Mrs. Palmer and the First Vision: Doing Research Mormon Apologists Won’t Do

Martha J. Cragun Cox (1852-1932)

Serious historical investigation of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s story of seeing the Father and the Son in the spring of 1820, properly focuses on Joseph’s own multiple accounts of the vision as well as the other accounts from Joseph’s contemporaries, especially those published during his lifetime.[1] However, Mormons often appeal to lesser-known accounts that seem to provide confirmation of the First Vision or at least some aspects of Joseph’s story. One such account that comes up quite often is a story attributed to a “Mrs. Palmer.” According to this account, Mrs. Palmer reportedly heard about Joseph’s first vision early in the 1820s and knew of threats from at least one churchman against Joseph over the matter.

The Mrs. Palmer Story as Told by Martha Cox

Here is the entirety of the account, which is attributed to Martha Cox, as it appears in the typewritten version in the LDS Church’s online archives.[2]

The spirit of the Lord remained with Joseph Smith from the time at which he received his first vision. Mrs. Palmer, a lady advanced in years, came to Utah with her daughter who was a teacher in the Presbyterian schools of our State. The daughter taught in Monroe, Sevier Co, died there and is buried in the Monroe Cemetery.

Mrs. Palmer’s father, according to a story told by her, owned a farm near to that of the Smith family in New York. Her parents were friends of the Smith family, which, she testified was one of the best in that locality, honest, religious and industrious, but poor. The father of the family, she said, was above the average in intelligence. She had heard her parents say he bore the appearance of having descended from royalty. Mrs. Smith was called “Mother Smith” by many. Children loved to go to her home.

Mrs. Palmer said her father loved young Joseph Smith and often hired him to work with his boys. She was about six years old, she said, when he first came to their home. She remembered going into the field on an afternoon to play in the corn rows while her brothers worked. When evening came she was too tired to walk home and cried because her brothers refused to carry her. Joseph lifted her to his shoulder and with his arm thrown across her feet to steady her and her arm about his neck he carried her to their home.

She remembered the excitement stirred up among the people over the boy’s first vision, and of hearing her father content[3] that it was only the sweet dream of a pureminded boy. She stated that one of their church leaders came to her father to remonstrate against allowing such close friendship between his family and the “Smith boy,” as he called him. Her father, she said, defended his own position by saying that the boy was the best help he had ever found. He told the churchman that he always fixed the time of hoeing his large field to that when he could secure the services of Joseph Smith, because of the influence that boy had over the wild boys of the neighborhood, and explained that when these boys worked by themselves much time would be spent in arguing and quarreling which often ended in a ring fight. But when Joseph Smith worked with them the work went steadily forward, and he got the full worth of the wages he paid. She remembered the churchman saying in a very solemn and impressive tone that the very influence the boy carried was the danger they feared for the coming generation, that not only the young men, but all who came in contact with him would follow him, and he must be put down.

Not until Joseph had a second vision and began to write a book which drew many of the best and brightest people of the churches away from them, did her parents come to a realization of the fact that their friend, the churchman had told them the truth. Then her family cut off their friendship for all the Smiths, for all the family followed Joseph. Even the father, intelligent man that he was, could not discern the evil he was helping to promote. Her parents then lent all the aid they could in helping to crush Joseph Smith; but it was too late, He had run his course too long. He could not be put down. Mrs. Palmer recognized the picture of Joseph Smith placed among other pictures as a test, and said of him that there was never a truer, purer, nobler boy than he before he was led away by superstition.

