Intro/FAQ ⎜ Episode 1 ⎜ Episode 2 ⎜ Episode 3 ⎜ Episode 4 ⎜ Episode 5 ⎜ Episode 6 ⎜ Episode 7 ⎜ Episode 8 ⎜ Episode 9 ⎜ Episode 10 ⎜ Episode 11 ⎜ Episode 12 ⎜ Episode 13 ⎜ Episode 14 ⎜ Episode 15 ⎜ Episode 16 ⎜ Episode 17 ⎜ Episode 18 ⎜ Episode 19 ⎜ Episode 20 ⎜ Episode 21 ⎜ Episode 22 ⎜ Episode 23
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of 23 essays summarizing and evaluating Book of Mormon-related evidence from a Bayesian statistical perspective. See the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for details on methodology.]
How can we expect to believe Joseph’s story when his accounts of the First Vision have so many inconsistencies?
In reality, even people who recount true stories will do so differently with each telling, and those stories aren’t much more consistent than for people who are telling lies. Taken as a whole, Joseph does add and omit a lot of material in his first-hand accounts, and there are some contradictions, but even if you stack the deck in favor of the critics, consistency just isn’t a great way to tell truth from error. Despite how the critics feel about the First Vision, Joseph’s conflicting accounts are remarkably weak evidence when used against the church’s founding narrative.
Evidence Score = -1 (beliefs adjusted, at most, one order of magnitude away from authenticity)
When we last parted, you, our nineteenth-century skeptic, had just been handed a Book of Mormon by a wandering missionary seeking comfort from the cold New England winter. You find the book itself an undeniably impressive artifact, but are just as intrigued at the circumstances of its supposed author.
“Unschooled, you say.” Your sarcasm rises dimly above the crackle of the fire in the hearth. “And still so young. What would lead God to choose this Smith to bring forth new scripture?”
The young man keeps his eyes and his chilled fingers near the hearth as he answers, giving a mild shrug. “He’s a kind and noble figure, but he’s unpolished by education or art. I think it fitting that God would make use of the weak and simple to bring back his kingdom.”
Your ears catch hold of one of his words. “Weak?” you ask. “You say that Smith Is a farmhand in the prime of his life. Surely he’s not a weakling.”
The young man smiles. “Not in body. At least not at the present day. But God first called him as a boy, and as a young lad of fourteen he was not nearly so strong.”
“Fourteen?” you ask. “This lad gets younger and younger. And how did God call this boy-prophet?”
You hear the young man’s voice take on a somber timbre. “The Lord himself, clothed in light and glory, appeared to him as he prayed alone in the woods.” You see the missionary wince slightly, and not from the fire’s heat. “To be truthful, I don’t know much of the story. He doesn’t tell it often, and I haven’t heard it from his lips. And I may be misremembering his age. Perhaps he was 15. The rumors I’ve heard are uncertain.”
Now that you find interesting. “Must a prophet of God rely on rumor and hearsay? Does that not strike you as odd?” You let your question remain unanswered. “Well, go on. What did the Lord himself have to say to the boy Smith?”
“I’m afraid I’m not sure on that either,” he replies, somewhat uncomfortably. “I’ve heard that Joseph sought to settle in his mind the truth of the denominations that preached in his town. But others say he already knew them all false, and that he sought forgiveness for his sins, knowing that no preacher could provide it.”
Curious indeed, you think to yourself. You press yourself forward off the stool you’d been sitting on, setting the young man’s book down on its still-warm wood. “How can anyone be expected to believe a man’s story when he can’t even keep that story straight?”
Our skeptic’s question is a fair one, and one that’s made a deep impression on many members of the church. For many, the story of the First Vision is among the first that they hear when they make contact with the church—I personally tried to include it at every door I knocked on as a missionary, and I know I’m not alone in that. The words “I saw a pillar of light” are the consistent bedrock on which untold testimonies are formed—I bet if you had a hundred former missionaries say it, a solid 95 of them would say it with the same emotion-filled cadence. Yet the story itself doesn’t have the same consistency one might hope for in a religion’s founding narrative. And since some official church publications have ignored or downplayed those inconsistent versions of Joseph’s story, many members don’t hear of those inconsistencies until well into adulthood. It’s not unreasonable for that to come as a shock, and for people to feel betrayed by teachers and leaders who failed to bring this information to light.
Such inconsistencies technically have no direct bearing on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The existence of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni don’t depend on what happened in a forest grove in Palmyra in the spring of 1820. But some see Joseph’s conflicting First Vision accounts as evidence that Joseph was a spinner of tales, and if he spun one tale, why not others? Given that critics can be reliably counted on to mention the First Vision as they recount their grievances against the church, it feels like a topic worth thinking through carefully, and it happens to be one that’s amenable to insights from Bayesian analysis. The question for us here is: If Joseph was telling the truth, how unexpected would it be for the First Vision accounts to have the inconsistencies that they do?
