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Book Review: Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess

By Richard S. Van Wagoner

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

For years Sidney Rigdon was the right-hand man to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. Much of what the Mormon religion is about is directly connected with Rigdon, a former Disciples of Christ minister. While most Mormons are probably not familiar with this man, understanding who he was will be beneficial to better understanding the teachings of Smith and the formulation of the religion. And LDS historian Richard S. Van Wagoner delivers a just-shy-of-500-page account that is worth studying.

The first five chapters deals with Rigdon’s Baptist years. His parents William and Nancy “were God-fearing, Bible-reading Christians” and “devoted to the study of the bible” (p. 7). Rigdon did not have a formal education but was rather “self-educated” who learned from other men’s sermons as well as reading the Bible. In March 1819 he received his “ministerial license in the Baptist church. At the age of 27 in 1820, Rigdon was married and working “as a circuit preacher who semi-regularly traveled to small churches that could not afford a resident minister” (p. 17) However, he ran into problems when

he held to baptismal regeneration [baptism for the remission of sins]. For this, and other errors, he was “condemned by a council of ministers and messengers from neighboring churches, which convened in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1823. By this decision, he was excluded from the Baptist denomination” (p. 29)

He later aligned himself with Alexander Campbell and the Disciples of Christ denomination, which better suited his beliefs. His volatile personality, however, caused him problems with Campbell for the time he spent in this church. Campbell found him to be

“petulant, unreliable, and ungovernable in his passions, and his wayward tempter, his extravagant stories and his habit of self-assertion…prevented him from attaining influence as a religion teacher among the disciples.” (p. 43)

Still, Rigdon picked up the major themes that Campbell taught, with the five-point “faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, and gift of the Holy Spirit” at the forefront. Van Wagoner writes,

Prominent Mormon historian B.H. Roberts considered the Disciples forerunners of the Mormon gospel, regarding Campbell and Scott (like Rigdon) as having been “sent forth to prepare the way before the Lord” (p. 61).

Rigdon was baptized into Mormonism at the end of 1830, just a few months after the church was started by Smith. Upon meeting Smith, Rigdon began working with him on retranslating the Bible, known as the Joseph Smith Translation. According to Van Wagoner,

Alexander Campbell had heartfelt reverence for the Bible but no special respect for the King James Version, being too well-grounded in first-century Greek to accept 1611 English as inviolable. . . . A biblical scholar with a reputation for erudition, he was more learned, better read, and more steeped in biblical interpretation than any other early Mormon, despite his common school education (pp. 72-73).

The “Higher Priesthood”

Van Wagoner points out the influence that Rigdon had with the organization of the Melchizedek Priesthood, which Mormons are taught is needed for a man to have full authority of God.  He writes,

Traditional Mormon history holds that Smith and Cowdery had been ordained to the Higher Priesthood in May 1829 under the direction of ancient apostles Peter, James, and John, though like other supernal events this detail was added later. It was first mentioned years later in a 7 September 1834 letter from Cowdery to William W. Phelps. Mormon historian and theologian B.H. Roberts later tried to clarify confusion on the matter in his edition of the official History of the Church. “A misapprehension has arisen in the minds of some,” he wrote, “respecting the statement—‘The authority of the Melchisedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.” It as been supposed that this passage meant that the higher or Melchisedek Priesthood was now for the first time conferred upon men in this dispensation. This of course is an error. . . . The Prophet [meant] . . . that the special office of High Priest was for the first time conferred upon men in this dispensation.” But Roberts, despite his usually exact approach to Mormon history, put words in Smith’s mouth, and he was incorrect. An array of Smith’s close associates testified that the Higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was not conferred until 3 June 1831. These include brothers Parley P. and Orson Pratt, Book of Mormon witnesses David and John Whitmer, plus Lyman Wight, William E. McLellin, John Corrill, J.C. Brewster, and William Smith, the prophet’s younger brother.” (p . 97)

Rigdon’s Health Issues  

Throughout the time he worked with Smith—from 1831 through 1844—Rigdon suffered major health issues, both mental and physical. He was 12 years older than the Mormon prophet and there were a number of occasions where he was incapacitated. Along with Smith, Rigdon had the traumatic event of getting tarred and feathered by church enemies and almost died. His recovery was slow. Later in his Mormon ministry, he suffered from other health issues, including malaria (pp. 116-117). When he was jailed with Smith at the Liberty Jail in Missouri in 1838—an “imprisonment that was emotionally as well as physically trying”—neither Rigdon’s body or mind went unscathed. In fact,

Rigdon’s frequent bouts of mania, followed by melancholic periods of whining, wore heavily on the others’ nerves. “The sufferings of Jesus Christ,” he was heard to mutter, “were a fool to [mine].” (p. 254)

Still, Rigdon’s bouts with infirmity didn’t affect his standing in the church. As Van Waggoner writes on page 128:

Despite his eccentricity, Rigdon was more polished, logical, and verbally gifted than Smith. For years he had been Mormonism’s unofficial pitch man, and his designation as “spokesman unto my servant Joseph” satisfied Book of Mormon prophet (see 2 Ne. 7, 15, 17). This became Rigdon’s crowning touchstone. Despite a ministry overshadowed by mental illness, unsuccessful effort to effect the Second Advent, and failed attempts to build the New City of Jerusalem, Rigdon felt that God had anciently foretold his role as spokesman. That belief caused him to rise, phoenix-like, again and again.

