Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
Portrait of a Prophet as a Young Man
[p.245]Quite another picture of his early life than this so painstakingly pieced together was painted by Joseph Smith when, as a prophet of the living God, he undertook to minister to the hunger of his followers for a stirring legend of his youth. His history of the years that shaped him for his high calling is a thing all light and splendour, filled with the terror and the wonder implicit in all intercourse with God.
Joseph’s account of his visions may be likened to a mural rendered on two panels. The “First Vision” depicts the appearance to Joseph Smith in his fifteenth year of no lesser personages than the Father and the Son to instruct him that the churches of his day were all corrupt and that he must hold himself apart from them. The “Vision of the Angel Moroni” is a companion piece delineating the appearance to Joseph three and a half years later of an angelic messenger sent to reveal to him his great calling as a prophet and rest upon him the responsibility for placing before the world an ancient record, the Book of Mormon.
This mural from the early 1840s has been cherished by Joseph’s followers, who have brought the unconverted from afar to admire it and multiplied reproductions to scatter abroad to the world. Even iconoclasts, impressed by the boldness of the conception and the glowing detail, have so far accepted Joseph’s masterpiece, placing upon it bizarre hypotheses as to the wellsprings of his personality.
When this remarkable work is more minutely examined, however, its luminous surface takes on a singularly different aspect. Here the brush-work in the underpaint has left ridges in the over-paint; there the top surface was so thinly painted as to have become semi-transparent under the clarifying action of time. Scholarship brought to bear, like the action of x-rays or ultra violet light, brings into shadowy definition the surfaces painted over, which at once are striking in revelation of the intent of the artist, the painful evolution of his conception, and his progressive manipulation of reality in the service of his art. It becomes apparent that the two panels of this mural were originally to have been one, that elements from the [p.246] original conception were altered and recombined to form a new design altogether, that it is indeed legend and not history with which we have to deal in taking up Joseph’s account of his youth.
Let us examine first the finished work, this epic of his early life.
Sometime in the second year after the removal of the Smith family from Palmyra to Manchester, so Joseph’s recital of his First Vision begins,1 in the spring of 1820, there commenced in his neighborhood an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. Beginning with the Methodists, it became general among all the sects, until the whole region was aroused, some contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist. Amid this war of words and tumult of opinion, Joseph, being then a boy in his fifteenth year, could not come to any certain conclusion as to which of the churches might be right. His mother, his brothers Hyrum and Samuel, and his sister Sophronia were proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, but his own inclination was towards the Methodists.
In his perplexity, he was one day struck with the force of a passage in James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” Never, he says, “did any passage of Scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine,” and on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of 1820, he retired to the woods and knelt down in prayer. Scarcely had he done so than he was seized by some power which entirely overcame him, binding his tongue so that he could not speak; thick darkness gathered around, and it seemed to him that he was doomed to sudden destruction. Exerting all his powers, he called upon God to deliver him out of the power of this enemy, “and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun which descended gradually until it fell upon me.” Miraculously delivered from the enemy which had held him bound, he saw standing above him in the air two personages having a brightness and a glory beyond description. One of them spoke to him, calling him by name, and said, pointing to the other, “This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!”
Mindful of his object in going to inquire of the Lord, Joseph, as soon as he was able to speak, asked these glorious personages which of the sects was right, which he should join. He was answered that he must join none of them, for they were all wrong, and the personage who addressed him, clearly the Savior himself, said that all the creeds were an abomination, that their professors were corrupt in His sight: “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men: having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He [p.247] again forbade Joseph to join with any of the sects, and told him many other things which the prophet never saw fit to reveal. When the boy came to himself again, he was lying on his back, looking up into heaven. Recovering his strength in some degree, Joseph went on home to tell his mother somewhat inadequately, it will be agreed, that he had found out for himself that Presbyterianism was not true.
Some days later, happening to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers active in the revival, Joseph gave him an account of the vision. Great was Joseph’s surprise when the story was not only treated lightly but with great contempt, as being of the devil. The minister assured him that there were no such things as visions or revelations any more, all of which had ceased with the apostles. Thus Joseph soon found that his story excited a great deal of prejudice against him among professors of religion and was the cause of great persecution: “Though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.” However strange his story, Joseph insisted that he, like Paul, had seen a vision, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise: “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart, Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision, and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it, at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.”
This, in bold outline, is Joseph’s “First Vision.” Before we leave it to inspect his “Vision of the Angel Moroni,” let us rig some cross-lighting and take a penetrating second look, for the underpaint is by no means obscured by the paint Joseph subsequently splashed on with so much assurance, for it readily becomes apparent that the idea of a visitation from the Father and the Son was a late improvisation, no part at all of his original design.
Not to belabor our metaphor, Joseph told two distinctly different stories to account for his having become a prophet of God. The First Vision is the last of these, entirely unknown to his followers before 1838, when he began to write a formal autobiography; and was not published in any form until late in 1840, and not by Joseph himself until the spring of 1842. Prior to that time, as early as 1834-35, Joseph had published in the church periodical a history of his life having an astonishingly different import,2 and that history is the defiant underpaint of our metaphor.
[p.248] According to that earlier version of his novitiate, Joseph’s interest in religion was first awakened during the visit to Palmyra of a Methodist minister, the Reverend Mr. George Lane. This event took place, not in 1820, as his autobiography declares, but three years later, in Joseph’s seventeenth year.3 Elder Lane being “a talented man possessing a good share of literary endowments, and apparent humility,” there was a great awakening in Palmyra, with large additions made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. “Mr. Lane’s manner of communication,” it is explained, was peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect of the hearer, and arouse the sinner to look about him for safety—”much good instruction was always drawn from his discourses on the scriptures, and in common with others,…[Joseph’s] mind became awakened.”4
For a time the reformation seemed to move on harmoniously, but after “those who had expressed anxieties, had professed a belief in the pardoning influence and condescension of the Savior,” the various denominations began a general straggle for proselytes, and the cry, “I am right—you are wrong,” was heard. In this strife for followers, Joseph’s mother, one sister, and two brothers were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians, which gave Joseph cause for still more serious reflection. Strongly solicited to unite with several of the denominations, but seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth by all, the future prophet hesitated. “To profess godliness without its benign influence upon the heart, was a thing so foreign from his feelings, that his spirit was not at rest day nor night. To unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one, was calculated, in its very nature, the more it was contemplated, the more to arouse the mind to the serious consequences of moving hastily in a course fraught with eternal realities. To say he was right, and still be wrong, could not profit; and amid so many, some [churches] must be built upon the sand.”
