The Truth of Personal Narrative

Bart Ehrman has pointed out that the popular view of Paul and his conversion makes it difficult for historians to evaluate what actually happened to make him “turn around.”  In the scriptural record Paul does not present himself as a guilt-ridden legalist whose realization that the law was impossible to keep led him to find forgiveness in Christ and motivated him to bring the good news of release to those burdened with guilt complexes like his own.  Ehrman calls this view “fiction” and “widespread misperception” and instead directs us to Paul’s own accounts found in Acts chapters 9, 22, and 26.  The problem is that these accounts are difficult to harmonize; as they differ in several details.  Paul’s recounting of the event is suspect because he is remembering the event long afterward and reflecting upon it in light of his later experiences.  Such a conundrum finds a parallel in our own Mormon foundation narrative of Joseph Smith’s first vision.  In Joseph’s case, he leaves at least seven narratives, each a bit different, each a bit contradictory of the others.

In grappling with these accounts over the years, I’ve come across some disturbing information.  Let’s boil it down to say that the human brain does not hold an accurate account of an event in the mind for even a short time.  Psychological studies have shown that it is impossible to tell the difference between an accurate memory and one that has been altered or distorted by the imagination. This is a frightening prospect, folks!  We cannot be sure of our own memories.  Yikes.  On the other hand, this information makes it not surprising that Joseph’s (and indeed Paul’s) recitals vary in so many details.

Looking back on my own conversion story, I have been unsettled to recognize this same pattern.  I wrote an account of my conversion to the LDS Church the same month I was baptized at age 19.  This was tucked away in a diary for many years. At age 25, I wrote the story of my conversion for a Relief Society activity.  Recently I also reflected upon the event in some of my writings.  These three narratives were penned over the period of 30 years, and I did not refer to the earlier versions when writing any one of them.

Shockingly to me, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, I described events and motivations very differently.  In each, I felt I was relating the same episode, but upon scrutiny I can see that experiences over the intervening years have caused me to reinterpret.

In analyzing the Pauline accounts, Ehrman points out that we are faced with the quandary of determining which is the most accurate.  This has been a difficulty for LDS scholars in evaluating what really happened in the Sacred Grove as well.  Ehrman approaches the dilemma by “considering aspects of Paul’s worldview that would have been confirmed by an encounter with a man raised from the dead and aspects that would have been reformulated in light of the experience.”  It occurs to me that this would likewise be an interesting way to investigate the First Vision accounts.

So, which is the most “true?”  I can only look at my own conversion chronicles and speculate.  Those trained in history and primary sources might give greater credence to the earliest statement.  There are good reasons for so doing.  But immediate reflections upon an experience, especially a profound, moving, or shattering one, may be colored by emotions which obscure reality.  Perhaps my later Relief Society account, with the added perspective of several years of Church membership, presents the truth a little more accurately.  Or, did the paradigm shift I experienced after an intense faith journey render me better able to describe the event more authentically?

Can the truth of personal narrative ever be determined?  Is it better to make a shift from historical investigation to literary contemplation?  If we do this, we might apply the use of symbolism, metaphor and emblem.  Whether or not these encounters with Deity were factual in detail they hold profound meaning as archetypes — the human meeting his Creator, the ascension myth fulfilled. Alternately, we could view the stories from the point of view of a social scientist or behaviorist.  Such a position might hold the potential to explain relationships of power and fraternity among the Prophet Joseph, or the Apostle Paul and their followers and compatriots.

Finally, is it detrimental to use personal narrative as a determination of what really happened?  Should a personal story stand as foundation text for our religion?  Perhaps you will say this is a sandy foundation, or perhaps, with its potential for expansion, allusion, figuration and identification, you will find there is none better.

32 Replies to “The Truth of Personal Narrative”

  1. I will have to read more closely in the morning. However, tonight I was just thinking about how my personal narrative about my mission has changed overtime. Now I have to think about what that may or may not mean.

    Thanks, BIV, for the post.

