Friday, March 19, 2010

Intellection and Joseph Smith's First Vision

I've been struck by just how intellectual are Joseph Smith's tellings of the First Vision. The accounts all run in ring fashion: the labors and anxieties of the mind find at the end--and often after a veritable cascade of questioning, reasoning, reading, and pondering--wonderful satisfaction. "I had now got my mind satisfied," Joseph says.

Though all readers have noted young Joseph's perplexities of mind, no one has ever shown by comparing accounts just how deeply rooted and interconnected is the language of intellection. Repeated words and phrases conveying such language appear in every one of Joseph's (and in every one of his contemporaries') accounts of the Vision.

The whole thing starts with the action of the intellect--and with the apt phrase: "I began to reflect." The intensity of feeling, the action of the heart, that also characterizes the narratives always retains an intellectual character--never mindless feeling. As the Prophet tells his German teacher, Alexander Neibaur: as a youth "he wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing," even while all the time laboring under an intense intellectual burden that yet pains the reader.

Commenting on the Prophet's recital of his reflections and intellectual struggles (comments never noted in the historiography--except by Hugh Nibley), early Illinois historian Henry Brown sneered:

"Whether the above reflections passed through the mind of a lad of fifteen, uneducated, and exhibiting, as yet, no evidence of precocious genius; or whether they are the reflections of maturer life, or the emanations of other and brighter intellects than his own, our readers will judge for themselves," Henry Brown, History of Illinois (New York, Winchester, 1844), 387.

"Genius"? "Brighter intellects"? Brown's own acknowledgments defeat the thrust of his sarcasm. And note how Brown chooses to comment only on the vivid expression of intellectual argument presented in the narrative of the First Vision, rather than on the Vision itself. He's dismayed at how smart the whole thing sounds. No kid's that smart, says Brown. Still, as C.S. Lewis says: "When the age for reflective thought comes"--it comes (The Abolition of Man, 700).

In pursuing our theme of intellection, it is only proper to begin at the beginning, the 1832 History of Joseph Smith, and so to proceed in chronological order.

1832 (History)

I give the original spelling and grammar, as found in Dean Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith I, 3-7.

"I was born. . .of goodly parents who spared no pains to instructing me in christian religion."

Yet: "we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements."

"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for 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 this was a grief to my Soul."

"Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart."

As he pondered on "the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord. . .and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever."

Joseph looks at the world and learns by careful observation of God's intelligence as governor of all creation:

"For I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon. . .and also the stars. . .and the earth also. . .and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created them 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 ominipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds" [compare to Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants].

"And when I considered all these things . . .I cried unto the Lord for mercy."

Mercy he found: And my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me."

The Prophet closes his story, as he began, with intellection: "But I could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart."

Open-ended pondering--note it well--both before and after the vision.

Oliver Cowdery, December 1834, in Matthew Brown, A Pillar of Light, 180-2

Joseph first studied the words of preachers: Elder Lane was a talented man possessing a good share of literary endowments.

Mr. Lane's manner of communication was peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect. . .much good instruction was always drawn from his discourses on the scriptures and in common with others, our brother's mind became awakened."

After family members "were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians": "This gave opportunity for further reflection."

"His mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind [uniting with a religious body]. To profess godliness without its benign influence upon the heart, was [a] thing so foreign from his feelings, that his spirit was not at rest day nor night. To unite with a society professing...and that profession be a vain one, was calculated, in its very nature, the more it was contemplated, the more to arouse the mind to the serious consequences of moving hastily."

After all, Oliver points out: "If I am presented with a system of religion, and enquire of my teacher whether it is correct, and he informs me that he is not certain, he acknowledges at once that he is teaching without authority."

"If one professed a degree of authority...and that superiority was without evidence, it was insufficient to convince a mind once aroused to that degree of determination which at that time operated upon him. And upon farther reflecting. . ."

"A proof from some source was wanting to settle the mind and give peace to the agitated bosom. It is not frequent that the minds of men are exercised with proper determination relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God. They are too apt to rest short of that assurance."

Joseph Smith Journal, 1835-1836

9 November 1835 (original spelling and grammar follows The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals I, 87-9)

"Being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and concidering it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequences, being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowed down before the Lord, under a realising sense that he had said (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive knock and it shall be opened seek and you shall find and again, if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God."

"Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord."

After the vision, Joseph continued to reflect: "I had not been a sleep, but was meditating upon my past life and experience, I was verry concious that I had not kept the commandments. . .an angel appeared before me."

Then: "while meditating on what I had seen, the Angel appeared to me again."

1838 History

"I have been induced to write this history so as to disabuse the publick mind, and put all enquirers after truth into possession of the facts."

"During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness, but though my feelings were deep and often pungent, still I kept myself aloof."

