The First Black Apostle of the Restoration: A Black History Month Story

February 14, 2008
By

I think we’ve now achieved consensus in the United States that without regard to race, everyone should have an equal opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A century ago, however, our ancestors and the country fell far short of achieving that ideal. 1910 was in the middle of a particularly poor era. In the South, reconstruction had been abandoned and the policies of segregration and disenfranchisement of blacks had been established. The first great wave of black migration from the South to the North had begun. In the North, African Americans found industrial jobs, but they also encountered significant discrimination — often as pernicious as what they’d left, albeit subtler.

But remarkably, 1910 was the year that a black man was called and ordained to be an apostle. His name was John Penn and he was the first African American apostle of the Restoration Era.

Although in 1910, Latter Day Saints who traced their connection to Joseph Smith through the leadership of Brigham Young still banned blacks from the priesthood, this was not true for all Latter Day Saints. Taking the opposite stance was the Church of Jesus Christ that traced its line to Joseph Smith through the leadership of Sidney Rigdon and William Bickerton. Headquartered amid the steel foundaries of greater Pittsburgh, in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Bickertonite membership was concentrated primarily in the industrial corridor between New Jersey and Detroit.

Although most Bickertonites were working class men and women of modest education, they had always embraced the ideal of racial integration and they preached the restored gospel to fellow workers regardless of race. This idealism was shown to be more than lip service when African American men were ordained to the church’s highest leadership positions, that of Seventy (of which there are precisely 70) and the Twelve (of which there are 12).

John Penn served as an apostle from 1910-1955, during which time he was an active missionary who brought the restored gospel to many other souls, especially working class Italian Americans.

Hats off to our Bickertonite cousins this Black History Month.

40 Responses to The First Black Apostle of the Restoration: A Black History Month Story

  1. February 14, 2008 at 9:19 am

    How about the title: “The First Black Mormon Apostle: …. ” ?

  2. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 9:31 am

    John: I thought about it, but members of the Church of Jesus Christ don’t call themselves “Mormons.” They are firm believers in the Book of Mormon, and they talk about the “Restoration” and the restored church and the restored gospel. However, they don’t really even use the terminology “Latter Day Saint.” We call them “Bickertonites,” but they don’t use that term.

    I switched it to “First Black Apostle of the Restoration.”

  3. Chicago
    February 14, 2008 at 11:29 am

    One word: Authority.

  4. February 14, 2008 at 11:41 am

    They don’t use Mormon, Latter-day Saint, or Bickertonite, what do they use to refer to themselves? Perhaps Restorationists? I am guessing that if they define themselves as Christian then creedal Christians raise similar objections to them using the term that they apply to Mormons.

  5. John Nilsson
    February 14, 2008 at 11:50 am

    The Bickertonites are the most under-rated sect in Restorationism. They not only produced the first black apostle to believe in the Book of Mormon, they produced the first hard-rocker to record the single “Feed My Frankenstein”!

  6. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Re #4: They don’t say “Restorationists.” RLDS fundamentalists use that term to refer to themselves.

    I’ve met a number of Bickertonite historians and apostles and attended their regional conference here in Michigan. What I heard a lot was the usage, “Church members” and “the Church”. They belong to The Church, and it is “the one and only true church” — which is a phrase they do use. For early members of the church (Joseph Smith, etc.), they use the phrase “the Saints,” but I haven’t heard them use that to refer to themselves. They reserve the term “Mormons,” to refer to you folks who broke off and followed Brigham Young out to Utah.

  7. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Re #3: Everyone has a claim to Authority. When Joseph and Hyrum were killed, the Authority of the First Presidency of the Church resided in Sidney Ridgon. Rigdon excommunicated the apostate apostles and ordained successors including William Bickerton. Bickerton was told by God through direct revelation that The Church of Jesus Christ had been accepted as “the Church of Alma” and that just as Alma had fled before the depravities of King Noah to keep the true church alive in the wilderness, Bickerton and his fellows were given the Authority to preserve the church from apostasies such as polygamy.

    I don’t know what more Authority anyone needs other than the canonical power of presidency supplemented by a direct confirmation from the Lord.

