The first vision of Joseph Smith occurred during the Second Great Awakening.  It was a time in which revival fueled the religious fervor of the American people.  Subsequent to this spiritual zeal was a swell in the number of new denominations that dotted the American landscape. Religious historians such as George Marsden refer to this period as “The Age of Democratic Revivals.”[1]  Alexis de Tocqueville described this period as a time when Americans regarded religion in relation to republican society as “indispensible.”[2]  There is no doubt that for Joseph Smith religion would have been a major facet of his life during this time period.    

     Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in the state of Vermont.  Around the year 1815 Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., moved his family to Palmyra located in Ontario County which is situated in the western part of the state of New York. Four years later the family moved once again to Manchester which was also in the same county. 

     Upon their arrival the Smith family found a community that was enthralled in a revival that was sweeping through this part of the state.  In 1808 the Baptists held a revival in which their number went from seventy to one hundred and seventy.  In 1816 and 1817 the Presbyterians caught the revival spirit, doubled their numbers, and established a second congregation.  

     The Smith family found in Ontario County a plethora of protestant denominations to choose from that, in addition to the Baptists and Presbyterians, also included a sizable congregation of Methodists and an assembly of the Society of Friends.[3]  Eventually Joseph Smith’s mother would unite with one of the Presbyterian congregations along with three of his siblings. Smith and his father along with the rest of his brothers did not.  Of all of the denominations in which to choose from, Joseph Smith seemed drawn to the Methodist Church the most.  However, he never joined this or any other congregation because he could not get past what he perceived to be hypocrisy and corruption in all of the denominations. 

     In his search for answers Smith was most concerned with two questions:  Which church was the right one and how could he achieve salvation.[4]  After this search left him feeling perhaps more confused than when he started, Smith came across a verse in the book of James that read, “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally…and it shall be given him.”[5]  Smith began to “ask of God” in the spring of 1820.  It was then that his first vision occurred.[6]

     In the document “First Vision of Joseph Smith,” Joseph Smith recalls his life up to this point after first giving a brief explanation as to the purpose of his writing.  This particular account of Smith’s first vision was written in 1838, eight years after the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eighteen years after Smith’s first vision.  At this time, Smith and the Church had been the subject of much criticism from people whom Smith describes as “evil-disposed and “designing persons.”  According to Smith, it was the intention of these people to “militate against” the character of the Church and the work in which it was doing.  

     Smith is therefore writing this history in order to explain to the general public his side of the story; or as he puts it, to “disabuse the public mind” and to “put all inquiries after truth in possession of the facts” in regards to himself and the founding of the Church.  Smith describes in this account his observations regarding the revival that was going on around him during this time before his vision and the founding of the Church. 

     The period of his spiritual journey in which Smith observed the differences in the various denominations and found it “impossible” for him decide “who was right and who was wrong” is also discussed.  Smith also describes his realization while struggling over this dilemma that in order for him to answer this question he would have to “ask of God” as directed in the book of James.  Finally, Smith describes what he experienced after his heavenly inquiry.    

     Smith describes in his recollection of the religious climate during this time period a situation in which discord seemed to be abundant although thinly masked by a shear veil of Christian cooperation.  According to Smith the “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” spread amongst all of the sects and created “no small stir and division” between people in the area.[7]  Smith says that this was going on at the same time that new converts were expressing “great love” at the time of their conversion and the clergy were showing “great zeal” for promoting the conversion experience.[8]

     Smith appears to suggest that all of this ardor and adoration covered up a contention among the protestant faith factions. Smith discovered this disputation after the mass of prospective proselytes made their denominational decisions.  The “good feelings” of both the clergy and the converts, Smith suggest, were “more pretended than real.”[9]  The scene that Smith described after this erupted in a “strife of words and a contest about opinions.”[10]  This account bears witness to the discord that was taking place among Protestants during the Second Great Awakening.  Accounts such as this suggest that the “zeal” of many protestant preachers may have been due to competition in the free market rather than coaxing of the Holy Ghost.

