Segment 6 | The pathology of Bickerton’s conversion account
God’s Word is “the measuring stick” of all that is true and right — this is whence we derive the word canon, which means “model.” The apostles taught that is the duty of the both the clergy as well as the laity to test the authority of anyone who claims to be a teacher or prophet sent by God (I Timothy 1:3-7, II Timothy 2:14-26, I Timothy 4, I John 4:1-6). At one point, Paul compared the false teachers of his and Timothy’s time to magicians who opposed Moses during his time (II Timothy 3:8-9). Because of this correlation, the criteria that Moses set out in the book of Deuteronomy for gauging the authenticity of prophets has a transferable principle for the Christian church now.
In presenting the tests of those who would approach the Hebrews claiming to be prophets, Moses said that the Word, not power, is the primary indicator of genuineness (Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:15-22). Even if someone appears to be performing miracles, if he is not being faithful to the Word of God as it has already been delivered, the people are not to fear, they are to reject him with all their hearts, and purge the evil from among them. In ancient Israel, false teaching was to be treated like a lethal pathogen, a spreadable epidemic that must be quarantined and eradicated. Such a false prophet is to be (symbolically) “put to death.”
By now, the evidence is obvious and immediate. Far from carrying the testimony of Jesus, which is the mainspring and the spirit of prophecy, the Book of Mormon is on an unavoidable collision course with the Bible. The doctrinal problems with the Book of Mormon are untenable from the biblical perspective. In confessing the Book of Mormon, Bickerton doesn’t even square with the basic biblical definition of Christian prophecy, to say nothing of his alleged qualification as a prophet of any new revelation.
Because William Bickerton negotiated his belief in the authority, the sufficiency and the infallibility of the Scriptures, he set himself out to sea without a sail, tossed about by various winds of doctrine, and finally shipwrecked his faith on the shore of Mormonism. It is only for the Lord to know whether Bickerton’s faith was ever placed in the biblical Christ instead of a decoy which resembled Christ.
The biography indicates that Bickerton preserved his faith in Mormonism apparently by avoiding rational thinking; instead he dedicated his mental energy to identifying himself as the one who would carry on the torch of Mormonism after Joseph Smith:
“After ten months of affiliation with the Utah Latter-day Saints, Bickerton felt as violated and deceived, just as he had when Sidney Rigdon left Pittsburgh for the Cumberland Valley. Again Bickerton stood at a personal juncture and felt somewhat unsure how to proceed. It is remarkable that he did not return to Methodism, and the reason he did not was because he retained the firm belief that his calling was from heaven. The way he saw it, his spiritual dedication had preserved him from sophistry, and despite the failures of Rigdon and others, he could not denounce what he knew was true. The Book of Mormon opened his eyes to the glorious potential of the American Indians and the foretold peaceful onset of the Second Coming. He was determined to take part in it, somehow. … There would have to be a prophet who could stand ‘in the room and stead of Joseph Smith to lead forth his people.’ After thinking about it, he concluded that ‘that man is William Bickerton.'” (Chapter 3, derived from the Ensign of 1862-65, p. 4-5)
At the risk of sounding too polemical on this point, it does detract from the credibility of our subject figure that in the task of rescuing Christianity, William Bickerton envisaged William Bickerton.
“In conclusion, I send my love to all, both Brothers and Sisters, and hope you will all prove faithful and stand by the Church.
Your humble Brother in Christ,
Elder William Bickerton” (Appendix: Testimony of William Bickerton, 1903)
Bickerton might have been drawing from the Book of Mormon’s reference to becoming “sufficiently humble,” which is a rather ironic notion. It doesn’t take the most self-aware individual to know that when he describes himself as “humble,” especially in writing, he relinquishes any humility he might have had. Now, before someone gives me static for “nitpicking” Bickerton while ignoring that Moses referred to himself as “very meek” (Numbers 12:3), let’s remember that the Holy Spirit was directly inspiring Moses to write the Torah. Moses came up with at least five excuses trying to avoid his calling to lead his people (Exodus 3:10-14, 4:1, 10-15), but he ultimately conceded to God’s ordination (Exodus 4:28-31). God said that Moses was “the meekest man on the face of the earth,” so that is exactly what Moses had to write.
Bickerton, on the other hand, arrogated himself as the rightful successor of Joseph Smith’s religion, which he also audaciously claimed to be the Church of Philadelphia in John’s Revelation. The fact that it isn’t recorded that Bickerton mentioned anywhere in his testimony any allegiance to Christ himself, with all his emphasis on allegiance to the organization, frankly, betrays the endemic attitude in Mormonism which seems to elevate “The Church” over everything including the Lord himself.
At the end of his written testimony, Bickerton recounts several questionable neo-pentecostal experiences in his new following.
