Joseph Smith's First Vision/Joseph Smith joined other churches

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    Did Joseph join other churches contrary to commandment in the First Vision?

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Overview:


Leading up to the vision:


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After the vision:


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Questions


  • Did Joseph Smith join the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist churches between 1820 and 1830—despite the claim made in his 1838 history that he was forbidden by Deity (during the 1820 First Vision experience) from joining any denomination?[1]
  • Do Joseph's alleged actions argue strongly against the reality of any encounter he might have had with God in the Sacred Grove?
  • Did Joseph became a member of Emma Hale Smith's Methodist congregation in 1828?

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Answer


Nobody who has charged Joseph Smith with joining a church between 1820 and 1830 has ever produced any authentic denominational membership record that would substantiate such a claim. Eyewitness reminiscences and contemporary records provide strong evidence that this claim is not valid and, therefore, does not reflect historical reality.

Detailed Analysis

The critics' sources

Three of the primary sources that charge Joseph Smith with joining sectarian churches between 1820 and 1830 were produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century. None of the three are contemporary records; the earliest one was written 50 years after the First Vision took place:

Lapham: 1870, second-hand

Fayette Lapham claimed to have interviewed Joseph Smith Sr. in 1829-30, and published a report forty years later. In it, he reported:

About this time [1822, perhaps as late as 1824] he [Joseph, Jr.] became concerned as to his future state of existence, and was baptized, becoming thus a member of the Baptist Church.[2]

Joseph and Hiel Lewis, Amboy Journal 1879

Joseph and Hiel Lewis were cousins of Emma Hale Smith; they would have been aged 21 and 11 respectively in 1828:

...while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book....that he joined the M[ethodist] [Episocpal] church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days.--It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.[3]

Note that Joseph did not inscribe himself, but the Methodist minister added Joseph's name to the class book. It is not surprising that Joseph might have attended Methodist services: Emma's family was involved in Methodism, she was related to Methodist ministers, and Joseph at this period was living on the Hale family's farm. The Hales had serious reservations about their new son-in-law, who claimed by this point to have the Book of Mormon plates in his possession. It would be natural for him to attend worship services with them if only to reassure them that he was not hostile to religion.

It is telling, though, that as soon as Joseph Lewis learned that Joseph had attended, he quickly took steps to disassociate the church from a person he saw as an imposter: note too that Lewis describes himself (rather than Joseph) as one "of the official members." A study of Methodist procedure makes it extremely unlikely that Joseph could have been a member of the Church, especially for only three days.

Anderick - 1887

When Jo[seph Smith] joined the Presbyterian Church, in Palmyra village, it caused much talk and surprise, as he claimed to receive revelations from the Lord.[4]

As Dan Vogel notes, "Because Lucy Smith and three of her older children joined the Presbyterian Church, together with the possibility that Joseph Jr. may have attended some meetings with other family members, some observers may have assumed Joseph Jr. was also a member."[5] (Vogel notes that Lorenzo Saunders claimed in 1884 that he attended Sunday School with Joseph at the Presbyterian Church, and so that attendance (without formal membership) may be the source for this reminiscence.[6]

Summary re: critics' sources

  1. The Lapham source is secondhand at best—putting forward information that reportedly came from the Prophet's father.
  2. The Lewis source presents a scenario that was directly contradicted in print by an adult eyewitness who was a Methodist church officer. It is certainly possible that Joseph attended a Methodist meeting with his wife and in-laws: even in the Lewis' telling, however, he was quickly made to understand that he was not wanted, and he persisted in his own beliefs rather than continue with them.
  3. The Anderick source may simply be recalling an occasion when the young Prophet attended a church service with his Presbyterian mother and siblings.

The three sources are all late, and all from hostile voices.

We must note too that none of these sources confirms the others—they all discuss different denominations and different time frames. Thus, the stories are not mutually reinforcing.

We turn now to the many sources (both friendly and hostile) that claim that Joseph had no formal affiliation with any religious denomination during this period. Critics typically leave these sources safely unmentioned.