To start off, I’ll once again refer readers to the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for more details on how I’ll be applying Bayesian analysis to these sorts of problems. We’ll start by trying hard to nail down the available evidence. Then, after clearly stating hypotheses about how that evidence came to be, we’ll estimate the probability of observing the evidence given each hypothesis. That’ll help us determine how much the evidence should change our mind, one way or another.
Joseph Smith gave four first-hand accounts of the First Vision: 1) a journal entry in 1832, which was intended to be part of joseph’s personal history, 2) a journal entry in 1835, 3) the traditional account from Joseph Smith—History, written in 1838 but first published in 1842, and a short account in the Wentworth letter, written in 1842. The four primary accounts differ greatly in length and detail; there are several key inconsistencies between them.
For the sake of this analysis I wanted to thoroughly document those differences for myself rather than rely on previous work. To that end, I gave each of the four accounts a fresh read, dividing each account into the separate pieces of information those accounts communicate (i.e., specific details) and comparing those details in each account. Others might slice up the texts a bit differently, but I’d expect the results of my analysis (particularly the final evidence score) to be pretty similar regardless. By my count, the four accounts record a total of 72 different details, covering Joseph’s period of religious investigation prior to the First Vision, the circumstances of the vision itself, and the details of what happened afterward. (See the Appendix for the full table.)
The 1838 account in Joseph Smith—History is by far the most detailed, including 21 specific details not provided in any of the other three—which makes sense given that it was intended to be a more comprehensive historical account of the event. In fact, its relative length makes for an unfair comparison with the other three, leading me to remove those 21 unique details from the analysis, leaving a sample of 51 to work with.
Having documented those specific details, I went to work comparing each account to each of the others, resulting in six sets of comparisons. I chose to follow the procedure outlined in this study for comparing different accounts of the same story by the same person. In each set of comparisons, the earlier account was treated as the “baseline” account—for each of the details included in the baseline account, I recorded whether that detail was a) Consistent between the two accounts (i.e., the detail was substantially the same in each) b) Omitted from the comparison account (i.e., included in the baseline but not the comparison), c) an Addition by the comparison account (i.e., included in the comparison but not the baseline), or d) Contradictory (i.e., the detail in the baseline account was directly contradicted by the comparison account).
In this particular analysis, I used a broad definition of “inconsistency," counting contradictions, omissions, and additions as being inconsistent with the baseline account. By counting up the number of details in each category, and dividing each of those values by the total number of details recorded in either the baseline or comparison, I could estimate percentages for how consistent and inconsistent each pair of accounts were, along with summary percentages for all the accounts. I could then sum the number in each category across all comparisons to get overall consistency rates. Here’s a handy table with the results:
Based on this analysis, the overall consistency rate was 30%, with that rate ranging from 22.9% (comparing the 1835 journal entry to the 1842 Wentworth letter) to 47.2% (comparing the 1835 journal entry to the 1838 account in Joseph Smith—History). Now, based on the number itself, that consistency rate looks really low, but most of those inconsistencies are omissions or additions (e.g., the 1842 account omitting mention of Joseph’s tongue being bound when he attempts to pray, or the addition of a second personage in accounts other than the 1832 journal entry)—there are really only four details where you could construe contradictions between the accounts:
- The age where Joseph reports becoming concerned with religious matters. The 1832 history mentions that Joseph was 12 when he started to have “concerns for the welfare of his immortal soul," while the 1842 account says that he was 14 when he “began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state."
- Joseph’s age at the time of the first vision itself. Joseph reports being 15 (“in my sixteenth year”) in the 1832 history, but 14 in both the 1835 journal entry (“I was about fourteen years old”) and the 1838 account (“I was at that time in my fifteenth year”).
- The purpose of Joseph’s prayer. The 1832 history records that Joseph “cried unto the Lord for mercy," while the 1835 entry (“Information was what I desired most at this time”) and the 1838 account (“my object…was to know which of all the sects was right”) record otherwise.
- Joseph’s opinion on the various religious sects. The 1832 history implies strongly that Joseph had already determined that the sects were false prior to the first vision (“I found that mankind…had apostatized from the true and living faith”), while the 1838 account solidly contradicts that idea (“for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong”).
Regardless, with the overall 30% consistency rate in hand, we can start to ask how such inconsistencies could have come about.
Joseph’s First Vision accounts are retellings of a real experience—According to this theory, the First Vision actually happened, and the inconsistencies between the different accounts are due to a combination of the vagaries of human memory and the human tendency to tailor narratives to different audiences and contexts. This theory is laid out quite well in an Interpreter article by Robert Rees.
Joseph’s First Vision accounts are fabrications—If this theory is true, then inconsistencies in the accounts could be attributed to Joseph inventing new details or altering them to make for a better story.
