In the years preceding the First Vision, young Joseph Smith found himself in the middle of what he called “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.”1 Fast-growing Christian denominations such as Methodists and Baptists vied for converts, while Presbyterians and other established churches entered the “war of words”2 in order to keep members of their congregations in the pews. Joseph likely heard from many preachers during this period. Two he may have encountered in his search for the true Church were Reverend Jesse Townsend and Reverend George Lane.
Jesse Townsend wrote these sermons in his own hand as he prepared to preach in Palmyra and the towns nearby. He was a traveling minister until 1817, when he became the first official pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, New York. The Presbyterians met in the only permanent meetinghouse in Palmyra, and Joseph mentioned that four members of his family joined that Church—“namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia.”3 Joseph’s younger brother William later related that his father was offended by the Presbyterians because Reverend Stockton, a Presbyterian who spoke at the funeral of Joseph’s brother Alvin, “intimated very strongly” that Alvin had gone to hell because he was not a church member.4
Joseph may have attended services with his family and heard Reverend Townsend give one or more of these sermons. On this page from October 1819, the reverend exhorts his parishioners to ponder and pray, which Joseph would have taken to heart:
Give yourselves much to prayer, for a divine blessing to accompany the word preached. Meditate much and solemnly upon what you hear, and by that try yourselves. Suffer not the cares of the world to choke the word and render it unfruitful. Do nothing to counteract the strivings of the Spirit.5
Lucy, Hyrum, and Samuel Smith stopped attending Presbyterian services in 1828 while Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon. In March 1830 a committee of Presbyterian elders was sent to meet with them, but, according to church records, the elders “received no satisfaction.” The Smiths “acknowledged that they had entirely neglected the ordinances of the church for the last eighteen months and that they did not wish to unite with us anymore.”6
While members of his family attended Presbyterian services, Joseph “became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect.”7 Methodist ministers at that time usually traveled a circuit, or an established route through a region, preaching in each town on their route.
Reverend George Lane did not preach in the circuits nearest the Smith farm, but he did attend the Genesee Conference in July 1819, which brought 110 Methodist ministers and their bishop within 15 miles of the Smith home. Several special worship services were included as part of the conference, and for a year afterward there was an increase in Methodist activities and fervor throughout the region.
Camp meetings were a popular and effective Methodist missionary tool. Sometimes lasting several days, camp meetings attracted people from miles around. Ministers preached one after the other, while others led in prayer and group singing.8 This account of one of Reverend Lane’s camp meetings from September 1819 describes the atmosphere at these revivals:
Marmaduke Pierce preached a short but mighty sermon, and closed with a perfect storm. He addressed the wicked with tremendous power, and then, exclaiming, “I feel the Spirit of God upon me, glory, halleluiah!” dropped down upon the seat behind him, shouting, weeping, laughing, wonderfully moved. The joyous responses from the preachers and the assemblage arose like the sound of many waters, while the whole congregation shook like the forest in a mighty wind. The exhortations of the presiding elder, George Lane, were overwhelming. Sinners quailed under them, and many cried aloud for mercy. The meeting included the Sabbath, and continued about a week. Sixty persons professed to find peace, and thirty joined the Church.9
While Joseph Smith never mentioned George Lane in his histories, others of Joseph’s associates named Reverend Lane as being influential in Joseph’s search. Oliver Cowdery wrote, “One Mr. Lane, a presiding Elder of the Methodist church, visited Palmyra, and vicinity. . . . Mr. Lane’s manner of communication was peculiarly calculated to awaken the intellect of the hearer, and arouse the sinner to look about him for safety—much good instruction was always drawn from his discourses on the scriptures, and in common with others, [Joseph’s] mind became awakened.”10
Many years later, Joseph’s brother William remembered Joseph attending a meeting where George Lane addressed the question “What church shall I join?” Using James 1:5 as a text, Reverend Lane urged his listeners “to ask God.”11 If William’s recollection is correct, Lane’s sermon may have influenced Joseph as he sought direction.
The sermons of preachers such as Jesse Townsend and George Lane undoubtedly contributed to the widespread religious excitement in Palmyra in the years leading up to the First Vision. During this period, Joseph Smith listened to many preachers and, after turning to the scriptures and much pondering, he determined to “ask of God.”