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SIDNEY B. RIGDON, THE FIRST MORMON PREACHER.
Pen and Pencil Sketches, Illustrating their Early History.—II.
BY A. W. COWLES, D. D.
THE two most important personages in the earnest days of Mormonism, next to the chief seer, SMITH, were MARTIN HARRIS and SIDNEY B. RIGDON. HARRIS furnished money and RIGDON "brains" for the new movement, for the SMITH family were la-mentably wanting in both these important requisites for a new religion. HARRIS was the first convert who had property. All the rest were dependent on their daily labor for a precarious livelihood. HARRIS had a good farm and was in comparatively easy circum-stances. He was, however, a weak, credu-lous man, very ignorant, and yet a constant reader of the Old Testament. It is said that he learned nearly the whole of it so as to be able to repeat it from memory, and could give chapter and verse for almost any pas- sage. He seemed to himself to have con-quered the whole province of revelation, in-cluding narratives, doctrines, prophecies and mysteries; and, like a greater personage of olden time, he sighed for a new world to conquer. Familiar with the old Hebrew prophets in his way, and with his own inter-pretation of their sublime visions, which he of course readily exhausted, he was ready to hail with delight a "live prophet," even if he did, to all human vision, seem like an idle vagabond. This doubtless added to the sacredness of his prophetic character, in his eyes. It perhaps was the weird eccentricity of one familiar with strange visions and mys-erious revelations. At any rate, HARRIS gave all the mind he had and all the influ-ence he could command to the new prophet. He was most thoroughly convinced of the divine mission of JOE SMITH. He devoted his time to the new faith, and at length mort-gaged his farm to raise means for printing the new Bible. His wife, who had no sym-pathy for what she fully believed to be the insane delusion of her husband, refused to sign the mortgage, and the alienation became so serious that they separated. HARRIS per-sisted in his efforts to publish the New Scriptures of the Mormon faith, and at length an edition of 5,000 copies was printed, at a cost of $3,000. One of the printers has now in his possession the original sheets from which the first edition was printed.
HARRIS retained his influence through all the early years of the new enterprise at Pal-myra, at Kirtland, O., and for a time at In-dependence, Mo. At this latter place SMITH discarded him and expelled him from the company of the saints, and HARRIS left the community as an excommunicated Mormon. But little is known of his subsequent his-tory, except that with all his bitterness against his rivals and disgust at their con- duct, he continued to believe most devoutly in the inspiration of the Book of Mormon, and the truth of, at least, the earliest revela-tions of JOE SMITH.
SIDNEY B. RIGDON was the master intel-lect of the whole movement prior to the set-tlement of the "Saints" at Nauvoo. A few weeks ago the writer visited this original apostle, the first preacher, the ablest lecturer of all the early clays of Mormonism, and the principal materials for this sketch were com-municated from his own lips. He has resi-ded for nearly twenty years in the village of Friendship, Allegany Co., N.Y. He is now a venerable old man of nearly eighty years, with snowy beard and a keen eye. His health seems good; his mind clear and vigorous. He has indeed a quick, excitable manner, and a fondness for strong, emphatic expressions, which seem to be the relics of his old fanaticism. He appears communica-tive and frank; yet in the short interview above mentioned he carefully avoided minute particulars of his Mormon associations and history. Like MARTIN HARRIS, while with almost fierce invective he denounces his as-sociate leaders of the Mormon Church and colony, he still clings to his faith in the in-piration of SMITH and his Bible. RIGDON professes to believe that as PAUL, by the abundant revelations vouchsafed to him, was tempted by the devil to vanity and self-con-fidence, as he himself declares, so SMITH was exalted above measure until he fell into the condemnation of the devil, and became corrupt in morals and an apostate from the truth which had been revealed to him. RIG-DON claims that he saw the secret tendencies I which afterward developed into the system of "sealing spiritual wives," but which the outside world persists in calling polygamy.
RIGDON narrates his early history with en-tire freedom, and with an old man's pardon-able pride in the early proofs of remarkable talents and extraordinary successes.
The father of RIGDON was a planter in Maryland, owning considerable land, and a number of slaves. Prom conscientious scru-ples in regard to the lawfulness of slavery, he at length manumitted his slaves, sold his property, and moved into the southwest cor-ner of the State of Pennsylvania. Here young RIGDON was brought up to hard farm work, with extremely limited advantages of education. He became acquainted with a Baptist minister and his attention was called to personal religion. He received baptism not far from the time in which he attained his majority. He now struck out boldly from the homestead and spent a number of months in the family of his new friend and spiritual counsellor, the Baptist minister be-fore mentioned. Here he found what seemed to him a perfect paradise of books and intel-lectual companionship. He found in himself an insatiable thirst for reading. He read history, divinity, and general literature, with- out much method or aim, except to gratify his intense love of reading. He gave great attention to the Bible, and made himself very familiar with all parts of it. He readily committed to memory and thus stored up large portions of the most important and most attractive portions of the Bible.
