Joseph Smith's First Vision/Did Joseph Smith join other churches/Methodist membership procedures

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Methodist membership procedures and Joseph Smith

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Question: Did Joseph Smith become a member of Emma Hale Smith's Methodist congregation in 1828, eight years after the First Vision?

When the procedures and policy of the Methodist Episcopal Church are examined, it is not possible that Joseph could have joined as related in the story given by one of his critics

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828, and in 1879 reported:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.--It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in. [1]

However, the Lewis' account of Joseph's three-day membership leaves him neither the time, nor the searching assessment required to become a member of the Methodists. This scenario simply does not match how Methodists admitted or expelled members. At best, he was probably regarded as "on probation" or (in modern LDS parlance) "an investigator". The means by which the Methodists separated themselves from Joseph are inconsistent with him being a full member; they do, however, match how probationaries were handled, though in Joseph's case he seems to have had more abrupt and preemptory treatment than was recommended.

This, coupled with the late date of the reminiscences, the clearly hostile intent of the witnesses, and multiple reports from both friendly and skeptical sources that claim Joseph never formally joined another religion make the critics' interpretation deeply suspect.

There is a marked absence of any other witnesses of Joseph's supposed membership and involvement

The Lewis witness is late. There is a marked absence of any other witnesses of Joseph's supposed membership and involvement, even though there are many witnesses who could have given such testimony.

For example, Nathaniel Lewis, another family member, was a Methodist minister. In his 1834 affidavit against Joseph, he emphasized his "standing in the Methodist Episcopal Church" which led him to "suppose [Joseph] was careful how he conducted or expressed himself before me." Yet, though anxious to impugn Joseph's character, this Lewis said nothing about membership in (or expulsion) from the Methodists. [2]

Likewise, none of Emma's other family members said anything about a Methodist connection, though they were closest to and most aware of Joseph's actions at this juncture than at any other time. Yet, Isaac Hale, Alva Hale, Levi Lewis, and Sophia Lewis are silent on the matter of Joseph's Methodism.

Question: How quickly could one join the Methodists in the 1830s?

As we examine Osmon Cleander Baker's A guide-book in the administration of the discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, we will discover that the scenario described by Joseph and Hiel Lewis of Joseph Smith's ejection from the Methodists simply does not match how Methodists admitted or expelled members. [3] (This work dates to 1855, but it often invokes Wesley himself, and is a good first approximation of how Methodists saw such matters.)

A six month probationary period was required in order to join the Methodists

The Guide-Book is clear that considerable time needs to elapse before one is formally admitted as a member:

[23] The regularly-constituted pastor is the proper authority to admit suitable persons to the communion of the Church. The preacher in charge, acting at first under the authority of Mr. Wesley, received members into the society, and severed their relations from the Church, according to his own convictions of duty. In 1784 the assistant was restricted from giving tickets to any, until they had been recommended by a leader with whom they had met, at least two months, on trial. In 1789 the term of probation was extended to six months....Hence, [24] since the organization of our Church, none could be received into full communion who had not previously been recommended by a leader; and, since 1840, it has been required that the applicant pass a satisfactory examination before the Church, respecting the correctness of his doctrine and his willingness to observe the rules of the Church....

Joseph's experience would predate the 1840 requirement, but clearly the requirement of at least a six month probationary period was required, and this required a leader to meet with them and be recommended for membership. The Lewis' three days certainly make this impossible.

Orthodox Christians may have the waiting period waved, but this still requires membership in an orthodox denomination, which Joseph Smith did not have

The Guide-Book indicates that orthodox Christians may have the waiting period waved:

6. "Persons in good standing in other orthodox Chruches, who desire to unite with us, may, by giving satisfactory answers to the usual inquiries, be received at once into full fellowship."....

This still requires membership in an orthodox denomination, which Joseph did not have. Further, he clearly could not give the "satisfactory answers" to the types of questions which the Guide-Book recommends, since the Lewis brothers insist that he was unwilling to do so only three days later. Furthermore, Joseph's views were clearly not "orthodox" by Methodist standards.