Sources which contradict the critics

The eyewitness sources that follow below indicate that up until the time that Joseph Smith announced the existence of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his family (23 September 1823) he was not formally attached to any church, but had instead publicly rejected all of them and manifested his desire NOT to join their ranks. Some are contemporaneous, others are later remembrances, but the hostile and friendly voices are clear that he had no denominational affiliation.

Reminiscence Around 1820

Pomeroy Tucker (a non-Mormon critic who knew Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York) said that Joseph joined the Methodist probationary class in Palmyra but soon "withdrew from the class" without being converted; announcing that "all the churches [were] on a false foundation."[7] This information corresponds with historical details dated by Joseph Smith at around 1820.

Reminiscence of Fall 1823

Joseph Smith's mother recalled in her autobiography that shortly after her son Alvin died on 19 November 1823 Joseph "utterly refused" to attend church services with the intent to convert, and he made the specific request: "do not ask me to join them. I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting in two years, if you should go all the time."[8]

As can be seen by the continuing chronological sources which follow, Joseph Smith and his associates were teaching from 1825 to 1832 that the Prophet did not belong to any church between the years 1825 and 1827.

Reminiscence Concerning 1825

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon): “I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man and at that time did not profess religion.”[9]

Reminiscence Concerning 1827

In 1827 David Marks (a non-Mormon minister) went to Palmyra and Manchester, New York where he “made considerable inquiry respecting . . . [Joseph] Smith” and learned from “several persons in different places” that Joseph was “about 21 years [old]; that previous to his declaration of having found the plates he made no pretensions to religion.”[10]

Reminiscence Concerning 1830

In October 1830 Peter Bauder (a non-Mormon minister) spoke directly to the Prophet. Bauder commented: “he could give me no Christian experience,” meaning that he did not belong to any church before his experience with the angel and plates in September 1823.[11]

Contemporary Document - 1830

Four LDS men from New York state taught that at the time the angel appeared to Joseph Smith (22 September 1823) he “made no pretensions to religion of any kind.”[12]

Contemporary Document - 1831

The editor of a Palmyra, New York newspaper claimed that he has been “credibly informed,” and was “quite certain,” that “the prophet . . . never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation” -- meaning the Book of Mormon, which was made known among Palmyra's residents in the Fall of 1827.[13]

Contemporary Document - 1832

Orson Pratt and Lyman Johnson taught on 8 April 1832 that “in 1827 a young man called Joseph Smith of the state of New York, of no denomination [i.e., not belonging to a church], but under conviction, inquired of the Lord . . . [and] an angel [appeared to him] . . . who gave information where the plates were deposited.”[14] Pratt clarified in a much later statement that between 1820 and 1823 Joseph Smith "was not a member of any church."[15]

Thus, a great deal of contemporary evidence disproves the late, second hand claims.

Notes

  1. Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 March 1842), 707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  2. Fayette Lapham, "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates," Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:456-466.
  3. Joseph and Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History. A New Chapter, About to Be Published," Amboy Journal [Illinois] 24 (30 April 1879): 1; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:300–306.
  4. Mrs. S.F. Anderick affidavit of 24 June 1887, cited in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 2.; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:207-211.
  5. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:210n9.
  6. Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by William H. Kelley, 17 September 1884, 1-18, in E.L. Kelley Papers, RLDS Church Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:125-135.
  7. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 17–18.
  8. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1945), 90.
  9. Letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. to John S. Fullmer, 17 February 1843.
  10. Morning Star, 7 March 1833 [Limerick, Maine].
  11. Peter Bauder, The Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ (Canajoharie, New York: A. H. Calhoun, 1834), 36.
  12. Observer and Telegraph, 18 November 1830 [Hudson, Ohio].
  13. “Gold Bible, No. 3,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 12 (1 February 1831): {{{pages}}}. off-site
  14. The Catholic Telegraph, 14 April 1832 [Cincinnati, Ohio].
  15. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:140-141.

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