The friendship between Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith is very fascinating. Sidney was one of the earliest, and most impressive converts, joining the church in December 1830. His training as a Baptist minister was especially helpful to Joseph, and he often preached many wonderful sermons. As time wore on, there were some really interesting issues between Joseph and Sidney. Richard Van Wagoner wrote a biography called Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess. The Missouri and Nauvoo periods were especially tumultuous.
With Sidney running the church in Quincy, Joseph and others were still in the Liberty Jail. Through the first 10 years of the church, Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith seem to be in lock step with each other. However, the Nauvoo period seems to show a few cracks in the friendship. Were they serious? Well, Joseph called Sidney to be his Vice Presidential nominee–but I’ll get to that later.
The people of Quincy, Illinois took in many of the saints following the expulsion from Missouri. In 2002, the Tabernacle Choir did a benefit concert for the town of Quincy, to thank them for their kindness. With Sidney released from Liberty Jail, his mood improved greatly, and he worked to impeach the government of Missouri. At this time, Joseph Smith chose to reverse himself on the work of gathering saints, as well as consecration (or “common stock”, as in the letter below.) From Liberty Jail, Joseph wrote to the church in Quincy on Mar 25,1839, that the saints should settle “in the most safe and quiet places they can find” between Kirtland and Far West. Additionally, there must be “no organization of large bodies upon common stock principals.” Footnote 9 on page 273 of book expounds this.
No further common stock programs were established during Joseph Smith’s life. The prophet shaded the truth during his 1839-40 trip to Washington, DC., when he stated that Mormons would not share property in common. “‘It has been reported by some vicious or de[s]igning characters’, he said, ‘that the church of Latter Day Saints believe in having their pro[p]erty in common and also the leaders of sa[id] church controlls said propperty….This is a base fabrication,’ he insisted, ‘on the contrary no person’s feelings can be more repugnant to such a principle than mine[,] every person in this Church has a right to controll his own proppe[r]ty'” (Joseph Smith to Mr. Editor [of the Chester County Register and Examiner], 22 Jan. 1840.)
After 2 failed attempts to escape from jail, Joseph and others bribed some guards with a promise of $800. They returned to Quincy, and made plans to settle in Commerce (later named Nauvoo.) Smith and Rigdon bought (for the church) $18,000 worth of property in Nauvoo, and were swindled out of $80,000 in Iowa. As the saints moved to Nauvoo, Rigdon contracted malaria, which would plague him for years. While there are several true reports of Joseph healing people of malaria, Sidney was not one of them.
The leadership continued to press for redress of the wrongs in Missouri, and traveled to DC to speak with Pres Van Buren. Due to Rigdon’s eloquence, he was selected to be the spokesman for the group. Rigdon made a valiant effort to travel to DC, but was just too sick, so Joseph Smith became the spokesman. Smith was not impressed with Van Buren, and the meeting was a disappointment to the saints.
Nauvoo was initially prosperous, but not for long. From page 278,
Although Nauvoo’s population increased dramatically in the early 1840’s, much of its short-lived prosperity was based on the same perilous real estate speculation that brought down Kirtland’s economy. Rigdon and the Smiths once again pinned their financial aspirations on the hopes that new converts, aware of the prophet’s dark visions of America’s future, would flee their homelands, gather to Nauvoo–proclaimed city of refuge–and purchase property from the real estate arm of the church. But of the more than 3,000 British converts who arrived in Nauvoo before 1846, most were poverty-stricken refugees from the English working class. Sobering to the First Presidency was that real estate sales fell far below their expectation, forcing the brethren to default on the promissory notes they had co-signed. Because the church was not yet a legal entity in 1839, Ridgon, the Smith brothers, and their wives were personally liable for the organization’s nearly $150,000 debt.
To pay for the vast acreage, Mormon property owners were advised to sign their real estate over to the church, through agents Isaac Galland and William Smith, in exchange for an equivalent value of land in Nauvoo… Overwhelmed by their obligations, Rigdon and the Smith brothers sought a way out of their financial problems: bankruptcy. [which happened in 1842]
I’d like to address to an awkward episode between Rigdon and Smith. In 1842, Smith tested Rigdon’s friendship when Joseph proposed plural marriage to Sidney’s 19-year old daughter, Nancy. Nancy was summoned on two occasions to meet Joseph, and was repulsed by the idea, threatening to “raise the neighbors” if Joseph didn’t let her go. Through his scribe Joseph wrote an apology to Nancy, which she handed to her boyfriend, Francis Higbee. The letter got out, (and was published in John C. Bennett’s expose on Mormon Polygamy–more on Bennett later) and eventually got to Sidney’s attention.
