No Palmyra Revivals?

The Mormon Stories essay on the First Vision says the following about the historical setting of Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

Joseph’s mother, Lucy, dated the Palmyra revivals after Alvin’s death in 1823—during the time she began seeking comfort in the religious community. The revival periods are an important question, as Smith’s 1838-39 account states that “great multitudes” joined the various churches. Reverend Wesley P. Walters concurred, pointing to contemporary records that state 1824 as the date of the revival Joseph Smith referred to, not 1820. [6] Oliver Cowdery, likewise, places the revival in 1823 and, according to Walters, “makes no reference to any vision occurring in 1820.” [7] Lucy kept a personal journal. Though she frequently elaborated on mundane things, such as being offended when a gathering of local ladies criticized her modest log cabin, she recorded no mention of her son’s visitation with God.

Joseph did not identify the 1820 date for his vision until he dictated his history eighteen years later. Indeed, in earlier retellings, Joseph vacillates on his age being between fourteen and sixteen. One historian suggested that he may have relied upon the affidavits in Mormonism Unvailed to narrow down a year and season only, an argument bolstered by the conflicting ages he provided. The affidavits of his Palmyra neighbors consistently affirm that the Smith family was deeply engaged in treasure-digging in 1820. [8]

Mormon Stories essays, “First Vision,” accessed April 17, 2019.
Screenshot of Mormon Stories essays, “First Vision,” accessed April 17, 2019.

There are multiple factual errors in this section of the essay.

  • “Joseph’s mother, Lucy, dated the Palmyra revivals after Alvin’s death in 1823—during the time she began seeking comfort in the religious community.” This is not entirely true. Lucy’s 1844–1845 draft version of her history does seem to place the religious excitement in the Palmyra area in the year 1823 in connection with the visitation of Moroni. But her the second draft of that same history quotes Joseph’s 1838 account of the First Vision where he places the “great excitement” during the year 1820. The reason for this discrepancy is not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that the author of the Mormon Stories essay has not been entirely honest about what Lucy’s history actually says.
  • “Reverend Wesley P. Walters concurred, pointing to contemporary records that state 1824 as the date of the revival Joseph Smith referred to, not 1820.” The essay cites the article “The Question of the Palmyra Revival” for this claim. However, this article dates to the 1960s. Subsequent research has debunk Walters’ conclusion that there was no revival around the year 1820. This includes research by Richard Bushman and D. Michael Quinn, two of the authors cited in the Mormon Stories essay. The Mormon Stories essay is relying on thoroughly outdated work.
  • “Oliver Cowdery, likewise, places the revival in 1823 and, according to Walters, ‘makes no reference to any vision occurring in 1820.'” While this is true, there is a very plausible reason for it besides the idea that Joseph Smith was just making things up. The Mormon Stories essay never informs its readers about alternative ways of interpreting this data because the author has an agenda to diminish faith in Joseph Smith’s claims.
  • “Lucy kept a personal journal. Though she frequently elaborated on mundane things, such as being offended when a gathering of local ladies criticized her modest log cabin, she recorded no mention of her son’s visitation with God.” Calling Lucy’s 1845 history “a personal journal” is misleading. While her 1844-45 history did rely on earlier sources, it was not a contemporary record of the history of the Smith family in the 1810s and 1820s but rather a retrospective cobbled together from Lucy’s personal dictation to scribes and the redacting of disparate extant sources.1 Besides, this point is irrelevant because Joseph Smith in his 1838 history specifically says he declined to inform his mother about the details of his First Vision when she asked him, so why would we expect her to have preserved an account of such in the first place?
  • “Indeed, in earlier retellings, Joseph vacillates on his age being between fourteen and sixteen.” As pointed out in an early post, the detail that Joseph was 16 when he had his First Vision comes not from Joseph himself but from one of his clerks making a secondary insertion in the Prophet’s 1832 history. In fact, Joseph was broadly consistent in reporting how old he was when he had the First Vision: between 14–15 years old.
    • 1832 Account: “from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind”
    • 1835 Account: “I was about 14. years old when I received this first communication”
    • 1838 Account: “I was at this time in my fifteenth year”
    • 1842 Account: “When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state”
  • The Mormon Stories essay cites D. Michael Quinn in footnote 8 (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 141) for this claim: “The affidavits of his Palmyra neighbors consistently affirm that the Smith family was deeply engaged in treasure-digging in 1820.” The irony here is that Quinn does not agree with the author of the Mormon Stories essay. The reason for the (negligible) discrepancies in Joseph’s reported age at the time of the First Vision is not because of any fabrication, but, as Quinn himself says, because “like many people today, Joseph Jr. was confused by the distinction between stating his age (‘fourteen years old’) and its equivalent year-of-life (‘fifteenth year,’ which begins on one’s fourteenth birthday).”

