Recently, a reader posed a question about Sidney Rigdon's claims in the Messenger and Advocate that Joseph practiced polygamy. I wish to answer the reader's inquiry in this article.
The claims in the Messenger and Advocate, published by Sidney Rigdon, that Joseph was a polygamist are very interesting. Because of Sidney's close relationship with Joseph from almost the beginning of the Church, including becoming a first counselor to Joseph in the First Presidency in March 1833, one would assume that the allegations in the Messenger and Advocate are true. After all, who better than Sidney should know the truth about Joseph and polygamy? And expectedly he did know the truth, but he did not publish it in the Messenger and Advocate. From Sidney's close association with Joseph, he knew that Joseph did not teach or practice polygamy. It was only after Joseph's death that Sidney changed his position as published in the Messenger and Advocate. So let us look at some of the events in Sidney's relationship with Joseph that point to Sidney's knowledge of Joseph's innocence and compare them to what Sidney published in the Messenger and Advocate. By doing this we should be able to see that what Sidney stated in the Messenger and Advocate was not reflective of what he knew about Joseph during their close association from 1830 to 1844.
The Early 1830s
Sidney's and Joseph's relationship started very early in the Church and they quickly became close associates. They first met in December, 1830, when Sidney came to New York to visit Joseph and subsequently became his scribe for the process of correcting the King James Version of the Bible into what is known as the Inspired Version or New Translation of the Bible. Sidney's association with Joseph on this project continued until it was completed on July 2, 1833 (Times and Seasons 6:802), with the vast majority of the work being done in Hiram, Ohio. During this time they spent many days together under the influence of the Spirit working on this document, and they received great spiritual manifestations such as the open vision of the glories as recorded in D&C 76. In addition, they suffered great persecutions together, such as the time they were dragged from their homes by the mob and beaten and tarred and feathered. These types of experiences tend to create closeness between people and reveal both the good and bad about them. Thus, both Sidney and Joseph probably came to know each other very well during this time.
Proponents that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy suggest that he did so as early as 1831 when he brought forth a revelation supporting this doctrine. To support their position they cite a letter written by W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young in 1861 which quoted parts of the alleged revelation. In addition, such proponents also indicate that Joseph's first plural wife was Fanny Alger who he allegedly married as early as 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio. If these events were true, Sidney Rigdon, with his closeness to Joseph in working on the Inspired Verson, would have had to have known about them. As adamant as Sidney was against polygamy after Joseph's death in June 1844, he would have also felt as strongly against it in the 1830s. Yet during this time he was silent on the subject. Similarly, the Messenger and Advocate in the mid-1840s makes no mention of polygamy existing during that time in the Church. In addition, Sidney was new to the Church as was everyone else. If Joseph was involved with polygamy, Sidney could have easily left the Church and returned to preaching in the Protestant world. But he did not. In fact, he was so convinced of the truth of the Restored Gospel that he accepted a calling to further responsibility in the highest quorum of the Church, the First Presidency. Because of Sidney's adamancy against polygamy after Joseph's death, his supportive actions for Joseph and the Church in the 1830s indicate to me that Joseph was not teaching or practicing polygamy at that time. Thus, I do not believe that the position of the Messenger and Advocate that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy came from Sidney's observations of Joseph in the early 1830s.
The Early 1840s
In the early 1840s, Sidney was still closely associated with Joseph in the First Presidency. In addition, he was Joseph's next door neighbor in Nauvoo. He lived ½ block to the north of both the Mansion House and the Homestead with no other houses in between. Those within his dwelling could easily note the activities surrounding Joseph's dwellings. Sidney was also the Postmaster of Nauvoo and for a while the kitchen of his home served as the post office (www.historicnauvoo.net). This placed him in a position to note who was writing to Joseph and to whom Joseph was writing. Because of Sidney's easy access to Joseph in Nauvoo, he would have definitely been in a position to know if Joseph was teaching or practicing polygamy, especially since it is alleged that from April 1841 to November 1843 Joseph married 31 women. (www.wivesofjosephsmith.org)
Again, as adamant as Sidney was against polygamy after Joseph's death, I have to believe he would have also felt as strongly against it in the 1840s prior to his death. Interestingly though, up until Joseph's death, Sidney was silent about Joseph's alleged involvement in polygamy except for allegations surrounding his daughter, Nancy Rigdon. Again, Sidney's silence about polygamy indicates to me that Joseph was not teaching or practicing polygamy during this time.
