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Sidney Rigdon and the Quincy Whig: 1839-1841
return to: PART I
April 22, 1839 to May 18, 1839
Earliest known depiction of Joseph Smith, Jr. (adapted from Howe: 1834)
Big Man in Town
The arrival of Joseph Smith in Quincy changed everything. Where Joseph was, the faithful members would naturally gather, ready to build a frontier Zion, catch the latest word from "the Prophet" on the coming millennium, and establish their eternal inheritances as the chosen people of God. As Rigdon's star diminished, Smith's flared with that new brilliance which would mark his next five years in Illinois. While Smith was imprisoned Rigdon pursued the Church's options for a new "gathering of Israel" with at best a luke-warm fervor. Although he had investigated the availability of some promising lands in Hancock County, and across the river in Iowa Territory, he had followed Smith's own counsel that "there be no organization of large bodies upon common stock principles, in property, or of large companies of firms, until the Lord shall signify it in a proper manner." Rigdon moved his own family from Quincy to join George W. Robinson in Fulton County, where a branch of the Church had been raised up in 1832. With Smith's assuming the direct leadership of the Saints, all Rigdon's plans, including providing a home for his family, were suddenly thrown into the air.
Smith went along with Rigdon's scheme of petitioning the President and Congress for recovery of the Mormon's losses in Missouri. At first the plan called for Sidney, the persuasive polemicist and orator to make the trip on his own. Then LDS lawyer Elias Higbee was appointed to accompany the malady-prone Rigdon to the east. Finally, Joseph Smith added himself to the list, along with his bodyguard, O. P. Rockwell. The group of four would eventually make the trip to Washington, but they would ultimately fail in realizing nearly all of their financial and political goals. This unexpected fiasco came to pass after Rigdon decided that he was too "ill" to accompany the Mormon prophet into the bastion of national power. But that particular failure still was well in the future when Joseph rejoined his family and old associates in Illinois. The dashing of these leaders' hopes and the coincident setting of Rigdon's star would be a misfortune drawn out over many months in the uncertain Mormon future.
The Mormon prophet lost no time in setting the Church's affairs in order in Illinois. Two days after he had settled into his new home with Emma at the Cleveland farm he called the first Conference of the Church since his being taken into custody at Far West. The Twelve were still away in the unfriendly domain of Missouri, so attendance of the April 24th Conference was no doubt lighter than in the past. John P. Greene, who wrote a tract condemning the Missourians and extoling the Saints in their recent tribulations, submitted his work and the text was approved for publication. These new propaganda efforts of the Saints soon would be carried to Gentile publications like the Quincy Whig. The Conference also decided that President Smith and a few associates should visit the Mississippi shore of Iowa Territory, "for the purpose of making a location for the Church." The "gathering" that caused so many Mormon woes in Ohio and Missouri was about to begin again.
The day after this small Conference Smith was on his way to Iowa -- to spend money he did not yet have. The Church acquired two adjacent plantations at Commerce, in Hancock County, rather than across the river in Iowa. The Smiths and the Rigdons thus acquired new homes in substantial houses on the eastern bank of the river. The rest of the latter day faithful would later build their own shacks and mansions, both on the Iowa shore and in what was to become Mormon Nauvoo.
On May 3, 1839 the new apostle, Wilford Woodruff, rode out to the Cleveland family farm and renewed his acquaintance with the LDS prophet. That conscientious journal-keeper provided a valuable record of Smith's activities thereafter (though he did record much concerning Sidney Rigdon). A day after Woodruff's arrival the top Mormon leaders, along with many of their followers and a few curious Gentiles, retired to a spot north of town where the Presbyterians once held camp meetings. Although the first public Latter Day Saint Conference held in Illinois escaped the notice of the Quincy Whig, it did attract the attention of at least one non-Mormon writer:
Early in the spring of 1839, Joe Smith escaped from prison in Missouri, and rejoined his followers in Illinois. A great gathering took place soon after, a few miles from Quincy at an old camp-meeting ground. On this occasion the Prophet first addressed himself to the ears of the "Suckers," for numbers of the old residents were attracted thither by curiosity. In one of his harangues, he alluded to the obnoxious doctrines charged upon them by their enemies, and showed some ingenuity, in avoiding offence, as well to his disciples, as to the surrounding Gentiles.... [Smith's explanations were] shallow enough, to be sure; but he well knew the mental depth of the Saints. And, while others smiled at the impudent cunning of his evasions, the faithful were highly edified at the wisdom, which confounded his questioners.
One of the outcomes of this lengthy meeting was that Lyman Wight, Smith's former jail-mate at Liberty, was chosen to collect affidavits from Mormon refugees seeking compensation for their losses in Missouri. The hundreds of statements collected by Wight were destined to accompany the Saints' redress petitions to Washington, D. C. This store of personal accounts contained numerous detailed narratives of the Mormons' recent unhappy experiences. Whether by conscious design or not, the group accounting had the effect of uniting the Saints in seeking vengeance from their former neighbors rather than questioning the possible culpability of their own Church authorities. Reading through those many firsthand accounts may have given Wight the idea of writing up his own summation of the Missouri troubles -- a history which would see publication in the Quincy Whig.
The Mormon Propaganda Machine in Action
While Lyman Wight collected the Mormon's personal stories and affidavits, Almon W. Babbitt, Erastus Snow and Robert B. Thompson were given the task of gathering "all the libelous reports and publications which have been circulated" regarding the Mormon Church, "as well as other historical matter connected with said Church." Perhaps it was inevitable that some of the persons involved in these overlapping assignments would eventually show some enmity towards their brethren in the collection of recent historical materials. Affidavits collector Lyman Wight was inclined to listen sympathetically to the Whigs of Quincy, while "libelous reports" collector Robert B. Thompson remained loyal to the Saints' old friends, the Democrats. While these two Mormons were on a poltical collison course of their own making, there is reason to believe Smith sat back and watched the show they put on with a certain amount of pleased amusement.
It is probably no coincidence that both Mormon poetess Eliza Snow and Elder Wight sent conciliatory submissions to the Quincy Whig during the first week in May. Snow saw her first poem (a "thank-you" to the citizens of Quincy) published in the May 11th issue of the paper. The same issue printed a letter from Lyman Wight in which he quoted from another of his letters, one purportedly sent to Missouri's Senator Thomas H. Benton on Mar. 30, 1839, before Wight came to Illinois. It is possible that Wight manufactured a back-dated letter to Benton especially for publication in the Whig. If the letter to Benton was genuine, its strange contents may have been quoted from memory, rather from a copy kept by the Mormon Elder.
Let us Sing of Demon-acrats and Demagogues
The Snow poem was little more than a touching, heart-felt "thank-you" dressed up in flowery language to flatter the citizens of Quincy. The Wight letter (along with his remarks directed to Benton) was a somewhat more disingenuous piece of work. Wight's intent was to open a foothold for the Mormons with the Illinois Whig partisans. It was likely written with Smith's implicit (if not explicit) blessing. In a single short composition Wight managed to throw in half a dozen Whig watch-words and a number of crafted phrases pleasing to the anti-Democratic ear.
... my duty prompts me to say that it came by the wicked mis-rule of Democracy. That Democracy which you and I have so dearly loved: yes it commenced, and has been carried on thus far, under the reign of the Democratic Party of which I have heretofore been a strong advocate. The flame commenced in 1832, and has been fanned by enthusiastic demagogues; until they have succeeded in driving at least five or six thousand inhabitants, including eight hundred democrat voters, from the state.
How the Whigs must have grinned after reading those lines! One of their favorite games was to see how close they could juxtapose the words "demagogue" and "democrat" in the same sentence; Wight produced a clever addition to their popular diversion. Here was the Mormon answer to the Whig's editorial threat of April 27th. The olive branch had been extended to Bartlett and associates -- there would be no need for him to go inquiring of his "friends who live nearest the scene of difficulties" in Missouri for their side of story regarding the Saints' troubles there.
Cagey Bartlett still had a few cards up his sleeve and was ready to up the ante in his journalistic game. His ploy came in the next issue of the paper, after the Saints' own little show was acted out. Wight's letter in the May 11th issue of the anti-Democratic newspaper was intended to ruffle a few feathers among the established party. That hoped-for effect was practically instantaneous. On May 13th, little more than a day after Wight's letter was printed, Elder Robert B. Thompson allegedly took it upon himself to scold the LDS First Presidency over their laxity in controlling the meddlesome Whig Lyman Wight. Thompson's letter from Quincy to the first Presidency (then settling into their new abodes at Commerce), had this to say about a problem he had uncovered in Quincy:
I beg leave to call your attention to a subject of considerable importance to our Church, and which if not attended to is calculated (in my humble opinion) to raise a prejudice in a considerable portion of the community, and destroy those benevolent and philanthropic feelings which have been manifested towards us as a people by a large portion of this community: I have reference to the letters of Brother Lyman Wight, which have been inserted in the Quincy Whig....
While young Thompson may have had some hard feelings for Smith's jail-mate at Liberty, that same jail-mate was also Rigdon's long-time assistant from pre-Mormon days in Kirtland. "Father" Wight was a trusted confidant and experienced catspaw for the leadership; while Thompson, despite a show of loyality in Missouri, was a relative newcomer to the Mormon inner circles. It is almost imposible to believe that Thompson would have the audacity to directly address all three of his top ecclesiastical masters early on the "Monday morning" after being questioned by the unhappy editor of the Argus, Isaac N. Morris. Thompson encountered his disgruntled boss no earlier than the previous Saturday afternoon. It is inconceivable that low-ranking Elder Thompson could have so quickly rallied the Mormons in Quincy to add their negative voices to his own -- without first presenting the matter to their seniors in the highly structured LDS hierarchy -- that is, unless they received a wink of the eye and a nod of the head from the First Presidency well in advance of this development. The top Mormon leaders were not in the habit of receiving unsolicited advice such as that contained in Thompson's letter. Their joint answer (penned after a lapse of nearly two weeks) contains a remarkably mild reply to Thompson's supposed presumption:
In answer to yours of the 13th instant, to us, concerning the writings of Colonel Lyman Wight... we entirely disapprove of it. Having, however, great confidence in Colonel Wight's good intentions, and considering it to be the indefeasible right of every free man to hold his own opinion in politics as well as religion, we will only say that we consider it to be unwise, as it is unfair, to charge any one party in politics...We desire that you may make whatever use you may think proper of this letter, and remain your sincere friends and brethren.
Now Where's that Jo Smith when We Need Him?
No doubt Democratic middlemen like Morris and local party bosses like Whitney and Leach were shocked and upset by what seemed a political betrayal of their cozy new relationship with the Mormons. No sooner had the ink dried on the Democrats' letters of endorsement for the Sidney Rigdon, than Wight's disturbing letter unexpectedly appeared in the antagonistic Quincy Whig. As Flanders puts it:
In the spring of 1839, when the Mormons first arrived in Illinois as refugees, Lyman Wight, an outspoken Mormon apostle, publicly attacked Democratic Governor Lillburn Boggs of Missouri, the Missouri Democratic Party, and Democrats in general. He even called the powerful and prestigious Senator Thomas Hart Benton a demagogue. Wight's remarks, reported in the Quincy Whig, caused a stir in Democratic circles right up to the governor's mansion in Springfield, which was occupied by a Democrat, Thomas Carlin.
And where were the Mormon leaders when the worried Democrats needed to speak with them personally? When they inquired for the Rigdon and the Smith brothers, the "loco-focos" found that these erstwhile allies had fled the Quincy coop to the retreats of Hancock County, even while the Democrats were composing their epistles in the Saints' behalf. If any of the Twelve or lesser local Mormon leaders were imprudent enough to remain in town over the weekend, they must have received an earful from unhappy Democrats after church that Sunday.
Thompson's mock-indignant role in this Saintly gamesmanship was patently contrived and Wight's complicity was not much better camouflaged. For several days following the LDS General Conference of May 3-5, the Quorum of the Twelve met together in and around Quincy, but a couple of days later they moved their meetings to Commerce. Apostle Wilford Woodruff entered these interesting words in his journal on May 12th (one day after the publication of Wight's pro-Whig letter and one day before the writing of Thompson's pretended protest):
I met in council with the twelve & the quorums of the seventies. We had an interesting meeting... a committy of five was chosen to labour with Elder Lyman Wight for presenting the subject of politicks through the public press in a manner that was derogatory to the character of the church & closing up what public feeling there was manifest in our favor.
If the leading Mormons in Quincy were quick to unite behind Elder Robert B. Thompson in entreating the First Presidency to reign in the partisan Lyman Wight, why did Quorum of the Twelve, meeting at Commerce with Joseph Smith, ignore Wight's problematic Whiggism and appoint him to such a weighty public relations assignment?
The Wight letter was but the tip of a larger iceberg which was manufactured to cool down the Mormon-Democrat relationship a few degrees. Other elements of this Saintly policy shift are not so easily discerned. In mid-May, 1839 the "loco-foco" party machinery in Adams County was thrown out of kilter and all eyes were turned toward Elder Lyman Wight as having spearheaded that sabotage. If the LDS First Presidency were greatly concerned at this turn of events, they did little to demonstrate their anxiety; in fact, on May 27th the Mormon prophet wrote these soothing words to "wild ram of the mountains" Wight:
Having last week received a letter from Brother Robert B. Thompson, concerning your late writings in the Quincy Whig, and understanding thereby that the Church in general in Quincy were rather uneasy concerning these matters, we have thought best to consider the matter, of course, and accordingly being in council on Saturday last, the subject was introduced, and discussed at some length... I feel not to exercise even the privilege of counsel on the subject, save only to request that you will endeavor to bear in mind the importance of the subject, and how easy it might be to get into a misunderstanding with the brethren concerning it...
Here was a wink of the eye and nod of the head to Lyman Wight. The Mormon leaders could tell the Illinois Democrats that they tried to quiet this noisy Whig in their midst. They could say that although they didn't sympathize with his contrary politics, they could do little to prevent members like Wight from exercising their free speech in partisan matters. Even the most dense of "loco-focos" in western Illinois must have gotten Smith's thinly veiled message: political assurances given by the Latter Day Saint leaders were not necessarily binding upon the Mormon constituency as a whole. Although Smith was known to have the power to "deliver the vote," he was not about to confirm that fact in public, whatever he pledged in private. The Mormons had developed Sidney Rigon's Feb. 27th ploy of leaking meeting plans to the Whigs into a crafted campaign of playing the two major parties against each other. After this nobody could be certain on which side the Mormons would vote in the coming elections of 1840. Smith kept enough of his faithful followers stationed in Adams County to influence political maneuverings there, but it was becoming clear that his power base had moved northward to sparsely populated Hancock County and his political interests were shifting to the State Legislature in Springfield -- a body comprised of both Democrats and Whigs.
Politicks, History, and Other "Foul Transactions"
Wight combined his dual assignments of gathering Mormon affidavits and "presenting the subject of politicks through the public press" by composing a lengthy history of the Mormon difficulties in Missouri for submission to the Quincy Whig. Although this "history of those foul transactions" was conceived and presented to further public sympathy and support for the Illinois Mormons, Wight's extended essay was chock full of cant slogans and keywords penned to delight the Whiggish eye. Wight apparently submitted the initial installment during the first days of May, although the article was not put through the press of the Whig until May 18, 1839. It was prefaced by a touching poem from the pen of Eliza Roxey Snow: "To a Revolutionary Father." Having set the stage for Wight's compelling prose, it likely that Snow's editorial hand also crafted some of the heart-warming word-pictures presented in that first episode of Wight's "Missouri-ism." A copy of the double composition was probably first set before Smith and his Counselors for their perusal. When Wight dropped off his pre-approved submission at the Whig offices in Quincy, he appended to it a short note, adding icing to the LDS cake:
To the Editors of the Quincy Whig:
The leaders in Commerce must have exchanged some knowing smiles in their meetings during those first days of May, 1839. The Mormons were slyly serving notice to the Illinois Democrats that they were in nobody's partisan pocket -- that the First Presidency was ready to play political games through their junior surrogates in the Church, if necessary. The first hints of this new message had already rung forth a rude awakening to the Adams County "loco-focos" -- those same Democrats who had spent a good deal of time and effort in buttering up Elder Rigdon and his associates in expectation of his delivering the Saintly vote. Summoning those Gentile sympathies and accompanying partisan favors for the Saints' cause was proving easier than the Mormons had hoped possible. This new feint in the direction of the Democrat's rivals would produce more of the same. Or so thought Smith, Rigdon, Wight and the other Mormon leaders as they settled back to await the forthcoming propaganda effort in the pages of the Whig.
At this very same time the editors of that Whig mouthpiece in Quincy had felt this shift in the political winds and Bartlett and his associates were ready to gamble on amplifying its effects with some additional gamesmanship of their own. Bartlett had been dealt an ace by a helpful "friend" and he was ready to play his own hand in the columns of the Quincy Whig. The contest to win the Mormon vote in Illinois was becoming interesting indeed.
Enter the Ghost of Solomon Spalding
As Rigdon and the Smith brothers awaited the appearance of Wight's first "Missouri-ism" installment in the Whig it occured to them that the time was ripe for the Mormon First Presidency to make their own appearance in Whiggish typeface. On May 17th, one day before the anticipated publication of Snow's winning poem and Wight's pro-Mormon propaganda, the three top leaders of the Saints wrote what they planned to be the second salvo in the political short heard round the State of Illinois. Their missive, intended for the columns of the last Quincy Whig issue in May, contained these lines:
Gentlemen: -- Some letters in your paper have appeared over the signature of Lyman Wight, in relation to our affairs with Missouri. We consider it is Mr. Wight's privilege to express his opinion in relation to political or religious matters, and we profess no authority in the case whatever...While this letter of the First Presidency is dated "Commerce, May 17, 1839," the epistle obviously was not signed in the northern hamlet on that particular day. On May 14 Joseph Smith returned from his new home in Commerce to transact personal and churchly business in Quincy. He was in that town between Wednesday the 15th and the morning of Saturday the 18th. While it is possible that Smith remained in Quincy long enough on the 18th to pick up copies of the Argus and the Whig, it is more likely that he left early that Saturday morning, before the newspapers were ready for sale. At any rate, he was able to complete the two day trip back to Commerce by the evening of May 19. Whether or not his fellow Presidents Hyrum and Sidney also made the journey down to Quincy is unknown; but there is no record of their having been there. What probably happened is that Joseph took the letter, originally written in Commerce, down to Quincy with him and dated the document on the 17th when he left it off at the Whig offices. Perhaps he even lingered long enough with Bartlett and Sullivan to glance at a proof of Wight's first installment of "Missouri-ism," scheduled for publication on the 18th in the Whig.
What Smith probably did not lay his eyes upon during that brief sojourn in Quincy was a certain item Bartlett had sandwiched in between the Mormon contributions for that day's issue of the Whig paper -- a most interesting article reprinted from the New York Observer entitled: "Origin of Mormonism." This article from the East was the trick Bartlett had been keeping up his sleeve; and it was a most unwelcome dirt clod that he flung into the Mormons' punchbowl that spring Saturday in Quincy.
The article (which the Observer itself had copied from the Boston Recorder of April 19, 1839) was most uncomplimentary to the Mormons, calling their religion "gross delusions" and a "pit of abominations." To make matters even worse, it purported to expose their Book of Mormon as "... an historical romance, [which] with the addition of a few pious expressions and extracts from the sacred Scriptures, has been construed into a new Bible and palmed off upon a company of poor deluded fanatics, as divine... this work of deep deception and wickedness..." This was not an article which Bartlett, Sullivan, and the Whig clique in neighboring Springfield allowed to slip into their Quincy newspaper by chance. Its appearance there must have been part of their careful plan to capture the Mormon prophet's attention and to voice their implicit demand for greater Saintly allegiance to the Whig cause.
