In order to begin to understand and properly appreciate Joseph Smith’s First Vision, it is advisable to first explore some of its background and underlying themes. Some of the historical elements that call for due consideration include the reason for the Smith family living in upstate New York in the year 1820, the religious affiliations of individuals within the Prophet’s household, and the general life experiences of the person who was at the center of this early nineteenth-century saga.
BIRTH AND PARENTAGE
Joseph Smith Jr. prefaced three of the documents that tell of his inaugural theophany with some simple biographical information. In the best known of these texts he said, “I was born in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five, on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor County, state of Vermont.”1 In a short historical sketch that the Prophet published in December of 1834, he specified that the information about his birth was substantiated “according to the record of the same, kept by [his] parents.”2 In Joseph’s 1832 history, at the point where he relayed the data on his origin, he added a significant note about his father and mother, saying—in the unmistakable language of the Book of Mormon—that he was “born . . . of goodly parents.”3 The Prophet’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., had some experience as a farmer, a school teacher, and a merchant, and in his religious convictions he professed Universalism. His faith was in the word of God as recorded in the books of the Bible, but he did not extend that faith to the formal organizations or theologies with which he was surrounded.4 His ecclesiastical views were so strong that he helped establish a Universalist society during the time when his family was residing in the state of Vermont. The philosophy of the Universalists “stressed the rational dimensions of religion,”5 claiming that the suffering of the wicked would come to an end and the entire human race would eventually live in God’s heavenly kingdom.6
The Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also had an abiding faith in the Bible. After a period of investigating a variety of Christian faiths, however, she had decided that they did not provide the kind of devotional depth and biblical concordance she was looking for. She therefore sought after, and succeeded in finding, a minister who would baptize her without requiring attachment to any specific denomination.7 Later—during the highly charged revival activity of 1820—she and three of her children formally joined the Presbyterian church.
One of Joseph’s brothers, William, recalled that a constant religious atmosphere was fostered in the Smith home. He said, in speaking of the time period before 1823, “[W]e always had family prayer since I can remember. . . . [F]ather used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket . . . and when us boys saw him feel for his specks, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer.”8
MOVE TO NEW YORK
Joseph Jr. only remained in the state of his birth for part of the first decade of his life. He related on the pages of his 1838 history, “My father Joseph Smith, Senior, left the state of Vermont and moved to Palmyra, Ontario (now Wayne) County, in the state of New York, when I was in my tenth year or thereabout.”9 When evaluating the move of the Smith family to Palmyra, New York, it is important to remember that they journeyed to this destination in two different shifts. Joseph Smith Sr. went ahead of the rest of the group in order to find a place to live and to try to secure employment. It is evident from the wording of the Prophet’s 1838 statement that he is only talking there about the departure of his father, and he indicates that this happened “when [Joseph Jr.] was in [his] tenth year,” meaning sometime before 23 December 1816 (the day on which he would have turned eleven years old). The words “or thereabout” in the 1838 account are an addition to the manuscript made by Willard Richards, and it is not known when exactly he made this editorial insertion or whether he did so at the instigation of the Prophet. These extra words, however, may have been influenced by the phraseology of the Prophet’s 1832 history, wherein he said, “at the age of about ten years my father Joseph Smith Senior moved to Palmyra.”10 In a letter Joseph Smith published in late 1834, he simply stated that his “family removed to Palmyra” when he was “the age of ten.”11 And in 1842, he set the same parameter, this time for both his father and mother: “When ten years old my parents removed to Palmyra New York.”12 Thus, it can be determined that Father Smith left Vermont sometime in 1816 and that Mother Smith and the rest of the family followed him later that same year. However, evidence from a notebook created by the scribe for Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography suggests that her group did not arrive in Palmyra until sometime in January 1817.13
The main reason behind the Smith clan’s move to New York State was that in the years 1814 and 1815, they were occupying farmland in Norwich, Vermont, and experienced crop failure both years. Father Smith announced in the spring of 1816 that he would try planting once more, and if success eluded him a third time he would remove to New York, where it was reported that farmers raised wheat in abundance.14 The third year, however, was worse than the others. In fact, it was disastrous. Some of the greatest volcanic eruptions in history had taken place in 1814 (Mayon Volcano in the Philippines) and 1815 (Tomboro Volcano in (Sumbawa), and the enormous amount of debris thrown into the atmosphere by these volcanoes blocked the vital rays of the sun and caused temperatures to drop sharply. But there appears to have been an additional reason for the abnormal cooling of the earth during the summer of 1816. A publication of the Association of America Geographers concluded that the cause of the cold temperatures seemed to be a combination of two factors: (1) varying solar radiation caused by sunspots and producing a series of cold waves that were unusually severe for the season and (2) a series of volcanic eruptions which reduced insulation and temperatures generally throughout the period. 15
As a result, Lucy Mack Smith reported, their farm “vegetation was blighted by untimely frost which well nigh produced a famine” in the area. She further stated that her “husband now decided upon going to New York.”16 Tax Records from between 1817 and 1819 indicate that once the Smith family was reunited in Palmyra village they established a residence near the western end of Main Street.17 It wasn’t long before
