Archive for September, 2007

‘Til Death Do Us Part: Early Pentecostals on Divorce and Remarriage

2 September, 2007

In August 2007, high-profile “Pentecostal” evangelists Juanita Bynum and Paula White announced that they are leaving their husbands.    While these tele-evangelists are not Apostolic and are not representative of the Pentecostal norm, it is troubling that their decisions have had little impact on their respective ministries.  The Church is always vulnerable to cultural influences, and the divorce and remarriage question, which is thoroughly treated by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the modern Church.  Early twentieth century Pentecostals (both Oneness and Trinitarian) were vehemently opposed to Christian divorce, and their writings reveal the honest and sometimes controversial struggles to deter marital dissolution, to define the conditions for sanctioned separation, and to provide for spiritual reconciliation. 

In The Apostolic Faith, William Joseph Seymour, leader of the Los Angeles Azusa Street Mission, describes new converts to the Pentecostal faith who believed that God’s call superseded their commitment to family and home:  “Many homes today have been wrecked and brought to naught through false teaching.  Wives have left husbands and gone off claiming that the Lord has called her to do mission work, and to leave the little children at home to fare the best they can” (Seymour, “Bible Teaching . . .” 3).  He also admonishes others who “have come to think that it is a sin for them to live as husband and wife,” concluding, “It is no sin to marry” (Seymour 3).  Incidentally, Seymour’s own 1908 marriage to Jennie Evans Moore, a fellow worker at Azusa, precipitated the exodus of some workers, including Florence Crawford and Clara Lum who began a mission in Portland, Oregon (Sanders 110-113). 

In an effort to clarify Azusa’s stand on the issues of divorce and remarriage, Seymour took a catechetical approach in a January 1908 article.  “On what grounds did the Lord Jesus teach that a man and wife could separate?” Seymour’s response admits that fornication constitutes biblical justification for divorce, however he posits:  ” . . . but he has no right to marry another according to the Scripture, while she lives” (Seymour, “Questions . . . ” 2).  In answer to the question:  “Do you have preachers and evangelists of the Apostolic Faith that have two wives or two husbands?” Seymour acknowledges a transition in his understanding of the issue.  Initially, the mission did ordain converts who were divorced and remarried before their conversion, “thinking that everything was under the Blood.”  However, he concludes:  “But after searching the Scriptures, we found it was wrong; that the widow was to be the wife of one man and the bishop was to be the husband of one wife” (Seymour, “Questions . . . ” 2). 

Charles H. Mason, original presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, shared Seymour’s view that conversion did not release a saint from marital entanglements before regeneration.  In fact, Mason openly criticized “Elder C” [Bro. Glenn Cook], who was teaching that baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ remitted sins, including divorce and adultery:

. . . the anti-Christ also put into Elder C. to say that those who had other men and women’s husbands and wives before they came to light that they did not have to leave them that [sic] the water washed it all away, he would put before them 1 Cor. 6:9-11.  But ye are washed now.  That meant to him, any man that had another man’s wife or another woman’s husband before they got washed, that the washing made it all right to stay on, one with another and go on doing the same things that they did before only the washing made it so they could do it and it would not [sic] longer be a sin.  (Mason 81)

Here we have evidence of the primitive Pentecostal idea that divorce and remarriage could only be corrected by divorcing the subsequent spouse and returning to the first.  Bro. Cook clearly opposed this interpretation for those who had so sinned before their baptism.

            Like C.H. Mason, G.T. Haywood initially taught that converts to the Apostolic Faith must make restitution by returning to his or her original spouse, but he recognized the error of this teaching and is in agreement with Bro. Cook’s assessment:  ” . . .when a man repents and is baptized in ‘water and the Spirit’ he is a new creature in Christ, which is the church, his body.  The fact that God sets him in the body is a proof that God has judged his case and exonerated him from all sins and mistakes of the past . . .” (Haywood 116). 

            While most Pentecostals believed that divorce was allowable in the case of fornication, there was a universal rejection of remarriage.  Discussing the “exception clause” from Matthew 19.9, Seymour wrote:  “Jesus makes it very plain.  If the innocent party marries, they are living in adultery” (Seymour, “The Marriage Tie” 3).  Andrew Fraser, an Assemblies of God pastor from Chicago, wrote a very plain treatment of the issue in 1915:

The Bible then grants no permission to marry again while one’s companion is living. But some one asks, What about Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19 :9? Doesn’t it say “except for fornication?” Yes, but the “except for fornication” pertains to the putting away and has absolutely nothing to do with any permission for the parties to marry again. We yield the point as to the putting away, but this fact stands forth clear and unquestioned that there was absolutely no permission given for re-marriage during the life-time of either party. No one can violate this express command without becoming an adulterer in the sight of God. (9)

Stanley Frodsham, another early AG pastor and historian, wrote similarly: 

There is however a basis for the inference that adultery is a legitimate ground for divorce in Jer. 3:8 in which Jehovah says, “When for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce.” But there is clearly no ground for remarriage given in this scripture. God kept the door of repentance always open.  (9)

Bishop Haywood declares: “In the church if a brother and sister, being married separate and marry another while either of the other is living, they are living in adultery . . . When such as this takes place then it is time for the church to act.  We could not stand clear before God and permit such to be carried on in the House of God” (Haywood 118).  Yet more plainly, he writes:  “In the church of God, there is to be no divorcing to remarry.  In the world it is bad enough, but when we come into the Body of Christ, (I Cor. 12.12-13) such practices are no longer to be tolerated” (Haywood 123).

These early Pentecostals conscientiously divided the Scriptures, protecting both the souls of the flock from the stain of sin and the Body of Christ from reproach.  While there are points of contention and disagreement in their writings, Pentecostal pioneers universally agreed that Scripture forbade divorced believers from remarrying during the lifetime of their first spouse.  Despite their rigidity on the subject, all agreed that God’s mercy was extended to all transgressors, and the blood of Christ was powerful to save and cleanse.  Stanley Frodsham wrote:  “Is there no hope for the adulterer?  Yes there is hope” (9).  While the Church must combat the worldly paradigm of dissolving flawed relationships, we must also extend to those without and within the Body of Christ heartfelt mercy as conduits of God’s healing and compassion, tempering the letter of the Law with the Spirit of Jesus Christ who absolved the sinful woman at the well saying, “Neither do I condemn thee:  go and sin no more” (Jn. 8.11).

Works Cited


Fraser, Andrew.  “Marriage and Divorce:  “But from the beginning it was not so.”  Latter Rain Evangel.  8 (1) Oct 1915, pp. 6-14.Frodsham, Stanley H.  “Marriage and Divorce.”  The Pentecostal Evangel.  No. 707 23 July 1927, p. 9.

Haywood, Garfield T.  God’s Word Exhorted, Revealed, and Prophesied.  Indianapolis:  Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Church, 1990.

Mason, Mary.  The History and Life Work of Elder C.H. Mason Chief Apostle and His Co-Laborers.  Memphis:  Church of God in Christ, 1924.

Sanders, Rufus G.W.  William Joseph Seymour:  Black Father of the Twentieth Century Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement.  Sandusky, OH:  Alexandria Publications, 2001.

Seymour, William J.  “Bible Teaching on Marriage and Divorce.”  The Apostolic Faith 1 (5) Jan 1907, p. 3.

—.  “The Marriage Tie.”  The Apostolic Faith 1 (10) Sep 1907, p. 3.

—.  “Questions Answered.”  The Apostolic Faith 1(11) Oct-Jan 1908, p. 2.