Wesley Walters was a noted anti-Mormon minister who went to great lengths to criticize Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision. He crafted some of the most popular but misguided arguments used against the First Vision. In “Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith,” Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson mentioned him and his zealous work with a note that leaves me wincing as I think of him and all the people that have bought his arguments without stepping back to reconsider possible errors in the assumptions behind their work. There are lessons here that we need to consider. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
The other main negative claim against the First Vision is also historically wanting because it oversimplifies Joseph Smith’s story and then refutes the simplification. Reverend Wesley Walters died probably believing that he had disproved Joseph’s First Vision story because he so well documented spectacular religious conversions in Palmyra during 1824 and 1825. The oversimplification emerged when he made a point of finding no evidence of such religious activity in Palmyra just before 1820, when Joseph Smith dated the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). By contrast, Brigham Young University professor Milton V. Backman Jr. showed that critics were not careful in reading the Pearl of Great Price account, which did not mention one localized revival but a sustained “unusual excitement” with the most substantial conversions not in the Palmyra area but in “the whole district of country” (v. 5). Yet a Walters associate still thinks that “the excitement of religion that Joseph Smith mentioned in his official account was the Palmyra revival of 1824–25.” However, according to Joseph Smith’s handwritten 1832 history, such a conclusion is based on looking for the wrong thing in the wrong time period. Even the Pearl of Great Price account shows that Joseph Smith had been investigating churches over a “process of time” (v. 8). But Joseph’s 1832 report states that his period of confusion lasted “from the age of twelve years to fifteen,” which would extend from December 23, 1817, to December 23, 1820.
These broad brackets mean that Joseph was intensely searching during the years 1818 and 1819, up to early 1820, the time of the First Vision (JS—H 1:14). We now know that a large Methodist camp meeting was held near Palmyra during June 19–23, 1818. This is found in the diary of Aurora Seager, a young circuit rider who left entries concerning these dates: “On the 19th I attended a camp-meeting at Palmyra. The arrival of Bishop Roberts, who seems to be a man of God and is apostolic in his appearance, gave a deeper interest to the meeting until it closed. On Monday the sacrament was administered; about twenty were baptized; forty united with the Church, and the meeting closed.” The harvest of forty new Methodists indicates an estimated crowd of at least 400 on the campground, with saturated sermons during five days from the visiting Methodist bishop and about a dozen senior preachers, all declaring to a largely unchurched crowd the need for Christ and personal repentance. None in the small village of Palmyra and vicinity would be ignorant of this great gathering for that area, broadly coinciding with the family’s settlement on their farm. According to Joseph, in that period an unusual religious excitement arose with the Methodists (JS—H 1:5), and the 1818 Palmyra camp meeting shows that his recollection had a factual basis. [Footnotes in Anderson’s article.]
Information from Aurora’s diary is found in Reverend E. Latimer, The Three Brothers: Sketches of the Lives of Rev. Aurora Seager, Rev. Micah Seager, Rev. Schuyler Seager, D. D. (New York, 1880), 21–22, microfiche at Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
The slam-dunk arguments Walters offered were ultimately based on sloppy reading of the text, a pattern I have seen far too often. When one is looking for the wrong thing at the wrong time, the lack of evidence found does not sound a death knell for believers. When those challenging arguments come, it may just pay to exert a little faith and patience before getting too far bent out of shape.