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
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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