Elder Rigdon’s Rhetoric and Online Civility

Elder Rigdon’s Rhetoric and Online Civility

Having heard oblique references to it for years, today was the first time I fully sat back and read Sidney Rigdon’s July 4th 1838 Oration it in its entirety.


It begins as one would expect for the date with a strong endorsement of the principles of liberty, and the divine providence involved in the Founding of the Nation. He then discusses  the rise of the Restored Church, and describes the increasing persecution of the Saints.

Elder Rigdon’s frustration then reaches a rhetorical peak when he makes clear that he’s tired of turning the other cheek.  He’s tired of sitting back and seeing his loved ones suffer.

And then…well…I’ll let Elder Rigdon speak for himself:

Our cheeks have been given to the smiters, and our heads to those who have plucked off the hair. We have not only when smitten on one cheek turned the other, but we have done it, again and again, until we are wearied of being smitten, and tired of being trampled upon. We have proved the world with kindness, we have suffered their abuse without cause, with patience, and have endured without resentment, until this day, and still their persecutions and violence does not cease. But from this day and this hour, we will suffer it no more.

We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever, for from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.—Remember it then all MEN.

We will never be the ag[g]ressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people; but shall stand for our own until death. We claim our own rights, and are willing that all others shall enjoy theirs.

No man shall be at liberty to come into our streets, to threaten us with mobs, for it he does, he shall attone for it before he leaves the place, neither shall he be at liberty, to villify and slander any of us, for suffer it we will not in this place.

We therefore, take all men to record this day, that we proclaim our liberty on this day, as did our fathers. And we pledge this day to one another, our fortunes, our lives, and our sacred honors, to be delivered from the persecutions which we have had to endure, for the last nine years, or nearly that. Neither will we indulge any man, or set of men, in instituting vexatious law suits against us, to cheat us out of our just rights, if they attempt it we say wo be unto them.

We this day then proclaim ourselves free, with a purpose and a determination, that never can be broken, “no never! no never!NO NEVER”!!!

This oration is not included in the History of the Church as edited by B.H. Roberts. He does, however, make a reference to it in a footnote.1

I find the comment by Roberts pleasantly frank.

This oration by Sidney Rigdon has always been severely criticized as containing passages that were ill-advised and vehemently bitter. Especially those passages which threatened a war of extermination upon mobs should they again arise to plague the Saints. But when such criticism is made, the rank injustice, the destruction of property and the outrages committed upon the persons of many of the members of the Church, by the Jackson county mob, should also be remembered. Also the failure on the part of the officers of the State to protect the Saints in the enjoyment of their civil and religious liberties or even to return them to their homes in Jackson county—from which failure to magnify the law the Saints were still suffering. When, therefore, they saw mobocracy again threatening them, it is small wonder if they gave way for a moment to anger, and denounced in strong terms those who were likely to disturb their peace and repeat the outrages under which they had so long suffered.

To me, it sounds like B.H. Roberts is saying, for all intents and purposes,  “Now I’m not saying he should’ve threatened them, or that what he said was wise, or that I endorse in any way what he did, ‘cause given the tense climate, it was really, really dumb…but really… do you blame him?.”

B.H. Roberts is writing with 20/20 hindsight. For, as we all know, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs eventually responded to the Missouri-Mormon conflict by picking up the gauntlet Elder Rigdon verbally threw down.

The infamous Missouri Executive Order 44 (which wasn’t officially rescinded until 1976) stated,  “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace”.

You might consider Rigdon’s oration as the Mormon War equivalent of the “Shot heard ’round the world“. Now, tensions were so high, there undoubtedly would have been a continued conflict between the Missourians and the Mormons. Rigdon didn’t start it, nor was his oration even the most important element leading up to full-out armed conflict. It was building up to an inevitability for multiple reasons.

The question raised for me while reading Rigdon’s sermon is this: would Boggs have worded the Order the way he did, using the explicit term ‘extermination‘, if Rigdon’s published and promulgated sermon hadn’t threatened the Missourians with the term first?

Is the fact that there is a strongly worded and literal extermination order in history, a direct answer to Rigdon’s Rhetoric?

How This Relates To Online Civility

The internet creates a huge buffer zone in the mind of many of it participants in online discussion forums, blogs, etc. Especially when the discussion concerns religious beliefs.

There are several Latter-day Saints I’ve personally observed who, when something they hold to be correct is challenged, contradicted, or criticized online, reply with such a bitter and angry string of vitriol that serves only to rile up more contention, and do nothing towards helping to draw closer to mutual understanding.

These are individuals who, in most cases, would never dream of verbally abusing someone in such a manner in person. And yet, with the anonymity and distance factor of the internet,  let forth this written assault filled with gotchas, sardonic insults of the opposition’s intelligence, and often just plain assertions  of dishonesty.

I know from sad experience that this does nothing to assist in mutual understanding, and does more to divide than to heal.

But sometimes, it’s really easy to just explode. Someone will say something in such a way – often times repeatedly – in which you would be hard pressed to find anyone observing the conversation who would blame you for textually ripping them a new one.

And saying it often feels really good in the moment. But then… what was the real result? Was progress made?

I have tried very hard to be civil in such conversations. I now go out of my way to try to facilitate respect and understanding. But in the past, I’ve let a good solid smack-down or two fly. In fact, in at least one of those cases, I found my statement later being quoted on an anti-Mormon blog as an example of how unreasonable Mormons are. Ouch!

It can be very hard to be civil when mud and bullets are continually flying towards you.

It’s partially why I respect so much the Church’s relatively recent Newsroom Statement called “The Mormon Ethic of Civility“. Especially the following excerpt:

Civility is not only a matter of discourse. It is primarily a mode of engagement. The technological interconnectedness of society has made isolation impossible. Of all the institutions in the modern world, religion has had perhaps the greatest difficulty adjusting to the reality of give and take with the public. Today, and throughout its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continuously encounters the legitimate interests of various stakeholders in its interaction with the public. Rather than exempting itself from the rules of law and civility, the Church has sought the path of cooperative engagement and avoided the perils of acrimonious confrontation.

Because, as we’ve seen, ‘acrimonious confrontation’ worked so well in the past *grin* – The Church as an institution has come a very long way in recognizing the need for such civility when entering into dialogue with those who have differing, and even hostile viewpoints. There is still definitely room for improvement, but, to me, it seems to be on the right track.

Many members still have not caught up yet, and continue to unknowingly do more damage to the name of the Church as they sit at home doing a private victory dance in reaction to an argument (or personality) they think they squashed, destroyed, and obliterated online.

My advice? Remember Sidney Rigdon.

  1. see History of the Church, 3:41n1 []

One thought on “Elder Rigdon’s Rhetoric and Online Civility

  1. Sigh. I, for one, really need to work on this.

    (Thanks for the blog, by the way — I’ve been working my way through some of your old posts on Temple symbolism. Fun stuff, man.)

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