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Memory shaped First Vision

Published: Thursday, Feb. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — One of Steven C. Harper's most vivid memories happened when he was about 14 years old. This is, coincidentally, about the same age Joseph Smith was when he had his First Vision.

Harper's experience greatly changed his life. He was sitting at the breakfast table and talking with his dad about something he had just read in the LDS Church News. He remembers he was eating cold cereal, but he can't tell you what cereal. He remembers sitting to the left of his dad, but he can't remember the clothes he or his dad were wearing. Some details are fuzzy, yet he can remember the exact words his father said. Word for word. The experience was significant — and, he says, sacred.

Joseph Smith's recollection of his First Vision experience in the Sacred Grove has many of the same features as Harper's recollection. Some details Joseph remembered were vivid and concrete. Other details were uncertain.

Harper, an assistant professor of church history at BYU and a volume editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, spoke at the University of Utah on Jan. 28 on "Memory and the First Vision." The lecture was presented by the Salt Lake Mormon Studies Student Association. Harper utilized the latest scholarship on memory to analyze the different accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.

"I think we've been quite narrow-minded in the ways we have thought about Joseph's accounts. And I mean that both by believers and nonbelievers, by those who accept the accounts as divine narratives and those who are critical of them as nonsense," Harper said.

People assume that memory is static — like putting files into a filing cabinet. "Memory is interpretive. Memory is dynamic. Memory is process," Harper said. "It is not a copy of the past to play over again later."

Memories are subjective and personal. One person's memory of a Jazz basketball game will be very different from the person she sat next to at that game, for example.

Things get into our long-term memory — particularly if there is high emotion associated with an event — and don't necessarily deteriorate over time. "(There is a common) assumption that somebody remembering something 50 years after the fact means that the memory must not be very good. That's not what the science of memory tells us," Harper said.

But memories are more than just the past. The present is also in every memory. Both are necessary to give a memory meaning. The present affects the accounts, telling, recording and transmitting of a memory — even the First Vision.

Harper's memory of his breakfast conversation has taken added significance over his life. "I didn't understand it that day," Harper said. "(My) subsequent experiences have (helped me find) an awful lot of meaning in that conversation that I had when I was 14 that I didn't see in it that day."

Likewise, Joseph's accounts of his vision emphasized different themes as he grew in his knowledge of the gospel. It was a combination of "interpretive memory" of meaning with the "factual memory" of senses, images and sounds.

Harper quoted historian Richard L. Bushman, who said Joseph had to "enlarge his inventories of self-understanding in order to make sense of an experience he that he had before."

As an example, Harper referred to Joseph's 1832 account of the First Vision. This early account did not explicitly mention two heavenly beings. "The more I think about this stuff (about memory), the more I wonder if he did," Harper said.

With the knowledge and doctrinal emphasis Joseph had in 1832, the way he articulated it in that account might have been the best way that he could at that time. Joseph wrote, "the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me."

Harper said some read that and find mention of only one personage. But he said there is another possibility that becomes clearer in the light of the science on memory. Joseph may be using the word "Lord" to refer to first Heavenly Father and then use "Lord" to refer to Jesus Christ. "It is quite consistent with at least a couple of the other accounts where he talks about seeing one heavenly being who then introduces him to the next, and he sees the other one at that point," Harper said. "We might be seeing a dynamic of memory there."

Another aspect of memory is that it can be a mixture of the reliable and unreliable. Harper showed how this applied to Joseph's accounts. In 1832, Joseph wrote of how he was "seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul." This was a vivid, strong and emotional memory. In the same sentence, however, Joseph wrote that he had these feelings, "At about the age of twelve years." This was a vague recollection of time. Both vivid and vague combined in one memory — the same thing Harper experiences when remembering his breakfast table conversation.

This is the way memory works, according to Harper. It is subjective. A historian can't prove it one way or another. But the psychology of memory indicates that Joseph's memories had "fundamental integrity." He knew he saw a vision and could not deny it.

"I think it is nonsense to suppose that we can recover an objective past. One, it doesn't exist. Two, what makes us think that our subjective capacities have any ability to recover an objective past. I don't think it can be done. It's arrogance to suppose you can," Harper said. "Joseph's First Vision accounts are undeniably subjective. Every remembered thing is."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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