Polygamy opponents were swept aside in Nauvoo turmoil after Joseph Smith’s death

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post click here) The months in Nauvoo following the murder of the LDS Church founder Joseph Smith were not surprisingly, filled with turmoil and political intrigue. The recent publication of “The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes” by Signature Books provides detailed accounts of the Nauvoo Stake’s high council meetings. It’s very interesting reading. The High Council was a political tool, a body used to cast out prominent church members who did not support Brigham Young’s claim of leadership, or the church’s still-secret embrace of polygamy.

The purge of those who did not support Young in the months following Smith’s murder is an important part of LDS Church history. The Machiavellian tactics, while ruthless and arbitrary, ultimately underscored why the Mormons survived the Nauvoo disaster and thrived. They needed a “dictator,” — Young — not afraid to seize control and exercise it.

The Sept. 7, 1844 high council case of Leonard Soby, who publicly opposed polygamy in 1843 and helped publish The Nauvoo Expositor a year later, is a typical example of 1844 post-Martyrdom. Despite his past dissident status, which included an association with the anti-Smiths Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, Soby retained an uneasy status among the Nauvoo LDS religious hierarchy.

However, his support for Sidney Rigdon as church leader, and an altercation between Soby, Rigdon, Young and Orson Hyde on Sept. 3 over ordination authority for Rigdon, led to high council members “surprising” Soby with a motion that he be disfellowshipped. Soby protested vigorously, arguing that he was not a sinner, such as an adulterer or a moonshiner, but simply had honest differences with his high council colleagues.

It didn’t help. Soby may have been a bit naive, or disingenuous. By September 1844, among the Nauvoo High Council, any hesitancy to damn Rigdon as a false prophet trying to usurp authority was a one-way ticket out of the LDS Church. By the end of the night, Soby was effectively disfellowshipped. He followed Rigdon to his church in Pennsylvania, which eventually failed. Soby, 34 when drummed out of the LDS Church, died in 1891 in New Jersey. He remains a footnore in early LDS Church history.

For Young’s majority in the Mormon leadership, there was a far bigger fish to fry than Soby, or even Nauvoo Stake President William Marks, whose support for Rigdon and opposition to polygamy also ended his tenure later in 1844. On Sept. 8, 1844, in a public meeting, Rigdon would be kicked out of the church he had worked with Smith to build, with a litany of LDS Church apostles offering evidence against him.

As Brigham Young mentioned, Rigdon and Soby has been caught by Young and allies ordaining persons as “prophets” and “kings” etc. It was clear that Rigdon, who had already lost popular support in a contest with Young for church leadership, was attempting to take what members he could from Nauvoo with him to set up a rival church.

According to Young ally Orson Hyde, Rigdon, when asked that he surrender his license, threatened to publish “the history of this people since they came to Nauvoo of all their iniquity and midnight abominations.” Rigdon was referring to polygamy, and it was personal to him. His daughter, Nancy Rigdon, when 19, had resisted Joseph Smith’s efforts to make her a plural wife.

The stress of the Nauvoo polygamy battle caused Rigdon further deterioration of a long-taxed body and mind. By late 1844, he was a feeble adversary for Young and his allies. Young, who had long lost patience with Rigdon, chastised Rigdon with contempt. Other apostles provided anti-Rigdon rhetoric similar to what apostle John Taylor, future prophet, offered. He said “… he (Rigdon) is in possession of the same spirit which hurled the devil & those who we{r}e with him from heave(n) down to perdition(.)”

Only Marks offered support for Rigdon. To what must have been a very hostile audience, the Nauvoo Stake president bravely pointed out that over the course of years, allegations against Sidney Rigdon had always been unfounded. Marks also argued in favor of a first presidency-directed church, rather than one — as Young and others argued for — directed by the Quorum of the 12 Apostles.

Marks added, “… I do not know of any other man this day that has the same power to receive revelations as Sidney Rigdon(,) as he has been ordained to be a prophet unto this people, & if he is cut off from the body this day I wish to the man if there is any that has the same power as he (Elder Rigdon).”

Young caustically responded that “Sidney had done as much (as was needed to show his unworthiness) when he arrived from Missouri(;) he had done as much as would sever any man from the priesthood …” Various Young allies also began to charge that the late Joseph Smith had had very little regard for Rigdon, and that his reputation within the church had been overstated. This is not an uncommmon tactic to use, in war, business or religion, when a longtime member of a group is being deposed by a new generation.

As mentioned, the removal of Rigdon and allies such as Soby and Marks were needed if the Mormons were to survive as a religion. Rigdon was an ill man by 1844, both physically and emotionally. He had suffered great physical hardships due to persecution in the 1830s and severe depression and anguish brought on by the introduction of polygamy and attempts by Smith to marry his daughter. Had Rigdon somehow defeated Young as Smith’s successor the LDS Church would have withered away. Rigdon’s efforts to build his own church was a miserable failure, and he spent his later years as an obscure, almost iconic curio who few paid attention to. His eccentricities included long, rambling denunciations mailed to Brigham Young that were ignored or perhaps considered with bemusement by the Utah leader.

