Ep 156 – Hingepin Rigdon’s Pivotal Trial

On this episode, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon is in the hot seat. August of 1843 brought about events that led to him being disfellowshipped. After a month of waiting on pins and needles, Rigdon was called in for a hearing before the High Council to determine if he would remain in fellowship, or be officially excommunicated. His powers of oratory shine through the historical record as he pleads his case with life-or-death implications. Joseph Smith gives a couple cryptic funeral sermons.


Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage by Brian Hales

Brigham Young: A Bold Prophet by James Faust

August 1843 current events

Elias Higbee

Manuscript History of Brigham Young

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Mormon theology nearing the end of 1843 continued to expand. Now that the polygamy revelation was written on actual paper the practice carried with it an air of divinity. Others could now partake and join the anointed quorum in their various clandestine prayer meetings.

Before more couples could get their calling and election made sure in Nauvoo, the polygamy revelation required presentation to the High Council for approval. The man to present the polygamy revelation to the High Council, of course, was Hyrum Side-kick Abiff Smith, Jo’s older brother and patriarch of the church. Contrary to what apologists or believing members may think, polygamy was practiced long before modern day D&C 132 was ever committed to paper. There had been allusions to a polygamy revelation as early as 1831, just a year after the church started, but there is no evidence it was ever written before July of 1843. Regardless of that, people beyond just Jo had been engaged in plural marriages for years by 1843. People were initiated into the practice by degree dependent upon how well they could be trusted. As a quick refresher, according to Bloody Brigham Young, he was aware of polygamy before even Jo’s older brother Hyrum was. According to Young, he was the guy who taught celestial marriage to Hyrum.

This is from Bloody Brigham’s own account when he preached it in Salt Lake City on 8 October 1866. He starts with rhetoric and propaganda to solidify his own claims of rightful leadership by providing a brief character sketch of Hyrum Side-kick Abiff Smith. Then he goes on to tell how he taught Hyrum of the New and Everlasting Covenant of marriage:

Now Hyrum was as good a man as ever lived and he was no better a man than his brother Joseph. His integrity was of the highest order, but his ability was not equal to Joseph's. Hyrum was a positive man; Joseph was a comparative man, regarding everything according to the circumstances of the case and every person according to the intrinsic worth. Hyrum did not know enough to do this. I used to think, and think now, that an angel dwelling in the presence of the Father and the Son possessed no more integrity in their hearts than did Hyrum Smith. While he lived he was Joseph's fast friend. Notwithstanding this, I have heard Joseph tell him that if the church was left to his leadership he would lead it directly to hell. He never appointed his brother Hyrum to be his successor. He never even thought of such a thing and if my word is good for anything I can say of a truth that Joseph told me not three months before he was killed, and I did not seek the information he gave me--we were talking upon counselling, governing and controlling--that "If I am moved out of the way you are the only man living on this earth who can counsel and direct the affairs of the Kingdom of God on the earth." … He often said to me when speaking upon polygamy, "I shall die for it and I would as leave die for it as not. It is the work of God and he has revealed this principle and it is not my business to control or dictate it: to say it shall or shall not be." …

This was in the year 1842. There were some rails laid along to fence up some lots. Hyrum saw me and said, "Brother Brigham, I want to talk to you." We went together and sat upon the rails that were piled up. He commenced by saying, "I have a question to ask you. In the first place I say unto you that I do know that you and the Twelve know some things that I do not know. I can understand this by the motions and talk and doings of Joseph and I know there is something or other which I do not understand that is revealed to the Twelve. Is this so?" [53] I replied, "I do not know anything about what you know, but I know what I know." Then he said, "I have mistrusted for a long time that Joseph had received a revelation that a man should have more than one wife, and he has hinted as much to me, but I would not bear it." We had heard him say hard things. I recollect in one council where Joseph undertook to teach the brethren and sisters, William Law was there and William and Hyrum and a few others were against Joseph. William Law made this expression: "If an angel from heaven was to reveal to me that a man should have more than one wife, and if it were in my power I would kill him." That was pretty hard, but Joseph had to submit for it. The brethren were not prepared to receive the doctrine. … [Hyrum] said to me, "I am convinced that there is something that has not been told me." I said to him, "Brother Hyrum, Joseph would tell you everything the Lord reveals to him if he could." I must confess I felt a little sarcastic against Hyrum, although he was just as honest as an angel and as full of integrity as the Gods, but he had not that ability which Joseph possessed to see and understand men as they were. I took advantage of this and I said to him, "Brother Hyrum, I will tell you about this thing which you do not know if you will swear with an uplifted hand before God that you will never say another word against Joseph, and his doings, and the doctrines he is preaching to the people." He replied, "I will do it with all my heart," and he stood upon his feet saying, "I want to know the truth and to be saved," and he made a covenant there, never again to bring forward one argument or use any influence against Joseph's doings. Joseph had many wives sealed to him. I told Hyrum the whole story and he bowed to it and wept like a child and said, "God be praised." He went to Joseph and told him what he had learned and renewed his covenant with Joseph and they went heart and hand together while they lived, and they were together when they died, and they are together now, defending Israel.

