A recent video provided by my brother Charlie of flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in the communities of Manville and Somerset, New Jersey, including the area in which I grew up, called Zarephath, has impressed upon me the urgency of completing this rather long article about my childhood in a church, the Pillar of Fire. I turn 80 years old this spring so likely many potential interested readers who may have shared some knowledge or experiences in the church may no longer be around. So I have opened the article once more, intending to finish it and publish it on my blog very soon.
I am writing this because it means a great deal to me to recall scenes of my childhood, all of which was spent in the embrace, or maybe better terms, the “grip” or “grasp”, of the Pillar of Fire Church and its educational, evangelical and broadcast ministries. At 79 years of age now, some of the memories are growing dim and many are fleeting, recalled but briefly in the context of others more vivid. The faces of the people near and dear to me back then and the scenes of Zarephath and the places my family lived are just as blurred and temporary as are the memories. Yet, when sitting alone, unencumbered and uninterrupted by current voices and sounds, memories come back more readily and clearly. I have tried to paint as accurate and as meaningful a picture as I can and I hope that contemporaries of mine who knew the Pillar of Fire and Zarephath might enjoy and relate to some of what I have written. Looking back on the experience, I might call it a labor of love or more precisely a task of recollection and reflection. I apologize for occasional redundancies in the article: Incidents and personalities may be mentioned from time to time in more than one context. I also apologize for a more detailed description or emphasis on one personality or family over another, more a matter of convenience and recall than preference or value judgement. I have also linked some names to published obituaries, when I could find them.
Pillar of Fire Church
The church was founded by a dynamic female preacher and evangelist, and “first female bishop” in the country, Alma White, in 1901. From modest beginnings in the Denver, Colorado area, the church, under her energetic leadership grew to encompass large tracts of land and multiple buildings at Belleview, Westminster, Colorado and in central New Jersey in the Zarephath area, later to include schools, colleges, radio stations, publishing facilities and dozens of properties in major cities and metropolitan areas across the country. A conservative offshoot of the Methodist church, the Pillar of Fire embraced austere dress – black or navy blue with white collars – and rejected bright colors and immodest styles. It also forbade the common vices of smoking tobacco and drinking any form of alcohol. This conservative and austere message extended to young people as well. Girls in its high schools were required to wear a modest tan and brown “uniform”; dancing of any kind and especially between the sexes was absolutely forbidden. Smoking, drinking, dancing, going to the movies and any romantic contact between the sexes were all deemed “sinful”.
The message to its many congregations was to rely on literal interpretation of Biblical text and prayer for guidance in daily life and strive toward first one work of grace and conversion – getting “saved”, and then a second, getting “sanctified”. The church encouraged current and potential members to give up all of their “worldly goods”, come and live in the church facilities and devote their talent and labor to growing and strengthening the church and “spreading the gospel”.
The Pillar of Fire, relied on monetary contributions from businesses and individuals, tuition and publishing receipts to sustain its work, variously described as “religious, educational and benevolent activities”. It provided the basic needs of food and housing to its rank and file workers but did not pay regular salaries and instead encouraged them to rely on “faith” and the munificence and grace of God to sustain them.
It could be called a town because it was a dot on the map like all the other New Jersey towns but it was really a collection of school buildings, dormitories, homes and work buildings constructed by the Pillar of Fire Church to support its multiple missions. It was home to Alma Preparatory School, Alma White College and Zarephath Bible Seminary as well as radio station WAWZ and a large publishing enterprise. Apparently it earned the title of “town” because it did contain a US Post Office. Zarephath was located off the “Canal Road” about three miles west of Bound Brook, New Jersey, with the majority of its buildings located on former farmland between the Millstone River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. I can see each of the Zarephath buildings clearly in my mind and can recall a host of memories and experiences related to each of them.
“Liberty Hall” was a four story collection of high school classrooms and a large assembly room on the lower floors with dormitory rooms above on the third and fourth floors. A few single male church workers lived on the third floor and also performed the role of supervisor or preceptor for the boarding high school students living on the fourth floor. On the front was a large flat concrete porch adorned with a couple of benches, which served as a before school lounge area, where students hung out, flirted, joked, and guffawed before and between classes. I can remember students from those days, contemporary friends like Joe Wenger, Malcolm Grout and Arnold Walker, older students like Danny Oaks, Vincent Dellorto, the Weaver boys Glenn, Meredith and Richard, the Gross boys John, David, Joe and Daniel. And then there were the girls – my sister Barbara, of course, Genevieve Dobash, Phyllis Oakes, Phyllis Finlayson, Elaine Schissler, Lorinda Bartlett, Miriam Snelling, Margaret Hellyer, Eunice Wilson…. as well as many others. Also on the first floor of Liberty Hall in the back of the building were laundry facilities to take care of student and worker needs consisting of washers, dryers and a big steam press for ironing.
Three story “Columbia Hall” was the junior high location with classrooms on the first floor and girls dormitory rooms above. I remember the Junior High classroom especially well when Ruben Truitt and wife Irel were the teachers. One fond memory relating to this time in my life, 1953-1955, were the spontaneous winter ice skating breaks. On many of the cold, snowless days of deep winter, Mr. Truitt would simply take a break from school and we’d go to “the pond” near the Assembly Hall or to the canal, if it was thoroughly frozen, for a couple of hours of ice skating. Mr. Truitt was a great skater himself, while many of us were in various stages of skill development or did not skate at all. Nevertheless, off we’d go to indulge Mr. Truitt’s skating passion. In the basement of Columbia Hall were the church canning facilities, which I will discuss later in my section on food.
Between Columbia Hall and Liberty Hall was the Power House, a brick building containing the coal furnaces and big boilers that provided steam heat for virtually all of the buildings. There was also a prominent cylindrical brick smokestack that marked this facility’s location on the Zarephath campus as well as a nearby water tower.
The “Main Building” featured church offices and reception rooms along with the kitchen and dining facilities on its lower floors and girls dormitory rooms above. These three afore-mentioned buildings were constructed with distinctive cast concrete blocks that the church had evidently manufactured for its own use.
The “College Building” contained an auditorium for church services and daily gatherings for students, college classrooms, and broadcast studios for our radio station WAWZ. The top floor contained dorm rooms for students of Alma White College. This stately building was quite prominent, being the first encountered when entering the campus from Canal Road. The College Building also contained the library, used by both high school and college students. Most of the books I fell in love with as a child were borrowed from this facility.
