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Alma Bridwell White

Alma Bridwell White
File:Alma White 01b.jpg
White circa 1900–1910
Born Mollie Alma Bridwell
(1862-06-16)June 16, 1862
Lewis County, Kentucky
Died June 26, 1946(1946-06-26) (aged 84)
Zarephath, New Jersey
Occupation Bishop in Pillar of Fire Church
Known for First female bishop in the United States. Feminist, noted supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Successor Arthur Kent White
Religion Pillar of Fire Church
Spouse(s) Kent White (m. 1887–1940)
Children Ray Bridwell White
Arthur Kent White
Parent(s) Mary Ann Harrison (1832–1921), William Moncure Bridwell (1825–1907)
Relatives Arlene White Lawrence, granddaughter
Kathleen Merrell White,

Alma Bridwell White (June 16, 1862 – June 26, 1946) was the founder and a bishop of the Pillar of Fire Church.[1][2][3] In 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States.[2][4] She was noted for her association with the Ku Klux Klan and her feminism, anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility to immigrants.[5] By the time of her death at age 84, she had expanded the sect to "4,000 followers, 61 churches, seven schools, ten periodicals and two broadcasting stations."[4]

Birth and early years

She was born Mollie Alma Bridwell on June 16, 1862 in Kinniconick, Lewis County, Kentucky, to William Moncure Bridwell (1825–1907) of Virginia, and Mary Ann Harrison (1832–1921) of Kentucky.[6][7]

William Baxter Godbey converted her at the age of 16 to Wesleyan Methodism in a Kentucky schoolhouse revival meeting in 1878.[8] She wrote that "some were so convicted that they left the room and threw up their suppers, and staggered back into the house as pale as death."[9] By 1880, the family was living in Millersburg, Kentucky.[10]

She studied at the Millersburg Female College in Millersburg. An aunt invited one of the seven Bridwell sisters to visit Montana Territory. All of them were afraid to make the journey, except for Alma, the aunt's last choice. In 1882, nineteen-year-old Alma traveled to Bannack, Montana. She stayed to teach, first in public school, and later in Salt Lake City's Methodist seminary. On December 21, 1887, she married Kent White (1860–1940), who at the time was a Methodist seminarian. They had two sons, Ray Bridwell White and Arthur Kent White.[11]

Church founder

Alma and Kent White started the Methodist Pentecostal Union Church in Denver, Colorado in December 1901. She led hymns and prayers, and at times preached sermons. In 1907, Caroline Garretson (formerly Carolin Van Neste Field), widow of Peter Workman Garretson, donated a farm for a religious community at Zarephath, New Jersey.

This was developed as the headquarters for the renamed Pillar of Fire Church, which distanced itself from the Pentecostal movement. In 1918, White was consecrated as a bishop by William Baxter Godbey, an ordained Methodist evangelist who was active in the Holiness Movement.[8][12][13] She was now the first woman bishop in the United States.[2]

Feminism, intolerance, and the Klan

As a feminist, White was a forceful advocate of equality for white Protestant women. However, she was also uncompromising in her persistent and powerful attacks of religious and racial minorities, justifying both equality for white Protestant women and inequality for minorities as biblically mandated. While the vast majority of her most vicious political attacks targeted the Roman Catholic Church, she also promoted antisemitism, white supremacy, and intolerance of certain immigrants.[5]

Under White's leadership in the 1920s and 1930s, the Pillar of Fire Church developed a close and public partnership with the Ku Klux Klan that was unique for a religious denomination.[14] She assessed the Klan as a powerful force that could help liberate white Protestant women, while simultaneously keeping minorities in their place.[5] Her support of the Klan was extensive.[5][14][15][16] She allowed and sometimes participated in Klan meetings and cross burnings on some of the numerous Pillar of Fire properties. She published The Good Citizen, a monthly periodical which strongly promoted the Klan and its agenda. Additionally, she published three books, The Ku Klux Klan In Prophecy, Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty, and Heroes of the Fiery Cross, which were compendiums of the essays, speeches and cartoons that had originally been published in The Good Citizen.

Klan gathering on August 31, 1929 in front of Assembly Hall, Zarephath, New Jersey for "Patriotic Day" during the Pillar of Fire Church's annual Camp Meeting.[17]

White expressed her racism against African Americans most vocally when speaking at Klan gatherings. On "Patriotic Day" at the 1929 annual Camp Meeting at Zarephath, New Jersey, she preached a sermon titled "America—the White Man's Heritage", and published the sermon in that month's edition of The Good Citizen. She said:

Where people seek for social equality between the black and white races, they violate the edicts of the Holy Writ and every social and moral code ...

Social and political equality would plunge the world into an Inferno as black as the regions of night and as far from the teachings of the New Testament as heaven is from hell. The presumption of the colored people under such conditions would know no bounds ...

