But for now, the search for the great Latter-Day Saint musical continues.
The closest to ever be achieved was by Lex de Azevedo and Doug Stewart’s ‘Saturday’s Warrior,’ which bounces from the sublime to the sentimental to the painfully cheesy and back again. Despite containing nuggets of musical and thematic triumph, it makes for a lopsided package with a pointlessly tangled set of narrative threads. Azevedo’s other successful Latter-Day Saint musical, ‘My Turn on Earth,’ is cut from the same uneven cloth, juxtaposing lines like “the most precious gift we have been given next to life itself is the power to direct that life” with lines like “John, you’re not really Satan, we’re just pretending!”
BYU Professor of Theatre George D. Nelson’s new ‘1820: The Musical’ is more consistent and less likely to cause the audience to cringe, but like ‘Saturday’s Warrior’ and ‘My Turn on Earth,’ it’s a musical with great songs and moments and yet fails to be a great musical. The songs, written by a team including Kendra Lowe Holt, Kayliann Lowe Juarez, and Doug Lowe, depict various vignettes from the life of the prophet Joseph Smith and Emma Smith and often succeed in capturing the emotions of moments in the story. Nelson’s book, however, is unable to make a plot out of these moments (despite the book being written before the musical, according to Nelson).
In our Reactionary age, it seems that all criticism is interpreted as hate. ‘1820’ could be a great musical, but the problems that will hold the musical back from wider success are downstream from the key issue that it has no plot. To say that ‘1820’ has no plot is not necessarily synonymous with saying that I hate the musical. Lots of things happen in ‘1820,’ some of them in good scenes, but they aren’t connected by cause and effect. ‘1820’ is a series of scenes about the prophet’s life, ordered only by chronology with no sense of storytelling or thematic purpose.
This lack of purpose is what makes some choices in the production itself so baffling. For example, the choreography by BYU contemporary dance instructor Adam Dyer features elaborate group numbers on the “showstopper” songs, but for most of the production has the extras doing a lot of dopey crawling around on the floor and creeping around the set in faux slow motion before pushing and pulling the principals around for no discernible reason. Outside the carefully rehearsed big dance numbers, the dancing extras convey amateurishness in their very movements.
‘1820’ is compared to ‘Hamilton’ in its marketing materials, which explains the otherwise bizarre use of a minimalist set and effects alongside more elaborate lighting effects. ‘1820’ also imitates ‘Hamilton’ in its use of race-reversed casting, and Conlon Bonner delivers an emotionally compelling performance as Hyrum Smith. Musically, I won’t hold the comparison to ‘Hamilton’ against ‘1820,’ which fortunately includes only one big rap sequence, a vaguely 80s-style number that could be mistaken for the work of Will Smith, or maybe MC Skat Kat.
The highlight of the cast is Zach Wilson in the role of Joseph Smith, a triple threat who commands each scene dramatically, has the best male singing voice on that stage, and dances with rhythm and dexterity across multiple genres and styles. The songs are generally similar to those in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ catchy pop tunes with simple lyrics that summarize the basic emotional beats of their scene. Individually, many of them succeed quite well.
‘1820’ just completed a six-week opening engagement at the Covey Center in Provo, opening with a blitz of advertising and attempts to gain a following through Latter-Day Saint “influencers.” The producers say they have an eye on bringing the production all the way to Broadway, but in its current state, it’s not ready for New York. Catchy songs alone won’t make it anywhere without a really big name attached.
‘Hadestown,’ last year’s Tony winner, took a fifteen-year trip through workshops, previews, local productions, and even a concept album before becoming Broadway’s big hit of 2019. If ‘1820’ is to continue along a similar path, it needs serious improvements before we see a better version on a regional tour. Nelson has suggested that ‘1820’ was written in part as a response to ‘Book of Mormon.’ I would suggest then, that in future performances when the cast sings the closing number “I’m Still Here,” the cast holds up copies of the Book of Mormon to accompany their defiance of those who condemn and ridicule the prophet and the faith, both past and present.
