Across the Lines: Charles Parham's Contribution to the Inter-Racial Character of Early Pentecostalism
by Eddie L. Hyatt
From the Fall 2004 issue of the PNEUMA REVIEW
With comments by Pauline Parham, daughter-in-law of Charles Parham, who passed away at the age of 94 on December 22, 2003
He has been called a "rabid racist" and a "white supremacist." He has been vilified as the progenitor of racial prejudice in the Pentecostal movement. Some believe that any traces of racism among modern Pentecostals can be traced to him. In a recent reconciliation gathering, repentance was offered and forgiveness asked for his sin of racism.1 In the minds of many, Charles Parham is an embarrassment to the Pentecostal movement and does not deserve recognition as one of its founders.
On the other hand, it was Parham who first reached across racial lines to both African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and included them in the fledgling Pentecostal movement. It was Parham, a native of Kansas, who offended southern whites by preaching in black churches and allowing a black pastor to enroll in his Bible school in segregated Houston, TX. It was Parham who did the "unheard of" and invited a black woman, Rev. Lucy Farrow, to preach in his Apostolic Faith campmeeting in south Texas in 1906. And it was Parham who, until his death in 1929, maintained cordial relations with the black community in his hometown of Baxter Springs, KS, often preaching in the local black Pentecostal church.
So, how are we to reconcile these conflicting views of Parham and his racial stance. Is there more than one Charles Parham? The problem seems to be context, or lack of it. Historical events occur within a context and the historian must not ignore the context. When Parham's life is evaluated within the social-legal-religious context of his time, what emerges is neither a saintly crusader for racial equality nor a rabid racist. What does emerge is an individual who, in many ways, reflected the times in which he lived—when racial apartheid was generally accepted and practiced throughout the land. But what also emerges is an individual who, at critical times, was willing to break with cultural mores and reach across racial lines when it was not the popular thing to do. It is for this reason that Charles Parham deserves credit for setting the tone for the inter-racial openness and harmony that prevailed for a time in early Pentecostalism.
The Historical Context
Parham (1873-1929) lived and ministered during a time when racial segregation was accepted and practiced throughout America. The 14th amendment to the constitution had included a "Separate but Equal" clause, recognizing segregation but requiring that all citizens be treated equal under the law. In the 1896 case, "Plessy vs. Ferguson," the United States Supreme Court upheld the "separate" part of this clause when it ruled that a law in Louisiana requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railroad cars did not violate the constitution.
It was obvious, however, that the "separate" part of the clause was upheld far more vigorously than the "equal" part. Public facilities for blacks were inferior and fewer in number than those for whites. Blacks were commonly required to sit on the back seats in trains and buses and to eat in dilapidated, back rooms in restaurants. The best hotels were for whites only and even professional sports was for whites only.
And the church? In the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11 A.M. on Sunday morning to be the most segregated time in America. It was even more so fifty years earlier. A black person in a white church or a white person in a black church was considered strange and even inappropriate. Most professing white Christians believed the white race to be superior and that racial segregation could be defended with Scripture.
In the South, the racial apartheid was even more pronounced. Jim Crow laws designed to marginalize the black populace were in place. Blacks were required to use separate public restrooms and drinking fountains. They were required to sit in separate sections on trains, buses, in restaurants and in all public facilities. All public education was segregated according to race. Blacks lived in separate neighborhoods and both overt and subtle forms of intimidation were used to keep them "in their place."
Parham's First Serious Encounter With the Race Issue
During the summer of 1905, Parham, for the first time, ventured south across the Mason-Dixon line into Texas. He went there to declare his newly discovered message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. Parham believed that their experience signaled the beginning of the world-wide, last-days effusion of the Spirit promised in Acts 2:17, and he had come South to declare this newly discovered truth.
Parham arrived in Houston with about twenty-five workers in July of 1905. For the first time he encountered a large black populace and an intense racial prejudice he had not known in his home state of Kansas. He conducted a very successful meeting in Bryan Hall which was attended by a number of blacks who, because of local law and custom, probably sat in segregated seating. Nonetheless, he reached out to the black populace and made friends with black leaders such as Lucy Farrow and William Seymour. In fact, his racial openness made some white Christians in Houston very uncomfortable. A white pastor, referring to Parham and his Kansas workers, wrote the following rebuke in December of 1905.
I trust, therefore, that our evangelists and workers from the North will not forget this condition of affairs [racial segregation] and embarrass the work South by well meaning but mistaken efforts to disregard them. Let the race question alone until you have been South long enough to know by experience what it seems impossible for our Northern brethern to learn through other sources.2
Parham Makes Friends With Black Leaders
When the Parhams returned to Baxter Springs, they invited Farrow to go with them. She accepted the invitation and, before leaving, turned her congregation over to a black preacher named William Seymour. In Kansas, Farrow lived in the Parham home and acted as a "governess" to the Parham children who endearingly referred to her as "Auntie." While in Kansas, Farrow was baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
Farrow returned to Houston with the Parhams in December of 1905 and shared with Seymour her experience of Spirit baptism. She also informed him of a Bible school that Parham was about to open in Houston. Seymour applied for enrollment and was accepted. According to one account, Seymour sat in an adjoining room where, through an open door, he listened to the lectures. This arrangement, if true, would not be surprising because of the Jim Crow laws and prevailing custom of segregation. Nonetheless, the Parham family heard a different story about this situation.
One of those who applied for enrollment was William J. Seymour, who had been encouraged to do so by Lucy Farrow. His entry into the Bible school must have caused some consternation because of the Jim Crow and segregation laws that time in Texas. Dad Parham, being from Kansas, was not used to such laws and customs and he welcomed Seymour into the classroom. There is an undocumented account, repeated in many books, that Seymour was required to sit in an adjoining room and listen to the lectures through an open door. The account I heard from those present was that he was welcomed into the class along with everyone else.
Parham and Seymour became close friends during this time. Seymour introduced Parham to some of the black churches in the Houston area and they ministered together on several occasions.3 Sometime in February, Seymour answered a call to pastor a holiness church in the Los Angeles area. Parham collected an offering for his train fare and he departed for Los Angeles.
Racial Walls Broken Down in South Texas
In the Spring of 1906, Farrow followed Seymour to Los Angeles and joined him in leading the revival that was breaking forth in an old building at 312 Azusa Street. While in Los Angeles, Farrow sensed a Divine call to Liberia from whence her ancestors had been brought to America. On her way to Virginia, where she planned to board ship for Liberia, she stopped in Houston just in time for Parham's Apostolic Faith campmeeting.
Being a dear friend and recognizing the gift of God in her life, Parham did the "unheard of" and invited her to preach in one of the campmeeting services. The large tent under which she preached was packed to capacity and the audience listened intently as she told of her experience in Los Angeles and of her mission to Liberia. At the close of her sermon she prayed for many to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It was a powerful time. One participant said that she possessed "an unusual power to lay hands on people for the reception of the Holy Spirit."4 Such racial openness by Parham led James R. Goff., Jr., who did his doctoral dissertation on Parham, to declare, "In the context of the day, he could hardly be called a racist."5
This event, in and of itself, demonstrates that Dad Parham was not a racist as some have contended. A black woman speaking to a predominately white audience and then laying her hands on them in prayer was unheard of in south Texas at that time. Dad Parham was willing to offend local prejudices and customs if it meant helping another human being and advancing the cause of Jesus Christ.
Separation At Azusa Street
During the Spring and summer of 1906, Parham and Seymour kept up a lively correspondence concerning a visit by Parham to Los Angeles. Their letters were very cordial and both were anticipating a wonderful reunion. In a letter dated August 27, 1906, Seymour wrote,
Dear Brother Parham,
Sister Hall has arrived, and is planning out a great revival in this city, that shall take place when you come. The revival is still going on here that has been going on since we came to this city. But we are expecting a general one to start again when you come, that these little revivals will all come together and make one great union revival.6
Both were overly optimistic about the reunion. When Parham finally arrived he was appalled at what he considered to be fleshly and demonic manifestations in the Azusa meetings. In his usual straightforward style, he confronted the situation head-on and offered correction based on what he believed he had learned about discerning between the flesh and the Spirit. The Azusa saints took offense. After preaching two or three times, he was informed by two of the white elders that he was no longer welcome. Seymour apparently went along with the rejection.
