Thursday, July 2, 2009

She Said: Symonds Ryder and a Crisis of Faith

On Wednesday, John Hamer at BCC put up a post about the Thomas B. Marsh strippings of milk story. This is one with which most members of the Church are familiar, as it is often used to illustrate the folly of apostatizing from the Church over a trifle. John cautions:
"Thus, while the moral the Thomas B. Marsh fable, i.e., that faith can be shattered over something inconsequential, is true enough, it would probably make sense to tell a different, more appropriate fable to illustrate that moral."

There is a different fable oft told in the Church to illustrate that moral--but I would like to show that its use is just as inappropriate, and perhaps the moral itself should be reexamined.

Symonds Ryder was a convert to the Church from the same Disciples of Christ congregation in Mantua, Ohio as Sidney Rigdon, Ezra Booth, and Eliza R. Snow and her family. He was made an Elder and called to serve a mission in a revelation that is now D&C 52. However, in the revelation, his name was spelled wrong. The misspelling of his name is often the only reason cited as the cause of his decision to then leave the church. (see B. H. Roberts in HC 1:260–61; Fawn M. Brodie in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 118; Donna Hill in Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, 143; Cannon and Cook in Far West Record, 286; Dean C. Jessee in Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings, 511.) Probably the origin of this story is his funeral sermon preached in Hiram, Ohio, August 3, 1870, by B.A. Hinsdale.
"Ryder was informed, that by special revelation he had been appointed and commissioned an elder of the Mormon church. His commission came, and he found his name misspelled. Was the Holy Spirit so fallible as to fail even in orthography? Beginning with this challenge, his strong, incisive mind and honest heart were brought to the task of re-examining the ground on which he stood. His friend Booth had been passing through a similar experience, on his pilgrimage to Missouri, and, when they met about the 1st of September, 1831, the first question which sprang from the lips of each was--"How is your faith?" and the first look into each other's faces, gave answer that the spell of enchantment was broken, and the delusion was ended. They turned from the dreams they had followed for a few months, and found more than ever before, that the religion of the New Testament was "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." (A. S. Hayden, Early History of the Disciples (1875), p. 251.)

Perhaps the misspelling was a bother to Ryder, but this one incident was hardly the sole reason for Ryder's departure. For one thing, spelling was more fluid in the 19th century and earlier. An attempt at standardized spelling in the U.S. did not begin until the appearance of Webster's “American Dictionary of the English Language” in 1828, and for at least a half century many words continued to be vociferously debated. American census-takers varied quite a bit in their reporting of people's names, showing that they were not asking people "How is that spelled?" but rather writing the name as they thought it should appear. Ryder's name appears as following in the U.S. census:

1830 census Hiram, Portage, OH: Simonds Rider
1840 census Hiram, Portage, OH: Symonds Rider
1850 census Hiram, Portage, OH: Simonds Rider, wife Mahitabel
1860 census Hiram, Portage, OH: Symonds Rider, wife Mehitable
1870 census Hiram, Portage, OH: Symands Rider, wife Mahitable

Ryder's commission with the misspelling of his name took place in June 1831 and may account for his not going to Missouri, but as noted he did not leave the church until Ezra Booth's return in September. In the meantime, Ryder became concerned about other developments. In a letter to A.S. Hayden he wrote:
"But when they [Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon] went to Missouri to lay the foundation of the splendid city of Zion, and also of the temple, they left their papers behind. This gave their new converts an opportunity to become acquainted with the internal arrangement of their church, which revealed to them the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Joseph Smith the prophet. This was too much for the Hiramites, and they left the Mormonites faster than they had ever joined them, and by fall the Mormon church in Hiram was a very lean concern." (Symonds Ryder, "Letter to A. S. Hayden," February 1, 1868, cited in Hayden, op. cit., pp. 220, 221.)
It seems that the coming threat of enforced consecration might have been more of a problem for Ryder than the misspelling of his name. The influence of his disaffected friend Ezra Booth must have also had an effect upon Symonds.

The Religion 341 Church History manual states:
"From the outset the Church had an unpopular public image that was added to by apostates and nurtured by the circulation of negative stories and articles in the press. People gave many reasons for apostatizing. For example, Norman Brown left the Church because his horse died on the trip to Zion. Joseph Wakefield withdrew after he saw Joseph Smith playing with children upon coming down from his translating room. Symonds Ryder lost faith in Joseph’s inspiration when Ryder’s name was misspelled in his commission to preach. Others left the Church because they experienced economic difficulties."

