Joseph Smith's memory of the First Vision

Published: Friday, Jan. 29 2010 12:16 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, coincidently, 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 exact words his father

said. Word for word. The experience was significant — and was, 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.

__IMAGE__"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

non-believers, 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


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 remember

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

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