Sep 19, 2017

A Booming Church and Its Complicated, Ugly Past

Zarephath Christian Church
Zarephath Christian Church is a dynamic evangelical congregation. But perhaps it’s best not to mention the sect’s fiery founder who embraced the K.K.K.
New York Times
September 15, 2017

Hundreds of people each weekend drive up the hill to a newly built $12 million church surrounded by soccer fields in a New Jersey community named Zarephath. They worship by singing along with rock-ballad style prayer songs, following lyrics projected on three overhead screens. They sway and lift their arms high overhead, or say the words quietly with their eyes closed.

Drums, several guitars, keyboards and backup singers accompany the prayers. Spotlights shift from purple to blue to red as the mood builds.

“O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide,” about 300 congregants sang during a recent Sunday service, in a sanctuary that resembles a warehouse-style concert hall, save for two small crosses near the stage. “Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

The worshipers at the central New Jersey church were of every description — young, old, white, black, Asian, Hispanic. The friendly, name-tag-clad greeters at the entrance of the 70,000-square-foot space were there to help people find Bible study groups or inspirational cards in the gift shop.

In short, Zarephath Christian Church has become a dynamic evangelical congregation. It attracts newcomers via both a 50,000-watt contemporary Christian radio station — Star 99.1 — that can be heard from Pennsylvania to New York City, and a conservative, Jesus-focused message that encourages its 2,500 congregants to hew as closely as possible to the lifestyle of his disciples.

The growth is quite a turn for a local church that until about 10 years ago consisted of fewer than 200 members in a timeworn chapel across Weston Canal Road, on a bathtub of land saddled by repeated floods. And even though its leaders don’t talk about it much, the church also represents the local revival of what was one of America’s most unusual Protestant denominations.

The church in Zarephath is the flagship congregation of the Pillar of Fire, a Methodist offshoot founded in 1901 by a formidable female preacher, Alma Bridwell White, whose positive legacy of feminism was complicated in the 1920s by her ardent embrace of the Ku Klux Klan. Scholars believe that the Pillar of Fire was the only denomination in America to publicly endorse the Klan, even though individual ministers from other faiths were active in it.

The contradictions of the sect’s fiery founder create a kind of puzzle for the church’s modern leadership. Pillar of Fire long ago moved away from the hate of the Klan, and its leaders have issued statements denouncing and regretting the church’s historic involvement with it. In a sign of how different the modern church is, the local presiding elder of the denomination, Robert Saydee, is an African refugee.

Yet Pillar of Fire owes its existence to Bishop White, the first female bishop of any Christian denomination in American history. Her traces remain everywhere in Zarephath, the agrarian faith community she founded here in 1905 and named for the town where Elijah found comfort from a widow in the Bible. And yet her complicated legacy is virtually ignored by church leaders, who can still disagree about the extent of her intolerance.

As a result, many people who worship each week in Zarephath don’t know about the church’s history, or even that their church is part of the Pillar of Fire. (Or that the 750-acre parcel that makes up what is essentially the town of Zarephath is owned by the denomination.) The new church is built on the opposite side of the Delaware and Raritan Canal from the denomination’s historic home, so it is easy to get there without seeing the old brick Pillar of Fire sign at the entrance to those grounds.

“We like that the church is nondenominational, because we are nondenominational as well,” said Sabrina Da Cruz, 34, who drove 40 minutes from Elizabeth, N.J., with her husband and infant to attend a service this summer. “They talk about Jesus, which is what a lot of people need. It’s Jesus from beginning to end.”

The woman at the center of Zarephath’s story was born in 1862 to a poor family in rural Kentucky. Mollie Alma Bridwell, as she was known then, grew up wanting to be a preacher, but was told to marry one instead. Chafing at the restrictions, she started preaching in Denver, where her Methodist preacher husband was posted, and ultimately formed her own church. When a New Jersey widow, inspired by her writings, deeded her 70 acres of farmland between the Millstone River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal, she left Colorado, ultimately separating from her husband, and moved the denomination’s headquarters here.

Pillar of Fire gained considerable fame in the first decades of the 20th century, in part because of the oddity of a woman running a religious sect years before women had the right to vote. Puritianical and strident, Bishop White described her church’s guiding principles as “emancipation for women and ultra-fundamentalist doctrine.” Yet her followers also tried to capture the joy of Christianity in their worship.

To the sound of drums and cymbals, they would march through the aisles and even jump while they prayed, earning them a nickname that stuck, the Holy Jumpers. The New York Times twice sent reporters to Zarephath, once in 1907, and once in 1910, to witness and write about her remarkable faith commune, where dozens of men, women and children in dour uniforms eschewed personal possessions and ran their own schools, printing press and farms.

Driven by curious press accounts, several radio stations, and her publishing operation — Bishop White edited six magazines and wrote some 35 books — membership grew. Dozens of Pillar of Fire churches were founded around the country. Pillar of Fire slowly bought up the surrounding farms around Zarephath, growing the community to some 1,200 acres, with its own ZIP code, power plant, bible college and fire station, church historians recounted.

But in the early 1920s, Pillar of Fire took a turn. Bishop White began preaching about how God had given the nation to white Protestants and needed to be protected against Catholics, Jews, blacks and others who threatened its purity. In that decade, Bishop White wrote three books extolling the K.K.K.’s contributions to America, particularly as a bulwark against what she feared was a Roman Catholic plot to take over the country. She permitted Klan meetings and cross burnings on her church campuses, setting off a riot in Bound Brook, N.J., in 1923 when some residents objected.

At the height of its popularity in the 1920s, scholars believe, as many as six million Americans belonged to the Klan. As its popularity waned in later years, so did Bishop White’s support. But it didn’t disappear completely. She republished edited versions of her pro-Klan books in 1943, three years before her death, with introductions by her son, the Rev. Arthur K. White, who would lead the denomination until the early 1980s.

The following decades were overall a period of decline for Pillar of Fire in America, though some of its overseas mission churches — in Liberia, for example — flourished. Repeated floods of the Millstone River devastated historic Zarephath several times.

The old dormitory of Alma White Bible College is now boarded up, and a family of beavers is in residence. The old chapel, whose cornerstone was set in 1926, has been closed since flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011. The radio station, flooded out, now broadcasts from a few miles away in the Somerset section of Franklin Township.

By 2010, the official population of Zarephath, as recorded by the national census, was 37. From a peak of more than 50 domestic congregations, the denomination had shrunk to only a few American churches and mission churches in several foreign countries. But in the 1990s, a new generation of leaders saw promise in this historic place.

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