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Memory and the First Vision - Steven C. Harper
Memory and the First Vision - Steven C. Harper

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Steven C. Harper is a Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, and author of the new book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins

Steve was the Managing Historian and General Editor of Saints, the Church’s remarkable new history series. He was also a Volume Editor for The Joseph Smith Papers.

President Nelson declared 2020 a bicentennial year to commemorate Joseph Smith’s first vision, and invited us to study the first vision in advance of General Conference. There’s no one better to talk with about this subject than Steven Harper. 

Aubrey Chaves: Hi and welcome to the Faith Matters Podcast. This is Aubrey Chaves. We hope everybody is staying healthy and safe. We know that there’s a lot of concern and worry right now, and we’re really hoping that by releasing more content we can help lift spirits in our own small way. We’re really excited about this episode. We talked with Steven C. Harper, Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, and author of the new book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins. Steve has also served as the Managing Historian and General Editor of Saints, and as a Volume Editor of The Joseph Smith Papers.

President Nelson declared 2020 a bicentennial year to commemorate Joseph Smith’s first vision, and invited us to study the first vision in advance of General Conference. There’s no one better to talk with about this subject than Steve. Reading his book completely changed our perspective on the first vision itself, and he explains why it was never a given that the first vision would become the seminal story of our faith. We’ll link to the book from our website, but you can also head to Amazon or Desert Books’ website to buy it. We’d encourage everybody that has a chance to read it. Again, the book’s called First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins.

This was an absolutely fascinating conversation, and we think everybody that listens will learn something new.

Tim Chaves: Okay. Well Steve, thank you so much for coming on. It’s really an honor and a pleasure to have you. We feel like this is very, very timely with the bicentennial of the first vision coming up, and our celebration of it, and you being one of the leading scholars on this subject. So thank you so much for being here.

Steven C. Harper: You bet. I’m very glad for the invitation. Thank you both.

Tim Chaves: Of course.

Aubrey Chaves: Sure.

Tim Chaves: We’d love to start, before we dive into the subject matter specifically, if you wouldn’t mind giving sort of your background personally, your faith journey, your education, and kind of what brought you to the point you’re at now, if that’s okay.

Steven C. Harper: I am sort of unlikely historian, I guess you might say. I didn’t even know people were historians when I was a teenager. I thought my job prospects were, I’d like to be an NFL quarterback, and maybe something that makes enormous amounts of money. And that was about my horizon. I realize now that I was quite interested in history, but I wouldn’t have been able to perceive it as a teenager. But I had a really, really formative experience in 1985, where I became aware of Mark Hoffman’s forgeries, along with just about everybody else, not knowing they were forgeries at the time. Right?

Tim Chaves: Right.

Steven C. Harper: So sort of jarring.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: I don’t mean to overstate it, I was not particularly precocious, but a letter purportedly from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stole about how to find the right kind of Hazel branch, and cut it the right way to find buried treasure was published in the church news in May of ’85.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: I remember reading it, and being a little disoriented by it. Never heard that in church. I asked my dad about it, “What’s this all about?” He said something like, “You know, I don’t know,” he had just read it before me, “but I’ve never heard that either.” And he said, “Things like this come up from time to time, and if you will keep your faith and keep studying, keep asking this question, what’s this all about,” he said, “you’ll be okay if you’ll just be steady. Don’t overreact. Don’t run away from what you already know because you don’t know this.”

I didn’t realize at the time how fundamental, how foundational that experience was to me. That fall, Hoffman killed two innocent people, and his scheme unraveled. My dad proved more and more over time to be really prophetic, and really steady. And I learned from that experience that I could expect things that I didn’t understand or know about to complicate what I knew. That was a given.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: And I could expect that if I stuck with the things I did know and kept looking into the things I didn’t, then I’d get more information and pieces of the puzzle would fit together better. So from a young age, I had that experience that Bruce and Marie Hafen are calling simplicity to complexity to other side simplicity. Not everybody gets it that young, and it can be really disorienting, as you know, and it can be completely, completely unmoor you from your faith.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: So that was the beginning for me, and at the time I did not even know it. I had no idea. It took a lot of other experiences, and a mission was really good for me to learn that I was very, very interested in the restored gospel, something I could study for a lifetime and not exhaust.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow. Where did you serve a mission?

Steven C. Harper: I went to central Canada, to the Winnipeg mission-

Aubrey Chaves: Oh, okay.

Steven C. Harper:… which was perfect for me. I confess, I was disappointed when I read the … my parents actually read the letter to me over the phone, and I was like, “Oh great. Isn’t everybody in Canada already a Latter Day Saint?” It turns out they’re not, actually. And I didn’t help much with that. But it was a great experience for me, and came back home determined to love the scriptures, and learn everything about them, and found out that was more complicated than I thought, and migrated sort of away from the Bible to Joseph Smith’s revelations. They’re just complicated enough, and dense enough to be a fun challenge, where I’d spend a lifetime, but not so complicated that you throw your hands up in the air and say, “I can’t know anything about this.”

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, right.

Steven C. Harper: I admire the Bible scholars who do that work, but I gave up on that. I threw my hands up in the air. There’s a famous book you might know, Who Wrote The Bible.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steven C. Harper: I’ve read the book, and I still don’t know the answer to the question. So it’s too, too complicated for me, Bible studies. But church history, Joseph Smith’s revelation texts, which I know pretty much who wrote them and where they came from, it’s just meaty enough and close enough in proximity to us, and yet far enough away to still be that foreign country. The past is a foreign country. So for me it was the right fit to focus on early church history.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, that’s so interesting. So this book that you just wrote, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origin, you say at the beginning that the goal is not to persuade someone whether or not the vision happened, but really it’s kind of an exploration of memory and how memory works.

Steven C. Harper: Right.

Aubrey Chaves: So would you start, for someone who hasn’t read the book, and start with memory and explain this idea that it’s more of a process as opposed to a stored artifact in the way that a lot of us probably have always thought of memory.

Steven C. Harper: Right. It’s a very important point. By default, it seems like as humans we think of memory the way we might think of a file cabinet-

Aubrey Chaves: Yes.

Steven C. Harper: … or a DVD, it’s something that’s stored intact and whenever we want to replay it, we just get it out of the file or we put it in the player and there it is, and it’s the same memory. It turns out that nobody, no scholars of memory, no scientists or psychologists who’ve made this their life’s work think about memory that way. There’s no good reason to think about it that way. Memories … We’re talking here mainly about what we could call autobiographical memory. So I’m going to remember my past, I just did this, right, for you guys?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steven C. Harper: I just made a memory in real time.

Aubrey Chaves: Yes.

Steven C. Harper: I didn’t go back into a file cabinet and pull that out. I made it up as I went. And it was made out of what Professor Schacter at Harvard, maybe the foremost psychologist of memory, what he calls traces. Nobody knows what they are, exactly where they are, right?

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, in our brain.

Steven C. Harper: We talk about them as if they’re in our mind somewhere. And that works, I guess. But traces or these pieces of the past, and in real time, I gathered up those traces and made a memory, and it was particularly for this setting, right here, right now.

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Tim Chaves: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steven C. Harper: I’ve told that story lots of times, but I told it to you differently. I’m not exactly sure what all the differences are, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: I’ve forgotten, and remembered in new ways. So a memory of my past, or of Joseph Smith’s past, is a present production. He made his memories of his first vision in the moment-

Aubrey Chaves: In the present.

Steven C. Harper: … that he wrote them down or told them, and he made them out of traces of the past, but also out of what was going on right in the present, or what his circumstances were. His mood at the time, his environment at the time shaped the way he remembered his first vision over time.

