Saturday, March 26, 2011

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - 02

Richard Lyman Bushman
Chapter 2: "The First Visions: 1816-27" (pp. 30-56)

In the first chapter, Richard Bushman gave an excellent treatment of the Smith family up to their move to Palmyra, NY, in late 1816 or early 1817. In the second chapter, Bushman plunges into the next eleven years, a time period that includes some of the most important formative events of the young Joseph's prophetic career. After some brief coverage of the history and layout of the region up until that point, Bushman turns his attention to the Smith family's entrance, noting that they initially lived in Palmyra without a farm, maintaining themselves through a small shop, Lucy's oilcloth table coverings, and hired labor performed by Joseph Smith Sr. and his older sins (31). When they made enough money to contract for a farm, "the Smiths located a wooded tract less than two miles south of Palmyra village on Stafford Road", and Joseph Smith Sr. paid $600-700 for 100 acres of land there in July 1820. However, at least a year before that, the Smiths built a small log house on the adjacent property of a local merchant named Samuel Jennings (32). After clearing the land through fire and beginning to farm, the Smiths were able to finally harvest a wheat crop in 1821. Funds remained tight and they continually fell short on their payments, though, and so they continued to pursue other lines of work as well (33). Having covered this and offered readers an excellent map of Palmyra and Manchester on page 34, Bushman next turned to the life of young Joseph Smith Jr. and his religious experiences:

During the fourteen years following the Smiths' move to Palmyra in 1816, Joseph Jr. had the experiences that led him to believe he was a prophet. In 1818, when he was twelve, he began to be troubled about his sins, though apparently no one in the family knew about it. Around 1820, the visions began, first of the Father and the Son and then, three years later, of the angel who gave instructions about the gold plates. In 1830, at twenty-four, he published the Book of Mormon, organized a church, and was identified as "a seer, a translator, an apostle of Jesus Christ." (35)

To gain insight on Smith religious culture at this time, Bushman mentions several of the dreams - which Lucy called "visions" - that Joseph Smith Sr. had around the same time period. The dreams expressed a sense of yearning for relief and a sense that it was just beyond reach. Bushman also tells us about the churches of Palmyra at the time:

Four churches met within a few miles of the Smiths' house. Presbyterians had the largest congregation in Palmyra village and in 1820 the only meetinghouse in the center. The Methodists, the next largest group, constructed a building of their own in 1822, followed by the Society of Friends in 1823. Two miles west of the village, a large congregation of Baptists had met in a meetinghouse since 1808, and in the eastern part of the township stood a second Presbyterian church. (36)

All in all, it sounds to me that in the 1818-1820 period, Palmyra probably offered relatively weak religious options, and so I can partly sympathize, I suppose, with the sense of religious dissatisfaction that the Smiths felt. Bushman notes, however, the impact of the religious revivals that swept through the village just as the Smiths were arriving. An endnote does reveal, however, that these churches were fairly small, with the Presbyterians having only 65 members and others even less (569 n. 24). Bushman also notes that, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, Joseph Smith Jr. read the Bible and regarded it as divine revelation but "was confused by the failings of the Christians in the town. Like his mother earlier, he was aware of more hypocrisy and contradiction than harmony or devotion" (37). Bushman remarks, however, that evidence does indicate that Joseph Jr. was favorably disposed towards Methodism. During these years, "Lucy joined the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, probably the best established church in the village. Hyrum, Sophronia, and Samuel went to church with their mother, but Joseph Sr., Alvin, William, and Joseph Jr. stayed home" (37). Joseph Jr.'s participation in a juvenile debating club may also have driven him to contemplate the existence of God, but his case for it rested on the beauty of the universe (38).