On the north side of the campus next to the water tower was the fire station which contained a dated fire truck or two, manned by volunteers among church workers, who maintained and polished their firefighting skills with occasional drills. Above the truck bays was an apartment occupied by various church personnel. I recall that Mert Weaver and Jeannie Bradford lived there for a time after they were married and before leaving the church. Adjacent to the station and between the dike and Liberty Hall was a group of swings and a popular horseshoe area (pit?, pitch?, not sure what they’re called) used by students and adults. This area was was the brainchild of Kathleen White, Bishop Arthur White’s wife and so was named “Merrill Park”, after her middle name, which I would have to assume must have been her mother’s maiden name.
The “Publishing Building” contained the “store”(more about this facility later), the post office, printing presses, areas for Linotype machines and book binding and a shipping platform. The printing press room also contained my Dad’s barber chair, on which he gave 25 cent (or less, depending on one’s ability to pay) haircuts with his Oster hair clippers to many students and church people, while discussing the latest news and gossip. I provide a picture of the chair taken during a visit to Zarephath in 1999 later in this article.
On the west side of the complex was the “Frame Building”, containing apartments where various individuals lived, the house where the Stewarts lived and the “greenhouse” where flowers were raised for decorating church services as well as seedlings for the farm enterprise. The “garage” with its lift and gas pump was located on this side of the complex as well. Also a couple of buildings constructed of oblong tile blocks were on this side of the “town”. One contained the “bakery” where our wonderful whole wheat bread was baked by Mr. Nolke twice a week. I don’t recall what the other was used for – perhaps storage of some kind.
Also on the west side of Zarephath, between the canal and the aforementioned west side buildings was a large and well-kept athletic field containing a baseball diamond and backstop, where high school physical education classes were conducted and our annual “May Day” baseball contest between the high school and college was played. In the fall in deep left field we played touch football on a less than clearly marked football gridiron. Between this athletic field and the greenhouse area were a couple of tennis courts constructed in the middle 1950’s, which students and residents alike enjoyed.
Also in the mid-fifties a gymnasium building was constructed. Named after Nathaniel Wilson, the designer of the building and one of the church’s main engineers and architects, the Wilson Gym contained a basketball court and a swimming pool which were welcome additions to the church and school facilities.
In the early fifties the complex was encircled by “The Dike”, an earthen structure to hold back the periodic floods of the neighboring Millstone River. “Behind the dike” or “over the dike” were euphemisms for the favored secret trysting places for our teenage students, who unfortunately enjoyed absolutely no formally accepted or sanctioned boy-girl relationship opportunities. The “back road”, a dirt road going smoothly over the dike and winding through the fields and woods leading to the “Millwood” residence where the Wilson family lived and the “Weston Causeway”, about a mile away, also led to farm fields, the Murphy family house and my own old home at “Morningside”.
Between the major Zarephath school and maintenance buildings mentioned above and the canal were well tended lawns and flowerbeds and a network of cinder paths culminating at what we called “The Fountain”, an attractive circular stone-clad pond with water fountains in the middle. This area contained a few benches arrayed around the fountain and was a favorite gathering place for students, individuals and families enjoying the Zarephath grounds. I should mention that an elderly gentleman, Mr. George Bartlett, father of the George Bartlett who built the reputation of the church dairy farm, tended the lawns and flowerbeds on the Zarephath campus with expertise and obvious loving care.
Across the canal and beyond the “bridge house” where Mr. John Nolke and his wife lived were the Assembly Hall, the large auditorium building where Sunday church services were held, the WAWZ radio towers and transmitter building, and “the pond”, a lovely body of water that provided relaxation in the summer and excellent ice skating in the winter. Adjacent to the pond was a row of small cabins or cottages; several were home to members of the Walker family and one later the home of Sid Johnston, more about both later. Also, near the Assembly Hall, was the Zarephath cemetery, the final resting place of many Pillar of Fire workers and their families. I should mention that outside the Assembly Hall was a small ivy-covered stone open structure containing a couple of water fountains.
If instead of crossing Canal Road to the buildings and areas mentioned above, you had turned left toward Bound Brook, you passed a half-mile grove of maple and Colorado Blue Spruce trees planted between Zarephath and my first New Jersey home at “Lock Haven”. Further down Canal Road, you passed the McNear house and arrived at the complex of farm buildings called “Tabor”. Here was the center of the church farming operations with barns, corn cribs, a modern cooler for fruit storage, garage areas for the maintenance of tractors and so on. The Tabor house was occupied by the Wesley Gross family which I will describe in detail later.
Further down Canal Road was Mountain View, the church bishop’s New Jersey residence, a single story house, separate garage, a beautiful grape arbor area, stone retaining walls and well kept lawns. My father’s sister Ada Friedly spent many years at Mountain View tending to the needs of Bishop Arthur White, his wife Kathleen and their children and grandchildren.
Beyond Mountain View on the unpaved road that adjoined Canal Road as well as one of the residence’s driveways, was “Rosedale” the church’s modern dairy farm. Consisting of three modern barns, state of the art mechanical milking, manure removal, and milk processing systems, along with a prize Holstein herd, this enterprise was the pride of the church. Mr. George Bartlett, who lived with his family at the attractive Rosedale residence, was responsible for the success of the church’s dairy operation. However, his star shown too brightly for the ruling White family to countenance, so he was later demoted and put in charge of the greenhouses at Zarephath and Mr. Ezra Hellyer was assigned to the dairy, which under his supervision began a long slow descent. As I will detail later, Mr. Hellyer’s heart did not seem to be in dairy farming but in other areas – patrolling the Pillar of Fire areas as a quasi-law enforcement officer and later, after leaving the church, joining Somerset County politics.
I remember the Bartlett family at Rosedale very well. Children Jenora, Doris, Lorinda and Dwight, played prominent roles in my own childhood and memories of the church with Jenora marrying my Dad’s good friend Rea (Red) Crawford, beautiful Doris breaking hearts in our high school, freckled, pigtailed Lorinda (Lindy) being one of sister Barbara’s best friends over the years and Dwight, whose success with girls was legendary and the constant envy of kids like myself and my good friend Joe Wenger.
Further up this unpaved road was “Bethany boys home”, a large frame house which boarded boys too young for the Zarephath dormitories. Run by the Weaver family, Bethany provided rules and routines, good meals and sack lunches to take to school. I will never forget the envy I felt about the lunches of the kids from Bethany, which were always delicious, also occasionally contained cream puffs – yes, genuine, made from scratch cream puffs with sweet homemade whipped cream inside. Mrs. Weaver was a positive, motherly type whom the boys loved. Mr. Weaver provided some necessary discipline and stability and their sons, the afore-mentioned “Weaver Boys” – Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard, provided some supervision, camaraderie and good examples for behavior and work habits. While envying the Bethany boys’ sack lunches brought to school, I also wished I could have participated in the renowned Friday (or was it Wednesday?) night “tomato pie” (pizza) feasts prepared for the boys by Mrs. Weaver. Friends Joe Wenger and Malcolm Grout were among many who began their Zarephath school experiences boarding with the Weavers at Bethany.
From the Rosedale dairy farm there were dirt roads that provided shortcuts to the Tabor farm area, which of course provided the hay and silage diet of the dairy cattle. There was one other residence along these dirt roads where the Charles Mowery family lived. Mr. Mowery worked for the farm enterprise while Mrs. Mowery became one of the Zarephath kitchen mainstays. Children Dennis, Robert and Darlene, were our classmates at the Bound Brook School. The Mowery family left the church at some point but I never knew why or where they went.
Continuing on Canal Road more or less east from Zarephath, you entered South Bound Brook, turned left, crossed over the Delaware and Raritan Canal, then over the Raritan River on a high steel truss bridge, went under the Jersey Central, Reading and Lehigh Valley railroad tracks and entered a small traffic circle where left took you on Main Street past the railroad station on the left, Effingers sporting goods, Klompus 5 & 10, then up Hamilton Street past the Brook Theater on your right and the drug store on your left. A right turn from the circle and then a quick left took you directly to what was known as the Bound Brook “Temple”, a multi-story building containing an auditorium where the Zarephath Sunday evening church service was conducted, and classrooms and various other facilities in the north side of the building. This building was built with the same type of cast concrete blocks used for the construction of the major buildings at Zarephath. I am sure that the machinery for casting them had been transported to Bound Brook to produce the bricks used there.
By the way, if you had turned right instead of left to cross the canal and the Raritan, you would have gone past some huge factories on your left, (one of which employed me in my youth), passed by some South Bound Brook residential areas and proceeded on to the town of New Brunswick, distinguished by the presence of the Men’s Colleges and Douglass College for women of Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey.
Bound Brook School
There is much to recall about going to school at the Bound Brook Temple, which all of we older children attended until my family was transferred in 1965 to the Westminster, Colorado Pillar of Fire facilities, called “Belleview”. There was a big set of swings on the playground as well as a “maypole”, a vertical steel pole with a revolving mechanism on top to which was attached ropes, which children grasped and swung around on as the wheel on top rotated. This contraption, also called a “giant stride”, provided great fun for us schoolchildren but it did not take long for the more daring and adventurous among us to make it somewhat dangerous: While five or six kids held on, another child would stand near the base and pull on his rope to make the maypole revolve faster, lifting the riders off the ground as the ropes they held onto would rise to approach the horizontal. Then the rider could let go and be thrown some distance outward, very exciting but causing more than a few bumps and bruises. So as I remember, after enjoying a heyday of high but risky use, the maypole was eventually removed from the school playground.
At the Bound Brook school I also met the pretty little girl who was to become my first wife, Elaine Ganska. She was an “outsider”, who usually attended the Sunday 11:00 Assembly Hall church services with her mother and whose family paid tuition for her to attend the school. I remember the heady, intoxicating feeling when I dared to kiss her on the cheek when her swing came close to mine once as we were on the swings together. So when we were a couple, we always remembered this incident fondly. Later, after a church service, maybe when I was eight or nine, again rather daringly, I thrust into her hand a wrapped birthday or Christmas gift, a bottle of Jergens lotion. Why lotion? Why Jergens? I really don’t know – maybe it was chosen on the advice of my older sister Barbara.
Another indelible memory from the Bound Brook School was the conduct of fire drills, very frightening to me because they involved the use of the rusty, rickety and frightening steel latticework fire escapes. Going down these from the third floor was frightening because not only did they seem unsafe with the weight of several dozen children and adults, but also seemed about to pull out from their flimsy attachment to the exterior walls. Also, you could see the frightening distance straight down to the ground through the bands of flaked paint and rusted steel. I will always remember the scene from the Oscar-winning movie “All the King’s Men”, based upon Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same name, about the life of Huey Long, when a school fire escape collapsed and several children were killed, which reminded me of the anxiety I had always felt on these Bound Brook Temple structures.
A related memory that I never forgot had to do with the long bridge over the Raritan River from South Bound Brook. This narrow two-lane bridge had recently had its flat, wooden plank and sheet steel roadway replaced with a more modern steel lattice surface, much more sturdy, and which made a pleasant hum as you drove over it. However, one day when there were huge spring rains in New Jersey, flooded Bound Brook streets inundated the underpass under the railroad tracks so the school bus let us off to walk with a teacher or two across the bridge, then through the underpass on its elevated walkway to reach the Bound Brook school. Looking straight down through the steel grating of the new roadway and glimpsing the muddy rushing and roiling waters of the flooded Raritan River was truly frightening. If sister Barbara were alive today, we could remember and share together this incident. I am sure she was as frightened as I, although, in typical big sister fashion, she likely calmly and bravely led the way for me, Elaine and Robert.
Other memories of the Bound Brook Pillar of Fire grade school involved the classrooms and the teachers. I vividly recall sitting in my classroom and looking out the window from my desk at the trains going by. There were the black passenger cars of the Jersey Central trains traveling back and forth with people commuting to New York City. I think they were pulled by steam engines at the time, then diesels, as the late 1940’s and early ’50’s saw the transition from steam to diesel. Then there were the sleek reddish colored trains of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. These big engines and trains fired my imagination with questions of who was on the trains, where were they going, where had they been, what else did they carry, and who were the skilled engineers that controlled the huge locomotives that pulled the trains. If my teachers knew about the time I spent daydreaming looking out the window, I am sure my seat would have been moved. Also I remember two boys that were at the Bethany Boys Home, Joe and Donald Kruger, the former for a time my sister Barbara’s special friend. On the school bus, Barbara would have me sit between her and Joe, so they could secretly hold hands with each other behind my back.
