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
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."