We obtain our prior probabilities for each of those hypotheses from the results of last week’s analyses. Our skeptic remains justifiably biased against supernatural explanations and greatly prefers the idea that divine manifestations of any kind must be fabricated. I’ll be including a running figure in each episode that keeps track of what evidence we’ve covered so far and how strong each is in comparison. The blue line shows the movement of the prior probability over time, while the orange bars will show the strength of each kind of evidence.
PH—Prior Probability of an Authentic First Vision—The posterior probability at the end of last week’s analysis was p = 9.99 x 10-39, which represents our current estimate of the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon.
PA—Prior Probability of the Fabricated First Vision—Since the only other option is that the First Vision was fabricated, we subtract the probability of the First Vision occurring from 1, which would mean this particular probability would be p = 1 – 9.99 x 10-39.
CH—Consequent Probability of a Real First Vision—We look at the accounts of the first vision–a divine manifestation of the highest order–and it’s hard not to ask, "how on earth could someone tell so many versions of the same story if it was true?" How could he get his age wrong? How does he gloss over the presence of the Father? We imagine ourselves in the same circumstance and can’t imagine making those sorts of errors or omissions, and it becomes difficult not to judge Joseph by that standard.
But that standard is an illusion and one that ignores both how terrible memory can be and how malleable narratives are, even if they’re truthful. I got to experience this firsthand just a couple weeks ago in my essay on skepticism. As I was writing it, I tried to remember the blessing of the little boy, Moses, and I thought I remembered it clearly. But going back to my mission journal showed me how wrong I was—for example, I could’ve sworn the blessing had taken place in our little studio apartment, but really it was in our landlord’s living room. The event actually happened, but I’m not sure my retelling of it would’ve fared any better than Joseph’s retelling of the First Vision. Memories inevitably fade and change, particularly when years pass before the story is told. It’s entirely plausible Joseph could’ve simply misremembered (or subsequently corrected) some of these details, creating the contradictions we see.
We even have a comparable example handy in the story of Paul on the road to Damascus. Assuming you believe that Jesus actually appeared to Paul, the various accounts we have of that event contradict each other in important ways. Joseph isn’t the only recipient of a divine manifestation who didn’t tell a perfectly consistent story.
But let’s assume you don’t want to hang your hat on Paul’s conversion narrative. Thankfully there’s a decent body of research looking at how people’s narratives—for real events–change over time. Ways of measuring consistency differ dramatically from study to study, but we can get a few hints as to how inconsistent those narratives can be. One study asked people to relate the seven most important events in their lives up to that point, and then asked them to do the same thing four years later. About 40-60% of those events were remembered differently in the intervening four years. Another study looked at people’s accounts of where they were on 9/11, and how consistent those accounts were several years later. The answer is, not very—only 57% of the details they included were consistent after two years (and the range of consistency was pretty broad).
There’s one set of studies in particular that used the same type of consistency coding that I did for Joseph’s First Vision accounts. Over two studies, they sat down 85 undergraduate students and showed them an emotional movie excerpt showing a violent robbery. They then got the chance to recount what happened in the clip, both 5 minutes after they saw the clip and 3-4 weeks afterward. They then compared the two sets of accounts, noting how many were consistent as well as inconsistent (they note two different kinds of contradictions–distortions and commissions–as well as omissions and additions, counting them all as inconsistencies.
These studies establish what could be considered an "upper-bound" for the consistency we’d expect between two different accounts of the same true event. The two sets of accounts are relatively close to the event itself (a matter of weeks rather than the 12 years separating Joseph from the First Vision) and relatively close to each other in time. Participants were given the exact same task to perform each time (write down everything you remember in as much detail as possible), which wasn’t the case for Joseph. We would expect these accounts to be a great deal more consistent than the First Vision accounts. And how consistent were they? If you take the number of inconsistencies and the completeness rates the studies report, weighting them by the sample in each study (which is standard practice for combining the results of different studies via meta-analysis), you get an average consistency rate of 67.7%, with a standard deviation of 12.8%.
Now, for the sake of a fortiori reasoning, we’re going to set aside the fact that the First Vision accounts absolutely shouldn’t be anywhere near as consistent as these were. If Joseph’s account was true, and it falls on the same range of consistency as these accounts did, what’s the probability that we’d observe a set of accounts with a 30% consistency rate? It would be just shy of 3 standard deviations below the mean, with a p value of .003 (assuming that consistency is normally distributed, which is the case with most psychological phenomena), which is the value we’re going to use as the consequent probability for the reality of the First Vision.
That seems pretty unlikely, but remember that this consequent probability doesn’t matter much on its own– in order to constitute strong evidence, the observation has to be both unlikely if the event was true AND likely if the event was false. The question then is, if truths aren’t necessarily very consistent, how consistent are lies?
