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BYU Studies Quarterly Vol. 59 (2020)
Most scholarly attention to the First Vision is dedicated to determining whether it happened or whether whatever happened is reliably described in the few primary accounts we have of it. My interests lie in a different direction. I am interested in the First Vision accounts insofar as they tell us something about religion, not about history, and not least because my wager is that this story, as a story, exceeds the limits of history, especially when it becomes understood as scripture. Which is to say, I want to better understand the work done by this story among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this analysis of Smith’s representation of his quest and its positive resolution, I will rely chiefly on the 1832 and 1838 manuscripts as the most intentional of the four accounts. They not only share a historiographical purpose but also are related in their production, the 1838 manuscript having used the 1832 account as a base for its narrative structure and descriptive detail of events. In contrast, the intervening 1835 account is a report of a conversation with a sole interlocutor observed by a notetaking third party. It less useful as a primary source for Smith’s understanding of the larger significance of his initial spiritual experience. The 1842 Wentworth letter is as intentional as the other church histories but relies on secondary accounts for much of its content. Finally, because of its canonical status, the 1838 manuscript is not merely authoritative but generative of the faithful reader’s religious convictions. Therefore, it is uniquely relevant to this analysis of the First Vision’s meaning and function among the Saints.
Joseph Smith and his family had considerable contact with Methodism in the years surrounding his first vision, as Richard Bushman has described. Lucy and Joseph Sr. attended Methodist meetings while the family lived in Vermont. In Palmyra, Joseph Jr. reportedly attended Methodist camp meetings, where he experienced “a spark of Methodism,” and joined a class meeting of the Palmyra Methodist Church. Willard Chase, one of Joseph’s treasure-hunting associates in Palmyra, was also a Methodist class leader. Later, Chase hired a “conjuror,” and he and his sister Sally used her “green glass” in an attempt to find where Joseph had hidden the gold plates, which apparently did not violate his Methodist scruples. During the time that Joseph translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, he and his wife, Emma, attended Methodist meetings, and Joseph reportedly joined a class. Joining a class meeting was significant. It defined one as a member of a Methodist society. Anyone could attend public meetings, but joining a class implied a deeper level of commitment. Classes met once a week, usually in someone’s home. They were supposed to include about a dozen members, a size thought best to promote intimacy, openness, and discipline, though they often ballooned to two or three times that number. Class meetings were not preaching occasions. After singing and prayer, the leader would usually examine each member in turn, asking them to reveal their troubles and triumphs in front of their neighbors. The leader recorded attendance and contributions weekly. Attending a class meeting would have given Joseph Smith an inside look at all that it meant to be a Methodist.
The sermons published here provide us with insight into what messages the Smiths might have heard at Western Presbyterian. At the very least, they provide the opportunity to examine the Presbyterian message—or, rather, one example of it—on its own terms rather than through the vituperative war of words between the early Latterday Saints and their detractors. The sermons are revealing not because of any unusual eloquence or contribution to Presbyterian theology, but rather because Townsend preached on very typical subjects: the sinfulness of all human beings, the urgency of repentance, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the sovereignty of God.
During his lifetime, Joseph spoke fairly often about his First Vision. Historians have grouped these accounts by author: four written by Joseph, five composed by others, and a dozen later reminiscences by people who heard him tell of the experience.1 In addressing a variety of audiences, both formally and informally, these accounts consistently speak of the Father and the Son as two separate personages, who are described as having bodies and looking like each other. The Father called Joseph by name. They both spoke to him in English. He was told that his prayers were answered, that his sins were forgiven, that he should not join any of the existing churches, that he should keep God’s commandments, and many other things. He was left wholly exhausted but completely filled with love and joy, knowing that God had a work for him to do. In many ways, this experience was both spiritual and physical. Twenty-three years later, on Sunday, April 2, 1843, in Ramus, Illinois, Joseph spoke more clearly than ever before about the tangible nature of the exalted bodies of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. He also stated how those two divine beings relate to and are different from the Holy Ghost, the third member of the Godhead. He said, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22).
No abstract available.
Gary A. Rendsburg, “Chiasmus in the Book of Genesis,” examines three sweeping chiastic structures in the following Ancestral Narratives of the text of Genesis—Abraham (Gen 11:27–22:24), Jacob (Gen 25:19â€’35:22), and Joseph (Gen 37â€’50). For each of the three structures, Rendsburg points out the various elements that constitute the chiasmus —the focal point and the mirrored elements that exist on each side of that focal point. Mirrored elements include both narrative themes and specific lexical items. The three chiastic structures are identified and developed in Rendsburg’s book The Redaction of Genesis. In this 2017 proceeding, Rendsburg presents new material, arguing that the major themes of the focal points of the three chiasms for the Ancestral Narratives are, respectively, the covenant (Abraham Cycle), the land of Caanan (Jacob Cycle), and the people of Israel (Joseph Cycle). The same three major themes, proffers Rendsburg, create the essential message of the Hebrew Bible.
John W. Welch, “Narrating Homicide Chiastically: Why Scriptures about Killings Use Chiasmus,” examines eight chiastic structures that pertain to homicides—three legal texts and five homicide narratives. The legal texts include “The Case of the Blasphemer (Leviticus 24:13–23)” and “The Law of Homicide (Numbers 35).” The narratives include “Abimelech’s Killing of Seventy of His Brothers (Judges 9:56–57)”; “The Case of Phinehas (Numbers 25)”; and “The Slaying of Laban (1 Nephi 4:4–27).” Welch concludes that these eight structures assist readers in recognizing the broader context of each homicide passage and “to discern the key central point on which the case turns.” Welch’s paper also contributes on a further level by cataloguing thirteen possible reasons why authors employed chiasmus when narrating a homicide. These purposes include, “propelling logic and persuasiveness,” “creating order,” “restoring equilibrium,” “processing circumstances,” “probing relevancy,” and “reinforcing memory.”
Even considering the fine books and articles on the history of Latter-day Saint women that have been written in the last fifty years, there are still innumerable questions about early Utah women to be explored. For example, how did the votes of women in territorial Utah from 1870 on affect local and territorial elections? Who were the first female politicians in Utah, and what did they accomplish? In what ways were Latter-day Saint women involved in the national suffrage movement in the United States? How did Kanab, Utah, come to have an entire slate of female city officials, and what did they achieve during their service? In addition, there are questions specifically related to the Relief Society: What did the sisters achieve in their work of saving wheat, raising silkworms and spinning silk, and training midwives? Furthermore, beyond a purely academic or historical interest, individuals yearn to know more about the lives and experiences of their own foremothers, actual and spiritual. There are many resources that can provide insights into these and other questions about historical Latter-day Saint women. Some materials are focused on Mormon studies, but others are much broader. All the resources described in this article are open access, which means they can be searched for free anytime from anywhere. Some resources provide just references, while others include the full text of various documents. This article will be a journey through the world of libraries, archives, and publications of all types.