At first, Joseph denied all to Sidney. Nancy stormed into the room saying,
“Joseph Smith you are telling that which is not true[.] you did make such a proposition to me, and you know it.” Another unnamed person said, “Nancy are you not afraid to call the Lord[‘s] anointed a cursed liar[?]” “No”, replied Nancy, “I am not for he does lie and he knows it.”[Rigdon’s son-in-law, George] Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging his proposition, sought a way out of the crisis by claiming he had approached Nancy “to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts.” But Sidney found that rationalization feeble. Convinced of Smith’s involvement in the “spiritual wife business,” as Sidney later termed it, Rigdon concluded that Smith had “contracted a whoring spirit.” This is why, according to Wickliffe [Sidney’s son], Rigdon told family members immediately after the prophet left their home that Smith “could never be sealed to one of his daughters without his consent as he did not believe in the doctrine.”
Chapter 21 is the first chapter to address polygamy in the book, though it does go back in time to address rumors of polygamy in Kirtland and other places. Let me sidetrack to Emma for a minute. At times the issue of polygamy…
left Joseph and Emma’s marriage hanging by a thread. Emma spent the last three years of her husband’s life jealously battling his errant yearnings, more than once threatening to return to her family in New York. On one occasion, according to Smith’s private secretary, she threatened that if he continued to “indulge himself she would too.” [William Clayton Diary] Although Emma apparently countenanced two of her husband’s 1843 sealings–to Emily and Eliza Partridge–she recanted within a day and demanded that Joseph give them up or “blood should flow.” Her change of heart came after she found Joseph and Eliza Partridge secluded in an upstairs bedroom at the Smith home. The realization that the sealing represented more than a “spiritual marriage” or “adoptive ordinance” devastated her. [From page 293]
Some of the footnotes are very interesting on this subject. Footnote 26 on page 305 quotes an 1844 expose of Mormonism. I don’t know if this can be corroborated, but I found it interesting.
“Emma’s threat to “be revenged and indulge herself” may have been merely a warning to the prophet to give up his spiritual wives. But Joseph H. Jackson, a non-Mormon opportunist who gained the confidence of the prophet in Nauvoo, recorded in an 1844 expose of Mormonism: “Emma wanted [William] Law for a spiritual husband,” and because Joseph “had so many spiritual wives, she thought it but fair that she would at least have one man spiritually sealed up to her and that she wanted Law, because he was such a ‘sweet little man.'”
Although there is nothing to suggest that Law and Emma were more to each other than friends, Law later confirmed that Joseph “offered to furnish his wife Emma with a substitute for h im, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in his house and to be well treated, etc.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 3 July 1887.)
Faithful Dissident talks about a deathbed confession of Emma, where Emma again denies polygamy. Footnote 30, page 304 “In 1846, two years after Joseph’s death, Emma Smith, in a conversation with Joseph W. Coolidge, remarked that “Joseph had abandoned plurality of wives before his death.” Coolidge indicated from personal experience that he knew otherwise. After a heated exchange Emma retorted with exasperation, “Then he was worthy of the death he died.” (Joseph F. Smith diary, 28 Aug 1870.)
Another crack in the Rigdon and Smith friendship occurred in relation to the post office. Rigdon had secured the lucrative position, wherein he was paid for every piece of mail that passed through. It was one of the more lucrative positions one could hold. Smith suspected Rigdon may have been trying to undermine Joseph, and wrote several letters trying to get Rigdon fired from the post office, and have Smith installed as his replacement.
John C Bennett, a former close personal aide of Joseph Smith, was excommunicated for unauthorized polygamy. He then became a virulent anti-mormon. According to Van Wagoner, Bennett is responsible for instigating many Missourians to continue to try to extradite Joseph, and also may have had a role in organizing the mobs which killed Joseph. Bennett wrote a letter to Rigdon, trying to get help with his plan to bring down the prophet. On page 315,
In early January, however, Rigdon did receive a message from Bennett. The 10 January 1843 letter, also addressed to Orson Pratt, incorrectly assumed that its recipients would sympathize with Bennett’s plan to orchestrate the prophet’s downfall.
