Monday, September 06, 2004

JOSEPH SMITH’S FIRST VISION: Reform Mormons and the purpose of the church

Sunday, September 5, 2004


It was a chilly late November day in 1823 and the Western Presbyterian Church in the village of Palmyra, New York was filled with a “vast concourse of people” from the “surrounding country.” All had come to pay their final respects to a poor but hardworking young man who, just days earlier at the ripe age of twenty-five, had suffered an excruciatingly painful death from infectious gangrene--the result of treatment prescribed by a young, inexperienced country doctor.

Before delivering the eulogy, Rev. Benjamin Stockton must have been impressed by the number of people seated in his church--and by the number of “new faces” in the crowd.

The majority of Americans in the early 1800‘s, though “Bible-believers” and self-described Christians, were not affiliated with any particular denomination. They were "unchurched." In fact, part of the American character at the time was a healthy distrust of organized religion. With church attendance low, with no official state church and without the requirement that one be a Christian in order to hold public office, the clergy of various denominations felt the need to “revive” the churches. Camp meetings (also called “Revivals”) became common in rural areas and on the frontier. Their purpose? To convince the stubbornly individualistic frontiersmen and farm folk that their true fate lay in the hands of God; that despite their hard work, their financial situation (be it good or bad) or their fierce sense of personal independence, they were, in fact, living at the mercy of an all-powerful God who could punish them at any time for their sins, their pride and arrogance. At any moment one might die, and no good works or worldly accomplishments could save one form everlasting Hell. Only by feeling convicted for one’s sins, only by professing faith in Christ and throwing one’s self on God’s mercy, could one “be saved” from the eternal damnation that all humans deserved. Once “saved,” one’s faith was demonstrated by uniting with a body of believers (a church) and with them, serving the Lord.

With so many visitors in his church that November day, Rev. Stockton probably decided that the funeral was a golden opportunity to reach some of the lost souls in his community. Perhaps he might even convert the family of the deceased young man.

The young man’s mother had sometimes attended Sunday services at the Presbyterian church. In fact, the woman seemed obsessed with not only her own salvation, but the salvation of her entire family. The deceased’s father, on the other hand, had never stepped foot into the church before that day. Many in the community considered him a common drunk who seemed unwillingly or unable to hold down a job. Perhaps now, grief-stricken over the death of his oldest son, the old man might give some thought to his salvation. If not, then perhaps his wife--so desperate in her own effort to please the Lord--could convince him and the rest of her children to repent and be saved.

So it was that Rev. Benjamin Stockton used the funeral sermon of twenty-five year-old Alvin Smith as a chance to do what could be called “missionary work.” The deceased’s younger brother, William, recalled that in the eulogy, Rev. Stockton “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for [he] was not a church member.”

Discussion Questions:

Why is it inappropriate--or appropriate--to use the occasion of a death or tragedy to try to covert others to one’s beliefs?

What are your thoughts and feelings on the concept of “missionary work” as it relates to encouraging others to join a particular church?


As far as the Smith family was concerned, Rev. Stockton’s missionary efforts had mixed results. Joseph Smith (eighteen at the time) later wrote that:

“My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.” ( “Pearl of Great Price,” Joseph Smith --History 1:7)

However, Joseph Smith, Sr. and the other children in the family were bitter over the fact that a minister would use the occasion of Alvin’s death to try to manipulate them into accepting his church’s creeds. Joseph Smith Sr. was a firm believer in Universalism (the belief that Hell was a mere myth and that all would be “saved” in the end) and so he was particularly disgusted by the implication that his son had gone to Hell over something as trivial as not professing a certain belief or joining a certain church. Joseph Sr. was firmly convinced (as were a great many Americans at that time) that all churches were corrupt, that all had “fallen away” from true Christianity.

In matters of religion, his wife, Lucy, was the exact opposite. For years she had battled depression, and her emotions were easily provoked when contemplating eternity and life after death. Her anxiety over her salvation had, in the past, contributed to her experiencing what would now days be described as “nervous breakdowns.” Lucy’s joining the Presbyterian church--after Rev. Stockton had insulted the memory of her oldest son--drove an even bigger wedge between her and her husband--and it effected the rest of the family profoundly. William Smith remembered that his mother “continued her importunities and exertions to interest us in the salvation of our immortal souls” and “prevailed on us to attend meetings…”

The divisions in the family were intensified later when, in September of 1824, the entire region around Palmyra was caught up in a frenzy of religious revivals. Joseph Smith (Jr.) wrote that these revivals…

“commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” 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)

At these revivals, the entire point of the preaching, the singing and the bearing of testimonies was to evoke feeling of either guilt and shame over sins committed, or a fear of Hell and damnation. In the extremely emotional environment of a revival meeting, people might cry out, shake, weep, roll on the ground or pass out. All of this was taken as evidence that “the Spirit” was present, that the Holy Ghost was “at work” among the people. Those who surrendered to the experience usually went away with a profound sense peace and happiness over having finally “gotten right with the Lord.”

