Mormon History

Conversion of Sidney Rigdon - 1879

The Salt Lake Daily Tribune May 16, 1879


The Deseret News of the 21st ult. bears the following testimony in relation to Rigdon's conversion to Mormonism:

Brother Call says that at first he (Rigdon) spurned it (the Book of Mormon) and ridiculed the idea of paying any attention to a book with such claims. He knew of the controversy between the two men (P. P. Pratt and Rigdon) and says the only reason why Rigdon consented to examine it at all was because Parley said, "You brought truth to me: I now ask you as a friend to read this for my sake." He studied and prayed over the matter for two weeks, and at length accepted it as true, and soon after he and his wife were baptized as were a few others of the Campbellites.

The "History of Joseph Smith" contains the following sketch of Rigdon:

The first house at which they (P. P. Pratt and company) called, was Elder Rigdon's, and after the usual salutations, presented him with the Book of Mormon, stating that it was a revelation from God. This being the first time he had ever heard of or seen the Book of Mormon, he felt very much prejudiced at the assertion; and replied that he had one Bible, which he believed was a revelation from God, and with which he pretended to have some acquaintance; but with respect to the book they had presented him he must say that he had considerable doubt. Upon which they expressed a desire to investigate the subject and argue the matter, but he replied, "No, young gentlemen, you must not argue with me on the subject; but I will read your book, and see what claim it has upon my faith, and will endeavor to ascertain whether it be a revelation from God or not."

After some farther conversation on the subject, they expressed a desire to lay the subject before the people, and requested the privilege of preaching in Elder Rigdon's church, to which he readily consented. The appointment was accordingly published, and a large and respectable congregation assemble. Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt severally addressed the meeting. At the conclusion, Elder Rigdon arose and stated to the congregation that the information they had that evening received was of an extraordinary character, and certainly demanded their most serious consideration: and as the apostle advised his brethren "to prove all things and hold fast that which is good," so he would exhort his brethren to do likewise, and give the matter a careful investigation, and not turn against it, without being fully convinced of its being an imposition, lest they should, possibly resist the truth.

This was, indeed, generous on the part of Elder Rigdon. *  *  *  After the meeting broke up the brethren returned home with Elder Rigdon and conversed upon the important things which they had proclaimed. He informed them that he should read the Book of Mormon, give it a full investigation, and then would frankly tell them his mind and feelings on the subject -- told them they were welcome to abide at his house until he had opportunity of reading it.

About two miles from elder Rigdon's, at the town of Kirtland, were a number of the members of his church, who lived together and had all things common -- from which circumstance has arisen the idea that this was the case with the Church of Jesus Christ -- to which place they immediately repaired, and proclaimed the gospel to them, with some considerable success; for their testimony was received by many of the people, and seventeen came forward in obedience to the gospel.

While thus engaged, they visited elder Rigdon occasionally, and found him very earnestly engaged in reading the Book of Mormon -- praying to the Lord for direction, and meditating on the things he heard and read; and after a fortnight from the time the book was put in his hands, he was fully convinced of the truth of the work (Mormon Shibboleth, original with Rigdon) 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, by my father which is in Heaven."

The above is from the history of Joseph Smith, pages 47 and 48. Sidney Rigdon, we are further given to understand, was "now fully satisfied in his own mind of the truth of the work, and necessity of obedience thereto." Then follows a tedious and fulsome rigmarole (evidently all from Rigdon's own pen) which winds up with the baptism of himself and wife.

We will now give Parley P. Pratt's account of this theatric and sensational affair as contained in Pratt's "Reply to Laroy Sunderland." The writer says:

About the 15th of October, 1830, I took my journey, in company with Elder O. Cowdery, and Peter Whitmer to Ohio. We called on Elder S. Ringdon and then for the first time his eyes beheld the Book of Mormon.

(In dealing with writers whose object is to mislead, and who use words to conceal thoughts, it is necessary to examine their statements critically. It is more than suspected that Rigdon procured the Spaulding Manuscript from Patterson's printing office and recast it into the "Gold Bible." The Apostle Pratt says this was the first time Rigdon saw the Book of Mormon. From which we understand it was the first time he had seen it in print. A literary production is not a book until it is printed and bound up.)

