Joseph Smith’s First Vision By Milton V. Backman, Jr. Bookcraft, 209 pp., $3.50
Reviewed by, Professor of Scripture, Brigham Young University
Dr. Backman is the foremost Latter-day Saint scholar on the religious background of the restoration. His book sets the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith in its historical context and shows that the latter-day seer’s statements on the background of that divine manifestation are compatible with its historical setting at every point.
This book is the most recently published response to a charge that was made a few years ago that Joseph Smith fabricated the story of the first vision several years after it allegedly occurred. Proof of the fabrication was said to be found in the fact that there was no significant revival in Palmyra in 1819–20. Due to the efforts of Dr. Backman and others, these charges can now be numbered with other unsuccessful efforts to repudiate the claims of the restored gospel.
Dr. Backman has done considerable painstaking research into the minute historical details that make up the setting of the first vision. His book is enriched by maps prepared by Dr. Robert L. Layton, chairman of the Department of Geography at Brigham Young University. As he sets about the task to which he dedicates himself, Dr. Backman treats the story of Yankee expansion into central-western New York and the transformation of that area from wilderness to civilization. Having done this, he focuses attention on the religious awakenings in the “Burned-over District,” so named because of the ardent and zealous manner in which people responded to the several kinds of enthusiasm that agitated the country in the decades before the Civil War.
Dr. Backman treats in some detail the “war of words and tumult of opinions” that caused Joseph Smith to seek an answer directly from the Lord as to which church was right. It was a time of great theological discord, and the writer discusses the several issues that were in conflict, as they were set forth by the leading proponents of the area. This is a valuable part of his book. It is followed by a treatment of the several accounts of the first vision that have come down to us from Joseph Smith’s day. The full statements of these accounts are given as appendix materials, and for this reason this volume is an important source of reference materials.
There are two minor points of criticism that could be mentioned. First, Dr. Backman gives too narrow a meaning to the term Burned-over District. He states that “revivals were so habitual and powerful in the area … that historians have labeled this ecclesiastical storm center the Burned-over District.” However, revivals were not the only important form of emotionalism and enthusiasm that swept over central-western New York, thereby causing that region to be designated as the Burned-over District. There originated the anti-Masonic excitement of the mid-1820s that greatly influenced the politics of the nation by contributing to the birth of the Whig party. There the Fox sisters first heard the mysterious noises afterward known as the “Rochester rappings,” which marked the beginning of modern-day spiritualism. There the several perfectionist theories set forth in the second quarter of the nineteenth century found many ardent adherents. There the communitarian fervor that stirred the nation during the same period was greatly felt. Finally, there the abolitionist movement that shook the nation with continual tremors was given enthusiastic support. Because of the emotional waves that swept over this region associated with all of these, and other, forms of enthusiasm, central-western New York has been called the Burned-over District.
Second, Dr. Backman states that “Joseph Smith occupies a unique position in the annals of religious history in that on six different occasions the Mormon Prophet beheld visions while he was in the company of friends, and these men beheld the same visions Joseph witnessed.” There were other occasions than the six that Dr. Backman mentions in which the Prophet’s associates shared heavenly manifestations with him. That Joseph Smith was “unique” in this respect may be an overstatement, depending on how one views the matter. All Israel beheld with Moses the manifestations at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16–25), and the fire or glory that filled the temple of Solomon at its dedication (2 Chr. 7:1–3). Peter, James, and John beheld with Christ the manifestations and visitations that took place on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:1–5). The two Nephite missionaries, Nephi and Lehi, were simultaneously enveloped in glory, and with them “there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things” (Hel. 5:49). Groups of Jewish and Nephite disciples beheld the resurrected Christ; and as Jesus ministered to the latter group, they “saw the heavens opened” and “angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire” (3 Ne. 17:24).
Aside from minor technicalities, Dr. Backman’s book is an excellent work that should be read by every person who is interested in the foundations of this dispensation. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Church history.
Basic Organ Techniques and Repertoire By J. J. Keeler and E. Donnell Blackham Deseret Book, 125 pp., $4.25
This spiral-bound book is a study guide for Church organists. It contains basic techniques and special arrangements of organ literature for the beginning student, selected from famous methods of the past and from the authors’ original materials, with exercises for manual and pedal techniques.
Stepping Stones to an Abundant Life By David O. McKay (Compiled by Llewelyn R. McKay) Deseret Book, 425 pp., $5.95
The late President David O. McKay had a rare ability to reach the hearts and minds of people of all ages in all parts of the world. This collection of his sermons and messages, appearing for the first time in book form, provides an enlightening exposition of the broad scope of his thinking, his ideals, and his great concern for young people.
When the Lights Went Out By Hugh Nibley Deseret Book, 88 pp., $1.50
Listed briefly are arguments supporting the thesis that the primitive church founded by Jesus Christ and the apostles did not survive and that it was not supposed to. In this material, based on three studies on the ancient apostasy, Dr. Nibley describes the circumstances surrounding the passing of the primitive church, the forty-day mission of Jesus Christ, and the significance of the loss of the temple when Jerusalem fell.
The Order is Love By Carol Lynn Pearson Music by Lex de Azevedo Trilogy Arts, 97 pp., $1.95
The experiences of the early Mormon pioneers who were directed by Brigham Young to found a settlement in southern Utah in the 1870s provide the historical background for this musical drama. It tells the story of establishing a community where members agree to contribute their means, labor, and spiritual strength to the common good—the United Order.
Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon (Volume 10) Promised Land Publications, 120 pp., $10.00
The tenth in a series of sixteen volumes containing the Book of Mormon chapters in story form, this volume continues the format of presenting the scriptures in language more readily understood by young people and others as well. Each volume is profusely illustrated in full-color reproduction. The original text of the Book of Mormon is included for reference.
Book of Mormon Chronology By Sidney B. Sperry Deseret Book, 34 pp., 75¢
A useful guide for dating the Book of Mormon peoples and events, written by a professor of Old Testament languages and literature at Brigham Young University. This little volume updates the timing of chronological data and encourages more precise research into the Nephite record.
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