But when the emotionalism and sentimentality wore off, new problems often arose. Joseph Smith later wrote:

“For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.” (“Pearl of Great Price,” Joseph Smith--History 1:6)

Discussion Questions:

What are the advantages or disadvantages of basing one’s religious and moral principles on an emotional experience?

How might individuals or religious institutions manipulate the way individuals respond to such experiences? How can such manipulation be avoided?

What could be some of the pitfalls of making life altering decisions based only on “being led by the spirit?”

How could these pitfalls be avoided?


Joseph Smith wrote:

“During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them.”

Joseph would later recall that during this period, “he wanted to get religion too [and] wanted to feel and shout like the rest but [he] could feel nothing.”

The result of the revivals for Joseph was not a “conversion” experience, but an awakening of his mind. Witnessing the emotionalism of the revival meetings, noting how the clergy manipulated the feelings of those involved in order to build up their churches, and--perhaps most painfully--experiencing how religion was dividing his family in two, Joseph (like his father before him) began to question the legitimacy of all churches:

“ …so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (“Pearl of Great Price,” Joseph Smith--History 1:8-10)

Earlier, when he was been sixteen years old, Joseph had had a personal conversion experience during which, he later claimed, the Lord appeared to him and forgave him of his sins. As a result, young Joseph was confident that he was in no danger of “Hell fire and damnation,” and there is little evidence that Joseph ever feared for his salvation. Perhaps this was why, despite his desire to “feel and shout like the rest,” Joseph truly “felt nothing” when he listened to ministers warning of the eternal misery awaiting the unrepentant.

Secure in his conviction that no Hell awaited him at death, what Joseph did thirst for was knowledge and understanding. Since the churches offered nothing but emotionalism, he resisted his mother’s attempts to convert him to Presbyterianism. She later wrote that when she would ask him to accompany her to church, he would reply, “I will take my Bible and go out into the woods and learn more in two hours than you could if you were to go to meeting two years.”

In addition to gaining new knowledge, Joseph longed for a community of like-minded individuals who would genuinely love and support one another. When he realized that existing churches seldom offered this to converts, he began to reinterpret his earlier spiritual experience--his “First Vision” as it later became known--as a Divine calling first to reform existing churches and later to restore the truth to the earth.

Through his reinterpretation this experience, young Joseph was finally able to say to his mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” (See “Pearl of Great Price,” Joseph Smith--History 1:20)

Lucy would later remember that during this period her son said to her, “I do not wish to prevent you from going to meeting and joining any church you like or any of the family who desire the like, only do not ask me to do so for I do not wish to go….It will do you no hurt to join them [the Presbyterians], but you will not stay with them long for you are mistaken in them; you do not know the wickedness of their hearts.”

Discussion Questions:

How might Rev. Stockton’s attempts to use Alvin Smith’s funeral sermon as a missionary tool have led Joseph Smith to conclude that the Presbyterians were wicked in their hearts?

How could believing that others are damned and that one has an responsibility to help “save them” through converting them to one’s own religion be construed as wicked?

Historically what have been the results of efforts to “save” others?

How might being overly zealous in proselytizing others to a particular church or creed actually lead to prejudice towards that particular church or creed?

How might such negative results be avoided?

How is sharing one’s faith different from “doing missionary work?” Is one preferable to the other? Why or why not?


Traditionally one’s sincerity with regard to religion and God has been tied to one’s willingness to join a church, accept its creeds and follow the dictates or council of its leaders. To sacrifice for a church and to serve its interests is, for many people, a test of one’s religious devotion.
Most denominations within worldwide Mormonism go even farther--claiming that their particular denomination is the “only true and living Church,” and that it is impossible to please God without submitting to its ordinances and leadership.

Reform Mormonism rejects such notions, and maintains that every individual is a Free Agent, answerable only to God. The individual doesn’t exist for the sake of the church; the church exists as a support for individuals in their eternal personal progression. While authority in many churches comes from “the top down,” Reform Mormonism maintains that, because individuals have Free Agency and are ultimately responsible and accountable for their own conduct, authority actually issues from “the bottom up.”

In the end, one must be able to stand by one’s own convictions and live by one’s own personal revelation. A church can be a valuable tool and support in one’s life and personal progress. The relationships that one develops with those in a church can bring love, comfort and joy to the lives of all involved. But no religious organization, no ordinance or rite, no particular clergy or creed is required by God.