The allegations surrounding Nancy Rigdon are thoroughly covered in the article "Bennett's Sixth Letter, or the Essay on 'Happiness'" in Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy. I strongly suggest that all readers review the entire article. From this article, the issue was that "an unsigned letter favoring polygamy was delivered to Nancy, which Dr. Bennett published as his 'Sixth Letter,' claiming that it was a love letter from Joseph to Nancy." The letter was in Willard Richards' handwriting and Joseph denied he authored it. After Joseph told the Rigdons about Dr. Bennett's and Francis Higbee's involvement with Nancy, and after Joseph raised Eliza Rigdon, Sidney's daughter, from the dead by the power of God, Sidney believed Joseph about the letter. Sidney wrote a letter to the editor of a neighboring newspaper, the Wasp, which was printed in the September 3, 1842 issue. In the letter Sidney stated that Nancy denied that Joseph was the author of the letter. He also stated that Joseph had denied to him that he had authored the letter.
The raising of Eliza from the dead was additional confirmation to Sidney that Joseph was innocent of the polygamy allegations surrounding him. When Eliza came back from the dead, she told her father under the direction of the Spirit that Dr. Bennett was a wicked man and that God would deal with him. In late August, 1842, on a Sunday at the public stand near the temple, Sidney declared that Joseph had raised his daughter from the dead and told the testimony of what happened. He then stated, "It has also been rumored that I believe that Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet:—In regard to this, I unequivocally state, that I never thought so— but declare that I know he is a prophet of the Lord, called and chosen in this last dispensation, to roll on the kingdom of God for the last time" (ibid.) Three years later in the Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 2 No. 2 (December 1845) Sidney states:
There is and always has been one governing principle in the church of Christ, and that is that the Lord always has and always will, give his spirit to them that obey him. If a person is found without the spirit of God, it is because he or she is a transgressor. This holds good in all cases. Persons who through obedience have attained the spirit of God, and afterwards found without it is transgressor; for had they not been so, the spirit would have continued with them. Nothing but transgression can deprive a person of the spirit of God, and the nearer a person walks to God, the greater portion of the spirit he will enjoy.
Because Sidney's belief was that the Lord only gives His Spirit to His obedient, he had to believe that Joseph could not have raised Eliza from the dead unless he was still the Lord's prophet and telling the truth. Hence, he made his public statement in August 1842 that Joseph was a true prophet and not a fallen one. And Eliza's statement under the Spirit about Bennett was confirmation to him that Joseph was telling the truth about Dr. Bennett and Francis Higbee.
In May 1844, when Sidney defended Joseph in the suit brought by Francis Higbee, Sidney reaffirmed his belief that Joseph was innocent of polygamy and that he had told the truth in 1842 about Dr. Bennett and Francis Higbee. According to the article "Francis M. Higbee Sued Joseph for Five Thousand Dollars" in Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Higbee brought suit against Joseph allegedly for damages received from the Church's High Council 1842 investigation of Higbee's involvement in "'spiritual wifery' which was being practiced by Francis M. Higbee, Doctor John C. Bennett, and others. Testimony was given before the Council that Higbee had seduced at least six women, and that he had contracted a venereal disease from a prostitute, a French woman who had come to Nauvoo from the neighboring town of Warsaw." If Sidney believed or had evidence that Joseph was involved with polygamy, he could not have defended him for the following reason. This suit dealt in part with alleged scandalous events surrounding his daughter, Nancy Rigdon, including the alleged love letter written by Joseph to her favoring polygamy as mentioned above.
