Joseph Smith–History Insight #19
Joseph Smith was not the only person who claimed visionary experiences during the “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” (Joseph Smith–History 1:5) known as the Second Great Awakening (circa 1790–1840). As several American cultural historians, including Richard Bushman and others, have documented, many men and women during this time were reporting extraordinary visions and dreams.1 Indeed, even members of Joseph’s own family experienced remarkable dreams during this time.2 Like Joseph Smith, some of these visionaries—such as Charles G. Finney, a prominent evangelist and revival preacher during the 1820s and 30s—would go on to play important roles in the history of American Christianity.3 Many of the men and women who claimed visions during this time published their accounts in pamphlets and tracts, which allows historians to situate their experiences in a broader cultural and historical context alongside Joseph’s First Vision of the Father and the Son.4 But, as historians have observed, while there are very clear parallels between Joseph’s visionary claims and those of others, there are also some key differences which set the Prophet apart from his contemporaries.
For example, Bushman points out that the focus of the visionary accounts common in Joseph’s day are in many ways different than the focus of the First Vision. “The narratives of dreams and miraculous appearances [of heavenly beings] did not imply the construction of any institutional forms; they did not propose doctrine; they did not proclaim commandments,” writes Bushman. “They were apocalyptic warnings, visions of worldly wickedness and onrushing doom. In a sense, they were titillations of the religious sensibilities that imposed no obligations beyond a general revulsion against sin and responsiveness to divine purpose. The visionary writings were a later version of the Puritan preoccupation with wonders. They inspired awe at the presence of invisible powers made visible but were an occasion to marvel rather than to act.” By contrast, Bushman notes that Joseph Smith’s visions “radically redirected peoples lives. His writings became authoritative statements of doctrine and the divine will. They implied an ecclesiastical polity and a reorganization of society.”5
In addition, the way Joseph related his experience in the grove,6 while again finding some overlap with contemporary writings, diverged in some important respects from what was typical or expected for his time. As historian Christopher C. Jones elaborates, typical conversion narratives of this period often used circumspect language in describing what the visionary saw. Using Methodist conversion narratives as his primary example, Jones explains,
Methodists of the day carefully qualified the nature of their visionary experiences with phrases like “by faith, I saw . . .” or by affirming that it was just a dream. . . . Most commonly, individuals described their visions in ambiguous terms. . . . Joseph Smith, by contrast, affirmed unambiguously that “it was nevertheless a fact, that I had had a vision. . . . I had actually seen a light and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak to me. . . . I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” It was thus not necessarily a matter of what Joseph Smith experienced, but rather how he explained it.7
The marked differences noted by Bushman and Jones are among the reasons why historians attempting to adequately situate Joseph Smith in the visionary culture of antebellum American Christianity continue to grapple with the task.8 In fact, so radical was the message of Joseph’s First Vision—that all existing Christian denominations were in apostasy and the fulness of the gospel would be restored at the future time—that it was downright offensive to many in his generation. “[R]eports of visions and divine appearances were commonplace at the time,” remarks the non-Latter-day Saint historian Robert Remini in his biography of the Prophet. Joseph merely claiming to have had a vision was not in and of itself problematic.
But what was objectionable . . . was the message [of the First Vision], namely, that all the churches were wrong and an abomination in God’s sight. . . . Here, then, was one of the first and most important reasons why Joseph came to be hated and reviled by ministers and their congregations: the charge that all other faiths were offensive to God and their preachers corrupt. That accusations, they argued, was not simply wrong and insulting but damnable.9
Situating Joseph Smith in the visionary world of his day can help elucidate some useful clarification and context to his life and ministry. However, it is important not to overstate the parallels. As Brodhead notes, “The differences between Smith and [and other prophetic figures of the time such as Nat Turner] are so clear as scarcely to require mention.”10 And as Bushman urges, one should not to carelessly lump the Prophet’s visionary claims in with others that, upon closer inspection, exhibit considerable differences.
Joseph Smith’s experiences can be compared to reports from the visionaries of his time, just as he can be linked to other nineteenth-century cultures—universalism, rational skepticism, republicanism, progress, revivalism, magic, communitarianism, health reform, restorationism, Zionism, and a host of others. But no one of these cultures, or even all of them added together, encompasses the whole of his thought. Joseph went beyond them all and produced a culture and society that the visionaries around him could not even imagine. Visions and revelations lay at the core of the Restoration, but the doctrinal and institutional outworks extended well beyond the limits of [typical nineteenth-century] visionary culture.11
Richard Lyman Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997–1998): 183–204.
Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 88–114.
1 Richard Lyman Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997–1998): 183–204; Richard H. Brodhead, “Prophets in America circa 1830: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nat Turner, Joseph Smith,” in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 13–29; Christopher C. Jones, “We Latter-day Saints are Methodists”: The Influence of Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University (2009); “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 88–114.
3 For an autobiographical account of Finney’s vision of Christ that led to his conversion, see Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney: Written by Himself (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1876), 12–23.
4 Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” 183–204; see also Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1984), 43–59; Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 30–41. For discussions of the broader context of this phenomenon, see David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011); Richard E. Bennett, 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2020), 317–342.
5 Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” 193.
6 On which see Pearl of Great Price Central, “How Did Joseph Smith Tell the Story of His First Vision?” Joseph Smith–History Insight #14 (March 19, 2020).
7 Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness,” 113.
8 For different approaches, see John W. Welch, ed., The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006); Nelson and Givens, Joseph Smith Jr.; RoseAnn Benson, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: Nineteenth-Century Restorationists (Provo, UT and Abilene, TX: Brigham Young University Press and Abilene Christian University Press, 2017).
9 Robert V. Remini, Joseph Smith (New York, NY: Viking, 2002), 40.
10 Brodhead, “Prophets in America circa 1830,” 17.
11 Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” 197.