Richard S. Van Wagoner is a clinical audiologist and Lehi City Historian, author of Lehi: Portraits of a Utah Town and other acclaimed works, including Mormon Polygamy: A History and Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (winner of Best Book Awards from the Mormon History Association and John Whitmer Historical Association). He is co-author of the biographical resource, A Book of Mormons, and has published in Brigham Young University Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, the Utah Historical Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a biography of Joseph Smith.
Following the Brethren
Some Mormon observers were convinced that the deaths of the Smith brothers was evidence of divine retribution, the act of an angry God. William Law, who had left Nauvoo after the destruction of his Nauvoo Expositor, wrote in a 20 July 1844 letter to a friend, “While the wicked slay the wicked I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of innocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken sudden vengeance” (Law to Hill). And Sidney Rigdon wrote, “If Joseph sinned[,] which he did, the Lord has cut him off from his stewardship … he contracted a whoring spirit and … the Lord smote him for this thing” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Jan. 1845).
Contrary to the views of those who saw in it the doom of the Mormon movement, the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, though disruptive to the Mormon community for a time, actually unified the Saints.1 Sidney Rigdon, the only surviving member of the First Presidency, returned to Nauvoo shortly after the Smiths’ deaths and presented himself to the Saints as “guardian” of the church “to build [it] up to Joseph as he had begun it.” But he was rejected as an interim president by the majority of Mormons in favor of the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve under Brigham Young. Rigdon’s continued efforts to make himself the rallying standard for Mormonism resulted in his excommunication in the fall of 1844. Returning to Pittsburg, he attempted to gather about him leaderless remnants of the Mormon community.
Rigdon began to publicly denounce polygamy in his Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate shortly after he left Nauvoo. Referring to the Quorum of the Twelve as the “Spiritual Wife Fraternity,” he reasoned in the 15 October 1844 issue that “it would seem almost impossible that there could be found a set of men and women, in this age of the world, with the revelations of God in their hands, who could invent and propagate doctrines so ruinous to society, so debasing and demoralising as the doctrine of a man having a plurality of wives.” Decrying the “transactions of the secret chambers,” he announced that “the Twelve and their adherents have endeavored to carry on this spiritual wife business in secret.” Moreover, he added, they “have gone to the most shameful and desperate lengths to keep it from the public. First, insulting innocent females, and when they resented the insult … would assail their characters by lying.” Rigdon vented his dismay at the deceptive practices of church leaders: “How often these men and their accomplices stood up before the congregation, and called God and all the holy Angels to witness, that there was no such doctrine taught in the church; and it has now come to light.”
Church leaders in Nauvoo denounced Rigdon’s accusations. “Wo to the man,” the 15 November 1844 Times and Seasons warned, “who will thus willfully lie to injure an innocent people! The law of the land and the rules of the Church do not allow one man to have more than one wife alive at once.” But Rigdon knew better, and he was determined to make his knowledge public. On 6 April 1845, the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Mormonism, he had himself ordained president of the Church of Christ. His call for a reformation based on the principles of the Kirtland church appealed to a few former Mormons, including his son-in-law George W. Robinson, former apostle William McLellin, Nauvoo dissenter Oliver F. Olney, and anti-polygamous Nauvoo Stake high councilman Austin Cowles.
Though the group was short-lived, its attack on polygamy was zealous. “Did the Lord ever tell any people,” Rigdon asked in the 15 February 1845 issue of the Messenger and Advocate, “that sleeping with their neighbor’s wives and daughters had any thing to do with preparing the way of the Savior’s coming[?]“2 His expose of Nauvoo polygamy was confirmed by former member of the First Presidency William Law in the spring of 1845 when Law and William McLellin arrived at a 16 February Kirtland conference of Rigdon’s followers. Addressing the congregation, Law “settled the question forever on the public mind,” Rigdon wrote, “in relation to the spiritual wife system, and the abominations concerning it.” Law reported that “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” (Messenger and Advocate, 15 March 1845).
