Hey guys! So, after the martyrdom of the Latter-day Saint prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1844 the members didn’t really know who was going to lead the Church.
This problem was exacerbated by the fact that before Joseph died, he made as many as 8 different references to who should succeed him. In this episode, we’re going to specifically look at the claims of the last surviving member of the First Presidency after the martyrdom, Sidney Rigdon. Let’s check it out.
Sidney Rigdon is an important figure in Latter-day Saint history. He was originally a Baptist preacher, a great public speaker, who was introduced to our Church by my man Parley P. Pratt in 1830. Rigdon was baptized and was soon called as spokesman for Joseph Smith and the Church. Things started out great, but as time went on he grew increasingly unstable. In 1832, while Joseph was out of town, Sidney claimed he’d received a revelation that “the keys of the kingdom” had been taken from Joseph and the Church, Joseph had to come back and say, ‘uh, no.’
Joseph was quick to forgive, but by 1843 he tried to have Sidney removed from his position as a counselor in the First Presidency. When put to a vote, though, the members allowed Sidney to keep his position. Joseph formally accepted the outcome, but said concerning Sidney, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me. You may carry him, but I will not.”
In 1844, Joseph was running for president. His first and second choices for vice president didn’t work out. His third choice was Sidney Rigdon, who, despite their differences, was a great orator. Joseph sent Rigdon to live in Pennsylvania to establish residency, because back then you couldn’t vote for a president AND vice president that were both from your home state. It’s my opinion that Joseph was totally OK with that.
But sure enough, after Joseph’s death, Sidney rushed back to Nauvoo to assert his claim to leadership. But while Joseph’s relationship with Sidney had deteriorated, his relationship with the Quorum of the Twelve had only been growing stronger. Only 4 members of the Quorum were in Nauvoo when Sidney arrived. They wanted to meet in council and not make any hasty decisions, but Sidney tried to organize a meeting to choose a new leader as soon as possible, with or (ideally) without the 12. In his journal, William Clayton wrote:
“Brother Marks had notified the public that next Thursday there would be a meeting to choose a Guardian inasmuch as Mr. Rigdon was in a hurry to go home again. I do not feel satisfied with this move because it is universally understood that the Twelve have been sent for and are expected here every day and it seems a plot laid for the saints to take advantage of their situation.”
Luckily, Brigham Young and 4 more apostles arrived in time for the meeting, which took place on August 8, 1844. The saints gathered, and once again Sidney claimed he’d received a revelation—this time that nobody could replace Joseph Smith, but that he, Sidney, should become the Church’s “guardian.” He taught that “this Church must be built up to Joseph, and that all the blessings we receive must come through him.” Elder William W. Phelps later said,
“…there is no such thing written in the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. This church has been built up to Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith always taught us that there is no other name whereby we can be saved but in and through the name of Jesus Christ.”
Brigham Young believed that authority to direct the Church fell upon the Quorum of the Twelve. He pled his case and then allowed Sidney the opportunity to speak again. Sidney declined, but asked William W. Phelps to speak for him. Bad move. Phelps told the saints: “If you want to do right, uphold the Twelve,” which the overwhelming majority of the saints voted to do.
Joseph Smith once wrote: “…no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
Sidney was soon excommunicated and established his own church in 1845. That church collapsed by 1847. One of his previous followers, William Bickerton, tried to resurrect Rigdon’s church in 1862, which Rigdon must have disagreed with because he’d previously authorized a man named Stephen Post in 1856 to resurrect the Rigdonite sect, with Rigdon as their prophet, until his death in 1876. Post’s Rigdonite organization disbanded in 1882 .
So [all Star Wars references aside] if you’re wondering whether the Church should have fallen into the hands of Sidney Rigdon after Joseph’s death, it may be comforting to know that the churches Rigdon led after the martyrdom absolutely failed. His work did stop progressing—something Joseph taught would not happen to Christ’s restored church.
That’s a quick summary of Sidney Rigdon’s role in the Latter-day Saint succession issue. There’s a ton more that could be said about this topic, so if you want to dive deep please check out the resources below, and have a great day!