Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oh, How Chilly Was The Evening

I'd like to try an experiment as a way to test an apologetic response to the multiple conflicting accounts of the First Vision. 

Critics of Mormonism like to point to the discrepancies between various accounts as evidence that Joseph Smith was making it all up.  While some variation in the story is to be expected—especially for accounts separated by the better part of a decade—there's no reason that central elements of the experience should differ significantly from telling to retelling.  Apologists like to insist that the disparities are not only unconcerning, but actually advantageous (see the Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision):
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.

Of course I side with the camp that thinks it's ridiculous for Joseph Smith not to be able to keep straight whether it was one person, two people, or a host of angels who appeared to him.  Of course I think this is evidence that he was just making stuff up.  Of course I think it's harder to remember a lie correctly than to remember an earth-shattering divine visitation correctly.  Because that confirms what I already believe.  But have I ever tried to tell a story that I'm on record as having told previously?  How big would the differences between my versions be? 

I'm guessing I could best the Prophet of the Restoration when it comes to consistency.

That thought process led me to recall this post, in which I shared what I wrote in 2006 about an experience from 2003-ish.  So I decided that I should try holding myself to a similar standard to which I hold Good Ol' Joe and see how I measure up.  Without re-reading the above linked post, I wrote out my memory of how that episode of my life unfolded.  I realize that I have no way of proving that I didn't review my old post first, but considering that the people who read this kind of stuff are generally in the ex-Mormon camp, I'm guessing I'll have the benefit of the doubt.  
I have no visual material for this post, so here's a picture of an attractive woman
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.
Anyway, here's what I came up with:
When I was about sixteen years old, my dad and I were briefly assigned to home teach a woman in our ward who had recently gone inactive.  I didn't know the details as to why, but she'd been in the ward a long time and my assumption was that since she'd dealt with my father frequently when he was bishop, that he had a bond with her that the current ward leadership hoped would be strong enough to bring her back into the fold.
So one night, my dad and I made the forty-ish-minute drive to the far side of the ward  to visit her.  The reception was immediately identifiable as frosty and I spent the entire time in a state of mounting emotional discomfort.  We sat in her living room for a relatively short period of time while my dad attempted to convince her to resume her activity in the church.  I don't remember specifically what her issues were or what my dad said to try to address them, but I think it had something to do with how she'd been treated by the current bishopric.  I do remember her leveling specific accusations at my dad and claiming that he didn't actually care about her but that he was essentially just fulfilling his own duty as a home teacher for his own reasons.  In what may have been the closest I'd ever come to feeling the burning in the bosom, I experienced a visceral reaction to her claims because I knew my dad sincerely wanted to help.
The conversation between the two of them escalated to the point at which this woman threatened to turn her temple recommend in.  My dad insisted that she didn't need to do that, but that only seemed to spur her on.  She walked a little further into the next room, came back with her recommend and handed it to him.  Realizing he wasn't going to make any headway with her while she remained so angry and so defiant, my dad asked if we could say a closing prayer before we left.  She agreed—but she asked me to say it.
I was pretty shaken by all of this and I had no desire to pray aloud in front of someone who held such open contempt for my beliefs, but I struggled through a short, cliche-ridden benediction.  Then we left.
I never figured out exactly what the issue was with this sister, but I remember seeing her in church again after that, probably weeks or months later.    
This was the first time I'd ever come across a staunch anti-Mormon directly.  I'd brushed past some hecklers at the Hill Cumorah Pageant and at Temple Square and I'd had a few friends at school try to convince me of the errors of my ways, but I'd never encountered someone who had such bilious enmity toward my religion and toward my dad as its representative.  It was deeply troubling and I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of tears as we were leaving.

How did I do? 

Well, let's make sure Joseph's stuff is in play.  Here's his 1832 account, arguably the first record of the First Vision we have (12 years after the fact), and here's the canonized 1838 account (6 years after that).  As a reminder, for reference, the first version of my story is about 3 years after the fact and this one is 12 years after that.

