Revelatory Ambiguity in Joan of Arc and Joseph Smith

May 29, 2000, Memorial Day!

Why this revised version of something I inserted into this site just a month ago?  To give me a chance to discuss my changed views on revelation as exemplified by Joan of Arc and Joseph Smith.  Views changed largely because of new insights gained from very recent reading.

Why should anyone care?  Because these two claimants to revelation, who both went forth and did marvelous things with their artificially shortened lives, offer a rare opportunity at gaining some understanding of the human/Divine relationship.


There are parallels between Joan of Arc and Joseph Smith’s first (and subsequent) encounters with the Divine.  The account descriptive of Joan’s first vision is this one, from her testimony in her trial but written in the third person (perhaps to mute the power of her delivery, see discussion on page 112 of Pernoud 1999):

 She was thirteen years old, she heard a voice coming from
 God to help her control herself.  And the first time she felt
 a great fear.  And that voice came about midday, in the summer,
 in her father’s garden. (As cited on p. 265 of Pernoud 1999)
Vita Sackville-West gives a fuller citation, in a different translation, and returns it to the first person as it was probably spoken.  Note the reference to initial fright and to light:
 I was in my thirteenth year when God sent a voice to guide me.  At first,
 I was very much frightened.  The voice came towards the hour of noon,
 in summer, in my father’s garden.  I had fasted the preceding day.  I
 heard the voice on my right hand, in the direction of the church.  I
 seldom hear it without [seeing] a light.  That light always appears on the
 side from which I hear the voice. (See West 1991, p. 51).
It appears her desire was to receive guidance to help her live a good life.  She was very pious, kidded about her dedication to religious thought and action by her friends as a youth, and was very caring about others. (See discussion of her youth based on interviews with those who knew her, pages 159-164 of Pernoud 1999.)

The initial fear, of course, left her.  At a later time she said about her visitations by St. Michael, to an audience she despised (this version of her story becomes a major topic in PART THREE):

 I have great joy when I see him. (See p. 116, Pernoud 1999)
She received instructions from several other Saints, mostly Margaret and Catharine, was told by these beings’ voices to be good, was apparently told something of her mission, and was gradually prepared for her mission through these revelations.  Her mission began four years after her first vision.

At another time she said of her angelic visitors, primarily Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, whose voices were the voice of God to her (but don’t forget to go to PART THREE for a more complete, and surprising discussion of this assertion):

 It was St. Michael whom I saw before my eyes, and he was not alone
 but well accompanied by angels of heaven . . . .   I saw them with the
 eyes of my body as well as I see you; and when they left me I wept and
 wished that they would have taken me with them. (See p. 113 of
 Pernoud 1999.)
So, did she see, or only hear?  There is some ambiguity.  Sometimes there is a light, sometimes not.  According to a source cited by Sackville-West, one who knew Joan well, the light was in a cloud, and she had great doubts as to what she had witnessed the first time, but that doubt was removed by the repetition of the vision and its message, or a similar one, day and night for some time (p. 51).

 The voices are at times difficult to interpret (see for example p. 113 of Pernoud 1999), suggesting this is not as straightforward a process as it is being described to an audience of enemies out to prove she was led by voices, yes, but not by the voice of God.

The 1832 account of Joseph Smith’s first vision is remarkably like Joan’s.  In this early recital, Joseph’s motive was sorrow for his own sins and for the sinfulness of a world, and Christianity, gone astray.  The message in the1832 recital was in direct answer to a prayer for "mercy:"

 I saw the Lord and he spoke unto me saying, 'Joseph, my son,
 thy sins are forgiven thee.  Go thy way, walk in my statutes and
 keep my commandments'". . . . (Backman 1971, p. 157 )
Of course it is well known from his 1838 church history recital, as well as another early recital, that just prior to this visitation he was very afraid and almost overcome by an evil influence, one that entirely dissipated at the coming of the Light and the Divine Messenger(s) therein.  Not unlike Joan, in one of his early accounts he reports that during and after his visitation:
 . . .  my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me. . . (as cited in Brodie 1982, p. 407)
Despite his having been favored with this great revelation, Joseph says "I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my soul," (Backman 1971, p. 157) which leads to his seeking a second revelatory experience.  This one involves an angel, Moroni.  In the second revelatory instance, he was emboldened in his expectations: "I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one" (See Smith 1982, JS 2:29).   Just like in Joan’s experience, this latter angelic visitation was repeated several times during that night, with some variations, and into the next day!