The soundtrack recording, released in advance of the stage debut of the musical, stands on its own and could become a niche favorite independently of the stage production. It’s available on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming services. Start with “Who is This Man?,” “Alive in Christ,” “All About Timing,” and “I’m Still Here.”
I’m a notorious Grinch on the subject of religious film.
I have a theory that the standards for religious films are so low because they only tell the audience what they want to hear. The popular God’s Not Dead, for example, is a lousy movie on multiple levels, made to pander to our lowest intellectual tendencies; the part of us that wants a movie to spoonfeed us proof that atheists are all a bunch of idiots. Beyond this main thread, there are about a dozen other plots in God’s Not Dead, a hodgepodge of unrelated ideas and clumsily connected characters, including Duck Dynasty guy for some reason in possibly the movie’s dumbest scene. An ambush reporter who doesn’t talk over her subject but instead allows him to speak while respectfully listening? Give me a break.
I’m mentioning my prejudice to indicate how how surprised I am to say this: Witnesses is a great movie.
Here is a movie that understands that its role is not to be a sermon or a polemic, but an emotional journey. It doesn’t flatter the audience by telling them how right they are, it “discomforts the comfortable,” and takes the audience to doubt and back.
Witnesses is based on the mostly familiar story of Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. It’s framed by an interview David Whitmer (Michael Zuccola/Paul Kandarian (older)) gave to a reporter as an old man, as well as an incident back in 1833 where he was ordered at gunpoint by a mob to renounce his witness. Even though Whitmer frames the story, most of the heavy dramatic lifting in the movie is done in Martin Harris (Lincoln Hoppe), in the turmoil leading up to and perpetually following the loss of the first manuscript.
Hoppe gives a unique performance, taking us through his Harris’s desperate conflict to reconsile his powerful doubts with his powerful faith. He has a face that is constantly showing his thought process for us to see; big, formalistic expressions playing on top of each other.
Director Mark Goodman’s style here is moderately expressionistic – emphasizing the emotional perspectives of the characters – but it is also grounded in reality. There are no angelic choirs swelling in the background when the prophet speaks. The camera rarely engages in the pointless “artistic” shots endemic to independent film. The gold plates are not magical glowing relics, they are a solid presence throughout the film. Joseph Smith (Paul Wuthrich) even uses them as an improvised club in an early scene when being chased by thieves. This lack of distracting adornment makes the situation of the members of the Smith family living in close contact and even touching the plates with but never seeing them directly even more emotionally surreal.
A lesser movie would have Joseph giving the audence a speech about why he does not show the plates to the world and Harris should just have faith. Witnesses shows, rather than lectures. Joseph says that he intends to keep his covenant about the plates. Martin Harris makes the same covenant about the 116 pages, and we see in visual and emotional terms how he lets his covenant slip away while Joseph stays firm to his.
We are taken through the difficult journey of the witnesses, which combines the despair of not being able to see the plates with the later despair of disillusionment in Kirtland. Having already seen the angel and plates, they still experienced a crisis of faith, leaving Kirtland and the Church after condemnation from a demagoging Sidney Rigdon (Joseph Carlson).
Two of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery (Caleb J. Spivak, who looks uncannily like the real Cowdery), rejoined the Church years layer. David Whitmer never did, though his witness survived both the guns of an angry mob and 50 years of bitterness at the church.
But if you’re expecting a movie to give you proof of how right you are and how dumb those atheists and anoying evangelical billboards are, Witnesses might not be for you. Witnesses shows us the emotional problem of being lost in doubt and points toward the way out. Whitmer says in the end that “The Book of Mormon was not meant to be proven, it was meant to be read, and then asked of to the creator of all.”
If you want the full stories and facts about the witnesses, try to hunt down a copy of Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson, the late BYU historian and my inspiration and friend. Witnesses is dedicated to his memory and – to my surprise – it is a beautiful and fitting tribute.
