Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream”: Addendum

“Joseph Smith’s Last Dream”: Addendum

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 28, 2011

This post supplements yesterday’s post evaluating William W. Phelps’ account of a dream he claimed to have heard from Joseph Smith in the last day’s of Joseph’s life. Rather than burying this in a comment there, I’m posting it separately in hopes of drawing the attention of all those who read the original post.

Update: In addition to this addendum, please also see the short biography of Paul Thomas Smith posted by Seth on his website, which should also be a part of this whole story.

In that post, I discussed some of the ways in which a historian might evaluate the reliability of such a document. The questions and considerations raised there are the same kinds of points I raise for myself when I find an interesting account that I consider posting on Keepa: although for a casual medium like blogging I can’t always invest the same time and effort that I would put into a more formal publication (I can and do correct a posted story if I later discover that I got a date wrong or mistranscribed a place name), I aim for accuracy as well as catching your interest or sharing my admiration for an early Saint’s faithful life.

That post confirmed much of the background of the published dream claimed by Seth Adam Smith on his blog post introducing his new video; it also noted some problems with the account and Phelps’ credibility that would have caused me to choose not to post the dream on Keepa, at least not without alerting readers to the difficulties.

I also noted what I called “points of order,” a term I chose deliberately to flag a few questions as easily correctable procedural matters, just as someone might call the attention of a meeting’s chair to the fact that a motion had not yet been formally seconded. I didn’t consider those “points of order” in the same class as questions concerning the authenticity of Phelps’ account, but only as glitches in the presentation of Seth’s material.

Not only did Seth publicly accept my questioning of the document that forms the basis of his video, he did so cheerfully and graciously and professionally. His conduct will serve as a model for me when people challenge my claims in the future, and I hope I can do as well as Seth has done. Thank you, Seth, for all of that.

He also immediately began to revise his webpage to note the questions raised in my post. He may not have yet made all the revisions he intends to make, he may plan on polishing the changes he has already made. Keepa readers should take another look at what he has done and plan on visiting again after he has had time to consider any other adjustments he may make.

Seth has been quick to note the places where I challenged Phelps’ reliability. He has not yet, however, taken advantage of points in my post that support his background:

  • The citation to History of the Church lets readers know the source of Seth’s reconstruction of the time when Joseph could have told Phelps about his dream.
  • Joseph had a longstanding intimacy with Phelps – so close that according to the cited HC account, Joseph trusted Phelps to carry messages to Emma and to get his family safely away from Nauvoo had Joseph’s plan to flee to the West been carried through. This intimacy supports the likelihood that Joseph would have confided his dream to Phelps.
  • Justin’s comment and included links provide additional evidence that Phelps did in fact accompany Joseph to Carthage, as Phelps claims in his account of the dream.

All of that, in some measure, supports at least the possibility of a factual basis to Phelps’ aging memory. Don’t be shy, Seth, about using positive points as willingly as you accept the cautions. Historical evaluation isn’t all about debunking – it confirms, too.

After alerting his readers to the potential problems with Phelps’ account, Seth explains again that his intent in producing the video was to share a story that had moved him and to inspire his viewers with the realization that Joseph’s martyrdom was not wholly a tragedy, because the closing of Joseph’s mission in this world meant that he was returning to the presence of God and the Savior. I recognize that as Seth’s goal from the beginning, and I share his testimony both of Joseph Smith and of the love of the Savior. These points are beyond the reach of historical evidence and rely on another kind of witness than anything William W. Phelps reports, or that my questions about his document can touch.

Seth concludes, however, that “whether or not it’s true shouldn’t make much of a difference.” And that’s where he and I will have to part company. I think it matters very much whether Phelps’ account of the dream is true (that is, reliable, accurate, reflecting what Joseph may have told him, in substance if not in word). It absolutely matters in history, and it matters when I cross over to spiritual matters — things that are not true cannot support true faith; untrue things, no matter how faith promoting on the surface, are substitutes, or counterfeits, or weak things that cannot bear scrutiny. Before I can accept something as support for any part of my faith, I have to have reasonable confidence in the truthfulness of that thing. Yes, I have successfully negotiated amendments to my testimony when something I had previously accepted turns out not to have been quite right, but other people have not been so successful. We hear the claim all the time around the Mormon and ex-Mormon blogs that people’s faith has been shaken, and that some have given up on the Church and its doctrines altogether, because they found out that this or that or something else was not just what they had been taught in Primary or Seminary. If we do our utmost to ensure the veracity of what we teach (and we are teaching by blogging and making videos), and if we avoid or at least clearly mark those things that are questionable, not only might we spare someone the experience of disillusionment, but we also clear ourselves of the responsibility for being a stumbling block to someone else. I know I’m not completely free of this, but I try.

