Review: Stone, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (Signature 2018)

By October 15, 2018

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.) 
  3. “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.”  
  4. 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.
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Chris! I have yet to read the book, but I heard Daniel respond to an Author Meets Critics panel at JWHA and was impressed by what he tried to accomplish in the biography.

    Comment by David G. — October 15, 2018 @ 7:06 am

  2. Thanks, Chris, for the review. Very interested to get to the book!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 15, 2018 @ 10:02 am

  3. Thanks for the detailed and informative review. It is great to see the growing research and publications into other Mormon traditions. I look forward to reading Stone’s work.

    Comment by Courtney JP — October 17, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

  4. Chris, thanks for the honest review. Unfortunately, the limitations you address are even broader than you might understand. The 2nd half of the book, which has extremely limited resources available, Stone quotes over and over again a historical text from John Mancini. What the author does not disclose is that work is unpublished, but he treats it and cites it as a published work. The challenge is this is his primary text, which is undocumented in the historical record and unverifiable. A more proper course of action would be to make that historical material available in publication itself (almost like the Joseph Smith Papers Project) then cite the published material. Who can critique or review a book where 150 pages primarily cite an unpublished and unavailable source?

    Comment by Josh Gehly — November 20, 2018 @ 8:27 am

  5. Thanks, Josh. Yes, I actually spoke with Stone before I wrote this review to make sure I understood his sources. He explained what we are dealing with in the Mancini materials, which I agree is not clear from how it appears in the footnotes. Will the private collection not allow others to see the materials? I don’t think its up to Stone to only use easily available materials, but I get your point.

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — November 25, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

  6. Hi Josh and Chris,

    Daniel here. Thanks for the comments.

    As Chris has mentioned, him and I already discussed what records are located in the Lamb Foundation archive (located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, owned by John E. Mancini) and how I cited them, but since there seems to be some confusion (especially because this archive has not until recently been cited professionally within the Mormon studies community), I’ll be happy to explain in more detail, along with address Josh Gehly’s comments.

    First, I think it’s important to point out our biases. In the introduction of the William Bickerton biography, I clearly state to readers that although I’m a professional historian, I’m also a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite). However, as I stated in the book, I attempted to write an objective biography. Although I’m a church member, I’m not a descendant of any prominent church family, including the family of William Bickerton or William Cadman Sr. (Cadman was a notable rival of Bickerton who eventually became president of the entire church in 1902). Bickerton’s descendants are no longer prominent in the church (I’m not even sure if there are any who are still members of the church. I’d have to double-check), but the Cadman descendants are still a prominent presence. A Cadman descendant has held an apostleship in the church for almost the entirety of the church’s existence, and there has been three Cadman descendants who have served as president of the church (Joel Gehly, who is the current president of the church, is now the third).

    Josh Gehly, for one reason or another, did not disclose his personal and family connections to the church. He is a recently ordained evangelist in the Church of Jesus Christ; he is the son of the recently elected president of the church (Joel Gehly), and he is a proud descendant of the Cadman family. Now, this is my personal opinion (and I can attest that I share this opinion with many others in the church): The Cadman family has strongly influenced the church’s historical narrative for many decades, and they have been protective of it (and this latter point is backed up by the documentation that I contextualize and clearly cite in the Bickerton biography). William H. Cadman, who was the son of William Cadman Sr., published the first authorized history of the church in 1945, and in it, he basically defends why his father became the church president. As discussed in my book, there was a long and bitter rivalry between Bickerton and Cadman, mostly stemming from an adultery allegation against Bickerton. The church eventually split in two, Bickerton leading one faction, and Cadman leading the other. In 1902, the church came back together, with Cadman serving as the unified church’s president. In William H. Cadman’s history, he basically sides with his father’s side of the story, and wrote William Bickerton out of much of the history (Dr. Gary Entz, who is also a PhD historian, agrees with this point and has explicitly stated this in his article published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2006). The feud between Bickerton and Cadman was very messy, lasting twenty-two years.

