William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet, with Daniel P. Stone [MIPodcast #87]
William Bickerton was a coal miner from England who emigrated to the United States and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845. Without ever having met the church’s founding prophet, he soon came to see himself as Joseph Smith’s true heir, leading what came to be called simply The Church of Jesus Christ, but more commonly referred to as the Bickertonites.
Despite founding the third largest church tracing its lineage back to Joseph Smith, Bickerton’s biographer Daniel P. Stone calls him a forgotten prophet—and he’s not referring to the memories of members of the Salt Lake-based church. He says in many ways Bickerton has been forgotten in his own movement.
Daniel P. Stone holds BA and MA degrees in history from the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University. He has taught classes at Broward College, Schoolcraft College, University of Detroit Mercy, and Wayne County Community College. Currently he is a researcher at a private library-archive in Detroit, where he and his wife Laura, and daughter, Lily, live. He is a deacon in the Church of Jesus Christ established by William Bickerton.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
William Bickerton was a coal miner from England who immigrated to the United States and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845. Without ever having met the church’s founding prophet, Bickerton soon came to see himself as Joseph Smith’s true heir, leading what came to be called the Church of Jesus Christ, but more commonly referred to as the Bickertonites. Today they are the third largest church tracing its lineage back to Joseph Smith.
In this episode, Bickerton’s biographer Daniel P. Stone joins us to talk about Bickerton’s fascinating and ultimately tragic life. Stone calls Bickerton a forgotten prophet—and he’s not referring to the memories of members of the Salt Lake-based church. Stone says in many ways Bickerton has been forgotten within his own movement.
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And now, Daniel P. Stone on William Bickerton.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome, Daniel!
DANIEL STONE: Hey, thanks for having me.
HODGES: It’s nice to have you here. We’re talking about a new biography that you just published called William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet. William Bickerton founded the third largest of the restoration movement churches—so churches that trace their lineage back to Joseph Smith—and his is this third largest of that group.
Bickerton lived a long life. He passed away in 1905 when he was ninety years old. He made an interesting request for his funeral service that I wanted to begin with, because you begin your book with this request. He asked an apostle in his church to read from the nineteenth chapter of Job at his funeral. What was the significance of having that scripture read?
STONE: Well the significance of that is we well know that the Book of Job is one of the saddest books of the Bible. It’s not your common funeral sermon text, and when Bickerton asked the apostle Allen Wright to read that it’s because he felt like Job. He even wrote that in the newspaper in Kansas on his ninetieth birthday. He said, “I feel like Job at the balance of my life. I will wait until my change comes.”
That was really significant because he felt that the only way he was going to get vindication was—unlike Job who got vindication before he died when he got twice as much as he had, Bickerton felt the only way he was going to get vindication was when he died, and that God would in a sense basically say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” and he would get vindication in the afterlife.
HODGES: Who was he seeking that vindication from? I mean, he was the leader, he initiated this movement. Why would he need vindication?
STONE: That’s basically the tragedy of the story, is William Bickerton is considered the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ, or the Bickertonite movement, and there was this allegation of infidelity. And eventually what ends up happening is the church splits up for twenty-two years. It doesn’t really seem that he was an adulterer, but that’s the story that carries on throughout the narrative of Bickertonite history. That’s even what’s within the church’s official records or official history books.
So to kind of see at the end of his life feeling that the church eventually does come back together with the help of William Bickerton because he does take a step down, he really does have to swallow a pill of humility, something he didn’t want to do, and kind of lose his status as the leader of the movement. But he thought everything was okay and when he tries to kind of write this autobiography of himself everything’s kind of just quietly tucked away. And he realizes that he knew, and he had a strong premonition that his story probably would not be told.
So even in Job chapter nineteen there’s a part where it says, “My kinsfolk have failed and my familiar friends have forgotten me,” and then it says, “Oh that my words were now written that they were printed in a book, that they were graven with an iron pen and led in the rock forever.” So he’s basically using Job’s words and adopting them to say, “My people are forgetting about me. I’m going to be forgotten. Please, someone tell my story.”
I never knew that getting into it. It was in the middle of research when I found that out. It blew me away. So Job nineteen is a very sad story that he would ask that to be read at his funeral. It really was kind of like a cry from the dead, “Please, someone, tell my story.”
HODGES: The reason I wanted to start with that question is I want people to know from the beginning that William Bickerton’s story is in a lot of ways a tragedy, according to your book. He led a Latter Day Saint movement, similar to the RLDS church or the Salt Lake-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His movement was called The Church of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do and at the end you say there was some tragedy involved. So we’ll come back around to that for sure and tell his story.
The LDS Church is based in Salt Lake City; this is the largest of the restorationist movements descending from Joseph Smith, there are about sixteen million members listed. Next, the RLDS church, which is now the Community of Christ, has a quarter million members. Then Bickerton’s church counts about twenty-five thousand members in twenty-three different countries.
Despite being the third largest of all of these groups, your book is the first full-length approach to William Bickerton. Why do you think his tradition has been overlooked in scholarship on Mormonism in general?
STONE: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been wondering the same thing. I grew up in the Bickertonite church and I got into American history—especially American religious history—and I loved it. Once you start kind of growing up and realizing, “Oh, my church played a role within American religion and it was fairly significant.” And you start looking at the literature and there’s barely anything.
Gary Enns, who got his PhD from the University of Utah, wrote two really good articles on the Bickertonite movement, but mostly in Kansas. And I read his articles and got more out of those articles than I did out of my own church’s actual heritage history. So you know, William Bickerton isn’t mentioned very much at all, and that really was like a light bulb moment of going, “wait a minute.” It seems that the church really focuses on him—I mean within the larger Latter Day Saint movement we’re called the Bickertonites, right?—and it just seemed strange; how come he’s not being mentioned when the doctrines and the name of the church and how we started really kind of hinges on him? That’s why I really wanted to look more into it.
I realized early on that what ended up happening was his biggest rival was the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, who eventually ends up taking over the church and his name was—
HODGES: —Within the Bickerton Church of Jesus Christ’s Quorum of the Twelve.
STONE: Right. His name is William Cadman. And actually the first official church history was written by his son, a man named William H. Cadman. So once I kind of started piecing things together I started realizing, oh wait a minute, there is a family line here where they are also trying to—I don’t know if it was malicious in a sense, but they’re trying to kind of keep a clean history. They want to make their father look good, and they don’t want to bring up things in the past that really happened that could reflect poorly upon Bickerton or William Cadman, Sr., the historian’s father.
So that was the first official church heritage history. The second volume goes a little bit more into it, but again it’s very sparse that William Bickerton’s mentioned.
HODGES: Were these written in the early 1900s?
STONE: Yes. The first book was written in 1945.
HODGES: Okay, so mid-century.
STONE: Yes. Then the second one was written, I believe, and in 2002 it was published. So you see these major gaps, and it’s just been carried on.
So really, I kind of blame the Bickertonite church in a sense. Not in a mean way, but in the sense that they never really actually looked at their history and once I started going into the documents, I did realize there were attempts early on to kind of bring out more of the history, and it was always kind of either squashed or kind of put down or tucked away because I think—like all religious institutions, people sometimes can be afraid of their own history, especially if it’s never been written because even though they don’t know what’s in it, they’re instantly afraid and they get guarded and say, “We don’t want anything bad to come out.” So I think that’s really part of it.
And the archives of the church have never really been organized in a sense. They’ve gotten a lot better, but they have never really opened them to the public. I know there were certain attempts to do that and it never really happened. So it’s really ironic that it’s the third largest Latter Day Saint movement, and yet out of all the movements of the Latter Day Saint tradition, William Bickerton has been the one that has been the least written about.
HODGES: And it’s in part because his own people—those who followed after him—sort of left him out to some extent. So researchers who’ve gone back and looked at the Bickertonites, if they approach it through the Bickertonite’s own history, there would be a gap there.
Did you feel that trepidation at all that you mentioned? That sometimes when you go back and look at history it can be a little unsettling? You grew up within the tradition yourself.
STONE: Yeah, thanks for asking that because I actually had no trepidation. After reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, that was a really major impact in my life because after reading that, and what Bushman talks about—just looking at the history objectively and as a historian and realizing that you know what, if there’s truth you shouldn’t be afraid of it—I really took that and said that’s beautiful, that’s what I want to do.
