Joseph Smith–History Insight #11
In the canonized account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith remembered confiding in a Methodist minister and received a stinging rebuke.1
Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them. (Joseph Smith—History 1:21)
The impact of this rejection may have shaped how and when Joseph did (and did not) tell his story for years to come.2 Yet this is the only time Joseph ever mentioned this encounter, and none of his firsthand accounts disclose the name of this preacher. It is therefore impossible to know for certain who this preacher was. There is, however, one Methodist preacher named by both Oliver Cowdery and William Smith as being influential in the religious excitement leading up to Joseph Smith’s vision, and even in potentially prompting Joseph Smith to pray and ask God in the first place—Rev. George Lane.3
Rev. George Lane was an itinerant Methodist minister in the northern Pennsylvania and western New York area in the early 1820s.4 He was remembered for his powerful preaching. A contemporary who heard him preach at a camp meeting in 1819 said, “The exhortations of the presiding elder, George Lane, were overwhelming. Sinners quailed under them, and many cried aloud for mercy.”5
According to Oliver Cowdery, in Joseph Smith’s “15th year  … One Mr. Lane, a presiding Elder of the Methodist church, visited Palmyra, and vicinity. Elder Lane was a tallented man possessing a good share of literary endowments, and apparent humility. … Mr. Lane’s manner of communication was peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect of the hearer, and arouse the sinner to look about him for safety—much good instruction was always drawn from his discourses on the scriptures, and in common with others, our brother’s [i.e., Joseph Smith’s] mind became awakened.”6 William Smith remembered Rev. Lane specifically exhorting anyone who was uncertain about which church to join to follow the counsel of James 1:5, and this prompting Joseph to act on Lane’s words.7
There is some question as to the reliability of these recollections, however, since Rev. Lane was not placed over the Ontario Circuit (which included Palmyra) until 1824, and primarily worked in northern Pennsylvania between 1819 and 1823.8 The issue is further complicated by ambiguities in both Oliver’s and William’s narratives. After introducing Rev. Lane in an 1820 setting, Oliver relocates his narrative to the year 1823, and proceeds to tell of the visit of Moroni rather than the First Vision.9 Thus, it is ambiguous as to whether Oliver meant to indicate whether Rev. Lane was influential in 1820 or 1823.10 In William’s late reminiscences, he also frequently conflates details from Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820 with Moroni’s visit in 1823, and William’s accounts may actually be dependent on Oliver’s narrative.11
Joseph Smith, unfortunately, never mentioned Rev. Lane by name, and thus never clarified what, if any, influence the preacher had on him in his youth. In light of the accounts from Oliver Cowdery and William Smith, however, it is noteworthy that, according to historian Larry C. Porter, “Lane was in the geographical proximity of Joseph Smith on a number of occasions between the years 1819 and 1825.”12 In particular, Lane attended the Genesee Conference held in Phelps in July 1819—less than 15 miles from the Smith farm and likely part of the “unusual excitement” Joseph remembered leading up to the First Vision.13 Thus, Joseph may, indeed, have heard Rev. Lane preach prior to his First Vision, as Oliver and William described.14
Could Rev. Lane also be the unnamed preacher mentioned by Joseph, in whom he confided after his vision? Porter notes, “In July 1820, Lane would have had to pass through the greater Palmyra-Manchester vicinity on his way to Niagara, Upper Canada,” to the Genesee Conference, that year held at Lundy’s Lane.15 As was customary, Lane stopped and preached at camp-meetings along the way to and from the conference.16 This potentially could have afforded Joseph the opportunity to speak to Lane a few months after his vision, if Lane indeed was the minister Joseph remembered confiding in. Others, however, have argued that the minister Joseph was referring to was someone more regularly in the Palmyra area.17
Even though the “nature and degree, or indeed the actuality, of their acquintanceship during this interval” remains uncertain, Porter concludes, “it is easy to see that Joseph Smith could have had contact with Lane at a number of points during this extended period.”18
Larry C. Porter, “Rev. George Lane—Good ‘Gifts,’ Much ‘Grace,’ and Marked ‘Usefulness,’” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 199–226.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 121–131.
1 For context and background on the minister’s reaction, see 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 (2011): 88–114, esp. 112–114.
2 See Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9–12.
3 See Oliver Cowdery, “Letter III,” Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 3 (December 1834): 42; William Smith Interview with E. C. Briggs, 1893, in Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 1:513.
4 For greater details on the life of George Lane, see Larry C. Porter, “Rev. George Lane—Good ‘Gifts,’ Much ‘Grace,’ and Marked ‘Usefulness,’” in Exploring the First Vision, ed. Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), 199–226.
5 George Peck, Life and Times of Rev. George Peck (New York, NY: Nelson & Phillips, 1874), 109.
6 Cowdery, “Letter III,” 42. Note that the phrase “the 15th year” refers to when Joseph was 14, i.e., the year 1820. See “How Old was Joseph Smith at the Time of the First Vision,” Joseph Smith—History Insight #8 (February 27, 2020).
7 William Smith Interview, EMD 1:513.
8 See Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 209–210, 216. Interestingly, as Porter notes (pp. 210–212), Lane’s circuit at this time included Harmony, PA, making it likely that he knew the family of Emma Hale (Joseph’s future wife), who were devout Methodists.
9 See Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV,” Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 5 (February 1835): 78.
10 On this confusing sequence in Oliver’s narrative, see Roger Nicholson, “The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 27–44. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy on the First Vision Setting: The Pivotal 1818 Palmyra Camp Meeting,” in Exploring the First Vision, 121–131; Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 217–219.
11 See Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 45–49; Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 119–121, 130–131, 139–141.
12 Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 215.
13 Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 209–210, 215. On the 1819 conference being part of the religious excitement leading up to the First Vision, see “Religious Excitement near Palmyra, New York, 1816–1820,” Joseph Smith—History Insight #7 (February 24, 2020).
14 See Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 130.
15 Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 215.
16 Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Accuracy,” 130, makes note of a camp meeting (held in Honeoye, NY, about 22 miles southwest of Palmyra) which Lane attended in July 1820, but says “it seems a little too far and definitely too late to be relevant for the First Vision early that spring.” Anderson does not mention anything about the possibility of Lane being the preacher Joseph spoke to after his vision.
17 See D. Michael Quinn, “Joseph Smith’s Experience on a Methodist ‘Camp-Meeting’ in 1820,” Dialogue Paperless #3 (December 2006): 45, 51–54 for a review of potential candidates.
18 Porter, “Rev. George Lane,” 215, 217.