OF BONDAGE - Chapter 8
By Wayne Hamburger
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CHURCH LEADERS AND CHURCH HISTORY
We can trace the historical roots of the Gospel Assembly church back to the turn of the century. Late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, a great religious fervor swept both the United States and Europe. This spiritual awakening was commonly referred to as "The Holiness Movement," which gave birth to something called "The Pentecostal Movement." The precise beginning of the Pentecostal Movement is difficult to pinpoint. It is generally believed to have begun in the first decade of this century. Pentecostals fondly refer to places such as Bonnie Brae Street and Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California as the birthplace of their denomination. Many writings confirm that powerful revivals were conducted at these locations and similar meetings were held in communities throughout Texas, Kansas and Missouri. All were identified by peculiar manifestations which were foreign to the denominations already in existence.
The early preachers claimed to have received a spiritual experience accompanied by the speaking of tongues. Most of these preachers were trained in various denominations, but were dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual expression. The preachers brought ideas from the churches of their youth into the new movement and embraced the spiritual manifestations of the revival groups. Each preacher gathered a following which subscribed to his individual interpretation of the Bible. The followers also mimicked the personality and manner of each preacher. These leaders claimed to have direct revelations from God, even though most could not agree with each other. It is not surprising that each group leader founded a sect peculiar to his or her beliefs.
Some group leaders believed that the future of his own following depended upon the organization of doctrine into a particular church dogma. Other Pentecostal leaders fanatically opposed any type of organization, holding to the belief that the organization of a church would cut them off from God. As a result of these differences, many Pentecostal sects were established. In the wake of these differences, the Pentecostals divided and split numerous times. These divisions have continued to the present time.
The Gospel Assembly church was started while the revival was still underway, but after church divisions had started. According to Gospel Assembly word of mouth history and various church writings, the origin is placed at about the year 1913. A small group of men and women held prayer meetings in the river town of Olmstead, Illinois. These meetings took place in the home of Byron and Clara Shelton. Others in attendance were Byron's brother, Bob Shelton, George Aubrey and Frank Knight. They had received word about the speaking of tongues and they wanted to experience it. They kept praying until each one did experience it. Other manifestations included shouting, dancing, laughing, crying, and praising God. Word of this group spread throughout the community and up and down the Ohio river.
A member of the group spotted a man returning with his boat from a fishing trip on the Ohio river. He knew that the fisherman liked to sing and so he was invited to come sing and worship with the group. The fisherman was William Sowders. Sowders immediately liked the robust singing of the group and he sensed the depth of their spiritual commitment. Sowders wanted to join the group and experience the same spiritual involvement that they all described to him. The group informed Sowders that the speaking in tongues was a confirmation that an individual had received the spiritual gift of the Holy Ghost. They used the book of Acts from the Bible to substantiate their actions and beliefs.
Sowders first became converted in 1913. Prior to his conversion, he was a constant pipe smoker. After conversion, he gave up tobacco and the many other bad habits he had picked up during his lifetime. He had loved tobacco and knew that the strength to forsake that habit had to come from some source other than his own will power. He rejoiced in his newfound religion and yet he could not receive the other experience that the little group claimed to have. After several months of seeking it, he, too, received the Baptism of the Holy Ghost, thus, making him a committed member of the Pentecostal faith.
The Pentecostals took that name because the experience described in the second chapter of the book of Acts took place on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. When the movement began, all tongue-speaking peoples had fellowship with each other. Divisions came about as a result of different interpretations of the scriptures. William Sowders recognized that the movement was being weakened by the numerous divisions and he set out to try to mend the splits. He was not successful in that effort, yet he did garner a large following of his own.
Sowders asserted two doctrinal concepts that set him apart from many Pentecostals. First, he claimed that God had revealed to him that organizing a church under a civil charter was wrong. Organizing meant seeking a charter from the state government and Sowders believed that no government body should have any authority over a church. He believed that the only permission he required to sustain a church was authority directly from God. He maintained that church and state must be separate in all respects, not only as a provision of the United States Constitution, but also as a commandment of God. He contended that God dealt with him directly just as He did with Moses and the early prophets. His followers were convinced of it.
Secondly, Sowders went against the mainstream of the Pentecostal leaders by proclaiming that there are two in the Godhead. Most Pentecostals had accepted the Nicene Creed adopted by the Roman Catholic church in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea. Sowders argued that God had shown him that there were two in the Godhead as declared by the priest, Arius. The Arian dogma establishes the theory that God and Jesus are not one entity, since the Bible clearly establishes the separate entities of God and His son, Jesus. The council at Nicea condemned Arius and the majority ruled that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost form one entity.
Both the Roman government and the Roman Catholic church leaders accepted the majority opinion and when Protestant churches were established, they also carried on the tradition. Sowders was adamant that the Nicene Creed was the work of Satan to confuse church leaders and their followers. Sowders preached fervently that God and Christ were separate beings. He quoted numerous scriptures to support his position. It was Sowders’ contention that Christ created the universe in accordance with the will of His father, God. Ironically, many of the scriptures Sowders used to support his position were also used by those opposing him.
Sowders taught that the Holy Spirit was actually the Spirit of God and Jesus, rather than a person. Several Pentecostal preachers argued that the Holy Spirit was a person, which was in disagreement with those believing in the oneness of God. From these divisions, three separate Pentecostal groups emerged. The group believing in one God was called oneness; the group believing in three beings was known as trinity; and Sowders headed up the third group, derisively called Sowderites. These divisions ran so deep that they have continued to this day. The three branches of Pentecostal worship all believe that the others are doomed because they have embraced false doctrine.
