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Methodist camp meetings in the Palmyra area in 1820



Question: When did the Methodists acquire property near Palmyra to hold their camp meetings?

The Methodists' acquisition of property on Vienna Road in July 1821

Some wish to discount the story of the First Vision by asserting that Joseph's claim that the "unusual excitement" about religion that "commenced with the Methodists" could not have occurred. Specifically, it is claimed that Methodist camp meetings would not have occurred until after July 1821, since the Methodists did not acquire property in the area until that time.

The Wikipedia article "First Vision" (as of May 18, 2009) contained the unsupported assertion in a footnote (the assertion that this was Joseph's "first dabble with Methodism" has since been removed):

Bushman, 69-70. The Methodists did not acquire property on the Vienna Road until July 1821, so it is likely that Smith's first dabble with Methodism occurred during the 1824-25 revival in Palmyra.

The Bushman reference (Rough Stone Rolling) states nothing about the Methodists' acquisition of property, nor does it claim that Joseph's "first dabble" with Methodism occurred during the 1824 revival. The statement was simply asserted by the editor of the wiki article. (Note: Sometime prior to September 2009, another Wikipedia editor has since replaced the unsupported assertion above with the citation by Dr. Matzko below).

Matzko makes the same assertion regarding the property on Vienna Road, however, he backs up it with a citation. According to Matzko:

Since the Methodists did not acquire property on the Vienna Road until July 1821, the camp meetings were almost certainly held after that date. [citing Wesley Walters, "A Reply to Dr. Bushman," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 99.]

The Methodists were already holding "camp meetings" in 1820

In contrast to the Wikipedia article, however, Matzko does provide a balancing reference to the 1820 Methodist camp meeting:

D. Michael Quinn argues that, on the contrary, a Methodist camp meeting of 1820 can be fairly interpreted as the religious revival to which Joseph Smith refers and that Methodists typically only asked permission to use property for camp meetings rather than purchase the land.[1]palm

One need not refer to Quinn, however, to demonstrate that at least one Methodist camp meeting took play near Palymra in 1820. The Palymra Register notes the occurrence of a Methodist camp meeting in the area in June 1820. From the Palmyra Register June 28, 1820:

Effects of Drunkenness.—DIED at the house of Mr. Robert M'Collum, in this town, on the 26th inst. James Couser, aged about forty years. The deceased, we are informed, arrived at Mr. M'Collum's house the evening preceding, from a camp-meeting which was held in this vicinity, in a state of intoxication. He with his companion who was also in the same debasing condition, called for supper, which was granted. They both stayed all night—called for breakfast next morning—when notified that it was ready, the deceased was found wrestling with his companion, whom he flung with the greatest ease,—he suddenly sunk down upon a bench,—was taken with an epileptic fit, and immediately expires.—It is supposed he obtained his liquor, which was no doubt the cause of his death, at the Camp-ground, where, it is a notorious fact, the intemperate, the lewd and dissolute part of the community too frequently resort for no better object, than to gratify their base propensities.[2]

We find in the subsequent issue that the Methodist's objected to the paper's implication of what happened at their camp meeting, and the Register published something of a retraction. From the Palmyra Register July 5, 1820:

"Plain Truth" is received. By this communication, as well as by the remarks of some of our neighbors who belong to the Society of Methodists, we perceive that our remarks accompanying the notice of the unhappy death of James Couser, contained in our last, have not been correctly understood. "Plain truth" says, we committed "an error in point of fact," in saying the Couser "obtained his liquor at the camp-ground." By this expression we did not mean to insinuate, that he obtained it within the enclosure of their place of worship, or that he procured it of them, but at the grog-shops that were established at, or near if you please, their camp-ground. It was far from our intention to charge the Methodists with retailing ardent spirits while professedly met for worship of their God. Neither did we intend to implicate them by saying that "the intemperate, the dissolute, &c. resort to their meetings."—And if so we have been understood by any one of that society, we assure them they have altogether mistaken our meaning.[3]

The Methodists were clearly holding camp meeting prior to their acquisition of property on Vienna road in 1821

  • The Palmya Register clearly records that the Methodist's were holding a camp meeting in June 1820. This contradicts the assertion that "Since the Methodists did not acquire property on the Vienna Road until July 1821, the camp meetings were almost certainly held after that date."
  • The newspaper did not report on this meeting directly—the camp meeting only became notable when a complaint was made by the Methodists regarding the association of the meeting with the death of a drunken man. This contradicts the critics' assertion that the absence of mention of a camp meeting or "revival" in the local newspaper means that one never occurred.
  • If the meetings were common then they were not news—they were only reported when something unusual happened, like a death. This suggests that not only were Methodists meeting locally in 1820 (something proven by the Palmyra Register account), but such meetings were probably a frequent occurrence.


Question: Did Joseph Smith join the Methodists as an "exhorter" years after being told not to join another church during the First Vision?

Joseph was not a "licensed exhorter" for the Methodists, but instead participated in a "juvenile debating club"

Although the Palmyra Register does not specify the location of the Methodist camp meeting in 1820, we do have evidence that meetings were indeed occurring on Vienna Road. John Matzko cites Orsamus Turner,

At some point between 1821 and 1829, Smith served as “a very passable exhorter” at Methodist camp meetings “away down in the woods, on the Vienna Road.”[4]

It should be noted that Matzko's assertion that this occurred "between 1821 and 1829" is not supported by the source, since Turner never specifies the timeframe during which Joseph acted as an "exhorter." Despite the fact that Turner is a hostile source , the full quote does contain some important additional information,

But Joseph had a little ambition, and some very laudable aspirations; the mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us to solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red school-house on Durfee street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop in upon us in the village; amid, subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.[5]

Joseph could not have been a "licensed exhorter" without being a member of the Methodist Church

This quote presents critics with a dilemma (as can be seen in the Wikipedia article "First Vision"). Critics wish to demonstrate the Joseph was associated with the Methodists after being instructed during the First Vision not to join any church. They attempt to do this by minimizing the mention of a "debate club" and instead imply that Joseph was a formal "exhorter" in Methodist meetings. It is noteworthy, however, that even critic Dan Vogel states that Joseph "could not have been a licensed exhorter since membership was a prerequisite."[6]

This is consistent with Joseph Smith's own history, in which he stated that he became "partial to the Methodist sect" and that he "felt some desire to be united with them"

Joseph Smith:

During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.[7]


  1. D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist "Camp Meeting" in 1820," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3 (December 20, 2006), PDF link expanded version ("definitive") (accessed March 6, 2007).
  2. Palmyra Register (June 28, 1820): 2.
  3. Palmyra Register (July 5, 1820): 2.
  4. John Matzko, "The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40 no. 3 (Fall 2007), 78 note 2, citing Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and Morris' Reserve (Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1851), 214, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols...
  5. Orsamus Turner (1801-1855) "Origin of the Mormon Imposture," Littell's Living Age Vol. XXX, No. 380 (August 1851): 429.
  6. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 3:50, n. 15.
  7. Joseph Smith - History 1:8.