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Multiple accounts of the First Vision/1832/Doesn't mention a revival
Summary: A religious revival is not mentioned in Joseph Smith's handwritten 1832 First Vision account. Since this detail does not show up in the narrative until the 1838 'official text' some claim that it provides evidence that the First Vision story evolved over time and became more elaborate.
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- Question: At what age did Joseph Smith become concerned about religion?
- Question: What religious excitement was occurring in Palmyra in 1820?
- Question: What statements did Joseph Smith make about religious excitement in the area of Palmyra?
...this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the
of theminds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed...
—Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision
Question: At what age did Joseph Smith become concerned about religion?
Joseph's interest in religion began when he was 12 years old, after the 1817 revival
Joseph's concern about religion started when he was twelve years old, close on the heels of the revival of 1817. In his 1832 account, Joseph notes that his concern about religion began at age 12 (1817-1818):
"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of 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 different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning 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..." (Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision)
Richard Bushman notes that this "would have been in late 1817 and early 1818, when the after-affects of the revival of 1816 and 1817 were still felt in Palmyra." 
Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." There is documented evidence of at least one Methodist camp meeting in the Palmyra area during that period, which only by chance happened to be mentioned in the local newspaper because of a specific death that seemed to be associated with it. In addition, there are newspaper articles talking of large-scale revival activity in the larger region surrounding Palmyra during the same general period when Joseph Smith said that it was taking place.
It is reasonable to assume based upon the facts that the Methodists had more than one camp meeting during this period. This could easily account for the religious excitement in Palmyra that, in Joseph's mind at age 14, began with the Methodists.
From age 12 to 15 Joseph pondered many things in his heart concerning religion
Joseph continues in his 1832 account: "[T]hus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins." In July, 1819, several years after Joseph said his mind became "seriously imprest," a major Methodist conference was held near Palmyra:
[T]he Methodists of the Genesee Conference met for a week in Vienna (later Phelps), a village thirteen miles southeast of the Smith farm on the road to Geneva. About 110 ministers from a region stretching 500 miles from Detroit to the Catskills and from Canada to Pennsylvania met under the direction of Bishop R. R. Robert to receive instruction and set policy. If we are to judge from the experience at other conferences, the ministers preached between sessions to people who gathered from many miles around. It was a significant year for religion in the entire district. . . . The Geneva Presbytery, which included the churches in Joseph's immediate area, reported in February, 1820, that "during the past year more have been received into the communion of the Churches than perhaps in any former year." Methodists kept no records for individual congregations, but in 1821 they built a new meetinghouse in town. 
Question: What religious excitement was occurring in Palmyra in 1820?
Methodist camp meetings were being held in Palmyra in 1820
Some claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, contrary to Joseph Smith's claims that during that year there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion...indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it" Joseph Smith—History 1:5 Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country."
Abundant evidence of religious excitement exists to substantiate Joseph’s account. This has been thoroughly summarized by Pearl of Great Price Central. Their analysis may be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinked text.
One should keep in mind that Joseph Smith never used the term "revival" in his description - he simply described it as "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion." To a 14 year old who had been concerned about religion starting at age 12 after the 1817 revival, the ongoing camp meetings in the town in which he lived would certainly qualify.
Question: What statements did Joseph Smith make about religious excitement in the area of Palmyra?
Statements from Joseph's history regarding religious excitement when he was a youth
Critics of Joseph Smith claim that no revival is mentioned in the 1832 First Vision account because the actual word 'revival'—or something similar—is not found within the text. But they have failed to notice a distinct pattern of words that demonstrate a definite link between the various First Vision accounts.
7 March 1832
- On 7 March 1832 (just a few months before Joseph Smith penned his 1832 First Vision account) some Mormon missionaries in Pennsylvania were saying that during Joseph’s youth he had repented of his sins but was “not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them,” and so he resorted to prayer.
- "At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures, believing as I was taught that they contained the word of God. Thus applying myself to them, and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations, led me to marvel exceedingly. For I discovered that they did not 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 concerning the situation of the world of mankind the contentions and divisions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind. My mind became excedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins. And by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith. And there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. And I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world. For I learned in the scriptures that . . . . [A]nd when I considered all these things, and that that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth, therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy."
- During "the 15th year of [Joseph Smith's] life" there was "a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion" in Palmyra, New York and its "vicinity."
