The mission to Kirtland resulted in bringing to the church many brilliant men who played active parts in its destiny, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick Granger Williams, Orson Hyde, Lyman Wight, Luke and Lyman E. Johnson, Newel K. Whitney, and others. But of all these none created such a stir throughout the whole Western Reserve1 as the conversion of Sidney Rigdon, the minister of the most popular church in Mentor, who was universally recognized as "the great orator" of the Reform Baptist Movement in Ohio, then in process of evolution into what has since been called the Disciples of Christ.
All who knew Ridgon spoke of him as "eloquent," as an "orator," and his oratory was of the kind that kindled a fire in his hearers' hearts, like to that with which his very soul was glowing. His enthusiasm brooked no delay, and he was impatient of obstacles. He disliked discussion, his mind leaped to its conclusions, rather than arriving at them by slow process of cold logic. Once during a conference, while he was associated with Campbell, Scott, and Bentley, he interrupted a long, monotonous debate in which he had taken no part with this short speech, "You are consuming too much time on this question. One of the old Jerusalem preachers would start out with his hunting shirt and moccasins, and convert half the world while you are discussing and settling plans."2 That speedily brought the argument to a close.
After the arrival of the missionaries and the transfer of many of his congregation to the new faith, an event described by his former associates as "That overflowing scourge3 of Mormonism" and the missionaries who brought it "like the four evil messengers from the Euphrates" (Revelation 9: 15), the people in the vicinity of Kirtland "were shaken as by a tempest," but Rigdon, aflame with a message as never before, continued to draw men to him. Of the peculiar winning power of Rigdon's oratory, a story is vouched for by John Barr of Cleveland, well versed in the history of the Western Reserve:
"In 1830 I was deputy sheriff, and being at Willoughby on official business determined to go to Mayfield, which is seven or eight miles up the Chagrin River, and hear Cowdery and Rigdon on the revelations of Mormonism. Varnem J. Card the lawyer, and myself started early Sunday morning on horseback. We found the roads crowded with people going in the same direction. Services were opened by Cowdery . . . he was followed by Rigdon . . . ." A baptism followed the service: "The place selected for immersion was in a clear pool in the river above the bridge, around which was a beautiful rise of ground on the west side for the audience. On the east bank was a sharp bluff and some stumps, where Mr. Card and myself stationed ourselves. The time of baptism was fixed at 2 p.m. Long before this hour, the spot was surrounded by as many people as could have a clear view. Rigdon went into the pool, which, at the deepest, was about four feet, and after a suitable address with prayer, Cahoon came forward and was baptized. Standing in the water, Rigdon gave one of his most powerful exhortations. The assembly became greatly affected. As he proceeded, he called for the converts to step forward. They came through the crowd in rapid succession to the number of thirty and were immersed, with no intermission of the discourse on the part of Rigdon.
