Truman G. Madison once quoted a definition of religious fanaticism as “Someone who doubles his speed when he has lost his direction.” This is an apt description of Sidney Rigdon as portrayed by Richard S. Van Wagoner in his book, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess.
This book primarily deals with Rigdon’s relationships and correspondence with others rather than digging into what made him “tick,” so to speak. There is no doubt Sidney was mentally ill at points in his life and particularly during his last 30 years or so. Any effort to figure out the full nature of this illness is problematic given the limited resources we have of his life. The author postulates that he probably would have benefited from modern medical treatments and led a fairly normal life if he had been born 150 years later. Indications are that he suffered from bipolar disorder and manic depression.
Sidney definitely picked up speed as he spiraled further and further down into fanatic delusions over the course of his life. Van Wagoner brings up some interesting points in his biography. I will simply bullet-point some things I learned through this account below:
- Sidney’s wife was extremely loyal and faithful to him throughout his life. This was, on the whole, probably a blessing—everyone needs unconditional love—but it was also a curse in that her loyalty also enabled him in his more extreme delusions, particularly later in life.
- Rigdon was sadly estranged from his family later in life, probably because they could not tolerate his increasing irrationality and delusional pronouncements. They did not know of his continued correspondence with a handful of followers in the last years of his life. Only his wife was involved in such affairs.
- Sidney retained a strong belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and emphatically denied he had anything to do with the writing of it, as some had claimed. There is no evidence that the standard narrative of his conversion is false or inaccurate in any substantive way.
- Sidney Rigdon contributed much to the doctrines of the Church. He was there at Joseph Smith’s side almost from the very beginning. Much that is in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants can be found in Sidney’s own preaching and writings before he joined the Mormon Church. Their are some Champelite aspects to Mormon doctrine, but I believe one could argue that Sidney was already preparing himself (or being prepared) to recognize and receive the true church when he found it.
- He and Joseph Smith had a number of “falling outs” in their career together. No doubt part of this was a failure to understand fully Sidney’s mental condition, but it seems there were some elements of jealousy and unbecoming greed on the part of Joseph Smith as well. They were both in rather desperate times and were nearly always in abject poverty. Care must be taken to not judge either of them too harshly given their times and circumstances, which I think the author does a fair job at doing, but it is still a little sad and disturbing.
- Sidney Rigdon followed Joseph Smith in all of the Church doctrines except polygamy. He thought this practice was the downfall of Joseph Smith as a prophet, but refrained from stating such until after Joseph’s death. This may have been exacerbated by Joseph’s propositioning Sidney’s 17 year-old daughter without his knowledge (at first). Joseph was most humiliatingly rejected by her and the whole matter came to a head with Sidney and the rest of his family.
- Van Wagoner makes some rather definite interpretations based on insufficient evidence at times in the book. He states that both Joseph and Sidney were inherently lazy when it came to physical labor (who wouldn’t be given the labor involved in keeping body and soul together back then), and used their position in the Church to bully funding and temporal support for their efforts in organizing the Kingdom, translating the Bible, and such. There are some damning statements from both of them on this order, but the author fails to put these in context with their overall writings and statements on “priestcraft” and their ideas of a Zion community. (“Priestcraft” meaning persons being paid to teach the Word of God or making their living as a representative of God, or even worse, getting rich off the Gospel. One essential of a “Zion” community, in their definition of the time, was having all things in common. This is tricky when you are also trying to avoid priestcraft. You can always claim someone is not “pulling his weight” when he is spending most of his time getting revelations from God or leading the Church instead of working the fields like everyone else.)
- Sidney seems to have become increasingly bitter towards the Church headed by Brigham Young. He briefly accepted Young’s argument for leadership of the Twelve after Joseph Smith’s death when he quite defiantly “lost” to him in the public debate. However, I think Van Wagoner paints an unfair portrait of Brigham at this time that seems inconsistant with what I’ve read of Young’s writings and biographies.