Mormon Apologists’ Treatment of the Mrs. Palmer Story

The story of Mrs. Palmer enjoys widespread circulation evidently due to its inclusion at the beginning of a popular LDS book entitled They Knew the Prophet that was first published in 1974 and was reissued in 2002.[4] It is also included in a similar compilation of memories about Joseph Smith published in 2003 and compiled by Mark McConkie.[5] According to Truman Madsen, the story was discovered by one of the dozens of LDS researchers recruited in the 1960s to answer the historical challenge to the First Vision raised by Presbyterian scholar Wesley P. Walters.[6] Madsen’s comment explains why the Mrs. Palmer story is of interest: “It is the only document yet discovered in which someone outside the church has recorded hearing of Joseph Smith’s first vision at the time he had it.”[7] However, this statement is inaccurate, because the outsider—Mrs. Palmer—did not produce the document, as we shall explain. Robert Boylan expresses the apparent value of the statement more accurately: “This is important as it is a report of the words of a non-Mormon neighbour of the Smith family who witnessed the reaction of one of the persecutors of the young Prophet after his first vision, showing that Joseph Smith was indeed the recipient of some form of persecutions as a result of his claims of heavenly visions.”[8] Indeed, this is apparently still the only document yet discovered (more than fifty years after Madsen’s comment) that reports a specific non-Mormon individual saying that he or she had heard about the First Vision soon after it happened.

Given the apparent importance of the story, one would think that LDS apologists who appeal to it in defense of the First Vision would provide as much detail as possible about Mrs. Palmer and her account. What we are usually told, however, is only that the account came from someone named Mrs. Palmer as recorded by someone named Martha Cox. When additional information is provided, sometimes it is simply erroneous. The LDS apologetics website FairMormon, for example, claims that the account reported what “Martha Cox’s father said” about Joseph Smith, and it describes Martha Cox as “a contemporary” (seemingly of Joseph Smith, although the FairMormon article does not say).[9] BYU scholar Richard Neitzel Holzapfel states that Mrs. Palmer’s remembrance is “one of the earliest word pictures of Joseph Smith by someone outside the family.”[10]

Not one of the many secondary sources that I have found that appeal to the story in defense of Joseph or his first vision give any indication as to when it was written. Boylan, FairMormon, and even BYU professors Holzapfel and Daniel C. Peterson refer to the Mrs. Palmer story without giving any indication of its date.[11] An early reference to the story by James Allen in a 1970 Improvement Era article gives somewhat more information, referring to Mrs. Palmer as “an elderly woman” when she made her statement, but also giving no date (possibly because at the time its date had not been determined).[12] Matthew Brown, in his book on the First Vision, dated Mrs. Palmer’s reference “between April 1820 and September 1823,” meaning of course when she would have heard it originally, without giving any indication as to its actual written source, merely citing Mark McConkie’s compilation.[13]

When Madsen first mentioned the story in 1969, he acknowledged some difficulties in placing any weight on it:

The document has raised many questions and brought to the surface many differing philosophies of history when shown to professionals. In general they agree that we do not know enough about it to rely on its complete authenticity. We can summarize our knowledge of it by saying this is a late recollection of a Mrs. Palmer and that it is apparently not in her words but someone else’s (unknown) who recorded it.[14]

Madsen apparently overcame these qualms later, though without providing any new or additional information to warrant regarding the account as reliable. Indeed, Madsen seems to have been confused as to the origin of the account. In a BYU devotional lecture in 1978, Madsen appealed to the story without any caveats at all. In the lecture, which can be heard on YouTube, Madsen erroneously claimed that the account was given in “a document from a woman who herself was a Presbyterian.”[15] This statement was corrected in the printed version of the lecture as follows:

But a document exists that contains reported recollections about Joseph Smith as recorded by Martha Cox. One of these comes from a woman, identified as Mrs. Palmer, who knew him in his early life when she was a child.

Madsen cited from this “document” reports both of Joseph’s industrious work ethic and of the opposition he received from a “churchman” due to Joseph’s “first vision.” Once again, he gave no information as to the identity of Mrs. Palmer or the date when the account was received or written.[16] Madsen published this lecture in 1989 in a book on Joseph Smith.[17]

One of the very few cautionary remarks about the story comes at the end of a book notice of the Mark McConkie 2003 compilation that includes the story. The author of the notice comments about Mrs. Palmer that “she has no known birth date or death date and the only information about her is that she lived in the Palmyra area and possibly Monroe in Sevier County.”[18] That is more information than is given in all of the Mormon apologists’ sources I have cited combined.

