Pentecost Bands as Advocates for Social Purity

A group photo of Pentecost Band Members from 1900. (Courtesey Chris Hansen Family Photo Collection)

Historically, Free Methodism was tied to numerous social causes (and still is to this day). Its founding principles emphasized care and inclusion for everyone, strong abolitionist ties, and an emphasis on returning to the “old time Methodist” principles, such as entire sanctification. However, like any social movement, as Free Methodism transitioned from a movement to a denomination, the interpretation of those founding principles began to vary widely. As my research on women’s ordination and the Free Methodist Deaconess order has illustrated, there wasn’t universal agreement about what radical Holiness living and social action looked like.

The Pentecost Bands are just another example of this internal conflict. While the band’s founder Vivan Dake, and several other male leaders were ordained Free Methodist elders, Dake’s stance on what holiness living required was far from what most Free Methodists were embracing.

Dake and other leaders embraced marital purity, and the rigid gender divides Dake developed for band organization were directly tied to his strong belief that holy living required the strictest safeguards against sexual temptation.

Defining Social and Marital Purity in the Progressive Era

Social and marital purity are connected philosophies, but where they differ is social purity is focused not on the relationship between married partners, but on large social concerns tied to sexual morality. The White Cross Society was more than just a pledge young men took to upload strict moral standards; part of a larger social purity movement in the 1890s and early 1900s that included temperance advocates (including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), suffragists, and abolitionists.  

In his history of the social purity movement, historian David Pivar credits social purity reformers in the United States with spiritualizing sexuality. WTCU members and some women’s rights advocates rightfully noted that women were held to a higher standard of moral behavior than men, but instead of lowering the standard for women, they argued the standard for men should be raised. By encouraging men to follow the strict moral codes that guided middle and upper-class morality, prostitution and exploitation of women would diminish. Social purity reformers were vocal supporters of stopping the “white slave trade” (as were Free Methodists who favored establishing the deaconess order.)  As Pivar notes, the social gospel was one of many techniques purity reformers used to encourage individuals to pledge to live by high moral standards and encourage institutional reform and education that would (ideally) lead to the moral elevation of American society.1

Dake’s Interpretation of Social Purity

As a passionate advocate for social purity, Dake cleverly organized the bands to be visible examples of what social purity should look like for sanctified individuals. As Thomas Nelson explains in his biography of Dake: “Mr. Dake views the subject of social and marital purity not only from the standpoint of a true philanthropist and reformer but in the light of Scriptural holiness… He instituted the strongest safeguards and most rigid rules against all demoralizing influences in his work. He watched with parental solicitude the deportment of his young people, requiring the strictest decorum on their part.” 2

Bands were only one gender unless led by a married couple (such as Mary and George Chapman, who co-led Band 3 before 1890).  However, gender segregation wasn’t the only way Dake encouraged social and marital purity in band practice. He encouraged regular fasting prayer (including dependence on prayer for physical healing vs. reliance on medical professionals.) 3

Purity Interpretations Led to Bands and Dake into Conflict

Being “dead to self” and all carnal desire. According to Dake, being genuinely consecrated meant being willing to put nothing before God, including your family, friends, and life.  Dake’s standards manifested in some extreme behaviors in the bands and were one reason they experienced not only backlash from Free Methodists who viewed Dake’s policy and theology as out of line with mainstream Free Methodism but also from regional newspapers.

Even within the social purity movement, Dake’s views on how to live a life of purity were far from the norm, and his stubbornness in believing that God’s call mattered above all else was one of the biggest sources of contention between him and the Free Methodist Church as he and other early band leaders refused to follow any denominational policy they viewed as contrary to what God was calling them to do. 4

_____________________________________

1 David Pivar (1973). Purity Crusade Sexual Morality and Social Control 1868-1900. Greenwood Press, Inc.

2 Thomas Nelson (1894). Life and Labors of Vivan Dake. Free Methodist Publishing House, p. 101.

3 Dake’s views on fasting, prayer and spirtual living are spread out in various editorials as well as can be seen in the journals of Pentecost Band workers such as Ina Coone, Sadie Hill Cryer and the biography of Minnie Baldwin Shellhamer.

4 One account from 1889 in The Olney Times (Olney, Ill.) tells the story of Nettie Davis who was in Band No. 19. Davis became very ill while serving and instead of contacting a physician she and her fellow band members prayed over her and left her in their lodging to rest. Her father was furious and came and “rescued” her. The story made several regional newspapers. The Olney Times noted that “the band of cranks tried to cure her by prayer, and during the four weeks she lay ill she was unattended by a physician.” (Nov. 20, 1889, p.2). Davis did recover but her family’s anger over both her and her sister Lillie joining the bands was well-reported in Illionois newspapers through 1889.

Leave a Reply