by Scott G. Kenney
Sidney Rigdon (1793–1876) was a leading figure in founding two American religious traditions, Mormonism and the Churches of Christ. Born ten miles south of Pittsburgh on February 19, 1793, his and his uncle’s families belonged to the denomination called Regular Baptist (three cousins would become ministers). Regulars were strict Calvinists who adhered to the tenets of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742), including original sin, total depravity of human beings, predestination, irresistible grace, saving faith, and spiritual rebirth.
Ordained in 1820, Sidney became minister of the Pittsburgh Baptist Church in 1822 and embraced the movement of reformer Alexander Campbell, who called for the “restoration of the ancient order of things.” Campbell denounced creeds and all other “inventions of men” in favor of the authority of the New Testament. Instead of faith as the transformative operation of the Spirit on the elect, Campbell preached faith as a simple, reasoned response to the testimonies of the apostles in the New Testament. Instead of baptism as an emblem of spiritual rebirth—the outward sign of an inward grace—he insisted that baptism was for the remission of sins. In baptism the sins of the penitents were formally washed away.
For teaching these and related heresies, Rigdon was expelled from the pulpit by the Redstone Baptist Association in 1823. Moving to Ohio, he affiliated with the Mahoning Association of his mentor and brother-in-law, Adamson Bentley. Campbell also migrated to the Mahoning group, as did Walter Scott, Campbell’s and Rigdon’s non-denominational cohort in Pittsburgh. There was a natural affinity between Scott and Campbell, both being products of the Scottish Enlightenment—Walter a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and Campbell having attended the University of Glasgow.
Engaged as the evangelist for the Mahoning group in 1827, Scott developed an innovative method of teaching. The gospel, he came to believe, came first through faith as a rational assent of Jesus as Lord; next came repentance, a determination to turn from sin; third, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and fourth, the gift of the Holy Spirit, leading to eternal life. At the end of an address, he called for the converted to come forward and be baptized. This emphasis on baptism for the remission of sins was tantamount to Catholic “sacramentalism” in the minds of mainstream Protestant clerics. However, the simplicity and immediacy of Scott’s approach were appealing to many people at the time. In four weeks he baptized 150 converts, most of them Regular Baptists.
As pastor of the Regular Baptist Church that served Painesville, Mentor, and Kirtland, Rigdon adopted Scott’s approach, as did his brother-in-law. In six months the three immersed eight hundred people, wreaking havoc among the Regular Baptist Churches and leading the editor of one Presbyterian paper to exclaim, “Look at the Baptist Church in this part of the country. It has been thrown into the greatest confusion, torn and lacerated to the bone—divided and subdivided, and is now bleeding at every pore.”
Sidney organized five “Reformed” congregations, and the moniker “Rigdonites” began to be applied to his followers. He was, Alexander Campbell acknowledged, “the great orator of the Mahoning Association.” But by early 1830, differences between Rigdon and Campbell were becoming apparent. In his Christian Baptist, Campbell frequently referred to the “restoration” of primitive Christianity, but Rigdon went further and said the people of the Old Testament had been Christians. Contrary to Campbell, Rigdon believed that miracles and gifts of the Spirit were still needed in the world. People needed to be “called” to preach the gospel, as opposed to Campbell’s view that those who had a desire to preach should do so. The millennium, said Campbell, had already begun.
By early 1830 the differences between Rigdon and Campbell had become apparent. In February 1830 three members of Rigdon’s flock, Isaac Morley, Titus Billings, and Lyman Wight, combined their assets as a “common-stock company” patterned after the New Testament Church. Soon eight more families joined. At the annual meeting of the Mahoning Association in late August, Rigdon promoted the practice. Campbell was repulsed by this fanaticism and argued that the biblical franchise had been instituted in a specific time and place and was no longer relevant. The two argued, and in the end Campbell prevailed.
Enter the Mormons
Within days, one of Sidney’s protégés, Parley Pratt, met Joseph Smith in New York and was rebaptized for the remission of sins. In October he and Oliver Cowdery arrived at the Rigdon home in Mentor and pointed out that Mormons held several heterodox views in common with Reformed Baptists. Both decried sectarianism and disavowed creeds and a formal clergy. Both were restorationist and taught the formula of faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost. Faith was considered to be an intellectual exercise. Both called on believers to come forward and have their sins immediately washed away. The similarities were so striking that one newspaper article carried the headline, “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved.”
