The 1st Pentecostal scandal

Charles Parham

Charles Parham

In 1907 in San Antonio, in the heat of July and Pentecostal revival, Charles Fox Parham was arrested. Parham, the father of Pentecostalism, the midwife of glossolalia, was arrested on charges of "the commission of an unnatural offense," along with a 22-year-old co-defendant, J.J. Jourdan.

Details are sketchy.

They rumors about what happened are out there, to the extent they still occasionally surface. The whole incident has been effectively wiped from the standard accounts of Pentecostal origins offered by Pentecostals, but references are made sometimes in anti-Pentecostal literature, as well as in academically respectable works. It's a curious historical moment in the history of Pentecostalism, regardless of whether one thinks it has anything to do with the movement's legitimacy, just because Pentecostals are no stranger to scandal, but the scandals talked about and really well known happened much later. In the full light of mass media. Here's one that happened much earlier -- at the beginning, involving those who were there at Pentecostalism's start -- that has almost slipped off the dark edge of the historical record.

It's curious, too, because of how little is known. 

It's not known, for example, where Parham was when he was arrested. Was he in his hotel, or a car, or walking down the street? Was he where he was holding meetings, healing people and preaching about the necessity of tongues as the evidence of sanctification, the sign of the coming End of Time? What was the unnatural offense, exactly? Who reported it to the authorities, and on what grounds, what probable cause, did they procure a warrant and execute the arrest?

We just know he was arrested. This -- unlike almost every other detail -- is not disputed.

Within a few days, this was reported in the San Antonio papers. Within a few days after that, the charge was dropped, as the District Attorney declined to go forward with the case, declined to even present it to a grand jury for indictment. Apparently for lack of evidence. Reading between the lines, it seems like the main evidence may have been Jourdan's testimony, and he was considered an unreliable witness: Besides being arrested with Parham, he had previously been charged with stealing $60 from a San Antonio hotel. James R. Goff, in his book on Parham, notes that the only two records of the man's life are these two accusations. The "unnatural offense" case against Parham and Jourdan evaporated in the court house, though. Jourdan vanished from the record, after that. Parham was joined in San Antonio by his wife and went back to preaching, and the incident, such as it was, came to an end (Liardon 82-83; Goff 140-145).

Except: The story was picked up, re-animated with rumors and speculation and false reports, and repeated widely by people opposed to Parham and Pentecostalism, in particular and in general, respectively.

Those reports can't be trusted, but can't be ignored, either. They form the context of the event, it's first interpretation. They creatively re-interpret the story to their own ends, often citing sources(e.g. newspaper accounts) that either don't actually contain the cited claim, or don't seem to actually exist (e.g. telegrams from reporters). But that doesn't necessarily mean they have no basis in reality either -- some of the rumors and poorly sourced accusations could have been true, or could have been based on information we no longer have access to. Figuring out how to think about this arrest, now, more than a hundred years later, requires one to shift through the rhetoric around the event, calculate the trajectories of the biases, and also to try and elucidate the record's silences. All the false reports tell us something, though what, exactly, is the question. It's necessary to look at these disputed accounts, too, because Parham's defense, as offered by him and his supporters, depends on an understanding of those opposed to him.

The main claim, in these reports, is that Parham was having homosexual sex with the younger man. In their words, he was a "sodomite."

That seems like a likely reading of the Texas penal code. That's probably what "unnatural" mostly meant in first decade of the 1900s, but there's at least one report that says Parham was masturbating, and was seen through the key hole by a hotel maid. Most of these anti-Parham reports, though, say he having a homosexual relationship. In one retelling, Jourdan becomes an "angel-faced boy," a "young man hymn singer." In another, he was a "Jew boy," apparently based on nothing, but adding a layer of anti-semitism to the homophobia.

Parham and his supporters, for their part, have apparently never denied that the charge was homosexual activity, only that the charges were false, were part of an elaborate frame, and were dropped for lack of evidenced.