Engaging Rigdon was wisdom on the part of both Joseph and Sidney, because Joseph had been accused by Francis Higbee of attempting to take Nancy Rigdon, Sidney's daughter, as a plural wife. Both Joseph and Sidney were aware that it would be necessary to discuss events relative to Nancy during the hearing, because there would be a reviewing of events in 1842. That was the year that Higbee was investigated before the High Council, and since he had been Nancy's suitor, her name had been discussed. This made it probable that her name would be brought into the testimonies in the hearing before the Nauvoo Municipal Court.
Elder Rigdon, knowing that Nancy and Francis' relationship would be referred to in the hearing, still accepted the task of defending Joseph. Sidney's agreement to serve as one of Joseph's attorneys showed that he had faith in Joseph's innocence. (ibid.)
In the trial Sidney stated, "In relation to the matters before the court I am unacquainted with[,] I was sick at the time but I have heard it talked of back and fro.... I recollect Joseph Smith came to me with a complaint against [Francis] Higbee and Bennet, and made affidavit that it was true; I have the affidavit in my house" (ibid).
From the above, we see that in the 1840s, as late as May 1844 (one month prior to Joseph's death), Sidney Rigdon indicated it was true that Joseph did not teach or practice polygamy. Thus, I do not believe that the position of the Messenger and Advocate that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy came from Sidney's observations of Joseph in the 1840s.
The Messenger and Advocate Articles
After Sidney's attempt to lead the LDS Church was rejected, he began to publish the Messenger and Advocate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 15, 1844. He published the last issue in September 1846. He was the editor of this paper and as such was responsible for its content. (You may read the Messenger and Advocate online.) Having read all the available issues online, I found that the paper was strongly opposed to both the LDS Church leadership in Nauvoo at that time and its polygamy doctrine. The paper supported the position that Sidney was the true successor to Joseph as President of the High Priesthood and Prophet to the Church. In addition, many articles were published which both inferred and stated that the doctrine of polygamy was taught and practiced by Joseph and that he was a fallen prophet.
In the beginning issues, this position about Joseph was stated by authors other than Sidney or in unsigned articles which may have been written by Sidney. Interestingly, Sidney only wrote three articles over his name indicating Joseph was a polygamist. The first of these articles did not appear in the Messenger and Advocate until March 15, 1845, when he reported about holding preaching services at the Kirtland Temple on Sunday evening February 16, 1845, as well as the following Tuesday and Thursday nights. Of the Thursday evening service he stated:
On Thursday evening we gave the history of Nauvoo, and the events that led to the death of the Smiths, which, of course, we traced to the introduction of the spiritual wife system; for all that know any thing about it, that it was the introduction of that system which led to the death of the Smiths, and that if that system had not been introduced, they might have been living men to-day. An unexpected circumstance took place that evening, it was the arrival of brethren William Law and William E. McLellan, from Hampton, Rock Island County, Illinois. Brother Law addressed the congregation for some time, setting forth what he knew about the people and the affairs of Nauvoo; some of which were new to us. He settled the question forever on the public mind, in, relation to the spiritual wife system, and the abominations concerning it. As Joseph Smith and others had attempted to get him into it, and in order to do so had made him acquainted with many things about it that we never knew before. The whole combined put the matter at rest, and the public mind was quieted, and all doubts removed.
During our stay there were lectures delivered by Dr. Samuel Bennett, and brethren Law and McLellan, all of which tended greatly to enlighten and settle the public mind. (italics added)
The second article over his name was entitled "Tour East" and was published nine months later in the Vol. 2, No. 2 (December 1845) issue. Sidney stated that Joseph "had become basely corrupt, and put at defiance the laws of his God, to hide his iniquity from the world…." I assume he was alleging that Joseph practiced polygamy.
The third article over his name (a letter to the editor) was entitled "Communications" and was published six months later in the Vol. 2, No. 6 (June 1846) issue. Sidney stated:
We are well aware that the leaders of this people [Mormons], introduced many corruptions among them, and was the thing which gave their enemies power over them, had they not have become basely corrupt, no enemy would have had power over them. They introduced a base system of polygamy, worse by far than that of the heathen; this system of corruption brought a train of evils with it, which terminated in their entire ruin. After this system was introduced, being in opposition [to] the laws of the land, they, had to put truth at defiance to conceal it, and in order to do it, perjury was often practiced. This system was introduced by the Smiths some time before their death, and was the thing which put them into the power of their enemies, and was the immediate cause of their death. This system the twelve, so called, undertook to carry out, and it has terminated in their overthrow, and the complete ruin of all those who follow their pernicious ways.
