This is the biography of a contested memory, how it was born, grew, changed the world, and was changed by it. It's the story of the story of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began. Joseph Smith, the church's founder, remembered that his first audible prayer, uttered in spring of 1820 when he was about fourteen, was answered with a vision of heavenly beings. Appearing to the boy in the woods near his parents' home in western New York State, they told Smith that he was forgiven and warned him that Christianity had gone astray.
Smith created a rich and controversial historical record by narrating and documenting this event repeatedly. In First Vision, Steven C. Harper shows how Latter-day Saints (beginning with Joseph Smith) and others have remembered this experience and rendered it meaningful. When and why and how did Joseph Smith's first vision, as saints know the event, become their seminal story? What challenges did it face along the way? What changes did it undergo as a result? Can it possibly hold its privileged position against the tides of doubt and disbelief, memory studies, and source criticism-all in the information age? Steven C. Harper tells the story of how Latter-day Saints forgot and then remembered accounts of Smith's experience and how Smith's 1838 account was redacted and canonized. He explores the dissonance many saints experienced after discovering multiple accounts of Smith's experience. He describes how, for many, the dissonance has been resolved by a reshaped collective memory.
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Steven C. Harper earned a PhD in early American history from Lehigh University, where he was Lawrence Henry Gipson Fellow. He taught at Brigham Young University campuses in Hawaii and Utah, and served as a volume editor of The Joseph Smith Papers and later as managing historian and a general editor of Saints: The Story of The Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. He is the author of Promised Land (2006) a study of colonial Pennsylvania's dispossession of the Lenape or Delawares. He is also the author of dozens of articles and two books on early Latter-day Saint history. He is currently editor of BYU Studies Quarterly and professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Introduction: A Boy Who Asked God a Question
Part 1: Joseph Smith's Memory
1. A Few Days After
2. Past, Present, and Persecution: The 1838/39 Account
3. An Account of His Marvelous Experience: The 1832 Account
4. First Communication: The 1835 Account
Part 2: Collective Memory
6. Extract from His History
7. I Heard Him Relate His First Vision
8. Interesting Account
9. Addition, Subtraction, and Canonization
10. Collective Consolidation Begins
11. An Interview with Joseph Smith in 1859
12. Our History, 1869-1874
13. Collective Consolidation Culminates
14. The Inception of Mormonism and the Persecuted Present
15. Recursion, Distortion, and Source Amnesia
16. Straightforward Recital
17. Filling the Void
18. The Joseph (F.) Smith Story
19. The Golden Age of that First Great Revelation
20. The Objective Reality of the First Vision is Questioned
21. One Hundred Years of Mormonism
Part 3: Contested Memory
23. Censoring Joseph Smith's Story
24. New Light
25. Under Attack
26. Our Whole Strength
27. I Did Not Know
28. Gone Are the Days
Afterword: Deep Learning
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