Mormon History

First Idea Behind Mormonism - 1879

The Salt Lake Daily Tribune November 5, 1879


It is not at all likely that the idea of starting a new church in the world had ever assumed definite shape in the mind of Sidney Rigdon, the founder of the Mormon work, until the spring of 1829.

In "a revelation given to Joseph and Martin, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, March, 1829, when Martin Harris desired of the Lord to know whether Joseph had, in his possession, the "record of the Nephites," the Lord says, or rather is represented as saying:

And thus, if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a Reformation among them, and I will put down all lyings and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envyings, and strifes, and idolatries, and sorceries, and all manner of iniquities, and I will establish my church like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old. -- Book of Commandments, 1832, page 11.

This passage of the revelation, and a good deal more, has since been expunged. As Rigdon, in March, 1829, was actively engaged and conspicuous among the Disciples in the Campbellite Reformation, (or, as they preferred to call it, the work of the Restoration of the Ancient Gospel,) designs in palming off the Book of Mormon, the first design and that which supervened. And, evidently led astray, like so many others in and out of Mormonism, by the truly surprising mastery manifested by the prophet upon the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri and their settlement in Illinois, in 1839-40, Gunnison fails to show the utter impossibility of Smith having been the leading and controling genius of Mormonism during its first decade. The fact -- patent, indisputable -- of Rigdon's supremacy during this period, has astonished and puzzled many. The point, who really was this guiding and shaping intelligence, has been covered with the energy, indeed the very instinct of self-preservation. Said Rigdon, in New York, in 1844, after his prophet's death, when [figuring] for the successorship (and here he just had this passage been allowed to stand, it might have caused inquiry, betrayed the true source of the revelation and shown the connection. It was extremely prudent therefore, to suppress it.

But why was Martin still so skeptical as to Joseph having in his possession the "record of the Nephites?" Had he not himself, the year before, written 116 pages of this "record?" Or was it simply a book speculation he was at that time concerned in? It undoubtedly was; and it is a remarkable fact that the first so-called "revelation" which was ever "received" by the prophet Joseph was in consequence of Mrs. Harris' conduct in abstracting and burning the 116 pages, which her husband had written. "The Lord" did not know that Mrs. Harris had burned this "translation from the plates of Lehi," or He would never have given the revelation, informing the prophet that they had been kept and. with sinister design to thwart his purpose, altered. In that case He would not have said to Joseph:

You shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of King Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained; and behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi, and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.

"The Lord" might have saved himself all this flurry had he only known that the wrathy wife of Harris had burnt these pages, and never had an idea of altering them. But, if Oliver Cowdery, commencing as he says he did, to write the Book of Mormon while Joseph translated, the middle of April, 1829, and if he wrote it all but a few pages, as he says he did, what portion of the book had Joseph "retained" in June, 1829, when Mrs. Harris stole the 118 pages?

The simple, the natural, the irresistible conclusion is, that the original design in getting out the Book of Mormon was chiefly for a money spec., through a glamour of mystery. Says Mr. J. H. Gilbert, the printer who first set it up (who still lives in Palmyra, N. Y.): "The plates found by Jo, as represented at the time, purported to be a history of the lost tribes of Israel, and not establishing a new religion, but configuring the Old Testament." All the facts, so far as they have been uncovered, point in this direction, and that the very head and front of the offending had this extent, no more, up to the Spring of 1829, when Cowdery, as he tells it, "commenced to write the Book of Mormon;" and when "day after day" -- for at least six weeks -- "I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his (Smith's) mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim" -- alias, Chase's peep-stone -- or, as the Nephites would have said, "interpreters," the history or record called the Book of Mormon.

Says Lieut Gunnison, in his acute and valuable little volume, "The Mormons, or Latter-day Saints":

But let us return to the consideration of the plan in view by this work [The Book of Mormon.] There was a higher object than the making of money by it; -- and another purposes beyond harmonizing the Christian world. The grand scheme was to convince the Jews in all the world that "Jesus is the Christ," their long-expected Messiah, as foretold by their ancient prophets. Accordingly, we find the prophecies here made perfectly plain. As Cyrus is spoken of in Isaiah by name long before his advent, so the name and office of the Savior is declared by the Nephite seers.

But apropos just here. Says Coloridge: "Of prophets in the sense of prognostications, I utterly deny that there is any instance, delivered by one of the illustrious Diadochs whom the Jewish Church comprised in the name Prophets -- and I shall regard Cyrus as an exception, when I believe the 137th Psalm to have been composed by David.

