While pursuing an entirely different topic, I came across the statement, in John Hammond’s Quest for the New Jerusalem: A Mormon Generation Saga vol. 3 (2012), that Sidney Rigdon, “by his own admission, ‘made up’ religious experiences in his youth” (5-6; emphasis as in the cited text throughout). That seemed like something worth looking into, as Hammond refers to the point twice more:
Rigdon—who, it should be recalled, had by his own admission fabricated a miraculous vision in order to gain admission to the Baptist Church… (25-26)
We know by now that Sidney by his own admission “made up” a vision to get into the Baptist Church… (281-82).
And it seems worth looking into especially because Hammond raises the stakes considerably. He sees in Rigdon’s youthful fabrication of spiritual experience an “interesting parallel with Joseph Smith” and cautions, “We should keep this in mind when we examine the visionary experiences Smith and Sidney purportedly shared in the 1830s” (5-6). Hammond later adds, again with reference to Rigdon’s admission of fabricating religious experiences,
No one else in the room was seeing or hearing what Joseph and Sidney were claiming they were seeing and hearing. Why should we, or those in the room with them (assuming there were eye-witnesses), take their word for it? (281-82).
Since this seems to be an important point, let’s follow the footnote. Hammond’s stated source for Rigdon inventing a vision to gain membership in a Baptist church is Richard Van Wagoner’s biography Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (1994). Van Wagoner states (9-10):
The exact nature of Sidney Rigdon’s conversion experience is not known. Years later, as a Mormon, he reportedly said of his Baptist initiation: “When I joined the church I knew I could not be admitted without an experience: so I made up one to suit the purpose, but it was all made up, and was of no use.”
So we see already that Van Wagoner’s “reportedly said” has managed to turn into Hammond’s “by his own admission.” Duly noted.
Let’s keep going. What was Van Wagoner’s source? His footnote states, “Harmon Sumner recalled Sidney’s statement in J. H. Kennedy, Early Days of Mormonism (London: Reeves and Turner, 1888), 64.”
Turning to Kennedy, we find
When, in later days, Harmon Sumner expostulated with Rigdon as to his teaching and said to him, “Brother Rigdon, you never go into a Baptist church without relating your Christian experience,” he was met by the cool and characteristic rejoinder, “When I joined the church I knew I could not be admitted without an experience: so I made up one to suit the purpose, but it was all made up, and was of no use, or true.”
Kennedy doesn’t provide his source directly, but we can now see (thanks to Google Book Search) that he was quoting from Boyd Crumrine’s 1882 History of Washington Country, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men.
Crumrine offers a lengthy argument for the Spaulding manuscript as the origin of the Book of Mormon. Crumrine writes about Sidney Rigdom (435-36):
As the character established by Rigdon among his brethren in the Baptist Church whilst he was a member of that denomination has a direct bearing upon the question of his probable guilt or innocence, we make two quotations touching his reputation at that time. […]
(2) In the (Pittsburgh) Baptist Witness of Jan. 1, 1875, Dr. Winter, in the course of a historical notice of the First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, says, “When Holland Sumner dealt with Rigdon for his bad teachings, and said to him, ‘Brother Rigdon, you never got into a Baptist Church without relating your Christian experiences,’ Rigdon replied, ‘When I joined the church at Peters Creek I knew I could not be admitted without an experience, so I made up one to suit the purpose; but it was all made up, and was of no use, nor true.’ This I have just copied from an old memorandum, as taken from Sumner himself.”
Crumrine’s history appears to be the oldest source for this incident now available.
The “Dr. Winter” cited is John Winter (1794-1878), who had led a bitter dispute against Rigdon in 1823 (over Rigdon’s rejection of the doctrine of infant damnation) at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh (see Van Wagoner 23-28). Van Wagoner surmises that Winter was the “old Scotch divine” sent to deal with Rigdon (24), but Winter turns out to have been neither old nor Scotch, as he was born in southern England, and a year after Rigdon. Based on Kennedy’s Early Days of Mormonism, Van Wagoner dates Rigdon’s statement to sometime after he had joined with Joseph Smith, but the “bad teaching” of Sidney Rigdon that Winter disputed was a Baptist matter of 1823, and it is in this Baptist context that Crumrine cites Winter.
So let’s unpack what we know at this point.
- In 1823, Sidney Rigdon allegedly made a thoroughly self-incriminating statement to Holland (not Harmon) Sumner (about whom nothing more is known) while Sumner was investigating Sidney Rigdon’s deviation from approved Baptist teachings.
- Around the same time, Sumner wrote a memorandum to record Rigdon’s statement. The memorandum itself is not available, so there’s no way to decide if the statement should be punctuated as
Rigdon replied, “When I joined the church at Peters Creek I knew I could not be admitted without an experience, so I made up one to suit the purpose; but it was all made up, and was of no use, nor true.”
Rigdon replied, “When I joined the church at Peters Creek I knew I could not be admitted without an experience, so I made up one to suit the purpose,” but it was all made up, and was of no use, nor true.
Both statements would be damaging, but the first possibility would make Rigdon appear even more cynical and dishonest. Winter, followed by all later writers, chose the first option.
- More than 50 years later, John Winter, Rigdon’s bitter rival in 1823 and with even more reason to oppose him after 1830, claimed to have discovered Sumner’s memorandum and included it in a historical note published in Baptist Witness. Like Sumner’s memorandum, this particular issue of Baptist Witness is not available today.
- In 1882, Crumrine included Winter’s note in his own historical work.
If I’ve counted correctly, I believe this makes Rigdon’s “admission” a fourth-hand account relying on two lost documents and the good faith of a bitter personal enemy of Sidney Rigdon.
That’s not nothing. It’s relevant to Van Wagoner’s thesis, and overall he treats the source he had available to him responsibly by noting the uncertainty about Rigdon’s Baptist conversion and pointing out that the statement was someone else’s report. Van Wagoner’s biography of Rigdon earns a passing grade. Perhaps I would ultimately disagree with the thesis of the book, but I have some additional confidence that I’ll learn something along the way.
But a late, fourth-hand, adversarial account is not at all the kind of thing that can be characterized as an admission “by his own words” or used to cast doubt on Rigdon’s other statements, and on Joseph Smith by association. Hammond’s failure to take a closer look at the source provided by Van Wagoner may have been sloppy, but promoting hearsay into Rigdon’s own confession of guilt is the kind of thing a scholar must not do.
I understand that digging into sources, dealing with uncertainty, and conveying complex information concisely to readers is hard work, but it’s work I’m counting on the author to do so I can read a book without wondering if I’ll need to spend an hour or two verifying every footnote. Quest for the New Jerusalem is a massive work with many footnotes, of course, and since my interest was in something else I haven’t read the whole thing or looked at any of the other notes, so it’s quite possible I just stumbled across something that isn’t representative of Hammond’s work.
But the number of times it’s permissible to misrepresent a source in a multivolume work is zero, and Hammond’s Quest for the New Jerusalem has failed this one-footnote review.