CA—Consequent Probability of a Fabricated First Vision—Nothing of what I’ve covered here so far would be news to professional historians. They’re very, very used to the idea that even true history is imperfect and inconsistent. In fact, they tend to be quite skeptical if a story seems too consistent. Take, for example, the prominent atheist Richard C. Carrier, who in his book, Proving History, takes umbrage at the idea that consistency implies validity:
"Liars tend to prefer their lies to be coherent, and when telling new lies, build on old ones…coherence is easy to create by design, whereas real historical people and events are often evolving, complex, unpredictable, or actually in fact incoherent." (p. 169)
This suggests that we should expect the truth to be messy–perhaps about as messy as the First Vision accounts–and that we’d expect lies to be more consistent than truths. There’s some wisdom here, and it certainly applies to the common picture of Joseph as a deceptive conman. If you buy the story that Joseph was deliberately trying to deceive people with the First Vision, you would certainly expect him to work hard to make his story as polished as possible.
But you can make the argument that memory and narrative adjustments would affect lies just as much–if not more–than it would truths. Truths, after all, have real memories underlying them, while lies only have a memory of a fabrication, which might make them harder to keep straight with multiple retellings. And thankfully there’s research that can help us figure that out. One study in particular helps us compare the consistency of lies and truths. They had around 291 undergraduates tell two stories about a traumatic event that occurred in their childhood—one of them true and one of them a complete fabrication. They then came back three months later and were asked to tell the same two stories; they also came back a third time about two months after that. The researchers then rated the accounts on a number of different indicators, including how consistent the accounts were.
What they found was a number of different ways in which truths differed from lies: lies generally have less detail, are less emotional, include fewer details of time or place, and sound more plausible to independent raters. They’re also more consistent, with truths generally being 0.84 standard deviations more consistent than lies.
This difference was quite large, but it doesn’t do much to help us tell if Joseph was lying or not. There was a lot of variability in how consistent the stories were, both for truths and lies. With an effect size of .84, you’d expect about 20% of the true accounts to be less consistent than the average lie. You can get a visual sense for what that looks like below. If we used consistency as a heuristic for sorting truths and lies we’d have to get used to being wrong a substantial portion of the time.
But with that effect size in hand, we can take a guess as to how consistent we’d have expected Joseph’s accounts to have been if it had been a lie, which would be .84 of a standard deviation lower than the 67.7% we estimated above. That would put the expected consistency for fabricated accounts at 56.9%. And the probability that we would see accounts as consistent as Joseph’s, assuming that it was a similar fabrication? That p would be .036, somewhat more likely than if it was the truth, but still pretty unlikely.
Now we get to plug these probabilities into Bayes theorem and see what happens.
PH = Prior Probability of the Hypothesis (our initial guess at how likely a divine manifestation might be, given our background knowledge, or p = 9.99 x 10-39)
CH = Consequent Probability of the Hypothesis (the probability that a true account would be as consistent as the First Vision accounts, or p = .003)
PA = Prior Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our guess at how likely it is that the First Vision was fraudulently produced, or p = 1 – 9.99 x 10-39)
CA = Consequent Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (the probability that fabricated accounts would be as consistent as the First Vision, or p = .035)
PostProb = Posterior Probability (our new estimate of the likelihood of Joseph Smith’s story, given the evidence observed)
|PH = 9.99 x 10-39|
|PostProb =||PH * CH|
|(PH * CH) + (PA * CA)|
|PostProb =||9.99 x 10-39 * .003|
|(9.99 x 10-39 * .003) + ((1-9.99 x 10-39) * .035))|
|PostProb =||8.57 x 10-40|
Lmag = Likelihood Magnitude (an estimate of the number of orders of magnitude that the probability will shift, due to the evidence)
Lmag = log10(CH/CA)
Lmag = log10(.003/.035)
Lmag = log10(0.086)
Lmag = -1
Those prior and posterior probabilities look pretty similar, and in the grand scheme of things they are. The inconsistencies in the First Vision accounts are evidence against Joseph Smith’s story, but the evidence is quite weak. The available research doesn’t give us anything that fits Joseph’s situation perfectly, but a couple themes hold firm: when people give multiple accounts of the same story, 1) omissions, contradictions, and additions are not at all unexpected, and 2) it’s really hard to distinguish truths from lies. It’s true that you can emphasize the contradictions in the First Vision accounts and make it seem inconsistent, but even if you stack the deck against Joseph—which I’ve done here (by using a broad definition of “inconsistency," and by comparing it to studies that we would expect to show high consistency), those inconsistencies just aren’t that surprising.
I get why critics focus on the First Vision. I get how members encountering the differing accounts for the first time could feel shocked and betrayed. The contradictions look bad. They just aren’t actually bad when we consider a more human context for the prophet. Upon examining the available evidence, our skeptic takes a one-order-of-magnitude step against Joseph and the Book of Mormon, but that’s as far as he goes.
