Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate in Book of Mormon Studies at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. He is a documentary editor/historian for Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Vols. 7, 9, and 12. Blythe is also the Associate Editor of the Journal of Mormon History.
Daniel Stone’s William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet is a biography of a significant nineteenth century Latter Day Saint “prophet, seer, and revelator.” It is largely a religious story, as much about the founding of a church, the Church of Jesus Christ, as it is the life of a man. One of Signature Books’ most significant contributions to the field of Mormon Studies has been its publication of scholarship on non-LDS Restoration traditions. Previous examples have included Vickie Cleverley Speek’s “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (2006), Will Shepard and H. Michael Marquardt’s Lost Apostles: Forgotten Members of Mormonism’s Original Quorum of the Twelve (2014), Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (1994), and Victoria D. Burgess’s The Midwife: A Biography of Laurine Ekstrom Kingston (2012). These well-researched studies have added to our knowledge of fascinating but (unfortunately) obscure communities and individuals. Stone’s volume rightfully belongs on this list and admirably fills out some of the gaps in our collective knowledge. This volume is particularly significant as the first full-length academic study written by a Bickertonite scholar with interested outsiders in mind. It is exciting to see the contingent of Mormon Studies scholars whose numbers largely consist of LDS and Community of Christ scholars (with the occasional Strangite and Fundamentalist) add another unique voice to the conversation.
In short, William Bickerton was a coal miner who emigrated from England in 1831. He joined the Restoration in 1845 (when he was approximately 30 years old) through his membership in Sidney Rigdon’s short-lived Philadelphia-based Church, the Church of Christ. After he abandoned that affiliation, he spent a time aligned with the Twelve Apostles based in Utah and a subsequent period of questioning. He renewed his ministry after a vision showing him that he was the “last man willing to preserve the restoration of true Christianity.” (67) His congregation eventually recognized him as prophet, seer, and revelator, a position that would be challenged later in his ministry.
There is much to praise about this biography. First and foremost, it fills a glaring gap in the scholarly literature. While Bickerton’s branch of the Restoration Movement is today only trumped in size by the Utah-based LDS and Community of Christ, until now, it has not been the subject of a full-length academic study. Second, Stone excels at historical contextualization, making great use of secondary sources to bring out details of Bickerton’s life and times that are not fleshed out in the primary sources. For example, we learn wage information, details of the Civil War, and other regional events. Third, it is filled with fascinating material discussing Bickerton’s beliefs, revelations, and efforts to lead a community of Latter Day Saints. For further examples, see below.
Of course, Stone’s William Bickerton has limitations. I will mention only two. First, as he notes in the volume’s introduction, there are very few sources from which to write a biography on Bickerton. That means that Stone is largely dependent on early Church minutes, a handful of publications, and a few autobiographical essays. Frequently, that means that Stone must turn to a source written most frequently in 1903 to explain Bickerton’s sentiments in the 1840s and 1850s. The limitation on sources also requires substantial speculation. Stone does alert the reader to this through the use of “may,” “perhaps,” and “it seems likely.” At times, he uses statements from other early Latter-day Saints and suggests that perhaps Bickerton felt the same way. Second, while Stone makes great use of secondary literature on the nineteenth century and some major foundational Mormon sources, there are gaps in his engagement with the breadth of Mormon Studies literature. (For instance, Stone places great emphasis on prophecies of a future Indian prophet but treats it as an exceptional trait to the Bickertonite tradition; whereas, Orson Pratt and other Latter Day Saint contemporaries placed their hopes in the same direction.) This does not detract significantly from the work as it stands, but limits his ability to show the full significance of Bickerton.
Ten Reasons You’ll Find Daniel Stone’s William Bickerton a Fascinating Read:
- Succession of Sidney Rigdon: Bickerton joined the Church of Christ founded by Sidney Rigdon in 1845. While he would part with Rigdon after the Church called for a gathering in the Cumberland Valley, in 1903, he acknowleged, “I can testify that Sidney Rigdon had the power of God. He was the right hand counselor of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young… we knew by the spirit that he was going wrong… After Rigdon went wrong all that followed him fell away, and I was left alone, seeking to know what course to pursue (339-340). One of the things about the Bickertonites I have learned from Daniel Stone is that it is probably incorrect to consider them a direct schism or continuation of the early Rigdonites as is sometimes portrayed. Rather, Bickerton would next unite with the Utah-based Brighamites.
- Response to Polygamy: After leaving Rigdon’s church, Bickerton accepted the leadership of Brigham Young until the announcement of plural marriage. (This was not an uncommon reaction from the Saints in the east, but founding a separatist church was certainly unique.)
- “Alma’s Church”: The Church of Jesus Christ is unusual among Restoration churches in that it does not emphasize its apostolic authority through priesthood lineage. I was absolutely fascinated by Bickerton’s rational for founding a church. He drew on the Book of Mormon account of Alma starting a church after fleeing the wicked king Noah’s courts. This was considered an apt comparison because “Alma never received any ordination;” and even fit their immediate circumstances since Noah, like Young, had established a “many wife doctrine.”
- Native American Ministries: Like a number of branches of the Restoration, the Church of Jesus Christ sought to proselytize among those they believed were the descendants of Father Lehi. They particularly sought converts among the Cherokee. Like so many other “Mormons” they were disappointed in the rate of their success. Bickerton eventually decided it was not yet time for the “Lamanites’” conversion.
- Indian Prophet: While above I noted that belief in a future Indian prophet was not exceptional in the early Latter Day Saint tradition, Bickerton’s messianic expectations are fascinating. It’s clear that this figure is a key to the early Bickertonite tradition.
- A Democrat Model of Revelation: One of the absolute gems that Stone was able to locate was a revelation book that contains a plethora of revelations presented to the Church by individual members. This is amazing material.
- Church Division and Reconciliation: In the wake of accusations that Bickerton was guilty of adultery, the Church of Jesus Christ split into two factions. Stone does a good job following the undergirding causes and personalities that led to the rift and concludes his volume discussing the reconciliation.
- Race Relations: As Mormon Studies scholars seek to gain a better grasp on the history of race in Mormonism, Stone widens our gaze on the topic and offers some interesting counterpoints to a history of racial restrictions. Bickerton recalled preaching in “some colored folks house, and we all felt that we had never spent a better day in the work of the Lord.” (278) After a controversy in which a conference realized that there was a “feeling insisting in some parts of the Church, that would rather slight the colored people, therefore the Conference sought after the mind of the Lord upon the subject.” What followed was a review of Peter’s revelation about the Gentiles. “In like manner have we also been led to look on the Colloured people as beneath the Gentiles, but the Gospel brings them up and makes them have Equal access unto the Supper of the Lord, and Equal fellowship in the Church of Jesus Christ. Amen.” (204)
- Millennialism: One of Stone’s deep interests is in analyzing the millennial thought that was so important to early Mormons and early Bickertonites in particular. He follows disagreements in this theology and introduces some compelling material that entails the building of Zion and the coming forth of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. (Unfortunately, at times, as Stone contextualizes Bickerton’s beliefs into Joseph Smith’s revelations (for example, the Civil War prophecy or that Jesus would not return until 1890), it becomes clear that the connective tissue in the sources seems a little bare.)
- Tongue Speaking: Until the early twentieth century, Brighamites, Josephites, and others maintained the early practice of glossolalia. Stone shows how prevalent this gift of the spirit was among these Saints. In my opinion, this alone should inspire additional research in the Church of Jesus Christ.