I want to be a historian. I’m still a believing scholar, but I wanted to be objective and I wanted to tackle it headfirst and say, “What happened?” And just try to bring it out. That’s why I kind of started the book with Job nineteen, because it was unbelievable that William Bickerton even had that premonition to know that his story probably was going to be tucked away. That’s where I thought, “This story has to be told.” So, like you said, in a sense it’s a tragedy, but in a lot of ways it’s inspiring and dispiriting at the same exact time.
HODGES: So what audiences did you have in mind for this biography as you wrote it? It was published by Signature Books. It just came out. Who did you have in mind, did you want the academy to look at this? Mormon studies people? Your own tradition?
STONE: Yeah, all of the above. I really tried to write the book in a sense where people would not know I’m a believer. Now I do mention in the introduction that I am, but I was really hoping that it could reach a wide audience. I wanted it to be scholarly, but at the same point I wanted it to be lucid enough where anybody could read it. You could just pick it up and understand it, even if you didn’t know anything about the Book of Mormon or the Latter Day Saint tradition. I wanted other scholars and other people just outside the Latter Day Saint movement to be able to pick it up, understand the restoration story and where William Bickerton fit within that.
HODGES: There’s a sense in which in the LDS tradition that revisionist history, or revisiting and re-envisioning history, has been controversial in the past. The church itself is beginning to come to terms with some of the more difficult aspects of LDS history, looking at things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, or race and the priesthood, and these types of questions, but it’s been a painful and long process. How about within your tradition? Will your book receive similar responses, where people within the tradition feel like it’s sort of trying to wrest control of the church’s narrative in ways that aren’t good?
STONE: That’s a great question, Blair. I don’t know. I’m hoping that they just look at it and realize, “Wow, our history never really has been told to begin with,” and maybe that excites people’s interest. There were some troublesome things in there, but nothing that personally—I’m believing scholar and nothing I found in there was faith shattering.
The biggest issue that I heard while writing the book, especially from some of the leadership—and understandably so—they’re worried about the William Bickerton and William Cadman feud because that is something that really hasn’t been talked about much, especially within our church. Even though Bickerton’s family—believe it or not I don’t even know if there is a direct descendant of William Bickerton in the church anymore. I’d have to look. I know there was one a while back, but I’m not sure anymore. But there are still a lot of direct descendants of William Cadman. So there’s also family heritage that has to be protected sometimes.
My approach was, you know what? I’m neither a direct descendant of William Cadman or William Bickerton. I’m one of those Italian-Americans who came into the Bickertonite church. I come from that line, so the Italians had a major influx in the early twentieth century, so that’s where I came from.
I came from this asking what actually happened. I love biography. Most Americans read biography rather than regular history books. So I really thought the best way to approach this is just to look at William Bickerton’s life and, knowing that if I looked at his life, the church’s history would also be talked about in unison. So I was hoping it would be a good approach and that people would be interested in it.
HODGES: What were the biggest questions that drove your research when you first began? You already mentioned that some things you discovered really surprised you along the way. What was driving you to begin with?
STONE: The big thing that was driving me to write this was William Bickerton’s vision of the mountain and chasm. I was enthralled by that vision as a young Bickertonite reading it. That’s basically how our movement got started.
When William Bickerton eventually leaves the LDS Church he says that he has this vision where he’s carried away in the spirit and placed on a high mountain. In one of the accounts he says that there was just room enough for him to stand. The interpretation I got from the vision was he felt that God was telling him, “Listen, William, you’re on a good track. This is where you are. I know it’s tough, but stay on this track.” Then he saw a chasm below and he said “The sight thereof was awful,” and he felt that if he didn’t stay on this path he would fall into that chasm.
So that’s what really drove me because I thought that’s really profound, that he was a devout Latter-day Saint, a part of the LDS church, and then he has this amazing vision then that would drive him. I mean, he was a coal-miner, he was uneducated. Now it’s the third largest Latter Day Saint church, he never knew Joseph Smith, he was never a part of the original church, so out of the six major claimants after Joseph Smith’s death, William Bickerton comes a little bit after. In 1845 he’s converted to the Latter Day Saint movement, and now his church is the third largest.
So that’s what really drove me was going, what is his story? How does this even come about? Because he doesn’t have that direct connection to Joseph Smith in a sense. So how could he claim this prophethood to the Latter Day Saint movement when he was never technically a part of it when Joseph Smith was alive?
HODGES: So it sort of reminds me of LDS history, Joseph Smith’s first vision where he goes into what’s now called the Sacred Grove, he says that he beholds a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, and they instruct him to join no church, and then he proceeds to have more revelations after that. Is the mountain vision of William Bickerton—does that play a similar role in the Bickertonite faith, then? This sort of founding moment?
STONE: Absolutely. That’s the pivotal moment. There’s a lot of similarities, if you just kind of look at it objectively when you’ve compared Joseph Smith to William Bickerton. There’s a lot of similarities. That’s what William Bickerton was trying to do. Latter-day Saints often call their movement “the restoration movement.” Well, William Bickerton, in a sense, was trying to recover the Restoration because he felt that things had kind of gone astray.
So you kind of see that same line with Joseph Smith where he’s trying to figure out, “which church to I join?” Then he has that vision, the First Vision in 1820 where God tells him “don’t join any of them. I’m going to use you to establish the right church.” And William Bickerton with that vision of the mountain and chasm is kind of saying the same thing, saying, “Listen, you’re on a good path. Stay where you are. I’m going to help you create or recover the church.” So there’s a lot of similarities in their mentalities.
HODGES: We’re talking with Daniel P. Stone. He’s completing his PhD in American religious history at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. We’re talking about his new biography from Signature Books, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet.
So far we’ve been giving a lot of interesting details and things that I think a lot of listeners are probably unfamiliar with. It might be dizzying to try to take all this in. So let’s kind of get back to the beginning here and try to take people through the sweep of The Church of Jesus Christ’s history. We’ll be referring to them as Bickertonites. It’s not an offensive term. It’s not the preferred term, but as you told me before the interview, Bickertonites are like, “yeah, that’s fine, you can use that.” It’s nice and short. But The Church of Jesus Christ is the official name.
Okay, so let’s go to William Bickerton’s conversion. You said he never met Joseph Smith. What brought him to Mormonism? Talk about those circumstances.
STONE: Sure. William Bickerton was an English immigrant. He moves to America in 1831. He grew up in the Northumberland county area. When he moves he lands in New York City. He eventually moves to West Virginia and gets a job as a coal miner. Ends up meeting his wife. They have a son. You can kind of see the circumstances of his life. Coal miners back then did not get paid very well. It was a very hard and rough job. Around 1844 he moves to Pittsburgh. This is what makes it so interesting, is because this is when Joseph Smith is murdered, so the American press was going crazy trying to report it. What made Pittsburgh such an interesting thing with the Latter Day Saint movement is that’s where Sidney Rigdon was, so the newspapers were exploding not only about Joseph Smith but talking about Sidney Rigdon.
HODGES: Sidney Rigdon was the first counselor of the church’s First Presidency under Joseph Smith at this time, and sort of in limbo a bit. He was disconnected from Joseph Smith, but he was still connected to the tradition. So he’s based in Pittsburgh, and this is where William Bickerton winds up.
STONE: Exactly. So after Joseph Smith’s death, many Latter Day Saints know that there was this climactic debate between Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon, and Sidney Rigdon loses.
HODGES: This was in Nauvoo, Illinois, like who should take over for Joseph Smith? Who’s his successor? Joseph didn’t make it clear. There was confusion about that question.
STONE: Correct. Absolutely. Brigham Young really had a strong claim. It seemed Sidney Rigdon had a strong claim, but he didn’t really express it very well. Sidney Rigdon originally was in Pittsburgh when Joseph Smith was murdered because Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were kind of on the presidential ticket and Sidney Rigdon was his vice-presidential running mate. And even though it’s not necessarily law in U.S. history and even today, it looks good when you have two candidates on the same ticket that are from different states. Sidney Rigdon was originally from Pennsylvania, so he just moved back to Pittsburgh to kind of gain his residency there while he’s running for the presidency with Joseph Smith.