Joseph began to be taught by angelic beings at the age of 14 and began his mission about seven years later.  In the 1838 version of the story of the first vision, available in the History of Joseph Smith, a section in The Pearl of Great Price, (a book of scripture used in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) two personages come to visit, the Father and the Son, and give instructions, followed a short time later by angelic visits.

There are differences in the three extant accounts of his first vision, all three  by Joseph Smith himself, that make it difficult to piece together the actual first vision in a definitive way: was it one or two persons, were there many angels, and who was the one or who were the two personages?  The Mormon believer typically believes the official account and reconciles the others as special emphasis renditions for specific audiences.  As in the case of Joan and her audiences, she kept much of what she saw and heard a carefully guarded secret, revealing as little as possible in interviews, just as she had been instructed to do by her voices, until a time came when she was instead instructed to tell much about the appearances of the beings who brought her revelation (see PARTs TWO and THREE).  The same was no doubt generally true for Joseph Smith, he told what he had learned in different degrees to different audiences for different purposes.

In the case of Joan of Arc it is also difficult to reconcile her accounts of her angelic interviews, if one is looking for a factual accounting of what exactly happened, involving whom, and exactly  when.  It is unclear whether it was one or three or many the first time, or whether she is running her experiences all together in her retellings, or if she is even making up things to thwart her hostile  audience.  That audience, after all, is out to trap her and have her killed, and they succeed!  (Her strategy for dealing with her audience is addressed more fully in PART THREE.)

The same is thought to be true of Joseph Smith’s accounting to different audiences at different times.  To a visiting minister Joseph said he had been visited by two personages:

 A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was
 spread all around but nothing consumed.  Another personage soon
 appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.
 He testified also unto me that Jesus is the son of God.  I saw many
 angels in this vision.  (As cited in Brodie 1982, p. 409)
Note the many angels and pillar of flame, which in the first and later accounts become a light or a pillar of light.  Note, like in Joan’s telling of her vision, that there is some ambiguity concerning just who, and even how many, Divine Beings, or Divinely commissioned beings, are involved.  This account, prior to the portion cited, also mentions the palpable feeling of evil he felt, discouraging him, which went away as soon as the Divine messenger came nigh.

 To me, there is much that is parallel in these accounts of first encounters with the Divine.  I find that intriguing.  And I am fascinated as much by these common ambiguities as I am by the common features.

What can it possibly mean?  I used to be satisfied just being intrigued and fascinated, but in PART THREE, below, will put forth a scholar’s recently published theory that has merit, and may well apply to both Joan of Arc and Joseph Smith.


My model for revelation is largely one exemplified by the ecstatic mystics of the Catholic tradition.  For a time I saw Joseph Smith’s writings regarding his revelatory experience as a bit too matter of fact to be credible.  So imagine my surprise on steeping myself in the life of Joan of Arc, finding that she is a revelator of the Joseph Smith type: there is little of the emotional and ecstatic, lots of matter of fact discussions with angelic beings who tell her what to do and when to do it and who give her foresight, some detailed and accurate, others a bit more fuzzy.  Or so I thought at one time.

PART ONE’s quotes have already caused me pause regarding this opinion: both Joan and Joseph speak of great joy during their initial revelatory experience.  And there is, in the case of Joan, the remarkable fact that even faced with the threat of death she refused to tell details of her revelations to her 'judges,' demanding she instead be taken to the Pope for that type of discussion.  Hence the sketchy details about voices in lights, about her first vision in a strange cloud of light, have to be balanced with those very sensate descriptions of crowned angelic faces that were seen and touched and smelled.

There is more to this woman's experience then she was willing to tell her enemies.  She had a very short and illiterate career of just a couple of years of physically battling English and Burgundians whilst inspiring her countrymen and a seemingly spineless Dauphin into becoming a seemingly spineless King of France.  She spent half that career in enemy territory, in jail, and tight control of who had access to her plus her illiteracy made it impossible for her to confide in relatives or friends by person or letter.

Similarly, both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young weren't telling everything about their revelatory experiences, especially while vulnerable in their home in the East of the United States.  I recognize now that there is enough in the discourses of Brigham Young, spoken to an audience of believers, when safely in the believers’ own empire in the West, to assures me that the enigmatic and imprecise, the ineffable, inherent in mystical contact with the Divine, was part of both of these men’s revelatory experiences.

