With his deep foundation in literature, you may be surprised to learn that it was the literary power of Joseph Smith's First Vision account that captured his attention when he encountered the Church. This happened when he was as a mature, respected, active man with a lot to lose by joining the Church, as he did in 1966. Five years later, he would join the faculty of Brigham Young University, where he fascinated, challenged and sometimes overwhelmed many students.
Mormon Scholars Testify has an entry from him. I'd like to share a portion of that as he discusses his reaction to a piece of great literature whose literary value we Mormons often overlook. I'm glad he was paying attention and had the skills to recognize its value.
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.
Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New England clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS—H 1:12)I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself. The passage continues as follows:
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. (JS—H 1:13)Notice the coolness: “At length I came to the conclusion.”
I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (JS—H 1:13)Notice the rationality of it, the humility of it, the perfectly good manners of it.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. (JS—H 1:14)Just imagine what a TV commentator would make of this sort of thing.
It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. (JS—H 1:14)
Do you see how the tone is kept down, how matter-of-fact it is? Notice the effect of a phrase like “to pray vocally.”
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. (JS—H 1:15)Plain, matter-of-fact, truthful, simple statements in well-mannered prose. This is no posture. We are not thinking of Joseph Smith; we are just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear. Do you see how beautifully this is built up, how the tension is built up by his being so modest, so well mannered?
I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. (JS—H 1:15)He is telling us about something terrible. But he is not trying to make us feel HOW TERRIBLE THIS IS. He is telling us that it happened.
Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. (JS—H 1:15)He felt he was going to be killed. But there is no excitement, no hysteria about this. He just tells us. Notice in particular the coolness of the phrase “for a time.”
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm . . . (JS—H 1:16)Notice the expression “of great alarm.” What would a posing sensationalist do with that? What kind of explosion would he devise, I wonder?
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. (JS—H 1:16)“A pillar of light exactly over my head,” “above the brightness of the sun,” “descended gradually”—note the modifiers, the exactness. What he is trying to do is tell us what happened. He goes on in the same tone. He doesn’t get ecstatic. He doesn’t run over. He just goes on telling us just what happened in this astonishingly cool, and at the same time reverential, way. This is a visit of God the Father and God the Son to a boy of fourteen. But he is not in undue awe. He doesn’t stare. He is not frightened. He was perhaps terrorized by what happened before, but he is not frightened of this. He doesn’t lose his self-confidence, and at the same time, he is modest.
And then the humor: he returns home, leans up against the fireplace, and his mother asks him what is wrong. He answers, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (JS—H 1:20). We have to remember that his mother had joined the Presbyterian Church shortly before this. How do you assess that as a conversation between a fourteen-year-old and his mother? All mothers know that sort of thing really happens to them with their teenagers.As a former teenager, as a parent of four former teenagers, and in my roles as a leader over teenagers, that incredible understatement is so hilarious and yet natural, and speaks to the simple sincerity of Joseph's account.
Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.
Thank you, Dr. King, for helping us to better appreciate the power and pure sincerity of what Joseph Smith wrote to describe his scared experience. It is truly an example of great literature.