In fact, I suspect that support for Rigdon from Marks, Soby and others (several were excommunicated the same day that Rigdon was cast out) had more to do with disgust for polygamy and the knowledge that Young intended to continue the practice.

There’s no way to know if Joseph Smith — had he lived — would have abandoned his polygamy experiment.

Under Young’s leadership, however, it was here to stay, and opposition to “the principle” would not be tolerated.

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16 Responses to Polygamy opponents were swept aside in Nauvoo turmoil after Joseph Smith’s death

  1. ScottH says:

    You may want readers to know that the last church that Rigdon founded accepted the practice of polygamy under his leadership.

  2. Bob Becker says:

    Coming at this from outside the faith, all of this looks simply like clashing egos fighting for place, power and preferment and all that came with them.

  3. Myth Buster says:

    Joseph Smith raised his arms proclaiming “Is there no help for the widow’s son” as Masons shot him at the Carthage Jail. 33 degree Mason Brigham Young had other plans including the Nauvoo Endowment called the Oath of Vengeance which was to avenge the blood of the prophets Joseph and Hyrum on America and the Gentile Race to the 4th generation which not coincidentally happens to be Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman’s.
    “This is the Place” were not Brigham’s words, they were his scouts John Fremont and Kit Carson, who located Zion in a wilderness equivalent in size and austerity to that of the Salt Valley of Sodom and Gomorrah.
    When one measures the Fertile Crescent from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, Harran, the town where Abraham sojourned 75 years is centered; one can find this same geometry from Los Angeles to Astoria Oregon with Salt Lake City in the center.
    Looking forward to the Blood in the Streets Prophecy; blood running down the streets from Ogden to Salt Lake as water down a storm drain sounds great. NOT

  4. Preston says:

    Doug, if only Signature were to publish the Scriptures, maybe you’d spend equal time reading them.

  5. Think Brigham Young was a prophet of God (as do I) or vilify him, all must admit that his skills as a leader and colonizer of the intermountain west was without parallel (excepting the other great migration prophet, Moses). My two cents worth! Aloe vera juice benefits and FREE samples!

    • Bob Becker says:

      “Think BY a prophet or villify him…”

      Those are not the only choices. It’s quite possible not to think he was a prophet (I don’t) and yet to think he was, for the reasons you offer, a great leader. Even some who have been severely critical of the LDS church think highly of BY. I’m thinking for example of historian Bernard DeVoto who said that “Joseph Smith was a charletan and Brigham Young was a great man.”

  6. E B says:

    It wasn’t strictly political at all. In a religious sense, the early Saints had a spiritual witness that Brigham Young was chosen by God as the next leader of the Church after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. In the LDS Church, following God is paramount, as is seeking and receiving personal revelation. The LDS Church today is not led as a democracy and never has been: the prophet speaks for God. The members who pray about the prophet’s counsel and receive a personal witness to its truth follow that counsel. Doubt or ignorance alone don’t bring excommunication. Only the people who break covenants (promises with God) face Church discipline.
    Thanks for listening.

  7. Another E.B. says:

    Doctrine & Covenants 107:23-24 (received in 1835, over nine years before Joseph Smith’s death) teaches that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a whole is equal in authority to the First Presidency. When the presiding officer in the First Presidency (Smith) died, the First Presidency, for the present, ceased to exist. Brigham Young (who was hundreds of miles away in New England at the time of Smith’s death) had very little need to assert his authority in a so-called “Machiavellian” way– as the senior apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve, he presided over the quorum that led the Church.

  8. Pingback: Polygamy opponents were swept aside in Nauvoo turmoil after Joseph | Church

  9. Pingback: Signature Books » review – The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes

  10. Nauvoobuff says:

    The more interesting part is that Heber C. Kimball (and by extension Brigham) said they were members of a quorum Sidney Rigdon didn’t even know existed. And Brigham said he didn’t care who led the church because it didn’t matter.
    Only those who were members of Joseph’s quorum of the annointed (which was coincidentally pro-polygamy) were considered as having any true authority to speak of.

  11. Patrick says:

    Joseph Smith Jr. did not say those words while being shot and Brigham Young was not a 33rd degree mason.

  12. Moon says:

    The transfiguration of Brigham Young has been thoroughly debunked. There is not one shred of evidence from the 5000 people in attendance at the meeting where The the Event took place. It wasn’t until 13years after the meetings did the first person mention that a transfiguration took place. Then that idea spread like wildfire and people who were provably not even at the meeting started testifying that they witnessed the transfiguration.

    Read the evidence for your self.


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