We progress and become like God by gaining knowledge and by emulating Deity in our character. No single creed encompasses all knowledge. No church or organization has a monopoly on truth. Reform Mormonism fully and unequivocally embraces the following teaching of Joseph Smith:

“Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc. any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all good true principles in the world and treasure them up, or well shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’” ("History of the Church," Volume 5, pg. 517)

To fulfill one’s Divine potential, one must venture beyond beyond the walls and confines of any single church.


My eternal progression and destiny are in my hands and mine alone. My relationship with God is personal; it is neither controlled nor mediated by any church, organization or religious leader.


Jump in and join the dicussion!

All view points & opinions are welcomed!

To respond to some of the questions raised in thisGospel Doctrine session, or to make a comment or ask a question,

Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the
Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at

From Mark Gollaher: I think that times of tragedy can afect us in several ways, not the least of which is making us open for a pardigm shift. If someone is seeking, I don't think it's inappropriate to to share how the world makes sense to you with them. To prey upon another's vulnerability and fears is another matter entirely. Having lost my Father, I have learned that more often the person needs most to express thier greif and frustration rather than hear trite religious explainations meant to give solace.
As far as using tragedy as a spring board for conversion: one has to ask, how genuinely loving is it when the love you feel does not motivate you to listen and try to understand another but to get them to see God the way you do regaurdless of how strongly you believe you are right and conversion would benefit that person...

I have always thought that if Christians (Mormons included) would just truly live the precepts of the gospel, especially the admonition of Jesus to "Love your neighbor as yourself", no active prosyliting would be necessary. If the focus were on tangable service and love to everyone--not just those in your church--and if that love inpired a desire to understand rather be understood, I believe the pure in heart would be seeking to learn more and there would be no "encouraging" necessary....

...our emotions are often the medium the spirit uses to speak to us. They can bring thoughts and understanding to our mind that our intellect and powers of reason alone are not yet capable. On the other hand, our own emotions or feelings of fear, anger, injustice, our need to controll others to feel secure or even being overly facinated with and longing for a revelatory experience--can all interfere with and mimic feelings of true inspiration....

Whenever a person is in a hightened emotional or aggitated state they are vulnerable to mistaking emotionalism for promting of the spirit. Creating a feeling of religious fervor is very akin to getting all excited at a sporitng event. No matter how caught up you are in hoping your team will win, it will never mean that your team is the "only true team" or that God, too, is hoping they'll win. Not only that, but now you are in a state of predudiced perception, incapable of objectively judging whether that foul the Reff just called was truly justified or not. You're own emotions in this case are screaming so loudly the still small voice could never be heard.
I believe a person must let go of all predudice, hope for a specific outcome, and especially fear, in order to trully be capable of "feeling" the promptings of the spirit...

I have a simple test I use for determing whether a feeling is inspiration or merely my own emotionalism: Does this experience fill me with love? Does it make me more willing to open my heart and understand my fellowman? Does it inspire me to become a more Christlike person? Or, on the other hand, does it increase feelings of fear and mistrust, lead me to judge or cause me to withdraw from my practical responsibilities in life?
The spirit edifies and makes the heart more tolerant and loving--even when the message from the spirit is a warning. Anything that stirs up fear or anger or justifies resentment, judgmentalness or lack of love and understanding is not from God...

When the focus and motivating desire behind "loving" or helping "someone" is to get them to comform to your way of thinking, it gets in the way of truly understanding and accepting the other person. This is not the pure, unconditional love of Christ; it engenders resentment and rejection if the other person does not convert, thereby validating your own religious conviction as the only true path acceptable to God.


related to this week’s lesson

“The Pearl of Great Price” Joseph Smith--History 1

“Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet” by Dan Vogel
(The new definitive biography of young Joseph Smith. The first seven chapters are devoted to the roles of church and religion in the Smith family.)


The Smith Family Log Cabin near Palmyra, New York

The Smith Family Farm House near Palmyra, New York

The Sacred Grove (traditionally believed to be the site of Joseph Smith’s First Vision)

The Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, New York (second church from the left)

Alvin Smith’s tombstone in Palmyra, New York

Reform Mormon writings on:

The purpose and role of a church

The church and homosexuals

The church and women

The church and intellectuals

The church and racism

The following books give some background information on the roles of church and religion in Colonial and early 19th century American society:

“The Faiths of the Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed,” by Alf J. Mapp

“Without God, Without Creed” by James Turner

“The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness,“ by Isaac Kramnick & R. Laurence Moore

“The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844,” by John L. Brooke