Practically every single point raised in these two short paragraphs are debatable or flatly untrue. A more reliable retelling of these historical details can be found in the RSC book Exploring the First Vision.

Eat your heart out, Dehlinites.

Post-Script:

Speaking of Lucy’s 1845 history, the Mormon Stories makes this claim:

1853 – Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, published Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith. This is where we first learn of Joseph Smith’s heroic childhood leg operation, Joseph Senior’s 7 visions and 2 of her own. There was no mention of any first vision. This absence is troubling when contrasted against Lucy’s lengthy stories about the angel and the plates. Recognizing the omission, Orson Pratt later placed the canonized vision story into her book word for word.

Mormon Stories essays, “First Vision,” accessed April 17, 2019.
Screenshot of Mormon Stories essays, “First Vision,” accessed April 17, 2019.

Lucy’s 1844-45 first rough draft of her history does not mention the First Vision. However, the second revised draft prepared in 1845 under Lucy’s supervision, also called the “fair copy,” did include verbatim quotations of Joseph’s 1838 history, including a verbatim quotation of his First Vision account.

The conspiracy theory cooked up in the Mormon Stories essay that Orson Pratt “placed the canonized vision story into her book word for word” because its “absence” and “omission” in Lucy’s history “is troubling” has no supporting evidence. The manuscript evidence alone refutes this laughable claim, since the “fair copy” prepared by Howard Coray in 1845 and utilized by Pratt in his 1853 publication contains a verbatim quotation of the “canonized vision story.”

The author of the essay is literally just making things up.

Editing the revelations—much ado about nothing

Joseph Smith himself, and later the Church, altered key revelations, documents and canonized LDS scripture. The timing and nature of the changes often coincided with evolving doctrinal views, bringing Smith’s ability to reliably receive and record God’s will into serious question.

“Doctrinal Changes,” Mormon Stories Truth Claims essays (accessed 8 February 2019).

As usual, what Mormon Stories does not tell us is more important than what it does tell us.

Yes, revelations and scripture have been edited by Joseph Smith and others. And, Joseph Smith and others were not shy about this fact, nor did they attempt to hide it. Many of the early revelations were published in the Church’s periodicals. When revisions became available, the changes were announced by Oliver Cowdery in those same publications. [History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day saints, 1805-1890, Volume 1, p. 580-81.]

Orson Pratt demonstrates how foolish it would be for Joseph to try to hide changes from his followers:

We often had access to the manuscripts when boarding with the Prophet; and it was our delight to read them over and over again, before they were printed. And so highly were they esteemed by us, that we committed some to memory; and a few we copied for the purpose of reference in our absence on missions; and also to read them to the saints for their edification. These copies are still in our possession…..

And by revelation line was added upon line to several of the sections and paragraphs about to be published.

But some may inquire, are not the Almighty’s revelations perfect when they are first given? And if so, where was the propriety of the Lord’s adding any thing to them, when they were already perfect? We reply that every word of God is perfect; but He does not reveal all things at once, but adds ‘line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little,’ revealing as the people are able to bear, or as circumstances require…. The Lord, therefore, adds to His own revelations whenever he thinks proper.

Orson Pratt, “Explanation of Substituted Names in the Covenants,” The Seer 2.3 (March 1854): 227-9.

Mormon Stories’ confusion is thus only about 160 years out of date.

If we buy Mormon Stories’ rather unsophisticated model, none of this makes any sense — if Joseph is really altering scripture and other texts to support a different teaching, why is he so frank and open about it? Why does he involve his other associates to help him do so? Why does he publish about it the Church’s official periodicals? And why does he think he can get away with it when many of his followers have read the originals and even memorized them, as Orson Pratt reports? Furthermore, why did Joseph and the Church keep the original manuscripts so carefully? Wouldn’t it be better to destroy the originals and hope that memory of the changes faded over time? Instead, the Church announced the changes and additions broadly:

Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the Manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not arrange them according to the order of the date in which they were given, neither did he think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History. Hence, paragraphs taken from revelations of a later date, are, in a few instances, incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner the Lord did truly give ‘line upon line, here a little and there a little,’ the same as He did to a revelation that Jeremiah received, which, after being burned by the wicked king of Israel, the Lord revealed over again with great numbers of additional words.1

Millennial Star (1857).

To accept Mormon Stories’ reconstruction, we must conclude that Joseph is both a calculated deceiver and a complete bumbling fool when it comes to keeping his machinations a secret.

If Mormon Stories was interested in understanding and fairly representing LDS doctrine, it would realize that the early Saints did not understand the prophetic office or the revelatory process in the way required for this jejune attack. But, the reader is by now beginning to suspect that understanding and fairness are not high among the Mormon Stories essays’ priorities.