A second persistent claim of the anti-Parham versions of the report were that he'd confessed. According to this story, he confessed on the day he was arrested so that they'd let him out of the county jail, and he signed the confession. There's some thought he did confess, and then later recanted and chose, instead, to fight the charges, but there's no evidence that this is what happened. If the law enforcement authorities had a confession, it doesn't survive, and there's no explanation for why, if there was a confession, the D.A. who looked at the case dismissed it. The only source of information available concerning any sort of confession is those who benefited from Parham's downfall. According to them, he wrote, "I hereby confess my guilt to the crime of Sodomy with one J.J. Jourdan in San Antonio, Texas, on the 18th day of July, 1907. Witness my hand at San Antonio, Texas, on the 18th day of July, Chas. F. Parham." Posters, with that printed up on them, were distributed to towns where Parham was preaching in the years after the case against him was dropped.

The confessions more likely to come from Parham himself are the non-confession confessions, the slightly odd defenses Parham's opponents cast as admissions. As Goff reports, Parham was quoted as saying "I am a victim of a nervous disaster and my actions have been misunderstood." In context, the nervous disaster and the action could refer either to the recanted confession or the relationship with Jourdan. Less ambiguous, the report goes on to say Parham argued, "I never committed this crime intentionally. What I might have done in my sleep I can not say, but it was never intended on my part." There's nothing corroborating these supposed statements either, but they do have the right sound. These are the kinds of things powerful people say when they're in trouble and attempting to explain things away but actually just making it worse. There's a believable ring to these, though they could still be fictitious. 

The other rumour-turned-report was that Parham had been followed by such accusations for a while. Which, if you think about it, would likely be true if the accusation was true, but would likely also be the rumor reported after the fact of a false arrest if the arrest really were false.

So. I can conceive of four theories for what happened. Two are standard, offered at the time and since, two less so. All serve to account for some facets of the known facts, but each has problems too. There's a certain burden of proof one would like such theories to meet. Short of that, one's left with the open question and maybe, also, a personal inclination about what's believable. 

Theory 1: Parham was a closeted homosexual. 

There are certainly enough contemporary cases of such behavior that this wouldn't be mind-boggling. Add to that a little arm chair psychoanalysis, and his obsession with holiness and sanctification, his extensive traveling and rejection of all authority structures can be explained as Parham being repulsed by his own desires and making sure they stayed hidden.

But, why is this, then, the only real accusation? One would think there would be other rumors that surfaced. I can find reports of rumors, dating to the beginning of 1907 or to 1906, and one reference to as far back as 1902, but haven't uncovered the rumors themselves, nor anything more serious than the vague implications of impropriety that followed most traveling revivalist. If he really was suspected of "sodomy" in all these various towns where he preached, it seems strange that this one case is the only known example of an actual accusation, and there're not more substantial accusations.

Further, it seems odd that the many people who were close to him but became disillusioned and disgruntled and distanced themselves from Parham, never, so far as I can find, repeated these accusations. Nor did they ever substantiate the accusations that were out there. There were certainly people around him who could have known he was attracted to men, and who could have, at later points in their lives, said that this was going on. But they didn't. Those who knew of such accusations and split from him tended, to the extent they explained their moves, to cite his domineering, authoritarian leadership. There may be one case where disassociation was based in part on rumors of Parham's immorality, but it's fairly vague.

The only people to explicit make these accusations (rather than just report they have been made) seem to have based them on this 1907 arrest in Texas, and had a vested interest in his demise, but not a lot of access to facts that would have or could have supported the case Parham was gay. 

Theory 2: It was a set-up by rivals, intended to discredit Parham. 

There's certainly evidence that opponents made use of the arrest, after it happened, and he did have some people, notably Wilber Volivia, who were probably willing to go to extreme measures to bring him down. Volivia felt his authority at the proto-Pentecostal Zion City, Illinois, was threatened by Parham, and put more than a little effort in publicizing the arrest, the alleged confession, and the various rumors around the incident.

