The Palmyra Region
[p.35]Some of us natives of Manchester have always been ashamed that Manchester gave Mormonism to the world.
—An old Manchester, New York, resident1
The family of Joseph Smith, Jr., shared in the controversy which kept religious interest alive in western New England in the first third of the nineteenth century.2 Contrary to reports picturing them as an irreligious family, the Smiths showed a steady interest in religion.
Asael Smith, grandfather of the Mormon prophet, was a Congregationalist in Topsfield, Massachusetts. In 1797 when he moved his family to Tunbridge, Vermont, he left the Congregational church and became a Universalist. John Murray had been establishing his brand of Universalism in the region since before the Revolutionary War. By the time Asael Smith moved to Vermont, he had already found Congregationalist teachings irreconcilable with reason and scripture.
In a letter to his children, Asael demonstrated his rationalistic sympathies; he would not recommend a particular religious denomination to his children. Whatever church they might ultimately join, he wanted them to test whether it was both scriptural and reasonable.3 When he heard that his son, Joseph Sr., was attending Methodist meetings in Tunbridge, Asael threw Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason at him and told him to read it. Following this, Joseph Sr. had [p.36] a vision which convinced him that no denomination “knew any more concerning the kingdom of God, than those of the world, or such as made no profession of religion whatever.”4 Joseph Sr. finally joined the Universalist church in Tunbridge along with his father and Jesse, his brother.5
The Mormon prophet’s maternal side was Scotch Dissenter stock. Solomon Mack, his maternal grandfather, came from a long line of clergymen. He saw visions in his old age and published his memoirs when he was seventy-eight. Jason, one of his sons, became a Seeker and established a semi-communistic community in New Brunswick with himself as economic and spiritual director.6 Before her marriage to Joseph Smith, Sr., Lucy Mack was pious but unable to choose one church above another. She tried a Presbyterian church after she married but was disappointed. Finally she was baptized, but only by a minister who did not insist upon her joining a particular denomination.7
As a family the Smiths demonstrated the dissatisfaction with the standard churches which was so common among the pietistic, socially displaced population.8 Critical of church division and the failures of the clergy to meet certain standards of piety, they satisfied their religious impulses apart from existing churches at times, at times uneasily within them.
Joseph Jr., along with his family, moved to Palmyra, New York. Palmyra was then a town of almost 4,000 people, prospering because of the construction of the Erie Canal.9 Later they moved to a 100-acre farm about two miles south of the village of Palmyra and five miles northwest of Manchester. Manchester had a 600-volume library and a private circulating library.10 Eight miles south of Manchester was Canandaigua, the county seat. Through the years Palmyra boasted several book stores.11 Palmyra was just above the Finger Lake area, in the heart of the region where the Universalists had planted ninety congregations. Their Unitarian argument generated so much concern that Abner Chase, the presiding Methodist elder, spoke of Unitarian efforts in the Ontario District as almost successful enough to overthrow the entire “work of God in some Circuits on this District.”12 That was in 1820.
Joseph Jr. knew the Universalist argument from his father, and between his father and mother he must have heard most arguments both pro and con for rationalism and traditional Protestant orthodoxy. Such arguments were also available from other sources. The [p.37] Universalist was advertised in the Wayne Sentinel in the spring of 1825.13 Young Joseph spent some of his time during 1825-26 in the Colesville, New York/Harmony, Pennsylvania area. There Smith stayed with Newel Knight and his family, who were Universalists.
The charges tying Universalists to public discord seemed far fetched to many local inhabitants except when applied to Robert Owen’s colony at New Harmony, Indiana. The Wayne Sentinel printed Owen’s “Declaration of Mental Independence” speech, which denounced private property, organized religion (Christianity), and marriage.14 Some were aware that this represented a new generation of free thought, but the average person in the burned-over district took it as a resurgence of deism.