I, myself had the happiness (the writer continues) to present it to him in person. He was much surprised, and it was with much persuasion and argument, that he was prevailed on to read it; and after he had read it, he had a great struggle of mind, before he fully believed and embraced it; and when finally convinced of its truth, he called together a large congregation of his friends, neighbors and brethren, and then addressed them very affectionately, for nearly an hour, during most of which time both himself and nearly all the congregation were melted into tears. He asked forgiveness of every body who might have had occasion to be offended with any part of his former life; he forgave all who had persecuted or injured him, in any manner; and the next morning, himself and wife were baptised by Elder O. Cowdery. I was present; it was a solemn scene, most of the people were greatly affected; they came out of the water overwhelmed in tears. Many others were baptised by us in that vicinity, both before and after his baptism. *  *  * 

Early in 1831 (late in 1830) Mr. Rigdon having been ordained under our hands, visited Elder J. Smith, jun., in the State of New York for the first time, and from that time forth, rumor began to circulate that he (Rigdon) was the author of the Book of Mormon.

There is another catch here we would warn the reader against. Joseph Smith was ordained an elder April 6th, 1830, at the organization of the Church, and the visit Parley talks of was the first paid to Smith by Rigdon after his ordination as an elder. But it is not saying that Rigdon then met Joseph Smith for the first time.

We will give yet another version of Rigdon's conversion to Mormonism from an eye-witness, who in a private letter describes the scene in detail. It carries conviction on the face of it:

MENTOR, O., Jan, 28, 1879.    

My Dear Sir: *  *  *  The whole matter of Rigdon's conversion to Mormonism was so secret, so sudden and so perfectly unexpected, that it was to us like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky. The four Mormons came to Mr. Rigdon's Wednesday evening (I think). Then Thursday morning he came to my father's with the wonderous announcement, as related by Mr. Hayden in his history, page 210. I was present at the time of the incident, and it will not soon be effaced from my memory. I do not remember to have ever seen a man so completely put to route as he was at the comment of my brother, "It's all a lie!" Matthew was then a very young man, but one of very decided convictions and not afraid to express them. Mr. Rigdon had entered the home with that perfect self-reliant confidence so common with him, and, having taken a chair, he at once proceeded to state the curious errand of some men from the State of New York who had put up with him the night before, giving a very plain but brief view of the history and object of the new revelation. He was evidently expecting encouragement, but the response of my brother so decided and evidently unlooked for, showed him that he had nothing to hope for from us. His countenance fell and without another word he returned home, and, though living in a house on my father's farm but a few rods away, he never set foot in our house again.

Some of the Mormon emissaries went to Kirtland, two or three miles distant that day (Thursday) and directly baptized the "common stock family" at Morely's who were members of Rigdon's church. (Rigdon preached alternately at Mentor and Kirtland.) At this Rigdon professed to be indignant. This we heard on Saturday, and on Sunday -- it being his regular appointment at Kirtland -- a number of us went over from Mentor to hear him (not to hear Mormonism). The house was an ordinary school house, would perhaps accommodate a hundred persons. It was reasonably filled but not crowded. He then made the most pitiable effort to which I ever listened to place himself in an honorable position before the public, but utterly failed. During his short address, (probably not more than 15 or 20 minutes,) he affected to exhibit great sorrow and contrition for the inutility of his past preaching, "that he feared it had only tickled their ears, etc." I cannot speak for all that were there, but I saw no signs of sympathy with any except those already enlisted in Mormonism. As for myself, the whole thing was such an evident piece of hypocrisy that I turned away sick and disgusted. I had heard all I wished and returned home.

The next we heard of him, on Monday, he and his wife had been baptized some time during that Sunday night and gone over to Mormonism. This was immediately confirmed by his sending teams for his household goods which were thus removed to Kirtland, himself never coming near us. There was no attempt to get up a public meeting for the purpose of examining the claims of the Book of Mormon before Mr. Rigdon embraced it, either in Mentor or Kirtland, or anywhere in the vicinity. It is sheer fabrication and gotten up (I presume) for the purpose of covering over the indecent haste with which he embraced it.