This story has a few issues, most notably that it was from Bloody Brigham Young himself more than 20 years after the supposed occurrence while he was constantly asserting his dominance as the correct prophet. Joseph III was half a decade into his ministry and pulling away some of the least loyal members of the Utah church to join the Reorganization. Also, when it comes to anything concerning the practice of polygamy, it’s really hard to take Bloody Brigham’s word for it because he was a profoundly dishonest and self-serving guy. Also, there’s absolutely no outside corroboration of this interaction. With that account properly qualified, regardless of how Hyrum learned about celestial polygamous marriage, he became an eager apologist for the doctrine beginning in early 1843. It was at Hyrum’s request that Jo finally dictated the revelation that came to be D&C 132 to his scribe, William Clayton. A few copies were made in the following days and the original was burned up at the demand of Emma. Emma was apparently so repulsed by the revelation, for understandable reasons, that she wouldn’t even touch the revelation with fire tongs to put it into the fire. Jo put it in the fire for her to express solidarity, but only for a fleeting moment.

Once Emma gave her tacit approval to polygamy, that was the dead canary Jo used as the litmus test to teach the doctrine more widely. Two days of meetings with the High Council brought all sorts of interesting events. On 12 August, 1843, the High Council began their meeting with a brief discourse by Jo. Then, Jo handed the meeting to Hyrum, who produced a precious piece of paper from his pocket.

As the council minutes state:

The revelation on celestial marriage and plurality of wives is read to the Nauvoo Stake High Council by Hyrum Smith.

This was a divisive meeting. Here it is from Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma, Mormon Enigma, on page 158

William Marks, president of the Nauvoo Stake, his two counselors, Charles C. Rich and Austin Cowles, and twelve or thirteen other men were present. During the meeting Dunbar Wilson asked about the extent and practice of “a plurality of wives.” He believed the rumors about it had some substance. Hyrum Smith walked across the street to his house and returned with a copy of the revelation Joseph had dictated a month earlier. He read it to the High Council. William Marks later said he “felt that it was not true but he saw the High Council received it.” Hyrum’s statement that htose who believed and obeyed would be saved and those who did not would be damned divided the council. Three men rejected it out of hand. They were William Marks, Leonard Soby, and Austin Cowles, who may not have known that his daughter Elvira [Cowles] had married Joseph on June 1. Marks would later struggle between rejecting the revelation and maintaining his loyalty to Joseph.

Now there was no confusion existing among members of the High Council about whether or not the spiritual wifery rumors had any factual basis. It was out in the open and there was no getting this cat back in the bag.

After a few hours of instruction and deliberation in light of this new revelation, the High Council disbanded for the evening and went to their homes to ponder polygamy. They’d heard the message, now they were forced to accept it or be damned.

The events of the next day are revealing when recounted through the eyes of Wilford Woodruff in his Nauvoo journal. We’ll read a few passages and discuss each point and why it’s significant.

13th In the morning Elder Grant & myself walked to the Navy Yard & I preached & was followed by Elder Grant. In the afternoon we met with the saints & Elder O Pratt Preached upon the subject of zion from the Psalmes of David, & In the evening Elders B Young H C Kimball & myself occupied the time. I addressed the people first & told my experience & felt much of the spirit of God in bearing testimony that Joseph Smith sen was a Prophet of God that the Book of Mormon was true & that the work we was engaged in was of God. I was followed by Elders Kimball & Young who also bore testimony of the work of God by the power of God. (6)

The men named here are Wilford Woodruff’s fellow warriors in building the kingdom of Zion. With the new license they had to preach polygamy to select individuals, a renewed zeal invigorated their preaching. Now they could have multiple wives and they had a revelation from the one-true prophet of God commanding them to do so or be damned. Now all they needed to do was carefully choose who would learn of the mysteries and how to convince the recipients that it was indeed true and of god. The next few passages from Willy-goat Woodruff’s journal require some discussion.

Sidney Rigdon: Disfellowshipped by church conference 13 Aug. 1843…

We have had certain traders in this city who have been writing falsehoods to Missouri. There is a certain man in this city who has made a covenant to betray and give me up and that too before the Gove[rnor] Carlin commenced his persecution. This testimony I have from gentlemen from a broad and I do not wish to give their names.

Sidney Rigdon, I most solemnly proclaim the withdrawal of my fellowship from this man /on the condition that the Judging be true/ and let the Saints proclaim it abroad that he may no longer be acknowledged as my counselor and that all who feel to sanction my proceedings and views will manifest it by uplifted hands. It was a unanimous vote that Sidney Rigdon be disfellow[shipp]ed and his license demanded. 

