Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bishop Alma White

Alma White, born Mollie Alma Bridwell on June 16, 1862, became the first woman bishop in a Christian denomination (though she had founded it herself). Growing up in a poor Methodist Episcopal family in rural Kentucky, but too far from any church to attend regularly, she waited impatiently for conversion. The family went to tent meetings and revivals as circumstance allowed, and finally her conversion experience occurred at age sixteen.

Soon after, she felt that she was being called to preach, though it seemed like an unlikely profession. Settling on the idea of becoming a missionary, which was considered an appropriate field for women, she trained to become a teacher, later accepting a few temporary teaching positions in Colorado and the surrounding states. During this time, however, she married Kent White, a Methodist Episcopal minister, apparently agreeing to become a minister's wife and support him in his work. Her husband was aware of her other ambitions, and initially helped her begin by having her occasionally take his place in situations when he was expected to preach.

Over the next several years, in the 1890s, it became apparent that Alma was the better preacher, and that people responded to her in a powerful way. Kent White became ambivalent, sometimes continuing to let her substitute for him at revival meetings, when denominational authorities refused to sanction her preaching, but criticizing her at other times. This put additional strain on an already troubled marriage, but Alma came to believe that it was her husband who should be assisting her in her ministry rather than the expected other way around.

Alma found scriptural support for her preaching in a passage from Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. She pointed out the women of the Bible who were leaders or who testified to their experiences, women such as Deborah, Esther, Miriam, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, and the Samaritan woman at the well; and also the passage from the book of Joel: "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (she interpreted "prophesy" as "preach"). The oft-cited passages against women speaking in church in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 she rejected as being limited to the specific circumstances in those early churches. She argued that if those passages were strictly applied, women could do nothing in church: no praying, singing, testifying, or even leading Sunday School. She was also consciously following in the footsteps of Phoebe Worrall Palmer in her adherence to the Holiness Movement within the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, but planned to go beyond Palmer's reluctance to assume the role of "preacher." Alma further came to believe in equality for women in all spheres, not only in ministry, and later in life worked in support of women's suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment by publishing a magazine called Women's Chains.

Finally, in 1901, Alma made her break with the Methodist Episcopal Church, believing that it had departed from the teachings of John Wesley (and also that they would never ordain her -- in fact, women were not given full ordination in Methodism until 1956, ten years after her death). She and several supporters, including her husband, formed the Pentecostal Union with Alma as leader, and shortly thereafter she was ordained, along with three men and one other woman. The new organization, encompassing several missions that had been started by the Whites in the Midwest, began publishing a magazine called Pillar of Fire, a name which eventually replaced the Pentecostal Union name. In 1917, Alma had herself ordained bishop in the Pillar of Fire Church, which was performed by the Reverend William Godbey, another former Methodist and, not coincidentally, the minister present at her conversion many years earlier. By this time Kent White had finally left his wife, as much over their long rivalry in ministry as over diverging theological views (he came to believe in glossolalia - speaking in tongues - which she strongly rejected). He lived most of the rest of his life in England and Canada.

Alma had begun writing gospel songs, both words and music, a few years earlier during the Whites' revival preaching, and she realized the importance of new songs that would reinforce the beliefs and sense of community of her new church. Their first hymnal, Pillar of Fire Praises (1906), contained several songs by her among its 134 selections. The second one, The Harp of Gold (1911) had more than fifty pieces by Alma, usually both words and music, but sometimes one or the other, to texts or tunes by other church members such as her son Arthur, or her niece, Gertrude Wolfram. This song first appeared in The Harp of Gold, which was described thus in advertisements in other Pillar of Fire publications: Nothing to be found like it anywhere. 232 of the best songs published. Nearly half of these songs were written by our own people and were INSPIRED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

The joys of salvation are flowing,
I'm living in Canaan's fair land;
I came to the great swelling Jordan,
Crossed over by God's guiding hand.
My heart is now filled with God's rapture,
My days are so happy and blest;
I'm singing and shouting God's praises,
Oh how could there be sweeter rest!

In Canaan there's fruit in abundance,
Fair gardens where olive trees grow,
I drink of unbounded redemption,
Where rivers of life ever flow.

The cares that had once gathered 'round me
No longer my pathway pursue;
I'm walking through vales of God's promise,
On paths that are sparkling with dew,
Oh, how can I tell of such wonder?
Oh, who can the mystery unfold?
The mountains are dripping with honey;
The bounties of God I behold.

The days of my mourning are over,
And heaven is coming in sight;
The glory of God is appearing
O'er hills that are glowing with light.
The chorus of angels is swelling,
The saints of all ages are there,
For all who have suffered with Jesus,
God's riches in glory will share.

Alma White, 1909; alt.
Tune: CANAAN'S JOYS ( with refrain)

(Thanks to commenter Leland Bryant Ross for creating the sound file so that we all can hear this song!)

