Bishop Travis B. Sipuel: A Pentecostal Survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

During my research on the history of the Pentecostal movement in Tulsa, I discovered the story of a Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. His story we know because of his daughter Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the famous Oklahoma Civil Rights leader. This is his story.

Bishop Travis B. Sipuel (1877-1946)

In 1917, Elder E. M. Page was commissioned by Church of God in Christ founder and Senior Bishop, Charles H. Mason, to be the State Overseer for Oklahoma churches. Page moved to Oklahoma to establish a church in Muskogee and then came to Tulsa.[2] Page saw that leadership was needed for the fledgling COGIC church in Tulsa invited a young pastor from Arkansas, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, to move to Tulsa with his wife Martha. Bishop Sipuel rented a house on North Greenwood and leased a building for the North Greenwood Church of God in Christ.[3] The building was located at 700 N. Greenwood (presently OSU Tulsa), on the North end of the thriving Black Wallstreet. Sipuel helped to grow the church to 40 people during his time there. Sipuel believed that the beautiful community of Greenwood in Tulsa was the best place to raise a family and build a church.

Home near by where the Sipuel’s may have lived.

When the horrific events of 1921 broke out May 31st, 1921. Sipuel’s family was not immune to the horrific violence. On June 1st , when the mob violence turned to Greenwood, Bishop and Martha Sipuel saw their beautiful house burned by looters. Bishop Sipuel was taken by the Tulsa militia, along with the thousands of black men hands held high, and was marched to an “concentration camp” for black residents in McNulty Park, Tulsa’s ballpark. Meanwhile, Sipuel’s wife was left to watch helplessly and alone as their beautiful house burn to the ground in front of her. One of the white militia men stopped by her as she watched and told her she “better get out of town.”[4]

Photo Credit: Tulsa Historical Society

Although everything they owned was destroyed , thankfully Bishop Sipuel and his wife survived the Race Massacre. They decided to leave town and instead settled in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where he pastored the COGIC church and eventually became a state overseer. His daughter, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, was born in Chickasha and decided to try to enter the University of Oklahoma Law School. When she was denied, she became a civil rights pioneer when her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She eventually won and graduated and eventually became a law professor at Langston University. In 1992, Lois Sipuel Fisher was appointed to the OU Board of Regents and a garden was named in her honor.

Ada Sipuel with Justice Thurgood Marshall

Despite the tragedies of 1921, the Church of God in Christ and black Pentecostal community in Tulsa survived and continued to grow. Just one year later, in 1922, the North Greenwood COGIC  was said to have grown to 250 people; no doubt the community had turned to the church for hope.[5] The Greenwood Community would eventually rebuild and once again became a center for black commerce in Tulsa. Bishop Travis Sipuel led an distinguished career as a COGIC pastor and leader in Oklahoma.

There are more stories to tell about the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa, which I hope can I uncover and tell. But to me, Bishop Sipuel’s story makes this event all the more real and makes me more passionate to uncover all I can about the history of the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa.

(For related research, see my post about Oral Roberts and the story of Beno Hall being reclaimed for racial reconciliation)


[1] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922), 16.

[2] Church of God in Christ Yearbook, (1926), 67.

[3] Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, Matter of Black and White (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 10. The Polk-Hoffhine Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922) notes this as the second COGIC church in Tulsa, although it is hard to know how the two churches were related.

[4] Fisher, Matter of Black and White, 12.

[5] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory, 1922, 16.

How Pentecostals Responded to the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

(Note: This blog was also published in Influence Magazine and can be viewed on their website https://influencemagazine.com)

Hear a podcast about this topic with Steve Strang of Charisma Magazine.


 

Right now the whole world is feeling the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  It seems like every institution in our society is closing down to protect people from the spread of this virus. Many people have been commenting on the church’s response to this current crisis from different angles. Yet, every day, more and more churches are deciding to close down and provide services online. How should people of faith and who believe in healing handle this crisis? Should we cancel church? Should we stop ministry in the midst of a pandemic?

What is interesting about this current pandemic is that it is just over 100 years ago that the world was overtaken by the Spanish Influenza. During 1918-1919, an estimated 500 million people contracted the virus and 50 million died as a result. Knowing that this was in the early days of Pentecostalism, I decided to look back to how Pentecostal believers in the Assemblies of God reacted to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Turns out, Pentecostals had a lot to say about the topic.

Beginning in 1918, tales of influenza and the Spanish flu filled the pages of the AG’s newspaper, The Christian Evangel (later known as the Pentecostal Evangel). In Springfield, Missouri, where the AG and Pentecostal Evangel headquarters had recently re-located, a great outbreak took place. The paper recorded all the Assemblies were closed.

It is interesting to note that Churches and ministers  complied with Health Department mandates to close their meetings and quarantine this who are sick. They recognized that they needed to protect people in the cities they lived in.  On several occasions, revivals had to be canceled as the Influenza was spreading across the town. Some saw it as the direct resistance to the great work God was doing. Even so, they viewed the painful reality of human mortality as a greater impulse to reach the loss.