  2. There are so many ways to look at the accounts of the First Vision. How could they change so dramatically over the years? The one aspect that causes the greatest heaqrtburn is the number of people he saw. Was it one or two? Usually, we come down in one of two camps, he saw two people and anything that says otherwise is just the work of Satan trying too confuse us. Or, the differing number is the best evidence Joseph just made the whole thing up years after the fact. I have come to the conclusion, at least for now, that he saw two persons, but didn’t realize it at the time. He came from a background that would not lead him to imagine such a thing. He was raised in a Monotheistic world and as such went into the grove not asking if there were one or two persons. It took years of further expirences and reflection for Joseph to finally say, “now I understand what happened” (The account that we now use as normative wasn’t written until 1838) I have often wondered if both were present the whole time. Maybe the Father appeared first, introduced the Son and then stepped away. (I realize that this not the way it is presented in the films at the visitors centers. How much do those presentaions color our thinking.) This theory seems true to real life. It takes me many years to fully comprehend events that have taken place in a short time. It sometimes takes a long time for me to say, “Now I understand what happened back then.” I don’t know when that process will finally stop.Maybe it never will.

  3. Two thoughts. First, it is clear that these (first vision) accounts have not always been used in this foundational way and therefore in engaging with them we need to be aware of their history and how they have functioned in our religious history.

    Second, the recent work of Steven Harper on memory and the first vision has been an important attempt to engage with the literature you have referred to. Though I think there are problems with his analysis (he assumes harmony and I am not sure that you can) it is a valuable approach and one that should be explored more fully.

  4. I really enjoyed this post, BiV! My perspective is, as you’ve said, successive personal narratives are able to give deeper, layered truth that we can revisit as we go through the redescriptions inevitable over time. If we could, would we delete Joseph Smith’s variant testimonies? I don’t think so!

  5. Aaron, thanks for the link to Steven Harper’s talk. Because the first vision account has now been appropriated as foundational, members are currently placed in a position of engaging with it in order to establish truth claims, as Shannon’s comment illustrates. I am no longer sure that it is possible to discover whether Joseph saw two personages, one being, angels, or simply had an undefined religious or emotional experience. Shannon, what if you could never find out for sure? Would the narrative still be of some importance, and in what way?

    Andy, you’re right, I wouldn’t delete the variants. Each has unique symbolic and spiritual meaning, and a footprint all its own.

  6. Awareness of how these narratives have functioned in the our religious life certainly provides some distance/space in which we are able to creatively engage with these narratives as JS clearly did. Moreover this does not imply that its foundational role is in error rather, I think, that it serves as a marker for our time; or at least a time past. My own sense is that this is changing; JS first vision may be still used as foundational but the way it is read is being changed. Moreover I suspect that as the family becomes increasingly important to the Church that we will re-frame JS’s story to be more about the division that existed in his family and how this connects with the First Vision experience. Bushman’s biography (inadvertantly) provides a great deal of material which can readily incorporated into this type of narrative.

  7. JS first vision may be still used as foundational but the way it is read is being changed.
    Interesting, Aaron; how so? Do you think it will become less foundational in the future? Aren’t missionaries still using it to establish truth claims as instructed in the fairly new “Preach My Gospel?”

    I haven’t seen much of a shift to family rhetoric when engaging the First Vision story, but it’s a defensible speculation.

  8. I am certainly speaking speculatively here and not with any real evidence. However my feeling is this: Bushman’s biography situated Smith in a web of complex family (and at times unhealthy) relationships which pushed JS into the grove in order to find some harmony (Madsen has made similar points elsewhere). This first vision could therefore be read, again in a simplistic way, as a means of bringing harmony to that specific family, but by implication…

    As the family takes on increasing importance I think Church members and leaders will be able to utilise this narrative to effectively ground family unity in the gospel as a major strand in the first vision narrative.

    However, if you had asked me 30 years ago this same question I might have speculated that the 1832 account would become more important as the shift toward ‘grace’ came to prominance.

    So I think the First Vision wil continue to be foundational but it will become the foundation of a very different story.

  9. He came from a background that would not lead him to imagine such a thing. He was raised in a Monotheistic world and as such went into the grove not asking if there were one or two persons.

    Actually, JS actively participated in a Methodist culture where visions of angelic beings and deity were not only common, but visions of seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ were reported. I have a forthcoming article in JMH on the first vision and Methodist conversion narratives that engages this a bit more.

  10. BiV, I really like your context of your church membership as a comparable for the JS First Vision experience.

    The response that I learned on my mission concerning the multiple accounts was to ask people to try to recollect certain events from 1 day, 1 month, 1 yr, 5 yrs ago. And they couldn’t. But that response never sat well with me because of the argument by many detractors to the first vision that it was such a monumental experience that it should have left an indelible imprint on JS’s life.

