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The Search for the Historical Joseph

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The Search for the Historical Joseph

H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition & the Historical Record, Smith Research Associates (imprint of Signature Books), Salt Lake City, Utah, 1994, 245 pages, ISBN 1-56085-039-6. 

A young Joseph, an amazing vision, the birth of Mormonism — it all started with a great revival. Joseph Smith gave a vivid description of the revival that took place in his boyhood town of Palmyra, New York:

there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religions. It commenced with the Methodist, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country .... great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir ... Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist (Pearl of Great Price / Joseph Smith History 1:5).

"If the revival did not occur when Joseph Smith said it did, his complex story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is suspect, and might be nothing more than a fabrication."

This revival made a big impression on Joseph Smith, but what kind of mark did it leave in history? Could we pinpoint the place and date of this event and verify that it really happened? Would church records for the years immediately before and after a revival, show a sudden jump in church memberships telling us exactly when this took place? What if we found the actual records but there was no evidence of a revival?

Authors Marquardt and Walters asked themselves these same questions and set out to discover the revival mentioned by Joseph Smith. They found membership records, minutes of church meetings, newspaper accounts, and, an unexpected surprise. It was to have implications for the very foundations of Mormonism.

Why all this concern over a revival? Because Joseph Smith tied his entire First Vision story to this event. If the revival did not occur when Joseph Smith said it did, his complex story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is suspect, and might be nothing more than a fabrication.

Tradition and the First Vision

There are few things as foundational to Latter-day Saint faith as the First Vision story — Joseph Smith's account of how the Father and the Son appeared to him in a vision. For example, former LDS President Howard W. Hunter called Joseph's account of an 1820 revival and vision "the first pillar of our faith," (The Ensign, September 1994, p. 54), while Ezra Taft Benson referred to it as "bedrock theology to the Church" (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 101).

According to Joseph's story, a revival affected all the churches in the area, and brought Joseph and his family to a greater religious awareness. This prompted Joseph to go to a grove to pray. While in prayer he received a vision of the Father and the Son, who told him all the churches were wrong. Thus, the revival is the historical catalyst for the events leading to the start of the LDS church.

Quest for a Revival

Using Joseph Smith's story as a guide, the authors went in search for evidence of a revival occurring in or around 1820. They meticulously combed early sources including: church conference reports, newspapers and church periodicals, presbytery records and published interviews. But an examination of these sources for 1820-21 showed nothing that fit Joseph's detailed description. There were no significant gains in church membership in Palmyra during 1820-21 such as accompany great revivals. For example, in 1820, "the first Baptized Church in Palmyra" only received 8 people through profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church added 14 members, and the Methodist circuit lost 6 members, (Inventing, pp. 17-18). Would not a revival like the one described by Joseph have had a greater impact? Where was Joseph's 1820 revival?

Then they found it. Multiple sources revealed evidence of a great religious excitement, with big gains in church membership for all the denominations mentioned by Joseph. But, instead of the revival beginning in 1820, it started in the autumn of 1824 and continued into the spring of 1825. For the year ending September 1825, the Baptist church recorded 94 admitted on profession of faith and baptism, the Presbyterian church reported 99 new members and the Methodist circuit showed an increase of 208 (p. 27). These facts fit Joseph's description, but not his date for the event. How did the 1824 date square with other related evidence?

Death and Taxes

Two additional details from Joseph Smith's family also pointed to 1824 as the correct date for the revival. The first comes from Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. She wrote her own history, published by the LDS publisher, Bookcraft (History of Joseph Smith By His Mother). In her preliminary manuscript she recounted the great sorrow their family experienced when Joseph's oldest brother, Alvin, died suddenly — a victim of frontier medicine. Lucy wrote,

we all wept with one accord our irretrievable loss and it seemed as though we could not be comforted because he was not. About that time there was a great revival in religion and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject and we among the rest flocked to the meeting house to see if their [sic] was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings (p. 55). 1

A revival following Alvin's death matches the 1824 date, for Alvin died in November 1823.

The second detail was Joseph Smith's statement that the revival took place "sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester" (PGP/JS History 1:5). Research into existing tax records and property assessments indicate the most likely date for the Smith family's move onto their Manchester farm is 1822. A revival occurring in the second year after 1822 fits the 1824 revival date (Inventing, pp. 7-8).

The combination of these historical facts leaves little doubt that the proper date for the revival mentioned by Joseph Smith is 1824 rather than 1820.

Is This a Problem?

So does it matter that Joseph's chronology is off by four years? It turns out to be critical. The revival sets in motion a series of events which hinge on one another. Here is the traditional chronology based on Joseph's story found in the Pearl of Great Price. An 1820 revival caused a 14 year old Joseph to pray, which led to the first vision. Joseph claimed that three years after the first vision (1823) an angel appeared in his bedroom and told him of the gold plates. In 1827, four years after the appearance of the angel, Joseph finally succeeded in getting the plates. Joseph then began to produce the Book of Mormon and had it printed for the first time in 1830.

The revival can be dated with certainty to the year 1824. According to Joseph's chronology, it was three years later (1827) when the angel Moroni appears for the first time. Joseph would have been 21 years old. Then it was another four years (1831) before Joseph was able to get the plates and begin translation, but by that time the Book of Mormon had already been in print for a full year. The 1824 date for the revival means the events as Joseph Smith outlines them do not fit the available time frame. It could be that the revival really had nothing to do with Joseph's first vision story, or that the events leading to the writing of the Book of Mormon are different than what Joseph claimed. Either way, we are left with serious discrepancies that challenge the authenticity of Joseph's story.

Rediscovering LDS Roots

This type of meticulous research and remarkable results characterize the book as a whole. Other items of interest include:

  • the discovery that some of the first people to hear Joseph's story of gold plates, remember that Joseph's account featured the spirit of a fierce and bloody Spaniard as the guardian of this buried treasure. This spirit repeatedly knocked him to the ground (pp. 92, 94).
  • close friends and family members of Joseph (like his wife Emma, Brigham Young, Martin Harris and David Whitmer) tell how he both found the plates and produced the Book of Mormon using a seer stone placed in his hat. He never needed or used the gold plates to produce the Book of Mormon.
  • Joseph's first 'official' attempt at writing a history of Mormon origins included a vision of Jesus Christ remarkably similar to other visionary accounts published by young men who, under conviction of sins, claimed to have a supernatural encounter with Jesus Christ in which they were assured of forgiveness. These accounts were published in local news sources and would have been accessible to Joseph Smith (pp. 50-53).
  • historical evidence indicates that the Church of Christ, as it was first named, got its start in the Smith home in Manchester, New York, not in Fayette, New York at the Whitmer home, as is usually taught.

With such precise attention to important details, Inventing carefully sifts through LDS traditions, separating fiction from fact.

Does It Really Matter?

Some may ask, is all this attention to historical detail really that important? LDS church educator, T. Edgar Lyon, posed a similar question, when he queried,

But why should Latter-day Saints concern themselves with authentic history? What difference does it make to the tourist if he is told fact or fiction? Personally, I do not appreciate being victimized by someone who while posing as an authority disseminates error, however trivial it may seem.2

The revival and First Vision story are far from trivial — they are a key part of the Mormon church's claim to be the only true church. Mormon Apostle Hugh B. Brown, put the issue into sharp focus when he declared:

The first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith constitutes the groundwork of the Church which was later organized. If this first vision was but a figment of Joseph Smith's imagination, then the Mormon Church is what its detractors declare it to be — a wicked and deliberate imposture (Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, pp. 310-311.

While Inventing Mormonism refrains from making theological judgments, the authors have done more than merely chronicle historical events. They have attempted to provide a broad, genuine account of the early life of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and the origins of the LDS church. Their quest for the facts has resulted in a book which will become an important source for those who want their history, and their faith, grounded in truth.




1. In the handwritten, preliminary manuscript someone has crossed out the short section that mentions the "great revival of religion" and published editions omit it entirely without explanation. Copy of preliminary manuscript in library of the Institute for Religious Research.

2. Edgar Lyon, "How Authentic are Mormon Historic Sites in Vermont and New York?," Brigham Young University Studies, 9 (Spring 1969): 349.