Alma White continued to write songs for her church, more than two hundred, according to obituaries that appeared after her death on June 26, 1946 in the New York Times and TIME Magazine. Two more hymnals were published for the Pillar of Fire Church during her lifetime: The Silver Trumpet (1926 - 343 selections), and Cross and Crown Hymnal (1939 - 565 selections). A collection called The Bugle Call: Hymns and Poems of Alma White, appeared in 1943.

The Pillar of Fire Church grew and flourished for many years, with churches both around the country and internationally. In 1907, a farm on eighty acres in New Jersey was given to the church, and Alma decided to move the headquarters there from Colorado. There they built a self-sufficient community, including schools and a college, a power plant, and a post office, which White named Zarephath, after the place where the prophet Elijah was sheltered and miraculously fed by a poor widow (from 1 Kings 17). The church acquired radio stations in Denver, Cincinnati, and Zarephath to spread their message, one of the first denominations to do so.

Now comes the tricky part. Though White was definitely a feminist who supported equality for women, and had defied convention in becoming a female minister, then a bishop, she was also a fundamentalist who preached against modernism, and in support of an extreme form of patriotism. She believed that members of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially Catholic immigrants, were dangerous because their first loyalty would be to the Pope in Rome rather than to their country (a view shared by many). In the 1920s she allied herself with the re-emergent Ku Klux Klan, apparently more due to the anti-Catholic and immigrant stance of that organization than to their racial views (she had worked with African-American evangelists in the past, and there was no bar to their membership in the Pillar of Fire). The New Jersey branch of the Klan, which was most familiar to White, downplayed the racial aspect, emphasizing their patriotism and anti-immigrant (Catholic) beliefs, as well as their support of "pure womanhood" (which she apparently misinterpreted to believe that they were also feminists). Many other Protestant churches in New Jersey during these years also supported the Klan, though not on a denominational level like the Pillar of Fire.

This association has marred Alma White's reputation ever since. Her support of the Klan had waned by 1930, though for some reason she republished some of her pro-Klan writings a few years before her death. When I came across The Harp of Gold online I wondered why I had never heard of her before, and why none of her many songs seemed to be sung in other churches (or were available at the Cyber Hymnal). I'd imagine this is partially because the Pillar of Fire was probably very protective of their copyrights and also that "mainline" denominations looked on them as an insignificant sect, but I think the Klan issue has also played a role, particularly in more recent times when modern hymnals cast a wide net to find "new" material.

I wondered for a time if I should even post this entry and present her work, or if it should be left in the past. I decided, helped by some discussion with Leland, that we know of White's distasteful views (only part of her story) because she lived in relatively modern times, and her church's use of mass media helped make those views widely known. In fact, many hymn writers from farther in the past, whose works we sing today, also held strong anti-Catholic opinions (as well as opinions against other religions and denominations not their own), but we are generally not as well-informed about the views of those writers. I probably wouldn't include Alma's songs in a modern hymnal, but I do think she's a fascinating woman. Her primary biography, Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White by Susie Cunningham Stanley (1993) which supplied much of the information in this entry, barely touches on her songwriting or the music and hymnals of her church, so I think it's a valid area of study.

The Pillar of Fire remains in existence today, led by the husband of one of Alma White's granddaughters. There are only six congregations left in this country, but several more around the world. They still have schools and colleges in New Jersey and Colorado, as well as their radio stations. A seminarian blogger visited the Denver church earlier this year and posted several current pictures, while the historical society of Franklin Township in New Jersey maintains an online archive of older photographs of Zarephath.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Glad to have been able to make the MIDI for you. It's a fun song to sing. I put a link to your blog on the seminarian blogger's photoblog (as a comment on the memorial stone photo).

Leland aka Haruo

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's necessarily correct to say that Alma White wasn't much of a racist, at least not in her later life (i. e., after she started supporting the Klan). She did make statements like:

"Where people seek for social equality between the black and white races, they violate the edicts of the Holy Writ and every social and moral code… Social and political equality would plunge the world into an Inferno as black as the regions of night and as far from the teachings of the New Testament as heaven is from hell. The presumption of the colored people under such conditions would know no bounds... This is white man's country by every law of God and man, and was so determined from the beginning of Creation. Let us not therefore surrender our heritage to the sons of Ham. Perhaps it would be well for white people to take the advice of a great American patriot, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans and repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. The editor of The Good Citizen would be with him in this."

I think it's entirely plausible, though, that she initially started supporting the KKK only because of its anti-Catholic, pro-temperance, pseudo-feminist, etc. views, and only after hooking up with them did she absorb their views on race. She was also an extreme anti-Semite, too, and her anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism were deeply intertwined with one another (her essential worldview revolved around the idea that there was a Judeo-Catholic conspiracy to subvert Protestant America and take over the world, and only the KKK could stop this from happening).