We warned Joseph Smith and his family, of the ruin that was coming on them, and of the certain destruction which awaited them, for their iniquity, for making their house, instead of a house of God a sink of corruption. The Smiths have fallen before their enemies, as the Lord said they would, and their families sunk into everlasting shame, and disgrace, until their very name is a reproach; and must remain so forever. (italics added)
In all, there were 33 issues of the Messenger and Advocate published by Sidney Rigdon. All but two (which are still under construction) are available to read online at www.sidneyrigdon.com. Of the 31 issues available to review, only three articles indicating Joseph was involved with polygamy were over Sidney's name. In addition, 22 issues mentioned nothing about Joseph and polygamy. Prior to the March 15, 1845 issue, there were several unsigned articles indicating this position about Joseph. After this issue, there were no such unsigned articles. All of the articles that associated Joseph with polygamy, including those signed by Sidney, gave no evidence (i.e., events, dates, observer's name, etc.) to support their allegations.
My Analysis of the Issue
It is assumed that because Sidney and Joseph had a close association from 1830 until Joseph's death in June, 1844, the articles published in the Messenger and Advocate that Joseph was a polygamist and a fallen prophet, whether they were written by Sidney or others, were reflective of Sidney's knowledge about Joseph from his association with him. Thus, these articles are assumed to be necessarily true. However, I believe this is a false assumption.
In the Vol. 2, No. 6 (June 1846) issue of Messenger and Advocate, Sidney stated that "we warned Joseph Smith and his family, of the ruin that was coming on them, and of the certain destruction which awaited them, for their iniquity…." Yet, as pointed out above, while Joseph was alive, Sidney never gave any indication that he did this or that he believed Joseph was involved with polygamy or that he was a fallen prophet. In fact, just the opposite occurred. Certainly, the Nancy Rigdon scandal would have been a time for Sidney to lose faith in Joseph. No father, especially a moral one with strong anti-polygamy feelings, would have supported a religious leader's attempt to seduce his daughter into polygamy. Yet both Sidney and Nancy claimed publicly in a local newspaper that Dr. John C. Bennett's allegations that Joseph wrote the unsigned love letter to Nancy were false. Shortly after this scandal, Joseph raised Eliza Rigdon, Nancy's sister and Sidney's daughter, from the dead. This experience was so spiritually powerful that Sidney had to know of Joseph's innocence of the allegations surrounding him. As he later wrote in the Messenger and Advocate, the Lord will only "give his spirit to them that obey him." In addition, the Spirit spoke to Sidney through Eliza indicating that Joseph was telling the truth about Bennett. As a result of these experiences, Sidney declared publicly in August 1842 that Joseph was a true prophet. I believe Sidney was thoroughly convinced that the allegations against Joseph were false and that Joseph was God's servant. Subsequently, in May of 1844, about one month before Joseph's death, Sidney defended Joseph in Francis Higbee's suit indicating that Joseph told the truth about Dr. John C. Bennett's and Francis Higbee's immoral conduct in 1842. Had Sidney truly warned Joseph about his "iniquity" as he stated in the Messenger and Advocate, he would not have defended Joseph against Higbee and indicated Joseph was telling the truth about him.
Thus, from Sidney's actions throughout his association with Joseph, it is clear to me that while Joseph was alive, Sidney knew that Joseph did not teach or practice polygamy. He had no personal knowledge to indicate Joseph was involved with polygamy and the Lord had confirmed to him that Joseph was still His prophet and obedient to Him. Sidney's later "conversion" to the position that Joseph was a polygamist and a fallen prophet was obviously not based on his observations of Joseph during the 14 years of his close association with him and it was not based on revelation from the Lord. Therefore, it should not be assumed that the information published about Joseph in the Messenger and Advocate was necessarily true because of any knowledge that Sidney had from his association with Joseph. The information published about Joseph in the Messenger and Advocate must stand on its own merits and nothing else.