He hears about Joseph Smith’s death, he runs back to Nauvoo, has this climactic debate with Brigham Young, and then he’s excommunicated because of the things that he was saying. He goes back to Pittsburgh, and at that time that’s when the Pittsburgh newspapers are all trying to figure out what’s going on with Sidney Rigdon.
There was one newspaper that thought he was going to become the “master patriarch” when he goes back to Nauvoo, thinking he’s going to become the leader, then they have to issue a correction in saying, “Oh, no, never mind. He’s back in our area and we better keep an eye on him.”
So William Bickerton is reading these accounts. He moves to Pittsburgh, around the outskirts of Pittsburgh in this little borough called West Elizabeth. West Elizabeth was a coal mining area. Pittsburgh was known as the Birmingham of America during this time. It was just really a booming city that was growing in the west right by the Alleghany Mountains. So William Bickerton would have been reading the newspaper accounts of Sidney Rigdon, and like many Pittsburghers he was just interested. He hears about Sidney Rigdon preaching in Limetown, Pennsylvania, which I believe now is Coal Bluff, Pennsylvania, right along the outskirts of Pittsburgh. He goes to hear Sidney Rigdon preach. We often hear in the Latter-day Saint tradition that Sidney Rigdon was this great orator, and William Bickerton actually confirms that. He actually writes that “Sidney Rigdon was the best orator I’ve ever heard in classing the scriptures together.”
HODGES: What would he have heard before? Did he come from a different religious tradition when he came over from England?
STONE: He did. He came from the Methodist tradition.
STONE: So Methodism and early Mormonism are very similar.
HODGES: And he’s struck with Rigdon as being a standout among preachers that he’s heard.
HODGES: Is this when he converts then?
STONE: Yeah. After one sermon he converts.
HODGES: Oh, wow.
STONE: He sees Sidney Rigdon as kind of instilling—he says he was “never taught such a doctrine,” which is interesting because Methodists in the early eighteenth century, this is when they really believe in a lot of charismatic gifts. They can have visions, they can have dreams. But by the 1800s that kind of starts to dwindle, around 1820 as they became more of an established church, where they’re getting rid of these charismatic gifts. William Bickerton is hearing Sidney Rigdon and Sidney Rigdon is trying to bring those back in a sense, where he wants to kind of show that he is a prophet, that he does have these gifts—
HODGES: Tongues and healing and visions.
STONE: Exactly. He wants to have his followers have those too, so William Bickerton was really enthralled by that, saying “I was never taught such a gospel,” that not only would you be baptized by full immersion, receive the Holy Ghost, but when you receive the Holy Ghost you could be, like the Book of Mormon says, baptized by fire and be able to have these charismatic gifts.
HODGES: And then Rigdon, not only does he then become disaffected from the LDS Church that’s led by the Quorum of the Twelve headed by Brigham Young, but then he also begins to teach that Joseph Smith himself was fallen prophet. Talk a little bit about that as well.
STONE: Sidney Rigdon was a major player within the Latter Day Saint movement up until the day Joseph Smith dies. The problem with that is there was kind of a shaking of their friendship between Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. A lot of that comes from when Joseph Smith proposed to Sidney Rigdon’s daughter, Nancy. When Sidney Rigdon heard that, he was really upset with Joseph Smith, kind of confronts him, and basically says, “What’s going on?” Because Sidney Rigdon had never heard of polygamy until this time. That kind of goes to show you that even their relationship then was kind of strained, because Sidney Rigdon was always so close to Joseph Smith, so how come Sidney Rigdon didn’t know about this?
So you see this strained relationship. He confronts Joseph Smith. Eventually Joseph Smith admits to it, and Sidney Rigdon does not agree with this, but basically says, “Okay, if you’re going to stop, I won’t say anything.” And that’s what Joseph Smith—according to the Rigdon account, that’s what happens, according to his son, John, that’s what happens. What eventually ends up happening is after Rigdon is excommunicated but before he gets on the steamboat to head back to Pittsburgh, Orson Hyde talks to him—
HODGES: This is one of the LDS apostles.
STONE: Yes. One of the LDS apostles. And basically says, “Sidney, be careful how you put pen to paper in this time of your excitement. Wait a few months, and then see how you feel.” Because he knew that Sidney Rigdon was quick-tempered, was a great orator, and was also a great writer, and knew that if Sidney Rigdon’s angry, he’s going to be writing these things against the Twelve.
That’s exactly what happens. When he goes to Pittsburgh he starts coming out and saying polygamy is happening, and he’s telling his followers this is happening, and he’s saying Joseph Smith is the one that started this. Sidney Rigdon actually starts to kind of—even though he upholds Joseph Smith as a prophet until the day he died, like you said he was vice presidential running mate—he starts to change his narrative and he starts to say Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet.
In the Book of Mormon there’s this prophet called the “choice seer” where he’s supposed to kind of be this last great prophet, and that’s how many viewed Joseph Smith. Well, Sidney Rigdon was saying, “I’m the new choice seer. I’m going to be the one to gather Israel. I’m going to be the one establishing the New Jerusalem. The Twelve are apostates.” He even calls his newspaper The Messenger and the Advocate, which was the original church newspaper’s name in Kirtland.
So you see that Sidney Rigdon is trying to kind of bring the church back to a Kirtland-style era, but he’s still using things from the Nauvoo period, including Sidney Rigdon had this council called the Grand Council, which was very similar to the Council of Fifty, and he’s ordaining people prophets, priests, and kings with the hope that the millennium is nigh, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming is coming real fast.
So Sidney Rigdon is very much adopting things from the Kirtland area, but also adopting things from the Nauvoo period. It’s really a unique amalgamation that he’s doing. He calls the church The Church of Christ.
HODGES: So Rigdon’s going to lead this church, The Church of Christ, sort of suggesting that it’s the original, he’s going back to the original Restoration. It’s also a church founded on miracles. There was a fire, for example, that didn’t burn their building down. That was funny how the local newspaper was like, “Well, if God’s going to save your church, maybe he could have stepped in before all these houses burned, too.” [laughter]
STONE: Yeah that was. Thanks, Blair. So when Sidney Rigdon is starting The Church of Christ, which was the original name of Joseph Smith’s church in 1830, they have a conference actually on the fifteenth anniversary of the original Church of Christ, so in April of 1845. So they’re in Pittsburgh, it’s the day before the last day of the conference. They’re sitting in their meetinghouse in the middle of Pittsburgh and all of a sudden they hear these shrieks and cries outside the windows. They’re trying to figure out what’s going on.
Well, we know from today it’s called the Great Conflagration of 1845. The city of Pittsburgh was burning to the ground. The city really was almost burned completely to the ground. So what they said, according to The Church of Christ minutes, was they kneeled, they prayed, and as they’re doing this they said they had visions of angels leaving the sanctuary and going out the windows to go save them and put the fire out. They said because of their prayer this is what happened. This is kind of what William Bickerton would have been reading about as well because he hadn’t joined, necessarily, yet. You see the newspaper accounts—Is it okay if I read that account from the book?
STONE: It says: “When the story of Rigdon saving the city reached the secular press, people were repulsed. These fanatics quietly pursued their mummeries while the city was consuming the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette; our citizens would have thanked them to have sent their escort of heavenly messengers a little sooner, and not have waited until the fairest part of our city was laid in ashes, and many lives had fallen as sacrifice to the devouring element. Rigdon’s newspaper contained other strange things,” the writer claimed, “and promoted as many absurdities in this enlightened age as ever took place in the darkest eras.”
So, as you can see, the secular press was really keeping track of Sidney Rigdon and there was quite a bit written about him.
HODGES: And pretty shortly after this is when William Bickerton joins in mid-1845. So here’s the question then. If Rigdon is sort of leading this movement, given Rigdon’s significant calling and his gifts with oratory, it seems surprising that Bickerton would end up leading the movement. What happened?
