Segment 2 | Bickerton’s abandonment of Methodism for Mormonism
What we do know of the Methodist atmosphere aids us in understanding what forces made Bickerton ultimately turn to Mormonism, a heterodox system that was produced by the Second Great Awakening, an American movement in the American Northeast, specifically, “the burned-over district” of New York. (For an analysis of the cauldron of religious influences that fomented into the Second Great Awakening, please read my Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel: A Comparative Analysis, pp. 13-14.)
The biography records:
“One of those drawn to Rigdon was William Bickerton, who heard the prophet speak in mid-1845. Bickerton wanted a better life. He was still employed as a coal miner, working the deposits along the Monongahela River, and lacked formal education. … Rather than being put off by local reports of Rigdon’s revelations and miracles, he must have found them intriguing. Rigdon spoke in Limetown (Coal Bluff), Pennsylvania, six miles from West Elizabeth, and the coal miner decided to hear the famous preacher. Recalling this in 1903, Bickerton remarked that ‘Sidney Rigdon was the best orator I have ever heard in classing the scriptures together.’ After only one worship service, Bickerton concluded that the man he had heard speak ‘had the power of God.’ The subject of the first sermon enthralled him, and he said enthusiastically that he was previously ‘never taught such a Gospel.’ Rigdon preached that ‘there is but one Holy Spirit, and whether Jew or Gentile, bond or free, we have been all made to drink of the same spirit.’ Bickerton felt thunderstruck by this, along with the claim that converts could speak in tongues and heal the sick.
Although Bickerton had never heard such a gospel preached, he was prepared for it by the Methodism he had become acquainted with. Like Mormons, Methodists did not require formal education for the ministry. Both denominations followed the Arminian view that individuals have free will and autonomy in deciding matters of religion and life. Both held out the promise of personal revelation for people in need of moral instruction. And both expected to see the Second Advent. …
Bickerton resigned ‘as a good standing member’ of the Methodist faith in June and received baptism at the hands of John Frazier, one of Rigdon’s high councilors.” (Chapter 2, emphasis mine)
“Sometime before his death, Bickerton summed up why he had accepted the gospel as taught by Joseph Smith: ‘I was a miner all my life and never had any chance of learning or never was at school. During all this time I belonged to the Methodist church, up to 1845 when I went to Limetown, Washington county, Pa., to hear the Saints preach. As soon as I went in amongst them I found that they had more [enlightenment] than I had, and I wanted to have all that the Gospel promised.'” (Epilogue, derived from “A Pioneer Gone,” St. John Weekly News, Feb. 24, 1905)
So, we have the evidence right here by Restorationist scholars’ own admission, that Bickerton went after “a different gospel,” despite Apostle Paul’s lucid warnings that to go after any “gospel” other than the one divinely delivered was to incur God’s curse (Galatians 1:6-12). History records that after a single encounter with Sidney Rigdon, William Bickerton, who never had primary education, got carried away in emotionalistic enthusiasm, and impulsively abandoned decades of orthodox Christianity to instead embrace Mormonism. Bickerton’s claim that he was “never taught such a Gospel” until he heard Rigdon preach is especially remarkable, because this quote attributed to Rigdon is almost a verbatim quote of I Corinthians 12:13, from the Bible, to which Methodists of the period certainly had access. Nonetheless, we are without the full context, and we know that even the most intelligent of people who are deceived by unbiblical doctrine are not so diverted without some mixture of truth and error.
We may consider also the testimony of Bickerton himself, published in 1863:
“William Bickerton was a member of the Methodist Church, until he heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached, in the year of our Lord 1845. He says, ‘I was convinced of the doctrines of Christ, viz., Faith, Repentance and baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit and its effects is according to St. Paul’s writing. … I have spoken with new tongues, and have had the interpretations, and I have seen the sick healed, and I have been healed myself, so that I know that the Gospel is the power of God. I entered the Church under Elder Rigdon’s organization, I was called by the Holy Spirit to be an Elder. I received ordination and the power of God came down and sealed that office upon me, I went forward preaching to all that would hear. I was afterwards called into the quorum of seventies. I received ordination the second time, but the Church became disorganized. Here I was left to myself. I paused to know what course to pursue. I knew my calling was from Heaven, and I also knew that a man cannot build up the Church of Christ without divine commandment from the Lord, for it would only be sectarianism, and man’s authority.
But the Lord did not leave me; no, He showed me a vision, and in the vision I was on the highest mountain on the earth; and He told me that if I did not preach the gospel I would fall into a dreadful chasm below, the sight thereof was awful. I moved with fear, having the Holy Spirit with me. Here I was, none to assist me, and without learning, popular opinion against me, and the Salt Lake Mormons stood in the way. I could not turn back unto Methodism again. No, I knew they had not the Gospel. I stood in contemplation. The chasm was before me, no other alternative but to do my duty to God and man. I went ahead preaching repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some believed my testimony and were baptized, and we met together. The Lord met with us, and we could many times sing with the poet, ‘The Spirit of God, like a fire is burning, the latter day glory begins to come forth. The visions and blessings of old are returning. The Angels are coming to visit the earth.’ … And while waiting before the Lord in a sacrament meeting, the word of the Lord came unto me saying, ‘I accept of you this day as my Church to whom my servant John was commanded to write, while in the spirit, on the Lord’s day, and to the angel of the Church of Philadelphia write.'” (The Ensign, Pittsburgh, 1863, p. 10, emphasis mine)