Yet, these believers also went to the homes of those who were sick to pray and saw many answers to prayer. They weren’t afraid to pray for the sick. In some cases, they ministered to them even in death, as is illustrated below.

The paper had many accounts from ministers, but also included on the last page of the paper a list of prayer requests, many of which were of people asking for prayer for themselves or their children because of the virus. Sadly, I am sure many of these died.

Yet, there were also stories of triumph of Pentecostal saint who made it through. One particularly important testimony was that of E.N. Bell’s wife, who contracted the Spanish Flu but was healed. She testified, “The Spirit Himself interceded for me” and she made it through.

On another occasion, the notable early leader, Robert Craig of San Francisco, shared this testimony that although many died in the city, not one in their mission died from the influenza.

Some of the hardest hit areas were global, particularly India. Accounts of the tragic loss of life filled the paper. One in particular article even describes the progression of the sickness, recording that a person would die in as little as three days.

Sadly, many missionaries also died from the Spanish Flu.  One in particular, named Nellie Andrews Norton, died because of her ministry to people with the Spanish Flu.  The tribute records, “When the Influenza came into our midst last month, she did not spare herself, but worked night and day caring for the sick until she herself came down with the disease.”  But accounts like these always acknowledged that for the believer, death was a “promotion” to heaven for sacrificing their life here on earth.

How Should Spirit-empowered Believers Respond Today?

As believers (particularly as Spirit-empowered believers) are considering how we should response to the current crisis, I think there is a couple things to take away  from this example. First, Early Pentecostals endured the worst pandemic of the flu to that point in history. Although they believed in healing, they didn’t promise that their faith in God would protect them from the disease. Many people caught it; many people died. Yet, they also testified that God was also a healer and many were preserved through it or were healed from it. In either case, it was their faith in God and prayer that got them through.

Second, their worship and ministry was interrupted by the crisis. Missions were closed. Revivals were canceled. Even the paper was delayed in being printed. Yet, they followed the guidelines of the city or health department and closed their churches and missions when instructed to. They were not careless with the lives of people during the pandemic. They were willing to stay home and pray, knowing that that was just as valuable in the crisis.

I don’t know how long churches will be canceled, stores will be closed, or people will suffer with this virus. But I know that people of faith have endured in the past and made it through. There may be tragic losses, but there may also be dramatic testimonies of healing as well. What I do know is we need to pray for one another. We need to encourage one another. We may even need to visit one another if God leads us.  But most of all, I think churches need to follow the example of those who went before us to keep safe, keep praying, and obey the guidelines that keep others safe. If we can do this, I know we will make it through.

What is an Evangelical, anyway?

Evangelical

There is a lot of discussion during the political season about what “evangelicals” will do as a voting block.   How do you know if you are an evangelical?  The reality is that the term ‘evangelical’ is a very difficult term to define.  It has historical, theological, political and social meanings.  My study of Pentecostalism has required me to try to understand the meaning behind the word.   I thought I share a somewhat simplistic guide to understanding some of the history of the term.

Prior to Protestant Reformation, there was basically only one church; The Roman Catholic Church.  The Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin was able to point believers back to the Bible as the source of faith and back to grace as the means of salvation.  The greek word for gospel is “evangellion.” In this sense, the Protestant Reformation was an evangelical reformation. Personal salvation and the Word of God were primary emphases.

 

A couple hundred years later, Protestantism had enjoyed periods of rise and decline.  In the mid-1700’s  a wave of revival came to Britain and America.  Revivalists such as WB-preaching-in-tentCharles Finney and John Wesley brought spirituality back to the declining church that had become too doctrinal and formal within protestant denominations.  This led to a revival  that once again emphasized conversion experiences and emphasis on biblical forms of Christianity.   During this time Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Congregationalists were all emphasizing personal salvation, holiness, Spirit empowerment and the expectation of the return of Jesus.  They also emphasized social action through the gospel. Many evangelical missions, orphanages, hospitals, inner city ministries, abolitionist, women’s voting rights and welfare programs were begun during this time.  Historian David Bebbinton characterized evangelicals during this period as:

  1. Bible centered – they emphasized the primacy of scriptural authority
  2. Christ centered – They emphasized the saving work of Jesus Christ
  3. Conversion Centered – they emphasized the born again experience of faith
  4. Action Centered – They emphasized the active work of the believer through holiness and social engagement.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly all the major denominations had an evangelical emphasis that included the sanctifying and empowering work of the Spirit, holiness and divine healing.  In the late 1800’s, Evangelical leaders like D. L. Moody, A. J. Gordon (Baptist), A. T. Pierson (Presbyterian), and A. B. Simpson (Presbyterian turned founder of Christian and Missionary Alliance) were all calling the Protestant church to embrace a ‘higher life’  evangelical spirituality.   Many of these leaders were writing books about being baptized in the Holy Spirit, Healing and Sanctification. They worked together across denominational lines, shared their various beliefs at Bible conferences, and engaged in social issues issues. Yet, they were still differentiating themselves from other Christians that they thought were less than committed to the Bible.

