Sidney and Joseph – A Strained Friendship – Part 4

With Sidney running the church in Quincy, Joseph and others were still in the Liberty Jail.  Through the first 10 years of the church, Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith seem to be in lock step with each other.  However, the Nauvoo period seems to show a few cracks in the friendship.  Were they serious?  Well, Joseph called Sidney to be his Vice Presidential nominee–but I’ll get to that later.

The people of Quincy, Illinois took in many of the saints following the expulsion from Missouri.  In 2002, the Tabernacle Choir did a benefit concert for the town of Quincy, to thank them for their kindness.  With Sidney released from Liberty Jail, his mood improved greatly, and he worked to impeach the government of Missouri.  At this time, Joseph Smith chose to reverse himself on the work of gathering saints, as well as consecration (or “common stock”, as in the letter below.)  From Liberty Jail, Joseph wrote to the church in Quincy on Mar 25,1839, that the saints should settle “in the most safe and quiet places they can find” between Kirtland and Far West.  Additionally, there must be “no organization of large bodies upon common stock principals.”  Footnote 9 on page 273 of book expounds this.

No further common stock programs were established during Joseph Smith’s life.  The prophet shaded the truth during his 1839-40 trip to Washington, DC., when he stated that Mormons would not share property in common.  “‘It has been reported by some vicious or de[s]igning characters’, he said, ‘that the church of Latter Day Saints believe in having their pro[p]erty in common and also the leaders of sa[id] church controlls said propperty….This is a base fabrication,’ he insisted, ‘on the contrary no person’s feelings can be more repugnant to such a principle than mine[,] every person in this Church has a right to controll his own proppe[r]ty'” (Joseph Smith to Mr. Editor [of the Chester County Register and Examiner], 22 Jan. 1840.)

After 2 failed attempts to escape from jail, Joseph and others bribed some guards with a promise of $800.  They returned to Quincy, and made plans to settle in Commerce (later named Nauvoo.)  Smith and Rigdon bought (for the church) $18,000 worth of property in Nauvoo, and were swindled out of $80,000 in Iowa.  As the saints moved to Nauvoo, Rigdon contracted malaria, which would plague him for years.  While there are several true reports of Joseph healing people of malaria, Sidney was not one of them.

The leadership continued to press for redress of the wrongs in Missouri, and traveled to DC to speak with Pres Van Buren.  Due to Rigdon’s eloquence, he was selected to be the spokesman for the group.  Rigdon made a valiant effort to travel to DC, but was just too sick, so Joseph Smith became the spokesman.  Smith was not impressed with Van Buren, and the meeting was a disappointment to the saints.

Nauvoo was initially prosperous, but not for long.  From page 278,

Although Nauvoo’s population increased dramatically in the early 1840’s, much of its short-lived prosperity was based on the same perilous real estate speculation that brought down Kirtland’s economy.  Rigdon and the Smiths once again pinned their financial aspirations on the hopes that new converts, aware of the prophet’s dark visions of America’s future, would flee their homelands, gather to Nauvoo–proclaimed city of refuge–and purchase property from the real estate arm of the church.  But of the more than 3,000 British converts who arrived in Nauvoo before 1846, most were poverty-stricken refugees from the English working class.  Sobering to the First Presidency was that real estate sales fell far below their expectation, forcing the brethren to default on the promissory notes they had co-signed.  Because the church was not yet a legal entity in 1839, Ridgon, the Smith brothers, and their wives were personally liable for the organization’s nearly $150,000 debt.

To pay for the vast acreage, Mormon property owners were advised to sign their real estate over to the church, through agents Isaac Galland and William Smith, in exchange for an equivalent value of land in Nauvoo…  Overwhelmed by their obligations, Rigdon and the Smith brothers sought a way out of their financial problems: bankruptcy.  [which happened in 1842]

I’d like to address to an awkward episode between Rigdon and Smith.  In 1842, Smith tested Rigdon’s friendship when Joseph proposed plural marriage to Sidney’s 19-year old daughter, Nancy.  Nancy was summoned on two occasions to meet Joseph, and was repulsed by the idea, threatening to “raise the neighbors” if Joseph didn’t let her go.  Through his scribe Joseph wrote an apology to Nancy, which she handed to her boyfriend, Francis Higbee.  The letter got out, (and was published in John C. Bennett’s expose on Mormon Polygamy–more on Bennett later) and eventually got to Sidney’s attention.

