Joseph Smith's First Vision/Religious revivals in 1820
Critics claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, contrary to Joseph Smith's claims that during that year there was "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion...indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it" Joseph Smith—History 1:5
Joseph Smith talked of observing, as a 14-year-old, "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" in the Palmyra area during the Spring of 1820. Joseph notes that "It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." There is documented evidence of at least one Methodist camp meeting in the Palmyra area during that period, which only by chance happened to be mentioned in the local newspaper because of a specific death that seemed to be associated with it. It is reasonable to assume that the Methodists had more than one camp meeting during this period. In addition, there are newspaper articles talking of large-scale revival activity in the larger region surrounding Palmyra during the same general period when Joseph Smith said that it was taking place.
- Gordon B. Hinckley cited false information?—
Critics claim that there were no religious revivals in the Palmyra, New York area in 1820, and that Gordon B. Hinckley cited false information in a book called Truth Restored. (Link)
No mention of revival activity in the newspaper?
A Presbyterian historian on Wikipedia comments on this FAIR Wiki article:
FAIR disagrees with your assessment and stubbornly holds to an 1820 date, Methodist camp meetings as interdenominational revivals, no date conflation, and local newspapers not reporting local news. The FAIR page never suggests that the time and place of the interdenominational religious awakening is irrelevant...
—Wikipedia editor John Foxe, (9 December 2007)
Indeed, we "stubbornly hold" to the 1820 date, and we do not consider the time and place of religious awakening irrelevant. This claim by critics that there is no record of revival activity in the region surrounding Palmyra during the 1820 timeframe has simply not stood up to historical scrutiny. References to regional revival activity in the Palmyra Register, a newspaper which Joseph's family would have read, are clearly evident. While these revivals did not occur in Palmyra itself, their mention in the local newspaper would have given Joseph Smith the sense that there was substantial revival activity in the region. (These primary sources, not surprisingly, are omitted from the "First Vision" Wikipedia article. For further information, see: An analysis of Wikipedia article "First Vision")
- GREAT REVIVALS IN RELIGION. The religious excitement which has for some months prevailed in the towns of this vicinity...This is a time the prophets desired to see, but they never saw it....—Palmyra Register, June 7, 1820 (Ballston, NY - 196 miles away from Palmyra)
- REVIVAL. A letter from Homer [N.Y.] dated May 29, received in this town, states, that 200 persons had been hopefully converted in that town since January first; 100 of whom had been added to the Baptist church. The work was still progressing.—Palmyra Register, August 16, 1820 (Homer, NY - 76 miles away from Palmyra)
- REVIVALS OF RELIGION. "The county of Saratoga, for a long time, has been as barren of revivals of religion, as perhaps any other part of this state. It has been like 'the mountains of Gilboa, on which were neither rain nor dew.' But the face of the country has been wonderfully changed of late. The little cloud made its first appearance at Saratoga Springs last summer. As the result of this revival about 40 have made a public profession of religion in Rev. Mr. Griswold's church....A revival has just commenced in the town of Nassau, a little east of Albany. It has commenced in a very powerful manner....—Palmyra Register, September 13, 1820 (Saratoga, NY - 193 miles away from Palmyra)
- FROM THE RELIGIOUS REMEMBRANCER A SPIRITUAL HARVEST. "I wish you could have been with us yesterday. I had the pleasure to witness 80 persons receive the seal of the covenant, in front of our Church. Soon after 135 persons, new members, were received into full communion. All the first floor of the Church was cleared; the seats and pews were all crowded with the members...Palmyra Register, October 4, 1820 (Bloomingsgrove, NY - 209 miles away from Palmyra)
Events which may have influenced Joseph prior to 1820
In his 1832 account, Joseph notes that his concern about religion began at age 12:
"At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not adorn instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul..." (Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision)
Richard Bushman notes that this "would have been in late 1817 and early 1818, when the after-affects of the revival of 1816 and 1817 were still felt in Palmyra." 
Joseph continues in his 1832 account: "[T]hus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins." In July, 1819, several years after Joseph said his mind became "seriously imprest," a major Methodist conference was held near Palmyra:
[T]he Methodists of the Genesee Conference met for a week in Vienna (later Phelps), a village thirteen miles southeast of the Smith farm on the road to Geneva. About 110 ministers from a region stretching 500 miles from Detroit to the Catskills and from Canada to Pennsylvania met under the direction of Bishop R. R. Robert to receive instruction and set policy. If we are to judge from the experience at other conferences, the ministers preached between sessions to people who gathered from many miles around. It was a significant year for religion in the entire district. . . . The Geneva Presbytery, which included the churches in Joseph's immediate area, reported in February, 1820, that "during the past year more have been received into the communion of the Churches than perhaps in any former year." Methodists kept no records for individual congregations, but in 1821 they built a new meetinghouse in town. 
What was happening in Joseph's area in 1820
Joseph states that about 1820 "an unusual excitement on the subject of religion" had commenced, and that "[i]t commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country." The Palmyra newspaper reported many conversions in the “burned-over” district. The Palmyra Register recorded that the Methodists had a religious camp meeting in 1820. Since they did not have a chapel yet, they would meet in the woods on Vienna Road. Pomeroy Tucker (a witness hostile to Joseph Smith) states that “protracted revival meetings were customary in some of the churches, and Smith frequented those of different denominations…” These revivals in 1820 must have helped the Methodists, for they were able to build their first church in Palmyra by 1822, down on Vienna Road where they held their camp meetings. The Zion Episcopal Church was originated in 1823. In 1817, the Presbyterians were able to split into an eastern group and a western group. The eastern group used the only actual church building that was in Palmyra in 1820, while the western group assembled in the town hall.
Too common to notice?
Ironically, evidence for local religious meetings was less likely to be documented in the newspapers because they were so common. One report of a Methodist camp meeting in Palmyra only made it into the local newspaper because of a fatality due to alcohol consumption. The paper, in a less politically correct time, pointed out that the deceased was Irish and had died due to alcohol at the Camp-ground outside Palmyra:
- Effects of Drunkenness--DIED at the house of Mr. Robert McCollum, in this town, on the 26th inst. James Couser, aged about forty years. The deceased, we are informed, arrived at Mr. McCollum's house the evening preceding, from a camp-meeting which was held in this vicinity, in a state of intoxication. He, with his companion who was also in the same debasing condition, called for supper, which was granted. They both stayed the night--called for breakfast next morning--when notified that it was ready, the deceased was found wrestling with his companion, who he flung with the greatest ease,--he suddenly sunk down upon a bench,--was taken with an epileptic fit, and immediately expired.--It is supposed he obtained his liquor, which was no doubt the cause of his death, at the Camp-ground, where, it is a notorious fact, the intemperate, the lewd and dissolute part of community too frequently resort for no better object, than to gratify their base propensities.
- The deceased, who was an Irishman, we understand has left a family, living at Catskill this state.
Mention of "the Camp-ground" did not endear the paper to the local Methodists, who objected to the implication that this (the location of their worship services) was the site of drinking to excess and a place of gathering by the "dissolute part" of the community. An article appeared in the same paper a week later which said:
- "Plain Truth" is received. By this communication, as well as by the remarks of some of our neighbors who belong to the Society of Methodists, we perceive that our remarks accompanying the notice of the unhappy death of James Couser, contained in our last, have not been correctly understood. "Plain truth" says, we committed "an error in point of fact," in saying that Couser "obtained his liquor at the camp-ground." By this expression we did not mean to insinuate, that he obtained it within the enclosure of their place of worship, or that he procured it of them, but at the grog-shops that were established at, or near if you please, their camp-ground. It was far from our intention to charge the Methodists with retailing ardent spirits while professedly met for the worship of their God. Neither did we intend to implicate them by saying that "the intemperate, the dissolute, &c. resort to their meetings."--And if so we have been understood by any one of that society, we assure them they have altogether mistaken our meaning.
Thus, Joseph's recollection of religious excitement in Palmyra is confirmed at the very edge of the Spring of 1820; very close to the time when he said he prayed to God about religion.
Critics often wish to place the revival which Joseph spoke about in 1818. However, even though we know that a revival occurred in Palmyra during June 1818, there is no mention of it in the town paper, despite the fact that it was attended by Robert R. Roberts, who was one of "only three Methodist bishops in North America."
Once again, the commonality of such an event did not ensure that it would get a mention—yet, by the critics' same argument, this "silence" in the newspaper should mean that the 1818 revival didn't happen either.
Some critics and armchair scholars have come to the conclusion that some of the revival story elements found in Joseph Smith's 1838 historical narrative are not really accurate, but rather are representative of a conflation of facts. These people believe that Joseph Smith was actually mixing parts of 1818 and 1824-25 Palmyra revival activities into his storyline about what happened in 1820. In other words, they claim that the Prophet's narrative is not historically accurate - but not deceptively so.
The problem with the 'conflation theory' is two-fold: (1) It can be demonstrated that one of the most important pieces of documentary evidence which is used to support this theory does not actually say what some people think it says - see the FAIRwiki paper called Conflation of 1824-25 revival?. (2) There is plenty of documentary evidence that shows abundant revival activity in the general region surrounding Palmyra, New York during an 1819-1820 time period. A careful examination of Joseph Smith's 1838 narrative reveals that three distinct zones of revival activity are being referred to by him and each of these can be confirmed in non-LDS newspapers and ecclesiastical sources. When all of these sources are taken into account the idea of conflation loses most of its strength.
- [note] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 53. ISBN 0252060121.
- [note] Bushman, Beginnings of Mormonism, 53.
- [note] Palmyra Register (Palmyra, NY), 28 July 1820.
- [note] Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, and Morris’ Reserve (Rochester, New York: William Alling, 1851), 212–213.
- [note] Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton, 1867), 17–18.
- [note] George W. Cowles, Landmarks of Wayne County (Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Company, 1895), 194.
- [note] Cowles, Landmarks of Wayne County, 194.
- [note] Cowles, Landmarks of Wayne County, 191–192.
- [note] Palmyra Register (Palmyra, NY), 28 June 1820.
- [note] Palmyra Register (Palmyra, NY), 5 July 1820.
- [note] This episode in the Palmyra Register was noted in Walter A. Norton, "Comparative Images: Mormonism and Contemporary Religions as Seen by Village Newspapermen in Western New York and Northeastern Ohio, 1820-1833" (Ph.D. Diss., Brigham Young University, 1991), 255. Discussed in footnote 3 by Richard L. Bushman, "Just the Facts Please (Review of Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record by H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 122–133. off-site PDF link
- [note] Discussed and cited on pages 9–10 of D. Michael Quinn, "Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp-Meeting'," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3 (12 July 2006), PDF link