Zarephath and the Garden State Grand Dragon

Zarephath and the Garden State Grand Dragon June 8, 2021

So I’m sitting here trying to write about Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, because after writing yesterday about how anti-abortionism became white Christians’ primary political tool for the Second Redemption, I thought it might be helpful today to say something more gentle and Bible-y about the why Christians and all people of good will ought to support legal abortion.

Sometimes it’s helpful to step back from the ugliest of truths. Yes, anti-abortionism has functioned — primarily — as the means for white Christians in the late-20th and early-21st centuries to pursue a political and judicial agenda that has been identical to the “Redemptionist” white Christian backlash to Reconstruction in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. But today I wanted to take a little break from that and reconsider this anti-abortion politics less directly and without ever bringing up the Klan.

Alas, though, this is America and I’m a white Christian in America. And so reading about the biblical Zarephath always reminds me of the Zarephath in New Jersey where I played high school basketball and, well, that brings us back to the Klan.

My fundamentalist Christian school didn’t have a real gymnasium until a few years after I graduated. Timothy Christian School was built on what used to be Camp Kilmer, a sprawling Army base set up in 1942 as one of the main East Coast embarkation points for troops heading to Europe to fight World War II. That Wikipedia link mentions that Joe Dimaggio passed through Camp Kilmer. And also that “The former environs of Camp Kilmer … are soiled with numerous contaminants including PAHs, VOCs, SVOCs, PCBs, asbestos, and heavy metals affecting groundwater, surface waters and sediment, as well as the soil.”

Most of the original buildings from Camp Kilmer were gone by the 1970s, but a dozen or so one-story, U-shaped cinderblock barracks remained, six of which housed the K-12 classrooms of TCS. The campus offered plenty of room for baseball, softball, and soccer fields, but you couldn’t play basketball in the one-story rec-rooms we used for gym class when the weather was bad.

So our basketball teams practiced in the gym of a nearby public middle school and we played our home games in Zarephath on an ancient linoleum court that belonged to the Zarephath Bible Institute and Alma White College. Next door to the gym was the studio for WAWZ, 99 FM, the “Christian Family Radio” station that carried Harold Camping and a host of other “Bible prophecy” radio “evangelists.” Those call letters, like the college, memorialized Alma White and Zarephath.

So who was Alma White? She was the founder of the Pillar of Fire church and the first female bishop in the United States. But here I’ll just pick up from what I wrote about this back in 2015:

Zarephath, N.J., was founded by Bishop Alma Bridwell White in 1901 as a home base for her Pillar of Fire Church. She started the Bible institute there in 1908 to train missionaries in her holiness tradition and her particular brand of anti-Pentecostal Pentecostalism.

Oh, and also to promote her gospel of biblical inerrancy, justification by faith alone, entire sanctification, and white supremacy. See, for all her talk about Pentecost, Bishop Alma White didn’t have the first goddam clue as to what Pentecost actually means, as her Wikipedia entry summarizes:

Alma Bridwell White (June 16, 1862 – June 26, 1946) was the founder and a bishop of the Pillar of Fire Church. In 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States. She was noted for her association with the Ku Klux Klan and her feminism, anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility to immigrants.

One of Bishop White’s books published in Zarephath, NJ.

However, she was also uncompromising in her persistent and powerful attacks of religious and racial minorities, justifying both equality for white Protestant women and inequality for minorities as biblically mandated. While the vast majority of her most vicious political attacks targeted the Roman Catholic Church, she also promoted antisemitism, white supremacy, and intolerance of certain immigrants.

Under White’s leadership in the 1920s and 1930s, the Pillar of Fire Church developed a close and public partnership with the Ku Klux Klan that was unique for a religious denomination. She assessed the Klan as a powerful force that could help liberate white Protestant women, while simultaneously keeping minorities in their place. Her support of the Klan was extensive. She allowed and sometimes participated in Klan meetings and cross burnings on some of the numerous Pillar of Fire properties. She published The Good Citizen, a monthly periodical which strongly promoted the Klan and its agenda. Additionally, she published three books, The Ku Klux Klan In Prophecy, Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty, and Heroes of the Fiery Cross, which were compendiums of the essays, speeches and cartoons that had originally been published in The Good Citizen.


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