Friday, June 1, 2012

Darwinian Deity: The Evolution of the Mormon Concept of God – Part II –

Continued from Part I...

In my last post, I examined the doctrine of the trinity in the foundational religious text of Mormonism, The Book of Mormon. It's most definitive and singular contribution to Christian doctrine is its emphasis on Jesus Christ as Most High God, rather than a separate, subordinate deity per the early New Testament tradition. If a label is necessary, its closest fit is Modalism. Regardless of one's view of its authorship, the Book of Mormon inherently encapsulates Joseph's earliest views of God in 1828-1829 and is representative of the earliest additions to the theological canon by the Latter-day Saints as a body. Christian modalism may have been Mormonism's first touchstone, but it eventually developed well beyond that. This stance finds support in light of adjacent early revelations in the LDS restoration movement, which in turn led to more new and radical doctrinal developments.

Joseph Smith was an “eclectic sponge," constantly incorporating new ideas from his studies and his environment into his revelatory theology. For example, Sidney Rigdon was an early convert to Mormonism who quickly came to prominence as Joseph's counselor. His traditional clerical training as a Baptist/Campbellite minister apparently influenced Joseph enough that by 1834, the brethren were preaching doctrine better defined as Binitarianism, or the belief of two individuals in the Godhead. Consider the “Of Faith” lectures presented in Kirtland, Ohio. They were a series of theological lectures prepared by Sidney Rigdon and heavily supervised by Joseph Smith for delivery to the “School of the Prophets” in 1834-1835. They were selected by the Literary Firm (publishing subsidiary to the United Firm) for canonization in the 1835 D&C, and were published in every subsequent edition until their removal in 1921. A relevant segment from Lecture Fifth:

“The Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power: possessing all perfection and fullness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather, man was formed after his likeness, and in his image;– he is also the express image and likeness of the personage of the Father: possessing all the fullness of the Father, or, the same fullness with the Fathe[r];being begotten of him, and was ordained from before the foundation of the world to be a propitiation for the sins of all those who should believe on his name, and is called the Son because of the flesh … 

[The Son] possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son, and these three are one, or in other words, these three constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things: by whom all things were created and made, that were created and made: and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one: The Father and the Son possessing the same mind, the same wisdom, glory, power and fullness: Filling all in all – the Son being filled with the fullness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father – possessing all knowledge and glory, and the same kingdom: sitting at the right hand of power, in the express image and likeness of the Father – a Mediator for man – being filled with the fullness of the Mind of the Father, or, in other words, the Spirit of the Father: which Spirit is shed forth upon all who believe on his name and keep his commandments: and all those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all: being filled with the fullness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. … 

Q. What is the Father? A. He is a personage of glory and of power. … Q. What is the Son? A. First, he is a personage of tabernacle… Q. Why was he called the Son? A. Because of the flesh. … Q. What is the mind? A. The Holy Spirit.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Vol. 2, Published Revelations, p 363-367; or alternatively here/ff)

These canonized lectures differentiate themselves from Nephite theology in that they systematically distinguish the identity of the Father from the Son. They are no longer perfectly identical, rather they appear to be unique as to individual personhood. Still, they are so alike that the major differentiation between them is the characteristic of tabernacle, or flesh. In the Book of Mormon, The Father is embodied in flesh because Christ is the Father. As seen in the above lecture, their separation redefines the Father as being a “personage of spirit, glory, and power: possessing all perfection and fullness.” In fact, it is specified that Jesus “is called the Son because of the flesh.” The corporeality of Jesus is emphasized as a distinguishing factor, and not the essence of his being “the express image and likeness of the personage of the Father.” How then can the Son be the express image and likeness of the Father? 

These terms were not interpreted then as they are by Mormons now. Their meaning is expressed succinctly in the document– disciples who keep the commandments and become joint heirs with Christ possess “the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all, … even as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one.” So while it is likely that the LDS conception of the Father at this time entitled him to a similar spirit body like Jesus’ in Ether, there is no evidence that he was understood as an anthropomorphic being in the traditional sense.

Image was not always equated to “physical likeness” as members prefer to read it now; rather, it was also understood to be a “divine likeness.” In addition, the Holy Spirit is described not as a personage at all, but as the “mind,” “will,” “wisdom,” and “glory” of God. Joseph and the Saints evidently believed “there are TWO personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things,” rather than three. Apparently, the scripture in 1 Nephi 11:11 about Nephi's encounter with the “Spirit of the Lord" was understood in a literal sense, as in the spirit-personage of the Lord God, rather than today’s favored interpretation as the Holy Ghost.