Lieut Gunnison continues:

Nor was this all. The Indians throughout the length and breadth of the land were to be informed of their origin, -- the cause of the Divine wrath explained which had sunk them in degradation; and that "in the last days" they could recover pristine favor, and again become a "fair and delightsome people," enjoying temporal salvation and eternal happiness. Could he succeed in making these two peoples believe in his book as a divine record, their conversion to Christianity was certain to follow. Nor was this thing beneath a soaring ambition, and its success would now place its author on the pinnacle of fame, -- and the object to have been obtained was therefore a good one, whatever we may think of the deception attempted to be practiced.

Ay, but the whirligig of time is sure to bring about its revenges. The priest who stole a lamb to offer in sacrifice was still a thief. Lieut. G. has not, it seems, separated the two peeps a little): "I guided the prophet's tottering steps until he could walk alone, and now it is my right and my place to lead." And he assuredly would have succeeded in that leadership had he ben (say) as ignorant of the real origin of Mormonism as was Brigham Young. The difficulty was, he knew altogether too much about it. His very life was in jeopardy, with such a secret as he held, and he was forced to twist, and double, and palter and equivocate. The people saw this, but knew not the cause. Suffice it to say, they saw this disposition manifest in Rigdon, and what confidence could they repose in him? Again, in Rigdon's case, the whirligig of time brought about its revenges. How far Brigha himself was duped it is hard to say, perhaps impossible to ever know; but that he was duped to a greater or less extent this writer is persuaded. Possibly John Taylor and Orson Pratt have been. But, if they have read The Tribune for the past year or half year, they have certainly found things broached in this connection which neither they nor any other Mormon living or dead, can controvert. Enough has already been brought forward to indicate the cunning and unscrupulous contrivance of the whole scheme. None so blind as those who won't see. But the honest are getting their eyes open. Here and there one is found who has no axe to grind, and whom nothing but the truth will satisfy. 'Tis a world of progress. People are not naturally lovers of the false, and this class will swell presently to a mutitude.

It is unjust to hold Brigham Young chiefly responsible for the atrocities committed in Utah. It is unjust to hold Joseph Smith chiefly and originally responsible for the iniquities of Nauvoo. The "revelations" given to the Mormon Church, impiously, in the name of God, are responsible. And who is responsible for those revelations? Sidney Rigdon -- if a man beside himself with fanaticism is to be held responsible for anything. Look to it, look to it, all ye who have drunk in of the Mormon spirit of enmity and double-dealing, ye who form a clan, prating of Gentiles, apostates, and the devil knows what all, of folly and insane vituperation! Sidney Rigdon is your spiritual father. The quintessence of the odious spirit of sect-building and bitter Pharisaism was in him incarnate, and whether you know and can even yet begin to sense it, or not, he is your spiritual pastor and master: the trail of that serpent is over ye all.

Note 1: The excerpt that article writer James T. Cobb quotes from Mr. John H. Gilbert (saying that Joseph Smith was originally not attempting to establish a new religion), was probably taken from Gilbert's Oct. 14, 1879 letter to Cobb. The selection from that same letter, as abstracted by von Wymetal in 1886, is too short to confirm this likelihood, however. James T. Cobb's attention was probably first directed to John H. Gilbert when a hostile review of his Dec. 1877 interview appeared in the weekly Deseret News of Jan. 16, 1878. Gilbert, in his March 1881 interview with William H. Kelley , speaks of having been in correspondence with Cobb for "some years," but there is nothing in Cobb's known writings that points to their being in touch before the first part of 1878. Cobb's correspondence with Gilbert was an important catalyst in setting the Salt Lake City journalist on the track of writing a book on the origin of Mormonism. Although that book was never completed and published, portions of its rough draft content appear in his 1879-80 Tribune articles, as well as in the later works of Robert Patterson, Jr., Willhelm R. von Wymetal, A. Theodore Schroeder, Charles A. Shook, and others.

Note 2: Although Cobb seems to have convinced himself that Joseph Smith's "offending" activities had gone no farther than a more or less ordinary book speculation "up to the Spring of 1829," that does not well account for Cobb's thesis saying that Sidney Rigdon was the real founder of Mormonism. Clearly, if Rigdon and Smith were working together to produce the highly religious Book of Mormon -- full of "Campbellite" theology -- as early as 1827, then the goal of their scheme could not logically have been nothing but a book sales speculation "up to the Spring of 1829." Temporally spreaking, at least, Cobb's conclusions in this matter are inconsistent.