Across the Lines: Charles Parham’s Contribution to the Inter-Racial Character of Early Pentecostalism, by Eddie Hyatt
With comments by Pauline Parham, daughter-in-law of Charles Parham, who passed away at the age of 94 on December 22, 2003
He has been called a “rabid racist” and a “white supremacist.” He has been vilified as the progenitor of racial prejudice in the Pentecostal movement. Some believe that any traces of racism among modern Pentecostals can be traced to him. In a recent reconciliation gathering, repentance was offered and forgiveness asked for his sin of racism.1 In the minds of many, Charles Parham is an embarrassment to the Pentecostal movement and does not deserve recognition as one of its founders.
On the other hand, it was Parham who first reached across racial lines to both African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and included them in the fledgling Pentecostal movement. It was Parham, a native of Kansas, who offended southern whites by preaching in black churches and allowing a black pastor to enroll in his Bible school in segregated Houston, TX. It was Parham who did the “unheard of” and invited a black woman, Rev. Lucy Farrow, to preach in his Apostolic Faith campmeeting in south Texas in 1906. And it was Parham who, until his death in 1929, maintained cordial relations with the black community in his hometown of Baxter Springs, KS, often preaching in the local black Pentecostal church.
So, how are we to reconcile these conflicting views of Parham and his racial stance. Is there more than one Charles Parham? The problem seems to be context, or lack of it. Historical events occur within a context and the historian must not ignore the context. When Parham’s life is evaluated within the social-legal-religious context of his time, what emerges is neither a saintly crusader for racial equality nor a rabid racist. What does emerge is an individual who, in many ways, reflected the times in which he lived—when racial apartheid was generally accepted and practiced throughout the land. But what also emerges is an individual who, at critical times, was willing to break with cultural mores and reach across racial lines when it was not the popular thing to do. It is for this reason that Charles Parham deserves credit for setting the tone for the inter-racial openness and harmony that prevailed for a time in early Pentecostalism.
The Historical Context
Parham (1873-1929) lived and ministered during a time when racial segregation was accepted and practiced throughout America. The 14th amendment to the constitution had included a “Separate but Equal” clause, recognizing segregation but requiring that all citizens be treated equal under the law. In the 1896 case, “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” the United States Supreme Court upheld the “separate” part of this clause when it ruled that a law in Louisiana requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railroad cars did not violate the constitution.
It was obvious, however, that the “separate” part of the clause was upheld far more vigorously than the “equal” part. Public facilities for blacks were inferior and fewer in number than those for whites. Blacks were commonly required to sit on the back seats in trains and buses and to eat in dilapidated, back rooms in restaurants. The best hotels were for whites only and even professional sports was for whites only.
And the Church? In the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11 a.m. on Sunday morning to be the most segregated time in America. It was even more so fifty years earlier. A black person in a white church or a white person in black church was considered strange and even inappropriate. Most professing white Christians believed the white race to be superior and that racial segregation could be defended with Scripture.