    I think you’re experience, as well as Chris’ response about his mission is a good comparable. At different times, to different audiences, and with the knowledge of perspective it takes on different meaning. Are we going to see a textual analysis of your 3 accounts of your conversion chronicle here soon in a blog post to compare and analyze? 😉

  11. BIV,

    These are some serious questions. Thanks for provoking thought.

    No doubt there is a lot of understanding to be gained from psychology, memory studies, and like areas.

    One of the things I’ve been watching for in my reading the last while is statements like this:

    “Whether or not these encounters with Deity were factual in detail they hold profound meaning…”

    I’ve gathered up a variety and will have to post something after a bit more thought.

    Thanks again for a great post.


    Besides Harper’s recent presentation, has much been done with this? Or are he and BIV breaking entirely new ground here? Anyone know?

  12. Are we going to see a textual analysis of your 3 accounts of your conversion chronicle here soon in a blog post to compare and analyze?

    That would be fun for sure.

    g.wesley, How intriguing–have there really been statements like that from the mainstream? Will be looking for your forthcoming,

  13. oh no. not mainstream and not lds (that i know of) but everywhere from damascius to william james to albus dumbledore.

  14. Thanks for the post, BiV, interesting stuff.

    This comment is a nitpick, but I think an important one. I don’t believe there is much in the way of “contradictions” in JS’s various accounts, I do believe there are interesting “differences” however. A contradiction, to me, would mutually exclude one or another element. For instance, in one acct. where JS mentions “The Lord,” and doesn’t mention the” Father and Son,” I view this as a difference not a contradiction. If JS had said “I saw one being, the Lord and only the Lord” in one account and in another acct. said he saw the Father and Son I would view that as a contradiction.

    I seems to me the overall shift in concern/audience from individual experience to institutional exemplary/founding event is the easiest explanation for most differences. I like Harper’s work on memory as well, though I may differ in certain details with his analysis.

  15. Although I still have reservations about the idea of remembering *facts* about events so differently with time (notwithstanding the research that shows our memory isn’t so rock-solid), I am really liking the idea of looking at personal narratives in a literary contemplative way OR even in a way that affirms truth through developing thought processes (so it isn’t that one recollection is “right” and the others are “wrong,” but each is contextually true based on how, when, where and to whom the narrative was shared.)

    Great article, BiV, as usual…

  16. The ideas about the First Vision becoming foundational are very interesting. My sense is that Joseph Smith never intended the First Vision story to become founadational for the church. It was a big part of who he was personally, but not a major piece of the church as a whole. This would help to explain why William McClellan could honstly say he never heard the story from Joseph. Comment #8. I beleive that we can find the truth of certain claims by personal revelation. One last thing, we could relieve ourselves (the church as a whole) from a lot of First Vision problems if we could convince the General Authorities to quit giving confernce talks that say Joseph came out of the grove knowing that God and Jesus Christ were two distinct people with bodies of flesh and bones.

  17. My sense is that Joseph Smith never intended the First Vision story to become founadational for the church. It was a big part of who he was personally, but not a major piece of the church as a whole.

    Except that he included it as the beginning of the history of the church he planned to publish.

  18. BiV – we must be drinking from the same cup because I literally have notes on a very similar post already written up. And I’ll probably still do it anyway. It’s just a great topic, IMO.

    You mentioned the impact of time on memory, but also there is the actual failure of eye witness accounts to consider. An experiment frequently done in colleges demonstrates that people who witness a crime and are then immediately asked about the details of that event are at best 80% and at worst about 20% accurate about what actually happened, including basic information like who was there. The other finding is that people quickly fill in the gaps in their observation and memory with fabricated details that then overwrite the memory of the actual event. That’s not very encouraging for the factual value of any personal narratives.

    Aaron R. – your comment about a shift toward grace is interesting. My thought about the FV narrative (esp as a missionary) is always its value as an example of how to find our own spiritual path. To me, this is a timeless value provided by the story. As “proof” of the church’s divine origin, the story still requires the individual to find their own answers, not just rely on the fantastical nature of the story or its details.

