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Light and Height in the Story of Joseph Smith, and a Bit of Economic History

Light and Height in the Story of Joseph Smith, and a Bit of Economic History October 22, 2021

 

Jorge Cocco's First Vision
A depiction of the First Vision by the Argentinian Latter-day Saint artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo.
I have, incidentally, made an effort to discover the copyright status of this image, but have been unable to be certain of it. I’m assuming that my employment of it here constitutes an example of “fair use.” Authoritative communications to the contrary would be welcomed. I would like Jorge Cocco’s work to be better known in the Latter-day Saint community.  I’m happy to see that this may be beginning to happen.

 

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Did you miss Jeffrey Mark Bradshaw’s virtual fireside last Sunday, on the subject of “Freemasonry and the Origins of Modern Temple Ordinances”?

 

If so, don’t despair!  It was recorded, and it is available via this link:

 

“Videos of the “A Life Lived in Crescendo” Firesides”

 

And don’t miss the virtual fireside this coming Sunday, 24 October 2021, by Brian C. Hales, which will be entitled “Doctrine and Covenants 132: Questions and Discussions.”  Go to the link given directly above for further information.  The fireside will begin at 6 PM, Utah time.

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Earlier today, I finished reading Alexander L. Baugh, Steven C. Harper, Brent M. Rogers, and Benjamin C. Pykles, eds., Joseph Smith and His First Vision: Context Place, and Meaning (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2021). One of the chapters in the book that I read is Steven L. Olsen’s  “Literary Craftsmanship of the Joseph Smith Story,” 219-236.

 

I quite liked his analysis (on pages 224-226) of the three “vignettes” that make up Joseph Smith-History 1.  I hadn’t thought of them in this way at all before, but he sees them not only as real events, accurately reported, but as symbols of the overall restoration of the Kingdom of God:

 

Traditional Christian iconography of the Western tradition consistently represents heaven with two dominant visual motifs: light and height.  Heaven is glorious beyond human comprehension, and it is high in the sky, way above the earth.  Both motifs appear in each of the three vignettes of the Joseph Smith story, and the progressive resolution of their contrasts through the narrative symbolizes the Restoration.  (224-225)

 

I might note, incidentally, that light and height or elevation also play a role in many if not all temple designs.  But back to the story of Joseph Smith in its canonized version:

 

In the first vignette, Joseph sees “two Personages,” whose “brightness and glory” are “above the brightness of the sun” and “defy all description.”  (225)

 

Their appearance, of course, dispels an overwhelming and evil darkness that had caused the young boy almost to despair and that he recognized as the influence of “some actual being from the unseen world.”

 

In short, the contrast of illumination in the First Vision could not be greater.  The contrast of elevation is likewise considerable.  In Joseph’s words, the “two Personages” appear “exactly over my head,” “standing above me in the air.”  After the vision, Joseph finds himself “lying on [his] back, looking up into heaven” (Joseph Smith – History 1:15-20).  

In the second vignette, the contrasting motifs are somewhat muted.  The glory of the angel’s nighttime appearance contrasts with the surrounding darkness and increases until Joseph’s bedroom is “lighter than at noonday.”  The angel is “glorious beyond description” and “exceedingly white and brilliant.”  The darkness, however, is simply the absence of light, not the presence of evil (as in the First Vision), and is gradually, not suddenly, dispelled by the heavenly glory.  The contrast of elevation is similarly reduced.  In Joseph’s words, the “personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.”  Joseph remains in or beside his bed during the encounters  (Joseph Smith – History 1:30-32).

In the third vignette, the respective contrasts of light and height virtually disappear.  The “messenger from heaven” appears to Joseph and his scribe “in a cloud of light,” contrasting minimally with the surrounding light of day.  John then confers upon them the priesthood, presumably by laying his hands on their bowed heads (Joseph Smith – History 1:68).

The progressive resolution of the contrasts of light and height symbolizes the reconciliation by degrees between God and humankind and between heaven and earth, which the restoration of the kingdom of God is intended to achieve.  (225-226)

 

I think that Dr. Olsen’s analysis is really quite elegant and interesting.

 

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Some time ago, a reader kindly brought to my attention a passage from the preface to the paperback edition of William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).  I reproduce that passage here:

 

When my wife brought P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich home from the library a decade ago, a few years before McGraw-Hill published the 2002 hardcover edition of this book, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of historical insight.  Mr. O’Rourke aims to amuse, and his lighthearted romp through world’s economic success and sob stories did not disappoint, most memorably his exposition of credit risk: A junk bond is a loan to your little brother; a high-quality bond is a loan to your little brother by the Gambino family.

Mr. O’Rourke’s frothy prose hides painstaking legwork.  Scattered among the quips are some well-researched passages, including one that briefly mentioned data assembled by an obscure Scottish economist named Angus Maddison, who found a startling discontinuity in world economic growth around 1820: Before that date, growth was essentially nonexistent; after that date, it was sustained and vigorous.

It took me a while to rustle up a copy of Maddison’s summary work, Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992.  The bound edition looks as dull and as daunting as the densest legal brief, but inside, Maddison’s dry data lay out the greatest story ever told: the economic birth of the modern world.  (vii)

 

This reminds me of a short piece that my friend Mark Skousen — libertarian economist, investment adviser, prolific author, and organizer of the spectacular annual FreedomFest — published a year or two ago in Meridian Magazine:

 

“The Restored Gospel and the Birth of the Modern Age”

 

 


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