Observant students of the early revelations will notice a steep drop-off in the usage of “one God,” “these three are one,” or “the Father and I are one” as descriptors of the relationship between members of the Godhead after 1833 (D&C 93 ≈ May 1833). The Lectures on Faith in 1834 are an exception, and even so, they offer a special definition for the term: “these three are one, or in other words, these three constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things.” The only other section to mention the term is in a letter from Joseph written from Liberty Jail in 1839 (D&C 121:28), and it reflects the late development of LDS Henotheism. In fact, scholars have noticed “that after May of 1833, Joseph never again referred to Jesus as the Father in any of his writings" (Kirkland, "Jehovah as the Father," p 37; or here).

Fortunately for modern Mormons, much of the vernacular in Joseph's revelations is pliable enough to meet the needs of Social Trinitarianism, but it begs the question: If the Lectures on Faith were canonized as scripture, why have they been removed from all editions of the Doctrine and Covenants since 1921?  Joseph Smith was elected to the Literary Firm in 1832, along with Cowdery, Rigdon, and Williams. In other words, the leading men of the Church arranged for the selection included in the primary edition as a representation of LDS common belief, with the theological lectures comprising the titular “Doctrine” of the church per the Literary Firm’s Preface to the first edition:

“[This volume] contains in short, the leading items of the religion which we have professed to believe. The first part of the book will be found to contain a series of Lectures as delivered before a Theological class in this place, and in consequence of their embracing the important doctrine of salvation, we have arranged them into the following work. … There may be an aversion in the minds of some against receiving anything purporting to be articles of religious faith, … but if men believe a system, and profess that it was given by inspiration, certainly, the more intelligibly they present it, the better. … We have, therefore, endeavored to present, though in few words, our belief, and when we say this, humbly trust, the faith and principles of this society as a body.” (Doctrine & Covenants 1835 ed., Preface, pp iii,iv, emphasis mine, scans and transcription here)

So despite later contentions to the contrary (bless Joseph Fielding Smith), the Lectures on Faith were canonized as LDS theology and accepted unanimously before a general conference of the Church in Kirtland on August 17, 1835 as “the doctrine and covenants of their faith” (Ibid., p 257) – as scripture. The real reason for their removal is because section 130 was added in the previous edition (1876) and a conflict was observed. Most Latter-day Saints are aware, section 130 is a recording of an 1843 affirmation that the Father has flesh and bone, amongst other musings. Consider that the Prophet’s first known statement to that effect was given in Nauvoo in 1841: “That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones” (Ehat & Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, p 60).

Step back one year earlier, and the concept of an embodied Father was foreign to Elder Erastus Snow, who denied the accusation that the Saints taught such a doctrine in 1840: “What Mormon, understanding our doctrines, ever said that God the Father had flesh and bones?” Snow quoted Lecture Fifth about the Father being a spirit and asked, “Does it necessarily follow that because God is a spirit, possessing universal knowledge, that spirit has no form, shape, or bodily appearance as you would have it?” (Erastus Snow, “E. Snow’s reply to the Self-Styled Philanthropist, of Chester County”, p 6; emphasis in original). His position was that the Father has a “spirit body" that is not corporeal in nature. Again, prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman observes, “By 1841 [Joseph] had moved from a traditional Christian belief in God as pure spirit to a belief in his corporeality” (Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p 420).

Because the official account of Joseph's first vision encourages his awareness of distinct Father and Son personalities in 1820, and is sometimes cited as evidence of Joseph's early knowledge of the corporeality of God, I will submit every substantial first vision account for consideration in this study. Only two of Joseph’s first-hand accounts place God the Father there explicitly, and neither demonstrates that the Father has a physical body, only that he appeared to have a human form (as in Snow’s logic above). The specific variations in these late accounts taken in concert with the eventual changes to the 1837 Book of Mormon bearing on the same subject (1 Nephi 11:18,21,32; 1 Nephi 13:40), as also considering new doctrines being introduced in subsequent teachings and publications (Sermon in the Groves, the Book of Abraham, etc.), seem to contribute a fatal stroke to the notion of revelatory consistency, or prophetic honesty if one prefers.