Some have argued that Joseph Smith was greatly influenced by Campbellite theology through his association with Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite minister.15 John Locke’s theology was also thought to have found its way into Smith’s thinking by way of Rigdon. However, Smith picked up Locke’s themes before he knew Rigdon through his familiarity with the arguments of deism, Universalism, and perhaps Locke himself.16 Just as important was Smith’s probable exposure to the Christian Connection.
Nearly one-third of Christian Connection ministers were in New York in 1823. Twenty-five miles from Palmyra in West Bloomfield, the next township west, David Millard pastored a Connection church and edited the Gospel Luminary, whose greatest circulation was in the Finger Lakes area. By 1833 over 100 congregations were in New York.17 Another congregation was located in Williamson, Wayne County, fifteen miles from Palmyra. Oliver True was the minister at Winchester in 1826.18 The Gospel Luminary also listed churches at Canandaigua, West Bloomfield, Mendon, Phelps, and Rochester—all within a twenty-five-mile radius of Palmyra.19 Mendon, just ten miles from Palmyra, may have been a missionary base.
Because a Presbyterian minister named Luckey attacked his views on the trinity in 1818, David Millard, Connection pastor at West Bloomfield, responded with a thirty-eight-page tract which he expanded five years later into a book.20 Millard held that Jesus Christ was a being separate from the Father but bore the nature of the One who begot him. This “proper Son of God” existed and came into being before creation and at the incarnation was made flesh. Therefore, he has only one nature, not both human and divine. Although the argument sounded similar to the Universalist or Unitarian view, [p.38] it was in fact a rejection of the Unitarian position.21
The Christian Connection influence disturbed David Marks, the Free-will Baptist itinerant evangelist, who had a recurring dread of the arguments for a uni-personal God. He visited the Connection church at Mendon and heard a well-reasoned Unitarian argument which left him in despair: “I knew not what to believe of Jesus Christ. For the Unitarian arguments had so influenced my belief, and so formed the connection of my thoughts, that I supposed the doctrine that Jesus Christ is the true God, could not be proved from the scriptures.” Commenting on this experience, Marks wrote, “My trials originated solely from my Unitarian views of the character of Christ.”22 Marks survived and returned to the orthodox position, but his experience illustrates the upsetting confusion which flourished in the region of Palmyra.
Such concerns and disagreements suggest an important context for Smith’s early pronouncements on the character of Jesus. David Millard attacked and denied precisely the position which the Book of Mormon on its title page claims as its purpose: to convince Jew and Gentile “that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD.”
Marks’s story about the threat of “infidel”23 doctrine was not an isolated concern in the burned-over district. The ghost of Tom Paine kept turning up. Each sighting of the ghost, as in the teachings of the Unitarians and Universalists, recalled the dreaded barbarity of the French Jacobins. Newspaper editors in Palmyra and church journal editors passed them along.
The grim results of deism were spelled out in the “dying infidel” stories. One young man, beyond comfort because he had “rejected the Gospel,” cried out on his deathbed: “Some years since, I unhappily read Paine’s Age of Reason; it suited my corrupt understanding; I imbibed its principles; after this, wherever I went, I did all that lay in my power to hold up the Scriptures to contempt.… Paine’s Age of Reason has ruined my soul.”24 This story appeared in the Palmyra newspaper in 1820. A year later a story with a happier outcome appeared in the same newspaper. Paine’s “profane pages” had “infused too successfully the poison of infidelity into the minds of many Americans.” A New Jersey deistical society was cited as an example. The local society president persecuted Christians, but his wife began to attend revival meetings. In 1808 he went with her: “The infidel was reclaimed,—his society was broken up, and all around were obliged to confess this was the finger of God.”25
[p.39] Paine appeared again in the Palmyra paper after a five-year lapse. The Wayne Sentinel published an item about an unpublished manuscript of Paine’s, The Religion of the Sun, which had turned up in the papers of Thomas Jefferson. The newspaper also ran Benjamin Franklin’s letter to “Thomas Payne” in which Franklin urged Paine not to publish Age of Reason because the country needed religion to keep it going.26 These items were published in the same issues which covered the rising controversy over the disappearance of William Morgan, who had just published an exposé of the Masonic Lodge.