Bartlett had earlier subtly threatened to solicit accounts from the Mormons' old neighbors in Missouri, in order to clarify just "who were the aggressors, and cause of so much disturbance, and acts of the most flagrant violations of justice..." Bartlett was again offering this same kind of thinly veiled threat to the Mormon leadership. This re-printed article, purporting to expose the true origin of the Book of Mormon, reported that the name of its true late author was "the Rev. Solomon Spaulding, a graduate of Dartmouth College, and formerly pastor of a Presbyterian church." The article continued by informing readers that its facts were taken from a statement made by that author's widow, Mrs. Matilda Spalding Davison, who "was still living at Monson, Mass." The published composition also included the name of a "Rev. John Storrs, of Holliston, Mass." and other people yet living who had an interest in documenting the supposed fact that the late author's "historical romance" had been transformed into the Book of Mormon. According to the article this work editorial legerdemain had been wrought by none other than "Sidney Rigdon, who has figured so largely in the history of the Mormons," who was reportedly in Pittsburgh c. 1813-1816 and there "... connected with the printing office of Mr. Patterson, as is well known in that region, and as Rigdon himself has frequently stated."
Bartlett's newspaper printed names of persons, with addresses, to whom the citizens of western Illinois could easily write, requesting additional information on the "most flagrant violations of justice" by the Mormon Sidney Rigdon. To make certain that the accusing article did not escape the Mormon eye, Bartlett printed it on page two of the Whig immediately before the note from Lyman Wight saying "... it appears there are some persons belonging to the same religious class with myself; who have been assailed in round language..." The Latter Day Saint readers would have read Snow's front page poem, with its lines on "wayward pilgrims... shelterless and poor" championing a "cause yet true," and then shed a tear or two browsing through Wight's accompanying prose concerning Mormon "wives, who had left their kitchens for tents, and their parlors for log cabins..." only to be robbed, violated, and cast barefoot into the winter snows by the cruel barbarians of Missouri. Turning over the page, their eyes would next come to rest upon the sub-title, "Origin of Mormonism." Only after perusing that revelation with shock and disbelief could finish of their reading of the last page of news that day with Wight's short letter. The effect induced by the Whig editors was not designed to be a happy one for the faithful Latter Day Saint reader.
Bartlett's gamble was a dangerous one; in coming weeks the fire he lit that day nearly got out of control. But even in this demonstration of audacity the Whig editor pulled many punches. He reprinted the article without comment and placed it in a paper full of the Mormon's own self-composed praises for themselves and Quincy's enlightened Gentiles. If anybody criticized the wily journalist, he could truly state that he had simply printed a timely piece of news which had come across his desk that week, an article that, were it found to have suppressed, would have caused more problems left unprinted than reported in the back columns of the Whig. His presumed threat -- to seek further information, possibly damaging to the Mormons, in following up on the Matilda Spalding Davison statement -- was entirely an unspoken one. Should anybody criticize the editor's intentions, he could easily say that he saw no reason to pursue the matter any further; and, in fact, this was exactly what he and Sullivan eventually had to say in the Whig in order to extricate themselves from from a hazardous war of words.
Bartlett's gamble had yet another element of danger in it. If the widow's statements regarding her husband, Sidney Rigdon, and the supposed true origin of the Book of Mormon proved to be a hoax or malicious misinformation, the Quincy Whig might be forced to print an apology to Rigdon and the Mormons. As the month of May wore on Bartlett and his associates must have experienced just a touch of nervousness, while waiting to see if the Mormons might produce their own letters from persons mentioned in the disturbing article -- letters saying it was all a joke or a piece of mischief. If the Whigs of Adams County were wondering about such potential problems, their concerns were all for naught. The volatile Sidney Rigdon was about to take aim with his own vengeful weapon -- and to shoot himself in the foot.
-- Sections in this Article --
Intro. | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Notes | Appendix
-- A Mormon Chronology --
1838 | 1839 | 1840 | 1841
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