Tent Makers and Prophets

by Darren Dochuck


Not all prophets operated with the same proclivities, and so Pentecostal and Baptist officials faced distinct challenges. Within Pentecostal circles, where a man could claim divine inspiration and easily obtain a ministerial license, officials faced an assortment of enigmatic types. Prone to conspiratorial thinking and bouts of exaggeration in the name of self-promotion, these prophets usually suffered most from a spiritual ardor that manifested itself in chronic anti-institutional behavior. Their circular logic read as follows: To be a true prophet, one had to stand against society’s grain no matter the cost; the greater the cost (and controversy), the truer the prophet.

In the eyes of Assemblies of God executives, Jonathan Perkins was the worst of the lot. Born in 1889 to an Ohio family with roots in Maryland and Methodism, Perkins spent his early years living in a log cabin on a quarter section (160 acres) of land tilled by his father but owned by his grandfather. By the time he turned fourteen, his father had lost all the family’s savings, forcing Perkins into “the world by rude circumstances to earn my living.” Perkins’s hardship contributed to a lifelong quest for quick-fix schemes, but it was the sudden death of his father when he was eighteen that had a more profound spiritual impact, shocking him, as he described it, out of the “dark paths of trouble” into a dour state of introspection. Together, these two experiences—one of economic dislocation, the other of intense spiritual crisis—predisposed Perkins to a blend of reactionary politics and warped Pentecostalism that grew more intemperate with time. There were signs of this future early on. As a youth, Perkins wanted to be like his grandfather, a Methodist circuit rider who was known to discipline “rowdies” in his audience by “taking them by the nap of the neck and the seat of the pants, [wrapping] them unceremoniously about a tree.” Determined to match his grandfather’s toughness but surpass him in intellect, Perkins set off to school, first Southwestern College in Kansas, and then for a short stint at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

After deciding he could not accept Moody’s “Calvinist doctrine,” Perkins returned to his roots in the holiness branch of evangelicalism and rose quickly within Pentecostalism. By the late 1920s, he had reached the highest echelon in the Assemblies of God, thanks principally to his pen. A talented writer whose commonsense eloquence made for highly readable prose, Perkins earned his stripes as associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel, the Assemblies of God’s denominational paper, and as a published author. His book The Brooding Presence and Pentecost became a best-seller in Pentecostal circles and reached a fourth edition with an estimated fifty thousand copies printed. Perkins built on this renown by becoming pastor of one of the oldest churches in the denomination, Tulsa’s Central Assembly of God. It was here that his eccentricities nudged him toward antinomianism, the belief that certain sanctified saints operated above human-made canons of faith. “Rejecting the idea of Apostles” was one of the great failures of “modern Church life,” Perkins once said. He had no doubt that he was an apostle, and though this designation meant a life of hardship, he welcomed the tribulation. It was in Tulsa, also, that Perkins slid into a racist doctrine of the kind advocated by his cousin, fundamentalist radio personality Gerald Winrod, who spread a message of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Perkins aspired to the same level of influence, and almost reached it. Under his leadership, Central added members at an unprecedented rate and constructed a new building at the then unimaginable cost of fifty thousand dollars. At the same time, he allowed his church to become the headquarters for the local Ku Klux Klan.

Following his stay in Tulsa, which grew increasingly problematic for the Assemblies of God, Perkins packed his wife, children, and belongings into an automobile, and traveled west to Los Angeles. Once settled there in the early 1930s, he assumed the pastorate of a church and a routine of agitation that saw him take on virtually all of Los Angeles’ most prominent religious leaders. Usually these clashes transpired on theological grounds, with Perkins accusing the defendants of doctrinal laxity, but politics also entered the mix. In 1935, Perkins wrote a slanderous article about Sister Aimee Semple McPherson and her assistant, Rheba Crawford, in which he accused Crawford of misconduct while working as the state’s social welfare director. Crawford and McPherson responded with a lawsuit, which led to a judicial—and very public—showdown. The trial was dramatic and filled a courtroom with local tabloid reporters, who gave the case and its victorious (Crawford and McPherson) and vanquished (Perkins) combatants front-page attention. Perkins’s relationship with his denominational hierarchy grew more tenuous with each disquieting episode. By the end of the decade, the once-promising orator was banned from the denomination, was reduced to irregular shifts at General Motors, and was preaching in a small storefront church in a run-down neighborhood of Los Angeles. Yet Perkins remained relevant. Nicknamed “Ichabod Crane” for his wiry frame and pointy features, the apostle still had his readers and continued to earn their trust with his lucid and witty prose. While his wife slept in the bedroom of their apartment in Griffith Park, he wrote religious and political tracts late into the night that spoke to his followers’ most pressing anxieties. At World War II’s end, Perkins’ writings would help resurrect his career.

Whereas Assemblies of God officials struggled to defrock preachers with loose doctrine, officials in the SBC contended with clerics whose doctrine seemed too unyielding. Their creed was Landmarkism. Like their allies, who exercised significant authority in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, California Landmarkists believed that Baptists needed to maintain fixed standards of community based on strict codes of baptism, communion, church membership, worship style, and clean living. No Southern Baptist took theology lightly, yet in the South, where the SBC enjoyed a comfortable, majority status, there at least remained space in the pews for the repentant backslider and wayward soul. In California, where Southern Baptists felt alienated from the mainstream and defensive of their faith, breeches of doctrine were viewed as grounds for immediate expulsion. A powerful band of Landmarkist prophets took control of the expulsions. These preachers had little patience for denominational authority and they believed that only heavy-handed, local pastoral control could correct the slippage in doctrine that had occurred in California under the watch of other Baptists, particularly those affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC), the state’s largest and most powerful Baptist body.

Were it simply a matter of fine-tuning internal mechanisms of governance, Baptist and Pentecostal authorities might easily have solved their problems with prophets. But their constituency’s fierce independence threatened to upset a tentative balance in California Protestantism. The issue manifested itself differently for Pentecostals than it did for Southern Baptists. In the case of the former, the most pressing issue was the negative impressions intemperate pastors gave off. Assemblies of God officials desperately wanted acceptance by other evangelicals and mainstream culture generally, and would spend the 1940s ridding their ranks of renegades. SBC officials faced a more immediate crisis. Their preachers’ self-directed attempts to set things right on the West Coast promised to ignite a turf war between newcomers and native Californians—between southern Landmarkists who considered themselves orthodox and Northern Baptists whom they looked upon as heretical. Were this to happen, SBC executives worried, North and South would surely fight again.

Reprint from From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk. Copyright © 2011 by Darren Dochuk. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.