As I suggest above, the key to our estimate is the difference in consistency between truths and lies, which means that arguing over how consistent the First Vision narratives are isn’t going to alter the big picture all that much. Critics who want to be able to use the First Vision as meaningful evidence against Joseph would need to demonstrate that consistency is a useful metric. That could be done by finding or conducting studies that show a much larger difference than in the studies I cite here. There’d be bonus points for studies examining stories told decades apart to different audiences, though that would be unlikely to strengthen the critics’ case.
Another limitation worth digging into is the comparability of the two types of studies I looked at. The first set of studies looked at the proportions of contradictions, additions, and omissions, while the second had independent raters judge how consistent the narratives were on a 4-point scale, and for a set series of items. For this analysis I’m assuming the consistency distributions are comparable for each, and that digging deeper would disadvantage the critics (adding omissions and additions into the mix is likely to broaden both distributions, watering down the difference they found between truths and lies), but it’s possible that I’m wrong. We’d need a good study pulling out the proportions of contradictions, omissions, and additions for both true and false narratives to know for sure.
Next Time, in Episode 3:
In the next episode, we’ll be taking a hard look at the dictation process for the Book of Mormon, using Bayesian analysis to examine the available naturalistic explanations for how the book came to light.
Questions, ideas, and diseased corpses can be catapulted toward BayesianBoM@gmail.com or submitted as comments below.
|#||Detail||1832 – A||1835 – B||1838 – C||1842 – D|
|1||Age of Religious Concern||At about the age of twelve years||When about fourteen years of age|
|2||Fact of Religious Concern||my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul||Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of religion||I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state|
|3||Searching Scriptures||which led me to searching the scriptures—believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God and thus applying myself to them.|
|4||Acquainted With Those of Different Denominations||My intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly|
|5||People Did Not Behave in Godly Ways||I discovered that they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository.|
|6||Emotional Response to Others’ Faults||This was a grief to my soul.|
|7||Convicted of Own Sins||I became convicted of my sins|
|8||Knowledge of God’s Existence||And when I considered upon these things, my heart exclaimed, “Well hath the wise man said, ‘It is a fool that saith in his heart, there is no God.’” My heart exclaimed, “All, all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power"|
|9||Important to be Correct||And I considered all these things and that that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth.||And considering it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences|
|10||Timing of Religious Excitement||Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester|
|11||Indication of Religious Excitement||there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion|
|12||Sect of Religious Excitement||It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country.|
|13||Scope of Religious Excitement||Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties,|
|14||Division Among the People||the contentions and divisions…of mankind||which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, a“Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist…all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.||and upon enquiring about the plan of salvation, I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society, they referred me to one plan, and another to another, each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection|
|15||God Could Not Be the Author of Confusion||Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion|
|16||Timing of First Vision||in the sixteenth year of my age||I was about fourteen years old when I received this first communication||I was at this time in my fifteenth year…early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty|
|17||Family Joining with Presbyterians||My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia|
|18||Reflection and Uneasiness||I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind. My mind became exceedingly distressed||being thus perplexed in mind||During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness||I determined to investigate the subject more fully|
|19||No Joining of a Church||I kept myself aloof from all these parties|
|20||Attended Church Meetings||I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit|
|21||Partial to the Methodists||In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them|
|22||Confusion About the Truth||and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong||but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong…What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be aright, which is it, and how shall I know it?|
|23||Consulting James||“If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”||I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him||I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”|
|24||Moved by Scripture||I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever, that he was no respecter of persons, for he was God.||under a realizing sense that he had said (if the Bible be true)||Never did any passage of ascripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.||Believing the word of God|
|25||Determination to Ask God||with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord||At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture|
|26||Retired to the Woods||And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness||I retired to the silent grove||So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt.||I retired to a secret place in a grove|
|27||Local Weather||It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day|
|28||First Time Praying Aloud||I called upon the Lord for the first time||It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.|
|29||Praying Alone||finding myself alone|
|30||Indication of Prayer||while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord||and bowed down before the Lord||I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God||began to call upon the Lord|
|31||Seized Upon By a Power||I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me|
|32||Binding of Tongue||Or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray; my tongue seemed to be swollen in my mouth||and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak|
|33||Noise of Person Walking||I heard a noise behind me, like some person walking towards me.|
|34||Thick Darkness||Thick darkness gathered around me|
|35||Doomed to Destruction||it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction|
|36||Sprang to Feet||I sprung up on my feet and looked around but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.|