What was he to do? If he went to one church he was told they were right and all others wrong. If to another, the same was heard, all professing to be the true church, but none having satisfactory evidence to support its claims. A proof from some source was wanting, and that source could only be the Lord, who long ago had said that to him who knocks, to him it shall be opened, and that whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely. Therefore, while this excitement continued, Joseph called upon the Lord in secret “for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, [what was] to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of [God].” On the evening of September 21, 1823, Joseph’s mind being “unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to everything of a temporal nature, that earth, to him, had lost its [charms] and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the [p.249] desired information of his acceptance with God.” For hours he prayed, and finally all the wishes of his heart were granted. As though the house were filled with consuming and unquenchable fire, a radiant messenger appeared to him, come from the presence of God to tell him that his sins were forgiven, his prayers heard.
But all at once, and disconcertingly, this picture blurs and its lineaments are strangely altered. The scene has ceased to be God the Father appearing in glory to Joseph in the woods but has become the Angel Moroni appearing to him in his bedchamber. The time is not the spring of 1820 but the early autumn of 1823. In fact, this is not Joseph’s First Vision at all, but his Vision of the Angel Moroni, with Joseph not merely oblivious of the fact that he had once been visited of the Father and the Son, but, worse yet, concerned to know whether a supreme being ever existed.
The facts are the same in the two accounts, right down to their discordant result: A revival had occured in the neighborhood of Palmyra which had begun among the Methodists and spread to the other denominations; the Smith family in general and Joseph in particular had been aroused; Joseph’s mother and sister had joined the Presbyterian church; and he himself, too much troubled by doubts about all of the denominations to join with any, had been led to seek in prayer the assurance and firm guidance that God alone could give. The discordance between the two accounts is not a mere matter of dates; it results from an enlargement of the original conception. The considerations which led Joseph to enlarge his story in this fashion will be weighed later in this chapter, when the facts have been more fully developed, but it is clear that no man in his church, not even Joseph himself, suspected in 1835 that he had been visited in his youth by the Father and the Son. No one dreamed that his history included an event of such overwhelming import until, Joseph having wrought further upon the divinity of his calling, Orson Pratt carried the story to the world late in 1840.5
Contemporary publications (such as those reprinted in Appendix B) illustrate the understanding of the early Mormons that their church dated from no earlier an event than the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith in 1823. The pronouncement by the Father and the Son that all churches before Mormonism were corrupt, which has yielded such aid and comfort to the modern church, is an argument so obviously useful that it is impossible to conceive that the early missionaries would not have employed it had they known of it.6
Lucy Smith alone, by incorporating into her Biographical Sketches through direct quotation her own son’s account of the First Vision, provides any evidence that the tale of the First Vision was ever countenanced within Joseph’s own family; and even she, writing to her brother in January 1831 to urge upon him the divinity of her son’s claims, thought only to tell him that “Joseph, after repenting of his sins and humbling himself before God, was visited by an holy angel” who gave him commandments inspired from on high [p.250] and the means to translate the Book of Mormon.7 That Lucy should have failed to mention such a vision in 1831, and preserved no independent recollection of it in 1845 when dictating her autobiography, does not make her the best of witnesses in her son’s behalf. The prophet’s younger brother, William, never showed himself able to conceive of Joseph’s visions in any terms but a vision of the Angel Moroni.8 Finally, it is significant, all the more significant in view of the unrelenting persecution Joseph would have us understand came upon him in his youth, that the folklore relative to his early life, an admirable index to the public mind if not a storehouse of exactly determinable event, at no time ever pictured Joseph as being, in the idiom of the day, “a miserable fanatic” given to delusions; he has always been, in Palmyra’s collective memory, the moneydigger and seer in peepstones.9
We can now look more closely, and frankly with more interest, at the second of the panels that makes up Joseph’s great mural, the Vision of the Angel Moroni. This second of his visions, as his autobiography would have us believe, or his first, as he originally gave the Saints to understand, led directly to the writing of the Book of Mormon and so to the founding of his church. Here again his original conception underwent radical revision as his brush worked upon it. The alterations and the substitutions could not be hidden from the critical eye, but it was the only surface Joseph had to work on, and he made it do.
The autobiography relates that between the time of the first vision and the autumn of 1823, Joseph continued to pursue his common vocations in life, all the while “suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious,” because he remained unshaken in his affirmation that he had seen a vision. Having been forbidden to join any of the religious sects of the day and being of very tender years and persecuted by those who, said the prophet with melting heart, ought to have been his friends and treated him kindly, or if they supposed him deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to reclaim him, he was left to all kinds of temptations and mingling with all kinds of society, frequently falling into many foolish errors, and “displayed the weakness of youth and the corruption of human nature, which I am sorry to say led me into divers temptations, to the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.”10
Feeling condemned by his weakness and imperfection, and desiring to know his state and standing, Joseph was moved on the night of September 21, 1823, to seek a second manifestation from God. As he was in the act of calling upon the Lord, a light appeared in his room, which increased until the room was lighter than at noonday, and in the brightness Joseph saw a personage, his aspect “glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.” This personage informed the youth that his name was Moroni, that he was a messenger sent to tell of the work God had for him to do, in consequence of which his name should be had for good [p.251] and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues. Hidden in a nearby hill, declared the angel, was a book engraved upon golden plates, a record giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang; it contained the fullness of the everlasting gospel, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants, to whom he had appeared for this purpose after his resurrection. Deposited with the golden plates were two stones, set in silver bows and fastened to a breastplate—the instrument anciently called the Urim and Thummim, the possession and use of which had distinguished “seers” in times long past. God had prepared these stones for the express purpose of translating the history recorded upon the plates, and Joseph was to be the translator.
