Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Richard Bennett on Joseph Smith's "First Vision" Environment

"A close examination into the nature of the revivals near Palmyra in 1820 does reveal "a strife of words" and "a contest about opinions" (Joseph Smith-History 1:8); however, not all the revivals were of the circus variety, full of zealous sermonizing, converts barking up trees or baying like dogs, and women swooning in trancelike devotion. Most of the revivals took on the personality and character of the dominant minister. And in the spring of 1820, one such prominent Presbyterian divine was the respected Reverend Asahel Nettleton of Connecticut (assisted by the Reverend Halsey A. Wood), whose travels through the areas west of Albany in late 1819 took the form of a quiet religious reformation.

"Preaching in Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Ballston, West Galway, Cooperstown, Utica, and rural areas perhaps as far west as Rochester, Nettleton directed his listeners to nearby groves to pray in faith and find hope of salvation. His revivals lasted several weeks and were also characterized by Sabbath sermon meetings in which he taught the awful condition of the fallen and unrepentant soul...."All the meetings were crowded and solemn. There was no tumult, no noise. Everything was still, though every mind seemed filled with the magnitude of the work....So profound was the stillness, that a recent death could have added nothing to it, in many families. Common conversation was rarely engaged in, and every ear was open to hear the gospel....The people seemed never weary of attending....They would flock together during all the inclemencies of the season, and listen, when met, with so deep and profound an attention, that in a room crowded to overflowing, it would almost seem you might hear a pin drop or the beating of a watch. The stillness, at times, seemed to have something like mystery about it; it was sublime, it was awful; you almost seemed to be in eternity....Some of the most signal convictions seem to have been wrought by the Spirit in these circumstances....Our evening meetings [February 1820] were still more thronged, and in the coldest evenings of an unusually severe winter, many assembled who were not able to obtain admittance to our school houses, and have been seen to raise the windows and stand without in devout attention to the word of God."

"Wrote another observer of those 1820 upstate New York revivals: "Sometimes, sleigh loads of convinced sinners, after leaving the meeting, and riding half a mile, or a mile, homewards would turn back again to the place of prayer, to hear still more about the salvation of Jesus! And they often did this too, through lanes and ways and snows, that would have been deemed by persons in any other state of mind, to have been impassable."

“Many are the accounts of youth retiring to their own secret groves to pray. Wrote one Jesse Braman, a Baptist preacher of an 1818-19 revival in Ontario County, near Palmyra: “This part of the wilderness seemed alive for one year. The woods rang with the songs of young converts, and backsliders wept among the trees.” Wrote another of the effect of revivals upon the youth in Connecticut in 1817: “Formerly, the children had been accustomed to resort for their juvenile recreations in the hours of play, to a certain grove, in which was a pond of water. Through the whole of last winter they resorted to the same spot; not to engage in youthful sports, but to implore the mercy of Heaven on themselves and their companions.”

“Thus not only were there many revivals in the region near where Joseph Smith lived in 1820 but the nature of his faithful saga was very much in historical agreement with what others were experiencing, although the results were profoundly different….Whatever else one might say about Joseph’s accounts, his experience was very much part of the revival culture of his time and place, historically credible and defensible.” (pgs 14-18)

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