This extraordinary love of serious learning and remarkable aptness in the study of Scripture, very naturally suggested to his own mind and to others the idea of his be-coming a preacher. He was licensed, ac-cording to the custom of the Baptists, that lie might prove his gifts and try his calling.
If we credit his own account, his early pulpit ministrations created a great sensation throughout that part of the country, and especially in the western part of Ohio, where the labors of the young preacher were in great demand. He was here employed as a kind of evangelist—without a settled charge. About this time he married, and with his wife visited Pittsburgh. A Baptist church was then vacant, and he was invited to spend the Sabbath and supply the pulpit. The re-sult was an engagement with the congrega-tion to remain as their regular supply. Here he met with great success as a preacher, and built up a strong church. His intense love of investigation and new modes of thought here continued to grow upon him. He claims that he thoroughly reviewed the Scriptures, and reached down to their pro-foundest depths. Dissatisfied with all ordi-nary interpretations, he began a series of new and original explanations of doctrine, of his-tory and of prophecy. These novelties soon appeared in his preaching, and at length he announced to his congregation that he could not preach the doctrines or receive the in-terpretations of Scripture which the church professed to believe. He resigned his charge; but a large number sympathized with him, and wished him to form a new congregation. He, however, removed to Ohio as an Inde-pendent Baptist, preaching what he pleased, and contradicting whomsoever he pleased. He himself stated that not unfrequently he would attend a service and take his seat among the congregation, and after sermon arise and ask the liberty of adding a few re-marks, and then quote passages of Scripture to show the erroneous doctrines which the preacher had just uttered, and close by in- viting the congregation to come and hear him at his next appointment. This kept the community in a ferment and secured for him crowded houses. He seemed just on the point of forming a new sect which should overthrow by learning, logic and eloquence all the creeds and religious systems of the world!!
In this part of his narrative the old fire gleamed from his keen eye, his cheeks flushed with excited ardor, and with an ora-torical sweep of his hand he said:—"Yes, if I were only young again I could sweep away all your religions from under the whole heaven."
Here the orbit of his wandering star was crossed by a Mormon missionary, or, in plainer English, a peddler of Mormon Bibles, OLIVER COWDERY, JOE SMITH'S amanuensis, who was about the only one who could write a respectable hand, and who prepared the manuscript for the printer, came along with his pack. He had heard of the erratic and heretic preacher. He presented him with a copy of the golden Bible. RIGDON solemnly affirms that this was his first personal knowl-edge of JOE SMITH and the Mormons. After a few clays COWDERY returned and held a long interview with RIGDON. RIGDON had read a considerable portion of the book. He questioned COWDERY about SMITH, and found that he was entirely illiterate. RIG-DON expressed the utmost amazement that such a man should write a book which seemed to shed a flood of light on all the old Scriptures, open all their profoundest mysteries, and give them perfect consistency and complete system. In his fresh enthusiasm, he exclaimed that if GOD ever gave a revelation surely this must be divine. Thus Mor-monism gained its first clerical convert, and from this time RIGDON became one of the great lights and leading spirits of the Mor-mon movement.
He at once left Ohio and went to Palmyra. There he made the acquaintance of HARRIS, and delivered the first Mormon sermon in Palmyra, in the hall of the Young Men's Association. He declared that he was called of GOD to preach the new revelation. He took his text from the new Bible:
First Book of Nephi, Chap. IV.—“And the angel spake unto me saying, These last records which thou hast seen among the Gentiles shall establish the truth of the first, which is of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them, and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues and peo-ple that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and Savior of the world: and that all men must come unto Him or they cannot be saved."
He stood up, holding the Book of Mormon in his right hand and the old Bible in his left, and claimed that each was necessary to the other; that the old Bible could not be properly interpreted except by the aid of this new revelation. This sermon was heard by a very small audience, and attracted no fa-vorable attention beyond the few "saints" who were already convinced. RIGDON says that his first introduction to JOE SMITH was at the home of the WHITMERS, in Fayette, Seneca Co., near the school-house in which one of the first Mormon meetings was held, and where a few converts had been added to the new faith, and had received baptism by
night, by the hands of OLIVER COWDERY.
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