So, my formerly critical view of Joseph Smith’s descriptions of his revelations has been overthrown.  And the similarities between Joan and Joseph’s descriptions of their original encounters with the Divine, in substance as well as ambiguity, led me to make more comparisons of these two revelators, in order to gain some appreciation for their experiences in the contexts of their respective lives.

Joan and Joseph were peasants in the more pleasant use of that term, and uneducated.  Both were on paths of life that should have assured their eternal anonymity as part of the working class in an obscure out of the way village.  But both were called out of their lives by a first encounter with the Divine while in their youths (Joan was 13, Joseph 14).  For years they had additional encounters giving instructions and hints as to their ultimate missions, and in a few years they were told it was time (Joan was 17 when she started her mission, 19 when she was burned to death) and they did what they were told and achieved amazing successes, had a few disappointments, and ended up in the hands of their enemies and were martyred.

From what I had already read, I could see that what I read in West's 1881 biography (pp. 335-336) was essentially true: Joan is different from the ecstatic mystics of her own religious tradition in that she was not ecstatic, not mystical, but just her practical self at all times.  This was also true, as far as I could see, of Joseph Smith.  But, I now also see that this no-nonsense-revelator is an image they purposefully projected, a side of their respective selves they projected, to achieve their respective aims of having men (mostly, in Joan’s case, although it was important to her to have women on her side too) and women radically change their lives and follow them into a new life (of war and liberation in one case, of creating a new society in the other).  Perhaps a more ambiguous prophetic style would have served both causes ill, failing to inspire the type of devotion that willingly laid lives on the line of a higher cause.

West (1991) catalogs all of Joan's known prophecies and miracles, some quite remarkable and others not (pp. 359-363).  Her parting shot is: "The 'miracles,' properly speaking, thus do not appear to amount to very much.  The real miracle was the whole career, not a few isolated incidents."  In other words, close inspection of trees does not automatically give one an appreciation of a forest.  In my own meanderings through the trees of Joseph Smith's prophecies and miracles, even in my true-believer days, I was frankly disappointed in each one taken by itself, but could never deny the remarkableness of the life and career of which these were but parts.

At 13, Joan was called to crown France's reluctant and unworthy King, a symbolically important task, and to rout the seemingly unstoppable English-Burgundian alliance, a very difficult and practical task.  Listening closely to her voices' instructions, she managed to walk off the farm as a seventeen year old and do both in two years.  It took 25 more years to fully throw out the English, but the turning point was this one single, solitary (literally) life.

Similar things have been said about the single life that called what is now a worldwide, religious organization into existence.  I think the comparison of these two lives has given me respect for the life that was Joan {Jehanne in her language}, who became in this last century Saint Joan.  It has also called me back considerably from my critical view of Joseph Smith as a revelator.

So, the more I read, the more I see that these two prophetic lives have much in common, much that perhaps can explain the enigma of revelatory ambiguity discussed in PART ONE.  PART THREE explores further why it may be that these two prophetically gifted persons chose to speak and write of their experiences in a different way from what is typical of the ecstatic mystical prophets of the Middle Ages.


Karen Sullivan (1996) reread the trial transcripts and all the historical material referring to Joan’s voices and comes to a startling conclusion: no saints were ever named prior to the trial!  Sources outside the trial referring to these saints by name are all either anti-Joan and cite the trial, or they come at least 14 years after the trial when the notion of specific saints being the source of Joan’s voices has become commonplace mythology.  Joan, apparently, never mentioned these saints by name to her closest relations, friends, or companions in arms who testified she heard the voice of God.

As Sullivan (1996, pp. 96-99) carefully documents, for the first few days of the trial there was a steadfast refusal on Joan’s part to get more specific about the nature of her revelatory source(s) and she simply said she received revelation: the voice and counsel of God.  But the clerics would not let the subject go, and did not accept her refusal..  Examples from the first two days are, citing Sullivan:

“the clerics ask Joan repeatedly for further identification of her voice.  On the second day of the trial, though the transcripts do not convey the interrogator?s question, they relate that ‘Joan added that her interrogator would not obtain from her, at this time, under what form this voice appeared to her.’ On the third day of the trial, the transcripts report that Joan is ‘interrogated if the voice that she says to appear to her is an angel or if it comes from God immediately or if it is the voice of a saint.’  Joan responds, ‘The voice comes on the part of God, and I believe that I do not tell you perfectly all that I know, and I have greater fear of failing these voices by saying something that displeases them than I have in responding to you. And, as for this question, I ask for a delay.’  For two days, therefore, the clerics press Joan for further specification of her voice, whether for the form under which the voice appeared to her or for the identity of the voice as an angel, a saint, or God Himself.  For two days, Joan refuses to satisfy these demands for a greater specification, deferring her response to a later date.