The Salt Sermon

The speech that marked Rigdon more than any other talk was given in Missouri on July 4th, 1838. It was known as the “Salt Sermon,” based on Jesus’s words in Matthew that said “ye are the salt of the world.” It was a fiery speech that riled up the enemies of Mormonism more than anything ever could. Van Wagoner writes,

On 4 July 1838 Rigdon delivered the most consequential speech of his lengthy public career, a proclamation of Mormon independence from mob rule and legal process. While Rigdon could, and often did, deliver memorable extemporaneous political-religious oratory, this pivotal speech was carefully prepared, written before delivery, and pre-approved by presiding elders of the church. . . Publication of Rigdon’s 4th of July sermon eroded Mormon relations with neighbors, Many who read Rigdon’s rhetoric were especially agitated by the final paragraph, which was labeled both impolitic and treasonous.”  (p. 221)

That final paragraph said, “We this day then proclaim ourselves free, with a purpose and a determination, that never can be broken, no more! no never! NO NEVER!!!” The final result is that the Mormons were marched out of Missouri and ended up in Illinois.

Joseph’s Polygamous Ways

It is no secret that Smith’s penchant for marrying other women, including teenagers and other men’s wives, caused his downfall and eventual assassination. Rigdon was not a fan of this practice, especially when Smith pursued his daughter Nancy, a “buxom and winsome” girl according to one account, in 1842. When Smith attempted to win Nancy’s favor, “she rebuffed him in a flurry of anger.” Answering her disagreement that one man marrying multiple women was against God’s laws, Smith wrote the following letter to Nancy:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. . . . Everything that God gives us is lawful and right; and it is proper that we should enjoy His gifts and blessings. . . .Blessings offered, but rejected, are no longer blessings. . . . Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, that we are ready to believer or receive. (p. 295)

 On page 297, Van Wagoner writes,

Still unwell in the spring of 1842, Sidney was caught in a double bind over the situation. On the one hand he was obligated to defend his daughter’s honor, on the other he wished to avoid trouble. Wickliffe wrote that after the private confrontation with the Rigdon family, a “bad feeling exist[ed] between Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon they did not often meet although they lived within a few rods of each other they did not seem to be on Verry friendly terms.” Rigdon never forgave Smith for his polygamous ways, as “hatred of plural marriage burned in Rigdon’s heart” well after Smith was dead (p. 372). He blamed this practice on the demise of Mormonism, saying “that if the Smith brothers had not introduced the system into Nauvoo, ‘they might have been living men today’” (p. 376).

In June 1844, the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor ended up becoming the death knell of Joseph Smith.  When Smith was murdered in the Carthage Jail, Rigdon was not in Illinois; in fact, he was in Pennsylvania, establishing residency so he could be Joseph Smith’s running mate in the 1844 election—even though Brigham Young  had lied in 1868 by claiming that Rigdon had run away from Smith.

The Succession of Smith

For the next year, there was a power struggle as to who would take over the Latter-day Saints. Since Smith had not given clear instruction about his successor, the charismatic Brigham Young used this occasion as an opportunity to take over the reigns. Rigdon returned to Nauvoo in August and claimed that he was the natural heir. However, many felt that Rigdon pushed too hard and too fast. It came down to two August 10th speeches given by Young and Rigdon. Unfortunately for Rigdon, a third of the Mormons were recent arrivals from England; Young had worked with many of these converts on his mission, and to them, Young was a known commodity. Van Wagoner writes on page 340,

These new arrivals, conditioned from their earliest years, were used to working under direct guidance of a master’s hand. Young saw their dependency, their inability to provide for their own emotional and economic sustenance. Accustomed to following directions from Joseph Smith, being told what to accept was a relief.

For whatever reason, many who heard the speech believed they heard the voice of Joseph Smith himself –even though there is no evidence that this was the case, as documented in the book. Regardless, Young was a shoo-in for becoming the new leader while Rigdon was left grasping at air, a swing and a miss that never touched the bat.

On September 10, 1845, “Rigdon left Nauvoo, never to return, aboard the paddle wheel Osprey” (p. 359).  The rest of his life were bitter as he rued what could have been had he, instead of Young, been named the new leader of the Mormon Church. How history would have changed if he had won this position, nobody will ever know.

I have read several books on the life of Joseph Smith, but these gave very little insight to Rigdon compared to what is provided by Van Wagoner. I recommend the book for anyone who might be interested in the history of the foundation of Mormonism.


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