STONE: Well, Sidney Rigdon’s emphasis on spiritual gifts was a good thing and also a bad thing for him. Sidney Rigdon institutes what Joseph Smith had started as the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, and he institutes that within his own church. William Bickerton was a member of the School of the Prophets. William Bickerton says that within that school they’re not only reading history, learning languages, but they’re trying to understand the gifts of the spirit and also to learn how to be a good minister and spread the gospel.
In the School of the Prophets, William Bickerton says that they’re having revelations that Sidney Rigdon is going astray, because in June of 1845—that’s when William Bickerton joins—by August Sidney Rigdon is trying to find a place to create the New Jerusalem. He eventually decides it’s in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. He’s actually with William E. McLellin, who actually used to be an apostle within the early church under Joseph Smith, and he says, “Ah, this is the place where we’re going to build the New Jerusalem.” But then he has this small cohort within the School of the Prophets where William Bickerton is, and that’s where they’re saying, “No, Sidney. We don’t think this is actually right. We think this is going to go astray.”
HODGES: The land was called Adventure Farm. Right? The place where he had identified.
STONE: Yeah, exactly. They bought the land. They bought the land on Adventure Farm—
HODGES: It sounds like a great theme park, I have to say.
STONE: Yeah, it definitely does [laughter]. So what ends up happening is William Bickerton does not end up going with the couple hundred people that end up going to the Cumberland Valley to create this New Jerusalem. He’s part of that small cohort of these mavericks that are saying, “No, Sidney Rigdon’s going astray.” During the last conference that’s held in Pittsburgh, William Bickerton is having these revelations, according to his account and the School of the Prophets, but at the same point you don’t see him leave immediately. He’s a part of Sidney Rigdon’s Grand Council. He’s a seventy, he’s also a “prophet, priest, and king,” and he’s actually sitting in the meeting, according to the newspaper accounts, and Sidney Rigdon is lambasting the people who are against him. He’s saying—I’m paraphrasing, but he basically says, “Not only the LDS, the ones in Nauvoo, not only are they against us, but also this small cohort of these mavericks are against us. They’re trying to stop Zion.”
I can only imagine what William Bickerton is thinking at that time. The newspaper does say that they asked some of the people in the Grand Council what their thoughts were about it and William Bickerton says this strange thing. He basically says, “I feel convicted that the Holy Spirit is upon me,” or something like that. It’s a very political statement. I kind of read it as, where you kind of see he’s debating what to do, but he feels by the Holy Spirit Sidney Rigdon isn’t doing the right thing. And we see that he does not end up going to the communal valley, to the Cumberland Valley to create that communal society.
So long story short, Sidney Rigdon’s communitarian society goes bankrupt very quickly and by 1847 they’re completely bankrupt. There’s this really dramatic moment, which I felt really bad while reading it, is that they knew they were going bankrupt, and Sidney Rigdon really believes he’s like this last great prophet. They actually go behind the barn on Adventure Farm, which was the one thing that they could build as their temple, and they are actually dressed in ascension robes and all night they fervently pray for Jesus to return that night to save them from this disaster. It’s in the middle of February, so we can only imagine in Pennsylvania that’s really cold. They pray all night and to their dismay Jesus never comes back. So they’re walking back and wallowing in despair, and a lot of people in the Church of Christ go bankrupt.
Sidney Rigdon has this momentous statement recorded where he basically abandons his followers to go back to Friendship, New York where his daughter and son-in-law live. It’s accounted where he says, “Well, if anyone asks to know where I’m gone, tell them I’ve gone to Hell on a thousand-year’s mission.” And then he just leaves.
STONE: So people are kind of stranded and some of them, according to William Bickerton’s account, actually went and met with William Bickerton and were kind of coalescing around him and kind of seeing him as a leader. It was a small cohort; we don’t know how many people there were, but William Bickerton, a poor English coal miner who is not even an American citizen—
HODGES: And a new convert!
STONE: And a new convert, is not only trying to financially and emotionally foster his family, but he’s also trying to foster these people who’ve basically lost everything in this attempt to build the New Jerusalem.
HODGES: You find, surprisingly, he ends up joining the LDS Church, the Salt Lake-based, LDS church at this time. Is that something that is known in Bickertonite history or did you uncover that?
STONE: It was known, but it was very rarely talked about. I even talk with some people within the Bickertonite church who even today they go, “We never knew that.” He was a devout Mormon.
It might be interesting to say this, and this is what I found so fascinating, is why would William Bickerton join Brigham Young when he was taught under the tutelage of Sidney Rigdon and Sidney Rigdon lambasted the Twelve, lambasted Brigham Young? This is where William Bickerton is such an interesting character within American religion and within American culture.
In the late 1840s, early 1850s this is when the slavery debate and the state’s rights debates are really coming to a head after the Mexican-American war. America gains all this land in the west, and America and Congress are fighting over whether they should allow slavery in those territories or not. So we have slavery and state’s rights; they’re constantly coming to head. In 1850 you have the compromise of 1850, which is this really complicated compact where they’re just basically trying to keep the union together, and it’s basically holding on by strings. So William Bickerton is not only seeing this happening within the United States, he believes in Joseph Smith’s Civil War prophecy because Sidney Rigdon even talked about that—
HODGES: Yeah, this is a prophecy that Joseph Smith recorded in the 1830s that the Civil War would begin with South Carolina’s rebellion and would become war throughout the nation, and so on and so forth. And you say William Bickerton was very attached to that revelation and seeing this play out.
STONE: Yeah, we definitely see that during the Civil War. I was trying to figure out when he could have heard about this, because we know that wasn’t canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants until much later, but when you look at Sidney Rigdon’s newspaper, sure enough, Sidney Rigdon’s talking about it. So he definitely would have known about it. He’s seeing kind of this cataclysmic event coming forward.
So you sympathize with William Bickerton. He’s poor, he’s got these converts around him that he’s also trying to help, and Brigham Young is prospering in the west. I mean the Mormon Battalion was basically the people that found the first flakes of gold in California that starts the gold rush. So not only is Brigham Young the most successful western pioneer in American history and people are flourishing in Utah, but also gold is swelling their coffers. So you could see William Bickerton as kind of thinking maybe Sidney Rigdon wasn’t telling the truth because he faltered very quickly and Brigham Young is prospering.
HODGES: The success of it all seems providential to William Bickerton.
STONE: Absolutely. So instead of sending a letter to Salt Lake City, he sends it to Kanesville, most likely because that Kanesville was kind of like the last stop of civilization before you reach the Salt Lake Valley. So he sends it to Kanesville, which is the Iowa section of Winter Quarters and he is asking for help, saying, “Can you tell us more about your church? I have this group of people, we would like to know more about you.” So two LDS missionaries, John Murray and David James Ross, end up meeting William Bickerton in West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. They know that he is a Sidney Rigdon convert to the restoration.
William Bickerton, believe it or not, never goes back to Methodism. He really believes in the Book of Mormon. That’s what’s holding him to this movement. So he wants to know, okay, what’s Brigham Young’s story? Because I’ve heard a lot from Sidney Rigdon. There were a lot of similarities. The scriptures were pretty much the same. Sidney Rigdon believed in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses. Sidney Rigdon actually talked about the Book of Moses in his newspaper. They believed in the same charismatic gifts in a lot of senses. So there’s a lot of similarities.
William Bickerton, though, really wants to know: are people practicing polygamy? Because that’s what Sidney Rigdon constantly brought up over and over. During this time, because of everything that the Mormons went through, the public statement was because of all the persecution that “We are not practicing polygamy,” even though the Twelve and others were. So these LDS missionaries probably knew about it, especially because one of them was from Kanesville and it was known in the newspapers that polygamy was going on there. But they tell William Bickerton that “no, we’re not practicing polygamy.” That seems to be the thing that William Bickerton agrees with and says, “Okay, I can join your church.”
So even though there are minor differences, the LDS missionaries are basically like, “Well, these differences are reconcilable. You’re more than welcome to join us.” And they do. They actually start a branch in West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and ordain William Bickerton as presiding elder. William Bickerton is a devout Mormon. There are nine members. We finally see a number of people that kind of coalesce around him. By then there’s nine members within the West Elizabeth branch, including William Bickerton’s wife. After ten months there’s twenty-seven members. So William Bickerton helped triple his congregation within less than a year.