Now at this point, you would probably be comfortable with the label “evangelical.”  But wait, it gets more complicated moving forward.

At the start of the 20th Century, a great revival broke out among Wesleyan Holiness people that began to emphasis the Spirit, healing, miracles and speaking in tongues.  The Pentecostal movement was essentially an outgrowth of this Evangelical movement.  Though the theology differed between more Wesleyan holiness Pentecostals and more Reformed/Baptist Pentecostals, they all saw themselves in this stream of set apart evangelical believers who were called to bring people out of the formal churches and into a living faith with Jesus. Once this new Pentecostal movement began, many Evangelicals were forced to decide if they were going to accept these new tongue talking revivalists.  Many did.  But by 1910, some Evangelicals were already beginning to reject Pentecostalism’s claim that tongues were the evidence of the baptism in the Spirit.   Although Pentecostals thought of themselves as Evangelical, Evangelicals were not so favorable toward Pentecostals.  Rhetoric against Pentecostals grew in popularity as evangelicalism became less revivalistic and more cerebral.

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922Concurrent to the beginning of Pentecostal movement was the rise of Modernism within academia.  Evangelicals reacted to the Modernist method of denying of miracles of Jesus, the salvation experience and their adoption of evolution rather than believing the book of Genesis. To put in today’s language, modernists were what people today label as ‘liberals.’    In 1910, a group of evangelical scholars wanted to defend biblical christianity against the rise of modernism and liberalism by publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals that they sent free of charge to every church and minister they could reach.  This group of conservative evangelicals became known as “Fundamentalists” in the 1920’s.  However, the more this group emphasized correct doctrine, the more they pushed others away, including the ‘fanatical’ Pentecostals.  Whereas Evangelicalism had diverse opinions and tried to maintain unity, Fundamentalism became an ultra theologically conservative (primary Calvinistic), non-inclusive movement that retreated to isolationism from the growing secularism and modernism influencing the culture.  In the mid-1920’s, Fundmentalists officially rejected Pentecostals.  They were no longer welcome in the evangelical/fundamentalist family.  (For more on this check out this article). Whereas 19th century evangelicalism engaged culture and promoted the work of the Spirit, early 20th Century evangelicalism rejected the Spirit and isolated from the culture.  The list of heretical Christian groups began to grow and they rejected anyone who didn’t agree with them and labeled them with the liberal-modernist label.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s a resurgence of American identification with Christianity led a movement of many denominations with varying degrees of ties to fundamentalist sympathies began to join together to be more unifying and influential in American culture. The result was the National Association of Evangelicals.  Their goal was to agree on what was essential to Christian doctrine and principles. They also sought to recover America’s Christian identity. They affirmed basic Protestant doctrine but unlike Fundamentalism they allowed room for outliers such as the Pentecostals.  In fact, Pentecostals became a large part of the NAE.   They tried to distance themselves from the “fundamentalist” label because of the negative and combative connotations of the name.   Evangelical once again became a term that meant protestant Christian.  However, many of the mainline (more liberal) denominations did not join. So the divide between conservative and liberal remained.

time_evangelicalsIn the 1980’s there was a resurgence of political activism among Evangelicals.  Once again, they were ready to engage in a cultural battle with “liberals” and attempt to bring America back to the Bible.  The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority, Right to Life,  Conservative Christian Colleges, mega churches and influential Christian leaders like Pat Roberson, Jerry Fallwell, James Dobson who were conservative theologically and emphasized political activism above social activism.  During this decade, so called evangelicals (born again christians) were mobilized to issue oriented voting which eventually culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.  With Reagan, the Evangelical vote became the central block of the Republican party.   Prior to 1980, evangelicals could be found within both Republican and Democrat parties.   However, now Evangelical came to mean “politically conservative Christian voter”.  Candidates for office at local, state and national level had to assure the public they were ‘born again.’  That continues today as Republican candidate Donald Trump courts the Evangelical vote by assembling his team of evangelical leaders and the recent news that Trump has been “born again.”  No Republican candidate today can win without the so called ‘evangelical’ vote.

As you can see, today the label has become less theological and more political in orientation. It still means ‘born again’ protestant believer, but it means more than that.  Many theological traditions that made up 19th Century Evangelicalism are no longer welcome in that category because of political positions, even though they may still have evangelical theological positions.  Today that term has been reduced to simply a political categorization.  This is way many (primarily younger Christians) have rejected this label and are critical of evangelicalism.

As you can see, the name ‘evangelical’ has gone through many different shades of meaning.  Perhaps you might find yourself more or less comfortable with the label.  Of course the history is much more complex than I am able to describe here. Even so, I hope this description at least helps you understand the term better so you can decide for your self if you are in fact an ‘evangelical.’