Memories of Sidney Rigdon - 1869
Moore’s Rural New Yorker – January 23, 1869
Pen and Pencil Sketches Illustrating their Early History. - II.
BY A. W. COWLES, D. D.
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SIDNEY B. RIGDON, THE FIRST MORMON PREACHER.
THE two most important personages in the
earliest days of Mormonism, next to the chief seer, Smith, were Martin Harris
and Sidney B. Rigdon. Harris furnished money and Rigdon "brains" for the new
movement, for the Smith family were lamentably wanting in both these important
requisites for a new religion. Harris was the first convert who had property.
All the rest were dependent on their daily labor for a precarious livlihood.
Harris had a good farm and was in comparatively easy circumstances. He was,
however, a weak, credulous man, very ignorant, and yet a constant reader of the
Old Testament. It is said that he learned the whole of it so as to be able to
repeat it from memory, and could give chapter and verse for almost any passage.
He seemed to himself to have conquered the whole province of revelation,
including narratives, doctrines, prophecies and mysteries; and, like a greater
personage of olden time, he sighed for a new world to conquer. Familiar with the
old Hebrew prophets in his way, and with his own interpretation of their sublime
visions, which he of course readily exhausted, he was ready to hail with delight
a "live prophet," even if he did, to all human vision, seem like an idle
vagabond. This doubtless added to the sacredness of his prophetic character, in
his eyes. It perhaps was the weird eccentricity of one familiar with strange
visions and mysterious revelations. At any rate, Harris gave all the mind he had
and all the influence he could command to the new prophet. He was most
thoroughly convinced of the divine mission of Joe Smith. He devoted his time to
the new faith, and at length mortgaged his farm to raise means for printing the
new Bible. His wife, who had no sympathy for what she fully believed to be the
insane delusion of her husband, refused to sign the mortgage, and the alienation
became so serious that they separated. Harris persisted in his efforts to
publish the New Scriptures of the Mormon faith, and at length an edition of
5,000 copies was printed at a cost of $3,000. One of the printers has now in his
possession the original sheets from which the first edition was printed.
Harris retained his influence through all the early years of the new enterprise at Palmyra, at Kirtland, O., and for a time at Independence, Mo. At this latter place Smith discarded him and expelled him from the company of the saints, and Harris left the community as an excommunicated Mormon. But little is known of his subsequent history, except that with all his bitterness against his rivals, and disgust at their conduct, he continued to believe most devoutly in the inspiration of the Book of Mormon, and the truth of, at least, the earliest revelations of Joe Smith.
SIDNEY B. RIGDON was the master intellect of the whole movement prior to the settlement of the "Saints" at Nauvoo. A few weeks ago the writer visited this original apostle, the first preacher, the ablest lecturer of all the early days of Mormonism, and the principal materials for this sketch were communicated from his own lips. He has resided for nearly twenty years in the village of Friendship, Alleghany Co., N. Y. He is now a venerable old man of nearly eighty years, with snowy beard and a keen eye. His health seems good; his mind clear and vigorous. He has indeed a quick, excitable manner, and a fondness for strong, emphatic expression, which seem to be the relics of his old fanaticism. He appears communicative and frank; yet in the short interview above mentioned he carefully avoided minute particulars of his Mormon associations and history. Like Martin Harris, while with almost fierce invective he denounces his associate leaders of the Mormon Church and colony, he still clings to his faith in the inspiration of Smith and his Bible. Rigdon professes to believe that as Paul, by the abundant revelation vouchsafed to him, was tempted by the devil to vanity and self-confidence, as he himself declares, so Smith was exalted above measure until he fell into the condemnation of the devil, and became corrupt in morals and an apostate from the truth which had been revealed to him. Rigdon claims that he saw the secret tendencies which afterward developed into the system of "sealing spiritual wives," but which the outside world persists in calling polygamy.
Rigdon narrates his early history with entire freedom, and with an old man's pardonable pride in the early proofs of remarkable talents and extraordinary successes.
The father of Rigdon was a planter in Maryland, owning considerable land and a number of slaves. From conscientious scruples in regard to the lawfulness of slavery, he at length manumitted his slaves, sold his peoperty, and moved into the southwest corner of the State of Pennsylvania. Here young Rigdon was brought up to hard farm work, with extremely limited advantages of education. He became acquainted with a Baptist minister and his attention was called to personal religion. He received baptism not far from the time in which he attained his majority. He now struck out boldly from the homestead and spent a number of months in the family of his new friend and spiritual counsellor, the Baptist minister before mentioned. Here he found what seemed to him a perfect paradise of books and intellectual companionship. He found in himself an insatiable thirst for reading. He read history, divinity, and general literature, without much method or aim, except to gratify his intense love of reading. He gave great attention to the Bible, and made himself very familiar with all parts of it. He readily committed to memory and thus stored up large portions of the most attractive portions of the Bible.