HODGES: You write about how, when Bickerton finds out that polygamy is being practiced—when it’s publicly announced in 1852—he decides “Well, I’m through with that.” It’s not something he wanted to do or be involved with. You say he had been told it wasn’t being practiced so he probably felt betrayed as well, or at least misled. So that’s when he breaks from the LDS Church. Now we can talk about how his own movement develops.
We’re talking about William Bickerton and the biography of Bickerton that was written by Daniel P. Stone. He joins us today here at the Maxwell Institute.
So with a movement of his own, now separate from the LDS church entirely, what sort of theological differences developed? And what differences in practice developed between Bickerton’s movement and the LDS church in Salt Lake?
STONE: That’s a good question. This is one of the things I found most fascinating while researching William Bickerton, because he was a devout Mormon. So how on earth does he kind of transform his ideas? That’s what’s really significant, because William Bickerton did not believe in polygamy. As a Mormon he definitely would have believed in baptisms for the dead, because that’s what Sidney Rigdon practiced, and that’s what the LDS practiced. But baptism for the dead and polygamy are in a sense connected because it’s all about exaltation in the afterlife. The idea of godhood, or the idea that you could become a god in the afterlife, would have been something that Bickerton would have at least considered in the LDS movement because Joseph Smith had talked about that since 1844 in his King Follett sermon.
Because polygamy and baptism for the dead are all connected to exaltation, that’s where William Bickerton says to himself, if polygamy is wrong—and that’s what he believes—and if that’s connected to godhood and baptisms for the dead then those two are wrong in his mind. That’s where those things start to tumble in his mind, and he starts moving really towards his Protestant/Methodist roots. But he’s still holding onto the Book of Mormon.
So Bickerton’s movement becomes really interesting because the organization of the church is extremely similar to the LDS movement where eventually William Bickerton is ordained a prophet officially, he has a first and second counselor, he’s going to have a Quorum of Twelve by 1862, he’s going to have high priests, he’s going to have elders, patriarchs. The structure is basically the same, there are little differences, but it’s basically the same, but yet the theology is very Protestant and very much early Mormonism, Methodism.
HODGES: And people who read the biography will also see Bickerton was very interested in the Book of Mormon and drawing prophecies out of the Book of Mormon as well. You also suggest that although the hierarchy developed really similarly to the LDS church, there were also some differences about how power was shared there. This actually sparked a lot of internal division. So talk about how revelation in the church worked and some of the internal divisions that cropped up.
STONE: Sure. William Bickerton suffered the same thing that Sidney Rigdon suffered, and even Joseph Smith in the early restoration in a lot of sense, this idea that all people can have revelation. Now William Bickerton is considered the prophet that’s leading the movement, but that did not mean that there couldn’t be other prophets within the church. There could even be prophetesses—it didn’t matter if you were male or female. You could exhibit spiritual gifts and you could even have prophecy. All the gifts were open to everybody, and even people within the membership could have revelations for the church.
Now of course people had to judge whether the revelations were true or not, but you see that very egalitarian idea is very appetizing and very exciting to a lot of people. But at the same point you’re going to get people within the movement that might disagree with the leaders. If you get enough of those people you’re going to start to see some division, like all democracies, even within religion, when you have that struggle there’s either got to be compromise or it can really cause a lot of turmoil within the church. So William Bickerton saw both sides of that coin.
HODGES: You also mention that because they were back east they experienced the Civil War a lot more closely than the Salt Lake-based LDS church did, and maybe even the RLDS church. I don’t know. I haven’t looked at their reactions and responses to the Civil War. It seems like the Civil War had a big impact on Bickerton’s movement.
STONE: Absolutely. So to answer your question about RLDS and Joseph Smith III, they did see that as a fulfillment, Joseph Smith III saw that as a fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, but so did William Bickerton. William Bickerton and Brigham Young, even though they’re diametrically opposed—I don’t even know if Brigham Young knew about William Bickerton, I couldn’t find anything where Brigham Young mentioned it—but William Bickerton mentions him all the time and really does not like Brigham Young. He actually ends up believing Brigham Young is the one who starts polygamy, even though Sidney Rigdon told him that wasn’t the case. You see within William Bickerton’s mind he’s creating his own narrative and his own hatred for Brigham Young is quite strong. Some of it is a little unfounded in certain circumstances.
Anyway, there’s a great similarity between William Bickerton and Brigham Young in the Civil War because they’re both seeing the Civil War as a pre-millennialist catastrophe. What I mean by “pre-millennialist” is this idea that the Civil War is this cataclysmic destruction that eventually is going to spread to the whole earth, they both believe, and it’s going to basically initiate the apocalypse, and then it’s going to basically cleanse the earth of its sin so that way the church—either William Bickerton’s church or Brigham Young’s church—can rise up, save the country and the world from total disaster, establish the New Jerusalem, and Jesus Christ comes down. So they’re both seeing the Civil War as this major movement within the world history that’s going to initiate Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.
That’s really significant within American religious history because most Americans during the Civil War saw it as a post-millennialist catastrophe; you could even argue that Lincoln kind of saw it in those terms—
HODGES: What’s the difference there?
STONE: The difference is instead of seeing this cataclysmic destruction that’s going to usher in Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, a lot of Americans who are Christian are seeing this as a war that’s going to cleanse the nations of its sins. So that’s a similar idea, but once the nation comes out of this war the United States citizens are going to be able to create this kind of like Democratic Republican utopia that’s going to kind of allow for Christianity to flourish and Christian biblical principles to flourish that will eventually create the millennium made by man because of the Spirit. And eventually after living a thousand years, Jesus Christ will come at the end of this millennial era to kind of say, “Good job, guys. You did it.”
So pre-millennialists believe Jesus Christ comes in and initiates the millennium, while post-millennialists often believe that the millennium comes based on people’s progress through the Holy Spirit, but then Jesus Christ comes at the end and says “well done.”
HODGES: And of course the Civil War ends and Jesus doesn’t return. What does Bickerton do then? Because he was staking a lot on that.
STONE: He was. You even see after the Civil War there is some people that leave the church. The minutes don’t exactly say why, but it’s very curious that after the war you’re seeing, there’s revelations that say if you don’t believe in the Book of Mormon then you can’t be a member of our church. You kind of see that because they bank so hard on the Book of Mormon, Third Nephi talks about this great destruction, they thought it was the Civil War. So you kind of see people within the Bickerton movement leaving the church because the Civil War didn’t turn out, just like you said, it didn’t turn out like they kept saying it would.
But William Bickerton isn’t really fazed by that, it seems. He sees this as the moment where God is allowing them to go to the Native Americans, to preach to them. William Bickerton comes up with this really unique idea where a lot of people within the Latter Day Saint movement see Joseph Smith as a the choice seer that the Book of Mormon talks about and what the “choice seer” in the Book of Mormon means is that this choice seer is supposed to gather Israel, is supposed to preach to all the world, and kind of gather them all together to create this New Jerusalem. William Bickerton definitely sees Joseph Smith as a seer because he translated the Book of Mormon and he might see Joseph Smith as a choice seer among the gentiles, but he doesn’t necessarily see Joseph Smith as Israelite lineage.
He kind of thinks Joseph Smith certainly had his place within the Latter Day Saint movement, but there’s going to be another great leader that’s going to be a Native American prophet that’s going to rise up, and his name is going to be Joseph. He’s going to gather the Native Americans together, he’s also going to gather all the other tribes within the world, and they’re going to create the New Jerusalem. So William Bickerton thinks we need to preach to the Native Americans to kind of get the word out, so that way when Joseph, this American Indian Moses, rises up they’ll have already heard the word and we can kind of get the movement started. So he initiates a move to Kansas, and basically that is the edge of Indian Territory. What’s interesting is he’s basically trying to reenact the Indian mission that Joseph Smith had established in 1831.
HODGES: Yeah, so Bickerton has some pretty intricate Book of Mormon interpretations that he’s sort of trying to use as this map for the future and have his movement follow that. This is why he was drawn to American Indians in ways that even a lot of fellow Bickertonites weren’t. One of the things you draw out in your book is that this caused a lot of tension for him within his movement and preceded some of the rifts and some of the divisions that would end up excluding him from the movement for a time.
