Sunday night, Elder Richard J. Maynes, of the Presidency of the Seventy, delivered a CES Devotional on the First Vision. In particular, he made explicit reference to the four first-person accounts of the First Vision authored by Joseph Smith that we have. [See the text of the four accounts at this handy page at the JSPP site.] He also referenced the Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts.” It is encouraging to see senior LDS leaders incorporate the essays and the scholarship coming out of the Church History Department into their talks and recommend this material to the general membership. This post is about a very new resource that Elder Maynes referenced in his talk: A harmonized narrative of the First Vision posted at the Church History site (within LDS.org) incorporating details from all four primary sources. It was posted there only about a week ago. Wow. It’s not everyday that the Church restates the narrative of its founding event and posts it online.
To give you a sense of how it works, here is the first paragraph, blending quotations first from the 1832 account and then 1835 account.
“At about the age of twelve years,” Joseph Smith wrote, “my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul.”1 Living in upstate New York in the 1810s, Joseph was surrounded by religious discussion and controversy. Religious revivals put the urgent question “What must I do to be saved?” foremost in his mind. But the answer was elusive. “Being wrought up in my mind,” Joseph studied the “different systems” of religion, but “I knew not who was right or who was wrong and considered it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences.”2 His own sins and the “sins of the world” made him “exceedingly distressed.”
Before I give some reasons why harmonized accounts are a bad thing, let me first say that as harmonized accounts go, in this particular context, this is a pretty good narrative. Steven C. Harper, a BYU religion guy, is listed as the author. Harper cuts and pastes from the four primary accounts, adds some quotations from other sources such as Orson Pratt, and adds his own framing and commentary. There are links to each of the four primary accounts at the end of the article as well as footnotes for all the sources, many of them linked as well. As a tool for helping introduce Latter-day Saints to the details of the additional accounts of the First Vision beyond the standard canonized version (the 1838 account), this is a helpful introduction and complement to the “First Vision Accounts” essay linked above.
The problem with a harmonized account, of course, is that it is almost certainly not accurate. If several sources give different accounts with different details of a particular event, you have to weigh each source for credibility then, in light of that assessment, offer a suitably tentative most likely description of what did actually happen, to the extent that one can achieve the requisite degree of confidence in the particular details that are included in that likely description. A harmonization seems intended to avoid such a critical assessment of sources. In essence, a harmonization is designed to protect the sources, not to develop the most likely account of the event under study. The harmonization method might be spelled out like this: I accept all my sources at face value. I ask no questions of my sources. I simply weave all the sources together to create a conflated narrative, minimizing or ignoring the inconsistencies. Try that in an undergraduate history essay and you will probably get an F.
The obvious parallel is the New Testament gospels. Here as well, LDS writers love harmonization. Both Talmage and McConkie used a harmonization approach in their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christmas story we all know and love is a harmonization incorporating separate and largely unrelated accounts from Matthew and Luke. All things considered, we should applaud the “First Vision Accounts” essay for *not* attempting a harmonization. In that essay, each account is described separately, then problematic issues related to the four accounts as a group (memory and embellishment) are addressed. You may or may not agree with the analysis, but it is the right approach.
So if you are the type of person who simply must raise your hand in Sunday School to share your knowledge of LDS history, here’s what you might say when someone brings up the different First Vision sources in your class: “FYI, an LDS scholar just published at the LDS.org site a fuller account of the First Vision that incorporates details from all four of Joseph Smith’s accounts, plus some other sources. And there are handy links to the four primary accounts as well, to make it easy for you to go read them for yourself. But make sure you read the Gospel Topics essay on First Vision accounts as well.“