Dr. Wesley Walters was one of the first people to question Joseph’s Smith’s account of the First Vision, saying there were no reports of revivals near Palmyra, NY in 1820 as Joseph Smith claimed. Is there another way to interpret this? BYU Professor Steven Harper is the author of “First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins” and seeks to answer this issue. Were there revivals in 1820?
Steven: Do you know there weren’t? No. You know that there’s no evidence in the newspaper, for example. So, Wesley Walters takes the geographical area to be Palmyra village, and he shows that there are no newspaper accounts of camp meetings in the Palmyra village area in the 1820 window. That’s what he knows. So let me be crystal clear. The fact is that he overstated it. Milton Backman did find a reference to a camp meeting in early 1820 in a Palmyra newspaper. So, Wesley Walters knows that the facts are, that in the records he researched, there was little to no mention of unusual religious excitement in Palmyra village in 1820. Well, what he doesn’t know is, is there unusual is excitement in the ‘whole district of country where we lived,’ right? That’s Joseph’s line. Joseph doesn’t say Palmyra village. He says, ‘the whole district of country, indeed the whole region of country.’
Steven: Joseph locates the unusual religious excitement around Manchester, which is actually where his family lives. They don’t live in Palmyra, at the time of the vision or within a couple of years of it. So, you can’t decide whether something’s anachronistic or not, if you are deciding all the parameters of that. You can’t be too close-minded about what Joseph means. One danger is not listening to Joseph well enough, deciding what he means. This is, I think, a problem with quite a lot of people, believers, unbelievers. They think they know what he means before they know what he means. So, I’m not sure I know everything he means, but I am more inclined to let him explain himself. I’m inclined to listen to him and trust him. I believe he tells an accurate story. Now, I’m not saying it’s not distorted. I think he probably did blend memories about Presbyterianism. The idea of saying, “Mom, I know for myself Presbyterianism isn’t true.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a later 1820s memory.
GT: Yeah. Because doesn’t his mother and sister join the Presbyterians about 1823?
Steven: We don’t know when they join. That’s another thing people assume. We do not know when they joined. The records don’t exist. We know when they leave the Western Presbyterian Church. We don’t know when they join. If we did, it might help us sort through some of these things. Assuming that we know when they did is a problem.
Can we find evidence of revivals in 1820?
Steven: People set out to see what other evidence there might be and among these people was Milton Backman, a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. [He’s a] well-educated Latter-day Saint. He dug into the ‘whole region of country.’ He used Joseph Smith geographical scope. Joseph used the Methodist term: the whole district of country seemed affected by the unusual religious excitement. So, where Wesley Walters cast his net small in Palmyra Village, a few miles north of Joseph Smith’s farm, Professor Backman cast his net wide around the whole area of country, the whole district.
Steven: What he found was lots of evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion. The word revival comes up often, as if that’s the measuring stick. A revival is the measuring stick. What often happens is people think a revival equals a camp meeting. All those things are related, but they’re not all the same thing. If you confuse them for the same thing, you might mistake what you’re looking at. So, there is evidence for a camp meeting in the newspaper in Palmyra in 1820. Professor Backman found it. He quoted in his resulting article and work. But is that an unusual excitement on the subject of religion? Professor Backman didn’t think that one mention of that was, but he found plenty of examples of spikes in church attendance and church membership in various churches within a [radius of] 5, 10, 15-mile concentric circles. He found, in other words, evidence for unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the region or district of country that Joseph was saying.
Steven: He, [Professor Backman] also, didn’t circumscribe it so much in time, as Reverend Walters did. Joseph didn’t say it happened in the first days of 1820. Joseph gives more possible time for that unusual excitement. If you reach back into mid-1819, you find Methodists having conference meetings within a day’s walk of Joseph’s home, hundreds of Methodist ministers convening in this area. They’d have their conference meetings, and then they would spread out into the villages and preach. That happens in 1819. It happens again in 1820 within, again, a day’s walk. It’s not credible to argue that Joseph Smith could not have any basis for concluding that there was unusual excitement on the subject of religion in the district of country where he lived. That’s simply hiding evidence. Now, how you interpret that evidence that’s up to you, but to say it doesn’t exist is irresponsible.
What do you think? Is Joseph’s memory accurate enough? Check out our conversation….
Don’t miss our previous conversation with Steve!