Here are some of the key elements from each of these versions of the First Vision:
 1832 account
  • "16th year of my age"
  • Joseph decided the whole world had apostatized from the true faith and prayed for forgiveness of his own sins
  • pillar of light precedes the appearance of any divine figure
  • one personage appears, identified as "the Lord" and referring to his own crucifixion for the sins of the world
  • God forgives Joseph's sins
  • God tells Joseph to go his way and keep the commandments but makes no mention of any churches 
  • "they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me"
1838 account
  • "spring of 1820"—fourteen years old
  • prayed to ask for wisdom from God about which church to join after reading James 1:5
  • an enemy power of thick darkness is dissipated by a pillar of light to precede the appearance of any divine figure
  • two personages appear, identified as God and Jesus
  • No mention of any forgiveness for Joseph's sins
  • Joseph asks the personages which church was right and is twice forbidden from joining a church
  • "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me"

Only one of these is really a slam-dunk as far as consistent storytelling goes—in both accounts the divine being speaking to Joseph made reference to Matthew chapter 15 (and Isaiah chapter 29, apparently) about the people's hearts being far from God.  

Two of these elements, in my opinion, can be easily rationalized with the apologetic explanation that Joseph was telling the story at different times with different purposes and therefore with different emphasis—perhaps the thick darkness didn't seem as important to discuss in the 1832 account, but the bright pillar of light is the same and perhaps it didn't seem necessary to discuss God's personal absolving of Joseph's sins when the prophet was later recording his own history.

One of the bullet points can be brushed aside as the honest failing of human memory—he sounds pretty sure of his ages in both accounts, but maybe he just remembered wrong.  Was Joseph fourteen?  Does the "16th year of my age" mean he was sixteen or fifteen?  Does it matter?  It's not way off and it can be tough to remember those specifics accurately after so much time.
This is getting dry, so here's a picture of an attractive man
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.
But the other three elements are deeply contradictory.  The story we all learn in primary depicts Joseph having a little epiphany about the utility of prayer after reading the Book of James and going to the Sacred Grove to ask God which church he should join.  But in 1832, the motive is completely different—not only did Joseph decide for himself after a study of the Bible that all the churches were wrong, but his purpose in praying was just out of concern for his own sinful behavior.  And the earlier account's silence on the subject of joining other churches is problematic, too, considering that the Mormon narrative of the Restoration is built around the concept that the fullness of the gospel did not exist in any church, which is why God needed someone like Joseph to bring the gospel back.  But perhaps most troubling is the number of personages present in each telling.  The 1832 account has one visitor who is referred to as "the Lord" but speaks as though he is Jesus, which aligns with Joseph Smith's more Trinitarian beliefs at the time of the record.  The 1838 account—which came after the Lectures on Faith that started to teach the Mormon godhead as being made up of multiple beings—has two distinct personages, the Father and the Son.  Joseph's beliefs about the identity of God may have changed, but that should not have changed the number of people who descended from Heaven to answer his prayer when he was a teenager.

Now let's see how well I recalled my own history:
2006 account
  • "near the end of senior year, or possibly near the end of junior year"—16 or 17 years old
  • only three people present—me, my father, and the woman we were home teaching
  • the woman's "reception was immediately identifiable as frosty"
  • my father and I were given this assignment because the woman was a friend of my parents
  • the woman attacked my father's personal sincerity, but I experienced a "visceral reaction" against her claims
  • she retrieved her recommend from a desk and gave it to my dad after he mentioned her love for the temple
  • my dad asked if we could close with a prayer and the woman chose me to say it
  • "It still felt better to pray"
  • "I was crying before we left"
2018 account
  • "about sixteen years old" 
  • only three people present—me, my father, and the woman we were home teaching
  • the woman "made it clear that she'd let us in to give our speech and nothing more"
  • I assumed the reason my dad was chosen as her home teacher was because of an existing ecclesiastical bond
  • the woman attacked my father's personal sincerity, but I became more convinced that my dad was a good man
  • she threatened to give him her recommend and retrieved it from "a little further into the next room" after he told her she didn't need to turn it in
  • my dad asked if we could close with a prayer and the woman chose me to say it
  • "I had no desire to pray aloud" in front of the angry woman
  • "I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of tears as we were leaving"

The most contradictory aspect of my two versions is the turning in of the recommend.  While my current memory maintains that this was discussed as a threat before the woman followed through on it, earlier texts indicate that she turned in her recommend as an abrupt response to my dad's appeal to her love of the temple.  Also, I may have incorrectly remembered the location where she kept her recommend.  Was it in the other room or was it in a desk nearby?  My attitude about giving the benediction is another discrepancy—did I have no desire to pray or did praying make me feel better?