I can clearly recall some of the teachers who taught us at the Bound Brook school. Lydia Sanders, later to become Lydia Loyle and later still, principal of the school, started her teaching career there and handled several troublesome students with creative physical punishment. Ruth Dallenbach, a wonderful teacher later to become the wife of Frank Crawford, (more about these families later) also taught at the school. Miss Dallenbach’s prominent female attributes provoked me to draw some risqué pictures of her, which she discovered, embarrassingly took from me and likely shared with my parents.
And then there was the most notable teacher, also serving as principal, Mrs. Helen Wilson, wife of the church’s main engineer and architect, Nathaniel Wilson and mother of two schoolmates, Eunice and Warren. I don’t remember precisely what kind of teacher Mrs. Wilson was, but I do remember that she ran a small lunchtime retail candy enterprise out of her classroom. It was here that I used to occasionally buy Hershey bars, Clark bars, Oh-Henry’s, and a variety of penny candy, the most memorable one being “Kits”, which was a pack of four wrapped pieces of chocolate flavored taffy for only one cent. I don’t know precisely what Mrs. Wilson did with the profit from these candy sales, I am sure something good for her classroom or the whole school. But I do know I can attribute most of my serious dental problems over the years as having their origin right there at school from Mrs. Wilson’s candy business.
The Pillar of Fire “Bound Brook Temple” was also the site of the 7:00 Sunday evening church service, the first two being held at the “Assembly Hall” – one at 11:00 AM and the other at 3:00 PM. The Temple was also the site of our weekly “Children’s Hour” broadcasts over WAWZ, during which our group of church children would sing hymns and recite poems. The afore-mentioned Mrs. Helen Wilson, a very busy lady, was organizer and master of ceremonies for this weekly radio “show”. I remember looking forward to it very much each week, broadcast on Mondays at 6:30 PM. I remember also, that when older, I did not read but occasionally “told” Bible stories on the program, extracted from my reading Bible stories from my treasured “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible” and I remember getting a “fan mail” letter from a listener who was quite impressed. I thought I kept that letter but a recent search of my memorabilia files has failed to locate it.
The Sunday church services at Zarephath followed a pattern. Since they were broadcast on WAWZ, they began promptly on the hour – the morning service at 11:00 AM and the afternoon service at 3:00 PM. After stepping up to the microphone and welcoming everyone, whoever was leading the service would announce the hymn title and the page number in our “Cross and Crown” hymnal, and would lead the congregation in the singing of the hymn. After another hymn or two, a men’s “quartet” would be featured, this composed of four of our full-voiced church members. Regulars seemed to always be Mr. Nathaniel Wilson, singing a baritone part, and Mr. Norman Fournier, with his incredible tenor voice. More about these people later when I describe people and personalities in greater depth.
After the quartet piece one of the White family’s “stars” – daughter Arlene Lawrence or Pauline Dallenbach (or Connie, when she was still with the church) might be featured playing a hymn on the solo violin and perhaps singing a verse or two. More about the White family later as well. Incidentally I should mention that almost every church service in the Assembly Hall was graced by the inspired pipe organ playing of George Chambers. Mr. Chambers was a remarkably intelligent and supremely talented church worker who not only was a musical mainstay of the organization but contributed significantly to its printing enterprise by also operating a Linotype machine in the publishing building. As I noted in my article “Home Sweet Home”, Mr. Chambers, his wife Ann and children Allan and Celeste, were our neighbors in the “Morningside” home on the fertile floodplain of the Millstone River. Mr. Chambers, however, never received the recognition or praise for his remarkable talent that was provided so generously by the church membership to members of the “ruling family”, the Whites, and was never awarded his place in the spotlight, like Arlene and Pauline.
After Arlene or Pauline on the violin, the congregation might sing another hymn and then the band would play. Yes, we had a real brass band in church, composed of a somewhat meager collection of instruments, but enough to make considerable noise and generate some enthusiastic participatory rhythmic activity among a few congregation members – Mr. Oakes and Mr. Nolke come to mind. There was always someone playing the tuba or Sousaphone for the bass, several clarinets (my sister Barbara often played), trumpets or cornets (one played often by my friend, Joe Wenger), and percussion – bass drum and cymbals and snare drum. I occasionally played the snare drum in the Pillar of Fire Band and did the best I could, although I was obviously always at the novice level. Yes, I had taken a few drum lessons from someone in the church and my dad had made me a practice pad from a square chunk of oak board fastened to a foam rubber base and crowned with a black rubber pad nailed to the top of the wood, but despite a few lessons and faithful practice, I never got very good.
I will digress here and relate a snare drum incident that I remember very well. At “Camp Meeting” time in August, various Pillar of Fire people would be invited to form a brass band and assemble personnel and instruments on one of our school buses, festooned with an advertising banner, and tour nearby towns advertising the event. One of the most prominent and intelligent personalities in the church, Mr. Clifford Crawford, was leading this “touring ensemble” with his trumpet playing, through Bound Brook, Manville and Somerville one August day and Mr. Crawford, likely feeling some pain from my feeble efforts on the snare drum, took me aside afterward to explain some basics. Marches are always in certain tempos or times, he told me – either 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8. If it’s 2/4 or 4/4 the snare complements the bass drum by playing on the after beat; if the piece is 6/8, the snare plays on the beat. I never forgot this, coming from a musician of Mr. Crawford’s caliber, and am always conscious, when listening to a march, what the time is and where the snare drum beat should be.
Back to the band playing in our church services – there were always two selections, played in succession by the band – first a hymn, which had been composed in an appropriate cadence and thus could be played by our band, and second, a real marching band piece, maybe a Sousa march. When the march tune was chosen, I always hoped and prayed that it was not “Semper Fidelis” when I was playing because it featured a snare drum solo part, then joined by a dramatic trumpet accompaniment. I had neither the self confidence nor the skill to manage the solo snare part so thank God, that march was never chosen when I played the drum. And by the way, Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” is a perfect example of a 6/8 time march tune.