Looking for Mrs. Palmer

The source of the account is a typescript entitled “Stories from Notebook of MARTHA COX, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson” (Church History Library, call no. MS 658). Fern Cox Anderson (1903-1990) was a Mormon schoolteacher in the Salt Lake City School District.[19] Her father, Edward Isaiah Cox (1874-1940), was a lifelong Mormon who resided most of his life either in Bunkerville, Nevada, or in Salt Lake City.[20] His mother, Martha James Cragun Cox (1852-1932), was the author of the notebook in question. Martha was also a lifelong Mormon, having been born just outside Salt Lake City in 1852 and married Isaiah Cox, a polygamous Mormon who already had two wives, in St. George, Utah, in 1869. After retiring from teaching in 1920, she devoted her time to temple work in St. George and elsewhere in Utah.[21]

The document is not dated. According to LDS historian Lavina Fielding Anderson, a typescript of Martha’s undated autobiography, “Biographical Record of Martha Cox,” was produced in 1979 based on the handwritten manuscript.[22] However, the correct date seems to be 1970, as is stated in the Church History Catalog online.[23] The handwritten manuscript is dated 1928-1930 by Catherine A. Brekus in an article published in 2011 in the Journal of Mormon History,[24] while the LDS Church History Library gives 1928 as the date it was written. According to Dan Vogel, Martha Cox made a notation in her “Biographical Record” dated September 18, 1929, stating that the “Stories” document was a group of “little stories of the prophet” that she had copied into a memo book and given to the daughter of President Joseph F. Smith.[25]

According to these historians, then, Martha Cox’s account was first written in 1928, then copied in the “Stories” document by hand in 1929. From Madsen’s comment in 1969 cited earlier, evidently the document was discovered in the 1960s by one of the LDS scholars combing through records looking for information validating the First Vision story. Eventually “Stories” was copied in a typescript in 1970, the year after Madsen first announced its discovery and the same year that James Allen quoted from it in his Improvement Era article. It may well be that it was Allen who discovered the handwritten manuscript in the late 1960s and asked to have the typescript prepared. Perhaps Fern Cox Anderson, whose name is given in the typescript of the “Stories” document, was the one who produced the typed copy.

Already, we have some serious reasons to be concerned. Evidently, this story was not written down until 1928, more than a century after Mrs. Palmer supposedly heard her father and the minister talking about the First Vision. Moreover, the story comes to us from a lifelong member of the LDS Church as part of a group of faith-promoting stories about Joseph Smith. Perhaps we should not be surprised that this information is not disclosed by any of the Mormon apologists who cite the story in support of the First Vision.

While the identity of Martha Cox is easily known, the same cannot be said for Mrs. Palmer.[26] “Stories” introduces her as “Mrs. Palmer, a lady advanced in years,” who had moved to Utah with her daughter. It states that the daughter taught at Presbyterian schools in Monroe, Utah, where she died and was buried.

The daughter of “Mrs. Palmer” is very likely the “Miss Palmer” mentioned in an article in the Salt Lake City-based Christian periodical The Church Review entitled “Monroe Presbyterian Mission Sunday-School,” which states that “Miss Palmer and Miss McPheeters” ran the Sunday school in Monroe in the 1880s and that in 1891 Miss Palmer died.[27] Her full name is given as “Miss Anna M. Palmer” in one Presbyterian Church publication[28] but as “Miss Anna B. Palmer” in another such publication (along with that of “Miss Kate McPheeters”).[29] Other publications confirm the name Anna B. Palmer and give the precise date of her death as January 22, 1891.[30]

Still more precise information appears in a Park College catalogue. Park College, located in Parkville, Missouri (just outside Kansas City), was at the time a Presbyterian college; in the twentieth century it became religiously unaffiliated and is now called Park University. The catalogue states that Anna B. Palmer graduated from the school in 1882 and taught music there until 1887. She then moved to Monroe, Utah, under the auspices of the (Presbyterian) Home Board until her passing on January 22, 1891. This information places her in Monroe only from 1887 until her death in 1891, which would mean that her mother, “Mrs. Palmer,” had moved to Monroe during that four-year period.[31]

Identifying the daughter’s mother “Mrs. Palmer” turns out to be much more difficult. We have no information about her first name, maiden name, or date of birth or death. The several sources cited here referring to Anna B. Palmer do not give any family information. The only information we have other than Anna’s identity is that Mrs. Palmer’s father owned a farm near the Smith farm in the 1820s.