Parham was very embittered by this rejection. This bitterness later came out in the diatribe against the perceived excesses at the Azusa meetings. In this denunciation Parham used the "n" word in referring to an unnamed "fleshly" individual he had observed. This, however, was not normal verbiage for Parham. To his credit, this is the only recorded time he ever used this derogatory term. He always, before and afterwards, referred to African-American with accepted terminology for his day, i.e., "Negro" or "colored."
Perhaps because of the above slur, Parham's falling out with Seymour has often been ascribed to racism. The evidence indicates that it was over differences and questions concerning order, worship style and the genuineness of certain spiritual manifestations. Interestingly, the "racist" accusation was never made by Seymour, Farrow nor by any of his friends or enemies while he was alive. And although Parham afterwards criticized the Azusa Street revival because of its alleged excesses, he did not blame Seymour or the black participants. Instead he pointed the finger at the "Holy Rollers" of Los Angeles whom he said invaded the meetings. He later wrote,
There was a beautiful outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Los Angeles. Then all of a sudden a Holy Roller religious meeting in the city dismissed and came down to Azusa Street, and everything that was prevalent in their meeting was turned loose into the Azusa Street Meeting.7
When Dad Parham died in February of 1929, my husband, Robert, Mother Parham and I picked up the mantle and fulfilled his itinerant schedule of ministry. Later that same year, his schedule took us to the Los Angeles area. While there we visited the Azusa Street Mission and Jenny Seymour, who had pastored the mission since her husband's death in 1925. We had a very friendly visit with Mrs. Seymour and then proceeded on our way.
Being a young twenty year old, I did not realize the significance of this visit and did not know the details of the earlier rift between Dad Parham and the Azusa Street Mission. Actually, Dad Parham never blamed Seymour for the rift but, rather, some of the elders at the Azusa Mission. I now realize that Mother Parham was going out of her way to reach out to Mrs. Seymour.
Parham's Hometown Race Relations
Parham conducted an annual campmeeting in his hometown of Baxter Springs, Kansas right up to the time of his death in 1929. Several thousand people from throughout the nation attended each year. One person, impressed with the interracial character of the Baxter Springs campmeeting, wrote, "People of all creeds and colors were made to feel at home in the meeting and they certainly used their liberty in the Lord."8 Even non-Pentecostal scholars have noted the inter-racial character of Parham's ministry and meetings. Robert Mapes Anderson wrote,
Even before the Log Angeles revival, Parham had tapped this new ethnically heterogeneous constituency in Houston, where he garnered black converts like Seymour, Miss Farrow, and "Brother" Johnson, and some Mexican-Americans. At the 1913 summer encampment of Parham's group in Baxter Springs, Kansas, "White people, colored people and Indians all took part in the meeting" and as Brother Parham remarked, "We had the Gospel in black and white and red all over." For years, Parham held integrated meetings throughout the lower Midwest.9
Dad Parham was loved by the black people in our hometown of Baxter Springs, Kansas. He often preached in the black Pentecostal church there and even encouraged the whites to attend services at the black church. The black people loved him because he treated them right. The yearly campmeetings he conducted in Baxter Springs were attended by all races. He was not a racist!
The Ku Klux Klan Distortion
Those who accuse Parham of racism commonly refer to the fact that he once commended the Ku Klux Klan in one of his sermons. What has been overlooked is that the KKK of the 1920s projected itself very differently from the KKK of the 19th century and the later 20th century. The KKK of the 19th century was an overt, anti-black organization intent on keeping the freed slaves from obtaining any affluence and power. It eventually died out and had ceased to function by 1872.
