How Early Pentecostals Rescued Women from Human Trafficking

The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. This terrible social evil has been more prominent in our social consciousness in recent decades, but early Pentecostals were at the forefront of bringing attention to this issue as early as 1907. During my research on Assemblies of God history, I found stories of homes set up for women who were rescued from trafficking and prostitution situations. These accounts were somewhat surprising considering some scholars haver argued that early Pentecostals were so convinced that Jesus was coming soon that they were often unconcerned about curing societies ills. However, the more we understand the passion these believers had for winning the lost, the more we discover the lengths they were willing to go to meet lost people where they were. This included going into red-light districts and rescuing women from these places.

These discoveries prompted me to write an article about these accounts and how Pentecostal engagement with human trafficking shaped both compassion for women and the unintended consequences to holiness norms that govern modesty conventions. Since the article, published in Pneuma: the Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, is not widely open to the public, I wanted to give a bit of information on this topic for those who can’t access the article.

The Rise of Rescue Homes

In the 1800’s, Britain and the United States were in the midst of the industrial revolution where society was rapidly changing. It was also a period when progressive initiatives to push back against the social and cultural changes led to both conservative and progressive social reforms. One of those was combating the growing issue of prostitution. In Victorian society, women who were unmarried mothers or engaged in prostitution were outcasts from society. Christian women motivated by compassion for these “fallen women” opened homes those seeking freedom from houses of prostitution. They believed they were called to help women reform their immoral lifestyles and to re-domesticate them to proper society.

In the U.S., reformers targeted those who were enslaving women through human trafficking by passing laws against what they dubbed “the white slave trade.” Literature about the trafficking of white women was prevalent in the turn of the century. So while white Americans were concerned about protecting white women, these narratives were also filled with prejudicial characterizations of blacks and immigrants as the primary perpetrators. Tragically, these racist characterizations led to a number of lynchings of blacks during this era.

Pentecostal Rescue Homes

Beginning in 1907, Pentecostal rescue homes started to be covered in Pentecostal papers. The most prominent early advocate for rescue work was G.B. Cashwell. In April 1908, Cashwell announced the opening of the Winston- Salem home for “any poor girl who has been slaughtered, perhaps only a minor, and now friendless, turned out from home and society and given over to brutish men.” Cashwell was even willing search for any women who were reported to him as missing or living in one of the prostitution homes.

Bridegrooms Messenger (May 1908)
Bridegrooms Messenger (May 1908)

There was also a Pentecostal paper in the Pentecostal Holiness Church that was dedicated to bringing attention to the mission of rescue homes. In 1911, C.H. Culelasure started aThe Pentecostal Rescue Journal, highlighting the work of a pentecostal rescue mission in Columbia, South Carolina,

In 1913, a rescue home was opened in Hot Springs Arkansas where Howard Goss and E.N. Bell joined the work as trustees and solicited help from readers to save girls from “White Slave prisons” and give them an opportunity to “get on their feet again and lead a clean life.” The home was part of the growing pocket of Pentecostals in Hot Springs, which hosted the first Assemblies of God General Council just a few months later in April 1914. Unfortunately, in their passion for joining the cause, these white Pentecostals adopted the racist language of “white slave” narratives.

Word and Witness (June 1913)

For Pentecostal rescue workers, the baptism in the Holy Spirit was the greatest tool in helping women escape their previous life. In Cleveland, J. Clark Soules reports, “God is still blessing our work among the down and out and fallen women and is saving and healing and baptizing some in the Spirit.” (Weekly Evangel, April 24, 1915) Through the baptism in the Spirit, Pentecostals believed, women could restore a pathway to elevate their place in society. Reflecting Victorian norms about women, Pentecostals believed that women who were saved, sanctified, and baptized had the possibility once again to dream of being properly married. The accounts of rescue homes across the southern U.S. continued in the papers until around the 1920s.