  8. John Nilsson
    February 14, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    John,

    Two words: Name Recognition. ;)

  9. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Re #8: You’ve got ‘em beat there, John. :)

    As they are busily spreading the word of the restored gospel (they have about 10,000 members), they have one frustration that LDS missionaries never face. They are constantly asked, “If you believe in the Book of Mormon, why aren’t you a member of the Mormon church?”

    That part can’t be fun. But, in addition to being the “most underrated,” (re #5) they are also the most isolated. I’ve had the feeling that they’ve hardly paid much more attention to the rest of us than we’ve paid to them. Visiting with them and attending their meeting, I had the impression that I had gone back in time to Kirtland to participate in a Latter Day Saint service of that era. In isolation, they seem to have preserved a number of practices that much of the rest of the movement has abandoned.

  10. February 14, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post, John. My hat is indeed off to the Bickertonites.

  11. John Nilsson
    February 14, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    John,

    Any examples of preserved practices you’d like to share? Feet washing? Common consent in radical forms? Traveling without purse and scrip?

  12. February 14, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks, John, for the fascinating post. Too bad Dehlin got to you before we did. The JI would have loved this post.

    I’m now officially fascinated with the Bickertonites.

  13. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Re #11: They do feet washing, yes. I can’t tell you for sure how radical voting remains in General Conference because I haven’t observed one. They are very much opposed to paid ministry. All of the Apostles and Seventies donate all their own time and expenses; no one is paid.

    A major difference in the service is that it is entirely conducted by the promptings of the spirit, i.e., it’s not just prayers that are not written down. Talks and even the schedule of the meeting itself happen as the spirit moves.

    Imagine sitting in Sacrament Meeting and having the Stake President pick you out of the congregation and say, “Br. John, do you feel inspired to talk?” And then you get up and talk on whatever topic you were asked to speak on or what you felt prompted to talk on until you felt that you were done. Then the Stake President would call on someone else, “Sr. Lisa Ray, do you feel inspired to give us a musical presentation…?” (Yes, people were called on to do musical numbers without advance preparation!)

    I can tell you that the effect was to keep everyone on their toes. I have never been to a Latter Day Saint service that had as much energy as I felt meeting with the Bickertonites.

  14. February 14, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Many in and outside of the Church are not aware that all men were holding the Priesthood when the Gospel in it’s fullness was restored. So actually, the 1978 revelation gave the Priesthood back to Blacks.

    AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO WERE ORDAINED TO THE PRIESTHOOD IN THE 1800’S & 1900’S

    • Elijah Abel, from Joseph Smith in 1836
    • Walker Lewis in 1844
    • William McCary aka Black Pete 1846
    • Enoch Able 1900
    • Elijah Abel (Grandson of the first Elijah Abel) 1934

  15. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Re #10 and #12: Thanks Christopher and David. Let me put in a plug: if people aren’t regularly reading the Juvenile Instructor, they ought to be — especially if they are interested in Mormon history.

    David: If you decide to follow your fascination up with research, I can tell you that the field is wide open and rich. Gary Entz has done excellent work on the Bickertonite colony in St. John, Kansas. (People who don’t know Bickertonite history may wonder why the LDS church established the headquarters of the Central States Mission in St. John, Kansas?) But aside from Entz’s work and the work of the Church of Jesus Christ’s own volunteer historians, almost nothing has been done. These folks are very interesting as a potential subject of comparitive study and in their own right.

  16. February 14, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Andy, I’m pretty sure most people on this thread are well aware of the individuals you bring up and the general circumstances regarding their ordination. But a few isolated instances of African Americans being ordained in the LDS Church is nowhere even close to being the same as the Bickertonites embracing “the ideal of racial integration” and ordaining a black man to the Apostleship. The Bickertonites definetely deserve applause and recognition for their progressive stance, not only in Restoration circles, but in the larger Christian and American communities.

  17. February 14, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I totally agree with that Chris. My intent was not to invalidate the Bickertonites.

  18. John Hamer
    February 14, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Re #14,16,17: Thanks Andy and Christopher, good points both. The experience of the early Saints could probably use some promoting too. While I think a lot of people have now heard of Elijah Abel, the story of Walker Lewis is probably less familiar. Connell O’Donovan uncovered an incredible amount of information on Lewis, which he published in volume 26 (2006) of the JWHA Journal. The article, “The Mormon Priesthood Ban and Elder Q. Walker Lewis: ‘An example for his more whiter brethren to follow’”, is a scholarly tour-de-force, 52 pages long. I think it was one of the most important articles in Mormon studies published that year.