  19. On the different ways the First Vision has been understood over the years I also recommend James B. Allen’s “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 [1980]: 43). Also, re: Aaron’s grace comment, here’s an example of an interesting comparison that can be made between various accounts of the First Vision, it’s from an article in the Fall 2010 issue of Dialogue:

    Joseph Smith’s 1820 visitation from God and Christ included the troubling declaration that Christ told him to join none of the existing churches because their creeds were “an abomination” and their professors “corrupt” (JS—History 1:19). Condemnation of an apostate Christendom is found in each of Joseph’s eight accounts of his vision. In the 1832 (earliest) version, the Lord tells Joseph that “the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not my commandments” (see Dean C. Jessee, “The Earliest Documented Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, [Provo, Utah: BYU Press /Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005], 1–33) This declaration, however, was preceded by a personal moment described in only two of Joseph’s known accounts. The first words Joseph said he heard from the Lord were “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life” (Ibid.; emphasis mine). The references to apostasy in Joseph’s First Vision accounts should be tempered by this information even as the First Vision story is understood in different contexts for different purposes (see James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 [Fall 1966]: 29–45). A declaration of salvatory intent for the world (similar to John 3:16-17) from the earliest account of the First Vision thus tempers descriptions of apostasy in the later accounts where the statement is not present. Joseph’s words about “abominable creeds” and “corrupt professors” should be considered in the light of these and other moderating statements.

  20. “Is it still the “best 2 years?””

    Only after the fact 😉

    “JS actively participated in a Methodist culture where visions of angelic beings and deity were not only common, but visions of seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ were reported.”

    I look forward to reading that. It reminds me of Bushman’s BYU Studies article on the visionary world of Joseph Smith (which I was required to read for an undergrad Church History course at BYU.)

    Interesting stuff BiV.

  21. Blair, that is exactly the type of narrative possibilities that are open to us; however, it is strange to me that though books like ‘Believing Christ’ are common currency among lay-members the 1832 account has not become so. Consequently the narrative possibilities are still limited by distribution whereas, in my opinion, the family narrative is more accessible because it can almost be read straight out of the D&C version.

    Hawk, I agree that the view you share is a primary one and that is why, in part, I suspect that the FV will never be marginalised. I am curious however about other possibilities that could become normative.

  22. I personally would love to see more accounts of the first vision in our canon, the D&C or PofGP, add the additional accounts, that would get some attention. A guy can dream. . .

  23. brandt — when I think of my personal experiences, ones that were “monumental experience” — the deaths of three children in four and a half years — I have to say that what you posed to people on your mission is closer to the truth than what the detractors of the Church say.

    Memory tends to consist of labels. I’ve taken many, many depositions of people who are sworn to tell the truth, often saw the experience as important, wrote down what they remembered and yet, often have memories that don’t line up, often memories they realize don’t quite line up.

    bhodges “A contradiction, to me, would mutually exclude one or another element. For instance, in one acct. where JS mentions “The Lord,” and doesn’t mention the” Father and Son,” I view this as a difference not a contradiction. If JS had said “I saw one being, the Lord and only the Lord” in one account and in another acct. said he saw the Father and Son I would view that as a contradiction.” is how most people who have lost children in traumatic ways tend to remember and share their experiences.

    The shift in concern/audience creates differences, often, in the narratives people share of intense loss, but you’ve caught that differences are not contradictions.

    As an aside, I’ve always valued the way that the scriptures retain both Joseph Smith’s memory of John the Baptist’s words and Oliver Cowdrey’s memory. Again, the people including them saw them as differences in the narrative and memory rather than contradictions.

  24. An example, some times I’ve stated we buried three children in five years, others I’ve stated three in four and a half years. Is that a contradiction of six months? Have I perhaps just not remembered the details correctly?

    January 26, 1993 to August 31, 1997 is actually four years, six months and five days. Does that create another difference or contradiction? (I’ll also note that I remember August 31, 1997 as “labor day” due to the way the week end worked out and what I associate with that weekend).

    No, it is about five years, at one significant figure. At two it is 4.5. Three significant figures is not something called for.

    I hope that makes my thoughts clear.

  25. BIV, thanks for this post. I am working on a dissertation on the topic of Mormon conversion narratives, but it will be more of a Burkean rhetorical analysis using the concept of identification. I haven’t yet decided to what extent I will use unpublished personal histories in my analysis (I would like to but I’m still talking to my advisor about this). At any rate, if it isn’t too personal, I’d be very interested in reading your accounts.

