Great Literature You May Have Missed: Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Explained by Dr. Arthur Henry King

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.
(JS—H 1:16)

“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.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

93 thoughts on “Great Literature You May Have Missed: Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Explained by Dr. Arthur Henry King

  1. I was fortunate to have Dr. King for a couple of classes at BYU. He is one whom I admire more than most others, God rest his soul. He surprised me one day when we crossed paths on campus by pulling a paperback book out of his pocket and, calling me by name, invited me to take it and read it. It was science fiction, to my delight.

    What he had to say about Joseph Smith's account of the first vision is spot on.

  2. Luckily, Professor King didn't read the 1832 version first. It's not exactly great literature. I guess practice makes perfect.

  3. Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.

    Quick question, Jeff: does this mean Dr. King classified the First Vision account as great literature, or some other writing that "Joseph gave us"? It's not quite clear.

    FWIW, I wouldn't go so far as to call the First Vision account great literature, but it is good prose. You might want to compare it to the work of other early American religious writers, such as William Bradford, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and John Woolman.

    I think it's notable that Smith could write well when he used his own voice rather than trying to mimic the language of the Bible, and when he wrote on the basis of his own experience rather than trying to inflate his stock of Indian yarns into a 500-page book. Presumably this is why the First Vision account is so markedly superior in style to the Book of Mormon.

  4. Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling kindly provides us with other "first vision" accounts, and not Smith's.

    "In 1826 a preacher at the Palmyra Academy said he saw Christ 'descend in a glare of brightness, exceeding ten fold the brilliancy of the meridian Sun.' The Wayne Sentinel in 1823 reported Asa Wild's vision of Christ in Amsterdam, New York, telling him that all denominations were corrupt. …Norris Stearns published an account in 1815 of two beings who appeared to him: "One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a Cloud…Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man.'"

    Rough Stone Rolling, page 41.

    Considering Joseph Smith never even set pen to paper to write his account until 1832, I would suggest he was greatly influenced by these accounts.

  5. OMG — I just read the Arthur Henry King entry at Mormon Scholars Testify.

    Once I stopped laughing, I said to myself, "Now settle down, Orb. King apparently wrote this for BYU Studies, so you've got to expect a little pro-Mormon chauvinism…."

    But still, can anyone really take King seriously when he says things like this? —

    I am asked sometimes, “Why don’t we have any great literature now?” And we don’t, you know; we may kid ourselves or other people may try to kid us that we do, but we don’t. There were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe; and there it seems to have stopped. There seems to have been no supreme figure since then. But I tell you there was one: Joseph Smith….

    So, it's not enough for Smith to be a prophet of God? He's got to be Shakespeare, too?

    Let's see. We've got "Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe," and we're racking our brains to see who else might belong in the literary pantheon, and what do we come up with?

    Not Cervantes, but … Joseph Smith!

    Not Chaucer, but … Joseph Smith!

    Not Milton, but … Joseph Smith!

    Not George Eliot, but … Joseph Smith!

    Not James Joyce or W. B. Yeats, but … Joseph Smith!

    Sorry, Jeff — King might have been a great scholar, but this is pure crackpottery.

    Religion should sharpen one's judgment, not corrupt it.

  6. I have to agree that 'great literature' is a bit over-the-top here, but I'll go as far as saying that the First Vision account on which King comments is pretty decent prose. The style is indeed sober and matter-of-fact, rather than enthusiastic.

    I'm not sure that such a style really stood out as much in Smith's place and time as it would in ours or in King's. If the version King quoted really was Smith's own writing, though, I'd say it proves that Smith was an intelligent and articulate guy. Someone who wrote that clearly must also have thought clearly.

    It's something to bear in mind when assessing how much Smith "could have known". Some people are smart enough that they can pick up things in passing which other people can only learn through years of formal instruction. There's not too much you can safely put past a person as freakishly smart as Joseph Smith might well have been.

    I'm afraid, though, that I can't chalk up Smith's nonchalant answer to his mother as typical teenage bravado. If he had really just seen God Almighty, he might perhaps have spoken like that because he was stunned and babbling. Otherwise, though, that part just rings false to me.

  7. Everything, Dr. King was impressed with the style of language Joseph used. The fact that others had described visions, dreams, or visitations of divine beings is nothing knew–the Bible is a far richer source than, say, Norris Stearn's relatively unknown account of what he felt he experienced while deliriously ill and sleeping. But even if such sources were known to Joseph and somehow "greatly influenced him" as you and some of our critics want to suggest, I don't think it adequately addresses the very issues that so touched and impressed Dr. King.

