The Interpretations of the Beech Springs Incident
In 1890, while on an evangelistic tour in Mississippi, D. S. Warner and his company were attacked by a mob in Beech Springs, Mississippi. On the second night in Beech Springs, a mob took form as the group was holding a service in the town’s schoolhouse. Near the end of the service, the angry townspeople broke through the windows of the schoolhouse with clubs and bats. No members of the Warner company sustained any serious injuries, but D. S. Warner was cut by flying glass.¹
In letters to C.E. Brown, different accounts claimed Warner and his company were attacked in Mississippi for preaching “the truth on holiness and unity of believers.”² What is unclear from these letters and accounts is whether the unity of believers, which was preached upon during the Mississippi campaign, was linked to interracial unity in particular.
Following his interpretation of the primary documents, Massey states that the mob formed because “Warner did not hesitate to speak out against sectarianism, which kept believers divided, and he did not fear to break the color line by his openness to African Americans who came to hear him preach.''³ Burrow has taken the same primary sources, but reached a different conclusion than Massey.
Burrow argues that the letters within the C.E Brown collection do not explicitly state that Warner was preaching and speaking on subjects related to “interacial unity, stressing justice for blacks, [or] showing more than ordinary friendliness towards [blacks].”⁴ Furthermore, Burrow claims that there is no written evidence that Black people even attended this specific meeting. The letters written to C.E. Brown were not penned by African Americans, nor do they indicate the involvement of African Americans at the Beech Grove meeting. Due to the lack of racial diversity, as indicated by the sources, Burrow argued the belief that Warner’s preaching included clear and obvious openness to African Americans' involvement in the movement is not as easily justified as once thought.
There were few letters available, with information pertaining to this exact incident, that Massey and Burrow could reference. The letters that do specifically reference the Beech Springs incident—and most of the incidents—were written 50-60 years after the fact by both eyewitnesses and children or grandchildren of the original witnesses. The letters were originally written to C.E. Brown—who was working on culminating a history of the Church of God movement—and cover a wide array of Warner’s evangelistic meetings across the South. Many ended in altercations with angry mobs. In light of this information, it is difficult to determine the specifics of this particular event, and what really did or did not happen.
Due to current cultural trends, and an increase in literature regarding the experiences of African Americans throughout history, there is a greater deal of attention being paid to the role of African Americans within the Church of God movement. Unfortunately, there is still much that is unknown regarding the role of Black people in the movement. The difference of interpretation of the Beech Springs incident is just one example that has shed light on the need for more research and accounts regarding the original beliefs of the Church of God.
The way the sources from the Beech Grove incident are interpreted in Massey and Burrow’s respective books is also a fine example of historiography at work. Both men had similar goals in mind: to analyze and communicate the role of African Americans in the Church of God movement. Both men used the same primary documents. However, both men came to vastly different conclusions based on what they read and how they interpreted the documents.
So, maybe next time your history teacher or professor asks you to read and interpret a primary source, you won’t ponder the importance of learning such an important skill. How one interprets a document could literally change history.
Because the interpretations behind this event are so vastly different, there is a potential for a controversy within the Church of God’s history, and of the documents themselves.
When conducting his reserach, Rufus Burrow made a telephone call to Dr. Massey, asking for guidance pertaining to the information regarding Warner’s stance on interracial unity.⁵ Dr. Massey referred to multiple letters from African Americans written to C.E. Brown about their experience in the Church of God, including letters about the Beech Springs incident. Burrow and the archives staff attempted to locate these letters without success.
Due to the inability to find these specific documents and the information that is found in those available, it is unclear whether the letters Massey recalls seeing were separated from the collection, or whether this reflects his different interpretation and characterization of the content of extant letters.
The next page provides the links to library materials with more information pertaining to the two books and their sources.To take a look at these primary sources listed, contact the Anderson University and Church of God Archives.
1. Breazeale, George W. Letter to C.E. Brown. 20 May, 1949. Charles E. Brown Papers. CHOG 177, File “Mississippi.” Anderson University and Church of God Archives, Nicholson Library, Anderson, IN.
2. Jones, Mrs. J.A. Letter to C.E. Brown. Charles E. Brown Papers. CHOG 177, File “Mississippi.” Anderson University and Church of God Archives, Nicholson Library, Anderson, IN.
3. James Earl Massey, African Americans and the Church of God: Aspects of a Social History (Anderson: Anderson University Press, 2005), 11.
4. Rufus Burrow, Making Good the Claim: Holiness and Visible Unity in the Church of God Reformation Movement (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 99.
5. Burrow, Making Good the Claim, 96.