"Mr. Card was apparently the most radical, stoical of men--of a clear, unexcitable temperament, with unorthodox and vague religious ideas. While the exciting scene was transpiring below us in the valley and in the pool, the faces of the crowd expressing the most intense emotion, Mr. Card suddenly seized my arm and said, 'Take me away.' Taking his arm, I saw his face was so pale that he seemed to be about to faint. His frame trembled as we walked away and mounted our horses. We rode a mile toward Willoughby before a word was said. Rising the hill out of the valley he seemed to recover and said, 'Mr. Barr, if you had not been there I certainly should have gone into the water.' He said the impulse was irresistible."4
Such was the man Rigdon, who was so profoundly to influence the church in the years to come. The enthusiasm, kindled by the fire of his words, was no transient thing, but something that remained with the hearer through life. There are those who would have us believe that Sidney Rigdon as a lad on the farm planned with the most deceitful cunning to erect upon theft and lies the whole superstructure of the Latter Day Saint Church. His was not the life of an impostor. As the years passed he suffered all kinds of sorrow and disappointment for the church's sake, and at sixty years of age, we find him, working as a shinglepacker in Friendship, Allegheny County, N. Y., near his boyhood home. He was silent about his connection with the church for the most part, but the fire had not died. There was life in the embers yet, ready to be fanned into flame, should the right moment come. He wrote to Lyman Wight. "Old friend," he called him and referred to himself as an "exile," and said, "But should that day arrive which I have longed for and desired above all other events in the history of the world when Zion shall be redeemed; I hope then to meet to be driven . . . no more."5
Says A. S. Hayden, one of his fellow ministers in that movement: "Whatever may be justly said of him after he had sur-rendered himself a victim and a leader of the Mormon delusion, it would scarcely be just to deny sincerity and candor to him, previous to the time when his bright star became permanently eclipsed under that dark cloud."6
Sidney Rigdon was born in Saint Clair Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, February 19, 1793, the youngest son of William and Nancy Rigdon. His father died when he was but seventeen, and he continued on the home farm with his mother until he was twenty-six years of age, when he went to reside with a Baptist minister by the name of Andrew Clark, as he had the year previous united with that denomination. He studied with this man until March, 1819, when he received his license to preach from the Regular Baptist Society, and leaving his native state two months later went to the West (Trumbell County, Ohio). There in the town of Warren, he made his home from July of that year with Adamson Bentley, another Baptist minister, until on the 12th of June, 1820, he married Phoebe Brook, a sister of Bentley's wife. The two brothers-in-law, always great friends, became more and more united in their work.
Through this now thickly settled region, quite a number of Baptist churches had already been formed, and Mr. Bentley had induced a number of their preachers to hold annually what was known as "ministers" meetings for the purpose of conversing upon the Scriptures, and upon their own religious progress and improving each other by criticisms upon each other's sermons. In these meetings he acted as secretary, and contributed largely to render them profitable and interesting. It was also agreed that the churches should form an association and on the 30th day of August, 1820, . . . the messengers appointed by the churches met and constituted the Mahoning Baptist Association.7
Through other Baptist ministers, Rigdon and Bentley learned of one Alexander Campbell and read his debate with a man named Walker. Both became intensely interested in his views. Campbell himself tells the sequel of the story:
In the summer of 1821, while sitting in my portico [in Bethany, West Virginia] after dinner, two gentlemen in the costume of clergymen, as then technically called, appeared in my yard, advancing to the house. The elder of them on approaching me, first introduced himself saying, "My name, sir, is Adamson Bentley; this is Elder Sidney Rigdon, both of Warren, Ohio." On entering my house, and being introduced to my family, after some refreshment, Elder Bentley said, "Having just read your debate with Mr. John Walker of our State of Ohio, with considerable interest, and having been deputed by the Mahoning Baptist Association last year to ordain some elders and to set some churches in order, which brought us within little more than a day's ride of you, we concluded to make a special visit, to inquire of you particularly on sundry matters of much interest to us as set forth in the debate, and would be glad, when perfectly at your leisure, to have an opportunity to do so." I replied, that, as soon as the afternoon duties of my seminary [Alexander Campbell conducted what he called a high school for boys, which was to all intents and purposes a religious seminary] were discharged, I would take pleasure in hearing from them fully on such matters.
After tea, in the evening, we commenced, and prolonged our discourse until the next morning. Beginning with the baptism that John preached, we went back to Adam, and forward to the final judgment. The dispensations--Adamic, Abrahamic, Jewish, and Christian--passed and repassed before us. Mount Sinai in Arabia, Mount Zion, Mount Tabor, and the Red Sea and the Jordan, the passovers and the Pentecosts, the law and the gospel, but especially the ancient order of things and the modern occasionally engaged our attentions.8
From that time forward Adamson Bentley, Sidney Rigdon, and Alexander Campbell, and a Baptist minister by the name of Walter Scott, to whom Campbell introduced them in Pittsburgh, became active exponents of what was then known as a reformed Baptist movement.
