The seventh and last vision of Joseph Smith, Sr., occurred, according
to his wife, in 1819 or 1820 while he was living in Palmyra.39
It was about this time that young Joseph would say that he experienced
his first vision. The earliest account of that vision survives from
1832 in Joseph Jr.'s own hand.
He begins his narration by pointing out that his parents "spared
no pains to instructing me in christian religion." He then
describes his youthful religious questing:
At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously
imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare
of my immortal Soul, which led me to searching the scriptures, believeing
as I was taught, that they contained the word of God. Thus applying
myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant
denominations led me to marvel exce[e]dingly, for I discovered that
adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation
agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository, this
was a grief to my Soul. Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen
I pondered many things in my heart . . . my mind become exce[e]dingly
distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the
scriptures I found that did not come unto the Lord but
that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there
was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus
Christ as recorded in the new testament.
p.53 - p.54
However, he continued, "I learned in the scriptures that God was
the same yesterday, to day and forever." By observing the wonders
of nature, Joseph confirmed for himself "well hath the wise man
said fool saith in his heart there is no God."
Thus by considering both the Bible and creation he concluded: "All,
all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant
power, a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things
in their bounds, who filleth Eternity, who was and is and will be
from all Eternity to Eternity." Thus convinced that the God of the
Bible existed, but no denomination any longer taught the New Testament
gospel, he continued praying:
I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else
to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in
the wilderness and while in attitude of calling upon the Lord
a piller of light above the brightness
of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and
I was filled with the spirit of god and the opened the heavens
upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying, Joseph
thy sins are forgiven thee. ... behold I am the Lord of glory, I
was crucifyed for the world.40
Several observations can be drawn from this earliest written narration
of Smith's teenage religious experience. First, like his mother,
he finds the Bible his only reliable guide and his interpretation
of it the only correct one. Second, like his parents, he realizes
that no church any longer has the truth; everyone else has apostatized.
Third, unlike others, much of his conviction is of the sins of other
professing Christians. Finally, like his parents and many others,
he feels conviction of his sins and finds forgiveness through a
direct vision of the Savior granting him pardon.
p.54 - p.55
Orsamus Turner, the young apprentice working at the Palmyra Register
newspaper office, noted young Joseph's presence at a Methodist camp
meeting and found him "a very passable exhorter."41 In the
Methodist style of worship, a sermon was preached in which points
were drawn from a given text or passage from the Bible. After the
message, an exhortation was usually given by another speaker who
would reemphasize the points made in the preacher's exposition and
plead with the people to take seriously the message they had just
heard. The Methodist structure provided for the licensing of official
exhorters by the District Conference.42 However, in more
informal situations, such as camp meetings and evening services
(where the liturgical format used at the morning worship was dispensed
with), even those as young as twelve or thirteen could rise and
give exhortations.43 Since Turner completed his apprenticeship
and left Palmyra in the summer of 1822, his words provide a valuable
insight into Joseph's religious activities before his seventeenth
Joseph did not become a licensed exhorter because such persons
had to be members in full standing with the denomination. However,
Pomeroy Tucker, another early resident of Palmyra, remarked concerning
Joseph, "at one time he joined the probationary class of the Methodist
church in Palmyra, and made some active demonstrations of engagedness,
. . . [but] he soon withdrew from the class."44 Formal church
membership would have required Joseph's meeting with the class leader
"at least six months on trial."45
Joseph attended a debating club in Palmyra Village, and Turner
recalled the following:
Joseph had a little ambition; and some very laudable
aspirations; the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him
feebly, especially when he used to help us solve some portentous
questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating
club, which we moved down to the old red school house on Durfee
street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop
in upon us in the village . . . 46
Joseph wrote about his "intimate acquaintance with those of differant
denominations" during his youth and his partiality toward the Methodists.
But by the time he was approaching nineteen, during the 1824-25
revival meetings, he felt little need for organized religion. He
later wrote in his 1838-39 account: "During this time of great excitement
my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness;
but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept
myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several
meetings as occasion would permit."47 His mother recalled,
"Joseph never said many words upon any subject but always seemed
to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything
of a religious nature."48
p.55 - p.56
According to his later colleague Oliver Cowdery, Joseph was impressed
by the revival preaching of Reverend George Lane. As mentioned in
the previous chapter, Lane was the Methodist presiding elder of
the Ontario District from July 1824 until January 1825. Cowdery
wrote, "much good instruction was always drawn from his [Lane's]
discourses on the scriptures, and in common with others, our brother's
[Joseph Smith's] mind became awakened."49 Joseph would have
been eighteen years old when he heard Lane preaching.
After the family discussed "the subject of the diversity of churches,"
Lucy Smith recalled, Joseph saw an angel who revealed the gold plates:
"After we ceased conversation, he went to bed
but he had not laid there long till a bright enter
the room where he lay. He looked up and saw an angel of the Lord
by him. The angel spoke, I perceive that you are enquiring
in your mind which is the true church. There is not a true church
on Earth. No, not one, has not been since Peter took the Keys
into the Kingdom
of Heaven. The churches that are now upon the Earth are all man
Lucy later remembered "listening in breathless anxiety to the
teachings" of her son Joseph, "for Joseph was less inclined to the
study of books than any child we had but much more given to reflection
and deep study."51 These teachings would have been the theological
expositions resulting from Joseph's deep study expressed within
the Smith family.