- There was "much enquiry for the word of life"
- "in common with others, [Joseph Smith's] mind became awakened"
- "For a length of time the reformation seemed to move in a harmonious manner"
- "but, as the excitement ceased . . . a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects, for proselytes"
- "Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches"
- "Then strife seemed to take the place of that apparent union and harmony . . . and a cry—I am right—you are wrong—was introduced"; "all professed to be the true church"
- "In this general strife for followers, [Joseph Smith's] mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians"
- This circumstance gave Joseph "further reflection"
- He received "strong solicitations to unite with one of those different societies"
- But "seeing the apparent proselyting disposition manifested with equal warmth from each, [Joseph Smith's] mind was led to more seriously contemplate the importance of a move of this kind"
- His "spirit was not at rest day nor night"
- Joseph did not want to "profess godliness without its benign influence upon [his] heart" [i.e., 'repenting of sins' theme]
- He also did not want to "unite with a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation, and that profession be a vain one"
- Joseph Smith felt that there would be "serious consequences of moving hastily, in a course fraught with eternal realities"
- He believed that "amid so many [denominations], some must be built upon the sand"
- "In this situation where could he go?"
- Joseph spent time "reflecting" on a passage of scripture
- He had a strong "degree of determination . . . relative to obtaining a certainty of the things of God"
9 November 1835
- "being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involve eternal consequ[e]nces; being thus perplexed in mind . . . . information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it"
2 May 1838
- “multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people, Some crying, ‘Lo here’ and some ‘Lo there’. Some were contending for the Methodist faith, Some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist . . . . a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; Priest contending against priest, and convert against convert . . . a strife of words and a contest about opinions”. . . .“so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations”. . . . “the cry and tumult were so great and incessant"; “war of words, and tumult of opinions”; “the contests of these parties of religionists”
When the September—November 1832 First Vision account is compared with subsequent recitals (especially 1838), and one partial previous rendition, it appears that they are all telling the same story: Prior to the First Vision event there were contentions and divisions among the different religious denominations in connection with a revival. It seems, therefore, that the Prophet's handwritten 1832 account does indeed make a passing reference to revival activity.
There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals
There are several other phrases in the Prophet's 1832 account that can be interpreted as references to revivals. For instance, Joseph Smith said that when he was "about the age of twelve years" (23 December 1817—23 December 1818) he became seriously concerned about the welfare of his soul. Why did these feelings arise at this point in time? Possibly because there was a Methodist camp-meeting/revival from June 19th through the 22nd, 1818 held in Palmyra, New York.
Joseph Smith pointed to a time period "from the age of twelve years to fifteen" (i.e., between 23 December 1817 and 23 December 1821) when he –
- applied himself to studying the scriptures
- noticed the hypocrisy of some persons who claimed to be religious
- pondered the "contentions and divisions" among men [revival imagery seen in other First Vision accounts]
- pondered the "wickedness and abominations" and "darkness" of mankind
- was grieved by what he saw around him; felt to mourn for the sins of the world
- became "exceedingly distressed" because he felt "convicted of [his] sins" and felt to "mourn" for them
- did not recognize any religious denomination that followed the biblical pattern completely
- determined that God wanted to be worshiped in truth
- decided to pray
The phrase “I cried unto the Lord for mercy” in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it.
Some of the themes enumerated above can be matched with the Prophet's other descriptions of things that happened during the revival activity of Palmyra and its vicinity. This matching of themes tends to support the argument that the 1832 text does indeed refer to revival activity.
- (1832) "the scriptures . . . they contained the word of God"; (1834) "that record called the word of God"
- (1832) "I became convicted of my sins"; (1834) "arouse the sinner to look about him for safety"
- (1832) "that Being seeketh such to worship Him as worship Him in spirit and in truth"; (1834) "All professed to be the true church"
- (1832) "society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament"; (1834) "a society professing to be built upon the only sure foundation"
- (1832) "those of different denominations . . . they did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation"; (1834) "they were certainly hypocritical"
- (1832) "my mind became exceedingly distressed"; (1838) "my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness"
- (1832) "the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind"; (1838) "At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness" or pray
The phrase “I cried unto the Lord for mercy” in Joseph Smith's 1832 First Vision account also has a strong ring of revivalism to it. Rev. George Peck recounted the happenings at a Methodist camp meeting held on 4 July 1816 in Plymouth, New York. He said that “There was an unbroken roar of fervent supplication all over the ground, while the awful voice of the preacher resounded.” One person then fell to the ground and cried for mercy.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 53.
- Bushman, Beginnings of Mormonism, 53.
- The Fredonia Censor, vol. 11, no. 50, 7 March 1832.
- Joseph Smith, 1832 vision account; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 1–2.; from MS Joseph Smith, "A History of the Life of Joseph Smith," in Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1-6, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
- (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:42-43.
- Joseph Smith, Journal entry, 9 November 1835; found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 22. from MS Joseph Smith Journal, 1835-36, 193 pp., Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City. direct off-site
- JS-H 1:5-6
- E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D.D. (New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1880), 21–22, citing the Aurora Seager diary. This revival was never mentioned in the Palmyra newspapers.
- George Peck, The Life and Times of Rev. George Peck (New York: Nelson and Philips, 1874), chapter 2.