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Were Revivals in Palmyra in 1820?

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….

Dr. Wesley Walters said there was no evidence of revivals in Palmyra until 1823-4. But Joseph lived in Manchester in 1820. Were there revivals there?

Don’t miss our previous conversation with Steve!

514: Memory Problems with First Vision

4 thoughts on “Were Revivals in Palmyra in 1820?

  1. How is talking about hermeneutic of suspicion not ad hominem? To describe one’s approach as a hermeneutic of trust is an abdication of the historian’s enterprise and just a euphemism for apologetics. However, for the record, I do not find it impossible that JS could have a vision of the Father and Son in 1820. JS wasn’t the only one to claim such a thing. My goal is not the same as Walters, and my methods and conclusions are vastly different than his. Still, I recognize that Walters was right about the revival.

    No one—not even Harper—questions Walters’ conclusion that there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820. The one mentioned in the newspaper was outside Palmyra in June 1820, whereas JS described the vision as occurring while the weather was still cold, in early spring (1838) and when he leaned up to the hearth (1842). No one has claimed that JS could not have attended a revival in 1820, just not the one he described—which began with the Methodists in the place where he lived and spread to the whole district and included the conversions of his mother and siblings. On this point, Walters not only argued for the absence of evidence but confirmation in the historical record that such a revival did occur in Palmyra in the winter of 1824-25 under the preaching of my ancestor the Reverend George Lane, the Methodist minister who was mentioned by Cowdery and William Smith as inspiring JS in his quest for the true church.

    Harper reluctantly admitted that JS’s account contain anachronisms, albeit, just the addendum Richards added in 1842 and possibly others. Quinn also acknowledged the possibility that JS blended elements from 1824-25 in his account of the 1820 revival. It makes little sense to admit anachronisms in the account and then insist that there had to be a revival in Palmyra in 1820 as JS claimed. It’s time to abandon the polemics of the forty-year-old Walters-Backman debate.

    So it’s not because of the sinister motives that Harper ascribes to me that I question Smith’s version of events. I see evidence of development in Smith’s accounts, which incidentally coincide with his developing descriptions of the Godhead and his unique authority claims. I’m more interested in historical analysis and using the situation to learn about JS, and not at all worried about the false suspicion/trust dichotomy. Why did JS move the 1824-25 revival back to 1820? Those who have read my writings or watched my videos know the answer. The 1832 account has no revival and a confirmation that all churches were corrupt with an assurance that he was saved by faith. Whereas the 1838-39 account inserts the revival, a search for the true church, and command not to join any for they were all wrong. I have argued that JS’s quest for the true church was connected to his family’s religious division following Alvin’s death.

    Insights like this are far more important than defending JS’s official history, which any historian would approach with caution. This history begins by stating its purpose was to defend JS against competing accounts. Immediately following his First Vision account, there is a version of his vision of the angel that suppresses magical elements of the story and contains anachronisms about the coming of Elijah. A few pages more, JS minimizes and suppresses the true nature of his involvement in the Stowell’s treasure digging venture. JS’s mention of his conversation with the Methodist minister about his First Vision wasn’t the catalyst that triggered his memory, especially since that account included his over-the-top and exaggerated claim that all the religious leaders were united in their persecution of him for telling his vision. A better explanation is that he transformed his story to fit the situation his followers were experiencing in Missouri at the time he was crafting the beginning of his official history.

    I find memory studies useful in explaining how the Spaulding witnesses thought the Book of Mormon matched their vague memories of the manuscript they heard read to them more than a decade earlier. Harper’s use of it is unfortunate.

  2. Dan Vogel, Thanks for weighing in! I know these debates can get repetitive and monotonous, so that’s why I did not tag you, but I appreciate you weighing in. I tried to ask Steven questions I thought you might like to ask him in both parts 2 and 3 (and I even said, “I hope Dan is watching.”

    As I said in the other post, I viewed Harper’s hermeneutic of suspicion/trust as explanatory more than defamatory. (And some here think a historian should view accounts with some degree of suspicion.) But I can see how you would take exception to it. As we summarized in part 5, (to be released):

    GT: So, that’s your biggest issue: you’re a believer. They’re not. We’re going to look at facts differently, just based on our point of view. Is that right?

    Steven: Yeah. I wouldn’t call it an issue. That’s just the way it is. The question might be asked, “Well, why do to people who know the same facts and study the same historical records come to such dramatically different conclusions? It’s because historians aren’t endowed with some godlike capability of knowing. They only know the same facts that anyone else can know. Then, they just interpret the facts. Their interpretations are necessarily dependent on their biases and prejudices and choices, faith commitments, or lack thereof. Some people are under the impression that it’s the facts of the matter that turn the tide. No, it isn’t. The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers are believers. They know all the facts. Dan Vogel, Sandra Tanner, they know the facts. Everybody invested in this knows the facts. [We are all] reading the same documents and the same evidence. I’ve had really wonderful exchanges with Ann Taves, who knows the facts well. She studies them really carefully and arrives at different interpretations than I do. It’s not that one of us knows the evidence better than the other. It’s that we just make different choices about what the evidence means.

  3. Let me also state that I was a bit surprised that Harper started his book with the 1838 version rather than the 1832 version, because it seems to fly in the face of a typical historian’s approach to history. I see he is trying a new approach, but I’m not sure it will catch on, and I think that is a problem.

  4. My reference to ad hominem wasn’t of the abusive kind; it was more about diverting attention away from the argument by focusing on the arguer’s circumstances. The validity of an interpretation has nothing to do with the historian. The evidence is to be judge solely on its merits. Too often talk about bias leads to unrestrained interpretation, as if to say, “Since everyone is biased, I’m just going to let my bias run free.” Scholarly standards still apply. Harper referred to a few in his discussion, so he hasn’t given up on reason and evidence. It’s not a matter of smart people disagreeing, implying that all interpretations are equal and should be equally respected. A lot of smart people defend really bad ideas. Weak interpretations are eventually given up for stronger ones. We have all seen how this works. Our discussions of the First Vision are just beginning.

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