Upon their return to Warren, Bentley and Rigdon perfected the Regular Baptist communion, for their new ideas by the means of these gatherings were effectively scattered over all the nine counties that comprised the 3,000,000 acres of the Western Reserve.
These meetings were conducted in the following manner: A, B, C, and D, were appointed to address the public assembled on the occasion [usually at a conferences]. A at a given time delivered an address; B succeeded him. In the evening all the speakers and other ministers met in an appointed room and in the presence of the more elderly and interested brethren, and those looking forward to public positions in the church, the discourses of A and B were taken up and examined by all the speakers present, and were somewhat strictly reviewed as to the manner of them, the form of them, and the mode of delivering them. Doctrinal questions and expositions of the Scripture occasionally were introduced and debated, The next day C and D addressed the assembled audience, and so on until all were heard, and all had passed through the same ordeal.9
In these ministers' meetings Rigdon figured prominently, and, by means of the minutes left of them, we are able to trace his movements with remarkable detail through the ensuing years of his Baptist ministry. The last meeting of the Mahoning Association was at Austintown in 1830, and its historian, Hayden, places the date "about two months previous to the fall of that star [Rigdon] from heaven."10
In 1822, Campbell was much interested in a Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, many of whose hundred members, he considered were in favor of "reformation." Naturally he desired a pastor there who was fully in sympathy with his reform ideas. "Through Mr. Campbell's influence, Sidney Rigdon was induced to accept a call from the church to become the pastor. He was a man of more than ordinary ability as a speaker, possessing great fluency and a lively fancy, which gave him great popularity as an orator."11 The church prospered under Rigdon's care, and he had the opportunity of cultivating the acquaintance of Campbell, whom he greatly admired.
Early in October, 1823, Campbell arranged for a debate on baptism, with a Reverend McCalla of Washington, Kentucky, and Sidney Rigdon went with him to take notes for publication. As the Ohio River was too low that year for navigation, they made the trip on horseback. They rode the three hundred miles in safety, arriving at Washington four days before the debate, so had ample time to rest and prepare. The debate ended on October 22, and they preached at Mayslick, Bryant's Station, and Lexington before returning home. Upon their return, they were busily engaged for several weeks in preparing the notes for publication.
The reform movement in the meantime proceeded to gain adherents and enemies in Pittsburgh until a division was effected in the Baptist Communion in 1824, the reform adherents of the two churches in Pittsburgh uniting, and those who remained in the conservative wing being recognized as the only "legitimate Baptist Church" in Pittsburgh. The united church in 1825 came under the pastorship of Scott, the older of the two reform pastors in Pittsburgh. Scott was teaching school there and able to sustain himself. Rigdon obtained secular employment until such time as he could return to Ohio. After two years' labor as a tanner, he removed to Bainbridge, Geauga County, Ohio, and from there to Mantua, and then to Mentor, raising up large followings in each place. He was at Mentor when the gospel found him, at the height of his fame as an orator in the Western Reserve. He believed and for the second time stepped down from his position as a minister and accepted the lot of a struggling pioneer in a new and untried movement. There is no antagonism so bitter as that found among "religious" people; no man considered so base by his former associates as he who secedes from them. Once again came the bitter separation from friends and associates. True, some of them went with him, but Alexander Campbell, whom he loved as a father, became a bitter enemy; and his brother-in-law, Adamson Bentley, grew so hostile that the intimacy of these two more than brother ministers was completely and finally severed.