This is white man's country by every law of God and man, and was so determined from the beginning of Creation. Let us not therefore surrender our heritage to the sons of Ham. Perhaps it would be well for white people to take the advice of a great American patriot, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans and repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. The editor of The Good Citizen would be with him in this.[18][19]

White's association with the Klan waned in the early 1930s, after the Klan underwent public scandals related to high-level officials and efforts by the media to publicize its members' identities. Still, she continued to promote her ideology of intolerance for religious and racial minorities. She published revised versions of her three Klan books in 1943, three years before her death and 22 years after her initial public association with the Klan. The books were published as a three-volume set under the name Guardians of Liberty. Notably, the word Klansmen was removed from the title, reflecting the Klan's diminished status, while White continued to promote the dogma that had initially drawn her into partnership with the Klan. Volumes Two and Three of Guardians of Liberty have introductions by Arthur Kent White, her son and the Pillar of Fire's second general superintendent.


Time magazine wrote on October 22, 1928:

Aimee Semple McPherson [spoke] ... Worst of all, there came a rival female evangelist from New Jersey, a resolute woman with the mien of an inspired laundress — the Reverend "Bishop" Mrs. Mollie Alma White, founder and primate of the Pillar of Fire Church. Bishop White, who has thousands of disciples ("Holy Jumpers") in the British Isles, clearly regarded Mrs. McPherson as a poacher upon her preserves or worse. Squired by two male Deacons, the Reverend Bishop sat herself down in a box at Albert Hall, with an air of purposing to break up the revival. The dread potency of Bishop White, when aroused against another female, may be judged from her scathing criticisms of the Church of Mary Baker Eddy: "The teachings of the so-called Christian Science Church ... have drawn multitudes from the orthodox faith, and blasted their hopes of heaven! ... A person who is thus in the grip of Satanic power is unable to extricate himself ... [and is] left in utter spiritual desolation." Well might buxom Aimee McPherson have quailed as she faced 2,000 tepid Britons, over 8,000 empty seats, the two Deacons and "Bishop" Mrs. White.[20]

Radio stations

In 1927, a transmitter and radio equipment were installed at Belleview College in Westminster, Colorado to promote the college based in the Westminster Castle. By June 1929, the call letters had been changed to KPOF and the station was broadcasting regular sermons from Alma Temple, the Pillar's Denver Church. In March 1931, WBNY was sold to White and the Pillar of Fire Church for $5,000. The call letters were changed to WAWZ (the letters standing for Alma White, Zarephath). In its initial broadcast, she told listeners, "The station belongs to all regardless of your affiliation."[2] In 1961, Pillar of Fire also started WAKW in Cincinnati. The AKW represents the name of Arthur Kent White, Alma's son.


She died on June 26, 1946 in Zarephath, New Jersey.[1][4]

In popular culture

Alma White, the Pillar of Fire, and their association with the Klan are dramatized in Libba Bray's 2012 murder mystery The Diviners, in a chapter titled "The Good Citizen".