There was a George Palmer[32] who was born in Rhode Island in 1792 and moved to Palmyra and who married Harriet Foster of Palmyra on March 24, 1817. We do not have any information about George Palmer owning a farm. However, he was a tanner in partnership with Henry Jessup, his neighbor in Palmyra, from 1814 to 1828. Jessup’s name does come up in connection with the Smith family. He was the “Deacon Jessup” at Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra whom Joseph Smith harshly criticized as a hypocrite, according to his mother Lucy Mack Smith’s memoirs.[33] In 1830, two years after George Palmer had moved out of the area, Jessup was part of a committee from the church sent to investigate the inactivity there of Lucy and her two children who had joined the church years earlier.[34] Palmer moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1828 and died in September 1864.[35] He donated generously to a Central Presbyterian Church (apparently in Buffalo), which is consistent with the family’s Presbyterianism.[36] George’s wife Harriet cannot be our “Mrs. Palmer” because Harriet also died in Buffalo, in 1874,[37] and because according to the typescript Mrs. Palmer was a child when she knew Joseph in the 1820s. Nor can “Mrs. Palmer” be one of their daughters, since of course Palmer was her married name.

One might wonder, then, if “Mrs. Palmer” had been a child who married one of George and Harriet Palmer’s sons. Their “eldest child” was a daughter, also called Harriet, who was born in 1818, whose married name was Putnam, and who died in 1853.[38] This means that any sons would have been younger than ten years old when the family moved to Buffalo in 1828. This fact makes it extremely unlikely that any of George’s sons married the woman called Mrs. Palmer. We know, in fact, that this was not the case. George did have three sons: Harlow, who “died of the cholera in 1852, leaving one child,” and George and Oscar, both of whom “died in 1846, unmarried.”[39] Another source identifies Harlow’s wife as Emily and states that she died in 1852 or 1853 (one presumes also due to cholera). Emily’s family, the Bancrofts, evidently never lived in the Palmyra area.[40] This means, despite the tantalizing connection of George Palmer to Henry Jessup in Palmyra, that “Mrs. Palmer” cannot have been related to his family. At present, I do not have access to documentation to identify the Mrs. Palmer mentioned by Martha Cox.[41]

Who Told Martha Cox the Mrs. Palmer Story, and When?

The typescript of the “Stories” says nothing about when, where, or from whom Martha heard Mrs. Palmer’s story. It would be a mistake to assume or infer that Martha heard it directly from Mrs. Palmer. Indeed, the evidence rather strongly suggests otherwise. Martha lived in St. George, in the southwest corner of Utah over 150 miles from Monroe where Mrs. Palmer reportedly lived, until about 1881. Martha then spent most of the next three decades living in Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico.[42] During this time when Martha did not live in Utah, Anna B. Palmer (and her mother, assuming the story is accurate) arrived in Utah in 1887 and lived in Monroe, where Anna died in 1891. By the time Martha had returned to Utah in 1911, Mrs. Palmer would certainly have been deceased. The chronology, then, proves that Martha almost certainly did not hear the story directly from Mrs. Palmer (or from her daughter Anna).

This conclusion is confirmed by the glaring vagueness of Martha’s reference to the lady as simply “Mrs. Palmer,” with no first name or initial. In her biographical record, Martha named some of the individuals from whom her stories about Joseph Smith reportedly derived: “Jesse W. Crosby, Allen J. Stout, Joseph I Earl, Aunt Esther Pulsipher, Margaret Burgess, Mrs. Palmer, a Presbyterian lady whose family lived near the Smiths’ in New York.”[43] In this list of six names, Mrs. Palmer is the only one for whom Martha did not provide a first name.