It’s really valuable to think about the first vision accounts that way. Dan Vogel has asked, “How certain can we be that he tells us the experience as he had it at the time?” It’s a good question, but it’s not the best question, in my judgment. The best question, or the one we can really get at is, what do the accounts tell us about how he experienced the vision over time, right?

Tim Chaves: Yup.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: Because we have one from 1832, and ’35, ’38, ’42, we can get at how does he experience this vision as his life goes by? How does he interpret it and present it over time?

Tim Chaves: Right.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: And the changes that inevitably occur are not conscious changes, you’re arguing, right?

Steven C. Harper: I don’t think so. I think there’s not great evidence that he’s consciously manipulating his story, or that he’s putting a whole lot of forethought into, “How will I tell it?” We’ve started to almost default in saying, “Well, he told this story to different audiences at different times.” That’s true, but it implies a kind of, you know, “Today I’m going to tell Robert Matthews the story in a different way than I wrote it with Frederick Williams three years ago.” I don’t think he’s putting that kind of thought into it.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: I do think he’s putting a lot of thought into it. But for example, let’s take those two memories I just mentioned, the 1832 autobiography in his letter book, and 1835 spontaneous telling to Robert Matthews, which gets recorded in his journal. Those are two completely different kinds of brainwork for Joseph.

Tim Chaves: Yup.

Steven C. Harper: When he sits down to do the autobiography, it’s a stressful situation. He’s not good at writing. He feels pressured to do it because there’s no record of the first vision. The Lord has told him, repeatedly, “You’ve got to keep this record.” He’s got Book of Mormon manuscripts, he’s got his revelation manuscripts, but no record of his first revelation. And unless he gets it down, it’s going to evaporate. So he knows he has to do it, and he knows he’s not going to be good at doing it, and it’s a labor. For him to compose autobiography is hard brainwork for him. And I don’t think he’s satisfied with it. We love that account, typically, but he didn’t show it to anybody as far as we can tell.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: Interesting. So one of the things that I’ve heard about memory is that it can become more distorted the more that you retell it. Then, in your terminology, those traces, as they reconstruct a memory, can become more imperfect with each retelling.

Steven C. Harper: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Tim Chaves: Like, I guess as an example, if I were to retell something for the first time a year after it happened, I haven’t had a chance to reconstruct yet. And so that first reconstruction may stay fairly true to the original memory. But the more I’ve actually reconstructed it, the more chance there is for distortions to come in. In your opinion, is that an accurate view of memory?

Steven C. Harper: Well, I’d say in some ways it is. It’s the case that autobiographical memories are distorted. Everybody who studies it carefully agrees with that. But some of the things we’ve assumed about memory and distortion are not accurate. For example, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday morning. Right? I can remember that experience I told you about when I was 14 pretty vividly, though. I remember where I was sitting, I remember what I was reading. I don’t remember what I was wearing. I remember that my father was seated on this side of me; I was to his left, he was to my right. In other words, there are some things I remember very clearly, and then most of it I don’t recall.

That’s because the things that matter most, the parts that I replay over in my head every day, the parts that are connected with emotional responses, those parts get encoded in my memory and they tend to not diminish over time. I can live to be 100, and my memory of that’s, barring anything terrible happening, my memory will be good on that. Now, I’m not saying it’s not distorted.

Tim Chaves: Yes.

Steven C. Harper: If I could somehow, if somebody had videotaped that event, and I watched it now and I compared it to the story I just told you, there’d probably be some distortions in it.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: That’s probably true of Joseph’s vision as well. But notice that historians pretend, pretend that memory is like radioactive decay. Right? You can predict exactly how fast your rate of decay is, and that’s just like memory, right? There’s this kind of exact formula for predicting how memories are going to decay overtime.

Aubrey Chaves: Right.

Steven C. Harper: That is not true. That’s nonsense. It is, Professor Schacter and others have found, that some memories actually consolidate stronger over time.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow.

Steven C. Harper: He has a theory of that. Thomas Anastasio and others as well, have theorized that memory recruits different parts of our brain, and we might have different traces of things stored all over the place, and it might take time, actually, for those things to kind of conglomerate together and form into a memory. Nobody knows, frankly, for sure why, but we do know that it’s not the case that an autobiographical memory will decay at some kind of predictable rate over time. That’s not true.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: We also know that, just because, again, I can remember some things that happened years ago much more vividly than I can remember something that happened yesterday, it has a lot more to do with how deeply it was embedded in me at the time, and how much I rehearsed it. Joseph Smith rehearsed his vision a lot, and it was deeply, deeply embedded in him.

Notice, for example, how deep the experience with James 1:5 was encoded in him. I mean, he will never, he could live to be 100, he’s never going to forget the day that he realized that the Bible didn’t have to be read as an archive of all the answers, it could actually point him to seek his own answers. That was an epiphany that he would not ever forget.

Tim Chaves: And do you say that because James 1:5 appears in virtually every account?

Steven C. Harper: So vividly. So vividly. Not just that it’s there, but it is emotional. It’s laden with meaning and import. That tells us that he deeply internalized it. It’s a memory that’s not going to go away.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, that makes sense.

Steven C. Harper: And there are other things, he can’t seem to remember how old he was.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: Right? “I was about 14,” one account says, “I was in my 15th year.” Frederick Williams inserts, “In the 16th year of my age.”

Tim Chaves: In the 16th year, yup.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: He doesn’t know how old he was. “Thereabouts,” Willard Richards writes in. So the age, the exact day, those are the details that have sort of dropped out of the bottom, and he can’t recall. But there are some things that he can vividly recall, and he always will be able to.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. I like that image that, I think you mentioned something about a leaky bucket, it’s like one leaky bucket being poured into another leaky bucket, and you lose those little details-

Steven C. Harper: You do.

Aubrey Chaves: … like what you were eating for breakfast that morning, but the meat of the experience is what sticks with you forever.

Steven C. Harper: Right.

Aubrey Chaves: You said the word consolidation. Will you talk about what that means, and this idea that memory has a culture in the moment?

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, memory scholars use that term consolidation to describe how memories form. How does an autobiographical memory form? So it’s the process, and it is a process, it’s not an event. Memory is a process, and a memory consolidates, and it sometimes takes time for it to do so. Then it’s constantly reforming, it never stays static.

Now, some memories though, like the kind that get into the less leaky bucket, if we think of a memory as an event that happens and it’s water that we pour into a really leaky bucket, then we take that leaky bucket and we pour it into a little less leaky bucket, this is the analogy that, again, Thomas Anastasio and others of his colleagues have used. That less leaky bucket is like Joseph Smith’s memory of his vision accounts. It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to retain everything, but it’s going to be pretty good. The memories, therefore, are not static. They’re going to change over time, but they are stable, stable memories.

Tim Chaves: Now, the bucket analogy, is that what colloquially people like us would refer to as short term memory and longterm memory?

Steven C. Harper: Not exactly, not exactly the same, but generally speaking that will work.

Tim Chaves: Okay.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, you form that first memory in a matter of seconds or minutes, and adds a lot more to do with neurons and so forth. That other one, the longterm one, has a lot more to do with conscious choices about replaying the memory, bringing it up again in our minds, replaying it, rehearsing it. Those are the reinforcing things that turn it into a consolidated memory that’s going to be stable over a long time, over a lifetime.

