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Reclaiming the “Primary Question”: A New Beginning for Joseph Smith’s First Vision

TitleReclaiming the “Primary Question”: A New Beginning for Joseph Smith’s First Vision
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsPerez, William G.
JournalBYU Studies
KeywordsEducation; First Vision; Multiple First Vision Accounts

The First Vision as a narrative has long been in flux. Scholars have documented a cultural recovery of Joseph Smith’s First Vision by the Church in the twentieth century. This revival came about through a reemphasis on the First Vision in the wake of the Reed Smoot hearings. It was also fostered by a need to defend the Church’s origin story during the development of a “new Mormon history” and by the onset of the information age. The twenty-first century has likewise seen a raising of the stakes with regard to Joseph Smith’s story. This renaissance has led to an intentional focus on the multiple accounts of the First Vision as exemplified in a new Gospel Topics essay, a Foundations of the Restoration institute course, worldwide devotionals in which General Authorities have discussed the various accounts, a short film depicting Smith’s experience as compiled from the multiple accounts, and a foregrounding of the Sacred Grove as part of the two hundredth anniversary of Smith’s theophany. A significant cultural turn resulting from these institutional strides is that attention has shifted away from interpreting the First Vision primarily as the validation of a “one true church” doctrine and toward emphasizing it as a witness of Jesus Christ’s universal love and forgiveness. To chart this new beginning, I surveyed seventy-six Seminaries and Institutes educators to document how the twenty-first- century developments mentioned above have impacted the way they frame and teach the First Vision. They overwhelmingly reported feeling increased confidence and capacity in doing so. Additionally, they described a much more nuanced understanding of why Smith went into the grove in the first place. The resulting shift in perspective—approaching the First Vision inclusively instead of defensively—will likely have a significant impact on Church culture and education in the years to come.