  19. Eric
    February 15, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Regarding impromptu performances in church services, our LDS ward in Provo, UT, had a remarkable pre-Christmas sacrament meeting this past December. The date was December 23, 2007. As members arrived, they were greeted at the door by the first counsellor in the Bishopric. Several were invited on the spot to prepare to read a scripture passage and share thoughts on the given passage when invited up later during the meeting. Men and women alike were singled out. They each did a thoughtful, energetic, untrepidatious job. Musical numbers were invited from the pulpit. Literally, the first counsellor, who was conducting, announced, we need a woman and a man to come up and sing verses of whatever song it was. My brother (a young married professional) volunteered on the spot as did a young woman (a high school senior). They alternated verses and sang a duet for the final verse, as I recall. My kids had cheered him on, but he had his hand up without hesitation before they could chant his name twice. The young men sang a number impromptu. The young women likewise. The relief society also. The Elders quorum also. There was no advance warning or notice. The whole meeting was unusal in this respect and remarkably uplifting and smooth.

  20. February 15, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Interesting stuff. As David said I too will have to look more closely at them.

  21. February 15, 2008 at 12:24 am

    hmm just found some additional info. Already some interesting differences:

    see this webpage for more info.

  22. February 15, 2008 at 12:26 am

    sorry just one more pps.

    They also have a website http://www.the-church.org

  23. February 16, 2008 at 12:11 am

    This is interesting. So do the members of the Church of Jesus Christ have the Doctrine and Covenants as well? What about the revelation to Joseph Smith of the name of the Church being “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, etc. Do they believe that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet then? What about the comments that Joseph had about releasing Sidney Rigdon and that he wanted him to go but the Saints kept him?

  24. John Hamer
    February 16, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Aaron: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ reject the Doctrine and Covenants, specifically because so many of the revelations as originally given and as printed in the Book of Commandments were altered, sometimes radically, when printed in the D&C. The church believes in continuing revelation, but they do not believe in publishing those revelations as a new book of scripture. For them, the Bible and the Book of Mormon contain the fulness of the gospel.

    In terms of the name change, they reject the 1834 change to “Church of the Latter Day Saints” and the 1838 change to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”; they do not consider either of those changes to have been of God. They believe the original Restoration idea that the true church of Christ on earth must be called Jesus Christ’s Church and nothing else.

    Finally, in terms of Joseph’s comments, people remembered that Joseph said a lot of things. What do you make of Joseph’s comments that “If Brigham Young ever gets control of the church he’ll run it to the devil”?

    Joseph and Sidney had quarrelled over polygamy (which Sidney opposed) in 1843, but they had reconciled by 1844. At the time of his death, Joseph was actively engaged in running for President of the US with Sidney Rigdon as his Vice Presidential running mate — no small vote of confidence. And at the time, Sidney was still in the First Presidency, he’d had his calling and election made sure, and he was a member of the Council of Fifty, senior in rank to Brigham Young.

  25. GrahamW
    February 17, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Hi John H;
    Your posts about the other restoration churches are always facinating. Are the Bickertonites the same group as the small restoration church that is mainly made up of Italian Americans? Do they currently have black general authorities?
    Do you have a reference for the JS quote regarding Brigham running the church to the devil?

  26. John Hamer
    February 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Hi GrahamW: Yes, they are the same folks who are heavily Italian American. They do not currently have any African American apostles; I’m not sure about the Seventy. The only black apostle I can think of off-hand today is Bunda Chibwe of the Community of Christ.

    Joseph Smith supposedly uttered that line in the presence of my great-great-great-great grandmother Nancy Case Winchester at the family’s home in Nauvoo. It was related many years later by her son Benjamin Winchester, “Primitive Mormonism: Personal Narrative of It by Mr. Benjamin Winchester, an Early Convert and Church Elder,” Salt Lake Daily Tribune, XXXVII:135 (22 September 1889). According to W.W. Blair, James Whitehead recalled a similar statement “he heard Joseph say in public, that if B. Young had the lead of the church he would lead it to ruin. (or to hell),” William W. Blair Diary, entries for June 1874. William Smith also claimed that he heard the same thing from his brother’s lips, Saints’ Herald 26:117 (15 April 1879).