Tim Chaves: Fascinating.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Tim Chaves: I’m really curious, I mean, you brought up the fact that you believe that the first vision, all aspects of it, James 1:5 in particular, were heavily encoded in Joseph Smith’s, in his memory because he talked about them so much. To some, that may be, at least the way I see it or the way I read it in the book, that may be a controversial point.

Steven C. Harper: Sure.

Tim Chaves: I mean, one of the primary criticisms has been that supposedly this thing happened sometime between 1820 and 1824, let’s say, but obviously there isn’t an account until several years later.

Steven C. Harper: Right.

Tim Chaves: So could you get maybe into the current scholarship on what we know about when Joseph Smith really started talking about this? Who were the first people to hear?

Steven C. Harper: Sure.

Tim Chaves: And what happened in sort of that 10 to 15 year timeframe before it started to enter the consciousness of the church?

Steven C. Harper: This is a great question. Some really talented scholars are at work on this question right now. I’m thinking primarily of Ann Taves. Let’s start with what the historical record says, right? The evidence we have to work with says in 1832, Joseph speaking, “I could find no one who would believe the heavenly vision. I pondered it in my heart, but I couldn’t find anyone else who believed.” The 1838 account says, “Some few days after, I was in company with a Methodist minister who was influential. I told him the account of the vision, he responded with contempt. He said it’s all of the devil. I was greatly surprised at his response.”

Those are the only two pieces evidence we have for who Joseph tells and when he tells. So depending on whether we trust him or not, or whether his memory is reliable or not, it sounds like he tells a Methodist minister a few days after. That could have been as far as July after, if that minister is George-

It could have been as far as July after, if that minister is George Lane. We don’t know that it is. We don’t know that it isn’t, but he gets rejected. I believe that happened. I believe that’s a historical event. The memory of it is vivid. I don’t think he made that up. Fawn Brodie said his first vision was a half remembered dream. Boy, the memories of it are not characteristic of a half remembered dream at all. So I think he does interview with that minister, and he is shocked at the response. I think he most likely assumes that he’s a Methodist convert, or something like that. He’s finally had an experience like other people have had, and he’s happy that finally after all this time struggling with his sinfulness and seeking forgiveness through Christ and not being able to find it, these are all well-documented in the accounts, finally he’s found it.

So I think he tells that minister in anticipation of being validated. This is a common thing to do.

Aubrey Chaves: To have a conversion experience?

Steven C. Harper: Yeah. And then to tell your minister about it and sort of have it adjudicated by the minister. And you expect the Methodist minister is going to say, great, I told you that would work. And he’s shocked. Joseph is, when it doesn’t work out that way. So all we know is that the historical records says he tells that minister, and he could find no one who would believe. Now some people are going to say he told his mom. Well, all we know is that in 1842 four years after the original memory was consolidated, Willard Richards added an amendment to it, at maybe Joseph’s behest, nobody knows exactly, because it’s in Willard Richard’s handwriting. And Willard adds in that chunk about Joseph leaning up against the fireplace and mom’s saying, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay, mom. I just learned for myself Presbyterianism isn’t true.”

Well, he apparently doesn’t tell her the story of the vision.

Tim Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: If he does, apparently she doesn’t believe, because he says I could find no one who would believe. So the question then becomes, and James Allen is really the scholar who first asked this question, who does he tell, and when does he tell them? And so I’ve laid the groundwork of that. And the next thing we can say is, James Allen’s research showed he didn’t tell hardly anybody else for a long time, maybe well into the 1830s, when he started to dictate accounts of it, and into the 1840s, before he published it. But we now know, based on some more recent research, that at about the same time he wrote his 1832 autobiography, which he doesn’t seem to have shared. He seems to have suppressed it.

And Oliver Cowdery starts talking about early church history in the newspaper, the church’s newspaper, and misses. He totally conflates Joseph’s first and second vision. About that time, Joseph starts telling, orally telling, his first vision. We have quite a bit of evidence of this, it’s come to light just in the last decade. And it’s really quite revealing.

This is the way I interpret it. I believe that Joseph finds it very hard to write the vision. I believe he finds it easier to tell the vision. And in those oral tellings, he’s pretty free. Compare the 1835 account to the ’32, and notice the pace. The pace is fast. It’s a vivid story, it’s not that halted, you know, the sentences that are labored and freighted with misplaced modifiers and stuff. This is Joseph dumping it out, which is relatively easy. He seems to do that pretty commonly.

The the 1835 account to Robert Matthews turns out to be one of many of these. It just so happened it got recorded. But there were a lot of those tellings throughout the mid 1830s, and I believe they gave Joseph confidence, telling it to believers, having it be well received. William Phelps is telling him, “Joseph, preach again on, ‘This is my beloved son, hear him.'” So it’s just being gobbled up. Parley Pratt says he tells it in the Kirtland temple, and there’s standing room only and just… The saints just love it. Mary Isabella Horne says he tells it in Canada, and she can’t get enough of it. So we know a lot more now than we used to about how and when he’s telling the story. It’s earlier than we thought.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Can you talk about the 38, 39 version? Because I thought that was a really interesting way to understand consolidation, and how his context had really changed. And so parts of the vision that maybe weren’t as meaningful before, seemed like all he was thinking about in that version.

Steven C. Harper: Yes. Yeah, I’ll follow Richard Bushman’s lead on this. Richard is my favorite interpreter of the vision accounts, and he’s the one who says that 1832 account is a pretty personalized. That’s the conversion story of an evangelical convert to Christ. An individual who’s been saved by Jesus after praying in the woods. And that 1838 account is different from that. It is… That’s the account of the president of a new church, saying the whole question was about which church is right, and it turned out none of them were there. Their creeds were an abomination, and so here is the church, right? That’s the founding story of the church of Jesus Christ.

Whereas 1832 account is, it’s not that. It’s really not the concern at the center of it. So why would we get that over time? One reason is, because the church has grown up in the interim. And another reason is because Joseph is pretty embattled in that 1838 account. He started it in 1838, before he’s exiled from Missouri, before he’s jailed in Liberty, before the saints are driven out by the extermination order. And he finishes it on the other side of the Mississippi river. So the worst year of his life is the meat of the sandwich between those drafts.

And you can tell that there’s something that’s making him pretty uptight, from the first line, owing to the many reports, which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing people. “I have been induced to write this history. I don’t want to, but you’ve made me do it. I’ll tell you the facts so far as I have them in my possession.” And then notice that he calls the Protestant clergy ‘priests,’ three times in a row. Which is a… He knows that the people who are liked about as much as him are Catholics, in his time and place. And he knows that calling Methodists ‘priests’ will be a little bit of a…

Aubrey Chaves: A dig.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, a dig. He knows that, and so it’s an anticlerical piece. The Protestant clergy are thus the root of the problem in that telling of the story. And he pulls no punches. And this one, the savior says, “All their professors are corrupt. All their creeds are an abomination.” And this one, of course, has a powerful place in our collective memory of the vision. This is the one that gets selected and related, to use the technical terms, and it has a dominant influence over our sort of persecution complex, our inheritance of being embattled against the rest of the Christian world.

Tim Chaves: I’m curious how much distortion you, I guess, believe is possible while still retaining honesty.

Steven C. Harper: Right.

Tim Chaves: So like, when we’re saying 1838, that 1838-39 account is very based on this persecution, and it’s when you start to hear “All the creeds are an abomination.” Whereas 1832 was much more, your sins were forgiven, right? Is it possible that a memory becomes so distorted, let’s say, and I’m not revealing my personal viewpoints here, but that there’s a new section that was not in the objective reality? That the creeds were not an abomination truly in 1832 or in 1820, the objective version, but in 1838, Joseph had somehow become convinced? Is that a possibility in your life?

