Joseph Smith's First Vision/Lucy Mack Smith and the Presbyterians

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Lucy Mack Smith and the Presbyterians

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Question: When was Lucy Mack Smith baptized?

Richard Bushman: "In recounting her baptism around 1803, Lucy Smith by implication suggested a date for her membership in the Presbyterian church in Palmyra"

Lucy Mack Smith recorded in her history that she sought out baptism sometime around 1803, without formally joining any Church at that time. The Reverend Wesley Walters attempts to place Lucy's association with the Presbyterians at 1824, to coincide with the formal 1824 revival. In 1987, Richard Bushman summarized the debates about Lucy's Presbyterianism to that point:

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....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. [1]

Thus, a definitive answer to the question will probably elude us, though Bushman clearly favored the early date.

Critics act as if the matter has been settled the way the Reverend Wesley Walters hoped it would be--insisting that the 1824 date was the only viable one. This is false, and the weight of evidence is probably on the side of the "traditional" understanding of Lucy and at least some children as Presbyterians prior to an 1820 First Vision.

Question: Did Lucy Mack Smith join the Presbyterian Church after her son Alvin died in 1823?

Lucy Mack Smith did not say in her autobiography that she joined the Presbyterian church after her son Alvin died

It is claimed that the Prophet's mother joined the Presbyterian church after Alvin Smith died in late 1823 (Joseph Smith said she joined in 1820). If Lucy Mack Smith joined the Presbyterian Church in 1823, then this contradicts Joseph's statement that she joined in 1820, thereby dating Joseph's First Vision to no earlier than 1823.

There are several problems with this argument. The most serious one is that Lucy Mack Smith did NOT say in her autobiography that she joined the Presbyterian church after her son Alvin died. The original manuscript of the autobiography (including the crossed-out portion) actually says:

  • Alvin Smith died (19 November 1823).
  • "lamentation and mourning filled the whole neighborhood".
  • Those from Alvin's immediate circle felt "more than usual grief".
  • The funeral and the interment took place.
  • "The circumstances of [Alvin's] death aroused the neighborhood to the subject of religion".
  • The Smith family "could not be comforted" because of Alvin's loss.
  • "About this time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest flocked to the meetinghouse to see if there was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings."
  • One man was laboring in the area "to effect a union of all the churches that all denominations might be agreed to worship God with one mind and one heart".
  • Lucy Mack Smith thought that this idea "looked right" and tried to persuade her husband to "join with them" (i.e., the unionized group of "all denominations").
  • Lucy Mack Smith "wished" to join herself with this group.
  • All the Smith children were "inclined" to join this group except Joseph (who refused from the first to attend the meetings).
  • Joseph told his mother that he did not wish to prevent her or any member of the Smith family from attending any church meeting or "joining any church" that they liked but stated his own desire not to go with them. Joseph also stated that if they did join any church they would not be with them long because of "the wickedness of their hearts".
  • Father Smith attended one meeting of the unionized church group but declined thereafter. He said that he did not object if Mother Smith and the children wanted to attend these meetings or join with the group.

There are several observations that will help to clarify the meaning of this text.

The effect of Alvin's funeral on the Smith family

Alvin's funeral was conducted by a Presbyterian clergyman named Benjamin B. Stockton. [2] This detail raises the strong possibility that someone in the Smith household had an affiliation with the Presbyterian church by November 1823 (Stockton did not become the official pastor of Palmyra's Western Presbyterian Church until 18 February 1824). [3] Indeed, in one of William Smith's recountings of Church history he seems very clearly to say that his mother and some of his siblings were members of the Presbyterian church at the time of Alvin's funeral. [4] And in another recounting he states that they had this affiliation in the year 1820. [5]

Question: Did Lucy Mack Smith state when she joined the Presbyterians?

Lucy does not say when she joined the Presbyterians

Lucy Mack Smith does not say in her autobiography that she actually joined with the religious group that was composed of "all the churches". She only says that she desired to join with them. She may well have already been associated with the Presbyterians.

