In their sensitive and unsettled frames of mind, the Smiths responded
to the stimulus of the revival preaching much as they had before.
At some unspecified date Lucy finally overcame her reservations
and joined the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, probably
the best established church in the village and before 1823 the
only one with a building of its own. Hyrum, Sophronia, and Samuel
joined with her.32 Joseph, Sr., and [p.54] the other sons
held back. Joseph, Jr., "became somewhat partial to the Methodist
sect," and came close to joining, but could not overcome his reservations.
Two printer's apprentices at the Palmyra Register who knew Joseph
remembered his Methodist leanings. One said he caught "a spark
of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the
Vienna road." The other remembered that Joseph joined the probationary
class of the Palmyra Methodist Church. Joseph himself confessed
"some desire to be united with them." He later said "he wanted
to get religion too, wanted to feel and shout like the rest but
could feel nothing."33
Joseph did tell a Methodist preacher about the vision. Newly
reborn people customarily talked over their experiences with a
clergyman to test the validity of the conversion. The preacher's
contempt shocked Joseph. Standing on the margins of the evangelical
churches, Joseph may not have recognized the ill repute of visionaries.
The preacher reacted quickly, not because of the strangeness of
Joseph's story but because of its familiarity. Subjects of revivals
all too often claimed to have seen visions. In 1825 a teacher
in the Palmyra Academy said he saw Christ descend "in a glare
of brightness exceeding tenfold the brilliancy of the meridian
Sun." The Wayne Sentinel in 1823 reported Asa Wild's vision
of Christ in Amsterdam, New York, and the message that all denominations
were corrupt. At various other times and places, beginning early
in the Protestant era, religious eccentrics claimed visits from
divinity. Nathan Cole, a Wethersfield, Connecticut, farmer and
carpenter, recorded in his "Spiritual Travels" that in 1741 "God
appeared unto me and made me Skringe: before whose face the heavens
and the earth fled away; and I was shrinked into nothing. . .
The visions themselves did not disturb the established clergy
so much as the messages that the visionaries claimed to receive.
Too often the visions justified a breach of the moral code or
a sharp departure in doctrine. By Joseph's day, any vision was
automatically suspect, whatever its content. "No person is warranted
from the word of God," a writer in the Connecticut Evangelical
Magazine said in 1805, "to publish to the world the discoveries
of heaven or hell which he supposes he has had in a dream, or
trance, or vision. Were any thing of this kind to be made known
to men, we may be assured it would have been done by the apostles,
when they were penning the gospel history." The only acceptable
message was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph's
report on the divine rejection of all creeds and churches would
have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical, who
repeated the conventional point that "all such things had ceased
with the Apostles and that there never would be any more of them."51
The forces of eighteenth-century rationalism were never quite
powerful enough to suppress the belief in supernatural powers
aiding and opposing human enterprise. The educated representatives
of enlightened thought, newspaper editors and ministers particularly,
scoffed at the superstitions of common people without completely
purging them. The scorn of the polite world put the Palmyra and
Manchester money diggers in a dilemma. They dared not openly describe
their resort to magic for [p.72] fear of ridicule from the fashionably
educated, and yet they could not overcome their fascination with
the lore that seeped through to them from the past. Their embarrassment
shows in the affidavits Hurlbut collected. William Stafford, who
admitted participation in two "nocturnal excursions," claimed
he thought the idea visionary all along, but "being prompted by
curiosity, I at length accepted of their invitations." Peter Ingersoll
made much more elaborate excuses. One time he went along because
it was lunchtime, his oxen were eating, and he was at leisure.