Nevertheless, his religious tumult remained. Joseph felt a great concern for deciding between the various churches in the town, and since he felt that the Bible couldn't answer his questions, he opted to beg God for an extrabiblical answer. Bushman notes that in 1820, Joseph resolved to pray verbally and so went into a clearing in the woods for some privacy. Joseph initially understood his purported experiences in terms of "a personal conversion", in which he received "the message of forgiveness and redemption he had wanted to hear" (39). Bushman also notes that most early converts to Mormonism "probably never heard about the 1820 vision", and also usually didn't hear about his other early visions (39). Analyzing Joseph's varied and sometimes discordant retellings of the 'First Vision' experience, Bushman notes:

In the 1835 account and again in 1838, the balance of the two parts of the story - personal forgiveness as contrasted to the apostasy of the churches - shifted. Joseph's own salvation gave way to the opening of a new era of history. The promise of forgiveness through faith in Christ was dropped from the narrative, and the apostasy of Christian churches stood as the central message of the vision. The 1832 report emphasized general moral degeneration: "the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good." In 1838, by contrast, Joseph reported that he was told to join none of the sects. "All their Creeds were an abomination in his sight. . . . 'They teach for doctrines the commandments of men.'" The decay was doctrinal and institutional, as well as moral. The later accounts of the vision supplied the church with a founding story. (40)

What Bushman says next, however, is in my opinion one of the most helpful portions of the entire chapter, and it covers Joseph Smith Jr.'s interaction with the 'hostile' clergyman. I can do no better than to share a portion of what Bushman says:

Joseph did tell a Methodist preacher about the First Vision. Newly reborn people customarily talked over their experiences with a clergyman to test the validity of the conversion. The preacher's contempt shocked Joseph. Standing on the margins of the evangelical churches, Joseph may not have recognized the ill repute of visionaries. The preacher reacted quickly and negatively, not because of the strangeness of Joseph's story but because of its familiarity. Subjects of revivals all too often claimed to have seen visions. In 1826 a preacher at the Palmyra Academy said he saw Christ descend "in a glare of brightness, exceeding ten fold the brilliancy of the meridian Sun." The Wayne Sentinel in 1823 reported Asa Wild's vision of Christ in Amsterdam, New York, telling him that all denominations were corrupt. At various other times and places, beginning early in the Protestant era, religious eccentrics had claimed visits from divinity. Norris Stearns published an account in 1815 of two beings who appeared to him [...] The clergy of the mainline churches automatically suspected any visionary report, whatever its content. [...] The only acceptable message from heaven was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph's report of God's rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical, who repeated the conventional point that "all such things had ceased with the apostles and that there never would be any more of them." The dismissal widened the gult between Joseph and the evangelical ministry. He felt that the clergy had picked him out for persecution. (40-41)

In short, Joseph's message was not a shocking one. It was a not-uncommon experience in the midst of the revivalist fervor for newly converted persons like Joseph. And so while the young Joseph perceived himself as being singled out, in actuality he was simply being dismissed as one more person who, like all the others, was having false visions pretending to go beyond what the apostles delivered once and for all to the people of God. I believe that this is an absolutely critical thing to understand about Joseph Smith's interactions with representatives of allegedly "apostate" Christianity in his day.

Moving past the First Vision, Bushman notes that in 1822 Alvin Smith began to build a new frame house of the family. Alvin had gathered money for the mortgage, but when the agent died in 1822, the Smiths decided to use it to build a new house rather than save it for later collection. As it turned out, that was a mistake. Bushman then takes some time to, as he frequently does, present Joseph Smith Sr. as a weak father who felt that he had failed his family and who was prone to drinking (42). Bushman also notes that, after the First Vision, Joseph Smith Jr. also felt himself being drawn back into sin; occasionally, Bushman observes, "he drank too much" (43).

On the evening of 21 September 1823, the Smith family had a discussion about the lack of any seeming agreement between the churches - in short, standard fare for Smith family opinion. After everyone went to bed, Joseph Smith Jr. stayed away to pray to God for forgiveness - and then he received yet another vision (43). This was the first of Joseph's numerous purported encounters with an angel named Moroni, though Bushman concedes in an endnote that in the 1838 account of the experience, Joseph said that the angel was Nephi, which Bushman asserts is "a puzzling mistake" (572 n. 57). Bushman quotes from the familiar account of Moroni telling Joseph about the golden plates that tell about the 'former inhabitants of this continent' and about the 'two stones in silver bows' that were the Urim and Thummim, all buried in a hill conveniently close by. Interestingly:

Moroni quoted Old and New Testament prophecies relating to the final days of the earth: the third and fourth chapters of Malachi, Acts 3:22-23, Joel 2:28-32, and Isaiah 11. These were the texts the clergy used to teach about the millennium. Joseph knew them well enough to note small departures from the words in the Bible. Hearing the familiar texts from the angel confirmed the common belief that the last days were near and Joseph was to prepare. (44)