All of the allegations made in the Messenger and Advocate about Joseph, whether by Sidney or others, are totally unfounded. They give no specific examples of events, dates, times, or individuals involved. Thus, because they cannot be corroborated, they are not proof of anything. Truly, from Sidney's close association with Joseph he should have known of at least one event to support his allegations. He did not even mention the letter to Nancy, which if Joseph had written it, would have been perfect to discuss as proof that Joseph "had become basely corrupt, and put at defiance the laws of his God, to hide his iniquity from the world…" (Messenger and Advocate, June 1846). Oddly enough, this statement itself was in direct opposition to the one he made in public in Nauvoo in August 1842 after Joseph had raised Eliza from the dead. Because of Sidney's close association with Joseph, the fact that he did not mention any specifics about Joseph's involvement with polygamy indicates to me that there were none to mention, which is further proof of Joseph's innocence.
It is interesting to me that Sidney only wrote three articles over his name in which he indicated that Joseph was a polygamist, or a fallen prophet, or both. As indicated above, the first was published in the March 15, 1845 Messenger and Advocate. Prior to that issue there were signed and unsigned articles supporting this position about Joseph. Because Sidney was the editor of the paper, he would have had to have been sympathetic to this position about Joseph to have allowed these articles to be printed. Thus, it is possible that some or all of the unsigned articles could have been authored by him. If the unsigned articles were written by Sidney, the question comes to mind, "Why didn't he put his name to them?" I'm not sure of the reason, but possibly because, at that time, he was not thoroughly convinced of this position about Joseph, considering his experiences with Joseph while he was alive.
I believe the final "conversion" of Sidney to this position about Joseph came from William Law (an associate of Francis Higbee) and William E. McLellan when they joined the preaching series held at the Kirtland Temple in February 1845, as reported in the March 15, 1845 Messenger and Advocate. From that point on, Sidney published three articles over his name alleging Joseph's involvement with polygamy and did not publish any unsigned articles about this issue. In the March 15, 1845 report, Sidney stated:
Brother Law addressed the congregation for some time, setting forth what he knew about the people and the affairs of Nauvoo; some of which were new to us. He settled the question forever on the public mind, in, relation to the spiritual wife system, and the abominations concerning it. As Joseph Smith and others had attempted to get him into it, and in order to do so had made him acquainted with many things about it that we never knew before. The whole combined put the matter at rest, and the public mind was quieted, and all doubts removed." (italics added)
From what Sidney reported, I believe he was finally convinced from this point on of Joseph's involvement in polygamy. As I interpret his report, Law gave new information about polygamy in the Church and "settled the question forever." He stated things that Joseph had taught him about polygamy which "we never knew before." Law removed "all doubts" that Joseph was practicing polygamy. In addition, his subsequent two articles and the publishing of no unsigned articles confirm the solidifying of his belief. However, Sidney's belief that Joseph was a polygamist came from believing William Law and others but not from his association with Joseph.
While at first it might appear that Sidney Rigdon's publication of the Messenger and Advocate is proof that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy, closer scrutiny indicates it does not. First, there is strong evidence that during his association with Joseph he knew Joseph was innocent of the polygamy allegations. Second, the statements made in the Messenger and Advocate against Joseph were not supported by any facts. Third, Sidney's final "conversion" to the belief that Joseph was a polygamist came from William Law in February 1845 and not from his first-hand association with Joseph. I am uncertain why Sidney would allow the testimonies of men to change his position against what he knew and publicly testified to be true. Since Joseph was dead, maybe it was easier to say he was a fallen prophet than to defend him and prove his innocence. Maybe this disassociation with Joseph made it easier to start and run his church. Maybe such a position legitimized his new church in the eyes of the "Joseph" critics. Whatever his reason, the fact remains that during his association with Joseph, Sidney knew Joseph was innocent of teaching and practicing polygamy. Thus, the position against Joseph expressed in the Messenger and Advocate was, in the words of Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Macbeth: Act V, Scene V).