 “It is only on the fourth day of the trial that Joan performs the identification of her voice which the clerics have repeatedly sought. On this day, the transcripts record: ‘interrogated if it was the voice of an angel that spoke to her, or if it was the voice of a saint or of God without intermediary, she responded that it was the voice of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, and their faces are crowned with beautiful crowns, very opulent and very precious.’ The transcripts continue,

  ‘Interrogated which appeared to her first, she responded, ‘I did not recognize them so quickly, and I knew well once, but have forgotten, and if I had permission I would say willingly, and it is in the register at Poitiers.’ Item she also said that she had comfort from St. Michael..  Interrogated which of the aforesaid apparitions came to her first, she responded that St. Michael came first. Interrogated if much time elapsed after she first had the voice of St. Michael, she responded, ‘I do not name to you the voice of St. Michael, but I speak of a great comfort.’ Interrogated which was the first voice coming to her, when she was thirteen years old or around that age, she responded that it was St. Michael whom she saw before her eyes, and he was not alone.’” (Sullivan, 1996, p. 97)

Sullivan cites more material to show that from this point forward the identification of her voices becomes more concrete, she does not repeat the obvious contradictions in the statement above,  and from this point on the identity of the characters speaking to her is repeatedly asserted and added to with fanciful detail at times.  I was of the opinion that she embellished her stories as part of an overt attempt to make up incredible stories and thus symbolically spit in the faces of her judges who obviously had no personal experience with revelation and could not tell if it was all made up or not.  But Sullivan has a different, and perhaps more plausible, interpretation:

“It is as if once Joan has been obliged to identify her voices as St. Catherine, St. Margaret and St. Michael, the voices begin to reveal themselves to her to be St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Michael. It is as if once Joan had been compelled to identify her voices with these three saints, she began to perceive them to be the individuals with whom she had identified them..

“If, as I have attempted to show here, Joan not only begins to name her voices as the Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael in the course of her interrogations but begins to experience her voices as these saints, the consequences of this development are apparent. While the clerics and the subsequent readers of these transcripts have presupposed that truth exists prior to the representation of this truth, these trial transcripts demonstrate the contrary possibility. They show the potential of an interrogation to create the very truth that it is purporting to represent. This power of interrogation to end not in the revelation of the suspect?s understanding but in the transformation of the suspect?s understanding so that it reflects that which the interrogators seek to reveal, can help explain the prevalence of false confessions today even in societies where the traditional causes of such confessions, such as torture, lengthy incommunicado detentions, and the deprivation of legal counsel, have been eradicated.” (Sullivan, 1996, p.104)

In other words, Joan did not know who these voices were and had assumed the messages were to be taken simply as being God counseling her.  Accepting the repeated suggestion that they could be angels, saints, or (less likely, perhaps?) God, she began to see them as saints living in paradise, and from that time forth, as her voices continued, began to experience them as such and seek out details allowing her to embellish on their appearance and characteristics.  Sullivan concludes that: “It is this capacity of interrogation to introduce a possibility, in the form of a question and to transform this possibility into a probability and then into a certainty, to lead a respondent to believe that her voices are those of three saints, which Joan?s case . . . demonstrates.” (1996, p. 105)

But does this mean there were no voices?  Certainly not!  But it could mean that, as Sullivan also discusses, Joan had not analyzed her interior experiences in such precise, scholastic terms prior to her trial:

