Article of the Week
In 1967, Reverend Wesley Walters published a new critique of Joseph Smith’s first vision. Titled “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival,” it was the fruit of several years of determined research. Granting that he could not prove whether Joseph Smith envisioned divine beings in the woods of Western New York, Walters asserted that he could use historical records to check verifiable facts, especially Joseph Smith’s statement that unusual religious excitement in his region led to the spring 1820 vision. Having scoured many records, Walters made the case that historical evidence disproved any sizable revival in the vicinity in 1820. He argued that Joseph Smith made up his story later, situating it in the context of a well-documented 1824 revival.
“The statement of Joseph Smith, Jr. can not be true when he claims that he was stirred up by an 1820 revival to make his inquiry in the grove near his home,” Walters concluded. There was no shortage of pages aimed at undermining Joseph Smith saints when Walters wrote, but his thesis and his method were altogether novel. He rightly concluded that as a result of his work “all students of Mormon history will be forced to reconsider the reliability of Joseph’s first vision story.”
“The first vision has come under severe historical attack.”
Truman Madsen, letter to the First Presidency, 1968
Late in 1967, five intellectuals met in Salt Lake City to strategize. Truman Madsen, who, like Walters, was in his early 40s, was a Harvard-educated philosophy professor and director of the Institute of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University. Having recently returned after three-years’ service as president of the New England Mission, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was devoted to proclaiming and defending Joseph Smith’s story.
When he learned of the article and assessed its potency, Madsen gathered a “steering committee or advisory council” that dubbed itself “Mormon Origins in New York.” The senior member of the committee, at age sixty-four, was T. Edgar Lyon, a beloved educator and soon-to-be president of the nascent Mormon History Association. Forty-year-old James Allen was the leading scholar of Smith’s first vision, having recently published his study of its significance in Dialogue. The other two members of the committee were also members of Dialogue’s editorial board: fifty-year-old historian and economist Leonard Arrington, professor at Utah State University, and thirty-six-year-old Richard Bushman, whose newly published dissertation From Puritan to Yankee was about to win the Bancroft Prize.
This committee recruited a talented, committed cadre of young historians, sending them to New York and elsewhere to study the historical record. He envisioned something more than a reply to Walters. He wanted a concerted, cooperative study done by dozens of talented researchers. He wanted every piece of evidence that bore on Smith’s first vision published together as an overwhelming defense.
By spring 1968 a network of around three dozen scholars, women and men spread from California to New York, were on a shared quest to “uncover the context, background, and original documents” needed to counter Reverend Walters. To Ruth Shinsel, whom Madsen described as “a fantastically well-informed historian of the early life of Joseph Smith,” he wrote, “we need an answer to Walters and we need it soon.” This group tenaciously determined to find out how, not whether, Joseph Smith was right. They flirted with granting that Smith may have misdated his theophany, though none of this group questioned the event’s historicity.
“The first vision has come under severe historical attack,” Truman Madsen reported in April 1968 to David O. McKay and his counselors in the church’s First Presidency. He updated them on the coordinated effort “of some forty scholars throughout the Church to recover and collage basic documentary material on the New York period of Church history,” predicting that the effort would “dissolve this case,” meaning the Walters critique. He assured the presidency that his team was making headway but they had a problem—depleted research funding at Brigham Young University and desperate need to send scholars to New York for the summer to research. So he asked for $7000, or permission to raise it from private donors.
The funding came, the historians were sent, and while they were at work Madsen’s committee continued to strategize responses based on the reports they received, gaining confidence as evidence mounted that could be interpreted to mean that “the available sources confirm the chronology” of Joseph Smith’s manuscript history. They planned a series of monologues for the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies, and an accessible summary for the Improvement Era, and tried to coordinate a nearly simultaneous release.
Madsen guest-edited the BYU Studies issue, leading off with a prologue that championed cooperative research and called for more of it. Obliquely responding to Walters, Madsen raised philosophical objections to the Reverend without mentioning his name or his work. Madsen preferred the “indirect” strategy for BYU Studies to avoid the appearance of answering Walters at all.
In the article following Madsen’s prologue, James Allen and Leonard Arrington presented a historiographical study of the saints’ origins in New York. They credited Walters by name for casting doubt on the idea that Methodist minister George Lane could have influenced Smith’s 1820 theophany and for challenging the idea of unusual religious excitement in the vicinity of Palmyra that year. But, contextualized as these two paragraphs were amidst thirty-plus pages of similar analysis, they put Walters in his historical place even as they understated the power he had wielded in catalyzing their essay and others.
Dean Jessee’s edition of Smith’s 1832, 1835, and 1838/39 vision accounts followed next in the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies. Madsen had looked to Jessee as the scholar who could best reveal the sources behind Joseph Smith’s Manuscript History and “gather together the basic standard accounts of the First Vision—all of them.” Given Jessee’s access to the archives, Madsen hoped he could “do this in a quiet way and perhaps get them all together for comparative purposes without a lot of red-tape clearance with the powers that be.” Jessee did not disappoint. He gave everyone access to the 1835 account for the first time, and to critical, contextual editions of the 1832 and 1838/39 accounts.
Next came historian Milton Backman’s essay, which did not mention Walters but replied directly to the Reverend’s argument that there was no unusual religious excitement “in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York” in 1820. Walters had previously titled his essay in the Bulletin “New Light on Mormon Origins From the Palmyra Revival”; Backman replied with “New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision.” He showed there was more evidence for religious excitement in Palmyra than Walters acknowledged, but mainly argued that Walters too narrowly confined Joseph Smith in time and space.
Noting that Smith had said religious excitement occurred in his region and district (not solely the neighboring village of Palmyra) and that it began well before his vision in spring 1820, Backman presented lots of circumstantial evidence supporting Smith’s description. In the same BYU Studies issue, Richard Anderson relied on reminiscences of people who knew Joseph Smith in spring 1820 to argue “that Joseph Smith is more accurate on his early history than any of his current critics.”
Meanwhile Truman Madsen and Wesley Walters coincidentally crossed paths. “Wesley Walters!” Madsen said, eyeing the Reverend’s nametag at a symposium Southern Illinois University hosted in 1968 to draw attention to its new collection of documents relating to the saints’ history in the state. “So you’re the one who dropped the bomb on BYU!” The two struck up a conversation and Madsen thanked Walters for stimulating a flow of research funds. “They’re giving us all the money we want to try to find answers to you.”