In order to promote his own interpretations of the Bible, Sowders urged his followers to be tolerant of both oneness and trinity. He repeatedly reminded the Pentecostals that they were all brothers and sisters as children of God. He remained calm in the face of much criticism and persecution from his own Pentecostal brothers. His meekness and his claim to be directly led by God established him as a prophet to his following. He encouraged other Pentecostal preachers to study the Bible with him so that they could come to a general agreement on the scriptures. Many accepted his invitation, only to break with him when they couldn't change his mind on certain precepts.
Sowders' study sessions grew until they became a regular part of his ministry. These gatherings were given a name by Sowders who called the sessions the School of the Prophets. The school assemblies were scheduled throughout the United States. Sowders' words from these meetings were written down and distributed widely. Several of these writings still exist and are held in high esteem by those holding them. Sowders was always the final authority in the meetings when questions arose on the interpretation of scripture. His claim to having direct access to God supposedly gave him the responsibility to settle all arguments among the preachers. He was often prompted to make prophesies about future events, such as the return of Jesus to the earth and the final days. He laid claim to the keys of understanding about the book of Revelation and the mysteries surrounding the prophecies of Daniel.
While most of the preachers speculated on the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecies, Sowders contended that those prophecies had already been fulfilled. He used various events in history to prove his point. He also believed that there were many other prophecies in the Old and New Testaments yet to be fulfilled. Sowders prophesied that the Jewish people from throughout the world would migrate back to the biblical lands of their forefathers to form a Jewish nation. When the Jewish state was realized in 1948, Sowders was hailed as a true prophet of God.
He also prophesied that Jesus would return to the earth prior to 1955. When Sowders died on November 20, 1952, few doubted that prophesy. They were so convinced that Sowders was God's prophet that hundreds went to his funeral expecting him to be raised from the dead. A young preacher named Thomas Miles Jolly was in charge of Sowders' funeral and he was soon catapulted into the leadership of Sowders' group.
Sowders' funeral drew followers from all over the country. Large panoramic photographs were made of those in attendance. It was considered a special privilege to be included in those photographs. Some of these photos still exist after forty years. It was an honor to be able to prove that a follower was actually at Sowders' funeral. As far as is known, there were no miracles on that day in Louisville, Kentucky. Worshipers could only wonder if Thomas Jolly would be able to direct the group and carry on in the same manner as Sowders.
It is important to look at Sowders, the man, rather than the charismatic leader that people reverenced as a prophet of God. Wayne saw William Sowders many times at the camp meetings in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. Wayne was barely into his teen years when he first met Sowders. He was both awed and frightened by the man. Sowders had piercing eyes which seemed to see directly through others about him. He had a gravelly voice that was both irritating and authoritative. Wayne retained an early recording of Sowders speaking to a group. He could snap his fingers, cast a menacing eye, or speak sharply to get his followers to do whatever he desired them to do.
Sowders' personal writings reveal much about him. His relationship with his second wife, Bertha, was stormy at times. After his conversion, Bertha kept telling him that he had all the religion he needed. She did not want him to seek the Holy Ghost. She also told him he was acting like a fool. She wrote to her mother and stated that she was leaving Will because he was more interested in his new religion than he was in his wife. When Bertha voiced this threat to Sowders, he told her to go ahead and pack the trunk and leave. Sowders wrote, "I would have been glad if she had gone; she was a pest to me and I didn't know how to handle that pest; I later was glad that she was a pest because I learned how to handle her."
By his own definition, Sowders had been an all-around roughneck and street fighter prior to his conversion. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky on September 13, 1879. He grew up without any education even though public schools were available to him. He worked as a boat builder, fisherman, city policeman and a river boat roustabout. In his journeys up and down the Ohio River, he became fascinated by the many small river towns. This fascination eventually led him to settle in Olmstead, Illinois. It was there that he became a full-time commercial fisherman with his own boat and plied the river.
His first wife, Viola, had divorced him a few years earlier in Louisville and so he was accompanied by his second wife, Bertha, when he settled in Olmstead. He had two children by Viola, and they were named James and Gladys. He had no children with Bertha. His children were estranged from their father most of their formative years. Gladys was raised by her mother, while James was bounced around among a number of relatives and finally ended up with his grandmother. In the early years, Bertha resented Sowders' religion, but she later learned to accept and embrace it herself. She then worked closely with William Sowders in his itinerant ministry.
Although William Sowders and Thomas Jolly were quite different in many ways, they were alike in their style of leadership. Sowders was 31 years older than Jolly, who was born on September 9, 1910. Jolly was the youngest member of Henry and Della Jolly’s family of six children. He had one brother and four sisters. Shortly after his birth in Carbondale, Illinois, the family relocated to Cobden, Illinois and became tenant farmers.
It is quite possible that young Thomas was left in the care of his older sisters when his parents went to the fields to plant and harvest crops. In Jolly's writings, he recounts more spiritual experiences of his childhood rather than the everyday events of a child on the farm. He claimed to have had a spiritual experience at the age of five while playing in his yard with imaginary toys. He related that a melancholy feeling came over him and he started crying. He envisioned that his imaginary dreams were reality and this made him feel strange. He later believed the strange feeling to be the Spirit of God which had encompassed him. He felt that from that point God was dealing with him on a personal basis.
