One of the most impressive figures on the BYU campus when I was a student was Dr. Arthur Henry King (1910-2000). He was a graduate of Cambridge in 1931 and then earned a Doctor of Literature in stylistics from the University
of Lund in Sweden. He taught English and English literature for
fourteen years at the universities in Lund and Stockholm and was for many years on the British Council, which deals with educational and cultural affairs for the British
government. He was twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth II for this work. He also served as Assistant Director-General in charge of Education in England.
With his deep foundation in literature, you may be surprised to learn that it was the literary power of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account that captured his attention when he encountered the Church. This happened when he was as a mature, respected, active man with a lot to lose by joining the Church, as he did in 1966. Five years later, he would join the faculty of Brigham Young University, where he fascinated, challenged and sometimes overwhelmed many students.
Mormon Scholars Testify has an entry from him. I’d like to share a portion of that as he discusses his reaction to a piece of great literature whose literary value we Mormons often overlook. I’m glad he was paying attention and had the skills to recognize its value.
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply
impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have
spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his
story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an
astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to
persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating
what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in
quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel
ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I
could see that this man was telling the truth.
Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out
carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about
his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the
ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at
the time—the behavior of the New England clergy in trying to draw people
into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James.
He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his
feelings instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power
to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to
enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. 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; 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. (JS—H 1:12)
I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is
beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is
trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who
is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to
expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else—and above all,
though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not
thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing,
not posing, but just being himself. The passage continues as follows:
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either
remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs,
that is, ask of God. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the coolness: “At length I came to the conclusion.”
I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,”
concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would
give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the rationality of it, the humility of it, the perfectly good manners of it.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. (JS—H 1:14)
Just imagine what a TV commentator would make of this sort of thing.
It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring
of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I
had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet
made the attempt to pray vocally. (JS—H 1:14)
Do you see how the tone is kept down, how matter-of-fact it is? Notice the effect of a phrase like “to pray vocally.”
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. (JS—H
Plain, matter-of-fact, truthful, simple statements in well-mannered
prose. This is no posture. We are not thinking of Joseph Smith; we are
just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear. Do you see how beautifully this
is built up, how the tension is built up by his being so modest, so well
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. (JS—H 1:15)
He is telling us about something terrible. But he is not trying to
make us feel HOW TERRIBLE THIS IS. He is telling us that it happened.
Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. (JS—H 1:15)
He felt he was going to be killed. But there is no excitement, no
hysteria about this. He just tells us. Notice in particular the coolness
of the phrase “for a time.”
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver
me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, 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—just at this moment of great alarm . . . (JS—H
Notice the expression “of great alarm.” What would a posing
sensationalist do with that? What kind of explosion would he devise, I
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the
brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
“A pillar of light exactly over my head,” “above the brightness of the sun,” “descended gradually”—note
the modifiers, the exactness. What he is trying to do is tell us what
happened. He goes on in the same tone. He doesn’t get ecstatic. He
doesn’t run over. He just goes on telling us just what happened in this
astonishingly cool, and at the same time reverential, way. This is a
visit of God the Father and God the Son to a boy of fourteen. But he is
not in undue awe. He doesn’t stare. He is not frightened. He was perhaps
terrorized by what happened before, but he is not frightened of this.
He doesn’t lose his self-confidence, and at the same time, he is modest.
And then the humor: he returns home, leans up against the fireplace,
and his mother asks him what is wrong. He answers, “I have learned for
myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (JS—H 1:20). We have to
remember that his mother had joined the Presbyterian Church shortly
before this. How do you assess that as a conversation between a
fourteen-year-old and his mother? All mothers know that sort of thing
really happens to them with their teenagers.
As a former teenager, as a parent of four former teenagers, and in my roles as a leader over teenagers, that incredible understatement is so hilarious and yet natural, and speaks to the simple sincerity of Joseph’s account.
Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.
Thank you, Dr. King, for helping us to better appreciate the power and pure sincerity of what Joseph Smith wrote to describe his scared experience. It is truly an example of great literature.