Working out in the field the next day, Joseph seemed drain, and so his father sent him back to the house, but while climbing over a fence, Joseph Jr. passed out and awoke to see Moroni yet again, who "repeated the message of the previous night and commanded Joseph to tell his father", which he then did (45). Joseph Smith Sr., being himself a visionary, was already disposed to believe his son's experience, and so father counseled son to obey the angel. Thus, Joseph Smith Jr. went to the hill southeast of the family farm, a trip of about three miles. Thanks to his vision, Joseph Smith Jr. went to the scattered trees near the top of the western slope, dug away the dirt, and pried up a stone beneath which he found "the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate" (45). Joseph was overcome with a sense of greed over the golden plates, and when he touched them, he felt a painful shock and was thoroughly rebuked by Moroni and forbidden from having the plates until he got his motive straight. That evening, Joseph Smith Jr. informed his family about the encounter, and everyone believed him (46). Tragedy, however, soon struck:

Less than two months after Joseph went to the hill, Alvin fell sick with bilious colic. The doctor prescribed a large dose of calomel, a compound of mercury and chlorine thought to promote the discharge of bile. Lucy thought the calomel lodged in Alvin's stomach, and, according to her, the combined exertions of four physicians could not remove it. Feeling death was near, Alvin called the family to the bedside. He urged Joseph Jr. "to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record." On November 19, 1823, Alvin died. (46)

The next year, Palmyra was swept by another revival, one strong enough to get even Joseph Smith Sr. to attend a few meetings, but Joseph Smith Jr. held back, saying that he could learn better by going into the woods alone and reading the Bible than by fellowshipping with other Christians (46). The frame house was completed in 1824, and the time for collection came due, and consequently Joseph and Hyrum looked for work in the countryside. In October 1825, Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr. took a job digging in Pennsylvania for one Josiah Stowell Sr., "who believed that a Spanish silver mine was buried near Harmony, Pennsylvania" (47). After their first digging expedition, Stowell and one Joseph Knight Sr. "agreed to lend the Smiths money with next year's wheat crop as collateral" (47). In the meantime, the Smiths were being sued for payment by the frame house's carpenter, Russell Stoddard, as well as being hounded by their new land agent, John Greenwood. The only solution was for the Smiths to allow a local Quaker landholder named Lemuel Durfee to buy the farm and allow them to rent it and continue to benefit from the improvements they made (47).

At this point, Bushman finally begins to delve deeper into another subplot, namely that of 'digging'. In 1822, Joseph Smith Jr. discovered some stones that he believed allowed him to see things that natural eye could not see - in short, seerstones. He discovered one of them while digging a well with Willard Chase. One of his stones was dark and the other was white; he believed strongly in them throughout his life, as did his followers. "For a time Joseph used a stone to help people find lost property and other hidden things, and his reputation reached Stowell" (49). Unfortunately for Joseph, Willard Chase - who had initially discovered one of the stones but let Joseph take it home - eventually decided that he wanted it back very badly. His sister Sally Chase also had such a stone, as did numerous other people in the area; it was a prevalent part of their New York "culture of magic" (49). "Money-digging was epidemic in upstate New York. Stories of spirits guarding buried treasure were deeply enmeshed in the region's rural culture" (50). While newspaper editors and ministers tended to express dismay over the gullibility of this propensity to folk magic, many ordinary people were completely comfortable with their involvement in the occult, and the Smiths were no exception. As Bushman observes:

In addition to rod and stone divining, the Smiths probably believed in the rudimentary astrology found in the ubiquitous almanacs. Magical parchments handed down in the Hyrum Smith family may have originally belonged to Joseph Sr. The visit of the angel and the discovery of the gold plates would have confirmed the belief in supernatural powers. For people in a magical frame of mind, Moroni sounded like one of the spirits who stood guard over treasure in the tales of treasure-seeking. The similarities may even have made the extraordinary story more credible in the Smith family. (50)

Since I'll eventually be examining another book that engages this subject in much greater depth, I'll save my editorializing about Joseph Smith's involvement in this magic subculture for then. Bushman goes to great pains to contend that around 1823, Joseph Smith Jr. "began to orient himself away from treasure and toward translation" (51). By 1825, 'Joseph apparently felt that 'seeing' with a stone was the work of a 'seer,' a religious term, while 'peeping' or 'glass-looking' was fraudulent" (51). A complaint was brought against Joseph in early 1826 as "a disorderly person" on the grounds of a New York law that "specified that anyone pretending to have skill in discovering lost goods should be judged as a disorderly person" (52). Bushman doesn't delve into the outcome of the case, however, which is unusual for him, though in an endnote he does make reference to claims of an 'honorable acquittal' (574 n. 90).