|37||Exertion of Prayer Dispels Power||My mouth was opened and my tongue liberated||But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me|
|38||Pillar of Light||a pillar of light||A pillar of fire.||I saw a pillar of light|
|39||Brightness of Pillar||above the brightness of the sun at noonday||above the brightness of the sun||surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday|
|40||Location of Pillar||came down from above||appeared above my head||exactly over my head|
|41||Movement of Pillar||and rested upon me||It presently rested down upon me||which descended gradually until it fell upon me.|
|42||Emotional Response to Pillar||It presently rested down upon me and filled me with joy unspeakable.|
|43||Opening of the Heavens||the Lord opened the heavens upon me||my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision|
|44||Number of Personages||A personage appeared…Another personage soon appeared||When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages||saw two glorious personages|
|45||Glory of Personages||Behold, I am the Lord of glory.||whose brightness and glory defy all description||glorious personages|
|46||Resemblance of Personages||like unto the first||who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness|
|47||Location of Personages||in the midst of this pillar of flame||standing above me in the air|
|48||Voice of the Father||One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!|
|49||Identity of Personage||I saw the Lord|
|50||Purpose of Prayer||I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy||Information was what I most desired at this time||My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join.|
|51||Content of Inquiry||I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right|
|52||Prior Thought on Nature of Churches||I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.||for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong|
|53||Sins Are Forgiven||Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.||He said unto me, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.”|
|54||Injunction to Right Behavior||Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments.|
|55||Injunction to Join None||I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong||And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,”|
|56||Fulness of the Gospel to be Received||at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.|
|57||All Churches are Wrong||Behold, the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no, not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments||for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt||They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.|
|58||Draw Near With Their Lips||They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.||“they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”|
|59||Teach for Doctrines the Commandments of Men||they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.|
|60||Reality of Christ||Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life.||He testified unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God|
|61||Christ’s Anger Kindled||mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth|
|62||Christ Comes Quickly||behold and lo, I come quickly, as it is written of me, in the cloud, clothed in the glory of my Father.|
|63||Additional Sayings||many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time|
|64||Many Angels||And I saw many angels in this vision|
|65||Position Following Vision||When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.|
|66||Lack of Strength||When the light had departed, I had no strength|
|67||Returned Home||but soon recovering in some degree, I went home|
|68||Leaned on Fireplace||And as I leaned up to the fireplace|
|69||Conversation with Mother||mother inquired what the matter was|
|70||Reply to Mother||I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.”|
|71||Emotional Response to Vision||My soul was ﬁlled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy|
|72||Others’ Response to Vision||The Lord was with me, but I could ﬁnd none that would believe the heavenly vision||I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase.|
In general, I think this was a great analysis. Measuring the consistency of the first vision accounts and comparing that to the consistency “truths” and “lies” from academic sources is a really interesting approach. I might be able to squint and find something to quibble with, but at this point I can’t come up with anything.
That said, I’m not going to update my posterior probability. I’m going to leave it at 1-in-400. Here’s why.
You implicitly assume that the first vision either happened or was a lie (and that the Book of Mormon being historical corresponds to one and it being ahistorical corresponds to the other).
There is a second dimension that needs to be considered. The second dimension is whether or not Joseph Smith substantially and deliberately modified his religion as the years went by, and consequently edited his first vision account to match his evolving religious beliefs.
When you add that dimension, there are four possibilities, which could by laid out in four quadrants.
Q1: BOM True, Religion remained faithful to original revelations
Q2: BOM True, Religion fell into apostasy
Q3: BOM False, Religion stayed consistent
Q4: BOM False, Religion evolved
My interpretation of the evidence you present here is that it doesn’t move the needle from the BOM being true to the BOM being false. Rather, it moves the needle from the religion staying consistent to the religion changing. Granted, I didn’t wonk out on the statistical details here the way you did, but hopefully my interpretation makes sense from an a fortiori reasoning perspective.
My personal suspicion is that Joseph really did have an intense religious experience as a teenager, but that he added some details to it for dramatic effect and that as the years went by, he edited those added-on details to match his evolving religion.
Taylor Drake recently published a fascinating book called “Joseph in the Gap,” which lays out the case for Q2. Drake believes Joseph Smith really *was* a true prophet and that the Book of Mormon really is true, but thinks that sometime around the year 1834 the Church began slipping into apostasy. As that happened, Joseph Smith reworked an originally authentic first-vision story to match the emerging apostate religion.
In honor of the theatrical release of “Witnesses” this season, I’ll point out that Drake’s beliefs on this matter are quite consistent with David Whitmer who testified that God literally spoke to him and commanded him to depart from the fallen Church in 1838.
Thanks Billy. Glad you enjoyed it.
We probably won’t need it this time around, but to make things easier on Brant, I’d suggest that I limit myself to replying to just three of your comments, with you having the last word after that if you want it. Sound good?
“The second dimension is whether or not Joseph Smith substantially and deliberately modified his religion as the years went by, and consequently edited his first vision account to match his evolving religious beliefs.”