the Smiths decided to engage in an economic campaign that would enable them to contract for a one-hundred-acre tract of forested land located to the south in Farmington Township (later renamed Manchester). Lucy Mack Smith noted in her autobiography that soon after the contract was signed her family commenced clearing the ground, erecting a log house, and earning money for the first payment.18 One resident of Palmyra who knew the Smiths remembered that they built the log house “prior to removing” to the property.19 It therefore appears that at least for a time the Smiths had overlapping residences: they occupied a dwelling in Palmyra village while they built a small log home in the Farmington area. The precise timing of the move to Farmington is thus somewhat unclear. George A. Smith, the Prophet’s cousin (who served as both an Apostle and a Church historian), stated that the move to Farmington or Manchester took place “in the year 1819.”20 This year for the move is repeated in a notebook written by the scribe who helped Mother Smith produce her autobiography.21 If 1819 is accepted as the year of (complete) removal to Farmington, and that year is applied to the Prophet’s own autobiographical statement regarding the event, then his method of calculating time is revealed. Joseph said, “In about four years after my father’s arrival at Palmyra [i.e., 1816–1817–1818–1819], he moved with his family into Manchester.”22 This comports well with the account of eyewitness Orsamus Turner, who remembered that the Smith family was occupying their “log house” by “the winter of 19, 20.”23 And this statement, in turn, verifies that the Smiths were residing in their Farmington/Manchester log home during the spring of 1820 and would thus have been stationed next to the Sacred Grove during the time frame when Joseph said the First Vision took place. Further confirmation of this point comes from a road survey conducted near the end of spring in 1820 which specifically referred to “Joseph Smith’s dwelling house” located on Stafford Road, to the south of Palmyra.24
Finances, Work, and Education
The Prophet mentioned in his personal history that the Smiths were not in good financial shape when they first arrived in Palmyra. In fact, the phrase he used to describe their economic situation was “indigent circumstances.”25 A newspaper printed in Palmyra verified this characterization, stating that “by misfortune or otherwise [Father Smith had] been reduced to extreme poverty before he migrated to western New York.”26 Joseph Jr. recalled that this situation “required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family.”27 And young Joseph was no exception to this rule. Historical sources indicate that he sold jags of wood in the village, sought for odd jobs at one of the stores there,28 hoed corn many times on Martin Harris’s property,29 and cut down and stored grain on the Smiths’ own farm.30 This last type of work seems to have received special emphasis in Joseph’s life, for he stated in an 1842 letter that his father was a farmer and had taught him “the art of husbandry.”31 In addition to these labors, there was also the arduous task of clearing the Smith homestead of timber and tapping the numerous remaining trees for the purpose of producing sugar and syrup. William Smith said of these particular jobs, “We cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber I ever saw. We had a good place. We also had on it from twelve to fifteen hundred sugar trees, and to gather the sap and make sugar molasses from that number of trees was no lazy job. We worked hard to clear our place and the neighbors were a little jealous. If you will figure up how much work it would take to clear sixty acres of heavy timber land, . . . trees you could not conveniently cut down, you can tell whether we were lazy or not. And Joseph did his share of the work with the rest of the boys.32
It is interesting to note that sometime shortly before the First Vision took place (perhaps the day previous) Joseph had been out working in the woods with an axe, apparently cutting down some of the trees in what would later become known as the Sacred Grove. He said that he went to pray in a clearing, at the stump where he had stuck his axe after he had quit work.33 Even though the Smiths arrived in Palmyra in a difficult financial bind, their strong work ethic eventually brought them a respectable degree of prosperity.34 Over a period of several years, they acquired one hundred acres of land, built a log home upon it, and began construction of a larger frame house. It is also known that they had a large cultivated area on this property, a garden, and an apple orchard.35 And it has been determined that in overall terms the Smith family could be classified as humble middle-class.36 The Smiths’ perpetual focus on labor had its price, however. Joseph revealed that the children of the family were “deprived of the benefit of an education“. Suffice it to say, he reported, “I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements.”37 One of the Smiths’ neighbors remembered that Mother and Father Smith did attempt to compensate for their children’s lack of formal education. Joseph is known to have received some educational instruction in his own home. But the Smiths did not employ a formal teacher for this, and the children’s only known study text was the Bible.38 It is not known for certain how often this type of training, or even formal school attendance, took place among the Smith siblings, but Mother Smith remarked that Joseph was “less inclined to the study of books” than any of the rest of the children.39
The era when Joseph Smith Jr. was living in the Palmyra, New York, area has come to be known in history as the Second Great Awakening, which flourished in the United States between the 1790s and the 1840s.
This was a time when evangelicalism was vigorously promoted by such figures as Barton Stone, Charles Finney, Alexander Campbell, and Peter Cartwright. It was a day when the search for personal salvation by masses of people was not uncommon and the positive reformation of society was fervently sought after. This was a period when not only whole communities desired a connection with God but some individuals were also having personal experiences with the spiritual power of the Almighty: a number had inspired dreams while others claimed heavenly visitations.40 Joseph’s own parents reported having such dreams. Lucy Mack Smith said that she received a symbolic dream prior to Joseph’s birth wherein she was informed that someday her husband would accept “the pure and undefiled gospel of the Son of God.” And in 1819 (shortly before the First Vision took place) Joseph Smith Sr. had the seventh in a series of visionary dreams—this time a messenger promised to reveal to him what was necessary to secure his salvation.41
From all of the information that has been presented above, it can be concluded that at the time of the First Vision Joseph Smith lived in a home where religion and spiritual experiences were considered an important, even integral, aspect of life. But financial necessity meant that his family’s focus was on subsistence, which meant that even though Joseph learned ample lessons about farming, day-labor, and industry, he only received a meager amount of scholastic education. Yet none of his circumstances would prevent or disqualify him from experiencing the sacred theophany in the grove on his homestead. He was young, but so was the prophet Samuel when he was called by the voice of the Lord (see 1 Sam. 3:1, 3–4). He was of humble circumstance, but so were Peter and Andrew when the Savior beckoned them to divine service (see Matt. 4:18–20). He did not have great learning by worldly standards, but neither did Jesus Christ nor some of His Apostles when they stepped forward to carry out the will of their God (see John 7:14–15; Acts 4:13).