Zion City, Illinois
Spreading the Apostolic Faith
In March of 1906, Parham closed his Houston Bible School sending the students out to continue to spread the work and message of the Apostolic Faith. He began organizing his followers into support groups for "Assembly meetings," which were modeled off lay meetings held in the Methodist church, in which 20-30 Apostolic Faith workers would gather weekly for prayer and discussion. The meetings were not to be held on Sundays because that was reserved for public preaching. These assemblies would add an element of organization to the movement and provide support for members and a place to share individual hardships.
Additionally, Parham began credentialing gospel workers and established leaders within the movement to serve over various regions. W. F. Carothers was named director of the work in Texas based out of Houston, Rilda Cole was placed in charge of Kansas with headquarters at Baxter Springs, and Henry G. Tuthill lead Missouri operating out of Carthage. Parham planned to appoint other state directors as necessary. His sister-in-law Lilian Thistlewaite was appointed General Secretary of the Apostolic Faith Movement and Parham took the title Projector of the Apostolic Faith. This new structure was announced in the March 1906 publication of Apostolic Faith.
Initially, the plan was not popular among some followers who felt the system was a retraction of the movement's stance against organized Christianity. However, Parham denied any intention of starting a new sect or denomination. He felt minimal structure would be necessary to achieve worldwide evangelism within a generation. Over a six month period, Parham convinced most followers of the benefits of his plan. During this period Parham experienced his greatest success with as many as 10,000 followers.
On August 27, 1906, Seymour wrote to Parham with an update on the movement in Los Angeles:
Dear Bro. Parham:-
Sister Hall has arrived and is planning out a great revival in this city, that shall take place when you come. The revival is still going on here that has been going on since we came to this city. But we are expecting a general one to start again when you come, that these little revivals will all come together and make one great union revival (Parham 154).
Parham wrote back that he would arrive in Los Angeles around September 15. However, Parham suddenly shifted plans and decided to visit Zion City, Illinois.
Parham had been following the career of John Alexander Dowie, the founder, and prophet of Zion City, Illinois. Due to a series of irregularities, including polygamy and misappropriation of funds, Dowie was suddenly facing a loss of authority over Zion. In the midst of the turmoil, proceedings were scheduled for September eighteenth to determine the local overseer favored by the majority of Zion’s population. Dowie suffered a humiliating defeat, and in declining health, faded from importance in Zion affairs” (Goff 120). His disciple Wilbur Glenn Voliva began vying for power, and while for many he seemed like the logical successor, support for him was far from unanimous.
This provided an unexpected opportunity for Parham to advance the Apostolic Faith. He hoped the site would serve “as a launching pad for worldwide distribution of his new doctrine” (Goff 121). He knew he had to act quickly to seize this opportunity. In April of 1906, he had planned another trip to spread his message in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Canada. He had attempted to raise $5,000 for this endeavor, but the campaign never materialized due to insufficient funds. Zion gave Parham a religious community already looking for new leadership. Zion had contacts around the world numbering twenty five thousand, and Zion was home to 7,500 residents. Parham felt this would be the base of a global revival. He also felt his background as a faith healer uniquely positioned him as Dowie's replacement.
Parham ingratiate himself with the press, who were impressed with his success and his spiritual challenge to Voliva. They cast him as Voliva’s chief opponent, even though there were a number of individuals and organizations also competing for control of Zion.
As noted by Goff, the Illinois reporters had no reason to favor Parham over Voliva, “they simply wanted a good fight and recognized the feistiness of the underdog from Kansas. Religious turmoil in Zion made good news, and Parham stirred the waters” (Goff 123).
By the end of September, Parham had over three hundred followers in Zion City. According to newspapers “thousands” were attending his Bible meetings throughout the city. This included a number of high ranking members of the Zion community and previous supporters of Voliva. It appeared Parham was headed for a direct power struggle for control of the city
The Beginning of the End
Over the next few months, Parham would fail to unify Zion City for the Apostolic Faith. The first sign of this was, ironically, the outpouring of Pentecost in Zion. In previous interviews, Parham had neglected to mention his theory of xenoglossia missions. He had been waiting for the right moment to publicly preach this theme that was so central to the Apostolic Faith.
On October 17, “twenty four Zionists erupted in the glossolalic manifestations of Pentecost" (Goff 125). Publication of this outbreak brought a noticeable decline in Parham’s standing with the press. As details of his theology reached reporters on October 18, he suffered an immediate loss of credibility. Parham was no longer considered a serious contender for leadership of Zion.
Yet for Parham, this did not change his own projections for the future of the Apostolic Faith movement. He felt sure the efforts of believers in Zion would eventually inspire the rest of the community to embrace his theology. Parham decided to proceed to Los Angeles to help consolidate Seymour’s growing network and fulfill his promise to lead a revival campaign in the west. Parham felt confident about the future, yet “little did he know that his place in this movement would suffer a swift and catastrophic decline. Parham’s prominence and optimism would never again rival that of the last few weeks in Zion City” (Goff 127).
Parham, Sarah E. The Life of Charles F. Parham: Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. The Higher Christian Life. New York: Garland Pub, 1985.