“Dear Friends–It is a long time since I have written you, and I should now much desire to see you; but I leave tonight to Missouri, to meet the messenger charged with the arrest of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight and others, for murder, burglary, treason, etc., etc., who will be demanded in a few days on new indictments, found by the grand Jury of a called court, on the original evidence and in relation to which a nolle prosequi was entered by the district attorney. New proceedings have been gotten up on the old charges and no habeus corpus can then save them. We shall try Smith on the Boggs case when we get him into Missouri. The war goes on, and although Smith thinks he is now safe, the enemy is near, even at the door. He has awoke the wrong passenger….
P.S. Will Mr. Rigdon please hand this letter to Mr. Pratt after reading?
After Rigdon read the letter he immediately handed it to Mr. Pratt, who then turned it over to Smith. The prophet, initially dismayed that Rigdon has given the letter first to Pratt, took the dispatch to John Taylor, editor of Times and Seasons. Smith instructed Taylor to publish the letter along with a statement condemning Rigdon’s actions.
Smith requested Taylor “to prefer charges against Sidney Rigdon before a court composed of twenty-four High Priests and three Bishops.”…. Before Taylor could publish the editorial or initiate action against Rigdon, the prophet approached Rigdon and “charged him with being leagued with [his] enemies to destroy him.” Rigdon, according to Taylor, responded: “I know it was wrong [not to give him the letter sooner]; but I darst not take upon myself the responsibility of making it known,” apparently because of his position as postmaster. Rigdon’s explanation satisfied the prophet. When Taylor asked him if he should proceed with the trial and publish the editorial, Smith replied, “I think you had better not, we will save him if we can.”
I want to mention one other footnote about Governor Boggs, which was alluded to in Bennett’s letter to Rigdon. Governor Boggs had survived an assassination attempt. Many people then and now believe Porter Rockwell, a body guard of Joseph Smith was responsible for the attempt. Footnote 8 on page 325 says, “The attempt on Boggs’s life took place on the night of 6 May 1842. Orrin Porter Rockwell, one of Smith’s closest friends, was arrested later that year and charged with the attempted murder. Although neither the prophet nor Rockwell was convicted of the crime, Rockwell never denied shooting Boggs. General Patrick E. Conner reported that Rockwell told him, “I shot through the window and thought I had killed him, but I had only wonded him. I was damned sorry that I had not killed the son of a bitch.”
I guess what is amazing to me is that Joseph continued to try to undermine Rigdon’s position as postmaster, and still suspected Rigdon was behind attempts to have Smith arrested. Yet it seems they reconciled. In 1844, dissatisfied with the current crop of presidential candidates, Joseph decided to run for President of the United States as a candidate of the Mormon Reform Party. He was nominated during a political caucus on January 29, 1844.
Joseph’s first choice for Vice President was James Arlington Bennett. However, Bennett was ineligible due his Irish citizenship. Joseph’s second choice was Solomon Copeland of Tennessee, who was not interested. Sidney Rigdon was his third choice, and Rigdon enthusiastically accepted. He gave a rousing address in General Conference on April 6 and 7, 1844.
The US Constitution states that the President and Vice President must be from two different states. So, Sidney was called on a mission to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to set up residency. (Rigdon was born in St. Clair Township which now consists of present-day neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh.) He left for Pennsylvania on June 18.
Just prior to Rigdon leaving Nauvoo, William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency, Law’s wife and four others were excommunicated for opposing polygamy. Rigdon informed Law that if they would “let all the difficulties drop” that Smith would restore Law and his friends back to their offices within the church. Law refused, and helped print the Nauvoo Expositor on which came out on June 7, exposing polygamy.
Smith ordered the destruction of the press as a public nuisance. On June 14, Rigdon sent a letter to Illinois governor Thomas Ford, asking for help, while denouncing the paper. On June 18, Rigdon left Nauvoo, arriving in Pittsburgh on June 27. Joseph and Hyrum were killed the next day, on June 28 in a hail of gunfire at the Carthage Jail. Rigdon learned of the news five days later.
So, what is your reaction to all the events of Nauvoo? Unlike the William Law (editor of the Nauvoo Expositor), Sidney was publicly silent on polygamy, though he was personally repulsed by the practice. How would you have reacted if Smith had proposed marriage to your 19-year old daughter? What do you make of the incident where Joseph tried to get Sidney fired from the post office? It seems to me that this was a real life soap opera. The Nauvoo period alone would make a great movie.