The Original Context of the First Vision Narrative: 1820s or 1830s
Many years ago on a family visit to the Sacred Grove, I encountered, at the edge of the grove, two personages—handing out literature. A look at their pamphlets showed that these people belonged to the Raelian religion and believed Joseph Smith had been visited by extraterrestrials. Fortunately for us all, this has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of my talk. Let us never speak of it again.
One of the important things I’ve learned in preparing this talk is that the First Vision doesn’t lend itself very naturally to humor. While its obvious that God has a sense of humor, when you look at, say, the platypus, or the baboon, when it comes to the first vision, He’s all business.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision is the foundational event of the Restoration, and the model for our personal experiences of revelation. Yet no explicit accounts of the event were recorded until some dozen years later, in 1832. For this reason, critics of LDS foundations, such Grant Palmer and Dan Vogel, have argued that Joseph Smith crafted the First Vision narrative in the 1830s, rather than experiencing it at the dawn of the 1820s. [By the way, I tend to pick on Dan Vogel a bit in my presentations. Since he’s written so prominently and laid out the critical case well, he often makes a good foil for my own findings. I hope that rather than feel insulted by my engaging him here, he’ll feel complimented.]
If Latter-day Saint belief about the First Vision is correct, Joseph’s narrative reports a memory of his early experience. If, on the other hand, Vogel, Palmer, and other skeptical interpreters were to be correct, Joseph’s narrative was created to meet his needs as a church leader in the 1830s, bolstering his authority as prophet.
These two radically different understandings of the First Vision lead us to two radically different predictions about how well Joseph’s First Vision accounts will align with the events of the early 1820s. On the first, the believing, view, Joseph’s narrative should match the 1820s context in some detail. On the second, skeptical, view, his narrative should match the claimed 1820s context poorly or only superficially.
Because these two views lead to such different predictions, we can determine which view is correct by testing those predictions. And this is what we’ll do today.
Some work has already been done in this area, mostly by scholars arguing over whether the First Vision fits the context of religious revivals in upstate New York. Joseph Smith lived in a region that had been swept by the fire of so many revivals that historians call it the “Burned Over District.” And Joseph himself placed his vision in the context of the revivals. So, the revivals provide an obvious context to explore in assessing the First Vision story.
So, the primary question scholars have debated is: Does Joseph Smith’s narrative fit the history of revivals in and around Palmyra in the 1820s? In the late ‘60s Wesley Walters fired a shot heard round the Mormon history world by arguing that there was no 1820 revival. Forty-five years of battle ensued, with each side claiming to have taken the same ground. If Joseph Smith’s revival swept area can rightly be called “the Burned Over District,” the long debated issue of how the First Vision relates to the revivals might rightly be called “the Burned Over Problem.”
Joseph Smith’s description of an 1820 revival is, as I will touch on briefly, supported by contemporaneous evidence. But attempts to settle whether the First Vision is authentic to the 1820s or a manufacture of the 1830s on these grounds alone have proved remarkably unproductive. So much ink has been spilled, and so many groves felled to books and articles that have failed to offer much evidence one way or the other on whether the First Vision was an 1820s experience or an 1830s invention.
I would suggest that is because the debate has begun at the wrong place.
Joseph Smith’s earliest experience of religion did not come from camp meetings of the Burned Over District. The crucible in which his early religious sentiments were forged was the family hearth. If Joseph Smith created his First Vision for ecclesiastical purposes in the 1830s, it ought to reflect closely the concerns of the church at the period. But if it came out of the early 1820s, it ought to closely reflect the family culture and other conditions that dominated his youthful existence. So, examining the First Vision report’s degree of “fit” with the Smith family of around 1820 provides a reasonable test of its time of origin. It’s almost inevitable that Joseph the prophet would reinterpret the earliest religious experience of Joseph the boy—overlaying 1830s interpretations on the 1820s event. But it seems unlikely, and false by definition, that a prophet inventing a story to meet ecclesiastical needs of the 1830s would build the story around the concerns and worldview of the boy he had once been.
To test Joseph Smith’s First Vision narrative against the context of time in which he placed it, I’ll examine point by point elements of the First Vision he reported and compare them to what we know of his life, family, and surroundings in the early 1820s.
