Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/1838

Table of Contents

Joseph Smith's 1838 account of the First Vision

Summary: Joseph Smith's 1838 First Vision account is analyzed by critics of the Church in order to use it to prove that the First Vision never occurred. A variety of critical arguments are raised based upon the words Joseph used to describe the events leading up to his First Vision. We examine here the introduction to Joseph's 1838 First Vision account, found in the Pearl of Great Price and separate facts from opinion.

Jump to Subtopic:


Question: What is the date of the Smith family's "removal to Manchester"?

In about four years after my father’s arrival at Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester...
∗       ∗       ∗
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...
∗       ∗       ∗

Critical arguments and responses

Critics wish to use the following facts to date the "removal to Manchester" to the 1822-1823 timeframe in order to match Joseph's account with the 1823-1824 revival. This would contradict Joseph's statement that the First Vision occurred in 1820, in the "second year" after their removal to Manchester.

Joseph's father moved to Palmyra in 1816

Joseph Smith states, in multiple sources, that his father moved to Palmyra when he was ten years old.[1] Lucy Mack Smith notes that Joseph Smith, Sr. moved to Palmyra first, and that the rest of the family moved later.

Joseph's family moved to Manchester four years after the arrival of Joseph Sr.

Orsamus Turner notes that the Smith's were living in their log house, which was located in Manchester, by 1819 to 1820.[2]

The tax assessment of the Smiths' Manchester land rose in 1823

Critics use this fact to support their argument that the Smiths completed their Manchester cabin in 1822, thus dating the "second year after our removal to Manchester" to 1824, with the conclusion that the First Vision could not be dated to 1820. Critics do not note, however, that in 1823 the Smiths completed construction of a wood frame home on the Manchester side of the Palmyra-Manchester township line, which accounts for the increase in value of the Smiths' Manchester land in 1823. According to Lucy Mack Smith, by November 1822 [corrected to 1823] they had raised and were working to complete the frame house that replaced the log cabin.[3]

Joseph Sr. and Alvin Smith appear on the Palmyra road list in April 1822

Critics use this fact to argue that the Smiths probably moved to their cabin in 1822, and that this accounts for the increase in value of the Smiths' land in 1823. (Vogel, EMD 1:280)

The U.S. Census Bureau listed the Smiths in Farmington (now Manchester) in 1820

Critics ignore this fact. In 1818, the Smiths mistakenly constructed a cabin 59 feet north of the actual property line, placing the cabin in Palmyra rather than Manchester. The U.S. Census Bureau listed the Smiths in Farmington (now Manchester) in 1820.

Conclusion: The Smith's considered themselves to be in Manchester

The Smith farm, clearing the land and a log house, all supported evidence that the Smiths, and most everyone else, considered themselves in Manchester, even though they technically lived about 59 feet off their property. Legal U.S. documents now considered the Smiths in Farmington (later called Manchester) even though, technically, the log house was 59 feet away on the Palmyra side of the line. Therefore the "second year after our removal to Manchester" becomes 1820, thus correlating with the date Joseph gave for the First Vision.

For a detailed response, see: Smith family place of residence in 1820

Question: Why did Joseph Smith claim that the religious excitement in the Palmyra area in 1820 "commenced with the Methodists"?

There is documented evidence that the Methodists were holding camp meetings in the Palmyra area in 1820

Joseph Smith claimed that the religious excitement in the Palmyra area "commenced with the Methodists":

It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

An article from the Palmyra Register June 28, 1820 shows that at least one camp meeting occurred at that time:

Effects of Drunkenness.—DIED at the house of Mr. Robert M'Collum, in this town, on the 26th inst. James Couser, aged about forty years. The deceased, we are informed, arrived at Mr. M'Collum's house the evening preceding, from a camp-meeting which was held in this vicinity, in a state of intoxication. He with his companion who was also in the same debasing condition, called for supper, which was granted. They both stayed all night—called for breakfast next morning—when notified that it was ready, the deceased was found wrestling with his companion, whom he flung with the greatest ease,—he suddenly sunk down upon a bench,—was taken with an epileptic fit, and immediately expires.—It is supposed he obtained his liquor, which was no doubt the cause of his death, at the Camp-ground, where, it is a notorious fact, the intemperate, the lewd and dissolute part of the community too frequently resort for no better object, than to gratify their base propensities.