“We then began to increase in numbers, and formed ourselves into Conferences. Elders were called and ordained, and the Lord being with us, the signs followed the believers, the gifts of the Spirit being made manifest in tongues and interpretations of tongues, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, visions, dreams, faith, discerning of spirits, and the sick healed, and pains removed, so that we began to grow up into the knowledge of the Son of God, and the Lord our God made a Covenant with us, that he would lay a ground work by us to perform a great work; and we are the stem, and every party that splits from us shall come to nothing. … While waiting in conference before the Lord, the word of the Lord came unto us saying, ‘try me and prove me, and see if I will not open unto you the windows of Heaven and pour you out a blessing, so that there shall not be room enough to contain it.’ And on the following Sabbath while we continued to wait before the Lord, the word of the Lord was fulfilled in our midst, for there were some completely overpowered by the power of God; and at this Conference several of the brethren had visions, one of which we’ll give. ‘I saw in the vision the road that the Saints were traveling on; the foot of which road was in the waters, and ascended gradually up to Heaven. It was as a straight and narrow road, so narrow that there was not room to turn either to the right or to the left; and on each side of the read was all manner of different kinds of beautiful flowers to tempt the Saints to pluck them, but under the flowers lay a great depth of mud, and the prettier the flowers the deeper the mud, so that if anyone stepped aside to pluck any of the flowers, they were sure to stick fast in the mud; also, the road itself was so firm that many cannonballs that were fired at the road, could not as much as make a mark upon it.'” (A History of The Church of Jesus Christ, W.H. Cadman, p. 9, emphasis mine)
What especially makes the claim dubious that these events were “from God” is that Scripture’s precedent shows Spiritual manifestations in the apostolic period accompanied true revelation, the prophetic witness of Christ — not fear-based tribalism, as is shown here. As for the supernatural healings purported in this scenario: the Lord in His “common grace” (cf. Psalm 145:9) can heal anyone, anytime, anywhere, in any belief system, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that one’s doctrine aligns with God’s truth.
“We are the stem, and every party that splits from us shall come to nothing,” Bickerton declared. This is the quintessential language of cultism. Our Lord admonished (Luke 6:45), “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
The innate craving for power and influence that tempts men from all walks of life is what misguides so many of us to place our personal aspirations and feelings above sound biblical principles. Many men have compromised these principles to become masters over their own little domains, often breeding a culture of fear. Generation after generation that is unwitting enough to follow such megalomaniacal demagogues show that many of the men who come after them inherit this vice of self-aggrandizement. By their very own admission, “Like Mormons, Methodists did not require formal education for the ministry,” and Bickerton, with zero seminary credentials or even a basic education to speak of, was able to set up for himself a platform in Mormonism as “a big fish in a little pond,” so to speak.
Pride is enough of a struggle for any man, including godly men who try to rely on the Bible — and Mormonism’s exclusive holding of a “true priesthood authority” amplifies this pride, feeding many men’s desire for platform and position. The consequences are systemic. The outcome is the life stories of men such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Sidney Rigdon and William Bickerton.
We quote so much of Bickerton’s account of this alleged vision of the fate of those who “stray from the path” of his organization’s doctrine because right at the very end of this account, he quotes a classic Christian hymn:
“Therefore, we must exclaim with the poet:
‘How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word;
What more can He say, than to you he hath said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled.'”
(A History of The Church of Jesus Christ, W.H. Cadman, p. 9)
As we have undertaken to conscientiously evaluate through the lens of Scripture and of history, the claims of William Bickerton and the Book of Mormon which he upheld as God’s inspired Word, we must find Bickerton’s quotation of this lyric to be very ironic. Can we reasonably entertain the notion that the composer of this hymn — first published in 1787, more than 40 years before the so-called “Restoration” — when he wrote, “How firm a foundation … is laid for your faith in His excellent word,” had in view the Book of Mormon and its assertions of being the infallible Word of God, to be placed even above the Bible? If the hymn writer really wrote “How Firm A Foundation” during this “Great Apostasy” wherein Mormonism claims God had abandoned the earth bereft of the Holy Spirit and of the knowledge of the gospel — then why would Bickerton in the first place have borrowed from a hymn that emerged from such an abject apostate condition?
We have to point out that ever since Mormonism’s very beginning, Christians always have had to deal with it in defense, not offense. Joseph Smith is the one who instigated the dissonance between Christianity and his new religion. In 1820, Smith Jr. allegedly had the First Vision in which God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him. Smith recounted asking them which church to join:
“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'” (Joseph Smith – History, 1:18-20)
That was quite a stupendous statement, especially considering Smith couldn’t seem to get his story straight. At least nine variants of this supernatural encounter during a period of several years state that Smith saw both the Father and the Son, heard the Father and saw the Son, saw a multitude of angels, and other inconsistencies.
