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A weird chain of events led to an interesting investigation into history tangentially related to my family. This morning I participated in a webinar on the South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program, sponsored, in part, by the University of South Carolina Libraries. One of the presenters mentioned the possibility of doing genealogy research using the archive. I decided to try a few search terms associated with my family history to see what I found. I actually didn’t find much about my family, but I did find another tale, full of conflict, misunderstandings, racism, and corruption.
The newspaper archives are hosted on the Library of Congress website as part of their Chronicling America series. The newspapers cover all states from 1836 – 1922. Any family search would have to be within those target dates.
I decided to start with my grandfather, Rev. O. E. Taylor, since he would fit within the tail end of that time frame. I restricted my search to issues of the Laurens Advertiser. Unfortunately, his name didn’t return any hits, even when I expanded it to all newspapers in the state. It did return a Rev. E. O. Taylor, who was an episcopal bishop in the state at the same time.
I changed tactics and started searching for churches where I knew my grandfather had preached, and there I hit pay dirt. The first term I tried was “Long Branch.” I grew up in Long Branch Pentecostal Church, which was founded by my grandfather and which my father later pastored. My grandmother taught at Long Branch School, and I have lots of other relatives in the area. The term returned several hits in The Laurens Advertiser, almost all of them relating to an issue of religion being taught at the public Long Branch School.
The first hit I pulled up was from January 1909. In this issue the headline was that the entire school board for the Scuffletown Township, which includes Long Branch School, was removed by the county education superintendent because the board had refused to remove one Miss Nellie Lane as a teacher at the school. There were allegations that Miss Lane didn’t have the proper qualifications to be a teacher. However, the most serious complaint was that she was teaching “The Unknown Tongue” in class.
The article states the allegations that Miss Lane “was giving over practically all her time to instructions in the Bible and the new creed of religion.”
“The Unknown Tongue” was the common term for the new Pentecostal movement sweeping the nation. The movement originated in Los Angeles at the Azusa Street Revival and spread across the US. In Greenville the revival began with Rev. N. J. Holmes at the Altamont Bible School on Paris Mountain in 1907. My grandfather was part of that service. In the words of Rev. Holmes from his memoir entitled “Life Sermons and Sketches”…
..I felt my tongue slightly moving up and down, the motion growing stronger and stronger. It was not I that did it, and I was sure that it was the Holy Ghost and immediately my teeth began to chatter without my effort and control…He [the Holy Ghost] gave me at that time only the very rudiments of language, the motioning of my tongue and the chattering of my teeth. Afterwards I jabbered, then spoke words…
Another one of the students, Brother Oscar Taylor, received the baptism two days later. He had about the same manifestation of tongues that I did.
Once revival took full swing, Rev. Holmes and my grandfather began holding a series of revival services, some in tent services and some in newly established churches, most notably for this particular tale in the Long Branch community of Laurens County. Both Rev. Holmes and my grandfather were originally from Laurens, and as early as 1898 Holmes had held tent services in the county. With the experiences of early 1907, the revival services took on the additional Pentecostal elements of speaking in tongues. From the Holmes memoir…
We went out in the summer of 1907 holding tent meetings at different places, preaching this blessed truth. We found it as in the days of the apostles, some believed and entered in, some doubted and went away, rejecting the truth. Some went so far as to attribute the work of the Holy Ghost, to the devil…
The Laurens Advertiser also mentions these meetings..
…but as far as the “Unknown Tongues” was concerned, I had to expand my search.
Instead of “Long Branch” I searched using the phrase “unknown tongue” and expanded it to include several newspapers. It seems that the phrase was commonly used to refer to ANY foreign language. I found references predating the Civil War. However, the only ones of interest to me were the references after the 1907 revivals. In this context, the newspapers seemed less charitable regarding “unknown tongues.”
An editorial for another local paper, The Anderson Intelligencer, was reprinted in The Laurens Advertiser and states that…
As we write these few lines we are listening to all kinds of agonizing cries from the old armory hall just above the Intelligencer office. In this hall the unknown tongue religious crowd hold nightly meetings as well as nightly attractions, as great crowds congregate on the sidewalk to listen to the pitiful wails sent up by some of the religious fanatics. If a stranger was to approach the building no doubt he would think that he had struck the insane asylum in Columbia.
We believe in church attendance and all that tends to lead people to a better life, but when it comes to causing people of none too bright a mind to jump up and down and utter unearthly shrieks and take on like a raving maniac, especially children that are easily influenced, we beg to be excused.
