When it comes to the subject of Joseph Smith once can expect mixed reactions.  One reaction is to sing the praises of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  They would say that he is a prophet of God and brought back the church that Christ established from apostasy[1]  Another is met with disdain at the founder of a religion that is among the fastest growing in the word.  They take objection at the church’s claim to be the one true church, its controversial doctrines, and perceived indoctrinations[2].

What led to Joseph Smith establishing a new religion in the 1800’s?  This paper will take a look at his upbringing.  A look at how religion played a role in his life is a vital starting point.  A look at his parents’ attitude towards religion plays a pivotal role.  Through it all we will see that the lack of religious direction for Joseph Smith was a factor that led to the first vision.

As previously stated, Mormons are among the fastest growing religious groups in the world[3].  To better understand them one must look at what started the movement.  In this case it was a child’s search for religious truth.

 

RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND OF SMITH’S PARENTS

Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack were married on January 26, 1796.  Their union was blessed with eleven children, and many failed business ventures[4].  The religious background of the two is quite difficult to find.  After all, the focus is on their famous son and his exploits.  Nonetheless there is some information that may help explain Joseph Smith’s actions later in life.  At the very least they may lay the foundation on which Mormonism stands.

His father, Joseph Smith Sr., was raised without much of a religious upbringing.  It is interesting to note that his grandfather, Asael, was a self-proclaimed Universalist who opposed the evangelical movement[5].  Joseph Smith Sr.’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, is said to have heard voices and seen visions which would eventually lead to him becoming a Christian[6].  He self-published a book in 1811 entitled A Narrative of the Life of Solomon Mack in which he documents a very telling incident regarding his son in law Joseph Smith Sr.  He describes an incident in which Joseph Smith Sr. attended a Methodist camp meeting, and his grandfather, Asael, was waiting for him upon his return.  Solomon Mach writes in regard to the incident “He threw Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason into the house and angrily bade him read it until he believed it[7].

Joseph Smith Sr. grew up in a home that lacked religious conviction.  There was a belief in God and in doing good, but to no set doctrine or ideology.  As a result of his upbringing, Joseph Smith Sr. did not find value in organized religion.  He claimed to have detailed dreams that had much symbolism in them.  He was also a Freemason, so the symbolism in his dreams could be related to the symbolism of masonry[8].

The religious childhood of Lucy Mack Smith was not structured well either.  Her father did not become a Christian until he was 76 years old.  During the childhood of Lucy and her siblings the religious education was left in the hands of Lucy’s mother.  Her mother could have possibly been a Congregationalist, but services were not attended[9].  Her brother was a seeker and formed his own religious group when he was fairly young.  Lucy Mack writes, “Before he had attained his sixteenth year, he became what was then called a seeker, and by believing that by prayer and the gifts of the gospel, which were enjoyed by the ancient disciples of Christ, might be attained, he labored incessantly to convert others to the same faith[10].”

 

JOSEPH SMITH:  BIRTH AND FAMILY LIFE

Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont.  His parents both came from large families, and they had a large family of their own as Joseph was child number five of eleven.  Unfortunately, the Smith’s had two children die while they were still infants.  The childhood of Joseph Smith was difficult to say the least.  Money was tight, and they family did what they could to make ends meet.

Farming was the family business, and early in Joseph’s life his father took a gamble on ginseng, but had a business partner that cheated him[11].  They had lost everything, and the family farm had to be sold to pay off creditors.  The Smith’s would move several times during Joseph’s childhood.  In relation to the moves Mormon historian Richard Bushman states, “In the next fourteen years, the Smiths moved seven times[12].”

One particular move saw them move to Lebanon, New Hampshire where in the winter of 1812 a Typhoid epidemic broke out.  Joseph did not go untouched by the disease and he developed an infection in his shin.  He underwent a very painful surgery, with no anesthesia which was a common practice, and had the infected bone removed.  Though he would develop a limp he did make a full recovery[13].

In 1814 the family moved to Norwich, Vermont and continued farming.  Those three years were catastrophic as three years of crop failures left the family destitute.  In 1817 Joseph Smith Sr. went on his own to Palmyra, New York while Lucy stayed behind to make arrangements with creditors.

