What are Latter-day Saints planning for the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 2020?

A living prophet, Russel M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently made this announcement:

“In the springtime of the year 2020, it will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision. God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph, a 14-year-old youth. That event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . .”

President Nelson promised that

“General conference next April will be different from any previous conference.” Would you like to know what’s in store? Me too.     

I study the past, not the future

So the rest of this post is not about the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s first vision. It’s about the centennial nearly a century ago. It’s based on a chapter of my new book: First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (with the M word acting as an adjective according to the Church style guide). In my next post I’ll tell the story of the commemoration at the April 1920 General Conference. 

On a beautiful, clear day, Early in the spring of 1920

Heber J. Grant, Joseph F. Smith’s successor as church president and prophet, received a letter from John Widtsoe, expressing delight at the news he had just read of the plan to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary. “The First Vision was a marvelous event which thrills to the core every latter-day Saint,” Widtsoe wrote. He sent President Grant his own writings on the vision and suggested the publication of “a memorial volume.” President Grant shared Widtsoe’s views, “read every word with pleasure,” and heartily approved the book idea.

Heber J. Grant told Edward Anderson, longtime editor of the Improvement Era

He had “read a very splendid article by Dr. Widtsoe on the subject of the First Vision.” Grant solicited Widtsoe’s essay for a special spring issue devoted “exclusively to the vision and its world-wide significance and far-reaching results.” Anderson wanted Grant to write too, but the president balked. There were more talented writers, he said, Widtsoe among them. Anderson replied that he couldn’t go to press without a statement on the first vision from Joseph’s successor as the prophet. President Grant thought about it for a couple of weeks, but as the press deadline loomed he decided not to write on the first vision for the special issue of the Improvement Era.

Meanwhile he read the proofs

Including Anderson’s poem “The Divine Answer,” based on the canonized account of Smith’s vision, and Orson F. Whitney’s ode “The Messenger of Morn.” President Grant read essays by his counselors in the First Presidency, Anthon Lund and Charles Penrose, who made a case that the nineteenth century was the most impressive, and the first vision was its most important event.

Lund wrote of his 1905 trip to the grove

And declared three truths derived from the vision but “contrary to the belief of the Christian world.” First, God is embodied and passionate. Second, Christianity was apostate at the time of the first vision. To make his third point, Lund told a story of his Danish boyhood and Lutheran education. “We learned much that was very good,” he admitted, “but also some doctrines that I could not accept.” He paraphrased his catechism, “if any one should say he had received new, divine revelation, we must not put any faith in such a declaration; for God has nowhere promised to give any more revelation.” Not so, Lund argued.

Grant continued readinG, a dozen essays in ALL

Susa Gates’s was the least long-winded and the most original. She asked the novel question: “Can you conceive, then, what the Vision meant to women?” She interpreted God’s intervention in history (via the vision) as the catalyst of equal suffrage. She was completely conscious as she wrote that the Constitutional amendment long sought by Latter-day Saint women and others, the amendment to forbid voting discrimination based on gender, had gained Utah’s support the previous fall, and now needed just one more state to ratify it.

“The Vision held the bright promise of equality and freedom for women”

Gates asserted. She showed how Joseph’s first vision evoked the doctrines of Latter-day Saint feminism. “It meant woman’s free agency,” she wrote, “the liberation of her long-chained will and purpose.” And it meant a Mother as well as a Father in heaven, who revealed their will personally, individually, without respect to gender.

President Grant read every page of the proofs

“I thoroughly enjoyed every article from start to finish,” he wrote to Anderson. “I think it is the finest number that has ever been issued by the Era. It is a wonderful missionary. I want ten thousand extra copies printed.” Ultimately, he couldn’t resist including his own contribution, a three-page article celebrating “the most wonderful vision ever bestowed upon mortal man.”

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