Sidney Rigdon was a fiery orator, a defender of the faith, and Joseph’s Smith’s right hand for many years, who also experienced shared revelations with the prophet. And yet, after the death of Joseph, he left the Church, founding one of his own. Who was this former minister from Ohio?
This is the sixth in a series providing insights from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 6: Sidney Rigdon and the Witnesses
Sidney Rigdon: Some of you have heard that I have been drawn to a new faith.
Sidney Rigdon: I am not here to abandon you, rather to claim my unmitigated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author of our salvation and the head of the restored church.
A few voices: Amen!
Sidney Rigdon: That I am committed to sharing with each and every one of you. Will you love and trust me just one hour longer?
Sidney Rigdon: Will you hear the entire tale?
Sidney Rigdon: Good! Then open your Bibles to the Gospel of John. Chapter 10, verse 16, as I share with you from a new text.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of The Book of Mormon. I’m Camrey Bagley Fox, and I am joined again by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, a Church historian.
Gerritt, could you talk to me more about Sidney Rigdon? What was his role in the early Church? What was his role in the Witnesses leaving? Anything you have.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Alright, well, Sidney Rigdon is, I mean he is a FORCE. There is just really no way of getting around it. Unlike many of the other early believers in the Church, Sidney Rigdon is a well-established and well-known preacher at the time that he is converted. And in fact, his conversion really is one of the early miracles of the Church itself. Oliver Cowdery and Parley Pratt are sent on a mission to go preach to the Native Americans, and on their way Parley Pratt prevails upon them, and says, ‘We gotta stop and talk to this preacher that I once had, his name’s Sidney Rigdon.’ They go meet with Sidney Rigdon, and they give him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and he was kind of an independent preacher following the Campbellite movement. Campbell was someone who REALLY believed that the only way to get it back to a unity of proper Christianity was to take the Bible ABSOLUTELY and to jettison arguments that are anywhere outside of the Bible.
They go meet with Sidney Rigdon, and he was preaching the Bible as the ONLY word of God. Talk about a miracle, that Parley Pratt shows up with another book that’s NOT the Bible and says, ‘By the way, this is like the Bible.’ And the fact that Sidney Rigdon reads it at all is stunning, but he not only reads it, within a week he comes back and THAT book is true.
So when he arrives in New York, he just shows up, and Joseph again doesn’t know Sidney Rigdon at all. He very quickly becomes a central part of Joseph Smith’s inner circle. And he provides something that they didn’t have yet. No one else that had been baptized into the Church at this point—you have lots of people who cared about religion, but you didn’t have anyone whose job it was before to preach religion.
GD: That he was a well-established preacher and a theologian, and so the questions that are going to be asked after he joins the Church, are going to be a little bit different than they would be asked before, because he’s thinking about things on a little bit deeper level. Now, you can see that he very quickly gains this prominent position, and he’s often the loudest voice in the room because he has the most religious experience. He’s obviously an amazing preacher. And look, he’ll take out ads in the newspaper, saying ‘Anyone want to challenge me, come down and debate down on the street.’ And you know, no one, very often at least, takes him up on it.
Then he’s also going to be elevated to be a member of the Presidency of the High Priesthood, which, it’s kind of a forerunner before they had a First Presidency, that’s what they had. And so he’s going to be, really, in this position that if you were one of the Witnesses, and early on it was JUST you and 4 or 5 other people who believed, and suddenly, it’s not just Sidney, it’s Sidney and the bulk of the believers in the Church now are people that were once Sidney’s followers, so he has this whole, I mean, I don’t want to say it’s like a cult-like status in the Church, but —
CBF: It’s his little fan club in the Church.
GD: But essentially, yes! I mean so many people have already given their lives over to him, and so when he comes into the Church, who do you think they’re going to be more willing to listen to? David Whitmer, who they just met last week? Or Sidney Rigdon, who they were taking as their spiritual father for years?
CBF: So there are many people who believe that the early doctrines of the early Church, including the Book of Mormon, came from Sidney Rigdon. Can you elaborate on that?
GD: Yeah, I think people making that claim are making that claim without evidence. In reality, the doctrines that are being revealed are certainly not doctrines that are being taught in Sidney Rigdon’s church. For instance, I mean one of the things that Campbell is the most adamant about is that the Bible is the only source of the word of God.
CBF: Which is the opposite of what The Book of Mormon says.
GD: Not only is the Book of Mormon the Word of God, Joseph Smith’s revelations are the Word of God. Now, are there questions that are being raised simply because Sidney is saying, ‘Well, Joseph, what about this?’ Of course there are.
There are questions that are being raised when Sidney and Joseph are translating the Bible. So, of course, that’s the natural flow of Joseph’s revelations; they have a question, and they ask.
But it’s a pretty weak argument to say that Joseph, who’s already brought forth so much radical doctrine, is suddenly now beholden to Sidney Rigdon to bring forth these radical doctrines.
GD: As it relates The Book of Mormon, I mean, certainly, there are people who make this assertion that actually, Sidney Rigdon had already been converted earlier, that he had come into possession of Solomon Spalding’s manuscript, that he had made changes to it, that he somehow got it back to Joseph Smith and then went back to being a preacher and pretended that he hadn’t heard anything of it, and then when the missionaries came then he pretended to be converted.
CBF: That’s so elaborate!
GD: It’s very elaborate. I mean, Watergate’s got nothing on this. And the reality is, we don’t have any evidence for that. Historians can only operate on evidence. They don’t operate on the basis of, ‘Well this would help me sleep better at night.’ And no doubt it would help people sleep better at night to explain The Book of Mormon, which is COMPLETELY outside of Joseph Smith’s abilities, ‘Well, it wasn’t Joseph who wrote it, it was this amazing preacher who was a great Biblical theologian.’ Of course.
