Joseph Smith–History Insight #20
Why did God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ wait until “early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (Joseph Smith–History 1:14) to reveal themselves to the Prophet Joseph Smith and usher in the dispensation of the fulness of times? This question naturally rises as individuals ponder the timing of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Over the years, Latter-day Saint scholars have pointed to a number of possible reasons for why the year 1820—or at very least the general time period of the early American Republic—may have been the right time for Joseph, under heavenly direction, to begin the process of restoration.1
First, it should be recognized that the specific timing of the First Vision seems to have depended in large measure on Joseph himself. Joseph did not suddenly wake up one morning in 1820 and decide to pray in the grove. He was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, not long after the establishment of the United States of America, offering an unprecedented political situation that protected the free exercise of religion. And then his family needed to move from Vermont into Western New York. Due to economic and weather conditions, the Smith family settled in Palmyra in 1816.2 Not only was the Hill Cumorah in that immediate area, it was also an area of considerable religious enthusiasm at a time of individual freedom and choice, making that particular time unusually opportune for the young Joseph to probe, spiritually prepare, and muster the determination to approach God in prayer.3 As he recounted in his 1832 history, as a young teenager “at about the age of twelve years, [Joseph’s] mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of [his] immortal soul.” This internal struggle lasted “from the age of twelve years to fifteen” as Joseph “pondered many things in [his] heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind.”4 It was only after “serious reflection and great uneasiness” that Joseph “at length” finally felt decided to follow the direction given in James 1:5 (Joseph Smith–History 1:8, 13). Thus, in Joseph’s own personal and family life, the First Vision could scarcely have happened earlier than 1818 or 1819.
Whatever the personal factors were that brought Joseph to his knees in the spring of 1820, on a macrolevel it is apparent from broad historical and societal trends of the time that the First Vision occurred during a pivotal moment in history. As religious historian Richard Bennett has recently documented, the Restoration emerged out of an epoch of reform, revolution, and progress the likes of which had never been seen.5 Not only the American Revolution (1765–1783) but revolutions in Europe (such as the French Revolution [1789–1799] and the Napoleonic Wars [1803–1815]) and South America (such as the military campaigns of Simon Bolivar [1811–1830]) prepared the world politically for the establishment of what would grow into a new worldwide religious movement.6 Had these movements’ efforts of political, social, and economic liberalization—which strove to secure freedoms of travel, speech, assembly, religion, and the press, among other rights, for the common man—not gained traction, it is hard to imagine a world environment that would have seen the publication and distribution of the Book of Mormon and the rapid establishment and spread of the Church of Jesus Christ at any time much earlier than 1830.
The First Vision occurred at a time of crucial intellectual progress as well. The very fact that Joseph had personal access to a Bible in his native language where he could encounter James 1:5 was because of the efforts of reformers like William Tyndale and inventors like Johannes Gutenberg to make scripture accessible in English to everybody,7 as well as the gains made by Enlightenment thinkers who stressed the need for religious pluralism and tolerance.8 In the decades leading up to 1820, Protestant Christian missionary and Bible societies in both Europe and North America began a renewed crusade to make the Bible the focus of study and the chief proselytizing tool among all classes of people.9
What’s more, the religious environment of North America fostered by of the First (1730s–1740s) and Second (1790–1840) Great Awakenings not only encouraged young Joseph to urgently seek a personal relationship with God but also allowed the boy to openly question the dominant Christian sects of his day.10 Bennett astutely sees young Joseph “inheriting this [cultural] atmosphere” of revolution, reform, and progress (both religious and secular) that led him “his own sacred grove near Rochester, New York, in the spring of 1820 in a determination to ask his God” how he could make sense of the dizzying effects of this new world he found himself in. “While the answer to his prayer led to the sunrise of a new world religion, his quest must also be seen as part of a time that was changing old ways, mannerisms, and streams of thought in a wide range of human endeavor.”11
These personal and historical forces have also been detected by legal historian John Welch, who draws attention to a number of remarkable providential parallels between the origin and growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Meridian of Time with similar conditions allowing for the restoration and growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Fulness of Times.12 For example, Welch points out that
in 31 BC, Augustus Caesar defeated Marc Anthony at the battle of Actium and ushered in an unprecedented era of world peace known as the Pax Augusti. Similarly, thirty years before the birth of Joseph Smith, the American colonies united in revolution against England and defeated the British forces to establish a new American nation that championed liberty and peace. In both of these worlds, optimism abounded. People were open to new ideas and forms of organization. Old legal and social arrangements had been overthrown. New horizons beckoned temptingly. The feelings of instability that result from overturning traditional orders were in both cases assuaged by elevating new figures or families to demi-divine status. In the Roman situation, the family of Augustus Caesar provided the overall society with a fundamental organizational foundation. In the American situation, the leading families of Virginia and Massachusetts became icons of the new republic, providing its first forty years of presidents.13
Other parallels between the first- and nineteenth-century origins for the Church of Jesus Christ detected by Welch include comparable foundings, group behaviors, patterns of growth, and outside historical settings. All this suggests that many things must be in place for a fragile new religious movement to take root and succeed, and that divine preparations may well have influenced the timing of the births and deaths of both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith.
