Parham's Early Ministry
His first academic year at Southwest Kansas College (now Southwestern College in Winfield, KS) was 1890-1891. When Parham enrolled, he was unsure as to how he would answer his call to the ministry. At first, he abhorred the popular image of the ministers, later in his life recalling:
"The ministry seemed generally to be considered a great burden on society, which they don't seem to be able to get rid of, and which they are unwilling to support. Of whom it is often said they demand more salary than the school teacher, and in return do the community little or not good; usually working about one-sixth the time the teacher does. Having been a collecting steward and being thoroughly educated and trained in all the crafts and gambling schemes used to obtain money, until it seemed that it was absolutely necessary to put a poultice of oysters, strawberry shortcake, or ice cream on the people's stomachs to draw or burst open their purse strings" (Goff 28).
Among more prominent young people at college, and with this general negative attitude surrounding the ministry, Parham decided to become a physician. It's not hard to believe this decision was likely made due to his personal health struggles. His decision, when he later reflected on it, was one that sent Parham into what he called 'backsliding'. He interpreted a later health scare as divine punishment for his career choice as a physician.
Parham once again contracted rheumatic fever, which left him at times bedridden and emaciated. He believed that after confessing his 'backsliding', and trusting in God for his recovery, he received divine healing. Parham claims his healing came in December of 1891, under an oak tree on the college campus in prayer. Here he vowed to quit college and dedicate his life to preaching the Gospel. Parham did re-enroll for the 1892-1893 school year, but due to nationwide financial difficulties and Parham's fervor for his ministry, he cut his education short in 1894.
In March of 1893, Parham was licensed as a "preacher in the Winfield District, Methodist Episcopal Church, North, at the annual meeting of the South West Conference," though he was never ordained (Goff 31). He was appointed as a supply pastor for the Methodist Episcopal Church in Eudora, Kansas in 1893 for the remainder of the conference year. This was due to his early independent ministry presence in the nearby town of Tonganoxie, Kansas, and the unexpected loss of the church's preacher. His enthusiasm encouraged his reappointment for another year in 1894.
There were obvious disagreements among the Methodist Church at large, and Parham's ministry. Though impressed by Parham's enthusiasm and success inside and outside the church, the Methodist Church never officially ordained Parham. Parham's interest in the unorganized Holiness movement challenged the hierarchy of the Methodist Church. Early in his ministry Parham also rejected water baptism as necessary for salvation, believed in the "destruction of the wicked", and did not encourage membership specifically with the Methodist Church, wanting people to join any church they liked (Goff 35).
The Methodist Church, though, didn't seem to punish or sway any of the actions of Parham. It was Parham, when representing his congregation at the annual conference in March of 1895, who surrendered his preacher's licence, cut ties with the Methodist Church, and denounced denominationalism forever.
Later, Parham recalled:
"Finding the confines of a pastorate, and feeling the narrowness of sectarian churchism, I was often in conflict with the higher authorities, which eventually resulted in open rupture; and I left denominationalism forever, though suffering bitter persecution at the hands of the church, who seemed determined if possible my soul should never find rest in this world of the world to come. Oh, the narrowness of many who call themselves the Lord's own!" (Parham 23).
Leaving the Methodist Church was not easy for Parham. His parents, now active members in the church, were disappointed in his decision. During his transition, Parham stayed in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Tuttle of Lawrence, KS to strategize. The Tuttles were two supporters of his ministry who met him in his early evangelistic work. Parham's new ministry took an explicitly non-denominational stance from this point forward. From 1892 to 1898, Parham traveled throughout Kansas and Missouri, preaching about sanctification as a second work of grace, in schools, churches, and camp grounds in the summers (Goff 228). He also worked alongside Holiness people, preaching in their churches, and collaborating with them larger events.
Sarah Thistlewaite was a witness to Parham's charismatic ministry first at the age of fourteen in Tonganoxie, KS. She would go on to marry Parham on December 31, 1896. Their first son was born on September of 1897 in Baldwin City, KS. Parham and his son both fell ill, and both were diagnosed with heart disease. This temporarily curtailed Parham's ministry. While Parham had incorporated praying for the sick and asking for their divine healing, he felt he had not trusted God to do the same for him since his healing on Southwestern Kansas College campus years before. Noticing the irony, Parham "immediately turned his attention to his own ailment. He reported that the power of God touched his body and made him [and his son] 'every whit whole'" (Parham 39).
Divine healing then became a major part of Parham's ministry. He resigned from a lodge through which he had life insurance, denounced all doctors and medicine, and relied only on his faith for his family's health. Parham's new ministry, with an emphasis on divine healing, was in high demand. People who heard Parham preach about this healing were captivated, and desired similar results. Parham found the future of his healing ministry residing in the state's capital, Topeka.
Goff, James R. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
Parham, Sarah E. The Life of Charles F. Parham: Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement. The Higher Christian Life. New York: Garland Pub, 1985.