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Annual Meeting: American Academy of Religion 2014

November 16, 2014 - San Diego CA

Prof. Flake will serve as commentator for a papers session jointly sponsored by the Mormon Studies Group and Sociology of Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion. The papers will considered ways of understanding Joseph Smith initial visionary experience in 1820.

Mormon Studies Group and Sociology of Religion Group

Theme: Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts
J. Spencer Fluhman, Brigham Young University, Presiding
Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara
Steven C. Harper, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT
Kathleen Flake, University of Virginia
Gustavo Benavides, Villanova University


Kathleen Flake — Response to “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts”  (Presentation Notes)

Intro: three stories – three questions re: the point of this discussion

I thank Ann and Steve for allowing me to think again of these three questions again:  they, not Mormonism are the point of our discussion.  Those of you who know Ann’s work, have no doubt recognized them in the three categories which introduced this exchange:

  • Experience Event – in this case, an experience Joseph Smith had in 1820. This experience is of a type identified by Ann as anomalous or of an ideal or even simply “special experience,” as in out of the ordinary. Some of you may know Kripal’s term —  “impossible experiences” — which conveys more directly the sense that what makes these experiences “special” is their implausibility, their not being susceptible to material proofs.
  • Framing Event – the making sense of an event, as sacred. Here, we examine such a framing in terms of Smith’s articulation of his 1820 experience.
  • Identity Event – the appropriation of (and therefore) additional layer of “framing” of the experience event by a group – thus further “specializing” or “setting apart” the experience. Again, in the instant case: the example of this is denominating of Smith’s 1820 event “the First Vision” and, more specifically, the canonization of one of Smith’s accounts (or the setting apart as particularly authentic one “Framing Event” over another) by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Let me pause hereto note that for our purposes, it is only at this third stage of “Identity Event”– for this is an evolutionary paradigm – that the concept of “religion” may properly be introduced.  This is the meta level of our discussion today – the reason for and the reasoning behind this case study.

Those of you who have read Ann’s book Religious Experience will recognized these three categories as a central feature of her “building block approach to the study of religion and other special things.” It is no less than an argument for “religion” as a phenomenon susceptible to academic – which is to say scientific — study.  Following Durkheim’s original insight, Ann reminds us that not all anomalous experiences are sacred and not all sacred experiences are religion.  Religion is “a whole formed of separate and relatively distinct parts.”  It is not only complex, however, it is the product of a work, the product of placing “a certain number of sacred things” in relation to one another, coordinating and subordinating them, giving them coherence structurally and ideologically. (161)  Ultimately, this is the work of many, not the one who had the anomalous experience. Thus, as the abstract for this session stipules, we are engaged in a case study illustrating a theory of religion and in service to an argument for Religious Studies.

So, now let’s turn to our third story.  Joseph Smith’s  — initial, anomalous experience (and how it becomes a religion). The details have been given you by our discussants.  I will rehearse their discussion only as it relates to my questions for them and as a way, I hope, of stimulating your own engagement with the fruitful questions they have raised.

Steve and Ann’s dialogue begins with a gentle dispute about how to get back to what really happened in 1820  — what was “the Experience Event.”  For Ann, this appears to be a relatively plain, if not simple process of comparing the various accounts and reducing them to their shared indicia and where they differ, assuming authenticity in the accounts most proximate to the event.  Steve disrupts this plan challenging Ann’s assumption that the first is better.  This discussion goes on for quite a while and is ostensibly about memory.

While the discussion goes on at some length, why it matters is never stated. It is obvious, however, to anyone who knows the uses to which this story has been put – or, in other words, its Identity Experience.  Smith’s first “impossible experience” has been reframed as a claim against Trinitarianism but its first account does not cooperate with this use.⁠2 The 1832 account refers to only one being appearing to Smith, who wrote “I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.” While this does not preclude the presence of another being, neither does it provide evidence of it.  The 1835 and 1838 accounts, however, do provide.  The one reporting  “a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame  . . . another personage soon appeard like unto the first”  and, in 1838, “When the light rested upon me I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.”  Thus, before Ann and Steve’s analysis begins, public claims about Smith’s experience immediately assert themselves as definitive of the Experience Event and establishing the boundary between Mormonism and Nicene Christianity. Thus, as Ann writes in her book, public claims about anomalous experiences are “interactive, [and] hence also negotiated and contested, . . . Whether in ‘real time’ or after the fact.” (87) It is curious to me that the specific reason for this contest goes unspoken in the dialogue.  Possibly it is because we are not comfortable stipulating that this is an “intragroup” — scholarly and faithful, etic and emic  — reconsideration of anomalous experience.  Since, however, Ann proposes that building-block approach allows for such conversations between insider and outsider to the tradition, this case study invites further analysis of the silence about these religion conventions or Identity Framing and their interruption of attempts to agree on the “Experience Event.”

In fairness, though, it seems to me that Ann avoids this aspect of the conversation because she is more concerned with a second question: when does Smith begin to believe he has been called as a prophet?  This matters because it is a key pivot from Experience Event to Identity Event – it is the point at which a special experience begins to morph into religion. This, not Trinitarianism, is the particular overlay of convention that is of chief interest to her in this case study.

So, in the interest of getting to the question which interests her most, Ann does not contest Steve’s argument and proceeds on the premise that that later accounts could or could not be as accurate, if not more accurate than earlier ones.  Having agreed to disagree, our discussants get down to the gravamen of the question: What did Joseph Smith know and when did he know it?  Or, when did he begin to consider himself a prophet?

For Ann, these accounts show that Smith worked his way into an identity as prophet (a religion builder); in the 1832 account giving little sense of it and by 1839 putting this identity at the center of the same Experience Event. She proffers evidence of this evolution in terms of Smith’s seeing himself persecuted for claiming there was a Christian apostasy.  If she can show there was no real persecution until the 1838, then it is more likely that Smith did not claims to exclusive truth and authority are anachronistically added to the First vision event in its second account. It is evidence of “Re-framing.  That is why you are hearing so much about was Smith persecuted by a Methodist Minister in 1820.   Here again we see the emic and etic distinction, the insider outsider inertia in the discussion.  Or, rather, Ann’s theory keeps bumping into Steve’s historical detail.

For Steve, these accounts differ in their emphasis and that emphasis is a function of context not the writer’s sense of identity. For Steve, the first story’s failure to convey Smith’s prophet identity is a matter of emphasis explained by context. It was produced during a time when Smith was minimizing his differences with evangelicals.  The second, written in the aftermath of the violence of the Missouri war, directly asserts Smith’s prophet identity — indeed it does so in scriptural motifs of the persecution of the prophets, such as Paul.

My own view. [Lucy’s account; too much evidence of antagonism between 1823ff but this still doesn’t mean that Smith thought he was a prophet in 1820.

I would rather phrase it as a question.  Why is so little attention give to Smith’s second vision and to its relation to the Book of Mormon as evidence of Smith’s self understanding.  Consider for example that The Book of Mormon compares Smith to Moses which . . . In addition, the text shows himself to be more than a prophet “a seer is greater than a prophet. And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.” (Alma 15) ]

But let us not get too caught up in when there were fish in “that” stream.  It seems relatively clear that Smith did not think himself a prophet until after 1820, but certainly thought so by 1829 if not 1823 when he has another Event Experience telling him that “God ahs a work for him to do.”  — e.g., a religion.


 Forty years ago, Jan Shipps, the first scholar to systematically apply religious studies theory to Mormonism, described the enigma of Smith’s anomalous experiences as “the prophet puzzle.” [“The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History (January 1974) at  http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/religion/2335684/posts.]  “A continuing effort must be made,” she argued, “to solve the mystery of Mormonism by coming to understand the enigma at its core,” that is Joseph Smith. It seems to me the work we have undertaken in this session.  We are able to do so because, as Jan Shipps, exhorted so long ago, Ann and Steve have “approached [the subject] with an open mind, a generous spirit, and a determination to follow the evidence that appeals to reason from whatever source it comes, wherever it leads. Only then will the outcome be a picture of the prophet and an account of the foundations of the Mormon faith which will be convincing to both tough minds, which demand empirical facts, and tender minds, comfortable in the presence of leaps of faith.”1  For this I thank them.