Joseph Smith’s Early Visions and Frontier Revivalism

Objectives

  • Gain familiarity with reading and evaluating primary manuscript sources.
  • Better understand the religious revivals that swept over frontier America in what has been called the “Second Great Awakening.” The lesson presupposes some familiarity with this topic.
  • Examine in detail the visionary experiences of the founder of a key American religion.

Assigned Readings

Ask your students to read the following firsthand accounts of Joseph Smith’s early visions:

  • History, ca. Summer 1832. This is the earliest and most personal account, recorded as part of Joseph Smith’s first attempt to write his history. It is the only account that includes his own handwriting.
  • Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835, pp. 23–24. Joseph Smith described his early visionary experiences to a man calling himself “Joshua the Jewish Minister” in November 1835. The description was written down and copied into his journal.
  • History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, pp. 1–3. This account from Joseph Smith’s “official” history was later canonized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Church History,” 1842. This brief history of the church was written at the request of a Chicago newspaper editor and published in the Latter-day Saints’ Illinois newspaper, the Times and Seasons. The extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement in writing it is not known, but it was published with his signature.

Have students also read the summary of what is often called the “Second Great Awakening” found in Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Tranformation of America, 1815–1848, Oxford History of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 176–195.

Also, students should be familiar with the 1821 conversion experience of Charles Grandison Finney, as told in his Memoirs (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1876), 12–23, available at archive.org.

Introduction

In 1830, Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and founded what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As Smith’s followers moved westward again and again in response both to his revelations and to conflict with neighbors, they played an important role in expanding the frontiers of the United States—particularly after Joseph Smith’s death, when thousands migrated west of the Rocky Mountains. The unique expression of Christianity taught by Joseph Smith continues to influence millions worldwide.

Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in 1805. The Smiths were hardscrabble farmers who moved frequently during Joseph’s youth; following widespread crop failures in 1816, the family moved to the frontiers of western New York seeking better opportunities.  In New York, Joseph Smith was caught up in the waves of religious fervor that overtook many Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

As more and more Americans migrated to the open lands on the western frontiers of the country, various denominations competed for converts. The period was marked by a resurgence of religious conversion, perhaps best illustrated by camp meetings, with their fiery sermons and displays of spiritual fervor. Western New York was particularly noted for revivalism and acquired a reputation as the “burned-over district” because the fires of revivalism and social activism had swept through so often. Methodist circuit-riding preachers and Baptist ministers took their populist message to the people in remote regions, and both movements saw enormous growth. Other denominations, including Presbyterianism, worked to keep up. Into this religious “war of words,” as he later called it, stepped fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith.

In his later accounts, Joseph Smith stated that during the spring of 1820 the religious tumult led him to pray for guidance. He later recorded his ensuing “First Vision”—as it has come to be known in Mormon theology—in four accounts, written between 1832 and 1844.

“Camp Meeting of the Methodists in N. America.” Engraving by M. Dubourg, ca. 1819. Image from www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98508274.

Document Analysis and Questions

Begin by rereading passages from the excerpts, perhaps including pages 1–3 of the 1832 history and page 3 of the 1838 account.

  • Ask students to summarize the accounts and discuss the significance Joseph Smith placed in them as his foundational spiritual experience. 
  • What can we learn from these accounts about life in frontier New York in the early nineteenth century? For example, what do these accounts tell us about the economy, educational opportunities, lifestyle, or social dynamics of Joseph Smith’s day?
  • Based on the assigned readings, compare and contrast the experience of Joseph Smith with that of Charles Grandison Finney.

Display the photographs of the original documents from the Joseph Smith Papers website and ask students to evaluate them.

  • What clues do we find about the intent of creating these documents? Were they composed hurriedly or carefully? What can we learn about intended audience?
  • The later accounts of Joseph Smith’s visions were intended to be widely read. How does that intention seem to affect the writing choices made in the documents?

Review the account of the religious climate on page 2 of the 1832 history and pages 1–3 of the 1838 account.

  • How might Joseph Smith’s descriptions of revivals connect to the larger context of spiritual fervor on the American frontier in this period? What common elements of revivals are present or absent in Smith’s accounts?
  • How does his interpretation of the religious events surrounding him influence his personal spiritual experiences?

Background and Reference