Joseph Smith’s translations have to be translated.-Philip L. Barlow, associate director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU
Much has been said about Joseph Smith’s First Vision over the last two hundred years, which was the event that launched Mormonism. This coming spring will mark the bicentennial anniversary of that mystical vision in 1820, and much will continue to be said about it. The Church recently published a video highlighting the traditional, official, orthodox narrative.
I have also said many things about the First Vision, even reconstructing the nature of that visionary experience, placing it within the larger context of mystical experience generally, what William James called “religious experience.” Through my own mystical and contemplative experience I think I’ve gained deep insight into what happened to Joseph that spring morning, and why should I not try to share it?
What Joseph Smith said and wrote is not finished. It is not complete. The work is not done. Throughout his adult life he was continually recounting, translating, interpreting, writing, contemplating, and re-translating the scriptures and various texts and experiences that he had. This could be said to have been one of his main occupations in life. He could not stop writing (what might be called hypergraphia), recording, documenting, updating, detailing religion, life, spirituality, mystical visionary experiences, and revelatory insights as he was inspired to write them. And this seems to have all begun with his First Vision, which he recorded at least four times firsthand in the decade between 1832-1842, and several others also recorded early on from 1840-1844.
The Imperative of “Translation”
I have had such mystical experiences myself, and so I am also in the process of translating those experiences into words. All the writings on this website, some four books worth of content now, could be said to be my “translations” of my experience. All mystical experience must be so translated in order for them to have meaning in life. The acclaimed modern mystic-philosopher and scholar of consciousness, Ken Wilber, had this to say about the imperative of this interpretation process:
Question: But how is interpretation important in spiritual transformation or spiritual experience?
Ken Wilber: Give an example.
Q: Say I have a direct experience of interior illumination—a blinding, ecstatic, mind-blowing experience of inner light.
KW: The experience itself is indeed direct and immediate. You might even become one with that light. But then you come out of that state, and you want to tell me about it. You want to talk to me about it. You want to talk to yourself about it. And here you must interpret what this deep experience was. What was this light? Was it Jesus Christ? Was it Buddha-mind? Was it an archetype? An angel? Was it an alien UFO? Was it just some brain state gone haywire? What was it? God? Or a piece of undigested meat? The Goddess? Or a food allergy?
You must interpret! And if you decide it was some sort of genuine spiritual experience, then of what flavor? Allah? Keter? Kundalini? Savikalpa-samadhi? Jungian archetype? Platonic form? This is not some unimportant or secondary issue. This is not some theoretical
hair splitting. This is not some merely academic concern. Quite the contrary. How you interpret this experience will govern how you approach others with this illumination, how you share it with the world, how you fit it into your own self system, and the ways you can even speak about it to others and think about it yourself. And it will determine your future relation to this light!
And like all interpretations—whether of Hamlet or of the inner light—there are good and there are bad interpretations. And in this interpretation, will you do a good job or a bad job?
In other words, even if this experience of light was transmental, or beyond words altogether, still you are a compound individual. Still you are composed not only of this spiritual component—which is perhaps what the light was; you are also composed of mind and body
and matter. And mentally you must orient yourself to this experience. You must interpret it, explain it, make sense of it. And if you can’t
interpret it adequately, it might very likely drive you insane. You will not be able to integrate it with the rest of your being because you
cannot adequately interpret it. You don’t know what it means. Your own extraordinary depth escapes you, confuses you, obscures you,
because you cannot interpret it adequately.
Q: So interpretation is an important part of even spiritual or transmental experiences.
KW: Yes, definitely.-Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything
We tend to think that Joseph Smith’s “translations” were exclusively his writings that seemed to come from other spheres, other authors, other times and places, but Joseph’s own writings of his life’s experiences were also “translations,” interpretations of his life experience. And even his “translations” of supposed other texts I perceive were mystical communications about his own deepest consciousness, his essential life, heavily autobiographical in nature. They were framed in allegorical and metaphorical symbolic language, a kind of mystical pseudepigrapha, attributing one’s own inspired insights as the work of ancient figures. This might also be known in the 20th century as “channeling,” or more modernly as having the inspiration of the creative “muse” or “genius” that seems to possess you, as Elizabeth Gilbert has described it.
Is Mystical Experience Merely a Pathology?
Some might recognize some Charles Dickens in Wilber’s words above, which I’ve written about. Are such mystical visions merely the unfortunate gastrointestinal effect of “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato”? Is there “more of gravy than of grave” in such mystical experiences? Are they pathological aberrations, which should be marginalized, and those who have them institutionalized? Or do they contain deeper import about the human condition? I think it is the latter.