There has been some speculation as the extent in which Joseph was educated.  With all of the moving, and financial turmoil a formal education was not really possible.  He attended school briefly when the family moved to Palmyra, but did not complete formal schooling.  Joseph did learn how to read, write, and how to do basic mathematics.  In regards to his education Joseph would later write, “I was deprived the benefit of an education[14].”  Most of his learning occurred in the family home under the tutelage of his father[15].

In 1820 the family took received a mortgage on a farm in Palmyra, New York which helped bring some stability for a few years.  During the time Joseph began to read the Bible and investigate the claims of various Christian denominations.  It is a journey that would ultimately lead to his experience in the “sacred grove.”  Joseph was around fourteen years of age when his family moved to Palmyra, and it was an area that was popular for revivals.  He was present during the Second Great Awakening but so many revivals took place in the area that it became known as the “Burned-over district.”  It received this name because revivals came so frequently during the early 1800’s[16].

Young Joseph wanted to join a church, but was on his own since his parents were indifferent on the issue.  The two Christian denominations that interested him most were the Presbyterians and the Methodists.  Presbyterianism sparked his interest as his mother felt a connection with it.  She had Congregationalist ties since her childhood, and though a separate denomination, there was a comfort level she had.  The comfort she felt with the Presbyterian church did not lead to membership, but to Joseph attending Sunday School on occasion.  He had many questions, and there is speculation that he had concerns about the reformed doctrine of election, or limited atonement.  Though he does claim in The Pearl of Great Price, that his father and some of his brothers became Presbyterian.  However, there is no historical evidence proving that.  Nevertheless, his curiosity continued, and he would continue to inquire.

Joseph also became interested in Methodism which also swept through the area on revival.  Joseph attended Methodist camp meeting and is reported to have spoken at one of the events[17].  He was said to be very eloquent and a “very passable exhorter[18].”  He preferred Methodism over Presbyterianism and strongly considered joining the Methodist church.  Though he would disavow organized religion, here is strong evidence to suggest that he at least tried to join the Methodist church in 1828[19].  Which would be eight years after he was told in a vision that all churches were wrong.

 

 

 

THE FIRST VISION

While Joseph was contemplating which church to join he came across James 1:5 which states, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him[20].  This verse resonated with Joseph, and, as the story goes, he asked God repeatedly which church was right.  Joseph documents this in The Pearl of Great Price, “I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible[21].”

The exact date of the First Vision varies.  It is common belief among Mormon historians that the vision took place in the Spring of 1820[22].  This is also the date that Joseph Smith gives in The Pearl of Great Price.  The dating of the first vision is somewhat controversial as Joseph Smith did not write down the details of what happened until 1832, and when he did he gave the timeframe of the Spring of 1821[23].  However, the brother of Joseph Smith, William, says it happened when Joseph was eighteen years old.  That would put the dating in the Spring of 1823[24].

As legend has it Joseph Smith went into the woods to find a suitable place for prayer and contemplation.  Having done, and he saw that he was alone, he began to pray.  Joseph says that he experienced the power of God with such force that he was hardly able to speak.  Joseph Smith describes the events by writing, “I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction[25].

Joseph looked up and saw the God the Father and Jesus, as separate individuals, standing before him.  Early in the history of Church it was unclear if Joseph saw them physically or if it was just a vision.  A later church doctrine states that it was a physical visitation, “In it Joseph saw and conversed with the Father and the Son, both of which exalted personages were personally present before him[26].”  In Mormon thought this event is thought of as being on par with the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.

In the vision God the Father points to Jesus and tells Joseph to listen to him.  When Joseph pulled himself together and was able to speak he asked which church he should join.  He was told not to join any of them since they were all wrong.  Joseph Smith describes the event, “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt[27].”  It is said that Joseph was told that all the churches were in apostasy.  All the great creeds of Christendom professed that the Father and the Son are co-eternal, and this vision said otherwise.  In Joseph’s mind this would prove the message of the vision correct.

Smith states that he told a “Methodist preacher” about the vision a few days later, but this seems to be unclear from a historical perspective.  Joseph never stated that he told family members, and it seems none of them knew until 1823.  Joseph said he told a Methodist preacher that was active in the revivals going on in Palmyra at the time, but there is one small problem.  Historical records do not show a revival in the area in 1820, but do show revival activity in 1819 and 1824[28].  Smith would later have other visions, but these were years down the road.  He claims that the Methodist minister told him to repent of these visions because revelation had ceased with the last Apostle[29].