Steven C. Harper: It’s definitely a possibility, but you shouldn’t trust me or anyone else to tell you how much it happened, because we have no way of knowing. I have no way of telling how much distortion there is, because I don’t have a perfect… I don’t have an Ur text from the beginning, to compare everything else to. And I’m not even sure it would work that way at all. In other words, there’s not a… Don’t assume that you’re going to… Your memories are going to get worse and worse over time. I think there’s all kinds of reasons to think of each one of the accounts as its own creation, without a whole lot of relationship to the others. I’ve been pushing at Ann Taves and others on this point, and it’s a robust, some really wonderful discussion, they’ve been pushing me, too, Ann has, on thinking about these things very carefully and consciously.

And I think we could defend the point pretty well, from the science of memory, that there is no reason to assume that the memories become increasingly distorted over time. So you’ll notice that what I do in the book is take each one of them on their own merits. So you raised the question, does the climate of persecution at the time of the 1838-39 memory distort it so much that it’s not real reliable? Possibly. But the other possibility is also there, or a whole range of possibilities. In other words, I’m not sure that it’s not… That doesn’t capture best what was happening at the time of the vision. Joseph thought so. Of all the ones he decides to feature and choose and that the church has chosen over time, that’s the one. And it may be because it situates us relative to the rest of Christianity, right?

We are… Genesis is as… You know, we access God directly, and with no help from the Protestant clergy. We turned to them first and all we got were a conflict of opinions, war of words. All that led to was confusion, as Joseph says. So we had to go to the Bible, and to James 1:05, the Bible turned out not to be all sufficient and alone sufficient by itself. We required new revelation. So some very basic things about the restored gospel are embedded in that account. And you know, is that… What’s cause, and what’s effect? I don’t know. I can’t tell you.

Aubrey Chaves: That was such an interesting message of the book, I thought, that there’s so much to be learned about ourselves, by what was selected and repeated. Maybe more so than what actually happened. Like let’s just look at what we picked to pass on. And what he picked to pass on.

Steven C. Harper: I wonder very much if our persecution complex, I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Sometimes it’s more intense than others. I wonder if that doesn’t all go back to the Missouri. And remembering the very first vision in light of Missouri, seems to be what gives us that sense of a persecuted people.

Tim Chaves: It’s an important theme of the book, that memory consolidates not just individually, but collectively as well. And it was fascinating to me, when you brought up the fact that a lot of people have this image of Joseph going back to his home and telling his mother about the vision. I feel like I have that memory, and I don’t know where it came from, but somehow it consolidated culturally.

Steven C. Harper: Movies.

Tim Chaves: Movies. Yeah. It’s probably movies, but I don’t know which ones. But I can picture that, literally, in my mind. And that means that somehow that memory, which appears now to be inaccurate, had consolidated for me. So maybe, could you talk about how the process of, as you put in the book, selection relation repeating takes place, and culturally how memory forms?

Steven C. Harper: Sure. It may a surprise us to learn that it’s by no means certain that Latter Day Saints would remember that Joseph Smith had a first vision. Because he was reluctant.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: Early or now, it’s a lot of contingent choices. Any one of which is made in a different direction. And you and I might not be sitting here talking about a book and the 200th anniversary of the first vision. So first of all, Joseph is reluctant to tell the story, and he’s reluctant to write it. And it was by no means a foregone conclusion that he would. And when he did is by no means determined exactly how he’ll tell the story, how it’ll get recorded. And once it’s recorded, it’s by no means certain that it will become common knowledge of Latter Day Saints.

I’ve talked about this to lots of audiences in these early months of 2020, and there are lots of people who are astonished when I tell them the early missionaries did not preach the first vision. They probably did not know it. Now that just seems completely unthinkable, because today we almost start with the first vision. If not for Orson Pratt, then we probably would not tell the story of the first vision the way we do. He’s the only one in the middle decades of the 19th century who was telling the story the way Joseph had told it in his manuscript history. And then Franklin Richards, the young apostle called to lead the British mission, puts that in the Pearl of Great Price, which initially is just a pamphlet, just for studying among British converts. And then it’s 30 years later that the Pearl of Great Price becomes canon, becomes a standard work. And if that doesn’t happen, I’m not sure we’re sitting here having this conversation.

Tim Chaves: I remember you bringing up in the book that even Brigham Young as president of the church, and John Taylor prior to being president of the church, were relating… They were making similar conflations that Oliver Cowdery did. They were not talking about this in a coherent way, really.

Steven C. Harper: Not the way we do today. And George A. Smith, as well. George A. Smith, when he was the church historian in the 50s and 60s, telling it in a way that would be incoherent to today’s Latter Day Saints.

Tim Chaves: That’s fascinating. Okay, so it’s obvious now that our foundational, seminal story really has become the first vision. When I was in the MTC, we learned to pray in Spanish first, and then we memorized the first vision in Spanish. And in our first lesson, it was very foundational doctrines. You know, heavenly father exists and loves you. Christ is the savior. And then we would jump pretty much into the Joseph Smith story, and recite word for word, in Spanish, in my case, the 1838-39 vision. Missionary work, obviously, looked very different in the 1830 to, let’s call it 1880 era, where that memory had not been consolidated as the seminal story of the church. Do you have an idea of what the narrative arc was for missionaries, when they went out and preached the gospel? Was it Moroni and the gold plates, or?

Steven C. Harper: I wrote my master’s thesis on what missionaries taught in the first decade.

Tim Chaves: Oh wow.

Steven C. Harper: And I surveyed at least a hundred missionary journals, and then all the periodicals from the 1830s, and letters, autobiographies, none of them, none of them mentioned teaching the first vision.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow.

Steven C. Harper: In fact, if you said ‘the vision’ in the 1830s, you meant the D&C 76, you meant the vision of the heavenly [crosstalk 00:37:18] Yeah. Not until 1849, in the historical record, do we have that pair of words together, ‘first vision.’ And it’s Orson Pratt who seems to have been the first to coin that term.

Aubrey Chaves: Wow.

Tim Chaves: Wow.

Steven C. Harper: So what did they teach? They taught the covenant God made with his people anciently is broken, as the Bible prophesied, and it needs to be restored. And the good news is it has been, and the way we know that is, God called a young man in New York to translate this book by the power of God. Here it is, here’s the book. So they would start with biblical passages about the broken covenant, the gathering and scattering of Israel, the restoration of the covenant in the latter days. And then they wouldn’t so much preach from the Book of Mormon, as they would use it as the evidence that the covenant had been renewed. It was compelling.

Tim Chaves: That’s amazing.

Aubrey Chaves: That is so interesting.

Steven C. Harper: For biblically literate folks like they were preaching to, it was compelling message.

Tim Chaves: And I guess that was their target audience, primarily. Very biblically literate.

Steven C. Harper: Absolutely. Yeah, very much so. These people know the Bible better, typically, than we do today. And they understand these prophecies, many of them are looking for some restoration or renewal of the covenant. They know that it’s broken. They know that Christianity is broken in some way or other, and they’re looking for something. So when the missionaries bring them the Book of Mormon, that’s a compelling piece of evidence. And they get to digest it for themself. They get to think about the implications of this book. It means God has called a new servant, a new prophet. It means the covenant has been renewed. The Book of Mormon is compelling as restoration of the covenant. It says it will be in the book itself. And that’s what the missionaries preached, very successfully.

Tim Chaves: What were the specifics of the covenant being renewed? Were they talking about priesthood restoration there?