Nor was this all. Solemnly the angel quoted the words of Malachi concerning the coming of a messenger who should prepare the way for the Messiah; the prophetic language of Isaiah about a rod which should come forth out of the stem of Jesse,11 the promise in Acts that the Lord God should raise up a prophet to be heard in all things under the penalty of being destroyed; and last of all, the dread poetry of Joel: And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call.
All these things, said the angel, were soon to be fulfilled, and he admonished Joseph again about the golden plates. When he should come into possession of them, he should show them to no one, nor the breast plate with the Urim and Thummim—to none but by command, under penalty of being destroyed. As the angel spoke of the plates, the vision was opened so that Joseph could see the place where they lay buried, and so distinctly that he knew the place when he visited it in the flesh.
Now the light began to gather about the person of Moroni until the room was again dark, save immediately around the angel, when Joseph saw, “as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended until he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light made its appearance.” Joseph lay musing on the singularity of what had passed, when on a sudden he was startled to find the radiance returning. The angel reappeared at his bedside and again related his message, without the smallest [p.252] variation, except that when done he advised the youth of great judgements that were coming upon the earth, desolations by famine, sword, and pestilence. The angel disappeared only to reappear a third time, and a third time relate his message, thus establishing beyond any possibility of doubt the divine character of what had transpired.12 Before taking his final leave, the angel warned Joseph that Satan would tempt him, through the indigent circumstances in which the Smiths found themselves, to get the plates for the purpose of enriching himself. Should Joseph hold any object in view other than to glorify God, should he be influenced by any motive other than that of building His kingdom, he would fail in obtaining the plates.
This series of interviews with Moroni terminated only with cockcrow. As the gray light of dawn replaced the radiance which had filled Joseph’s bedchamber, he arose and proceeded about his daily labors. He found, however, that his strength was strangely exhausted. His father, laboring alongside him in the field, told him to go home, but on starting for the house, in attempting to cross the fence, Joseph fell helpless to the ground. After a time, he was aroused by a voice calling him by name and, on looking up, for the fourth time beheld the angelic messenger, standing over his head surrounded with light. Once more the angel rehearsed the story, then commanded the boy to go to his father and tell him of the vision and the commandments laid upon him.13 “I obeyed,” Joseph says; “I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger. I left the field, and went to the place where the messenger had told me the plates were deposited; and owing to the distinctness of the vision which I had had concerning it, I knew the place the instant that I arrived there.”
The place of deposit was a high, narrow ridge with an abrupt north face, rising several miles southeast of the Smith farm along the mail road between Palmyra and Canandaigua—”a hill of considerable size,” Joseph described it, “the most elevated of any in the neighborhood.” On the west side of the hill, near its top, under a stone of considerable size, he found the plates, deposited in a stone box, and with them the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. On attempting to remove these objects, Joseph was forbidden by the messenger, who told him that the time for bringing them forth was yet four years distant. But he was instructed to return to the place in one year precisely, when the messenger would again meet with him; in this way they should continue until the time arrived for obtaining the plates. Accordingly, on each succeeding September 22 down to the year 1827 Joseph returned to the place of deposit, met the messenger, “and received instruction and intelligence from him… respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner His kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.”
Thus is the resplendent second of the two panels which comprise the mural of Joseph’s visions. Together they have a rare charm [p.253] and simplicity, the mighty questions of eternity dextrously reduced to finite understanding. Yet the second of these paintings, like the first, affords abundant evidence of the labor the artist expended upon it to produce his effort. The “Vision of the Angel Moroni,” even as the “First Vision,” rewards a thoughtful second look.
Let us consider, in particular, the difference in mood between the legend of his life as Joseph delineated it in 1834-35 and that legend as he refurbished it in 1838. The earlier version of the events which led to the founding of his church was written under the long shadow cast by his money-digging past, accounts of which were rife in the very country to which the Mormon missionary efforts were being most insistently addressed.14 Apology and explanation to set the facts at defiance color the whole of this first official history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. By the time Joseph came to dictate his autobiography, he had survived not merely that small crisis but upheavals of proportions so seismic as to have all but destroyed him. The burden of his theme reflected both this change in his fortunes and the hardening of his spirit: now his theme was not apology but indictment. Not his own frailties but the stony heart of mankind stood arraigned.
Nowhere is the shift in emphasis more evident than in the two pictures Joseph gave to his church of his life before the Angel Moroni came into it. His matured account of these years we have already seen; it presents a picture of an obscure, inoffensive boy hounded by persecution and misrepresentation solely because he had dared to tell the world that he had had a vision—a boy who may have become somewhat wayward, but only because of these dire circumstances. But three and a half years earlier, Joseph, in the church periodical, had been principally concerned to defend himself against accusations of “gross and outrageous violations of the peace and good order of the community,” implicit in the widespread tales of his money-digging. He admitted having in his youth fallen into many vices and follies, chiefly “a light, and too often vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation,” but this “uncircumspect walk and unchaste conversation” was, he declared, all and the worst his accusers could substantiate against his moral character; and he wanted it understood that he did not pretend to be any “other than a man ‘subject to passion; and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!”15
The reorientation, not to say vindication, of himself in relation to his visions becomes, on close inspection, the principal end Joseph had in rewritting his history. The First Vision itself is a conception investing him with an ineffable dignity, for in all recorded history, to what other men have the Father and the Son appeared? And how much more imposing the revised version of the words spoken to Joseph by Moroni than the version so thoughtlessly quoted to the church in 1835! The autobiography pictures Moroni as telling a great prophet of his destiny, that prophet foretold by Malachi, Isaiah, and [p.254] Joel, whose words men shall heed under penalty of being destroyed. Far more modest is the language of Moroni as recounted in 1835. The only scripture Moroni had thought to mention was, embarrasingly, the reminder given by Paul to the Corinthians, that God was wont to choose the foolish things of the world, the base things, the things which were despised, to confound the things which were mighty. It is not surprising that Joseph, as time went on, searched the Bible for scripture less tactless in its application, more befitting the man he had become.