Secretly, though, he claimed to be laughing up his sleeve: "This
was rare sport for me." Another time he said he "thought it best
to conceal my feelings, preferring to appear the dupe of my credulity,
than to expose myself to his resentment. . . ." Willard Chase
and the Staffords said nothing about their personal quests for
treasure and reliance on stones other than Joseph's.93
Despite the disdain of the educated, ordinary people apparently
had no difficulty reconciling Christianity with magic. Willard
Chase, perhaps the most vigorous of the Palmyra money diggers,
was a Methodist class leader at the time he knew the Smiths, and
in his obituary was described as a minister. When Josiah Stowell
employed Joseph to use his seerstone to find Spanish bullion,
Stowell was an upright Presbyterian and an honored man in his
community. The so-called credulity of the money diggers can be
read as a sign of their faith in the reality of the invisible
powers described in scripture. Christian belief in angels and
devils made it easy to believe in guardian spirits and magical
Sometime in this dark period Joseph attended Methodist meetings
with Emma, probably to placate her family. One of Emma's uncles
preached as a Methodist lay minister, and a brother-in-law was
class leader in Harmony. Joseph was later said to have asked the
circuit preacher to be enrolled in the class. Joseph Lewis, a
cousin of Emma's, rose in wrath when he found Joseph's name, objecting
to inclusion of a "practicing necromancer." Lewis confronted Joseph
and demanded repentance or [p.95] removal of his name. For some
reason Joseph Smith's name remained on the roll for another six
months, although there is no evidence of his attendance.50
In recounting her baptism around 1803, Lucy
Smith by implication suggested a date for her membership in
the Presbyterian church in Palmyra. She had searched for a minister
who would baptize her without the requirement of commitment
to one church. She found such a man, who left her "free in regard
to joining any religious denomination." After this, she says,
"I stepped forward and yielded obedience to this ordinance;
after which I continued to read the Bible as formerly until
my eldest son had attained his twenty-second year." Biographical
Sketches, pp. 48-49.
Alvin was twenty-two in 1820. Unfortunately, the Presbyterian
records that could confirm this date are lost. In an 1893 interview
William Smith said that Hyrum, Samuel, and Catherine were Presbyterians,
but since Catherine was only eight in 1820, and Sophronia, whom
Joseph named, was seventeen, Sophronia was more likely to be
the sister who joined. Interview with William Smith, Nov., 1893,
Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Jan. 20, 1894, reprinted
in Kirkham, New Witness, 1:44; Joseph Smith, History
of the Church, 1:3.
Later Western Presbyterian Church records mention Lucy, Hyrum,
and Samuel, but neither Catherine nor Sophronia. Sophronia meanwhile
had married and possibly transferred her membership. Porter,
"Study of Origins," pp. 45-46.
All the circumstantial evidence notwithstanding, the date of
Lucy Smith's engagement to Presbyterianism remains a matter
of debate. It is possible to argue plausibly that she did not
join until later Palmyra revivals in 1824. Hill, "First Vision
Controversy," pp. 39-42.
- Tucker, Origin, p. 28: Turner, History, p.
214; Backman, Joseph Smith's First Vision, p. 177. On the
careers of Pomeroy Tucker and Orsamus Turner, see Anderson, "Circumstantial
Confirmation," p. 377.
- Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:6; Wayne
Sentinel (Palmyra), Oct. 22, 1823; John Samuel Thompson, Christian
Guide (Utica, N.Y.: A. G. Danby, 1826), p. 71: "The Spiritual
Travels of Nathan Cole," ed. Michael Crawford, William and Mary
Quarterly, 3d set., 33 (Jan., 1976):96.
- Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, 5 (1805):349; Joseph
Smith, History of the Church, 1:6-7. The New England divines
Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins both argued against personal
revelations. Joseph Bellamy, True Religion Delineated ...
(Boston: S. Kneeland, 1750), p. 92; Samuel Hopkins, The System
of Doctrines ..., 2 vols. (Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer
T. Andrews, 1793), 1:603-4.
The announcement of a general apostasy among the churches would
have been familiar to the Methodist preacher. That was the common
message of the visions; see, for example, The Sense of the
United Non-conforming Ministers (London, 1693), p. 6. I am
indebted to Michael Crawford for this reference. Asa Wild carried
the same information away from his vision. Cf. Elias Smith, The
Life, Conversion, Preaching ... of Elias Smith (Portsmouth,
N.H.: Beck and Foster, 1816).
Marvin Hill enlarges on the belief in apostasy among a number
of lay Christians in the early nineteenth century, in "Role
of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the
Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago,
1968). See also Marvin Hill, "The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in
New England and New York," B.Y.U. Studies, 9 (Spring, 1969):351-72.
- Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 238, 232-33. Hurlbut
himself may have injected some of the excuses into the affidavits
to polish up the respectability of his informants.
- Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation," p.
296; Kirkham, New Witness, 2:363.
- Amboy Journal,
Mar. 30, 1897. I am indebted to Linda Newell and Valerie Avery
for this reference.