“By his own admission”: a one-footnote review

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

24 comments for ““By his own admission”: a one-footnote review

  1. Ouch. We pay more attention to these things because we care, but it makes me wonder how much of this scholarship sloppiness is all around and doesn’t get noticed because who would bother to do the work to uncover it?

  2. I expect there’s a good deal of sloppiness in historical scholarship just as I have seen a good deal of it in legal briefs where misrepresenting sources is also unacceptable. I recall, e.g., a number of reviews in the late 90s seriously taking on some of the citations and arguments in one of Michael Quinn’s books — and others, without looking, treating those reviews as unjustified assaults on the darling of Mormon history research and writing — as if anyone were ever going to check all his massive footnotes..

  3. A person can claim any position as authoritative and legitimate as long as one leads with the words “Studies show……”

  4. There is also a significant difference between a miraculous vision, and the sort of experience necessary to join a Baptist church.

  5. Wondering, I believe your comments are very wise and true, , we should not accept any comment, especially with reference to early Church History, without checking the sources and motives behind the comments. Even though Quinn claims still to be a believing ex- member he still claims that the Church went astray following the prophet Joseph’s death.

  6. I’m not sure Van Wagoner gets a pass either. “Years later, as a Mormon, he reportedly said of his Baptist initiation…” has Rigdon saying whatever when he was a Mormon, but his source Kennedy merely says “in later days” and cites no source. How does “later days” (later than what?) become “years later, as a Mormon?” Maybe there is more about “later days” in Kennedy than Jonathan has quoted, but all I see in that paragraph of Kennedy is that “later days” was a contrast to when he was “quite young.”.

  7. Thanks for this illustration and reminder. I had a nearly identical experience running down a source cited in Van Wagoner’s SR bio.

  8. Wondering: There is a great deal of sloppiness, but it’s not uniformly distributed. Anyone can make mistakes and everyone does at some point, but some people really try to minimize them, while others seem to be entirely unconcerned by it. I’ve seen it often enough that it’s making me grumpy. I’ve been similarly frustrated a couple times with Quinn.

    J.: I’d be curious to know how you see that distinction playing out in this case.

    Wondering II: I wondered about that as well, but the report as found in Kennedy would seem to make most sense as Rigdon’s explanation for why he joined up with the Mormons. What would lead Rigdon to say, I was just making up my Baptist conversion? The one context where he would plausibly say something like that is if he were asked to reconcile his earlier Baptist faith with his experience after 1830. So if we only had Kennedy, the most logical dating of the statement would be Van Wagoner’s: Rigdon said this some time after 1830. But then we see from Crumrine that the original context is from 1823, and that’s also how Crumrine understands it, and we’re left with the question, Why would Rigdon say something so self-incriminating to anyone at all, let alone in the middle of a Baptist dispute? Was it originally meant to explain his shift of allegiance to Campbell? Even if it were, you’d think Rigdon could have come up with something more plausible than saying, Oh, I just made that part up. So I have some reservations about the statement’s actual authenticity.

  9. Jonathan, the whole things is rendered somewhat problematic. There were all sorts of Baptists in PA, but generally one had to have a conversion experience and make a confession of faith. Campbell’s later requirement was more simple-accept that Jesus was the Messiah. Other Christians mocked that, of course. I presume that the supposed manufactured experience would have been in the stand pattern of a conviction of sin, acceptance of Christ, and redemption.

    Saying that he lied about his conversion (which seems odd to me, but whatever), is demonstrably not a history of making up visionary experiences.

    As a side note, in 1830 Alexander Campbell narrated some of the interaction with Winters and Rigdon, in which Winters and Campbell accuse each other of deceit and bad behavior. He published it in vol 1 of the Millennial Harbinger. Winters is clearly not a cool observer here. He had a history of attacking people he crossed with during this period.

  10. This post and its comments have really helped me. I am certainly not a formally-trained scholar on Mormon topics, but I am an avid reader, and I was warned long ago at BYU by one of my professors, that when reading books on the Church, one needed to approach footnotes very carefully and skeptically. Jonathon Green‘s experience with the claims on SR has Beautifully shown why,

    In the many years I worked as a government analyst, one of my main jobs was to peer-review what others had written, and help them clean up their draft texts so that they could be published. I often had to sit down and tell the writer (always intelligent, always capable) where he or she had made conclusions that could not be supported by data. Most Drafters willingly and patiently submitted to the peer review, but it was very frustrating to some.

