Cemetourism: Zion Valley, Kansas

About a hundred miles west-northwest of Wichita is the small community of St. John, Kansas.  St John was once known as Zion valley, and this town has played an interesting role in the ongoing restoration of the gospel. 

After the martyrdom and succession crisis at Nauvoo in 1844, Sidney Rigdon went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his followers.  They were known as the Church of Christ (Rigdonites), or simply as Pennsylvania Mormons.  In 1845, William Bickerton heard Rigdon preach, was converted to The Restoration, and accepted baptism.  When the Rigdonite congregation failed, Bickerton was left without a church.  He briefly joined with a branch of the Utah church which met in Elizabeth, PA, and eventually became an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.  However, after a visit from missionaries in 1852 who told him that Brigham Young was openly teaching plural marriage, Bickerton left the LDS church.  He continued to believe in The Restoration and the Book of Mormon, and in 1862 founded an organization known simply as The Church of Jesus Christ, which is sometimes colloquially known as The Bickertonites.[1]

Bickerton felt strongly that the message of the Book of Mormon needed to go to the American Indians, whom he considered descendants of the Lamanites and a branch of the House of Israel.  In 1875, he and approximately forty families moved from western Pennsylvania to the plains of Kansas.  They located themselves on the banks of Rattlesnake Creek and founded a community they called Zion Valley.  They committed themselves to the principle of economic communitarianism[2] and to evangelizing their neighbors and the nearby Indian tribes. 

Rattlesnake Creek today, looking southwest toward St. John, KS

They were successful in their missionary work among their neighbors, and within 10 years their town had grown to number over 500 families.  The name of the town was changed to St. John, after Kansas governor St. John.  The town grew large enough to warrant its own railroad stop, which was good for the prosperity of the town, but was damaging to the church.

 
By the 1880s missionaries from Salt Lake City were passing through St. John on their way to and from their missionary assignments.  They were quite surprised to find a large group of people who held the Book of Mormon to be sacred and who called themselves saints living on the western plains of Kansas.  As word of the Bickertonites spread to Salt Lake City, the decision was made to locate the Southwestern States mission office there.  The LDS church, which had now officially discontinued the practice of polygamy, managed to convert many of the Bickertonites. 
 
Chapel still used by The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) in St. John, KS. This was once an LDS chapel.

Some of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ still living in St. John have relatives or friends in places like Murray or Pleasant Grove, Utah.  They continue to meet every Sunday in a building that was once an LDS meetinghouse.  At the current time, there is no LDS presence in St. John.  The nearest ward is in Great Bend, 20 miles away.

 
By all accounts, William Bickerton was an honorable man, and toward the end of his life was known as “Uncle Billy” to the residents of the town he founded.  Although he probably would object to the comparison, he reminds me of Brigham Young in many ways.  It takes a lot of faith to move to someplace like Rattlesnake Creek,  say “This is the place”, and envision Zion.
 
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[1]The Bickertonites ordained the first Mormon apostle of African descent in 1910.  His name was John Penn.  The rocker known as Alice Cooper was raised in a Bickertonite home, although apparently he was never baptized.
 
[2]William Bickerton was serious about the consecration of worldly goods and frowned upon those who didn’t comply.  There is a record showing that a member who withheld some of the money intended for Zion Valley was excommunicated for “practicing rascality”.

Comments

  1. Love the pictures Mark.

  2. Did the missionaries consider William Bickerton bicker-some? Much to their chagrin, apparently.

  3. Some one correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the Branch of the Restoration to which Alice Cooper’s family belonged. I believe that his father or Grandfather held a high office in this Church.

  4. andrewh, you are correct. And so is footnote # 1. 8-)

  5. StillConfused says:

    Sounds a nice religion

  6. alice cooper’s dad’s name was: “Ether Moroni Furnier”

  7. Fascinating, Mark. Thanks.

  8. If I ever get excommunicated, I hope it’s for rascality.

  9. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) we still believe that the Native Americans of North, Central and South America are part of Joseph and we look forward to the gathering of the entire House of Israel. William Bickerton was a humble brother by all accounts, he is much loved still in our church today. Also, just for point of clarification, we are only known by Bickertonite by other Restoration factions, we don’t refer to ourselves as such.

    Alice Cooper has never been a member of the Church, his grandfather was an Apostle of the Church his name was Thurman Furnier.

    I’ve been to St. John and know the minister there well. Just like any place in a church’s history, regardless of denomination, it is special because you can feel the echos of the past there. For us, St. John is like that.

  10. Cool write-up, Mark. And thanks for stopping by, Lisa.

    I have to question the wisdom of creating a settlement next to Rattle Snake creek. Unless, one is inrerested in testing Jesus’s peophesies, of course.

  11. #9: Lisa, Thanks for making our world bigger.

  12. I’m very jealous, Mark — I’d love do go to St. John and do this bit of cemetourism. Glad you went and tracked all of this down. Great report!

  13. Mark, can you say anything more about the intersection of Utah LDS and Bickertonite in St. John? The idea I get is that LDS missionaries converted several Bickertonites, formed a branch, and built a meetinghouse; the LDS converts mostly moved away to Utah, the LDS branch closed, and life went on as before for the remaining Bickertonites, who stayed put.

  14. Researcher says:

    Very interesting. Some of my husband’s ancestors were members of the Bickertonite church, and I always enjoy reading about that church.

    Unfortunately I do not know too much about my husband’s ancestral families. One ancestor, Joseph Astin, emigrated from Lancashire, England, to Monongahela, Pennsylvania, where he joined the Bickertonites, became one of their original apostles, and married a Scotswoman, Martha Glackin, who was also a member of the church. The Astins evidently moved back and forth several times between Pennsylvania and Kansas, but seemed to be in St. John permanently by 1885. Joseph was baptized into the L.D.S. Church in May 1889, and this post has provided extra context about how and when that happened.

    Martha was baptized five days after his death in August of that same year, evidently against the wishes of her family, and she and her children and at least one of her sisters moved to Utah, leaving her widowed mother and perhaps other relatives in Kansas.

    That’s about all I know, except for a dramatic story about how Joseph came to leave the Bickertonites, but I will not repeat that here since I have never seen an original source for the story.

    Thanks for the post!

  15. Lisa, thank you for taking time to comment.

    John Mansfield, I think you have summed it up. The other factor in play is the loss of population from the small agricultural towns all over the Midwest. The young people go away for jobs or education and never come back. That has also contributed to the decline in numbers for both the Church of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints in St. John.

    Researcher, I’m glad I was able to fill in some of the blanks.

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