The First Vision: Chiasmus in “Joseph Smith—History”

 

Joseph_Smith_portrait2_crop
Joseph Smith (wikipedia.org)

In a previous article we focused on chiasmus in Joseph Smith’s non-canonical writings, specifically “The Standard of Truth” and other passages in the “Wentworth Letter” (1842). One chiasm diagrammed in that article includes a description of his First Vision, equating it with the later visitation of the Angel Moroni to show that they were both divine experiences.

Joseph Smith—History contains the best-known account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. It was written with the help of scribes in 1838, published in the Times & Seasons in Spring 1842, and canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in October 1880.

Like the Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith—History contains chiasmus throughout. For purposes of length, however, this article will focus on three chiasms. First, his opening statement (verses 1-2); second, his account of reading James 1:5 (verses 10-12); third, his description of his First Vision (verses 15-18). In comparison to the chiasm pertaining to his First Vision in the Wentworth Letter, the chiasm in Joseph Smith—History emphasizes different aspects of this experience.


Chiasm #1: Joseph Smith—History 1:1-2

A: [1] Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons,
B: in relation to the rise and progress of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
C: all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world—
C: I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired,
B: in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession.
A: [2] In this history I shall present the various events in relation to this Church, in truth and righteousness, as they have transpired, or as they at present exist, being now [1838] the eighth year since the organization of the said Church.

joseph smith history_manuscript
Manuscript of Joseph Smith-History (josephsmithpapers.org)

A=A: “[M]any reports … evil-disposed and designing” contrasts with “this history … in truth and righteousness,” to set the accuracy and intent of his history against the reports of others. Others’ reports have been “evil” and misleading, whereas Joseph’s history would be “righteous” and honest. The Joseph Smith Papers provides the following historical context for understanding these unflattering reports:

“This introduction was written not long after [Joseph Smith] had fled Kirtland, Ohio, for Far West, Missouri, under threat of several lawsuits; thus, when he began the history in summer 1838 he was especially motivated to justify himself and the church in light of what he considered a long history of persecution. Such an introduction may also have been written as a more general response to the accumulated negative reports transmitted orally and in the press beginning in [Joseph Smith’s] youth and continuing throughout the 1830s.”

B=B: “[I]n relation to … The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” compares with “in relation both to myself and the Church,” showing that the history of the Church is inextricably intertwined with the history of Joseph Smith, its founder and first president. Hence, he is motivated by necessity rather than vanity in publishing his personal history.

C=C: “[T]he authors thereof to militate against” contrasts with “I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind,” weighing his intent in writing his history against the motive of others. The motive of others is “to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world” whereas Joseph’s intent is “to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts.” By focusing on “the facts,” Joseph presents an impartial tone throughout this history.


Chiasm #2: Joseph Smith—History 1:10-12

A: [10] In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
B: [11] While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
C: [12] Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine.
C: It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.
B: I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know;
A: for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

joseph smith reading bible_dot_org
lds.org

A=A: “What is to be done?” corresponds to “destroy all confidence.” As a result of the “war of words and tumult of opinions” about religion in his community, the young Joseph was deeply confused and unable to find satisfactory answers in the Bible.

B=B: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” equates with “if any person needed wisdom from God, I did.” Despite the “extreme difficulties” under which Joseph labored, he still found the faith to seek for divine guidance in the Bible. Apparently, the thought of praying for help hadn’t occurred to him, so the direction he found in the Epistle of James — that if any person lacked wisdom, he could ask of God and expect to receive an answer — was a major revelatory moment for him. He desperately lacked wisdom; the idea that he could directly approach God to gain wisdom caused him to reflect on this passage “again and again.”

C=C: “[P]ower to the heart” equates with “great force into every feeling of my heart.” In addition to the intellectual impact of James 1:5, Joseph also experienced a powerful spiritual sensation in his heart (see D&C 8:1-3). He described it as a “great force” that entered “into every feeling of my heart.” This first revelatory experience, as powerful as it was, simply prepared the young prophet for “the greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 495).


Chiasm #3: Joseph Smith—History 1:15-18

A: [15] After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God.
B: I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak.
C: Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
D: [16] But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me,
E: and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—
E: just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
D: [17] It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.
C: When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
B: [18] My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than
A: I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.

the-first-vision_lds_dot_org
The First Vision (lds.org)

A=A: “[O]ffer up the desires of my heart to God” compares with “I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right … and which I should join,” to specify the desires of Joseph’s heart and to show that God had responded to his humble request for wisdom.

B=B: “[C]ould not speak” contrasts with “able to speak.” In this chiasm Joseph is placed in the midst of a battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. In the first half of this section, the forces of darkness attack him with “such an astonishing influence” that it binds his tongue, apparently in an effort to prevent him from completing his prayer. In the second half of this section, Joseph is liberated by the forces of light, so that he is able to complete his request — this time in a face-to-face communion with the Father and the Son.

C=C: “Thick darkness gathered around me” contrasts with “light rested upon me.” First, the forces of darkness continue their assault to the point that Joseph feels “doomed to sudden destruction.” Then, the light that liberates him is described as gentle. Although it is a superior power to the forces of darkness that had oppressively gathered around him, the light “rest[s]” upon him. Within this light are the Father and the Son, “whose brightness and glory defy all description,” yet they know his name and introduce themselves in a way that makes him feel comfortable in their presence.

D=D: “[D]eliver” compares with “delivered.” First, Joseph resists the forces of darkness, seeking deliverance from God. Then, he finds himself delivered as light surrounds him.

E=E: “[A]t the very moment” corresponds with “just at this moment.” First, Joseph describes the forces of darkness as “the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being.” At this point, the assault from the forces of darkness has become so intense that Joseph is “ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction.” Then, Joseph is liberated by “a pillar of light” that appears above his head. Although of superior power, the light is once again described in gentle terms. It “descend[s] gradually,” dispelling the darkness, until it falls upon him.

By describing his first visionary experience as a battle between the forces of light and dark, Joseph makes his uniquely special experience accessible to others who have experienced less dramatic, but still challenging, experiences dealing with the forces of darkness. He also shows that God’s superior power is paradoxically gentle in nature. We can put our trust in God, because he exercises his power gently in dealing with the righteous.


Conclusion:

A study of chiasmus in Joseph Smith—History results in a deeper understanding of the beauty of its composition and language. Matching the overall tone of the document, chiasmus in Joseph Smith—History is clear, direct, and instructive. It sheds a unique light on the young prophet’s experiences, revealing additional insights in the narrative that help readers more fully relate them to their own experiences.

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