A short time afterward, the Jolly family relocated from Cobden to Anna, Illinois and this is where they met William Sowders. Jolly enjoyed reciting the details of his relationship with William Sowders. Sowders' manifestations of spiritual experiences, along with his incisive preaching, made a lasting impression on the young Jolly. Jolly got the idea of holding preachers’ meetings from watching Sowders do the same thing. Many of the practices and mannerisms of Sowders were imitated by Jolly in his own ministry. His immense dependence upon dream interpretation, church doctrine, order of worship and many other facets of religious activity were centered around the foundation that he observed in Sowders. When William Sowders moved from Anna, Illinois to Evansville, Indiana, Jolly was deeply affected by it. He wrote in some of the church literature that he would never forget the day that Sowders left Anna. He said that when he saw William Sowders board the street car with his suitcase and embark for Evansville, he felt he might not see Sowders again. He further stated that his heart sank and he was very melancholy.
Jolly related how he had enjoyed church very much when Sowders was the pastor of the church in Anna. Sowders had gathered a group of musicians to provide music for his church services and the group consisted mostly of Jolly family members. Thomas Jolly played the drums, a sister played the organ, another sister played a guitar, his brother played a banjo and his father played a violin. Jolly loved to brag about how proficient his family was as musicians and singers. They were all self-taught, without the ability to read music.
Wayne's mother, Thelma, often told Wayne about the time she saw and heard the Jolly family musicians in a Pentecostal church in DuQuoin. They provided special music for several churches in the southern part of the state. Jolly used his musical talent outside the church as he reached adulthood. When the Jolly family once again moved to Granite City, Illinois, Thomas began playing with groups in the local taverns. He began working as an auto mechanic during the day and being a barroom musician at night. By this time, he had put all church activity out of his life. He enjoyed recounting what a rascal he had become when he left the church. He bragged about rubbing shoulders with gangsters and others of questionable character. Part of this braggadocio could be traced to the fact that he was small in stature and tried to compensate for this by acting and talking tough. He liked to give the impression that he was a very rowdy and tough individual and not a sissy. He wanted to have the same image as William Sowders gave himself in his writings about his youth. Jolly used the word, "sissy," a lot in reference to other men. It seemed to reflect his inner feelings about his own masculinity.
The following is Jolly's description of the religious experience that led to his calling in the ministry:
"One evening I started out as usual. I had my car parked in front of the house and as I started to leave, my mother stopped me in the living room and said, 'Tom, don't you think it is about time you stopped running around and begin to think about your salvation?' I told her that I didn't care anything about church and that I wasn't ready to make that kind of change. I knew that there were two Pentecostal churches in the area and they both fought each other all the time. I told my mother that she shouldn't ask me to go to a mess like that. When I walked down the steps to go to my car, a voice came out from the inside of my body. The voice said, 'If you will let me, I will use you to remedy the condition'. I didn't know at first what it meant, but the voice kept tormenting me and saying the same thing each time. I knew right there that my soul was impregnated with the word of God and I would have to do something about it."
Jolly then went with his mother to a Pentecostal church in November 1931 and was converted. In spite of his earlier childhood experience, he claimed that his conversion didn't take place until 1931. In February 1932, he went to a church meeting at Mt.Carmel, Illinois and received the Holy Ghost. He described how the Lord had questioned him about his total commitment. He stated that God asked him to give up various things in which he had been indulging and each time he agreed to do it. Finally, the Lord asked him if he was willing to be a martyr for the gospel of Jesus Christ. He wrote that he couldn't answer God about this question for several minutes while he thought about the consequences. When he realized that he was going to die one day anyhow, he agreed that he was willing to be a martyr. God then asked him if he was willing to die any prescribed death for preaching the gospel. Jolly looked up into the sky and saw a cloud hanging overhead. He spoke toward the cloud and said that he would be willing to die any kind of death. Supposedly, at that point, he saw Jesus in the cloud and Jolly began speaking in tongues.
After that experience, Jolly was invited to travel with various itinerant preachers throughout the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, and western Kentucky. One preacher even left Jolly in charge of a church in Mayfield, Kentucky for a short while during the time the regular pastor was on vacation. Between his travels, Jolly returned to Granite City to study further for the ministry. He supported himself by doing car repairs in his parent's back yard. He reported that he studied the Bible day and night between repair jobs so that he could prepare himself for the ministry. He refused to spend any time with his old friends so that he could concentrate fully on Bible study. After a few months of this, he went to Louisville, Kentucky so that he could study with William Sowders. Sowders allowed Jolly to live in one room of his apartment at the church. It was there that Jolly believed he received the final confirmation of his call to the ministry.
One morning, he was awakened by Sowders fixing breakfast in the adjoining room. When he joined Sowders at the breakfast table, he noticed that Sowders had tears in his eyes. Jolly started to cry also. While the two of them sat there crying, the Lord was speaking to Sowders. Sowders claimed that the Lord reminded him about his early days in Anna, Illinois and how the Jolly family had befriended him. Sowders indicated that the Lord showed him that Thomas Jolly was the reward for the hospitality of the Jolly family toward Sowders. Sowders then reported that the Lord told him that Thomas Jolly would make a great minister. Jolly allegedly saw a milky, white substance fill the room and both men began shaking from the experience. They began speaking in tongues, which to them, confirmed Jolly's commission.
After that experience, Sowders was convinced that he must help Jolly in every way possible to get ready to preach. Sowders gave Jolly a notebook with fifty subjects that he had compiled through eighteen years of preaching. Sowders told Jolly to copy the notebook so that he could have the materials for his own use. Sowders made Jolly promise that he wouldn't share the notebook material with anyone unless God sanctioned it. Jolly went to the nearest store and purchased a notebook exactly like the one Sowders owned. He copied all the material from the notebook. Jolly was so proud of the notebook that he told the story about it in minute detail up until the end of his own ministry.