    On the question of variations in the JS FV narratives, I’m always a bit surprised when people are surprised that there are differences. If there weren’t differences I’d be more suspicious. I had a friend who left the Church, and the variations in the accounts were one of his (many) supposed beefs.

  26. This is an interesting phenomenon. Scientists — historians no less — should know by now that our memories are not like the computer hard drive, where you can pick the file up bit by bit and reconstruct it, as long as the physical drive itself plus the filesystem are intact. Not so with our minds.

    I have approximately the same time frame in regards of my own conversion story as BiV, and I, too, have noticed how I look at my experiences with different eyes as my understanding of the world and spiritual experiences mature. I guess it’s not a big surprise that one of the things that helped me understand my experiences much better was an intensive three-and-a-half year psychotherapy that I went through. My therapist was wise enough not to himself put in question my experiences, he just asked me to take a look and then we talked about that, too, among with many other things.

    I came away with a better understanding of what I had experienced — at least psychologically, I guess — and that did in other regards help me make a lot more sense of life, which previously was constantly leaving me befuddled. (Still does quite often, I just don’t understand people.)

    Anyhow, about Paul’s conversion. I’m deliberately doing this off the top of my head to see how my memory serves for how Paul himself tells his story. As I remember it, the confusion is about his companions seeing the light and hearing the voice, which are recounted differently in the first two accounts, while before Agrippa he makes no mention of that. But the words of Jesus are always essentially the same, except the middle account has fewer words — less time, I assume…

    Let’s go to another vision that someone saw, and gave an incomplete account of it. I’m speaking of Lehi’s Tree of Life. You probably remember how Nephi saw more than his father, although he was given to see the same thing? For Lehi’s attention was so strongly fixed on something else, that he didn’t notice an important aspect of it.

    And then how about those 7 (or nine; I ran into a table of nine of them, but honestly some differences were more in the order of spelling mistakes?) different First Vision narratives? So much of their differences has been made by, say Bibical literalists, whose Bible, despite being “literally true and correct word for word,” gives different accounts of same events in the four gospels, for example (what else is that but the famous old anti-mormon double standard?).

    Well, I don’t pretend to know what caused Joseph to interpret his vision differently, but I guess from my own experience that I can make some fairly educated guesses. First of all, when he told his family about it, most of his family was active in local churches, which meant that they were supposed to accept a God who was, if anything, NOT a tangible person. The “concourses of angles” were part and parcel of almost all Bible accounts, so he may have just imagined them or they might have been there, and he later left them out, because they really carried no clarifying information.

    As I see it, the last one, now published in the PofGP, shows us a mature understanding of what was important and essential, something that no other vision recorded in Scripture had ever given.

    And, finally, let me make my case against mixing faith and historiography too badly. I read a piece in NYTimes’ philosophy series The Stone about Mystery and Evidence about how differently Faith and Science actually deal with truth claims. His take-home message to me, at least, was that on both sides those on the barricades should cut some slack to the other. And that even if you don’t agree with Stephen Jay Gould about the “non-overlappingness”, you should understand that we cannot be expected to scientifically examine statements of Faith and think to destroy that Faith simply by pointing out inconsistencies or incompleteness in those claims.

    Because the everyday life to most people is a little bit confusing, inconsistent and incomplete. Befuddling.

  27. Sheldon!

    ” I’m always a bit surprised when people are surprised that there are differences. ”

    I was going to mention this earlier in the thread…but I think that people are surprised because we memorize one of the accounts word for word. He share it. We testify of that specific account. It is an account that is near and dear to our heart. My I get teary in the Sacred Grove, I have that account in mind. To hear that there are other accounts, can be a tad unsettling.

    Would you like to share some of your dissertation musings with us? We are good at giving feedback.

  28. Hey Chris,
    I’ve been a bit of an online recluse lately. But I do enjoy your FB updates.

    You are right, but I think one of the reasons we are unsettled is that we continually expect more of Joseph Smith than we ought to. We expect complete consistency in doctrine, theology, character, and personal history. There are a lot of cultural and institutional reasons for this, of course. I had more to say here, but gotta run… Enjoy conference weekend!

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