We’ll look first, briefly, at the Burned Over Problem—does Joseph’s report fit the religious context of his community around 1820? Specifically, were there revival camp meetings fitting the description Joseph gave? Next we’ll explore the First Vision’s little known and even neglected contexts. Joseph’s accounts invite comparison, for instance, to the economic context of the early 1820s [a context which, to my knowledge, has not previously been explored]. I’ll also compare his accounts to the context of Joseph’s early development as a prophet and seer. Perhaps most significantly, I’ll compare the details of his First Vision accounts to the context of life in the Smith family at this time. And, finally, I’ll compare his vision narrative to what we know of his personal activities as a teenager.
Several religious events in Joseph Smith’s community could qualify as the religious “excitement” he recalled. The 1816-1817 Palmyra revival ended just months before Joseph turned 12—the age at which he reported first becoming deeply concerned with his salvation. And there was a camp meeting in 1818.
Critics have asserted that there was, however, no 1820 revival, since no local revivals or camp meetings are reported in the Palmyra press at that time. While it’s technically true that the Palmyra press didn’t report on the camp meeting, it mentioned the camp meeting in reporting that one of the camp meeting attendees had died from alcohol intoxication. While some at the meeting were overwhelmed with the Spirit, others, it seems, were overwhelmed by the spirits.
Regardless of whether this unfortunate camp meeting was the one that so confused Joseph Smith, the article about it demonstrates that camp meetings in themselves were too common to be considered news. Camp meetings were a frequent occurrence in Joseph Smith’s environment even when they were not reported. The “religious excitement” that Joseph Smith describes in his vision accounts was always in the air.
Elements of Joseph Smith’s First Vision Narrative that Fit the Claimed Context of the Smith Home in the Early 1820s
|Community Religious Context:|
|Religious excitement, particularly among the Methodists
“Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists….”
[The second year after the Smith’s removal to Manchester has been dated at 1819-1821.]
|Young Joseph felt doomed to a life of back breaking work and financial insecurity
Referred to himself as one “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor”
|In marveling that he had been persecuted while yet an obscure boy, Joseph Smith referred to his adolescent self as one “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.”
So, a useful question we can ask is, “Does this accurately portray how the young Joseph Smith would have felt about his material circumstances?”
Let’s look at those circumstances.
Joseph Smith’s early life financial conditions were shaped by three disasters. First, the swindle by his father’s business partner that swallowed his father’s inheritance.
Second, the 1816 eruption of Mount Tambora, which plunged the world into a protracted winter. The following year, known as the Year Without a Summer, global disaster became family disaster. The Smiths’ crops failed.
The Smiths were hardly alone in their misery and destitution that year. The Year Without a Summer resulted in what has been called “the last great subsistence crises in the western world.” Rampant crop failures raised the specter, and for some the reality, of starvation.
Crop failure forced the Smiths to leave Vermont for Palmyra. At the edge of Palmyra, the Smiths occupied a good-sized tract of land, largely comprised of a hundred acre wood. [ImageàNo, not that hundred acre wood!] Here they started over, beginning the arduous process of turning what one family member called a forest of the densest timber he had ever seen into farmland. “Between 1819 and 1825,” according to the research of Don Enders, “they succeeded in cutting timber from sixty of the hundred acres. They developed this cleared land into fields, meadows, a garden, an orchard, a permanent homesite, and building lots.” Enders estimates that by the time of the First Vision the Smiths would have already cleared 5 to 10 acres of timber, while an account by Lucy Mack Smith would place that number at 30. [Incidentally, most of us who live in houses are on quarter-acre lots. So a single acre is equal to four typical yards. And these were acres of forest, which needed not only to be chopped down but also uprooted.]
The third disaster struck as a kind of “welcome to Palmyra” gift for the Smith family. As they began to settle into their new environs and clear land, a sweeping collapse of banks and land values led to the nation’s first great depression—the so called “Panic of 1819.” Browsing through page after page of farm foreclosure notices in the Palmyra newspapers from 1819 through 1821 shows how this depression hit people like the Smiths.
In the wake of “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world” and in the midst of all the farm foreclosures of the country’s first great depression, there was perhaps never a time in American history, before or since, when the insecurity of farm life was more evident. During this time the young Joseph Smith, with his father and brothers, hewed his way through acres of forest in order to farm them, and watched his father continue to labor without ever seeming to get ahead.
