Title: William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet
Author: Daniel Stone
Publisher: Signature Books
Year Published: 2018
Number of Pages: 400
Reviewed by Andrew Hamilton
Okay, I have to address this right off the top because I am bummed, TOTALLY BUMMED! Alice Cooper is nowhere in this book, NOWHERE! Not even once! Okay, maybe I’m being ever so slightly, a little teensy weensy, just a little bit facetious. But if your average Latter-day Saint knows anything about the restoration group commonly known as the “Bickertonites,” it is that “Shock Rocker” Alice Coper (birth name Vincent Damon Furnier) was born to a family who were members of the “The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite)”. This little fact nugget is generally discovered after a Mormon hears the rumor/myth that Cooper is one of those famous people who is a former Latter-day Saint. The myth goes something like this: Alice Cooper is the son of an LDS stake president who rebelled against the LDS Church and was excommunicated after performing a concert wearing nothing but his garments that had been dyed purple or black, depending on the version of the story (in reality his grandfather was a Bickertonites apostle, so he did have a “leadership” connection after all!). If they were curious and diligent in trying to track down the truthfulness of the rumor, then they learned the real story about Alice Cooper’s religious upbringing. Up until the summer of 2018 though, unless they wanted to do a lot of personal research and digging through various archives, several of which were restricted, they would likely never learn anything more about the history of William Bickerton and the “Bickertonites” then the “Trivial Pursuit” answer that a certain famous 70’s shock rocker was once a member of the organization. Thanks to author and scholar Daniel Stone and to publisher Signature Books, the fascinating story of William Bickerton and the Church that he founded is now available in the excellent scholarly biography “William Bickerton: Forgotten latter Day Prophet”.
A very brief history for those who may need it. In August 1844, two months after the death of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young contended in Nauvoo to see who would succeed Smith as the leader of the Latter-day Saints. Shortly after Young got the public support of the majority of the Mormons there he excommunicated Rigdon. Rigdon then relocated to Pittsburgh where he started his own denomination based around the Book of Mormon and some of the teachings of Joseph Smith. One of his converts was English immigrant William Bickerton. After a few years Bickerton broke with Rigdon and started his own denomination called “The Church of Jesus Christ.” He based his church on the Book of Mormon and on his interpretation of the teachings of Joseph Smith. With approximately 23,000 members in 2018 the Church started by Bickerton is the third largest church that is based on the restoration movement started by Joseph Smith.
In “William Bickerton: Forgotten latter Day Prophet” Daniel P Stone tells Bickerton’s amazing story. In this book he writes of Bickerton’s early life, his conversion to the Restoration, his breaking away from Rigdon, his struggles to attract converts and establish his own version of Mormonism, his attempts to guide that church through the Civil War and frontier life in the USA, his interactions with the Brighamite Mormons, and many more important events until eventually he was cast off by the very church that he started and was then nearly written out of their history by those who replaced him in leadership. The resulting loss of prominence associated with his being removed from the religion that he started led to Bickerton becoming the “Forgotten Latter Day Prophet.”
My own interest in William Bickerton started in the 1980’s. At some point as a teenager I picked up my father’s copy of “Divergent Paths of The Restoration” by Steven Shields. This book was the first to try and present a brief history of all the various church’s and groups that could trace their origins to Joseph Smith in a single volume. Reading this book is when I learned that there were “break off” groups that were connected to Joseph Smith but who were not a part of the church that I had been raised in. I became very curious and wanted to know more. But except for materials about the church then known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (now Community of Christ), there weren’t many readily available resources for me to use to learn about the other churches of the Restoration. So, for about three decades, curiosity was all that I that I had in relation to most of these Restoration cousins. When I learned that Daniel Stone was working on a biography of Bickerton I became very excited to read it. When a review copy was sent to me I was very grateful. I opened the package immediately and eagerly began to devour the book’s pages.
By page three I was sucked in. Stone’s narrative skill is excellent. Writing a scholarly biography that has appeal for a wide audience is a difficult task. It is easy for a biography, especially a religious biography, to become all story and lose objectivity. On the other end of the spectrum scholarly books, especially those written by historians with letters like “PhD” attached to their names, are often so full of academic jargon and footnotes that the average reader gets lost or intimidated while reading. Daniel Stone found the balance. In “Forgotten Prophet” Stone’s narrative flows like the pages of a novel. It is at once informative and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every page of this book. Bickerton’s life was very unusual and interesting, but even people who led interesting and captivating lives can have boring biographies written about them. Stone’s engrossing narrative will keep the reader learning and turning pages to the book’s end.
Another challenge faced by biographical authors is the decision of how detailed they need to be when telling the stories surrounding the life of their subject. In my reading experience many authors of LDS biographies make the mistake of overtelling the story of the history of the LDS Church as they narrate the story of the life that they are telling. I have read several LDS biographies recently that got bogged down by adding far too much padding to their already lengthy page count by giving too many unnecessary details. Obviously, context must be provided, but as a reader, I’m going to get bored real fast if the author spends too much time telling a story that I already know. This is another area where Stone’s writing really impressed me. A lot of context needed to be provided for “Forgotten Prophet” to work. William Bickerton was involved with a lot of history and the details of the Restoration movement can be confusing to those who are not familiar with it. In this book Stone had to connect William Bickerton to Joseph Smith and the Restoration, to Sidney Rigdon and his church, to Brigham Young and disagreements over his teachings (especially polygamy), to the US Civil War, and to the general history of the time. I honestly went into reading this book ready to skip over pages that had too many details that I already knew. But no skipping or skimming was necessary, let me share a couple of examples. In his retelling of the story of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision”, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the beginnings of the Church of Christ, Stone’s writing is deft, trim, and provided just the right amount of detail to link Bickerton to Smith and the origins of the Restoration without boring the experts or leaving the less familiar feeling confused or lost. As the story of Bickerton’s life progresses from his early connections to Mormonism to his attempts to expand his church and proselytize various groups, Stone weaves in just enough details about the surrounding people and events to keep the reader going. He did an especially good job in the detail that he provided on the Civil War. The Bickertonites were centered in Pennsylvania and Kansas while the war was going on and their settlements were frequently near the action of the war. On top of this Bickerton saw the war as a fulfillment of a prophecy made by Joseph Smith and the war and resulting outcomes had a major impact on the Bickertonite church and on Bickerton’s life and theological teachings. In “Forgotten Prophet” the events and impacts of the Civil War flow through four chapter and over 100 pages. Even though I have read a lot on the war as I read these pages I was always learning something new as Stone connected the familiar events to the life and theology of William Bickerton.
There are many intriguing facts in the life if William Bickerton and in “Forgotten Latter Day Prophet” Daniel Stone does an exceptional job of illustrating them. I won’t spoil all the fun, but I’ll mention a couple that stuck out to me. The principle of “Common Consent” was established by Joseph Smith in one of his early revelations. It is a practice that is so important that the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism” describes it as a “fundamental principle of decision making at all levels in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” But while “Sustaining” in the LDS Church is merely an acknowledgement of support for a decision already made by church leaders, the church that was started by William Bickerton was downright democratic. As Stone explains in detail in his book *ALL* members of Bickerton’s church were given an equal voice in church revelations and church decisions. This was an important principle to Bickerton that originally helped him to grow and manage his church, but, sadly for him, was also what allowed him to be removed as the prophet of the very church that he started. A fascinating chapter related to this is about the time that Bickerton spent wandering as an “Itinerant Prophet” after his church voted him out of office.
Related to Bickerton’s democratic nature was his desire to share church teachings and authority with as many people as possible. Stone provides many stories to demonstrate this. Included in “Forgotten Prophet” are chapters on Bickerton’s attempts to start an “Indian Mission.” Through this mission he hoped not only to convert the people that he saw as descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples, but also to find the identity of the “Choice Seer” spoken of in Second Nephi that would play an important role in preparing the church and the world for the return of Jesus Christ. Two other groups were also important to Bickerton. At a time when the Brighamite version of Mormonism was taking some rights that Joseph Smith had given to women and African Americans, Bickerton was granting them. Bickerton gave women voice in his organization, they would often get up in meetings and share visions, revelations, and directions for the Church. He also denounced racism in his followers and reached out to communities of former slaves.
I really enjoyed “Forgotten Latter Day Prophet” and I can’t recommend it enough, William Bickerton was a very interesting man who played an important, and until now largely forgotten role in the Restoration movement and Daniel Stone does a truly wonderful job of sharing his story in a way that is educational and engaging. This is however a “review” and for the sake of review there are three things about the book that I will pick on: an odd choice by the author, a quote that I view as an anachronism, and a historical mistake.
In his description of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” Stone made two choices that I found a bit odd. When he is describing the beginnings of the Restoration movement Stone writes: “The story of Mormonism itself might be said to begin the day in 1832 that Smith wrote in a personal notebook about an event twelve years earlier when he had sought forgiveness of his sins” he then quotes form the 1832 account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision (p. 8). While Stone is correct that this was the first time that Joseph Smith recorded or told about his vision of deity that he would later claim occurred in 1820, and while this vision has become a foundational event in many of the Restoration churches, the way that Stone worded his introduction of the vision makes it sound like that was when the Mormon movement started when in fact “The Church of Christ” founded by Joseph Smith was two years old when this record was made. I understand that Stone was trying to emphasize the importance of Smith beginning to narrate and teach his first vision, but the wording could confuse some people.
The second odd choice occurs when you go to the footnote for the quoted First Vision account (fn 2, pg 8). The source that Stone cites is “Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:3, 6-7”. Dean Jessee’s two volume, “Papers of Joseph Smith” series was excellent. They were the first major publications to try and present a scholarly edition of the collected papers of Joseph Smith. The series was meant to become what “The Joseph Smith Paper’s” is now, but unfortunately the series ended after the second volume. I don’t think that it is wrong or a problem that Stone cited Jessee’s excellent work, but it is awkward. While Jessee’s book was the “go to” source for the 1832 version of the First Vision for many years it has been out of print for some time and is now hard to find. The same material is much more readily available in “The Joseph Smith Papers Histories Volume 1” pages 2-24 and is on the Joseph Smith Papers website with scans of the original documents at http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/1 . I think that it would have made much more sense for Stone to send his readers to the more readily available Joseph Smith Papers volume and website than to the out of print volume.
The anachronism occurs when Stone is writing about the conference in 1859 when William Bickerton was officially chosen to lead his denomination. Stone states that Bickertion “addressed the congregation and reminded them that God had sent out his apostles in pairs” The whole congregation then arose and marched around the building in pairs “singing the hymn ‘How Firm a Foundation”. Stone then states, “Part of the song reads” and quotes two verses of the hymn. He quotes the first verse this way:
“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,
Who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled? …” (p. 100).
The problem is that Bickerton’s congregation could not have sung those words. “How Firm a Foundation” was published in 1787. Most hymnals have the first verse ending in one of two ways:
“What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled”
“What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus, you, who unto Jesus, you, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”
“A Collection of Sacred Hymns” attributed to Emma Smith and published in 1835 uses “You, who unto Jesus, for refuge have fled”. The hymnbook that Stone cites “Songs of Pilgrimage”, which was published in the 1880’s (nearly 30 years after Bickerton and his congregation sang it) has the “you, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?” version. The “Who unto the Savior” version that Stone quotes is, as far as I can find, unique to the modern LDS church. It was first published with those words by the LDS church in their 1985 hymnal. The words were changed from “You who unto Jesus…” because “The original wording was felt to be awkward” and was “easily misheard as “Yoo-hoo unto Jesus!”
The historical mistake in the book comes four pages after “How Firm a Foundation” is discussed as Stone continues to describe the foundational meetings of William Bickerton’s church. He writes about how the decision was made “to ordain Ralph Marsh a patriarch” (p. 104). Stone then describes the patriarchal office both in the Old Testament and in the Church of Christ as founded by Joseph Smith. When describing the content of “Patriarchal Blessings” as given in the Restoration by Joseph Smith Sr. and those who followed him in the patriarchal office Stone writes “It was under Brigham Young that patriarchs started assigning converts an Israelite identity,” (p. 104). While Joseph Smith Sr. did not include a declared lineage in all of his blessings, he did include it in many of them. Hyrum and William Smith included lineages as well. A good source on this are the Signature Books publications “Early Patriarchal Blessings Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints” and “Later Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” both edited by Michael Marquadt. These books contain many blessings given by Joseph Smith Sr, Hyrum Smith, and William Smith. A quick perusal of these blessings shows that these men did often declare lineage in their blessings. Some of my own ancestors received such blessings. On May 14, 1843 Hyrum Smith told Albert Petty that he was of the Tribe of Levi and told his wife Catherine that she was “of lineal descent a daughter of Abraham.”
I realize that I outlined my three objections in some detail, but please, don’t let it take away from your enjoyment of this book. Stone has done his homework, his writing is excellent and enjoyable, his research is thorough, and this book is fantastic. Alice Cooper may have welcomed you to his nightmare, but there is no “Unnecessary sedation” in this book, and while Cooper’s school may be out for the summer you “got (a) choice” because Stone’s “school” on “The Forgotten Prophet” is open for business and well, “If that don’t suit ya that’s a drag” because “William Bickerton: Forgotten latter Day Prophet” would make a fine addition to your library!
Daniel Stone Spoke on his book at the 2018 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium. His session was 322. CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR AND CRITIC: “WILLIAM BICKERTON: FORGOTTEN LATTER DAY PROPHET”. It can be purchased by clicking on the link. He also discussed his book at “The Mormon News Report.”
Copies of William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet are available at Benchmark Books who always have a table at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium.
 See LDS D&C 26
 Sacred Hymns, p. 111 see http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/collection-of-sacred-hymns-1835/113
“Songs of Pilgrimage” p. 524 available at https://archive.org/stream/songsofpilgrimag00hast#page/524
 Davidson, Karen Lynn, “Our Latter-day Hymns”, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1988, pp. 114-116