Home The Catalog of Accusations
First Vision Chronology
by Woody Brison

Accusation: The First Vision cannot be reconciled with the time of surrounding events.

Found in Marquart & Walters, Inventing Mormonism, chapter 1.

Joseph Smith told of events in his life related to his first vision and the appearance of the Angel Moroni. He first published this story in the LDS publication Times and Seasons, beginning with the 1842 March 15 issue. I will extract specific statements that touch upon the chronology:
The text in the current Pearl of Great Price has been edited from the original, to deflect this accusation. Since adding a lot of notes often yields a cluttered publication, the modern Apostles probably thought best, per Matthew 10:16, to simply change the text. The T&S version is what Joseph "signed up to".

1. Joseph's birthdate: "I was born in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five, on the twenty third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, state of Vermont."
Joseph was born just before the end of 1805, as shown below. He doubtless knew the date.
2. The move to Palmyra: "My father Joseph Smith, senior, left the state of Vermont, and moved to Palmyra ... in the state of New York, when I was in my tenth year."
This places the move within the 1-year span after Joseph turned 9.
3. The move into Manchester: "In about four years after my father's arrival at Palmyra, he moved with his family into Manchester, in the same county of Ontario."
This wording is almost opaque today, but might mean 'within about 4 years'.
4. Religious excitement: "Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region ..."
In July 1819, there was a conference of Methodist ministers at nearby Vienna, corroborating this (* in the diagram below.)
5. Many converts: "...great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties ... let them join what sect they pleased ... the converts began to file off, some to one party, and some to another ... I was at this time in my fifteenth year."
The records that survive from this time are few, but it seems there were many new members of churches in the years 1820 thru 1823.
6. Joseph in turmoil: "During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness ... I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit ... My mind at different times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult was so great and incessant."
This must have taken some time, but items 5 and 6 were concurrent with the other events, and 6 was before the First Vision.
7. Joseph's first vision: "I at length came to the determination to `ask of God,' ... I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty."
Jesus seems to favor the first week in April for momentous events. DC 110 heading, DC 20:1.
 

 
As an engineer, I often find that with the right diagram, the answer often seems to just about leap out at you. The critics' math is what's at fault – the various events and intervals must be carefully understood, not just rounded up to the next whole year.

It appears to me this is the main basis for the accusation as presented by Marquart & Walters – all intervals are rounded up to the next whole year. Willard Bean seems to have made the same mistake (M&W ch.1 fn.1)
Joseph Smith doesn't seem to give many precise dates here, including the most significant event in many centuries – the Father appearing on earth. I suppose he didn't know exactly when they were. I've tried to write out my own personal history, and I can't date many interesting events exactly; only within a year or two is often the best I can do. When I was ten or fifteen, if something momentous happened, I didn't care what the date was. I didn't keep a journal, and neither did Joseph, a fact he later lamented.

Joseph does seem to follow a pattern, however, in detailing time intervals. Let's suppose a couple of events happen 2 years, 3 months, and 5 days apart. Today, if we were speaking informally, we might say the second event happened "a little over two years" after the first. But English slowly evolves. It seems that in Joseph's parlance, he'd say "in the third year" after. Every one of his times here fits this model.

The above diagram shows that Joseph's chronology is possible, taking this nomenclature into account and setting each of these variables to reasonable points. We can take his date of birth as accurate; we know about the Methodist conference, and placing his First Vision in the spring of 1820, they can all fit together.

There are three items to be guessed: the date of Joseph's father moving to Palmyra (event 2), the date they moved to Manchester (event 3), and thus the interval between those two events. If we place these at their worst extremes, the accusation looks more substantial. Event 3 belongs before the summer of 1818 to fit Joseph's statement nunber 4 and the Methodist conference. Putting event 2 early in 1815 gives 3 1/2 years for the interval between them, a reasonable meaning for his statement number 3, given that we don't know what it's supposed to mean. It doesn't seem unreasonable that Joseph's father, having a bad harvest in 1814, would decide to move west, and go out there early the next year.


The Smith farm was on the south side of the township line, in Manchester township. They built their cabin near the north border of their property, locating the line by rough navigation. Two years later a professional survey revealed they'd built it 50 feet north of the line. Marquart & Walters claim there were two cabins, and then try to make the chronology look worse from that unsupported premise.

They make several similar points:
  • That there were two cabins, the reasoning is: "This cabin on the outskirts of Palmyra should not be confused with a cabin the famly would eventually build on the land in nearby Farmington/Manchester." No other logic is given for why it was not just one cabin.
  • That the Smith's cabin wasn't really 50 feet north of the line: Jennings "would hardly have allowed Smith to mistakenly build on his land" (ch. 1 fn 9.) M&W torpedoed their own claim by citing the survey saying the line was south of the cabin. If the Smiths made this mistake, how would Jennings know? Would he object if he suspected? He'd get a free improvement on his land.
  • Mother Smith's statement, that they moved into their cabin within 2 years after moving to Palmyra, is dismissed with nothing: "the two-year time period ... appears to be an error on her part." It makes the chronology easier to reconcile.
      It seems possible to me that this move was not really a definite point in time but done over a period of time; part of the family moved at first, and some stayed where they were; they cleared trees and planted some crops while they built the cabin, etc. The date might have been different for different members of the family. Doubtless they didn't keep a journal; reminiscences typically have to calculate dates and times from salient events such as birthdays, school years, etc.
  • Joseph's brother William's statement that they built a cabin, then later a frame house, is dismissed with "William would hardly call a cabin built on Samuel Jenning's land in Palmyra an improvement on their own farm across the line in Manchester." Why wouldn't he, if everyone else understood it was so? He was a little boy at the time.

    With a lot of experience, I've come to loathe modern winter travel, but the people in Joseph Smith's world seemed to travel in winter as much as in summer. Parley Pratt and his missionary companions walked from Ohio to Missouri – several hundred miles – in wilderness – off-road – in deep snow! And no one seemed to think it remarkable.
  • Altho Joseph's story sounds like the commotion only happened before his vision, read carefully – he left that subject, doubtless because it ceased to be important to him. After his vision, they added hating him to everything else they were doing, which must have affected his feelings tremendously (a 14 year old boy!) Also, the Lord had told him not to join them, so he doubtless stopped caring how many meetings they held or how many converts they made.


    After the Methodist conference in the summer of 1919 – with over 100 ministers! attending and preaching – there is still almost a year in Joseph's story for him to observe camp meetings, church services, fiery sermons, people gyrating, ministers arguing – many unknows for a boy of 13 or 14.

    Now for the earthshaking conclusion: suppose Joseph Smith made a great chronological mistake here and his first vision occured in 1821 or 1822, or his father went to Palmyra a different year than he remembered, or something like that? What difference would it make? The vision would still be real, with a simple error in his story's chronology. He dictated and proofread it 20 years after the events.

    But a great deal of enthusiastic digging for almost 200 years has only turned up witnesses and information that basically support Joseph's story.
      Notes

    1. Woody Brison is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but this website is not affiliated with the church. It may be thought of as an additional, somewhat independent witness.

    2. I want this page to be as accurate as I can make it. If you have a correction, please email me.

    3. All biblical quotations are from the King James unless otherwise noted.

    Copyright 2013 Woody Brison. All rights reserved.