Feb 26, 2014

'If I did not believe God loved the blackest Negro girl':
Responses to American racism among early white Pentecostals

When W. F. Carothers travelled across Texas and the South in the early days of the 20th century, he saw the Holy Spirit at work. People were being healed. People were speaking in tongues. Souls were being saved and sanctified. And racial segregation was being strengthened.

Carothers denied he was, himself, racially prejudiced. He was, he said, "a native Southerner, who through the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ is incapable of prejudice."

 He believed blacks could be Christians as well as whites. He acknowledged the value of their souls and recognized they too received the Pentecostal sign of sanctification and were filled with the Spirit and speaking in tongues.

That didn't have anything to do with the rightness of segregation, though.

In fact, this early Pentecostal leader, who played a role in the beginnings of the Assemblies of God, saw sanctification as an aid to segregation. Where Northern do-gooders might meddle with the laws enforcing the natural order that divided the races, the Holy Spirit was working on human hearts to preserve those divisions.

Reflecting on talk of racial integration, Carouthers' wrote,
Now to meet this unnatural, unheard of condition, God has resorted to the next best expedient, and through his Spirit has intensified the racial impulses between the white and black man as the only remaining possible barrier to the miscegenation of their respective races ... in truth it is the work of God.
Carother's was not the only racist among the early Pentecostals.

As the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, George O. Wood, said this month, it was an "epoch in America where the church caved in to to the culture rather than transforming the culture."

W.F. Carothers
The Assemblies of God has recently called attention to that past as it has pursued racial reconciliation. One of the largest Pentecostal denomination in the US, the Assemblies is increasingly racially diverse, in contrast to most of American Protestantism, evangelical and mainline. Currently, about 40 percent of US members are non-white. The church's racial make-up very closely mirrors America's. In the process of the once all-white church's transformation, leaders have been open, too, to recalling and condemning the racism of early leaders such as Carothers.

It is worth noting, though, that Carothers' position was not the only option. There were some white ministers empowered by the Holy Spirit, as they saw it, to reject racism, reject segregation, and defy other white Pentecostal's opinions. They flouted the law, cultural norms, good taste, and what was held by most whites to be the natural order.

The story of racism among white Pentecostals in the early days of the movement is complicated by opposite extremes. There were ministers like Carouthers, and then there those like William B. Holt and James Logan Delk.

The co-existence of racist and anti-racism sentiments among early white Pentecostal ministers complicates the story that's commonly told. The standard narrative of early Pentecostal racism imagines an original moment where racial divisions and prejudices were overcome, and then a declension into old patterns, a cultural accommodation of segregation. David D. Daniels, for example, has written than there was an impulse towards interracial harmony in the early days, especially in the Azusa Street revival. He writes that, "The color line, as least symbolically and discursively, was washed away in the blood." Then old racist divisions reemerged. The PBS documentary "This Far by Faith" depicts the short-lived interracial character of the Azusa Street congregation as the miracle that shocked observers, as much or even more than the fact people were speaking in unknown, unlearned languages.

The declension narrative is true or true enough of Azusa Street. The revival suffered from a series of white attempts to wrest control away from the black leader, William J. Seymour, who initially saw the church as alternative to segregated America. A lot of people -- even other Pentecostals -- couldn't stand him being in charge, though, and Seymour suffered insult after insult. The group's national and international prominence ended when Clara Lum, the white woman who edited the church's newspaper, left to start a church in Oregon. She took the paper and the last of the white congregants with her.

The declension narrative is also relevant for the Assemblies of God. The denomination considers Azusa Street as it's place of origin but, when it organized in 1914, it was almost exclusively white. By 1919, the church had stopped ordaining black ministers altogether. By 1939, segregation was church policy.

In fact, only three years after forming, the Assemblies of God refused to ordain a Chicago man named Alexander Howard as a missionary to Liberia -- on account of his race.

The church's most recent efforts at racial reconciliation were aimed at healing the rift that started with that affair. The denomination has now entered into a formal partnership with the Pentecostal organization that was born out of that decision not to ordain a black man. The Assemblies of God and the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God formed a cooperating church relationship. The general superintendent has used the memory of that discrimination to call the church to be counter-cultural today.

In part, such efforts have been underwritten by the declension narrative and the desire, on the part of the Assemblies of God, to restore the original spirit of the movement.

The story of Pentecostalism in America more generally, however, does not have the neat arc of an edenic origin and a fall from grace. Before Azusa Street and before the Assemblies of God was formed, racism and segregation were the norm for the movement.

Charles F. Parham, the first Pentecostal leader, as recognized by the Azusa church's newspaper, always segregated his revivals. On more than one occasion he required praying black people to move to make room for whites. It has been argued that he was only following the law when he required William Seymour to sit in the hall at his Houston Bible school, rather than in the classroom with the white students, but Parham also embraced the racist theology of British Israelism.

When he saw blacks and whites intermingling in the ecstasy of Pentecostal prayer at Azusa Street, he declared it the work of demons. He identified the evil spirits with racial slurs.

The first Pentecostal organizations were also segregated. The first two were both named Church of God in Christ, but one was black, lead by Charles H. Mason, and one, very loosely organized, was white. Because they have the same name, some historians have thought this was one, racially mixed organization, and then the races segregated with the founding of the Assemblies of God in 1914. This does not appear to be the case, though. There is no evidence the white Church of God in Christ had any formal connection to the black Church of God in Christ. They had separate schools, separate newspapers, and separate credentials. The early Pentecostal movement was, for all practical purposes, segregated.

When the Assemblies of God formed 100 years ago, the largest contingent of ministers was from the white Church of God in Christ. They do not appear to have been segregating, in that act, separating themselves from a mostly black and a black-led church, as has sometimes been thought. Rather, they were merely continuing on as they always had, in segregation.

As Darrin Rodgers writes, "The formation of the largely-white Assemblies of God, in some ways, affirmed and institutionalized the divisions along racial lines that had long been apparent in most sectors of the movement, mirroring the prevalent structures in society."

Even as segregation was sanctified and sanctioned in those early decades, though, not all of American Pentecostalism went along. Not even all white Pentecostal ministers accepted that status quo that gave them privilege and authority. Where Carothers saw the work of God, others saw an offense to the Holy Spirit.

William B. Holt went so far in flouting the racist laws and customs it was assumed he must not be American.

Authorities even seriously considered the idea he was engaged in some sort of sedition, a secret agent working among minorities to stir them up against the American government.

William B. Holt
He was, as he saw it, working for a different sort of kingdom, but he was neither an agent of the Kaiser, nor a Socialist revolutionary, nor an anarchist. Holt was a minister of the gospel.

One of the few white men to be ordained in the black Church of God in Christ, Holt worked under Charles H. Mason, who was perhaps the most prominent black Pentecostal in the 20th century. Working for a black man would have offended the sensibilities of whites of the time, but Holt went much further than that. He "publicly violated the racial etiquette of southern segregationists by greeting Mason and other clergy with a holy kiss," according to David D. Daniels.

Holt was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1880, so he knew what he was doing. He was only eight years younger than Carothers, and from the same state. He knew the taboos of crossing racial lines, and ignored them very publicly.

Holt was from Texas but moved to Southern California at the age of 21. There he experienced conversion and became a Baptist. His spiritual hunger wasn't satisfied, however, and he continued to attend revivals and camp meetings. Two years after his conversion, he attended a holiness meeting in Downey, California, in the Los Angeles area. The holiness churches, like the early Pentecostals, believed that the experience of salvation was followed by a subsequent experience of sanctification. Holt accepted this doctrine, and sought sanctification. He had a holiness experience in 1903, and moved into that more radical, experiential Christian milieux.

He subsequently joined the Church of the Nazarene and studied theology at the Nazarene's Bible School in California. He was licensed as a holiness minister, but still wasn't sated, spiritually. Even as the Azusa Revival was fading, he sought out the Pentecostals. In those days, Pentecostals taught that sanctification should be accompanied by a sign, not just an experience, and the sign was glossalalia, speaking in tongues.

Holt spoke in tongues in 1914.

Two years later, he became one of the very few white elders under Mason. Between 1916 and 1933, Holt worked tirelessly as Mason's lieutenant, carrying the Pentecostal message of the Church of God in Christ across racial lines. He went to whites, when Mason sometimes couldn't, was more than happy to work with blacks, and was also one of the first to preach Pentecostalism to American hispanics.

According to Calvin White, Jr.'s history of the Church of God in Christ, Holt was deeply committed to racial equality, and made the point that that equality was not only spiritual, but also social.

While Carothers and others were identifying segregation as God's work, Holt was greeting Mason and the other black leaders of the church with ritualistic kisses and brotherly hugs. When this came to the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI, they suspected him of being a foreign spy.

Mason, at the time, was preaching against World War I, partly out of pacifistic convictions and partly in condemnation of the government's racist policies. He was under investigation for allegedly encouraging black men to resist the draft. When he was arrested on charges of sedition, Holt raised $2,000 to bail him out. Holt's familiarity with Mason, accompanied by rumors he was German, raised serious concerns among authorities, who were already on alert because of the US's entry into the war.

White leaders in places like Kentucky and Mississippi, where Mason's preaching roused white mobs, were worried about black uprisings. They feared outside agitators, especially. There were persistent rumors that Communists, anarchists, or Germans were circulating among the black underclass, inciting them to violence. It only confirmed white paranoia to find that a white man was one of the "top lieutenants" of a powerful black preacher who was preaching against war with Germany. Holt's open disregard for racist "etiquette" aggravated those fears, and fed the belief that he wasn't American.

A BOI agent assigned to California compiled a dossier on Holt in 1917. The agent's file is the most complete biographical information about Holt. They found he was from Texas, was then 37, personally practiced desegregation, and was preaching to hispanics in the L.A. area. He was not, apparently, advocating a violent uprising, nor connected to any foreign government.

He wasn't arrested.

The racial integration of the Church of God in Christ fell apart in the '30s, for reasons that have nothing to do with Holt. He was then serving as national secretary under Mason, and was unseated and more or less forced out of the church. The official reasons are unclear. Unofficially, it seems Church of God in Christ leaders may have been lashing back against the racism of white Pentecostals, and some were angry that one of the few positions in the hierarchy of the largest black Pentecostal church was occupied by a white man.

A similar course of events had occurred at the Azusa Street church 20 years before. After a series of white attempts to take over the revival, Seymour and the elders ruled that leadership would be restricted to people of color.

Mason, for his part, ultimately accepted the de facto segregation of the church with some equanimity. Though it clearly wasn't the ideal he'd imagined, where the movement of God erased racial divisions, he also found ways to justify it spiritually. He pointed out that in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul went to the Gentiles and the Apostle Peter to the Jews.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit also worked in separate-but-equal ways.

There were some white ministers -- not many, but some -- who persisted, though, even after the Church of God in Christ made it clear it was going to be a black church, and even as the Assemblies of God was making segregation its official policy. Some ministers just wouldn't accept that.

James Logan Delk

James Logan Delk persisted until his death in 1963.

Considered the "most visible white minister" in the Church of God in Christ, according to Estrelda Alexander, he was "one of the few early white Pentecostals to publicly and soundly renounce racism."

Publicly, soundly, vigorously and vociferously: Whether or not he transformed the culture is an open question, but there's no doubt about whether or not he caved.

Born in 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, Delk was not the "Northern meddler" that die-hard segregationist were always chiding for snobbery and cultural misunderstand. He was a Southerner. He just didn't believe the races were unequal or should be separate. As a minister, Delk went so far as to tell white Christians who supported segregation that they weren't really Christians, and needed Christ's transformative work in their lives.

"When we get Jesus in our hearts," Delk preached, "segregation and Jim Crow vanish away like the smoke of the hour."

He was twice beaten up by the Ku Klux Klan.

Originally a Baptist, he first heard Mason preach in 1904, in Conway, Arkansas. This was three years before Mason went to Azusa Street and from holiness to Pentecostalism. Delk was immediately taken with Mason and followed him, by his own account, from Baptist to holiness to Pentecostal theology. He was ordained by Mason in 1914.

Pretty quickly, Delk demonstrated his fiery style and got in trouble with the law. He was preaching to an audience in Pulsaki County, Kentucky, the year of his ordination, when he was fined by the state for using obscene language. In a sermon illustration about the depravity of the unsaved and unsanctified, Delk said he's seen American men loitering in towns, leering at women. They would, he said, "watch the women pass, and size them up, the foot, ankle, and form, and they would be willing to give five dollars for the fork."

"Fork," it was decided, was a regional variant or odd pronunciation of a more common f-word.

The court ruled, in Delk v. Kentucky, that the minister was guilty of breaching the peace. It is one of very few cases in American legal history where there were legal repercussions for something said in a pulpit. Delk was fined $67.50.

Delk was only just starting. He led revivals in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Missouri, all the while in close contact with and a confidant to Mason. Back in Kentucky, Delk pastored the First Church of God in Christ in Hopkinsville, starting in 1933, and it became the largest white church in the city. He also became a radio evangelist, and preached on the airwaves. From his home base of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, he travelled west to California, preaching Pentecostalism, and east again to New England.

He was also -- unlike many Pentecostals of the era -- politically active. A center-left Democrat, Delk ran for governor of Missouri in 1932, unsuccessfully. He sought the Democratic nomination for Kentucky's US Senate seat in 1946 as a moderate supporter of the New Deal. He promised, as a core commitment of his campaign, to respect the dignity of the office but said he would
never become so dignified that I will forget the common people and turn against the laboring class who earn and deserve plenty of pay for their toil and labor that they can expect the pie, bread and butter here and not have to seek in in the sky.
Delk lost that race. He also the primary Senate races in 1950 and '56, and his campaign for the nomination for Kentucky governor in 1960. He ran for Sheriff of Christian County, at one point, and Lieutenant Governor, at another. He lost those races as well. The local papers considered him a joke candidate, either painfully naive about politics or just deluded.

He couldn't even pull enough votes, one newspaper editorial noted dryly, for one of Kentucky's political machines to want to buy him off.

He ran at least six campaigns, possibly seven, and never won. His political connections did become important to the Church of God in Christ during World War II, though. When the denomination was trying to build what became known as Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, it could not get the steel needed to complete the building. The steel company had agreed to sell the material to the church, but then war rationing was instituted, and the order was confiscated by the military. This left the church half constructed, without roof or floors. The white minister, by this time known as the "Kentucky Cyclone," intervened with the federal government, appealing to Tennessee Senator Tom Stewart (who was a friend of late William Jennings Bryan) and the top leaders of the Democratic party. Delk managed to have an influence, and got more than $40,000 worth of steel released for the church's construction.

He continued as a Church of God in Christ minister and a political activist for the rest of his life. His civil rights advocacy consisted mostly of small efforts, such as protesting Georgia Power 's unfair treatment of black people in 1948, and lobbying a Methodist minister's conference to become active in the Civil Rights movement in 1952.

He also stepped into the fray in high profile cases. When a woman and her two teenage sons were found guilty of murder after a one-day trial in front of an all-white jury and sentenced to death in 1948, Delk stepped in. Representing his Pentecostal denomination, he advocated for Rosa Lee, Wallace and Sammy Ingram, fought with the sheriff holding them prisoner, and even, at one point, pleaded with the state of Georgia to release the family into the custody of the Church of God in Christ. If the state would parole the Ingrams, Delk said, his Kentucky church would pay to move them out of the state and give them a rent-free farm with 100 chickens and $100.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, the state pardons and parole board rejected the offer.

Delk said they were disgusting.

He was not known for his delicacy. He was seen, rather, both by the culture and by other white Pentecostals, as something of a crackpot and a blowhard. Delk felt, however, that he was empowered by the Holy Spirit to go against that tide of "good" opinion. Carothers was ultimately appointed to a federal judgeship in Texas. Delk, meanwhile, was a political failure, but only doubled down on his opposition to segregation.

"I have a little daughter," Delk said of his commitment to fighting racism, "and she is the pride of our life. But if I did not believe that God loved the blackest Negro girl as much as He loves my own daughter, I would stop writing books, throw my Bible aside, and never preach another sermon."

Carothers, Parham, and other advocates of white supremacy of early Pentecostalism were, it's often noted, products of their time. This is not meant as an excuse, it is said, but as a fair, realistic assessment. It is said, sometimes, that that was an epoch of white racism and the white church was just blind to it. Those statements are probably true. The vast majority of white Pentecostals in the early days of the movement just accepted the reality in front of them.

There were some, though, who refused to take the world as it was. They thought themselves empowered by God to overcome the culture, the world, and their own selves, to be transformed and to bring about a better reality by living out the truth of the Gospel. That option was also always an option for white Pentecostal leaders in the early 20th century. It just depended on what they say when they saw the Holy Spirit at work.

William B. Holt and James Logan Delk were also products of their time. The epoch of early Pentecostalism was their epoch as well. They do not dominate the story of white Pentecostal responses to American racism, but they were part of that story, nonetheless, their lives testimony to the possibility of something different.