Despite his long-standing opposition to polygamy, and published condemnations of the practice, Rigdon would be accused of introducing the system within his declining congregation. Apostle Parley P. Pratt turned Rigdon’s accusations against him in a 1 July 1845 letter in the British Millennial Star, warning the Saints to “beware of seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils, as first introduced by John C. Bennett, under the name of ‘spiritual wife’ doctrine; and still agitated by the Pittsburg Seer, and his followers under the same title.” Apostle John Taylor, editor of the 15 November 1844 Times and Seasons, published a letter from “An Old Man of Israel” which denounced the “sham quotations of Sidney Rigdon and his clique, under the ‘dreadful splendor’ of ‘spiritual wifery’ which is brought into the account as graciously as if the law of the land allowed a man a plurality of wives.”
There is no solid evidence that Rigdon ever advocated polygamy.3 His son John maintained that Rigdon “took the ground no matter from what source it came whether from Prophet seer revelator or angels from heaven [that] it was a false doctrine and should be rejected” (Rigdon, “Life Story,” 184). Yet accusations linking Rigdon to polygamy and insinuating that his daughter Nancy was a prostitute undermined his status as the only surviving member of the First Presidency. Few people took his leadership claims seriously; he never attained a large following. John Rigdon later noted that his father “was not a leader of men … the Mormon church … made no mistake in placing Brigham Young at the head of the church … if Sidney Rigdon had been chosen to take that position the church would have tottered and fallen” (ibid.).
Rumors of polygamy followed another prominent leader of post-martyrdom Mormonism, James Jesse Strang, a multi-talented New Yorker with a background similar to Joseph Smith’s own. Though never a member of the Mormon hierarchy, the resourceful Strang claimed himself Smith’s successor on the strength of a 9 June 1844 letter he said he had received from the prophet. “If evil befall me,” the letter promised, “thou shall lead the flock to pleasant pastures.” Early in August 1844 Strang declared that an angel had appeared to him at the “very hour” of Smith’s death on 27 June 1844 and had ordained him the prophet’s successor. Several prominent followers of the prophet, impressed by the charismatic similarities of the two men, joined with the Strangites.4 Establishing his disciples on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, Strang had himself crowned “King James the First” on 8 July 1850. Theatrically inclined George J. Adams placed a metal crown on Strang’s head and draped across the shoulders of the king-to-be a bright red robe which had served as a stage prop. Amidst the pomp and ceremony Strang read to the congregation for the first time his “Book of the Law of the Lord,” a portion of which he claimed was a translation of the “plates of Laban,” part of the Book of Mormon record.
Strang, like Joseph Smith, publicly denounced polygamy. The king’s private posture, however, also like the prophet’s, radically differed from his public position. Former Mormon apostle John E. Page, a follower of Strang, wrote, “We have talked hours, yea, even days with President Strang, and we find to our utmost satisfaction that he does not believe in or cherish the doctrine of polygamy in any manner, shape, or form imaginable whatever” (Fitzpatrick 1970, 74). To underscore his opposition, Strang published the following official denial in the 12 August 1847 Voree Herald: “I have uniformly and distinctly discarded and declared heretical the so-called ‘spiritual wife system’ and everything connected therewith.” Yet one year later he took his first plural wife, Elvira Eliza Field, who traveled about the country with him masquerading as his male secretary, “Charlie Douglass.” While the community on Beaver Island eventually reached seven hundred members, only about twenty families were polygamous. Strang himself had five wives and fourteen children. And like Smith, he too came to a violent end. On 16 June 1856, Thomas Bedford, a Beaver Island resident who had been publicly whipped on Strang’s direction, fatally shot the king.
Initially Joseph Smith’s family may have supported Strang’s succession claims. For example, the July 1846Voree Herald contained a certificate endorsing Strang, reportedly prepared by the prophet’s brother William and signed by the entire Smith family, except Emma, Smith’s widow. More than fifty years later the certificate was repudiated in the Saints’ Herald, the official voice of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Regardless of the authenticity of the Smith family statement, the Strangite movement proved to be the fertile soil in which the RLDS church germinated.5
Opposition to polygamy motivated three inf...