“Effusions of an Enthusiastic Brain”: Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the Limits of Experiential Religion
When Joseph Smith recounted his 1820 vision to others, they rejected it. The rejection was probably not because he told of a vision; other people in his culture recorded similar experiences, such as going into the woods to pray, being besieged by darkness, and then laying eyes upon God and Jesus.
But Joseph’s experience brought together the celestial and the corporeal, ignoring the carefully constructed doctrinal demarcations of orthodoxy of his Protestant peers. Borrowing terminology from the Enlightenment, Evangelicals claimed a belief in an experimental religion that rested on empirical facts. Visions could be felt through the spirit or seen by the eye of faith but could not be physically literal. Joseph Smith always insisted on the bodily presence of God and Jesus in his vision and later followed divine instruction to found a new denomination.