The more that I study church history, the more I realize how skewed our perspective has become because everything we are currently taught has been filtered through the lens of Brigham Young and the Twelve of his day.
Take, for example, the story we have all heard about Brigham taking upon the voice and appearance of Joseph when addressing the Nauvoo saints following the martyrdom. This was surely a sign that God had chosen Brigham to lead the people as successor to Joseph, right? How could we doubt such a modern miracle?
Unfortunately, it just isn’t true. I recently stumbled onto an article published 20 years ago in Dialogue by Richard Van Wagoner that completely debunks the myth. You can read it here. The 12 pages are definitely worth the 15 minutes it will take to read.
He chronicles how journal entries for the very day of the supposed miraculous transfiguration by apostles Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff make no reference to any such happening. Later, Orson Hyde left two elaborate descriptions of the transfiguration that he could not possibly have witnessed because he wasn’t even in Nauvoo on 8 August 1844! John D. Lee of Mountain Meadows Massacre infamy similarly wrote in is autobiography about the event, even though his own diary proves that he didn’t return to Nauvoo until two weeks after the fact.
Additionally, Van Wagoner provides us with evidence of how systematically Brigham Young re-wrote church history. Here are a few excerpts:
“The Twelve’s nineteenth-century propaganda mill was so adroit that few outside Brigham Young’s inner circle were aware of the behind-the-scenes alterations that were seamlessly stitched into church history. Charles Wesley Wandell, an assistant church historian who later left the church, was aghast at these emendations. Commenting on the many changes made in the historical work as it was being serialized, Wandell noted in his diary: …I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was “doctored” to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards.”
“That this revision, or censorship, of the official history came from Brigham Young is evidenced by an 11 July 1856 reference in Wilford Woodruff’s diary. Apostle Woodruff, working in the church historian’s office, questioned Young respecting a “piece of History on Book E-1 page 1681-2 concerning Hyrum leading this Church & tracing the Aaronic Priesthood.” Young advised, “it was not essential to be inserted in the History & had better be omitted.” Woodruff then queried him about “Josephs words on South Carolina (see D&C 87; 130:12-13) which had recently been published in the Deseret News. Young said he “wished it not published.” Years later Elder Charles W. Penrose, a member of the First Presidency, admitted that after Joseph Smith’s death some changes were made in the official record “for prudential reasons.”
Van Wagoner also notes that “not only does this history place polygamy and Brigham Young’s ecclesiastical significance in the rosy glow of political acceptability, it does a monumental disservice to Sidney Rigdon and others who challenged the Twelve’s ascent to power.”
“Censorship has severely tarnished Sidney Rigdon’s historical image. Contrary to the official Mormon view, for example, Rigdon did not travel to Pennsylvania prior to Joseph Smith’s death in the summer of 1844 to escape the turmoil of Nauvoo or desert the church as was retrospectively charged. He had not “apostatized and left Brother Joseph,” as Brigham Young declared on 24 Jun 1868. Rather, Rigdon was dispatched to his home state by the prophet Joseph…”
That should whet your appetite to read the article.
My point in bringing this up is that whether we have a prophet, seer and revelator (or 15 of them) on the earth today relates directly to the succession “dogfight” that took place between Brigham and Sidney.
Interestingly, after Joseph’s murder, Brigham never claims to be Joseph’s successor, or even a prophet for that matter. Now, it is clear from the law of common consent that the body of the church can choose whom they will to lead them, but that doesn’t make that person a prophet, seer and revelator. It takes an ordination from someone who actually has that very gift themselves.
Here are a few quotes from Brigham’s own mouth:
The brethren testify that brother Brigham Young is brother Joseph’s legal successor. You never heard me say so. I say that I am a good hand to keep the dogs and wolves out of the flock (JD 8:69)
You are now without a prophet present with you in the flesh to guide you…Let no man presume for a moment that [Joseph Smith’s] place will be filled by another, for remember he stands in his own place, and always will. (Times and Seasons 15 August 1844)
“For the first time in the kingdom of God in the 19th Century,” Brigham Young remarked, we are “without a Prophet at our head.” Henceforth, he added, we are “called to walk by faith, not by sight.” (HC 7:232)
“I am not going to interpret dreams; for I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a Yankee guesser” (JD 5:77)
“I have never particularly desired any man to testify publicly that I am a Prophet; nevertheless, if any man feels joy, in doing this, he shall be blest in it. I have never said that I am not a Prophet; but, if I am not, one thing is certain, I have been very profitable to this people.” (JD 10:339)
There is no doubt in my mind that Brigham Young was profitable to a people who were looking for strong leadership at a very difficult time. But does that make him a prophet? It is clear from the quotes around the time of the martyrdom that he did not consider himself a prophet. If he had actually been ordained by Joseph to that calling — to receive the oracles of God — then wouldn’t he say so immediately? Why wait for 3 years to reorganize the first presidency if he was the one who was prophet, seer and revelator?
Thirty seconds before Joseph and Hyrum were murdered there were only 3 persons who had the keys and were ordained as prophets, seers and revelators–Joseph, Hyrum and Sidney. A minute later there was only Sidney.