Steven C. Harper: Some of them were. Parley Pratt use those terms. Edward Partridge did. So some people were explicitly looking for a new apostle to come. Somebody called of God and authorized by God. So that was a key component of it. Not everybody used those terms, but many did.

Aubrey Chaves: Why do you think it shifted? I mean, you talk about, for a memory to survive, it has to be selected and then related it and repeated. And we see Orson Pratt marching around, just repeating, repeating, repeating. And it was growing. But what do you think was so meaningful about that message that made it stick?

Steven C. Harper: Which message now?

Aubrey Chaves: The first vision, this shifting from this idea that we’re… I mean, and that and that message, of course, is still there, but it doesn’t seem like the hook anymore. How did it change to become so much about God speaking to people?

Steven C. Harper: It’s a great question. Johnny [Witso 00:40:02] said, he was speaking to the Latter Day Saints students at Utah State, mid 20th century, early 20th century. And he told him his conversion story, and he told them Joseph’s. He told the first vision. And he said that first vision is the epitome of the search for all truth. So I think there’s something in that about it. Joseph Smith’s quest for God is a very useful way to explain how all of us can come to know for ourselves. If you lack wisdom, ask God. His search for truth is the epitome. And I think it’s that, as much as any other single factor, that makes it resonate. And we don’t want to say that it didn’t resonate that way early on. I don’t want to give that impression, but it definitely has gained momentum over time. I don’t know if there’s ever been more momentum than there is right now, for that message.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. We were talking, it was so interesting to hear about the Centennial celebration of the first vision, and we’re preparing, and we’re going to have this second, this big bicentennial, and it’s such a reflection of what we did a hundred years ago. You know, it’s the same, we’re seeing songs and writing poems and reading about it and talking about it and-

Steven C. Harper: Artwork.

Aubrey Chaves: Yes. Yeah. It’s so interesting to see the way that we are repeating this message, in exactly the same way. You know, it’s retained all of that meaning.

Steven C. Harper: Indeed.

Aubrey Chaves: And maybe gain momentum ,like you said.

Steven C. Harper: I think so. And there’s been some interesting shifts, too. We around the turn of the century B.H. Roberts had a debate with a Catholic priest from Southern Idaho, and it turned on, part of the part of it, on the nature of God. And B.H. Roberts evoke the first vision to emphasize the nature of God and Christ as separate and distinct. And that became a real point of interest.

That became a real point of interest all the way back in 1849 Orson Pratt had used the first vision to make that point as well. There’s some evidence that it was used for that in the ’30s and ’40s. I think ’30s and ’40s, but it definitely in my lifetime it seemed the most important thing about the first vision is it showed that the Trinity was wrong. It’s still being used that way. But I detect a shift to much more emphasis on the thing about the first vision. It shows the God loves us. It shows that he’s responsive to our needs and our…

Joseph uses the word anxiety a lot and that’s a big deal today. He’s confused, he’s perplexed, he’s distressed, he’s convicted of his sins, and God is loving and comes to his aid. Terryl Givens gave a great talk at BYU years ago where he told the story of Sarah Edwards, the wife of Reverend Jonathan Edwards, one of the foremost preachers in American history. He juxtaposed Edwards as sinners in the hands of an angry God where he says, “God abhors you.” With Sarah’s personal witness is this revelation she has, the God is loving, kind, long suffering, et cetera.

The conclusion of this, Terryl says, the first vision is Sarah’s answer as well as Joseph’s and thousands of millions of people. So there’s resonance in the first vision for all of us who want to know if God loves us or hates us, if we’re already damned and there’s nothing we can do about it. Or if we can come onto him and receive his grace and his love. Joseph’s story becomes everyone’s story in that sense.

Tim Chaves: You talk about in the book how the first vision became sort of a new identity marker too for the church as polygamy was sort of forced out.

Steven C. Harper: Definitely.

Tim Chaves: Obviously, I’m not coming from a historian’s perspective at all, but based on what I understood from the book, it seemed Mormonism and plural marriage had sort of become wrapped up in this. The plural marriage itself had become very much the identity of the saints. When that was forced out, there was this sense like who are we? There was sort of a doubling down on the story of the first vision. That was embraced-

Steven C. Harper: Indeed.

Tim Chaves: … even further because there was this lack of identity.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, that’s Kathleen Flake’s argument. I didn’t invent that argument. She’s the one who discovered and articulated that set of facts. It’s a brilliant piece of work. What I did is just sort of extended it a little bit. She noticed that it was Joseph F. Smith who was the main driver of that shift. He had a difficult dilemma. How do we let go of Joseph Smith’s last revelation without sending the message that we’re letting go of Joseph Smith as a revelator. Joseph F. Smith comes to the conclusion. The way we do that is we emphasize Joseph Smith’s first revelation.

Tim Chaves: Interesting.

Steven C. Harper: He did. He was very determined in his efforts. He would go around to congregations and often invite a 14-year-old young man to stand next to him and he would emphasize this is the age of Joseph at the vision. He would tell the story of the vision. He made a real point of shifting the emphasis to Joseph’s first revelation in a way from his last. He steered the saints I believe brilliantly through a very difficult passage of renegotiating our identity and what Kathleen flight calls replacing memory, which he did quite brilliantly.

Aubrey Chaves: So I’m kind of on that note. I have been thinking a lot about how consolidation looks now in this era where there is so much information. It made more sense… I feel like Orson Pratt just really had so much power because there just wasn’t any other information. He could tell the story the way he wanted to and that was the only information that you had. Now we just have a sea of information and it feels like an Orson Pratt would be completely lost in all of these other voices. So, how does consolidation work now that you have access to anything you want?

Steven C. Harper: So if I had my way, I would encourage the church to write a new narrative history and give it the stamp of approval and circulate it far and wide. I’d send it in 14 languages to 98% of Latter-day Saints on the planet.

Tim Chaves: That’s very specific.

Steven C. Harper: Indeed, so you can tell that I’m hinting at Saints. The churches knew multi-volume history, which starts off with a volcanic explosion in Indonesia, hopefully begging the question, what does this have to do with church history? Begging the question of the problem of suffering and hopefully then indicating to people if you keep reading, maybe you’ll find an answer to that. As they keep reading, it tells the story of Joseph’s first vision in a way that integrates the accounts that we have. That is responsible historically and resilient, more resilient than anything we’ve published before about the first vision.

We’ve also got a new movie that plays in the church history museum and it starts off by saying there are nine accounts, the first vision, and this is what they say. And then you watch the film and then you leave the theater and right outside the door, but you see facsimiles of all the accounts with the passages that are in the movie highlighted. That kind of transparency is unheard of in the past. The way we’ve done it. The textbook we used to use for religion 341 and BYU drew on the accounts, but it didn’t tell anybody that it did. So people don’t know, right?

Jeremy Runnells in the CES Letter in 2013 says, “I never knew.” He could have taken that class, done all the reading dutifully and still had no idea there are multiple accounts. Which opens people up to being blindsided, why did the church tell me this? So that is going to go away. If I could do anything, I would trumpet the story of the first vision, the way we’ve been telling it. This is evidence that God loves you. He doesn’t abhors you, he loves you, he’ll be responsive to you. I would make that everyone’s story and I would make their faith less resilient to attacks.

Tim Chaves: More resilience.

Steven C. Harper: More resilience. Sorry. Strick that.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. So when Aubrey says like there’s so much information, you can find it anywhere. You’re making the argument that the church itself still does have significant power as a selector and repeater of memory.

