One of the most consequential meetings in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occurred Aug. 8, 1844, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, roughly six weeks after the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Sidney Rigdon, who had served as first counselor in the First Presidency of the church under Joseph, had returned to Nauvoo, Ill., from his self-imposed exile in Pittsburgh. Although a principal leader of the church for many years — he even received the February 1832 revelation of the three degrees of glory (Doctrine and Covenants 76) with Joseph Smith — Sidney’s relationship with the Prophet had ceased to be close.
Indeed, in 1843, Joseph had openly expressed his intention to release Sidney from the First Presidency. However, at the church’s general conference in October of that year, President Rigdon asked to remain in his position and the congregation, contrary to Joseph’s express wishes, agreed to let him stay.
After the vote, Joseph told them, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me. You may carry him, but I will not.” And now, with the Prophet dead, Sidney had come back to assert his right to be the church’s “guardian” or “protector.”
Meanwhile, under their president, Brigham Young, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had also just returned to Nauvoo from various missions. They maintained their right and responsibility, as faithful followers of Joseph Smith and by virtue of the keys of authority they had received from him, to lead the Saints he had left behind.
Sidney Rigdon rose first on that hot and humid summer day. Perhaps the finest and most experienced orator in the church, he spoke at length. He was followed by Brigham Young, the former Vermont carpenter and glazier who had ascended to the leadership of the Twelve and, in that capacity, had directed the flight of the Saints from Missouri to Illinois and presided over the enormously successful apostolic mission in England.
At the end of the meeting, the decision of the Saints was unmistakably clear. Brigham Young and the Twelve had carried the day.
Many modern members of the church are aware of the story that Brigham Young was somehow “transfigured” as he spoke to the Saints on that occasion. His appearance was transformed, according to the story, so that audience members were startled to see, as they thought, Joseph Smith himself standing where Brigham stood.
It’s even said that the leader of the Twelve sounded exactly like the martyred Prophet, right down to the hissing “s” resulting from Joseph’s broken tooth, incurred during an assault by a mob. In this event, we’re told, the mantle of Joseph plainly and unambiguously fell upon Brigham, leaving no doubt about who was to lead the church.
Unfortunately, historians have located not a single source, thus far, that mentions this important manifestation within days or even weeks of its alleged occurrence. Many critics and skeptics, accordingly, conclude nothing actually happened, that it’s essentially faith-promoting fiction and, even, evidence of the church’s intentional falsification of its own history.
But such an easy dismissal simply doesn’t accord with the known facts.
The best discussion of the topic is Lynne Watkins Jorgensen’s “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-one Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness,” which was published in the indispensable volume “Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844,” edited by John Welch with Erick Carlson and published in 2005. (The article is also available online.)
As her subtitle indicates, Jorgensen’s article gathers together fully 121 accounts, gathered from a multitude of sources and many kinds of sources and from various localities, in which eyewitnesses testify to what they saw and heard. I cannot do her work justice in this column; it should be read.
Furthermore, we can’t presume modern research has found every account that was ever given. It’s very likely other such narratives once existed but have perished and that other witnesses testified orally to their experience but never reduced it to writing. It’s possible, too, that historians will yet recover additional testimonies of the event.
Even as things stand, however, the available evidence is persuasive that the story of Brigham’s transfiguration was being told quite early, and it’s difficult to believe that such far-flung witnesses were engaged in any conspiracy to deceive. Something remarkable clearly happened at that meeting.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, founded the university's Islamic Translation Series and Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. His opinions are his own.