The Passing of Richard Van Wagoner

By: Mormon Heretic
October 11, 2010

This is a sad day for Mormon History buffs.  I have just learned that Richard Van Wagoner passed away on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  He has written several book on Mormon History.  I blogged about his Sidney Rigdon book, and he recently completed The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young.  Here is a list of some of his books.  I’ll try to add more information as it becomes available.

I just spoke with Tom Kimball of Signature Books.  Tom knew Richard very well since Richard had published several books  through Signature.  I understand Richard’s funeral on Saturday in Lehi, Utah.  Tom expects Richard’s obituary will be available in the Salt Lake area newspapers in the next few days.  I understand Richard was mowing his lawn on Saturday.  He didn’t feel well, so he went in the house to rest.  He never woke up.  It’s really sad.  He was just 64.

When he wasn’t writing Mormon history, he worked as a clinical audiologist.  Ironically he lost hearing a few years ago.  Through technological advances, he regained his hearing. I had the pleasure to meet him at the Mormon History Association meetings this past summer.

He wrote for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought.  Here’s a list of articles he wrote for Dialogue.  Tom said Richard coauthored an article with Steven C. Walker on seerstones.  Tom said the article was ground-breaking in revealing new information.  Van Wagoner also wrote an article in 1995 for Dialogue showing that there were no contemporary accounts of Brigham Young being transfigured into Joseph Smith following the martyrdom.

Van Wagoner had just finished his part of a 3 volume biography of Joseph Smith to be published in the fall of 2011 or early 2012.  The Van Wagoner volume is titled, “Joseph Smith, the Life of the Mormon Prophet, Volume 1.  The early years, 1805-1831.”  (The  other authors are Scott Kenney and Martha Sonntag Bradley.)

As I mentioned before, this is a great loss in the Mormon History community.  He will be greatly missed.

UPDATE 10/12/2010.  The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting he died on Sunday, rather than Saturday.  ( wonder if it was the early hours of Sunday morning rather than Saturday night.)  Here’s the link to the Tribune:

I loved this quote from the Tribune.

“I’ve long considered Richard one of the finest historians of my generation and a helluva nice guy to boot,” historian Will Bagley said in an e-mail to the AP. “His contributions to Mormon and Utah studies are beyond measure.”

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12 Responses to The Passing of Richard Van Wagoner

  1. Dallas Robbins on October 11, 2010 at 3:36 PM

    I’m so sad to hear this. His biography of Sidney Rigdon is one of my favorites. He will be terribly missed.

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  2. george fisher on October 12, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    My life was made better and my understanding of our history enhanced because of author Van Wagoner. My condolences to his family!

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  3. Michael Ortega on October 13, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Did he write on the TRUE history of the church, or the history the church wants you to know.

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  4. AdamF on October 13, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    Michael – you’re not familiar with Van Wagoner?

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  5. Michael Ortega on October 13, 2010 at 3:16 PM

    Adam, that is correct, thus my question, which I am asking seriously. No didrespect intended.

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  6. AdamF on October 13, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    MH, or even george from #2 would know a lot more than me, but it seems the author was pretty even-handed. He didn’t write for the church.

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  7. george fisher on October 13, 2010 at 3:32 PM

    Michael, I found his writings to be scholarly, researched, and well documented. I do not believe he had any agenda other than to dig for truth. I judge his writings like a world of other books and writings that I began to take serious in graduate school at the University of Utah. Author Van Wagoner was a scholar and historian though I am uncertain some in the Church would be comfortable reading his books. I would not recommend them to some I know in my extended family.

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  8. Mormon Heretic on October 13, 2010 at 9:31 PM

    Van Wagoner wrote things pretty even-handed (which means the church didn’t approve of some things that he wrote.) Like Dallas mentioned above, I also loved his book on Sidney Rigdon. He discusses “warts and all” when he discussed church history, neither trying to “expose” nor “polish” church history.

    For example, Van Wagoner discussed Joseph Smith’s proposal to Nancy Rigdon. Here’s an excerpt from his book after Nancy’s rejection of Joseph’s offer.

    At first, Joseph denied all to Sidney. Nancy stormed into the room saying,

    “Joseph Smith you are telling that which is not true[.] you did make such a proposition to me, and you know it.” Another unnamed person said, “Nancy are you not afraid to call the Lord['s] anointed a cursed liar[?]“ “No”, replied Nancy, “I am not for he does lie and he knows it.”

    [Rigdon's son-in-law, George] Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging his proposition, sought a way out of the crisis by claiming he had approached Nancy “to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts.” But Sidney found that rationalization feeble. Convinced of Smith’s involvement in the “spiritual wife business,” as Sidney later termed it, Rigdon concluded that Smith had “contracted a whoring spirit.” This is why, according to Wickliffe [Sidney's son], Rigdon told family members immediately after the prophet left their home that Smith “could never be sealed to one of his daughters without his consent as he did not believe in the doctrine.”

    While very uncomfortable with polygamy, Sidney still supported Joseph through the end of his life. Even after this episode, Sidney enthusiastically accepted Joseph’s offer to be his Vice Presidential running mate. More can be found on my blog at

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  9. GBSmith on October 13, 2010 at 9:52 PM

    My mother in law at the time sent me a copy of “A Book of Mormons”. She hadn’t looked inside and must have thought it was another inspiring church book. I wasn’t ready for the things I read about people in church history and haven’t felt the same about the church, JS, or BY since. I guess I date my loss of faith from that date and there’s nothing that I’ve read or done since then that’s been able to heal any of it. I’ve always been puzzled by people who could read some of those things and then act as though it doesn’t matter or there above it all. It mattered to me.

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  10. george fisher on October 14, 2010 at 5:16 AM

    It is unfortunate GB that as a youth you were illusioned with the Supremacy of the Pope and believed that all of the Brethren were infallible. I stopped accepting that while on a mission when a reprint of the Times and Seasons fell into my hands and I observed all of the changes in the revelations by Joseph Smith and others. It bothered me for a time but I have come to grips with it. I am not bothered either that my 3rd great grandmother was married simultaneous to Joseph and to my grandfather in Nauvoo. I am happy with the fruits the tree of life provide me and I can deal with the fact that we are mortal and we and they make mistakes, have opinions and are often subjective in our views.

    Best wishes to you!

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  11. AdamF on October 14, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    GB – For me, those “skeletons” of history had much less of an impact because I had already been wrestling with the idea that our leaders could have been racist (I.e. the priesthood ban, which bothered me more until I realized that even in 2010 most white people are at least covertly racist) and now wrestle with something much more pressing and personal regarding gay and lesbian people. So when I have read something like Bushman, Brodie, or whatever, it’s not that I act like I don’t care at all, it’s just that it doesn’t resonate with me as strongly like it’s a big problem. I guess we all have a hierarchy of what is troubling. There have been some benefits to being challenged though. Now I don’t have to buy into everything I’m told without putting it past my heart, mind, and prayer first, whereas before I think I had “canonized” church leaders (as Neal Maxwell warned against once).

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  12. Michael on October 18, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    I am Catholic, my wife is LDS, and a BYU grad. Before we were married,I became very interested in the History of the LDS Church. I believe I would like to read Van Wagoner’s work. I appreciate the candor that you all have expressed to my initial question.

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