Of Testimony, Revelation, and Story: The Empty Church and the First Vision

Journeys are sacred. We need to listen to and respect other people’s journeys especially when they are not like our own. This is how we learn, friends. This is what spiritual growth looks like. Seeing beyond what’s in your own house.

Mette Ivie Harrison, “What I Still Believe,” in The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to read The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical by Mette Ivie Harrison. This book was beautiful, personal, and wonderful. It was enlightening to read someone going through a faith transition and hear her candid take on the Church, on her own faith, and on her own journey. This wasn’t a story distilled to myth that is shared over the pulpit; it was an individual’s personal interaction with deity written on the page, stark and glowing.

While reading The Empty Church, the Joseph Smith Papers and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a podcast series titled The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. In its six episodes, the podcast provides historical perspective to the oft-quoted (at least in the Church) story, a story that has been distilled into a myth from the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith. Spencer McBride connects historian’s work with reinvigorating and reinvestigating a story that I had the privilege to share countless times during my mission and time in the Church.

Listening to these two stories in tandem led me to think on the concepts of testimony, revelation, and story, and out of those thoughts, this brief blog post was written. Thank you for muddling along with me.

Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, inside and outside of Utah but wholly inside the western United States, I was taught that prophets held authority, given them by God, to receive revelation on behalf of the world. Others were distilled that ecclesiastical authority through priesthood keys granted from the prophet through proper lines of authority, and these people, like a bishop or stake president, were privileged to receive revelation on behalf of the people within their given jurisdiction and assignment. In addition, parents could receive revelation for their children because they held stewardship over them, and individuals were supposed to be able to receive revelation for themselves. It was simple, clear cut, one could draw a line from self to father to bishop to stake president to area seventy to quorum of the twelve to first presidency to prophet to Jesus Christ to Heavenly Father to Grand-God to Great-Grand-God and so on. A never-ending chain of revelatory authority.

However, as I think on and consider revelation, I realize, over and over, that revelation is not, and cannot, be that simple and clear cut though. If it were, I don’t think, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, the Church believed-to-be-established by the first followers of Jesus Christ would have gone away from this planet. It’s the complications and the nuance of revelation that caused that institution to evolve into the great behemoth that we call Christianity or, as I prefer, Christianities.

Revelation is personal. It’s individual. Yes, a prophet holds sway over a large amount that follow the words spoken from the prophet’s mouth, but the revelation a prophet receives, the guidance received, is still funneled through that prophet’s personal experience, the personal view. We cannot divorce his (or her or their or xer, etc.) individuality and individualness from the layer of jurisdiction this individual is given.

Harrison’s work profoundly made me consider this individuality because she engaged with it. Throughout the text, Harrison expresses that revelation (whether her own, the lack of revelation given from leadership, or revelation that did not match her own personal revelation) led her away from the Church. As people who believe in revelation, especially the revelation of a young boy in a grove of trees, Latter-day Saints must give her that due and accept that revelation for one is not revelation for another. I appreciate, especially in this moment of my own intercourse with revelation, Church, and God, that Harrison spent some of her time living on this planet to write a book that engaged with her own individual forms of belief, revelation, story, and vision.

Like Harrison’s text, The First Vision podcast takes us back to an individual receiving individual revelation that others will eventually read, consider, follow, or not follow. Smith, the podcast reminds its listeners, was an individual person, a momentary conscious on this blip of a planet in a vast universe, who received guidance from some divine hand. It takes the listener back to before the atrocities in Missouri, before the gold-digging in New York and Pennsylvania, before the mobs, before the tarring and feathering, before the revelation upon revelation, before the polygamy, before the founding of a Church that grew from six members to over millions, before what we see today as the stalwart and monolithic Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to that boy. Young. In the woods. Wondering.

The First Vision gives the listener what any great historical writing does: an opportunity to interact as if we were in that moment. From podcast episodes about what the Sacred Grove would’ve looked like (ep. 6) to the religious moment of the time, the podcast gives us a different vision, a nuanced story, a testimony within the bounds of history.

I think this is so important to remember when interacting with grand institutions like what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become (see, for example, the recent conversations around the finances of the Church and learning that it holds, casually, in one account, more money than the endowment of the university at which I attend and more money than many countries combined). It’s important to remember that the leaders of this institution are still people—mostly white, cisgender male, heterosexual, patriarchal, etc.—and that people-ness can sometimes cloud and overshadow and, yes, inform in a positive way the revelation they receive.

The Empty Church fiercely brings the reader into sharp understanding of the leadership’s fallibility, which I believe is important for any agent to be aware of. From questions like “Are we simply enforcing a norm of perfection where everyone looks the same?” (“Towards a More Inclusive Heaven”) and “If Mormon heaven includes eternal progression, how can it not include pain?” (“The Hole”), Harrison interrogates the very same belief she is on sabbatical from and takes time out of her life to provide readers with a vigorous questioning of beliefs that led her away from the comfortable middle of the Latter-day Saint tent to its very edge. I believe that any concerned Latter-day Saint who wants to be more like Jesus and improve their own circle of influence should engage with this book to learn from someone willing to discuss their faith journey out of that circle.

The best thing about listening to this podcast and reading this book at the same time comes as explained in a quote from Harrison’s “The Acorn and the Oak” essay: “We’re a better community when we aren’t just Mormons talking to Mormons.” Both texts broaden, a little, the conversation. Harrison’s text is one of a person exiting the Church, while the First Vision podcast is a historical look into someone creating that very same church she is exiting. Both provide a stark reminder and a sanguine release that has allowed this Mormon-adjacent-esque writer to appreciate roots and anticipate futures.

By Mette Ivie Harrison, PhD
384 pp. Front Porch Press

By Spencer W. McBride, PhD
6 eps. Church Historian’s Press | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I read The Empty Church in its Kindle format, offered for free as a promotion.

I listened to The First Vision in its Apple Podcasts format.