We are now in the year 2020, which is 200 years after the date that Joseph Smith said that he was first visited by God the Father and Jesus the Christ. At the most recent general conference, President Russell M. Nelson noted this anniversary and invited us to “prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.” On New Year’s Day, he reiterated this, stating that: “I designated 2020 as a bicentennial period commemorating 200 years since God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in a vision.” In addition to a special general conference, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has begun releasing other resources to commemorate and celebrate the beginning of the Restoration, including a new six-episode podcast, “The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.” Kurt Manwaring recently visited with the host of The First Vision podcast, Spencer W. McBride, to discuss the series. What follows here is a summary of their discussion with some commentary, but I recommend reading the full text, available here.
The podcast is a set of six episodes discussing different aspects of the First Vision with historians. Each episode is fairly short (only one runs longer than 30 minutes). Topics include the culture of the United States of American that contributed to the First Vision, what question Joseph Smith was really asking, what the location the vision took place at was like, what story the different accounts of the vision tell together, the circumstances of each of those accounts being written, and why the story of the First Vision is important to Latter-day Saints. To me, the episodes felt tightly focused and helped listeners experience a bit of what Joseph Smith’s world was like at the time of the First Vision.
In his interview with Kurt Manwaring, Spencer McBride discussed the inspiration for the podcast.
At the Joseph Smith Papers we are always interested in opportunities share what we have learned about Joseph Smith and early Mormon history with the general public.
For some, the print edition of the Joseph Smith Papers (which is intended primarily for scholars) can be daunting for members of the general public who are not familiar with documentary histories.
We thought that a podcast would be an excellent medium for distilling and explaining much of what we have learned over the course of our work on the project.
The series was made to share insights learned from the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project in a way that is easy to digest.
McBride went on to explain that there are a few goals that he and all of those involved in the project wanted to achieve. In the interview, he stated that: “The goal of the podcast is to tell the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision—a well-known story to Latter-day Saints throughout the world—in a way that is simultaneously familiar and new.” A big part of this was a desire to “explain the context in which Smith entered the woods to pray and the way that the resulting vision changed his life.” The intent, as indicated in the podcasts, is to facilitate looking at the event of the First Vision through the eyes of historians.
As can (and should) be expected from a Church-sponsored production, the podcast is presented from a strongly faithful perspective while seeking to enrich Church member’s understanding of historical context. It doesn’t seek to challenge member’s faith or their overall understanding of the event, but to build on that understanding in positive ways. As Spencer McBride said: “The historians interviewed for this podcast are not turning the story on its head, but rather asking listeners to consider additional perspectives on the history of Smith and his 1820 vision.” In some ways, it builds on the efforts put into writing the Gospel Topics Essay on the First Vision while delving into the subject in greater depth.
Episodes 4 and 5 are particularly important in this regard by exploring the First Vision through the nine major accounts of the event that are currently known. Episode 4 brings up the subject by listening to a combined account of the First Vision, with the host pointing out interesting details and working to demonstrate that the accounts are mostly complementary. Episode 5 (the longest episode at just over 44 minutes) dives into exploring each of the major accounts, explaining why they are written the way that they are through the context of the time that they were written. As Spencer McBride explained:
The podcast explores what was going on in Smith’s life at the time he gave each account—the audience to whom he was speaking and the circumstances for the retelling—that help listeners understand why he described the event the way that he did in different moments.
I think it will equip Latter-day Saints with the understanding they need to study the different accounts of the First Vision and to discover insights that are only found when the accounts are studied together.
By bringing historians with expertise in matters related to the First Vision, the podcast offers tools and context to help grapple with some of the major concerns that surround the accounts.
The podcasts, however, are not exclusively about cultural context and apologetics. My personal favorite episode was Episode 3, in which Spencer McBride discusses what the grove was like in the early 1800s with Mark Staker, a curator with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. It was a nice to visualize the types of trees in bloom, the underbrush, and the animals that would have been there at the time of year Joseph Smith went to pray in the woods. Throughout the series, it was enjoyable to look at the variety of approaches they used in the episodes to look at the culture, documents, natural environment, and religion that shaped the First Vision.
For more details, I suggest reading the full interview with Spencer McBride here. There are more details on the historians involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve. I also suggest listening to or reading the transcripts of the podcasts here. They are quick listens and provided a fair amount of interesting discussion. If you have listened to them already, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Closing Remarks,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/57nelson?lang=eng. See also https://www.thechurchnews.com/leaders-and-ministry/2019-10-06/general-conference-october-2019-first-vision-joseph-smith-163457.
 Russell M. Nelson, “My 2020 Invitation to You: Share the Message of the Restoration of the Savior’s Gospel,” 1 Jan. 2020, churchofjesuschrist.org blog, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/my-2020-invitation-to-you-share-the-message-of-the-restoration-of-the-saviors-gospel?lang=eng.
 See https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/news/first-vision-podcast?lang=eng and https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/joseph-smith-papers-first-vision-podcast?fbclid=IwAR3e34aMn7CFripYIo0duRhHYTqExjAMLNWCU7_vFx3rt_p87Hyhz1Oh5wA for the official Church news releases about the podcast.
 This is the first podcast to be released on the Joseph Smith Papers Project website, but it isn’t the first time they have been involved in a series of episodes discussing aspects of the First Vision. A total of six episodes of the Joseph Smith Papers series discussed the subject. See my pervious article about the First Vision for links at https://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2019/10/first-vision-resources/.