Tuesday, August 04, 2015

"Holy Jumpers" to the End

This is my third and final installment reviewing Bill Kostlevy's book called Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America. Here are the first and second installments. Keith Drury and Bob Black were reading through the book, and Dave Ward and I joined Keith for some lunches to discuss it.

1. The last three chapters of the book were somewhat sad, as we watched this powerful phenomenon of the Metropolitan Church of America (MCA) slowly unravel and wither away. At the same time, we continue to see that it was right there in the mix as some of the most significant Christian movements of the twentieth century were forming.

One of the founders, E. L. Harvey, had been a successful businessman and owner of eleven hotels in the Chicago area. But he came to believe that God demanded Christians to sell all their property if they were to be true Christians. I've already mentioned that this was the point of entire sanctification for Harvey and his wife. He did not "get the victory" until he sold all his hotels and moved onto the Chicago campground.

Of course he believed that Jesus was coming back to earth any day, and this played a significant role in this notion that only those who sold everything could make it to heaven. In about 1922, the debt of the MCA community had risen to about $200,000 (it apparently peeked at $300,000). Harvey was convinced that the debt would be irrelevant because of the return of Christ.

Harvey even kiboshed a great money making/sustaining venture that Frank Messenger had started. Messenger is the one who had once managed the textile industry of North Grosvenor, Connecticut. The MCA was putting out a very successful Scripture Text Calendar, along with its songbooks and magazine, The Burning Bush.

But Harvey came to see the calendar in particular as a money-making venture and in 1913 killed the very thing that might have kept the MCA afloat.

Harvey had a heart attack while preaching in 1922 and would be dead by 1926. Messenger meanwhile became a Nazarene and continued the Scripture calendar elsewhere. The company still exists today in Auburn, Indiana, primarily serving the funeral industry.

He seems to have been a warm-hearted, well-intentioned man. He was just theologically ignorant. The emotion burned brightly for a moment, then it burned out.

2. Messenger's administrative skill kept this communal group going for a while. Keith and I both agree that the real turning point of the group was in 1906 when they left Chicago and set up a commune in Waukesha, Wisconsin. In the old Fountain Spring House, the people lived and worked in common. No one took a wage, and the community sent out evangelists to speak to anyone who asked.

But with the financial woes, the pressure to get people to sell all their property and give it to the community became a distraction. Intentions were good--they truly believed people should sell their farms and move into the community. But family members saw these evangelists as preying on old people and trying to take their farms away from them.

Basically, socialism is almost always a complete failure. It's noble. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." It sounds very Christ-like indeed. It just doesn't work. The MCA is yet another testimony to its utter bankruptcy as an economic system. (Dave Ward called it a Ponzi scheme.)

3. Money increasingly became the central preoccupation of the community, as it became overcrowded with individuals, many of whom could not give anything back. In 1925, W. S. Hitchcock took over to fix the situation.

At least from the description in the book, I don't like the man. Mind you, he had eliminated the community's debt by the early 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression. That's no mean feat! And of course E. L. Harvey and Duke Farson were ultimately blame for moving the community in a property-less direction in the first place.

Farson went belly up in 1918 because his money was in municipal bonds and the war shifted the market to war bonds. As he tried to make internal changes in Wakesha, the Farsons blocked him and he was expelled. He started a group that died with him in LA in 1929.

Hitchcock did what no doubt needed to be done. He kicked a lot of people out of the commune. What is so disturbing about this move is the fact that some of these were old people who had been convinced God wanted them to sell all their property, give it to the MCA, and then come live in Wakesha. Instead they ended their lives in public homes for the aged.

Hitchcock sent out every able bodied person to go door to door, not as evangelists, but as a sales force. But what I find most detestable about this man is that he humiliated the leaders who had been willing to give everything up for the community. He made the economic troubles of the community a spiritual problem for which they needed to repent rather than what it was--economic and theological ignorance. One leader walked around the service with a teapot on his head.

It had a curious effect. It energized the children of the leaders. High school youths who had been a growing problem were now sold on the mission of the MCA. That's about the only good thing I could see in this man, and that was despite his seeming vileness.

4. Messenger ended up joining the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes feature heavily in these last chapters. They come across as the sane holiness denomination and one of the fastest growing Protestant churches of the day. One of the secrets to IWU's growth is that it hit distance education at just the right time. I wonder if the Nazarenes hit these holiness revivals at just the right time.

They were middle of the road enough to gather the reasonable, leaving these other kooky groups. They were out west and so somewhat removed from these intrigues. And they were perfectly okay with being a denomination for a decade before WW1 hit, two decades before the Great Depression.

The Nazarenes were the targets of a good deal of The Burning Bush's wrath in the teens. Messenger, interestingly enough, would end up setting up the Nazarene pension plan, despite the fact that he had mocked insurance and such things when he was part of the MCA.