There are other things to be observed in the language of Moroni as Joseph gave it to the world in 1835. According to God’s covenant made with his ancient saints, Moroni said, it was necessary that his chosen people, the house of Israel, come to a knowledge of the gospel, their own Messiah, whom their fathers had rejected, and be gathered with the fullness of the Gentiles to rejoice in one fold under one shepherd. Joseph, said Moroni, had been chosen to be the instrument in the Lord’s hand “to bring to light that which shall perform his act, his strange act, and bring to pass a marvelous work and a wonder. Wherever the sound shall go it shall cause the ears of men to tingle, and wherever it shall be proclaimed, the pure in heart shall rejoice, while those who draw near to God with their mouths, and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him,16 will seek its overthrow, and the destruction of those by whose hands it is carried. Therefore, marvel not if your name is made a derision, and had as a by-word among such, if you are the instrument in bringing it, by the gift of God, to the knowledge of the people.”
In this language Joseph was justified and defended against aught that might be said of him, and the major purpose of this first history of his life was served, the Saints given a shield and buckler for the defense of the faith. But we are not done with this early version of the Vision of the Angel Moroni, for Joseph could not rest content with the role in which it cast him.
It will be remembered that the autobiography explains how the angel, on telling Joseph of the golden plates, informed him that the time was not yet ripe to obtain them, that he must wait four years during which he must prove himself worthy. This was by no means the story as Joseph originally gave it to the church; on the contrary, he was to have had the plates immediately, and it was only his own baseness of heart, or at any rate his own frailty, that prevented it.
Moroni having explained that he should have the golden plates on condition that he proceed with “an eye single to the glory of God,” Joseph set out the morning after the visitation to find the places where the plates lay hid. As he walked along, we are told, two different considerations began to war in his mind, “as though two invisible powers were influencing, or striving to influence his mind,” his dependence upon and need to serve the Lord with a whole heart, against the prospect “of obtaining so desirable a treasure—one in all human probability sufficient to raise him above a level with the common earthly fortunes of his fellow men,17 and [p.255] relieve his family from want, in which, by misfortune and sickness they were placed.”
When at last the treasure lay exposed to his gaze, Joseph would have taken it from its stone receptacle, but “a shock was produced upon his system, by an invisible power, which deprived him, in a measure, of his natural strength.” This happened a second time, and a third, until at last he cried out, “Why can I not obtain this book?”
He was answered, “Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord.” The angel again stood in his presence, and he was shamed in the realization that he had failed to remember the great end for which the plates had been kept. Instant contrition swept him. He gave himself up to god in prayer, and as he prayed, the darkness began to disperse from his mind. The heavens were opened, the glory of the Lord rested upon him, and he was shown a vision of the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train, so that he might never forget the two powers that warred for his soul. The plates, he must never forget, were deposited, not “for the sake of accumulating gain and wealth for the glory of this world: they were sealed by the prayer of faith, and because of the knowledge which they contain…the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it was given to the people on this land.” Before the plates could be permitted to come into his hands, he was told, he must be tested for worthiness. When it became known what the Lord had shown him, the workers of iniquity would seek his overthrow, circulate falsehoods to destroy his reputation, and even seek his life. But if he should prove faithful and keep the commandments of the Lord, he should be preserved to bring forth this remarkable work and wonder.
From that time to September 1827, so Joseph told his church in 1835, “few occurences worthy of note transpired.” If, as his autobiography maintains, he made annual pilgrimages to the place where the plates were hidden to be met and instructed by the messenger sent by the Lord, it was not among the things, in 1835, regarded as worthy of note. It had only to be added, for Joseph’s narrative had now come around full circle to the point of beginning, that so far from being “a lazy, idle, vicious, profligate fellow” who had dug down all the mountains of Susquehanna County, as his traducers declared, the prophet had always been “an honest, upright, virtuous, and faithfully industrious young man.” Opinions to the contrary could be influenced by no other motive than to destroy his reputation, even as the Angel Moroni had foretold.18
Strangely, although the discordances between Joseph’s several versions of his visions have not gone unnoticed, no serious effort has ever been made to set his history of the visions within the framework of the religious history of his time. Although there is much subjective content in the visions, both of the Father and the Son and of the Angel Moroni, Joseph hinged them on reality, drawing upon the troubled memories of the revivals to give them the impact of truth. Thereby he also gave the visions an objective content by which they may be absolutely evaluated.
[p.256] It so happened, whether from chance or some particular susceptability, that Palmyra was a seed-ground for all the great revivals which swept western New York in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the time of the celebrated awakening at the turn of the century, which has come down in history most vividly for the pathological intensity it reached in the West,19 almost the earliest response in New York was in Ontario County, where, as a minister of the time took glad note, “the seriousness” began in Palmyra20 The revival so commenced spread like fire in stubble and raged until 1801, but, as usually was the case when religious emotion burned too long and furiously, there followed a prolonged period of spiritual darkness.
The embers were not again quickened into flame until 1816, the year the Smiths migrated to Palmyra. The cold breath of “the year without a summer” had blown chill upon the necks of the Yorkers, and the clergy made haste “to improve the providence, by impressing the minds of the people with a sense of their entire dependence on God, [who] could easily deprive them, not only of the comforts, but even of the necessaries of life.”21 By September the commencement of a glorious work was reported from Palmyra, many rejoicing in hope, multitudes inquiring the way to salvation, and before the revival spent itself, the Presbyterian church alone in Palmyra could list 120 converts who had found hope of a saving acquaintance in Christ.22
Powerful as was this revival, it was not sustained beyond the spring of 1817. The abnormal cold of 1816 had been exorcised by the praise of God, and by the summer of 1817 religious disquiet could give place to expansive talk about the Erie Canal, long dreamed of but now actually to become a reality. The atmosphere of soaring optimism was never conducive to the anxiety of soul which found its characteristic catharsis in the revivals, and it is in no way surprising that the Palmyra newspaper, which from 1817 faithfully chronicled isolated revivals in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York, had no news of religious moment from any nearby locality until word came to hand in January 1822 of “a most extraordinary change within two or three weeks past” at Lyons, twenty miles to the north.23 In Palmyra itself the editor had to be content with lesser things, “a happy change” lately observed among the townsfolk, with young gentlemen actually to be met with in the sanctuary on Sundays, and young ladies seen to grace the church with their presence.24 Though the moral tone of the community continued to improve under the influence of a debating society established for young people, and a society rigidly bent upon the suppression of vice and immorality,25 through all these years no precious drops from the Throne of Grace fell in Palmyra. The village delayed until 1824 to begin a third memorable seeking after the word.
