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.