Sunday, March 26, 1820?
by John C. Lefgren
John P. Pratt, who recently proposed the Sun 26 Mar 1820 date for the First Vision based on evidence from the Enoch calendar, was not aware of these results for either the March weather of 1820, nor that maple sugar production might be a factor in determining the date. In fact, Pratt's article had already been reprinted as part of his new book Divine Calendars before he received any word of this corroborating evidence.
The First Vision is fundamental to our religion, but what was the date on which it occurred? All that we have known about the date is that it "was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring" of 1820 (JSH 1:14). It has been assumed that this brief description could only be used to narrow down the date to have been within the period of late March to early April, with a Sunday being the most likely day on which a farm boy would have been able to actually go to the woods to pray.
Two decades ago, it occurred to me that the First Vision might have happened on April 6, 1820. Knowing that the vision had been on a beautiful day, I sought weather records to verify whether that date was at least a candidate. To my delight I found that detailed weather records had been kept only eighty miles from Palmyra, but to my disappointment I found it had snowed the night before April 6, and had been cloudy and freezing weather all that day.
When I recently learned of Pratt's proposed date in March, I immediately sent to the National Archives for the microfilms of the weather journal, which resulted in the results published here.
My research begins at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Sackets Harbor, New York, was a shipbuilding center for the United States Navy. Sackets Harbor and Palmyra are generally in the same weather system which is influenced and homogenized by Lake Ontario.
March in 1820 came in like a lion. During the first two weeks of March there were five snow days for a total accumulation of 23 inches. During these two weeks there were only three of forty-two temperature readings above freezing. It seems appropriate to exclude the first half of March from any consideration for the First Vision.
There was an increase in the average temperature during the third week of March with daily readings above freezing. Nevertheless, the weather was mostly cloudy and at no time in the early morning was the temperature above freezing.
Beginning on March 22 there is a break in the weather with rising temperatures. Friday March 24 the weather is clear and the morning temperature is above 40Ý. This day is the first day in the set of possible days for the First Vision. Saturday March 25 is also clear and warm and is the second day in the set of possible days. Sunday morning March 26 is clear with a temperature of 56Ý, the highest of any day that early spring. This day is the last of three consecutive clear days and is included in the set of possible days. The 2 p.m. temperature for both March 25 and 26 was 64Ý, so they were both "beautiful days" that might stand out in young Joseph's memory has having been unusually pleasant.
Monday morning March 27 the weather becomes cloudy and the temperature begins to drop. During the last four days of March average temperature readings decline and during the first week of April there is snow, sleet and rain and by Saturday April 15 the weather is clear with morning readings above forty degrees. This day is too late in the spring to be included in the set of possible days.
Now let us turn to a brief overview of how maple syrup is produced, which will indicate that the first two of those days would most likely have been long, arduous work days producing maple syrup. Moreover, that same cycle indicates that there would have been no more sap to gather nor process on Sunday, March 26, leaving it the sole and ideal candidate to have been the date of the First Vision.
Lucy Mack Smith wrote of her years in Palmyra, "In the spring after we moved onto the farm we commenced making maple sugar of which we averaged one thousand pounds per year." That's a lot of sugar, and it was all produced during a few weeks of spring. It was not a hobby or casual endeavor for them, it was an important source of sustenance which engaged their full time effort for brief periods entirely governed by the weather. Two of the three possible days for the First Vision would have been heavy work days.
To produce one thousand pounds of maple sugar, as Lucy Smith recorded, the Smith Family in 1820 tapped more than 500 trees, collected 60,000 pounds of sap. It is possible to determine that the family's sugaring would have started in earnest on Saturday, March 18, and continued until Saturday, March 25. Because sap can go sour like milk, the family has to make sugar while the sap runs. By Saturday noon March 25 at the latest, the temperature readings would have been above freezing for more than thirty hours and the maple sap had stopped running. The boiling fires would have had to be fed for the rest of that day to finish the process. By Saturday night, every one would have been exhausted. Thus, Sunday would have been a rest day even if it had not been the weekly Sabbath day.
One note from one of Joseph's several accounts of the First Vision implies that he had indeed been cutting timber on the day prior. What the Prophet said included the following:
"I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join?"If that account is accurate, then it would seem to be both an indication that the axe had been left there on the previous day, and that he had been clearing trees with it. Those trees would have been used as the firewood needed to boil down the sugar.
Combining all of this evidence, there were three days of early spring on which the weather qualified as being possible for the First Vision. On the first two of them the Smith family would almost certainly have been totally occupied in producing maple sugar. On the third of those days, there would have been no more work to do in producing maple sugar, and it would have been a day of rest. That day coincided with Sunday, the weekly Sabbath.
Thus it is one day which is indicated as being far more likely than any other for the First Vision. It must have been on the morning of Sunday, March 26, 1820, that Joseph Smith reached out to God and the glorious response changed the course of history. The brief statement that the marvelous event occurred "on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring" of 1820 was enough to pinpoint the very day it occurred.
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