    Another bias I want to point out is that Josh’s father, along with the rest of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, did not want me to write about the twenty-two year feud between Bickerton and Cadman. In January 2016, I received a letter from the Quorum of Twelve Apostles specifically asking that I not publish the information I collected about the Bickerton/Cadman feud. They told me “it is our hope not to blemish the Church in any way nor to possibly upset our church membership by exposing these individual differences of two prominent church leaders.” I have possession of the letter, and if for academic purposes anyone wishes to see it, I’ll gladly show them. I have received other complaints from Cadman descendants (along with sympathizers of the Cadman historical narrative) that my book challenges William H. Cadman’s historical narrative, but in the end, all I can say is that this is the nature of historical writing, and this is why historians continue to write history books. It is a historian’s job to offer new and nuanced interpretations of the past. Now I will address Josh’s comments directly.

    The Lamb Foundation archive holds most of the early original minute books and other early records of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickeronite). How the Lamb Foundation received these documents has been the cause of controversy and strife within the Church of Jesus Christ for over a decade (and quite frankly, it’s none of my business how this occurred), but in the end, the Lamb Foundation archive legally holds the documents, and this is where they are located. I was personally directed to the Lamb Foundation archive by the general historian of the Church of Jesus Christ because he knew that is where I could find more original and beneficial documents, many of which I used while writing the second half of my book (as Josh had mentioned). Both the general historian of the Church of Jesus Christ and John E. Mancini attest that these records are the original church record books. There are no disputations or reasons for concern as to their authenticity. The Lamb Foundation not only has all these original records, but it has digitally photographed/scanned, along with transcribed all the pages of these records. As people will see in my book, I clearly cite the transcriptions in the footnotes, and they can see in the bibliography where those transcriptions, along with the corroborating original records, are located, The reason I cite the transcriptions is simply because the transcriptions have easily accessible page numbers, making it easier for future researchers to find the information that I cite. After all, this is the first time the information is being published, so I want other researchers to be able to easily find the information that I cite. Also, as stated before, the Lamb Foundation archive holds all the corroborating original church records, along with digital photographs/scans of all the pages, and they can easily see that the transcriptions corroborate with the original documents.

    The Lamb Foundation archive is a private archive, owned by John E. Mancini, and it is generally not open to the public. However, Mancini does accept requests from researchers, and after requesting access to the Lamb Foundation archive’s documents and explaining why I wanted to see them, John granted me access.

    To address Josh’s other concern, I agree with him that the original church documents held by the Lamb Foundation need to be published. That is why I received permission from John Mancini to publish the original church minutes, along with digital scans of them. This is one of my new exciting projects, and I’m very much look forward to working on it. (And yes, these original minutes books have already been verified, and may even receive further verification for the peer-review process when consulting a publisher).

    Josh is incorrect that I had “extremely limited resources available” to write the second half of my book. Rather, I had hundreds of pages of church minutes and records, along with hundreds of pages of newspaper articles (many of which were written by church members themselves, including William Bickerton). I also had access to other church records and pamphlets, and I cited them both in the Lamb Founation archive and the Church of Jesus Christ Historical Archive, among others. I even had many documents and transcriptions from both archives that contained the same information, and when this happened, I cited both documents from both archives. In the end, Josh is incorrect to assert that there was one “primary text” that I used to write the second half of my book (or the whole book for that matter). Rather, I used many primary texts, all of which I cite appropriately.

    I’m also not sure what Josh means when he writes, “What the author does not disclose is that work is unpublished, but he treats it and cites it as a published work. The challenge is this is his primary text, which is undocumented in the historical record and unverifiable.” Josh is right that I sometimes don’t cite “published” works, but if he assumes that it is prudent for historians to only cite “published” materials, I would have to disagree. After all, historians are trained to dig in archives and find new materials and documents that have never been published or properly scrutinized and examined. That is why historians write history books, to publish new and exciting information for the first time, most of which are found in these archival documents, and they are required to cite these documents to the proper archives. For example, Richard Bushman published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling before the Joseph Smith Papers project was completed, but I don’t know of any scholar who criticizes Bushman for having written a biography of Joseph Smith before most of the documents he cited were published by the Joseph Smith Papers. Bushman cited the unpublished primary sources appropriately. I did all of this as well, and the peer-peer-review process at Signature Books, along with my editor, attest to the fact that I did this appropriately.

