Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

First Vision Update

Wesley Walters was a noted anti-Mormon minister who went to great lengths to criticize Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision. He crafted some of the most popular but misguided arguments used against the First Vision. In "Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith," Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson mentioned him and his zealous work with a note that leaves me wincing as I think of him and all the people that have bought his arguments without stepping back to reconsider possible errors in the assumptions behind their work. There are lessons here that we need to consider. Here's the relevant excerpt:
The other main negative claim against the First Vision is also historically wanting because it oversimplifies Joseph Smith's story and then refutes the simplification. Reverend Wesley Walters died probably believing that he had disproved Joseph's First Vision story because he so well documented spectacular religious conversions in Palmyra during 1824 and 1825. The oversimplification emerged when he made a point of finding no evidence of such religious activity in Palmyra just before 1820, when Joseph Smith dated the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). By contrast, Brigham Young University professor Milton V. Backman Jr. showed that critics were not careful in reading the Pearl of Great Price account, which did not mention one localized revival but a sustained "unusual excitement" with the most substantial conversions not in the Palmyra area but in "the whole district of country" (v. 5). Yet a Walters associate still thinks that "the excitement of religion that Joseph Smith mentioned in his official account was the Palmyra revival of 1824–25." However, according to Joseph Smith's handwritten 1832 history, such a conclusion is based on looking for the wrong thing in the wrong time period. Even the Pearl of Great Price account shows that Joseph Smith had been investigating churches over a "process of time" (v. 8). But Joseph's 1832 report states that his period of confusion lasted "from the age of twelve years to fifteen," which would extend from December 23, 1817, to December 23, 1820.

These broad brackets mean that Joseph was intensely searching during the years 1818 and 1819, up to early 1820, the time of the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). We now know that a large Methodist camp meeting was held near Palmyra during June 19–23, 1818. This is found in the diary of Aurora Seager, a young circuit rider who left entries concerning these dates: "On the 19th I attended a camp-meeting at Palmyra. The arrival of Bishop Roberts, who seems to be a man of God and is apostolic in his appearance, gave a deeper interest to the meeting until it closed. On Monday the sacrament was administered; about twenty were baptized; forty united with the Church, and the meeting closed." The harvest of forty new Methodists indicates an estimated crowd of at least 400 on the campground, with saturated sermons during five days from the visiting Methodist bishop and about a dozen senior preachers, all declaring to a largely unchurched crowd the need for Christ and personal repentance. None in the small village of Palmyra and vicinity would be ignorant of this great gathering for that area, broadly coinciding with the family's settlement on their farm. According to Joseph, in that period an unusual religious excitement arose with the Methodists (JS—H 1:5), and the 1818 Palmyra camp meeting shows that his recollection had a factual basis. [Footnotes in Anderson's article.]
Information from Aurora's diary is found in Reverend E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D. D. (New York, 1880), 21–22, microfiche at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

The slam-dunk arguments Walters offered were ultimately based on sloppy reading of the text, a pattern I have seen far too often. When one is looking for the wrong thing at the wrong time, the lack of evidence found does not sound a death knell for believers. When those challenging arguments come, it may just pay to exert a little faith and patience before getting too far bent out of shape.

22 comments:

Dan and Wendy said...

It's amazing when we have already determined what the answer should be BEFORE we do adequate research, how we can always find something to support our view, regardless of how misguided that view might be.

Papa D said...

Great post, Jeff.

Dan and Wendy, unfortunately even many members read and construct their perspectives on just such sloppy reading. Even early leaders made assumptions about the Book of Mormon that now are proving to be incorrect - and I don't know how many times I've heard a member say something about what the Book of Mormon teaches or says, only to think to myself, "No, it doesn't say that."

I am a careful parser largely by inclination, but I also see far too much of what Jeff describes in this post to do other than read carefully and parse charitably.

velska said...

I have long ago decided, that if we want to get really picky, it comes down to taking on faith the claims of the original Apostles (including Mary and Martha) and Paul of having seen the resurrected Jesus.

Besides, it's not like the Bible came from Heaven as a written text: its texts were written by humans who had more or less spiritual understanding, and then some of them were canonized and built into a book. It's not like there's always been an agreement about what belongs in the Bible. Etc. Compared to that, the Book of Mormon is very coherent.

So as long as we're dealing with Christianity or any other religion that is not based on empirical peer-reviewed science, we are talking about things we feel about more than know about.

So pardon me for believing that the Holy Spirit has given me revelations that go nicely together with Joseph Smith's story. If it makes me happy how is anybody poorer for it?

Does that sound very cynical? Well, I am perhaps a little autistic, and can sometimes keep analyzing an idea until it loses all meaning. I have done that with the Faith idea, and I think that Faith is a willful state of mind. I don't know about other people's faith so much, though...