While I do think there is a biological and neurological nature in such experiences, even relationships to neuropathologies, I don’t think they can be simply reduced to such conditions. The famed psychologist William James seemed to agree, as he noted in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle’s organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover. And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined.-William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
There is more to these experiences than abnormal physiological conditions, something which is deeply meaningful, which is deeply inspiring, something which seems to reveal the nature of reality itself, that radically gets to the roots of the Divine, of ultimate concerns, of the foundation of life and being and Love. They cannot simply be dismissed as aberrations, or simply reduced to a diseased mind or body. That explains nothing as to why these experiences have had such deep and wide influence on humanity throughout history, and inspired billions of people along the way. There is something profoundly Real in them.
And so the task that all people who have such experiences must do is translate them, interpret what they mean in human life, and they are always conditioned by their circumstances in such translations, as religious scholar Karen Armstrong has noted:
The [mystical] visions are not ends in themselves but means to an ineffable religious experience that exceeds normal concepts. They will be conditioned by the particular religious tradition of the mystic. A Jewish visionary will see visions of the seven heavens because his religious imagination is stocked with these particular symbols. Buddhists see various images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas; Christians visualize the Virgin Mary [or Jesus]. It is a mistake for the visionary to see these mental apparitions as objective or as anything more than a symbol of transcendence.-Karen Armstrong, A History of God
How those experiences of transcendence are translated into words makes a difference, as Wilber rightly noted. It will affect everything that surrounds it, how we approach it, what it means to people. There is a process of reification going on here, which is the very thing that brings the meaning of the experience into the intelligible realm, so that it means something to us, pointing us to that transcendence. And this process of reifying the transcendent never ends, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”
Retranslating the First Vision
I think the First Vision needs to be re-translated. I have translated many Judeo-Christian scriptures in the Bryce Haymond Translation (BHT), but not yet many from my former tradition of Mormonism. I will begin to translate more of them.
Some may ask, how? There is no “original” language here, no Greek or Hebrew to return to, to tease out deeper meanings. But there is more to translation than simply changing words from one language to another. Translation is the communication of meaning as it pertains to us here today, in our culture, in our language, in our life. It is the translation of our experience, primarily, into words, forms, metaphors, symbols, stories. That is where those “originals” come from to begin with. The deeper source is their primary experience, which they then try to capture in words. And sometimes those words need to be updated so we know what they were trying to point to in experience.
I have had mystical experiences which I perceive are similar to Joseph’s, and I feel it is my vocation to continue to translate those experiences into words that may communicate something more of their value, their deep import, their truth, their wisdom, their beauty. I think we can express Joseph’s sentiments, and the mystical experience itself, in ever new expressions.
I have also collected and published dozens of accounts of “First Vision” type experiences from people around the world and throughout history, and so I recognize a similar pattern in them. This is not to discount Joseph’s experience, but to confirm it; it was no mere deception or lie. The preponderance of accounts shows that people do, in fact, have these experiences, some which are described in terms very much like his. Joseph was not merely making this up out of whole cloth.
But I do dismiss the view that it was an absolutely singular and exclusive experience, as the LDS Church often claims, because I think it is actually part of a much larger archetypal pattern of mystical experience and perennial wisdom in humanity. The LDS Church seems to deny this universalism, unfortunately claiming the experience to be the source of its exclusive right to Divine revelation, authority, identity, and salvation. But this tight grip on God seems to be loosening gradually over time as more people in the church realize that there have been many others outside of the church that have been similarly inspired throughout history. God has not only revealed “Himself” to the LDS Church, which is something that their own central scripture, the Book of Mormon, seems to state explicitly (2 Nephi 29).
A New Vision of the First Vision
I think it is time to re-translate Joseph’s experience into words that may help some today understand at a deeper level what may have happened that early spring morning of 1820, and how it relates to our globalized world of spirituality and religious traditions.
In addition to the quote at the beginning from Philip Barlow, Adam Miller has written about this process of re-translating Joseph’s words,
Joseph always expected more revelations, and ‘translation’ was one vital name for the hard work of receiving them. For Joseph, translation was less a chore to be done than a way, day by day, of holding life open for God’s word. Translating scripture is a way of renewing life. In translation we lend our lives—our minds, our ears, our mouths—to the local resurrection of old texts, dead words, and lost voices. We put down our stories and take up theirs. And as we give voice to them, they, for a time, rejoin us in the land of the living.
