Pentecostals, Pacifism, and Persecution
Wartime threats to American religious liberty
Like believers in other Holiness churches, early Pentecostals generally tried to avoid the destructive patterns of the world. During the first part of the 20th century, this included a belief that Christians should not support wartime killing.
However, most Pentecostals modified their pacifist stance after witnessing the evil of Nazi Germany during World War II. Pacifism is now a dim memory in most quarters of the Pentecostal Movement.
Some early Pentecostals — including major figures such as Assemblies of God pioneers Henry C. Ball and Isabel Flores and Church of God in Christ leader Charles H. Mason — were arrested on suspicion of treason due to a pacifist stance within their churches.
Another minister, Clarence H. Waldron, was imprisoned on charges of espionage, which authorities used as a pretext to persecute him for his Pentecostal faith. His case, which received considerable media attention at the time, demonstrates the fragility of religious liberty.
The Waldron Case
Waldron (1885–1926), a Baptist-turned-Pentecostal minister, became the central figure in the first important criminal court case involving religious opposition to World War I. Newspapers across America covered Waldron’s 1918 trial for violations of the federal Espionage Act.
Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1907, Waldron was a successful and respected leader. When he accepted the pastorate of a Baptist church in Windsor, Vermont, in 1915, the church’s prospects seemed bleak. But Waldron’s energetic and winsome ministry won hearts and converts. By 1917, the church’s attendance had tripled.
That same year, a Pentecostal evangelist began holding revival services in Windsor. Waldron and about half of his growing congregation attended the services and embraced the Pentecostal Movement.
A segment of the church that opposed the revival decided to force Waldron’s resignation. They did this by accusing the pastor of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Did Waldron “willfully attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, and refusal of duty in the United States military forces”? This was the question the courts tried to resolve.
Waldron’s accusers identified at least two events they believed constituted offenses. First, Waldron refused to allow his church to participate in a patriotic-themed “Liberty Loan Sunday” event. He told his congregation he believed Sunday morning services should be reserved for preaching the gospel, not politics or nationalism.
Second, the accusers said Waldron told his church members, through preaching and the distribution of literature, that Christians should not bear arms in war.
A January 1918 trial ended with a hung jury. Members of the jury could not reach a verdict, in part because they identified significant bias by witnesses on both sides. Cross-examination revealed a church squabble was at the heart of the case, and Waldron’s accusers seemed to be using the Espionage Act as a pretext to force the pastor to resign.
During a second trial in March 1918, the judge did not allow testimony regarding the anti-Pentecostal prejudice of Waldron’s accusers. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and the judge sentenced Waldron to 15 years in federal prison.
The Pentecostal Evangel made no mention of the Waldron case until April 5, 1919, when Clarence’s father, Assemblies of God minister Samuel R. Waldron, reported on the status of his son.
The Pentecostal Evangel editor prefaced the elder Waldron’s letter by saying, “Many of our readers have been interested in what is known as the ‘Waldron Case.’”
Some Pentecostals were likely apprehensive about the case’s outcome. After all, Waldron’s case had weighty implications for American religious liberty.
When America entered World War I, it became increasingly difficult for Pentecostals to maintain their pacifist stance in the face of intense societal pressure to support
the war effort.
Waldron had been accused of attempting to undermine the U.S. government during a time of war. Early Pentecostals, like most other premillennialists of that era, preached that believers should be fully committed to Christ and His kingdom. They admonished avoidance of worldly entanglements that would conflict with their heavenly allegiance.
For this reason, most Pentecostals steered clear of politics. Many likewise viewed killing during combat as a form of moral compromise.
When America entered World War I, it became increasingly difficult for Pentecostals to maintain their pacifist stance in the face of intense societal pressure to support the war effort.
Waldron’s father reported in his letter that President Woodrow Wilson had commuted Waldron’s sentence following the conclusion of the war. He also said Waldron had nearly died from influenza and pneumonia during his year-long incarceration.
Shortly after his release from prison, Waldron became an ordained Assemblies of God minister and moved to California. He spent his remaining years in bivocational ministry, working in secular employment and occasionally ministering alongside Aimee Semple McPherson in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Waldron’s trial and imprisonment had broken his health. He died in 1926 at age 41.
In a 1993 article on the Waldron case published in Vermont History, historian Gene Sessions wrote the following:
In Windsor that national legislation, ostensibly directed against spies, provided a way to remove from town an individual whose religious views had split his congregation and embarrassed his denomination’s state hierarchy and whose pacifism, rooted in those same views, had confused and infuriated local patriots. … The Espionage Act became in the hands of Windsor citizens a potent instrument for disciplining, harassing, and punishing a neighbor no longer welcome.
Isabel Flores and Henry C. Ball
Waldron’s imprisonment was not an isolated case. Flores and Ball, co-founders of the Latin American District Council of the Assemblies of God, were arrested in Texas in 1918 amid heightened tensions over the war and an influx of refugees.
More than a million refugees from the Mexican Revolution came to the U.S. from 1910–20. Many of the newcomers lived along the borderlands in makeshift camps that were rife with disease and crime.
Overwhelmed by this humanitarian crisis, local residents often did not know how to react. Social and political tensions flared in Texas and elsewhere. Some suspected Germany was behind the seeming Mexican invasion of America.
Flores, a prominent Pentecostal leader among the Mexican refugees, was arrested in May 1918 and incarcerated in the Jackson County jail in Edna. The reason for his arrest is unknown. An account published in 1966 in La Luz Apostolica simply stated, “It was wartime, and the officer did not speak Spanish and Isabel did not speak English.”
Ball, an Assemblies of God missionary to the Mexicans, came to Flores’ aid. Ball traveled to Edna, where he spoke with authorities and secured the prisoner’s release.
Ball’s work with Hispanic people and his church’s pacifism caused government officials to view him with suspicion. Ball was arrested later in 1918 in Brownsville, Texas, on suspicion of being a German spy, but he was soon released.
Charles H. Mason
Another case involved a Black Pentecostal leader. Mason was arrested in 1918 on trumped-up charges and confined to a basement jail cell of the Holmes County Courthouse in Lexington, Mississippi.
Leaders from other churches who opposed the Holiness message tried to sabotage Mason’s ministry by falsely accusing him of treason. The cell that once held Mason is now a pilgrimage site, open to the public and decorated with hand-painted murals depicting his incarceration.
The time Flores, Ball and Mason spent in prison was brief compared to Waldron’s incarceration. However, the message in all of these cases was clear. People of faith — whether Hispanic, white, or Black — faced possible imprisonment in wartime when their religious beliefs or activities were misconstrued as harmful to national security.
While pacifism was the point of contention during World War I, these cases highlight the broader need to protect religious liberty.
This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.