    Josh also states, “Who can critique or review a book where 150 pages primarily cite an unpublished and unavailable source?” He is incorrect to assert that the sources I cite are unavailable. They are located in several archives: The Church of Jesus Christ Historical archive, the Lamb Foundation archive, the Church History Library, the Senator John Heinz History Center, the Kansas Historical Society, and others, all of which are cited in my bibliography. What Josh may mean is that the Church of Jesus Christ Historical archive and Lamb Foundation archive are normally closed to the general public. However, I gained access to both archives by requesting permission, and everyone else is allowed to do the same. Also, if Josh is concerned that the documents located in these archives can’t be obtained and verified by the public, I suggest that he help the situation and talk with his father, Joel Gehly, who is the president of the church, and request that the Church of Jesus Christ Historical archive be made more available to the general public so this problem can be rectified. I also have copies of all the documents that I cite from these archives, and if anyone needs to check my sources, I’ll gladly provide them with the appropriate materials.

    I hope this information is helpful to readers, and thanks so much to the Juvenile Instructor for allowing me to respond. I also hope this encourages people to read the William Bickerton biography for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

    Comment by Daniel Stone — November 26, 2018 @ 12:33 am

  7. Great review Chris, on a great book!

    Comment by Kris Wray — November 28, 2018 @ 2:08 am

  8. This is a great comment thread with some valid criticisms and laudable responses by Daniel.

    One question I came away with is whether it’s necessary for Josh to reveal his biases in the commentary. On many sites, I don’t think it would be. However, for a landing spot like “Juvenile Instructor” where history is often formed real-time in the comments that influences future research, I tend to think while it may not be necessary, it certainly would be helpful and appropriate – and lend credence to the criticism.

    Comment by Kurt M. — November 28, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

  9. I would like to thank Daniel for his reply.

    With his personal comments aside, he confirms my critique. The biography was written out of order. The first step academically would be to publish the source materials.

    I look forward to seeing them, like so many have been for decades.

    Comment by Josh Gehly — November 30, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

  10. Josh, that is actually not the case. Many, probably most good historians use unpublished archival sources. I would even say that any history worth publishing should make use of unpublished archival sources, but not everyone would agree. The issue of access to archival sources and their publication is separate and is rightfully directed at the archive and its policies, not the historians who are able to access the archive.

    Comment by D. Martin — December 1, 2018 @ 9:13 am

  11. Thank you, Josh and D. I think this is an important conversation. I understand what Josh is saying, but I think D.’s point that the criticism of access belongs to the archives not to Daniel Stone. If Stone misused the sources, then we should be relentless sure;) but even Pulitzer prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s new book makes use of restricted materials, which are not available to the average scholar. (In this case, they will be available in the coming years, but I think that is true of Stone’s sources as well… hopefully…)

    Comment by Christopher Blythe — December 1, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

  12. Hi All,

    I think it is fair to direct a portion of the criticism to Mr. Mancini, who, to my best understanding, has not exactly been forthcoming with the materials. I think that is stating it very politely. It really makes it hard to properly review about 200 pages of the book.

    I don’t think it is fair to argue that the biography is accurate to the degree it dives into the mind of Bickerton in the latter stages of the text. I understand the point of biographies and everything is perspective driven. It’s very fair for me to point out the limited materials written by Bickerton. I think it is fair to say it’s hard to know about a president of an organization from business meeting minutes. So, a lot of gaps get filled in with detailed conclusions without enough source material. Even with Daniel’s response above he digs his heels in defense instead of honest admission about lack of resources. The 2nd half of the book are all IBIDs. It just is.

    So, I’ll redirect part of my critique to Mr. Mancini and thank you all for that direction. For the 2nd part of the critique — I’d have to feel it is accurate.

    Josh

    Comment by Josh Gehly — December 3, 2018 @ 2:33 pm


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