DELUSIONS OF SIDNEY RIGDON

Freedom produces "free thinking" and free thinkers filled early America. The wide open spaces of the frontier provided ample opportunity for experimentation. Americans tried new concepts at New Harmony, Indiana; Oneida, New York; Brooke Farm and elsewhere. A few frontier communal experiments took root but most died.

Religious movements also proved a fertile field for experimentation. Social experiments often grew out of religious experiments. The 1830s saw the beginnings of Mormonism, spiritualism, Adventism, and other groups best defined as cults.

The Restoration Movement's elimination of man-made creeds allowed individuals to "search the Scriptures" for themselves. Free thinking resulted. Dr. Leroy Garrett says, "The point to wonder, therefore, is not that they had so many defectors, but that they had so few. . . ."

I take Sidney Rigdon as a stereotype of the early nineteenth century Restoration Movement defectors. As you will see, Rigdon is an interesting and somewhat "charismatic" character.

I. Rigdon's early life and history.

Sidney Rigdon was born February 19, 1793, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, of English and Irish stock. Pittsburgh played an important part in his life. Pittsburgh itself grew rapidly in the early 1800s. The city grew from just 1,565 to 8,000 in 15 years.

Frontier families customarily educated only those children with remarkable ability or those too sickly to endure the difficult working conditions found on the farms. Rigdon's family paid for his younger brother's education but refused to help him. His parents believed he only needed a rudimentary education so they allowed him to learn to read at a nearby log schoolhouse. Rigdon, however, was never satisfied with his education. Even though his father thought it a serious waste of time, Sidney read voraciously. History and the Bible captured his interest and he read almost everything he could get hold of.

As a young man, Rigdon suffered a head injury which affected him throughout the rest of his life. Apparently his horse threw him and because he caught his foot in a stirrup, the horse dragged him some distance. He came away from the incident with a serious concussion. From then on, Rigdon's mental abilities fluctuated. One writer reported that on two occasions Rigdon suffered temporary insanity. Alexander Campbell remarked that Rigdon had a "peculiar mental and corporeal malady, to which he has been subject for some years." Campbell went on to describe this malady in the following terms:

Fits of melancholy succeeded by fits of enthusiasm accompanied by some kind of nervous spasms and swoonings which he has, since his defection, interpreted into the agency of the Holy Spirit, or the recovery of spiritual gifts.

In 1817, at age 24, Rigdon professed a conversion experience and the Baptists at Peter Creek received him into membership. A year later he entered the Baptist ministry.

II. Rigdon among the Mahoning Baptists.

Soon after beginning his ministry with license, Rigdon acquired a reputation as a powerful preacher. From all reports people knew him as a concerned and friendly individual. In 1819, he went to Warren, Ohio (the site of one of Walter Scott's more successful revivals), to work with Adamson Bentley, a successful Mahoning Baptist preacher. Rigdon stayed with Bentley for three years. During that time the Baptists formally ordained him and he married Bentley's sister, Phoebe Brooks.

By 1821, the Mahoning Baptists recognized Rigdon as a great orator. He attracted great crowds wherever he preached. Rigdon professed the five Baptist essentials: baptism by immersion, separation of church and state, a conversion experience, individual responsibility for sin and congregational church government.

Some things still left Rigdon dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction produced a relentless search for "truth." He first looked into the Shakers but concluded they had nothing to offer. In 1821, he and Bentley happened across one of Alexander Campbell's publications. Both Rigdon and Bentley followed Campbell's writings closely. They remained closely connected to Campbell's teachings for ten years. During that time, the Redstone Baptists rejected the Campbells and they were received by the Mahoning Association.

In Pittsburgh, a Redstone Baptist congregation was faction-ridden and consisted of only about 100 members. Campbell encouraged Rigdon to accept a position as their preacher. Rigdon went to the city and that church became one of the city's most successful. Redstone Baptists moved to prohibit the expansion of Campbellian heresy in Pittsburgh. They brought charges against Rigdon which led to his ouster from both the association and the congregation. Between the years 1824-1826 Rigdon worked in Pittsburgh as a tanner.

III. Rigdon and Mormonism.

Rigdon ultimately went to a congregation in Mentor, Ohio. Mentor was located very near Kirtland, Ohio. Kirtland rests in northeastern Ohio just east of modern Cleveland. Rigdon soon led this congregation into the Restoration Movement.

