The First Visions of Charles G. Finney and Joseph Smith

In seeking to make sense of Mormon-evangelical conflicts within nineteenth-century America, it has been easy to overlook their similarities. For Mormons today, Joseph Smith’s First Vision is proof of the prophetic mantle of Joseph Smith and evidence of God’s revealed presence within Mormonism. But Smith’s vision took shape within a world, notes Leigh Schmidt, where “mystical auditions and epiphanic dreams were Protestant commonplaces, part of a religious culture of divine intimacy cultivated through biblical immersion, prayer, meditation, and revival.”[1] Joseph Smith did not contradict the trends of evangelical revivalism, but demonstrated its democratic potentials, where one could hear and even see the divine, regardless of class or social status, or even biblical literacy. But Joseph wasn’t alone. There is an important parallel concerning the first visions of both Joseph Smith and Charles G. Finney, whose similarities outweigh their differences.

Finney in the Woods

Charles Finney in the Woods, from a wood engraving, as found in Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1792-1875: Revivalist and Reformer (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 42.

Charles G. Finney, foremost of nineteenth-century Protestant revivalists, had strikingly similar experiences that a young Joseph Smith had when he “penetrated into the woods” to pray. On a “very pleasant day” in October in 1821 in Adams, New York, just one year after Joseph Smith saw Jesus Christ on another “beautiful, clear day” in a forest next to his home, just over one-hundred miles from Smith’s “Sacred Grove” in Palmyra, New York, Finney went alone into the woods to pray. Finney was struck by a New Testament verse that promised “if ye seek me” you will “find me,” which “seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light.” In a similar quest for truth, Smith was affected by a New Testament verse that promised those who “lack wisdom,” should “ask of God,” a promise which penetrated “into every feeling of my heart.” Armed with equal confidence and determination, both Joseph Smith and Charles Finney expected a direct answer to their vocal prayers, both having to do with the truthfulness of Christianity.

In prayer, Smith felt seized by an unseen power that threatened his destruction, “binding my tongue so that I could not speak.” Though Finney’s “strange feeling” that he was “about to die” came the night before, he struggled intensely in the woods with fear and self-doubt, finding himself declaring, “I am dumb.” There were also several times when Finney jumped up in fear from perceived footsteps or the rustling of leaves. Although Smith understood these interruptions to be that of a real satanic presence, Finney saw it as evidence of his own pride and shame in being discovered praying to God. In both experiences, however, such obstructions were to be overcome prior to their encounter with the divine.[2]

Upon returning from the woods, Joseph’s mother recognized something different with her son’s temperament. Asking him what was the matter, Joseph replied, “Never mind, all is well – I am well enough off.”[3] Though Finney did not see Christ in the forest as did Smith, he wrote, “I never can, in words, make any human being understand” what he had experienced that day and likewise kept his experience to himself. When Finney, after an entire day in the woods returned to the village where he lived and worked, he found that he had no appetite for dinner. At night when his room was dark, “it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light.” He then writes in his memoir of having seen Jesus Christ “face to face,” as “I would see any other man.” Jesus Christ said nothing to him, but Finney translated this vision to be a call for him to give up practicing law and to become a minister for Christ.[4] Though Finney became one of the most influential preachers of the nineteenth century, he did not necessarily upset the status quo, but instead infused what already was with new life. Many churches before Finney had prayed daily for revival, and Finney was the answer to those prayers. 

Finney’s linkage of revivalism and reform in the quest to make America a righteous nation soon transformed the American approach to revivalism and the effect such would have within American public life. Religion, thanks to Finney (as similar to Joseph Smith), took upon itself a new methodological “do it yourself” approach to religion, illuminating new democratic potentials to Christian piety. Though ordained by the local Saint Lawrence Presbytery, Finney refused formal ministerial training and found little interest in even reading the Westminster Confession.[5] Like Smith, Finney moved away from the traditional idea of waiting on God’s spontaneous and unplanned providence in the fulfilling of His mysterious work, and instead instituted a program that could ensure its fruition. For Finney, this meant revivalism; for Smith, it meant city building. However instructive patterns of difference are within Church traditions and scholarly research, perhaps understanding Smith’s city building (the clearing of the forest) and Finney’s revivalism (as located in forest clearings) as two incarnations of their shared Methodist culture is more illuminating. It is of course true that seeking God in nature goes back long before Methodism, but perhaps Methodism was the immediate influence that shaped these men’s expectations that God could be encountered in a grove.


[1] Leigh E. Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 206.

[2] Charles G. Finney, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney: Written by Himself (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1876), 12-14;. Brigham H. Roberts, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2nd ed. Rev., 1964), 1:4-6.

[3] Roberts, History of the Church, 1:6.

[4] Finney, Memoirs, 15-23.

[5] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 196.


The First Visions of Charles G. Finney and Joseph Smith — 11 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Konden. I (not surprisingly to anyone who is familiar with my research interests) think such comparisons can be very fruitful, not only from a scholarly perspective but also for rank-and-file Latter-day Saints. And I think your concluding sentence is spot on. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks Christopher, I think that last sentence must have been divine inspiration.:) (thanks for your earlier critique!)

  3. For some time I’ve been curious about why one would spend scarce resources, and all resources are by nature scarce, on researching the visions of Charles Finney, Billy Hibbard or Elias Smith and others in reference to Joseph Smith.

    Available to the world since 1853 (1), the vision of the Savior beheld by Joseph Smith’s aunt and house preacher, Lovisa Mack Tuttle, is much, much more significant to both Mormonism and Mormon women’s history than the usual male suspects.