Joseph produced, as God required, the first public translations of the scriptures we now share. But that work, open-ended all along, is unfinished. Now, the task is ours. When you read the scriptures, don’t just lay your eyes like stones on the pages. Roll up your sleeves and translate them again. Every morning and every night, we are each commanded to sit down at our kitchen tables, spread out our books and notes and papers and pens, and, with a prayer in hand, finish what Joseph started. It is not enough for Nephi to have translated Isaiah into reformed Egyptian or for Joseph to have translated Nephi into King James English. You and I must translate these books again. Word by word, line by line, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, God wants the whole thing translated once more, and this time he wants it translated into your native tongue, inflected by your native concerns, and written in your native flesh. To be a Mormon is to do once more, on your own small scale, the same kind of work that Joseph did.-Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon
Even the “scripture” (since it is canonized) of Joseph’s First Vision must be translated anew, re-interpreted by our personal experience in the world, in our own tongue, according to our own insights, that it may be “likened unto us,” that it “might be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23; cf. 2 Ne. 4:15).
People may say I’m wrong in my translation, and I would actually agree with them in the sense that nothing that we say about these experiences is absolute. They can’t be. Language is relative, subjective, and dualistic, and cannot communicate experience as it is in itself. It is always filtered through the subjective mind. My translation will be conditioned as much by my experience and knowledge in the world as any other. It is not the Absolute itself. It is not the Truth itself. It is not God its Self. Nothing is a substitute for God! Only God is God. But our interpretations of what those experiences of God means to us can be helpful guides in our journey of approaching that Absolute Truth, and I offer my translation if it may be of benefit.
My translation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision will be my own kind of “honorable” pseudepigraphon, including insights into my own experience, and attributing them to Joseph Smith. It’s not that I think Joseph Smith thought these specific thoughts, interpreted his experiences in this particular way, or even experienced these specific things that I will translate as part of the First Vision. But it is rather the qualities of the mystical experience in general, and of my mystical experiences, that I see may have been in embryo form in Joseph’s words, and I want to interpret them into that profound experience of the past, fleshing out his ideas in a more universalist interspiritual form. As in perhaps all pseudepigrapha, attributing the words to a well-known figure of the past lends more credibility and authority to the words, more weight to the situation, more gravity and import.
Why not just write my own interpretation/translation of my own mystical experiences? I could do that, and I have started doing that (see here, for example). But Bryce is a nobody, a no one, an unknown, and so no one would care. Joseph experienced this for years at the start too. By making this pseudepigraphon, I’m riding on Joseph’s coattails, standing on the shoulders of this giant, this one who has already gained a following. This is not so that I will gain a following (which does not matter to me), but rather that the text will be taken seriously.
It is perhaps the very same reason that Joseph “translated” the works of Abraham, and Moses, and Enoch, and even the Book of Mormon, including the words of Jesus, and gave revelations in the voice of “Christ.” He perhaps didn’t know he was doing it, but he was using their authoritative image to lend credibility to his own words and works, an aura of enlightened truth. As scholars have increasingly noted in recent decades, there may be many pseudepigraphal books included in that work we commonly know by the name of Bible.
Some might think that by confessing my translation is pseudepigrapha, this counteracts its weight of authority, its profundity, etc. But I just want to be up front about what I’m doing here, and that I know that these things are not lost on me. I’m aware. You may call me Pseudo-Joseph if you like. I’m putting words in Joseph’s mouth. I’m not claiming that Joseph necessarily experienced these things, saw these things, knew these things, or said these things, but I think he might have, some.
Religious scholar Karen Armstrong had this to say about interpreting sacred texts:
When a philosopher expounded an authority, such as Plato or Aristotle, his chief purpose was to shape the spirituality of his pupils. He would, therefore, feel free to give the old texts an entirely new interpretation if this met the needs of a particular group. What mattered was the prestige and antiquity of the old texts, not the author’s original intention. Until the early modern period, most Western thought developed in a way that was reminiscent of the modern design technique of bricolage, where something new is constructed from an assemblage of whatever materials happen to lie at hand.-Karen Armstrong, The Case for God
And in another place she notices how this kind of interpretation was often the tradition in Judaism, and was even considered a spiritual practice:
Revelation did not mean that every word of scripture had to be accepted verbatim, and midrash was unconcerned about the original intention of the biblical author. Because the word of God was infinite, a text proved its divine origin by being productive of fresh meaning. Every time a Jew exposed himself to the ancient text, the words could mean something different.-Karen Armstrong, The Case for God
How to Re-Translate the First Vision
How do I go about translating this experience? Because it is not simply a text I’m translating here, but an experience. This will be much more of a dynamic/functional paraphrase, than a formal equivalence word-for-word metaphrase translation. It will be more of what I think Joseph experienced, than what he thought he experienced. I will draw from my own experience, and the numerous experiences I have collected, as well as from my studies and understanding, to offer what may be a more mystical translation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
I have combined all of Joseph Smith’s firsthand and secondhand (and one thirdhand) accounts into a spreadsheet, in parallel format, for a total of 10 accounts, which I have used as reference. Feel free to view and use it yourself (click to view the spreadsheet):
I was thinking of perhaps color-coding the various accounts as they have either been quoted verbatim from their original sources, or paraphrased, even perhaps just indicating firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand, as well as including inline references to scriptures, holy texts, and other works and people that have inspired me, but this seems like it would all clutter and clog the text, making it unreadable, so I have not done so. Perhaps I will do that at another time in a different post. The references and sources of inspiration I have left at the very end of the translation, as an endnote.