STONE: Absolutely. A lot of people within his church believed in the Native American idea, but the problem was, after the Civil War, like you said in the east, they all felt it. The economy was basically in shambles. There was high inflation. A lot of people were thinking “we need to keep preaching to the Americans because we haven’t even really reached them,” while William Bickerton is saying “we can do that while we’re going to the Native Americans,” and he’s putting this emphasis on them because he thinks that once “Joseph” rises up not only will the Native American be converted, but also the rest of America will be converted, of those who are righteous. So he’s kind of seeing this as a way to not only fulfill Book of Mormon prophecy, but in a sense fulfill what he believes is his prophetic role.
HODGES: Does he have a lot of success with Native Americans?
STONE: He does in a sense where they create a town. So imagine these coal miners and blue-collar workers, most of them are uneducated, they go to Kansas, which at that time was the edge of Indian Territory, and they basically create a city out of nothing. They call it Zion Valley, and you see a lot of turmoil within the church from the get-go because they went out there, they basically were looking for funding from their supporters out in the east. The problem is they get two checks and then the funding stops because people are just so diametrically opposed to this. Some people want to move to Tennessee. There’s even talk of making a colony in South America among his believers. William Bickerton is really hurt by this. The followers that go out to Kansas, they have to suffer through this terrible winter, and the only way that they survive according to Bickerton is they had to sell and burn buffalo chips to keep warm, which basically is buffalo poop.
HODGES: So things are difficult for William Bickerton at this point, but they’re only going to get more difficult here as accusations of infidelity crop up. There seems to be a power play happening within church leadership. Tell us a little about it.
STONE: So what ends up happening is their town of Zion Valley becomes so prosperous that other Americans move into the area and they kind of create a town, which eventually becomes the county seat of Stafford County, and is eventually renamed St. John after the governor. So William Bickerton’s communal enterprise basically fails because the church sabotages itself, but it becomes this prosperous little town, the county seat, and William Bickerton’s still trying to go to the Native Americans.
Well at this time while he’s doing this, there’s this movement where Bickerton talks about—he becomes close friends with this woman named Trifena Taylor. What a name. Trifena. Well he becomes close friends with her. She’s in her late twenties; he’s in his early sixties. There’s a movement where she’s on her deathbed and she’s married and she’s got children and everybody’s around the bed, wishing her goodbye, seeing her, and he’s feeling very distraught by this. He goes to the creek and he prays and he has this movement of the Spirit, he says, where he’s basically told, “Go back in there and ask her if she believes she can be healed and she will be.” So he goes into the room, tells Trifena, says, “Do you believe Jesus Christ can heal you?” and she says yes, and he says “well in the name of Jesus Christ get up.”
According to the account she’s instantaneously healed. Not only that, but her other child was healed under the hands of Bickerton. So you see this friendship start to develop between the two of them. The problem with that is, well there’s two problems: James Taylor, who is Trifena’s husband, is jealous about this, even though there doesn’t really seem to be any infidelity or anything like that. It’s a close friendship. He’s jealous and he accuses Bickerton twice of committing adultery. The first time he says, “You guys are having this weird relationship and I’m not okay with it.”
HODGES: Because you say they would go off and talk together alone, which was kind of taboo in certain circles. That kind of a thing.
STONE: Yeah. Exactly.
HODGES: Like a man and a woman shouldn’t go off by themselves and talk about something—
STONE: Exactly. That’s the Victorian etiquette of the day. William Bickerton, because of his egalitarian nature—
HODGES: Disregards it.
STONE: He disregards it. And it’s kind of foolish of him to do that, especially with a jealous husband. He actually is brought before an elder’s meeting basically to figure out “are you actually doing this?” They decide “well, you’re not committing it, there’s no infidelity, there’s nothing wrong here,” and basically the Taylors and William Bickerton are reconciled, it says. They were even friends. William Bickerton invites James and Trifena on a missionary trip around Kansas to rededicate the members to the Native American mission. During this time James Taylor is even prophesying saying William Bickerton is going to translate the sealed records of the Book of Mormon that will come forth. So you see a friendship is still there.
But not long after that James Taylor again accuses William Bickerton of infidelity. William Bickerton—I’m a little critical of William Bickerton in this, because he should have known that Victorian etiquette would not support this, because he was earlier brought before a council meeting in Pittsburgh for going privately to a public park in Allegheny with Francis Hunt, who was a deaconess, and people saw him and he was brought before a council and the same thing happened, saying, “okay there’s nothing fishy going on here,” but you can tell that they don’t like how William Bickerton is so close that he feels comfortable talking with women in private.
HODGES: So all of these accusations are starting to churn and Bickerton’s facing church courts and people sort of questioning him, and he’s being exonerated but he’s also sort of being chastised, and then at the top of this interview you mentioned a division that cropped up between him and an apostle, who kind of took over for Bickerton. What happened there?
STONE: So this is where the story gets extremely dramatic, if it’s not even more dramatic with all the twists and turns of the Latter Day Saint movement. This is where it becomes a major soap opera. So they’re trying to have a major conference in St. John, Kansas to promote the Native American mission. They’re inviting people into the east. As they’re advertising this conference, this is when these accusations of infidelity come about and people from the east, including William Cadman who is the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, he comes out there and hears these accusations and he actually sides with the people who are accusing Bickerton, which is really interesting because William Cadman had always kind of been not only a close friend of William Bickerton but also somebody who supported the Indian mission, the one who basically turned the church around. When the church was kind of going away from the Indian mission, William Cadman was one of the major forces that brought the church back to support William Bickerton.
So it’s interesting. We don’t know fully why William Cadman had this about face but he does, and he’s vehemently opposed to William Bickerton and what’s going on. So what was supposed to be this grand celebration of this conference actually becomes two separate conferences: one supporting William Bickerton where they’re trying to figure out how to conduct the Indian mission, and the other conference is basically trying to figure out whether William Bickerton guilty of adultery. William Bickerton and Trifena both say that they are not guilty, but James Taylor is on the side of William Cadman saying “no, they are guilty.”
So the church is literally splitting at the seams.
HODGES: How did Bickerton end up losing his leadership over the church?
STONE: So this is all happening in 1880. He ends up losing because basically William Cadman goes to William Bickerton’s conference and says, “Okay, we need to figure out what’s going on. So here’s what we’re going to do. We can have some type of council meeting like a church court to figure out what happened.” And this is what William Bickerton actually agrees to; the church court. But he says to William Cadman, “Since you’re from the east, you weren’t here while this was happening, you can be the judge of this court. What we’ll do is have three people from my conference testify for me, and the other conference can have three people to testify against me to make it equal, and then you can be the judge.”
William Cadman goes back to his conference, brings these terms, and they say “no. It’s going to be all of us. We’re going to be the ones conducting the church court. Nobody from Bickerton’s side can do that.” That’s when they bring the terms back to William Bickerton’s faction. They say “no way, that’s totally unfair.” So Cadman’s group basically excommunicates William Bickerton. Anybody who supports him is excommunicated, and William Cadman eventually goes back to the east to try to support his side. William Cadman is eventually ordained president of the church during all of this.
The church, it’s very tragic, literally splits in two. You have the majority of the saints in Kansas and a small cohort in Pennsylvania and Ohio and those areas who believe William Bickerton is innocent, while the majority of the saints in the east and a small cohort in Kansas say he is guilty and they support William Cadman.
HODGES: How did Bickerton remain connected to the movement then? As we mentioned, he had an apostle read from the Book of Job at his funeral saying, “Boy, I hope I’m vindicated. I wish my story was written down in a book.” How did he remain connected to the movement and how did he come back?
STONE: So for twenty-two years The Church of Jesus Christ was split in two. William Bickerton was very adamant about preaching to the Native Americans. Finally, at last, after all this turmoil William Bickerton actually has major missions to the Native Americans. He’s basically living among them. That’s one chapter of the whole book. It’s really fascinating to see how William Bickerton just lived among them and for the most part they seem to really respect him. There’s no major conflicts among the Native Americans.