“Because lay culture seems to have lacked both an interest in and, hence, the tools for the study of Joan?s inner experience of her voices, the conflict between the clerics and Joan during her interrogations about the depiction of her voices can be read as a conflict between two modes of thought—one that presupposes that reality is precise and that the beholder of reality must therefore perceive and be able to express that precision and one that does not make such an assumption.  The one mode of thought may be identified with a clerical culture, the other with a popular culture.  When the clerics demand, in their questions, that Joan convey the identities of her voices, they demand, I shall argue, that Joan depict her experience of the voices with a degree of detail that she does not appear to have perceived and that she thus translate her vague, vernacular perception of her voices into a precise, learned discourse.  When Joan resists this demand in her responses, deferring her answer to their questions, complaining that she does not know this answer, that she forgot it, that she does not have permission to give it, that she has given it before, she resists reconfiguring her inner experience of the voices so that it makes sense within a scholastic episteme.” Sullivan, 1996, p. 88)
If Sullivan is correct, then it was only with scholastic prodding that Joan began to question what heretofore she had just accepted as simply being the voice and counsel of God.  She then sought to identify her source(s) of revelation more precisely, and as she did so her voices adapted themselves,  becoming in her continuing experience of revelatory voices the characters she now expected.

Sullivan (p. 108) admits that some may suggest as an alternative explanation that until she had permission from her voices to identify them, she kept her mouth shut on this topic even to her more intimate acquaintances.  Perhaps some may feel this is so because the trial transcript at one point says:

 “As for the revelations that had been made to her on the part of God, she had never revealed them to anyone, if it was not to Charles alone, whom she says to be her king, and that she would not reveal them even if they had to cut off her head, for she held from her visions or her secret counsel that she should reveal them to no one.”
Sullivan observes regarding this statement that:
“While it is obviously impossible to argue how Joan ‘really’ perceived her voices at any moment, it should be observed that here it is not ‘her visions or her secret counsel,’ but, rather, the ‘revelations which had been made to her on the part of God’ which she insists that she has kept secret and must continue to keep secret. It is not about her voices who speak to her, but, rather about the information which has been made known to her that she has been and must be silent.”
And, of course, in her posthumous trial to undo the verdict of this trial many came forward and claimed to have heard her speak of her voices.  Only one mentions the saints as her source of revelation, all others say simply, as Joan did up to the first few days of her trial, that she heard the voice of, and received the counsel of, God.  As already noted, that one exception was a recollection 14 years after Joan’s death, after considerable myth-making had already taken place.

Now, what if anything does this have to do with Joseph Smith and his first vision?  It seems plausible that there was a revelation with light and voices and a personage or personages as related.  It also seems plausible that the identification of the voices and the precise nature and purpose of the message was not totally clear to the recipient.  It is plausible that it became better understood as the recipient reflected on and attempted to interpret the experience.  This would nicely fit the sequence of facts and the changes made in conveying the experience to three different audiences, for three different purposes, at three different times.  Perhaps Sullivan is correct, it took a different mind-set to be able to reinterpret the ineffable experience she had been so used to, and the scholar’s questions had suggested a convenient framework into which to set these experiences and make them more comprehensible, to themselves, but also to Joan!  This idea of understanding a revelatory experience better over time, or coming to understanding it has fuller implications over time, has echoes in the Mormon revelatory experience as well, to which we will now turn.

In the official 1838 recital of his First Vision, Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son as "two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description" (See Smith 1982, JS 2:17).  One of these Personages called Joseph by name and said "This is My Beloved Son.  Hear Him!"  Joseph then enters into a factual exchange concerning the state of Christendom (See Smith 1982, JS 2:18-20).

By contrast, in a recital given six years earlier Joseph declared he already knew the state of Christendom but was seeking forgiveness for his sins: "I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee."  (Backman 1971 p. 157)  That the message was so different between these two recitals and that the earlier one mentions only one personage is suggestive of a visionary experience that may have contained images and symbols that were amenable to interpretation and reinterpretation over time.

There is no reason to doubt that there actually was a profound spiritual experience that made Joseph Smith feel accepted and forgiven, that confirmed the conclusions that his own Biblical studies had brought him to, and that confirmed his expectations concerning the nature of God.  The differing interpretations of later years suggest, however, an experience of the numinous not nearly as structured, clearly interpretable and business-like as the official 1838 account makes it seem..