Steven C. Harper: Church is still the most significant selector and relater. It’s sort of in my judgment, gave that ground for a while, right? The information age, everybody becomes a selector and relater. So the church is in a more competitive space now for the attention and it can’t take for granted that everybody’s going to come to Sunday school to get their story of the first vision. So it has been more proactive, more interested in creative new ways of telling this story. Definitely, still though the most powerful selector and relater.

Aubrey Chaves: I’m just curious how explicit the goal was with Saints. I feel conflicted, because I feel there is a place for something to be faith promoting. I feel that’s what we’ve had in general conference for all of these years. It’s about promoting faith and I feel there should be space for that.

Steven C. Harper: Sure.

Aubrey Chaves: It should be okay to stand up and share a story of the first vision in an effort to promote faith without reading all nine accounts. But then I think that’s why people feel very betrayed because that’s all they only ever heard the faith promotion. So are we… How do you find some kind of balance or is there not a place for balance and Saints is about accuracy. You talk a lot about how entities favor coherency over accuracy, which I can totally understand, but I think there’s this cry for accuracy now.

Steven C. Harper: Sure.

Aubrey Chaves: So, what is the objective of Saints? Is it for accuracy as close as we can get accuracy and what does that look like if you just can’t have it? You can’t include everything. So how do you decide if it’s about faith or is it about [crosstalk 00:08:57]?

Steven C. Harper: You try to have it both ways, right?

Aubrey Chaves: Can you do that? Can you do both?

Steven C. Harper: Sure. So Saints is the tip of the iceberg. The volumes themselves are the tip of the iceberg. And then there are footnotes to all the accounts of the vision. There are supplemental essays and videos available, a couple of clicks away. So for anybody who wants to dig deeper, it’s all there. But the narrative itself, as you can tell, the folks who drafted it were well aware that we’re aiming at the laity here. We’re not talking to the scholars or the tiny number who are going to dig deeper. This is our one shot to get people’s attention. If we can’t keep their attention, we’re dead.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. It’s got to be readable.

Steven C. Harper: It’s got to be intensely readable. So it’s very much a conscious narrative as a means to the end of keeping people reading and if people keep reading their collective memory, their shared sense of knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint will be subtly formed. Consolidated.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. That’s so interesting. Do you feel there is a shift in just a world view that people have a higher standard for accuracy now? I mean, do you think we’re starting to favor accuracy over [crosstalk 00:10:22]?

Steven C. Harper: I’m not sure about that.

Aubrey Chaves: As opposed to the early days of the church.

Steven C. Harper: I’m not sure about that. I’m quite skeptical of any thing that makes us feel like we’re better than them. Right? This is what humans do. We say, “Man, those ancestors of mine, they were dodos. But thankfully I’ve seen the light.” We do that with our various tribes that we belong to here and now. So anything where the explanation tends to favor me here now is suspicious to me. I think it’s human nature to favor a coherent story over a particularly accurate one. When you earn a PhD in history, you spend a lot of time studying different historic graphical schools of thought and there’s always one to replace the one before it.

I’ve done that enough to think that I’m not sure the new one is now accurate and the old one wasn’t. It’s just another way to be coherent with the values that we’ve got right now. So I’m not positive we’re going to make… Jump the final hurdle to be accurate now. I’m hopeful. We worked awfully hard to help Saints be accurate historically, but I don’t think it’s going to sort of magically cure all our innate human desire to have a story that’s coherent. I’m not sure that’s wrong.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. That makes sense.

Steven C. Harper: Right? Coherence and truth are not incompatible. I’m not using those as right as opposites of each other. There’s a kind of… When I taught to the New Testament gospels at a BYU Jerusalem Center, I would emphasize to the students you’ve got to open your mind to the idea of sort of things being literarily true, not just historically true. The gospel of John and the synoptic gospels cannot both be true in the same sense. They tell different stories. So which one’s true? Well, both are true. If we can expand our sense of truth to encompass what John’s doing, John’s telling a true story. I’m not positive he gets the date of the Passover right. I’m not positive the others do. But they’re true. So in that sense we’re telling a true story. Our way of thinking about historical truth in the 20th, 21st century since the enlightenment really is much more rigid than ancient notions were.

Aubrey Chaves: Oh, that’s so interesting.

Steven C. Harper: Maybe then human nature is as well.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. That’s really interesting.

Tim Chaves: This gets at an extremely important point, this sort of subjective versus objective view of history. I think we skipped over sort of an important 90 years talking about the original consolidation all the way up till the Saints. That time was when the first vision first came under attack.

Steven C. Harper: Indeed.

Tim Chaves: Really historical under serious attack. So maybe could we talk a little bit about what those original attacks were, why they came about, and how that developed into the new sort of narrative that we’re developing now?

Steven C. Harper: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Let’s kind of run through time. The first one is the minister saying, “Son, there are no more visions.” That was of the devil. Keep your mouth shut about that. And then we go a good long time. The next one that comes along in some ways is the sophisticated professorial critique, late 19th and early 20th century. This is where people who are not… Woodbridge Riley and others are not necessarily, they’re not the Methodist minister who’s in competition with, potentially with a young visionary. They’re just interested in academic understanding and they favor naturalistic explanations for stories like Joseph’s. They don’t believe in the supernatural. So clearly his explanation can’t be the right one. So what would be a naturalistic way to explain Joseph’s experience? So that’s the next one that comes along a Jamesian, pragmatism and that sort of thing that starts to gain hold at BYU.

It comes in to BYU in the early 20th century. The church, the board of trustees sends a trusted person down to figure out what’s going on down there. He reports you got professors down there who are teaching that the first vision was not a real historical event, just kind of been Joseph’s imagination. Those professors are invited to change what they’re teaching or withdraw. Some of them resigned, some of them don’t have their contracts renewed. Then the next thing to come along is Fawn Brodie and she writes a very potent biography of Joseph in the mid ’40s and she articulate an interpretation. The first vision that Dale Morgan has researched. I hope people will learn more about Dale Morgan and Fawn Brodie in the book. Both very interesting, major players in this. Morgan hasn’t been able to get his and hasn’t really tried to get his stuff to a wide audience but by Fawn Brodie’s book it does.

Essentially, it’s a source critique of the vision. It says since there’s no account of it until quite late, the explanation is Joseph is raised in a revival culture. He’s got evangelical angst, but really there’s no vision in 1820 he makes that up when he needs a credibility. This interpretation sort of falls apart before Fawn Brodie herself, because over time more accounts of the vision come to light and they move the vision back in time. At least Joseph had to have come up with it by the early 1830s she just moves her date back. So it kind of falls apart. But she does observe then, well, the more accounts you have, the more evidence there is for embellishment. He’s spinning this story and it gets bigger and better all the time. So those two points become compelling to a lot of people. Undermines the first vision for some people.

And then in my judgment, by far, the most sophisticated and interesting critique of the vision comes from the Reverend Wesley Walters. His story is terrific. I hope people will learn a lot about him in the book. I knew about Reverend Walters before I started researching and writing the book, but I read all of his papers at the Presbyterian archives in St. Louis. I have a love hate relationship with the Reverend Walters. My admiration for him grew as I studied his papers.

Tim Chaves: Could you tell his story briefly?

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, you bet.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, I like this one.

Steven C. Harper: So, the whole is he’s raised as an evangelical but doesn’t have his own conversion experience. So he’s sure as a teenager he’s damned, he’s going to hell. And then he hears in Baltimore, he hears the Reverend Donald Barnhouse preach Christ and does a beautiful sermon that convinces Walters that he is redeemable, right? He’s been saved by Jesus Christ.