Eventually what ends up happening is William Bickerton’s church is suffering, William Cadman’s church is suffering. You read the minutes of both and their church is just really floundering because you have two Churches of Jesus Christ that basically believe in the same things, but they’re not together. So the membership from both sides are really trying to push for the church to come back together. William Cadman, to his credit, actually comes out to St. John, Kansas, meets with William Bickerton to try to figure out some type of agreement. They both can’t come to terms. William Bickerton had tried twice before to unite the church under his leadership and William Cadman would have none of it, so we don’t know what William Cadman and Bickerton said during this third time, but nothing comes of it.
William Cadman eventually comes up with another idea, saying, “Let me send a friendlier face.” He sends this man named Alexander Cherry, who was an apostle under William Bickerton but eventually left and joined Cadman’s church later on. Alexander Cherry gives William Bickerton concrete terms saying, “okay, here’s what we can do. The membership want us to join, you’re the leader of this movement so here are the terms.”
William Bickerton’s in his late eighties by this time. He knows he’s going to die, so he says okay.
“You can no longer be the leader of the movement. You will no longer be considered a prophet, but you can still hold your priesthood. You can be an elder. Basically if you do this we will forgive you if you forgive us.”
That’s basically the terms and that’s how they write it out, saying there’s no re-baptisms, nothing. Everyone will just come back together. There’s no re-ordinations.
William Bickerton, knowing that William Cadman is almost two decades younger than him—he’s in his late eighties, he knows he’s going to die soon—he’s got to swallow that hard pill. He has to decide two things. Whether he wants to save his pride, but if he saves his pride and remains the leader of his section of the movement his church may flounder, or he can kind of help ease the transition and take these terms, and that’s what he does. He takes these terms and in 1902 the church comes back together.
HODGES: That’s Daniel P. Stone. We’re talking about his book William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet, published by Signature Books.
I wanted to ask you, Daniel, what are some of the significant differences you see between the Salt Lake-based LDS Church and the Bickertonite church today?
STONE: Some significant differences. Basically the theology is very similar, minus the temple. The Bickertonites don’t have any temple ordinances, but the idea of repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost, that’s all the same.
HODGES: Do they trace their priesthood lineage back to Joseph Smith?
HODGES: Do they see it as the only true church that’s connected through that priesthood?
STONE: Exactly. The line goes directly to Joseph Smith.
William Bickerton’s a little tricky. So what he ends up saying is that within the Latter Day Saint movement it’s really important to have the hands laying on for the reception of that authority. So William Bickerton says that before Sidney Rigdon went astray, he was ordained under Sidney Rigdon. He says that Sidney Rigdon had a direct connection to Joseph Smith so therefore that’s how he claims the line. But also his vision of the mountain and chasm is where he says where he gets this authority from God to be the prophet and to lead his own movement.
HODGES: After he rejoined the LDS church then? That mountain?
STONE: Yes, it was after he left the LDS Church that he had that vision. So you see those similarities where they’re drawing a connection to Joseph Smith, but really it just comes down to the temple ordinances and the ideas of baptism for dead, the plurality of gods, that is not in the Bickertonite church, but that is in the LDS Church. So those are the major ones. There’s temple ordinances, baptism for the dead, plurality of gods, and obviously polygamy, William Bickerton never seemed to agree with that.
HODGES: I noticed The Church of Jesus Christ’s official church website distinctly says “we are not Mormon, this is not Mormon.” They see that label as the LDS Church’s label and they’re sort of distancing themselves from that. [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded before Church president Russell M. Nelson’s call for Latter-day Saints to completely eschew the name “Mormon.”] What do you make of that saying? “We’re not Mormon.”
STONE: That comes from William Bickerton and that still lives on to today. I’m not the average Bickertonite in a sense where being a historian I’m totally comfortable saying that The Church of Jesus Christ, Bickertonite, is a part of the “Mormon movement” because historically speaking it definitely is, and we can even broaden out to be more politically correct, we could say the Latter Day Saint movement, because other Latter Day Saint traditions don’t like to be called “Mormon” as well. It’s totally, in my mind, fine to say that.
But yeah, William Bickerton would always say, “We are not Mormon.” One time he goes, “We are not Mormon. We are Stafford County Saints.” He’s always emphasizing this.
The Church of Jesus Christ has always kept up that tradition, just kind of because you see similar theologies, and they believe in the Book of Mormon, so it’s always been a struggle since the days of Bickerton and even now to kind of separate themselves from the Mormon movement because, like the LDS church, the Bickertonite church believes that the Book of Mormon is a divinely translated text by Joseph Smith, who was used as a tool in the hands of God, some people say. I just say he’s a prophet, because that’s a prophetic gift. He’s a prophet used by God to translate the Book of Mormon. So it’s hard to differentiate yourself when the fundamentals of both movements are the same.
HODGES: Did the Bickertonites have any racial restrictions on priesthood or anything like the Salt Lake-based church did?
STONE: No. William Bickerton never barred blacks or African Americans from holding the priesthood position. That was something that really made William Bickerton unique. So he’s ordaining women as deaconesses, he’s not barring African American from holding priesthood—actually in 1872 there’s this really interesting movement. The Little Red Stone branch in the Pennsylvania area is actually trying to bar African Americans from being equal with the members, and William Bickerton is horrified by this and actually sends one of the apostles, Joseph Ashton, and they write a letter. The way they word it is so politically sound. It’s so interesting. They bring in scripture and they say, “Listen, just like the Jews who were blessed by God looked upon the Gentiles as unclean, and then they had to have that revelation saying they were clean, so too have we been taught to look at”—he calls them “the coloreds,” the terminology at the time, “so too have we been taught to look upon them as not equal to us, but the gospel brings them up.”
So even though William Bickerton never really seemed to have a—he really could have been considered an abolitionist during his time, not that he was radical that violence should come about, but he really thought God was going to judge America because of slavery. He’s using the Bible to say the gospel brings them up so they have equal access to everything that we have.
HODGES: You mentioned women could be deaconesses and I assume that’s still the case today. What does that look like and how is that different from, for example, holding the priesthood to where a woman could become president of the church or something?
STONE: Okay, so the way deaconesses work within the Bickertonite movement has kind of evolved over time. So let me say this. You have in William Bickerton’s church, while he was alive, you had deaconesses, deacons, teachers, and priests, and they were considered kind of ancillary positions to the Melchizedek priesthood. So he never had an Aaronic priesthood. He had a Melchizedek, but the structure was very similar to the LDS Church, minus the deaconesses. They were considered part of the ministry.
Even deaconesses had really unique roles within the early Bickertonite church. So for instance because of Victorian America, it was probably taboo for two elders to go anoint a woman that might be older or that lives by herself. They would give the oil to the deaconesses and say “go anoint her and lay hands on her to heal her.” They also would say if she couldn’t get sacrament—the person that was a shut-in—they would bless the sacrament, or communion, give it to the deaconess and say “go give it to her so she can have it.”
Nowadays the deaconesses don’t do that. What the deaconesses do now that’s real significant is they set the table for the sacrament before every service, and that’s kind of considered one of their holy ordinances that they do.
What the LDS Church calls “wards,” we call them “branches,” it’s the same thing, but it depends on the branch. One branch might have the deaconess set it before the meeting, but a lot of times it’s actually part of the meeting, that’s how the meeting starts is they’ll play the piano, a soft song, and the deaconess will go up and set the table. It’s kind of considered this solemn, happy moment where you’re just kind of recognizing the sacrifice that Jesus made.
HODGES: Does that ritual happen each Sunday at service?
STONE: Yeah, each Sunday.
HODGES: Then as far as women advancing in the priesthood, is there a doctrine about that? Is there a scripture about that?
Are there additional scriptures in the Bickertonite by the way?
STONE: Yeah, now they only follow the Bible and Book of Mormon, and that’s another thing that makes William Bickerton’s story interesting, is that William Bickerton really believed in a lot of the Doctrine and Covenants. He even had his own revelation book that was kind of supposed to be used similarly to how Latter-day Saints use the Doctrine and Covenants. Not only was William Bickerton believing in some of the Doctrine and Covenants, but this revelation book they were keeping was also supposed to kind of help, the extra revelations that are supposed to lead the church, and the church today doesn’t have any of those.