The earliest extant account, written some 11-12 years after the occasion as part of Joseph's 1832 history, was never published in Joseph’s lifetime or even in the 19th century. Incidentally, it is the only account we have in the prophet’s own handwriting! Many have tried to downplay the significance of the 1832 history, but we cannot honestly ignore its effect upon our view of Joseph’s “marvilous experience.” It speaks for itself:

“I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life 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 they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories: Vol. 1, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, p 12,13, sic all)

This account will be unique to unfamiliar LDS because there is no mention of church restoration, no mention of Joseph’s special calling, and most conspicuously, no mention of God the Father’s appearance. Having subscribed to the tenets of modalism, Joseph is suspiciously silent about the separate appearance of the Father with the Son, if he was present as the later accounts suggest. Joseph’s earliest report extolls a personal, salvation-focused experience, not at all foreign to the fervor of upstate New York’s “Burned-Over district.” Many people who reported similar theophanies told of visitations by angels, by the Savior, and occasionally by both the Father and Son. But Joseph only reports seeing the Lord, who identifies himself as “the Lord of Glory [who] was crucifyed for the world.”

All of this lending Joseph the suspension of disbelief and assuming that he actually had some kind of visionary experience, as he consistently claimed. I personally believe we should consider it a possibility and investigate accordingly. Is it not strange though that despite his claim that “none would believe the hevnly vision,” there is no available visionary account reported before 1823, friendly or hostile, family or not? 1823 was purportedly the year Joseph was first visited by Moroni/Nephi.

For instance, in 1838 Joseph extrapolated that sharing his (by this point) “1820" vision of the Father and Son “excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase” (Roberts, History of the Church, Vol. 1, p 7). Yet there is no corroborative testimony to that effect at all. None whatsoever. Beginning in 1823, many accounts of Joseph having dreams, visions, and necromancies are reported by family and neighbors on both sides of the fence, but none report a visitation by the Lord.

Joseph certainly was actually persecuted for his earliest visionary claims, but those contemporary reports revolve solely around the dream visitation of an angel who promised him a certain set of valuable Gold Plates. And by their own account, these aggressors were not incensed at Joseph’s initial religious claims; they were upset that Joseph did not honor their 1825 treasure-digging contract that promised equal shares for all, should spoils be found. It was not until 1830 that we have evidence for a “Christian experience” that predates the treasure angel’s 1823 visit. Apologists claim that the June 1830 revelation references Joseph’s first vision:

“For, after that it truly was manifested unto this first Elder [Joseph Smith] that he had Received a remission of his sins he was entangled again in the vanities of the world but after truly Repenting God ministered unto him by an Holy Angel whose countenance was as Lightning & whose garments were pure & white above all whiteness & gave unto him Commandments which insp[i]red him from on high & gave unto him power by the means of which was before prepared that he should translate a Book…” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Vol. 1, Manuscript Revelation Books, p 60; cf. D&C 20:5-8)

It certainly hints at some kind of atoning manifestation, but makes no mention of visitation by angelic personages. Although the Palmyra “Reflector” reported Mormon missionaries teaching in 1830 that Smith had seen God “frequently and personally” (The Reflector, Vol. 2, no. 13, 14 Feb 1831), this is more likely a mistaken reference to the annual visits of Cumorah's angel. It is also possible they inferred this from one of Joseph's early revelations (such as D&C 6:37). This seems particularly likely considering Orson Pratt’s 1840 pamphlet “An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions…” is the first published account of the prophet’s premiere theophany that lines up with the official story as we know it today. 

Joseph did occasionally regale his guests with the tale of his religious quest experienced between the ages of 14 and 16, but nobody in the 1830s seemed to be aware that it was anything more than an angelic visitation. Joseph himself appears to go back and forth about it. Despite the 1832 history, Joseph records an account given to “Joshua, the Jewish Minister” in his 9 November 1835 diary:

“I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter. I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me: I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer; I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person, or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee. He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. When I was about 17 years I had another vision of angels; in the night season, after I had retired to bed.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories: Vol. 1, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, p 116)

This recording is clearly in reference to the first vision, and is differentiated from the latter angelic vision at 17. Yet Joseph fails to identify the two personages, except perhaps in the summary statement, “I saw many angels in this vision.” This makes sense considering the personage’s testimony of Jesus’ forgiveness is spoken in the third-person. The strongest evidence for the propriety of this interpretation is found in his subsequent diary entry dated 14 November 1835, only five days later:

“A gentleman called this afternoon, by the name of Erastus Holmes of Newbury Clemon [Clermont] Co. Ohio, to make inquiry about the establishment of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and to be instructed more perfectly in the doctrine & principles of it. He (Smith) commenced and gave him a brief relation of his experience while in his youthful days, say from the age of six years up to the time he received the first visitation of angels which was when he was about 14 years old. He also gave him an account of the revelations he afterward received concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories: Vol. 1, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, p 124; emphasis mine)