I think you do the Disciples injustice by your surmise. While they did not cherish vindictive feelings toward Mr. R., they were greatly grieved that one in whom they had placed confidence should prove so unworthy of it. And I think very few now doubt his connection with the origin of the Book of Mormon. It hardly seemed possible that a man of as good education as Mr. Rigdon was supposed to be could be guilty of so many and such gross outrages upon the English language in one book as were apparent in the Book of Mormon. On this account it seemed as though it must be the work of some ignoramus. Then, too, the awkward attempt to imitate the Scripture style which runs through the whole book -- barely resemblance enough to stamp it as one of the basest of counterfeits. Could this be the work of a man familiar with the chaste and grandly beautiful language of Holy Writ? Again, the irreconcilable contradictions betwixt it and the law of Moses in relation to the priesthood. In Mr. Campbell's analysis he makes a very strong point here. The law emphatically declared that the stranger (the man of another family than that of Aaron) who came nigh (to offer incense) should surely be put to death. Yet the Book of Mormon establishes an order of priests, by divine appointment, not even of the tribe of Levi, and makes them perform acceptable worship under the law! Could this be the work of an intelligent student of the Bible? It was not until accumulated evidence forced the conviction upon us that we could believe it.

You ask me for particulars in relation to the letter of Thomas Campbell to Rigdon accepting his challenge to the world to debate the question of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Although I was not present when the challenge was given or accepted, yet as I had the narrative from Mr. Campbell himself, I suppose that I have a correct understanding of it. The challenge was given at one of his harangues immediately after his return from his pilgrimage to visit the prophet. Many of the Mormons had assembled [to] greet him and to welcome him back. He had by this time got over his crying and sniveling; he had laid aside his meekness and humility, and now appeared in his former character, arrogant and boastful. In the course of his remarks he told them that religion was a thing not to be reasoned upon, that they had no use for reason, but that they could know for a certainty the truth of that which they had received.(So Rigdon is the fons et principium of all this disastrous "certainty!" in Mormonism!)

Waxing warm with his subject, he declared that the evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon was far greater than that of the Bible, and upon this he challenged any man, or the world, to meet him in public debate.

Mr. Campbell, who was spending the winter in Mentor and vicinity, was immediately notified of the challenge, and very promptly accepted in the letter to which you refer, and in arranging the preliminaries, he makes use of this language: "You, as the professed disciple and public teacher of the infernal Book of Mormon, and I as the professed disciple and public teacher of the supernal books of the old and new testaments." He proceeded to explain that he uses the terms in no offensive sense, but strictly according to their literal and primitive meaning -- the one, coming from above, as supernal; the other dup up from the earth, (coming from beneath) therefore is infernal. Mr. [R.] waited for no explanation, but dashed the letter into the fire, professing to feel very much insulted, but no doubt feeling very glad of an excuse for refusing to debate the question as he had proposed.

Make what use you please of anything I have written. I have said nothing I am unwilling to meet at any time or place.   Yours, truly,
             H. H. CLAPP.

The writer of the above is a thoroughly reliable man. He is a son of Hon. Orris Platt [sic, Clapp], who held a judicial office for years, and Rigdon was a partaker of his bounty. The Platt [sic, Clapp] family were members of Rigdon's flock when he preached Discipleism, and they received their baptism into that faith at his hands.

Note 1: The writer of the letter dated Jan. 29, 1879 was Mr. Henry Harrison Clapp (1812-1897) of Mentor, Lake co., Ohio. He sent the letter to James Thornton Cobb, who was then working on an occasional basis as a journalist for the Salt Lake Tribune. Cobb submitted a lengthy series of articles on Mormonism for publication in the Tribune during 1878-79; Cobb's first contribution in this series was probably "Early Mormonism" published on Dec. 8, 1878.

Note 2: Henry H. Clapp was well acquainted with Sidney Rigdon, both during his career as a "Reformed Baptist" (Campbellite) minister, and after 1830 when Rigdon was the second-ranking leader in the Mormon leadership at Kirtland. Henry's wife was Statira Newcomb, the daughter of the Rev. Obadiah Newcomb who served as the Baptist pastor in Pittsburgh when Sidney Rigdon converted to that denomination at the nearby Peters Creek Baptist congregation in 1818. Henry's father was the Hon. Orris Clapp, who provided the Rigdon family free housing during their residence at Mentor. Henry H. Clapp was baptized into the Mentor Campbellite congragation in June of 1828 by S. Rigdon. His brother, Thomas Jefferson Clapp was baptized by Rigdon on June 15 1827 at Mentor. On Nov. 12, 1831 Thomas married Lorinda Bentley, the daughter of Mary Brooks Bentley, Rigdon's sister-in-law; thus Thomas was Rigdon's nephew by marriage. Also, on Sept. 14, 1829, a year before his own conversion to Mormonism, Rigdon married Henry H. Clapp's sister Harriet to Darwin Atwater at Mentor. Henry H. Clapp was obviously very well acquainted with Rigdon.

Note 3: James T. Cobb probably first wrote to the Clapp family of Mentor near the end of 1878. On Nov. 3, 1878 Cobb had contacted an old friend of the family, Mr. J. J. Moss, asking about his knowledge of early Mormonism in Ohio. Moss wrote to Cobb on Jan. 23, 1879: "Thomas Clapp of Mentor, Lake Co., O, can come nearer answering some of your questions than any man living now." It seems that Cobb was ahead of Moss' suggestion, in his correspondence, and had already written to the Clapps. It is not known whether Cobb exchanged letters with Thomas J. Clapp. Another brother, who also known Rigdon well, was Matthew Smith Clapp, who had died in 1872. Matthew contributed an article on Rigdon to the Painesville Telegraph of Feb. 15, 1831 that agrees with his brother Henry's recollections in nearly every respect.

Note 4: Henry H. Clapp's recollection of the unexpected swiftness with which Rigdon converted to Mormonism is probably essentially correct. Henry says that the four Mormon missionaries to the Lamanites "came to Mr. Rigdon's Wednesday evening," but then qualifies his story by adding "I think." Rigdon's historian, Richard S. Van Wagoner has the four missionaries (Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer, and Ziba Peterson) arriving "near Rigdon's Mentor home on Thursday, 28 October." Van Wagoner's reconstruction of events does not take all four Mormons immediately to Rigdon's doorstep on the Clapp farm in Mentor -- rather, he says: "After dividing into pairs, the young elders began to proselyte. Cowdery and Pratt... called on the Rigdon household..." In this scenerio "Some of the Mormon emissaries" (Peter Whitmer and Ziba Peterson) go directly to the Morely commune in Kirtland on Thursday, Oct. 28, and there convert many of these detached Rigdonite parishioners for a speedy Mormon baptism, while Cowdery and Pratt are still introducing the principles of Mormonism to Rigdon and his associates in Mentor. Rigdon then goes to Kirtland on Oct. 31, for his Sunday preaching engagement, and there finds some of his congregation (17 members from the Morely farm) already baptized into the new Mormon dispensation. According to Clapp, Rigdon had already heard of this mass baptism of his members at Kirtland on or before Saturday, Oct. 30. Clapp also says that when next he heard of Rigdon, "on Monday" (Nov. 1?) "he and his wife had been baptized some time during that Sunday night and gone over to Mormonism." Here Clapp may have compressed a week's worth of time in his memory, as Richard S. Van Wagoner has the Rigdons being baptized the following Sunday, on Nov. 8, 1830. Whether his formal entry into Mormonism was on Nov. 1 or Nov. 8, it seems that Sidney Rigdon was indeed converted with unexpected swiftness -- what Clapp calls "perfectly unexpected... like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky." The sequence of events put forward by Clapp and Van Wagoner raises the vexatious question: why did the junior missionaries -- Elders Whitmer and Peterson -- take it upon themselves to baptize practically the entire Morely commune without first gaining the concurrence of those members' pastor (or, at least, of their two senior companions, then staying with that pastor)? One tenable answer is that they did have Rigdon's permission, albeit a secret one, to carry out this fait accompli, prior to his coming to Kirtland for the scheduled preaching service of Oct 31, 1830.