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A MORMON BAPTISMAL SCENE BY MOONLIGHT.
extraordinary love of serious learning and remarkable aptness in the study of
Scripture, very naturally suggested to his own mind and to others the idea of
his becoming a preacher. He was licensed, according to the custom of the
Baptists, that he might prove his gifts and try his calling.
If we credit his own account, his early pulpit ministrations created a great sensation throughout that part of the country, and especially in the western part of Ohio, where the labors of the young preacher were in great demand. He was here employed as a kind of evangelist -- without a settled charge. About this time he married, and with his wife visited Pittsburgh. A Baptist church was then vacant and he was invited to spend the Sabbath and supply the pulpit. The result was an engagement with the congregation to remain as their regular supply. Here he met with great success as a preacher, and built up a strong church. His intense love of investigation and new modes of thought here continued to grow upon him. He claims that he thoroughly reviewed the Scriptures, and reached down to their profoundest depths. Dissatisfied with all ordinary interpretations, he began a series of new and original explanations of doctrine, of history and of prophecy. These novelties soon appeared in his preaching, and at length he announced to his congregation that he could not preach the doctrines or receive the interpretations of Scripture which the church professed to believe. He resigned his charge; but a large number sympathized with him and wished him to form a new congregation. He, however removed to Ohio as an Independent Baptist, preaching what he pleased and contradicting whomsoever he pleased. He himself stated that not unfrequently he would attend a service and take his seat among the congregation, and after the sermon arise and ask the liberty of adding a few remarks, and then quote passages of Scripture to show the erronous doctrines which the preacher had just uttered, and close by inviting the congregation to come and hear him at his next appointment. This kept the community in a ferment and secured for him crowded houses. He seemed just on the point of forming a new sect which should overthrow by learning, logic and eloquence all the creeds and religious systems of the world!!
In this part of his narrative the old fire gleamed from his keen eye, his cheeks flushed with excited ardor, and with an oratorical sweep of his hand he said: -- "Yes, if I were only young again I could sweep away all your religions from under the whole heaven.
Here the orbit of his wandering star was crossed by a Mormon missionary, or, in plainer English, a peddler of Mormon Bibles, Oliver Cowdery, Joe Smith's amanuensis, who was about the only one who could write a respectable hand, and who prepared the manuscript for the printer, came along with his pack. He had heard of the erratic and heretical preacher. He presented him with a copy of the golden Bible. Rigdon solemnly affirms that this was his first personal knowledge of Joe Smith and the Mormons. After a few days Cowdery returned and held a long interview with Rigdon. Rigdon had read a considerable portion of the book. He questioned Cowdery about Smith, and found that he was entirely illiterate. Rigdon 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, and give them perfect consistency and complete system. In his fresh enthusiasm, he exclaimed that if God ever gave a revelation surely this must be divine. Thus Mormonism gained its first clerical convert, and from this time Rigdon became one of the great lights and leading spirits of the Mormon movement.
He at once left Ohio and went to Palmyra. There he made the acquaintance of Harris, and delivered the first Mormon sermon in Palmyra, in the hall of the Young Men's Association. He declared that he was called of God to preach the new revelation. He took a text from the new Bible:
First Book of Nephi, Chap. iv. -- "And the angel spake unto me saying, These last records which thou hast seen among the Gentiles shall establish the truth of the first, which is of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them, and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues and people that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and Savior of the world: and that all men must come unto Him or they cannot be saved."
He stood up, holding the Book of Mormon in his right hand and the old Bible in his left, and claimed that each was necessary to the other; that the old Bible could not be properly interpreted except by the aid of this new revelation. This sermon was heard by a very small audience, and attracted no favorable attention beyond the few "saints" who were already convinced. Rigdon says that his first introduction to Joe Smith was at the house of the Whitmers, in Fayette, Seneca Co., near the school-house in which one of the first Mormon meetings was held, and where a few converts had been added to the new faith, and had received baptism by night, by the hands of Oliver Cowdery.
Moore’s Rural New Yorker – March 20, 1869
Pen and Pencil Sketches Illustrating their Early History. - III.
BY A. W. COWLES, D. D.