Joseph Smith's childhood vision, as his 1832 narrative describes,
of Christ's appearing and granting him forgiveness for his sins
was similar to those of other young people of his day. The later
1838-39 version of his first vision introduces a revival before
his vision and creates a chronologically implausible picture.
From what we can learn about the religious background of the Smith
family, Joseph Jr.'s parents taught religious values to their children.
Though his father did not attend church, he did sing and pray with
his family. Joseph Jr.'s religious instruction included hearing
ministers's sermons, revival homilies, private family worship, and
personal Bible study. Joseph was not uninformed, ignorant, or illiterate.
p.56 - p.57
While the Smith family held Christian beliefs, they also believed
in treasures supernaturally buried in the earth which could be obtained
only through magical rituals. [...]
- Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 31; Biographical
Sketches (1853), 74; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 68.
- "A History of the life of Joseph Smith Jr.," 1-2, LDS archives,
and Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:5-6. In June 1830 there
was a brief reference to Joseph's experience of forgiveness recorded
in the Book of Commandments: "For, after that it truly was manifested
unto this first elder [Joseph Smith], that he had received a remission
of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world"
(BC 24:6). Joseph saw this experience as his call to start into
the ministry. In his 1832 recollection he wrote that he was in
his sixteenth year of age (1821) when he received forgiveness.
In 1838-39 he recorded both the season and the year, "It was on
the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of
Eightteen hundred and twenty" (Manuscript History, Book A-1:3;
JS-H 1:14, PGP; Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:272). For various accounts
by Joseph Smith and others of this vision, see Milton V. Backman,
Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: The First Vision in its Historical
Context (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971; 2d ed., 1980), and Richard
P. Howard, "Joseph Smith's First Vision: An Analysis of Six Contemporary
Accounts," Restoration Studies I (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing
House, 1980), 95-117.
- Turner, History of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, 214. See also
Calvin N. Smith, "Joseph Smith as a Public Speaker," Improvement
Era 69 (Apr. 1966): 277. The Methodist work in Palmyra was still
only a "class meeting" on the circuit at this time. It was not
until 3 July 1821 that the Methodist Society of Palmyra was incorporated
as a church "by the name of the first Methodist Episcopal Church
of Palmyra" (see Miscellaneous Records, Book C: 385-86, in the
County Clerk's Office, Ontario County, Canandaigua, New York).
Four days later, on 7 July 1821, Durfee Chase deeded to the Methodist
Church his property on Vienna Road (see Deeds of Ontario County,
Book G:345, Ontario County Records Center and Archives, Canandaigua,
New York). It was not until 1822 that they were able to begin
construction of a meeting house (see Palmyra Herald 2 [19 June
- The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church
(New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1828), 28, 43, 45, 64, 74, 80.
For background on the Methodist Class, see David Lowes Watson,
The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance
(Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1987). Members of the
class were to "bear one another's burdens" (94) and "there was
no prerequisite for Methodist membership other than a desire for
salvation, the societies were open to all, regardless of their
spiritual state" (108).
- Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
- Pomeroy Tucker, The Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism
(New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867), 18.
- Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
- Turner, History of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, 214. Also
published in Littell's Living Age 30 (30 Aug. 1851): 429, reprinted
from the Rochester American. This statement by Turner is cited
in John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, (New York:
Macmillan, 1933), 32. The Western Farmer 1 (23 Jan. 1822): 3,
Palmyra, New York, contained the following: "NOTICE. The young
people of the village of Palmyra and its vicinity are requested
to attend a Debating school at the school house near Mr. Billings'
on Friday next." Notice dated 19 Jan. 1822.
- Manuscript History, Book A-1: 2; JS-H 1:8, PGP; Jessee, Papers
of Joseph Smith, 1:270.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 46, not in Biographical Sketches
or History of Joseph Smith.
- Messenger and Advocate 1 (Dec. 1834): 42. In 1879 Joseph and
Hiel Lewis, cousins to Joseph's first wife, Emma Hale, stated
that Joseph joined the Methodist Episcopal church or class in
Harmony, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1828. There was disagreement
about how long Joseph's name remained on class rolls. See the
articles in the Amboy [Illinois] Journal vol. 24 for the following
issues: 23, 30 Apr., 21 May, 4, 11 June, 2, 9, 30 July, and 6
Aug. 1879. See also Saints' Herald 26 (15 June 1879): 190-91,
and (15 Dec. 1879): 376. It is possible that Joseph attended class
with his wife Emma because of the death of their first son on
15 June 1828. That Joseph was a member of the class was not questioned,
only the length of time his name remained on the class record.
Like so many of the early Methodist records, the early class books
of the Harmony (now Lanesboro) church are lost, so it will never
be known for certain whether he remained on the rolls for only
three days or for six months.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 46, not in Biographical Sketches
or History of Joseph Smith.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 49; Biographical Sketches
(1853), 84; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 82.