"But in process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them, but so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations that was impossible. . .to come to any certain conclusion."

"My mind at different times was greatly excited."

Preachers "used all their powers of either reason or sophistry."

"And if any one of them be right which is it? And how shall I know it?

"While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading."

"If any of you lack wisdom."

"Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did, for how to act I did not know and unless I could get more wisdom that I then had would never know, for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passage of Scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible."

"At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs."

"I at last came to the determination to ask of God, concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom. . .I might venture."

"This my determination."

"I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart."

"Exerting all my power to call upon God."

"I was ready to sink into despair."

"My object in going to enquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner therefore did I get possession of myself so as to be able to speak than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right, (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)."

"They teach for doctrines the commandments of men."

"I then told my mother I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true."

After the grove, persecution:

"To excite the public mind against me."

"It has often caused me serious reflection both then and since, how very strange. . .[that I] should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects."

"However it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a vision."

"I have thought since that I felt much like Paul when he made his defence before King Aggrippa."

Paul: "He had seen a vision he knew he had."

"Though they should persecute him unto death yet he knew and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise."

"I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth?"

"Why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen, for I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dare I do it, at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God."

Ring Composition--it all ends as it begins--with the mind: "I had got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned."

"I had found the testimony of James to be true, that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God and obtain and not be upbraided."

Wentworth Letter, 1 March 1842

Dean Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith I, 429-30

"I began to reflect."

"Upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment."

"Considering that all could not be right. . .I determined to investigate the subject more fully."

"If [God] taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed."

' If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God."

"While fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision."

David Nye White Interview for the Pittsburgh Gazette (1843)
Dean Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith 1

The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it.

"I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join. While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament."

"I just determined I'd ask him."

In later life: "Speaking of revelations, he stated that when he was in a 'quandary,' he asked the Lord for a revelation, and when he could not get it, he 'followed the dictates of his own judgment.'"

"The people at Carthage, in a public meeting lately, said, 'as for Joe, he's a fool, but he's got some smart men about him. I'm glad they give me so much credit. It is not every fool that has sense enough to get smart men about him."

Levi Richards Report (1843) Opening the Heavens, article by Dean Jesse, 23-4.

Joseph said "when he was a youth he began to think about these things but could not find out."

Further reflection: "He said he understood the fulness of the Gospel from beginning to end--and could teach it.

Alexander Neibaur Journal (24 May 1844), 459-62

Feeling and shouting is decidedly non-intellectual--but reading is: "He wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel and shout like the Rest but could feel nothing, opened his Bible the first Passage that struck him was if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God."

"Could utter not a word, felt easier after a while = saw a fire towards heaven came near and nearer."

"The fire drew nigher Rested upon the tree enveloped him comforted"

Joseph Curtis Recollection
(Joseph Curtis, Reminiscences and Journal, MS, 5, Church Archives)
page 27 of Opening the Heavens

"He feeling an anxiety to be religious his mind some what troubled this scriptures came to his mind which sayes if a man lack wisdon.

"He went with a "determinati[on]" to the grove.

The vision came: "after some strugle."

Orson Pratt Account, 24 September 1840 or earlier?

"His advantages for acquiring literary knowledge were exceedingly small, hence, his education was limited to a slight acquaintance with two or three of the common branches of learning. He could read without much difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand, and had a very limited understanding of the ground rules of arithmetic. These were his highest and only attainments while the rest of those branches, so universally taught in the common schools throughout the United States, were entirely unknown to him."

"When somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old, he began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself was a question as yet undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same. He saw that if he understood not the way, it would be impossible to walk in it except by chance, and the thought of resting his hopes of eternal life upon chance or uncertainties was more than he could endure. If he went to the religious denominations to seek information, each one pointed to its particular tenets."

"It also occurred to his mind that God was not the author of but one doctrine...[with a people] who believe and teach that one doctrine."

"He then reflected upon the immense number of doctrines now in the world which had given rise to many hundreds of different denominations. The great question to be decided in his mind was--if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it? Until he could become satisfied in relation to this question he could not rest contented. To trust to the decisions of fallible man, and build his hopes upon the same, without any certainty and knowledge of his own, would not satisfy the anxious desires that pervaded his breast. To decide without any positive and definite evidence on which he could rely, upon a subject involving the future welfare of his soul, was revolting to his feelings. The only alternative that seemed to be left him was to read the scriptures and endeavor to follow their directions. He accordingly commenced, perusing the sacred pages of the Bible with sincerity, believing the things that he read. His mind soon caught hold of the following passage: 'If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God."

"From this promise he learned, that it was the privilege of all men to ask God for wisdom."

"This was cheering information to him."

"He now saw that if he inquired of God there was not only a possibility but a probability; yea, more a certainty that he should obtain a knowledge."

