Latter-day Saint Life

Steven Harper: The dilemma at the heart of Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (2002 version)
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

This series of articles was written by Steven Harper, a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU and executive editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. The series explores the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other articles in the series can be found here.

A recent article illustrates how easy it is for us to miss the dilemma at the heart of Joseph Smith's first vision accounts. The article compares Joseph’s experience to some early American conversion narratives and concludes that Joseph’s accounts lack the angst and the typical “transformations of the heart.”

“Nowhere in Smith’s first vision is there a description of the agonies and ecstasies of conversion,” the article claims. Notice how the article posits an either/or, saying Joseph presents himself “not as one whose heart needs changing but one whose mind needs persuading.” The author thinks Joseph’s accounts are about resolving “cognitive dissonance” or intellectual incongruity “rather than ravishing a sinful heart with infinite love.” These phrases sound fancy but they are uninformed. They offer a false dilemma posing as analysis.

This author has not heard what Joseph is saying about the awful dilemma he faced. It's not obvious if we don't share Joseph's understanding of Presbyterianism and Methodism, but once you see it, you wonder how you missed it before.

I was sitting outside at lunch time when I finally recognized the dilemma Joseph describes. I had copies of all the First Vision accounts and was reviewing them again, trying to look at them in new ways, asking different questions. I had read each of them many times before. But that day I started paying attention to Joseph's repeated use of the word mind. It was striking how many times he described what was going on in his mind. Then I noticed that he distinguished between his mind and his heart. Then I saw it: Joseph was trying to tell me that his mind and his heart were at odds.

Every story has a problem. When Joseph told his story, the crux of the problem was that the eternal fate of his soul depended on knowing how to act relative to Christ’s Atonement—and how to act he did not know. The Presbyterian option made sense in his head. He knew he was sinful. He also knew he hadn’t been able to do anything about it. That’s what the Presbyterian option taught him to expect. So Presbyterianism made sense. The Methodist option appealed to his heart. He attended Methodist meetings and witnessed sinful souls like his as they experienced God’s grace, and “he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing.” Methodism taught him to expect God's grace if he wanted it. That didn’t happen, however. No matter how much his heart wanted Methodism, it seemed to his head like the Presbyterian explanation fit best.

One of the options appealed to his heart and the other to his head. No matter how much brain power he put into it, he did not know if his conclusions were right, and no matter how much he tried to follow his heart, he did not know if it was leading him right. His head was telling him one thing, his heart another. How could he know which was right? The welfare of his immortal soul was at stake. It was a terrible problem. The passages of Joseph’s history quoted below, excerpted in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith-History, verses 10 and 18, highlight Joseph’s dilemma:

10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? . ...

18 My object in going to inquire 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)—and which I should join.

It is common for people to conclude that those two verses are at odds with each other but they are not. Verse 10 is about Joseph’s thought process, about what has happened in his head. He often wondered whether all the options were wrong and how he could decide. The parenthetical clause in verse 18 is about Joseph’s emotional vulnerability. He tells us he has kept the awful, recurring thought that all the options for forgiveness are wrong from entering “into my heart.” Maybe there was no Church where he could find God's grace, but he wasn't going to conclude that without confirmation from God.

Working hard to listen to Joseph leads to better understanding of the dilemma he wanted to communicate. Next time I'll write about Joseph’s other dilemma—the one that kept him from telling his First Vision, and that shaped the way he told it when he finally decided to do so.

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