ST. JOHN Looking over the valley where he soon would build a town, William Bickerton knelt and prayed to God that no cyclone would hit his colony of followers disillusioned with the Mormon Church.
As long, that is, as the faithful would continue to reside there.
Nearly 140 years have passed since that blessing on the hill — nearly 140 years since the town of St. John’s beginnings. And, over the years, many a tornado has come close to the county seat’s borders, but none has done damage.
This, however, is more than a legend of blessings preventing cyclones. St. John’s tale is as rich as the fertile fields surrounding it. It’s a story of faith, mixed amid local legend.
Yet, in this town of 1,200, the history of this its upbringing is sometimes forgotten.
“Some people think we were settled by Catholics,” said David Robinson, one of the dozen or so Church of Jesus Christ members still meeting.
And, he noted, few really know of St. John’s past, of the leader named Bickerton or of the present church today.
There’s no mention, on St. John’s community or government Web pages, of its founding. Nor is Robinson’s Church of Jesus Christ listed among the community’s handful of places of worship.
David Losey, the elementary school principal who has lived in the area 13 years, said he didn’t know the story of how St. John was founded.
He did know of the tale of the blessing.
St. John’s past is rich and complex, said Michael Hathaway, the curator at the Stafford County Museum.
“It’s a fascinating history,” he said, adding that “most really don’t know the history.”
The Church of Jesus Christ, also known by some across the country as Bickertonites, incorporated in Pennsylvania in 1865. However, the organization traces its roots to Joseph Smith and the 1830 founding of the Mormon Church, according to Gary Entz, a McPherson College history professor who wrote about the origins in a research paper published by the Kansas State Historical Society.
Bickerton, considered by followers as the successor to Joseph Smith, led a sect that denounced polygamy and other doctrinal changes that had taken place at the end of Smith’s life and during the tenure of Brigham Young.
It wasn’t long after severing his connections with the Latter-day Saints that Bickerton had the first of several epiphanies that told him his path would lead to Kansas. Sitting in the home of his brother one day in West Virginia in the 1870s, “My attentions were forcibly drawn to Stafford County, Kansas,” Bickerton said, according to the book “No Cyclone Shall Destroy: The Story of St. John, Kansas.”
In the fall of 1874, Bickerton came to Stafford County and blessed the site. That night, he and a few other men camped at the future site of St. John, making a small corral of buffalo bones to keep out wild animals. The next spring, he led 35 families by ox-driven wagon to the site, naming it Zion Valley. They built a church on the same site where Robinson’s church sits today, Robinson said. Meanwhile, a post office was in Bickerton’s own home.
Help from governor
That same year, the Kansas Legislature dissolved Stafford County, turning it over to Barton, Pawnee and Pratt counties. Two townships were excluded, however, and Robinson says he thinks this was, in part, an act to sabotage the colony’s success. However, with the help of then Gov. John P. St. John, the Kansas Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional, restoring Stafford County’s boundaries, except for a sliver given to Pawnee County.
In an effort to get the county seat, colonists proposed to eliminate the “Mormon” name of the town — Zion. They voted to officially change it to St. John in honor of the governor, according to Entz’s research. Meanwhile, the governor asked another favor, Robinson said. Gov. St. John, instrumental in helping exodusters find settlements in Kansas after the Civil War, requested that Stafford County and the St. John area take in a colony.
St. John soon began to develop. Yet the Bickerton followers who had been enthusiastic advocates for an incorporated town were becoming a minority. Eventually, their church site was lost after a financial hardship. The church structure was moved to St. John’s downtown and turned into a hardware store. And the site that Bickerton had blessed a few decades before became the location of the new Brethren church.
Not that this was the end of Bickerton’s group. They met in homes until they could rebuild their church on another site. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ, including Robinson and his father, Alexander, were able to purchase back the original church site in the 1960s.
Bickerton died in 1905.
Robinson said he himself is a descendent of the early settlers. His great-great-great-grandmother, Jane Glacken, was a practical nurse and midwife for the settlement.
Years have passed since those early days, Robinson said while standing inside the church he attends each Sunday — whose congregation is made up mostly of his family. A photo of Bickerton sits behind a glass case, along with other past church leaders.
Yet, despite the small numbers, the site on the small knoll is significant, Robinson said of the land. It’s here that Bickerton is said to have driven the “stake of Zion,” forming his community and establishing the church at the present site. In a cemetery on the eastern edge of town, Bickerton’s monument stands tall.
And, “with faithful saints” still residing in St. John, the elder’s prayer still protects St. John.
Museum curator Hathaway says he remembers watching a tornado come within 1 1/2 miles of his home on the southern edge of St. John in 1993. The tornado lifted as it passed over the city.
Meanwhile, Robinson said, the tornado that destroyed Greensburg also got within a few miles of St. John, moving northeast when it shifted slightly, missing the town completely.
“The town remains spared,” Robinson said.