He was challenged by darkness in the grove: "But he continued to seek for deliverance until darkness gave way from his mind and he was enabled to pray, in fervency of the spirit and in faith. And, while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God."

"And immediately, his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enrapt in a heavenly vision."

"He was informed that his sins were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects which had for some time previously agitated his mind."

"And he received a promise that the true doctrine--the fullness of the gospel--should at some future time be made known to him. After which the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace indescribable."

Orson Hyde Account

A Cry from the Wilderness, PJS, D. Jessee (ed), 404-9

"When he had reached his fifteenth year, he began to think seriously [fing er ernsten Sinnes...nachzudenken = "reflect" an]."

"He recognized clearly [Er sah klar] that it would be impossible for him to walk the proper path without being acquainted with it beforehand.; and to base his hopes for eternal life on chance or blind uncertainty would have been more than he had ever been inclined to do. He discovered [Er entdeckte] the world of religion working under a flood of errors."

"Nature had endowed him with a keen critical intellect [einem starken, beurtheilenden Verstande] and so he looked through the lens of reason and common sense [das Glas der Vernunft und des guten Sinnes]...upon these systems of religions. After he had sufficiently convinced himself to his own satisfaction [er sich...hinlaenglich ueberzeugt hatte]."

"Consequently he began in an attitude of faith his own investigation of the word of God [feeling that it was] the best way to arrive at a knowledge of the truth."

"And so he began to pour out to the Lord with fervent determination the earnest desires of his soul."

"He filled his mind with doubts and brought to mind all manner of inappropriate images."

"Light and peace filled his frightened heart."

"Once again he called upon the Lord with faith and fervency of spirit."

The vision closed and peace and calm filled his mind [sien Gemueth].

The Second Vision--Moroni: "His mind was immediately flooded with calmness and serenity and his state of mind was elevated to an ecstacy of joy."

Joseph Smith Sr. Patriarchal Blessing 9 Dec. 1834 "From thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of [h]is law."

Lucy Mack Smith
"Joseph was less inclined to the study of books than any child we had but much more given to reflection and deep study."

Robert Remini, Joseph Smith (Penguin, 2002): "His mother said he was "remarkably quiet," a "well-disposed child," and "always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature." He was much "given to reflection and deep study," 31.

"While these things were going forward, Joseph's mind became considerably troubled with regard to religion; and the following extract from his history will show, more clearly than I can express, the state of his feelings, and the result of his reflections on this occasion," Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Lavina F. Anderson (ed), 331.

Note also: "One night my husband retired to his bed, in a very thoughtful state of mind, contemplating the situation of the Christian religion, or the confusion and discord that were extant," 294.

George A. Smith
Joseph "reflected much on the subject religion" JD 13:77

Daniel H. Wells, cited in Milton V. Backman, Jr., "Lo, Here! Lo, There," 24

"The days of my youth were days of religious excitement--the days of revivals, which so pervaded that section of country at that time--and I can well apprehend the effect these things must have had on the mind of Joseph...I know how those revivals affected young minds in the neighbourhood in which I lived."


Although thoughtful readers of the several accounts of the First Vision may find it surprising, attention to the phraseology of intellection has mostly been limited to a comparison of the various accounts by themes. Exceptions include David Whittaker, Marvin Hill, Ron Howard, and especially, Steven Harper. Of these, only Harper has expended more than a paragraph or so on the striking manner in which Joseph focuses his story on his mind and his heart. (I also like Robert Remini's title: Reflections of Joseph Smith.)

The following statements show what various writers have noted in respect of intellection and the First Vision.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: "Joseph Smith, Jr., prepared his mind through 'serious reflection,' and on the crucial passage in James 1:5 he 'reflected again and again," "...Of Countries and of Kingdoms," BYU Studies (1977:18/1), 9.

Richard L. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 38 (see also Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 54-6): Joseph in looking to the orderly universe for proof of God was "using the usual rationalist language." Of interest is that Joseph seems to have attended a "juvenile debating club," 37-8. The mind was always active.

Howard, Restoration Studies I (1980): "Joseph Smith's First Vision: An Analysis of Six Contemporary Accounts," compares the accounts of the First Vision by setting them side-by-side under thematic headings. The analysis yields much treasure.

David J. Whittaker, "Orson Pratt's First Vision Account," Mormon Historical Studies (2004) 5/2, 88: "In his first pamphlet, Orson Pratt is led to emphasize the rational and natural elements of the visions of his prophetic leader. It is almost Baconian in its rational depiction of the physical setting of the vision. Such an emphasis remained in his work--in fact, it would be the hallmark of Orson Pratt's natural theology."

