We’ve all read about the first vision, and the negative reaction that many contemporaries had to Joseph Smith’s account. We read in the prophet’s words:
Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
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; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sectsâ€”all united to persecute me.
I remember learning about this, and forming an impression — I don’t recall the details, but it must have been in Sunday School or in Seminary — that the negative reaction had been because preachers at the time had never heard anything like Joseph’s story. It did not fit into their understanding of the world, and they rejected it as strange, unusual, or preposterous.
I’ve since, on occasion, had this idea reinforced. In various church class settings, the idea has been presented: Contemporaneous preachers had never heard anything like Joseph’s unique story. They were reacting reflexively to the unknown and unthinkable. Their defense mechanism was to cast him out and cast aspersions on him. It is an easy image for the mind to digest: A tranquil little middle-earth of peaceful hobbit preachers for whom nothing exciting ever happens, calmly repeating to themselves that the Heavens have been silent since the apostolic age, and suddenly being thrown into consternation by Joseph’s unexpected visitors.
I was a little surprised, then, when I later read Bushman’s account of Joseph Smith’s history. Bushman writes (at 58-59, emphasis added):
Joseph may not have recognized the ill repute of visionaries. The preacher reacted quickly, not because of the strangeness of Joseph’s story but because of its familiarity. Subjects of revivals all too often claimed to have seen visions. In 1825 a teacher in the Palmyra Academy said that he saw Christ [details of this and others] . . .
The visions themselves did not disturb the established clergy so much as the messages the visionaries claimed to receive. Too often the visions justified a breach of the moral code or a sharp departure in doctrine. By Joseph’s day, any vision was automatically suspect, whatever its content. . . The only acceptable message was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph’s report on the divine rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical [whom Joseph told about the vision].
It’s quite a different story than the conventional wisdom I had learned. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Also, it seems to lead to a potentially richer understanding of the First Vision.
Of course, the more correct understanding is easy to spin from both the Mormon and the anti-Mormon perspective. A believing member might think that prior tales of visions were set up by Satan, in order to make the First Vision more easily discredited. A skeptic might believe that Joseph was just parroting what he had heard about the experiences of others. And various middle ground positions exist as well. For example, perhaps Joseph’s expectations (after hearing about others) are what prompted God and Jesus to appear as they did.