Those who were not full members of the church were called "probationers," and at least six months was required to end a probationary period

The Guide-Book is again specific about the length of time required to pass this stage, and the searching examination of conduct and belief that Methodist groups required:

[28] is a matter of vital importance to test, with deep scrutiny, the moral and Christian character of those who propose to enter her holy communion. No proselyte was admitted to Jewish fellowship without being well proved and instructed. The same care was observed by the early Christian Church. "None in those days," says Lord King, "were hastily advanced to the higher forms of Christianity, but according to their knowledge and merit, gradually [29] arrived thereto."...It is the prerogative of the preacher in charge alone to receive persons on trial. No one whose name is taken by a class-leader can be considered as a member on trial until the preacher recognizes the person as such....

[30] As the minister may not know whether the candidate makes a truthful declaration of his moral state, he is authorized "to admit none on trial except they are well recommended by one you know, or until they have met twice or thrice in class." As they are not supposed, at the time of joining on trial, to be acquainted with our doctrines, usages, and discipline, they are not required, at that time, to subscribe to our articles of religion and general economy; but if they propose to join in full connexion, "they must give satisfactory assurances both of the correctness of their faith and their willingness to observe and keep the rules of the Church."...

The Discipline does not specify the time when the probation shall terminate, but it has [31] fixed its minimum period. "Let none be received into the Church until they are recommended by a leader with whom they have met at least six months."...

Again, at least six months was required to end a probationary period. One could not even be a trial, or probationary member unless they were "well recommended" (which seems unlikely, given the reaction to those who did know about Joseph as soon as they heard) or had attended "twice or thrice in class"--this too seems unlikely given only three days of membership.

An earlier account from a Methodist magazine prior to 1828 also supports this reading. In a letter to the editor from a Methodist missionary in Connecticut, the missionary responds to the accusation by others (usually Calvinists) who claim the Methodists falsify their membership records: they are accused of counting only those who have been added, but subtracting those who had left. Part of the response includes line: ".... though the first six months of their standing is probationary, yet they are not during that time denied any of the privileges of our church" (page 33-34).

The letter writer speaks of a revival in New Haven, where he is based, in 1820. "My list of probationers, commencingt June 25, 1820, to this date [March 16, 1821], is one hundred and forty; between twelve and twenty of these have declined from us, some to the Congregationalists, and some back to the world, and some have removed, and one died in the triumphs of faith. I think we may count about one hundred and twenty since June last." (36-7)[4]

It seems likely, then, that the same procedures would have been in place in Joseph's 1828 encounter with Methodism, which occurred squarely between this 1822 letter and the 1855 manual.

Methodists also regarded baptism as an essential part of becoming a member, and specifically barred probationers who were not baptized from full membership and participation

[32] Nor is it the order of the Church for probationers, who have never been baptized, to partake of the holy sacrament. The initiatory rite should first be administered before the person is admitted to all the distinguishing rites of the new covenant.

Since we have no record that Joseph was baptized into Methodism or any other faith prior to his revelations and founding of a new religious movement, this is another bar to his membership with the Methodists. How did he compress his six-month probation, proper answers to all the questions, searching interview by his fellow parishioners, and his baptism, only to abandon the faith without complaint, all within three days?

The Methodist Church had no jurisdiction over acts committed before the member had joined

The Guide-Book was also clear that (save for immorality in preachers), the Methodist Church had no jurisdiction over acts committed before the member had joined:

[90] Any crime, committed at however remote a period, if it be within the time in which the accused has been a member of the Church, is indictable; but it cannot extend to any period beyond membership....

Thus, nothing that Joseph had said or done prior to his membership could have been grounds for action. Thus, only the events of a scant three days were under the jurisdiction of the Methodists, if he had been accepted as a full member. (The Lewises even admit that nothing Joseph had said or done was cause for suspicion, because those who did not know him saw no cause for concern. It was only those who knew his past who were concerned.)

If, however, he was seen as a probationary or "person on trial," then the church and its leaders and members had every right to assess anything about him and decide if he merited membership.

Those who have not formally joined the Methodists could leave the group relatively easily

The Guide-Book is clear that those who have not formally joined the Methodists can leave the group relatively easily:

[30] A mere probationer enters into no covenant with the Church. Every step he takes is preliminary to this, and either party may, at any time, quietly dissolve the relation between them without rupture or specific Church labour.