Orson Pratt would recall that he had heard the Prophet recite many times the account of the First Vision: "I have often heard him relate it," JD 7:220-1, cited in John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith: Seeker After Truth. Elder Pratt must have memorized the key words, phrases, and narrative markers in Joseph's accounts. In other words, I think it was Joseph Smith's mind, that is, his concern with the workings of the mind, as evidenced in all his revelations, writings, and discourses, that impressed on Orson Pratt the imperative for the things of the mind in the quest for the things of the Spirit. Orson Pratt has always been considered exemplary in that regard: he had the perfect teacher in Joseph Smith.

Marvin Hill, "On the First Vision and Its Import in the Shaping of Early Mormonism," Dialogue XII, no.1: "I wonder if this commitment to what the heart says, or in Mormon terminology the spirit, was a part of Joseph Smith's conscious experience in the grove and thus something of a deliberate choice. That is, was there a rejection by the prophet in 1820 of some of the secular implications of rationalism, and a commitment to a kind of experiential faith that transcends to some degree the reason? Again, Joseph's statement 'had I not experienced it I could not believe it myself' suggests this possibility. If so, if the vision thus provided young Joseph with a conscious commitment to pietism above rationalism, while he retained his faith in an orderly universe and a reasonable God, we can better understand why there has been such an uneasy tension between faith and reason in Mormonism, as Thomas F. O'Dea has shown."

But in the early accounts of Joseph's vision, there is no tension between faith and reason, only between unsustainable faith--religious profession without religion and profession without proof, or divine testimony--and reason. After all, is it reasonable for religionists to profess and not practice? Is it reasonable that God exists yet stands mute? As for the idea that visionary experiences by transcending reason oppose rational thinking, look again at what the Prophet, from beginning, through middle, to end, relates of his experience.

Steven J. Harper, "On the Eve of the First Vision," Susan E. Black and Andrew C. Skinner (eds), Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet (2005), explores the Prophet's use of the phrase my mind to describe his state of mind before and during Spring 1820:

"It was, Joseph wrote, 'during this time of great excitement' that his religious concerns reached a peak. His parents used such words as darkness, anxiety and despair to describe their frustrated quest for salvation. To these Joseph added that he was distressed, perplexed, that it was a period of confusion, extreme difficulties, and great uneasiness," 33.

Notes from Steven Harper's 28 January 2010 lecture on "Memory and the First Vision" (http://saltlakemormon/ "Joseph Smith's accounts of his vision provide the best access to his mind. Joseph used the word mind nearly 20 times in his accounts and then when he's exploring his own mind, remembering what was in his mind in the days leading up to the experience. An initial glance suggests that this was a more frequent use of the word mind than in the rest of his corpus. The accounts are remarkably introspective."

Twenty times Joseph references his mind in the story of the vision--how remarkable that is and how very unremarked it has been. Professor Harper notes the Prophet's introspection; still, there is more than introspection: Joseph Smith is setting forth a case, marshaling an argument that would appeal to any honest mind. Arthur Henry King famously says Joseph isn't trying to persuade anyone of anything, that he is cool, calm, and dispassionate (hardly!--see the quote by Harper again) in his recital, yet the Prophet does appeal to logic, reason, and the mind again and again. Still, while drawing us into his own perplexities of mind, he--most deftly--does not force his view, or his vision, on the reader. He only says, with stirring words, that he cannot deny what he saw.

How to see things as King saw them? What King means is that Brother Joseph never tries to convince the reader by emotion alone, something which would be tawdry and shallow. And admittedly, despite "the cry and the tumult so great and incessant," "the war of words," and the attack in the grove, there is a strange deliberation running through the whole. There is a detachment in denouement: the question is answered, the confusion resolved, and at end, Joseph sees himself as Paul to the nations. It was never just about him anyhow--all this pain. God had a plan. Joseph somehow, and clearly and reasonably, objectifies his subjective pain (an intellectual calmness underlies the thread of panic and despair precisely because there is going to be resolution and satisfaction), and introduces the reader, quite objectively thereby, to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Steven L. Olsen, "Joseph Smith and the Structure of Mormon Identity," 89 or 96?: "The 'First Vision' and Moroni's repeated visitations are wholly concerned with giving Joseph 'instruction and intelligence,'" Dialogue 14 (1981).

Again, a marvelous observation--the glory of God is indeed intelligence.

I finish with Elder John A. Widtsoe: "Using a figure, the reflections from innumerable facets of his character make up the glowing picture of his greatness," Joseph Smith: Seeker After Truth, Prophet of God, 329.

Bibliography on the First Vision: Mormon Americana (1995), David Whittaker (ed), "Joseph Smith: A Bibliography," David Whittaker, qv First Vision, 35-7; Studies in Mormon History, 1830-1997, J. Allen, R. Walker, D. Whittaker (eds), 933.

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