Historians of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints try to play off that there is no problem with Joseph Smith telling his vision four times or that some of the information is changed from vision to vision, however, what they do not want the members to realize is that the story of the first vision contradicts history.
Dating Joseph Smith's First Vision. The first vision had always been incredibly important to me, but I have learned for myself that Joseph was not honest in his telling of this story. According to President Hinckley, the entire church falls if the first vision did not happen.
Brother Dirkmaat incorrectly assumes that the problem with the first vision is that Joseph Smith uses different words and that he told it four times. The problem is that actually, Joseph's versions of the first vision contradict history. This is my response to Brother Dirkmaat.
It would be nearly impossible to prove that a person has or has not seen God and Jesus in a heavenly vision. While I have my own opinion on this matter, my aim in presenting this research is simply to show that an 1820 vision for Joseph Smith was not possible. If a First Vision occurred at all, it would have been in the sometime in 1825, five years later than his proposed date, placing Joseph at the age of nineteen.
There are several aspects of the historical record that we must take into account when trying to date Joseph Smith's first vision. We must take into account the following:
-The death of Alvin Smith (this act brought about Joseph Smith worrying for his soul)
-That four of the Smith's joined the Presbyterian church (they joined out of fear for their own souls, after learning Alvin's fate)
-The testimony of Oliver Cowdery (he gives dates and names that are part of the revivals that spurred the first vision)
-The testimony of William Smith (he, likewise, gives dates and names that are part of the revivals)
-The Palmyra Revivals (Joseph Smith claims that the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians were each part of the revivals)
Alvin Smith was born on February 11, 1798 and he passed away on November 19, 1823. William Smith, Joseph and Alvin's brother, gives the name of Reverend Benjamin Stockton as being the pastor who spoke at Alvin's funeral. Reverend Stockton was a Presbyterian Minister. William states: "Hyrum, Samuel, Katharine and mother were members of the Presbyterian church. My father would not join them. He did not like it because Rev. Stockton had preached my brother's funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy, and my father did not like it" and he later says that they were "hesitant to join" because of Stockton's harsh opinion [Latter Day Saint Millennial Star, p. 133-134]. The dating of Alvin's death would push Joseph's first vision to sometime after November 19, 1823.
In his own history, Joseph tries to push his family joining the Presbyterian Church to some time before his vision in 1820. Yet, in her own biography, Lucy Mack Smith, places their joining that church after Alvin's death, which occurred in 1823 [Biographical Sketches, p. 74].
Joseph reported in the 1838 First Vision Account that after he experienced the vision, he came home and told his mother that “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (Joseph Smith- History 1:20). Why would Lucy and some of her children join a church they knew was wrong? Four of the Smith's joining the Presbyterian Church would place Joseph's vision sometime after 1823.
William Smith's testimony of the Palmyra Revivals and the pastors involved in them, is arguably the most important piece of information in dating the first vision.
In his own book, William dates the revivals to some time between 1822-1823 [William Smith on Mormonism, p. 6]. He also places Joseph as seventeen years old and recounts the vision, not of God and Jesus, but of an angel who informs him that none of the Church’s are correct. Additionally, William Smith gives the names Reverend Stockton and Reverend Lane as being key characters in Joseph Smith's journey to seek for a heavenly vision [see Reverend Stock and Reverend Lane below].
In addition to William Smith, Oliver Cowdery gave dates for the revivals that occurred in Palmyra. Oliver Cowdery places the date of the revival in 1823, but makes no reference to any vision occurring in 1820. In fact, he stated that Smith was wondering in 1823 “if a Supreme being did exist” which seems strange if Smith had already had a vision three years prior, in 1820 [Messenger and Advocate, February 1835, p. 77]. In his version, Oliver Cowdery also gives the name of Revered Lane of the Methodist Sect and claims, just as William and Joseph did, that the revival was spurred by this sect [Ibid., 42].
As stated above, William Smith gives the name of Reverend Stockton as preaching at Alvin's funeral and being part of the revivals that spurred Joseph to seek for answers.
Benjamin B. Stockton was serving as a pastor in Skaneateles, New York from March 4, 1818 until June 30, 1822. While he did visit Palmyra for a youth missionary society in October of 1822, the newspaper still describes him as “Rev. Stockton of Skaneateles" [Palmyra Herald, Nov. 1822]
Stockton was not installed as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Palmyra until February 18, 1824 [Wayne Sentinel, Feb. 18, 1824].
Stockton was the one who strongly intimated that because he was not baptized, Alvin had gone to hell. William states: “as father did not like Rev. Stockton very well, our folks hesitated” joining with the Presbyterians [Latter Day Saints' Millennial Star, p. 133]. Because Reverend Stockton was not stationed in Palmyra until 1824, Joseph's first vision would have happened sometime after February of 1824.
William Smith gives the name of Reverend George Lane, an Elder of the Methodist Church as being part of these revivals. William also informs us that it was Rev. Lane who suggested the text of James 1:5 ("if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God") which is perhaps the most consistent part of all nine accounts of the first vision story.
Lane’s account gives us not only the year, 1824, but even the month and date. According to George Lane’s report, the Lord’s gracious work in Palmyra “commenced in the spring, and progressed moderately until the time of the quarterly meeting, which was held on the 25th and 26th of September,” 1824.