Seth’s medium is one with the potential of reaching far more people than my own medium of blogging. His audience is sophisticated in many ways but may often be less experienced in evaluating historical claims. The emotional music and eye-catching images, the dramatic reading of skillful narrators in his videos, combine to capture and hold the interest of an audience far broader than sober text can often do. And Seth is very good at what he does – the elements of “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream” blend with each other perfectly, in my opinion. His intentions are ones I can fully support, too, when they involve sharing an appreciation of Joseph Smith and his mission. That ability to reach an audience and to touch them in lasting ways carries with it a responsibility to make things as “honest, true, … benevolent, virtuous, and … good to all men” as we possibly can make it. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m getting all serious and preachy. But while both Seth and I try to be entertaining, we both have additional goals, too. So sue me. Us. Whoever.)

Our two bodies of work will probably always be at some tension, because his medium necessarily reaches for the dramatic and appeals to the emotional, whereas I find comfort and beauty and feel the Spirit by trying to get ever closer to the lived reality of the past through detailed study of records – to me, God manifests himself most visibly in the lives of people, and it is in the lives of people of the past that I can most easily find his presence. In that case, “whether or not it’s true” does make a great difference.

(Note: I’ll be away from the internet much of the day and there will be a considerable delay in responding to any comments. Apologies for that.)



  1. Ardis,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. Your willingness to work with me has been amazing and helpful. I feel much better about things and I will aim (as always) for more historical accuracy and reality in whatever I present.

    This is how I concluded in my blog post on “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream”:

    In the end, my faith does not rest on the possible “Last Dream” of a Prophet, but on the reality of his First Vision. I do not know whether or not Joseph Smith prophetically saw himself and his brothers walking on the water, but I do know that he saw God and Jesus Christ in a grove now called sacred.

    So whether fact or fiction, “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream” is a beautiful and symbolic story. For me, it represents a marvelous bookend to his mission as a Prophet. It symbolically tells the story of his martyrdom not as a horrifying tragedy but as a beautiful triumph. The story first came to me during a difficult time—when I felt as though I was treading through deep water—and it symbolically pointed me back to the Savior. As I exercised more faith in Him, I found that I was soon “able to walk upon the water.”

    My intent in creating the video, was to share this beautiful story with you, and hopefully inspire you (on your troubled waters) to seek out the Savior.

    Thank you again, Ardis.

    Your Friend,

    Comment by Seth Adam Smith — June 28, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  2. I was impressed by Seth’s gracious response to your critical review. That’s a nice touch of maturity that is not always seen in the bloggernacle, and it was in part, I suspect, prompted by the tone of your review: also gracious, accepting of what was good in his efforts, and politely pointing out problems in his background story.

    When I run into dubious stories or statements at church, I’ve found myself more reluctant to respond with a correction, mostly because I recognize that I may not do it with as much respect and lack of condescension that the situation usually requires. I’m too quick and easy with a bit of a snarky response if I’m not careful, so I usually keep quiet.

    Keepa is almost always a place where reasoned and measured responses far outweigh the contentious stuff that we see on a lot of other blogs. I’ve got enough other stress in my life, and I don’t need to add to it. Thanks, Ardis, and your large audience of respectful commenters and guest bloggers for a less angry and more peaceful corner of the internet.

    Comment by kevinf — June 28, 2011 @ 10:20 am

  3. What you’ve all said is fine and good, but I cannot excuse your being away from the internet for some indeterminate “much of the day.” Just how will those of us who rely on Keepa for regular fixes make it through the day??

    As another more eloquent than I said, “Oh, the humanity!”

    Comment by Mark B. — June 28, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  4. Ardis, I’m not sure that historicity and “Truth” are the same things. My impression is all that Seth did was share a story that Phelps told. I believe that it is true that Joseph returned back to Jesus after his death. To me that is True (noting the difference that philosophers make between little “t” truth and big “T” “Truth”; that is, the truth that really matters and the truth that matters less). To me whether it is an exact remembrance of a dream that Joseph actually had and correctly related to Phelps, or whether it was embellished by Phelps over the years, it still is a testimony of Joseph’s future state. I don’t see that as a shaky foundation.

    You know that scholars argue effectively that pretty much the entirety of the Gospels would not pass the muster that you are demanding here. Does that really mean that we are able to “Know” nothing about Jesus? Are the Gospels a shaky foundation?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 28, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  5. Ardis (and Seth) I’m impressed with the quality of the conversation. Thanks for that, and particularly for your historical eye, Ardis.

    Comment by Paul — June 28, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  6. Great addendum, Ardis. I’m glad your tone is measured as Seth truly has some good talents that I’m sure will be well used and developed.