In other words during all these years, when by the necessities of Mormon history Palmyra should have been in continual spiritual torment, its religious life all of a color to grace under the last of the [p.257] revivalists, the townsfolk were going about their daily labors untroubled by the awful probability that they were children of Wrath and in danger of hell. Not in 1820 as the First Vision would have it, not in 1823 as the Vision of the Angel Moroni would have it, but in 1824 began the revival which has left its indelible impress upon Mormon history.
Decisive in fixing the accounts by Joseph Smith and his family within the framework of contemporary event is the memory that has come down to us of the Reverend George Lane, chief architect of the revival. Lane, prior to the fall of 1824, had never ridden the circuits of the Ontario District, and he was never to ride them again. During the five years previous to this time he had been stationed in the Susquehanna District, hundreds of miles to the south, Jonathan Huestis and Abner Chase meanwhile looking after the spiritual welfare of the brethren in the Ontario District, and after this great year of revival, Lane left the itinerancy to become a local preacher at Wilkes-Barre.26 From Lane’s career only, and without reference to the abundant supporting evidence, it can be established that the revival which awakened Joseph to the importance of religion took place from four to five years after the Father and the Son appeared to him, and from a year to a year and a half after the Angel Moroni came to his bedside to reveal his momentous calling.
George Lane’s impassioned preaching, Oliver Cowdery has noted, was “peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect of the hearer, and arouse the sinner to look around him for safety.”27 This was a view fully shared by Lane’s associates in the ministry, who have said that his prayers were characterized by deep agony of soul and firm confidence in God, his sermons by a thorough acquaintance with the scriptures and with the human heart, so that “sometimes under his powerful appeals vast congregations were moved like trees of the forest before a mighty wind. Many a stout-hearted sinner was broken down, and cried aloud for mercy under his all but irresistable appeals.”28
This work at Palmyra to which he set his hand had already been underway for some months, having commenced in the spring of 1824.29 How ripe the field was for the harvest is revealed by a communication in the Wayne Sentinel, published ten days before Lane rode into town: “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. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear; God invites all to come—to repent and be saved. Sinners, recollect that you are, as it were, suspended by the brittle thread of life, over the rolling billows of that lake of fire and brimstone where flames are never quenched. The son of man cometh when no one knoweth it, and those who continue in their wicked career, will sooner or later be precipitated into Hell!”30
[p.258] To such a labor Lane gladly addressed himself. “There was a great awakening,” Oliver Cowdery tells us, “and much enquiry for the word of life.” William Smith, who alone among the elder Smith children perserved some detachment about the excitement, and offered himself as a convert to no church, adds that great numbers were converted as the excitement extended from the Methodists to the Baptists, and from them to the Presbyterians.31 Joseph’s own autobiography declares that “great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties,” and Lane himself has said that the work broke out from the village like a mighty flame and spread in every direction. By December, when he left Palmyra finally, he could count in the village and its vicinity upwards of 150 who had joined his society, besides a number who joined other churches, and many who had not yet joined any church.32
The fires burned at white heat throughout the winter. In January 1825, the Rochester Religious Advocate counted more than 200 hopeful subjects of divine grace in Palmyra, Macedon, Manchester, Phelps, Lyons, and Ontario. “This is a powerful work,” the Advocate rejoiced; “it is among old and young, but mostly among young people. Many are ready to exclaim, ‘what hath God wrought!'”33 By the first week in March the Wayne Sentinel could print the extraordinary intelligence that “in Palmyra and Macedon, including Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, more than 400 have already testified that the Lord is good. The work is still progressing. In the neighboring towns, the number is great and fast increasing. Glory be to God on high; and on earth, peace and good will to all men.”34 It was April before “this very powerful revival in Palmyra” showed signs of subsiding.35
Lucy Smith had always been attracted by formal religion, and more, perhaps, than anyone in her family, she was stirred by the awakening. Being, as her son William says, “a very pious woman and much interested in the welfare of her children, both here and hereafter, [she] made use of every means which her parental love could suggest, to get us engaged in seeking for our souls’ salvation….She prevailed on us to attend the meetings, and almost the whole family became interested in the matter.”36 It was to the Presbyterian church, the oldest and the most numerous in Palmyra, that Lucy and the elder children were drawn. Unfortunately, it was the minister of this denomination, the Reverend Benjamin B. Stockton, who had preached Alvin’s funeral sermon a year or so before and been so intemperate in his language as to intimate strongly that Alvin, not being a church member, had gone to hell.37 This had enraged the elder Joseph, and though Lucy says that to gratify her he attended two or three meetings, he then “peremptorily refused going any more, either for my gratification, or any other person’s.”38
Whether because he shared his father’s feeling or because he had been deeply impressed by the Methodist circuit rider, Joseph also resisted the general movement of his family into the Presbyterian fold. There is no doubt that he had been aroused under Lane’s [p.259] preaching to “look about him for safety”; it is to Lane that Oliver Cowdery, speaking for Joseph, accorded the credit for the providence that his mind “became awakened.” Joseph himself says that he “became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,” and “felt some desire to be united with them.”
