10 questions with Steven C Harper

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Steven C Harper is one of today’s foremost experts on Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

How did Steven C Harper become a historian?

Steven C Harper: As a kid I would never have imagined that I would be a historian. No one who knew me would have imagined it. Now I can see that I have always needed to know the past that created my present. That need inclined me toward the study of scripture, Christian history, American history, and especially Latter-day Saint history. 

I only realized that through a long process. One formative experience in the process came when I was fourteen and read one of Mark Hofmann’s forgeries in the Church News, a purported letter from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell about how to find buried treasure with a divining rod.

A few years later, as a BYU undergraduate, having studied paleography and done research at the Church archives, I got the job assisting the editors of The Journals of William E. McLellin. Reading those documents closely proved that studying Church history intensely at close range was endlessly interesting and consequential. I was hooked.   

What is the First Vision, and where did the term originate?

Steven C Harper: Joseph Smith (1805-1844) testified that he envisioned two divine personages in the woods of western New York when he was about fourteen. After he had other revelations, he referred to that experience as his first.

But it was apparently Orson Pratt who coined the term “first vision” in 1849 to describe the event.

Why are you drawn to the story of the First Vision?

Steven C Harper: Stories capture and keep our attention when there is someone and something consequential at stake.

As a kid I was captivated by the 1976 film The First Vision. I now realize that was because Joseph narrated the story brilliantly and the filmmaker, David Jacobs, visually conveyed its narrative elements.

Joseph’s Manuscript History could be used in narrative classes as model of establishing a vulnerable, compelling character with an intense dilemma and some incident (like reading James 1:5) that launches a quest (like going to the woods to pray) on which the hero is opposed and nearly crushed before being saved in the nick of time by making the right choice at the last second. 

I read and re-read Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price. As a missionary I memorized large chunks of it. Not long after that I learned about the richness of the historical record from Milt Backman, my Church history professor, and the man who literally wrote the book on the various accounts and the context of the vision.

So I am drawn to the story of the First Vision by a combination of how compelling  the story is, how eternally significant it is, and how rich and complicated the historical record is.     

How many accounts did Joseph Smith give of the First Vision?

Steven C Harper: One of the best lessons I learned as an undergraduate—a lesson that has been confirmed over and over through the years—is to not presume to know what is unknown.

The answer to your question is unknown. No one knows how many accounts of the vision Joseph gave.

What we know is that the historical record, as it stands today, includes four primary accounts by Joseph and/or his scribes and five secondary accounts by contemporaries who heard him tell the event.

We know, too, that the primary accounts were generally repurposed or re-drafted, so not only are there several accounts, there are various versions of many of the accounts. To have that much documentation of a revelation is thrilling to historians like me.    

I’ll add that we now know that Joseph Smith told the story of his vision earlier and more frequently than we used to think. Really great scholarship in the 1960s by James Allen, the founding father of First Vision studies, concluded that Joseph didn’t tell the vision publicly as early as we now know that he did.

The evidence discovered since Allen’s seminal research shows that Joseph began telling the experience at least by the early 1830s. 

Did Joseph Smith purposefully tell the story of the First Vision differently based on his audience?

Steven C Harper: That’s a terrific question. There are differences in the tellings. We know that. It’s commonly claimed these days that the differences are best explained by Joseph addressing different audiences.

What’s not known is how purposeful or intentional Joseph was about that.

I don’t know of evidence that would enable us to measure or evaluate his intent. I think it is quite unlikely that Joseph put much forethought into telling the story differently based on his audience. 

I think, however, that it is certain that he remembered the same story differently each time he told it. That’s the argument I set forth in my most recent book.

Introduce First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins

Steven C Harper: It’s the first book-length study of what happens when old documents of the First Vision meet the emergent field of memory studies.

The book cover for "First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins," by Steven C. Harper.

Historians ought to be the best-informed people about how memories are made and unmade and how they change, but we’re generally pretty poor at that.

There are many untested, unproved assumptions about memory that are taken for granted in scholarship about the First Vision.

It’s common, for example, to see the assumption that memories decay at predictable rates. It’s a maxim that recent memories are accurate and distant memories are inaccurate. Those are reassuring things we tell ourselves, but they are unfounded.

Memories are much more unpredictable than that. They are based on many more variables than the passage of time. So I wrote the book to challenge that problem generally and specifically to provide a more sophisticated explanation for the historical record of the First Vision. 

What is the nature of autobiographical memory? How does it influence the way we approach and understand the First Vision?

Steven C Harper: In a nutshell, autobiographical, declarative memories like Joseph’s recollections of his vision are not stored artifacts. They are real time creations. People somehow store traces of some of their past experiences, and when something in the present provides a cue, a memory gets made that mixes some of those traces of the past with present concerns and motivations. 

Because Joseph’s First Vision accounts are spread over time (1832, 1835, 1838/39, and 1842) and because the contexts in which he made those memories are well known, I could show that each of his vision accounts was a unique memory of the same experience because each of his vision memories was a mixture of his past and his present. 