At first, Joseph denied all to Sidney.  Nancy stormed into the room saying,

“Joseph Smith you are telling that which is not true[.]  you did make such a proposition to me, and you know it.”  Another unnamed person said, “Nancy are you not afraid to call the Lord[‘s] anointed a cursed liar[?]”  “No”, replied Nancy, “I am not for he does lie and he knows it.”

[Rigdon’s son-in-law, George] Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging his proposition, sought a way out of the crisis by claiming he had approached Nancy “to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts.”  But Sidney found that rationalization feeble.  Convinced of Smith’s involvement in the “spiritual wife business,” as Sidney later termed it, Rigdon concluded that Smith had “contracted a whoring spirit.”  This is why, according to Wickliffe [Sidney’s son], Rigdon told family members immediately after the prophet left their home that Smith “could never be sealed to one of his daughters without his consent as he did not believe in the doctrine.”

Chapter 21 is the first chapter to address polygamy in the book, though it does go back in time to address rumors of polygamy in Kirtland and other places.  Let me sidetrack to Emma for a minute.  At times the issue of polygamy…

left Joseph and Emma’s marriage hanging by a thread.  Emma spent the last three years of her husband’s life jealously battling his errant yearnings, more than once threatening to return to her family in New York.  On one occasion, according to Smith’s private secretary, she threatened that if he continued to “indulge himself she would too.”  [William Clayton Diary] Although Emma apparently countenanced two of her husband’s 1843 sealings–to Emily and Eliza Partridge–she recanted within a day and demanded that Joseph give them up or “blood should flow.”  Her change of heart came after she found Joseph and Eliza Partridge secluded in an upstairs bedroom at the Smith home.  The realization that the sealing represented more than a “spiritual marriage” or “adoptive ordinance” devastated her. [From page 293]

Some of the footnotes are very interesting on this subject.  Footnote 26 on page 305 quotes an 1844 expose of Mormonism.  I don’t know if this can be corroborated, but I found it interesting.

“Emma’s threat to “be revenged and indulge herself” may have been merely a warning to the prophet to give up his spiritual wives.  But Joseph H. Jackson, a non-Mormon opportunist who gained the confidence of the prophet in Nauvoo, recorded in an 1844 expose of Mormonism:  “Emma wanted [William] Law for a spiritual husband,” and because Joseph “had so many spiritual wives, she thought it but fair that she would at least have one man spiritually sealed up to her and that she wanted Law, because he was such a ‘sweet little man.'”

Although there is nothing to suggest that Law and Emma were more to each other than friends, Law later confirmed that Joseph “offered to furnish his wife Emma with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in his house and to be well treated, etc.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 3 July 1887.)

Faithful Dissident talks about a deathbed confession of Emma, where Emma again denies polygamy.  Footnote 30, page 304 “In 1846, two years after Joseph’s death, Emma Smith, in a conversation with Joseph W. Coolidge, remarked that “Joseph had abandoned plurality of wives before his death.”  Coolidge indicated from personal experience that he knew otherwise.  After a heated exchange Emma retorted with exasperation, “Then he was worthy of the death he died.”  (Joseph F. Smith diary, 28 Aug 1870.)

Another crack in the Rigdon and Smith friendship occurred in relation to the post office.  Rigdon had secured the lucrative position, wherein he was paid for every piece of mail that passed through.  It was one of the more lucrative positions one could hold.  Smith suspected Rigdon may have been trying to undermine Joseph, and wrote several letters trying to get Rigdon fired from the post office, and have Smith installed as his replacement.

