We have a tendency to speak of James 1:5 as if it were the only scripture Joseph Smith ever read. Mormons believe it is THE scripture that sent the young 14-year-old into the woods to pray. Joe Spencer in his review of "The First Vision" chapter of the new JS manual says that in his religious searches Joseph became affected by the public discourse but that his reading of James 1:5 brought him to the more important personal experience.
Joseph’s relation to the text, then, was unique: he had discovered a scripture that was generic enough (from an “epistle of straw,” as Luther put it, and his point was precisely that James was not partisan enough) that it genuinely excepted itself from the public dialogue. Joseph was leaving the public realm entirely, wagering something in a venture that would, as he would soon see, force the situation to change entirely. Joseph’s wager, interestingly enough, was a serious faithfulness or fidelity to the text, to the scripture. One could even say that he was about to stage the scripture, to enact it as if it were a script. This staging, it is clear from the last words of the text, already quoted above, changed the situation by introducing a truth: “I had found the testimony of James to be true….”
Now, I want to backpedal a bit by saying that Joe Spencer's intention in his post is to present a "serious look at the Pearl of Great Price account as quoted in the manual," without bringing in the other accounts of the First Vision. And I certainly don't wish to downplay the importance of James 1:5 in preparing Joseph Smith to ask of God. However, I feel that without a familarity of all of the extant accounts of Joseph Smith's vision, our understanding of this event will remain limited.
Joseph's retreat to the woods was more than a sudden reaction to just one scripture. In the 1832 account from the Joseph Smith Letterbook, Joseph presents himself as a serious scholar of the scriptures from the age of twelve to fifteen. He said that he applied himself to the scriptures and had an "intimate aquaintance" with the different denominations. Through his study he became convicted of his sins and realized that an apostasy had occurred, leaving no denomination built on the gospel of Jesus Christ. This understanding already leaves him with two motivations for an encounter with Deity:
1.) to rectify his standing before the Lord, and
2.) to determine which church, if any, was authorized by God.
Visionary accounts of Joseph Smith's time describe those who are convinced of their sins and go to the Lord in a search for forgiveness. These were published in local news sources. Joseph would have been well acquainted with these stories and their claims of encounters with Christ. Even without his transformational experience with James 1:5 he would have been aware of the possibility of searching for and experiencing the presence of God.
This same 1832 handwritten account shows Joseph's immersion in scriptural references and the religious rhetoric of the day. It seems that quite a few scriptures and ideas played a part in leading him to the Grove. However, James 1:5 is not specifically mentioned in this account:
"I felt to mourn for my own Sins and for the Sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God...and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said the (it is a) fool (that) saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity and when I considered all these things and that (that) being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry..."
The 1834-5 account written by Oliver Cowdery and published in the Messenger and Advocate presents Joseph's vision as a response to the religious excitement in Palmyra and a desire for forgiveness of his sins.
"And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, [Joseph] continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him."In an 1835 account written by Warren Cowdery, Joseph tells a Jewish minister of his vision. Here James 1:5 is only one of the scriptures and studyings which lead him to seek the Lord in prayer:
Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord...
An 1839 interview with William Smith, the Prophet's brother presents the idea that Joseph's first encounter with James 1:5 was during a sermon which was preached near Palmyra:
"Meantime the revival was nearing its close...The Reverend Mr. Lane of the Methodist church preached a sermon on the subject, "What church shall I join?" He quoted the golden text of James -- "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and up-braideth not, and it shall be given him." The text made a deep impression on the mind of the Prophet. He read it on returning home, and pondered it deeply. Here was a message from the word of God. A message to all men; but to him especially, since he had been made to feel that of all men he lacked wisdom, in respect of a matter to him vital."
In 1844 Joseph wrote an account for publication in a history of religious denominations in the U.S. Here he mentions the scripture in James, but also the important idea that God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33).
"Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church, it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed. Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James, "If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him."
The official account of the First Vision was written in 1839 in the handwriting of James Mulholland. It was first published by Joseph Smith in the March 15th 1842 edition of the Times and Seasons. It is here that the scripture in James is given prominence as the primary reason that Joseph retired to the Grove. This account and all of the later accounts (1840, 1842Wentworth, 1842Hyde, 1843, and 1850) relate that Joseph read this scripture in the Bible and was struck by it, motivating him to retreat to the woods to pray.
Through the study of the different accounts, we can see the development of the increasing importance of the passage in James. It seems that this one verse gradually became representative of Joseph's scriptural search. After reading the several accounts we begin to view Joseph as a boy with a spiritual understanding of many scriptural passages. We understand that several influences were at work to create a yearning in Joseph's heart. We see the influence of the pastors and the religious seekers of the day in nudging Joseph to seek forgiveness of his sins as well as a knowledge of which ecclesiastical path was "right." In fact, forgiveness of sins was probably more important to Joseph when he knelt before God, although today the story is used primarily to explain how and why the Church was restored.
There are many other aspects to Joseph's story which are augmented when consideration is made of all of the versions. I daresay that most church members will be satisfied with one official account. The majority would not, I suspect, appreciate having to deal with the various discrepancies which are apparent. I do not suggest that these be added to our new Joseph Smith manual, or even mentioned in depth in Sunday classes. But I view the availability of these additional accounts as beneficial to those who might enjoy a more nuanced understanding such a study affords.