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.