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See Also: Joseph Smith’s First Vision-A Harmony by Elden Watson
The William Smith Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision by Elden Watson
Ensign Articles about the First Vision

Historicity of the First Vision

One of the interesting attempts to discredit Joseph Smith is to question the details of the account of the first vision. That effort has been led by Wesley P. Walters as he challenged Joseph's statement that "Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." (Joseph Smith-History 1:5). Walters stated:
Information which we have uncovered conclusively proves that the revival did not occur until the fall of 1824 and that no revival occurred between 1819 and 1823 in the Palmyra vicinity. (Walters 1967, Foreword)
It took a renewed effort by Mormon historians to develop a better understanding of the historical foundation of the New York area. Mr. Walters had been correct about Palmyra in 1820, but there were other revivals in the area which met the needs of the account by Joseph Smith. There was a great revival period in Palmyra when Joseph and his family arrived.
Joseph Smith, Jr., began to be concerned about religion "at about the age of twelve years." That 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. "My mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul." he reported later, "which led me to searching the scriptures." A few years later, in July, 1819, the 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 instruciton 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 (Bushman 1984, 53)
The reminiscences of Orsamus Turner are particularly useful because of the early date. "Turner's personal recollections of Joseph Smith of necessity refer to the period prior to the late summer of 1822 and are probably no later than 1820, the latest date of Palmyra memoirs in his writings." (Anderson 1969, 378) Mr Turner mentions that Joseph, "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." (Turner 1852, 214)

Another attempt to discredit Joseph Smith is to claim that his chronology doesn't add up. Joseph was born December 23, 1805. He says that they moved to Palmyra "when I was in my tenth year, or thereabouts." (JH 1:3) This would indicate that they moved to Palmyra in 1815. The family was in Vermont in 1816, because Joseph's brother Don Carlos was born March 15, 1816 in Norwich, Vermont.

He says that his father moved from Vermont to Palmyra in Joseph's tenth year, which by all historians has been interpreted to mean when he was ten, or in 1816. (In other accounts he says he was ten, and a number of facts make 1816 the logical date.) (Bushman 1994, 127)
Joseph goes on to say, "In about four years after my father's arrival in Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester in the same county of Ontario-- . . . Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion." (JH 1:4-5) If we add four years to 1816 we get 1820 as the year the Smith's moved to Manchester and the second year after their move would put the "excitement on the subject of religion" in 1821. However Joseph clearly says that his vision occured in the spring of 1820.(JH 1:14) Now we don't really have a disagreement. He was uncommital about the 1816 date ("or thereabouts") and the four year ("about four years") but he was clear about the vision being in the spring of 1820. We need to give more weight to specific information than approximate estimates.

Pomeroy Tucker says that the Smith's moved to Manchester in 1818 and Lucy Smith says, "So that in 2 years from the time we entered Palmyra, strangers destitute of friends, home or employment. We were able to settle ourselves upon our own land a snug comfortable though humble habitation built and neatly furnished by our industry." (Marquardt 1994, 12)

In their book Marquardt and Walters claimed that the records do not allow the movement of the Smith family into Manchester by 1820. They provide the following information:

