‘William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet’ compels concerned Christians to asseverate the Bible’s promises of its prophetic authority, sufficiency, trustworthiness
by Peter Benyola
Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations; you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants. …
Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. …
The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. …
You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness. …
Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it. …
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever. …
The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.
~ Psalm 119:89-91, 111, 130, 138, 140, 152, 160
A new volume recently has been added to the historical catalog of 19th-century American Restorationism, which any student of history should admit is a complex, fascinating movement. William Bickerton, Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (2018) tells the life story of a British immigrant to America, who in 1862 revived a Pennsylvania-based splinter sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormonism.
Yet, this book is not simply an objective historical-biographical sketch. The biography imposes spiritual truth claims, first of all, in its title that William Bickerton was a prophet. All claims to truth, no matter their source, invite scrutiny by the ultimate standard of truth, God’s special revelation: the Bible (cf. Acts 17:11). So, biblically minded readers are concerned, of course, and we must make no apology in our Scriptural obligation to ask: Does Bickerton’s conversion testimony and his claim of prophethood hold up to thoroughgoing evaluation by the prophetic testimony of God’s Word?
We’ll have to consider several historical sources, including Methodism and the Great Awakening; Restorationism and the Second Great Awakening; and above all, the Bible itself, to thoughtfully, carefully reckon with the facts at hand. First, according to the new biography’s synopsis:
“William Bickerton is the founding prophet of the third-largest Latter Day Saint denomination, known as the Church of Jesus Christ. Remarkably, his life has largely remained in the shadows. Bickerton immigrated to America in 1831 at the height of the Second Great Awakening. In 1845 Sidney Rigdon, a former counselor to founding prophet Joseph Smith, accepted him into the Church of Christ. Rigdon soon bankrupted his church and abandoned his followers. Unsure where to turn, Bickerton joined with Brigham Young until a moral objection to polygamy left him once again in search of a religious community. Divine inspiration led Bickerton to form his own church based on the original teachings of Joseph Smith.”
In a July 1862 conference, Bickerton was accepted by his followers as the rightful successor to Joseph Smith Jr. as a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” His organization, whose full incorporated name is The Church of Jesus Christ with Headquarters in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, ever since has laid claim to their continuation of the restored “priesthood authority” from Joseph Smith, to Smith’s first counselor in the presidency, who was Sidney Rigdon, and then to William Bickerton, a friend and disciple of Rigdon, then to Bickerton’s successors.
The text that began the Mormon movement was, of course, the Book of Mormon (1830). Then several other documents were published by Smith: The Book of Abraham (1835), which with a few other texts was compiled as the Pearl of Great Price (1851); and the Doctrine & Covenants (1835). After Joseph Smith’s demise in 1844 fragmented the Mormon leadership, Rigdon divided from Brigham Young and his followers, claiming his legitimate entitlement to the LDS presidency.
When Rigdon returned to Pennsylvania, he retained only the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture and rejected the authority of Smith Jr.’s other texts. Most of the doctrines Mormonism is best-known for, i.e., polygamy (multiple marriages), eternal progression (once summarized as, “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”), temples, temple garments, endowments, proxy baptism/baptisms on behalf of the dead, etc., are not taught in the Book of Mormon.
Bickerton followed suit and regarded only the Book of Mormon as inspired from Smith Jr.’s writings. So for more than 155 years, members of the Bickerton organization have disassociated with the mainline faction of Mormonism headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as these doctrines not taught in the Book of Mormon. Because of this, they have sharply spurned being referred to as Mormons. Be that as it may, Bickerton’s organization is inextricable from its origin in Mormonism, so let’s please not waste time getting sidetracked into semantic minutiae. (Ironically, Russell M. Nelson, the current presiding apostle and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, recently announced his “revelation” that the mainline sect of Mormonism will no longer use the terms “Mormon” to refer to themselves and “Mormonism” to refer to their organization, and update the Newsroom style guide according to the new standards. It’ll be interesting to find out how the LDS Church plans to re-brand and successfully shed its association with the terms Mormon and Mormonism after almost 200 years.)
What’s more important to understand is that the so-called “restored priesthood authority” is a significant component of Mormonism. William H. Cadman, who later was Bickerton’s successor as president of this reorganized faction of Mormonism, wrote in 1945:
“The Church of Jesus Christ presents itself as the true succession of the Gospel as restored through Joseph Smith in 1829-1830; therefore it will be necessary to observe its rise at that time.” (A History of The Church of Jesus Christ, W.H. Cadman, p. 2)
By all means, let’s observe.