The historical record contains extensive evidence of religious revivals in Palmyra between 1817 and 1824, but nothing specifically documents a revival in the town of Palmyra in the spring of 1820. But Joseph’s accounts do not claim that these revivals happened in Palmyra, nor that they were they limited to the year 1820. Rather, Joseph’s accounts state that these revivals occurred in “the place where we lived” (Manchester township) and in the “whole district of country.”
Likewise, Joseph’s 1832 account states that he started his investigation into religion when he was twelve- years- old, the same year (1817) when there was a major revival in Palmyra. There were also major revivals throughout western New York in 1819. Many of these would have been advertised in Palmyra and in the Manchester township. In fact, the historical record establishes that religious revivals were so commonplace at that time that Western New York was referred to as the “burnt over district.” Thus, many meetings and revivals would not necessarily have been documented. At a more fundamental level, Joseph was recording his youthful perception of the religious confusion and strife that he felt and how such confusion impacted his search for truth. In light of the culture in which he was raised, it is a stretch indeed to argue that the historical record “disproves” Joseph’s story.
While pastor of the United Presbyterian Church in Marissa, Illinois in 1967, Wesley Walters published an innovative article that asserted there was no evidence of religious revival in Palmyra, New York in the spring of 1820, and therefore Joseph’s claim to have been influenced by such religious fervor must be false. He erred against the historical method by arguing that a lack of evidence for a Palmyra revival was proof that the vision did not occur.
Reverend Walters also erred in arguing an irrelevant proof. Joseph’s accounts do not claim that the revivalism centered in Palmyra itself, as Walters argues, or that the revivalism occurred in 1820. Rather, Joseph said that the excitement began in the second year after his family moved to Manchester, New York, meaning in 1819, and he located the “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” around Manchester, not Palmyra.
The Reverend Walters focused on the word reformation, used by Oliver Cowdery to describe the scope of the religious excitement, and on the Reverend George Lane, whom both Cowdery and William Smith, Joseph’s brother, credited with being “the key figure in the Methodist awakening.” Walters discovered “no evidence” for these claims and concluded that none existed, which was an unwise thing to do. Undiscovered evidence is not the same as nonexistent evidence, and when Walters made the bold claim that no evidence existed, researchers quickly set out to see for themselves.
Among the several evidences discovered since are Williams’s journals. They document much religious excitement in Joseph’s district and region of country in 1819 and 1820. They report that Reverend George Lane was indeed in that area in both of those years and that while there in July 1820 he “spoke on Gods method in bringing about Reffermations.” Indeed, the Williams diaries attest that not only Lane, but many Methodist preachers in Joseph’s time and place created unusual religious excitement, as Joseph described. Writers who have not studied this evidence themselves continue to parrot Walters and the irrelevant claim that “there was no significant revival in or around Palmyra in 1820,” but the historical evidence does not contradict Joseph’s description.
From Joseph Smith’s First Vision, A Guide to the Historical Accounts, by Steven C. Harper
For more information see: https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng