Joseph Smith–History Insight #7
Joseph Smith remembered the time leading up to his First Vision as a period of intense personal struggle trying to decide which church, if any, was true. “At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with the all important concerns for the well fare of my immortal Soul,” Joseph recalled in his 1832 history.1 As his mind was “wrought up” on “the subject of religion,” Joseph considered “the different systems [of religion] taught [to] the children of men,” and “knew not who was right or who was wrong.”2
Later in his 1838–39 history, Joseph remembered that this personal religious quest for the truth was happening in the midst of “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.”3 Beginning “in the place where [he and his family] lived” with the Methodists, this religious excitement “soon became general among all the sects” and spread throughout “that region of country” until “the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5).4
Historical records and primary sources confirm that there was considerable religious activity throughout much of western New York in the early 1800s.5 During this time, multi-day Methodist revival meetings were regularly held throughout the region, featuring dozens—and sometimes even hundreds—of preachers and attracting crowds in the thousands from miles around.6
In Palmyra specifically, “The great revival of 1816 and 1817, which nearly doubled the number of Palmyra Presbyterians, was [still] in progress when the Smiths arrived.”7 The next year, in June 1818, a Methodist camp meeting was held on the outskirts of town, drawing in a crowd of around 2000—twice the population of Palmyra itself—and featuring a high-ranking leader in the American Methodist church.8 Another Methodist camp meeting with at least 1000 people in attendance was held in Palmyra in June 1820.9 In July 1819, the neighboring town of Phelps (also called Vienna) was the host of a major regional conference of the Methodist church, bringing in around 100 preachers from all across western New York, northern Pennsylvania, and southern Canada. These preachers held camp-meetings throughout the region as they traveled to and from the conference.10
Each of these events initiated by the Methodists in Palmyra and the surrounding area between the years 1818–1820 would indeed have generated “an unusual excitement” and provide a glimpse of the “great excitement” which promoted “serious reflection and great uneasiness” in young Joseph while at other times making him “greatly excited” (Joseph Smith—History 1:8–9).11 Sarepta Marsh Baker, who attended some these revival meetings around Palmyra as a teenager in either 1819 or 1820, similarly remembered these events as a “religious cyclone which swept over the region round about.”12
Much of western New York was experiencing similar religious excitement. “Between 1816 and 1821,” writes historian Milton V. Backman, “revivals were reported in more towns and a greater number of settlers joined churches than in any previous period of New York history.”13 Several towns within a 20-mile radius of the Smith farm experienced heightened religious excitement in 1819–1820, and Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians all experienced significant membership gains throughout western New York at this time.14
Accounts of revivalism and major membership gains in other parts of western New York were reported directly in Palmyra and would have spread by word of mouth as people traveled as far as 50 miles or more to attend revival meetings and regional conferences.15
This evidence of religious excitement both directly in Palmyra and within the much larger “whole district of country” is consistent with Joseph Smith’s account.16 As historian Richard Lloyd Anderson explained: “Joseph’s 1838 history creates two geographical levels explaining local as against regional religious conflict, his tighter home area as against expansion throughout a broader ‘district,’ possibly intended as the technical Methodist term.”17 Joseph identified “unusual excitement” in his immediate environs in and around Palmyra while “the great multitudes [who] united themselves to the different religious parties” were said to have been throughout “the whole district of country” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5). As Anderson concluded:
Joseph quickly identified the crescendo of growth as the “whole district of country,” which may be a general term for his larger area or his technical term for the whole Methodist Genesee District. . . . This multicounty Methodist “District” increased by 1,187 in the conference year ending July 1819. . . . [Thus] Joseph’s accounts [of his First Vision] coalesce not only with each other but also with family, local, and revival records, showing that his First Vision setting is historically authentic.18
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 91–169.
Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 301–320; reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 171–197.
Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the Frist Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 11–23.
4 History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, p. 1–2 in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 208. See also the interview of Joseph Smith recorded by David Nye White, which quotes Joseph as explaining, “There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join.” See David Nye White, Interview, 21 August 1843, p. 3, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
5 See “Awakenings and Revivals,” online at history.churchofjesuschrist.org. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1950). See also Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2004); Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-over District of New York in the 1840s (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986); Rachel Cope, “From Smouldering Fires to Revitalizing Showers: A Historiographical Overview of Revivalism in Nineteenth-Century New York,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 2 (2012): 25–49, esp. 37–39; Richard E. Bennett, 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2020), 317–342, esp. 329–342.
6 For background on camp-meetings, see Milton V. Backman Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: 1980), 71–74; D. Michael Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience on a Methodist ‘Camp-Meeting’ in 1820,” Dialogue Paperless #3 (December 2006): 26–29.
7 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 36.
8 See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013), 104–116; Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 2–4. See also Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 11–12.
9 Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 4, 30–40. Although this camp meeting may be too late to have directly influenced Joseph before his vision, Quinn argues that Joseph’s vision may have been later in the season than typically assumed (see pp. 23–24).
10 See Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 81–82; Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 116–118; Brown, Pillar of Light, 12–13.
11 History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, p. 2, in Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 208–210. See also Alexander Neibaur, Journal, 24 May 1844, p. 23, online at josephsmithpapers.org: “Br Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival Meeting … he wanted to get Religion too wanted to feel & shout like the Rest but could feel nothing.”
12 As cited in Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 89. Backman situates her description of the era in the period immediately after the 1819 Genesee Conference in Phelps, but Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 45–46 situates it in the context of the 1820 camp meeting in Palmyra.
13 Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 77.
14 See Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969): 301–320, esp. the map on pp. 312–313; reprinted in Exploring the First Vision, 171–197 (map on p. 182). See also Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 53–89 (map on pp. 86–87). Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 99–101, also documents significant religious growth throughout the broader region of western New York.
15 See Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 88–89; Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 36; Brown, Pillar of Light, 13–16. Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience,” 27. Later, Quinn documents ministers attending the Palmyra 1820 camp meeting from as far as 85 miles away, and notes that over 50 miles is not an unusual distance for even non-ministers to travel for such events (see pp. 47, 53). See also Milton V. Backman Jr., “Lo, Here! Lo, There! Early in the Spring of 1820,” in The Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry C. Porter and Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988), 24.
16 See Brown, Pillar of Light, 13–16.
17 Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 99.
18 Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 137–138.