There were differences, to be sure, but they tended to occur at points where Mormons agreed with the Rigdonite critique of Campbellitism. Both Rigdon and Smith believed in a literal and far-ranging restoration that would include prophecy, priesthood authority, and gifts of the Spirit. Smith too believed that the ancient patriarchs and prophets were Christians who were called to prepare the way for Jesus, that the current age was a short preparatory period to prepare for Christ’s millennial reign.
The Mormon missionaries baptized seventeen people in one night at the Morley farm near Kirtland. Rigdon himself abruptly reversed course, repudiated Campbellism, and was baptized into the Church of Christ (Mormon) on November 8, 1830. More than a hundred souls were added to the Mormon movement in the next two weeks. The next month a revelation to Smith identified Rigdon as the latter-day John the Baptist who would “prepare the way” for the millennium and be Smith’s scribe and spokesman. This would be reiterated in 1833 (Kirtland Revelation Book, 72; LDS D&C 100:9-11).
Rigdon got to work and helped Smith produce an “inspired” new translation of Genesis and the New Testament; Rigdon also composed the doctrine portion of the Doctrine and Covenants, known as the Lectures on Faith, which although removed from the canon in 1921 were enormously influential until then. Rigdon became the public face of Mormonism. On January 25, 1832, he ordained Smith president of the high priesthood, and in March 1833 he became a counselor to Smith in the “presidency of the high Priesthood,” even “equal” with Smith in holding the “keys of the Kingdom.” When he offered a two-and-a-half-hour dedicatory sermon at the House of the Lord in Kirtland in March 1836, he did so “in his usual, forcible and logical manner,” while Smith was said to have delivered “a short address … in a manner calculated to instruct the understanding, rather than please the ear,” according to the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate of March 1836. Rigdon also gave both the opening and closing prayers for the occasion, while Smith read the scripted dedicatory prayer.
Trouble in Ohio and Missouri
The cost of the House of the Lord was so burdensome that in August 1836, Smith and Rigdon, accompanied by a few others in the Church leadership, traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, to search for buried treasure there (D&C 111). When they failed to find anything, and as debtors clamored for satisfaction, Smith and Rigdon were forced to flee from Kirtland on horseback in the middle of the night on January 12, 1838, and arrived three months later in a Mormon settlement in Missouri called Far West.
Rigdon soon distinguished himself there through his occasional paranoia, invective against the Church’s opponents, and religious extremism. For instance, on June 17, 1838, he gave a sermon known to historians as the Salt Sermon, in which he said that it was the duty of Mormons “to trample [dissenters] into the earth” and hang them because like salt that “has lost its savor,” they were intended to be “cast out” and “trodden under the feet of men” (see Matt. 5:13). Smith followed Rigdon on that occasion and spoke approvingly of what his counselor had said, adding that in the New Testament, “Judas was a traitor, and instead of hanging himself, he was hung by Peter.” On July 4, Rigdon revisited the theme of violence against the Church’s enemies and said “it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled or else they will have to exterminate us; for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families.” By October the governor insisted that the Mormons leave the state.
Smith, Rigdon, and other LDS leaders were apprehended by the Missouri state militia in October and held over in a jail in Liberty, Missouri, on the charge of treason. When Rigdon’s case was reviewed on January 25, 1839, he gave his own defense so eloquently that, as his attorney, General Alexander Doniphan of the state militia, said: “Such a burst of eloquence it was never my fortune to listen to” and “at its close there was not a dry eye in the room, all were moved to tears.” In response, the judge offered bail and immediate release. Even non-Mormons in the room helped raise the $100 needed for Rigdon’s freedom.