Sowders' call to the ministry came while he was working on his fishing boat. He related that the Lord kept telling him he was to do something, but didn't reveal what. Sowders supposedly asked the Lord what He wanted Sowders to do and the Lord responded in a forceful way. He described it as a voice like a clap of thunder saying, "I want you to preach my gospel." He also stated that there was a golden light shining around him and he was overcome with joy and emotion. Following that experience, Sowders began studying to be a minister. He bragged that he didn't need a seminary for learning about the Bible because his education was coming directly from God. He also claimed to have received the gift of healing during the experience of his ministerial call.
When Sowders started studying the Bible, he became convinced that God worked in forty year dispensations of time. He found that the Hebrew people were God's chosen ones and they had to wander forty years in the wilderness before being shown to the promised land. Saul, David and Solomon reigned over God's chosen people for forty years. Sowders also calculated that it was forty years from the start of Christ's ministry until the destruction of Jerusalem and the early Christian church. From these Bible findings, Sowders deducted that he was the latter day prophet of God. From the time he was converted in 1913 to 1953 was seen as his own forty years of Biblical history. It was not surprising that once Thomas Jolly was designated as Sowders' successor, he would pick up on the forty-year theme as well. He believed that since Sowders died in 1952 and turned the leadership over to him, that his leadership would end with the return of Jesus in 1992. Jolly prophesied many times that God had chosen him to lead the people to perfection and to meet Jesus in 1992.
Wayne recalls from his childhood how James Sowders picked up on his father's prophecy and told the church in DuQuoin that Jesus would come around the year 1952. James was so certain that his father was correct that James predicted there would never be another change of political parties at the head of the government. In 1948, the current President, Harry S. Truman, was running against Thomas Dewey. James Sowders told his congregation that Truman would be reelected. He said that the Republicans would never again inhabit the White House. He confidently prophesied Truman's victory even though the polls showed Dewey in the lead. When Truman won, it sealed the minds of the church members into believing that Sowders was truly a prophet.
After William Sowders and Jolly had spent several months studying the Bible, Sowders felt that Jolly was ready to preach. Jolly traveled to many states conducting meetings and sharpening his skills. While attending a meeting in Detroit, Michigan, he received an invitation to come to Eldorado, Illinois to "pastor" a church. It is interesting to note that even though Jolly recorded his visit to Detroit in his writings and described it from the pulpit, he denied being there when Wayne questioned him about it.
Wayne's uncle, Alvin Morrisey, had worked in Detroit during his youth. He had related a story to both Wayne and his mother, Thelma, that he had known Thomas Jolly in Detroit. The uncle related how that he and Jolly had stayed at the same rooming house. This might have been prior to Jolly's conversion. Uncle Alvin said that Jolly had not been very Christian-like during those days. This really irritated Thelma and she accused her brother of making up the story. When Wayne questioned Jolly about his youthful days in Detroit, he indicated that he had not been in Detroit and that he did not know Alvin Morrisey. Uncle Alvin was able to describe the youthful Jolly in great detail, including his ability to play musical instruments. Wayne could never figure out why Jolly chose to deny the episode unless it was at a time he was supposed to be preaching.
Jolly described his mysterious calling to Eldorado in numerous writings and sermons. He claimed that he had received three different letters inviting him to pastor in three separate locations. He said that he knelt in prayer and asked the Lord to show him which invitation to accept. He supposedly made a covenant with the Lord to go to the one designated by God. His deal with the Lord was that he would touch each letter and God would indicate to which one he would respond. This was a practice of many Pentecostal preachers of that era. If they felt the Spirit during a certain activity, then they assumed it to be confirmation of God's will. Jolly describes touching the first letter with no response. He claimed that when he touched the letter from Eldorado, he was saturated with the Spirit of God.
He proceeded to Eldorado at that point in 1934. He met a man named Vachel Davis, who was responsible for writing the letter. At the first church service there were only six members in attendance and Jolly felt that maybe he had made a mistake in going to Eldorado. He went to Cairo, Illinois to spend some time with a preacher there and try to get some counsel as to what he should do. He claims that the Lord started talking to him while he was in Cairo and definitely confirmed that he should be pastor in Eldorado.
Jolly said that God sent him to a small town instead of a city so that he could be trained by God without the distractions of city life. Church members started having dreams and visions supporting Jolly's calling to Eldorado. His first church building was 39 feet long and 16 feet wide. He called it the little mission. He had a dream (which he claimed that God gave him) showing that he could preach anywhere he wanted, but he would always have to return to Eldorado. He began absorbing churches from other nearby towns such as Galatia, McLeansboro, West Frankfort, Stonefort, Norris City, New Haven and Johnson City. He closed these little churches and ordered the people to come to his mission in Eldorado. Through this process he built a large following in that community.
William Sowders had a more circuitous route to his eventual settlement in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Jolly, he traveled around preaching in various communities before settling down. It was recorded that he conducted his first church meeting in 1914 at Columbus, Kentucky. His first full time pastorate was at Anna, Illinois and from there he moved to Evansville, Indiana. He eventually migrated from Evansville to Louisville, Kentucky where he held a large tent meeting. When the tent was no longer sufficient, he rented buildings for church services. As he prospered, he purchased church buildings. He moved into larger churches as the congregation grew. Some of the street locations were at Northwestern, Parkway, 16th and Market, West Market, West Broadway and South 22nd.
