“Sidney Rigdon,” Church History Topics
On October 29, 1830, two visitors came to the home of Sidney and Phebe Rigdon. Sidney Rigdon was a Christian minister, and one of the visitors, Parley P. Pratt, was a former member of his congregation who had returned to share the Book of Mormon and news of the Restoration with his mentor. The other was Oliver Cowdery, who had served as scribe for most of the book’s translation. Although the Rigdons lived in a home provided by their congregation and would lose that home if they converted to a new faith, they prayerfully considered the missionaries’ message and were baptized on November 8. For the next 14 years, Sidney Rigdon had significant influence in the Church.
Long before Pratt and Cowdery came to his door as missionaries, Sidney Rigdon had longed for a restoration of New Testament Christianity. He was born in 1793 just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and trained as a tanner, but his passion for learning and preaching the word of God took him into the Christian ministry. By the time he married Phebe Brooks in 1820, he had already begun his preaching career among the United Baptists. He soon found himself within the expanding influence of Alexander Campbell’s Reformed Baptist movement, which sought a return to the forms of New Testament Christianity.
Sidney Rigdon honed his public-speaking skills as a minister of the First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. Rigdon’s interest in reform eventually caused a rupture with the more conservative Baptist leadership of Pittsburgh, and he moved with his growing family to northeastern Ohio, where he became an influential preacher across several counties.1 He was soon chosen to lead a congregation in a town called Mentor. Rigdon emphasized early Christian practice, and some members of his congregation even launched their own attempt to live having “all things in common,” as described in the book of Acts.2
When Pratt, Cowdery, and other missionaries stopped in Ohio on their way to preach to American Indians living west of Missouri, many members of Sidney Rigdon’s congregation embraced their message.3 After his own conversion, Rigdon traveled to New York state with his former parishioner Edward Partridge to meet Joseph Smith.4
Rigdon’s extensive biblical knowledge and powerful preaching helped nurture the young Church. Rigdon also served as a scribe for Joseph Smith’s inspired revision of the Bible and was the subject of several early revelations. When the Church’s First Presidency was first organized, Rigdon was called as Joseph’s counselor. In February 1832, Sidney and Joseph experienced a momentous vision together of the three degrees of glory, their account of which contains a powerful joint testimony of Jesus Christ.5 The next month, a mob dragged both Sidney and Joseph from their homes and then brutally attacked and tarred and feathered them.
Sidney Rigdon presided over the Saints in Kirtland while many Church leaders were away on the Zion’s Camp expedition, helped write the Lectures on Faith delivered in the School of the Prophets, spoke at the Kirtland Temple dedication, and was a key figure in the organization of the Kirtland Safety Society.6 In 1838, he moved to Missouri with Joseph Smith. In a Fourth of July address, he announced that the Saints would fight back against any mob that came to oppress them, heightening tensions between Church members and their neighbors. He was later imprisoned with Joseph in Liberty, Missouri.
After the Saints settled in Nauvoo, Sidney Rigdon’s relationship with Joseph Smith was sometimes strained. Joseph charged Rigdon with neglecting his duties as Joseph’s counselor, aiding the Church’s enemies, and “defraud[ing] the innocent.” In August 1843, Joseph denounced Rigdon and asked the congregation to support him in withdrawing fellowship from his counselor. At the next Church conference in October, Joseph reluctantly agreed to retain Rigdon as his counselor if he would “magnify his office, and walk and conduct himself in all honesty, righteousness, and integrity.”7
Despite these rifts, Rigdon was selected to run as Joseph Smith’s vice-presidential candidate in the 1844 United States presidential election. The campaign was cut short in June 1844, however, when a mob murdered Joseph. Rigdon rushed back to Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, where he had been living, and claimed the right to act as a “guardian” to the Church in Joseph’s absence.8 In response, Brigham Young declared that Joseph had given the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles all the keys and ordinances needed to lead the Church going forward. The vast majority of the Saints in Nauvoo voted to sustain the leadership of the Twelve.
Though members of the Twelve reached out to Rigdon, he refused to accept their leadership, was excommunicated from the Church in September 1844, and then returned to Pittsburgh. There he formed an independent church organization. His Church of Christ only lasted until 1847, when internal strife and a failed prophecy of Christ’s Second Coming caused the organization to crumble. With Stephen Post, Rigdon later organized another movement called the Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion, which he led until his death in 1876.9