Deism also came under attack from the tract societies. During the 1820s auxiliary societies in western New York gave $14,732 for tracts from the American Tract Society. A contemporary described the results: “In the cities and large villages, and in many country towns, a systematic monthly distribution of tracts has been carried on, and the results have been highly gratifying to the benevolent heart.… [T]he system of colportage has to considerable extent been adopted in Western New York.”27 Palmyra had had an Auxiliary Missionary Society active at least since 1818.28 Publishers of the Palmyra newspaper sold such tracts in their bookstore; tracts were printed for individual distribution and also bound into annual volumes.
In July 1824 the managers of the New York Tract Society (Methodist) issued a report in which they described four new tracts published since the previous year. Tract No. 46 was entitled “Three queries to deists.”29 The first asked deist readers how they happened to renounce Christianity. It suggested that deists were living immoral lives and had adopted deistic thinking to justify themselves.30 They bolstered themselves and their position by winning others over to their way of thinking. But could these deists actually promise peace of mind to those friends they might win to their side?
The second question had to do with consistency. Almost all deistic writers, it was asserted, wrote favorably about Christianity. “Paine, perhaps, has said as little in this way as any of your writers, yet he has professed respect for the character of Jesus Christ. ‘He was,’ says he, ‘a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind.'” Christian writers, the tract concluded, are not plagued by “these fits of inconsistency.”
The third query: why do deistic principles fail in the hour of death? Many infidels, Voltaire, for example, died tormented that [p.40] they might be facing judgment. But no Christian “at the approach of death, was troubled or terrified in his conscience for having been a Christian.”31
Shortly after its organization in 1825, the American Tract Society published twelve tracts dealing with deism. Tract No. 123, “Leslie’s Method with the Deists,” and Tract No. 374, “Short Method with A Skeptic,” were based on Charles Leslie’s 1805 A Short and Easy Method with Deists. This work emphasized the use of miracles as an offensive weapon in the debate.32
In 1824 a revival surged through Palmyra, eventually involving the Palmyra Presbyterian church and its pastor, Benjamin Stockton. On 16 December 1824, a meeting was held at the church to organize a tract society.33 The Methodist Magazine, begun in New York in 1818 and named after a counterpart in London, covered the revivals around the state and kept track of the fortunes of deism. The publishers of the Palmyra papers printed excerpts from the journal and may have had it in their circulating library.
From 1817 on revivals were a common feature of life in Palmyra.34 During the 1820s the Palmyra newspapers printed reports of revivals throughout the state and elsewhere. Camp meeting notices, especially those of the Palmyra Methodist church, were another indication of revival activity. In 1829 Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow preached to 3,000 people in the field next to the Methodist church, and in 1831 Charles Finney himself visited the community.35
The Methodists sponsored a revival in June 1826 a mile from Palmyra. People came from as far as 100 miles away, so many that more than 100 tents were needed. Between 8:00 a.m. and nightfall, five sermons were preached. The service at 5:00 p.m. featured a sermon that “contemplated the whole process of personal salvation, from its incipiency to its consummation in the world of light.” The address electrified the crowd. Afterwards, according to one account, “the Rev. Goodwin Stoddard exhorted, and invited seekers within the circle of prayer in front of the stand. Hundreds came forward; some said nearly every unconverted person on the ground.”36
Exhortation was a part of every revival. The exhorter’s role was to help those who had been touched by the preaching make a commitment while they still were open to the message. Orsamus Turner, one of the publishers of the Palmyra newspaper who had known the young Joseph Smith when he was in his mid-teens, wrote [p.41] that Smith caught a “spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna Road,” and that “he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.” Earlier, Turner wrote, Smith had been a member of Palmyra’s ‘Juvenile debating club,” helping to solve “some portentuous questions of moral or political ethics.”37
