Touching on American religious history and sociology of Christianity, feminism and racism, worth a look is this article by Sharon Otterman in the NYT Metropolitan section (Sunday). It’s about Zaraphath Christian Church, described as the flagship congregation of the Pillar of Fire, a Methodist offshoot founded in 1901 by Alma Bridwell White.
The article describes the transformation of the congregation into a vibrant (and multi-racial?) contemporary mega-church, and how the church either confronts (or ignores) the complex historical legacy of its founder.
Here’s from the article:
“The woman at the center of Zarephath’s story was born in 1862 to a poor family in rural Kentucky. Mollie Alma Bridwell, as she was known then, grew up wanting to be a preacher, but was told to marry one instead. Chafing at the restrictions, she started preaching in Denver, where her Methodist preacher husband was posted, and ultimately formed her own church. When a New Jersey widow, inspired by her writings, deeded her 70 acres of farmland between the Millstone River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal, she left Colorado, ultimately separating from her husband, and moved the denomination’s headquarters here.
Pillar of Fire gained considerable fame in the first decades of the 20th century, in part because of the oddity of a woman running a religious sect years before women had the right to vote. Puritianical and strident, Bishop White described her church’s guiding principles as “emancipation for women and ultra-fundamentalist doctrine.” Yet her followers also tried to capture the joy of Christianity in their worship.
To the sound of drums and cymbals, they would march through the aisles and even jump while they prayed, earning them a nickname that stuck, the Holy Jumpers. The New York Times twice sent reporters to Zarephath, once in 1907, and once in 1910, to witness and write about her remarkable faith commune, where dozens of men, women and children in dour uniforms eschewed personal possessions and ran their own schools, printing press and farms.
Driven by curious press accounts, several radio stations, and her publishing operation — Bishop White edited six magazines and wrote some 35 books — membership grew. Dozens of Pillar of Fire churches were founded around the country. Pillar of Fire slowly bought up the surrounding farms around Zarephath, growing the community to some 1,200 acres, with its own ZIP code, power plant, bible college and fire station, church historians recounted.
But in the early 1920s, Pillar of Fire took a turn. Bishop White began preaching about how God had given the nation to white Protestants and needed to be protected against Catholics, Jews, blacks and others who threatened its purity. In that decade, Bishop White wrote three books extolling the K.K.K.’s contributions to America, particularly as a bulwark against what she feared was a Roman Catholic plot to take over the country. She permitted Klan meetings and cross burnings on her church campuses, setting off a riot in Bound Brook, N.J., in 1923 when some residents objected.
At the height of its popularity in the 1920s, scholars believe, as many as six million Americans belonged to the Klan. As its popularity waned in later years, so did Bishop White’s support. But it didn’t disappear completely. She republished edited versions of her pro-Klan books in 1943, three years before her death, with introductions by her son, the Rev. Arthur K. White, who would lead the denomination until the early 1980s.
Another lesson she tried to teach was about the temptations of ministry. In her sermons, Bishop White had railed against the decadence of modern life, particularly declaring war on male Protestant ministers who used their religious positions to conceal lusts for women, tobacco and other vices, wrote Kathleen M. Blee in her 1991 book, “Women of the Klan.”