We find in the following issue that the Methodist's objected to the paper's implication of what happened at their camp meeting, and the Register published something of a retraction. From the Palmyra Register July 5, 1820:

"Plain Truth" is received. By this communication, as well as by the remarks of some of our neighbors who belong to the Society of Methodists, we perceive that our remarks accompanying the notice of the unhappy death of James Couser, contained in our last, have not been correctly understood. "Plain truth" says, we committed "an error in point of fact," in saying the Couser "obtained his liquor at the camp-ground." By this expression we did not mean to insinuate, that he obtained it within the enclosure of their place of worship, or that he procured it of them, but at the grog-shops that were established at, or near if you please, their camp-ground. It was far from our intention to charge the Methodists with retailing ardent spirits while professedly met for worship of their God. Neither did we intend to implicate them by saying that "the intemperate, the dissolute, &c. resort to their meetings."—And if so we have been understood by any one of that society, we assure them they have altogether mistaken our meaning.

Therefore, the Palmya Register documents, indirectly, that the Methodist's were holding a camp meeting in June 1820.

For a detailed response, see: Methodist camp meetings in the Palmyra area in 1820


Question: Why does Joseph Smith claim that his family was "proselyted to the Presbyterian faith" in 1820?

Lucy's family was suspended from fellowship in the Presbyterian church in March 1830 after 18 months of inactivity

Critics use this fact to support the claim that Lucy and her children did not join the Presbyterian church until at least 1823 after Alvin's death. This would contradict Joseph's claim that his family joined the Presbyterians in 1820.

However, Lucy Mack Smith was actually baptized before 1820, and was looking for comfort in religion after Alvin's death

Joseph wrote,

I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.

∗       ∗       ∗

Lucy notes: "About this time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest flocked to the meetinghouse to see if there was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings." However, Lucy Mack Smith was baptized before 1820. Lucy does not say that she joined the Presbyterians at that time. The "revival" mentioned by Lucy occurs one year prior to the 1824 revival.

For a detailed response, see: Lucy Mack Smith and the Presbyterians


Question: What was Joseph Smith referring to when he said that "I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit"?

Religious events which could have influenced Joseph prior to the First Vision

Joseph Smith said,

During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was bright and who was wrong.

On December 1, 1819, the Palmyra Register noted the dedication of the Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. One Presbyterian historian, Dr. John A. Matzko, speculates:

If Joseph Smith was present that day, one month shy of his fourteenth birthday, this sermon had much to engage his imagination, tuned as it was to sonorous religious language. And he might well have attended, because the dedication of the Presbyterian Church was as much community event as religious service. If so, it would have been the only dedication of a religious structure that Joseph witnessed before the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836.[4]


Notes

  1. Joseph Smith's 1832 account; Oliver Cowdery, "Letter III", Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, no. 3 (December 1834), 40.; Joseph Smith's 1842 account. All references cited in Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light, p. 8 note 10-12.
  2. Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase and Morris’ Reserve (Rochester:William Alling, 1852), 213 n. 1.; cited in Brown, A Pillar of Light, p. 8 note 23.
  3. This occurs prior to Alvin's death, as recorded in Lucy's 1845 manuscript, "[W]hen the month of November 1822 [1823] arrived the House was raised and all the Materials procured for completing the building." Lucy Mack Smith, "History, 1845," quoted in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:299.
  4. John Matzko, "The Encounter of Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 40, no. 3, p. 76. Dr. Matzko presents in a footnote an argument against the possibility that Joseph might have attended this meeting, noting, "As an argument against Smith's presence at the Palmyra dedication, Townsend's later denunciation of Joseph as a man of "questionable character" and "low cunning" implies that the preacher knew the prophet only by reputation. Townsend, Letter to Phineas Stiles, December 24, 1833, in Early Mormon Documents, 3:20. In 1833, Townsend says that he has known of Smith for "ten years." If not a rounded figure, 1823 would put Townsend's knowledge later than his Palmyra pastorate." In response, we assert that the attendance of a 14-year-old boy at a public dedication would have been unlikely to gain Townsend's notice. Townsend's statements regarding Joseph Smith were made well after Joseph had gained a reputation for having published the Book of Mormon and establishing the Church.