Zarephath, New Jersey is the location of the grave. The tombstone, large, white and heavy resembles the person it stands over. A complex of titanic ruins. Odors of damp earth and mildew, along with the rustle of leaves brown and dry, set upon the senses. The ripe, dead smell makes you rub your nose repeatedly. Tall and bent like arthritic fingers, the old oaks living here view the cemetery with detached aplomb. They are used to seeing people come and go, die and be buried.
It’s a dismal cemetery. Not because it’s a place of the dead, and not because of neglect, but because of the austere atmosphere that pervades the place, irritating your psychic senses, like someone dragging their nails down a blackboard. Something’s not right here. The dead are less rigid now, in their coffins, than they were when alive. In death, they are fragile, dessicated. Alive, they were taut with self-righteousness, stank of phony reverence, spoke in sepulchral tones of gravity, did nothing eccentric, and disengaged themselves from life.
In short, they were major sticks in the mud.
The biggest of all the sticks in the mud has her name engraved on the large tombstone: Mollie Alma Birdwell White. And the cemetery in which she permanently resides is named after her. Alma White Memorial Cemetery.
A dire and frightening female, she was born Mollie Alma Birdwell. After studies at the Millersburg Female College in Kentucky, she moved to Montana to live with an aunt. Later she moved to Salt Lake City, where she taught at the Methodist Seminary.
Alma, as she liked to be called, met Kent White, who attended the seminary and they married. It was a passionless marriage, even though they did produce two children. Alma was ambitious for the Lord, and Kent was her stooge and door into the predominantly male world of evangelists.
Alma wanted the Methodist Church to ordain her, but the Methodist Church looked askance at Alma White and her aggressiveness, refusing to ordain her. Alma and Kent packed up, and moved to Denver, where they started the Methodist Pentecostal Union Church. Ostensibly, Kent was the preacher, but that was pure artifice. Alma led the hymn singing, prayed the prayers and slowly but surely took over all the preaching responsibilities.
At Alma’s suggestion, William Godbey consecrated her Bishop – the first woman bishop in the United States. Now that she was a Bishop, and her goal was attained, she left the Methodist denomination, although she still preached Wesleyanism. Alma required room to move, to spread her wings and fly. And the Methodists stifled her, little appreciating her talents, and failed to see that God himself had touched her.
So the Reverend Bishop Mollie Alma Birdwell White started her own church. She called it the Pillar of Fire Church, and she was the founder and primate.
Soon enough, Bishop White had thousands of acolytes, called “Holy Jumpers” because of their wild antics while “filled with the Spirit.” She had converts not only in the United States, but also in Great Britain. Androgynous females, repressed and angry at their status in life, seemed particularly attracted to the movement. The Pillar of Fire was feminist, energetic and proactive, and offered a formula for sanctification and prosperity.
The Reverend Bishop Alma White’s rival at the time was Aimee Semple McPherson, “of the so-called Christian Science Church.” Poor Aimee was no match for someone like Alma, a creature gross and unpleasant, with an iron determination.
The creed of the Reverend Bishop’s Pillar of Fire Church revolves around the verbal-plenary inspiration of the Bible, the belief in a triune God (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), the physical resurrection of Christ, and maintains that the Holy Ghost is of the same essence and shares the attributes of God the Father and the Son. In other words, the Holy Ghost is also true God. They hold with the depravity of all mankind through Adam, the necessity of repentance, faith in Christ, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body of the believer, and premillennialism, which means the Rapture of the Church takes place before the Tribulation and the Millennium.
This latter belief makes them dispensationalists, which is the division of history in accord with God’s timeline. However, I wonder how they know what God’s chronology is. They must know something that everyone else doesn’t, which makes them Gnostics. Does it not?
And the Big Belief is this one: they hold with Christian perfection or entire sanctification, as a second and definite work of the Holy Ghost. This means they believe that after salvation they attain a state of sinlessness. They are now perfect, and thus able to tell others how to live their lives. Arbiters of sin, as it were.
The Reverend Bishop’s church is still in existence today, although pretty much moribund, stumbling under the burden of perfection in an imperfect world. The Pillar of Fire has become exclusionary, drawing in upon itself and its incestuous spirituality. This is to be expected, as it is a privately owned and family operated religious denomination. Perhaps matriarchal monarchy is more accurate.
It is sad to see religion reduced to a personality cult.