When we hear some of these weak minded people taking on as we do when we are writing this article, well, we feel like — well, we won’t say.
Speaking of insane asylums, some adherents were actually accused of mental illness, as documented by The Edgefield Advertiser regarding an incident in Goldsboro, North Carolina…
Several days ago three preachers pitched a small tent near the post office in this city and have been preaching a doctrine known as the “unknown tongue” religion, in which they babble in a language that words cannot interpret, and as a result of their preaching three women who have been attending the meeting were pronounced crazy. Others have danced and shouted at the meeting until they fainted.
In another incident in Zubulon, Georgia, two practitioners were arrested for lunacy because “Some times some of them would tramp the fields and woods,shouting and moaning, until the neighborhood would become alarmed and the women and children much frightened.”
I beg leave to occupy a little space in your paper, that I may make a statement in regard to various rumors that I have gone out in the communities where I held meetings this past summer, to the effect that I was sick, or stricken with paralysis, or struck dumb, or had gone crazy and had asked the people to pray for me, that God would forgive me for preaching Pentecost, or the baptism of the Holy Ghost and speaking in unknown tongues…I would not even undertake to correct them, but for the fact that the enemy is using them to try to injure the cause of Christ. And so I would like to say, in correction of these errors, that as a matter of fact I have not been sick a day this summer; that I have never been paralyzed in my life; have never been struck dumb for a moment, and have never been consciously crazy, myself being the judge in the matter.
So, the creed of the “Unknown Tongue” was the subject of some scorn, and that was the setting for our incident with the Scuffletown School Board and the teacher at Long Branch School. Was she teaching her religion to the exclusion of “reading, ‘writing, and ‘rithmatic?“ I’m sure the community’s fear of the new religion blew things out of proportion. Regardless, Miss Lane’s lack of credentials did lead to her eventual removal from her position.
But the controversy didn’t end there. There was a dispute over how much had been paid to Miss Lane and to other teachers at the school. Superintendent Pitts gave a full accounting of the amounts paid to each teacher over the previous year. One question I had was whether or not my grandmother was involved with this controversy. I knew she had taught at Long Branch School at one time. As Pitt’s article in the Laurens Advertiser shows, she was not employed by the school at this time.
The issue of finances reached a head as the district ran out of money for the school, and needed to raise taxes. A special election was held for a 2 mil increase to raise revenue. The supporters of the previous Scuffletown Board and the adherents to “The Unknown Tongue” were against the tax increase. The first round of voting brought a 14-14 tie with only 28 votes cast in the district.
A second round of voting was held, and the Keowee Courier tried to use the result to inflame prejudices not only against the Pentecostals but also against blacks. Apparently during the second round of voting one black man broke the tie by voting against the tax increase. The Keowee Courier seems to imply that education must not be important to blacks, and results like this would continue if more blacks voted.
The blatant racism is striking to our ears now. So is the stark criticism of the religious practices of the Pentecostals.
As for Miss Nellie Lane, she tried to open a private school so that she could continue Biblical teaching without harassment. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and closed after only a couple of months of operation.
The sessions of the Pentecostal school, located at Long Branch, Scufftetown township. Miss Nellie Lane, teacher, came to a close last Friday. After spending a few weeks at the Altamont Bible institute, Miss Lane will return to her home in the lower part of the State.
She didn’t stick around to see the results of the election, and that was probably for the best.
So a random hit on a random search term brought forth a tale of prejudice. I know that Rev. Holmes and my grandfather had to leave the Presbyterian Church because of their differences in theology. Given some of the attitudes in the newspaper articles, I now wonder how the community at large viewed my grandfather. Was he seen as one of those “weak-minded people” as one editorial put it, or as a “good, clean” man “preaching a full Gospel on New Testament lines?”
Even decades later my father has said that opportunities for advancement were limited for him because he refused to renounce Pentecostalism and go with a more mainline church. I can remember trying to describe our church to outsiders, when younger often attempting to defending practices I didn’t understand myself. I’d been in services where there was speaking in tongues but never experienced it myself.
Now I describe speaking in tongues as something unknown – an ecstatic utterance when the worshiper feels no other words are adequate. What I don’t do is demonize it. Having grown up in a fringe religion has made me more tolerant of other faiths, and is probably why I cringe when I see such intolerance and condemnation in other religious circles.