Introducing ‘The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast’

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Latter-day Saints celebrate 1820 as the year in which Joseph Smith first saw and conversed with God the Father and Jesus Christ. To mark the bicentennial of this landmark event, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has released a six-episode podcast, The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.

Join host Spencer McBride as he introduces the first-ever podcast produced by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

What do you do for the Joseph Smith Papers?

I am a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

This means that I work with Joseph Smith’s surviving documents and prepare them for publication. That process includes ensuring that we have an accurate transcript of each document, researching the circumstances surrounding each document’s creation, and writing annotations that help readers understand them.

Spencer McBride is a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Credit: Spencer McBride.

Eventually, every one of Smith’s surviving documents will be published, many in print and all of them on the web.

How has your understanding of Joseph Smith evolved through your work as a historian?

Where Joseph Smith is concerned, much of my work as a historian is understanding the world in which he lived, the world that helped shape Smith and that he, in turn, helped shape. I think historical context is immensely beneficial for understanding Smith and the religious movement he led during his lifetime.

I also find that after years of working with Smith’s surviving documents I have come to better understand him as a person. I am more familiar with his personality, his strengths and weaknesses, his shining moments and his mistakes.

All this gives me a more well-rounded portrait of Joseph Smith and has, in many ways, made him more relatable to me than he was before I started working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Introduce The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.

The year 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s first vision. A lot of Latter-day Saints will be studying that event and the Joseph Smith Papers Project produced this podcast as a way of helping them do that. We take a familiar story—Joseph Smith’s 1820 vision—and turn to historians to help explain the event’s historical context.

The podcast is a six-episode mini-series and all the episodes will be released on January 5, 2020. So, if a listener wants to listen to the podcast gradually, they can. Or, if a listener prefers to listen to them all at once, the total run time is short enough to allow them to do it in a single afternoon.

What is the podcast’s origin story?

At the Joseph Smith Papers we are always interested in opportunities to share what we have learned about Joseph Smith and early Mormon history with the general public.

For some, the print edition of the Joseph Smith Papers (which is intended primarily for scholars) can be daunting for members of the general public who are not familiar with documentary histories.

We thought that a podcast would be an excellent medium for distilling and explaining much of what we have learned over the course of our work on the project.

We talked about what a Joseph Smith Papers podcast would look like. Would it be an ongoing project or a miniseries? Would it be a series of recorded conversations?

Ultimately, we decided that a documentary-style podcast that told a story of an event in Joseph Smith’s life while analyzing different aspects of that story would work best.

It’s a style that had worked well for other podcasts and radio programs (think, This American Life), so we thought it could work well for us. So, in Spring 2019 I began interviewing different scholars who were experts on this period of history and began developing the podcast from there.

It was a long and, at times, a challenging undertaking, but I am pleased with the result.

The Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, is home to the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Credit: Maithe38.

Who is your target audience?

The podcast’s target audience is members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It takes a story with which Latter-day Saints are very familiar and expands it for them, giving them new things to think about.

However, I think students of American religious history who are not themselves Latter-day Saints will also find the podcast interesting.

Part of our discussion about the First Vision is the universality of Smith’s experience and how it speaks to a human desire to connect with a higher power, to receive divine direction for one’s life.

So, while the podcast is certainly geared toward a Latter-day Saint audience, I think there are aspects of it to will appeal to a broader audience as well.

What is the goal of the podcast?

The goal of the podcast is to tell the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision—a well-known story to Latter-day Saints throughout the world—in a way that is simultaneously familiar and new.

We do this by examining the accounts of God’s first interaction with Joseph Smith, an event that had far-reaching implications—implications that were primarily spiritual for Joseph and every sincere seeker since. In essence, we are inviting listeners to consider little-known details about this familiar story and consider what it means for their understanding of Church history and to ponder what it might mean to their own religious devotion.

I wanted this podcast to explain the context in which Smith entered the woods to pray and the way that the resulting vision changed his life.

In many ways Joseph Smith and his accounts of his 1820 vision are tied to a time and a place. But, 200 years later, this story resonates with men, women, and children throughout the world.

This podcast considers why that is.

Who are some of the scholars you interview?

I interviewed Rachel Cope and Steven Harper from the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University (BYU). Cope has spent years studying religious revivals in western New York during the early 1800s and Harper is particularly well-versed in the history of the First Vision itself.

Steven C. Harper is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University who has written frequently about Joseph Smith and the First Vision. Credit: Steven Harper.

I also spoke with Christopher Jones, an Assistant Professor of History at BYU who is an expert on Methodism in early America and has written on the First Vision in the wider context of American religious culture.

Colleagues of mine at the Joseph Smith Papers also provided important insights, including Matthew Godfrey, Brent Rogers, and Robin Jensen.

Jenny Lund and Mark Staker of the church’s Historic Sites Division provide a view of the Smith Family Farm that I think listeners will be especially drawn to, and Elder Legrand Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy and Church Historian and Recorder, offers some thoughtful commentary on the resonance of the First Vision in its bicentennial year.

What does the First Vision look like through the eyes of historians?

It’s about reconstructing the world Joseph Smith knew in 1820. When historians examine the First Vision, we look at the full context of the event to understand it better.

We look at the history of western New York and how the mass immigration of New Englanders to that place fundamentally altered the region’s social, economic, and religious landscape. Historians seek to understand how Smith’s account of a divine encounter compares and contrasts with other accounts of visions recorded by his contemporaries.

We also gaze upon the environmental history of the event, asking questions about how the woods Smith entered looked and sounded 200 years ago. Then we examine the circumstances in which Smith shared accounts of his vision in the years that followed, how those accounts were received, and the way that those accounts influenced a rapidly growing church.

The historians interviewed for this podcast are not turning the story on its head, but rather asking listeners to consider additional perspectives on the history of Smith and his 1820 vision.

Does this podcast examine all the different accounts of the First Vision that Joseph Smith gave throughout his life?

Yes. And it does more than explain why Joseph Smith gave different accounts of the First Vision at different times of his life.

The podcast explores what was going on in Smith’s life at the time he gave each account—the audience to whom he was speaking and the circumstances for the retelling—that help listeners understand why he described the event the way that he did in different moments.

I think it will equip Latter-day Saints with the understanding they need to study the different accounts of the First Vision and to discover insights that are only found when the accounts are studied together.

Can we expect to see more podcasts from the Joseph Smith Papers?

Possibly. I know that is not a concrete answer, but if the public reception of the podcast is positive and there is a demand for more like it, then I think there is a good chance that the Joseph Smith Papers Project will produce more of them.

So, stay tuned.

What other projects are you working on?

I am currently writing a book about Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign. It is a development in Mormon history that many are curious about and this book tells that story.

But I am writing about it in a way that I hope appeals to an audience larger than those interested in Mormon history.

How does Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign illuminate the political obstacles to universal religious freedom in nineteenth-century American, and how many of those obstacles continue in the present?

That is a question at the heart of this book. Look for it in the spring of 2021 from Oxford University Press!

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

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