Yes, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon was disfellowshipped from the church. Rigdon was one of the main O.G. Mormons since his conversion in 1830 and converting about 200 of his followers to the church the next year. Truly, in many ways, it’s because of Sidney Rigdon that Mormonism became what it is today. He’s been a central figure of our timeline since episode 14. For some illumination on this disfellowshipping, we turn to Richard Van Wagoner’s ultimate biography of Sidney Rigdon, A Portrait of Religious Excess beginning on page 311.

After the dust had settled over Joseph Smith’s overtures to Nancy Rigdon, Smith was uncomfortable around the Rigdon family, viewing them with a keen sense of paranoia. Smith’s imposing presence usually overshadowed disaffection, and the Rigdons’ refusal to subordinate their interests to his angered him. He felt that his prophetic domain was compromised. Although the 1842-44 Smith-Rigdon relationship was not as acrimonious as depicted in official accounts, their mutual accommodation was an uneasy one. The unspoken truce was frequently disrupted by Smith’s groundless charges that Rigdon, in league with John C. Bennett, was behind legal efforts to extradite Smith to Missouri. This apprehension was particularly evident in matters related to the Nauvoo Post Office…

But this wasn’t the totality of their conflict that lead to Hingepin Rigdon’s temporary disfellowshipping. To complicate matters further was the entire Post Office affair. Jo had repeatedly accused Rigdon of withholding his mail or giving his mail to spies and enemies within the church. Once again, these accusations have no basis in provable facts beyond the repeated accusations. Rigdon and Emma had gone back and forth on this issue since the latter half of 1842 and the issue still wasn’t resolved. Regardless of whether or not Rigdon was stealing or screening Jo’s mail, a hidden ulterior motive existed in the mind of Jo when he made these various attempts to get Rigdon fired from the Post Office and disfellowshipped from the church. Continuing from Van Wagoner’s excellent biography.

From the earliest Nauvoo settlement years, Smith was envious that George W. Robinson then Sidney Rigdon held the financially lucrative position of postmaster. In the midst of the Bennett controversy Smith initiated a campaign to attain the postmastership for himself. He may have also wanted to monitor mail from such apostates as John C. Bennett, Francis Higbee, and George W. Robinson. Because postal matters and the Rigdon family were outside of his control, Smith attempted to slander the Rigdons by asserting that the mails were regularly plundered and mishandled.

Jo and Rigdon’s relationship was in tatters from their conflicts about polygamy, Jo propositioning Rigdon’s eldest single daughter, Nancy, in 1842, and of course, Jo’s suspicion that Rigdon was colluding with Bennett to get Jo arrested and extradited to Missouri which nearly came to fruition. It was only a few months prior to this disfellowshipping when Jo was arrested in Dixon and the Danites were called out to rescue him from Sheriffs Wilson and Reynolds.

The conflict between Jo and Rigdon had to be resolved, so let’s chase this rabbit trail. At this time in 1843, they’d had 13 years together as co-presidents of the church. They had some serious issues during that time, but have largely stuck together through thick and thin. However, Rigdon’s presence in Nauvoo had waned as his time was more occupied with his duties as postmaster and general intemperance in the privacy of his home. But the issues between Jo and Rigdon by late 1843 seem irresolvable. However, in a few months’ time, Jo is running for President of the United States with Sidney Rigdon as his Vice-Presidential candidate. How does this conflict get resolved and how does Rigdon run as Jo’s right hand man while being disfellowshipped from the church? Well, less than a month after he was disfellowshipped, Rigdon appealed his case to the High Council. They convened in the first week of October 1843 to finally bury the hatchet. This has been white-washed, both by the original minute-takers of the meeting, and by the compilers of church history, in an effort to paint Rigdon as the villain and minimize his position in the church because Bloody Brigham was the right guy to take the mantle, not Rigdon. So, bear that in mind as I read a few extracts from the History of the Church, Dan Vogel edition, volume 6, where this special conference was called to hear Rigdon’s case, in hopes he’d retain his membership.

President [Joseph Smith] stated the items of business to be brought before the conference, to be.

The case and standing of Elder Sidney Rigdon, Counselor to the First Presidency.

Elder Sidney Rigdon addressed the conference on the subject of his situation and circumstances among the Saints.

This was a crucial moment for Hingepin Sidney Rigdon. He’d been a pastor for nearly 2 decades by this point and he’d cultivated an incredible power of oratory in that time. However, as his mental health had significantly weakened since his stint in Liberty Jail and the following chaos of settling Nauvoo, he had a habit of running on and on, through meaningless tangents and ethereal tirades into the mysteries that plagued his mind. The defense Rigdon provided for himself and retaining his membership has been so deeply propagandized that it’s hard to even ascertain the nuggets of truth at the center of what’s recorded in the History of the Church. That one line was the extent of his opening argument in defense. Next to testify in the council, arguing Rigdon should remain disfellowshipped, was the prosecuting party, Jo Smith himself.