Almost all of Martha’s other stories contain indications as to the circumstances of their origin. In the midst of recounting stories from Jesse W. Crosby, Martha says, “Bro. Crosby told us,” making explicit that he gave this particular story in her hearing.[44] Another story is credited to “an old man named Mc or Mack,” dated “about the year 1884,” and said to have been told at dinner in “the Muddy Valley,” a location in Nevada where Martha lived at that time.[45] Her next story is attributed to “an old man by the name of Jack Reed” living in 1881 in St. Thomas (at the time a town in the Muddy Valley). The rest of Martha’s account about Reed makes it clear she was getting it secondhand at best, since she mentions different men who visited Reed and reported back what he had said. The next story begins, “In 1892 George Hawley of the Reorganized Church came out to Bunkerville, Nevada,” where Martha had lived, along with his lawyer, to enter into a legal dispute with LDS Church leaders in the area. It is clear from the account that Martha was not present during the late-night argument she reports them having.[46]

Martha’s next story is about a conversation between Joseph Smith and “a brother named Cutler” in Montrose (in Iowa, directly across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo) shortly before Joseph was killed. This story probably refers to Alphaeus Cutler, who was a close associate of Joseph in Nauvoo and who later in 1853 founded the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite). Martha comments parenthetically at the end of this story, “A young girl named Henrietta Janes of Montrose sat near enough in that meeting to hear every word of the above conversation and has told it to us.”[47] Henrietta was Martha’s “sister wife,” the first wife of her husband Isaiah Cox.[48]

The next story is about Sylvester H. Earl receiving a blessing from Joseph Smith in Jacksonville, Missouri. Martha also makes explicit her source here: she says it was Sylvester’s son Joseph I. Earl.[49] Her next story, she says, was related by “Aunt” Esther Pulsipher, indicating that Martha heard it directly from Esther. The story is about Indians visiting Joseph in Nauvoo when she was about nine years old. The account leaves it unclear as to whether Esther witnessed this visit herself. Martha then narrates two stories she says came from Allen J. Stout (a fairly well-known figure in Mormonism), but she gives no information as to when or where he told the stories. The language Martha uses (“The question…was asked of Allen J. S[t]out”) suggests she did not hear it directly from him. Finally, Martha recounts two stories from Mrs. Margaret Burgess, daughter of William McIntyre, about her recollections of Joseph in Nauvoo when she was a child there.[50] This person was Margaret Jane McIntire Burgess (1837-1919), who was seven years old when Joseph died. She married Melanchthon Burgess in 1855 and they settled in St. George in 1861, where Martha Cox may well have met her and heard her tell her story personally.[51]

Two lines of evidence, then, lead us to conclude with an extremely high degree of confidence that Martha Cox did not hear the story about Mrs. Palmer from Mrs. Palmer herself: (1) Martha did not live in Utah during the period when Mrs. Palmer would have lived there, and (2) the Mrs. Palmer story is the only one for which Martha does not give any information to explain how she heard the story.

When did this story start being told in Utah? It could not have been told any earlier than 1887, the year that Anna B. Palmer and her mother arrived in Utah. According to Martha’s story, Mrs. Palmer was about six years old when she first met Joseph Smith in Palmyra, apparently sometime before the First Vision. This would imply that she was born sometime around 1812 or so and would make her roughly 75 years of age in 1887. If it was Mrs. Palmer’s daughter Anna who told the story, she would have done so before her death in 1891. This possibility seems rather likely since it would explain why Martha’s story mentions the daughter. Yet Martha would not have heard it from Anna directly, as we have already explained. If Mrs. Palmer herself told people in Utah the story, it seems reasonable to guess that she would have done so before 1900, when she would have been in her late 80s. Thus, we can conclude that the story must have been told between 1887 and 1900, and more likely sometime closer to 1890. This indicates an approximate gap of seventy years or so between the First Vision and when Anna or Mrs. Palmer started telling people in Utah about Mrs. Palmer’s recollections of Joseph Smith. It also indicates an approximate gap of roughly twenty years between the story first being told in Utah and when Martha Cox heard it, which probably was not until after 1911 when she moved back to Utah, and a gap of roughly forty years between Anna or Mrs. Palmer telling the story in Utah and Martha writing it down in 1928 or so.

