Sponsored by BYU Studies—Daniel Stone holds a Ph.D. in American Religious History from Manchestor Metropolitan University in England and is the author of “William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet” (Signature Books, 2018).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your book?
Hi! I’m Daniel Stone. I’m the author of William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (Signature Books). I have a PhD in history from Manchester Metropolitan University with a specialization in American religious history. My focuses are: eighteenth century, nineteenth century, Christianity, Mormonism, prophets, millennialism, and biography.
My new book, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet is the first comprehensive biography published on William Bickerton and his church, known as the Church of Jesus Christ. Currently, Bickerton’s church is the third-largest Latter Day Saint denomination in the world, with over 22,000 members in twenty-three countries.
Bickerton is a fascinating historical figure. He was the only major claimant to Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle who did not personally know Smith, and he was never a member of the original Mormon Church. Bickerton instituted progressive theological innovations within his movement, like ordaining African Americans and women in the ministry, and he looked forward to a Native American prophet who would help gather the lost tribes of Israel into the New Jerusalem to usher in the Millennium. He and his followers also believed in charismatic spiritual gifts, like visions, dreams, and speaking in tongues.
To me, it’s unbelievable that so little has been written about him and his religious movement. His life offers new and exciting perspectives within American religion.
Where are you studying for your Ph.D. and what is the focus of your dissertation? Are there any professors who have had an especially strong impact on your thinking or approach to history?
I finished my PhD program in September 2018 at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. For my dissertation, I expanded my examination of William Bickerton by contextualizing him and his religious movement within the larger historiographies of American revivalism, Christian Restorationism, Mormonism, millennialism, and biography.
There are two professors that have made an especially powerful impact on my life. The first was Dr. Alan Petigny at the University of Florida. He led my senior seminar on American religion. During the entire semester (and afterward), he took me under his wing and cultivated my interests in American religious history and the Latter Day Saint movement. He taught me how to employ a sympathetic, yet critical approach when examining historical subjects, for which I am forever grateful. As one can imagine, it’s an important skill to have, especially when examining religions. Unfortunately, Dr. Petigny passed away in 2013.
The other professor that changed my life was Dr. Andrew Crome at Manchester Metropolitan University. He was my PhD advisor. Dr. Crome not only refined my approach to American religious history, but he honed my skills as a historian. Whenever I needed guidance, he was there to help (and to top it off, he was always happy to do it). It was the greatest pleasure studying under him. He is by far one of the most brilliant people I know, and his grasp of the scholarship within American and English religious history is vast. I learned more from him than anyone else. He is still a great mentor and friend.
I also have a very special place in my heart for every single professor I studied under during my masters program at Florida Atlantic University. They all were marvelous. I could not have written my book or have gotten into a PhD program without their mentorship. My masters program was just plain terrific.
You are a member of William Bickerton’s Church of Jesus Christ. What are the central beliefs of your religion?
Here are the core beliefs of the church as published on www.thechurchofjesuschrist.org:
- We believe in God: the Father, Jesus Christ-His Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- We believe The Church as established by Jesus Christ has ordained officers consistent with the scriptures, that the believers possess the signs promised to them, and that this Church/Kingdom will remain upon the earth until the end of time.
- We believe the Bible and the Book of Mormon to be Holy Scriptures telling of God’s relationship with the human family. These two scriptures jointly convey God’s dealings and plan for mankind.
- We believe that divine inspiration is an indispensable qualification for the preaching of the Gospel.
- We believe that The Church of Jesus Christ is patterned exactly as is represented in the scriptures including the following ordinances and practices:
- Baptism by immersion
- Laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost
- Lord’s Supper
- Feet washing
- Anointing the sick with oil and praying over them
- Ordaining all spiritual Church Officers
- Blessing of children
- We believe obedience to the Gospel is necessary to obtain salvation by taking the following actions:
- Believe and have faith that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior of the world
- Repent of your sins with a desire to sin no more
- Be baptized by immersion in water for a remission of sins
- Receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands
- Live righteously, remain faithful, and endure to the end of your life
- We believe that the Lord God continues to reveal His will through the power of the Holy Ghost.
