One Being or Two: A Guest Post by Dr. Steven Harper, LDS Church History Department

The following post is a follow-up to the podcast conducted with Dr. Steven C. Harper on the First Vision. It addresses one of the most common–and central–concerns about the differences among the various First Vision accounts: did Joseph Smith see one being or two?

Dr. Steven C. Harper

Dr. Steven C. Harper

Did Joseph Smith see one divine being or two in his first vision?  The question may seem absurd to Latter-day Saints who can quote the memorable line from the canonized account: “I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air. One of <them> spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) ‘This is my beloved Son, Hear him

But seven years before those words were written by his scribe, Joseph penned in his own hand, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”  In this earliest known account of the vision, critics are quick to point out, Joseph describes the appearance of only 1 divine being.  Or does he?  Having studied all the available evidence carefully, I have concluded that what Joseph Smith struggled to communicate has not been understood by most critics or believers—and it won’t be until we learn to listen to him more carefully.

Joseph’s accounts of his vision are descriptions of a revelatory event and also, as religion scholar David Carpenter described revelation, of “a process mediated through language.” The very language whose communicative inadequacies Joseph lamented, in other words, is necessarily the means by which we must receive the signals he sent about the nature of his partly indescribable experience.   Knowing that he had an important story to tell, Joseph was concerned by the limits on his ability to communicate clearly.  His earliest known account begins with a disclaimer in which he explains why he felt that his ability to communicate in writing was inadequate.  His parents’ large family, he said, “required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.”  In this passage we hear Joseph preparing us for the rough composition of his subsequent narrative.  We hear the tension between his knowing that it was vital for him to communicate his singular experience and his sense of inadequacy to communicate it clearly.  With that recognition we are prepared to hear Joseph’s marvelous story in crooked, broken, scattered, imperfect language.  It is a bit like listening to someone speak in a language they have learned but not yet mastered.

When we listen to Joseph carefully we hear him explain that he saw at least two divine beings in the woods but not necessarily simultaneously.  In 1832 he wrote, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”  His 1839 account says clearly, “I saw two personages” and the 1842 account adds, “two glorious personages.” The distinction between the 1832 account’s apparent reference to only one being—the Lord—and the 1839’s unequivocal assertion of two beings has led some to wonder and others to criticize Joseph for changing his story.  But it may be that we just need to listen more carefully to Joseph tell the story.  It may be that we have assumed that we understood his meaning before we did.

Joseph’s 1835 account provides the clearest chronology.  He said, “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down up me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.”  Two secondary accounts also say that Joseph first saw one divine personage who then revealed the other.  In the 1835 account Joseph also added as an afterthought, “and I saw many angels in this vision.”

There is nothing in the accounts that requires us to read these variations as exclusive of each other.  In other words, there is no reason to suppose that when Joseph says, “I saw two personages,” he means that he saw them at exactly the same time for precisely the same length of time, or that he did not also see others besides the two.  Moreover, because the 1835 account and two of the secondary statements assert that Joseph saw one being who then revealed the other, we can interpret the 1832 account to mean that Joseph saw one being who then revealed another, referring to both beings as “the Lord”: “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”

We cannot be sure but it seems plausible that Joseph struggled in 1832 to know just what to call the divine personages.  Notice that the first instance of the word Lord was inserted into the sentence after the original flow of words, as if Joseph did not know quite how to identify the Being.

The Lord opened

For original image, click here

In 1842 Joseph said that he “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.”  It seems most likely to me that Joseph meant all along to communicate that he envisioned a divine being who revealed another one, but that he struggled to characterize them precisely from what he called his narrow prison of paper, pen, and ink.

 

 

When Mormon History Fails You

It’s time to ask the tough question: is Mormon history even helpful to the Ordain Women movement?

Like Joanna Brooks has said, this cause isn’t one that burns deeply within my soul.  If President Monson told us tomorrow that women could be ordained to be “Elders” or “High Priestesses,” I would cheer along with everyone else. If it means that women would get their share of anti-porno talks and dating chastisements, I’m all about lovingly retiring the pedestal–and then burning it in the quiet of the night. I can think of “binders full of women” right now who would run my Elders’  Quorum meeting more competently than I ever could. In that sense, I can confidently say that I’m in support of the Ordain Women movement. Continue reading

Podcast #7: The First Vision

It is the foundational event of Mormonism–or at least that is what it became. Beginning in 1832, Joseph Smith began to publicly talk about a visionary experience he had in a grove of trees nearby his home in upstate New York. However, what he told audiences differed from year-to-year in what feels to be substantial detail. Is this evidence of rank fraud? Or, as his supporters say, does it indicate the natural human tendency to emphasize/omit details of a story based on one’s audience or perhaps his own changing understanding of the importance of certain theological principles. Brittany Nielson and I speak with LDS Church Historian Dr. Stephen Harper about his book, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts Harper currently works on the Joseph Smith Papers Project production team for the LDS Church.