HODGES: So about women advancing, is there some kind of position on that? Within the LDS tradition there are small groups of women who want to be ordained, for example, and the church has said it doesn’t ordain women. What about within the Bickertonite faith?
STONE: That’s a great question. That’s what makes it culturally very different. There isn’t this major movement for women to be ordained past a deaconess, to kind of hold the Melchizedek priesthood. Privately I have heard women say “it would be nice if we could be ordained to the priesthood,” but there’s not this major push with the leadership to make it happen, where like the LDS Church sees cohorts like Ordain Women and others who are trying to broadcast this or push for this movement.
HODGES: Are there other things women can do? You mentioned that in the past they could anoint and things. Has that fallen away by the wayside?
STONE: That’s fallen away.
HODGES: So sort of similar within the LDS tradition, women used to be able to anoint and heal and do things like that and that faded over time. It’s interesting how that happened in both traditions.
STONE: Yep. Correct.
HODGES: Have there been any other studies of the contemporary Bickertonite church that you know of?
STONE: Not really.
HODGES: It sounds like there’s a lot of work to do.
STONE: Yeah. There’s a ton of work. If I could just tell American religious historian scholars or scholars of religion, the Bickertonite church is the one rock that has never been overturned. I mean it’s really hard within any historical field to find a rock that’s not been unturned, especially when you’re writing a dissertation. You’re always trying to find that little nook of the rock that hasn’t been talked about. But that’s what was so fun about writing about William Bickerton. It was literally a brand new rock that had never been overturned to look at everything.
HODGES: It’s hard too, though, right? Because you also don’t have a lot of people to interact with as well.
STONE: I actually write that in the introduction, recognizing that could be a weakness because you don’t have other historians, I didn’t have any other historians to kind of base things off. So I had to quote—I say it in the introduction—I quote liberally from the sources so people can see for themselves. Not only do I cite them but I’m trying to show the people “look, this is what the sources are saying,” because I was one of the first ones, fortunately and unfortunately, to kind of give my interpretation to what these actually mean.
HODGES: So as a Bickertonite yourself what was it like to write about your own faith tradition in a more academic register? Did your experience of your religion change at all through the process?
STONE: Yeah. I became much more open-minded. I always kind of considered myself open-minded, but basically my mind’s wide open now. It was exhilarating. It was extremely fun, but I can’t say there weren’t depressing moments. There were a couple times where—my wife can even attest to this—where I had even said “why am I even doing this?” I spent five years of my life researching and writing this book, and every once in a while you just get kind of down because it didn’t seem like people—some people seemed interested and others didn’t. Some people were even kind of asking me, “why even write about William Bickerton?” Even within my own movement. “Why even write about him? You’re not even going to have enough to write about him.” It just was really disheartening.
There were a couple of times I just wanted to throw in the towel, but eventually after a couple of days I picked the towel back up and went to work, and I’m so glad I did because I’m thankful. It’s selling and people are interested. I’m quite thankful for that.
HODGES: You mentioned some of the reactions you got from people within your tradition. Are there things in the book that are going to be harder for them to digest? Perhaps you’ve mentioned a few throughout the interview, but will this book be unsettling? You made the comparison to Rough Stone Rolling, and some people have read Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith and have been unsettled by it, some Latter-day Saints have. Other Latter-day Saints have brought it in like a breath of fresh air and really appreciated the candor and the different perspective that historian Richard Bushman brings. Do you expect similar responses within your faith?
STONE: I’m hoping it’s the latter where it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from people in the church. One person that I really appreciated her candor, she said, “I thought I was going to hate this book and I ended up liking it a lot.” So that made me happy. I think the big thing is the feud between William Bickerton and William Cadman. That really seems to be the crux of everything, where everyone’s so afraid. But to me I look at it and go, “everybody’s dead, you had a twenty-two year feud between these two guys. In the end who really cares?” Yeah, it’s unsettling that men that we might esteem as people of God would be doing this, but when you look at history in general I think, as a historian, you see that every religion, every single historical movement has that, so it’s really no big deal.
So I’m hoping it’s a breath of fresh air where people can just read it and take it for what it is because I really did try to write it as a true history book. I’m really not trying to put in my own beliefs in this at all. I try to be completely objective.
HODGES: Is it fair to say that the biography is sort of an effort to rehabilitate Bickerton himself?
HODGES: That’s interesting, because the colloquial name for his church is “Bickertonite.”
STONE: I will admit that was definitely the big push for this. I wanted to rehabilitate William Bickerton, so you could say that would be my bias. But the historical documentation supports it because the historiography of The Church of Jesus Christ is so limited on talking about William Bickerton. So in a sense, where some people might be like “oh this is an apologetic work where you’re trying to rehabilitate somebody,” it kind of works in my favor because unlike other religious movements who talk about their founders in such great terms, my church doesn’t. So I’m kind of rehabilitating him, saying “no, this is a man that we should be talking about, and he really did lead the movement.”
That’s the beautiful thing about Mormon history is that biography is kind of snubbed within the historical field because it can be considered speculative or biased, but within the Mormon movement, biography is terrific because most of the early movements in the schismatic churches are led by interesting people.
HODGES: Yeah. James Strang, Sidney Rigdon.
STONE: Yeah, so if you’re going to really understand the movement, the best place to start is to start with the founder. So biography works really well within American religion, especially within the Mormon movement.
HODGES: That’s Daniel P. Stone. He’s completing his PhD in American religious history at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. I also should mention he earned his master’s degree from Florida Atlantic University and he’s a deacon in William Bickerton’s Church of Jesus Christ. We’re talking about his new book William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet.
So other than finishing your PhD, do you have any other plans? Any other projects that you’re working on?
STONE: Yeah. I’m going to be writing a chapter for a book for Signature Books as to why I wrote the biography, which I’m really excited about. I was just asked to do that. I have a couple of other articles, too. I’d really love to write an article about the Bickertonite church as to when they change from the idea that the millennium and Zion are one event—that’s what William Bickerton believed, but the Cadman movement believed that they were separate events, and look at how there’s a big controversy in the early twentieth century when they talk more about that and kind of make up a solidified stance on it. The Church of Jesus Christ today actually still believes that Zion and the millennium are separate events, but that’s not what the founder believed in, so I’d like to talk a little bit about that because I’m really interested in millennialism.
I really would like to look at Joseph Smith. While he really believed himself to be the choice seer, but when he dies there’s this real—every schismatic Latter Day Saint movement is trying to figure out or reconfigure, is Joseph Smith still the choice seer? Or is he not? Sidney Rigdon thought he was the new choice seer. William Bickerton and David Whitmer thought this Native American prophet was going to rise up. James Strang had his own unique ideas. So I’d like to do something on that.
I’m even playing around with the idea about how a lot of Latter-day Saints and a lot of people in the Evangelical movement believe that Donald Trump is the American Cyrus, and they often call him the American Cyrus. I’d really like to look into why they think that is and maybe kind of, I mean it’s still a work in progress so it’s kind of tricky because I’m a historian but I’m kind of looking at current events, but I think a lot of it comes from the Fundamentalist movement in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, and kind of see why they consider him an American Cyrus. Where do they pull that from? And kind of end where Donald Trump makes Jerusalem where the United States embassy is.
HODGES: You have a lot of possibilities then. The last thing I wanted to ask is about how within Mormon studies there are a lot of people who are Latter-day Saints or who have been Latter-day Saints who are practitioners connected to the Salt Lake-based church, but you seem to be the only Bickertonite that I’m aware of that’s doing higher education that’s seeking a degree in American religious history and studying your own movement. Are you alone out there? Are there other people you’re in dialogue with?
STONE: There are some people in my church that are really interested in history, they even have history degrees, but as far as I’m aware I’m the only one that’s gotten a graduate degree. I know there’s one elder who has a political science degree, a really nice guy, but regarding American religious history I seem to be the only one that’s focusing on that and actually putting an emphasis on this movement. So, yeah. Sometimes it’s very lonely, Blair. I’m not going to lie. That’s why I like talking to you guys. [laughing]
HODGES: Yes. Well, we’re glad to have you. Hopefully we help you feel a little bit less lonely. We’re glad you’re here visiting BYU and the Maxwell Institute today.
STONE: Thanks, Blair. I appreciate it.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)