Agreed that this is the question more directly impacted by the First Vision evidence. Some critics use it as a more general stick against the restoration as a whole, though, which is why I felt it worthy of inclusion.
Even then, though, it appears that consistency doesn’t get us very far in terms of confirming the evolution of Joseph’s approach to the restoration. There’s likely better evidence to use for that, and it would still be a bit of a jump from there to apostasy (e.g., evolution could be instead attributed to receiving new revelation line upon line).
“Drake believes Joseph Smith really *was* a true prophet and that the Book of Mormon really is true, but thinks that sometime around the year 1834 the Church began slipping into apostasy.”
I’ll get to this later on, but it’s clear to me that authenticity does very little to directly address this possibility, and that this is much more a matter of faith than is belief in an authentic BofM. I think there’s historical evidence against the idea of apostasy (e.g., continuing divine manifestations after 1834), but, for me personally, I just have a hard time imagining a God that would restore a church just to watch it lie fallow a handful of years later.
KR: We probably won’t need it this time around, but to make things easier on Brant, I’d suggest that I limit myself to replying to just three of your comments, with you having the last word after that if you want it. Sound good?
Great idea. I’ll try to limit mine to three comments as well.
KR: …I just have a hard time imagining a God that would restore a church just to watch it lie fallow a handful of years later.
Likewise, Catholics have a hard time imagining that Jesus really didn’t mean it when he said “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I have the feeling that Taylor Drake’s evidence for the restored Church falling is more formidable than what you are imagining. But in any case that is off topic here and can be saved for another Bayesian analysis.
It seems to me that this discussion of the First Vision is not time well spent in ascertaining the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Moreover, the First Vision question has been dealt with in detail repeatedly elsewhere.
Kyler can speak for himself, but I think he would agree that a “discussion of the First Vision is not time well spent in ascertaining the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” If that’s what you were were expecting in this episode, then you were, perhaps, expecting the wrong thing. Even Kyler states, in his introduction, that “such inconsistencies [in First Vision accounts] technically have no direct bearing on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” (So, you two are in agreement on that point.)
I also agree that the First Vision question has been dealt with in detail repeatedly elsewhere. That doesn’t stop critics from trotting the questions out, over and over again, ad nauseum. They wouldn’t do that unless either they aren’t aware of the questions and answers available or unless they are aware and feel that the questions are fruitful in raising doubts in the minds of others. Either way, it never hurts to look at the questions and answers “one more time,” particularly in the fascinating analytical way that Kyler is doing.
Hi Robert. Allen gets it spot on with his comment. This series is intended as a review and high-level analysis of all the available evidence (particularly evidence that the critics enjoy focusing on), so it’s inevitable (and intended) that I tread ground that’s already been trod.
In this case, though, I can’t think of anyone that’s approached the First Vision in quite this way, trying to tie it to specific psychological research on consistency in true and false narratives. My hope is that there’s some sort of unique contribution in each of these, small and imperfect as it might be.
I enjoyed the article because if the criticisms of the First Vision are as trivial as these, then the criticisms validate the truthfulness of the First Vision. If that’s the worst critics can come up with. no Latter-day Saint should be troubled by them.
Thanks Lanny. And apologies for reading your name too fast the first time!
Thank you for your reply.
I agree that we have to look at things from other points of view. But sometimes I think we go overboard to appear objective.
The criticisms of Joseph Smith that I have read, generally have definitely come from anti-church persons. Generally they just generalize without being specific and thus are mainly name calling. When I have asked critics for specifics, they generally cannot give me any. For example, I read a blog in an Ogden newspaper about a recent news article on Joseph Smith’s versions of the First Vision. Although the news article was positive, the blog was dominated by a critic who insisted that there were contradictions in Joseph Smith’s versions of the First Vision. Five times I requested the critic to name just 3 contradictions. Four times he gave excuses. The fifth time he stopped commenting in the blog.
When Joseph Smith’s versions of the First Vision were published in a church magazine decades ago, I read them all. I was fascinated by them. I found NO contradictions. I still remember one detail that’s not in the Pearl of Great Price version. That one detail was Joseph’s hearing noises among the trees. My testimony of the First Vision – already strong -was strengthened by my reading the different versions.
I like your article because I think it proves that the 4 versions are generally consistent and inspiring despite – or, perhaps, because of – their differences.
THE FACT THAT EACH OF THE 4 VERSIONS INCLUDES OR OMITS DETAILS NOT INCLUDED IN THE OTHER VERSONS, SHOWS ONLY WHAT WE ALL DO WHEN RETELLING EVENTS: IN RETELLING EVENTS, WE SIMPLY REMEMBER OTHER DETAILS AND FORGET OTHER DETAILS EACH TIME WE RETELL THE EVENT. OBVIOUSLY OUR MEMORIES DO NOT REMEMBER ALL DETAILS EACH TIME WE RETELL AN EVENT. THUS, YOU HAVE WRONGLY LABELED THE OMISSIONS AND INCLUSIONS AS “INCONSISTENCIES” WHEN THEY ARE MERELY “DIFFERENCES.”