There's never been a case made for how the set-up was orchestrated, though. Some ideas have been offered as to who could have actually done it, but there are problems with the theories, and nothing substantiating any of them beyond the belief that Parham just couldn't have been doing what he was accused of.

In one case, at least, the person who could have perhaps orchestrated a set-up -- another Texas revivalist -- lacked the motivation to do so, as he'd already sidelined Parham, pushing him out of the loose organization of Pentecostal churches. In the other case, with Volivia, he might have had the necessary motivation, but doesn't appear to have had the means to pull it off, nor to have known anything about it until after the papers reported the issue.

There's no obvious culprit with a clear connection to the authorities necessary for a frame. In addition to that, one wonders why a set-up would have involved an arrest but not an indictment. It's a peculiarly half-finished conspiracy, if that's what it is. 

Theory 3: It was a set-up by police to drive him out of San Antonio. 

Pentecostals and holiness preachers faced a lot of resistance. They were seen as a threat to order, an offense against people's sensibilities and cities' senses of themselves. The resistance was often violent and often involved law enforcement. Others were shut down over violations of Jim Crow laws. This is well documented.

Given that Jourdan had a criminal record, and a previous case against him had been settled out of court, it is possible he was he was working for the authorities, and made a complaint against Parham when told to do so. 

But why "commission of an unnatural offense"? Wouldn't there have been easier ways to get rid of Parham and his revival? A common tactic in the South was just to burn down the tent where the revival was held. Another was to enact or enforce ordinances against noise, or meetings at certain times, or how many people could be in a building, or whether meetings could be held in a given building. It seems like a strange accusation to come from nowhere, especially when you think of how it didn't actually end meetings or guarantee Parham left town. 

Theory 4: There were false accusations by Jourdan or someone else.

One can certainly imagine, in the Parham case, someone who was opposed to him or offended by him coming up with a false story, intending to hurt him. There are more contemporary cases where people have been falsely acussed of being homosexuals, where that accusation was damaging enough to pressure the person to act a certain way. It could have also been a case of someone,  say a hotel or boarding house employee, imagining homosexual sex was going on, and reporting it. Whether or not it was. Then subsequently, perhaps, the case fell apart, since no one was caught in the act, and there was only a very speculative report to go on as evidence.

Alternatively, it seems possible that Jourdan made a false report. We know very little about him, so it's only speculation, but it's possible he was attempting to hurt Parham, but later refused to cooperate with the D.A. when he realized the affect his story would have on his own life. That would go some way towards explaining the known facts: how the arrest happened, why the case fell apart, with everything else being the opportunism of Parham's opponents.

This depends on their being some sort of relationship between Jourdan and Parham, and besides the fact they were both arrested, we don't know what that might have been. It also works better, as a theory, if one imagines Jourdan as a low life who would come up with a bad blackmail scheme, and is probably even more persuasive if one imagines he himself was homosexual. There's no way to know about any of that though, and it wouldn't actually preclude the possibility any of the other theories. 

Maybe the more serious problem with this theory is why Parham's supporters didn't use it. Why didn't they take the "disturbed young man" or "confused person opposed to the ministry" tact? It would have likely been more persuasive that claims of conspiracy. But they didn't ever make this argument -- whatever one can conclude from that absence.

The record is sketchy, and it's hard to know what to believe.

The most reliable document, the arrest report, doesn't exist any more. There's nothing like a critical, unbiased history of those early days. Instead what we have is a mess of mostly biased accounts, and a lot of gaps. A lot of unknowns. Unlike the scandals Pentecostals are famous for, this one happened just prior to the advent of mass media, in the earliest period of American Pentecostalism, where Pentecostalism was still pretty obscure, so the case is shrouded in a bit of mystery. And likely to remain that way.

All that's really known for sure was there was this arrest in July '07, and that was the first real scandal in American Pentecostalism.

This was originally published on May 18, 2012.