    I hope that you might be willing to sense some notable differences in the style of language these other purported influencers used. Consider Norris Stearns, for example, as he describes how he felt after seeing God and Christ:

    All was condescension, peace, and love! I was filled with the sacred flame, and the glory of God! I
    thought one spark more in my soul would have destroyed this mortal frame ! ! I was happy ! ! ! happy ! ! ! happy ! ! ! I wanted ten thousand tongues to sing their sweet, their glorious praise ! ! It was a heaven here below for the space of half an hour ! !

    A few subtle differences in style might be apparent even to those bent on seeing nothing valuable, original, or worthwhile in anything that Joseph Smith touched.

  8. Jeff, be sure to add those authors that Everything mentioned to your catalog of Joseph's Vast Frontier Library.

  9. Jeff, be sure to add those authors that Everything mentioned to your catalog of Joseph's Vast Frontier Library.

    Put them on the shelf next to those other well-known volumes, the Catalogue of North American Nephite Artifacts, Vol. I and the classic Natural History of the Curelom.



  10. Orbiting Kolob said:
    "I think it's notable that Smith could write well when he used his own voice rather than trying to mimic the language of the Bible,"

    His writing ability certainly had improved from the time that he "could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter", according to Emma Smith.


  11. Arthur Henry King died in 2000, so it may be understandable that his current online presence is a bit thin. It's hard to find much trace of his life before his conversion to Mormonism, but the Wikipedia article on the 1958 Queen's Birthday Honours lists him as being made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). His Deseret News obituary claims he was later promoted to Commander of the Order (CBE), and I expect that's a plausible retirement award for an Assistant Director of the British Council. CBE is the third of five XBE grades; it's a fairly rare honor, just below knighthood. Apparently Eric Clapton and Sting are both CBE, and John Cleese was offered the honor but refused it.

    Evidently King taught literature at BYU, but before that his expertise was in teaching English as a second language in non-English-speaking countries. So maybe he wasn't a world-class authority on literature, but he was clearly an eminently respectable guy whose judgements are worth hearing.

  12. ,@James Anglin:

    (I attended school with a James Anglin.)

    Thank you for your respectful and mature tone when commenting.

    Certain comments on various blogs show how badly society has decayed. Very few people exhibit class anymore.

  13. I know from my sister and from a book of his that I read that King was an expert on Shakespeare. His bio says that he taught English and English literature for 14 years at universities in Lund and Stockholm. I have read some impressive English linguistics books written by Swedes and published in Sweden in the 1950s. They had to be quite familiar with historical English literature to write those. So it is likely that King was teaching typical university-level English literature courses in Sweden.

  14. That's probably true, actually. If you study any foreign language at university level, you're studying literature, not grammar.

    But if you take, say, German or French literature at a college in the US, you're mostly just not going to be working at quite the level of people studying German lit in Heidelberg or French lit in Paris. You may get a few geniuses or expatriate native speakers in your classes, who will be up to the native level as individuals, but the class as a whole is just going to be running in a slightly lower gear.

    Working in a foreign language is a significant intellectual overhead cost. Even when you're fluent enough that everyone would say you speak the language perfectly, it's not as effortless as your mother tongue. I know this from both sides.

    It says quite a bit for King's intellect that he was able to work as a faculty member in Sweden, since presumably he had to function a fair amount in Swedish. If most of his teaching was in English, however, then I have to say it can be dangerous to spend years being the only person in a group who is speaking their native language, while the others all have to work in a foreign one. You can get too used to being smarter than everyone else.

    King of course went on to spend many years working in London, as well as traveling the world. I'm sure he kept things in perspective. I'm just pointing out that teaching undergraduate courses in a subject is not the same as being a scholarly specialist in it. King's opinions on literary quality have to be taken seriously, but they're probably not the last word.

    On this kind of subjective subject, I don't really believe in authority, anyway. What King points out about Joseph Smith's prose style seems to me to be true. What he says about literary greatness does not. Your mileage may vary.

  15. @OK: I get (your attempt at a) joke, but it doesn't quite work. here's the explanation for the rest of the readers:

    Joseph's "vast frontier library" is the collection of books and works that Joseph has been accused of plagiarizing from, and would have _had to have_ plagiarized from _if_ he were a fraud.