The Lewis brothers claim they gave Joseph a choice: (1) repent and change his ways; or (2) remove himself from association with them, by either (a) telling the class publicly that he was doing so; or (b) being subject to a disciplinary investigation. This matches how the Guide-Book recommends that probationers or "person[s] on trial" be handled:

[32] A person on trial cannot be arraigned before the society, or a select number of them, on definite charges and specifications. "If he walk disorderly, he is passed out by the door at which he came in. The pastor, upon the evidence and recommendation required in the Discipline, entered his name as a candidate, or probationer, for membership, and placed him in a class for religious training and improvement; now if his conduct be contrary to the gospel, or, in the language of our rule, if he 'walk disorderly [33] and will not be reproved,' it is the duty of the pastor to discontinue him, to erase his name from the class-book and probationers' list. This is not to be done rashly, or on suspicion, or slight evidence of misconduct. It is made the duty of his leader to report weekly to his pastor 'any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved.' This implies that the leader, on discovering an impropriety in his conduct, first conversed privately with him, and, on finding that he had done wrong, attempted to administer suitable reproof that he might be recovered. Had he received reproof, this had been the end of the matter; but he 'would not be reproved,'--would not submit to reproof,--and the leader therefore reports the case to the pastor. But it is evidently the design that after this first failure on the part of the leader, further efforts should be made by the pastor; for the rule, after providing that such conduct shall be made known to the pastor, adds: 'We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But, then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us.' The pastor, on consultation with the leader and others when convenient in country societies, and with the [34] leaders' meeting, where there is one, determines on the proper course, and carries the determination into effect. Here is a just correspondence between rights and duties." - Plat. Meth., p. 87.

In contrast to probationers, full members were required to undergo a disciplinary procedure

The Guide-Book is very clear:

[35] When a Church relation is formed, the member, virtually, promises to observe the rules and usages of the society, and if he violates them, to submit to the discipline of the Church. And hence none can claim a withdrawal from the Church against whom charges have been preferred, or until the Church has had an opportunity to recognise the withdrawal. A solemn covenant cannot be dissolved until the parties are duly notified....

How is this discipline to be handled? The Guide-Book contains extensive rules for managing such trials, and insists that such a trial is the only way to challenge the membership of a full member:

[83] It is a principle clearly recognised by the Discipline of our Church, that no member, in full connexion, can be dropped or expelled by the preacher in charge until the select committee, or the society of which he is a member, declares, in due form, that he is guilty of the violation of some Scriptural or moral principle,, or some requisition of Church covenant....[96] The Discipline requires that an accused member shall be brought before "the society of which he is a member, or a select number of them." In either case it should be understood that only members in full connexion are intended....

The "select committee" was a quasi-judicial body of church members assembled to hear such charges, assess the evidence, and affix punishment if necessary. The Guide-Book emphasizes that this important right had been explicitly defined after Joseph's time (in 1848). For full members, it is clearly seen as a privilege which cannot be abridged:

[83] The restrictive rules guarantee, both to our ministers and members, the privilege of trial and of appeal; and the General Conference has explicitly declared that "it is the right of every member of the Methodist Episcopal Church to remain in said Church, unless guilty of the violation of its rules; and there exists no power in the ministry, either individually or collectively, to deprive any member of said right."—Rec. Gen. Con. [89] 1848, p. 73. The fact that the member is guilty of the violation of the rules of the Church must be formally proved before the body holding original jurisdiction in the case. If the administrator personally knows that the charges are substantially true, it does not authorize him to remove the accused member. The law recognises no member as guilty until the evidence of guilt is duly presented to the proper tribunal, and the verdict is rendered....

Thus, even if the Lewis brothers had personal knowledge of Joseph's guilt, if he had been a full member, they could not have simply told him to leave.

Could Joseph just withdraw as a full member?

The Guide-Book seems to rule this option out, for full members:

[108] If an accused member evades a trial by absenting himself after sufficient notice has been given, and without requesting any one to appear in his behalf, it does not preclude the necessity of a formal trial....

Furthermore, the public removal in front of the congregation seems to be out of harmony with another rule regarding trials for full members:

[110] It is highly improper, ordinarily, to conduct a trial in a public congregation. None should be present except the parties summoned; at least, unless they are members of the Church....

Joseph Smith became "partial to the Methodist sect" in 1820

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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  2. "Mormonism," Susquehanna Register, Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (1 May 1834): 1; republished in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 266-267. (Affidavits examined); reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:293-295.
  3. Osmon Cleander Baker, A guide-book in the administration of the discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York : Carlton & Phillips, 1855). All citations in this article are from this work, unless otherwise footnoted. All italics are original; bold-face has been added.
  4. The Methodist Magazine 5 (January 1822). Citation provided by Ted Jones.