According to the philosopher Mircea Eliade, of whose work I learned at BYU, every community, tribe, or nation requires an origin myth. The account of a community’s or practice’s origin has far reaching consequences because it implies how they relate to the cosmos, which is necessary for human beings to imbue their world with shared meaning. Mormonism’s origin myth is the first vision.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints characterizes the first vision in superlatives fit for an organization that proclaims itself to be the one true church:
Joseph Smith’s first vision stands today as the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After centuries of darkness, the Lord opened the heavens to reveal His word and restore His Church through His chosen prophet.
Although I cannot claim that I have studied Mormon history systematically, it has not escaped my attention that Joseph Smith’s accounts of the first vision have changed over time with respect to the timing and the content of the narrative, aggrandizing Smith himself more and more with every new version.
To make sense of the first vision, it is essential to empathize with Joseph Smith’s situation. Booker T. Washington’s diatribe against uneducated clergy during reconstruction helped me in this regard:
Naturally, most of our people who received some little education became teachers or preachers. While among those two classes there were many capable, earnest, godly men and women, still a large proportion took up teaching or preaching as an easy way to make a living. Many became teachers who could do little more than write their names. I remember there came into our neighbourhood one of this class, who was in search of a school to teach, and the question arose while he was there as to the shape of the earth and how he could teach the children concerning the subject. He explained his position in the matter by saying that he was prepared to teach that the earth was either flat or round, according to the preference of a majority of his patrons.
The ministry was the profession that suffered most–and still suffers, though there has been great improvement–on account of not only ignorant but in many cases immoral men who claimed that they were “called to preach.” In the earlier days of freedom almost every coloured man who learned to read would receive “a call to preach” within a few days after he began reading. At my home in West Virginia the process of being called to the ministry was a very interesting one. Usually the “call” came when the individual was sitting in church. Without warning the one called
would fall upon the floor as if struck by a bullet, and would lie there for hours, speechless and motionless. Then the news would spread all through the neighborhood that this individual had received a “call.” If he were inclined to resist the summons, he would fall or be made to fall a second or third time. In the end he always yielded to the call. While I wanted an education badly,
I confess that in my youth I had a fear that when I had learned to read and write very well I would receive one of these “calls”; but, for some reason, my call never came.
Although Joseph Smith, Jr. had lived two generations earlier and had never been a slave, it is important to appreciate how desperately poor the Smith family was during the 1820s. Smith grew up on a marginal farm. On one occasion, the family farm is lost in the wake of poor harvests. Even when owning property, the Smiths had to work as day laborers.
The ministry was one of the few ways out of subsistence farming’s drudgery. It is not difficult to imagine how much an adolescent might wish to escape that life. Notice, according to Alma 32, inspiration begins with wishing.
When Joseph Smith, Jr. started his church, it infinitely improved the material situation of his extended family. Instead of being a day laborer, he got to collect tithing. His followers build him houses and entrusted the inheritance of their children to Smith.
His father Joseph Smith, Sr. became the church patriarch, which entitled him to charge a dollar per blessing. In Nauvoo, his mother Mary Mack Smith eventually operated a little museum claiming to display Pharaoh Necho’s mummy, which supposedly came with the Book of Abraham papyri. When Joseph Smith, Jr. and Hyrum Smith were murdered, their brother Samuel wanted to challenge Brigham Young for the leadership of the Church to preserve the Smith family business.
The natural rejoinder for a self-interested interpretation of the first vision is, of course, that Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood. Surely, an individual motivated by self-interest would prefer to survive rather than to uphold a lie.
This argument makes sense but ignores that a recantation would not have improved Smith’s security. Nobody would have been any less angry had Smith confessed. On the contrary, Smith would have lost more followers who supported and protected him. Smith most devoted opponents were former followers who became disillusioned when they discovered Smith’s financial and sexual escapades at the expense of his foster children.
Although millions of Mormons continue to believe the first vision, it has been compromised as an origin myth. Once the mythical quality of a narrative becomes apparent, it can no longer hold a community together. People will begin to look for more authoritative sources to understand their place in live.
There are alternative origin myths to the first vision. Believing family members often respond to post-Mormon doubts by pointing to the sufferings of Mormon pioneers. The Mormon exodus is certainly a powerful narrative but without an enduring motive that would justify sacrifice today, its power will remain limited.
Grant Palmer suggests that Mormonism rely more on its Christian foundations to substitute the Joseph Smith story. The model of the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is encouraging. After initial losses of a substantial share of its membership, the situation stabilized at a sustainable level.
Since facts are stubborn things, I expect that the pressure on the brethren to address the problems with the first vision will increase. Insofar as this crisis is predictable, my recommendation is to reduce fixed costs of church operations. That way, it will become easier for the institution to survive, should there be a sudden reduction in membership and collections as in the Community of Christ or the Seven Day Adventists.