Audio for Episode 1, “An Unusual Excitement”
Spencer: In 1820, a teenaged boy named Joseph Smith entered a grove of trees near his home in western New York and prayed. What happened next is well known to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Smith’s accounts, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him. It was a formative moment in Joseph Smith’s life and a pivotal event in the history of the church that Smith would found and lead.
Now, two hundred years later, this story is told around the world. Some have heard it hundreds—even thousands—of times.
But have you ever looked at the event through the eyes of historians? Now, I’m not talking about historical trivia consisting of a long list of dates or an assortment of “fun facts.” I’m talking about historians who have spent years immersed in Joseph Smith’s surviving documents—scholars, men and women who have walked the fields of history who can tell you what occurred thereon and why those events occurred the way that they did.
You see, something special happens when you view the First Vision through the eyes of historians. You find a story that is simultaneously familiar and new.
That is what we’re doing over the next six episodes.
This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode One: An Unusual Excitement.
Spencer: So where do we start this story? It might seem logical to start the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision by focusing in on the Smith family farm just south of Palmyra, New York. I could describe for you a primitive farm that looked increasingly idyllic with each day of hard work. Or, I could detail for you the religious revival meetings that swept through the region and captured the attention of the Smith family. After all, both are essential to the story.
But I’m not going to start there.
You see, the events that culminated in the First Vision started years earlier. And I’m not simply talking about Joseph Smith’s childhood. What I mean is that the social, cultural, and economic forces that prompted the Smith family to move to New York in the first place are directly connected to the religious fervor that enveloped the area.
If we want to understand what Joseph Smith called “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion”—if we want to reconstruct the world of Joseph Smith in 1820—we need to understand what was causing tremendous social change in the United States during the early nineteenth century.
Spencer: The Smith family’s move to western New York occurred in the midst of the Second Great Awakening. That’s a name given to a resurgence of religious devotion in the United States and elsewhere, a resurgence driven in large part by revival meetings and theological developments within Protestant Christianity.
The Second Great Awakening emphasized religious experiences that one could feel, moments in which a man or a woman witnessed the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, became converted to Jesus Christ, and then continued to live a life congruent with His gospel.
The religious development also opened the clergy to average Americans. Previously, most Christian congregations were led by elite men trained in college for the ministry. But in the early 1800s the number of average Americans who felt called to preach—even without formal ordination—rose rapidly. And their fellow countrymen were eager for religious leadership that looked and sounded more like them.
Most existing Christian denominations received a boost in membership as a result of the Second Great Awakening. But, due in part to the prevailing sense of an increased freedom to choose one’s religious path, the major beneficiaries were denominations that had once been marginalized, denominations such as the Baptists and the Methodists. Methodism experienced particularly rapid growth in the early 1800s. To better understand this, I spoke with Christopher Jones. Christopher is an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University who has researched, in depth, the development of Methodism in the early United States. He explained that the theology of Methodism had a lot to do with the denomination’s rising popularity in the 1800s.
Chris: It emphasizes the importance of human free will, of responding to God’s grace, of taking steps to take advantage of the offer of God’s grace.
Spencer: And this belief that Christian conversion and salvation was something that men and women must choose for themselves proved very popular in nineteenth-century America and elsewhere.
Chris: And that proves appealing to a number of people, the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people in the early American republic and throughout the English-speaking Atlantic world, and Methodism grows not just in the United States, but in Canada and the Caribbean, and throughout the British Isles, as well.
Spencer: Now, this religious fervor, though widespread, was often particularly concentrated in certain geographic regions. Western New York, for instance, the area to which the Smiths moved in 1817, was one such place. But the fact that the Smiths moved there in the midst of such religious fervor was not mere coincidence. The Smiths were part of a massive migration of people from New England. Brent Rogers, an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers Project explains:
Brent: So, from 1790 to 1820, was about a thirty-year period where some eight hundred thousand New Englanders leave and head west, and the majority of those, most of them, settle in New York and settle in the western part of New York for the economic opportunities that might await them. And so, when you think about the population of the United States at that time, roughly ten to twenty percent of the whole of the United States population is moving into Western spaces and looking for these new opportunities.
