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“Effusions of an Enthusiastic Brain”: Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the Limits of Experiential Religion

Title“Effusions of an Enthusiastic Brain”: Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the Limits of Experiential Religion
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsTalmage, Jeremy
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsFirst Vision; Second Great Awakening; Smith, Joseph, Jr.; Vision

Modern historians have tended to explain Smith’s cold reception as a reflection of shifting attitudes, claiming that by his day direct revelation from God was no longer acceptable. This reasoning, however, discounts the widespread visionary worldview of Smith’s contemporaries. Instead of growing up in a postrevelatory age, he lived in an evangelical environment that encouraged every convert to have his or her own experience with Christ. Signs of divine forgiveness were commonplace, and multitudes reported receiving assurance of their salvation through visions and dreams and the expression of other charismatic gifts. As one religious scholar noted, revealed religion in early nineteenth-century America was in fact “an intellectual hegemon” and the “most powerful of cultural forces.” Other historians have in turn speculated that the rebuff of Smith’s vision revolved around Jesus’s announcement that “all their Creeds were an abomination in his sight” and their “professors were all corrupt.” The preacher in whom Smith confided, however, would have agreed in principle with these sentiments; Methodists opposed creedalism and criticized other faiths for having educational requirements to participate in the ministry. It is unclear if the censure given in the First Vision applied to all religions equally or to specific church constitutions and clergy. But it is easy to imagine many Evangelicals embracing the Lord’s message that the whole “world lieth in sin,” having “turned asside from the gospel.” If the timing and the content of Smith’s experience cannot fully explain the backlash, why then, during the heat of the Second Great Awakening, did Smith’s coenthusiasts so soundly condemn his vision?