Consider for a moment that the first vision account related to “Joshua, the Jewish Minister” was omitted from the official History of the Church, but this latter diary entry was included as follows:

“This afternoon, Erastus Holmes, of Newbury, Ohio, called on me to inquire about the establishment of the Church, and to be instructed in doctrine more perfectly. I gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from six years old up to the time I received my first vision, which was when I was about fourteen years old; also the revelations that I received afterwards concerning the Book of Mormon.” (Roberts, History of the Church, Vol. 2, p 312; emphasis mine)

It bothers me they changed it. Evidently, the “Priesthood Correlation” engine operating in the church today inherits a long tradition of revisionist historical treatment, not beginning with B.H. Robert’s official histories. Anyway, one of the prophet’s earliest and closest associate in those years also published an account of Joseph’s first encounter with the divine in the LDS Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, 1:41-43,65-67. Oliver Cowdery admits that his “history would necessarily embrace the life and character of our esteemed friend and brother, J. Smith jr.,” “a more particular or minute history of the rise and progress of the church” and that he will submit “such facts as are within my knowledge.” 

Interestingly, he begins Joseph’s account by an exposition of the religious fervor in Palmyra during “the 15th year of his life,” but in the follow-up issue apologizes for the error: “You will recollect that I mentioned the time of a religious excitement, in Palmyra and vicinity to have been in the 15th year of our brother J. Smith jr’s age – that was an error in the type – it should have been in the 17th.” Perhaps Oliver recognized the anachronism of placing the local religious fervor prior to Alvin’s death in 1823, as have many contemporary critics. In any case, in the same issue he then recounts Joseph’s endeavor:

“Our brother was urged forward and strengthened in the determination to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion. – And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him the all important information if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him. … On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind – his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him, had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories: Vol. 1, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, p 52-57)

Oliver then proceeds to tell the familiar story of the Lord’s messenger appearing to him and calling him to discover an ancient record hidden in the earth nearby. The Angel’s utterances here are a strange confounding of the 1838 Moroni account and the twin personages’ pronouncements on the state of Christendom found in the same history: 

“God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen; yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things which are that no flesh should glory in his presence. Therefore, says, the Lord, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid; for according to his covenant which he made with his ancient saints, his people, the house of Israel must come to a knowledge of the gospel, and own that Messiah whom their fathers rejected, and with them the fullness of the Gentiles be gathered in, to rejoice in one fold under one Shepherd. … He has therefore chosen you as an instrument in his hand to bring to pass a marvelous work and wonder. Wherever the sound shall go it shall cause the ears of men to tingle, and wherever it shall be proclaimed, the pure in heart shall rejoice, while those who draw near to God with their mouths, and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him, will seek its overthrow, and the destruction of those by whose hands it is carried. Therefore, Marvle not if your name is made a derission, and had as a by-word among such, if you are the instrument in bringing it, by the gift of God, to the knowledge of the people.” (Ibid., p 58,59)

How are faithful Latter-day Saints to interpret these things? Oliver was the second Elder, an apostle, and at the time of this publication, the Assistant President of the Church. I doubt if there was anybody in a better position to know Joseph’s story more intimately than Oliver Cowdery. It would be convenient to dismiss Oliver’s published account as an accidental conflation, but that doesn’t quite hold up. Joseph’s purpose in prayer on September 21, 1823 is stated to have been for “the all important information if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.” 

It is unfathomable, to me at least, that Joseph could be preoccupied with this query, as well to wonder “of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion,” if he had indeed experienced the first vision according to the 1838 account. It seems more than a possibility to me that Joseph’s primordial visionary experiences have their origins in a single angelic vision had in a waking dream circa September 1823. In considering this problem, one might expect his immediate family's awareness given their anxious participation in the Nephite angel's communications, but none of them corroborates the official first vision account prior to its publication in Nauvoo's Times and Seasons in 1842. 

Frankly, the transformation of an angelic salvation experience into a visit by the Lord, into a visit by many angels, into a visit by the Father and Son and many angels exactly reflects the doctrinal developments in Joseph's Smith's evolving theological worldview. His revelations and discourse, in addition to his edits of the 1837 Book of Mormon, show the same redaction and expansion. It is a similar kind of development the Mormon concept of Priesthood underwent (see Gregory Prince's Power From On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood), only much less linear. 

