Every authentic move of God meets with opposition; and when the experience of the Pentecostal baptism evidenced by speaking in other tongues began to spread, there were many detractors. Some of the most active opponents of the new message came from within the Holiness Movement. Theologically, they equated the Pentecostal baptism with the crisis of sanctification. The notion of a “third blessing” seemed absurd and even heretical to many within the Holiness camp. One of the most prolific and vocal adversaries of Pentecostalism was Bishop Alma White, founder of the Pillar of Fire Church.
White began preaching in the Methodist Church, occasionally occupying the pulpit of her husband, Kent White. In 1902, she founded the sect that became the Pillar of Fire and was consecrated as “Bishop” of the church in 1918, a flagrant violation of scriptural teaching on church leadership (“Bishop Alma White . . . 21). White split with the Methodists because of their progressive “loosening up.” The Pillar of Fire was pejoratively known as “Holy Jumpers” and was described in the New York Times as ” . . . pretty much like the Methodists except that they are more in the habit of working themselves up to a state of religious frenzy which calls for groans and dancing and laughing and shouts to give it adequate vent” (“‘Holy Jumpers’ . . .” SM7). Interestingly, one follower, William Werner, met his death when he was jumping on the roof of one of the commune’s buildings in New Jersey. He lost his balance and fell thirty feet to his death (“Fall Kills a ‘Holy Jumper’” 2).
Despite their zealous worship, which bears some similarity to Pentecostal enthusiasm, Alma White outright rejected the Pentecostal message and authored Demons and Tongues, an extended refutation of Pentecostal theology and practice. In the book, she describes her encounter with William Joseph Seymour, pastor of the Azusa Street Mission. En route to Los Angeles, Bro. Seymour stopped at White’s Bible School in Denver, Colorado. According to Mrs. White, Seymour introduced himself as a “man of God,” and she asked him to lead a prayer at the close of a meal: “He responded with a good deal of fervor, but before he had finished I felt that serpents and other slimy creatures were creeping all around me. After he had left the room, a number of the students said they felt he was devil possessed” (White, D&T 67). Certainly Alma White could not have sensed Seymour’s Pentecostal experience as he had not yet received the baptism of the Holy Ghost when he went to Los Angeles (Sanders 87).
White recorded her “impressions” of Seymour:
He was very untidy in his appearance, wearing no collar, and had a greenish-looking brass button exposed in the band of his shirt. In my evangelistic and missionary tours I had met all kinds of religious fakirs and tramps, but I felt that he excelled them all. There was a cause for this. The Lord knew that Satan was going to use him the outbreaking of the so-called “Pentecostal” movement with the baptism of unknown tongues, on the Pacific coast; and permitted me to see the person that the devil was going to use, before the winds of perdition began to blow. (White, D&T 68)
White should hardly have been surprised at Seymour’s disheveled appearance considering the strict transportation laws that separated the races and disallowed African Americans from occupying berth or parlor cars (Stephenson 193). Certainly, when he boarded the train in Houston, where Jim Crow laws were fully enforced, he would have had inferior accommodation, and interstate rail travel was not particularly easy or posh for anyone at the turn of the century.
White even suspects that Seymour was chosen by Satan because of his race: ” . . . I must say that it is very fitting that the devil should choose on of the sons of Ham to launch out the Tongues or so-called Pentecostal movement in which the works of the flesh are so plainly manifest” (White, D&T 100-101).
Despite repeated claims that she was interested in the spiritual welfare and enlightenment of African Americans, White was a confirmed racist and a member of, or at least a sympathizer with, the Ku Klux Klan. She toured rallies and viewed the supremacists as the true salvation of America. She repeatedly extolled the hateful society and published a book entitled The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, in which she clearly reveals the depths of her own demonic possession with her false and evil prophecies:
Klansmen, with their undying principles, will yet be promoted to the highest offices of the country and will hold the reins of government, as truly as Omnipotence rules. They will see the time when their enemies will be humbled in the dust for ever having raised the religious issue, making it necessary for them to rise up on defense of Americanism. (White, KKK 78-79)
Further, she writes:
The Klansmen are the prophets of a new and better age . . . These men with the banner of truth and the tenets of the Christian religion are now running before the Chariot of State, trying in every way possible to arouse the sleeping multitudes. Their program must be carried out if the country is saved from moral, social, and political ruin. (White, KKK 78-79)
Her passionate support of the Klan explains her condescending attitude toward William Seymour and her uncharitable description of the humble preacher.
Her publication, The Pillar of Fire, satirized Pentecostals and railed against the “Tongues Movement,” with tirades and cartoons. Ironically, her own husband deserted the Pillar of Fire sect and converted to the Pentecostal Movement in 1909, and the two separated. Kent White associated himself with the Apostolic Faith movement and moved to England in 1922, where he served as a pastor and teacher until 1939 (Burgess & McGee 883).
Alma White died in 1946, convinced that the Pentecostal Movement was “one of the worst abominations yet known” (White, D&T 45). Despite her venomous attacks against Pentecostals, the Apostolic Faith continued to grow. “Bishop” White continued in the gross error and foul folly. She would have benefited from the wise counsel of Gamaliel, “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5.38-39). Her fervent efforts could not derail God’s work. Ultimately her criticism of Pentecostalism had no real impact on the movement and her grand predictions about the future glory of the Klan never materialized. Seymour went on to lead a mighty revival that brought together every creed and color in the humble Azusa Street Mission. The Pillar of Fire has been reduced to a veritable column of smoke with only a small number of adherents and only 6 congregations in the United States while Pentecostalism has become the fastest growing form of Christianity worldwide!
Burgess, Stanley M. and Gary B. McGee. Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic
Movements. Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1988.
“Fall Kills ‘Holy Jumper.’” New York Times. 14 Mar 1907, p. 2.
“‘Holy Jumpers’: an Old Religion Headed by a Woman.” New York Times 11 Dec
1910, SM 7.
Sanders, Rufus G.W. William Joseph Seymour: Black Father of the Twentieth Century
Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement. Sandusky, OH: Aldexandria Press, 2000.
Stephenson, Gilbert Thomas. “The Separation of the Races in Public Conveyances.”
The American Political Science Review 3(2) May 1909, pp. 180-204.
White, Alma. Demons and Tongues. Zarephath, NJ: Pillar of Fire Publishers, 1936.
—. The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy. Zarephath, JN: Pillar of Fire Publishers, 1925.