Let us now reconstruct the chain of transmission for this story as best we can, acknowledging that we do not have precise information in this regard. The story begins with a girl of about seven years of age who reportedly heard her father and a minister talking about Joseph’s first vision (ca. 1820, assuming the standard date for the First Vision). Roughly seventy years later, this girl, Mrs. Palmer, now over 75 years old, or her daughter Anna, tells one or more unknown persons in Utah about what she heard. Then, roughly forty years later, another woman, Martha Cox, herself now just over 75 years old, writes down this story, based on what she had heard from one or more unknown persons (probably not the same persons who had heard it from Mrs. Palmer or Anna) within the previous twenty years or so. The chain of transmission thus looks like this (assuming Mrs. Palmer actually heard her father talk about the First Vision):

Mrs. Palmer’s father (ca. 1820) > Mrs. Palmer > Anna B. Palmer (ca. 1890) > unknown > unknown > Martha Cox (1928) > “Stories” excerpts by Martha Cox (1929) > typescript (1970)

There are obviously manifold opportunities for misunderstanding, confusion, and reinterpretation in these four or five (or more) generations of telling the story through a period of well over a century (assuming the typescript is reasonably accurate). The naïve assumption that is at least implicit in Mormon apologetic use of this story is that Martha Cox heard the story directly from Mrs. Palmer and then wrote it down as she had told it. That assumption does not fit the facts. In particular, the fact that the story would have passed through an unknown number of unknown oral recitations by Mormons even prior to Martha Cox hearing it and later writing it down should give any serious researcher pause. One must take seriously the possibility that the story became altered in some way before taking its current form.

What Is the “First Vision” in the Mrs. Palmer Story?

We have assumed up to now, as all Mormons apparently do, that the “first vision” mentioned in Martha Cox’s account of Mrs. Palmer’s story is the First Vision, the appearance of deity to Joseph Smith in 1820. However, Dan Vogel has proposed a different interpretation. Pointing out that “Palmer’s account is thirdhand and filtered through a traditional Mormon mind,” Vogel suggests that the “first vision” from Mrs. Palmer’s perspective was more likely to have been the first appearance of the angel in 1823 and that the second vision was the angel’s releasing the gold plates to Joseph in 1827.[52]

Vogel’s suggestion has some merit. Cox does say that Joseph’s troubles began when he “had a second vision and began to write a book.” This wording seems to make the connection between the second vision and the Book of Mormon almost immediate, which does not fit easily the nearly five-year gap between 1823 and Joseph’s first attempts to dictate the book in 1828. It also fits the known facts somewhat better, since Joseph did receive quite a bit of attention beginning around the end of 1827 and early in 1828 in regard to the gold plates.

Of course, as Vogel agrees, for Martha Cox the expression “first vision” could only refer to the appearance of the Father and the Son in 1820. This is the story as Martha wrote it, and it is the only version of the Mrs. Palmer story that we have. While the evidence might not be strong enough to validate Vogel’s suggestion, the lack of specifics in the account and the fact of multiple stages of transmission mean that we cannot rule it out, either.

Assessing Martha Cox’s Stories

One thing that no Mormon apologist seems to have done is to review the other stories that Martha Cox told about Joseph Smith to see how credible her stories tended to be. As one might expect, all of the stories are “faith-promoting” in the extreme. In one story, a Mormon neighbor of Joseph in Nauvoo recalled that Joseph had the best hay and the best orchard. “If an inferior cow was by any means shoved on to him it would be but a short time before she became a first class milker.” Joseph could build fence twice as fast as most men, and yet he was orderly and cleaned up after himself.[53]

In another story, entitled “Retribution,” an old man named Jack Reed living in Nevada boasted at a meeting of people seeking to drive Mormons out of the valley that he had been “a member of the mob at Carthage Jail and helped to kill the Prophet. He went home from that meeting a very sick man.” The story goes on to say that Reed died of the “Mormon Curse” that had also befallen other members of the Carthage mob. The curse took the form of a disease in which worms ate away at the men’s bodies. The flesh fell off Reed’s body bit by bit, yet it left him the power of speech until the very end so he could keep telling people about the Mormon Curse.[54]