Sowders was fascinated by camp meetings in the early days. He believed that God had appointed him for the purpose of holding camp meetings to get the various Pentecostal factions together. His motto was, "Whosoever will, let him come regardless of religious belief." The ones who came to these meetings brought many different religious doctrines and it created much controversy. Some came just to be combative. Others came just to see Sowders try to arbitrate the many arguments and squabbles that developed. He enjoyed the role of arbitrator and referee, although he wasn't always successful in settling the disputes. He came under personal attack, often by the radicals, who flocked to the meetings. This seemed to only invigorate him in his quest to be the mediator.
Sowders held his first camp meeting at Olmstead, Illinois in 1921. Others followed, such as the one at Elco, Illinois in 1923. The camp meetings continued for several years. Then in 1935, Sowders purchased some acreage atop a mountain near Shepherdsville, Kentucky. On that site, he built a large tabernacle and dining room. Other permanent buildings were constructed, including living quarters and barns for farm animals. The maintenance of such a large piece of property required the services of several individuals. Sowders continued to pastor his church in Louisville and he could not devote full time to his campground at Shepherdsville. He recruited members to live permanently at the campground and they provided donated services to work the land, maintain the buildings and grounds and perform a myriad of other tasks.
A number of single men volunteered to work at the campground, along with some married couples. Their compensation was room and board and praise from Sowders. These permanent residents performed their tasks willingly because they thought they were doing the will of God. There was no question that every resident had to be willing to put in long hours of hard physical labor. This staff raised vegetables and grain to feed the farm animals. Pigs, chickens, and cattle were raised to feed the staff and to feed the hundreds of people who came to the camp meetings.
Church members who attended the camp meetings on a regular basis were allowed to construct cabins on the grounds near the tabernacle. There were no building restrictions so there was every type of shack imaginable constructed at the site. One section was reserved for the preachers to build cabins on and this was subsequently called "preachers’ row" by the other members. At least two meetings were held each summer at the Shepherdsville site. There were a few times when three meetings were scheduled in spring, summer and fall. With so many meetings, church members who could afford the cost, preferred building their own permanent structures on the grounds.
These camp meetings usually were in session from six to ten days. An announcement for camp meetings in 1941 is included to give the reader a sense of the spirit of the time. Camp meetings were just as the name implies. Worshipers camped out and attended church services. Dozens of tents were erected with straw bedding on the ground. These were erected to accommodate those who couldn't afford to build a cabin. Those who stayed in tents were the majority of the congregation. Wayne and his parents always stayed in the tents.
Sanitation and hygiene were minimal at best. Water came from natural springs or wells and cisterns on the property. Water was trucked in when the natural supply ran out. Eating facilities were crude, although a dining room was constructed in which to feed the people. Men who claimed to be called to preach always ate first. Wayne remembers that some of those in the first group that had lined up to eat were questionable characters. He reasoned that God called some peculiar preachers. All others lined up military style to be served white beans, fried potatoes simmering in bacon grease, biscuits, gravy and a portion of beef or pork raised on the grounds. Diarrhea, constipation and upset stomach were common ailments among the faithful, but no one died.
Although William Sowders became a very influential leader and charismatic speaker, his personal relationships were very unconventional. The only members of his immediate family influenced by his ministry were his wife, Bertha, and his son, James. Jolly, on the other hand, influenced most of his family to follow him even though some of them did not toe the line to all of his church requirements.
Sowders was often at odds with his family members. His son-in-law owned a grocery store in Louisville and Sowders tried to interfere with the manner in which the business was being operated. A store customer placed a sign in the store window advertising something to which Sowders objected, so he told his son-in-law to take the sign down. When the son-in-law refused to remove the sign that was offensive, Sowders told him that it was either the customer or himself, but someone had to give in. He refused to patronize the store anymore and when his daughter called on the phone to see if the matter could be resolved; he slammed the receiver down. He proudly reported a few years later that he hadn't seen his daughter or son-in-law since. He justified his actions by claiming that it was God's will for that offensive sign to be removed and when it didn't get removed, he had to take a stance.
On another occasion, Sowders was contacted by his sister to notify him that her daughter had passed away. The sister wanted him to preach the child's funeral. Sowders told her that he was too busy with his ministry and he didn't have time to preach the niece's funeral. He justified this incident by claiming he was responsible for the Master's business and couldn't be bothered by family problems. As a result, he and his sister were estranged for many years.
As mentioned earlier, Sowders had a stormy relationship with his own wife at times. He related one incident that happened when he was seeking the Holy Ghost. He admitted that he didn't treat her very kindly. He told her to get away from him so that he could get the Holy Ghost. On one occasion, he started to leave for church and she leapt on his back. He stated that she dug her knees into his back while holding onto his shoulders. She managed to tear his jacket off in the melee. He reported that he threw her off his back and got her down in the floor and rebuked the devil out of her.
He admitted that he wanted his wife to get employment so that she would be away from him during the day. He thought that God must come first and Bertha was preventing that. He encouraged her to visit for long periods of time so that he could be alone. He recorded that he was so in love with Jesus that he didn't want a wife pestering him. She wanted to talk to him and he wanted to read the Bible. He explained to her that it was more essential for him to study than it was to converse with her.
He needed to prove that his wife wasn't in charge of the situation. He believed that Christ was his head and he couldn't let his wife "boss him around." He read in the Bible that Adam had lost out with God because of his wife and Sowders didn't want that to happen to him. He even believed that he was living in adultery with Bertha because she was his second wife. He considered leaving her and slept on a pallet on the floor, refusing to be intimate with her. He claimed that God finally showed him that he wasn't living in adultery with Bertha, so he moved back into her bed.