    For each accusation, there are claims that "there are too many parallels to ignore" between the Book of Mormon and the alleged source of the plagiarized passages.

    Jeff has a couple pages detailing the allegations here:

    (Which is written in the form of dialogue from a play)
    And there is a more apologetic point by point style here:

    Many of the alleged parallels are explained by mere common themes and randomness, or constructing tenuous meaningless parallels. Jeff shows how parallels can be made between the BoM and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was written well after the publication of the BoM.

    If we are to accept the level of heuristics used in the plagiarism analysis by BoM detractors, then Whitman either plagiarized from the BoM, or JS had a very very advance copy of Leaves of Grass from when Whitman would have been 10 years old.

    Logically, it is almost required that if JS were indeed a fraud, and had used _any_ of the alleged plagiarism sources, he would have had to have used all of them, because the level of heuristics used to compare various sources to the BoM is so similar.

    Suppose that JS were a fraud and he copied or stole ideas from "only" one third or one half of the alleged sources. That would then mean that the parallels to the remaining half to two thirds of alleged sources were indeed randomly generated by pure coincidence/accident "even in" a fraudulent BoM.

    But if there are, or would be, "even" accidental parallels between a fraudulent BoM and extant literature, that goes a long way to tear down the very reasoning or logic that detractors insist on using as "proof" of fraudulent origin in the first place.

    The detractors can't have it both ways, because for every possible plagiarism source that a detractor strikes off the list, it gives credence to the pro-Mormon argument that accidental parallels can randomly exist, and that meaningless and tenuous parallels can be construed between any two works covering similar themes.

  16. Here's another way of stating my point, and the logic I'm trying to illustrate:

    Detractors appear to claim that the more alleged sources they come up with for a fraudulent BoM, the greater the likelihood that the BoM is a fraud.

    They seem to believe that additional likely plagiarism sources are "additive" to the likelihood of fraud.

    but… Each additional alleged source requires that it had to have been both available and been read by Joseph or whoever authored a fraudulent BoM. Thus _increasing_ the size of the book collection or library needed by a fraudulent author.

    yet, the greater the number of books required, the less likely that they _all_ were available to him, and _all_ were read by him, or whoever wrote the BoM.

    Therefore _adding_ sources to the plagiarism list actually _reduces_ the probability of fraud. And that is the logic behind Jeff assembling the list of books in Joseph's alleged "vast frontier library".

    Some of the alleged sources were published close to the period when the Book of Mormon was being written (or "concocted" in Joseph's mind according to the detractors), but they would have had to been transported to the frontier awfully fast and snapped up by Joseph rather quickly to make it into the BoM.

    And… the greater the number of sources, the more effort and time and literary understanding would have been required on the part of a fraudulent author.

    And… for every "miss", or erroneous claim of plagiarism, on the part of BoM detractors, it illustrates random parallels "even in" a so-called fraudulent work, which then discredits the very same system of analysis used on the sources that may not have totally been debunked yet (or that detractors won't admit to being debunked.)

    So go ahead, and pile on more alleged plagiarism sources, because each additional allegation means it is LESS likely that Joseph (or whoever) copied or stole ideas from those sources.

  17. I don't necessarily think that Smith plagiarized much, but let me see if I follow this logic.

    If there were only one text from which Smith could have copied a given passage, then one would have to believe that his frontier library included that particular book. If the copying were not too blatant and the book were rare, it might be more plausible that the common features in the passage were coincidence than that Smith got hold of such a rare book.

    Now if critics are claiming that dozens of different passages were each copied from different sources, I'd agree that this actually starts to make the plagiarism charge less plausible. If the total number of sources is far too vast for any realistic frontier library, then everybody would have to admit that a lot of the passages in question weren't copied after all, because Smith never saw the sources. And if some of the purported examples of copying have to have been coincidence, then maybe all of them could have been coincidence.

    But if there someone identifies many possible sources from which one single passage could have been copied, then I'd say the likelihood that that passage was indeed copied would have to go up. The frontier library would only have to have included any one of the possible sources, and since there were many of them which could all have served, it can start to seem unlikely that Smith's library would not have had any of them. In fact if there are enough contemporary sources for a passage, one might conclude that the ideas involved were generally in the air in Smith's time and place, and he might have copied them even without any library at all.

    So which argument is it that the critics are making? Many different passages, each with a separate possible source? Or many possible sources for the same passage?

