Dr. Wesley Walters was one of the first people to question Joseph’s Smith’s account of the First Vision, saying there were no reports of revivals near Palmyra, NY in 1820 as Joseph Smith claimed. Is there another way to interpret this? BYU Professor Steven Harper is the author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” and seeks to answer this issue. Were there revivals in 1820?
Steven: Do you know there weren’t? No. You know that there’s no evidence in the newspaper, for example. So, Wesley Walters takes the geographical area to be Palmyra village, and he shows that there are no newspaper accounts of camp meetings in the Palmyra village area in the 1820 window. That’s what he knows. So let me be crystal clear. The fact is that he overstated it. Milton Backman did find a reference to a camp meeting in early 1820 in a Palmyra newspaper. So, Wesley Walters knows that the facts are, that in the records he researched, there was little to no mention of unusual religious excitement in Palmyra village in 1820. Well, what he doesn’t know is, is there unusual is excitement in the ‘whole district of country where we lived,’ right? That’s Joseph’s line. Joseph doesn’t say Palmyra village. He says, ‘the whole district of country, indeed the whole region of country.’
Steven: Joseph locates the unusual religious excitement around Manchester, which is actually where his family lives. They don’t live in Palmyra, at the time of the vision or within a couple of years of it. So, you can’t decide whether something’s anachronistic or not, if you are deciding all the parameters of that. You can’t be too close-minded about what Joseph means. One danger is not listening to Joseph well enough, deciding what he means. This is, I think, a problem with quite a lot of people, believers, unbelievers. They think they know what he means before they know what he means. So, I’m not sure I know everything he means, but I am more inclined to let him explain himself. I’m inclined to listen to him and trust him. I believe he tells an accurate story. Now, I’m not saying it’s not distorted. I think he probably did blend memories about Presbyterianism. The idea of saying, “Mom, I know for myself Presbyterianism isn’t true.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a later 1820s memory.
GT: Yeah. Because doesn’t his mother and sister join the Presbyterians about 1823?
Steven: We don’t know when they join. That’s another thing people assume. We do not know when they joined. The records don’t exist. We know when they leave the Western Presbyterian Church. We don’t know when they join. If we did, it might help us sort through some of these things. Assuming that we know when they did is a problem.
Can we find evidence of revivals in 1820?
Steven: People set out to see what other evidence there might be and among these people was Milton Backman, a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. [He’s a] well-educated Latter-day Saint. He dug into the ‘whole region of country.’ He used Joseph Smith geographical scope. Joseph used the Methodist term: the whole district of country seemed affected by the unusual religious excitement. So, where Wesley Walters cast his net small in Palmyra Village, a few miles north of Joseph Smith’s farm, Professor Backman cast his net wide around the whole area of country, the whole district.
Steven: What he found was lots of evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion. The word revival comes up often, as if that’s the measuring stick. A revival is the measuring stick. What often happens is people think a revival equals a camp meeting. All those things are related, but they’re not all the same thing. If you confuse them for the same thing, you might mistake what you’re looking at. So, there is evidence for a camp meeting in the newspaper in Palmyra in 1820. Professor Backman found it. He quoted in his resulting article and work. But is that an unusual excitement on the subject of religion? Professor Backman didn’t think that one mention of that was, but he found plenty of examples of spikes in church attendance and church membership in various churches within a [radius of] 5, 10, 15-mile concentric circles. He found, in other words, evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the region or district of country that Joseph was saying.
Steven: He, [Professor Backman] also, didn’t circumscribe it so much in time, as Reverend Walters did. Joseph didn’t say it happened in the first days of 1820. Joseph gives more possible time for that unusual excitement. If you reach back into mid-1819, you find Methodists having conference meetings within a day’s walk of Joseph’s home, hundreds of Methodist ministers convening in this area. They’d have their conference meetings, and then they would spread out into the villages and preach. That happens in 1819. It happens again in 1820 within, again, a day’s walk. It’s not credible to argue that Joseph Smith could not have any basis for concluding that there was unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the district of country where he lived. That’s simply hiding evidence. Now, how you interpret that evidence that’s up to you, but to say it doesn’t exist is irresponsible.
As we mentioned in a previous conversation with Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith’s First Vision was quite similar to Methodist visions of Christ of the day. Dan says it doesn’t make sense for a Methodist minister to question Joseph’s vision.
GT: I wonder about this other issue. Methodists were known for having visions, so, it seems a little strange that a Methodist minister would reject Joseph. Could it have been a Presbyterian minister, because they weren’t as into ecstatic religious experiences, were they?
Steven: You’re right about that, but it’s probably a Methodist minister. I don’t think Joseph is mistaken about that. Let me give you a potential interpretation of the facts that make sense. So, right now you’re feeling like there’s incongruity in Joseph’s story. If he had reported a vision…
GT: I’m trying to give Dan’s view.
Steven: Right. That’s what he’s saying, exactly.