Another band instrument upon which I had some experience was the alto horn. I don’t remember exactly why I started lessons on this instrument – perhaps because the band needed it for balance, nor do I remember from whom I took lessons, but I found playing this instrument rather pleasant and easy because it did not play the melody and thus was much more simple, requiring playing significantly fewer notes. I don’t recall how many times I played this instrument during the church band pieces but I did feel great camaraderie with trumpet player friend Joe Wenger, as we not only played together but also joined to occasionally expel accumulated saliva from our brass instruments with open “spit valves” and healthy blasts of breath through the mouthpieces.
After the band selections, there was usually one more hymn sung by the congregation before the sermon was preached. These sermons usually lasted 20-30 minutes and were typically a long dissertation on lessons to be derived from a chosen bit of scripture. Sermons were delivered usually by Bishop Arthur White when he was in New Jersey, but more often by Reverend I. L. Wilson, one of the kindliest and most Godly men in the church, maybe Nathaniel Wilson (no relative) or any of the other Pillar of Fire intelligentsia. Then the service was wrapped up around noontime with a final hymn, and if the spirit prevailed, maybe an altar call. The other church services repeated the pattern but the 3:00 service at the Assembly Hall did not feature the band, nor did the Sunday evening event held at the Bound Brook Temple.
As a child I enjoyed most of these church service experiences. The hymns were beautiful and I enjoyed singing them along with everyone else. I enjoyed hearing the other musical features also, especially the band, well before I was old enough to participate. Many of the hymns we sang in church are forever part of my memory and bring tears to my eyes even today when I hear them sung. Most of these were old traditional Protestant hymns by Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Robert Lowry and others. We also sang hymns written by the founder of the church, Alma White, many of which were quite good, fashioned around the protestant hymn musical and poetic tradition.
There was one Pillar of Fire minister who was likely the best preacher I have ever heard – Willian O. Portune. And I mean best not necessarily from a scholarly point of view, although his knowledge of Biblical scripture was impressive, but best because of his passion and eloquence. I used to dread a church service where he delivered the sermon because he was extremely effective in making me feel guilty and sinful and badly in need of redemption. During his sermons he occasionally thundered, ”When you die and you stand before that great white throne and God points his finger at you….what will you say, what will you do?” And every time Reverend Portune pointed that finger it seemed as though he was pointing it directly at me. So accordingly I would break out in a nervous sweat, pull my shirt collar away from my neck and mop my brow. And if Reverend Portune’s passion happened to induce an “altar call” at the end of the service, when various people would stream up front to loudly and fervently pray, I would sometimes be induced, motivated or shamed (perhaps by family or friends) into joining them and pray as passionately as I could for salvation. But to my knowledge and awareness I was never thus blessed, no matter how energetically or fervently I prayed. After yet another such a futile effort, I would simply resume my worldly ways until the next time the spirit (or guilt or discomfort) convinced me to try again.
There were other religious services in the church as well. At Zarephath proper, every weekday for boarding students and selected others began with what was called “Morning Class”, a short half-hour service held at 7:15 in the “College Chapel”, when a couple of hymns were sung and a short talk was given, perhaps reminding students of certain duties or events. Some of the children from outlying families also attended. I recall that my sister Barbara attended from time to time, as well as myself and perhaps Elaine and Robert, primarily on Monday, when “reports” were given on Sunday sermons, where previously assigned students commented or elaborated upon some of the salient points or lessons drawn from the sermons.
Also, on Wednesday night in the same location, there was what we called “Testimony Meeting”, attended by many students as well as adults. After a few hymns, individuals arose and lined up at the microphone up front, to deliver a “testimony” – the relating of an incident or conflict which could illustrate the power of God in their lives. The experience was not easy because what one related had to be more or less factual, as well as significant in a religious faith way. In addition, it was somewhat difficult for some, myself certainly, to stand up in front of the audience and deliver an unscripted, impromptu speech, however short. I can recall especially while others lined up to deliver their testimony, sitting nervously in my seat feeling intense pressure to participate and desperately trying to think of an experience significant enough to describe and relate as my “testimony”.
I’ve mentioned that our little “town” of Zarephath had a post office. To serve this facility, the church had a small truck that went to and from Bound Brook twice a day to deliver and pick up mail at the train station, which evidently had a key postal facility. This truck, called the “mail rig”, was a 1940’s vintage Reo Speedwagon with a canvas cover stretched over the bed. The floor of the bed bore the cargo – usually several soiled canvas mailbags marked “US MAIL” but around the bed were fold-down seats for passengers. People from Zarephath would often hitch a ride on the mail rig into Bound Brook on the morning run, then do some shopping or conduct some business there and ride back on the afternoon trip. The primary driver of the “mail rig” was Mr. Schaeffer, although there were undoubtedly a few others.
I went with big sister Barbara several times to Bound Brook in this way and enjoyed my very first commercially prepared hot dog and hamburger there in a restaurant on Hamilton Street. Also on this street was the now famous landmark, the Brook Theater , where I also enjoyed my first real movies – a couple of westerns with one, I think, starring Audie Murphy. I was amazed at how the movies kept going and going. If you entered during the middle of one movie, you could sit through its completion, watch the second one in its entirety and then complete the first.
I have often referred to the Pillar of Fire church community as a little microcosm of communism where there was considerable application of Karl Marx’s maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Basic needs like housing and utilities were provided gratis by the church. My parents never owned any of the houses in which we lived and never paid rent or an electricity or heating bill. Also, basic nutrition was provided by the church. The Zarephath “store”, located in the Publishing Building mentioned earlier, purchased basic staples for weekly distribution to church families. I remember that we had a sturdy wooden box called our “order box” in the house, which once a week was delivered to the store with a list and was filled with requested basics and later picked up. We ordered such items as oatmeal (always Quaker Oats), corn flakes (Kelloggs), shortening, which was bulk Crisco or something like it, cheese, usually a big wedge of cheddar cut out of a large cheese “wheel”, peanut butter, again bulk – dipped from a very large container into an empty smaller container we provided in our order box. Other items were sugar, white or brown, flour – usually just the basic white variety, basic unsweetened cocoa, and many different kinds of bulk dried legumes – mainly navy, lima, and kidney beans. Milk was delivered early every couple of days from our dairy facility in stainless steel milk cans that we washed and put out for pickup at the next delivery. This was raw milk, never homogenized or pasteurized. Mom or someone else would pour it into glass jars to put in the refrigerator. Cream came to the top and was poured off for coffee or other uses. Mom was a faithful coffee drinker and always enjoyed that fresh cream in it every day. Other staples like potatoes, were obtained from storage facilities in the Main Building where the main kitchen was located or from coolers at Tabor.