Some spouse abuse was not only condoned in the early days of the Pentecostal movement, but was even encouraged through their interpretation of the Bible. The leaders used Paul's writings in First Corinthians 11:3, "I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man; (11:7) the woman is the glory of the man; (11:9) neither was the man created for the woman but the woman for the man." Pentecostal preachers were adamant about getting their wives under their subjection. A wife had to submit willingly and forego her wants for the needs of her husband and family. This was particularly true for wives of ministers. Pentecostals would simply not follow a man who allowed his wife to be an equal partner or he kowtowed to her.
Paul's written instruction in Romans 13:1, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers," was interpreted to mean that since all Pentecostal clerics were directly ordained by God, all lay persons were subject to the whim and direction of the preacher. Ministers used this scripture to employ absolute rule and control over the people to whom they ministered. Although William and James Sowders exploited that scripture, their use of it paled alongside the manner in which T. M. Jolly whaled his followers into line. The church members lived in fear that they would displease their leaders and fall under the judgment of God.
Sowders thought that all of man's problems were the result of God's judgment. Sowders wrote that he would always remember when God began to take him through judgment. He claimed that he was sitting on his bed when the Lord spoke to him and said that he was going to be judged from that day forward. He reported that almost immediately he broke the arch in his foot and suffered agony with it. Within a few days after that happened, his wife Bertha died. Then he said he was exposed to every demon spirit in the catalog. The devil bothered him daily. He related that God's cover was upon him and he was able to go through the slosh and mire without being stained by the serpent's touch. Sowders continued by describing how he had said something with which the Lord didn't agree and he immediately came under the judgment. He became sicker with each day and he couldn't sleep at night. The Lord showed him that he was being whipped, not for what he had said, but for the manner in which he had said it.
On another occasion, Sowders said he witnessed a man making fun of a woman's voice when she was speaking in tongues. When that fellow began to speak, he talked just like the woman did. Sowders claimed that it was God's judgment on the man. Another man proceeded to make fun in the same manner. Sowders swore that the man lost his voice and never spoke another word as long as he lived. Sowders also testified that a man threatened to hit him after one of his sermons. The following week, the man fell off a roof head first and died.
Jolly also bragged about how God took care of his enemies. He related numerous stories to support his claims. According to Jolly, a man disputed something Jolly had said during a church service. The man angrily stomped out of the church. Jolly related that the man stepped in front of a car and was killed instantly. Another one of his stories was of a coal miner who had been attending Jolly's church. The man rebelled against Jolly's instructions and openly defied him. The coal miner was drawn into a conveyor belt which killed him on the spot. He described how the man's body was ground up like hamburger.
These stories made Sowders and Jolly's followers extremely fearful of God. They viewed God as a vengeful master rather than a loving father. Sowders and the other leaders soon learned that they could completely control their congregations with such tactics. The members became submissive and obedient to whatever the minister told them to do. To do otherwise, they believed, would subject them to the wrath of God. This provided the leaders with unlimited power and control over people's lives. The members actually felt privileged to be selected for such sacrifices and believed that the leaders were God's spokesmen which therefore held them in total submission.
Such stories had the desired effect. He told that ministers who opposed his views would backslide, lose out with God, and die violent deaths. Jolly effused over the story of his assistant in the early days at Eldorado. The assistant became upset with something Jolly had stated in his sermon and the assistant left the church service. Jolly said that he was aware that the man had become angry, so he began praying that God would make him so miserable he would return to ask forgiveness for his actions. The man returned to church in less than an hour and publicly asked Jolly to forgive him for leaving church and getting angry. Jolly often quoted the following passage of scripture to convince his listeners that God dealt with his enemies: Isaiah, 54:17, "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord."
Sowders believed that if he displeased God, he would be punished. Jolly didn't dwell on his own judgment very often. Sowders described how he reproved a preacher one time in a manner that he should not. Sowders became ill and remained so for several days. He stated that he would not have been sick so long if he had gone to his brother and confessed his sin, but he was too stubborn to do so. When he finally was willing to confess his error to the man, he became instantly healed.
Sowders told how he went to pray for a man one time and he asked the man what he had done wrong. The man wouldn't admit to any wrong. His tongue thickened and his right eye withdrew into its socket; he couldn't swallow and he couldn't speak clearly. When the man confessed that he had been cheating customers in his business, he was instantly healed. Later, the man started cheating again. The man's family suffered as a result. Sowders reported that the man's wife died and his son first lost his leg and later died. Sowders told the people that the lesson in all this is that one should not trifle with God.
Sowders made no excuses for his chauvinism. He wrote that he couldn't stand for a woman to boss him. He became even more hostile toward them after he started his ministry. He reported that before his conversion, he showed his anger by jumping up and down when a woman crossed him. He held a special contempt for authoritative women. He wouldn't allow a woman to sit near him on the platform he wanted reserved for men. He was fearful that the audience would pay more attention to the women than they would to him if they were allowed around the speaker's rostrum. He recorded that just the sound of a woman's voice would fill him with rage at times. He bragged that he fought women just like a man would fight tigers. Although Wayne was a teenager during the meetings he attended with Sowders, the hostility toward women was evident to the young church member. Jolly continued the same contemptuous attitude as Sowders had. In spite of Sowders’ stance on women, he still insisted that women play the piano because he thought men who played the piano were likely to be homosexual.
