Trial of Sidney Rigdon Was a High Council Affair

A Response by John Dinger

John S. Dinger, editorRecently two separate reviewers questioned why I included the church trial of Sidney Rigdon in my book, The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, saying the excommunication was heard by the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, not the high council.1 I’ve let this pass and dismissed these criticisms as inconsequential, but since the argument is gaining steam, I suppose I need to respond to it. In fact, the question carries some significance regarding early LDS governance.

For starters, the partial transcript of the trial, published in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo on September 15, 1844, a week after the trial, quoted Brigham Young as saying: “It is written in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, that the president [of the church] can be tried before a bishop and twelve high priests, or the high council of the church. There [are many here] who were present at the organization of that quorum in Kirtland. We have here before us this morning the high council, and bishop Whitney at their head, and we will try Sidney Rigdon before this council and let them take an action on his case this morning; and then we will present it to the church, and let the church also take an action upon it.”2

Brigham Young added that “the Twelve are to be regarded as witnesses in this trial and not judges. We presented ourselves before the high Council as witnesses and we are prepared to bring other testimony forward if necessary.”3 Thus, in a sense, Brigham Young acted as prosecutor. He called various apostles to testify, so it looked to some like a meeting of the Twelve, but it was the high council that sat in judgment. At the time, the Quorum of the Twelve was known as the “traveling high council” and did not yet have jurisdiction within the established stakes of the church. Joseph Smith was technically president of the high council (also called the president of the high priesthood) and not yet univesally referred to as the president of the church, which indicates the prestige and authority the high council commanded at the time.4 The trial of Sidney Rigdon was one step in a process of defining how the church would be governed in the future, after the death of the founder of the church.

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that the September 8 minutes of the trial were excluded from the collection labeled “High council minutes, 1839 October-1845 October” (LR 3102 22) at the LDS Church History Library. There are actually two sets of minutes, both of which are contained, not in the high council collection, but in the “Historian’s Office General Church Minutes” (CR 100 318). The clerk who produced one set of minutes was William Clayton, whose version was used to prepare the transcript that appeared in the Times and Seasons, with some additions and deletions by John Taylor and notes by Willard Richards. The Clayton version is incomplete, as the extant copy cuts off abruptly part way through the trial. The second set of minutes was taken by John McEwan. It is not only complete but contains additional details not included in the Clayton version. Neither set of minutes was considered preliminary; neither was an early version of the other.5 They were created independently.

I reproduced the McEwan version in my book because it was more complete than the Times and Seasons account. Had I known there would be questions about the general nature of the venue, I would have included additional information from the Clayton minutes, but it did not occur to me that anyone would challenge the fact that this was a high council hearing. I might also comment here on the nature of the General Church Minutes collection, which is a catch-all category for all sorts of things. In September 1844, neither Clayton nor McEwan was writing for a general church meeting. Their minutes ended up in that collection because they had been written on loose sheets of paper and were not bound within a permanent volume.6 In support of the fact that it was a high council meeting, the Clayton minutes differentiate between the Twelve who were “present” and the high council, who appointed someone to serve as their head and appointed replacements for absent members in order to have a full quorum present to formally conduct business.

It should also be noted that, while the meeting was conducted under unusual circumstances, Brigham Young and William Marks made sure it was carried out according to high council rules.7  Brigham Young explained that Rigdon had been given notice of the trial and was given an opportunity to defend himself, stating that Rigdon “had plenty of time to send up & let us know if he wished us to defer this case until future & he has not, & I think he has had plenty of time for we gave him notice on tuesday evening last.”8 President Marks followed high council protocol by personally offering a defense of Rigdon. “I will take up the opposite side,” he said,9 both because he had “always been a friend to Elder Rigdon” and because, according to revelation, someone from the high council was to “stand up in behalf of the accused.”10  Marks’s defense of Rigdon, and Young’s advanced notice to Rigdon, ensured that the trial followed the rules by which the high council operated.

A clarification in the Times and Seasons added that after a brief introduction, President Young “submitted the case to Bishop Whitney and the High Council.” Whitney acted as president of the council. Nor did the Twelve vote on whether Rigdon should be “cut off.” For some reason, William W. Phelps made the motion, but the McEwan record states that when it was voted on, it “passed the high council unanimously.”11

I thought the records were clear in stating that this was a high council hearing and that it was the high council that decided, on the recommendation of the apostles, to cut off Rigdon from the church, that my inclusion of these minutes in the collection was therefore appropriate.

1. Robin Scott Jensen, review of The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, ed. John S. Dinger, Journal of Mormon History 38, No. 3 (Summer 2012): 262-68; Ben Park, “Book Review,” The Juvenile Instructor, online blog, Nov. 20, 2012.

2. Times and Seasons, Sept. 15, 1844, 648. A full run of the publication is available online at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, and through other sources such as the New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Library, 2d. ed. (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 2009).

3. Sept. 8, 1844, Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

4. Doctrine and Covenants 102:9; 107:82-84.

5. Robin Jensen claimed, wrongly, that I “presented not the more historically useful first copy, but the secondary clean copy created from the rough minutes.” In fact, they are so different in style and content, it is easy to see that they are not dependent upon each other.

6. As an example of the sometimes hodge-podge nature of the organization of church records, the Nauvoo Municipal Docket Book on Revenue (MS 3441) includes “Organization of the Emigrating Spring Company of the Camp of Israel,” recorded in the back of the volume where there were some blank pages and not because it had anything to do with Nauvoo city finances.

7. At the July 11, 1841, meeting of the Nauvoo High Council, Joseph Smith set out additional rules for a trial before the high council.  He stated that “the Council should try no case without both parties being present[,] or having had an opportunity to be present,” in Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 373.

8. Ibid, 507.

9. Ibid, 519.

10. D&C 102:17.

11. Dinger, Nauvoo City, 523.