President Joseph Smith addressed the conference, inviting an expression of any charges or complaints which the conference had to make. He stated his dissatisfaction with Elder Sidney Rigdon as a counselor, not having received any material benefit from his labors of counsels since their escape from Missouri [what would you say you do around here?]. Several complaints were then brought forward in reference to his management in the post office; a supposed correspondence and connection with John C. [Wreck-it] Bennett, with Ex-Governor Carlin, and with the Missourians, of a treacherous character; also his leaguing with dishonest persons in endeavoring to defraud the innocent.

No further details are offered on the exact accusations, the supposed correspondence between Rigdon and Jo’s primary enemies, or concerning Rigdon’s “endeavoring to defraud the innocent.” The surviving record is deliberately light on the process of this hearing. Let’s try to read between the lines though. We need to understand that Jo was embarrassed in the presence of Hingepin Rigdon. Look, Rigdon picked Jo up from the depths of treasure-digging infamy during Jo’s early career. Rigdon had facilitated everything Jo enjoyed in Nauvoo as a result of converting to the church and becoming co-president with Jo in 1830. Beyond that, the Rigdons and Smiths had been friends for more than a decade by this point. Jo had watched Sidney and Phoebe’s family grow, their children mature into adulthood, had them over and had been over to their home for countless meals and meetings. Emma and Phoebe were rather close as well. Jo had also watched young Nancy grow into the beautiful and smart young woman she was in Nauvoo since the age of 11, and had asked her to become one of his dozens of wives. I believe Jo was ashamed of his actions as he’d betrayed the trust of one of his dearest friends. Refusing to admit to wrongdoing for this proposal would come with all sorts of consequences, so Jo instead decided to turn Hingepin Rigdon into his enemy by fabricating charges and solidifying the persecution narrative against the one-true prophet of God. However, there is no evidence, aside from Jo’s accusations, that Rigdon was ever actually disloyal to Jo. Rigdon had sacrificed a lot for Jo and the advancement of Jo’s career. Jo thanked him by trying to sleep with his teenage daughter and cut him out of church leadership. Rigdon saw a different Jo than every other person in the church. Rigdon was uniquely poised in church leadership and knew most of what transpired behind closed doors. Events he didn’t have explicit knowledge of, he’d hear rumors and could make an accurate judgement call and how true they were. That’s why he immediately sided with his daughter when she told him about Jo’s advances; Rigdon had been dealing with the consequences of Jo’s sexual indiscretions for over a decade. He knew what really happened.

The next passage in the notes is quite interesting and seems a bit contradictory. You’ll see what I mean.

President Joseph Smith related to the conference the detention of documents from Justin Butterfield, Esq., which was designed for the benefit of himself, but were not handed over for some three or four weeks, greatly to his disadvantage. Also, an indirect testimony from Missouri, through the mother of Orin P. Rockwell, that said Rigdon and others had given information, by letter, of President Smith’s visit to Dixon, advising them to proceed to that place and arrest him there. He stated that in consequence of those, and other circumstances, and his unprofitableness to him as a counselor, he did not wish to retain him in that station, unless those difficulties could be removed; but desired his salvation, and expressed his willingness that he should retain a place among the Saints.

These were Jo’s arguments against retaining Hingepin Rigdon as a counselor and member of the church elite. The document he designated to Justin Butterfield that apparently wasn’t delivered for 3-4 weeks after it was supposed to be, and hearsay from Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell’s mom that she had claimed Rigdon shared Jo’s Dixon location with the Missouri government which led to Jo’s arrest that previous June. The letter isn’t produced, just Jo’s claim that it exists. This was important for Jo to get to the bottom of. Sheriffs Wilson and Reynolds showed up in Dixon completely unexpectedly when they arrested Jo, he was caught completely off guard. The fact that they knew right where to find Jo, and were even in the right town on the right day, was serious cause for suspicion among the Mormon elite. Only a few people knew Jo would be in Dixon, who leaked it? Who among the High Council could no longer be trusted? Jo personally concluded it was probably Rigdon and these accusations and this entire hearing is the result.

Also, Jo claimed that that Rigdon isn’t really pulling his weight around here and I’m sick of carrying around this deadbeat. Then Jo said these are the problems with Rigdon, if they can be explained away then he can remain here, implying he didn’t want Rigdon to remain in the presidency of the church, but he could remain on the membership records with sufficient excuses to dismiss these accusations of treason against the prophet.

Rigdon was allowed to respond, and this is how it is recorded in the History of the Church. Once again, this is the propagandized version of the events, what actually happened in this council has been lost to history, only a few scant records shed any more light on it.

Elder Sidney Rigdon plead, concerning the document from Justin Butterfield, Esq., that he received it in answer to some inquiries which he had transmitted to him—that he received it at a time when he was sick, and unable to examine it—did not know that it was designed for the perusal and benefit of President Joseph Smith—that he had, consequently, ordered it to be laid aside, where it remained until inquired for by Joseph Smith. He had never written to Missouri concerning the visit of Joseph Smith to Dixon, and knew of no other person having done so. That, concerning certain rumors of belligerent operations under Governor Carlin’s administration, he had related them, not to alarm or disturb any one, but that he had the rumors from good authorities, and supposed them well founded. That he had never received but one communication from John C. Bennett, and that of a business character, except one addressed to him conjointly with Elder Orson Pratt, which he handed over to President Smith—that he had never written any letters to John C. Bennett.