In this general chorus of agreement the non-Mormon sources join. Orasmus Turner remarks that Joseph caught “a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road,” to the point of becoming a passable exhorter in the evening meetings, while Pomeroy Tucker says that Joseph went so far as to join the probationary class of the Methodist church and make some active demonstrations of engagedness, though his convictions were “insufficiently grounded or abiding to carry him along to the saving point of conversion,” and he soon withdrew.39
Tucker’s further remark, that the final conclusion announced by Joseph was that “all sectarianism was fallacious, all the churches on a false foundation, and the Bible a fable,” may be received as gratuitous, but there is nothing inherently improbable in it. Within a few years after 1825 Joseph was apologizing for his “former uncircumspect walk, and unchaste conversation,”40 and his skeptical cast of mind is evidenced as well by the fact that he was finally converted to no church as by a conversation his mother’s memory preserved. When she persisted with him on the subject of religion, he said to her, “Mother, I do not wish to prevent your going to meeting, or any of the rest of the family’s; or your joining any church you please; but, do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time.”41
The exact date Joseph turned his back on the high promise the revivals had held out to him can only be guessed,42 but most probably by the early summer of 1825 he had withdrawn altogether from the embrace of the Methodist church. When he went off to the Susquehanna country that fall, he could take up his glass-looking again with an untroubled heart.43
Joseph had not easily been persuaded to yield up the details by which the integrity of his account of himself may be appraised. To importunate followers in 1831 he said shortly that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; and…it was not expedient” for him to relate these things.44 Joseph would best have held to that ground. The progressive enlargement of his story, climaxed finally in the breathtaking vision of the Father and the Son, involved him in difficulties that ended by setting reality at complete defiance. He committed himself very early to the thesis that he had been visited by an angel in 1827. When Joseph shifted his ground in 1834-35, drawing upon the troubled emotions of the revivals to give verisimilitude to his account of his visions, the revival of 1824-25 was wrenched out of its proper context and dated back to 1823, for it was logically impossible that Joseph’s awakening to religion should have been delayed [p.260] for months after the Angel Moroni appeared to him. From this position it was only a step to the final ground he occupied, the revival moved back in time three more years, and his sanction found in the Father and the Son themselves.
How is it possible that Joseph’s followers accepted all that he chose to tell them, never doubting, deaf to inconsistency and blind to impossibility? A Mormon authority has given an answer of a kind: “Our fathers and our people in the past and now, were and are uncritical. They have been and are now—and to their honor be it said—more concerned with the fact of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon and the great work it introduced than [with] the modus operandi of its translation. Overwhelmed by a divine testimony of its truth they have paid little attention to the precise manner by which it was brought forth.”45 It was emotionally impossible for the Saints to challenge the integrity of their prophet, in the matter of his early life or anything he chose to tell them. If deceived in anything, it might be that they were deceived in everything. The whole power and discipline of their faith conditioned them to belief. Yet their own responsibility in the make of their prophet, in the proliferation of his legend, is not to be dismissed. Their hunger for miracle, their thirst for the marvelous, their lust for assurance that they were God’s chosen people, to be preserved on the great and terrible day, made them, hardly less than Joseph, the authors of his history. His questionable responsibility is the faithful image of their own.
Since Joseph placed his record of his visions before the world, the visions have been argued unceasingly. It is idle to argue over them any longer. His story of the visions is not a record of genuine event, objective or subjective, but a literary creation, of which we have both the trial draft and the finished work, revealing Joseph’s mind and personality only as any literary work reveals any writer. The subtleties of his personality are better weighed on a later page, when the evidence of his entire life may be passed in review, but the visions themselves cease to have any significance as history. It is impossible to grant them any standing, to accept them as an adequate accounting of Joseph Smith’s youth, a history standing fierce in contradiction against what has been remembered about him by those who knew him so well.
Yet, as a literary creation, Joseph’s visions have a continuing fascination. All his life long he appropriated freely from the intellectual currency of his age, validating his borrowings with the seal of his own extraordinary mind and will. If he laid claim to visions, this was no more than Elias Smith had done, with his glory seen in the forest at Woodstock and his transcendant vision of “the Lamb upon Mt. Sion.”46 Again, there was John Samuel Thompson, the Universalist minister who had held forth in the Palmyra Academy while the revival raged in 1825—to him Christ had descended from the firmament “in a glare of brightness, exceeding ten fold the brilliance of the meridian Sun…saying: ‘I commission you to go and tell mankind that I am come; and bid every man to shout victory.'”47 [p.261] Admittedly, Thompson’s vision was only a dream, but to Asa Wild, of Amsterdam, New York, the Lord God Jehovah had appeared to reveal the imminence of the Millennium and the great cataclysms which were at hand, including wars, massacres, famine, pestilence, and earthquakes. Every denomination of professing Christians, God had instructed Asa, had become extremely corrupt, many having never had any true faith at all, being guided only by depraved reason; the severest judgements were to be inflicted on the false and fallen professors of religion.48 Even the Presbyterian ranter, Charles G. Finney, could tell of a walk in the woods which had led to his conversion—his anguish of heart, his solitary prayers before the Lord, the great peace that came upon him, and the apparition afterwards in his room, as of the Lord Jesus Christ met face to face.49
If God had not appeared to Joseph in 1820, or the Angel Moroni in 1823, this was, Joseph could come to appreciate, an oversight only. It was an oversight which, after due consideration, he did not hesitate to amend.50 [p.263]
2. This history appeared in the form of a series of eight letters published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834 to Oct. 1835, written by Oliver Cowdery but published directly under Joseph Smith’s eye and, as Cowdery advised the Saints at the time, prepared with his actual assistance: “Indeed, there are many items connected with…this subject that render his labor indispensable.” Brigham H. Roberts, speaking for the Saints in his Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:78n, declared that, so far as the facts themselves are concerned, this is “practically the personal narrative of Joseph Smith.” The various branches of the church Joseph Smith founded have agreed with Roberts, and the letters have often been reprinted.
3. In his third letter, which first touched upon the revival that awakened Joseph, Oliver Cowdery placed this event in “the fifteenth year of his life.” His fourth letter apologized for this error; this religious excitement began not in the fifteenth but the seventeenth year of Joseph’s age: “You will please remember this correction, as it will be necessary for the full understanding of what will follow….This would bring the date down to the year 1823.” Cf. Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1834 and Feb. 1835. The account which follows is taken from ibid.
4. William Smith fully corroborates the Cowdery account in what it says of the decisive role that the Reverend Lane played in the revivals which aroused Joseph Smith on the subject of religion. See the several statements by him reprinted in Appendix B.
5. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh, 1840). The First Vision, it would seem from the internal evidence of Joseph’s autobiography, was first put down on paper in the spring of 1838. The conception may have come to him earlier, perhaps as early as the fall of 1835, but the only evidence to support such an assumption is a somewhat ambiguous entry in Joseph’s history under date of November 15, 1835, to the effect that he had that day given one Erastus Holmes “a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from six years old up to the time that I received my first vision, which was when I was about fourteen years old” (History of the Church, 2:312). The documents on which such an entry in the History may have been based are withheld from study, so that it is impossible to determine whether it is a genuine or later interpolation, even conceding that it is a conclusive reference to the Vision of the Father and the Son.
The only other evidence that has been advanced to prove that Joseph’s followers knew of the First Vision before 1835 is not persuasive. Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet (Salt Lake City, 1893), p. 4, declares that in 1834, at Pontiac, Michigan, he heard Joseph “testify with great power concerning the vision of the Father and the Son,” but apart from the late date of this account, its value is vitiated by the fact that Stevenson’s manuscript autobiography, written in 1891, from which the reminiscences were adapted, pictures Joseph on this particular occasion as speaking only of a “vision of an angel.”
[Editor’s note: Morgan unfortunately did not have access to the earliest accounts of the First Vision, including an 1832 recital in Joseph Smith’s own hand, which only began surfacing in the late 1960s. They are most conveniently available in Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City, 1971).]
6. In 1834, Oliver Cowdery became involved in a steamboat argument with a skeptic who would not believe that Christ had been seen upon the earth since his ascension, and though Cowdery published in the Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, a lengthy account of his refutation, his argument did not include any reference to a visitation to the Mormon prophet, nor was there any editorial comment calling to the attention of the church membership a circumstance of such striking interest to them.
9. Negatively, the Palmyra newspapers as published during the period these visions are asserted to have occured, support the implication of the folklore, since even when printing news of various fanaticisms and delusions, the opportunity was never seized to note the existence of another such at Palmyra. However, that is also true of Joseph’s money-digging, supported though it is by so much external evidence. But the folklore is directly backed up by the Palmyra Reflector, which declared on February 1, 1831, that it appeared “quite certain that the prophet himself never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation,” and again on February 28, 1831, “It is well known that Joe Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the pretended finding of his book.”
10. Times and Seasons 3 (1842): 749. Joseph’s followers have amended this language to have him say that he “displayed the weaknesses of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which I am sorry to say led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God;” to this they have added, “In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature” (History of the Church, 1:9). Numerous changes of the kind have been made in Joseph’s history, analogous to the prudery which has so often retouched the paintings of the old masters.
11. It so happened that Joseph’s paternal great-grandfather was named Jesse; thus scripture was fulfilled in the person of Joseph. Some of the quotations as voiced by the angel differed slightly, as Joseph pointed out, from the King James version; they are, in fact, quoted from the Bible as Joseph revised it during the 1830s.”
12. Three and seven have long been regarded as numbers with mystic significance. See, as a viewpoint contemporary with Joseph, Frederick Henry Quitman, A Treatise on Magic, or, on the Intercourse between Spirits and Men (Albany, 1810), pp. 65, 66. Oliver Cowdery, writing in the Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, makes an emphatic point of the repetition: “Was he [Joseph] deceived? Far from this; for the vision was renewed twice before morning, unfolding farther and still farther the mysteries of godliness and those things to come.”
13. Joseph’s mother, after quoting most of Joseph’s account of these events, here tells a divergent story. By her account, the angel had told Joseph the night before to relate to his father what had taken place, and the duty that had been laid upon him. When the angel, on his appearance to Joseph in open daylight, demanded to know why Joseph had not done as he was instructed, the boy answered that he feared his father would not believe him. The angel rejoined, “He will believe every word you say to him,” which turned out to be the case. It is interesting, as almost the only corroboration of Joseph’s claim to have had a vision as early as 1823, that Lucy says Alvin was working with Joseph and his father in the field this day; she also pictures Alvin as much enraptured with Joseph’s story of the record engraved upon the golden plates. Alvin died in November of this year. See Lucy’s Biographical Sketches (Liverpool, 1853), pp. 81-84, 89-90.
14. Oliver Cowdery’s remarks in Evening and Morning Star, Sept. 1834, make it clear that the history on which he and Joseph collaborated was designed to combat affidavits concerning Joseph’s money-digging which had lately been gathered in Susquehanna County, especially from Joseph’s in-laws. These had first been printed in the Montrose, Pennsylvania, Susquehanna Register, and then more widely circulated by the New York Baptist Register.
15. See Joseph’s letter to Oliver Cowdery, in Messenger and Advocate, Nov. 1834. Characteristically, when this letter is reprinted as a footnote in History of the Church, 1:10, “unchaste” becomes “trifling” conversation.
16. Here, embedded in the words of Moroni, is the language of Joseph’s First Vision, which in fact is simply a dramatization of this pronouncement, undoubtedly suggested by the logical question Oliver Cowdery raised but did not answer in setting down the original version of Joseph’s history.”
17. The recurrence of this phrase shows how burr-like the idea was in the Smith family’s mind. Nearly two years before the words as here quoted were published in the Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, one of the Smith’s old neighbors at Palmyra, Joseph Capron, in an affidavit dated Nov. 8, 1833, related some details of a conversation once had with the senior Joseph Smith. The old man, speaking of the Book of Mormon as a speculation rather than a work of religious import, had said, “When it is completed, my family will be placed on a level above the generality of mankind.” See E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), p. 260. See also Messenger and Advocate, July and Oct. 1835.
18. Disagreeing with both of Joseph’s accounts concerning the indistinctive character of the years between 1823 and 1827, Lucy Smith tells a remarkable story of Joseph’s expectation of bringing home the plates in 1824, and how this was frustrated. The probable basis of fact in her story will be considered in the next chapter, but in any event anything she says upon the subject must be cautiously received, because she says that the family could never bear to hear anything said on the subject of the golden plates after the death of Alvin, which actually occured in 1823, and not, as she says, in 1824. See Biographical Sketches, pp. 85-86, 99. See also Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835.
