White, Alma Bridwell (1862–1946)
White, Alma Bridwell (1862–1946)
Founder of the Pillar of Fire Church and the first woman ordained a bishop in the United States . Born Mollie Alma Bridwell on June 16, 1862, near Vanceburg, Lewis County, Kentucky; died on June 26, 1946, in Zarephath, New Jersey; fifth daughter and seventh of eleven children of William Moncure Bridwell (a tanner and farmer) and Mary Ann (Harrison) Bridwell; attended Vanceburg Seminary and Millersburg Female College, both in Kentucky; married Kent White (a Methodist minister), on December 21, 1887; children: two sons, Arthur Kent White (b. March 14, 1889) and Ray Bridwell White (b. August 24, 1892).
Alma Bridwell White was born in 1862, near Vanceburg, Lewis County, Kentucky, the fifth daughter and seventh of eleven children of William Moncure Bridwell, a tanner and farmer, and Mary Ann Bridwell . In 1869, the family moved to Vanceburg so that her sisters might continue their schooling at the Vanceburg Female Seminary; in 1879, White began to study there as well. In 1880, the Bridwells moved to Millersburg where she and her sisters continued their education at the Millersburg Female College.
Receiving her teaching certificate in 1881, White taught first in the local school district and then in 1882 moved to Montana where she lived with an aunt, while teaching in the Dillon School District. She returned to Kentucky in 1884 and attended Millersburg College for another year. Unable to find a teaching position upon her return to Dillon, she moved to Salt Lake City and took a teaching position at the Methodist Seminary. In 1886, she became engaged to Kent White, whom she had met in Dillon; they were married on December 21, 1887, in Denver.
Living in Denver, where Kent was studying at the University of Denver for the ministry in the Methodist Church, the Whites became involved in the Colorado Holiness Association. In March 1893, White experienced the "second blessing" of sanctification of the Holy Spirit in Erie, Colorado, where her husband had been transferred by his conference of the Methodist Church. Following her sanctification, her religious vocation increased, and she began preaching, leading meetings, and organizing prayer sessions. In late 1895, Kent withdrew from regular ministerial duties within the Colorado conference of the Methodist Church to join his wife's endeavors. On July 7, 1896, White established an independent mission of the holiness movement within the Methodist Church. Believing that Methodism had departed from true Christianity and was confined by its refusal to ordain women or affirm their right to preach, White soon felt the need to sever ties with the Methodist Church. On December 29, 1901, she founded the Pentecostal Union Church, a religious, educational, and benevolent organization soon known as the Pillar of Fire, and on March 16 was ordained into the Pentecostal Union Church. Her husband relinquished his Methodist clergy credentials on March 14, 1902. In 1906, White began work to establish a central location for the church on land it had obtained in Zarephath, New Jersey, and on January 19, 1908, she officially moved the church headquarters there. That same year, the Zarephath Bible Training School (later known as the Zarephath Bible Institute) was established, quickly followed by the establishment in 1912 of the Zarephath Academy, later renamed the Alma Preparatory School. She would purchase Westminster College, renamed Belleview, from the Presbyterian Church in 1920 and found Alma White College in 1921.
The Whites' marriage, never perfect, had started to spiral downward in 1908 when Kent began advocating a more evangelical spiritualism and the speaking in tongues. On August 11, 1909, he renounced his church membership and left Zarephath. Despite sporadic reconciliations over the years, on March 13, 1918, Kent assumed the pastorate of Apostolic Faith's Stone Church in Chicago and then moved to a pentecostal pastorate in Bournemouth, England, in 1919. He would return to Denver in 1939, dying at the home of their son Ray White, on July 30, 1940. While serving as an ordained minister and as the spiritual and administrative leader of the Pillar of Fire following Kent's final renunciation of the church, White was consecrated a bishop on September 1, 1918, by William Godbey. She thereby became the first woman ordained as a bishop in the United States. That same year, the church accepted its first official church discipline, written by Ray White. Her second son Arthur White became a bishop in the Pillar of Fire in 1932 and its second president and general superintendent following his mother's death. White died from heart disease on June 26, 1946, in Zarephath and was buried at Fairmont Cemetery in Denver.
The Pillar of Fire Church has had questionable associations with the Ku Klux Klan. It was also known for its virulently anti-Catholic and anti-immigration rhetoric and often served as a divisive element in American social relations. But by rejecting the male dominance of the institutional church by forming a pentecostal union that opened the pulpit and its administration to women, White led the way for the ordination of women in more mainstream churches and denominations across America.
Stanley, Susie Cunningham. Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1993.
White, Alma. Alma White, The Story of My Life and the Pillar of Fire. 5 Vols. Zarephath: Pillar of Fire Church, 1935–43.
——. Looking back from Beulah. Women in American Protestant Religion, 1800–1930 Series, no. 32. NY: Garland, 1987.
Personal papers are held by the family. Some personal papers and material pertaining to the church are held by the Pillar of Fire Church, Zarephath, New Jersey.
Amanda Carson Banks , lecturer, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee