A friend of mine invited me to attend a Community of Christ worship service tonight, a brief reference during which got me thinking about what Community of Christ folks call Joseph Smith’s “grove experience” but that I grew up referring to as his “First Vision.” This got me thinking (and reading) about the different accounts of this experience, including Smith’s 1832 account, where he writes:
I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments
Run-on sentences aside, I find that there’s a lot to like in this early account, which emphasizes Joseph’s desire for mercy and the Lord’s miraculous forgiveness. A few years ago, when considering this account, I found that it resonated with me:
One thing that struck me was how Christ’s comments to Joseph follow the pattern that Peter Enns (and others) has noted about how God’s grace works. Redemption comes first, and obedience comes after.
Of course, I didn’t grow up with this version of the First Vision and only learned about it when I was in my thirties. For all that’s valuable in this account, it is awkward in the way that it stands in tension with other accounts of this experience, including the 1838 account that is part of the Latter-day Saint canon. Whereas other accounts emphasize that Joseph was visited by two persons—God the Father and Jesus Christ—this account only mentions a single person.
I just finished reading Stan Larson’s 2014 Dialogue article Another Look at Jospeh Smith’s First Vision, which lays out in detail the troubles this discrepancy creates and the tenuous nature of the apologetic attempts to reconcile the discrepancy. As I read through it, I was struck by a similar thought to one I had writing a couple of weeks ago. It’s a thought that I’ve turned over and over in my head over the course of my faith transition, and it’s something like this: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a lot to offer people; the mistake it makes is believing that it has the duty to impose those things on people.
These discrepancies in the First Vision don’t have to make that experience any less inspiring, but they do place limits on the extent to which Latter-day Saint leaders can insist on particular views of God or that this 19th century experience lays the groundwork for divine approval of their 21st century decisions. At the end of the day, I think the reason I’m in Community of Christ today is not because I thought the beloved church of my childhood, youth, and early adulthood had nothing to offer me—it’s because it dared to insist on things that it didn’t have the foundation to insist on and that weren’t working for me and my family.
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