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IT is unquestionable that
Sidney Rigdon was the real master spirit of the Mormon Church from the time he
united his faith and his fortunes with the new movement. He was a ready speaker,
a fluent controversialist, having at command new and plausible theories, with a
love of contradiction and startling novelties of interpretation. He had gathered
a congregation at Mentor, Ohio, of such materials as would naturally cluster
round such a man. He had evidently unsettled his own faith and that of large
numbers of his hearers in the generally received interpretations of the Old
Bible. He was eccentric and bold, and among plain, uneducated people, passed for
an oracle. He was ripe for a new religion -- ready to listen to a new
But we meet with great difficulty in ascertaining the exact truth as to his agency in furnishing the materials for the Mormon Bible. It has been strongly affirmed that Rigdon furnished Smith with the whole manuscript, which, it is said, he obtained in Pittsburgh from a printing office. It is undoubtedly true, according to Rigdon's own account, that he was living in Pittsburgh at the time of the supposed revelation. He claims he was a settled Baptist minister in that city, and denies having any knowledge of any such manuscript. A considerable amount of evidence exists that Smith obtained possession of a fanciful romance, written in Scriptural style, not unlike the quaint Chronicles that are sometimes written by ingenious school girls or academy boys. The author of this is said to have been one Rev. Solomon Spaulding, a graduate of Dartmouth College, and president [sic] for a time, of Salem, Ashtabula Co., Ohio. This manuscript has been traced to Pittsburgh; and, whether Rigdon knew of it or not, was according to the most undeniable testimony, the principal material out of which the Book of Mormon was composed. It was no doubt prepared by some one beside Joe Smith. For, weak and absurd as much of it is, it is plainly beyond the ability of a shiftless, ignorant young man, who could hardly write a legible hand or construct a single correct sentence. If Rigdon had any hand in this, it was with the utmost secrecy that he gave his assistance to Smith. It is due to Rigdon, who now stands well for veracity and integrity among all who know him, to give full weight to his positive denial of such a share in the production of the so-called new revelation. At least we must admit, unless his memory is treacherous, or a long habit of denial has distorted his own conviction and belief. that such a denial from a respectable and honorable man of his age, soon to render up his account, is entitled to credit.
We now turn from this period of doubtful facts and conflicting testimony as to the origin of the Book of Mormon, (which will form the topic of a future sketch,) to follow the fortunes of Rigdon in his new character as the Aaron of the new Moses -- the mouthpiece, the doctrinal expounder, the ecclesiastical organizer of the new church.
Joe Smith at once took Rigdon into his fullest confidence, and Rigdon professed the most implicit faith in the frequent revelations which the young prophet boldly uttered in the name of God. These so-called revelations were carefully recorded, and they now make up a volume of Sacred Scripture among the Mormons, bearing this title: -- "The Book of Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Selected from the Revelations of God by Joseph Smith, President. Third European Edition -- Liverpool and London. Sold at the Latter Day Saints' Book Depot, 35 Jewin Street -- 1852."
This volume contains, first, a system of doctrines under the title of "Lectures on Faith." These lectures show considerable ingenuity, with some of the most absurd blunders; for example, in developing the thought that faith is an element of all power, the writer affirms that God himself acts by faith when he creates, and quotes as a proof text, "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God," and explains this to mean as if transposed thus: We understand that through faith the worlds were framed by the word of God; and then adds, "Who cannot see that if God framed the worlds by faith that it is by faith He exercises power over them, and that faith is the principle of power." These lectures are drawn mainly from the Scriptures, and contain many valuable statements of practical truth, adapted to uneducated minds. They are accompanied by a sort of Catechism for review. Rigdon was the author of all these lectures. He was the acknowledged authority -- the expositor and doctrinal oracle of the new church.
It seems to correspond with Rigdon's denial of any agency in the production of the Golden Bible that his name does not appear in the record of Revelations until more than a year after the professed discovery of the golden plates. Nearly, or quite all, the new converts of the first year have "honorable mention" by name. These men have a record as the special favorites of heaven, and a few illiterate, deluded men have gained a strange immortality. Harris, Pratt, Cowdery, Whitmer, Phelps, Gilbert, Knight, &c. are constantly named in the so-called revelations. Even the wife of the prophet, Emma Smith, was honored with a long message direct from heaven, which closes with the excellent advice: -- "Continue in the spirit of meekness and beware of pride. Let thy soul delight in thy husband and the glory which shall come upon him. And verily, I say unto you that this is my voice unto all. Even so. Amen."