In 1911, the Danish silent crime film A Victim of the Mormons was a huge success in the United States and England, initiating a decade of sensationalistic anti-Mormon motion pictures in popular cinema with lurid titles like Marriage or Death and Trapped by the Mormons.1A Victim of the Mormons was a wild tale of a Danish girl seduced and kidnapped by missionaries and taken to Utah to be married to a villainous polygamist before she is rescued by the Danish hero.2
In the early years of cinema, the typical response of any institution that objected to the content of a motion picture was an attempt to ban the film, one state and distributor at a time if necessary. Various interest groups lobbying to ban pieces of media was a common and acceptable practice before the 1950s. But the efforts of leaders and connected members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (known colloquially as the Mormon Church or the LDS Church, hereafter referred to as simply ‘the Church’) to ban the film had failed even in the state of Utah, and served only to draw more publicity to the A Victim of the Mormons. Therefore, in June of 1912 Church leaders planned a different response to the new wave of anti-Mormon film: they would sponsor their own motion picture.3
One Hundred Years of Mormonism told the story of the Church from the birth of its founder Joseph Smith to the trek west of the 1840s and 1850s. It was an ambitious undertaking, made at a then impressive cost of $50,000 and running six reels—making it one of the longest films made at the time. The now lost film included the 1844 martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, staged multiple elaborate and expensive scenes of hundreds of pioneers trekking west, and used double-exposure photography to depict the 1823 appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith described in the introduction of the Book of Mormon.4 But the feature length motion picture omitted an event modern members and leaders of the Church consider central to their faith, secondary only to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the First Vision of Joseph Smith.5 It wouldn’t be until 1976 that the event would be depicted in narrative film.
Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the Church from 1995 to 2008, said in a 2002 General Conference, “We declare without equivocation that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith… Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision.”6 Moreover, beginning in the early 1960s, Church missionaries have been expected to memorize and recite the portions of Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as the key part of their first lesson.7
The First Vision is used as the modern Church’s primary symbol of the power of prayer, the founding of the Church (“the Restoration”), the nontrinitarian nature of the Godhead, and of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. This, however, was not always the case. The story of the First Vision was almost entirely unknown in the early Church and did not occupy its current high place in the teachings and culture of Church until the middle of the twentieth century.8 Just as the Church created One Hundred Years of Mormonism in response to cinematic critics, we see a similar pattern of criticism and response shaping the way the First Vision story was and continues to be told in the Church, which this paper will examine.
The First Vision in Historiography
James B. Allen, former Assistant Church Historian and professor of history at Brigham Young University, has done the most extensive research on “The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” as he titled a 1980 paper. He attributes the “metamorphosis” to the teachings of Church leaders and theologians in the decades after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in 1847, particularly those of George Q. Cannon, Church apostle from 1860 to his death in 1901. It was Cannon’s teachings, Allen argues, that prompted the first wave of depictions of the First Vision in works by Church artists in the late 1870s.9 It was C.C.A. Christiansen’s now lost painting “Mormon Panorama One/The First Vision” that inspired George Manwaring to write “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” (“O How Lovely Was the Morning”) in 1878, which would eventually be included in the Church Hymnbook seventy years later.10
Allen describes the course of the First Vision story from obscurity in 1830 to relative prominence in the late nineteenth century, and says that “from there the story of the First Vision as a fundamental theme in the presentation of Mormon doctrine only expanded upon the pattern established by the artists, preachers, and writers of the 1880s.” In this paper, I will further explore this expansion, particularly where it involves the Church’s expanding filmmaking efforts and missionary work.
I will also examine the changing emphasis on aspects of the story as seen in the examples of Church films depicting the First Vision. The creation of One Hundred Years of Mormonism as a response to cinematic detractors shows a criticism and response relationship between the Church and its critics; and we will see how this relationship applies to the Church’s narrative of the Vision, particularly where the first First Vision film is concerned. It took until 1976 for a film featuring the First Vision to be made, but in the last 15 years (2004–2019) the church has made three films of high technical and artistic sophistication depicting the First Vision, and we can see a significant change in their respective narratives responding to new criticisms of Joseph Smith’s accounts.11
The “metamorphosis” was a paradigm shift, after which it becomes necessary to describe the place of the First Vision by addressing those occasions where it is omitted rather than those occasions it is included. It’s important to note that this change is one of emphasis, and in how a narrative is constructed from the historical accounts. Church doctrine regarding the Restoration did not change after its canonization in scripture in 1880, though lesson books, missionary manuals, and common topics of sermons did and undoubtedly will continue to change for the foreseeable future.