Bushman moves on to say that Joseph spent the bulk of 1826 in southern New York, going to school and working for Stowell in Bainbridge and possibly also working in Joseph Knight Sr.'s carding mills in Colesville. Joseph returned to Manchester only briefly in the fall of 1826 for his annual appointment with Moroni at the Hill Cumorah, but Joseph may have even left before Hyrum's marriage on 2 November 1826 to Jerusha Barden.

During Joseph's expeditions in Harmony, he and his father had been boarders at the home of a man named Isaac Hale and found himself "attracted to the tall, dark-haired Emma", Isaac's daughter (53). Joseph decided already by December 1825 that he intended to marry her (572 n. 72). Hale objected, however, to Joseph's attempts to court Emma. This gives Bushman an occasion to offer a brief physical description of Joseph:

In January 1827, Emma visited Josiah Stowell in Bainbridge and saw Joseph. He was a handsome young man, over six feet tall with broad chest and shoulders, light brown hair, blue eyes, and long thick lashes, bushy brows, and a little beard. (53)

When Joseph was 21 years old and Emma was 22, they eloped and were married in South Bainbridge at the house of Zechariah Tarble on 18 January 1827. Instead of returning to Harmony, the pair of them moved to Manchester. Emma was worried that her family would be furious and didn't make contact until she sent for her belongings in the summer of 1827, and when Joseph and Emma went to meet Isaac in Harmony, Isaac "tearfully rebuked Joseph for stealing his daughter and said he would rather follow her to her grave than have her married to Joseph", but after Joseph assured Isaac that his treasure-seeking days were over, Isaac calmed down and allowed the couple to move onto his property (54).

Although Joseph was beginning to reorient himself to a more religious path of life, the treasure-seeking mentality still did affect him and his family. Bushman notes that Joseph Sr. and Lucy "admonished Joseph to be rigorously obedient to the messenger's instructions, just as exact compliance with prescribed rituals was required for successful money-digging" (54). However, by 1826 even Joseph Smith Sr. was beginning to see the plates "less and less as a treasure and more and more as a religious history" (54-55). Of Joseph Smith Jr.'s religious life, Bushman again remarks:

Joseph Jr. was left on his own to find answers. Although the revivals brushed his life and probably awakened concerns about his sins, he found salvation in a private vision, not in a camp meeting. He was bred to independence. The message of apostasy in the First Vision coupled with the rebuff received when he reported his vision widened the gulf between Joseph and the churches. After 1820, it was fairly certain he would cut a path for himself. (55)

Bushman goes on to suggest that if anything in the Smith family dynamic drove Joseph toward this prophetic vocation, it could only be "the desire to redeem his flawed, loving father", though Bushman of course does not belief that this alone can suffice to explain the course of Joseph's life (55).

In 1827, Joseph and Emma returned to Manchester, and Joseph was sent into the village on business. He returned late and exhausted, dropped into a chair, and then reported that Moroni had accosted him on the road and warned him that the time to bring forth the record had come. This is where Bushman concludes the second chapter, artfully positioning the reader at the edge of yet another focal point in Joseph's life. In this chapter as in the first, Bushman presents his portrait of Joseph's life artfully and with a masterful treatment of the sources. As himself a Latter-day Saint, Bushman of course does not attempt a critical, non-LDS reconstruction of what might have happened, nor does he consider it essential to his task as a historian to do so. For non-LDS readers, this can sometimes be a bother (especially in those instances where Bushman does not adequately air the issue at all), but there are more skeptical biographies of Joseph Smith available (though perhaps not enough). All in all, up to this point Bushman's biography is nevertheless a very useful and informative resource as well as, quite simply, an enjoyable read.

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