Ok, I know I have devoted much time to Sidney Rigdon. I think this is the last one I’ll do for a while, though I reserve the right to change my mind. Most people are aware that Sidney left the church (or should we say the church left him?), but few know very much about his own branch of Mormonism.
After Joseph Smith was killed, there was a real question about who would lead the church. Joseph Smith left no succession plans. Between his public and private announcements, at least 8 people claimed to have been appointed as Smith’s successor. There is a great article at BYU studies, outlining many of these and other people who made claims to lead the church.
These people include not only Sidney Rigdon, but David Whitmer, James Strang, Lyman Wight, Alpheus Cutler, Oliver Cowdery, William McClellin, Hyrum Smith, William Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith III. There is also an interesting post at By Common Consent with some other links and information. The succession crisis could be its own topic, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.
As Assistant President of the Church, and also known as “Spokesman for the Church”, Sidney told Jedidiah Grant ‘that he felt prepared to claim “the Prophetic mantle” and that he would “now take his place at the head of the church, in spite of men or devils, at the risk of his life.’ Rigdon seems to have underestimated Brigham Young, who had succession ideas as well. From page 338, “Rigdon was without question Young’s oratorical superior, but Young, never a passive observer, was more clever, ambitious, and politically astute. Not content to let the mantle of leadership pass him by, he simply wrestled it away from Rigdon in mid-descent.”
On August 8, 1844, the saints met for what was supposed to be merely a prayer meeting. From page 339,
Hyde reported that Rigdon was just “about to ask for an expression of the people by vote; when lo! to his grief and mortification, [Brigham Young] stepped upon the stand… and with a word stayed all the proceedings of Mr. Rigdon. Young, who later recalled the event in 1860, stated: “[W]hen I went to meet Sidney Rigdon on the ground I went alone, and was ready along to face and drive the dogs from the flock.”
Jacob Hamblin’s diary for 8 August indicates that Young’s stunning display of brinksmanship caused the audience to turn in their seats and face his commanding presence on the stand. “I will manage this voting for Elder Rigdon,” he bellowed. “He does not preside here. This child (meaning himself) will manage this flock of a season.” He then wisely dismissed the meeting, allowing Rigdon’s rhetoric to dissipate, and announced a special assembly for 2:00 pm.
The afternoon meeting was organized in the manner of a solemn assembly with various priesthood leaders appropriately ordering their quorums. After prayer, Young stood before the people. It was a momentous occasion. For the first and only time in Mormon history, church leadership was about to be determined by the will of the people. Brother Brigham, who possessed a mean-weather-eye for prevailing winds from the masses, catered to the majority who had grown accustomed to being told what to do. While Rigdon, during the wild rhetoric of the previous week, had predicted a shift in Mormondom’s leadership, Young perceived that the Saints “like children without a father, and sheep without a shepherd,” mostly wanted comfort.
Fully confident, tossing off platitudes and pronouncements, Young’s afternoon address on 8 August was a remarkable assertion of the Twelve’s right to govern as well as his personal claim to be shepherd of the flock. “For the first time since [I] became a member of the church,” Young began, “the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, chosen by revelation, in this last dispensation of the gospel for the winding up scene, present themselves before the saints, to stand in their lot according to appointment.” After explaining “matters so satisfactorily that every saint could see that Elijah’s mantle had truly fallen on the ‘Twelve,'”, wrote a reporter in the 2 September 1844 Times and Seasons. Young, ever the masterful strategist, then asked, “I now want to ask each of you to tell me if you want to choose a guardian, a Prophet, evangelist, or sumthing els[e] as your head to lead you. All that are in favor of it make it manifest by raising the right hand.” No one did.
He continued his speech. When he finished, Amasa Lyman endorsed Young’s position.
Rigdon declined to speak when afforded rebuttal opportunities. Considering Rigdon’s rhetorical provlivities, his decision seems tantamount to conceding defeat.
Young then announced that “Rig[don] is … one with us–we want such men as Bro[ther] R[igdon.] [H]e has been sent away to build up the k[ingdom;] let him keep the instruct[io]n [and] calling[,] let him raise up a k[ingdom] in Pittsburg [and] we will lift up his hand.”
[Chapter 24] Rigdon initially pretended to accept the decree of the special conference. But his true feelings soon surfaced through his private actions. For fourteen years he had been the apostles’ ecclesiastical superior. he had counseled, cajoled, praised, and occasionally chastised them individually and as a group. Regardless of Joseph Smith’s death, Rigdon was not about to serve in an inferior capacity under Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards, or any other member of the “spiritual wife fraternity,” as he designated the Quorum of the Twelve.