  18. In 1974 I returned to BYU as a junior after a mission, marriage, and working to earn money for school. I took this honors course that turned out to be a graduate seminar taught by Dr. King, a survey of the state of English throughout the world. It mixed in a liberal dose of linguistics, which I'd never even heard of before. "Colorless green ideas" and a lot of other stuff were WAY over my head. I struggled at time to understand a single word he was saying.

    But I grew entranced with it all, and took up Linguistics, and ended up teaching ESL/EFL in several interesting locations over the world, including Utah, California, Samoa, and Saudi Arabia.

    I'm still grateful to Dr. King for bursting open my mind, on language and many other topics.

    Mark Steele

  19. James, different critics lean on different purported sources to explain various aspects of a text that is becoming increasingly complex and interesting as people dig into it and analyze it. Many have plucked a few words or a single story or theme and pointed to an alleged source, but this has happened so much with no single source or small set of sources being very useful in explaining the whole text that we now really can speak of a vast frontier library that the rather unschooled farm boy Joseph must have hidden somewhere. There are so many interesting things that demand explanation if the book is a fraud, starting with the many aspects of the Arabian Penibsula accurately portrayed in First Nephi'sNephi, then building with elements such as chiasmus, Hebraisms, Hebraic word plays and plausible names like Alma, the whole concept of ancient records on gold plates,patterns of warfare, ancient covenant making, coronation ceremonies, etc. There is a lot of cool stuff in the details and some grand stuff if high literary value, and even with all the numerous volumes that could have been digested and used by an imaginary team of professional scholars in 1830, accounting for the book as a product of fraud in my biased opinion still leaves way too much to "Joseph just got lucky."

  20. Thanks, Jeff. It sounds as though plagiarism is unlikely to be the main story about the Book of Mormon. Even without ever having checked into these purported sources, plagiarism always seemed a bit dubious to me, anyway.

    Plagiarism is never really clear unless it's smoking-gun obvious. I figured that if there were any such clear-cut cases of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon (obviously not counting the Biblical quotations), then they would have been trumpeted so loudly that I would already have heard of them without having to dig. instead all I ever saw were rather vague claims that this or that author might have been a source for Smith.

    Evaluating "a lot of cool stuff in the details" is also always subjective, however. It's actually another Long List argument, just on the opposite side from the critical Long List. None of these many cool things is an absolute showstopper in itself, but to a believer they may well seem compelling in aggregate. Critics on the other hand might well roll eyes and gnash teeth, because they have ready counter-explanations for every single "cool thing" in the list, but it's like fighting the sea. Those darn Mormons just calmly move on to the next item, and Long List is long.

    Mormons can be serene because with such a long list of cool things that tend to support the Book of Mormon, no single item is decisively important. The possibility that they all could be wrong naturally seems too remote to take seriously. Critics are just as serene, on the other side, with their other Long List. Individuals on either side may suddenly find their world view shifting, but I doubt there's going to be any large scale way to break the stalemate. If there existed a slam dunk argument either way, we'd have heard it by now.

  21. It sounds as though plagiarism is unlikely to be the main story about the Book of Mormon.

    Quite so, James. The best case against the BoM, at least regarding outside influences like View of the Hebrews, is pretty much the case laid out by B. H. Roberts: VotH and other extant works provided the basic skeleton on which Joseph Smith could hang the details of his own book. Ideas like the Israelite origin of the Native Americans; great wars between two factions, one good and the other bad, that led to the extermination of the former; the descent of the latter into savagery; etc., were all around Joseph in his day. So were the theological debates he has his characters parrot in the BoM.

    What VotH shows is that many of these very ideas were in fact laid out in a book published just a short distance away from Joseph's home and just a few years before he began writing. This sort of thing is not about plagiarism, but about sources in a broader sense, as Roberts makes quite clear. But it's obviously advantageous for apologists to keep the cruder arguments front and center.

  22. I am surprised you would feel insulted about my list of common complaints. You are the one who was previously moaned about how weak the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon is. You are the one who said there are no credible cases of lust when there is plenty, from the early Nephites and their concubines in Jacob 2 to Korihor, Corianton, Jaredite Kings and the dance of the daughter of Jared or the abduction of Lananite women or the barbaric behavior of the last Nephites..You complain that there are no women in the book, when there certainly are, though they are too often unnamed, like the great king over his son Lamoni or even the brother of Jared himself. The text is weak on names and especially women's names, but men and women with real stories are there,