    My work as a government employee led me to conclude that we gave a lot more error out there, than we would like to admit, and I suspect it is the same with Mormon scholarship, with Green’s caveat that the error is not evenly distributed.

  11. J., thanks, that’s really interesting. That context just adds to the whole mystery.

    TWM, sometimes I worry about the replication crisis in psychology, and the equivalent in other fields where repeating an experiment isn’t an option. In Mormon Studies, the contest over fundamental issues at least has the potential to get people to work carefully.

  12. I have personally had several experiences with scrutinizing footnotes and finding substantial problems therein.

    1. In Martha Nibley Beck’s “Leaving the Saints,” she claimed that “[s]omeone in the BYU library had spent an enormous amount of time and effort to excise every single reference to Sonia Johnson that had ever appeared in print.” This turned out to be flagrantly, patently false. See https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1610&context=msr (p. 192)

    2. In Will Bagley’s “Blood of the Prophets,” he interpolated the word “allies” in place of the word “grain” in a quote from Dimick Huntington’s journal, which excerpt Bagley then claimed constituted “‘troubling new evidence’ to prove that President Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were accessories before the fact to commit the [Mountain Meadows] massacre.” Robert Crocket pointed out this interpolation error in his review of Bagley’s book (https://tinyurl.com/ya4qmtz3). Bagley appears to kinda sorta conceded his error, since the current version of his book no longer includes the interpolated word “allies.” However, he has apparently left intact the conclusions he drew from that interpolation (that it is “troubling new evidence,” that this “evidence” showed that the massacre “was not a tragedy but a premeditated criminal act initiated in Great Salt Lake City,” and that this evidence “links Brigham Young to facilitating the murders”).

    3. In Sally Denton’s “American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857,” she states (p. 105): “Young’s church elders swept through the outlying communities in the winter of 1856-57 ‘in an orgy of recrimination and rebaptism,’ as one account put it, followed by the constant scrutiny of those who had been found lacking. Young declared that all backsliders should be ‘hewn down.'”

    The footnote for these two quotes (fn 105) refers to “Josiah F. Gibbs, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, 8ff” (published in 1910). The only verbatim quote presented by Denton (“‘hewn down'”) does not appear in this book. However, Mr. Gibbs wrote another book, “Lights and Shadows of Mormonism,” on page 200 of which Mr. Gibbs quotes from a passage in the Journal of Discourses (Vol. III, page 266), which states: “The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall take the old broadsword and ask, ‘Are you for God?’ And if you are not heartily on the Lord’s side, you WILL BE HEWN DOWN.'” (The reference by Gibbs to the JoD should be to page 226, rather than 266.)

    4. When the film “September Dawn” (about the Mountain Meadows Massacre) came out in 2007, I was struck with a particular line in the film attributed to Brigham Young: “I am the voice of God. And anyone who doesn’t like it will be hewn down.” This quote was used in the film’s trailer. The director of the film, Christopher Cain, claimed that he “didn’t write any of his [Brigham Young’s] dialogue” in the film, and that it was all in the depositions that Young gave after the massacre. (Source: https://tinyurl.com/ybww2c6h).

    I did some digging about this “hewn down” quote. I concluded that it was originally sourced from an anonymous letter sent to Sandra Tanner at Utah Lighthouse Ministries, which she (Sandra) subsequently posted online (source: https://tinyurl.com/y92a8f9r). In the anonymous letter, dated November 28, 2004, the writer asks Sandra to help in tracking down the following quote: “I am the voice of God and anyone who doesn’t like it will be hewn down. God has revealed to me that I have the right and power to call down curses on anyone who tries to invade our lands. Therefore, I curse the Gentiles.” Sandra Tanner responded that she was “not familiar with the quotes.”

    My suspicion is that the writer of the anonymous letter was Carole Whang Schutter, the author of the screenplay for “September Dawn.” She, through her publicist, attributed the “hewn down” quote to Sally Denton’s book.

  13. I’ve read a fair number of histories and sloppiness in source citing is not uncommon. Anyone reading history should do his or her due diligence to determine the robustness of source attribution when reading controversial claims. Often the author is overly eager to make a point and cite a source that confirms a preexisting narrative and has a difficult time accommodating all of the nuance into their narrative. So they make the point, cite a source, sometimes crop the source unfairly or fail to note that the source is not solid, and call it a day.