- We believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ established resurrection for all mankind.
- We believe that marriage between a man and a woman is a holy institution.
- We believe that many pure and precious tenets of Christ were eventually changed in the early centuries of The Church of Jesus Christ, and that God restored the Gospel of Christ in its fullness.
- We believe that God has promised many blessings to all who love and serve Him, and that He will remember His covenants to the House of Israel.
- We believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ to occur at the end of the world – with the First Resurrection – and that He will wed His Bride, The Church, and gather unto Himself all the righteous.
What kind of historical records are kept within the church? Is there a delineation mark at which records kept by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clearly diverge from other records in terms of relevance to Bickerton?
The church’s archive holds copies of minutes, pamphlets, books, and an assortment of other important documents. The church does not have a professionally managed archive, but over the years, it has become better at organizing its items.
The Church History Library in Salt Lake City is simply amazing. The Bickertonite archive cannot be compared to it. Most religious archives should look to the Church History Library as a bright and shining example of how records should be managed.
Did you consult with other historians while researching and writing your book? Are there any individuals who were especially helpful?
I consulted with the general historian of the Church of Jesus Christ, Larry Watson, and the assistant historian, Anthony Scolaro, while writing the book. They read the chapters and offered advice on the prose and grammar.
I also had several people read sections the book (who I mention in the introduction), but one of the most helpful was Dr. Richard Moore, an educator and historian who is a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He looked at my book from a unique perspective, and offered great critiques on my research and writing.
Ron Priddis at Signature Books was my editor, and quite frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. He was amazing.
Why did Bickerton join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
William Bickerton joined the Mormon Church in 1851, five years after he left Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ. Rigdon had attempted to build the New Jerusalem in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania in 1846, and Bickerton, as a member of Rigdon’s School of the Prophets, had been receiving revelations with other members of the school that Rigdon was going astray. Bickerton refused to move to the Cumberland Valley, and once Rigdon’s New Jerusalem went bankrupt, Bickerton ended up fostering several individuals (spiritually, emotionally, and financially) who had lost much in Rigdon’s zionic experiment.
Interestingly, in 1849, Bickerton was anointed as a prophet by one of his followers, Charles Brown, yet Bickerton eventually felt that he wanted to be a part of a more vested organization. And who could blame him? After all, Brigham Young and his followers were prospering in the West. In 1850, he wrote a letter to Kanesville (Council Bluffs), Iowa requesting for more information about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two missionaries traveling in the East, John Murray and David James Ross, met with Bickerton and his small cohort of followers in West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania in 1851, and after both parties shared their beliefs, concerns, and questions, it was decided that Bickerton and his group would join the LDS Church. Bickerton then became the presiding elder of the new West Elizabeth congregation.
Bickerton never personally knew Joseph Smith and was influenced by Sidney Rigdon. Who was Rigdon and what was it about him that attracted Bickerton?
Sometime around 1844, William Bickerton moved from Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) to West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, a borough just outside of Pittsburgh. Around this time, news was spiralling into town about Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and the Mormons. Rigdon had moved back to Pittsburgh in 1844 to fulfill a prophecy by Smith that Rigdon would sooner or later go back to the city, and to establish state residency to improve his political image as Smith’s vice presidential running mate for the U.S. presidency. Then when Joseph Smith was brutally murdered at Carthage Jail in Illinois, and after Rigdon returned to Nauvoo only to lose the battle for the church presidency to Brigham Young, Rigdon returned back to Pittsburgh. As one can imagine, the local newspapers erupted with news and editorials about all these dramatic events.