With the Justin Butterfield document, Rigdon said I was sick when it came in and didn’t know it was so important to you so I held it at the post office until you called on me for it. That’s a good excuse. As to telling Sheriffs Wilson and Reynolds that Jo would be in Dixon so they could arrest him, Rigdon simply flatly denied it, the same with the accusation about working with Governor Carlin to affect Jo’s arrest at the end of 1842, more flat denials. Nobody knows how Sheriffs Wilson and Reynolds knew that Jo would be in Dixon, but it may have been another of the Nauvoo leadership Jo didn’t expect at this time. Personally, I’d be much quicker to finger William Law or one of the Higbees for that little intel breach… but that’s just me. Jo wasn’t exactly wanting for enemies within leadership ranks of the church, there was plenty of enemies to go around and his hold on leadership wasn’t as tenacious as any despotic regime leader night require.

As for the letter Jo had with him from Wreck-it Bennett that was written to Orson Pratt and Rigdon, Rigdon simply said it was the only letter he’d received from Bennett and he hadn’t ever written a letter to Bennett aside from regular business stuff. We know Rigdon had flatly denied true things in the past, so it was a matter of whether or not the High Counsel decided to take Jo’s side in the debate and believe the accusations, or take Rigdon’s side and believe his denials and rationalizations.

The meeting adjourned for the evening. Rigdon’s membership held in the balance and they decided it was a good break for lunch. The hearing resumed the next day with Rigdon continuing to make his case.

Elder Sidney Rigdon resumed his plea of defense. He related the circumstances of his reception in the city of Quincy, after his escape from Missouri—the cause of his delay in not going to the city of Washington, on an express to which he had been appointed—and closed with a moving appeal to President Joseph Smith, concerning their former friendship, associations and sufferings; and expressed his willingness to resign his place, though with sorrowful and indescribable feelings. During this address, the sympathies of the congregation were highly excited.

Rigdon, true to his natural form, delivered a deeply emotive speech relating the persecutions he and the Mormons had suffered and everything he and Jo had been through. You can’t do me like this, Jo! And, as usual when Rigdon spoke, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Sure, Rigdon could be a blowhard, but when it came down to brass tacks, he still had it in him.

The rest of the meeting included Almon W. Babbit, Hyrum Smith, and William Law all testifying in Rigdon’s behalf. Jo stood up and made a final statement.

President Joseph Smith arose and satisfactorily explained to the congregation the supposed treacherous correspondence with ex-Governor Carlin, which wholly removed suspicion from Elder Sidney Rigdon, and from every other person; and he expressed entire willingness to have elder Sidney Rigdon retain his station, provided he would magnify his office, and walk and conduct himself in all honesty, righteousness, and integrity; but signified his lack of confidence in [Rigdon’s] integrity and steadfastness, judging from their past intercourse.

So, Jo came clean, saying he didn’t actually have any evidence that Rigdon had committed treason against the prophet and church, and was willing to have Rigdon continue as his personal counselor, but also was a bit apprehensive. This is understandable. Jo could control just about everybody in that room, nearly everybody was under his spell, or so he thought anyway. Rigdon, however, wasn’t so captivated by the prophet and therefore couldn’t be controlled by Jo. Every minute Jo remained with Rigdon as his personal counsellor, was another minute he didn’t have control over every aspect of his life. Rigdon was basically one of the only people in Jo’s closest group who wasn’t a yes-man to the prophet. Every public figure like Jo needs to have a devil’s advocate, but Jo didn’t realize how beneficial it was to him and the entire religion to keep Rigdon close and on church payroll. However, most powerful men like Jo[hn] don’t see the utility in a devil’s advocate and instead ignore or squash any negative or critical voices.

But there’s another angle to consider here, that of the other leaders who weren’t fully captivated. Maybe some of the other elites who weren’t in the death-cult camp, like Bloody Brigham was, saw Rigdon as an asset to the leadership. Rigdon could be the faithful contrarian Jo needed at his left hand to keep Jo’s power and ego in check, but also suffer the wrath of the prophet because he was strong enough to handle it. If you’re an elite who’s scared by the prophet, you’ll probably do everything in your power to keep the one guy around who can keep Jo from going completely off the deep end.

As an example of somebody who may fit this bill; William Marks, notably, was a pragmatist and opposed to polygamy and aggressive Mormon expansionism. However, Marks was president of the Nauvoo Stake, which poised him much lower in the pecking order than Rigdon. Marks and Rigdon were close and more similar in personal theologies than either of them were to Jo’s theology. If Rigdon was cut, Marks would have one less ally in Nauvoo leadership, which could be life-threatening. I’d be willing to bet there were other guys in this High Council who were equally terrified at Mormon expansionism but to speak out could lead to taking a water nap in the Mississippi. If you’re one of those guys like William Marks, you want Rigdon to stick around as long as possible.

