Segment 1 | Why William Bickerton is a figure of interest

The author of this new biography of Bickerton is Mr. Daniel P. Stone, who also is a member of the eponymous Bickertonite organization. Stone is a talented historian and academic. If the founding figure of my religious denomination had not yet been biographed, then I would be motivated to put the hard work into writing his biography, just like Stone did for Bickerton. As someone who knows the effort required of researching, writing, annotating, citing, peer-reviewing, proofreading, editing, revising, and finally publishing a finished product, I have no doubt that many hours of hard work and dedication went into this biographical project.

The reason this new book is a subject of interest at Benyola.net is that I was raised in the same organization, and at one time I personally knew Daniel Stone. He is one of the friendliest, most warmly engaging people I’ve ever met, and I don’t exaggerate. His parents also are very kind people. I’ve stayed in their home, and I’ve eaten their food at their table (almost a decade ago). Unimpeachable are the qualities of cordiality and hospitality of the Stone family and many other members of the organization.

I defected from the Bickertonite organization to join Bible-based Christianity because of my convictions over essential Christian doctrine: I accept the Bible’s assertions of its reliability and supreme authority (and the canon of the Bible as Protestants have affirmed it and Christians historically have recognized it for nearly two millennia). Therefore, I believe the Bible’s promises of it preserving a complete gospel. Simply as a result of those convictions, I had to jettison the Book of Mormon and its similar assertions about itself which are in contradistinction to those of the Bible.

My exposition of Mormonism’s claims has never been personally against anyone who holds to that system of doctrine. It’s always been strictly about the doctrine – if anything, I am “personally for” people who hold to this doctrinal system. There is no more personal aspect of a human soul than how he will stand before a holy God, which righteousness of Christ by faith alone covering him is his right standing (Romans 1:17, 5:1-2, II Corinthians 5:21). My protests have always been out of love and concern, and to expose the spurious claims of Joseph Smith Jr. and the Book of Mormon, because the most fundamental of Christian beliefs is the substance of my convictions.

All of this is nothing less than the struggle for divine revelation, and therefore, eternal salvation. The eternal fate of the souls of men and women is hanging in the balance.

Yet, we concede that history which leaves a legacy has value no matter whose history it is. The new book vividly chronicles the transatlantic journey of William Bickerton (January 15, 1815 – February 17, 1905):

“It took about five weeks for sixteen-year-old William Bickerton to reach New York City in 1831, where he arrived at the beginning of summer. One can imagine how warm and humid it must have been below deck and how happy he must have been to emerge into the open air in his new country, even though the culture was foreign and his future uncertain. To cross the Atlantic Ocean in those days required courage. In wishing his family and friends goodbye, he wondered if he would ever see them again, traveling hundreds of miles from his hometown to London, apparently alone, and boarding the Cambria, no doubt knowing he risked contracting typhus or cholera onboard the ship.” (Chapter 1; page numbers are unavailable because a digital file of the biography was purchased.)

The biography’s first chapter paints a colorful picture of one English immigrant’s experience during an era deserving its honored place in the annals of both British and American history. Any story, especially during this period, is a story worth telling. However, from a Christian angle that has to deal with the assertion of Bickerton’s title as a “latter day prophet,” we must point out that the book is noticeably deficient in providing detail of Bickerton’s religious background before he joined Mormonism – though we’ll grant that this might simply be because more detailed and reliable information specific to his background hasn’t been available. Thus, we accept there are some aspects of his story that are impossible to reconstruct.

We know Bickerton was born in Ancroft Parish, very close to Kyloe, on the northeast coast of Northumberland (Descendants of Thomas Bickerton, Joyce Bickerton Pilgrim, p. 1), and he was probably raised in Methodism. Since Northumberland is a large English county that had several Methodist congregations, it’s probably impossible for us to hone in on precisely what kind of Christian teaching Bickerton received. Yet we do at least know that John Wesley — who co-founded what would come to be known as the Christian tradition of Methodism with his brother, Charles, and George Whitefield (pronounced WIT-feeld) — had been very influential on Methodist teaching in the area of Northumberland.

John Wesley, adopting the Arminian tradition, espoused a view of Christian salvation that was anthropocentric (man-centered) rather than theocentric (God-centered), insisting on man’s will as being the operative will in conversion; while George Whitefield taught God’s sovereignty in salvation and His will as overwhelming and effectual in changing the human heart. Wesley and Whitefield were close friends whose mutual concerns about the general spiritual malaise throughout England spurred them to begin the revivalist movement in the first part of the 18th century within Anglicanism, that would come to be known as Methodism. Unfortunately, sometimes their controversy very publicly displayed the disparate views of salvation that characterized these Methodist founders. From other events we’ll discuss, this visible dispute most likely proved unhelpful to Methodist laypeople’s clarity on the most important matter of how God saves.

The Bickerton biography does say in one of its brief mentions of Methodism:

“Baptists and Methodists led the crusade to win souls for an emotional and supernatural engagement with religion. People looked back to a simpler, biblical form of Christianity and forward to the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Men like Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith contributed to this reshaping of Christianity, which brought disharmony as Protestant denominations splintered into a variety of sects.” (Chapter 1)

When we consider the source, we should notice this as a spin on Mormonism’s influence of Protestantism’s fragmentation. When Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr. was assassinated in 1844, the resulting succession crisis in the LDS leadership splintered Mormonism into dozens of factions. Many of these factions became defunct by the turn of the 20th century, each claiming to be the Restoration’s true succession. These include Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ sect in West Elizabeth, the Pittsburgh area; and the Primitive Church of Jesus Christ and Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ splinter groups from the Bickertonite organization. Cadman himself admits this schism in the LDS movement:

“It must be remembered that while there is much division today among those who profess faith in the restored Gospel, that until the death of Joseph Smith in June, 1844, there were no organized secessions from the Church. But since his death there have been many divisions, confusing many who have sought to know the truth of the latter day work, who were moved upon by the wonderful testimonies of its adherents. This divided condition is lamentable, especially since the Bible and Book of Mormon are so plain on the vital questions which have arisen,—such as the plurality of wives, baptism for the dead, many Gods, etc., and while I have no desire to excuse the adherents of the restored Gospel, yet I must admit that similar conditions have been manifest among the children of men in the various times of God’s dealings with them. For instance, the Christian world, generally speaking, is a poor example of the immediate followers of Christ when they met together all in one accord. … The Church which was organized at Green Oak, Pa., in July of 1862 with William Bickerton as its President, has professed that out of the chaotic condition that developed, the Authority of the priesthood restored in 1830 was preserved in and through this organization. … In submitting this work unto the members of The Church of Jesus Christ and to the world at large, I am aware that it may meet with some criticism, but in the main I believe it will provide its readers with much good. I have tried to be fair, at the same time giving no just cause for me to be accused of infractions.” (A History of The Church of Jesus Christ, W.H. Cadman, 1945, p. v, vi)

William Bickerton is a relatively small figure in Restorationist history, but since Bickerton’s story of conversion to Mormonism is now receiving scholastic attention, reasonable scholarship calls for a closer look at that testimony. Evidently, by his own admission, Cadman anticipated this kind of evaluation from Christians.

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apologetics, soteriology