  1. Joseph Sr. is first found in Palmyra on the road tax list for April 1817 as a resident on Main Street..
  2. His name appears again in 1818 and 1819.
  3. In April 1820 Alvin appears for the first time on the road tax list as a merchant on Main Street.
  4. In April 1820 Joseph Smith Sr. name now appears at the end of the list which shows he lives near the Palmyra-Farmington town line.
  5. In June Smith home mentioned about two miles south of Palmyra and used a a reference for a road survey.
  6. Orsamus Turner recalls their "rude log house", "in the winter of '19, '20"
  7. Joseph Smith Sr. is listed in the 1820 census for Famington when they started "articling" for the land
  8. All 300 acres of the Nicholas Evertson land was assessed to his heirs on the 22 June 1820 tax rolls.
  9. The following year (7 July 1821) 100 acres were taxed to Joseph Smith.
  10. 1821 and 1822 taxes were $700, but July 1823 taxes were $1,000 which indicates a house was built.
The cabin that the Smiths built "on the farm" was actually located 50 feet north of the Manchester town line. As you notice the survey of the road was completed after they built the house. Pomeroy Tucker also assumed that the house was in Manchester. He says, "In 1818 they settled upon a nearly wild or unimproved piece of land, mostly covered with standing timber, situate about two miles south of Palmyra, being on the north border of the town of Manchester, Ontario County.. . . occupying as their dwelling-place, in the first instance, a small, one story, smoky log-house, which they built prior to removing their." (Tucker 1867, 12-13) That in combination with the rememberances of Orsamus Turner that they definitely were in their home by the fall of 1819 assures us that the Smith family had moved from Palmyra. The confusion is only brought about because they didn't actually build their house in Farmington, but it was located 50 feet north of the Farmington-Palmyra line. I believe that the reason the tax records don't show the Smith's sooner, is because they started clearing land and building the cabin before they could legally purchase the land. The land in Farmington didn't change in value because they did the initial clearing on land owned by Jennings in Palmyra. Jennings would not have complained because it would all fall to him and he had everything to gain and nothing really to lose.

With an understanding that the Smiths actually moved in 1818, we can renew our examination of Joseph's comment. "Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country" (JH 1:5) This would suggest the year of 1819 for the religious excitement to begin. That is the very year that the Methodists held there conference in Vienna. Some have complained that they don't think this conference in 1819 meets the criteria of commencing and soon becoming general among all the sects. We must remember to look at these events through the eyes of 13 year old boy. His comments here could also have been meant to include the later significant Palmyra revivals of 1823-24.

Several accounts mention that it was Rev. Lane who influenced Joseph which led to his study and eventual prayer for guidance. Marquardt and Walters acknowledge that Lane was at the Vienna conference in 1819 but that, "There is no record that he preached or that a camp meeting was held in connection with the conference." (Marquardt 1994, 29) Larry Porter has pointed out that "neither does it list the name of any other minister addressing the conference. . . yet we know that many such preachments were given." (Porter 1995, 129) He also points out that not only was he at the conference near Palmyra in 1819, but he also traveled through the Manchester area in the summer of 1820. (Porter 1995, 130)

Marquardt and Walters even go so far as to suggest that the revivals in Palmyra requires Joseph's first vision to be in 1825. This is definitely contradicted by Joseph's older brother's comments on his death bed in November 1823. In talking to Joseph about the visit of Moroni in September he said, "I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you." (Smith 1912, 98)

Basically we have shown that there is nothing in this investigation into revivals and land records that would discredit the fact that Joseph gave us a reasonably accurate accounting of the events that transpired and led him into the woods that beautiful spring morning. We could possibly get yet another perspective for the events that transpired by comparing the 1832 account of these experiences.

At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare 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 . . . from the age of twleve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart. . . and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a pillar of fire light above the brightness of the Sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me and I was filld with the Spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I Saw the Lord and he Spake unto me Saying Joseph my Son thy Sins are forgiven thee.." (Backman 1971, 156)
In reviewing these accounts, Richard Bushman makes the following comments:
Nothing in the 1838 account contradicts the protracted chronology of the 1832 story. In the later version, Joseph says that the revival started the contention; how long it took before the conflicts broke out, or how long before his questions came to a head is not indicated. In fact, the chronologies of the two would coincide if one word in Joseph's 1839 account were changed. If the text read "sometime in the second year after our removal to Palmyra," rather than "after our removal to Manchester," the stories would blend. Two years after the removal to Palmyra, Joseph was twelve, the year in the 1832 account when his mind became "seriously imprest." (Bushman 1994, 129)
Which is the correct interpretation? It doesn't discredit Joseph's vision either way. We can know that there are no serious challenges to the accounts presented by Joseph Smith. We also can find for ourselves that Joseph Smith is a prophet by examining what he has brought forth. "By their fruits ye shall know them."(Matt. 7:20) and Joseph has brought forth abundantly.