Apparently there are some even more fantastic stories in Martha Cox’s full autobiographical notebook. Lavina Fielding Anderson, in her biographical study of Cox, admits that some of these will strike even Mormons today as lacking in credibility:

She sometimes records tales that we would question today—Jacob Hamblin, for instance, saying that Joseph Smith taught him the earth was convex at the north pole to receive a new planet, the impact of which will cause the mountains to melt, the seas to change positions, and the earth to reel to and fro, obviously prophecies of the last days.[55]

Anderson comments regarding Martha Cox’s writing that “her autobiography becomes a valuable index to the ordinary member’s understanding of the gospel during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”[56] This assessment seems eminently fair-minded. While there may be some truth to some of Martha’s stories about Joseph, it is difficult to assess their historical accuracy. This problem applies especially to the story about the Mrs. Palmer, about whom we know so little and whose story passed through multiple stages of transmission before getting into Martha’s notebook. Madsen’s original assessment that the account has not come down to us in Mrs. Palmer’s own words and that we cannot “rely on its complete authenticity” was right. The bottom line is that the Mrs. Palmer story does not constitute reliable evidence that anyone in the 1820s knew about the First Vision or about Joseph being persecuted during that period of time due to his telling others about it.


[1] For the texts of these accounts, see “First Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,” Faith Thinkers, 2020.

[2]Stories from Notebook of Martha Cox, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson,” p. 1, Church History Catalog, MS 658. The text also appears in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003), 3:265–67. It has been reproduced here directly from the online archive.

[3] Martha Cox might have meant either “contend,” as Vogel suggests, or “comment.”

[4] Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from over 100 People Who Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974; Covenant Communications, 2002), 1–2.

[5] Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 28.

[6] On this massive project, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard, 2020), 235–36, and the sources cited there.

[7] Truman G. Madsen, “Guest Editor’s Prologue,” BYU Studies 9.3 (1969): 235 (235–40).

[8] Robert Boylan, “The Recollection of a Non-LDS Neighbour of the Smith Family Affirming Joseph Smith was Persecuted After the First Vision,” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), Nov. 21, 2019.

[9]Question: Was ‘money digging’ Joseph Smith, Jr’s primary source of income during his early years?” FairMormon, n.d.

[10] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Early Years, 18​05–19,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 1–22.

[11] Boylan, “Recollection”; FairMormon, “Question”; Holzapfel, “The Early Years, 18​05–19”; Daniel C. Peterson, “The Sibling Scandals of the Resurrection,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 11 (2014): xxvii–xxviii; Daniel C. Peterson, “What Joseph Smith’s Neighbors Thought of Him, Even When They Disagreed with His Religion,” LDS Living, Nov. 9, 2019. See also “Character: Was Joseph Smith weak in character while gifted in revelation? How did he ‘influence’ people?” Joseph Smith Foundation, March 4, 2013. The story is also cited to document that Joseph worked hard, sometimes without citing it in reference to the First Vision, e.g., “Chapter 1, Joseph Smith,” in Presidents of the Church, Teacher Manual, Religion 345 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2005), 5.

[12] James B. Allen, “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era 73.4 (April 1970): 11 (4–13).

[13] Matthew B. Brown, A Pillar of Light: The History and Message of the First Vision (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 195, 208 n. 4. Brown’s 2004 FairMormon Conference presentation had given a reference to Martha Cox’s autobiography but without any date or explanation: “Historical or Hysterical: Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources,” 2004 FairMormon Conference.

[14] Madsen, “Guest Editor’s Prologue,” 235.

[15] Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith Lecture 1: The First Vision and Its Aftermath,” YouTube, posted Aug. 17, 2018. As of April 2020, this video (which has only the audio with a photo of Madsen) had well over 100,000 views.

[16] Truman G. Madsen, “Joseph Smith Lecture 1: The First Vision and Its Aftermath,” BYU devotional, Aug. 22, 1978.