Two Narratives of the Genesis of the Church
Did the Restoration begin with Joseph Smith’s First Vision? Or did it begin with the Book of Mormon and the visions of the angel Moroni?
When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded April 6, 1830 in Fayette, New York, early members were typically converted by the teachings of the Book of Mormon and its origin story in the visitations of the angel Moroni to the young Joseph Smith.12 In his account, 16-year-old Joseph Smith was praying in his family’s home in upstate New York in 1823 when there appeared a heavenly messenger. The messenger said his name was Moroni, and that there was a book of ancient scripture buried in a hill nearby.13
This narrative gained early prominence in the Church, possibly because a people familiar with apocalyptic literature could have seen Moroni as being the angel “having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth” referenced in the Book of Revelation.14 He is the angel depicted in statue on the spire of most of the Church’s temples from 1893 to the present day and according to the Book of Mormon, Moroni is the son of the ancient historian for which the book is named.15 This is the story that would be dramatized in 1913 in One Hundred Years of Mormonism.
The first image that present-day visitors to the main exhibit at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City will encounter is a vibrant floor-to-ceiling photograph of a forest in rural New York. It was in this small forest, now known as the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith claimed to have seen his First Vision in the spring of 1820. According to his recollection written in 1838 and canonized as Church scripture in 1880, the fourteen-year-old Joseph was concerned with questions of religious uncertainty, owing to a series of Protestant revivals in his area which contended with each other over matters of doctrine.16 After reading in the Epistle of James, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him,”17 he resolved to pray about the matter and retired to the woods now known as the Sacred Grove to do so, and describes the prayer thusly:
15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God…. 16 …I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…. 17 …When the light rested upon me 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! 18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. 19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong…18
The story would not appear in print until 1840—twenty years later—when it was included in a pamphlet published in Scotland by early Church missionary Orson Pratt entitled A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records.19 Pratt was likely working from his memory of Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, as Joseph had wrote or dictated the story on five known occasions. It would be Joseph’s 1838 account that was published in 1851 as part of the Pearl of Great Price and canonized as Church scripture in 1880.20
Joseph Smith spoke little of the Vision in his own lifetime, and usually among friends, though in the last few years of his life he would include it in at least one sermon given in the home of a convert to the Church.21 The reasons of his relative silence on the matter can only be speculated on; Joseph may not have seen his vision as being substantially different from those reported in some of the wilder revivalist prayer meetings of the era before he came to terms with the scope and nature of his ministry, or that he believed personal conversions were of a more private nature than were prophetic revelation.22 Moreover, the account’s assertion of a nontrinitarian, corporeal God was a foreseeable cause for contention with potential converts. Though trinitarian belief was not universal in the nineteenth-century United States, it was (and continues to be) a majority belief among Protestant groups.23 But the Church shifted its narrative in the twentieth century to emphasize the First Vision and respond to the criticisms against it.
The First Vision in Twentieth-Century Missionary Work
Missionaries in the early Church preached without any standardized lessons or guidelines from the Church, teaching instead from the scriptures, their own knowledge and intuition, and the spirit of their testimony. In the first half of the twentieth century, some Church missions printed guidelines and pamphlets on their own initiative, and pamphlets by other writers were sometimes available for purchase by missionaries—but were not yet published or formalized by the Church.24
Before the Church published standardized lessons for use in the work of its full-time missionaries, it undertook an initiative to publish a series of filmstrips and scripts for accompanying narration for missionary use. For this purpose, the new Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee was formed in 1935 with future President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley, then an aspiring journalist, as its first employee and Executive Secretary.25 Hinckley was noted among Church leaders for his keen sense for public relations and approaches to responding to criticism.