Is it possible that he simply left out certain details on different occasions? In view of the aforementioned parallels, it is unlikely these things are mere coincidence. On the other hand, the likelihood that he expanded the origins of his calling to counter tremendous opposition and apostasy in the 1837-9 fallout is bolstered by the fact that most of his closest adherents understood the first vision primarily as an angelic ministration even decades after his death. A sample:

“The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven … but He did send his angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform.” – Brigham Young, 1855 (Various ed., Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p 171)

“[Joseph Smith read James 1:5] and taking this literally, he went humbly before the Lord and inquired of Him, and the Lord answered his prayer, and revealed to Joseph, by the ministration of angels, the true condition of the religious world. When the holy angel appeared, Joseph inquired which of all the denominations was right and which he should join, and was told they were all wrong, - they had all gone astray, transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant.” ~ “[Joseph] sought the Lord by day and by night, and was enlightened by the vision of an holy angel. When this personage appeared to him, one of his first inquiries was, ‘Which of the denominations of Christians in the vicinity was right?’ He was told they had all gone astray … he was, consequently, directed not to join any of them.” – George A. Smith, 1863; 1869 (Ibid., Vol. 12, p 334; Vol. 13, p 78)

“None of [the sects] was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right.” – John Taylor, 1879 (Ibid., Vol. 20, p 167)

“He accordingly went out into the woods and falling upon his knees called for a long time upon the Lord for wisdom and knowledge.  While engaged in prayer a light appeared in the heavens, and descended until it rested upon the trees where he was.  It appeared like fire.  But to his great astonishment, did not burn the trees.  An angel then appeared to him and conversed with him upon many things.  He told him that none of the sects were right…” – William Smith, 1883 (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, pp. 495,496; from Smith, “William Smith On Mormonism”, p. 5)

Of course, some of the brethren were definitely aware of the Father and Son story (for example, here). Strangely, the same individuals refer to the Father and Son incident more vaguely, while the accounts of an “holy angel” fit into the first vision context exactly. When speaking of Jesus and the Father, did these men mean a reference to the 1832 revelation (D&C 76:20,22,23)? Perhaps in a few cases, but probably not in most. As stated earlier, Orson’s version and subsequent accounts (like the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette and The Wentworth Letter) seem to follow the 1838 manuscript history quite closely, which first saw publication in April 1842 (Orson’s account can be found in Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories: Vol. 1, Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, pp. 520/ff (appendix); or alternatively, here).

It will surprise most CES students to learn that it was not until plural marriage ended in the early 20th century that Joseph F. Smith promoted the traditional First Vision story as a defining element of Mormonism (it was largely through his instrumentality that the 1838 history was canonized in 1880). Nevertheless, a late 19th century Salt Lake Mormon periodical published an interesting reproduction of the official account:

“I saw two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said (pointing to the other), This is my Beloved Son, hear him. … The angel again forbade Joseph to join any of these churches, and he promised that the true and everlasting Gospel should be revealed to him at some future time. Joseph continues: ‘Many other things did he (the angel) say unto me which I cannot write at this time.’” (The Historical Record, Vol. VII, p 355, 356; or alternatively, here

The Saints were evidently well aware of the 1838 record, but insisted upon interpreting the “personages” as representative messengers of some kind (perhaps like the Holy Ghost in Moses 5:9). Significantly, Joseph himself never names the two angelic personages in any of his accounts, and it is only in the later accounts that he strongly implies their relationship and identities. Certainly the addition of a second member reflects the doctrinal evolution Joseph was experiencing midway through his ministry; and the late implication of their identities in the 1840’s aggrandized his calling and authority.

Obviously, nobody can say for sure who or how many appeared to Joseph during his teenage visionary crusades – there were no other eye witnesses. Personally, I do not believe that the many variations in Joseph’s accounts are the product of confused repetition on the part of his hearers. We have too many first-hand narratives to counter that position. Additionally there are too many other parallels (consonant development through BoM, JST,  D&C, Lectures on Faith, etc.) that suggest they were conscious adaptations for harmonization. 

Although people have the right to believe about it as they please, it is not purely a matter of faith. The available evidence strongly suggests that the development in Joseph’s conception of God was erratically dynamic rather than strictly convergent, as one might expect of transcendent revelation. Much has been done to disguise that fact, not the least of which being the efforts of well-meaning members to coalesce Mormon history (as was my experience). This can be brutally frustrating because “the notion that LDS doctrines have merely progressed in a linear and progressive fashion ... is an appealing, but difficult, idea to corroborate" (Harrell, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, p x).

Continued in Part III...

1 comment:

  1. Excellent study Kolby. It is well researched and very insightful! Thanks for posting this!