|Wm Bickerton: See photo credit below|
The Mormon group that settled Zion Valley Colony was led by William Bickerton, leader of the denomination called The Church of Jesus Christ. The death of Joseph Smith had resulted in the splintering of his church. As in many situations in which a strong leader dies, more than one would-be leader steps forward to assume the vacant role, and the issue of plural marriage, or polygamy, had also presented a crisis of faith for many.
After Smith's death the largest group followed Brigham Young, settling in Utah Territory. The second largest group followed Joseph Smith III, eldest son of Joseph Smith. A third group followed Sidney Rigdon, who settled with his group of followers in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Another splintering occurred when Rigdon decided to relocate to Greencastle, PA, a decision that proved unsuccessful.
William Bickerton, who had been baptized in England as a Methodist at the age of one, had immigrated to the United States, settling in Pennsylvania as a coal miner. In 1845, at the age of 30, he set aside the Methodist faith when he was baptized by Sidney Rigdon at the church near Pittsburgh. The decision by Rigdon to relocate had splintered his followers, and Bickerton was among those who chose not to follow Rigdon to Greencastle. He found himself among those members near Pittsburgh without their leader. Bickerton had refused to accept plural marriage, so joining Mormon denominations practicing plural marriage was out of the question for him. However, he did not feel he could return to Methodism. When The Church of Jesus Christ formed in 1862 and Bickerton was chosen for leadership, he accepted. He felt called to spend the rest of his life in missionary work, and he focused on bringing his faith to Native Americans.
In the fall of 1874 he made a trip to Kansas to visit the area to which be believed he had been called, and that area was near what became St. John, Kansas. He returned to Pennsylvania to collect those who wished to follow him on his mission, and it is the arrival of William Bickerton with his followers that is depicted in the new mural in St. John, Kansas.
The photograph above of William Bickerton was taken in 1905, just prior to his death in February of that year. He is buried in the St. John, Kansas cemetery. The headstone reads: BICKERTON, DIED FEB. 17, 1905, AGED 90 YRS. 1 M. 20 D.??? On the flat portion of his stone is carved "Dear father rest in peace."
Photo Credit: The image of William Bickerton at the top of the page is from the FHSU Forsyth Library Collection, W. R. Gray Studio. The glass plate negative from which the image was produced is part of the collection of the Stafford County Museum in Stafford, Kansas, and the restored Gray Studio is in St. John, Kansas. It appears that the photograph of William Bickerton was a studio photograph, taken in Gray's studio, which is now restored and preserves another important part of St. John's history and the history of the entire region.