The counsel concluded by calling a vote.

On motion by William Marks, and seconded by Patriarch Hyrum Smith, conference voted that Elder Sidney Rigdon be permitted to retain his station as counselor to the First President.

And it was official. Rigdon would not only remain in fellowship with the church, but he retained his role as a personal counselor to Jo. Jo’s reaction is very revealing.

President Joseph Smith arose and said, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me, you may carry him, but I will not.”

Try as he might, Jo couldn’t get Rigdon removed with the approval of the other members of Nauvoo leadership. Whatever transpired away from the blurry vision of the historical record, Jo and Rigdon’s relationship would improve from this time forward as a result of it. Rigdon was the monkey Jo couldn’t get off his back, but keeping Rigdon close was in everybody’s best interest.

What do I mean by that? Well, just consider Rigdon’s history with Jo and the religion as well as his current place. He knew enough to be truly dangerous should he turn bitter dissenter after being officially excommunicated. That’s a detail that isn’t illuminated by anything available in the historical record. What was Jo’s plan once Rigdon was ex’d? He’d need to be dealt with or he may constitute an even more dangerous opponent than Wreck-it Bennett had been for over a year by this point. Rigdon also had the position of Postmaster of Nauvoo so he was in a position to orchestrate the most-effective disinformation campaign against Jo and the church should he decide he was ready to go public with an exposition on the criminal empire of Nauvoo. However, Rigdon also spent most of his time confined to his home suffering from illness that can only be speculated upon by historians today. He’d suffered head-trauma at an early age which could have altered his brain in such a way that mental illnesses described as “melancholia” at the time were the result. It’s unclear, but he wasn’t well. Regardless of his mental state, he controlled a fair amount of the information going in and out of Nauvoo. He handled every private correspondence among everybody in town. That would be a powerful tool if Rigdon turned enemy, especially considering everything he knew.

What solution did Jo have once Rigdon was out? I’d be willing to bet that if Rigdon did go dissenter while in the confines of Nauvoo, he may just be taken with a mysterious illness and simply be found dead in his home. That would probably be the end of the issue never requiring further explanation than he wasn’t well and spent most of his time confined to his home with illness for years. Everybody would have seen it coming if he just up-and-died. It may garner some attention or inquiry about the Danites, but that would only be rumors. So, the plan if Rigdon did defect and begin smearing the name of the prophet? Make him go away. No further plan needed. But, it was always better for EVERYBODY to keep him close; that way Jo could keep an eye on his frenemy who had the most dirt on the prophet.

What about Rigdon’s headspace during this trial? To shed some speculative light on what must have been going through Rigdon’s head during the month from when he was officially disfellowshipped until he was reinstated as a result of this hearing, let’s turn our gaze back to the journal of Wilford Woodruff in mid-August 1843.

Elias Higbee: Joseph Smith preached funeral sermon 13 August 1843 at Nauvoo.

It’s a simple passage but also insightful if we consider surrounding events. Jo’s own journal recounts the funeral sermon in greater detail, in the hand of Jo’s personal scribe, William Clayton. As was typical with any sermon Jo preached, he used the inciting incident of a prominent church leader as a jump-off point to needlessly expound on his ever-changing Mormon theology. I’ll cut most of that out, but here’s a few relevant extracts:

Sunday, August 13th 1843 Joseph Pre[ached] in relation [to] the death of Judge [Elias] Higby. 2d Peter 3d C[hapter] 10-11 v[erses]. Text said he was not like other men. His mind was continually occupied with the business of the day, and he had to depend entirely upon the Living God for everything he said on such occasions….

We are called thus [to] mourn this morning the death of a good man, a great man and a mighty man. It is a solemn idea that man has no hope of seeing a friend after he has lost him,…

Where has Judge Higby gone? Who is there that would not give all his goods to feed the poor and pour out his gold and silver to the four winds to come where Judge Higby has gone.

That which hath been hid from before the foundation of the world is revealed to babes and sucklings in the last days.

The world is reserved unto burning in the last days.

Now, we get to the crux of his sermon that discusses the position of Judge Elias Higbee. It discusses the doctrine of Election Sealing, which is the second anointing, induction into the Quorum of the Anointed, that ensures a person’s salvation and exaltation. It also mentions the covenant of Abraham, which, given the historical context of when this funeral sermon was given, is talking about polygamy.

Four destroying angels holding power over the 4 quarters of the earth until the servants of God are sealed in their foreheads. What is that seal? Shall I tell you? No.

Doctrine [of] Election Sealing /of the servants of God/ on the top of their heads tis not the cross as the Catholics would have it. Doctrine of Election to Abraham was in relation to the Lord. A man wishes to be embraced in the covenant of Abraham. A man [like] Judge Higby in world of spirits, is sealed unto the throne, and doctrine of Election [is] sealing the father and children together. [rest of page left blank]

To the mourner, do as the husband and the father would instruct you? [Then] You shall be reunited.