Joseph Smith’s expectations may have been reflected in his interpretations of his experience, and over times those expectations were influenced, just as Joan’s were influenced, by new knowledge and thought.  Perhaps Joseph’s initial interpretation of his experience was constrained by his literal reading of the Bible from his mindset at that early time:  Joseph Smith's boast that his new religion could be distinguished by its literal acceptance of the Bible is indicative of his earlier mindset:

  First - "Do you believe in the Bible?"  If we do, we are the only people under heaven that does, for there are none of the religious sects of the day that do.
  Second - "Wherein do you differ from other sects?"  In that we believe the Bible, and all other sects profess to believe their interpretations of the Bible, and their creeds. (See Smith 1930, HC 3:28)
Joseph Smith's initial interpretation of his First Vision was that he saw God the Father as a being of spirit only.  This would be consistent with his social conditioning and reading of the Bible up to that time, and thus may have been a direct reflection of his expectations and thus interpretations.  Joseph saw God the Father, the God of Love, as the non-embodied spirit being he expected.  Later, as revelation and insight continued and he learned that his earlier interpretation of this real experience had to be in error, the final version of two personages in glorified bodies was read back into that experience, and the vision itself was taken out of the private-instructional domain and reinterpreted for larger, public use as Divine instruction for a new religion.  The same principle probably also explains the changes made by Joseph Smith in some of his specific revelations, originally recorded in the Book of Commandments, and subsequently revised and expanded for the first editions of the Doctrine and Covenants.  The latter book, expanded as needed, replaced the earlier one as the record of the continuing revelations guiding the physical growth and organizational expansion of the new religion.

I see this as quite a plausible parallel to Joan of Arc’s experience.  As she learned more and expected differently, her revelations kept pace.  In Joan’s case there may have been great comfort in her realizing, as she sat ever at risk in her cell guarded by men who hated her, that she was being watched over by the very same and very real saints that had been symbolically so meaningful to her in her life.  As Joseph Smith similarly learned more, his revelations kept pace with and confirmed his growing awareness of what he felt to be Divinely inspired religious truth, a truth that can never be complete and static, but is always being added to as long as the revelatory windows of heaven remained open.

Was there a subjective component to this revelatory experience?  It is a standard principle in Mormonism that exertion and inspiration are necessary to inducing revelation.  This is discussed in an instance where a leader in the new religious movement failed in his attempt to bring about revealed writ as he saw Joseph Smith do daily.  A revelation which purports to be Jesus Christ's explanation of that person's inability to translate the Book of Mormon characters states:

  ... you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.  But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right.  But if it is not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.  (D&C 10:7-9, Smith 1982)
The process of revelation itself, by which the above statement on translation was produced by Joseph Smith, also entailed the subjective feelings and thought processes of the person receiving the revelation:
The spirit of revelation is in connection with these blessings.  A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, it will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus. (See Smith 1961, HC 3:381)
The "these blessings" which are connected with the spirit of revelation are the blessing of having the visions of heaven opened to one's view.  The scale of revelation apparently ranges from flashes of insight, through visions, to theophanous visitations.  Joseph Smith reports and records all of these various forms of receiving divine knowledge: his first vision was a theophany; his preparation for translating the Book of Mormon, and the delivery of the golden plates, were accomplished through angelic visitations; he saw the heavenly abodes of God and pre-Earth-life and post-Earth-life humanity in vision; and he received the delicate impressions of the Holy Ghost on his mind and in his bosom as he struggled with problems and with meanings of symbols of ancient and unknown languages.

The latter mechanism for determining the will and word of God was difficult, and not foolproof.  Feeling, thought, and persistence in asking for enlightenment are demanding requirements.  Emotional state, sensitivity of feelings, moral development, and intellectual capacity are intertwined with the ability to discern the full meaning of the words of the Spirit, which must be felt rather than heard, according to Mormon sources.

Indeed, the Comprehensive History of the Church (Smith 1961, edited by Brigham H. Roberts), suggests that at one point a revelation of the prophet Joseph Smith apparently failed.  Greatly distressed, the prophet sought the Lord for an explanation and received the following:  "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil." (Roberts 1930)  This alleged incident took place early in Joseph Smith's career, and if it reflects the actual words of the prophet, his humility is well attested.  Of greater import, however, is the reinforcement of the role of the subjective in the process of revelation.  In this context, the following words of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith's successor as prophet to the Mormon people, are of interest:

 ... I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness.  The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, as far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections.  He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capabilities, .... (See Young, 18xx, JD 2:314, Brigham Young)
In the same discourse, Brigham also observed that
He [God] would be glad to send angels to communicate further to this people, but there is no room to receive it, . . . There is a further reason--we are not capacitated to throw off in one day all our traditions, and our prepossessed feelings and notions, but have to do it little by little.  It is a gradual process, advancing from one step to another; and as we lay off our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, . . . (JD 2:315, Brigham Young)
At another time Brigham Young observed:
Language to convey all the truth does not exist.  Even in the Bible, and all books that have been revealed from heaven unto man, the language fails to convey all the truth as it is. (JD 1:117, Brigham Young)
These words say that a prophet's state of mind influences the completeness of the revelations that can be received, and that even the greatest prophet cannot convey the ineffable in language that can be understood by others without doing damage to the wholeness of the truth.

