We’re only a week into 2020, and the Church is already delivering on President Nelson’s admonition to study the Restoration in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the First Vision by announcing a brand-new podcast devoted to studying that pivotal event.

The six-episode series, called The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, features interviews with noted historians and scholars on the circumstances leading up to the First Vision and the account (or accounts!) itself.

“Have you ever looked at the event through the eyes of historians?” says narrator Spencer McBride, a historian of early America and documentary editor of The Joseph Smith Papers, in the first episode. “Now, I’m not talking about historical trivia consisting of a long list of dates or an assortment of fun facts. I’m talking about historians who have spent years immersed in Joseph Smith’s surviving documents. Scholars, men and women who have walked the fields of history, who can tell you what occurred thereon and why those events occurred the way that they did. You see, something special happens when you view the First Vision through the eyes of historians. You find a story that is simultaneously familiar and new.”

The episodes vary quite a bit in length, from as brief as under 9 minutes (“A Pillar of Light”) to nearly 45 minutes (“It Caused Me Serious Reflection”). It’s like those early days of Netflix originals, when you never knew quite how long that new episode of Fuller House would be!

Here’s a list of the episode names with some descriptions:

  • Episode 1: “An Unusual Excitement” (18 minutes): Social, cultural and economic changes created an environment in which Americans of Joseph Smith’s time were actively engaged in conversations about the state of religion.
  • Episode 2: “What Is to Be Done?” (23 minutes): In 1820, Joseph Smith was seeking answers to the pressing questions of his soul. He wanted to know which church was the church of Jesus Christ, but that was not his only question. He was first deeply concerned about his own soul and salvation.
  • Episode 3: “I Retired to the Woods” (15 minutes): This episode examines the sensory experience of the environment in which Joseph Smith prayed. What did the place that came to be called the Sacred Grove look like when Joseph Smith entered it in the early spring of 1820? What did it sound like? What did it smell like?
  • Episode 4: “A Pillar of Light” (9 minutes): The story of the First Vision is told using all nine surviving accounts of the event. Four accounts were recorded by Joseph or under his direction; the other five come from contemporaries who heard him speak about the vision.
  • Episode 5: “It Caused Me Serious Reflection” (44 minutes): This episode explores the immediate aftermath of the First Vision and Joseph Smith’s recounting of the event throughout his life.
  • Episode 6: “I Had Seen a Vision” (29 minutes): Why does the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision — about a teenage boy in western New York during the early 19th century — resonate with people around the world today?

For my money (in notes from the Kirtland Safety Society), Episode 3 sounds fascinating. What did the Sacred Grove smell like in 1820 is a question I have asked myself for years! Having actually visited the grove in 2012, when industrialization had surely already robbed it of its bucolic bliss, all I smelled were leaves, dirt, and dew. I have to imagine things smelled differently in 1820.

OK, but all sassiness aside, I’m glad to see an episode devoted to the numerous accounts of the First Vision, and that the Church has been more open about this in recent years. The next episode, “It Caused Me Serious Reflection,” goes a bit more in depth into why there are so many accounts, and why that should or should not matter to us. The participants describe the various First Vision accounts as similar to the four gospels: They cover the same general story but differ a bit on particulars and focus. They also discuss how accounts of the First Vision were incorporated into missionary pamphlets in the mid-1850s, but do not go into the genesis of the First Vision as the main tool of missionary engagement. (Moroni and the Book of Mormon were the primary drivers in the early days.) Still, that’s just a quibble. It’s great to have this.

The podcast is available on most of the classic outlets: Latter-day Saints Channel (formerly Mormon Channel), iTunesGoogle PlaySpotifyStitcher and the format for which the demise of Google Reader has not yet spelled a death knell, RSS. It’s also available on Google Podcasts, which, in keeping with Google’s inability to focus on one product to support a key function, is a separate app from Google Play. What, no love for TuneIn?!!!

Interestingly, if you wish to stream the audio directly from the Joseph Smith Papers website, you must log in with your LDS account. The URL seems to hint that this is a preview page, so perhaps it will be made completely public in the future.