    No lesser historian than faithful Mormon and BYU professor Richard L. Anderson has written Aunt Lovisa’s vision of the savior was a “prototype [that] raises basic questions about the early revelations of Joseph Smith (2). She was healed both “soul and body” as her nephew would be forgiven of his sins in his earliest telling (3).

    I’d wager that almost no one recognizes Lovisa Mack Tuttle’s name. But her better known father, Solomon Mack, wrote of her vision in the manuscript history of his life (4). Lovisa’s sister, Lucy Mack Smith, published it in her well known 1853 memoir from which source it is all but descended into oblivion.

    Surely Joseph Smith knew of his Aunt Lovisa’s vision of the Savior when it came time for him to relate his own vision and forgiveness from “the Lord.” While the visions of Charles Finney and others might have been known to Joseph Smith, with his Aunt Lovisa there is no need to say “might.”

    So why don’t we use scarce resources to research and talk about Aunt Lovisa first? Otherwise, one might think that in the 21st century women are still invisible.

    (1) Lucy’s Book, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Ed., Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2001, 236-40.
    (2) Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, Revised Edition, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, BYU Press, Provo, 2003, 87-8.
    (3) Lucy’s Book, 237, Joseph Smith’s first relation of his first vision, Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1984, 4-19.
    (4) Lucy’s Book, 221 n. 2

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  5. Richard, I know this is a late response, but I don’t check this very often. (I wasn’t ignoring your inquiry on purpose) You have great points, and I would have also loved to see the inclusion of Lovisa Tuttle as well. However, my goal in this limited space blog post was simple: I merely wanted to compare Joseph’s vision to that of arguably the most influential Protestant revivalist of the 19th century (perhaps even above the Beechers), so as to see this shared Methodist culture, as well as to complicate the tradition view of Joseph’s “unique” vision. A broader cultural analysis of Smith’s vision (as you would see in an article), or even a more parochial one that was only interested in Joseph’s vision and its influences would have necessitated such inclusion. It would be fascinating to see a comparison of all these figures as you bring out, as that would quickly become an analytical gold mine. But again, that was not my goal here, so no need to be puzzled, and no, I think it has nothing to do with the problem of female historiographical inclusion, nor do I think my simplified comparison with such an important figure in American history contributes to female invisibility. In think it opens up doors that require further investigation that allow us to see the significance of Lovisa’s vision in American history more broadly, not just in Mormonism. You hint however at a larger project that I would love to soon take up and your insights are well appreciated.

  6. Hi,

    You say that “likewise Finney kept his experience to himself”, but this is not true.

    There is a part of Finney’s experience that he did not speak of, which he describes as his “experience of justification”, which he says was an understanding of the passage, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    He said, “My sense of guilt was gone; my sins were gone: and I do not think I felt any more sense of guilt that if I never had sinned.” He said that “this was just the revelation I needed” and “I felt myself justified by faith; and, so far as I could see, I was in a state in which I did not sin.” He said he felt this way because his “heart was so full of love that it overflowed.” Of THAT experience says Finney, “I said nothing that I recollect, at the time, to anybody; that is, of this experience of justification.” (Memoirs, page 23)

    As for his conversion experience, he writes that the next evening he went to “the place of worship” and said that he “did not wait for anybody, but arose and began by saying that I then knew that religion was from God.”

    Finney then said that “I went on and told such parts of my experience as it seemed important for me to tell.” (Memoirs, page 28)

    He also says that “Very soon after my conversion, several other cases of conversion occurred that were reported to have taken place under similar circumstances; that is, persons went up into the grove to pray, and there made their peace with God. (page 31)

  7. Solomon Mack in his own history published in 1811 never mentions any vision in connection with Lovisa’s illness, but only that she dreamed a dream. He writes,

    The day before her recovery, the doctor said it was as much impossible to raise her, as it would one from the dead. The night following she dreamed a dream; it was that a sort of wine would cure her, it was immediately brought to her, and she drank it. The next morning she awoke and called to her husband to get up and make a fire — he arose immediately, but thought she was out of her head; but soon he found to the contrary, quickly she arose up on end in the bed (said the Lord has helped both body and soul) and dressed herself. She then asked for the Psalm book and turned to the 30th psalm, 2d part (readers look for yourselves) and again she mentioned the 116th first part. Soon after the same morning she went to the house of her father-in-law, *which was about ten rods) and back again on her feet her eyes and countenance appeared lively and bright as ever it was in her past life. It was on Thursday following, she went to meeting which was a mile and a half. On the first singing she offered them the 116th psalm first part. The minister preached an excellent sermon but her exhortation was said to exceed the minister’s sermon and on the last singing she turned to the 116th psalm 2d part. After meeting returned[44]home and after she regained her strength she went about her usual labour, which she moderately followed one or two years, when she was taken down again she grew uneasy and went to her fathers in Gilsum in New Hampshire, and there staid some months; at the same time I had another daughter sick with the consumption and died. My other daughter grew uneasy and I carried her back again, where she staid part of one summer and she was disconted [sic], and I went after her and got her to Montangue to kandlord S_____, I took her out of the carriage and set her in a chair and she instantly died. I immediately got a coffin made and then carried her home. (Narrative of the Life of Solomon Mack, 1811, pages 42-44)

  8. Grindael, thanks for that added information, correction and clarification. I’m currently putting together a lecture on Mormonism and early visions in antebellum America and this and earlier comments are most helpful, Thanks!!