    All of these sources are late and hostile to Brigham Young, but I do have a certain affinity for what Winchester has to say, since he’s a member of my own family.

  27. Matthew
    February 19, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites). I just happened to stumble upon this article. Currently, we do have an African-American in the Quorum of Tweleve Apostles. He was ordained in October 2007 and his bio has not been added to the church’s apostles page yet.

    As was stated in a post above, we do not recognize the Doctrine and Covenants. We use only the Bible and Book of Mormon as scriptures. We do believe, however, that in future times other records will come forth from the other 10 tribes of Israel visited by Jesus Christ. We practice and participate in ordinances exemplified by Christ during his ministry.

  28. John Hamer
    February 19, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Re #27, Matthew: Welcome! I didn’t realize you had a new apostle. Thanks for the update!

  29. Matthew
    February 19, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Re #28, Thanks for the welcome. In response to another comment made in Re 26…we also have several African Americans in the Seventy.

  30. Philip
    March 5, 2008 at 7:54 am

    I am also a member of the Ministry of The Church of Jesus Christ. You have nailed it in most of your descriptions above. We make every attempt to practice the pure, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ, as he provided it to us, using the Word of God (Bible and Book of Mormon) as the foundation for all beliefs and actions. Our meetings are conducted very much the way they have been described above, and we encourage everyone to “…ask God which Church to join.” We know He will answer. We look forward to your visit soon.

  31. RB Scott
    May 2, 2008 at 6:53 am

    Months late and a dollar short I have finally caught-up with this interesting, fascinating exchange today (May 2nd). There is a small Church of Jesus Christ near where we live in Massachusetts. Because of the discussions here, I plan to visit soon. This raises a technical question: are CJC eclesiastical precincts divided into wards and stakes? And, if the Doctrine and Covenants is not accepted as scripture, is it nevertheless accepted as an historical record, abridged though it may be?

  32. May 17, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    I am an ordained Evangelist of the Church of Jesus Christ-Bickertonites. My current position in the Church besides being an Evangelist is I am The Africa Sector Chairman overseeing the operation of our church in 8 Africa countries with a membership of 6,000,117 Ordained Pastors and 2 Evangelists.

    As a member of the church in my youth I knew Apostle John K Penn, he having stayed in our home many times. Apostle J K Penn was a great Preacher in his day, powerful in delivering a sermon under the inspiritation of the Spirit of God. At our October General Conference of 2007, I was priveledged and blest to witness the Ordination of an African-American as an Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ. With the Ordination of Apostle James Crudup the Quorum of Apostles is now complete with 12 Men.

    In response to RB Scott, we are not divided into wards or stakes. We have 5 Regions in the United States made up of a number of Branches,Established Missions and Missions. We do not accept the Doctrine and Covnenants as an Historical Record.

  33. Betty D'Orazio
    May 20, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Hi John,

    I’m so excited that you are bringing forth our church, The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites) and witness the interest that has been shown and what we believe. Thank you.

  34. May 24, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Hello John and all,

    John you have been quite accurate about the Church of Jesus Christ (Bikerton). There was an experience about William Bikerton who was ordained by Sidney Rigdon. William had been preaching in the Church under Sydney when things apparently started to change. William didn’t agree, and for a time was attending other churches, I believe the LDS for a little. (Not sure, but John you might know better). Anyway what I WAS thought in Sunday School was that William Bikerton had and experience where he was standing at the edge of a chasim or cliff and God told him to preach the word of God or God would throw him in the chasim.

    William kept preaching the word of God and established this church, The Church of Jesus Christ keeping it as close to what it was in 1830 with just the Bible and Book of Mormon (as mentioned in Ezekiel-Two sticks nothing else)

    our website is http://www.thechurchofjesuschrist.com

  35. Tom
    May 30, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    In reply to RB Scott The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites)meets at the Holiday Inn in Dedham once a month. Our next meeting is June 15th at 10am. We look forward to seeing you and welcome your visit. For directions the Holiday Inns number is 781-329-1000

  36. Inquire
    June 27, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Do you have a church in VA?

  37. Ken
    June 30, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    To Inquire:
    Yes, there is one in Herndon. I will find the address and send it to you shortly.

  38. Dick
    July 1, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Our Branch in Herndon is located at 800 Elden St.,Herndon. The telephone number is 703-707-8433.

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