Lucy was baptized first and THEN in 1820 she formally joined a denomination

One Presbyterian author claims that "when Lucy reached Palmyra, she developed a connection with the Presbyterian church, even though she held aloof from membership." As support for this assertion, he cites Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 11-13 and notes that "Solomon Mack, Lucy's father, was a Universalist during her childhood but converted to orthodox Christianity in 1810." The author does not clarify the nature of Lucy's connection to the Presbyterian church after her arrival in Palmyra. Although he notes that Lucy "had sought spiritual comfort from a noted Presbyterian minister" while in Randolph, Vermont (citing Lucy's autobiography), he fails to note that this same autobiography provides the timeframe for when she was baptized. She says, “I concluded that my mind would be easier if I were baptized and I found a minister who was willing to baptize me and leave me free from membership in any church after which I pursued the same course until my oldest son [Alvin] attained his 22nd year” - which took place on 11 February 1820.

The "revival" mentioned by Lucy occurs one year prior to the 1824 revival

The "great revival in religion" that is mentioned in Mother Smith's autobiography appears to take place not long after Alvin's death in November 1823. In fact, it seems that it was Alvin's death that instigated this particular event. A disparity in timeframes (a one-year gap) calls any perceived connection between this event and Palmyra's 1824-25 revival into doubt. A ministerial eyewitness says that nothing much like a recognizable revival even took place in the village of Palmyra until December 1824 (The Methodist Magazine, vol. 8, no. 4, April 1825). Mother Smith does not mention any conversions during the December 1823 denomination-welding event which she describes while the December 1824 revival garnered more than 150 converts who joined themselves with various separate churches.

Lucy's family was suspended from fellowship in the Presbyterian church in March 1830

Church records confirm that Lucy's family was suspended from fellowship in the Western Presbyterian Church of Palmyra on March 10, 1830. The charge was 18 months of inactivity, which indicates that they had not attended since September 1828. This was one year after Joseph had received the plates. [6]

Joseph's actions support the First Vision account of his relatives joining the Presbyterians

Joseph Smith's comments to his mother about joining "any" church are significant. He said that taking such an action would be a mistake because of what was in the hearts of the adherents. During the First Vision the Lord told Joseph that the hearts of the members of the Christian denominations were far from Him (1832 account). Joseph also told his mother that if she did decide to join one of the churches she would not be long with them. This make perfect sense when it is remembered that just a few months prior to this time Joseph had informed his family that an angel had told him about golden plates and indicated that God was about to reveal "a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and the redemption of the human family" (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996], chapter 18).

The facts contained within the primary source documents do not support the conclusions of the critics. Joseph Smith said that his mother and siblings were members of the Presbyterian church in 1820 when he had the First Vision and the writings of his mother and brother support that statement. Joseph Smith was not in a state of confusion or bent on deception when he recorded the occurrences of his past. Readers of the Prophet's history can have confidence in what is presented before them.

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


  1. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 53.
  2. "W[illia]m. B. Smith's last Statement," [John W. Peterson to Editor], Zion's Ensign (Independence, Missouri) 5/3 (13 January 1894): 6. Reprinted in "Statement of William Smith, Concerning Joseph, the Prophet," Deseret Evening News 27 (20 January 1894): 11; and "The Testimony of William Smith," Millennial Star 61 (26 February 1894): 132-34; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:513.
  3. See Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980 [1971]), 69. Also see Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5 vols (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003) 487n13
  4. Zion’s Ensign, vol. 5, no. 3, 13 January 1894.
  5. "William B. Smith. Experience and Testimony," in "Sketches of Conference Sermons," reported by Charles Derry, Saints' Herald 30 (16 June 1883): 388; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:490–492.
  6. Milton V. Backman and James B. Allen, "Membership of Certain of Joseph Smith's Family in the Western Presbyterian Church of Palmyra," BYU Studies 10 no. 4 (1970): 482-484.