The MCA mocked the Nazarenes for allowing the "innocent party" in a divorce to remarry. They believed you were married in God's eyes for life to the first person you married. So even if your spouse divorced you and remarried someone else, if you then remarried, you would commit adultery every time you had sex. You were expected to remain celibate for the rest of your life. This is a position that I have heard even within my lifetime.

The MCA also mocked the Nazarenes and many others on tithing. Because they believed in giving everything to the Lord literally by selling all your possessions and becoming part of their end times community, tithing wasn't giving enough. Under Hitchcock, of course, they would adopt tithing, a tenth, as the least you should give.

There is some fun history on tithing in chapter 6. The practice did not enter American Christianity until after the Civil War as America shifted from a trade economy to a monetary society. This was also, I believe, part of a wave of biblical interpretation that considered Old Testament law as more or less binding on Christians just as much as New Testament instruction. The importance of keeping the Sabbath is another example of this hermeneutical wave.

When I was at SWU in college, churches in the southeast could ask for a team of ministry students to come sing and preach for them. I don't know how the funding worked, whether the church had to pay for gas and lodging or whether the school paid for it. But it was truly one of the highlights of my college days.

I remember one Sunday that a church asked for someone to come preach on tithing from the New Testament, and I was the one sent to preach. I quickly realized that the only text that really mentions a tithe in the NT is in Matthew 23:23 where Jesus commends the Pharisees for tithing their spices but then condemns them for missing the weightier parts of the Law. So you can imagine how difficult a sermon that was!

Tithing was controversial when it was introduced, but those churches that adopted it as a practice found themselves on a much surer financial basis than those that didn't, despite the fact that the NT never indicates that it is part of the new covenant.

5. We also get in these chapters the birth of tongues in America and the Azusa Street revivals. Interestingly enough, both the holiness movement and the MCA intersect with its beginnings (see also Don Dayton's work here). The real spark behind the Azusa Street revivals was a man named William Seymour.

He was an African-American who had studied at God's Bible School and then had gone out to California, stopping on the way at the Pillar of Fire community in Denver. Denver is where Alma White had ended up after she split with the MCA in 1906.

An aside here that I haven't fully managed to work in. These were truly communities where women were fully spiritual leaders. These were in many cases communities where African-Americans could play full spiritual role alongside those of European descent. These were truly egalitarian movements, truly progressive movements. These were radicals.

I want to mention also after last week that God's Bible School is alive and well, probably doing better than it ever has. God's Revivalist is still being published even after all these years.

6. The MCA had dispatched A. G. Garr to LA to work there. But when that work entered difficult waters, Garr closed the doors and sent his congregation to the mission on Azusa Street, where Seymour was preaching that the Acts 2 church included speaking in other languages. By then, tongues had already begun to take place but was not in full force yet. It was a fully integrated experience at that time, blacks and whites worshiping together, with several of the blacks speaking in tongues. The founder of COGIC was part of those days.

Farson had ordered Garr not to go to the mission without permission, but Garr ignored and in 1906 became one of the first white people at the mission to speak in tongues. Kostlevy wonders if the speaking had actually plateaued at that time and if, in effect, the addition of the new MCA worshipers rekindled the fire that would not stop until the whole world was ablaze with Pentecostalism.

Garr himself was convinced that he was speaking in an Indian or Chinese language. But when he actually arrived in India, apparently not. His presence in northern India proved to have a very negative attitude toward tongues in the MCA community there. Eventually he would reinterpret the experience as a heavenly language rather than an earthly one.

Of course the personal dynamics between Farson and Garr led to The Burning Bush going inflammatory, and one wonders if the rest of the holiness movement was poisoned against tongues as a result. It has only been in the last couple decades that holiness churches have even begun to consider the possibility that their members might privately speak in tongues at home.

7. Healing was a major part of the holiness movement at the turn of the century and we still believe in it on paper. And of course it continues to be a major element of the Pentecostal movement to this day. I hope you can see that Pentecostalism grew out of these same waters of the holiness movement.

The MCA did not believe in medicine. Medicine was seen as contrary to faith. There is a story in these chapters about two men who went to India as missionaries. One was secretly inoculated against smallpox, the other wasn't. The one who wasn't inoculated died. The other one didn't.

8. The MCA petered out. Hitchcock was removed as president in 1950. In 1956 it sold its Waukesha property. The last MCA church in North America sold its building in 2004. But there are still perhaps as many as 50,000 members still in India. There are some 1600 members in Africa and twenty churches still in Mexico.

When I was a boy, Arthur Bray was pastor of the Brooksville Wesleyan Church in Florida. Little did I know his story at the time. He was one of those youths who dedicated their life to God under Hitchcock. His father was one of those leaders who went on evangelistic missions teaching people that they needed to give everything they had to the Lord.

Arthur became a Wesleyan Methodist in 1941, and was president of the Illinois conference from 1950 to 1968. His son Don was Secretary of World Missions for The Wesleyan Church for many years, and his son John just retired from pastoring one of the largest churches in The Wesleyan Church.

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