Oklahoma Rescue Homes

Most interesting to me was the local connection to Oklahoma. In November of 1908, Harry P. Lott of Oklahoma City announced that he had started a Pentecostal Rescue Home for girls in conjunction with his pentecostal mission. A.L. Werham and Fannie Waterfield, who operated the home, were praised for helping many girls transition back into society. But not all were so fortunate to escape before being ravaged by disease from the prostitution lifestyle. Lott reports that one young girl “died speaking in tongues and praising God.”

Another rescue mission Mattie Mallory in Bethany was started in Bethany Oklahoma in the late 1800s and was supported by many OKC Pentecostals. According to Harold Hunter, the mission “still exists today in the form of The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital and Southern Nazarene University.”

In 1917, a rescue home was opened in Sapulpa, Oklahoma by R. L. Cotham. Cotham was an important early Pentecostal who became the Oklahoma supervisor for the Church of God. The matron of the mission was Blanche Darner asked for donations of bedding, clothing, groceries, and furniture in addition to monetary donations. Darner used Jesus’s appeal in Matthew 25:31–46 as grounds for the duty to help these “at-risk persons.” The mission also provided education to women and their children to help get them back into society. That mission became the center of the Pentecostal movement in Sapulpa.

Weekly Evangel, April 7 1917

Also, as told in my book Pentecost in Tulsa, The Mission of Redeeming Love in Tulsa was started in 1910 and by 1913 became a Pentecostal mission led by Minnie B. Hiland. Like many of these early rescue missions, Mission of Redeeming Love worked with the “erring, and betrayed, and outcast girls from the dark and cruel places of sin in Tulsa.” (Tulsa World, Dec 12, 1913). One of the testimonies of the girls in the home is as follows: “I am really and truly and wonderfully saved and have given my heart and soul to the Lord. The sisters in charge of the home are so kind to me that I cannot keep from loving them.”

The Legacy of Pentecostal Rescue Homes

The history of Pentecostals involved in rescue work had important consequences. First, Pentecostals were motivated to go into all kinds of dangerous situations to reach women who were being trafficked and prostituted, many against their will. They treated women with dignity despite the cultural “scarlet letters” that many women faced. Second, early Pentecostals saw the Holy Spirit as a key element that could reverse the damage done to victims of sexual exploitation and give women the possibility of life beyond the brothel. They believed healing was possible and that salvation could restore women to a place of dignity and worth. Finally, though Pentecostals had high standards for sexual morality, the papers will filled with accounts of trafficked women that instilled a sense of sympathy and compassion for women who had engaged in what would otherwise be considered by Pentecostals as notorious and sinful behaviors. By seeing the women as victims, rescue workers saw the men who enslaved them as the true perpetrators, not the women.

However, in adopting the cultural norms about trafficked women, Pentecostals adopted the “white slave” narratives and did not seem to focus on the black women who were also in this horrific situation. Secondly, as a response to the moral panic over the “white slave” problem, Pentecostals believed the best way to stop the exploitation of women was to hide women’s bodies behind modesty conventions. This is one of the reasons that long dresses and uncut hair was imposed on many in the Pentecostal tradition, a norm that exists in some circles even today.

Nevertheless, the history of early Pentecostal engagement with human trafficking is an important lesson to the church. First, it shows that Pentecostalism is not antithetical to social engagement. These believers were willing to do whatever it takes to uplift women in crisis. Second, it is a legacy that continues today in Pentecostal parachurch organizations such as Project Rescue. The work that this agency is doing is part of this long history of missional work to victims of sexual exploitation. Finally, I would say that this legacy should inspire Pentecostal churches to not shy away from issues of sexual exploitation within our midst. The #MeToo movement that began recently is not isolated to Hollywood or cooperate America. Pentecostals must address its own issues of sexual exploitation and coverup of sexual violence by ministers and high-profile ministries. The #PentecostalMeToo movement should not be a fringe movement or a conversation just for academics, but a collective responsibility to address sexual violence in all forms, inside and out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s