19. See Catherine C. Cleveland, The Great Revival in the West, 1797-1805 (Chicago, 1916), and such contemporary accounts as David Rice, A Sermon on the Present Revival of Religion (Lexington, 1804), and Richard McNemar, The Kentucky Revival (Cincinnati, 1807).
21. This is the language of Reverend Abner Chase, then riding a circuit in Oneida County; see his Recollections of the Past (New York, 1846), p. 103. Later, for many years, Chase was presiding elder for the Methodist Episcopal church in Ontario District, most notably, from 1820 to 1824.
22. See James R. 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, 1848), pp. 130, 378. A Presbyterian minister in this region from 1801, Hotchkin noted the absence of any extended revivals from the close of the awakening of 1799 to that of 1816-17. He noted, too, that after the second revival there was again a long period of quiescence. The Methodists made the same osbervation. See Zion’s Herald, April 13, 1825.
24. Western Farmer, Oct. 17, 1821. Hotchkin, Purchase and Settlement of Western New York, p. 378, is specific in remarking on the revivals at Palmyra, dating them for 1817 and 1824, with nothing of moment inbetween.
26. George Peck, Early Methodism Within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference from 1788 to 1828 (New York, 1860), pp. 167, 234-38, 313, 447-49, 492-95, provides full details of Lane’s life in the ministry. Born in New York state in 1784, Lane was reared in the southern part of the state—in fact, in Windsor Township, scene of some of Joseph Smith’s treasure-hunting exploits of 1825-26. He prepared himself for school teaching, but was converted to religion and received into the Methodist Episcopal church in northern Pennsylvania in 1803. Admitted to trial in the Philadelphia conference in 1805, he became one of the pioneer circuit riders of the Holland Purchase, in 1808 presiding over the first camp-meeting ever held east of the Genesee River. In 1810 he left the itinerancy, becoming a local preacher at Wilkes-Barre, but was re-admitted in 1819, being appointed to the Susquehanna District of the Genesee Conference. That year, as it happened, was also the year the Ontario District was created. After laboring five years in the Susquehanna District, Lane was transferred to the Ontario District at the fifteenth meeting of the Genesee Conference in July 1824. After his single year on that district, he again located at Wilkes-Barre. He returned to the itinerancy in 1834, and two years later was named assistant book agent. In that capacity and as principal book agent he served until he retired, broken in health, in 1852. He died in 1859. In addition to the account by Peck, see E W Conable, History of the Genesee Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, from … 1810 to the Year 1872 (New York, 1876), pp. 159-232, passim.
36. See Appendix B. 36 It was to the Presbyterian church, the oldest and the most numerous in Palmyra, that Lucy and the elder children were drawn. Unfortunately, it was the minister of this denomination, the Reverend Benjamin B. Stockton, who had preached Alvin’s funeral sermon a year or so before and been so intemperate in his language as to intimate strongly that Alvin, not being a church member, had gone to hell. History of Wayne County, New York [Philadelphia, 1877], p. 147). Hotchkin, p. 378, in his account of the revivals at Palmyra, says that a “copious shower of grace passed over this region in 1824, under the labors of Mr. Stockton, and large numbers were gathered into the church.” Stockton continued as Pastor at Palmyra until October 1827.
37. See the account elicited from William Smith in 1893, reprinted in Appendix B. The mention of Stockton in this connection is entirely plausible, since Lucy herself makes it clear that the revival took place “after the death of Alvin,” and her anxieties over her dead son may have troubled her deeply. The reference to Stockton is another among the innumerable evidences that it is the revival of 1824-25 that figures in Mormon history. The Reverend Stockton was installed as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Palmyra on February 18, 1824, succeeding Reverend Daniel C. Hopkins, who had been the “stated supply” during the two years previous (W. H. Mcintosh,
42. The time could be determined with more assurance if the precise date of Lucy’s own conversion could be established, but records of membership for the years before 1832 are not preserved in the West Presbyterian Church of Palmyra. The conversation Lucy remembers may quite possibly have taken place in the spring of 1825, the basis in fact for Joseph’s placement of his First Vision in the springtime.”
43. Note the interesting correspondence in dates between Joseph’s employment of his seerstone and his passing interest in religion. Willard Chase says that Joseph had the stone in his possession two years—that is, from 1822 to 1824—before returning it, and that Hyrum came to reborrow the stone “sometime in 1825,” after which Chase never saw it again.”
45. B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City, 1907), 1: 307-308. A quotation by which Roberts supported his point of view remains not without point: “It is no use trying to twist facts to suit theories derived from a past which was destitute of the knowledge we now possess; what we have to do is to adjust our theories to suit the facts.”
46. Elias Smith, The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1816), p. 58. Elias Smith was born in Lyme, Connecticut, the birthplace of Lucy Mack’s father, and migrated to Vermont at about the same time. He was ordained a Baptist minister, but withdrew from that church in 1804 to found his Christian Connection, a church which, like Joseph Smith’s, returned literally to the church of Christ. When Joseph began to attract attention in the early 1830s, he was sometimes pictured unflatteringly as Elias Smith’s spiritual heir.
48. Wild’s vision was reprinted from the Mohawk Herald by the Wayne Sentinel, Oct. 22, 1823, one month to the day from the time when, as Joseph later asserted, the golden plates were first showed to him by the angel Moroni. Wild promised at an early date a pamphlet seting forth his views and visions, and this appeared at Amsterdam in 1824: A Short Sketch of the Religious Experience, and Spiritual Travels, of Asa Wild, to Which is Added, a Short treatise on the Millennium.
49. Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York, 1876), pp. 15-23. Finney’s conversion took place in October 1821. His great career as a revivalist was launched at Antwerp, New York, in the summer of 1824, and his contemporary account of that revival is reprinted in the Wayne Sentinel, July 14, 1824.
50. It is to be remarked that Joseph practically never wrote manually; he always dictated, even his history. Thus he was always in the position of a man vis-a-vis an audience with all the psychological complexities in which such a relationship abounds. Much that Joseph wrote would be inexplicable had he written it in privacy of spirit and by his own hand.