Would the boy have felt “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor”? How could he have felt otherwise? Joseph’s account accurately reflects the conditions of his life as a mid-teenaged boy, and the feelings that would have gone with them.
|I had actually seen a vision.||We are told in various accounts that early in life Joseph Smith had the same Oliver Cowdery was later declared to possess—that of working with the “rod of nature,” or “rod of Aaron.” We also know that sometime between then and his first seeing the plates in September 1823, Joseph acquired both a seer stone and the gift to use it. He became a seer.
But when, and how, did this occur?
Historians inquiring into Joseph Smith’s early life generally begin with him already having taken on the role of seer and then try to describe what he did in that role. The questions of when and how he acquired the gift in the first place are either not thought to be answerable.or just not considered.
So let’s take up the neglected question, first, of when Joseph became a seer.
In a later likely based on notes taken at the time, non-Mormon physician William Purple reported 1826 testimony by Joseph dating his use of seer stones to three years earlier—or 1823. In this account Joseph also explains how he acquired his first seer stone. He saw it in vision in another person’s seer stone some brief but unspecified period of “years” before. On this account, Joseph had “the gift of seeing,” and had a seer stone chosen for him, by 1821.
In Joseph’s vision of his seer stone he reportedly was “was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzeled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the midday sun.”
Remarkably, his reported vision of a his seer stone not only occurred near the time of the First Vision, it provided a kind of visual echo of that vision. The light from the stone, like the light he saw in the First Vision, grew brighter and brighter until it matched the noonday sun.
But our second question still remains: how did Joseph Smith become a seer? An obvious answer may be found in the name we use for Joseph’s experience of the Father and the Son—“the First Vision.” Given the apparent naivety with which Joseph entered the Grove, and given that we lack reports of visionary sight on his part before that vision, it appears that it truly was his first vision.
When, and how, did Joseph become a seer? Through his First Vision.
Notably, in narrating the event Joseph says “when the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages.” The light enabled him to see God. Like Moses, in Moses 1, Joseph could not bear God’s presence until he was transfigured by God’s glory. So perhaps Joseph’s gift as a seer can be traced to this transfiguration. Having his body, and specifically his eyes, touched and thereby transfigured by God’s glory gave him the gift of seeing.
Tantalizingly, one of the First Vision’s little known accounts carries this theme further. Speaking in the early 1880s, John Alger, whose sister then lived in the Smith home and who became linked to the Prophet through marriage, recalled hearing the Prophet recount the First Vision at the home of Joseph Smith, Sr. This intimate family context is one in which we might expect Joseph to share details of his sacred experience that he would not give out to the public.
Accordingly, Joseph is reported to have told those present that in the grove he first heard God’s voice; he did not fully perceive the heavenly visitors until God touched his eyes with His finger.
This theme of touching one’s eyes in order that they might should be a familiar one. In the Book of Abraham we read that the Lord laid his hand on Abraham’s eyes, and then Abraham was able to see all of His creations. In the New Testament, Jesus twice enabled the blind to see by touching their eyes. And Enoch becomes a seer by touching or anointing his own eyes, in proxy for the Lord Himself, when the Lord commands him it.
In short, the First Vision, as given to us in various accounts, provides the best explanation for what historians have overwhelmingly not even hoped to explain—how Joseph Smith first took on the power and role of seer.
[The exception—Mark Ashurst-McGee]
[“shameless plug” image]
|Family Work Context:|
|Early in the spring- Cutting down trees—“my father had a clearing”; “struck my ax…”
|So, Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision fit the economic and community religious contexts of the 1820s. But what of the crucial family context in which he was raised? It seems vastly improbable that an 1830s churchman making up a story to deal with a crisis of authority in his flock would take pains to make the story reflect his childhood family life down to fine detail. So, this is a key test for whether the First Vision fits in his childhood years or in his adult, church leader years.
The first aspect of Joseph’s family life we’ll explore is the family’s work life.
In recounting the First Vision to a newspaperman in 1843, Joseph said this about the woodland where he went to pray:
I immediately went out in the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘O Lord, what church shall I join?’
