The Providential Environment of Joseph Smith’s Youth

The following is the new introduction for my paper which offers a good summary of my thesis. If anyone wants to read the whole thing (I desperately need a proof reader who actually is aware of Latter-day Saint history), drop me an e-mail.

“As a teenager, Joseph Smith made remarkable spiritual claims. He said that he had been visited by God, who informed him that all denominations were wrong and their creeds “an abomination in his sight.”1 Later he claimed that an angel appeared to him at night, describing an ancient book of scripture buried in a nearby hill; according to Joseph, the same angel would make numerous appearances during the next several years.2 Although difficult to believe, to Joseph Smith the visions were an authentic reality that he refused to recant, even in the face of enormous persecution; as he put it, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”3 For well over a century, these visions and what they represent have formed the foundation of belief for millions of Latter-day Saints. Therefore it is important that the cultural setting which made his visions possible be thoroughly examined.

Joseph’s childhood environment was providential. He grew up in rural America where radical sects and visionary claims were common.4 As it happened, the Smiths were open to new religious ideas and especially to visions; several members of Joseph’s family were ‘seekers,’ people discontent with orthodox denominations struggling to find the church described in the Bible.5 Frequently-occurring revivals urged Joseph to consider his salvation and join a church, but on the boundaries of religion were folk beliefs in magic, treasure-hunting, and seer-stones.6 This medley of factors led to Joseph Smith’s early visions; as a youth, he was in the perfect place at the perfect time surrounded by the perfect people in order to bring about the restoration of the Gospel.”

1. Joseph Smith—History 1:11-20.
2. Joseph Smith—History 1:27-54.
3. Joseph Smith—History 1:25.
4. Stephen A. Marini,
Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 2.
5. Richard L. Bushman,
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 25.
6. Bushman,
Joseph Smith, 37, 48-49.