    I think, along the lines of your last points (which are so so important), that it’s significant that the Church produces historic sites guides for service missionaries and others to use in guiding tours and these of course deal with how history is presented to the public in a spiritual setting. One of these guides says specifically,talking about historical “stories”:

    “There are many stories that could be told in this historical setting. Although these stories are interesting and may be valid interpretive focuses for many other institutions, they are only sidelights at this site…Good intentions or unintended errors cannot bring such a powerful witness [as accurate, truthful historical account]…If they [visitors] feel they can trust the accuracy of the historical information you share, they will have confidence in trusting and responding to the testimonies you offer.”

    When I first read that it was a really “WOW” moment for me about the Church’s recognition of the need to base spiritual experience on well researched, solid truth rather than stories, however well intentioned.

    Comment by Joe B. — June 28, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  7. Ardis and Seth, well done, both of you.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 28, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  8. I echo what Steve Fleming said in the sense that in my mind, the story does not have to be true to have personal, devotional meaning or to end up feeling like a symbolic representation (whether a real dream or something dreamed up by W.W. Phelps) of significance. Not everything that moves the spirit is literal. Art can move the spirit; poetry can move the spirit; fiction can move the spirit. These things can reflect Truth without being reflective of historical fact.

    I think Seth did a nice job drawing a line by saying that his feelings about the story were not dependent on the historicity of it. I think that is a valid point of view to take. I still agree with your assessments that we have to be careful not to believe everything we see or hear as literally true, but I think there is space for what Seth has done within those parameters.

    BTW, I really like how you helped bring this around to show that there are reasons to support the possibility that this story was historically true. You’ve brought it back to the point that none of us can be sure one way or the other.

    I have appreciated watching the quality of this conversation on both sides. Hats off to both Ardis and Seth!

    Comment by michelle — June 28, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  9. This whole exchange inspires me to both be a better blog commenter and to revisit again my testimony of Joseph Smith. I think there is room in the present church and also in the worlds to come for all different kinds of us, be they history geeks who need to have context (I gravitate here), or those who rely on pure spirit untainted by digging through the record. Thank you for teaching me something new and different.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — June 28, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  10. Michelle, I (politely, I hope!) disagree that the story does not have to be true to have devotional value. That’s like misquoting the Savior for devotional purposes and saying it doesn’t matter (like, “I never said it would be easy; I just said it would be worth it”).

    Hopefully we can build out devotional lives on true accounts, or on accounts that are presented in their truest form.

    I agree that art, music and fiction can move the spirit, and that’s fine. But when something of questionable historicity is presented as historical then it is quite different from presenting fiction as fiction or art as art.

    (BTW, art poses a similar problem: for millions of members, Book of Mormon figures will look in members’ minds like the Friberg paintings. Even though we tell ourselves they may not have looked like that, the images are forever linked to the familiar stories.)

    Comment by Paul — June 28, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

  11. I agree that art, music and fiction can move the spirit, and that’s fine. But when something of questionable historicity is presented as historical then it is quite different from presenting fiction as fiction or art as art.

    I don’t disagree at all in principle. But with this particular situation, I feel that need not be a concern. Seth has changed his narrative to leave space for the fact that it may not be historical, and yet still has shared that (and how) it had an impact on him. He’s no longer claiming anything absolute except what it meant to him, nor is he insisting that others accept it as historical. That to me is very different than claiming the Savior said something He didn’t (again, I agree that so doing is not good).

    BTW, I felt your disagreement was very polite, and I hope that mine here falls into that category as well. It’s ok to disagree on this…just sharing my perspective.

    And I tend to feel differently about art, so maybe that is some of it. At some point, I’d rather have some attempts to reflect what is in the mind’s eye of some people and to use as illustrations for discussion purposes than to have people afraid to try to represent scriptural pr historical stories because they don’t have all the information of what is actually accurate.

    Comment by michelle — June 28, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

  12. Seth, you’re a real gentleman. Even if Keepa isn’t your style, I hope you’ll visit once in a while — you might sometime find a story that is even worth your attention as a videographer. There have been two stories that I would love to see as full length movies, even; I think they are that dramatic and have that much power to inspire, not, perhaps, by focusing on the prophets or grand doctrine, but on how individual (usually unknown) Saints have done amazing things because their faith gave them power beyond their natural abilities.

    And thank you kevinf, and Paul, and Kevin, and Mommie Dearest, first for describing what has made this exchange so different from other bloggernacle conversations, and for supporting that kind of civility.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  13. Steve: I am not a philosopher. I haven’t thought through my ideas of “truth” and “Truth” to the degree you’re asking.

    What I do know is that very, very often, Latter-day Saints with the best of intentions make up stories or distort what may have begun as an honest event, and circulate them as faith promoting stories. Reference almost any mass-forward email in your box for examples (I’ve just deleted a long list from this comment). These things are often neither true nor True — they are fabrications and embellishments by people for whom the real story (or as close as it can be known) is not good enough. There is a vast market among Latter-day Saints who have itching ears for the latest glurge.