“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 Mehtodist Church, and many more are desirous of becoming members" [Wayne Sentinel, Sept. 15, 1824, i, 3].
With this additional information -placing Reverend Lane as part of a Methodist revival in Palmyra -this would place Joseph Smith's vision sometime after September 1824. In order to place the vision more securely, we have to examine the revivals occurring not only in the Methodist sect, but in the Baptist and Presbyterian sects as well.
In Joseph Smith History verse 5, it reads:
"Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist."
In other words, during the time of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, each of these three religions must have been undergoing a revival of some kind, each overlapping with the other. Likewise, these revivals must also include Reverends Lane and Stockton, meaning that the revivals must have occurred sometime after February 1824.
Before jumping to 1824, let's take a look at what was happening in these different denominations during 1820.
Palmyra during 1820
The Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, 1820
In the summer of 1819, Geneva and Cayuga and Junius reported some activity of revivals within the Presbyterian Sect [Geneva Presbytery, “Records” (Sept. 5, 1820) C, 64], but there was no activity in Palmyra. The reports read:
The Baptist Church in Palmyra, 1820
“The Baptist Church records show clearly that they had no revivals in 1820, for the Palmyra congregation gained only six by baptism, while the neighboring Baptist churches of Lyons, Canandaigua and Farmington showed net losses of four, five, and nine respectively. An examination of the figures for the years preceding and following 1820 yields the same picture of no revival so far as the Baptist Church of the area is concerned” [The Palmyra Revivals & Mormon Origins by Rev. Wesley Walters, p. 19].
The Methodist Church in the Palmyra circuit, 1820
1819 - Net loss of 23
1820 - Net loss of 6
1821 - Net loss of 40
As Joseph Smith claimed that the revivals began with the Methodist church “the Mormon Prophet could hardly have picked a poorer year in which to place his revival” [The Palmyra Revivals & Mormon Origins by Rev. Wesley Walters, p. 19]. [Minutes of the Annual Conferences, i, show white and black membership for the Ontario Circuit sa follows; 1818-700, 3; 1819-674, 3; 1820-670, 1; see pp. 312, 330, 346, 366).
Palmyra during 1824-1825
While Reverend Lane's testimony above claims that twenty-five members joined the Methodist Sect, the Baptists in this year had reported only two baptisms [Minutes of the Ontario Baptist Association, Sept. 1824, 4.] Additionally, the Presbyterian church in 1824 reported that "There has been no remarkable revival of religion within our bounds" [General Presbytery, "Records" (Sept. 8, 1824) D, 16].
The Presbyterian Church in 1824-1825
By the end of September of 1824, however, George Lane recalls that a revival "appeared to break out afresh" [Methodist Quarterly Conference, Sept. 25th and 26th]. This revival fire must have spread to the Presbyterian Sect as well, for the Synod which met October 5, 1824, acknowledged "with gratitude to the great head of the church four instances of special revival," among which was that "in the church at Palmyra of the Presbytery of Geneva" [Geneva Synod "Records" (Oct. 5, 1824) i, 404f.].
The Baptist Church in 1824-1825
"When Reverend Lane left the area December 22, 1824 he noted that "there had, in the village and its vicinity, upwards of one hundred and fifty joined the society, besides a number that had joined other churches..." The Baptists were among the "other churchs" who shared in the harvest. Many hearts were so open that they needed only the invitation in order to respond. On Christmas day, a Baptist preacher wrote to his friend that, "as I came on my journey this way, I tarried a few days, and baptized eight" [Latter-Day Luminary (Feb. 1825) vi, 61].
The Methodist Church in 1824-1825
Within the Methodist Church, the Presiding Elder of the Ontario District reported in 1824 that, "Though for two or three years we saw no great awakenings" but that "the present year we have had some glorious revivals" [The Methodist Magazine (Nov., 1824) vii, 435f.
Above are numbers I have taken from the research done by Reverend Wesley P. Walters in his booklet, The Palmyra Revival & Mormon Origins.
Taking into account that four of the Smiths joined the Presbyterian Church in 1824 (after the death of Alvin in November 1823), William and Oliver's testimonies that the revivals included Reverends Lane and Stockton, and taking into account that Stockton wasn't stationed in Palmyra until February 1824 and that Lane did not report the kinds of Methodist revivals described by Joseph until September 1824 and that the other sects did not experience revivals until late 1824 and 1825, there is little else to conclude but that Joseph Smith's first vision took place in the Spring of 1825.
Rev. Wesley Walters concluded with his own research that "several major revisions will have to be made in Joseph Smith's story. Since Joseph presents his vision as occurring in the spring, the date of the vision would accordingly have to be moved to the spring of 1825, following the revival. This would then also neccesitate changing the date of his second vision from September 21, 1823 to not earlier than September of 1825. In turn this would require another change in his story, for he mentions visiting the hill where the plates were buried in each of the three years that elapsed between 1823 and 1827. The revised date would allow for just one visit in the year of 1826. With this must readjustment, Smith's memory for events becomes somewhat suspect. Furthermore, such a realignment of dates calls for an entire recasting of the context of the story. Instead of being the naïve boy of fourteen, as he presented himself, he would in 1825 be a young man of nineteen, who in less than a year will find himself in court charged with vagrancy and fraud and before a second year has expired eloping with a young women from Pennsylvania" [Walters, p. 23]
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