As Papa D said, many LDS people make assumptions that are just simply based on lore, not scripture. I'm afraid it is quite disturbing sometimes to hear what people think is in the scripture; they have not studied, but have heard someone with some authority use a nice turn of phrase and it's sounded good. Ergo, it's Scripture.

velska said...

I have long ago decided, that if we want to get really picky, it comes down to taking on faith the claims of the original Apostles (including Mary and Martha) and Paul of having seen the resurrected Jesus.

Besides, it's not like the Bible came from Heaven as a written text: its texts were written by humans who had more or less spiritual understanding, and then some of them were canonized and built into a book. It's not like there's always been an agreement about what belongs in the Bible. Etc. Compared to that, the Book of Mormon is very coherent.

So as long as we're dealing with Christianity or any other religion that is not based on empirical peer-reviewed science, we are talking about things we feel about more than know about.

So pardon me for believing that the Holy Spirit has given me revelations that go nicely together with Joseph Smith's story. If it makes me happy how is anybody poorer for it?

Does that sound very cynical? Well, I am perhaps a little autistic, and can sometimes keep analyzing an idea until it loses all meaning. I have done that with the Faith idea, and I think that Faith is a willful state of mind. I don't know about other people's faith so much, though...

As Papa D said, many LDS people make assumptions that are just simply based on lore, not scripture. I'm afraid it is quite disturbing sometimes to hear what people think is in the scripture; they have not studied, but have heard someone with some authority use a nice turn of phrase and it's sounded good. Ergo, it's Scripture.

velska said...

Oh, and just to make sure: Becoming LDS was not a question of convenience for me, quite the opposite. I just had to follow where both my heart and mind took me.

Anonymous said...

This is important information that directly refutes a major article of faith - or antifaith, I guess - of some anti-Mormons. Wesley Walters lifetime of work attacking the historicity of the First Vision is rendered pathetic or silly by Aurora Seager's diary and other abundant evidence showing that religious revivals were taking place in Joseph Smith's area shortly before the First Vision, as he states.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment should finish with "as Joseph Smith states."

Pops said...

velska,

I'm going to send you back school on the faith issue.

Faith is pretty much like the scientific process, with the main difference being that much of the "data" is subjective rather than objective. The steps of the process are something like this:

A person gets the idea that something might be true - e.g., Joseph Smith might really have seen a vision of the Father and the Son. This is the hypothesis to be considered. At this point, there is one and perhaps two types of evidence. The main one is authority, meaning the historical record, the accounts of contemporaries of Joseph Smith, and the testimony of living individuals known by the person in question to of good reputation. The second type of evidence is reason, meaning a person might be disposed to believe that God is real and on occasion calls prophets and so forth.

The next step is to take some kind of action which provides more data to be analyzed. That action might be to read the Book of Mormon, or to live some principle taught by Joseph Smith, to examine the "fruits" of the LDS church, or to pray for spiritual confirmation. Many of these actions yield the third type of evidence, which is experience.

On the basis of the additional data obtained through one's actions, one then decides to either abandon the idea or to take additional steps. Additional steps taken yield more data, or evidence, in the form of authority, reason, or experience. Thus, it forms a closed cycle that either reinforces the original hypothesis or doesn't.

Many make the mistake of placing too high a value on a single data point, to the exclusion of all other data points. Such is the case with those who reject Joseph Smith as a prophet on the basis of evidence such as that provided by Wesley Walters. One has to account for the possibility that some of the data might be corrupted and examine the big picture in order to make reasonable conclusions.

Some of the same errors that occur in the scientific process also occur in the faith process. Selection bias, for example, occurs when one looks only at data provided by enemies of the prophet. Another common error in both science and religion occurs when one's selection of data is tainted by existing beliefs.

Anonymous said...

There are no such things as visions. It is as simple as that. Has anyone reading this really experienced a vision?

Anonymous said...

Nope, I haven't seen a vision in the classical religious sense. But there are plenty of things that I haven't seen that most likely exist so I would not take lack of observation as proof positive that they don't happen.

Bookslinger said...

It's just like barley.

Eventually, evidence is found.

Bookslinger said...

Anon: The bible is chock full of visions. If you don't believe in prophets having visions, then you don't believe the Bible.

And if you don't believe the Bible, well, I feel sorry for ya.

A Bible, a Bible... I've got a Bible! And I've got a Book of Mormon, too!

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 3:34 Feb. 16:
The heavens haven't been opened to me. But, I had a dream just more than a week ago, that sure left me wondering if it wasn't more than just a normal dream. Also, while awake, I sometimes have images come to my head, and then thoughts pop into my head as to what the images meant. Okay, I confess that by confessing all this, I shall surely post this anonymously, not using my name. Somewhere, a couple weeks ago, I believe I saw a Joseph Smith quote saying when we see things, God holds himself responsible for providing the interpretation. I thought, "Wow, maybe I really am having visions."

