On the way over here, I began reading Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994). I’ve intended to read it for a long time. However, I approach it with some degree of wariness, given its subtitle and my impression that its author, the late Richard Van Wagoner (1946-2010), had, well, a complex relationship with the claims of the Restoration. But there hasn’t been a lot of biographical writing on Sidney Rigdon (for obvious reasons, I suppose), and I feel compelled to learn more about him in preparation for the Interpreter Foundation’s pending “Six Days in August” film project — in which he will be a central character.
Anyway, I thought that I would share a few passages about Sidney Rigdon’s conversion that struck me during my reading. The first of them begins after Rigdon had been first visited by Oliver Cowdery and Rigdon’s former parishioner Parley Pratt, early in their famed mission to the Lamanites. By this point, he had read at least some of the copy of the Book of Mormon that they had left with him while they went out preaching in the surrounding area:
Cowdery told him that [Joseph Smith] was twenty-two years old [actually, he was twenty-five by then] and had “hardly a common school education,” to which Rigdon replied, “if that was all the education he had, he never wrote the book.”
Rigdon, in his own account of that conversation, added that he “expressed the utmost amazement that such a man should write a book which seemed to shed a flood of light on all the old scriptures, open all their profoundest mysteries, and give them perfect consistency and complete system. . . . [I]f God ever gave a revelation, surely this must be divine.” Earnestly reading, praying for direction, and meditating on the things he heard and read, Rigdon remained ambivalent about the book for some time. Pratt related that Rigdon “had a great struggle of mind before he fully believed and embraced it.”
Much of Rigdon’s concern lay in his Baptist upbringing that nothing should be accepted on faith alone. While the book affirmed his own beliefs in a literal gathering of Israel and an imminent Millennium, he wanted an omen, a burning bush. Cowdery explained that he, like Rigdon, had also desired a sign and that an angel appeared to him and showed him the gold plates. Rigdon was certainly aware of biblical accounts of angels, and as the Book of Mormon itself affirmed, “neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men” (Moroni 7:29). So Rigdon asked for a sign. According to Disciple[s of Christ] historian Amos S. Hayden, “the sign appeared, and he was convinced that Mormonism was of God!” Alexander Campbell, always disrespectful to Rigdon after their 1830 affray in Austintown, later wrote that his colleague fasted and prayed for days, until, when “one of his fits of swooning and sighing came upon him, he saw an angel and was converted.”
Rigdon left two known accounts of this personal vision. The first, published in 1834, proclaimed:
to my astonishment I saw the different orders of professing Christians passing before my eyes, with their hearts, exposed to view, and they were as corrupt as corruption itself. That society to which I belonged [the Reformed Baptists] also passed before my eyes, and to my astonishment it was as corrupt as the others. Last of all that little man who bro’t me the Book of Mormon [Oliver Cowdery], passed before my eyes with his heart open, and it was as pure as an angel; and this was a testimony from God; that the Book of Mormon was a Divine Revelation.
The second account of this vision, published in 1843, simply reported that he was “fully convinced of the truth of the work, by a revelation from Jesus Christ, which was made known to him in a remarkable manner, so that he could exclaim ‘flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto me, but my father which is in heaven.'”
Much later in his career, long after his presence in the main arena of Mormonism had diminished and religious fanaticism had addled his brain, Rigdon, in a 1 July 1868 revelation, assumed God’s voice, referred to himself as the “head of the literary world,” and pronounced “There was no man living so well qualified to judge of the divine authenticity of the book of Mormon as he was. His knowledge of the Lord’s manner of writing was such as enabled him to detect it when he saw it and thus it was that he received the book of Mormon when I the Lord sent it to him.” (72-73)
Note, incidentally, Rigdon’s description of Oliver Cowdery as a “little man.” Some critics have tried to depict Cowdery as a skilled metal worker who manufactured the plates of the Book of Mormon. But he scarcely fits the image of Longfellow’s “village blacksmith”:
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands,
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
Back, though, to Sidney Rigdon. His acceptance of the new revelation would cost him dearly, and he knew it:
When Rigdon ultimately became convinced of the new revelation, restored authority, and the “necessity of obedience thereto,” he first informed his wife and asked her, “My dear, you have followed me, once into poverty, are you again willing to do the same?” Recalling their similar experience in Pittsburgh Phebe answered, “I have counted the cost, and I am perfectly satisfied to follow you; it is my desire to do the will of God, come life or come death. Her conviction was based on the fact that her husband “seemed to be altered in demeanor to such an extent that the religion must be of divine origin, else it would not have produced so wonderful an effect.” (74)
Obviously, he would lose the economic benefits and the status of being a respected clergyman:
While Rigdon’s Kirtland following joined the Mormon fold, his Mentor congregation resisted. They were furious at his defection, saying
that he might [have] gone down to the grave as one of the great divines of the age, but now he had gone and thrown it all away and was a-going to follow a fool of a boy who claimed an angel had appeared to him. . . . It was nonsense and a man of his knowledge ought to have known better than to have anything to do with such impostures. He ought not to have let them preach in their church, should not have let them stay overnight in his house, and should have refused to have anything to do with them.
Rigdon replied that they could “talk to him as they pleased, but he was convinced in reading the Book of Mormon that the doctrine preached by the Mormons was true . . . let the consequences be what they may.” Rigdon added that at the time he had a “family of small children to provide for but trusted them and himself to the mercy of God. . . . He [also] had . . . the glorious satisfaction of his wife, uniting with him.”
As a result of their conversion, the Rigdons lost their small, partially completed house owned by the Mentor congregation. “The church which Sidney Rigdon left at Mentor,” remarked [his son] Wickliffe Rigdon, “was perfectly horrified and surprised and indignant at his conduct in leaving them in the hasty manner he did but he had gone and the only course for them to pursue was to submit and procure another minister for their church.” (75)
Still, Sidney Rigdon believed that accepting the Restoration was worth the cost:
Wickliffe Rigdon later wrote that his father “had now [e]mbraced a new religion[,] one on which he had always looked and hoped for and one which satisfied his mind and belief. (81)
Rigdon was baptized before he ever met Joseph Smith. But he wanted nonetheless to meet the Prophet, and he plainly still wanted to do some investigating. Accordingly, he and Edward Partridge — a hatter in Painesville, Ohio, and one of Rigdon’s Reformed Baptist followers — traveled to Manchester, New York, in mid-December. But Joseph was off visiting his parents some distance away.
So the two Ohio travelers walked around the Smith farm and became convinced of the “good order and industry” of the family. They also made inquiries in the neighborhood to gain “further information respecting the doctrine which [Smith] preached.” Neighbors reportedly testified to the Smiths’ integrity on all matters except religion, wherein young Joseph was said to have deceived his family about the Book of Mormon. Both Rigdon and Partridge waved the criticisms aside as prejudice. (81)
They went and heard a sermon from Joseph Smith that evening, and Edward Partridge was baptized the following day. (He had asked for immediate baptism, but Joseph advised him to first get some rest that night.) Brother Partridge ultimately became the first bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holding the office until his death in 1840 at the age of only 46.
Please note, by the way, Rigdon’s and Partridge’s impression of the Smith family’s “good order and industry.” This contrasts with the claim promulgated by some critics that the Smiths were a family of indolent slackers and trash.
Posted from Jerusalem, Israel