Sowders wanted women to dress as plainly and homely as possible. He was concerned that their sexuality would distract the men or interfere with the Spirit of God. He insisted that the females wear long dresses and long sleeves. They were to wear no jewelry and no cosmetics. He claimed that shoes which were cut out in the toe area were designed by the devil. He insisted the color "red" was Satan's color and should not be worn by the women. He preached that when women wore dresses that didn't reach to the ankle, they were the cause of men backsliding. According to him, the sight of women's skin was too tempting for men, which would interfere with the worship of God. Jolly continued to practice many of these concepts during his ministry. The conclusion that was drawn from this was that Sowders and Jolly must have had a terrible time with their own passions, and assumed that every other male experienced the same problems.
As related earlier, both William and James Sowders opposed marriage by the young members of their respective churches. William Sowders cited an example as to what could happen to men who refused his advice. He told a young man studying for the ministry to forego marriage, but the man rejected the advice and married his sweetheart anyway because he found in the Bible that marriage was considered honorable. Sowders reported that the man and his wife had 15 children and he was worthless as a preacher. Sowders saw the huge family many years later and he said it reminded him of a big litter of pigs. The lesson in this story was that when men get married, they can't be used by God anymore. This was peculiar advice given by a man who married two different women.
Jolly introduced something he referred to as "the marriage law." He took the seventh chapter of II Corinthians as the foundation for his teaching on that subject. Women who were abused by their husbands had no recourse except to endure it, according to Jolly. It didn't matter how often the husband was unfaithful or how physically abusive he was to his wife, she was required to stay with the man. Even when the men obtained a divorce and married other women, the first wife had to remain unmarried. As long as the woman's first husband was alive, she could not remarry, as interpreted by Jolly. He quoted II Corinthians 8:39, "a wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord." This double standard was enforced, regardless of the circumstances of the divorce. Jolly took a rather cruel delight in enforcing what he called Biblical law. He could and did make exceptions to this rule when it was advantageous for him to do so.
Sowders had very little regard for physicians and medication of any type. He may have reached that decision through a dream or vision, but the reasons for his attitude are unknown. He refused to take any medication. He seemed to equate faith in God and self-control as the same concept. He taught that anyone could have enough faith in God to heal all illness, injury and disease. It is difficult to understand how a man can become so absorbed with an idea that he would challenge the very God that he claimed to love so much. The tragedy here is that he influenced hundreds of followers to accept his theory concerning the use of medicine. It is truly frightening to imagine the number of innocent children that were allowed to suffer and die because their parents were expecting God to heal these children without medication or professional treatment.
Sowders' words betray the fact that his ego played a role in this situation. He tried to prove that he loved God more than anyone else. His manner seemed to say, "Look how wonderful I am, because I pray more, I worship more and I don't take any medicine, so I must be better." For whatever reason he practiced this dangerous procedure, there were damaging results. Many of his followers could not live up to that doctrine. They either gave in to a protracted need for help or died trying to follow the precepts of their leader, William Sowders.
Sowders was quoted as saying,
"I would rather trust God a month with no results than to trust a doctor two days; I would rather linger and wait on God and accomplish the purpose for me getting sick; I will die before I take any medicine; when I begin to get sick, I just tell the Lord I will trust Him; I promise I will never swallow another drop of medicine; I learned to trust God by starting with minor illnesses like headaches and chills, and when God healed me, this gave me faith for more serious ailments; I once had a horrible affliction and it was either go to the hospital or die and I accepted death; I got so weak I could not walk and it was horrible, but I trusted God; I lost so much blood that I was as white as a sheet; I was going to die and I knew it; I told the Lord that I would meet him until the last second; I told God that if He didn't want to heal me then kill me; thank God I trusted Him and He healed me; I once wore out my eyes studying the Bible and God healed me in a second; when I wore out my eyes again I asked God to give me a second set of eyes; then I thought better of it and concluded that there was no use asking God over and over to do the same thing for me, so I purchased some glasses; if I had been a younger man, I would have asked God to heal my eyes again."
Another thing that set Sowders apart from his peers was his method of dealing with an audience. He liked to have the members of the congregation write out questions on slips of paper. These would be given to him prior to his sermon. He would peruse each one and then proceed to answer it. He indicated that God wanted him to conduct the religious service like that.
Sometimes Sowders would hold his Bible in one hand and let it fall open. He would then point to a page and whatever scripture his finger fell on is the one from which he preached. He believed that God directed his finger to the scripture to which God wanted preached. He tried to mimic the example of Gideon. In the Bible, Gideon put out a lamb's fleece and asked God to give him a message by either making the fleece wet with dew or leaving it dry. Sowders liked to test God's leading by using symbolic fleeces of his own.
At other times, Sowders bargained with God by telling the Lord that if He allowed a certain thing to happen, then Sowders would know it was from above. He really believed that he could change the course of events by making binding compacts with the Lord. He called them God's messages. He declared that he was directly trained by God in this manner. One of the things God was supposed to have said to him was to "stand in the pulpit with nothing on his mind, and God would fill it." He would not prepare a sermon in advance because he believed God would give him a message for each service when he rose to speak. Such messages were often confirmed, he said, by God shaking him with the Holy Spirit.
Sowders believed that only the King James version of the Bible was the one sanctioned by God. No other version was acceptable to him and he forbid that anything else be used. He reported that God told him to get rid of all the deacons in the church because they interfered with the preacher. This allowed him to be solely in control of the church. He sanctioned the plagiarism of certain tunes so that his church doctrine could be substituted for the original words of the song. He fully enjoyed music as long as he felt spirit in it. He even wrote a song himself. It was called, "Goodby, Hallelujah I'm Gone." The churches under his jurisdiction, and all of those who were later directed by Jolly, sang the song often. It was accompanied by shouting and dancing.
