FairMormon has a service where questions can be submitted and they are answered by volunteers. If you have a question, you can submit it at http://www.fairmormon.org/contact. We will occasionally publish answers here for questions that are commonly asked, or are on topics that are receiving a lot of attention. The question and answer below have been edited to maintain confidentiality.
I have heard that most historians that look into the life of Joseph Smith wind up leaving the Church. Is this true?
ANSWER FROM FAIRMORMON VOLUNTEER CRAIG L. FOSTER:
My comments are my own and do not reflect either the Church or Fairmormon. I read your email and felt strongly that I needed to respond given my background. While I am certainly not a Joseph Smith expert, I have done a significant amount of research on the Prophet. As I have written numerous articles and several books dealing with aspects of Church history, I consider myself an LDS historian. Therefore, I feel I am in a position to respond to the assertion that most historians who look into the life of Joseph Smith wind up leaving the Church.
I am aware of a few who studied Church history and did end up leaving. However, they were very few. In fact, for most historians I have known, it has strengthened their testimony – and I have known and been friends with almost all of the major Mormon historians from Leonard J. Arrington to Thomas G. Alexander, James B. Allen, Richard Lyman Bushman, etc. These men were/are staunch defenders of the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith.
Recently, a friend of mine named Don Bradley posted a Facebook post about Joseph Smith and the First Vision. He has given me permission to include his comments. He emphasizes that he had come to consider Joseph Smith a liar and a fraud. He had his name taken off of the membership of the Church but continued to do research. Because of his research on Joseph Smith, he returned to the Church, was rebaptized and is a strong, believing member. We spoke the other day and he again bore testimony to Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission. Here are his comments:
If there is any historical event to which I’m called to attest or to expound, it is Joseph Smith’s First Vision. My life’s work and life’s purpose are bound up with this event. My study of this event has shaped my spiritual autobiography, my understanding of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, and my personal outlook on ultimate questions.
As many of you know, I once lost faith in and left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On Pioneer Day 2005, I hand delivered a letter to my bishop requesting to have my name removed from the records of the church. Five years later, sitting in the library cafe at Utah State in the early days of May 2010, I realized, suddenly, that I was going back.
What prompted this realization and return? I was working on a paper on Joseph Smith’s First Vision. The discoveries I made in working on that paper turned my world upside down. I had seen Joseph Smith as a spinner of tales. But through the events that emerged for me from the fragments of history that day I came to see Joseph Smith’s First Vision as something much bigger than a story, and far, far larger than just an individual in the nineteenth century. Something vast had manifested through him.
The First Vision was a much bigger and more elaborate experience than the simple accounts convey. Grand in scope, it was more than Joseph Smith would ever dare _try_ to convey. Joseph never related the full story in a single telling; rather, he dosed out bits and pieces of his theophany to others as they were able to receive them.
Only by collecting all those puzzle pieces can we begin to see the big picture of his experience. And when we begin to do so… WOW!
The event that emerges from the fragments was one that encapsulates the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ, and communicates human destiny–the purpose of our existence, what we were made to be.
We can begin to see that Joseph Smith’s First Vision was a much larger experience than we have assumed or known by looking at how he first _began_ relating what he had experienced. Joseph tells us that when he came home from the grove that day, his mother asked him what was the matter, why he was so exhausted. He responded, “It is all right, Mother. I am well enough off. I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.”
We see plainly, given the accounts of the experience that we have, that Joseph was holding back, that he was dosing out to his mother just what she needed to know of his experience at that time. What we do _not_ see is that Joseph has done the exact same thing with _us_. The accounts we are familiar with of his prayer in the grove that day and seeing the Father and the Son are only slightly more complete than what he told his mother. Joseph shaped his formal First Vision accounts, of which we are the secondary audience, to tell only certain essentials for which his audience was prepared.
Yet, by giving us bits and pieces from these various accounts, and further fragments, hints, and allusions from his revelatory texts and sermons, he also gave us a fuller picture, through his overall life witness to the First Vision.
In assembling this picture (as I am working to do for future papers), we find, for one thing, that the divine-human interaction on that spring day two centuries ago was not merely one in which God descended to earth, but also one in which a man ascended to heaven.
It may be useful to add a few of the evidences that God’s descent to earth in Joseph Smith’s First Vision was followed by Joseph’s own heavenly ascent. First, there are scriptural patterns for a theophany that begins with an earthly dimension, in which God comes down, and then adds a heavenly dimension, in which a human being is lifted up. God first manifests his presence to Lehi (as He had to Moses) in a descending pillar of fire and then, afterward, lifts Lehi up to heaven where he sees God seated on His throne. Second, Joseph hints in his First Vision accounts that, on this same pattern, part of his experience occurred on earth but another part transcended the earthly dimension. In his 1832 account Joseph initially described God’s presence descending in “a pillar of fire” that, despite its flaming appearance, did not consume the trees of the grove, plainly locating this part of his experience on earth. Yet in the 1842 Wentworth letter he further writes of the First Vision, “my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.” And his conclusion to the 1838 “Joseph Smith-History” account also suggests that at some point during the experience he left ordinary consciousness of his surroundings: “When I came to myself again I found myself lying on my back looking up into Heaven.” These details are similar to the heavenly ascent portion of Lehi’s theophany, in which he was “overcome with the Spirit” and “carried away in a vision.” Third, at times when Joseph was referring to the First Vision he also brought in the idea of gazing into heaven, as if these two were linked for him as part of the same experience. So, for instance, in one of the few sermons where Joseph explicitly talked about the First Vision, describing how “as a youth” he “could not find out which of all the sects were right” and “went into the grove & enquired of the Lord,” he also asserted that “any person that has seen the heavens opened knows that their is three personages in the heavens holding the Keys of Power” (Joseph Smith, sermon, June 11, 1843, spelling as in original). Such linkages suggest that his First Vision included “seeing the heavens opened” – i.e., a heavenly ascent.
Thus, God first descended to earth, and then Joseph ascended to heaven.
Put differently: God came down to the man’s level to lift the man up to God’s level.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision was thus a nutshell version of something much bigger: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in its robust, living form, is, as the early Christians put it, “God became man in order that man might become God.” This is what God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ is all about. Salvation, wrought by Christ, is that he partook of our human nature so that we might become “partakers of the _divine_ nature.”
Young Joseph _experienced_ the Gospel of Jesus Christ–God’s descent to our level, and his own consequent ascent – a lifting up, or “exaltation” – to God’s level. In this single personal experience, the entire plan of salvation was played out.
The adolescent Joseph had gone into the grove seeking wisdom. He emerged having had what was perhaps the ultimate orienting experience of all time, experiencing the earth, the full sweep of human history, the heavens, and the God who ruled over them all.
Joseph thus received a theophany, and a “*pan*ophany” – a comprehensive revelation, or what Isaiah had called the “vision of all.”
Joseph Smith spent the rest of his life unpacking that encounter. His work with the Book of Mormon. His institution of the temple endowment. His Nauvoo theology. These were all _outworkings_ of that initial theophany, his panophany.
Joseph Smith would spend the rest of his life witnessing of this experience. As an historian of religion and a disciple of Jesus Christ, I add my witness to his. I know of no single experience in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has more fully performed its redeeming work or in which it is more perfectly epitomized than Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
The more I research Joseph Smith and his teachings (and I can assure you, I am dealing with potentially difficult topics in my research – plural marriage, etc.), the stronger my testimony has grown. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and bear witness to his prophetic mission and the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Craig L. Foster