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The First Vision as a Prehistory of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

TitleThe First Vision as a Prehistory of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsFlake, Kathleen
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsFirst Vision; Multiple First Vision Accounts

Most scholarly attention to the First Vision is dedicated to determining whether it happened or whether whatever happened is reliably described in the few primary accounts we have of it. My interests lie in a different direction. I am interested in the First Vision accounts insofar as they tell us something about religion, not about history, and not least because my wager is that this story, as a story, exceeds the limits of history, especially when it becomes understood as scripture. Which is to say, I want to better understand the work done by this story among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For this analysis of Smith’s representation of his quest and its positive resolution, I will rely chiefly on the 1832 and 1838 manuscripts as the most intentional of the four accounts. They not only share a historiographical purpose but also are related in their production, the 1838 manuscript having used the 1832 account as a base for its narrative structure and descriptive detail of events. In contrast, the intervening 1835 account is a report of a conversation with a sole interlocutor observed by a notetaking third party. It less useful as a primary source for Smith’s understanding of the larger significance of his initial spiritual experience. The 1842 Wentworth letter is as intentional as the other church histories but relies on secondary accounts for much of its content. Finally, because of its canonical status, the 1838 manuscript is not merely authoritative but generative of the faithful reader’s religious convictions. Therefore, it is uniquely relevant to this analysis of the First Vision’s meaning and function among the Saints.