Sidney Rigdon : A Portrait of Religious Excess by Richard S. Van Wagoner – book review with relevant links
Few Mormons know the story of Sidney Rigdon. This is the case despite the fact that he influenced Mormonism between 1831 and 1839 more than perhaps anyone–including Joseph Smith. Such doctrines, policies, and key portions of Mormon history like the current two-tiered priesthood structure, moving to Kirtland, temple building, the belief of an immanent second coming in early Mormonism, the Joseph Smith “translation” of the Bible and portions of the Pearl of Great Price, the Word of Wisdom, the United Order, a First Presidency, a salary for some church leaders, the name of the church and the term “Latter-day Saint”, the Lectures on Faith, a new Jerusalem and Zion in Jackson County, Zion’s Camp, and settling in Nauvoo were all due in large part (or exclusively) to Sidney Rigdon. It is very safe to say that Mormonism would be a very different religion today were it not for Sidney Rigdon’s influence. He delivered nearly every significant Mormon sermon in the 1830s.
Van Wagoner documents how Joseph Smith seldom went anywhere without him during the pre-Nauvoo period. Rigdon was Smith’s spokesman. If something needed to be said, Rigdon was a far more likely source than Smith. When visiting other areas of the country or entertaining visitors at home, non-Mormons, who didn’t know about Joseph Smith, thought that Rigdon was the leader of the church. In many ways, he was. Although the revelations came through Joseph Smith, Rigdon’s finger prints and influence are all over them (and the early changes the ‘revelations’ underwent).
So why is Rigdon a forgotten source in the LDS church? The answer can be found in the succession crisis that took place after Smith’s death. The history was re-written, modified, and the emphasis changed. About the only story currently told in the LDS church about Rigdon deals with the transfiguration of Brigham Young–an event which never even occurred.
Another significant factor to Rigdon’s demise in the eyes of Utah Mormons was the conflict between his daughter and Joseph Smith. Nancy Rigdon, Sidney’s daughter, was seduced by Joseph Smith when Smith was actively acquiring new wives. Nancy refused Smith’s attempts and word leaked out to others (although Nancy and Sidney kept the issue private). The documentation for this event is abundant including a letter by Joseph Smith to Nancy which was included in the official History of the Church. In order to make Joseph look good, many leaders of the church attempted to make Nancy look like the promiscuous one. Although Sidney reconciled with Smith, other polygamous church leaders never forgave Rigdon for not accepting and encouraging polygamy.
The most interesting portions of the book deal with the real reasons why the Mormons left Kirtland, Ohio and Missouri. The current faith-promoting version has the Mormons as complete victims who suffered countless, unprovoked persecutions. In reality, Rigdon and Smith left Kirtland in order to escape creditors, lawsuits, and possible jail time. The Missouri situation was more complex. Poor judgments were made on both sides which ultimately lead to the Boggs’ Extermination Order and Rigdon and others spending time in jail. It also led to the unfortunate death of many Mormons and non-Mormons. Rigdon’s “Salt Sermon” and 4th of July speech were two catalysts to the problems that arose. After Brigham Young excommunicated Rigdon, Elder Orson Hyde stated that Rigdon was the “cause of our troubles in Missouri”. This is only partially true. Hyde and the others conveniently forgot to mention that Joseph Smith sanctioned both of Rigdon’s speeches. Smith had the church’s own publication entitled the Elder’s Journal print one of the speeches and encouraged all church members to purchase a copy and read it. When the “Gentiles” and former Mormons saw and heard what Rigdon said, and experienced the effects of the Mormon aggressions, the troubles heated up. Rigdon’s speech included a “war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled or else they will have to exterminate us” which led to Apostle Parley P. Pratt’s killing of a militiaman and severely wounding another. Boggs responded with the “Extermination Order” and Pratt, Rigdon, Smith and others did jail time before eventually escaping. The anti-Mormons were more brutal in their revenge, however, and eighteen Mormons were murdered at Haun’s Mill.
Van Wagoner captures Rigdon’s eccentricies (which isn’t too difficult to do). He was a man caught up with religion and an immediate second coming of Jesus which never occurred. He had a mental disorder throughout his life which caused his personality to swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. His religious excess left a permanent mark on Mormonism. It’s difficult to tell if the religious fanatics are the way they are because of the influence of religion or if religions are the way they are because of fanatics.
The beginning of the book contains an interesting look at the Cambellites, their history, and the influence that the Alexander Campbell Reformed Baptist (later Disciples of Christ) movement had on Rigdon and subsequent Mormon theology. The last 100 pages or so include a fascinating look at the post-Nauvoo life of Rigdon–something I knew nothing about before reading this book.
This is one piece of Mormon history that should not be missed. One complaint I have is with regard to the type. It appears that in order to get the book down to 500 pages, the font size was reduced. A larger, more normal, font size would have made the book much easier to read.
The book finishes with six appendices including a very interesting one on the Book of Mormon authorship.
from an internet bulletin board:
I had to put in a plug for Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess by Richard S. Van Wagoner (of “Mormon Polygamy” fame) [even though I haven’t finished reading it]. It’s very interesting to read what amounts to history parallel to those I’ve read my whole life (kind of like reading “Ender’s Shadow” for you Card fans).