I have been acquainted with Judge Higby a long time. I never knew a more tender hearted man.

Yes, Jo did know Judge Elias Higbee for a long time. The guy was 10 years Jo’s senior, born in October of 1795. He’d joined the Mormons in 1832 and was one of the early settlers in Jackson County, Missouri. He was ordained an elder of the church by his dad, Isaac Higbee in 1833. He was one of the contingent of Mormons driven from Jackson County in 1833-4 and settled in Clay County. Elias Higbee had helped build the Kirtland Temple, invested in the Kirtland Safety Society. He was a Danite and was part of the Battle at Crooked River when the Mormon aggressively attacked the Missouri-State militia, but he made it out alive. He was an organizing member of the committees that coordinated the Mormon exodus from Missouri to Illinois and helped Jo and Hingepin Rigdon buy up land from Horace Hotchkiss and Isaac Galland that the Mormons settled on in Illinois and Iowa. This guy was partially responsible for acquiring the land on which Nauvoo was built. He also travelled with Jo to Washington D.C. to petition President Van Buren and Congress for redress for being driven from Missouri. Elias Higbee was also a member of the temple-building committee, a member of the Nauvoo Legion, and also inducted into the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. So, when Jo says he’s been acquainted with Judge Higby a long time, he’s right. This was one of the early O.G. Mormons from the early Kirtland era. Judge Higbee also had two sons named Chauncey L. Higbee and Francis M. Higbee, who would later become 2 of Jo’s greatest enemies a mere 6 months after their father’s death. Francis and Chauncey Higbee were 2 of the 7 publishers of the Nauvoo Expositor, which was published June 7, 1844. Jo declared the Nauvoo Expositor a public nuisance and had burned to the ground, which got him and Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith thrown in Carthage jail where they met their untimely demise 20 days after it was published. Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith was chosen to replace Elias Higbee on the Temple building committee.

My overall point is, Elias Higbee and his sons had been members of the church for over a decade by the time Elias Higbee died and his sons turned against the prophet and published the expose that killed the prophet. All of the Higbees were vehemently opposed to polygamy. The revelation on polygamy was given, and Elias Higbee dies of cholera, and Jo gave a cryptic funeral sermon that directly references polygamy and invokes the term, “the destroying angels”. Elias Higbee wasn’t the only high-ranking member of the church to suddenly and unexpectedly die at this tumultuous time in Nauvoo history. Another prominent member, James Adams, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, had been a member since 1840. He was elected as a probate judge of Hancock Co., on August 7, 1843, and similarly died suddenly and unexpectedly only 4 days later.

Jo’s funeral sermon for James Adams is similarly cryptic to that of Elias Higbee.

All men know that they must die: and it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life, and of death; and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departures hence…

I saw [James Adams] first at Springfield, when on my way from Missouri to Washington; he sought me out when a stranger, took me to his home, encouraged and cheered me, and gave me money. He has been a most intimate friend. I anointed him to the patriarchal power—to receive the keys of knowledge and power, by revelation to himself. He has had revelations concerning his departure, and has gone to a more important work. When men are prepared, they are better off to go hence. Brother Adams has gone to open up a more effectual door for the dead. The spirits of the just are exalted to a greater and more glorious work—hence they are blessed in their departure to the world of spirits. Enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith.

Flesh and blood cannot go there, but flesh and bones, quickened by the Spirit of God, can.

If we would be sober, and watch in fasting and prayer, God would turn away sickness from our midst.

Hasten the work in the Temple—renew your exertions to forward all the work of the last days, and walk before the Lord in soberness and righteousness. Let the elders and saints do away with lightmindedness, and be sober.

Quite a few mysterious deaths in Nauvoo Mormon leadership upon the dissemination of the polygamy revelation. That’s important to note, right? When Jo gave his 1831 revelation that the Mormons would consecrate the property of the gentiles and bring it to the bishop’s storehouse to fund their communalistic religion, it happened. That revelation was understood to be the word of god and the Mormons stole a ton of property in Missouri which eventually led to the extermination order and their exodus to Illinois. The prophet of God spoke, and the people took it as the words of God and acted accordingly.

So, when the polygamy revelation says that all who learn of the New and Everlasting Covenant must accept it or be damned, that wasn’t some idle legalism or biblical profundity, that was an operative point of the revelation. Prominent people died in Nauvoo at the end of 1843. Sure, cholera and many other illnesses killed indiscriminately and that was happening all the time. The most parsimonious interpretation of the historical record is that these people died from illness. But history doesn’t always follow the rules of parsimony when speculation outside of evidence can provide likely explanations as well.

With this aspect of the Nauvoo criminal empire revealed, maybe that adds a little more context to the excommunication hearing for Hingepin Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon’s biographer, Richard Van Wagoner, found a newspaper clip talking about this very hearing in which is said that “’Sidney Rigdon was brought up by the Prophet, and abused without measure,’ and that he had ‘cried for mercy like a whipped puppy.’” I think interpreting this as Rigdon crying for mercy about his membership in the church is a bit simplistic and too generous to the powers that put him in the hot seat. I believe Rigdon was delivering one of the most crucial orations of his life because his life was in the balance. If he were excommunicated, he would be the most powerful enemy of the prophet. Enemies of the prophet get visits from the Danites.