     Often in a document such as this, much attention is focused toward the seemingly irrational accounts of angelic beings and new revelations.  However, for someone who was only fifteen at the time the observations of Joseph Smith in regards to the religious climate of his community seem highly rational.  It would have been easy to get caught up in the excitement as so many were doing, including members of his own family, and it is questionable if there were many others in this energized mass of new believers who would have been able to make this sort of reasoned analysis.  Although Smith was religious in attending these religious meetings he appears to have remained objective about what was going on around him.  

     While many found themselves swept up in the religious tide, Smith was able to reflect on what was going on around him.  Although he does admit that he found himself at times “greatly excited” by all of the cajoling and contention Smith was still able to ask the question, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together.”[11]

     For someone that was a biblical literalist as was supposedly the case among the Protestant groups that drew contention with the actions and motives of Joseph Smith, his proposal for getting to the bottom of his question should have been completely logical as well.  Smith decided while reading from the book of James that he was going to do quite literally what the Bible says to do.  According to James if any person “lack(s) wisdom” they should “ask of God” and it would be given to them.  This conclusion seems remarkable, given Smith’s observation that “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”

     It seems highly probable that many who made the same observation would have more likely reverted to a more “Catholic” solution and left the biblical interpretation of these difficult passages up to their cleric of choice.  Given the young age of Joseph Smith and the pressures that he must have constantly felt from everyone around him it is plausible that he would do the same.  However Smith was still able to rely on his own interpretation of the Bible even when faced with this temptation.  This appears to be a highly objective and rational decision for a person to make in Smith’s position at least in terms of being a rational biblical literalist. 

     As for the vision itself, Smith’s account of this event does not seem to be all together unreasonable for the biblical literalist either.  The scene that Smith describes involving the two “Personages,” although not exactly the same also would not have been completely foreign to any reader of the Bible when compared with the account of the baptism of Jesus in Matthew or the description of the transfiguration of Jesus in the same book.[12] 

     The reported words that were spoken by these “Personages” also contained or were direct quotes of Scripture.[13]  Given the similarities of this account to events in the Bible that nearly all of Smith’s attackers would have viewed at literal events, one has to wonder if the reception of Smith’s vision may have been different if the instructions given by the Personages had been different.  According to Smith one of the Personages told him that he was not to join any of the sects because they were all corrupt.   What would the reaction have been if instead the directions reported from the Personage had been that the Methodist sect was the right one or that the Catholic Church was the corrupt professors described in the vision?  

     Although the account of Joseph Smith does describe a fantastic event that was followed by later accounts of still more fantastic events it seems hard to dismiss the whole report as irrational.  Regardless of what one believes as to the validity of Smith’s vision, this document remains a valuable witness to the religious strife and controversy that was prominent during the Second Great Awakening.  This document provides evidence of the emotionally charged religious hysteria of the masses and a look into the democratization of religion in America.  Perhaps this document even illustrates a sort of free market denominationalism that would influence or even instigate the coming surge in free market capitalism of the Second Industrial Revolution.


Works Cited

Bushman, R L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Marsden, G M. Religion and American culture. Harcourt College Publishers, 2001.

Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."

Tucker, P. Origin, rise, and progress of Mormonism: biography of its founders and history of its church : personal remembrances and historical collections hitherto unwritten. D. Appleton and company, 1867.

[1] Marsden, G M. Religion and American culture. Harcourt College Publishers, 2001.  57

[2] Marsden, G M. Religion and American culture. Harcourt College Publishers, 2001.  58

[3] Bushman, R L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. University of Illinois Press, 1987.  51-52

[4] Bushman, R L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. University of Illinois Press, 1987.  54

[5] Bushman, R L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. University of Illinois Press, 1987.  56

[6] Bushman, R L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. University of Illinois Press, 1987.  56

[7] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  1

[8] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  1

[9] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  1

[10] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  1

[11] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  2

[12] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  3. Compare with Matthew 3:13-17; 17:1-13

[13] Smith, Joseph. "First Vision of Joseph Smith."  3. Compare with Matthew 3:17; 15:8-9