Rigdon is both ignored and vilified in conventional LDS history, and wrongly takes the rap for many things. For example, during the succession crisis Brigham Young made much of Rigdon’s July 4, 1838 speech as the incipient cause of the Saints’ Missouri troubles. You may recall that the speech introduced the word “extermination” into that volatile period, later used infamously by Gov. Boggs. The speech ended with Rigdon exclaiming “We this day proclaim ourselves free, with a purpose and determination, that never can be broken, no never! No never! NO NEVER!” After the speech, which had been carefully prepared and pre-approved by Joseph Smith, the Prophet led the congregation in the Hosanna Shout. Yet, Brigham Young re-wrote this little episode to one in which Rigdon was the villian inciting the Missourians to riot.
Rigdon in all likelihood had what we now refer to as bi-polar disorder. He went periodically from highs represented by the July 4 speech to lows of the sort when the Mormons were expelled from Missouri: “If God did not care anything more about us than He seemed to do, allowing us to be hauled around as we had been, I did not care about serving such a God.”
Permeating his entire life was his absolute conviction that the Second Coming was imminent, and that indeed he would be alive to see it. That conviction was undoubtably shared by most members of the church – they really believed that they were engaged in the last gathering prior to the end of time. That Millenarian mindset prevailed in the church through most of its history, and only recently seems to have abated.
A vastly interesting read which I highly recommend.
And a reply:
It’s been a while since I read the book, but I remember particularly being intrigued by the account of Sidney’s response (quite moderate) to Joseph Smith’s approaches to Nancy, Sidney’s daughter, and Joseph Smith’s efforts to get the Nauvoo postmaster position away from Sidney. I also was fascinated by the account of Sidney’s post-Mormon days. He continued to report heavenly visions, in the spirit of 76, and other revelations in which God instructed Sidney’s followers to support his material needs. But for his connection to Mormonism, I think most contemporary Mormons would be inclined to dismiss Sidney as a ….. “kook.” (I was searching for the right clinical term.)
I’ve been told, BTW, that the author of the 1999 novel Dancing Naked, Robert Van Wagoner, is Richard’s son. Can anyone verify that? Anyway, I highly recommend the novel, though it’s quite painful and dark. Last week Robert also read one of his unpublished short stories here in SLC, “Bishop Taylor Gets Lucky.” He said it was the “darkest” of a group of stories that are apparently interrelated, and will be published together. I think he’s a superb writer and am looking forward to reading them.
“This is a masterful piece of work. Based on extensive research, Richard Van Wagoner has written a most fulsome and objective portrait of Sidney Rigdon. Nowhere are the complexities of Rigdon’s relationship with Joseph Smith so ably explored. In many ways, the story of Sidney Rigdon is the story of early Mormonism, and this well-written, carefully documented narrative immensely enriches our understanding of both. It is an outstanding book.”
— B. Carmon Hardy
“Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess is an outstanding study of one of the most significant early leaders of Mormonism. Rigdon’s powerful rhetoric helped bring thousands to Mormonism. Van Wagoner shows how Rigdon contributed to church policy and was a lightning rod for backlash to it in the 1830s. Most importantly, Van Wagoner demonstrates that there is still much more to be said about the early history of Mormonism.”
— Roger D. Launius
from the publisher:
In the late 1820s a fiery young minister in western Ohio converted nearly 1,000 proselytes to the Reformed Baptist Movement. As these schismatics organized themselves into the new Disciples of Christ church, the Reverend Sidney Rigdon was already aligning himself with another, more radical movement, the Latter-day Saints, where he quickly became the LDS prophet’s principal advisor and spokesman. He served Joseph Smith loyally for the next fourteen years, even through a brief spat over the prophet’s romantic interest in his teenage daughter.
Next to Smith, Rigdon was the most influential early Mormon. He imported Reformed Baptist teachings into Latter-day Saint theology, wrote the canonized Lectures on Faith, championed communalism and isolationism, and delivered many of the most significant early sermons, including the famous Salt Sermon and the Ohio temple dedicatory address.
Following Smith’s death, Rigdon parted company with Brigham Young to lead his own group of some 500 secessionists Mormons in Pennsylvania. Rigdon’s following gradually dwindled, as the one-time orator took to wandering the streets, taunting indifferent passersby with God’s word. He was later recruited by another Mormon faction. Although he refused to meet with them, he agreed to be their prophet and send revelations by mail. Before long he had directed them to settle far-off Iowa and Manitoba, among other things. At his death, his followers numbered in the hundreds, and today they number about 10,000, mostly in Pennsylvania.
“Rigdon is a biographer’s dream,” writes Richard Van Wagoner. Intellectually gifted, manic-depressive, an eloquent orator and social innovator but a chronic indigent, Rigdon aspired to altruism but demanded advantage and deference. When he lost prominence, his early attainments were virtually written out of the historical record.
Correcting this void, Van Wagoner has woven the psychology of religious incontinence into the larger fabric of social history. In doing so, he reminds readers of the significance of this nearly-forgotten founding member of the LDS First Presidency. Nearly ten million members in over one hundred churches trace their heritage to Joseph Smith. Many are unaware of the importance of Rigdon’s contributions to their inherited theology.
Richard S. Van Wagoner, M.S., Brigham Young University, is a clinical audiologist and Lehi city historian. He is the author of Lehi: Portraits of a Utah Town, Mormon Polygamy: A History, and Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess; and the co-author of A Book of Mormons. He has been published in Brigham Young University Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, Utah Historical Quarterly, and Utah Holiday, and has won awards from the Dialogue Foundation, John Whitmer Historical Association, and the Mormon History Association.