Jo had spent this entire hearing and the month of Rigdon’s disfellowshipping prior to the hearing to paint Rigdon as an enemy of the church. He’d attempted to loop Rigdon and Bennett in a conspiracy together to take down the prophet and the church, and we know that Bennett was treated as the ultimate enemy of the church. Jo sent his destroying angel, Pistol Packin’ Porter to follow Bennett around Illinois and intimidate him into silence. Even before Bennett left Nauvoo, Jo was trying to intimidate him, according to his own account anyway. Here’s the conversation between Jo and Wreck-it Bennett after Bennett had resigned from the office of Mayor and been excommunicated from the church.

We entered [the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge], and he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, drew a pistol on me, and said, ‘The peace of my family requires that you should sign an affidavit, and make a statement before the next City Council,…, exonerating me from all participation whatever, either directly or indirectly, in word or deed, in the spiritual wife doctrine… and if you do not do it with apparent cheerfulness, I will make cat-fish bait of you, or deliver you over to the Danites for execution to-night; for my dignity and purity must and shall be maintained before the public, even at the expense of life. Will you do it, or die?’ I replied that he had better procure some other person or persons to do so, as there were a plenty who could do it in truth. ‘No’ said he, ‘that will not do; for it is known that you are well acquainted with all my private acts, better than any other man; and it is in your power to save me or damn me; and as you have now withdrawn form the Church in an honorable manner, over my own signature,--a privilege never granted to any other person,--you must and shall place it out of your power to injure me or the Church. Do it, or the Mississippi is your portion. Will you do it?’ I remarked that it was a hard case, and that I would leave peaceably, and without any public exposition, if he would excuse me. He replied, ‘I tell you as I was once told, “Your die is cast! Your fate is fixed!! YOUR DOOM IS SEALED!!!” if you refuse. Will you do it, or die?’ I remarked that I would, under the circumstances, but that it was hard to take the advantage of an unarmed man. ‘If you tell that publicly,’ said he, ‘death is your portion’ remember the Danites!’

Jo threatened Bennett and forced him to sign an affidavit under duress. Then, when Wreck-it Bennett was able to leave the city and began publishing his expose letters, Port came knockin’ on his door. Jo tried to have Bennett assassinated. Anybody attached to Bennett was equally as evil in the eyes of church leaders. If Jo could successfully brand Hingepin Rigdon to be in league with Bennett, he’d become cat-fish bait as well. Does that shed any light on why this excommunication hearing was so damn important to Jo, Rigdon, and the church as a whole?

In this hearing, Rigdon was quite literally arguing for his life. Not against the Missourians or against dissenters in the church, but against the prophet himself. The criminal empire of Nauvoo was vast and dark, nobody’s life was safe if they could be perceived as a threat to the prophet and his kingdom on the Mississippi.

After the vote was tallied and Rigdon was allowed to remain in his position, not only in the church but as a counselor to the first presidency, his and Jo’s relationship set on a path of repair. This repair was absolutely crucial because Rigdon was fairly well-known outside of the church and was the most reasonable political ally for Jo in his upcoming presidential run for reasons we’ll discuss in coming episodes. In a polarized shift from his previous approach to handling Rigdon, Jo quickly became very friendly to Rigdon, even if they had skeletons in their friendship closet from doctrinal arguments, polygamy, execution of leading the church, or anything else that caused their relationship to chafe.

Once again from Richard Van Wagoner’s biography of Rigdon.

Ebenezer Robinson, long-time church printer, presented a much more benevolent view of the prophet’s 1844 assessment of his sporadic esteem for Rigdon. Called to accompany Rigdon to Pittsburgh in June 1844, Robinson was admonished by Smith to “stand by [Elder Rigdon] under all circumstances, and uphold his hands on all occasions and never forsake him… for he is a good man and I love him better than I ever loved him in all my life, for my heart is entwined around his with chords that can never be broken.”

A lot happens from August of 1843 when Rigdon was disfellowshipped, to June of 1844 when Rigdon is headed to Pittsburgh to electioneer for Jo as his Vice-Presidential candidate. Rigdon’s life was in danger, but he clawed his way back into favor with the prophet. He narrowly escaped a visit from the Destructives. Others, however, underestimated the power of the prophet, and weren’t so lucky.

Scathing on BoA 326

Email from Shane

Hi Bryce,

I enjoyed your recent podcast about Alexander Neibaur. You’re wrong about nobody in your audience having prior knowledge about him. Lance Owens’s article has been around awhile. You might find it interesting that Hugh Nibley is descended from Neibaur. In German, the diphthong “ei” (an e followed by an i) is pronounced like the English long i, as in island.

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