Steven: Joseph is not attuned to the fine points of debate, even inside the Methodist clergy. He doesn’t know, as a later author put it, that orthodoxy became Methodized, and then Methodism became orthodox. In other words, he’s not aware of what the Methodist ministers are aware of. That means that he thinks that going into the woods and having a vision is evidence of a Methodist conversion. It finally worked. The Methodists told me that might work. It was a Methodist minister, who said, “If you lack wisdom, ask God. I did everything they said, and I tried it and tried it before and it never worked, and, finally, it worked.” So, Joseph’s initial interpretation of his experience is, “I have now a Methodist conversion.” What you do in that case, is you report it to the Minister. You get validated. He’s shocked when he gets anything but validated, and so that’s the point, right? You’re saying, “Well, wouldn’t a Methodist minister say, ‘Yeah, that was a great vision you had.'” Not necessarily.
Steven: Right. Think about reasons why that might not be the default response. This Methodist minister may be aware that Methodism is trending toward enthusiasm, which is not a positive term in those days. That means to be crazy, or it’s beginning to be [thought of as being crazy.]” There are some in the Methodist ministry, who are trying to pull back from that over-enthusiastic response. Lorenzo Dow is still going, and he’s still working people into frenzy, but some of the Methodist clergy are saying, “Oh, that’s just a little too weird for me.” It’s also the case that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, has prophesied, “Look. We’re going to grow like gangbusters, and the risk we run is becoming formalists.” We might grow exponentially and get to a point where we’re like everybody else where we speak of God with our mouths, but we deny the power thereof. We have a form of godliness, but we deny His power. “Don’t ever do that,” John Wesley says. So let’s say you’re a Methodist minister, and you’ve been influential in getting this feeling among the people that they can come to Christ. It’s all good until you see maybe some people getting a little excessive for your comfort level, maybe going a little too far. Then one of them comes to you and says, “Guess what? It worked. I saw God and Christ in the woods, and guess what they said? Everybody here, including you, sir, have a form of godliness, but you deny the power, thereof.” That’s the cue for the Methodist minister to say, “[No.]”
What are the main differences between the First Vision accounts? Why are they different, and are these differences significant?
Steven: Excellent question. So, the 1832 and 38 are autobiographies. They are strategic memories. Joseph has stress and anxiety associated with strategic retrieval of his memory that he doesn’t have when it’s a spontaneous memory. So, the 1835 telling is a spontaneous retrieval. Joseph is not planning to write anything. He’s not planning to tell the story of his First Vision. He’s talking to this fellow from the east, Robert Matthews, and they start comparing prophetic credentials. This guy thinks he’s a great spiritual leader. He’s heard Joseph is, so he’s come to see him, kind of to compare notes. Maybe, there’s kind of a subtle competition going on between them. I think, at least Matthews is trying to figure out if he might ally himself with Joseph Smith in some way or other.
Steven: So, they’re very curious about each other and they want to know what’s going on inside each other’s brains. They start swapping credentials for what makes them a prophet. Joseph says, “Well, let me tell you how the Book of Mormon came forth. The first thing that happened is, I was worried about matters that involve eternal consequences, and I worried about it a lot. I had great anxiety. I was distressed and perplexed, and I went to the woods to pray. I saw a fire, and then one personage revealed another. It filled me with joy unspeakable [joy.]” It’s a fast moving, relatively easy flow for Joseph. When you compare it to the autobiographies, you notice that it’s not freighted with the concern about writing. The first thing Joseph does in both of his autobiographies is he offers a disclaimer about why he can’t write well.
GT: So, the 1835 is not written by Joseph.
Steven: That’s right, it’s written by Warren Parrish. Parrish captures it.
GT: Oh, Warren Parrish.
Steven: Parrish captures it and puts it into his journal. Joseph is not writing it. He’s not thinking about writing it. He’s not thinking about, “What’s the beginning of the story, the middle of story, the end of the story. How do I structure this narrative?” He’s just spilling it out. It comes naturally to him, in that sense. It’s much easier work for him when he tells it like that, than it is when he writes it. We now know that he tells it like that quite a bit in this middle 1830s period, much more than we used to think. He’s telling it that way by shortly after, if not at the same time or before, he writes the 1832 autobiography. So, 1835 memory is really cool. I think one of the most telling things about it is, it doesn’t seem to cause Joseph Smith the psychological need to reconcile with or deal with that Methodist minister’s rejection. It’s one of the things I argue in the book is the 1832 memory is an effort to make good with or at least not offend the minister or the whole world the minister represents, and that Joseph isn’t very satisfied with his memory as a result of that effort. Then, I argue that the 1838 memory is an effort to take that minister head on. This is Joseph in the worst year of his life. He is in a persecution mindset. Notice how many times that account says hot persecution, the bitterest persecution.
GT: I know Dan Vogel mentions that.
Steven: It is definitely the present that gives us that version of the past. It’s saturated with persecution. In that mode, Joseph Smith spits venom at the clergy. He calls the Methodists “priests” three times. He knows that that’s a way to offend.
We also talk about the 1842 account. What are your thoughts on First Vision discrepancies? Is Joseph’s memory accurate enough? Were you aware that Methodists of the day had visions of Christ? Did a Methodist minister scold Joseph about his vision?