reviews – Sidney Rigdon

Sidney RigdonPacific Historical Review, Klaus J. Hansen
The conversion of Sidney Rigdon to Mormonism in November 1830, in Mentor, Ohio, was something of a coup, bringing a modicum of respectability and a substantial flock of followers to the new religion, which had led a precarious existence since its founding in New York in April of that same year. A leading exponent of Reform Baptism, Rigdon had been close to Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. He was relatively well educated, articulate, and energetic, and was to play a dominant role in the shaping of the Mormon religion until the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844. As a close associate of Smith and a member of the First Presidency, he stood a good chance of becoming the martyred prophet’s successor, but found himself outmaneuvered by Brigham Young who, as head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was able to convince a majority of Mormons of his claims to leadership. Rigdon, unwilling to accept Young as Smith’s successor, was excommunicated. His claims to leadership fell on equally deaf ears among many of those who refused to accept Young in the belief that the Prophet had designated his son Joseph III as his successor and who eventually formed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in both historical traditions Rigdon became a virtual non-person. Though for more than a decade he had been “Smiths foremost advisor, strategist, and divinely-appointed spokesman” (p. viii), those who controlled history in Salt Lake City and Independence altered official records to diminish Rigdon’s stature and importance. While this did not prevent the sporadic appearance of some Rigdon studies, Richard Van Wagoner’s is clearly the most thorough and exhaustive work on Rigdon thus far and will likely remain so for some years to come. In addition to demonstrating Rigdon’s central role in the development of Mormonism, Van Wagoner also shows Rigdon’s formative influence on Reform Baptism, whose leaders, just as the Mormons later on, attempted to expunge Rigdon from the historical record. He also makes it clear that Rigdon must share some blame for his unkind treatment. Ambitious, volatile, vain, Rigdon suffered from what Van Wagoner convincingly diagnoses as manic-depressive illness, exacerbating traits that made him a difficult person in the best of times. While he shows little sympathy for the manipulations of Brigham Young, he also believes that Young was the better leader, and doubts that Mormonism would have survived under Rigdon’s leadership. At the same time Mormonism even under Young, would not have been what it was without the substantial contribution of Sidney Rigdon. And thanks in no small part due to Richard Van Wagoner, Brigham Young’s descendants will have to acknowledge Sidney Rigdon’s central role in their history.

Journal of the West, Ronald C. Woolsey
Sidney Rigdon was a key figure in the early development of Mormonism, an equal to Joseph Smith; and his split with Brigham Young highlights the political intrigue and internal power struggles between church elites. Richard S. Van Wagoner’s work is an important biography, separating religious interpretation from historical fact, a difficult endeavor considering the unique nexus between politics and theology in Mormon history.

Rigdon was a paradox—eloquent, passionate, and devout, but limited as a church administrator by his recalcitrant, vindictive and vain temperament. The Mormon sense of equality, communal living, and shared wealth were popular in the Jacksonian era of common man principles. Rigdon, however, was more comfortable in the exegetic sense, rather than from a secular devotion to community. He disdained polygamy, distanced himself from the poor, and favored a comfortable lifestyle—as did many of the Mormon elders. Yet his sermons, lectures, and writings defined church teaching, bringing intellectual substance to the Mormon faith that the charismatic, but poorly educated, Joseph Smith could not.

Van Wagoner is best at highlighting the internal squabbles over failed church policy, persecution of the church within the context of the Panic of 1837, and the emergence of Danites amidst the vigilante climate prevalent on the Western frontier.

Perhaps, as Van Wagoner assumes, Rigdon’s only mistake was to outlive Smith, suggesting that his place in Mormon lore would have been better served as a martyr. Rigdon, of course, was no martyr, and his dual role as secular and spiritual leader generated the many conflicts in his life and the turmoil among his followers.

This is necessary reading that adds a colorful dimension to early Mormon leadership within the context of the 19th-century American frontier experience.

Utah Historical Quarterly
Although he never spent time in Utah, Sidney Rigdon was an important figure in the early history of Mormonism. As a trained minister he was able to lend structure and substance to much of the church’s early theology and influenced Joseph Smith in a variety of ways. Troubled by manic depression and an eccentric personality, he was destined to run afoul of church leaders eventually. With his final subjugation by Brigham Young in 1844, he relocated to Pittsburgh and then the Cumberland Valley, becoming the spiritual ancestor to a Church of Christ sect that still thrives today.

This well-researched, well-written book won the Mormon History Association’s 1995 Ella Larsen Turner Award for Best Biography.