The Zarephath store also provided these same basics to the central dining facility in the Main Building where cooks provided three meals a day to people who lived and worked there and to students who boarded there, with lunch likely being the largest meal, since it also included the day students attending school at Zarephath. Also, fresh fruit and vegetables were provided from the church farms for daily preparation and inclusion in meals when in season. In the basement of Columbia Hall was a large room where canning took place – seasonal fruits and vegetables were preserved, sometimes in jars, sometimes in large cans, for later use in institutional meals. Also, some of these canned items were available for our weekly orders from the store. I recall a hefty, cheerful and very hard working woman, Minnie Driver, who was apparently responsible for running this food canning enterprise.
Our neighbor on the long driveway to the “Morningside” house, Claude Murphy, was the official church farmer for summer vegetables, raised in the fertile fields of the Millstone River floodplain surrounding our respective homes. Dairy and orchard farming were centered at the Tabor farm and the Gross family appeared to have major responsibility for maintaining the substantial peach orchards and apple orchards as well as chicken flocks and egg gathering for family distribution through “the store” and supply to the main cooking facility. The Weaver family raised most of the field corn and alfalfa for the dairy. More about both of these families later when I discuss people and personalities in the church.
Also I should add that individual families in the church often maintained gardens and fields of vegetables in the summer to augment that which the church supplied. Certainly my family did so as well as the Weavers and Grosses. I should mention also that consumption of meat was frowned upon, even forbidden, in the church. Evidently our founder, Bishop Alma White, must have at some point become an Upton Sinclair acolyte and read his book, “The Jungle”. She herself wrote a book “Why I Do Nor Eat Meat” (still available on Amazon, look it up, can you believe it?), which was largely read by church personnel and a limited public. I can remember how delicious meat tasted to me when as a child I was treated to some beef or chicken at relatives’ homes, even more delectable because it was “forbidden”.
However, many families felt free to eat meat privately. I remember at our first New Jersey home, Lock Haven, that one Saturday morning, the house was filled with the wonderful smell of cooked chicken. Dad had evidently killed, cleaned and cooked a few chickens early that morning, and invited us to get up and enjoy his “Mulligan stew”, perhaps so named so that we would not tell anyone we actually had chicken. That was the first time I remember eating meat in our home.
The main dining facility at Zarephath of course never served meat. However, for protein, different varieties of beans were often served as were a variety of soy-based meat substitutes. Canned imitation meats from a company called Worthington, like “Yum” were sold in our store but were never part of the free weekly “order” of basics. But our school was part of the government school lunch program and since meat was available from a vendor under this program a church friend of my father’s ordered several dozen large bricks of frozen ground beef, a half dozen of so of which ended up in our deep freeze. We kids enjoyed cutting off slices, frying it for ourselves and reveling in the smell and taste of this delicious but officially forbidden food.
So even though most basic needs were supplied by the church, we still had to obtain other items necessary for day to day living which cost money and as intimated in a paragraph above, money was often hard to come by. My family often raised and sold chickens to obtain extra money. In the early 1960’s, Dad bought a Farmall Super A and necessary implements and got heavily into truck farming to raise extra money. He and we older children cultivated strawberries, sweetcorn, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, cantaloups and watermelons, which were sold at a little stand at the end of our driveway on Weston Causeway (now officially the “Manville Causeway” on Google maps) by little brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and even Stan. Before selling directly to the public, Dad had often sold sweet corn and other produce wholesale directly to vendors at the Packard’s farmers market and other outlets, including a large roadside stand on Route 22 near Whitehouse, New Jersey, who then sold to the public. I never knew how Dad made these deals with retailers but obviously he did, likely seeing how, if others profited from his wholesale produce, why not skip that step and sell retail himself – hence the roadside stand on the Weston Causeway.
Money was always an issue in the church when I was growing up despite gratis provisions by the church. I never knew exactly how church members were remunerated for their work for the church. I don’t know if salaries were paid – if they were, they were likely meager. Most people were pretty much on their own and earned money the best way they could. One of the standard ways money was earned by church personnel was in what was called the “missionary field”. This consisted of nighttime forays into local taverns and bars, usually on a Friday or Saturday night, attired in church regalia, for women the black dress with white collar and a somewhat odd black hat with wide ribbons around the neck ending in a tied broad bow; for men, the standard black or navy blue suit with black shirt and rigid white collar. Equipped with an armful of Pillar of Fire publications and a small circular money receptacle, these Pillar of Fire “missionaries” would enter the bar and solicit contributions in exchange presumably for a copy of the “Pillar of Fire” paper or “The Dry Legion”, the church’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
A number of us family members or students as older teenagers occasionally drove these missionaries through New Jersey cities close to New York from bar to bar, starting around 8:00 and ending at midnight or so. We drove in the selected person’s own car or a church car that they had borrowed in return for a modest compensation of three to five dollars or so, usually paid in quarters collected in the smoky bars that night. My such experiences were limited to driving my Aunt Ada Friedly around the city of Hoboken in a black De Soto, maybe hers, maybe borrowed. Other young men, including friends Joe Wenger and Kenny Cope, often made a few dollars in this missionary “driver” role as well.
Money collected in this way was split according to a certain formula between the “missionary” and the church, after of course, the driver was paid. Such funds were an important part of church income, as well as often the only income, however meager, for the specific person. I couldn’t help but think what a terrible way this was to try to obtain some sort of income. It must have taken a great deal of courage for people like my aunt, dressed like they were, to enter bars full of happy drunks on a weekend night to beg money for the church and themselves. And I am sure that the proprietors and patrons of these bars did not appreciate the interruption of their nighttime revelry by these grim specters in black clothing hawking religious or temperance tomes. I can recall my aunt in the car after such an evening reeking of beer and tobacco smoke and relieved that she had survived the ordeal. In retrospect though, this activity did afford the church worker some sort of personal income, required for those necessities of daily life not supplied by the church.