The new Klan, formed in 1915, masked its racism and presented itself as the guardian of morality, patriotism and the Protestant faith. It opposed divorce, sexual immortality and intervened in family situations where physical abuse was known to be taking place. In a 20/20 documentary Hugh Downs stated that, "In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan promoted family values and advocated a return to old time religion." Because of this, many blacks of this era did not view it as a threat, as is pointed out by David Lowe in his history of the KKK.10
In addition to promoting patriotism and sexual morality, the KKK of the 1920s also took a very anti-Catholic stance, voicing the fears of many Protestants at the large Catholic immigration from southern Europe during the early 20th century. One writer has pointed out that religious support for the Klan in Kansas (Parham's home state) during this time "was a result, by and large, of a fear of Catholics."11
During the 1920s the KKK became a potent political force and helped elect governors and senators, mayors and councilman, not only in the south, but in other regions as well. It reached its pinnacle of power in 1924 when its membership and power were decisive factors in the Democratic national convention. Lowe points out that the Klan had assumed such power that many joined as an expedient or political measure.12 For example, a young Harry Truman, who later as president desegregated the American armed forces, joined the Klan in 1922.13 During that same period, a young lawyer, Hugo Black, who later became a Supreme Court justice, also joined the Klan.14 It is from this general era that Robert Byrd, the Democratic senator from West Virginia at the time of the writing, also became a member of the Klan.
With the Klan having gained such prominence in the 1920s, it is not surprising that Parham would comment on them and their activities. Parham never belonged to the Klan (as some have asserted) and his commendation of them is likely related to their championing of patriotism, marriage and family, not to their masked racial agenda. Parham went on to declare that even the supposedly positive efforts of the Klan were doomed to failure because they lacked a purely spiritual agenda.15
The racial openness Parham exhibited in Kansas and Houston flowered for a time at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles. However, instead of continuing to be a prophetic voice on race, Pentecostals capitulated to the surrounding culture and adopted the ways of the heathen, i.e., racial segregation. And although Pentecostals have made positive changes in recent years, they have come in the wake of a changing American culture, not as the result of any prophetic voice or vision.
And Parham? It seems obvious that he is not deserving of the criticism that has been heaped upon him. Although he was no crusader for civil rights, he did express a racial openness that transcended the times in which he lived. Parham's example at this early stage was critical for what followed. It is for this reason that he deserves credit for helping set the tone of inter-racial openness and harmony that prevailed for a time in early Pentecostalism
1 This information was given to the author by a friend who was present at this gathering in Kansas City, KS.
2 W. F. Carothers, "The Race Question in the South," Apostolic Faith vol. 1, no. 8 (Dec. 1905).
3 See B. F. Lawrence, The Apostolic Faith Restored (St. Louis: Gospel Publishing, 1916), 64.
4 See Lawrence, The Apostolic Faith Restored, 66.
5 James R. Goff, Jr., Fields White Unto Harvest (Fayetteville, AR: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1988), 108.
6 Sarah Parham, The Life of Charles F. Parham (Baxter Springs, KS: Apostolic Faith Bible College, 1977), 154.
7 Charles F. Parham, The Apostolic Faith, no. 3 (April 1925): 10.
8 Sarah Parham, The Life of Charles F. Parham, 246.
9 Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited (New York: Oxford, 1979), 123.
10 David Lowe, Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.).
11 James R. Goff, Jr., "Charles F. Parham and His Role in the Development of the Pentecostal Movement: A Reevaluation," Kansas History (Autumn 1984): 236.
12 Lowe, Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire, 18.
13 See Lowe, Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire 19, who says, "Truman had joined during a judgeship campaign, but quickly withdrew and did not receive Klan support when he ran—and lost "the next time."
14 Lowe, Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire, 19.
15 Parham, The Apostolic Faith, No. 3 (January 1927):3.
The Pneuma Review is a quarterly printed journal of ministry resources and theology for Pentecostal/charismatic ministries and leaders.
Eddie L. Hyatt, D.Min., is the founder and president of Hyatt International Ministries in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity which traces Pentecostal/charismatic movements and phenomena from the Day of Pentecost to the present time. www.eddiehyatt.com
Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by Todd H.