- After being excommunicated from the main body of the Church, Rigdon tried to set up several new Zion communities. First on a farm he induced some of his followers (including William McClellen) to purchase on credit in a valley northeast of Pittsburgh, PA. They eventually lost the land due to nonpayment of the remainder of the note on it. It reverted to its original owner and many of Sidney’s followers lost a substantial amount of money, including his older brother who lost his entire farm which he had mortgaged for the down payment. His second attempt was in Iowa. Though he never visited the small village established there by his few remaining followers, he kept in constant correspondence with them—many times demanding money from them. Many of these letters were written as “revelations” and written in the Lord’s voice (“I the Lord… “). His final delusional Zion was to be established in Canada just across the border near the shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. Rigdon developed a hatred of the United States and its “evils” and proclaimed in the name of the Lord that Zion needed to be established outside the U.S. This little community didn’t last long after his death and never consisted of more than a few family homesteads. Once again, due to poverty and lack of health, he never visited this site either.
- Priesthood callings, functions and authorities were quite haphazard during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Birgham Young must be given credit for organizing the chain of command in this area based on Joseph’s directions. It is clear, at least until the final few days of his life, that Joseph Smith did not plan on dying when he did. The Church was probably a little too charismatic around his personality and authority. I think one might make the argument that God took him for this very reason. I also think, given the power he had, Joseph showed rare insight into the nature of despotism and exercised good restraint. He could have easily gone too far. In some ways, he may have. All of this was unfortunate for Sidney. My personal opinion is that Smith recognized the instability inherent in Sidney’s personality but didn’t have the heart to fully relieve him of his position in the Church. This proved to only contribute to Sidney’s downfall by infusing his delusional wanderings with a sense of injustice at not being allowed to lead the Church.
- Rigdon felt he had all the priesthood authority needed lead the church of Christ on the earth. He gave this priesthood authority to his wife and she acted as a “prophetess,” writing several “revelations” later in his life. After his death she tacitly led his followers, but mainly only pronounced blessings on them. (Van Wagoner claims Joseph Smith also gave “priesthood” authority to his own wife Emma, but I think the evidence on this is not specific enough in its terminology to warrant such an interpretation. I don’t know though—I didn’t look up his sources on this.)
- Sidney and his son Wycliffe seemed to entertain the thought of Sidney’s reuniting with the Saints in Utah off and on (though I don’t know how serious Sidney was). Brigham Young offered to pay his railroad fare and moderate expenses to come out, but only half-heartedly. Sidney turned that offer down but later, in one of the strangest of his letters, offered to come out if Young would give him $100,000 in gold and silver. Brigham did not reply to this but reportedly wondered if Sidney would take $100,000 in greenbacks instead.
- Van Wagoner makes the point that Sidney was unfairly treated after the death of Joseph Smith and cites some convincing evidence along this line, but I think he is putting late 20th century compassion on a time and place where it is a bit unfair to assign such values. Little was known of mental conditions back then and any aberrant behavior (which Rigdon was prone to) would be interpreted more as “evil” influence rather than illness. He was mistreated, no doubt, but he was also dealt with much kindness and love at times as well. Some did understand that he was not always “right in the head” so to speak.
Overall, I got out of this book a portrait of a brilliant man with a peculiar set of human weaknesses that eventually took him down an unfortunate path. His pain and regret led him to many troubling delusions and many around him suffered because of it; however, he left his mark in the doctrine and structure of the Mormon movement that cannot be ignored. Other than Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon probably had the most influence on the early development of the Church. Much of his deserved credit was downplayed after his falling away, but this book, and others, can bring some of that credit back.
On a side note: There were some troubling agenda-driven overtones in a few places of the book. The author states some evidences of all-too-human behavior among the early Church leaders, but fails to “balance” it out with their “divine-like” attributes as well. I could tell he was trying hard to paint Sidney in the best light possible (mainly in the first half of the book) but needed to denigrate other Church leaders to do so. There is some unnecessary, or at least unrelated, content in the appendixes and notes to each chapter that, though interesting in their own right, served only to belie the author’s bias rather than enlighten the text.