Rigdon continued his search for truth and began developing his own theology. As a result, Rigdon's thinking and Campbell's thinking separated. F. Mark McKiernan, Rigdon's Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints biographer, illustrates this by drawing a distinction in the way the two men viewed creeds. McKiernan says Campbell rejected creeds because they were divisive. Rigdon rejected creeds because they were unscriptural. It soon became obvious that Rigdon accepted the continuance of miraculous spiritual gifts while Campbell believed these existed only in the apostolic church.

Friction grew between the two men until 1830. Rigdon and Campbell argued most over the issue of the "restoration" of a communal society. At the 1830 Mahoning Association meeting Rigdon

... introduced an argument to show that our pretensions to follow the apostles in all their New Testament teachings, required a community of goods; that as they established their order in the model church at Jerusalem, we were bound to imitate their example.

Campbell believed communitarianism would result in "ruin and confusion when practiced by large multitudes of converts." McKiernan reports:

When Rigdon would not change his mind and rescind his proposal, "there occurred at this meeting a passage at arms between Mr. Campbell and Mr. Rigdon." Campbell, who had often stated that his restoration represented the New Testament church, was forced to argue that Rigdon's proposal did not represent the practices of the primitive church at Jerusalem.

Campbell probably saw this fuss as a challenge to his leadership. Even though the Mahoning Baptists rejected Rigdon's proposal, he and some of his church members established a communal society on a farm near Kirtland. This experiment, the "Morley Family," continued until disbanded when the Kirtland Mormons moved west. Campbell wrote extensively in the Millennial Harbinger about such communitarian experiments. He noted the failure in Jerusalem and pointed out that the New Testament approved so such experiments elsewhere. Rigdon took Campbell's writings as a total rejection of himself and his leadership.

Shortly after all this disappointing wrangling, Parley Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer and Ziba Peterson visited Rigdon. Rigdon knew Pratt from his association with the reformed Baptists (Campbell's followers). All these men now professed Mormonism and were headed to Independence, Missouri, where they planned to do mission work among the Indians. These Mormon missionaries claimed to preach the Gospel in its entirety and purity. Of course, this excited Rigdon but he doubted the validity of the golden tablets. The missionaries advised Rigdon to read the Book of Mormon and allow God to reveal its truth through inspiration.

Rigdon supposedly read the book and carefully compared it to Scripture. Rigdon found in the book of Moroni the answer to a question which troubled him for years. Had miracles ceased? The Book of Mormon vigorously denied they had. As he read further, he also discovered (?) immersion for remission of sins and the following spiritual gifts: wisdom, knowledge, healing, speaking and interpretation of tongues, miracles and prophecy. Rigdon's reading convinced him he had truly found the apostolic church.

Rigdon began to immediately "bear testimony" to his discoveries before the Mentor church. Needless to say, Rigdon's conversion to Mormonism impacted the whole Kirtland area. McKiernan says:

Rigdon's conversion and the missionary aftermath which followed transformed Mormonism from a sect of about a hundred members to one which was a major threat to Protestantism on the Western Reserve.

I found an important clue to Rigdon's Mormon conversion in a quotation from an early Mormon history. The quote said, "One thing has been done by the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It has puked the Campbellites effectually; no emetic could have done half as well." I think Rigdon entered Mormonism, at least in part, from a desire to strike back at Campbell.

In an important Millennial Harbinger article, Delusions, Campbell wrote about Rigdon's conversion, he said:

He who sets out to find signs and omens will soon find enough of them. He that expects visits from angels will find them as abundant as he who in the age of witchcraft found a witch in every unseemly old woman. I doubt not but that the irreverence and levity in speaking of the things of God, which have been too apparent in Sidney's public exhibitions for some time past, and which he has lately confessed, may yet be found to have been the cause of this abandonment to delusion. The Methodists, amongst whom it appeared so well to take, amongst whom it has recently so much prevailed, ought to be admonished against laying themselves open to such impressions in their swoonings, vociferous ejaculations, and notions about new visions and revelations of the Spirit. The Presbyterians also, who are for physical operations, may learn the necessity of believing their own Confession of Faith which says that to the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets "nothing is to be added, either by a new revelation from the Spirit, or the doctrines and commandments of men." The number of sceptics [sic] and nonprofessors which have believed in the delusions of Mormon, remind me of one of the sayings of Jesus -- "I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me: if another come in his own name, him you will receive."

The Mormons successfully raided the early Restoration Movement. Orson Hyde, Parley Pratt, Orson Pratt, Lyman Wight, Edward Partridge and Fredric Williams were at one time good Disciples. When Rigdon left the movement he took a number of Disciples with him.

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