In 1834, E. D. Howe, editor of the Painsville Telegraph, incensed because his wife and other members of his family had united with the church, published the first rabid exposť of the church, Mormonism Unveiled, which was to become the model for a long series of such works. Among other things, Howe, aided by that perennial troublemaker, Doctor Hurlbut, advanced an ingenious theory accounting for the origin of the Book of Mormon. The claim made was that the manuscript was derived from a romance written by one Solomon Spaulding in the year 1812; that this "Manuscript Found" was submitted to Robert Patterson, a printer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and after some time was returned to its owner; that Spaulding later removed to Amity, Pennsylvania, and died there in 1816.12
"Supported by an abundance of conjecture, but by very little positive evidence"13 Mormonism Unveiled expressed the theory that Rigdon working as a printer for Patterson, either copied or stole the manuscript, and in collaboration with Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon some fifteen years later. The public eagerly accepted this fabrication, and it soon became an American tradition, copied as a matter of course in all non-Mormon literature and many leading histories and encyclopedia. Rigdon's family, mother and brothers advanced the unrefuted testimony that Sidney was never a printer; that he never lived in Pittsburgh until 1822, eight years after the Spauldings moved away, and that he then went there as a pastor of a leading church. Nor has there ever been any proof that Rigdon ever saw Joseph Smith until he saw him in Fayette, in December, 1830. Nevertheless the story would not down.
All through the years, denials of the story have been made by those who are in a position to know, and after his death the family of Rigdon continued to deny that he participated in such a fraud. Mrs. Nancy Rigdon Ellis, although but eight years old at the time the missionaries came to her father's home in Mentor, Ohio, says she has a distinct remembrance of the occasion:
"I saw them hand him the book, and I am as positive as can be that he never saw it before. He read it and examined it for about an hour and then threw it down, and said he did not believe a word in it." She further stated that her father in the last years of his life called his family together and told them, as sure as there was a God in heaven, he never had anything to do in getting up the Book of Mormon, and never saw any such thing as a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding.14
To a reporter from the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Leader, Mrs. Ellis gave this statement: "I will say this, that my father, who had the respect of all who knew him, and at a time when he had but little hope of living from one day to another, said to the clergymen around him, of which there was a number belonging to the various denominations. These were his words: 'As I expect to die and meet my Maker, I know nothing about where the manuscript of the Mormon Bible came from.'"15
In 1905 his son John W., though an infant at the time of the coming of the missionaries to his father, had this to say of what happened:
I determined to ascertain from my father whether he knew anything in regard to the origin of the Book of Mormon other than had been made public, and if such were unfavorable to the church [John W. Rigdon was a member of no faction of the church at this time] I should make it known. My father was then in his last years, and I found him as firm as ever in declaring that he himself had nothing whatever to do in writing the book, and that Joseph Smith received it from an angel. On his dying bed he made the same declaration to a Methodist minister. . . . My sister [Athalia, wife of George W. Robinson] some nine years older than I, testified to me a few months ago that she also remembers when the book was first seen by our father. My mother has also told me that Father had nothing whatever to do with the writing of the book, and that she positively knew that he had never seen it until Parley P. Pratt came to our home with it. These testimonies have clung to me ever since, and I could not forget them.16
Over his own signature while he lived, Rigdon made repeated denials, writing in 1839 from Nauvoo to the Boston Journal when thoroughly incensed over the persistence of the story. He said emphatically, "It is only necessary to say, in relation to the whole story about Spaulding's writings being in the hands of Mr. Patterson, who was in Pittsburgh, and who is said to have kept a printing office and my saying that I was concerned in the said office, etc., it is the most base of lies, without a shadow of truth . . . . If I were to say that I ever heard of the Reverend Solomon Spaulding and his hopeful wife until Doctor P. Hurlbut wrote his lie about me, I would be a liar like unto themselves."17
Many an old-time Saint remembers how he stood in the pulpit and in his eloquent and dramatic style carried conviction, as was the way of Rigdon, to their very souls.18