The church income obtained through these “missionary” trips was likely trivial compared to that solicited from and donated by industries and businesses. There were church officials who instead of begging in bars for the church, went on scheduled visits to local businesses and industries to ask for contributions to support the education, radio and publishing ministries featured by the church, these significantly larger than the pittance contributed by people like my aunt. In fact some church members purportedly enriched themselves significantly by taking a larger cut of what was solicited and contributed than that to which they were entitled. However, these larger contributions were largely what enabled the church early in its history to purchase huge tracts of land in New Jersey and Colorado and to erect the buildings necessary to carry on church work.
Also the church subsisted significantly on “in kind” donations from various sources. The adjective “donated” was used pejoratively often in the church to describe any number of items, usually of substandard quality. Such merchandise was distributed free of charge to church members. I remember much of our clothing came from “donated” sources. Particularly memorable was literally a “bale” of donated double-kneed bluejeans that ended up with our family, factory seconds actually, rejected by their quality control for minor defects but still quite wearable. We boys in the Friedly family wore these jeans for years. Also at some time, the church was given a pile of naugahyde motorcycle jackets, several of which ended up with us. Here’s a picture at our Morningside house of my brother Charlie, with little brothers Richard, Glenn, and Stan, wearing one of them.
Some of our food items were also donated to the church and distributed to families through the store or the dining facilities. I can remember going with my father in our 1951 Chevy pickup truck a number of times on Friday nights (I think) to pick up several dozen pies from Jones Pies, a big bakery located in one of the many New Jersey cities across the Hudson from New York City. (Google reveals no such company, but I am convinced it was “Jones”). These pies were donated to the church because they were not sold in a timely fashion and could only be thrown out or given away. So after being delivered to the Zarephath kitchen facility, we took several home for the family. I remember still how tasty they were, even though “old”. Also, some pie surfaces showed traces of dust or soot, since they were not in boxes and were laid flat in the back of our truck. But never mind, scraped off and cleaned up, they still were delicious, and I was grateful.
My father also occasionally did the sort of “missionary” work described above to earn needed money for his ever growing family. But the best time for the family financially was when my father was working in the Zarephath post office, where he was paid quite well for that time and place. I believe that he may have been required to contribute a portion of his post office salary to the church but was allowed to keep enough of it so that for several years, the Friedly family was relatively well cared for. It was during this time that he was able to buy a brand new 1949 Chevrolet for the family and we experienced several of the best Christmases we ever had. I don’t know for sure but my impression is that he was required to leave this job because he was doing too well. The job then reverted to Emma Walls, our official “postmaster”.
This little fact was very important in the Pillar of Fire Church. If you did too well, if you stood out, if there was a chance your accomplishments or your erudition would eclipse that of a member of the White family that ruled the church, you would be moved to another job, assignment or location, usually lower or less desirable than that in which you excelled. I have already mentioned that the person responsible for the dramatic success and lofty reputation of our dairy operation was removed and put in charge of the Zarephath greenhouse. In the same way, I am sure that my father was asked to leave that post office job, and later, with the success of his personal truck farming enterprise in New Jersey, was asked to relocate to the Denver church headquarters in 1965. At that time I should note that the Friedly family became split in two, since Barbara, myself and Elaine had married and were living in nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns and Robert was serving in the army in Germany. Basically, Mom, Dad, Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stanley formed a reconstituted Friedly family in the Westminster, Colorado church community.
Perhaps I should make clear that my Dad’s efforts to make money through his post office job, which I think was part time, and his personal truck farming project, constituted additions to “regular” jobs he did for the church. Dad was primarily a teacher in the church’s schools, a job which he performed regularly for years, teaching history at Alma Preparatory School, the church’s high school at Zarephath, and philosophy at Alma White College, also at Zarephath. In addition he was prevailed upon to assist at the dairy on occasional weekends, where I used to go with him, help feed alfalfa and silage to the cattle as they stood secure in their stanchions being milked and then return home with some of the dairy’s delicious chocolate milk. Also, of course, Dad held forth as the resident barber at Zarephath in the press room of the publishing building, usually on Saturday mornings (I offer a picture of the barber chair he used later in this article).
Others in the church also held “regular” assignments – working in the printery turning out the “Pillar of Fire”, which was given out at our churches, mailed to subscribers and, as mentioned before, distributed in bars by our missionaries, left for information at more significant potential donor’s establishments; the “Pillar of Fire Junior”, the children’s publication, also distributed through subscription and used weekly at our Sunday School services, “Woman’s Chains”, the church’s “women’s lib” publication and “The Dry Legion”, the Pillar of Fire’s anti-alcohol temperance publication.
The printery, located in the Publishing Building, consisted of several Linotype machines, other areas where print was set, and another big room which contained, if I remember correctly, two huge printing presses, which printed the aforementioned periodic publications and books, written primarily by the church royalty, members of the White family, completed in another publishing building facility, our book bindery. Although I am sure there were more competent and creative writers in the church, (one was likely my own aunt, Ada Friedly), the Whites monopolized book authorship and publishing in the church. Alma White, the church founder and matriarch, published upwards of 30 books. Her son, Arthur K. White was author of a half dozen or so, including his pompous and self indulgent “Some White Family History”. Kathleen White, wife of Arthur, authored a temperance book strangely named “Drunk Stuff”. Pauline White Dallenbach and Arlene White Lawrence (I believe that both daughters had legitimate middle names but the name “White” supplanted them in order to brandish their lineage) contributed a couple of lightweight tomes to the White literary legacy: respectively “Dear Friends” and “Come Along”, both travel books with religious overtones. I might add that the apparently unlimited travel budgets of White family members which spawned these two books, were often bitterly questioned and critiqued by rank and file church members. Several hymnals, including the “Cross and Crown” hymnal were also published in the Zarephath printery and distributed to Pillar of Fire locations around the country.
Various church personnel performed a variety of other tasks for the organization. Several manned our radio station and its related facilities; some, already mentioned, were involved in food production, preparation and distribution. Others were groundskeepers, greenhouse workers, teachers, maintenance or utility workers. Some were engineers, architects or construction workers. Many of these individuals also mixed church service participation with their skill or profession, leading meetings, singing in a vocal group or preaching a sermon. My father also mixed this with his other professions – occasionally leading a service or preaching a sermon on Sundays for a sparse congregation at our Brooklyn church. I always felt that Dad was a little uncomfortable in this role. His sermons were scholarly, well researched and logical but always seemed to lack the passion and conviction that other preachers demonstrated in their delivery. Or maybe as his son, I was just being too critical.