It would be seventeen years from the committee’s formation to the publication of a book of lesson manuals. In the meantime, Hinckley commissioned and wrote the accompanying texts for a series of filmstrips, reels of approximately fifty still images recorded on 35mm film to be projected while the missionary read a brief accompanying narration. While some of the later, more elaborate filmstrips included costumed actors or color illustrations, the earliest simply showed the locations corresponding to the events of Church history.
Landmarks of Church History, distributed beginning in 1936, includes an image of the Sacred Grove, though the images and text accompanying the angel Moroni narrative outnumber those concerning the Vision. In the accompanying script, however, Hinckley says that the “on the experience of that morning in the grove pivoted the eventful life of Joseph Smith and the lives of a million Latter-Day Saints.”26 This is language not far removed from his description of the importance of the event sixty-six years later as President of the Church.
But missionary practices at the time could vary, sometimes wildly, from mission to mission and even among missionaries in the same area. It is therefore useful to compare Hinckley’s understanding of the place of the First Vision to what was taught in other missions.
In the late 1940s, Richard L. Anderson, a missionary serving in the Northwestern States Mission, wrote A Plan for Effective Missionary Work for use in his mission. It would be adopted in other missions and at its peak around 1951 would be used by about sixty percent of missionaries in the Church.27 The lessons in the book take the form of hypothetical dialogues with interested potential converts, setting the precedent for the mission plans subsequently published by the Church. Anderson’s dialogues include the story leading up to the First Vision while omitting the vision itself, shifting the focus back to the angel Moroni story:
Elder Smith: “(In) 1820 Joseph Smith was a boy of fourteen years of age and in New York at the time ministers of many different churches held revival meetings and solicited membership in their churches. He desired to join one of the churches, but you can imagine how perplexed he was, trying to decide which one was the true church. In reading the Bible he found a promise that if he would ask of God in faith he would gain the answer. You believe in prayer, don’t you, Mrs. Jones?” Mrs. Jones: “Yes I do.” Elder Smith: “You can imagine the faith of that fourteen-year-old boy, in going into the woods and asking the Lord for the information he desired. In answer to those prayers, he received many direct visions—in our own generation! An angel actually stood beside his bedside September 21st, 1823, and said, ‘My name is Moroni…’”28
For the first half of the twentieth century, the story of the First Vision was being used in the Church’s missionary efforts, but not to establish the foundation of the Restoration. It was not yet used as the starting point or hook for potential converts, but rather as evidence to support the Church’s nontrinitarian theology. In A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel (1952), the first formal missionary lesson book published by the Church, the First Vision does not appear in the lesson on “The Restoration,” but the account of the visitation of the angel Moroni does.29 The First Vision does appear in this book in the lesson on “The Godhead” to provide three points of evidence:
A. This vision proves that God the Father and the Son have bodies similar in form to man and that they are separate and distinct. B. It completely contradicts the sectarian concept of God. C. The vision is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet.30
Unlike the discussions of the 1960s–1990s, these lessons were not formatted as dialogues nor were they intended to be memorized and recited by the missionary.31 This changed less than 10 years later with A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators in 1961, implementing a requirement of memorization of the account of the First Vision that would persist to the present day, even after Preach my Gospel in 2004 eliminated the practice of memorizing and reciting the lessons.32
Criticism and Response in Film
Twentieth-century scholarly critics of the Church such as Fawn M. Brodie, author of the influential 1945 critical biography of Joseph Smith No Man Knows my History, dismissed the First Vision briefly, saying it “may have been sheer invention, created sometime after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging.”33 Criticism of the era focused primarily on The Book of Mormon or on allegations regarding Joseph Smith’s personal character. But in 1967, Reverend Wesley P. Walters leveled a novel attack on the historicity of the First Vision account which quickly gained attention among Church scholars and leaders. Compared to Brodie’s use of retroactive accounts accusing Smith of “lying habits,” Walter’s criticism was more in line with historical methods:
“A vision, by its inward, personal nature, does not lend itself to historical investigation. A revival is a different matter—especially one such as Joseph Smith describes—in which “great multitudes” were said to have joined the various churches involved. Such a revival does not pass from the scene without leaving some traces in the records and publications of the period. In this study we show by the contemporary records that the revival which Smith claimed occurred in 1820 did not really take place until the fall of 1824. We also show that in 1820 there was no revival in any of the churches in Palmyra and its vicinity. In short, our investigation shows that the statement of Joseph Smith, Jr., cannot be true when he claims that he was stirred by an 1820 revival to make his inquiry in the grove near his home.”34
Rather than retreat from this criticism, the Church shifted its efforts and emphases to respond head-on. Walters’s historical attack was the catalyst of a First Presidency-supported effort to “collect basic documentary material” to refute Walters’s case. This effort employed three BYU historians, including Richard L. Anderson, and “some forty scholars.”35 It was a new surge in historical attention on the First Vision—particularly on the revivalist preachers referred to in the account—from BYU scholars as well as Church leaders. Milton V. Backman, Jr. found that the years from 1800–1860 were in fact a period of constant religious revival in the northeast United States, and his and other scholars’ findings were published in the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies, which was entirely dedicated to the First Vision.36
It was sometime soon after (1970 or 1971) that Doug Stewart—future writer of Saturday’s Warrior—began work on the script for a screen adaption of the First Vision. The Church had been making films through the BYU Motion Picture Studio since 1953 under the supervision of former Walt Disney animator Wetzel “Judge” Whitaker, including stories from the Church’s history.37The Lost Manuscript (1974), Whitaker’s final production before his retirement, would once again feature the appearances of the angel Moroni and the translation of the gold plates.38
A script was written for a potential First Vision film for the Church pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, but this was passed over in favor of Man’s Search for Happiness, which would become an effective missionary tool and the Church’s most elaborate production to date. Before the production of The First Vision, Church films were sponsored by the various committees and auxiliaries of the Church and funded from their respective budgets, but The First Vision would be the first BYU Motion Picture Studio film sponsored directly by the First Presidency of the Church rather than an auxiliary.39
The writer, director, and producers of The First Vision kept several lists of preachers of the place and era that may have been included in the religious revivals mentioned in Joseph Smith’s account.40 These preachers would become characters in the film, and snippets from their teachings would be condensed and compiled in the film itself. In one scene of many that depict religious meetings of the period a preacher pounds on his pulpit shouting, “Saved or damned? Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him!” A woman in the congregation descents, “We’re saved by grace, not by works!”41
This is part of the pattern of criticism and response between the Church and its critics. Wesley Walters’s attack on the historicity of the religious revivals at the time of the First Vision is responded to with the depiction of revivals taking a center stage in the film several years later. The most recent film of the First Vision demonstrates this same criticism and response relationship. The First Vision is criticized today, less by historians and more by online critics, on the basis of the existence of multiple accounts from multiple sources, some of which omit certain portions or are even contradictory.42 The 2017 film produced for the Church History Museum is considering these criticisms and concerns when it includes an intro title saying:
Between 1832 and 1844, Joseph Smith and some of his closest friends recorded at least nine accounts of Joseph’s First Vision experience, given on different occasions to different audiences.
The most detailed of these accounts, written in 1838, has been published in a volume of scripture called the Pearl of Great Price.
What you are about to see draws upon all of the written First Vision accounts to provide additional perspective and insights into this remarkable event.43
This new film does not show the revival meetings at all, confining itself to the events in the grove. As critics move to new ground, the Church responds not with retreats or changes in doctrine, but in shifting its emphasis and affirming those truths under attack.
Grace Johnson, author of The Mormon Miracle and the 1967–2019 pageant of the same name, described the Church and its members as “…a people looking backward upon a mighty epic. All because, a boy of fourteen… went into the woods… to pray.”44 The Church has not always seen itself as the consequence of that prayer in the woods, but after almost two centuries the Church’s cultural and historical narrative regarding the First Vision and the foundation of the restoration has evolved, as all good historical narratives should. As critics have attacked the story, the Church and its members have found the First Vision to be a sturdier foundation than anyone expected.