In another account, given five years earlier, Joseph had famously placed his vision “early in the spring.”
How do these accounts correlate with one another and with the Smith family’s labors on their land?
In upstate New York, winter and the first few weeks of spring are a time to clear land in preparation for the planting season that, depending on the weather, begins around mid- or late April.
As Don Enders has written, “Farm work was seasonal, and felling trees—generally for the purpose of clearing land—was undertaken from late fall through early spring, concluding in time to plow, plant, and tend crops. The cutting of trees usually stopped by the end of April.”
So, what work would we expect to find the Smiths engaged at in the early spring, particularly when they first acquired their heavily wooded land? The very work Joseph reports he was doing the day before the First Vision: clearing timber.
|Family Religious Context:|
|Concern for the welfare of his soul
“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures.”
|In addition to matching the context of his family’s farm work, Joseph Smith’s First Vision narrative also matches the context of the family’s religious activities.
Take Joseph’s report that “at about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul.” How well would such early religious interests have fit the context of the Smith family?
A succinct answer was provided by the Prophet’s brother William:
“My mother, who was a very pious woman and much interested in the welfare of her children, both here and hereafter, made use of every means which her parental love could suggest, to get us engaged in seeking for our souls’ salvation.”[i]
The kind of mother who makes use of “every means which her parental love could suggest to get us engaged in seeking for our souls’ salvation” is surely the kind who ends up with sons whose minds “become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of [their] immortal soul[s].”
|His “seekerism”||Joseph’s accounts also report that he went to grove to learn which church was Christ’s, if they were not all wrong together. From this description, young Joseph sounds much like what was called a “Seeker,” one who held aloof from the existing churches while seeking for the restoration of primitive Christianity. And if Joseph was not a Seeker before he entered the grove, he surely would have been when he left, having learned that no existing denomination was Christ’s true church.
How consistent is Joseph’s later account of his Seekerism with his early family experience?
Joseph’s mother reports that from about 1812 forward her husband, Joseph, Sr. had been “much excited” about religion, but “would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his Apostles.” Joseph’s father had thus been a Seeker for some eight years prior to the First Vision.
And Joseph’s father was not his only model of Seekerism within the family. Lucy relates that her oldest brother, Joseph’s uncle Jason Mack, “before he atained his 16th year…became what is termed a Seeker… he held that there was no church in existence which held to the pure principles of the Gospel but labored incessantly to convince the peo ple that by an exercise of prayer the blessings and priv ileges of the a[n]cient diciples of jesus might be obtained and eventualy would be.”
Jason Mack’s “sixteenth year” began when he turned 15. And Lucy notes that he had become a Seeker sometime prior to this.
Joseph, Jr. thus came by his Seekerism naturally. Not only was his namesake father a Seeker, but his maternal uncle provided a model of seeking the primitive Christian church at the tender age of 14.
|Reading his Bible||Joseph reports that he entered the Grove to ask God which church was true because of passages he found in his reading of the Bible.
How plausible was this in the context of the Smith family? Lucy Smith reports in her history that she had decided early in her adult life, some 20 years before the First Vision, “to examine my Bible” and take it as “my guide to life and salvation,” a course which she says she “pursued a number of years.” That both Smith parents were thoroughly saturated with the Bible is evident from their language. Lucy’s history and Joseph Smith, Sr’s. patriarchal blessings are laced with biblical language and ideas.
John Stafford, a Smith neighbor just a year older than Joseph, recalled that the Smiths “had school in their house and studied the Bible,” adding that “they did not have any teacher; they taught themselves.”
Given his parents’ immersion in the Bible and the Bible’s role in his own early education, Joseph, Jr’s. report that he searched the Bible as a young man could not be more plausible.
|Praying and seeking divine inspiration in the woods||But what of Joseph’s claim—central to the First Vision narrative—that he went into the woods to pray and seek divine guidance? Would this activity have fit the Smith family context, or was it more likely a claim developed in the 1830s?
Turning again to Lucy Mack Smith’s history, we find that in the early 1800s, in a moment of distress over her husband’s spiritual condition she “retired to a grove not far distant, where I prayed to the Lord in behalf of my husband.” Given his mother’s example, it would have been natural for young Joseph to also seek the Lord in a grove.
