints today.

Conclusion

Obviously, most of these are not the kind of thing you are going to be able to just pick up and finish before General Conference in a week. But who says you have to stop studying the Restoration and First Vision after conference? While President Nelson’s invitation was meant to prepare us for the April 2020 conference, it’s still 2020 for nine more months afterwards, and I personally plan to continue my personal studies on the First Vision throughout the year. I hope this is helpful to readers with various levels of interest looking for resources to aide their studies on the First Vision in this bicentennial year.

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