Such a view boils the disaffection of these individuals down to a single, easily dismissed anecdote rather than acknowledging the difficult and complex issues they faced. This practice encourages members today to dismiss the very real concerns confronted by members who question aspects of the Church. "If you have questions, you must be sinning," the party line goes. In reality, there are multiple tangled and tortuous reasons why someone may develop a crisis of faith. Not only should we look deeper into the available documents to discover the motivations of historical figures, we should listen, and listen, and listen some more to come to a greater understanding of our friends and associates who question.

UPDATE: I've added this picture of Ryder's gravestone, with the name of the "Desciples" church spelled wrong!


  1. This story really means that Ryder allowed himself to ask questions. The incident opened his mind.

    Nonetheless, it is not asking too much that the prophet of God spell my name correctly, especially, when he invokes divine inspiration for laying claim to other people's property.

    If Joseph Smith had not claimed so much for himself, people would have cut him more slack.

  2. Cut him some slack now. If Joseph Smith wrote something concering me, he can spell my name any way he wants to.

  3. I agree with that, Lucy. Anyone who writes about me can spell my name however they want to.

    But if they want to tell what to do while claiming that they reveal the will of God then they better get their stuff right.

    They lay claim to superhuman authority after all.

  4. Hellmut, this seems like a pretty weak example to use to make the point you're making. There are probably better ones, and this ends up making you look petty.

    BiV, when I read the Simonds Rider story in the manual in preparation for my GD class last Sunday, I was floored, in a bad way, for reasons that are similar, but not identical to, your own. I thought that even if we take the story at face value -- in other words, if we assume for the sake of argument that Rider's apostasy can be attributed solely, or at least, largely, to this incident -- the manual writer still misses the point of the story. What the Rider story, as written illustrates, is the danger of holding unrealistic expectations about church authority. This is an incredibly important topic to broach in GD class (which I did), but the manual writer treats it as if the moral of the story is "don't criticize your leaders." Please. By treating it this way, the manual (unintentionally?) may serve to propagate the lie that mere acknowledgement of specific faults in LDS leaders is sinful. And this attitude, if internalized, is the very attitude that causes many Mormons to overreact to real examples of leaders' failures when they run across them. Serioiusly, the manual's treatment of the story was really disappointing. A wasted opportunity.


  5. What the Rider story, as written illustrates, is the danger of holding unrealistic expectations about church authority.

    I like this, Aaron. I'm glad you talked about it in GD. I think the lesson misses an opportunity to repudiate views like Hellmut's--that our leaders lay claim to superhuman authority. I don't think they make that claim at all.

    I suppose it can't be helped that the manuals don't cover these stories in depth, but I hope there are teachers out there willing to look deeper. I think there is a lot more to the Symonds Ryder story and the others than the two-dimensional glimpse we are getting from correlation.

  6. Aaron, I have seen too many Mormons, especially converts, whose life has been wrecked by their efforts of following bad ecclesiastical instruction.

    It is a serious matter when people invoke divine authority to tell other adults what to do. That's doubly true when the "commandments" are self-serving by increasing the status, the property, and the sex life of the religious leader.

    The only effective remedy against ecclesiastical abuse is the skepticism of the members. Anything that will get members to be intellectually and emotionally self-reliant is a good thing.

    Somebody who makes such extraordinary claims as Joseph Smith and who demands such tremendous sacrifice from his followers has to be a special human being indeed. In light of his claims, it is only reasonable that Smith and his successors have to meet higher standards than ordinary mortals.

    Symonds Ryder was spared losses in the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society. He remained self-reliant. If more Mormons had been as observant as him instead of enabling their own exploitation, Joseph Smith might have died of old age in his bed.

  7. Hellmut, you should beware of using this blog as an anti-Mormon platform. I am trying to walk a fine line of being a liberal but faithful Mormon. I have no desire to accuse Joseph Smith of ecclesiastical abuse. Thank you very much.

  8. If I ever meet Symonds Raider, I'm going to pronounce his name wrong, just to see if he's as precious about his name as the manual suggests. I suspect not.

    AB, although not the teacher I attempted to make the same point you have above in Sunday School myself. Didn't go down well at all. I think if I had been teaching, the point would have been granted, but somehow from the floor it just comes across a bit too non-conformist for my wards taste.

    good post BiV, thanks for the research. Nice to have some research

  9. oh by the way, they misspelled the word Disicples on Symonds grave stone. wonder what that means

  10. hahaha, Anon, that is hysterical.
    You must share your source for that with me.

  11. bored, try this site it has the picture