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Podcast #6: Mormonism and the Single Saint

In this podcast–recorded live at the Salt Lake City Public Library–Russell Stevenson hosts a panel discussion in which he along with three single Latter-day Saints (Ryan Fleming, Kylee Shields, and Lisa Benson) discuss not only the history of Mormon single identity but also struggles and benefits of being a single Latter-day Saint today. Given the marriage-centered Mormon narrative–both historically and theologically–single Saints invite Mormons to revise that narrative.  We field questions from a live audience and address how single LDS can best relate to their married Mormon family members and acquaintances. Listen in for more!

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Podcast #5 -The History of Homosexuality and Mormonism

In this special episode, Russell Stevenson and Brittney Nielson delve into one of the most controversial topics of our times: homosexuality.   During the first half, they discuss the history of homosexuality in the Mormon tradition and homosexuals’ struggles to find a place within it. The second half is an interview with two of Mormonism’s most interesting and, at times, controversial voices on LGBT issues: Ty and Danielle Mansfield.  We discuss the nature of their relationship and how they make it “work” (and, as you will find, “work” really is a poor word for their marital dynamic). They explain what love means to them and how their approach to sexuality fits within the Mormon tradition.

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Podcast #4: Mormons and the Environment

In this episode, Russell Stevenson and Kate Harline explore Mormonism’s fascinating interactions with the environment and environmentalist thought.  Unlike many Christian denominations, Mormonism has a mixed and complicated message, as it has endeavored to uphold its principles of stewardship over the material world while still navigating the American and world economy as a minority religious movement.  Stop by for an engaging conversation about stewardship, industrialization, and the need for Mormons to rediscover their environment-centered theology.

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Podcast #3 – History of Mormon Dance

In this podcast, Russell Stevenson and Kate Harline discuss an aspect of Mormon cultural art that is easy to overlook: dancing.   Though seemingly recreational, Mormon dance in fact highlights deeper issues in the development of Mormon identity: theologically, sexually, and even racially.  They analyze how Mormon dance has served as a cultural “contact zone” between the Mormon community and outsiders.  They also interview Katherine Winder, a full-time professional Mormon dancer from the Repertory Dance Theater of Salt Lake City.  She tells how she came to be a dancer, how her faith informs her art, and her touching experiences as a dance instructor in a leper colony in India.  Join us for this compelling exploration of the Mormon people have used dance both to celebrate and control their bodies over the past 180 years.

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Let Not God Speak with Us: The Tragedy of Mormon Racism

The story of white Mormon racism gives me heartburn.  It makes me sad, tragically so. And tragedies are only possible when there’s something–something big–to lose. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, though “few are guilty…all are responsible.” Deflection and projection will not do.  To paraphrase the haunting language of poet Jeremy Loveday, “the culture of violence [though I would say, "racism"] touches us all. And by dismissing perpetrators as monsters, it allows us not to analyze our own actions.”  It is the simple and sincere question asked of Jesus: “What lack [we] yet?”  Jesus did not coddle the inquirer but directed him to give up the things he valued the most in order to follow him.  The young man walked away glumly; he never had considered the kind of sacrifice that Jesus’ kingdom required. Continue reading

Podcast #2: Race and the Priesthood

In this podcast, Kate Kelly Harline takes on the role of interviewer and discusses Russell Stevenson (author of Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables and author of the forthcoming, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Documentary History of Blacks and Mormonism,  1830-2013). We discuss the meaning and ramifications of the LDS Church’s new statement on “Race and the Priesthood.”  Obviously, we present this perspective from the perspective of historical analysis.  Towards the end of my recent interview on RadioWest, one of my co-hosts specifically distanced himself from that perspective, and I respect his right to do so.  However, as the statement was an historical statement, we have little choice but to employ historical methods in assessing it–even if it does not fit neatly into talking points or agendas. We trace the origins, course, and trajectory of the Saints’ relationship with the black community and racial exclusion. Tune in for the conversation at the Mormon History Guy podcast.

2013?! Wow. Ok.

In a recent conversation with Doug Fabrizio, I made the comment that the priesthood ban was a collaborative endeavor, with plenty of culpability to spread around throughout the various strata of the Mormon community.  I said that it has taken this long for the Mormon community to reckon with their racial past.  He responded with a shocked: “2013?! Wow. Ok.”

Over the course of the past year, I’ve said the same thing myself as I have spoken on this topic over the course of the past year.  Continue reading