An early Apostle of Mormondom, George Q. Cannon, said similar things in a very straightforward and clear way:

The revelation we may get, imperfect at times because of our fallen condition and because of our failure to comprehend the nature of it, comes from God ... .  Man is but the medium, but the instrument, is but the conduit through which it flows ... .  It may come dim; it may come indistinct, it may come sometime with a degree of vagueness which we do not like.  Why?  Because of our imperfection; because we are not prepared to receive it as it comes in its purity; in its fullness from God.  He is not to blame for this.  It is our duty though to contend for more faith, for greater power, for clearer revelations, for better understanding concerning the great truths as he communicates them to us. (JD 21:76, George Q. Cannon.)
Similarly, while speaking of the transcendent nature of the marriage relation, Brigham Young described the necessity of understanding the whole truth regarding it by revelation:
But the whole subject of the marriage relation is not in my reach, nor in any other man's reach on this earth. ... When the vision of the mind is opened, you can see a great portion of it, but you see it comparatively as a speaker sees the faces of a congregation. To look at, to talk to, each individual separately, and thinking to become fully acquainted with them, only to spend five minutes with each would consume too much time, it could not easily be done.  So it is with the visions of eternity; we can see and understand, but it is difficult to tell. (JD 2:90, Brigham Young)
If there is any truth to these insights from Mormon prophets, and no doubt there is great wisdom and true experience behind these observations, one can more readily understand Joan of Arc being perplexed at being asked to take what she had experienced, her encounters with the ineffable Divine, and make very concrete statements about them as if they were just casual conversations with friends.  “So it is with the visions of eternity; we can see and understand, but it is difficult to tell.”

It was obvious to Joan what the meaning of her visions and counsels were, but it was, likely, very difficult to tell.  Until, that is, scholars gave her a key to use, and what flowed out from that moment forward was interesting, but it was a side show, and although it satisfied the credulity of scholars looking for concrete facts they could grasp intellectually and catalogue into convenient intellectual bins defining their limited, literal, non-intuitive understanding, it was no longer a credible description of what remained, despite the naming of the sources, ineffable encounters with the Divine.


Backman 1971: Backman, Milton V. Jr.  Joseph Smith's First Vision, The First Vision in Its Historical Context. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah. (1971)

Brodie 1982:  Brodie, Fawn M.  No Man Knows My History, The Life of Joseph Smith The Mormon Prophet. Second Edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (1982).

Pernoud 1999: Pernoud, Regine, Marie-Veronique Clin and Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams.  Joan of Arc, Her Story.  St. Martins Griffin, New York, New York (1999).

Roberts 1930:  Roberts, Brigham H., A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century One, In 6 Volumes. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1930), vol. 1, p. 163.

Smith 1982:  The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (cited as D&C chapter:verse) published in one binding with The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and The Pearl of Great Price, which contains several books including a history of Joseph Smith (cited as JS chapter:verse), primary author, Joseph Smith Jr., (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City), 1982.

Smith 1961:  Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church, In seven volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, Second Edition, Revised (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1960 and 1961). To be cited as "HC vol.:page."  HC 3:381.

Sullivan 1996:  “‘I Do Not Name To You The Voice of St. Michael’: The Identification of Joan of Arc’s Voices,” Karen Sullivan, pp. 85-111 In: Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood (Eds.), Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London (1996).

West 1991:  Sackville-West, Vita, Saint Joan of Arc, Image/Doubleday, New York, (1991 print of earlier edition).

Young 18xx:  Young, Brigham and John Taylor, their counselors, and others, "Journal of Discourses," In 26 volumes, (F. D. Richards and Latter-day Saints Book Depot, Liverpool, England, 1854-1886 [a serial]), To be cited as "JD vol.:page, author."  JD 2:314, Brigham Young.