Following the collapse of Sidney Rigdon’s church, people looked to William Bickerton to lead the flock. Dr. Daniel Stone tells us more details about William Bickerton’s prophetic vision and call to become prophet of a new church with a Book of Mormon foundation.
Daniel: [Bickerton] says that he was carried away in the spirit and placed on the highest mountain on the earth, he said. In one of the accounts it says that there was just room enough for him to stand on this mountain, and he’s basically told and shown, “Here you are in this mountain. You’re doing everything right.”
You kind of get the sense that he feels like God’s telling him “You’re on the right track. Stay where you are. Keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing, but if you leave this path that I’ve put you on, you’re going to fall and tumble.” And William Bickerton sees this chasm below. And he says that the Lord told him if he didn’t keep doing what he was doing, that he would fall into the chasm. And he said that the sight was awful at one part. In another account, he says that he would fall and be torn into bits. So, he saw and he felt that he didn’t have any other choice other than to stay on this path because he didn’t want to fall down that way. So, he starts preaching by himself.
I don’t believe this vision is well-known. What is not well-known either is the fact that Bickerton’s church has been ordaining women since the 1860s! Daniel and I discussed the similarities and differences between Bickertonite and Brighamite priesthood. Bickerton was a big fan of Joseph Smith’s Civil War prophecy, and it led to some interesting theological innovations in his church.
Daniel: This is because of Joseph Smith Civil War prophecy, he’s really seeing it. This is the approaching of the end times. Jesus Christ is coming back. This is the beginning of the apocalypse and eventually according to Joseph Smith’s Civil War prophecy, it’s going to encompass the whole earth, right? So, he has to ordain a Quorum of Twelve to kind of institute that fervent missionary effort to kind of bring people in because of the approaching calamities. And in 1863, a year after, they ordain a deaconess.
And what’s interesting is because you kind of see as they’re ordaining deaconesses, they’re also saying, well we need to have midwives in the church too. That’s really important. So, you’re starting to see a real emphasis on women ministering to the church because they really believe the end times are coming. It’s going to get more and more serious and worse. So, midwives back then were much more trusted than doctors. So, they’re kind of thinking pragmatically, okay, well if we’re in destruction and there’s no help for anything, we want to have midwives to help care for the wounded or people that are sick or people who are giving birth. Obviously, they were very trusted. So, they’re trying to ordain deaconesses as a holy office, but calling or wanting to have midwives in the church to train them for the hopes of helping to minister to the church as well.
It turns out they ordain women because of a biblical precedent!
William Bickerton is very much a Christian primitivist or a Christian restorationist like Joseph Smith. He’s trying to look at the scriptures literally. So, they get the idea from deaconess because of Phoebe and some of the others that are mentioned, you know, where they use that Greek word Diakonia I believe it is, where basically means deaconess. So, they are a member of the ministry. So, they’re looking at the scriptures and they’re really scrutinizing, and they see prophetesses in the scriptures. You know, even in the New Testament there were prophetesses. So, he’s looking at this thing. Women can have this power of the Holy Ghost to move. And if they see that women were, you know, even though brief, brief mentions of it in the New Testament.
Now I admit that deaconess is not the same as apostle and prophet, although women do prophecy in their church on behalf of the church. I don’t think it’s full inclusion of females for priesthood, but it was interesting to learn that women are ordained via anointing with oil, and do perform priesthood functions. Clearly Bickerton’s church was more than a century of ahead of its time with regards to ordaining women, although it should be noted that both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young allowed women to bless by laying on of hands. What are your thoughts concerning Bickerton’s church and female priesthood? Is this a good option for the LDS Church to allow limited ordination of women? Does it still fall short of full inclusion for women, or is it a good first step?