On 15 September 1824 a notice appeared in the Wayne Sentinel telling of a revival in progress: “A reformation is going on in this town to a great extent. The love of God has been shed abroad in the hearts of many, and the outpouring of the Spirit seems to have taken a strong hold. About twenty-five have recently obtained a hope in the Lord, and joined the Methodist church, and many more are desirous of becoming members.” The Reverend George Lane, one of the leaders, wrote a report of this revival. It began in the spring of 1824 and broke out “afresh” on 25-26 September, the time of the Methodist quarterly meeting. A young woman named Lucy Stoddard was converted and gave convincing testimony to many, but she died of typhus soon after. Many were with her at her death. She testified of her faith, sang a hymn, and died. Lane wrote: “The effect produced by this death was the happiest. While it confounded the infidel, it greatly strengthened believers, especially young converts.”38
By October the Presbyterian church was beginning to benefit from the revival. At that time the church was part of the Presbytery of Geneva, which filed this report in February 1825: “In the congregation of Palmyra … More than a hundred have been hopefully brought into the kingdom of the Redeemer.… Sabbath Schools, Bible classes, Missionary & Tract Societies are receiving unusual attention, & their salutary influence is apparent.”39 During this revival the Palmyra Prebyterian Church formed a branch of the American Tract Society.
By September 1825, the Palmyra revival had brought approximately 208 members to the Methodist church, 99 to the Presbyterian, and 94 to the Baptist. Only five years earlier Methodist elder Abner Chase had written that Unitarian (Universalist) efforts were about to swamp the entire “work of God” in the Palmyra vicinity. The Palmyra revival was another sign that infidelity could be defeated.
But Charles Finney’s concern that revivals too often encouraged sectarian bickering rather than promoting unity seems confirmed [p.42] by what happened to the Smith family in response to the Palmyra revivals. Joseph Smith found himself perplexed about conflicting claims to truth.40 He was influenced by George Lane, but his mother, brothers Hyrum and Samuel, and sister Sophronia joined the Presbyterian church. His father remained unaffiliated. According to his mother, the elder Smith had earlier sought “for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and his Apostles.”41
Rather than choose the Methodist way, which would have offended the Presbyterian members of his family, Joseph Jr., like his father, remained apart. “Do not ask me to join them,” he told his mother. “I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meetings in two years, if you should go all the time.”42
Nor could his father forget that when his eldest son Alvin died in November 1823, the Presbyterian minister who conducted the funeral—probably Benjamin Stockton—intimated that Alvin had gone to hell.43 On 25 September, the very day that George Lane reported the revival “appeared to break out afresh,” Joseph Sr. and some friends exhumed the body of Alvin—dead some ten months. Smith had heard rumors that Alvin’s body had been “removed from the place of his interment and dissected.” After proving to his satisfaction that the rumors were false he ran an ad to stop them.44 Such an occurrence could only have reopened the wounds made by the insinuation that Alvin had gone to hell. The concern about Alvin helps to explain why father and son did not join the Presbyterians with the others.45 The future prophet would attend many churches, but he always shied away from committed membership.46
This antagonism to the Presbyterians also may help suggest why Joseph Jr. reported his mind was “awakened” by Methodist George Lane. Revival sermons recounted testimonies of sinners who were led to faith; stories of Christians who died in hope of eternal life and infidels dying in fear without hope; admonitions to forsake the evils of the day (including liquor drinking, sabbath breaking, gambling, spiritual sloth, levity, and free thought); and stories showing the dangers of unbelief. George Lane’s preaching, according to Oliver Cowdery in his brief history of Smith, “was calculated to awaken the intellect.” Anti-deistic polemic would have been part of the sermon material. Lane had shown himself interested in confounding “the infidel.” The little town of Palmyra was not deaf to the voices of the [p.43] times, for newspapers, church journals, sermons, tracts, and daily conversation were filled with items of current interest, not the least of which was the perceived menace of infidelity in its many forms.
2. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 7. This section is not meant to be a complete coverage of the Smiths’ fortunes while they were living in the Palmyra area but rather a tracing of the ways by which Joseph Smith would have become familiar with the influence of skepticism. For complete coverage, see Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d ed. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1971); and Lawrence C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831,” Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1971.
5. Porter, 13, reproduced the articles of incorporation of the Tunbridge Universalist church, which included the signatures of Asael, Joseph Sr., and his brother Jesse. The document was attested 6 Dec. 1797. Asael was moderator of the congregation.
8. Mario De Pillis makes this argument in “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 68-88; and in ”The Social Sources of Mormonism,” Church History 337 (Mar. 1968): 50-79.
10. Brodie, 10. The remains of the old Manchester Rental Library and its membership record book are today housed in the basement of the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua. The record book includes the date and book number of each book checked out to each member from 1826 into the 1840s. Each book has a number written on the library book plate. Thus one can discover who checked out what book and on what date. Some of the book titles are: William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System … Contrasted with Real Christianity, 1799 edition, first published in England in 1797. It was in this book that [p.44]the English evangelical dubbed Unitarianism a “half-way house” to “absolute infidelity.” Another book in the library was Andrew Fuller’s The Gospel Is Its Own Witness … Christian Religion Contrasted with the Absurdity of Deism, Boston, 1803. This book was written by a noted Baptist theologian and pastor of the church at Kettering, England. See Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library, Brigham Young University Studies 22 (Summer 1982): 333-56.
11. The T. C. Strong bookstore was operating in 1818 and ran a two-column ad listing its books (Palmyra Register, 15 Sept. 1818). Leonard Westcott opened a store in 1821 and offered to take rags in payment for books (Western Farmer, 11 Apr. 1821). E. F. Marshall opened a new store in December 1822 (Palmyra Herald, 4 Dec. 1822). Ads for bookstores in Canandaigua and Rochester also appeared. J. D. Evernghim operated a bookstore from 1 October 1823 to May 1824 (Wayne Sentinel, 1 Oct. 1823 and May 1824). All publishers of the Palmyra paper, including Timothy C. Strong, Pomeroy Tucker, John H. Gilbert, Egbert G. Grandin, also operated a bookstore along with the printing business and ran a circulating library.
16. Locke’s works, particularly his Essay on Human Understanding which sets forth his view on revelation, were on sale in Palmyra bookstores. The work was also in the Manchester Rental Library and is recorded in the Record Book as one of its holdings. On 31 January 1844, Joseph Smith donated many books to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute. Among them were the essay by Locke and Parker’s Lectures on Universalism. Compare Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,” Brigham Young University Studies 14 (Spring 1974): 389.
27. James H. Hotchkin, A History of the Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, and of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Presbyterian Church in That Section (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1848) 261-62.
31. Wayne Sentinel, 24 Mar. 1826. Tucker and Gilbert advertised tracts from the New York Tract Society. Christian Almanacks for 1824 reprinted from the Boston edition and published by the American Tract Society were on sale at the J. D. Evernghim & Company book store, 48 pages for ten cents. This makes it likely that the store carried tracts from the same firm. Wayne Sentinel, 8 Oct. 1823.
32. Charles Leslie, A Short and Easy Method with Deists, wherein the Certainty of the Christian Religion is Demonstrated by Infallible Proofs from Four Rules, in a Letter to a Friend, New American Edition (Cambridge, 1805).
34. Hotchkin, 378, records revivals for the Palmyra Presbyterian church for 1817, 1824, and 1829. There were others in neighboring towns in others years. Wesley P. Walters has thoroughly discussed the revivals during this period and in this region in “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 60-81. Another important study, though less well researched, is Milton V. Backman’s “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1969): 301-20.