BUT THE MORE IMPORTANT MATTER IS THE FOLLOWING:
YOU NAME 4 ALLEGED CONTRADITIONS IN JOSEPH SMITH’S 4 ACCOUNTS OF THE FIRST VISION. BUT 3 OF THOSE 4 ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS ARE NOT, NOT CONTRADICTIONS. THE 4TH CONTRADICTION IS A SILLY MISTAKE THAT WE ALL MAKE. MY FOLLOWING STATEMENTS RESTATE THE 4 ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS AND MY RESPONSE TO EACH OF THOSE 4 ALLEGED CONTRADICTIONS:
1. The age where Joseph reports becoming concerned with religious matters. The 1832 history mentions that Joseph was 12 when he started to have “concerns for the welfare of his immortal soul,” while the 1842 account says that he was 14 when he “began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state.”
I DON’T SEE A CONTRADICTION. “BECOMING CONCERNED WITH RELIGIOUS MATTERS” IS A GENERAL STATEMENT. “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING PREPARED FOR A FUTURE STATE” IS A MORE SPECIFIC “RELIGIOUS MATTER.”
2. Joseph’s age at the time of the first vision itself. Joseph reports being 15 (“in my sixteenth year”) in the 1832 history, but 14 in both the 1835 journal entry (“I was about fourteen years old”) and the 1838 account (“I was at that time in my fifteenth year”).
SO WHAT? I ONCE SAID THAT GEORGE WASHINGTON WAS BORN IN 1932, WHICH IS 200 YEARS OFF. HE WAS BORN IN 1732. SO WOULD SOMEONE BE JUSTIFIED IN SAYING I DIDN’T KNOW THAT MUCH ABOUT GEORGE WASHINGTON EVEN THOUGH I HAVE STUDIED HIM FOR MANY YEARS? WHY DID I SAY 1932? 1932 WAS THE YEAR THAT THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS DECIDED TO CELEBRATE GEORGE WASHINGTON’S 200th BIRTHDAY BY FUNDING THE WRITING AND PUBLISHING OF THE WRITINGS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON. I REMEMBER CERTAIN EVENTS THAT OCCURRED IN MY TEENAGE YEARS BUT CAN’T RECALL THE SPECIFIC YEAR. MY MEMORY WASN’T MUCH BETTER WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER. AND JOSEPH SMITH HAD A LOT MORE GOING ON IN HIS TEENAGE YEARS (E.G. PERSECUTION) THAN I DID.
3. The purpose of Joseph’s prayer. The 1832 history records that Joseph “cried unto the Lord for mercy,” while the 1835 entry (“Information was what I desired most at this time”) and the 1838 account (“my object…was to know which of all the sects was right”) record otherwise.
I DON’T SEE A CONTRADICTION. JOSEPH SMITH DID “CRY” FOR “INFORMATION” ABOUT “WHICH OF ALL THE SECTS WAS RIGHT” IN ORDER TO LEARN HOW TO OBTAIN “MERCY.” ALL 3 STATEMENTS COULD BE DIFFERENT WAYS OF STATING HIS PURPOSE.
4. Joseph’s opinion on the various religious sects. The 1832 history implies strongly that Joseph had already determined that the sects were false prior to the first vision (“I found that mankind…had apostatized from the true and living faith”), while the 1838 account solidly contradicts that idea (“for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong”).
I DON’T SEE A CONTRADICTION. “I found that mankind…had apostatized from the true and living faith” COULD REFER TO THE GENERAL BELIEFS OF MANKIND WITH THE HOPE THAT A PARTICULAR RELIGION WOULD REVEAL THE TRUTH. THERE WOULD BE SUCH A HOPE BECAUSE “for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong”
Thanks so much for reading, Larry.
I agree that it’s possible that these aren’t true contradictions–that Joseph’s thought process and memory were consistent throughout, and that these contradictions are due to our own misunderstanding. No one was in Joseph’s head but Joseph, so strong claims should be avoided.
But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that these could be read as contradictions, because they have been read that way, and not just by the church’s enemies. Those apparent contradictions could arise on a relatively plain reading of the text. Arguing too strongly for a more complex reading could easily alienate those who don’t see what you see.
And that’s something I’m very much trying to avoid with these posts. I have reasons for seeing things the way that I do, and I’m not afraid to advance those ideas. But each piece of evidence will hit everyone differently. Agreement will come more readily by letting those perspectives breathe than by taking a hard line on a specific viewpoint.
I enjoyed the article and agree with the findings- history is messy and we should expect it to be so. I think the reason this is such a big issue is the one mentioned in the article- many church members are unaware of the multiple accounts