The next issue in descending order of importance is my theorized reasoning behind our assignment to home teach this woman.  Was it because she was friends with both my parents or because she trusted my dad as her former bishop?  It's a peripheral detail that doesn't seem particularly important to how the story plays out, but it is still something I wasn't able to keep completely consistent upon retelling.
I can feel you losing interest, so here's a picture of an attractive alien/human hybrid
to break up the wall-of-text monotony.

Everything else seems to line up just fine between my two accounts, however.  I was about the same age in both and there weren't any conspicuously absent characters in either version.  The woman's attitude upon receiving us, her assault on my dad's character and my emotional reaction to it, her decision to have me say the closing prayer, and even my tears at the conclusion of the experience are all consistent.  There's more detail in the 2006 account and it contains more of a post-script (sort of like Joseph Smith—History does), but of the eight central elements I identified, I managed to nail five of them.  Joseph was one for seven. 

I'm better at keeping my stories straight than the Prophet of the Restoration was.

If the First Vision were a real historical event, it should have been immeasurably more significant in Joseph Smith's memory than my uncomfortable home teaching visit was in mine.  Did I use my experience as a basis for my testimony of the gospel?  Sure.  Did it involve anything supernatural of explicit, undeniably divine origins?  Certainly not.  All other things being equal, you'd think that the appearance of God delivering a personal message would be a much more memorable event than an angry woman trash-talking a revered parent and a revered religion.

That's not to say that apologists are making up excuses.  I suspected that my own details wouldn't line up perfectly, but I was still a little surprised by how different my two accounts were.  But too many of the divergences between Joseph Smith's 1832 and 1838 writings (as well as his 1835 and 1842 writings) are too pivotal to explain away with the foibles of human memory and the nuances of different emphases for different audiences at different times.

This exercise, though certainly not scientific, verifiable, or exhaustive, was definitely eye-opening.  But my analysis (which I tried to protect as best I could from my own confirmation bias) still validates my hypothesis—that the evidence is still much more strongly supported by the theory that the First Vision is a fabricated event than by the theory that the First Vision is a historical certainty.  The appearance of God to the prophet was a convenient retcon in Mormonism to lend further credibility to Joseph and to later flesh out the concept of the Restoration.

Or, more succinctly stated, the First Vision never happened and Joseph Smith was a liar.


  1. I can explain away pretty much all of the details except for leaving out seeing God the Father. How do you ever leave out that? It's way worse than saying you met Joe Biden at a restaurant, wrote about it, and forgot to mention Obama was standing next to him and spoke to you too. You could sub out Mike Pence/Donald Trump. There is no way you would ever leave out meeting the President. Not going to happen.

    The church is full of faith promoting myths made up by liars who believe it's ok to fabricate stories if they keep people in the church. Maybe it should be called the Church of Joseph's Myths, because pretty much every big question one may have about the church can be answered with: Joseph made it up.

    1. Yeah, if for some reason you're only allowed to pick one criticism of the First Vision accounts, that's definitely the one to go with.

      It'd be like telling your friends about the time you met George Harrison and leaving out the fact that the other Beatles were there too. Seems pretty obvious that you'd start the story "I met the Beatles" every time instead of "I met at least one of the Beatles."

      Of course, I never met the Beatles, so I'd be lying either way, but...yeah, Joseph made it up.

    2. Or that you ran into Yoko Ono on the streets of New York and somehow forgot to mention that she was with John Lennon, and he told you to "imagine there's no heaven." So you opened yourself up to the idea and realized he was right.