36. Z. Paddock, ed., Memoir of Rev. Benjamin G. Paddock (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1875), 181; compare pp. 177-81. In 1819 a camp meeting was held in Carpenter’s Notch: “Among the effective efforts from the stand of this meeting was a sermon from M. Pearce and an exhortation from G. Lane. The sermon was well argued, and closed under a high degree of excitement which electrified the whole encampment. The exhortation was a melting and overwhelming appeal to the unconverted. Many hardened sinners yielded to the call and were converted.” George Peck, Early Methodism within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference from 1788 to 1828 (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1860), 314-15. Compare also Methodist [p.46]Magazine 5 (1822): 474-75 for the account of camp meetings where the sequence is preaching followed by exhortation and prayer.
37. O[rsamus], Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, NY: Wm. Ailing, 1851), 214. In “An Account of a Camp-Meeting Held in Telfair County, Geo.,” Methodist Magazine 7 (1824): 436, another note in the role of the exhorter was struck: “It was common for these young converts, as soon as they felt the pardoning love of God, to rise and declare what God had done for their souls, and conclude be exhorting sinners to seek salvation. Among others, there were several children from twelve to fourteen years of age, earnestly engaged in exhorting their friends to fly to Jesus.”
40. He wrote that when the revival was over and “the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feelings ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert … in a strife of words and contest about opinion” (Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1927], 1:3; hereafter HC).
Joseph’s mother wrote that it was this conflict which caused her son to reflect seriously upon divided Christendom: “While these things were going forward, Joseph’s mind became considerably troubled with regard to religion” (Biographical Sketches, 74). However, the preliminary manuscript differs from the published version on this point. The published version places Joseph’s anxiety over religion after mention of a revival and following the seventh vision of Joseph Smith, Sr. In the preliminary manuscript, instead of a revival introducing her son’s anxiety, the setting is a family discussion on the diversity of churches, followed by the vision of the angel Moroni. In the 1853 edition, Joseph’s anxiety is followed by the first vision, which is taken from the prophet’s own 1838 History.
The story Joseph Smith, Jr., told about his anxiety over sectarian rivalry during a revival and his subsequent prayer of faith followed by the first vision has traditionally been dated in 1820. However, Walters contends that no such revival took place in 1820 but that one did occur in 1824.
43. In an interview with E. C. Briggs (Deseret News, 20 Jan. 1894), the prophet’s younger brother William said it was Stockton. The manuscript version of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church carries a dedication at the [p.47]beginning: “In Memory of Alvin Smith Died the 19th Day of November In the 25[th] year of his age year 1823.” Compare “Manuscript History of the Church,” Book A-1, in archives, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. This statement and one that Alvin had been saved (HC 2:380) indicate that Stockton’s charge still bothered Joseph Smith even in his later years.
45. Another factor may have been the way people in the burned-over district perceived Universalists. Presbyterians regarded the views of Joseph Sr. as heretical. Still another aspect of the situation may be spelled out in a romantic novel based on the diaries of a woman who lived in Palmyra during this period. Her grandson used the diaries to write a novel in which the Palmyra Presbyterian church is pictured as the church attended by the town leaders, who controlled the economic destiny of the community. See Samuel Hopkins Adams, Canal Town (Toronto: Random House, 1944).
46. An old resident of Manchester told Mitchell Bronk (p. 24) that “Joe occasionally attended the stone church; especially the revivals, sitting with the crowd—the sinners—up in the gallery. Not a little of Mormon theology accords with the preaching of Elder Shay.” Note that this could well have happened during the Palmyra revival of 1824-25. The Reverend Anson Shay was a charter member of the Manchester Rental Library and likely read Andrew Fuller’s The Gospel Is Its Own Witness and his “Three queries to deists.” Fuller was a prominent Baptist theologian, and Smith could have absorbed such anti-deistic messages through sermons.