Just before the turn of the 20th century religious groups sprang up across the United States and elsewhere. It is common for people’s minds to turn to the spiritual when there is a large changing of the guard or millennial passage. Fears and anxieties stir up in people a desire for assurance and peace. The later 1880’s saw a tide of religious activities such as the Holiness Movement that sought to draw people to a faith and offer hope. Some, however, were largely cults in that they often sought to control and manipulate people in order to gain financial, social or sexual favors. The health movement that birthed the morning breakfast cereals had just as many quacks and huckster as any “Elmer Gantry” preacher working the backwater revival circuits.
One group appears to have traveled a diverse and perhaps bloody track as it meandered from its North Carolina roots to the deepest south and into the heartland and west. In 1896 newspapers carried a story of a religious sect deemed horrible and despicable. They were largely younger people who lived in ‘arks’ or boats. No used no locomotion but depended on the drifting tides, being carried or pulled by other craft to move from place to place. There was no privacy with all ages and sexes sharing common sleeping areas with no grouping by family. They believed that civil marriages did not exist and so freely divorced in order to follow their fellow believers. They practiced, basically, the tenets of “free love” then popular as alternate lifestyle. They practiced a custom called “Fellow Watchman” where a married man was expected to take the wife of another man as his wife and participate in daily prayer with them. These secondary wives were called Fellow Watchman. There were apparently many splits in the group over the free love aspect but the leaders adhered to it.
According to a newspaper article from 1896, the group was founded on Chincoteague Island in Virginia by a Joseph Barnard Lynch. He had claimed an angelic visitation that resulted in his own ‘sanctification’.
The group used a unique interpretation of the religious term of sanctification. The term is generally understood in theology as a process of being set apart for special purpose. For the members of this group, no one could go to heaven who had not been sanctified in the spirit. It was an instant experience rather than a gradual one (a term preferred by many Holiness groups was that sanctification was a gradual process of being cleansed of sin or imperfection through constant and ongoing personal devotion and good works by those who had accepted Christ. Some groups, however, believed in an ‘instantaneous’ experience of spiritual cleansing). So the vocabulary of the group was very common to the general theological terminology of the day. What was unique was the belief that when the members of the Sanctified Church were thus sanctified they could no longer commit sin. Hey taught that nothing a sanctified person does or could do could be sinful. In one sense, it was a doctrine that transformed and purified those acts from evil to good because of their state of sanctification.
A leader in the early North Carolina band was Sadie E. Collins, “head deaconess” and from newspaper articles in other regions in the next 20 years this was not an uncommon model.
In 1901 there was a newspaper report of a near religious war erupting on the border of Cherokee Co., North Carolina and Ducktown, Tennessee. Apparently a branch of the group had moved into the area and erected a church in 1900. Their message of being incapable of doing wrong was not well accepted. Preacher P. Berrong was whipped and had to escape to save his life. In July of 1901, a Anna Kirkman sued her husband for divorce. She claimed she had been commanded by the Lord to break off the marriage. She was identified as a leader of the Sanctified Church in Logansport, Iowa.
In 1904 Oklahoma City there was a strange sight that met residents and visitors looked down South Broadway one chilly spring day. Marching casually up from Reno Street, yet with a destination in mind, were two men, John Aiken and James Sharp, a woman, Melissa Sharp, and a 12 year old boy, Lee Sharp.
Declaring himself "Adam God" Sharp would prove an interesting character. What was really unusual about this incident was they were all stark naked.
Arrested, charged with lunacy, and ordered out of the state, they were back in 1906 in a cult community, Eden, in south Oklahoma County. That same year, reports came from a group operating in Iowa and Idaho led by a Rev. John P. Martley that went under the name of “The Sanctified Church of Adam and Eve.”
A few years later, 1908, the group that had paraded in Oklahoma City (which now included a second in command, Louis Pratt) had gone to Kansas City. There, they had caused a riot where five people died. Sharp, and possibly his wife and others, were ordered to prison for his role in the riot.
The group have been a part of the Morman faith or confiscated some of the terms and teachings of the "Adam God" doctrine of Brigham Young, mixed in some extreme evangelical elements and bits and pieces of a lot of things. Not much has been found explaining the doctrinal aspects of this strange cult but it is clear that they were considered bizarre and out of the ordinary. For most people in the Edwardian era, amusements were where they could be found and a group marching naked down a main city street had to have been worth a chuckle or two.
Were the two groups – sharing some naming and beliefs – related to one another? In this time period small independent groups flowed into one another and then broke apart over some rock in the stream of doctrine or polity with regularity.
What makes this interesting is that in 1909, the Sanctified Church once more makes some serious news in the hinterlands of Louisiana. There it seems to emerge within the African American community and had added to it elements of a hodgepodge of Voodoo and other beliefs. Voodoo is a folk religion of Africa and the Caribbean developed by descendants of the African Diaspora and mixed with Native folkways. Through the next several years the very words “Sanctified Church” could inspire fear and caution amid occupants of the Deep South. The cause was claims that members of the church were on a holy mission to kill people. People, whole families, were brutally killed by axe welding killers in Louisiana and Texas between 1909 and 1914. For an excellent discussion of this series of crimes see Elliot’s Axes of Evil.
Was it now primarily an African American movement now? It is known that it was associated with African Americans in Louisiana. In 1912, a congregation in Atlanta is clearly identified as specifically an African-American group.
Did The Sanctified Church continue in largely white areas of Iowa and Idaho and other points west? This becomes very interesting given the horrific events of July 1912 in Villisca, Iowa when an entire family and two child guests were axed to death as they slept. Were there still in the region remnants of The Sanctification Church and/or the Sanctification Church of Adam and Eve and/or the Adam God movement? Were they absorbed back into traditional churches due to the excesses of their ‘free love society’? Did their groups move off in search of places to rest and find freedom for their unique religious society?
Is it possible a follower with a strange twist in his own soul, followed the hairpin curves of theological sense used to support these movements, and arrived at a place where killing or sacrificing human beings, was seen as appropriate, even expected by a divine being? It is a journey often made in human society over fine points of political structure so it would not be unusual to see someone use religion in this same way.