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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.
 Leigh E. Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 206.
 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.
 Roberts, History of the Church, 1:6.
 Finney, Memoirs, 15-23.
 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 196.