Once again, the story of Symonds Ryder has been misused to illustrate a point about leaving the Church over something inconsequential. Undoubtedly there have been Latter-day Saints who have apostatized from the Church over a small slight. However, the two tales which are often cited when warning of this danger, the Thomas B. Marsh strippings of milk story and the Symonds Ryder misspelled name story, are likely inappropriate in this context.
In a post at BCC, John Hamer gave a thorough history of Marsh’s disaffection with the Church and concluded:
“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.”
The same conclusion can be reached by considering additional aspects of Ryder’s story. A talk in the Sunday morning session of General Conference by Donald L. Hallstrom titled Turn to the Lord referenced the Symonds Ryder story as follows:
Symonds Ryder was a Campbellite leader who heard about the Church and had a meeting with Joseph Smith. Moved by this experience, he joined the Church in June 1831. Immediately thereafter, he was ordained an elder and called to serve a mission. However, in his call letter from the First Presidency and on his official commission to preach, his name was misspelled—by one letter. His last name showed as R-i-d-e-r, not the correct R-y-d-e-r. This caused him to question his call and those from whom it came. He chose not to go on the mission and fell away, which soon led to hatred and intense opposition toward Joseph and the Church.
In such retellings of the Ryder fable, 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.
As for Symonds, poor thing. If he was really so concerned about spelling, he must have rolled over in his grave when they placed this tombstone — with the name of the “Desciples” church spelled wrong!