    On that point, however. Let’s not get too overeager to denounce scholarship that paints unfavorable pictures of early church leaders as evidence that the believing scholarship is therefore the one and only true scholarship. Nibley’s work is full of this sort of stuff and a lot of it has not been able to survive scrutiny, especially in an age of easy access to source material. A lot of FAIR scholarship is the same, and honestly “abhorrent” in the words of BYU scholar Brian Hauglid in a Facebook post on the topic of Muhlestein’s and Gee’s works on the Book of Abraham. The fact of the matter is that it is difficult to put a coherent historical narrative together, let alone establish patterns of behavior and root claim down in solid source material. It is easy for even the best scholars to get ahead of themselves.

  14. This is a great breakdown. I love solid research like this. Really looking forward to your footnote review on the Race and the Priesthood essay.

  15. SM, those are good examples. Although as Turnover points out, not all the sloppiness is from critics. One of the regular features in the old FARMS journals was pointing out where the zeal of some devotional work had far outrun its knowledge.

    Although I wouldn’t say that Nibley or Fair are guilty of scholarly sleight-of-hand, at least not that I’ve seen. Nibley treas his sources like someone trained in the 1930s because he was trained in the 1930s, and the FAIR website has served me well when I’ve consulted it. (And the whole Hauglid/Gee/Muhlestein/Lindsay thing is a morass I am refusing to touch for fear of squandering years of my life to no benefit.)

  16. On Nibley, take a look at this article written by Ronald V. Huggins and published by the Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Nibley has a long history of cutting corners. Dan Vogel also points out slipshod scholarship on the part of Nibley in his videos on the Book of Abraham. The videos are very thorough and well worth watching (if you have time, because they are quite long). Any serious student of Mormon history shouldn’t readily dismiss what critics and skeptics have to say.

  17. “ Any serious student of Mormon history shouldn’t readily dismiss what critics and skeptics have to say.” Agreed, but perhaps they should publish it somewhere peer-reviewed and reputable, not a classic anti-mormon ministry or YouTube.

  18. Anon, Nibley’s writings that defend the church’s traditional truth claims haven’t gone through the formal peer review process (and it is highly doubtful that they would pass). And neither have any FAIR articles. Why would a critique of these need to pass peer review? Sounds like you’re shooting the messenger and finding excuses not to actually read and engage with what critics and skeptics have to say. At the end of the day, we should evaluate arguments on their merits. Not who is publishing them and where they are published. That is of secondary importance.

    If you want to stress the importance of peer review, which is of course important, you should start demanding that apologetic scholarship defending the church’s truth claims pass muster among non-Mormon academics and experts in their respective fields. A critic of non-peer-reviewed positions need not have peer review to criticize those positions.

  19. Anyone using Utah Lighthouse Ministry to prove sloppy sourcing on the part of anyone else is clearly unfamiliar with the idea of irony or the concept of being hoist to your own petard.

  20. IAW, I assume that you want people to read what the apologists like Nibley have to say, and many won’t and readily dismiss the validity of apologist arguments simply because they are promoted and published by LDS church-funded (if not directly, then most certainly indirectly) organizations and because they gained the time and resources to do such research because of infrastructure built and established by the LDS church (got a job at BYU, for instance). Is that fair? Should people dismiss this scholarship over those reasons? I don’t think so, although readers should read LDS apologist material with those factors in mind. In fact, I would say that anyone who callously dismisses LDS scholarship over these reasons is burying their head in the sand. And so I say the same to you.

    Does the Utah Lighthouse Ministry have bias? Of course. But this bias is no greater than the bias of Nibley and FAIR apologists whose scholarship is undoubtedly shaped by a whole host of invisible but easily sensed social factors (many apologists would lose their families and jobs if they crossed a line in criticizing the LDS church and its teachings). The fact of the matter is that writing about Mormon history is very bias-charged. It is very hard to get fully objective views. Mormonism is small, and doesn’t attract much scholarly interest outside a small circle of people whose personal lives have been affected by it. With that in mind, you need to read Huggins’ work before you just dismiss him. I recently found out that some other apologists have address Huggins’ critique of Nibley’s scholarship, which should also be read as well.

    But I can also tell you from personal research into the footnotes of FAIR articles and Nibley that truth-stretching and distortions of the original intent of the footnotes is not at all uncommon. Nibley’s learning of lots of different languages and citing of lots of different material in these languages was a sort of smokescreen that he hid behind. When he wrote his works, it was difficult to access, let alone read, this material. Consequently, he could get away with making it sound how he wanted it to sound since people couldn’t quickly verify his sources. But now, with lots more scholars who know these languages, and translations of these old texts on which Nibley relied, and easy access to them online, Nibley’s scholarship is shown to be not nearly as robust as many once thought it was, but full of flaws, many of the sort mentioned in the OP.

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