Question: Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith become a member of the Methodist Church while he was translating the Book of Mormon?

In 1879, 59 years after the First Vision, Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph Smith joined the Methodist Church while translating the Book of Mormon

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.--It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[1]

There is a difference between attending Methodist services and formally joining the Methodist Church

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

Joseph Lewis described himself as one of the "official members", indicating the Joseph was not a member of the church

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.

Notes

  1. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.