The practice of praying in a grove was certainly not unique to Lucy. It became a family custom. Describing events of the late 1820s, Lucy refers to “a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers.”
If the family custom of praying in a particular grove had already been established by the beginning of the 1820s, Joseph might naturally have chosen to pray there. But Joseph’s account of praying in spot where he had been clearing land suggests an alternative scenario.
The Smiths were surely not chopping down the grove where they prayed! Far more likely, Joseph didn’t pray in the family’s customary grove. Rather, the family began to pray in Joseph’s sacred grove, and this became their customary grove. Once Joseph’s grove was hallowed by the presence of the Father and the Son in response to his secret prayer, it became the natural place for all family members to offer up theirs.
|Never before attempted to pray vocally||Another facet of Joseph Smith’s First Vision report, one that gives it particular drama, is that the vision came in response to his first attempt to pray aloud.
Here again we have the opportunity to test Joseph’s report against what we know of the Smith family’s devotional life.
One thing we know for certain regarding prayer among the Smiths is that they held daily family prayer.
Morning and evening family prayer became a custom in England during the Protestant Reformation, when it largely eclipsed the morning and evening observance of the mass. Fathers were expected to take the lead in family prayer, and an account by Joseph’s brother William suggests that Joseph Smith, Sr. did just that in the Smith home.
William recalled: “We always had family prayers since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, … and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, and if we did not notice it mother would say, ‘William,’ or whoever was the negligent one, ‘get ready for prayer.’”
William further reported: “My father’s religious habits were strictly pious and moral. … I was called upon to listen to prayers both night and morning. … My parents, father and mother, poured out their souls to God, the donor of all blessings, to keep and guard their children and keep them from sin and from all evil works.”
Note that the children were “called upon to listen to prayers” by their parents, rather than to pray themselves. While the Smith children might pray in their hearts, it was the parents who prayed aloud.
Joseph’s report that prior to his vision he had never attempted to pray vocally thus fits perfectly with his family’s known religious practice.
|A vision of Christ||To round out our look at the First Vision’s family religious context, let us look at visions in the Smith family.
Did Joseph Smith come from a family skeptical of visions, or one that cultivated faith in them?
In her memoir, Lucy Mack Smith reports her own inspired dreams, and also her husband’s inspired dreams, particularly a series of such dreams that ended in 1819, shortly before the First Vision.
Beyond inspired dreams, actual visions were also part of the family’s religious experience. Joseph’s grandfather Solomon Mack had experienced a vision of light. And his aunt Lovisa, prefiguring Joseph’s own experience, had seen Christ.
[Intriguingly, Lovisa saw the Lord incompletely, as if through a veil. But her nephew rent the veil and saw the Lord in His glory, the difference perhaps being that Joseph had his eyes transfigured or touched and so became a seer.]
|Joseph’s Reported Activities||The final context we’ll explore today is that of young Joseph’s known activities. In several cases we can check his account against the accounts of others.
|Reading his Bible
Praying and seeking divine inspiration in the woods
Staying aloof from the churches
|We’ve seen, for instance, that Joseph claimed he read a passage in his Bible that led him to pray for guidance in the grove, and that because of this guidance he refused to join any of the existing churches.
Lucy Mack Smith’s history confirms that each of these activities was characteristic of the teenaged Joseph. Lucy quoted her young son thus: “Mother, I do not wish to prevent your going to meeting, or any of the rest of the family’s; or your joining any church you please; but, do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time.”
 Donald L. Enders, “The Sacred Grove,” Ensign, April 1990
[i] William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa, 1883), p. 6.
As our examination shows, the First Vision fits its reported 1820s context hand in glove.
The argument that Joseph Smith crafted the First Vision narrative to address church problems of the 1830s thus fails. Had he invented the story at that time, he would have tailored its details to actually address the problems of the 1830s, rather than faithfully reflect the 1820s. And if Joseph did take pains to make his story details satisfying to far off future historians, might I suggest that his biggest problem was too much time on his hands.
The original context that gave rise to Joseph Smith’s First Vision was not the church he created but the family that created him. And the First Vision was not a product of his prophetic role, but the source of that role. Joseph Smith entered the Sacred Grove a boy and left it a prophet and seer.