John C Bennett, a former close personal aide of Joseph Smith, was excommunicated for unauthorized polygamy.  He then became a virulent anti-mormon.  According to Van Wagoner, Bennett is responsible for instigating many Missourians to continue to try to extradite Joseph, and also may have had a role in organizing the mobs which killed Joseph.  Bennett wrote a letter to Rigdon, trying to get help with his plan to bring down the prophet.  On page 315,

In early January, however, Rigdon did receive a message from Bennett.  The 10 January 1843 letter, also addressed to Orson Pratt, incorrectly assumed that its recipients would sympathize with Bennett’s plan to orchestrate the prophet’s downfall.

“Dear Friends–It is a long time since I have written you, and I should now much desire to see you; but I leave tonight to Missouri, to meet the messenger charged with the arrest of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight and others, for murder, burglary, treason, etc., etc., who will be demanded in a few days on new indictments, found by the grand Jury of a called court, on the original evidence and in relation to which a nolle prosequi was entered by the district attorney.  New proceedings have been gotten up on the old charges and no habeus corpus can then save them.  We shall try Smith on the Boggs case when we get him into Missouri.  The war goes on, and although Smith thinks he is now safe, the enemy is near, even at the door.  He has awoke the wrong passenger….

P.S.  Will Mr. Rigdon please hand this letter to Mr. Pratt after reading?

After Rigdon read the letter he immediately handed it to Mr. Pratt, who then turned it over to Smith.  The prophet, initially dismayed that Rigdon has given the letter first to Pratt, took the dispatch to John Taylor, editor of Times and Seasons.  Smith instructed Taylor to publish the letter along with a statement condemning Rigdon’s actions.


Smith requested Taylor “to prefer charges against Sidney Rigdon before a court composed of twenty-four High Priests and three Bishops.”….  Before Taylor could publish the editorial or initiate action against Rigdon, the prophet approached Rigdon and “charged him with being leagued with [his] enemies to destroy him.”  Rigdon, according to Taylor, responded:  “I know it was wrong [not to give him the letter sooner]; but I darst not take upon myself the responsibility of making it known,” apparently because of his position as postmaster.  Rigdon’s explanation satisfied the prophet.  When Taylor asked him if he should proceed with the trial and publish the editorial, Smith replied, “I think you had better not, we will save him if we can.”

I want to mention one other footnote about Governor Boggs, which was alluded to in Bennett’s letter to Rigdon.  Governor Boggs had survived an assassination attempt.  Many people then and now believe Porter Rockwell, a body guard of Joseph Smith was responsible for the attempt.  Footnote 8 on page 325 says, “The attempt on Boggs’s life took place on the night of 6 May 1842.  Orrin Porter Rockwell, one of Smith’s closest friends, was arrested later that year and charged with the attempted murder.  Although neither the prophet nor Rockwell was convicted of the crime, Rockwell never denied shooting Boggs.  General Patrick E. Conner reported that Rockwell told him, “I shot through the window and thought I had killed him, but I had only wonded him.  I was damned sorry that I had not killed the son of a bitch.”

I guess what is amazing to me is that Joseph continued to try to undermine Rigdon’s position as postmaster, and still suspected Rigdon was behind attempts to have Smith arrested.  Yet it seems they reconciled.  In 1844, dissatisfied with the current crop of presidential candidates, Joseph decided to run for President of the United States as a candidate of the Mormon Reform Party. He was nominated during a political caucus on January 29, 1844.

Joseph’s first choice for Vice President was James Arlington Bennett.  However, Bennett was ineligible due his Irish citizenship.  Joseph’s second choice was Solomon Copeland of Tennessee, who was not interested.  Sidney Rigdon was his third choice, and Rigdon enthusiastically accepted.  He gave a rousing address in General Conference on April 6 and 7, 1844.

The US Constitution states that the President and Vice President must be from two different states.  So, Sidney was called on a mission to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to set up residency.  (Rigdon was born in St. Clair Township which now consists of present-day neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh.)  He left for Pennsylvania on June 18.

Just prior to Rigdon leaving Nauvoo, William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency, Law’s wife and four others were excommunicated for opposing polygamy.  Rigdon informed Law that if they would “let all the difficulties drop” that Smith would restore Law and his friends back to their offices within the church.  Law refused, and helped print the Nauvoo Expositor on which came out on June 7, exposing polygamy.

