“Palmyra and Manchester,” Church History Topics
“Palmyra and Manchester”
Beginning in the late 1700s, New Englanders moved to western New York in droves, attracted by the fertile soil and cheap acreage. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 added to the boom, and the small village of Palmyra quickly transformed into a trading center. With the growing population came increased religious diversity as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Quakers all converged on the area and began vying for converts.1 Residents throughout the region participated in religious gatherings, including revival meetings.
The Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family migrated to western New York in 1816 and 1817 after a bad harvest and financial troubles upset their livelihood. They first settled in Palmyra village and rented a house for two years, living on wages earned from day labor and running a small shop. In 1820 the family purchased a 100-acre farm a few miles south of Palmyra in Manchester Township.
Several key events of the early Restoration took place in this area. Joseph Smith Jr. recounted that around the time of his family’s move to western New York, his “mind became seriously impressed” with religious questions.2 These spiritual concerns led to his First Vision, which occurred in a wooded area on the family’s farm. In a log home on the farm is where the angel Moroni first visited him. Four years later, Joseph retrieved the golden plates from a hill closer to the village of Manchester, and in 1830 the Book of Mormon was printed in Palmyra.
In her history, Lucy Mack Smith said Joseph received a revelation in the fall of 1830 directing the Joseph Sr. family to move to Waterloo, New York. In October the family left Manchester for Waterloo, where they remained until the Saints gathered to Ohio early the next year. In 1907 the Church acquired the Manchester farm from the son of a boyhood friend of Joseph Smith.3
Some researchers have questioned whether Palmyra was indeed the scene of unusual religious excitement and contention between churches in 1820, as described in Joseph Smith’s history.4 Joseph’s account, however, does not single out Palmyra but rather indicates the excitement arose in “the whole district of Country.”5 Historians broadly agree that heightened religious fervor, including competition between churches for converts, was common in western New York during the time the Smiths lived in Palmyra.6 In June 1818, for example, a Methodist camp meeting took place in Palmyra. The following summer, Methodists assembled again just 15 miles from the Smith family farm, in Vienna (now Phelps), New York. One itinerant Methodist preacher documented in his journal revivals near Palmyra and Manchester in 1819 and 1820.7 For young Joseph Smith, who even witnessed religious differences within his own family, it was certainly a time of religious excitement, just as he claimed in his history.