    It’s that stuff that I protest. I have identified spiritual glurge a number of times at Keepa and gone through the steps of showing people how it can be recognized and avoided (if they don’t mind their testimonies being built on the fried froth of spiritual glurge, they can avoid Keepa). I’ve also tried to show people how they can evaluate family legends to separate fact from fiction — the truth about my ancestry is always better than the embroidered legend; your mileage may vary. I’ve illustrated how readers can solve their own historical puzzles by following clues and making logical deductions about where to search next.

    All of those types of posts fit in with this one about “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream.” I thought it was important enough to look at with the skills I have, and I did so. I am not able to enter into a philosophical debate that goes beyond those limits.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  14. michelle: You have misunderstood the purpose of these posts as badly as Scott did. And you have put words in my mouth that are virtually the opposite of anything I have said.

    Art is art. Art can inspire. Poetry and music and literature and painting and sculpture and dance and other forms of art can inspire, even when they are entirely created, entirely as artificial, as much an artifice as art implies.

    But an art object that is either wholly artificial, or that has been changed or embellished so as to scarcely resemble the original, is dishonest if it pretends to be the original. An artwork that claims to be history, but which is not history, is dishonest.

    And don’t mistake this comment as implying that Seth’s video is either so wholly creative or so wholly distorted as to be dishonest. I have not and do not and will not say that. Nor have or do or will I say that about William W. Phelps’ writing.

    What I have said is that something that claims to be historically true should be subjected to normal historical tests. If it is not true — if it is only half true — if it can’t be verified at all as to its truthfulness (i.e., its historicity) — then it ought not to be presented as something it is not. Present it as art, not as history.

    (And yes, this doesn’t address the fact that history can be presented artistically, or that the practice of history is in large measure an art, or any of the other possible permutations. I address only your pretense that Phelps’ account need be no more historically accurate than a painting of Adam and Eve on the back of a dinosaur — both are Art, both are equally empowered to Inspire. That is absurd.

    Please don’t put words in my mouth ever again. I’ll probably bite while your hand is putting them there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

  15. On a lighter note, Mommie Dearest, yours was the 20,000th comment at Keepa (not counting 92,653 spam comments that never made it on blog). That ought to win you a prize or somethin’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

  16. Understandable, Ardis, good work. I wonder if all faith promoting rumors are created equal :).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 28, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

  17. Well, then. That puts a smile on my face. Prize enough.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — June 28, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

  18. This has been a fascinating exchange. I’m new here and I’ve enjoyed and profited from the thoughtful, civil exchange. I’m a theatre guy and writer–and definitely tend more to the dramatic/emotional. This is a helpful reminder for me to also be careful and thorough. I went back a few posts and really love this blog.

    Comment by Braden — June 28, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

  19. Whoa, Ardis. Hold off on biting my hand for just a moment.

    “I address only your pretense that Phelps’ account need be no more historically accurate than a painting of Adam and Eve on the back of a dinosaur — both are Art, both are equally empowered to Inspire.”

    I didn’t say or mean that at all! Like you, I have tried to be careful with my comments but obviously I didn’t do a very good job of explaining myself. Let me try to clarify.

    I don’t disagree with this:

    “What I have said is that something that claims to be historically true should be subjected to normal historical tests. If it is not true — if it is only half true — if it can’t be verified at all as to its truthfulness (i.e., its historicity) — then it ought not to be presented as something it is not. Present it as art, not as history.”

    My point was that I think Seth has taken a step back from “presenting it as history.” I think he has done what he could short of retracting the whole thing (which would be impossible since it’s already out there). He made edits to help people realize that it may not be historical, and to give them (your) tools for analyzing it. He reframed the story as having meaning for him whether or not it is historical, and I think that is legitimate, because that is what it meant *to him*.

    I get that you don’t feel he is correct in saying it doesn’t matter for anyone else whether it is historical. And I can see why you say that. I was taking a different approach, though, and just trying to look at it from his personal point of view, and it seems like in this case, it doesn’t matter *to him.*

    And maybe now I’m putting words in his mouth, but that was where I was coming from in my comment.

    Comment by michelle — June 29, 2011 @ 12:55 am

  20. BTW, I think it would be cool as anything for some of your content to be brought to life in video.

    Comment by michelle — June 29, 2011 @ 12:55 am

  21. Ardis,

    What stories would you like to see made into film? :) Send me the links. I’d like to read them!


    Comment by Seth Adam Smith — June 29, 2011 @ 1:20 am

  22. I enjoy sitting back and watching a conversation volley back and forth like a good tennis match. Too bad Seth got tired and had to go to bed!

    Fascinating discussion. I need to do a better job chronicling my personal experiences – both real and fictitious.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — June 29, 2011 @ 7:29 am

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