Bickerton, no doubt, read these captivating reports about the Mormons and Sidney Rigdon. With his curiosity peaked, he traveled to Limetown (Coal Bluff), Pennsylvania in 1845 to hear Rigdon preach. After hearing only one sermon, Bickerton professed that Rigdon “was the best orator I have ever heard in classing the scriptures together,” and that Rigdon “had the power of God.” Convinced of the restored gospel, Bickerton was baptized into Rigdon’s Church of Christ in June 1845. Not only was Bickerton touched by Rigdon’s words, but we also know that Bickerton was a poor, uneducated English immigrant and coal miner who found an opportunity to belong to a new religious movement where he could grow as a person. As Bickerton said later in his life, “I found that they [Rigdon and his followers] had more [enlightenment] than I had, and I wanted to have all that the Gospel promised.”
Why did Bickerton leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and start a new church?
While a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, William Bickerton was a devout elder. After only ten months, he helped triple the membership of his West Elizabeth branch. However, Bickerton was under the impression that the LDS Church did not practice plural marriage. When he had first met with John Murray and David James Ross in 1851, Bickerton had asked the elders whether the rumors were true about the LDS Church secretly practicing polygamy. He was assured that the rumors were false. Then in March 1852, Bickerton attended a meeting in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania that was called to help prepare LDS leaders for Brigham Young’s forthcoming August announcement about the church’s public sanctioning of polygamy. When Bickerton heard the news, he was shocked. He arose from his seat and declared, “If the approval of God were to come to [me] by accepting the doctrine of polygamy, [I would] prefer the displeasure of God.” Unfortunately, Bickerton felt violated and deceived. From that moment forward, he vowed never to return to the LDS Church.
However, he was unsure how to proceed with his religious life. When he told the West Elizabeth congregation about the Allegheny City meeting, it appears that the congregation did not immediately follow his departure from the LDS Church. During this time of heartache and confusion, Bickerton said that he received a revelation. He was carried away in the spirit and placed on “the highest mountain on the earth.” God told him that “if I did not preach the Gospel, I would fall into a dreadful chasm below, the sight there was awful.” From that moment forward, Bickerton began preaching by himself, attempting to gain converts. After a short period of time, members from the West Elizabeth congregation, along with new converts, began to follow him. Remarkably, this poor, uneducated English immigrant ended up starting a new American church.
Did Bickerton ever have a vision of the Savior?
That’s a great question. I actually had to think about it. Bickerton experienced numerous revelations (more than I can count), but I can’t remember a specific instance where he vividly saw the Savior. However, several people in his church did have visions of Jesus Christ, even Bickerton’s wife, Charlotte.
In what ways is the story of Bickerton’s life relevant to religious believers of all faiths today?
William Bickerton’s life can show believers of all faiths that God is reachable for anyone, regardless of class, race, gender, etc. He was a poor, uneducated, English immigrant who became a religious maverick. Of course, Bickerton had his faults and was a product of his time, but for his day and age, he was still pretty progressive. He believed anyone could receive the full power of the Holy Ghost, and he ordained African Americans and women in the ministry. He also believed that the Native Americans were a chosen people of God who would help usher in the Millennium. Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with his beliefs, he demonstrated that anyone can be a trailblazer.
Do you remember the first time you visited Bickerton’s grave? What thoughts and memories stand out from your visits?
I do remember that moment. It was in the summer of 2011 that I visited Bickerton’s grave. I remember reading the writing on his headstone: “Dear father rest in peace.” Understanding that Bickerton died with a broken heart, those words touched me. His family had hoped he would find peace in death, something Bickerton had hoped for as well.
My biography on Bickerton goes into great detail about the significance of his death and how the events surrounding it affected how he was remembered, or rather how he was forgotten for over a century. This is one of the main reasons why he is a “forgotten prophet.”
If anyone is interested to know more, it’s all in the book! 🙂
BONUS QUESTION: If you could go back in time and observe any event from the life of William Bickerton, what would you do and why?
If I could go back in time, I would love to observe William Bickerton preaching in West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania right after he had the vision of the mountain and chasm. At this moment, he was by himself, attempting to start a brand new religious movement. That would be a worthwhile experience.