By Douglas E. Welch
In the morning time of the Church of God reformation movement—when it was confined largely to the Midwest—the issue of race was no issue at all among the “saints in evening light.” We have several old photographs and camp-meeting posters indicating that blacks were not only invited to attend public meetings, but were part of the community, as well. To be sure, their numbers were probably quite small, but whether few or many, they were as welcome as anyone else.
Soon after the Gospel Trumpet Company moved to Anderson from Moundsville, West Virginia, however, things began to change. In the early teens of the twentieth century, social attitudes in the larger community from which the saints had tried to stay apart were rapidly hardening. Racism and racist organizations moved into Indiana in gathering force. The Gospel Trumpet people had to contend with both the anger and resentment of the white residents of Anderson and the suspicion and reserve of its black residents.
Of greater concern (at least as far as we can gather from the documentary evidence) was the reluctance of Anderson’s growing black community to attend the camp-meeting services of the reformation movement. From the first, black adherents of the movement came from many states for camp meeting, but this did not allay the fears of the black community in the Anderson area. They stayed away.
In 1913, according to the Minutes of the Camp Meeting Committee (June 15), E. E. Byrum suggested to the committee that “it would be good to let the colored brethren have a meeting in the German tent after the German meeting in the afternoon.” This proposal was accepted, and Byrum was asked to confer with Daniel F. Oden to see if they would like to do so. Apparently, they did not accept the proposal.
Then in 1914, the question was again raised in committee by F. W. Heinly. The committee appointed Heinly and E. E. Byrum to confer again with black leaders present in the camp meeting. On June 13, 1914, this report appears in the fine handwriting of the secretary, A. L. Byers: “The report on the question of having a separate service for the colored people was first considered. It was found that the colored saints are a little afraid of the proposition, fearing that a separation once started will grow until there will be a feeling that the colored people are not wanted at this Camp Meeting. It was thought, however, that with the understanding that a separate meeting is for the accommodation of the colored people in the city, the experiment might be tried this year with one separate meeting on Sunday afternoon.”
I could ascertain neither in later minutes nor in the Gospel Trumpet whether this “experiment” was judged to be successful or whether it was ever repeated. I cannot help but believe that Oden and his associates demonstrated the greater wisdom in their fears that, in the social context of the camp meeting, and perhaps well beyond, the separate services could have painfully regrettable consequences for the oneness of the community of the saints. Sadly, they were right.
To be sure, many other social factors combined to draw the Church of God reformation movement away from its inclusive roots. Cultural forces were at work over which the saints, whether black or white, had little control. But the problems were greatly exacerbated as the saints increasingly abandoned the countercultural stance of their forebearers. (Women lost a great deal of ground as church leaders during this time, as well.) If we were countercultural once upon a time, we can be so again. However, being countercultural is no longer considered desirable—for either community.
The discussions between Heinly, Byrum, and Oden may have been misconstrued as a suggestion that the two communities go their separate ways, although the subsequent historical record does not indicate that Oden so construed them. Nor did a host of others do so.
The challenge now is to undo the unintended consequences—a most difficult undertaking. But as someone once said, you never know what you can do until you have to undo what you did.
Douglas E. Welch, author and prominent member of the Historical Society of the Church of God, is also a former professor of Christian mission for Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministry.
Article originally published in the December-January 2006 issue of ONEvoice!. Republished by permission. Across the United States and around the world, God is on the move in the Church of God. Join the movement. Give life! Donate today at www.jesusisthesubject.org/give.