Smith ordered the destruction of the press as a public nuisance.  On June 14, Rigdon sent a letter to Illinois governor Thomas Ford, asking for help, while denouncing the paper.  On June 18, Rigdon left Nauvoo, arriving in Pittsburgh on June 27.  Joseph and Hyrum were killed the next day, on June 28 in a hail of gunfire at the Carthage Jail.  Rigdon learned of the news five days later.

So, what is your reaction to all the events of Nauvoo?  It seems to me that this was a real life soap opera.  The Nauvoo period alone would make a great movie.


14 comments on “Sidney and Joseph – A Strained Friendship – Part 4

  1. Do you have an opinion as the why Sidney didn’t go along with plural marriage? I can see why he had problems with the business with his daughter, but why didn’t he take plural wives? He went along with so many other things, why break over polygamy?

  2. Many early church members had a problem with polygamy, such as Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and others. The leaders of the Nauvoo Expositor (former church members) had problems with polygamy. I just think polygamy never felt right to Sidney. (It doesn’t feel right to me either.)

  3. MH, thanks so much for sharing this. It was fascinating.

    Sanford, I think that even those who claim to believe in the doctrine of polygamy must have a horrible time with it when it enters their own family and concerns their own daughters. Of course, I can’t say for sure what I would have done in Sidney’s position, but the way polygamy was practiced doesn’t feel right to me now, so it probably would have felt even less right if I had experienced it first-hand.

    I imagine that Sidney must have felt quite disillusioned. If we are to believe Nancy’s story, it sounds like Joseph was downright lying about his propositions to her, which must have made it all the more troubling to Sidney. He must have feared that Joseph would “steal” his daughter away, since he made it clear that Joseph was not to take any of his daughters without his “consent.”

  4. FD,

    Do Emma’s actions seem consistent to you (that she consistently tried to deny polygamy up to her death bed, even though she was aware of it)? What do you make of Emma?

  5. It’s really quite puzzling. If we’re to believe Coolidge’s account, then it becomes difficult to believe that Emma had simply “blocked out” polygamy.

    “After a heated exchange Emma retorted with exasperation, “Then he was worthy of the death he died.”

    First of all, despite her exasperation, it sounds like an acknowledgement that it did happen. But what does she mean by “then he was worthy of the death he died?” Is she admitting that she believed polygamy to be a divine commandment, and that by fulfilling it Joseph deserved to die an honourable martyr’s death for the Lord? Or did she mean it in an angry, sarcastic way, as if to say that he got what he deserved?

    “Although there is nothing to suggest that Law and Emma were more to each other than friends, Law later confirmed that Joseph “offered to furnish his wife Emma with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in his house and to be well treated, etc.”

    This is about the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. If it’s true, then it’s very extraordinary for several reasons:

    a) First of all, what does it mean for LDS women if Joseph really was open to the possibility of Emma taking another husband? Or in this case, it sounds perhaps more like a male concubine. Wouldn’t it be easier to argue that LDS women could be sealed to multiple men, which of course they currently cannot?

    b) I wonder what he means by “furnish his wife?” Is he talking about simply keeping her company and helping her with the chores, or about a sexual relationship?

    c) What does this mean for the marriage covenant? It sounds like a communal marriage, where you have a whole group of people (Joseph + all his wives + Emma + her “substitute husband”) perhaps living under the same roof and presumably sleeping together.

    If this is true (and I guess we’ll never know for sure), it’s absolutely baffling to me. And to put it mildly, it sounds repulsive to me.

  6. It is obvious to me that Emma hated polygamy, and I think her comment to Coolidge was an angry comment. I think she was embarrassed about polygamy, and didn’t ever want to admit that it happened–because it makes her look like she’s ok with adultery. That’s why she tried so vehemently to deny it. When Coolidge essentially cornered her, I think she may have been so angry that she probably did think Joseph was guilty, and perhaps this was God’s punishment.

    With all I know about polygamy, I’m to the point where I simply do not believe the doctrine is inspired–in the same way I don’t believe the priesthood ban was inspired. (The scary thing is my book club picked 2 polygamy books to read.)