GD: Of course he was able to write that. The problem is, there’s no evidence for that beforehand, there’s simply a supposition that it would certainly be a lot easier for me to believe that, if that was the case.
CBF: So in the Witnesses film, he’s portrayed as pretty loud and kind of a very forward, abrasive person, in a sense.
Sidney Rigdon: What we discuss today is a most serious matter. That of dissension. As Brother Joseph noted, a house divided against itself cannot stand, but must fall.
Crowd: Hear, hear!
Sidney Rigdon: Ye are the salt of the Earth!
Crowd: Hear, hear.
Sidney Rigdon: But if the salt hath lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted?
Sidney Rigdon: Have you lost your savor?! Then you are good for nothing but to be cast out and drawn at the foot of men!
Sidney Rigdon: Cast them out! Cast them out! Cast them out!
GD: Well, so I think it kind of depends on what your opinion of Sidney Rigdon is whether you focus on his qualities as being positive or negative. Certainly the witnesses, when they are leaving and as they leave the Church, they are going to highlight some of those negative aspects, that he’s abrasive, that he’s forward. I mean, look, Sidney Rigdon is not, you know, lacking self-esteem, okay?
GD: He is very sure of himself in everything that he does. But what is interesting, is that, at least in this era, when there’s so many things that are going wrong, and so many possibilities of people being offended and leaving the Church, whether it’s over doctrine, or whether it’s the bank failing, or the problems in Missouri, there are all kinds of reasons. Sidney, is not one of those people. He is pretty adamant in his defense of Joseph Smith, and in fact, it brings him into conflict with other people, because he’s . . . maybe a little too quick to the defense. He’s ready to go full-attack-dog defending Joseph before anyone’s even said anything, almost. So you can see how that would rub people the wrong way.
Obviously in the movie, he is shown as this dynamic preacher, and that’s exactly what he was. I mean, the 19th Century, the second Great Awakening, the reason why it was so powerful, was because of these powerful individual preachers, who had the ability to speak to people in a way that, in many ways, riled up their emotions, made them think about their state before God, made them want to make a change. So he’s, of course, bringing that talent and that ability into the Church.
And he’s certainly willing to, and defers to Joseph Smith all throughout this era. He is following Joseph, and the thing is that, while other people are kind of meandering off the path, Sidney WON’T. Wherever Joseph goes, that’s where Sidney is going. I think Sidney certainly is a believer, but he is a strong personality.
CBF: Sidney has some shared visionary experiences with Joseph, as do many other people in the early Church. Can you tell us about some of those?
GD: I mean the biggest one is Doctrine & Covenants Section 76, which explains the understanding of the kingdoms and the degrees of glory. If you had to pick out three or four revelations that are the most important in the Church, this has got to be there. I mean, this is so important, and it’s not just Joseph who’s seeing the Lord on his throne. It’s Sidney Rigdon as well. They’re seeing this vision and they’re both stopping occasionally to describe what it is they’re seeing to each other. They can both see it, they are clearly looking at something. The other people in the room can’t see it, but they can certainly see the reaction to it. So it’s kind of a testimony to the revelations that Joseph Smith is receiving, in the sense that, with Sidney, in that visionary experience, it’s not just Joseph saying, you know ‘After the many testimonies that have been given of him, this is the testimony last of all that WE give;’ the ‘WE’ is Sidney Rigdon, because he saw it, too. ‘WE saw him even on the right hand of God. We heard a voice bearing record from the Father.’
So, he’s going to have shared, collective visionary experiences with other men in the school of the prophets, with Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple. I think that that helps kind of shift a little bit of the weight from Joseph Smith’s prophetic shoulders. That this isn’t just all on him.
GD: Other people have seen the same things and have come to the same conclusions.
CBF: Does Joseph’s shared visionary experience with Sidney help us understand the collective experience with the Witnesses?
GD: I think so, in the sense that they are similar. In the sense that, we talk about it being Joseph Smith’s visions, but the reality is many of the most important visions that we talk about, whether it’s John the Baptist, and Peter, James and John, or an angel showing plates, or whether it’s God and Jesus appearing to him, you know, they are actually shared experiences; they are experiences that NOT just Joseph saw.
And so, one of the reasons why David Whitmer can be certain that he wasn’t just dreaming, or he didn’t just, ‘You know, I guess I had a bad bit of beef this morning,’ is that he’s not the only one that saw it. Oliver Cowdery, his brother-in-law, well, soon-to-be Brother-in-law, who he really trusts and really loves, also saw. The fact that they both saw it means, all of the ways that people try to invent, to try to find a way to explain it away, is really hard to do in a shared visionary experience. Because even if I start to doubt, ‘Was that really what I saw?’ I only need to have a conversation with the other two people that were there —
GD: — that are going to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we saw.’
I mean, I think that that’s in some ways the importance of the physical reality of the plates. Sometimes when we talk about how the translation of The Book of Mormon took place, people will say, ‘Well, I mean, if he wasn’t actually running his finger down the pages of the plates, if he wasn’t really doing that, why did he even need the plates? Well one VERY clear thing is that the possession of those plates was the unmistakable testimony that: This is real.
This is not just a dream you’re having, because there’s lots of people who claim to have visions. You can’t claim to have 70 or 80 pounds of gold plates.
GD: You either have them —
GD, CBF: Or you don’t.
GD: Or you don’t have them. And the tactile reality that they exist is a reminder over and over and over again—this is not just some kind of dream. This is not me think(ing), ‘These plates are real, they come from somewhere.’ It allows for people to not have to worry, ‘Was I somehow tricked? Was I just not thinking properly? Did I doze off and had a dream and thought that I saw an angel? Well, that can’t possibly be the case, because these other people that were with me all saw the same thing.’
CBF: Hmm. Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.