Mormon History

Sidney Rigdon Versus Brigham Young Power Struggle - August 8, 1844



August 8, 1844

By 8 August 1844 the stage was set for the Rigdon-versus-Young morality play, an ecclesiastical contest, the winner of which would be the next Mormon caretaker. The happenings of this crucial day constitute Mormonism’s most pivotal hour. By 10:00 a.m. more than 5,000 Saints had gathered at the grove east of the temple in response to William Mark’s announcement. The minutes of this morning meeting, in stenographer Thomas Bullock’s shorthand, have never been transcribed. By order of the current LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles they remain unavailable “for public scrutiny.”(1) Nevertheless, several other accounts of the day’s events survive.

As Rigdon began speaking, a strong headwind muted his voice, so he relocated to the leeward side and climbed on top of a wagon box. From that spot he addressed the Saints until 11:30 a.m.  While some have painted Rigdon’s discourse as uninspired, Orson Hyde, a long-time Rigdon critic, said he presented “his claims with all the eloquence and power that he was master of.”

Despite assurances that the convocation was nothing more than a prayer meeting, Rigdon labored to gain a show of support from the throng of LDS faithful. Hyde reported that Rigdon was just “about to ask 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.”(2) Young, who later recalled the event in 1860, stated: “(W)hen I went to meet Sidney Rigdon on the meeting ground I went alone, and was ready alone to face and drive the dogs from the flock.”(3)

Jacob Hamblin’s diary for 8 August indicates that Young’s stunning display of brinkmanship 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 for a season.”(4) He then wisely dismissed the meeting, allowing Rigdon’s rhetoric to dissipate, and announced a special assembly for 2:00 p.m. Wilford Woodruff’s diary records, “The(re) was a meeting appointed at the grove for the Church to come together for Prayers. But in consequence of some excitement among the People and a disposition by some spirits to try to divide the Church, it was thought best to attend to the business of the Church in the afternoon that was to be attended to on Tuesday.”(5)

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 his 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.(6) Lonely and bereaved, more than a third of the Mormon faithful were middle-class British immigrants, converted by Young and his fellow apostles. 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.

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 Mormon 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.”(7) After explaining “matters so satisfactorily that every saint could see that Elijah’s mantle had truly fallen upon 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.(8)

Assuming a surrogate Mormon father role, Young responded, “I know your feelings – do you want me tell your feelings?” Responding to murmurs and assenting nods, he continued: “(H)ere (is) the 12 an independ(en)t body – who have the Keys of the K(ingdom) to all the whole world so help me God (, and) the(y) are, as the 1st pres(idenc)y of the church. …(Y)ou can(‘)t call a Prophet you can(‘)t take El(der) Rig(don) or Amas(a) Lyman they must be ord(aine)d by the 12 …God will have nothing to do with you – you can(‘t) put any one at the head of the 12.”(9)

“Perhaps some think that our beloved brother Rigdon would not be honored, would not be looked to as a friend,” Young added, “but if he does right, and remains faithful, he will not act against our counsel, nor we against his, but act together, and we shall be as one.”(10) “Do you want a spokesman?” Young then asked. “Do you want the church properly organized, or do you want a spokesman to be chief cook and bottle washer?”

Discussing Rigdon’s calling as spokesman to the prophet, Young agreed, “Very well, he was,” but then quickly continued that “If he wants to be a spokesman to the Prophet he must go to the other side of the vail for the Prophet is there, but Elder Rigdon is here. Why will Elder Ridgon be a fool? Who knows anything of the (fullness of the) priesthood, or of the organization of the kingdom of God (the Council of Fifty)? I am plain.”(11) As the meeting progressed, the sentiment which had so recently changed in favor of the Twelve became palpable. When Amasa Lyman took the stand to speak, he placed himself in Young’s corner. Shaken by the effect of Young’s words upon the audience, the usually loquacious Rigdon declined to speak when afforded rebuttal opportunities. Considering Rigdon’s rhetorical proclivities, his decision seems tantamount to conceding defeat. His face buried in his hands, Rigdon requested an old Missouri nemesis, W. W. Phelps, to champion his cause. The cagey editor, realizing Rigdon’s cause was lost, delivered an ardent affirmation of the Twelve’s position.

After Parley P. Pratt addressed the crowd, Young again took the stand. Attesting that if men “abide our Council they will go right into the K(ingdom) … (for) we have all the signs (and) the tokens to give to the Potter (and) he will let us in the qu(ay),” Young proposed a vote. “Do you want Bro. Rig(don) to stand forward as you(r) leader(,) your guide(,) your spokesman(?)”(12)  Rigdon interrupted then, saying he “wanted him to bring up the other question first.” So Young asked, “(Does) this Ch(urch) want, (and is) their only desire to sust(ai)n the 12 as the 1st pres(idenc)y of this people(?) (H)ere (are) the A(postles), the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the doc(trine) (and) cov(enants) is here (and) here (head & heart) it is written on the tablet of my heart … (I)f the Ch(urch) want the 12 to walk in to their call(in)g(,) if this is your mind(,) signify by the uplifted hand.” The vote, according to Young, was unanimous, which he announced “supersedes the other question.”(13)

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 a K(ingdom;) let him keep the instruct(io)n (and) calling(,) let him raise up a k(ingdom) in Pittsburgh (and) we will lift up his hand. I guess we(‘)ll have a printing office (and) gathering there.” Wishing to support Rigdon in his calling as counselor, Young continued, “I feel to bring up Bro(ther) Rig(don.) (W)e are of one mind … (W)ill this con(gregation) uphold him in the place … (and) let him be one with us (and) we with him?”(14) The voting was unanimous.

SIDNEY RIGDON, A Portrait of Religious Excess 1994, pgs 339-341.

(1)     F. Michael Watson, secretary to the First Presidency, to Richard S. Van Wagoner, 14 June 1993. Bullock’s transcription of the afternoon meeting of 8 Aug. is available in the General Minutes Collection.

(2)     Orson Hyde, Speech of Elder Orson Hyde, Delivered Before the High Priest’s Quorum, in Nauvoo, April 27th, 1845, Upon the Course and Conduct of Mr. Sidney Rigdon, and Upon the Merits of His Claims to the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool: James and Woodburn, 1845), pg 13.

(3)     Journal History, 6 Oct. 1860.

(4)     James A. Little, Jacob Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), pgs 20-21.

(5)     Scott G. Kenney, ed. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Typescript (9 vols.) (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-85), 2:434-35.

(6)     Journal History, 8 Aug. 1844.

(7)     Times and Seasons 5 (2 Sept. 1844): 637.

(8)     Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844 (p.m.), General Minutes Collection.

(9)     Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844 (p.m.), General Minutes Collection.

(10) Journal History, 8 Aug. 1844.

(11) Journal History, 8 Aug. 1844.

(12) Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844 (p.m.), General Minutes Collection.

(13) Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844 (p.m.), General Minutes Collection; William C. Staines Journal, cited in History of the Church, 7:236, reported there were “a few dissenting voices.”

(14) Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844 (p.m.), General Minutes Collection.

Richard S. Van Wagoner: “While my narration generally follows the 8 August 1844 Journal History account, which for the most part fleshes out Thomas Bullock’s 8 August minutes (General Minutes Collection), other important references are Wilford Woodruff diary account (Kenney, 2:434-40); Brigham Young diary entry for 8 August 1844; William Clayton diary entry for 8 August 1844, cited in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1991), 142.; and History of the Church, 7:231-42.”