Joseph Smith's First Vision/Joseph became "partial to the Methodist sect" in 1820

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Joseph Smith became "partial to the Methodist sect" in 1820

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Question: What critical claims are related to Joseph Smith becoming "partial to the Methodist sect" near the time of the First Vision?

It is claimed that Joseph didn't become "partial to the Methodist sect" until at least 1823, after Alvin's death, or as late as 1838, rather than in 1820 as he claimed in his 1838 First Vision account

The Wikipedia article "First Vision" (as of May 18, 2009) contains the assertion:

While [Joseph] almost certainly never formally joined the Methodist church, he did associate himself with the Methodists eight years after he said he had been instructed by God not to join any established denomination.

In John A. Matzko, "The Encounter of Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism," Dialogue 40/3 (2007): 71., the author claims:

Although Joseph later wrote that his “Father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith,”—rather than emphasizing his mother’s membership—the death of Alvin and the arrival of Stockton seem to have driven both Smith and his father (who glided easily between religious skepticism and folk mysticism) farther from the Presbyterian church and its Calvinistic doctrine. It was probably during this period that Joseph “became partial to the Methodist sect,” whose opposition to Reformed doctrine was notorious.

It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Joseph was telling the truth when he said that he became "partial to the Methodist sect" in 1820. Critics who attempt to place this event later in Joseph's life do so in order to discredit the story of the First Vision.

Question: When did Joseph Smith become "partial to the Methodist sect?"

A contemporary account places the date in the 1819-1820 timeframe

The following is taken from a hostile source, Orsamus Turner (Orsamus Turner, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase (Buffalo 1849), p. 429):

And a most unpromising recipient of such a trust was this same Joseph Smith, Jr., afterwards Jo Smith." He was lounging, idle, (not to say vicious,) and possessed of less than ordinary intellect. The author's own recollections of him are distinct. He used to come into the village of Palmyra, with little jags of wood, from his back-woods home; sometimes patronizing a village grocery too freely; sometimes finding an odd job to do about the store of Seymour Scovell; and once a week he would stroll into the office of the old Palmyra Register for his father's paper. How impious in us young "dare devils" *

Turner then inserts a footnote which dates this to 1819-1820:

* Here the author remembers to have first seen the family, in the winter of '19, and '20, in a rude log house, with but a small spot of underbrush around it.

Turner continues:

...to once in a while blacken the face of the then meddling, inquisitive lounger -- but afterwards prophet -- with the old-fashioned balls, when he used to put himself in the way of the working of the old-fashioned Ramage press! The editor of the Cultivator at Albany -- esteemed as he may justly consider himself for his subsequent enterprise and usefulness -- may think of it with contrition and repentance, that he once helped thus to disfigure the face of a prophet, and, remotely, the founder of a state.

But Joseph had a little ambition, and some very laudable aspirations; the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us to solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red school-house on Durfee street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop in upon us in the village; amid, subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.

It is also known that the Methodists held at least one camp meeting in the Palmyra area in mid-1820, prior to their purchase of the property on Vienna Road.

Does this mean Joseph became a Methodist?

Turner's source is not talking about Joseph Smith acting as an exhorter in evening meetings of the Methodist denomination, but rather the evening meetings spoken of were the gatherings of the juvenile debate club. This conclusion is supported by a newspaper article in the Western Farmer which announced that the Palmyra debate club would begin meeting in the local schoolhouse on 25 January 1822.[1] We learn from firsthand witnesses that children attended school in Palmyra during the winter months and through the end of March.[2] Since school was in session during the same time period when the debate club was meeting it would not be possible for them occupy the same building at the same time. Therefore, the debate club would have to meet at the schoolhouse during evening hours.

It should also be noted that no critic or advocate of this theory has ever bothered to explain just how Joseph Smith became a Methodist exhorter without first becoming a Methodist. And remember, Pomeroy Tucker stated quite clearly in his book that even though Joseph attended Methodist meetings he did not convert to that faith.[3]


Question: Did Joseph Smith join the Methodists as an "exhorter" years after being told not to join another church during the First Vision?

Joseph was not a "licensed exhorter" for the Methodists, but instead participated in a "juvenile debating club"

Although the Palmyra Register does not specify the location of the Methodist camp meeting in 1820, we do have evidence that meetings were indeed occurring on Vienna Road. John Matzko cites Orsamus Turner,

At some point between 1821 and 1829, Smith served as “a very passable exhorter” at Methodist camp meetings “away down in the woods, on the Vienna Road.”[4]

It should be noted that Matzko's assertion that this occurred "between 1821 and 1829" is not supported by the source, since Turner never specifies the timeframe during which Joseph acted as an "exhorter." Despite the fact that Turner is a hostile source , the full quote does contain some important additional information,

But Joseph had a little ambition, and some very laudable aspirations; the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us to solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red school-house on Durfee street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop in upon us in the village; amid, subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.[5]

Joseph could not have been a "licensed exhorter" without being a member of the Methodist Church

This quote presents critics with a dilemma (as can be seen in the Wikipedia article "First Vision"). Critics wish to demonstrate the Joseph was associated with the Methodists after being instructed during the First Vision not to join any church. They attempt to do this by minimizing the mention of a "debate club" and instead imply that Joseph was a formal "exhorter" in Methodist meetings. It is noteworthy, however, that even critic Dan Vogel states that Joseph "could not have been a licensed exhorter since membership was a prerequisite."[6]

This is consistent with Joseph Smith's own history, in which he stated that he became "partial to the Methodist sect" and that he "felt some desire to be united with them"

Joseph Smith:

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 right and who was wrong.[7]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Western Farmer 1/45 (23 January 1822).
  2. Lucy Smith, Lucy's Book: Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson and Irene M. Bates, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2001), 433. ISBN 1560851376. John H. Gilbert, "Memorandum, made by John H. Gilbert Esq, Sept[ember]. 8th, 1982[,] Palmyra, N.Y.," Palmyra King's Daughters Free Library, Palmyra, New York, 2-3; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:542-548.
  3. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 17-18. Reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 3:94-95.
  4. John Matzko, "The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40 no. 3 (Fall 2007), 78 note 2, citing Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and Morris' Reserve (Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1851), 214, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 3:50...
  5. Orsamus Turner (1801-1855) "Origin of the Mormon Imposture," Littell's Living Age Vol. XXX, No. 380 (August 1851): 429.
  6. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 3:50, n. 15.
  7. Joseph Smith - History 1:8.