This, Welch writes, invites us to view history through a providential paradigm that “is interested in pictures and patterns that include divine purposes and influences as part of the human drama.”
A Latter-day Saint approach to history invites careful detection of places and ways in which God may have been involved in the affairs of history. While making some historical sense of the following providential analogues or similarities remains an elusive challenge, looking for God in history is at least as interesting a quest as is trying to detect the influences of other metaforces at work in the sweep of history, such as economic pressures, class conflicts, or intellectual developments.14
Until times were right, neither Jesus nor Joseph could have accomplished their foreordained and necessary missions. And if either had been born thirty years earlier or thirty years later, it is not hard to see that neither would have had much of a chance.
While many points such as these help answer the question as to why the Restoration had to wait several centuries until it could happen, Latter-day Saints should not be overeager to artificially project their own view of history onto the pre-Restoration past. As Bennett cautions:
In attempting to place the Restoration into a wider context, there is the temptation of some Latter-day Saint readers to see all of history pointing to Palmyra . . . when in fact it wasn’t so. A worldwide history cannot be artificially bent to fit a narrow, preconceived, faith-promoting paradigm of interpretation and self-fulfilling prophecy, that everyone and everything were somehow all part of a divine Latter-day Saint hymnbook.15
Likewise, Welch ends his evaluation of these numerous points of evidence for the timing of the Restoration with this caveat: “As proof that God has once again set His hand to work in a divine restoration of His Kingdom as originally established in the meridian of time, the foregoing data can, of course, provide only circumstantial evidence, but such evidence is not without merit.”16 Thus, while himself perceiving the importance of patterns and forces “so pertinent to the rise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,”17 Bennett invites students of history “to make his or her own connections and conclusions”18 as they encounter what Welch describes as “God and mankind both act[ing] on a world stage with all its necessary props and fixtures.”19
While there is still room for individual Latter-day Saints to tease out the exact degree to which God influenced the worldwide events leading up to the Restoration, there can be no doubt that such things take time. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has recently testified, “The Lord prepared the world for the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ long before the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820.” It is therefore “appropriate to remember the numerous women and men over the course of centuries who were inspired by the Lord as He prepared the world for the Restoration that began when the Father and the Son appeared to young Joseph Smith, who was seeking forgiveness and direction in 1820.”20
M. Russell Ballard, “How the Lord Prepared the World for the Restoration,” Ensign, January 2020, 14–21.
Steven C. Harper et al., eds., Prelude to the Restoration: Apostasy to the Restored Church (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2004).
John W. Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity: Some Providential Similarities,” in Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History, ed. Roy A. Prete (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 17–38.
Richard E. Bennett, 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2020).
1 For recent treatments exploring this line of thought, see Steven C. Harper et al., eds., Prelude to the Restoration: Apostasy to the Restored Church (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2004); John W. Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity: Some Providential Similarities,” in Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History, ed. Roy A. Prete (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 17–38; Richard E. Bennett, 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2020).
2 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 27–35.
3 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820,” Joseph Smith–History Insight #7 (February 24, 2020).
5 Bennett, 1820.
6 Bennett, 1820, 1–30, 57–80, 207–230, 259–286.
7 David Rolph Seely, “Words ‘Fitly Spoken’: Tyndale’s English Translation of the Bible,” in Prelude to the Restoration: From Apostasy to the Restored Church, ed. Steven C. Harper et al. (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2004), 212–227; Keith J. Wilson, “From Gutenberg to Grandin: Tracing the Development of the Printing Press,” in Prelude to the Restoration, 269–286; Kent P. Jackson, “The English Bible: A Very Short History,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 11–24; “The King James Bible in the Days of Joseph Smith,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, 138–161.
8 David Pigott, “What We Hold So Dear: Religious Toleration as a Precondition to the Restoration,” in Prelude to the Restoration, 142–158; Robert R. Newell, Carma T. Prete, and Roy A. Prete, “European Origins of Freedom in America,” in Window of Faith, 311–329.
9 Bennett, 1820, 231–258; “The Rising of the Holy Bible to the Restoration,” in Prelude to the Restoration, 40–58.
10 Bennett, 1820, 317–342.
11 Bennett, 1820, xiv.
12 Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 17–38.
13 Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 20.
14 Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 17–18.
15 Bennett, 1820, viii.
16 Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 35.
17 Bennett, 1820, x.
18 Bennett, 1820, viii.
19 Welch, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 36.
20 M. Russell Ballard, “How the Lord Prepared the World for the Restoration,” Ensign, January 2020, 15–16.