See also


  1. ^ a b c d e "Bishop Alma White, Preacher, Author; Founder Of Pillar Of Fire Dies at 84. Established Several Schools And Colleges.". Associated Press in New York Times. June 27, 1946. Retrieved 2007-07-21. Bishop Alma White, founder of the Pillar of Fire Church and author of thirty-five religious tracts and some 200 hymns, died here today at the headquarters of the religious group at near-by Zarephath. Her age was 84. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Bishop v. Drink.". Time (magazine). December 18, 1939. Archived from the original on 23 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. Her church became known as the Pillar of Fire. Widowed, Mrs. White started a pious, shouting, camp-meeting community in New Jersey, named it Zarephath after the place where the 'widow woman' sustained Elijah. Alma White was soon acting like a bishop toward her flock [and] Pillar of Fire consecrated her as such in 1918. [She] built 49 churches, three colleges. She edits six magazines, travels continually between Zarephath and the West. ... She has two radio stations, WAWZ at Zarephath, KPOF in Denver, where her Alma Temple is also a thriving concern. ... 
  3. ^ Robert Dale McHenry (1983). Famous American women. ISBN 0-486-24523-3. 
  4. ^ a b c "Fundamentalist Pillar.". Time (magazine). July 8, 1946. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-25. Fundamentalist ecstasy and hallelujah-shouting were a vital part of masterful, deep-voiced Alma White's faith. On it she built a sect called Pillar of Fire — with 4,000 followers, 61 churches, seven schools, ten periodicals and two broadcasting stations. Last week, as it must even to 'the only woman bishop in the world,' Death came to the Pillar of Fire's 84-year-old founder. 
  5. ^ a b c d Kristin E. Kandt (2000). "Historical Essay: In the Name of God; An American Story of Feminism, Racism, and Religious Intolerance: The Story of Alma Bridwell White.". American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. 8: 753. Alma White and the Pillar of Fire were unique, however, in their public alliance with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, the Pillar of Fire was the only religious group to publicly associate itself with the Klan. 
  6. ^ Bridwells in the 1870 US Census in Millersburg, Kentucky
  7. ^ William and Mary married on March 19, 1851. Her siblings include: Martha Gertrude Bridwell (1853–?) who was born on March 18, 1852 and married a Davis; James Robert Bridwell (1853–?) who was born on March 18, 1852; Emery Bascom Bridwell (1856–1928) who was born on Valentines Day, February 14, 1856 and died on March 28, 1928; Amanda Frances Bridwell (1857–?) who was born on May 31, 1857, married a Savage, and died on March 23, 1938; Ann Eliza Bridwell (1859–1953) who was born on December 16, 1859, married a Boardman, and died on September 26, 1953; Venora Ella Bridwell (1861–1942) who was born on January 18, 1861, married David E. Metlen in 1887, and died on May 9, 1942 in Dillon, Montana; Teresa West Bridwell (1865–1944) who was born on August 16, 1862, married a Meade, and died on May 30, 1944; Kate Laura Bridwell (1867–1935) who was born on February 22, 1867, married a Ferrell, and died on November 3, 1935; Rollie Taylor Bridwell (1868–1947) who was born on September 3, 1868 and died on May 23, 1947; and Charles William Bridwell (1872–1952) who was born on July 25, 1872 and died on January 21, 1952.
  8. ^ a b Barry W. Hamilton. "William Baxter Godbey". Roberts Wesleyan College. Retrieved 2010-01-07. After 1868, Godbey served several Methodist charges as pastor, was appointed twice as a presiding elder on the Kentucky ... 
  9. ^ Alma White (1919). The Story of My Life. Pillar of Fire Church. 
  10. ^ Bridwells in the 1880 US Census in Millersburg, Kentucky
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Alma Bridwell White". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. Née Mollie Alma Bridwell. American religious leader who was a founder and major moving force in the evangelical Methodist Pentecostal Union Church, which split from mainstream Methodism in the early 20th century. Alma Bridwell grew up in a dour family of little means. She studied at the Millersburg (Kentucky) Female College and in 1882 moved ... 
  12. ^ While Godbey's obituary published by the Kentucky Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, following his death said "He was neither a pastor nor a presiding elder", Godbey was appointed presiding elder of the Barboursville District in 1873, and the London Mission District from 1874 to 1876. See Barry W. Hamilton (2000). William Baxter Godbey: Itinerant Apostle of the Holiness Movement (Edwin Mellen Press):45. ISBN 0-7734-7815-9.
  13. ^ Barry W. Hamilton (2000). William Baxter Godbey: Itinerant Apostle of the Holiness Movement. Edwin Mellen Press. p. 45. ISBN 0-7734-7815-9. 
  14. ^ a b Lynn S. Neal (2009). "Christianizing the Klan: Alma White, Branford Clarke, and the Art of Religious Intolerance". Church History Studies in Christianity and Culture 78 (2): 350. White's words and Clarke's imagery combined in various ways to create a persuasive and powerful message of religious intolerance. 
  15. ^ Blee, Kathleen M (1991). Women of the Klan. ISBN 978-0-520-07876-5. Bishop White's transformation from minister to Klan propagandist is detailed in voluminous autobiographical and political writing. [Bishop] White's anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and racist message fit well into the Klan's efforts to convince white Protestant women that their collective interests as women....were best served by joining the Klan. 
  16. ^ White, Alma (1928). Heroes of the Fiery Cross. The Good Citizen. I believe in white supremacy. 
  17. ^ Lawrence, L.S. (October 1929). "Patriotic Day at Zarephath Camp-Meeting". The Good Citizen (Pillar of Fire Church): 10. The Assembly Hall was filled in the evening, with about 100 klanswomen and a few klansmen in robes. The first speaker of the evening was Bishop White. She gave a fiery message on the topic of race and social equality....She expressed hope that the Klan would do its part in keeping the blood of America pure 
  18. ^ White, Alma (August 1929). "America---the White Man's Heritage". The Good Citizen (Pillar of Fire Church): 3. 
  19. ^ White, Alma (August 1929). "America---the White Man's Heritage". The Good Citizen (Pillar of Fire Church): 4. 
  20. ^ "Poor Aimee". Time magazine. October 22, 1928. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. 
  21. ^ Randall Balmer (2004). Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. ISBN 1-932792-04-X. Alma White moved to Zarephath, New Jersey, in 1907, where a donation of land made ... She founded Alma White College (since renamed Zarephath Bible College) ... 

Further reading

  • Blee, Kathleen M. (2008). Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25787-0. 
  • Stanley, Susie Cunningham (1993). Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White. The Pilgrim Press. ISBN 0-8298-0950-3. 
  • Alma White's Evangelism Press Reports, compiled by C. R. Paige and C.K. Ingler (1939)
  • Kristin E. Kandt; "Historical Essay: In the Name of God; An American Story of Feminism, Racism, and Religious Intolerance: The Story of Alma Bridwell White", 8 Am. U.J. Gender, Soc. Pol'y & L 753 (2000)
  • Lindley, Susan Hill (1996). You Have Stept Out of Your Place. ISBN 978-0-664-25799-6. 
  • Lynn S. Neal; "Christianizing the Klan: Alma White, Branford Clarke, and the Art of Religious Intolerance", Church History June 2009
  • Alison Green; "Heavenly Dynamite:" Bishop Alma Bridwell White, Women's Rights, and Anti-Catholicism. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

External links

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