Very soon after the Book of Mormon, from 1830 to 1834, Joseph Smith’s works reveal that he underwent a project to extensively modify several books of the Bible, taking it upon himself to “prophetically restore” what the Book of Mormon claims are missing “plain and precious parts.” In fact, Smith Jr. interpolated thousands of his own arbitrary words and phrases into the biblical text, some of them supposedly prophesying about himself, that have no basis in textual criticism of ancient Bible manuscripts (this proves Joseph Smith had the capacity to write text mimicking King James English, and to commit calculated fraud). Since “the Word of God is living and active,” using a biological analogy, we may fairly compare the Book of Mormon to a virus that first invades an organism, penetrating its cellular membrane in order to infuse the cell with its own genetic code, then replicating itself until the host organism is corrupted beyond recovery. But since this host’s genome is strong and sufficient in itself to defend against the viral onslaught, the immune response of the living Word inevitably prevails.
Bible teacher, Dr. John MacArthur expands a similar analogy:
“Throughout history, deadly epidemics have ravaged mankind. In the fourteenth century, the infamous ‘Black Death’ (an outbreak of bubonic plague) killed millions in Europe. Cholera, diphtheria, malaria, and other sicknesses have ravaged towns and cities. Our generation has witnessed the rapid spread of the fatal disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). More deadly than any of those diseases, however, is the plague of false teaching that has afflicted the church throughout its history. While illnesses may kill the body, false teaching damns the soul.
Like AIDS and the plague, false teaching has a definite, observable pathology. (Pathology is the study of the elements of abnormality that characterize a disease.) Scientists study the pathology of a disease to better equip themselves to recognize it and combat it.
Every leader in the church should be a spiritual pathologist, able to discern deviations from spiritual health. Only then will he be equipped to diagnose the deadly disease of false teaching, and to do what is necessary to check its spread among his people. Paul warned of the subtle danger of satanic lies, describing their purveyors as
‘false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
It takes careful discernment to see that the light is really darkness.” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: I Timothy, pp. 237-238)
Elsewhere, MacArthur has taught, “When you’re looking for people who are deceived, look for people who are seeking feelings, blessings, experiences, healings, angels, whatever, that are only interested in the byproducts of the faith, not in Christ. They’re not consumed with the glory, and the honor, and the wonder, and the beauty, and the magnificence of Christ. … They’re only there for the byproducts of that which is attached to Him.”
The late Dr. Walter Martin, the original “Bible Answer Man” who specialized in general Christian apologetics and counter-cult apologetics, capped his extensive research of Mormonism:
“From these facts it is evident for all to see that Mormonism strives with great effort to masquerade as the Christian church complete with an exclusive message, infallible prophets, and higher revelations for a new dispensation that the Mormons would have us believe began with Joseph Smith Jr.
But it is the verdict of both history and biblical theology that Joseph Smith’s religion is a polytheistic nightmare of garbled doctrines draped with the garment of Christian terminology. This fact, if nothing else, brands it as a non-Christian cult system.
Those who would consider Mormonism would be greatly profited by a thoughtful consideration of the facts and evidence previously discussed, lest they be misled into the spiritual maze that is Mormonism.” (The Kingdom of the Cults, Walter Martin, p. 259)
In the final analysis, we must consider the “perfect storm” caused by the unfortunate confluence of various factors: 1) the doubt of assurance cast upon congregations by some preachers in various settings of Methodism in Britain and the United States; 2) the aberrant ideas of teachers such as Charles Finney and Joseph Smith who had audiences during the Second Great Awakening; 3) the emergence of Restorationism and the cults that grew out of uninformed Christianity; 4) self-delusion through allowing oneself to be enchanted by effusive, neo-pentecostal experiences; 5) the vanity of pride and position that generally tempts all men from within, but especially preys on men who lack the foundation of personal conviction about biblical authority, sufficiency and infallibility.
It should be no wonder that working-class people such as William Bickerton, seeking refuge from 19th-century America’s religious maelstrom, should be susceptible and end up laying hold to false assurance by running headlong into the gaping maw of a false belief system.
“What more can He say, than to you he hath said, you who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?” The answer that Christians would have given in 1787, a few years after the gospel vehemence of George Whitefield, is the same answer that Christians give today. God’s Word, the Bible, is sufficient for faith and life, and therefore its testimony of Christians’ secure salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is his people’s essential gift of prophecy. So we, who know these promises to be all-sufficient, all-trustworthy and “deserving of full acceptance,” resound with another verse of that same 18th-century hymn inspired by Jesus’ prayer for his people in John 17 that secures our salvation:
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes:
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never — no, never, no, never forsake!”
And we finish, of course, with the certification of God’s own Word:
“The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
you will guard us from this generation forever.”