Note: This paper was written for BYU’s The Historian’s Craft course (HIST 200) in June of 2019, though I’ve made minor revisions since then. If you want to see the videos referenced in the paper, most of them are available at the YouTube channel Hard-to-Find Mormon Videos (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAnRNCf5m5I0pEdqYMfGOgA). They have a lot of old stuff ranging from the profound to the unpleasant.
1. The Church had, in fact, outlawed the solemnization of polygamous marriages under pressure from the United States government over 20 years previously. See Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1 (1981 Edition).
2. Randy Astle, Mormon Cinema: Origins to 1952 (New York: Mormon Arts Center, 2018), 163.
3. Astle, Mormon Cinema, 195.
4. “Amusements,” Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 4, 1913, 9.
5. Astle, Mormon Cinema, 197.
6. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith” (sermon, 172nd Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT, October 2002).
7. A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 1967), 30.
8. James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980): 44.
9. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 55.
10. John H. Manwaring and George Ernest Manwaring, “George Manwaring” (unpublished biography, Rootsweb, June 27, 1902), 1; Richard L. Jensen and Richard G. Oman, C.C.A. Christensen: 1831-1912: Mormon Immigrant Artist (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1984), 91.
12. James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (Fall 1966): 33.
13. See The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1981 Edition).
14. Rev. 14:6 (King James Version); Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 52.
15. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Mormon 8:1–5 (1981 Edition).
16. Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History (1981 Edition) 1:5–10.
17. James 1:5 (KJV)
18. Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History (1981 Edition) 1:15–19. This account includes an attempt to interfere with the prayer by “the power of some actual being from the unseen world,” interpreted to be the devil. The inclusion or exclusion of this aspect of the event in accounts and Church depictions of the events is a narrative of its own, which I’ve omitted as it falls outside the scope and constraints of this paper.
19. James B. Allen and Leonard J. Arrington, “Mormon Origins in New York: An Introductory Analysis,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (Spring 1969): 255–256.
20. Matthew B. Christensen, The First Vision: A Harmonization of 10 Accounts from the Sacred Grove (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2014), 5–6.
21. Christensen, The First Vision: A Harmonization, 9.
22. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 39–41.
23. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental,” 47.
24. Benjamin Hyrum White, “A Historical Analysis of How Preach my Gospel Came to Be” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2010), 1–2.
25.Matthew Porter Wilcox, “The Resources and Results of the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee: 1935–1942” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2013), 32.
26. Gordon B. Hinckley, Landmarks of Church History (Salt Lake City, Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee, 1936), 9.
27. White, “How Preach my Gospel Came to Be,” 3.
28. Richard L. Anderson, A Plan for Effective Missionary Work (Kaysville, UT: Inland Printing Co., 1954), 8.
29. A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1955), 78–95.
30. A Systematic Program, 44–61.
31. A Uniform System, 11–13, 30–31; White, “How Preach my Gospel Came to Be,” 4.
32. Preach My Gospel (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004), 19, 36–38; White, “How Preach my Gospel Came to Be,” 2–8
33. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows my History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 25.
34. Wesley P. Walters, B.D., “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 10, no. 4 (Fall 1967): 228.
35. Samuel Alonzo Dodge, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Insights and Interpretations in Mormon Historiography,” in Exploring the First Vision, eds. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2012), xii.
36. Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (Spring 1969): 301.
37. Randy Astle and Gideon O. Burton, “A History of Mormon Cinema: The Third Wave,” BYU Studies 46, no. 2 (2007): 85.
39. Randy Astle and Gideon O. Burton, “A History of Mormon Cinema: The Fourth Wave,” BYU Studies 46, no. 2 (2007): 98.
40. These Papers are scattered throughout the director’s papers collected within David Kent Jacobs Collection on Mormon Films, 1955–1988, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University Library, Provo, UT.
41. The First Vision: The Visitation of the Father and the Son.
42. For a comparison of these various accounts and their respective historical contexts, see Matthew B. Christensen, The First Vision: A Harmonization of 10 Accounts from the Sacred Grove (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2014).
43. Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
44. Grace Johnson, The Mormon Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1952), 30.
Top Image: “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Stained glass, 1913. Currently in the Church History Museum, Salt Lake City.