Visions were quite common during this period, and using seer stones and the like were commonplace.  The Methodist preacher may have dismissed the First Vision because it was something that was familiar.  In regards to this Mormon historian Richard Bushman writes, “The preacher reacted quickly and negatively, not because of the strangeness of the story, but because of its familiarity[30].”

Joseph Smith claims that the persecution he experienced came harshly and swiftly.  He states that all people of all sects united in such a way to persecute him.  No doubt he saw this as an affirmation in what he had claimed to see.  In his own words Smith writes, “I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me[31].”

Was he enduring persecution because of the vision, or because of some other matter altogether?  There is no record outside of Joseph’s writings that any persecution towards him took place.  There are many records of the revivals that swept through the area, and there is no mention of the vision.  In fact, as previously stated, visions were quite common during this period.  The persecution may have come when Smith started discussing the discovery of the Golden Plates in public[32].

DEATH OF ALVIN SMITH

Joseph had a very interesting life, but nothing could prepare him for the death of his brother.  Alvin Smith was the Smiths’ oldest son, and assisted the family in many things.  One such thing was the construction of the family home in 1822 on the farmland they had purchased two years earlier.  That was also the year that Joseph reported to have his vision.  The family had a log home, but Alvin began building a frame home[33].  Alvin would not get to see it to completion as he would pass away in November of 1823.

The cause of death is not certain, but there are two prominent theories.  One is that he was given to much Calomel, which is a type of mercury, as a treatment a type of fever known for vomiting and nausea.  This worked as a laxative of sorts to get the diseased bile out of the intestine.  Another theory is that he died of appendicitis.  Since he took mercury, the laxative effects made the disease progress faster than normal[34].

Alvin had been helping to support the family, and there is some speculation that Alvin took over some duties as man of the house from his father.  The new home for the family was not completed, and construction would not be finished for over a year.  Alvin’s death, though tragic on its own, was tragic in another way.  Alvin had been selling cakes from a cart to those attending the revivals[35].  The income that he brought in helped to pay the monthly mortgage on the family farm.  With that income gone they were unable to pay the bill and the creditor foreclosed.

JOSEPH SMITH’S ACCURACY IN REGARD OT THE FIRST VISION

As previously stated there were some different dates given when it came to when the First Vision took place.  In The Pearl of Great Price, he stated it happened in the Spring of 1820.  When he finally wrote down the account for the first time in 1838 he said it happened in 1821.  Keep in mind that the Spring of 1820 date occurs in The Pearl of Great Price which Smith wrote later.  Also his brother, William, says the event happens when Smith was 18 which would make it 1823-1824.

There are other inconsistencies in the account especially in regards to who appeared to Joseph.  The account in The Pearl of Great Price he described two persons standing before him[36].  Moreover, the earliest known version of the account has Jesus present, but God the Father is nowhere to be found[37].  There is a third account of the vision which was written in 1835 from Smith’s diary that says God the Father and Jesus were not even present, but angels appeared to him[38].

The dates given by Smith regarding the revivals taking place during the First Vision are also inconsistent.  Records show no record of revival in Palmyra in 1820, but in 1819 and in 1824[39].  The facts regarding the First Vision, when examined closely examined using historical sources, is largely inconsistent.

CONCLUSION

This paper looks at the childhood of Joseph Smith from birth through the First Vision.  He led a very interesting life, and survived a lot of hardships.  Once can say that his life was full of hardship from all the moves as a child, the death of relatives, and later because of great Mormon persecution later in his life.

A look into the religious upbringing as also done to show if any faith had been passed down through the generations.  This is vital because it shows that Joseph Smith did not have a stable foundation.  This is of course meant in a religious context, but also in his home life.  The family moved seven times in fourteen years which is a lot for a young child to take.  Joseph was searching for something to fill the void.  Something to give him certainty through the poverty and financial issues the family was going through.  He did not find it in the Methodist of Presbyterian community because they were not itching his ear.  As a result he developed his own system.

To be fair every denomination has its problems, but Joseph was searching for something concrete to grasp onto.  He used seer stones to see visions previously, he had questions about Christian doctrine, and there was nobody around.  This is the case in the first and second visions.  His version of what was seen changes significantly from 1832 to 1838, and hints at a development of theology.