Now, Anon of 3:34 Feb. 16, I cannot just discount the dream or the images, as in our church, we are taught that we SHOULD be receiving personal revelation. Am I passing off personal revelation as my own delusions? Or is the teaching that we should have personal revelation causing me to stretch and suppose simple images in my mind are really, really visions?

Anonymous said...

Visions are like barley? Well, they do go together sometimes. When the barley is fermented.

Ryan said...

I think you lost him, Bookslinger... too much fermented Nephite barley clouding his vision perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm the one that's lost. Perhaps Ryan or some other clear-thinking person can explain what would constitute evidence of visions. There's a categorical difference between falsifiable historical claims and subjective spiritual experiences.

Ryan said...

Bookslinger wasn't talking about visions. Unlike me, he was on topic, pointing out precolumbian barley as an example of how Walters' is not the first (and probably not the last) claim of "couldn't be true" to fall as new evidence appears.

Anonymous said...

I had to post a personal story to say that yes, visions do happen in our day..

In 1996 while traveling from BYU to California I was in a car accident while falling asleep at the wheel. My car flipped off the road somewhere in the Nevada desert, injuring all my friends and killing one girl instantly.

The morning of her death (around 3 or 4 am), the girls mother (in California) received a visitation from a person/angel/whatever... who came to tell and "show" her what happened. He also gave words of comfort to her.

When I finally met the mother she recounted very specific details from her vision of things that I personally did during, and immediately after the accident that no one (not even the people in the car) saw or heard me do.

That was a pretty rough year for me obviously.. but I can't deny what that woman told me was revealed to her.

Personal revelation.. yeah, it happens people.

Cheers

p.s. side note.. her mother also shared details from her daughters Patriarchal blessing to me that seemed to make no sense to her while her daughter was living... but after her passing made complete sense.

Anonymous said...

With all respect. An anonymous second hand account... We always think and dream of our loved ones. Most of the times there is no truth in the dreams. In this case I would suggest that an ordinary dream (I would guess that the mother occassionally have had these kind of dreams) became mixed up with real events under the influence of blurred feelings. It is a kind of comfort that evolution has created. This happens all the time. In other words. Zero evidence of a real vision.

Clifford said...

That statement, Jeff, about your sorrow at those who dropped their faith when confronted by the sophistries of men, oh, does that ever ring true!

Having struggled with my own doubts, I wish I could speak with the tongue of men and angels and urge everyone to remember that the adversary has had thousands of years to plan and package his attacks ... and not to let him win so easily.

In fact, one sees the same cycle of attack when one digs deeply into Christian history: Ad hominem attacks against the family of Christ; lurid and gruesome fantasies about the early, secret Christian rituals; accusations of plagiarism against the early Christian writers and Church doctrines, etc.

ando49 said...

To the anonymous poster above who casts doubts on anyone claiming to have a vision or dream that is anything other than self delusion. YOU ARE WRONG! I had a dream one night that was so real that it woke me immediately at the point when I was about to perish in the dream. While lying there awake, a clear voice came into my mind telling me how to interpret the dream. It was a perfect revelation for what I needed at the time. I immediately awoke my wife and explained the experience to her. It's the only time it's happened to me in 37-years of church membership and I can still remember this dream vividly. Most dreams of the type you describe are blurry by the time you awake and disappear from memory in a mater of days. Heber C Kimball had dreams and received interpretations on many occasions, as included in his biography. I can definitely concur.

velska said...

Pops,

I meant the kind of science that gives results that are replicable in a controlled lab environment. But yes, as far as we allow for subjective "evidence," faith development process is a process of learning by experience, or empirically. It's just that your mileage may vary...

As for visions: My father had a veteran friend, who had a leg injury from the war. He had a prosthetic from the knee down. He had a noticeable limp in his walk, and he'd go swimming hopping on one foot (saw it more than once).

One night my dad woke up to someone calling for him. Opening his eyes, his friend is standing by his bed, saying, "look, I'm limping no more" and showed how he was whole. He also looked much younger, but a full grown man anyways (not like he was before the war, a teenager).

My dad looked at the time, and since it was only 3:15 AM, he decided to try to fall asleep. He didn't think much of it, until he got a call from his friends wife, telling him about her husband's death. Now, my father, with a sort of a tingling in his spine, asks when his friend had died. Day before yesterday, at 3:10 AM. The same night my dad had that weird experience.

I asked my dad, do you now believe there's life beyond this existence? He says he's still not sure. "Perhaps that was a coincidence."

I have several other people, who, like my dad, were not believing people (he wasn't a member of any church, and expressed doubt about any and all stories like the one he told me), recount stories like these, and sometimes there are even one or two others in white clothes (the white clothing made my wife's grandmother take her husband's escort as a nurse) accompanying the relative, who is en route to somewhere different, and has come to say something like "don't worry about me" or "I feel better now".

I have had my own visions, but they are much too personal to recount here. No angelic visitations, though, I must admit.