In the spring of 1833 or 1834, at the house of Samuel Baker, near New Portage, Medina County, Ohio, . . . we did hear Elder Sidney Rigdon in the presence of a large congregation say he had been informed that some in the neighborhood had accused him of being the instigator of the Book of Mormon. Standing in the doorway, there being many standing in the doorway, he, holding up the Book of Mormon said, "I testify in the presence of this congregation, and before God, and all his holy angels up yonder (pointing upward) before whom I expect to give account at the judgment day, that I never saw a sentence of the Book of Mormon, I never penned a sentence of the Book of Mormon, I never knew there was such a book in existence as the Book of Mormon, until it was presented to me by Parley P. Pratt in the form that it now is."19
Years passed, and Howe sold the Painsville Telegraph with type, press, old books, manuscripts, and papers to Mr. L. L. Rice. Much of this material was not destroyed by Rice but carried with him, unexamined in an old trunk for many years. In 1884 Mr. Rice lived in Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands, and had as his guest President James H. Fairchild of Oberlin University. In looking over these papers, they discovered the long-lost Spaulding romance which had been in Mr. Rice's possession, unknown to him, for over forty years.20 These men, both disinterested so far as Sidney Rigdon is concerned, unhesitatingly absolve him from all responsibility. Rice says, "No one who reads this manuscript will give credit to the story that Solomon Spaulding was in any wise the author of the Book of Mormon. It was unlikely that anyone who wrote so elaborate a work as the Mormon Bible would spend his time in getting up so shallow a story as this . . . . Finally I am more than half convinced that this is his only writing of the sort, and that any pretense that Spaulding was in any sense the author of the other, is a sheer fabrication."21
Dr. Fairchild, who had only a scholar's curiosity concerning the whole subject, said: "Mr. Rice, myself, and others compared it with the Book of Mormon, and could detect no resemblance between the two, in general or in detail. There seems to be no name or incident common to the two .... Some other explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon must be found if any explanation is required."22
1 "Western Reserve" was a term applied to a large, fertile,
and remarkably level portion of northern Ohio, which had been reserved in the original
grant of territory by the Government in reference to certain military claims.
2 History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve, by A. S. Hayden, page 174.
3 Ibid., page 207.
4 "The Early Days of Mormonism," by Frederick G. Mather, Lippincott's Magazine, 1880, page 206.
5 Letter from Sidney Rigdon to Lyman Wight in Texas. Dated Friendship, Allegheny County, New York, May 22, 1853. Lyman Wight Letter Book, Heman C. Smith collection.
6 History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve, by A. S. Hayden, page 192.
7 Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, by Richardson, Volume 2, page 44.
8 Millennial Harbinger, 1848, page 532.
9 Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, by Richardson, page 46.
10 Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve, Ohio, by A. S. Hayden, pages 297, 298.
11 Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, by Richardson, pages 47, 48.
12 For a discussion of this theory from a nonpartisan viewpoint, read an article by James H. Fairchild, at one time president of Oberlin College, first published as Tract No. 77 by the Western Reserve Historical Society of Cleveland, and republished in the Saints' Herald, August 21, 1918, Volume 65; also in Journal of History (L. D. S.), Volume 17 (1924).
13 Fairchild in Tract No. 77, Western Reserve Historical Society.
14 Nancy Rigdon Ellis in an Interview with Wm. H. and E. L. Kelley, May 14, 1884, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Church History, Volume 4, pages 451, 452.
15 Nancy Rigdon Ellis as reported in Pittsburg Leader, May 18, 1884, Church History, Volume 4, page 453.
16 Elders Journal, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volume 2, pages 267, 268.
17 Church History, Smith & Smith, Volume 1, page 144,145.
18 Saints' Herald, Volume 31 page 339.
19 Statement of Phineas, Hiel, and Mary Bronson.
20 Now in library of Oberlin College at Oberlin, Ohio.
21 Letter from L. L. Rice to Joseph Smith, March 28, 1885. L. L. Rice was formerly a prominent antislavery editor of Ohio and later for many years was state printer in Columbus, Ohio. He later (May 14, 1885) wrote Joseph Smith as follows: "Two things are true concerning this manuscript in my possession: First, it to a genuine writing of Solomon Spaulding; and second, it is not the original of the Book of Mormon. My opinion is from all I have seen and learned, that this is the only writing of Spaulding, and there is no foundation for the statement of Deming and others, that Spaulding made another story, more elaborate" etc. Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 42, No. 165, January, 1885, page 173; Manuscript Found, pages 7-8. (See Saints' Herald, Volume 32, page 177.)