Sidney Rigdon was an influential leader in the early days of Mormonism and became a good friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was a powerful orator and defender of the fledgling Mormon Church. He eventually became disaffected and left the Church.
Sidney Rigdon was born on February 19, 1793, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1817, while caring for his widowed mother, Rigdon joined a church and within a year had became qualified as a licensed preacher of the Regular Baptists. He then moved to eastern Ohio to preach and learn more. In 1820, Rigdon married Phebe Brooks and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He was a successful preacher, and his congregation soon became one of the largest in Pittsburgh. Rigdon, however, was constantly looking for the pure church of Christ as described in the New Testament. In 1830, in Kirtland, Rigdon set up a Church that was looking for the restoration of Christ’s Church. His Church was at first associated with the Campbellite movement, which sought to bring back New Testament Christianity.
Conversion and Church Activity
In October of 1830, missionaries from the Church visited Rigdon while traveling through northern Ohio. After two weeks of studying about the Church and reading the Book of Mormon, Rigdon announced that he believed the Church was true. In November, he was baptized and ordained an Elder in the Church. More than a hundred members of his congregation also converted. Ultimately, nearly 3,000 Campbellites would join the Mormon Church. Almost immediately after joining the Church, Rigdon left for New York in order to meet Joseph Smith. He soon began working as a scribe for Joseph Smith for the translation of the Bible and for parts of the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price.
When the Mormons relocated to Kirtland, Rigdon assumed a greater role. He was present for many important revelations, including the vision of the three degrees of glory (see Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial Kingdoms. Because of his prominence, in March of 1832, he and Joseph Smith were dragged from their homes, beaten, and tarred and feathered. Rigdon received a severe head injury, from which he never fully recovered.
In March of 1833, Rigdon was set apart as the First Counselor to Joseph Smith. He had been called a year earlier but not set apart. At this time Joseph Smith said of Rigdon, “Brother Sidney is a man whom I love, but he is not capable of that pure and steadfast love for those who are his benefactors that should characterize a President of the Church of Christ. This, with some other little things, such as selfishness and independence of mind…are his faults. But notwithstanding these things, he is a very great and good man; a man of great power of words, and can gain the friendship of his hearers very quickly. He is a man whom God will uphold, if he will continue faithful to his calling (History of the Church 1:443).” Though a man of great intelligence and wit, and a very capable orator, Rigdon was unstable. Nevertheless, he was for the time being, a friend to the Prophet.
In the following years, Rigdon helped Joseph teach, arranged the revelation found in the Doctrine and Covenants for printing, and composed and compiled the Lectures on Faith under Joseph's direction. In 1838, he moved to Far West, Missouri. In Missouri, during the so-called "Mormon War," when the Mormons were being driven and harassed by mobs, he delivered two fiery orations—one called the "Salt Sermon" in which he compared the Mormons' enemies to the salt which has lost its savor and should be cast out. These speeches only stirred up more trouble and led to leaders of the Church, Rigdon included, being imprisoned. He was later released because of severe seizures caused by his former head injury. Because he was one of the few leaders of the Church not in prison, Rigdon was active in helping the Mormons escape Missouri after the Extermination Order, and later in founding Nauvoo, Illinois. In Nauvoo, Rigdon was elected to the City Council. He was also the city attorney and postmaster, and was appointed the professor of Church history in the never-built Nauvoo University. During this time, Rigdon was often sick and rarely preached.
All Is Not Well
Rigdon was accused of associating with people who wanted to displace Joseph Smith, though he denied these charges. Rigdon did not agree with the new doctrine of plural marriage, but never opposed it. In early 1844, Rigdon went to Pittsburgh against the Lord's command. In an earlier revelation, The Lord chastened Sidney, saying:
- I, the Lord, am not pleased with my servant Sidney Rigdon; he exalted himself in his heart, and received not counsel, but grieved the Spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 63:55).
Claim to Succession
Rigdon returned immediately after the death of Joseph Smith and offered to be the “guardian of the Church,” but his offer was rejected by the members of the Church (see Choosing a Prophet). Rigdon became upset and tried to set up a separate leadership. It was for this that Rigdon was excommunicated in September 1844. Rigdon left Nauvoo and moved to Pennsylvania, where he established his own church, often called the Rigdonites, which was comprised of other dissident Mormons who opposed polygamy and other doctrines. The Church eventually collapsed, and members formed their own churches. Rigdon moved to Friendship, New York, where he spent the rest of his life living off the charity of his relatives.
The Spalding Manuscript
For a time, antimormons have claimed that Sidney Rigdon had a hand in writing the Book of Mormon, since they suppose that Joseph Smith was too uneducated to have done so. They assert that he stole a book written by Solomon Spalding and used it to create the book. That Rigdon had never heard of Mormonism until after the Book of Mormon's publication is proof enough that he could not have participated in its authorship. Furthermore, the Spalding manuscript has since been found and shown to have no similarities to the Book of Mormon.