(This is an excerpt from Joseph Smith's First Vision by Steven C. Harper.
Joseph Smith Jr. matured under the care of what he called “goodly Parents who spared no pains” to teach him Christian principles. But no one in the Smith household could escape the tensions and anxieties inherent in their relentless quest for security in an insecure world.
Joseph wrote that in the aftermath of the 1816–17 Palmyra-area revival, “at about the age of twelve my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul.”1 The recurrent revivals put the urgent question, “What must I do to be saved?” foremost in his mind. The question became inescapable even as its answer remained elusive. “Being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion,” Joseph explained, “and looking at the different systems . . . I knew not who was right or who was wrong and I considered it of the first importance that I should be right in matters that involve eternal consequences.” He wrote, “[I became] exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”
An 1818 camp meeting in the hills above Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, reminded George Lane how exciting it felt to experience religion and how rewarding it was to lead willing souls to the Savior. After an extended absence, he returned to the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal church. On Thursday, 1 July 1819, he attended the annual Genesee conference, convened in Vienna (now Phelps), New York, a half-day’s walk from the Smith family farm.4 With more than one hundred ministers gathered from the whole region, the area pulsed with “unusual excitement on the subject of religion.”
One participant described the week-long event as a “religious cyclone which swept over the whole region”; Joseph Smith may have been in the eye of the storm.6 An unfriendly acquaintance reported that Joseph caught a “spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road.”7 Reverend Lane may have especially influenced Joseph in this setting. None of Joseph’s known accounts say so, but Oliver Cowdery thought Lane influenced Joseph, and Joseph’s younger brother William recalled that Lane “preached a sermon on ‘What church shall I join?’ And the burden of his discourse was to ask God, using as a text, ‘If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally.’”
Whether prompted by a preacher or not, the idea that he might exert himself to seek and thereby find a path to salvation led Joseph to prefer the Arminian doctrine of Methodism over the Calvinist doctrine of the Presbyterians. He felt partial toward the Methodists and wanted to join them, but he lacked the experience to be sure which doctrine was right. Joseph later told friends that during one Methodist meeting, “he wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing.”9 Yet he was “greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant.”
It was, Joseph wrote, “during this time of great excitement” that his religious concerns became a crisis. He wondered in his head whether the churches were “all wrong together” but resisted letting the awful thought enter his heart. At the same time, he experienced “confusion,” “extreme difficulties,” and “great uneasiness” caused by his sense of guilt for sins in the midst of a bewildering “war of words and tumult of opinions” about which church could furnish him with forgiveness.
“This was a grief to my Soul,” Joseph said of the disparity he found between the doctrines taught by the various churches and the Bible.12 Indeed, the Bible was both the battleground of this war and its greatest casualty, “for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” Yet it was the Bible’s God to whom Joseph successfully appealed. He had listened over and over as religious partisans wielded the Bible as a weapon, “endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.” Now, perhaps prompted by the Reverend Lane, Joseph approached the Bible privately, quietly—more as a living word than a dead law—and it spoke to his seeking soul.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Steven C. Harper, pp. 23-6