So this is an evangelical conversion and it means everything to him. Everything. So his experience conversion to Presbyterianism is on the line, right? When he reads Joseph Smith’s first vision, and Joseph says, “Mom, I just learned for myself, Presbyterianism isn’t true.” Well, if you’re Reverend Walters, you got to fight that and defend it. He goes on to become a seminary trained Presbyterian minister. He’s a pastor of a church in Marissa, Illinois. He doesn’t really have plans to do a lot of research and writing about the restored gospel, but he gets invited to contribute an essay to Christianity Today and he decides to do that. That’s the beginning. And then over time he digs deeper and deeper into the first vision and he comes up with a novel thesis. It is that you cannot prove or disprove a heavenly vision. He doesn’t want to go naturalistic, right? He definitely wants to defend biblical miracles.

So he doesn’t want to say there is no such thing as visions. He says, “There’s no way to prove it is pure vision.” But Joseph Smith tells us some verifiable historical details and we could prove or disprove those. For example, there’s an unusual excitement on the subject of religion in his vicinity sometime very soon before the first vision. Reverend Walters digs up a whole bunch of evidence that he believes disproves that point and therefore there is no vision. It seemed like a pretty robust argument. It’s still is widely circulated. It’s much, much weaker than Walter’s a hope door thought.

A couple of fallacious arguments embedded in it. One is that he locks Joseph up too much in space, right? Joseph is not talking about Palmyra village. That was the location of Walter’s research. Joseph’s talking about the whole district of country, a Methodist term for the whole area around him. Is an irrelevant proof as well, showing that there’s no evidence of revival in Palmyra village is not showing that a vision didn’t happen in the woods in Manchester. So Milton Backman and others went to work a young Latter-day Saints historians, Ivy league educated. They went to work after Walters, published his piece in 1967. They chipped away at it pretty good. And then most influentially, he and Richard Bushman, Reverend Walters and Richard Bushman went back and forth in the late 1960s and argued the case there.

The late 1960s and argued the case there.

Tim Chaves: I think one of the most interesting things about their exchange is that the way you put it, I think Reverend Walters has what we might call an objective view of history. He believes that we can evaluate objectively what happened, and Richard Bushman sort of brings this perspective that history, from our perspective, has to be subjective because there are sources, the only lens through which we can view history are subjective. It’s always through people. And I felt like that was maybe the crux of what Richard Bushman both argued to Reverend Walters and his historical work that he was going to do in coming decades. I don’t know if you could share some thoughts on the nature of subjective versus objective history and where we are today and the way that we approach that.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah. You’ve characterized it really well, and what I say in the book is that even though Bushman makes a counter argument where he says, “Reverend, you keep saying…” He keeps saying the religious excitement wasn’t big enough or broad enough or exciting enough. Bushman says, “How big is big? You are trying to say there’s an objective measure to what Joseph subjectively remembers as a religious excitement that got my attention and made me concerned.” And Bushman says, “This stuff’s happening internal to Joseph, Reverend. You can’t pretend that there’s sort of a threshold at which it becomes an unusual religious excitement.”

So terrific arguments, but the point I make in the book is that at the time, probably most latter day saints think the same way Reverend Walters thinks. He’s a conservative evangelical. He thinks about his scriptures, his Bible, as pretty much unsalable, right? He does not like source criticism of the Bible. He doesn’t like the idea of subjective judgments and thinking of history as a subjective recreation of the past. He thinks it can be objectively done.

And so, ironically then, it’s Reverend Walters who makes a case that’s most similar to the way latter day saints at the time tended to think about the vision themselves. And it’s Richard Bushman who makes a case that saves the vision but introduces some elements that would make some latter day saints uncomfortable. And to give away the end of the story, the story of the last half century is that Richard Bushman’s way of characterizing and interpreting the vision has become the way that is presented in saints and elsewhere, in the First Vision accounts essay. It’s been an interesting half century.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Yeah, it really is. We loved Rough Stone Rolling and I think that maybe is why. He started the book with explaining that it is subjective and that’s as close to the truth as we can get, and that’s okay. We’re not digging for the perfect uninfluenced objective truth because it just, that’s not history.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah. Doesn’t exist. We can pretend it does. We can tell ourselves it does, but historians don’t deal in objective truths.

Aubrey Chaves: That’s when it gets problematic. Yeah.

Steven C. Harper: We deal in human, human understandings, human subjectivity.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Interesting.

Tim Chaves: We’ve seen recently that even emails that we’re getting in the past few weeks and months as we’ve been talking more about the First Vision or as we’ve been researching this, a lot of the sort of more apologetic approach is to attempt to reconcile each of the First Visions, excuse me, First Vision accounts and show how they’re all objectively true. And I don’t want to put words in your mouth here, but it seems to me like you could make the argument that they’re all distorted. So there’s no real meat behind trying to say these describe the exact same thing because they don’t. They’re all subjective in their own way, they’ve all been presented to different audiences under different circumstances. You’ve made that point. And I’m personally a little bit more comfortable with that approach.

Steven C. Harper: I would say it this way. Which account of the First Vision is true? They’re all true. Which one’s distorted? They’re all distorted.

Aubrey Chaves: They’re all distorted.

Steven C. Harper: Autobiographical memories aren’t true or false, they’re true and false. They’re not accurate or inaccurate, they’re both. And if you read them carefully you can even see that in them. Some things are so specific, so vivid, and then other things are fuzzy around the edges and vague. And then they change over time in interesting ways.

The 1838 account, the one that is so intense, “I had seen a vision. I knew it, I knew God knew it. I could not deny it.” That is a big chunk of interpretive memory. That’s not about the facts of what happened in the grove, that factual memory goes along until Joseph says a few days after, “I told the methods minister I was rejected.” That launches into a passage of interpretive memory. “It’s all about how I’ve been thinking of it then and since,” he says. I have often thought it seemed like this. It felt like that. That’s a piece of reflection that is specific to that moment. That particular past in that particular present gives us that reflection. And one of the most interesting things is that a couple of years later when Joseph redrafts this document that’s relatively new to us, this Howard Coray fair copy we call it, Joseph cuts out almost all that part. The subjective feeling of what it was like to experience the vision in the context of Missouri persecution.

Aubrey Chaves: The present moment. Yeah. That’s so interesting.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. You talked near the end of the book about how Gordon B. Hinckley made a statement, I think in 2002 that our entire religion… I’m going to slaughter it, but in some sense he says lives or dies on the absolute truth or false set of this vision. Is that a view that you think is sustainable for a person of faith in these… And ironically, I think you mentioned too that Jeremy Reynolds quotes that statement in the CES letter because he’s going to set it up and say, “If it’s not absolutely true, then it must be absolutely false.”

Aubrey Chaves: Then it’s all false.

Steven C. Harper: Right. Right. Bruce R. McConkie made a similar statement in 1958. And so Wesley Walters, he wrote that. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have done the same thing. It’s a strategy that antagonists will use when we make an ultimatum or an all or nothing. Then they say, “Great, we’ll tip that over and then you’ll be done.” It doesn’t quite work that way.

I want to be crystal clear here, I love Joseph Smith’s First Vision. I mean, I think that’s obvious. I believe it is a historical event. I love it. I love everything it says about the nature of God and Christ and teenagers who need help from them. And this book that we’re talking about is not really about that. It’s not about what I think about it spiritually myself, it’s about what everybody has thought about it over time. So I represent all kinds of views. And one of the stories that the book tells is how the stakes have been raised, how the First Vision has become all or nothing.

In 1938, J. Reuben Clark, a member of the first presidency, says to the church’s educators, the religion teachers, “Look, if you don’t believe in the historical reality of the First Vision, you’re not fit to be a church educator.” I’m perfectly fine with that, right? I feel that way myself. But if you had made that rule in 1840, it wouldn’t have worked.

Tim Chaves: Interesting.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, nobody would have passed.

Steven C. Harper: So in other words, there’s been change over time. I’m not saying the change is wrong or bad, but I am saying that the stakes on the First Vision have definitely been raised to be all or nothing. I can conceive of, let’s say Joseph decided never to record it, and so it happened but you and I don’t know about it. I don’t think the Restored Church of Jesus Christ would go away or falter or crumble. I think we’d still be founded on the Book of Mormon. We’d be okay. All this stuff we’ve got to have, all the essential stuff we’d still have. So I’m not quite as worried about that, but I am very fascinated by the story of raising the stakes of the vision. That’s an interesting battle. The battle lines have been drawn on that.

Tim Chaves: I’m curious if you have sort of pragmatic advice as we, I think, draw near to the close of this discussion, for a thoughtful member who’s struggled with faith and maybe some of their struggles have centered around the First Vision, there is this feeling of betrayal, but even potentially if you felt like it was disingenuous what you heard growing up. But even once you move past that, I think a reasonable person could look at all the different accounts and have trouble trying to reconcile them enough to say there’s objective truth behind it. And so, do you have advice for someone who’s looking to reconcile or who’s looking to regain faith, or even not necessarily to convince themselves of a particular truth, but to find a place that’s comfortable for them?

Steven C. Harper: Yeah, sure. Boy, we could go on.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. We’ll start a new episode.

Steven C. Harper: So one thing that is common in situations like this is that people are making assumptions that they don’t know our assumptions. If your assumption gets overturned and you assumed it was the bedrock of your faith, or even if it was the bedrock of your faith, then that leads to trouble, disruption of your memory. And that’s not the only explanation for these cases, but that’s a common one. So one good thing to do is to ask yourself, “What do I know and how do I know it?” Evaluate your epistemology. I mean, peel back all the layers. What do I know and how do I know it?

I’m a little tired. This is uncharitable perhaps, I don’t mean for it to be, but let’s stop blaming the church. I don’t know who we even mean when we say that. Do we mean the volunteer teachers who we thought maybe should know better, but nobody told them either? Let’s be more charitable. And being uncharitable, I’m asking for people to be more charitable toward people in the past who did the best they could with what they had. So let me say it another way. I’ll blame this on Dean Jesse, one of my heroes, one of the great scholars of Joseph Smith and especially of his First Vision accounts.

A decade or so ago I asked Dean, I asked him the question you just asked and he said, “You know, perhaps if people were more inclined to read.” And what he meant by that is the vision accounts have been published for 50 years. That true, they haven’t been shouted from the housetops, but they’ve been available. And some people feel resentful of that. I remember reading, and there’s actually a comment in the book from a person saying, “Why don’t we talk about this in general conference?”

Aubrey Chaves: Like, “I didn’t know to ask. I didn’t know it was there.”

Steven C. Harper: Right. I wish everybody had the privileges I’ve had. I studied the First Vision accounts from Milton Backman, the guy who wrote the book on it, literally, about the year I was born. So it’s not that they’ve been under a bushel exactly, some of us didn’t have that problem because we were taught all about them in the context of faith and intellectual rigor. I just wish everybody could have that privilege and that blessing.

I guess I’m dancing in circles here, not really answering the question. There’s no one simple good answer to it, but I hope people know it’s going to be okay. Lots of people have had this disruption to their faith, and that’s not the end. It doesn’t lead inevitably to hopelessness or despair or giving away everything that I cherished. Bruce and Marie Hafen have written beautifully about it. Their website is a terrific resource. I think it is. What you guys are doing is fantastic. I appreciate it very much.

Aubrey Chaves: Thank you.

Steven C. Harper: I wish I had a better answer.

Aubrey Chaves: No, that’s a great answer. And I think that we’re seeing that the church is making such an effort to make it easier to find. You don’t have to really dig anymore. It’s just it is all there, so when those questions come up it’ll be easier to have access. And I think toward the end of the book you mentioned that the thing that’s so incredible about memory is maybe not how quickly things are consolidated, but how quickly we forget that it was ever consolidated differently. And I hope that is maybe what’s changing, that pretty soon we’ll move on from this idea that there was only one story, only one way to consolidate, and now we have just so much access that’s so easy, and maybe that will change your story a little bit.

Steven C. Harper: I think so. Yeah. We are resilient. We are more resilient than we might think. And I know it’s common to think, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, the sky’s falling. We’ve never done this before.” Sometimes people can benefit from remembering 1837, right? That was a crisis. This is, for individuals, definitely, and families, can be devastating, but the church is resilient, the church will roll forward. Many, many, many millions of people will be blessed by it. There’ll be struggles along the way, and this is not unexpected stuff. Everything we’re going through is not unusual, it’s not unexpected and it’s not the end. It’s not hopeless by any stretch. So-

Tim Chaves: And I think… Oh, sorry.

Steven C. Harper: I really do believe that Widtsoe had a point, right? Joseph Smith’s quest is an epitome of the search for truth. We can all do what he did. And some viewers and listeners will say, “Oh, that’s so cliche.” I know I can predict the comments now, but it’s true. It really is true that if we work really hard at… Joseph Smith did not just pray about it, that four word summary that oversimplifies the wrestle. Rather his own accounts and the scriptures he gives to us, they talk about wrestling before God and wrestling with God, and that stuff really is true. It does pay off. It leads us to a better place

Aubrey Chaves: And what a beautiful message that whether or not you feel like you can ever come to some sort of knowledge about whether it happened or not, I love just that we can value that this idea that wrestling is okay and important and that we should be doing that and that God can reach you.

Steven C. Harper: You bet.

Aubrey Chaves: I mean, whether or not the First Vision happened, if that’s the message of the First Vision, then isn’t that true? That just the message, the truth in the way that you described earlier in this very whole way, maybe not in a police report way, if you just can’t ever get past that we’ll never really be able to know that objectively, then I think that there’s some value in recognizing that it’s beautiful that we accept the wrestle and that that message has been so meaningful that it’s lasted 200 years.

Steven C. Harper: Yeah. I don’t know the First Vision was true objectively. I know it subjectively. I know it in my own self. I don’t know it because-

Aubrey Chaves: You wrote a story.

Steven C. Harper: … a lot scientists have approved it.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a great point.

Tim Chaves: Yeah. I just want to thank you for all the work that you’ve done. You mentioned you worked on saints for 10 years?

Steven C. Harper: Well, sort of. Yeah, six years full-time.

Tim Chaves: Six years full-time.

Steven C. Harper: A few years before that, part-time.

Tim Chaves: And you mentioned that this book, you started in 2008 and it was published end of last year. It was just a monumental effort, and I think so many people are getting so much out of this. And like Aubrey said, validating the wrestle that people have is just huge.

Steven C. Harper: Great.

Tim Chaves: Thank you so much, and thanks for coming on this podcast.

Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Thank you. It was really an honor to talk to you.

Steven C. Harper: Thanks for your great work.

Tim Chaves: Thanks, Steve.

Aubrey Chaves: Thanks so much for listening. We hope that you enjoyed this conversation, and thanks again to Steve for coming and spending some time with us. If this conversation interests you, make sure to check out his book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins at Amazon or Deseret Books website. As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a rating or a thumbs up, sending love and help to each of you. And as always, you can check out more at

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