I should also note that the versification does not align with what is in the canonized account of the vision in the Pearl of Great Price. It is original to this translation.
By the way, I don’t think Joseph’s differing accounts are an act of deception, as some posit. Joseph was in the act of interpreting and translating his experience, which continued for some time after his experience. It is perhaps something that never ends. My translation will be a kind of amalgamation of accounts, as well as including my own interpolation of insights and perspectives. Sometimes I will interpret Joseph’s words more directly from Joseph’s own words, and other times I will interpret them more loosely, using mystical language, forms, scriptural metaphors, symbols as they are drawn from the world of wisdom literature and from my own experience.
Some Final Thoughts
As I described earlier, and in other places, I did not write this translation. It is as if something else is speaking through me, that I am a conduit for, an instrument, a vehicle, a medium, a tool, and I’m just helping give shape to the words, giving form to them, trying to make the grammar work, and writing them down. And this is not some strange voodoo or new age woo-woo, as Elizabeth Gilbert has so eloquently made clear. It’s a real phenomenon which many writers and other artists experience.
The ideas come into the mind from a deeper place, another place, the subconscious or unconscious if you will, from a “spiritual” unseen hidden dimension of consciousness, that I am not responsible for, and that I do not control. I am not the source of them. I simply become aware of them as they enter my conscious mind, insights that are not necessarily linguistic, but that have a flavor to them, a taste, a quality, an impression, a feeling, a particular texture, and I sculpt them into English words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. I may not even be doing that!
Who is the doer? Where is that doer? Is it my conscious mind, this tip of the iceberg in my head that thinks it is me? No. Is it my body-mind, this biological structure that I think I am, which I did not make or create? No. I AM turtles all the way down. I am large, I contain multitudes (Walt Whitman). If there is Truth in the translation, it is Divine; if there are errors, they are entirely all my own, and I take full responsibility for them. This is perhaps one of the dualistic qualities of such spiritual or creative writing, as well as many other artforms. The Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in it is wholly (holy) God’s; the error, imperfection, fallibility, relativity, subjectivity is all the human’s.
I should note here that I think that Joseph’s First Vision experience was a mix of various qualities and depths of mystical experience, it was not all absolutely pure unitive oneness, which is often considered the pinnacle of such experiences. There seems to have still been some dualistic subject-object distinction in the vision, as Joseph perceived the deities as somewhat external to himself, and yet we was still very much “enwrapped” with them, entangled in this divinity, in superposition, as I think you’ll clearly see in the translation.
The translation will be what I see as the core visionary mystical experience itself, without much introductory background material, or follow-up reflection, speculation, or history. I will also say that this translation has taken the longest amount of time of any that I’ve done in the BHT, taking several days, perhaps dozens of hours. I also think it may be one of the most important translations I’ve done or will do, for it does not only represent Joseph’s experience, but my own. And the translation is not finished, even now, nor will it ever be, until the One says the work is done.
A bit of legalese: As with most of the content on this site (unless otherwise noted), my translations are free, open, and available. I give them to you freely. I have received freely, and so I give freely to you, as part of the gift economy. They are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0), which means you are free to copy and redistribute this material in any medium or format, or even remix, transform, or build upon it for any purpose, including commercially, provided that you give appropriate credit/attribution to me and this website, indicating if you’ve made any changes (which are not mine), nor in a way that suggests that I endorse you or your work. If you transform or build upon it, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original. This is a Free Cultural Work.
Ok, enough talk. I hope this translation is meaningful and beneficial to you in your own personal spiritual journey, as well as helping Mormonism, and perhaps Christianity more generally, see deeper into their tradition, and how it connects to other spiritual and mystical traditions globally.
Now, let’s get to the translation… which is in a separate post, so as to not bury it at the end of this one.
The painting at the top of this post is by John White Alexander (1856–1915): The Manuscript [medieval scribes] (from the cycle “The Evolution of the Book”). Library of Congress (Jefferson Building), Washington, D.C. 1896.