When the Latter-day Saints left Missouri for a swampy bend of the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, Rigdon was struck with malaria and was thereafter often bedridden for weeks at a time. Without Rigdon’s knowledge, Smith was beginning to experiment with plural marriage. In fact, Smith eventually proposed to Rigdon’s teenage daughter Nancy. When confronted about this, Smith first denied and then admitted his interest in Rigdon’s daughter after being shown a letter he had written to Nancy. In that letter, Smith had famously written that “happiness is the object and design of our existence … That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another” (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5:134). Rigdon concluded that his friend and spiritual mentor had “contracted a whoring spirit,” but Rigdon continued to support Smith as God’s prophet. Smith repaid that loyalty in May 1844 when he chose Rigdon to be his running mate for the U.S. presidency. Needing his vice president to come from a different state, he sent Rigdon to Pennsylvania to gain residency there. The next month—just a few days after Rigdon’s departure—Joseph and Hyrum Smith were assassinated, leaving Rigdon the only surviving member of the First Presidency.
When contacted about the murders, Rigdon said he was prepared to claim the “prophetic mantle” and “take his place as the head of the church.” He told the Quorum of the Twelve to meet him in Pittsburgh. They had other plans and told him to come to Nauvoo. After arriving in August, he stood with Brigham Young on Thursday, the eighth, on a platform east of the Nauvoo temple and spoke to a crowd of 5,000 Church members. Rigdon’s oration was well received, but Young out-maneuvered him by painting a picture of a new type of Church government in which the apostles would collectively lead the Church.
A month later, Rigdon was tried before the Nauvoo High Council in a raucous session overseen by Young in which Rigdon was accused of introducing people to temple ordinations in Pittsburgh, receiving revelations without submitting them to the Twelve, and (although not stated explicitly) objecting to polygamy. Despite a spirited defense from stake president William Marks, the high council voted unanimously to excommunicate Rigdon.
Rigdon boarded a riverboat in September, never to return to Nauvoo. One of the apostles, Orson Hyde, caught up with Rigdon in St. Louis to ask him to not write publicly about the apostles’ polygamous liaisons. But once established in Pittsburgh, Rigdon started a rival newspaper called, like its LDS predecessor, the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate and devoted its pages to revealing the sexual sins of the apostles. He even wrote in November: “Oh, Joseph! Joseph! Joseph! Where art thou? Oh, Joseph, thou wicked servant, thou hast fallen because of thy transgression!”
Rigdon organized a Grand Council of about seventy men on April 6, 1845, which elected him president of a new Church of Christ. Like the Church Rigdon was once associated with, this new Church soon had twelve apostles, a presiding bishopric, and standing high council. However, a month after being called as the Church’s presiding officer and prophet, when a large fire broke out in Pittsburgh, Rigdon was criticized for not having predicted it. He lost many of the Church’s most prominent members, but he nevertheless responded by leading the stalwart hangers-on out of the city to the south to the Cumberland Valley, which bordered West Virginia, where he said they would build a New Jerusalem. They bought a 390-acre farm from Andrew G. McLanahan on credit; they discovered sympathetic neighbors such as a nearby commune of German Seventh Day Adventists. Rigdon’s people would have done well to follow their German neighbors’ industriousness; if Rigdon had devoted more time to planting and less to planning for the messiah’s advent, they may not have been evicted from the farm the next year. But they were, and local merchants were soon using unfolded printed sheets for a Church hymnal as wrapping paper (Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, 379-393).
With the failure of the Adventure Farm, as the original owner had called it, Rigdon was compelled to move in with family members in New York, accompanied by his wife, Phoebe. They spent the next twenty-five years in quiet personal study of the scriptures and occasional correspondence with distant followers. By 1865 a circle of believers calling themselves the Children of Zion began settling in Attica, Iowa, and were directed solely by letters from Rigdon, who never visited them. In 1870 Rigdon had a small stroke. His health slowly deteriorated over the next six years until his death on July 14, 1876. His wife reported that he became completely deranged six weeks before his demise.
Rigdon’s influence continues to be felt today in several of the disparate branches of the Latter Day Saint movement—nowhere as strongly as in the Church of Jesus Christ headquartered in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The Church was founded by one of Rigdon’s apostles, William Bickerton. Today the Church has some 15,000 members, mostly in Pennsylvania but also throughout the world. Rigdon’s influence is also present in the canonical works of both the LDS Church and Community of Christ and in other theological strains of thought that persist to the present.