In the late 1820s a fiery young minister in western Ohio converted nearly 1,000 proselytes to the Reformed Baptist Movement. As these schismatics organized themselves into the new Disciples of Christ church, the Reverend Sidney Rigdon was already aligning himself with another, more radical movement, the Latter-day Saints, where he quickly became the LDS prophet’s principal advisor and spokesman. He served Joseph Smith loyally for the next fourteen years, even through a brief spat over the prophet’s romantic interest in his teenage daughter.
Next to Smith, Rigdon was the most influential early Mormon. He imported Reformed Baptist teachings into Latter-day Saint theology, wrote the canonized Lectures on Faith, championed communalism and isolationism, and delivered many of the most significant early sermons, including the famous Salt Sermon and the Ohio temple dedicatory address.
Following Smith’s death, Rigdon parted company with Brigham Young to lead his own group of some 500 secessionists Mormons in Pennsylvania. Rigdon’s following gradually dwindled, as the one-time orator took to wandering the streets, taunting indifferent passersby with God’s word. He was later recruited by another Mormon faction. Although he refused to meet with them, he agreed to be their prophet and send revelations by mail. Before long he had directed them to settle far-off Iowa and Manitoba, among other things. At his death, his followers numbered in the hundreds, and today they number about 10,000, mostly in Pennsylvania.
“Rigdon is a biographer’s dream,” writes Richard Van Wagoner. Intellectually gifted, manic-depressive, an eloquent orator and social innovator but a chronic indigent, Rigdon aspired to altruism but demanded advantage and deference. When he lost prominence, his early attainments were virtually written out of the historical record.
Correcting this void, Van Wagoner has woven the psychology of religious incontinence into the larger fabric of social history. In doing so, he reminds readers of the significance of this nearly-forgotten founding member of the LDS First Presidency. Nearly ten million members in over one hundred churches trace their heritage to Joseph Smith. Many are unaware of the importance of Rigdon’s contributions to their inherited theology.
Richard S. Van Wagoner is co-author of A Book of Mormons and sole author of Lehi: Portraits of a Mormon Town, Mormon Polygamy: A History, and Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess. Sidney Rigdon won the Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Historical Association and Best Biography Award from the Mormon History Association. Van Wagoner is also a contributor to The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith and has written for BYU Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Utah Historical Quarterly, and other publications.