A conflict arose between Rigdon and the Twelve because Rigdon ordained several men “Prophets, Priests and Kings.” Young reportedly asked Rigdon if Rigdon thought he held more authority than the Twelve. “Yes I do”, Rigdon replied. In response Rigdon was disfellowshipped on Sept 3, and the Twelve excommunicated Rigdon on Sept 8 after a 6 hour court which Rigdon refused to attend.
Wickliffe Rigdon, Sidney’s son, wrote a biography about his father. Wickliffe later joined the church in Utah, and wrote [see footnote 38 on page 362],
“Sidney Rigdon was not a leader of men[,] having no talent in that direction[.] [H]e could talk[,] could interest an audience with his eloquence[,] but needed one to control and direct him & therefor[e] the Morm[o]n church at Nauvoo after the death of Joseph Smith made no mistake in placing Brigham Young at the head of the church[.] [H]e was the right man in the right place & Sidney Rigdon had been chosen to take that position the church would have tot[t]ered and fallen to the ground years ago. Brigham Young was a born leader of men and it was by his efforts that the church was kept together[.]
It seems Wickliffe’s assessment was correct about his father. Rigdon did set up a congregation in Pittsburgh, but it lasted just a few years. Some of the people loyal to Rigdon (such as Stephen Post) tried to keep him as their leader. Rigdon managed their efforts from a distance. One of Rigdon’s most interesting practices was the ordination of women.
In 1868, Rigdon asserted that Emma Smith had been given the priesthood by Joseph Smith.
“On 30 March 1842, two weeks after organizing the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith announced that the “Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and that he was “going to make a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day–as in Paul’s day.”
Footnote 3 on page 437 has some interesting notes. The preceding quote comes from the “Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” 30 Mar 1842.
When the minutes were published in History of the Church, leaders omitted Smith’s first use of the word “Society” and changed the second “Society” to “Church,” so that the prophet’s meaning was entirely altered.
Rigdon ordained his wife as prophetess in 1863 or 1864. Other women were advanced to a quorum of prophetesses. From page 428,
A significant difference between the manner in which Rigdon and Joseph Smith bestowed priesthood on women was that at least ten Rigdonite women -[Van Wagoner lists them]-were ordained elders as well as prophetesses. Smith never ordained women to specific priesthood offices.
It seems to me that Rigdon did this in an effort to boost numbers in his rapidly dwindling flock. One of the women Rigdon ordained, Evva Force Adams, had attempted to abort a baby. Not knowing this, Rigdon first defended her ability to prophesy. When the truth was discovered, many of Rigdon’s followers became disillusioned.
Brigham Young did make a few attempts to reconcile with Rigdon, but all attempts were rebuffed. In Young’s last attempt, Rigdon wrote back that he would come to Utah only if Brigham sent $100,000 in gold and silver. Young jokingly wondered if greenbacks would be ok. Rigdon continued to have health problems, and suffered a series of small strokes in his 70’s. At the end of his life, Sidney was quite reclusive. In the appendix is a reference to the Bickertonites on page 473.
Sidney’s Rigdon’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion disintegrated within a decade after his death. And both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints relegated him to footnote status when their official histories were written. But the Church of Jesus Christ, a small sect organized in 1862 by William Bickerton, still venerates Rigdon.
Bickerton, an 1845 convert to Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ, found himself adrift after Rigdon’s failures in Pittsburgh and the Cumberland Valley. For a brief period in the early 1850s Bickerton affiliated with a branch of the Utah Mormons at West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, although he personally declared that “his testimony… is that the blessing he received came thru obedience to the restored Gospel in 1845 with Rigdon’s people.”
After the Utah church publicly announced its long-term practice of polygamy in 1852, Bickerton left that organization. In 1854 he held a successful conference in West Elizabeth at which several persons were baptized. By 1858 he had attained a following of nearly 100 persons and had organized them into branches in Wheeling, West Virginia; Pine Run, Allegheny; and Greenock, Pennsylvania.
In an 1859 conference Bickerton was acknowledged as a prophet by his followers. Two years later he was sustained a “Prophet and President of the Church” with counselors Charles Brown and George Barnes. During a July 1862 conference at Greenock twelve apostles and a number of evangelists were ordained. The church was officially organized during this conference although not legally incorporated until 10 June 1865.
The church, which maintains its world headquarters today in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, at last report numbered 10,000 members. The current First Presidency is Dominic Thomas, Paul Palmieri, and Robert Watson. The church is organized into seven districts in the U.S., and has missions in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, India, England, Italy, Holland, and Germany.
This book, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess was published in 1994 by Richard Van Wagoner. I can’t help but think that Rigdon almost seems to be a figure in a Greek tragedy. He ascended to great heights, and seems to have been abandoned in his later life. Like all poeple, he definitely had great strengths and weaknesses. While I know that my 5 part series is quite long, I left our a tremendous amount of detail.
So, what are your thoughts?