Mention of Rigdon "by revelation," appears in the following announcement to Edward Partridge, given December, 1830, (see page 209,) -- "Thus saith the Lord God the mighty one of Israel, Behold I say unto you my servant Edward that you are blessed and your sins are forgiven you, and you are called to preach my Gospel as with the voice of a trump; and I will lay my hand upon you by the hand of my servant Sidney Rigdon, and you shall receive my spirit, the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which shall teach you the peaceable things of the kingdom, and you shall declare it with a loud voice saying, Hosanna, blessed be the name of the most high God."
The divine call revealed to Rigdon, assumes to be given in the name of Jesus Christ. It is enough to make one shudder to read such bold blasphemy. The message is in these words: -- "I am Jesus Christ, the son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world, even as many as believe on my name that they may become the sons of God. Behold, verily I say unto my servant Sidney, I have looked upon thee and thy works, I have heard thy prayers, and prepared thee for a greater work. Thou art blessed for thou shalt do great things. Behold thou wast sent forth, even as John, to prepare the way before me. Thou didst baptize by water unto repentance, but they received not the Holy Ghost; but now I give unto thee a commandment that thou shalt baptize by water, and they shall receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, even as the apostles of old. I am God, and mine arm is not shortened, and I will show miracles and signs and wonders unto all those who believe on my name."
Another revelation, dated December, 1830, reads thus: -- "Behold, I say unto you (Joseph Smith, Jr., and Sidney Rigdon), that it is not expedient in me that ye should translate any more until ye shall go to the Ohio. And again I say unto you that ye shall not go until ye have preached my gospel in those parts, and have strengthened up my church, expecially in Colesville, for behold they pray much unto me."
In March, 1833 Rigdon attained the second place in the Church as the Chief Counsellor, and with Frederick G. Williams, formed the two assistant presidents under Smith. These were the "three mightiest" names of the new church. The revelation ran thus, addressed to Joseph Smith, Jr.: "Again, verily, I say unto thy brethren, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, their sins are forgiven them also, and they are accounted as equal with thee in holding the keys of the last kingdom."
The early operations of Smith and Rigdon were conducted chiefly in sprase rural Fayette, about two miles south of Waterloo, N. Y. Here in a small stream the first baptisms were administered. Here, a so-called church was organized in a school house, which is still standing. In Broome Co., at Colesville, another cluster of converts was gathered, and also a few in South Bainbridge, Chenango Co. Here Joe Smith found his wife, Miss Emma Hale. Something was also accomplished in the interest of the new faith in Harmony, Pa. In all these districts, however, success was not at all satisfactory. In Palmyra and Manchester, the home of the Prophet and the scene of his first visions and labors, everything was "played out."
At the instance of Rigdon, and under his lead, the new church emigrated from the vicinity of the Sacred Hill Camorah, by revelation, "to the Ohio." Here the Saints gathered together in the town of Kirtland, near Mentor, Lake Co. Here Rigdon had numerous disciples, over whom he exerted a strong influence. Many of these accepted the new faith of their erratic leader and late pastor. Here in Kirtland was the first colony of Mormons. Here they purchased property, and Smith, by convenient revelation, obtained control of t5he tithings and most of the property of the Saints beyond their mere support. Here he opened the Kirtland bank and issued a large circulation of what in those days were known as "wild-cat" bills. He also had a mill and store. Here, by revelation, the Saints were commanded to build a commodious dwelling for the prophet, and things went on swimmingly until the bank became insolvent and general bankruptcy ensued. Smith and Rigdon, to escape arrest, left in haste and by night. This was the hegira of the prophet to the Land of Zion -- twelve miles [sic] west of Independence, Mo., -- where the Saints had before purchased a refuge and selected a site for a temple, and where Rigdon had the chief command for a considerable period previous to the difficulties at Kirtland. It was on a casual visit from the West to the former scene of their operations that the two principal leaqders were in such imminent danger as to make it convenient to leave in great haste.
At Kirtland a new convert was gained who was destined to exert a most powerful influence upon the history and success of the Mormon Church. This was Brigham Young, and all his family. This was in the year 1832. His department was that of Foreign Missions, and all the wonderful success of the Mormons abroad has been due to the early plans, shrewd management and thorough organization which he gave to this feature of the new Church of Latter Day Saints. Brigham soon began to be a power in the new church. The first few years, while Rigdon was rising, Young was more or less abroad, gathering converts and organizing the admirable emigration plans which have given life and power to the Mormon Church.
The emigrants were of course devoted to Young, and knew little of Rigdon; and when, by the death of Smith, a successor was to be chosen, Brigham Young out-generaled Rigdon and reached the Presidency; and to this day Rigdon cannot conceal his disgust for his old rival. He says he wonders how Satan himself can consent to make use of such a blockhead?
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