Sowders swore that Jesus taught him how to drive an automobile. He was lying in bed one night and Jesus showed him how to drive. The next day, he went out to where a car was parked, then entered it, and drove the car. Sowders said that if a man gets close enough to God, he can do anything with God's help. He believed that he was so close to God that he took on the Lord's attributes and this closeness to God allowed him to lay hands on people and heal them.
Sowders had a pet dog named, "Ching." He enjoyed telling how old Ching would react when the Spirit of God was present. The presence of the Spirit was a key to Sowders' influence. He often shook as if in a trance and spoke in tongues as a type of confirmation of his preaching and the laying on of hands during prayer for worshipers.
Sowders and Jolly both relied heavily on messages from God through dreams. Sowders believed that all of his dreams were from God. Some were extremely bizarre, but he was still able to convince his followers that all of his dreams were from God. If you were a listener as Wayne was, back in the 1940's, it helped to have a good imagination in order to grasp the meaning of some of Sowders' dreams. Wayne believed everything Sowders said because his family all did and he had no reason to doubt him.
A sample of some of the far-out dreaming follows. Sowders dreamed that he went duck hunting. He had trouble killing ducks until he discovered an oversize shell in his pocket. When he put the large shell in his gun and fired, he killed a duck. He said that when he awakened, the Spirit of God hit him and interpreted the dream for him. The shotgun shell represented Sowders' knowledge of the Bible and that knowledge could kill any opposition. Another time he dreamed he was being martyred. Another dream was about a fishing trip where he was using crayfish as bait. He switched to red worms for bait in place of the crayfish and he caught many fish. He said that God was showing him that there were big fish to be caught if one uses the right bait. He thought the dream was showing him how to fish for new converts. Another dream was about a friend of Sowders’ who had left the church to join an organization. Sowders said that the dream revealed the man was foraging with mules.
Sowders also revealed that his dreams gave him insight into politics. He said that God showed him that Al Smith would not be elected president and that the Ku Klux Klan had a hand in it. Another time he dreamed he was in a room and carrying a kerosene lamp, with the base in one hand and the chimney in the other hand. He attempted to light the wick, but a nanny goat ran into him and prevented him from doing it. In his dream, he drove the goat away so that he could light the kerosene lamp. The interpretation was that the nanny goat represented a certain woman in his church who was creating problems. This same woman showed up in another dream as a snake.
In addition to these dreams, Sowders also told about having out-of-body experiences and visions. He once saw a river, which represented the river of life running down from Christ, across Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In the vision, people were falling down on their knees and thanking God because the river was directing them to Sowders.
On another occasion, Sowders saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a white cloud that formed a funnel that went up into the sky like a tornado cloud. A man standing nearby, who happened to be deaf and dumb, saw the same vision and was healed by it. Sowders claims to have seen Jesus face to face and even played games with Him like one would do with a child. He had a vision of a great light one day when he entered a wooded area. He had another vision of two mountains with a cable strung between them. He and some others held onto the cable as it swung over a deep dark valley between the mountains. Sowders and the others with him crossed from one mountain to the other by moving hand over hand across the cable. When they reached the other side, they found heaven and the glory of God. He used that vision as a sign that he was to lead his followers to heaven.
Sowders told about having an experience similar to the one Paul had in II Corinthians 12:2-5. Sowders said that he moved out of his own body and had a conversation with God. He left his body on the floor while his soul was carried away in the Spirit. He is quoted as saying, "I was there with God in a most beautiful and glorious place, with everything around me a solid yellow gold; people were all around my body on the floor, but I was gone; when I came back into my body, my spirit was there, but I couldn't see, hear, taste or smell; all five senses were gone and this was how I knew that the soul comes through the five senses." Jolly believed that Sowders actually had that vision, and he always taught his congregation that the soul was the five senses of human beings.
Sowders described another occasion where he was "caught away" and pressed against a beautiful marble ceiling. It was during that vision that he said Jesus told him to go into the ministry. Jesus also told Sowders when He planned to return to earth, but made Sowders promise that he would tell no one else. Sowders later prophesied Jesus' return date, but still claimed he kept his promise to Jesus in the vision.
Most of the early Pentecostal preachers were led by their own feelings toward God, as described by Sowders. A man would confess his sins, become converted, experience the Holy Ghost and start to preach immediately without any formal training. Few had ever read the Bible and some were illiterate. This type of preacher chose one or two themes and preached the same sermon or sermons over and over again hundreds of times. This mysteriously worked for many of the preachers. Most of those who claimed a calling from God could get a following. Those who followed were no more informed about the Bible than the preacher, so it made little difference to them who the leader was.
Often, these overnight preachers were men with undesirable backgrounds. The preachers used it to their advantage. In small communities where everyone was known, the drunks and scoundrels were very recognizable. To have one of those individuals accept God and change his life was a miracle to which all could be a witness. Fellow community members could recognize that some type of power, greater than that of a human, had to be at work. It was natural to assume that if such a misfit could be changed through the power of God, anything could happen. The preachers were idolized as God's messengers. Every word was taken literally as the word of God, regardless of the stupidity or irrationality of the message. These men quickly formed cults around themselves using the Pentecostal message as the source of their power base.
In analyzing the gradual decline of the sensual pleasure that people experienced in the early days of the Pentecostal movement, it is apparent that the self-appointed preachers were responsible. These men interfered with the spontaneity of the worship by directing attention to themselves. Spiritual freedom was curtailed as each man began to bask in the limelight of his ministry. The preacher who had a vision of the letter "P" misunderstood its meaning. It meant "to plow" instead of "to preach."