Spencer: This is not a small migration. To better understand these numbers, consider this: the population of the United States in 1820 was only ten million. So, we are talking about nearly ten percent of the country’s population moving to a new place in a very short period of time.
How do we explain this migration?
Brent: I think I would say that the Smith family is really part of this same general trend, where they’re looking for new economic opportunities, new spaces in which they can get access to more land to develop so that they can become self-sufficient, that they can tap into this new and greater economic marketplace that western New York offered.
Spencer: Land in New York was cheaper than it was in New England. And for many, it promised a fresh start. Those who had experienced crop failure, those whose family’s land had been divided so many times that it could not be divided again for an inheritance, those who would receive no inheritance at all, for all of these groups and many others, moving to western New York was an opportunity to start again.
Yet, for many of these New England migrants, western New York represented more than a fresh economic start. It was also a fresh start for their religious practices. Leaving the towns and cities their families had lived in for generations—and at a time of religious change in the United States—often meant that men and women felt a freedom to revisit their religious practices for the first time. In fact, some of their families back in New England worried so much that their relatives, friends, and neighbors would lose their religion by moving away that they sent missionaries to western New York to preach to them.
Rachel: I think a lot of scholars have looked at the shift away from New England Congregationalism during that time and a growing openness to, I guess, religious choice.
Spencer: That’s Rachel Cope, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. Rachel has spent years researching religious revivals and conversion during the Second Great Awakening.
Rachel: There were a number of choices, and moving to the frontier, I think, might have actually opened up those choices more because groups like the Methodists and Baptists would send itinerant preachers out, specifically, into areas that didn’t have preachers and didn’t have people. And so, people were being exposed to different denominations and also to different ways of understanding and interpreting theology, and a lot of just the way society was at the time shifted them towards a more kind of positive, optimistic view of the atonement and of religion and of life than had traditionally been founded within congregationalism or Puritanism or Calvinism. And so, that move opened people up to that and brought change and accessibility to things that they wouldn’t have had in the same way before.
Spencer: So, Americans had more religious choice than ever before at a time when newer Christian denominations were actively proselytizing. Itinerant preachers and missionaries wanted to provoke a religious response from their fellow Americans. This is partly why the rise of Methodism in the United States that Christopher Jones spoke about earlier is such a key part of the story.
Chris: And so, to that end, Methodist preachers who traverse all over the early American republic to the far stretches of the frontier in Atlantic port cities and especially in upstate New York where the Smiths are living in the early nineteenth century, their sermons are often not prepared, written sermons that develop kind of logically; they are extemporaneous sermons, where they are attempting to elicit this religious response from listeners, from those in the congregation. And so, they are drawing on scriptural passages. They’re quoting scriptural passages, but they’re exhorting too, which is a less formal way of preaching.
Spencer: And these sermons resonated with hundreds of thousands of people. And while these revivals were happening throughout the United States during the early 1800s, they were particularly numerous in western New York, in large part because of the social conditions brought about by the mass migration of New Englanders to that area—a mass migration that included the Smith family.
Spencer: Have you started to see how the social changes are connected to the events that culminated in the First Vision? The Smith family moved to western New York from Vermont after a series of financial setbacks over several years. These included crop failures, most recently in 1816 during the infamous “Year Without a Summer.” Now, if you have read the first volume of the church history Saints, you know all about the volcanic eruption in Indonesia that altered weather patterns throughout the world at a time when weather patterns were already behaving erratically.
Anyway, this weather-caused crop failure forced the Smith’s to leave Vermont along with so many others and seek a fresh start in New York.
When the Smith family moved to Palmyra, New York, in 1816 and 1817, they discovered that settlers in the area were excited about more than just religion. They were also excited about the community’s economic future. You see, the plan for the Erie Canal called for the new man-made waterway to run directly through Palmyra. This was a big deal. Brent Rogers explains:
Brent: The building of the Erie Canal was bringing a tremendous amount of excitement to the people all across New York. It offered increased mobility, better access to markets. I mean, if you’re a farmer in Palmyra, New York, and you’re right there off the canal, and you’ve raised these crops, and you have a community in which you can sell them to, but maybe you have a great reaping that year and you want to sell more of it—well, now you can go to the canal and send it on a boat, and it gets almost literally all over the world at that point. And just that increased access to economic opportunities—better facilitation of transporting people, goods, ideas—it truly promised a great deal economically and temporally to the people of New York. So, I think that that canal, even though it was not finished at that time, as it started to fill in, and as the boat started to go down the locks, you can read the diaries of people of New York at that time, and you can just see how that is a pretty encompassing feature of their lives.
Spencer: And so, it was in this setting that the Smiths hoped to turn around their economic state. Joseph Smith Sr. and two of his sons would eventually purchase property to farm south of the town of Palmyra. Although the canal would not be finished for several years, its construction symbolized an economic transition in progress. It symbolized a brighter future.
And, as it turns out, the excitement about the shifts in the area’s economy would also influence the unusual excitement on the subject of religion. Rachel Cope explains:
Rachel: The reason New York was one of those hotbeds with the migration and the transportation and the growth of opportunities, industrializations, the Erie Canal resulted in places like Syracuse and Rochester and Buffalo becoming huge cities. They weren’t before, but all of sudden they’re connected, and the canalboats are coming through, and people are coming, and commerce is coming, and things are transforming, dramatically. And Rochester becomes one of the hotbeds for revivalism, and without the Erie Canal it likely wouldn’t have been. And so, that’s one factor, I think, that all of these different things—urbanization, immigration, migration—all of those things are opening, bringing more people in, bringing more ideas in. People are exposed to more.
Spencer: So, what we see in the United States in the 1800s is cultural change in the way that Americans approached religion. Those changes combined in western New York with a mass migration from New England and the excitement and anxiety such a large movement of people carried with it. This combination fueled religious revivalism in New York, but not just in New York.
Rachel: There was a greater sense that conversion was a choice, not just something reserved for particular people, and that they could make that choice, and that they could choose salvation, and that they could accept grace, and that desire for the opportunities to make those choices initiated the revivals and created space for conversion and for religious interest and for religious change that would have a tremendous impact on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s pretty widespread, actually. I know that that was something that surprised me when I was doing research years ago on my dissertation, where I was surprised. I’m like, “Oh, there’s lots of revivals in New England, everywhere. Oh, there’s lots of revivals in the South. Oh, there’s lots of revivals moving west, there’s lots of revivals in New York.” So, I think that it’s important to recognize that and to not feel like that diminishes New York as a religious hotbed or the First Vision or the church being founded there but to see that that broader context helps us understand the deep desire people had to find religion and to understand things and how all of those different factors created an environment where people like Joseph Smith and many others were seeking for something.
Spencer: An environment where people like Joseph Smith and many others were seeking for something. That is precisely what the Smiths found when they arrived in western New York.
Spencer: So, in many ways, the social, cultural, and economic forces that helped bring the Smith family to western New York—along with hundreds of thousands of other New Englanders—also helped bring a high concentration of religious fervor to the area.
In a sense, the Smiths did not just move to an area enveloped in religious excitement; they helped bring some of that religious excitement with them.
It was that religious excitement—and the revival meetings that came with it—that prompted Joseph Smith to ask a question that would forever change the course of his life.
Do you know what that question is?
I ask because it may not be what you think it is. While Joseph did eventually ask which church he should join, there was a different—more pressing—question that weighed upon his mind first. Knowing what it is can expand our understanding of the First Vision and its relevance to our lives.
We’ll talk about it in the next episode of The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.