    So, in answer to a) I think that if Emma had taken Joseph up on his offer, then polyandry, and polygyny might have been ok, along with women being sealed to multiple men.

    b) I suspect a doctrine of “spiritual husbands” would have been created analogous to “spiritual wives.” Perhaps D&C 132 would have been expanded, or a new section added.

    c) It sounds much like the “free love” movement of the 1960’s, and perhaps JS was 100 years ahead of the hippie movement.

    I agree with you–polygamy is repulsive to me as well. I have a great deal of sympathy for Sidney, William Law, Oliver Cowdery, and others who opposed polygamy.

    In my part 5, it seems JS was on the way to make the RS a priesthood quorum, and it seems that Sidney actually carried that out. That’s why I answered b) the way I did.

  7. The thing that makes polygamy unbelievable for me is that the way that it was practiced by Joseph Smith and others seems to resemble little of what we always thought polygamy was for. I’m not saying that I would accept the doctrine of polygamy without any problems otherwise, but to me, it would be more “believable” if it was truly what most Mormons think it was: a way to take care of a surplus of single women, give more the opportunity to experience marriage, help get the Church started in its early phase by having many children. But when we look back in history, it’s much easier to understand — and even sympathize — with Rigdon and those who thought that Joseph had caught the “whoring spirit.” It just seems bizarre that having children and populating the Church really seems to have nothing to do with it. And yet, it’s always puzzled me as to why Joseph doesn’t appear to have any descendents except through Emma. If it were all about sex, you’d think he would have fathered many children with these young girls. (He was obviously fertile since he fathered many children with Emma.) And yet, if it had nothing to do with sex and was purely about “spiritual marriage,” then why would have needed to spend the night with any of them or have them living in his house? And why would he even entertain the idea of allowing Emma to have another man?

    The interesting thing about studying the history is that, at least personally speaking, I really start to empathize — sometimes even sympathize — with guys like Rigdon and others who left (or who were given the boot). As compelling, kind and charismatic a person as Joseph Smith was described to be, it seems only natural that those who were aware of the details of polygamy believed he had been possessed by Satan or turned out to be a fallen prophet. I’ve come to some personal conclusions, but I’m not sure which one I really believe:

    a) The Lord really did instruct Joseph to do all this polygamy business as a test of his obedience, and perhaps ours as well. They will be found guiltless for these apparent “whoredoms” because they were just doing what the Lord told them to. (If this is true, I can’t help but think that it’s like a cruel joke that God is playing on people. Not only were people like Emma incredibly hurt by experiencing it first-hand, but it continues to go against what good, God-fearing people today believe and is a big factor in people leaving the Church or not wanting to investigate it further. Understandably, it’s repulsive to them.)

    b) Polygamy ended up not being what it was intended to be. Perhaps it was intended to be what we’d like to think it was (taking care of people, strengthening the Church by populating it), but it was either distorted, misinterpreted, or downright perverted by JS and others.

    c) Polygamy was simply one colossal mistake.

    If a) is true, then I have trouble reconciling my belief in who God is and the common sense, conscience/light of Christ that he has supposedly given us. There are certain lines that I have a hard time believing that God ever wants us to cross. The story of God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son is significant to me because God stopped him before he committed the act. Abraham didn’t need to commit the act in order to prove his obedience and the line was never crossed. And yet God (supposedly) tells people to kill and commit “whoredoms” in order to test them? Joshua’s genocide is a good example of that, as we’ve discussed here before, as well as the aspects of polygamy that we’ve discussed above.

    If b) is true, then there is the inevitable question of whether JS was a fallen prophet. If he wasn’t, then we at least have to ask how literally we should “follow the prophet.” We also have to ask whether other “voices of conscience,” such as Rigdon in this instance, can “override” a prophet if and when he is mistaken.

    If c) is true, then it says a lot about how far a prophet can stray and how big his mistakes can be without being removed by God or being considered a fallen prophet.

  8. I go with C. As for Abraham, I guess it is time to do my post on him. Abraham did some things that I find disturbing as well, and the sacrifice of Isaac is at the top of my list, though not the only problem I have with him.

    Regarding Abraham, what most people don’t understand is that human sacrifice, specifically the sacrifice of children was an extremely common belief at the time of Abraham. Children were viewed as the most valuable possessions, and to sacrifice them to God (or gods as the pagan religion believed), showed a sense of piety. So it seems that Abraham was really following other religious practices. Christians have tried to make this a similitude of Christ, but that story is several thousand years after the time of Abraham.

    In my view, I guess the miraculous thing would be that God sent the angel to spare Isaac, but I do not believe that God commanded the sacrifice as so many Christians and Jews are taught to believe. In my mind, this is a pretty big blunder on Abraham’s part. I better stop now, because I don’t want to give away too much for a future post, but I do not believe God would ask anyone, including Abraham, to sacrifice a child. I know a minority of scholars claim the same interpretation as I do.

  9. That’s a very interesting interpretation, MH. I’ve never thought of it that way, so I look forward to your Abraham post. Your posts are so interesting that you’ve been distracting me from packing. 🙂 I will have to catch up once I get to Canada and have some time.

  10. The sense I get from my research is that certainly Emma opposed polygamy but that Joseph did it behind her back. I personally think she was a proper woman of the times and didn’t want to acknowledge the situation for what it was. Josephs position made it so that he had plenty of opportunity to be about town and with people so he was above common suspition. I believe Emma knew the truth in her heart and that accounts for her death bed comment about Joseph getting what he deserved but during her life she pretended not to know and saved herself the embarrasment of her husbands unfaithfulness.

    I, too look forward to a discussion on the book of Abraham. At its very core I question its authenticity. I wonder about Joseph creating it to support his own notions but welcome a discussion on the subject.

  11. FD, I hope you have a safe trip. The jetlag might not be too bad since you’re heading west, but I’m sure it will be terrible when you get back home. I know when I head west to Hawaii, the first few days I’m an early bird, getting up at 5 or 6 AM. Returning home is always hard to adjust back to the schedule.

    I do want to say that I find it hard to believe that Emma claimed her first knowledge of any polygamy revelation was in 1853. The Nauvoo Expositor in 1844 talked about a spiritual wife revelation, prompting Joseph to react. The Coolidge conversation took place in 1846. There were even rumors of polygamy in the Relief Society of which Emma was president, which she attacked vigorously. The Kirtland years also had rumors of polygamy around 1838. I have a real hard time believing she wasn’t aware of the Nancy Rigdon incident.

    Perhaps she concluded all the previous comments were vicious lies and rumors, and in 1853, she finally saw some sort of written evidence to cause her to rethink her position. I do know that she tried to pin polygamy on Brigham Young. In response, Brigham had women prepare notarized affidavits saying they were sealed to Joseph. I suspect these affidavits happened around 1853. I know her son David was devastated by these affidavits, as he had served a mission in Utah (trying to convert the LDS to RLDS, and had some success) and David talked personally with some of the women claiming to be Joseph’s wives.

    Fanny, thanks for stopping by. I agree with your line of reasoning about Emma. One minor clarification is that Emma’s comment about Joseph getting what he deserved was made just 2 years after Joseph’s death in 1846. I encourage you to check out FD’s blog about her deathbed confession, which basically tried to disclaim that Joseph participated in polygamy. Given the evidence, I don’t understand how she could make such a statement.

    I hadn’t originally planned on talking about the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, but perhaps I’ll expand my post. I must confess I am aware of authenticity issues, but I haven’t studied those issues deeply. I’d planned on talking mostly about Biblical stories of Abraham, with a little Koran mixed in.

  12. […] understanding of how D&C 132 has always been interpreted.  But it reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2009 concerning polyandry support in D&C 132.  It was part of Richard Van Wagonner’s […]

  13. […] understanding of how D&C 132 has always been interpreted.  But it reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2009 concerning polyandry support in D&C 132.  It was part of Richard Van Wagonner’s […]

  14. […] reference Abraham when talking about things like Joshua’s Unholy War, the Priesthood Ban, or polygamy. Usually the reference is to the sacrifice of […]

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