“I give unto him for counselors my servant Sidney Rigdon and my servant William Law, that these may constitute a quorum and First Presidency, to receive the oracles for the whole church.” (D&C 124:126)
William Law was appointed a counselor to Joseph when Hyrum took the office of Priesthood and Patriarch, “which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right”. Later, William was excommunicated for apostasy and published the single edition of the Nauvoo Expositor. William had developed serious issues with Joseph regarding his personal behavior, especially towards William’s wife, Jane. This is a fascinating subject for another day.
That Sidney was recognized as a prophet, seer, and revelator by the church was clear from an announcement that appeared in the June 1, 1841 edition of Times and Seasons:
“We have to announce that Sidney Rigdon has been ordained a prophet, seer and revelator.”
It is important here to understand that the First Presidency as originally established according to scripture could function with only one member. It didn’t take a majority or a quorum.
“The president of the church, who is also the president of the council, is appointed by revelation, and acknowledged in his administration by the voice of the church. And it is according to the dignity of his office that he should preside over the council of the church; and it is his privilege to be assisted by two other presidents, appointed after the same manner that he himself was appointed. And in case of the absence of one or both of those who are appointed to assist him, he has power to preside over the council without an assistant; and in case he himself is absent, the other presidents have power to preside in his stead, both or either of them.” (D&C 102:9-11)
Thus, my reading of the scriptural evidence is that Sidney had the right to reconstitute the First Presidency, independent of anyone else, as he was the only person on earth who had been ordained a prophet, seer and revelator and was a member of the First Presidency at the time of Joseph’s death. Brigham Young and the Twelve probably felt like they had to excommunicate the only person who had the “oracles” because he posed a threat to their power and their secret abominations, namely polygamy and spiritual wifery to which Sidney was strongly opposed.
During the trial of Sidney Rigdon, William Marks, the Stake President in Nauvoo, came to Sidney’s defense.
Referring to the First Presidency he said the following:
“I always felt that there was a power and responsibility in that quorum which did not exist anywhere else.”
“I had always been taught that the First Presidency would remain and always be with the Church. I have always understood that the Church would be imperfect without a quorum of three to stand as the First Presidency, and I cannot find any law to say that this quorum should ever be dropped.”
“This is what I ever supposed would be the case that through him the oracles should be given to another who should be a prophet, and a seer and a revelator, and through him to the church. I have always felt since last special conference that the order was not according to this pattern.”
William Marks was a brave soul to stand up to the politically adroit and powerful Brigham Young. The reports of the trial of Sidney Rigdon are a fascinating read.
There is no doubt in my mind that Sidney was not in great physical or mental shape when this power struggle occurred. Recall that Sidney had received a severe concussion when tarred and feathered years earlier and dragged by his feet behind a horse over frozen ground. His health for many years had been tenuous and his mental state questionable. Perhaps this was because as a prophet, he also had his eyes covered by the iniquity of the people as we have discussed in previous posts. Regardless, he was the only one with the prophetic keys after Joseph went “as a lamb to the slaughter.”
Ultimately, in my opinion, the most damning evidence against Brigham’s re-write of history and subsequent modern claims to prophetic keys is hiding in plain sight in Section 43 of the Doctrine & Covenants.
1 O hearken, ye elders of my church, and give ear to the words which I shall speak unto you.
2 For behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church, through him whom I have appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations from my hand.
3 And this ye shall know assuredly—that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me. [Joseph is the only one to receive revelation for the church as long as he abides in the Lord — interesting wording considering prophecies in the Old Testament of a prophet who would sin after bringing forth the word of the Lord, see my last two posts]
4 But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him; for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead.
5 And this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations or commandments;
6 And this I give unto you that you may not be deceived, that you may know they are not of me. [The Lord is giving us this information specifically so that we won’t be deceived! Wow. He then tells us how we will know if someone is a true prophet…they will come in at the gate]
7 For verily I say unto you, that he that is ordained of me shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before, to teach those revelations which you have received and shall receive through him whom I have appointed.
Did you catch that? There has to be an ordination to become a prophet, seer and revelator, and it has to be at the hand of a prophet, seer and revelator, in this case, Joseph. Entrance must be through the gate of ordination. The implications are that it will be public and known to the church.
The Lord is telling us this so that we won’t be deceived into thinking that someone can take that authority upon themselves because of a secret temple ceremony or some final charge given to the Council of Fifty. If Brigham Young had claimed right off the bat that he had been ordained by Joseph as prophet, seer and revelator, then the analysis would get a bit tougher to decipher. But by his own admission he never does. “We are without a prophet…”
The day will come when as a people we will understand in greater measure the works of Sidney Rigdon and the amazing person he was in helping Joseph to bring forth the foundational work of the gospel in the latter-days. That his reputation has been tarnished by Brigham’s systematic re-write of history is a tragedy. That he was excommunicated from the church and led off into the wilderness like a scapegoat “at the hands of a fit man” is a fulfillment of ancient prophecy. That we don’t understand this as a people is truly unfortunate, and it speaks to the state of “hidden darkness” that engulfs us. That a great awakening is beginning to occur and blindness slowly removed from Israel is encouraging.
I praise God for people like Sidney. May we all come to the truth about our history and be edified in our searching, both of the scriptures and of the Spirit.