I argued that the account in Joseph’s 1832 autobiography is best understood as a frustrated attempt to reconcile two things: One was to answer the Lord’s commands to Joseph to tell his story and the other was Joseph’s need to heal the youthful psychological pain of being rejected by the minister after telling his vision. 

I argued that the account in Joseph’s 1835 journal lacked the constraints of the written accounts in which Joseph felt imprisoned by paper, pen, and ink and imperfect language. Or, in technical terms, the 1835 oral telling was a spontaneous memory, cued without much forethought and thus free of the psychological need to respond to the minister’s rejection.

By contrast, the written autobiographies of 1832 and 1838/39 were strategic memories, cued by Joseph searching for the beginning, middle, and end of the story—a process that always retrieved the trauma of being rejected by the minister. 

I recently got a note from Richard Bushman, whose opinion means a lot to me. He said:

“I really got my mind around your argument about the 1832 and 1838 accounts being responses to the Methodist minister but in nearly opposite ways.  That really opened my eyes.  I think you are exactly right.  Your consolidation of memory concept makes the story all the more convincing.”

—Richard Bushman

How does BYU Studies contribute to an understanding of the First Vision?

Steven C Harper: There are three parts of First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins. I summed up part one above. Part two tells the story between 1840-1880 when there was no guarantee that the Saints generally would even learn of Joseph’s First Vision, not to mention make it their origin story. I think readers will be surprised by the plot twists that combined to lead Latter-day Saints to think of the First Vision as our genesis. It was not inevitable. 

Part three tells the story of the contest over the First Vision that really got launched with Fawn Brodies’s 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, and ramped up when Reverend Wesley Walters published his article on “New Light” about the First Vision in the 1960s. Walters awoke a cadre of faithful historians, including my mentors—James Allen, Richard Bushman, Dean Jessee, Milton Backman.

Many of their seminal studies of the First Vision were subsequently published in BYU Studies. In the Spring 1969 issue, for example, Dean Jessee published the two previously unpublished primary accounts of the vision and Milt Backman published his enduring study of revival activity in Joseph’s region or district—countering the claim by Rev. Walters that there was no evidence of unusual religious excitement in Palmyra village.

Backman showed that there was evidence of revival activity in and around Palmyra. He also showed that even if there wasn’t, Joseph’s description of the excitement in his whole region was still well documented.

What would Joseph Smith think of the important role the First Vision play in the Church today?

Steven C Harper: Great question. I wish I had a great answer. I’m not sure. I think he would be pleased that we have recently emphasized the lesson he learned: “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.”

Joseph’s best known account is characterized by a defensive persecution complex, and I think he might be pleased that we have grown out of our persecuted past enough to begin to put less emphasis on abominable creeds and corrupt professors and more emphasis on the Christ-centered redemption narrative emphasized in his 1832 and 1835 accounts.

I like to think, in other words, that he would be pleased by the recent turn toward the story’s application for sinful, anxious teenagers who also need to know that people like them have successfully sought and find the God of love. 

If Joseph Smith recounted the First Vision in General Conference this year, would it likely vary from previous accounts in some way? What does that mean?

Steven C Harper: Cool question. I think it would both vary from previous accounts and be harmonious with them. That’s based on what I explained earlier about how all of his vision memories were mixtures of his past and his present. So if he told his vision in conference this year it would be a mix of his 1820 experience in the grove and the circumstances and motives for his talk. 

Richard Bushman gave a great answer to your question in his 2016 talk to the students at BYU-Hawaii. He noted how Joseph’s mission was to testify of Christ and point people to Him.

I think that’s what he’d do if he spoke at conference this year.

And it would be pretty cool if he did it by telling his personal experience as a sinful, anxious teen who prayed in the woods and saw and heard the Son of God say to him, “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven.” 

What questions about the First Vision would you like to see tackled by today’s historians?

Steven C Harper: There is some good work being done. The brand new issue of BYU Studies features the talks presented at the Huntington Library’s January 2020 symposium on the First Vision.

Some of the best minds in the world from across the spectrum of (un)belief—David Holland, Ann Taves, Kathleen Flake, George Marsden—are featured. They situate Joseph Smith in various contexts and examine the historical record rigorously.

I want to see that continue.

I’m personally investigating the intersections of historians, heuristics, and the First Vision. In other words, I’m interested in the rationales that shape the interpretive choices various historians of the vision have made, including my own. 

What lessons does the First Vision hold for regular people today who are seeking a relationship with God? 

Steven C Harper: Simply put, Joseph was torn between Presbyterian teaching (in which God was inclined to justly damn him) and Methodist teaching (in which God would give him redeeming grace).

In his heart, Joseph much preferred the Methodist version, but he tried and tried to get the joyful experience of grace and never did. So Joseph’s head inclined him to Presbyterianism, which was a dreadful thought.

Rather than let what was in his head sink into his heart, “Joseph sought the God of love” as George Manwaring’s hymn puts it (Hymns 26). Joseph sought and found the God of love and so can you.

That’s the lesson the First Vision holds for regular people today.

Recommended resources

Learn more about Joseph Smith and his “first vision”:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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