[17] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), chapter 1.

[18] Book notice of Mark L. McConkie, comp., Remembering Joseph, in Journal of Mormon History 33.2 (2007): 266 (264–66).

[19] “Death: Fern Cox Anderson,” Deseret News, Aug. 1, 1990.

[20] “Edward Isaiah Cox,” Salt Lake Telegram, Oct. 5, 1940; Missionary Database,

[21] On Martha Cox, see Lavina Fielding Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady: Martha Cragun Cox,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, edited by Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1985), 101–32.

[22] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 131.

[23]Biographical record of Martha Cox,” Church History Catalog, which states, “Apparently issued in its present form by relatives in 1970.”

[24] Catherine A. Brekus, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency,” Journal of Mormon History 37/2 (Spring 2011): 62 n. 8 (59–87). Brekus is a religious historian at the University of Chicago specializing in the study of women in American religion.

[25] Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:265.

[26] As late as 1990, by which time the United States had a far more heterogenous population than in the nineteenth century, the name Palmer was the 151st most common last name in America; for a list, see

[27] Catherine R. Watt, “Monroe Presbyterian Mission Sunday-School,” The Church Review (Salt Lake City) 4/1 (Dec. 29, 1895): 43.

[28] Sara I. McNeice, “Two Decades in Utah,” Home Mission Monthly 14/7 (May 1900): 153. The title page of the volume states that it was published by the Woman’s Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, New York.

[29] Notices of Palmer’s death appears in The Twenty-First Annual Report of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, May 21, 1891 (New York: Presbyterian House, 1891), 24, 157; see also 147 for both Palmer and McPheeters. The notice describes Miss Palmer as “a most consecrated and successful teacher” (24).

[30] “Obituary record of the Alumni,” in Catalogue of Park College 1906-1907 (Parkville, MO: Park College Press, 1907), 109; see also “To the Auxiliaries,” Woman’s Work for Woman 6.3 (March 1891): 85, published by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Societies of the Presbyterian Church.

[31] Catalogue of Park College, Parkville, Missouri (Cedar Rapids, IA: Superior Press, 1910), 79, 94.

[32] See “George Palmer,”

[33] See Early Mormon Documents, ed. Vogel, 1:307–308.

[34] Vogel, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:308 n. 106.

[35] Josephus Nelson Larned, A History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, Volume 1 (New York: Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), 262–64.

[36] Memorial and Family History of Erie County, New York, Volume II: Biographical and Genealogical (New York and Buffalo: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1906-1908), 360; Memorial of George Palmer (Buffalo: Courier Printing House, 1864), 40-41.

[37]Harriet Foster Palmer,”

[38]Harriet Foster Palmer Putnam,”

[39] Memorial of George Palmer, 41.

[40] Fanny Cooley Williams Barbour, Spelman Genealogy: The English Ancestry and American Descendants of Richard Spelman of Middletown, Connecticut, 1700 (New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Co., 1910), 249–50.

[41] A search of volume 1 of the book Palmer Families in America, comp. Horace Wilbur Palmer, ed. Nellie Morse Palmer (Neshanic, NJ: Neshanic Printing, 1966), failed to turn up any candidates. Volumes 2 and 3 are not at present accessible to me. One presumes that George Palmer of Palmyra and Buffalo is likely listed in one of those volumes.

[42] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady.”

[43] Quoted in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Vogel, 3:265.

[44] “Stories,” p. 2.

[45] “Stories,” p. 3.

[46] “Stories,” pp. 3-4.

[47] “Stories,” p. 4.

[48] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady.”

[49] “Stories,” p. 4.

[50] “Stories,” p. 5.

[51] “Mrs. Margaret Burgess Dixie Pioneer Passes,” Washington County News, Dec. 25, 1919, 1, image at

[52] Vogel, in Early Mormon Documents, 3:266–67 nn. 1–2.

[53] “Stories,” p. 1.

[54] “Stories,” p. 3.

[55] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 104, citing Cox, Autobiography, 100.

[56] Anderson, “A ‘Salt of the Earth’ Lady,” 104.

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