Joseph Smith is an interesting man to study, and he is someone that still has an impact on the world.  Did he see a vision?  Perhaps, but there are too many variables to say with any degree of certainty what he saw.  We can learn something from his perseverance through struggle in his childhood.  He overcame a lot, and by all accounts was a good husband and father.  That is something all men should long for no matter their lot in life.  On the religious side of things he was looking for stability, and that came in something of his own making.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Gary A, ed. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992.

Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History:  The Life of Joseph Smith. New York: Albert A Knopf, 1971.

Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005.

Cross, F.l., ed. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

James T. Cobb, “The Hill Cumorah, And The Book of Mormon.  The Smith Family, Cowdery, Harris, And Other Old Neighbors-what They Know,” The Saints’ Herald, June 1, 1881.

Jessee, Dean C., ed. History of the Life of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books, 1832.

Mack, Solomon. A Narrative of the Life of Solomon Mack. Windsor, NY: Solomon Mack, 1811.

Matzko, John. “The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism.” Dialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought. 40, (2007, March 1).

McClymond, Michael, ed. Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Newell, Linda K., and Valeen T. Avery. Mormon Enigma:  Emma Hale Smith. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Ostling, Richard. Mormon America:  Power and Promise. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1999.

Roberts, B.h. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1902.

Smith, Lucy Mack. History of Joseph Smith By His Mother. Edited by Preston Nibley. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1958.

———. Lucy’s Book:  A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir. Edited by Lavina F Anderson. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2001.

Smith, William. William Smith on Mormonism:  A True Account of the Origin of the Book of Mormon. Lamoni, IA: Rlds Church, 1883.

Vogel, Dan. Joseph Smith:  The Making of a Prophet. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004.

White, James R. Is the Mormon My Brother? Minneapolis, MN: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1997.

———. Letters to a Mormon Elder. Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1993.

 

[1] James R. White, Is the Mormon My Brother? (Minneapolis, MN: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1997), 43.

[2] James R White, Letters to a Mormon Elder (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1993), 108.

[3] F.l. Cross, ed., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1122.

[4] Gary A Anderson, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 848.

[5] Richard L Bushman, Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005), 26.

[6] Ibid, 26.

[7] Solomon Mack, A Narrative of the Life of Solomon Mack (Windsor, NY: Solomon Mack, 1811), 25.

[8] Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy’s Book:  A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, ed. Lavina F Anderson (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2001), 56.

[9] John Matzko, “The Encounter of the Young Joseph Smith with Presbyterianism,” Dialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, (2007, March 1): 69.

[10] Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1958), 9.

[11] Richard L Bushman, Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005), 18.

[12] Ibid, 19.

[13] Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith:  The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004), 20.

[14] Richard L Bushman, Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005), 26.

[15] Richard Ostling, Mormon America:  Power and Promise (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1999), 24.

[16] Michael McClymond, ed., Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 63.

[17] Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History:  The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Albert A Knopf, 1971), 26.

[18] Ibid, 26.

[19] Linda K. Newell and Valeen T. Avery, Mormon Enigma:  Emma Hale Smith (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 25.

[20] James 1:5 (King James Version).

[21] The Pearl of Great Price 1:12.

[22] B.h. Roberts, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1902), 7.

[23] Dean C. Jessee, ed., History of the Life of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books, 1832), 3.

[24] William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism:  A True Account of the Origin of the Book of Mormon (Lamoni, IA: Rlds Church, 1883), 6.

[25] Pearl of Great Price 1:15.

[26] James R White, Letters to a Mormon Elder (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1993), 88.

[27] Pearl of Great Price 1:19.

[28] Michael McClymond, ed., Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 65.

[29] Pearl of Great Price 1:21.

[30] Richard L Bushman, Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005), 41.

[31] Pearl of Great Price 1:22.

[32] James T. Cobb, “The Hill Cumorah, And The Book of Mormon.  The Smith Family, Cowdery, Harris, And Other Old Neighbors-what They Know,” The Saints’ Herald, June 1, 1881.

[33] Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith:  The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004), 68.

[34] Richard L Bushman, Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005), 40.

[35] Ibid, 31.

[36] Pearl of Great Price 1:17.

[37] Dean C. Jessee, ed., History of the Life of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books, 1832), 7.

[38] James R White, Letters to a Mormon Elder (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 1993), 95.

[39] Michael McClymond, ed., Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 63.

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