However, the early Sunday morning trips to Brooklyn were wonderful. I will always remember the the drive over dense industrial New Jersey cities on the famed Pulaski Skyway, which brought us almost directly to the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. Then after emerging from the tunnel and making a quick trip across southern Manhattan, we crossed the East River on the Manhattan Bridge and entered Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue and then going directly to the church on Sterling Place. The ladies staffing the Brooklyn missionary home were quite hospitable and always prepared a delicious lunch for us. The caretaker of the Brooklyn Pillar of Fire Church, Mr. Wallace Lewis, was a bright, talkative elderly man. Unfortunately he lost his life when the church was destroyed in the notorious December 1960 crash of a United Airlines DC8 after an in air collision with another airliner. The church was never rebuilt.
The White Family
This might be as good a time as any to introduce my reader(s?) to the White family, the “royalty” of the Pillar of Fire Church. The church was founded in 1901 by Alma White, who was its first bishop and general superintendent. After her death in 1946, she was succeeded by her son, Arthur White, who ran the church as bishop and general superintendent during my childhood and youth until his death in 1981. Arthur’s wife, Kathleen (Staats), attained special status for her family through the marriage. Her sisters Helen, Ruth and Carolyn and brother William, always occupied positions of influence and authority in the church through this link. Ruth Staats was the principal of Zarephath schools when I was a child. Later attending the Pillar of Fire high school in Westminster, Colorado, I got to know Carolyn Staats, its principal. These individuals occupied these positions through being related to the White family, not because of any special administrative talent or intellectual ability. In essence, these were the “nobility” – handmaidens to the “royalty”. More details about the Staats family will be offered below.
Arthur and Kathleen White, as I am sure did the founder of the church, Alma White, always lived quite well and did not have to scrape together a living, depending on the capricious “God will provide” adage as so many other church members did, but lived serenely and confidently on the largesse of the church. I was never sure exactly how or how much money came into their hands but was very sure that the church’s considerable wealth and resources were totally controlled by the White family. In fact, for years Kathleen White acted as “Financial Agent” for the church. There were church members who served as accountants and record keepers, I am sure, but to my knowledge the church’s finances were never open for examination, audit, discussion or judgement by rank and file church members, though official audits required by the state were done routinely.
The White family lived in a choice residence at Belleview, the Westminster, Colorado church campus, called “Rose Hill” and in an attractive one-story home on the Zarephath, New Jersey land called “Mountain View”, mentioned earlier. Apartments were maintained by the church for the Whites at other church locations for use when they visited. In addition, church personnel took care of the dining and laundry needs of the family, as well as child rearing. My own aunt, Ada Friedly, who had unfortunately followed my father into the church, performed these kinds of tasks for the White family for virtually her entire life, also helping to care for the infants and young children of the next generation of White church royalty. At different times Ada cared for the households and children of Arlene Lawrence, Constance Brown and Pauline Dallenbach, the respective daughters of Bishop Arthur White and wife Kathleen. After the death of Arthur White, the oldest daughter, Arlene, served as general superintendent of the church for several years.
Arthur and Kathleen White were used to first class transportation also and always drove or were driven in new black Chryslers. Motivated by some veiled criticism of this fact, Bishop Arthur White always hastened to insist that the automobiles in question were always owned by the church, not him. And the luxurious residences were owned by the church as well. So what – they got to live in the swanky houses and drive the classy cars, no matter who owned them. This was their privilege as church royalty. It was not because of their intellect, educational accomplishments or management and leadership skills.
I should relate something about the men the White daughters Arlene, Constance and Pauline married. Jerry Lawrence, the husband of Arlene and father of my sister-in-law, Verona, was a big, jovial, personable man with a heavy southern drawl, attesting to his southern heritage, the state of Georgia. Jerry used to be a good friend and confidant of my father when they both were young workers in the church, but Jerry’s marriage into the White family fatally altered the relationship. Reverend Lawrence earned a doctorate in education from Columbia and became an influential faculty member and administrator at Alma White College and the sister institution in Colorado, Belleview College. They had two children, raised partially by my aunt, Ada Friedly – Arthur and Verona.
The second oldest of the White children, Horace, did not remain in the church. He enjoyed a distinguished career as a pilot flying for United Airlines and is still doing well in his California residence today….at the age of 102. Horace and his wife Evelyn chose not to have any children.
Constance, the middle White sister, did not remain in the church either and married David Brown, a former student in our schools who later worked for various educational testing companies. I only knew one of their three children – the oldest, Melanie – and that only because I had occasion to babysit her as a child. Others, among them Peter, I never knew but perhaps as infants.
Bob Dallenbach, from the Dallenbach family of East Brunswick, New Jersey, described below, unlike his siblings, remained in the church after attending its schools and married Pauline, the youngest of the White sisters. After earning a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado, he served in positions of authority in the church, including bishop and superintendent from 2000 to 2008. Bob and Pauline were parents to two children – Joel and Beth (Heidi) – the latter always a good friend of my Colorado brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stan.
There were other prominent families in the church, notable perhaps because of the family size or their position in the church or the relative importance of the responsibilities assigned them. One such family in the church was the Weavers, who lived at the Bethany house. Mrs. Weaver, as mentioned earlier, ran this large house which also served as a home away from home for boys boarding at the church who were too young for the Zarephath dormitories. As suggested earlier, Mrs. Weaver was beloved by many of her charges for her loving care and for her delicious meals and school lunches. Her husband, Harry Weaver, ran the Pillar Fire field farming enterprise – planting and harvesting the corn and baling the hay that fed our dairy cattle, the potatoes for the school cooking preparation, and maintaining the fleet of tractors and farm implements that were used. Their sons, the “Weaver boys”, Glenn, Meredith (Mert) and Richard were popular among the girls and known also for their macho exploits on our tractors and other farm machinery. All of the Weavers married women in the church – Glenn married Blanche Cather, Meredith married Jeannie Bradford and Richard married Marlene Walker. Something about the Bradfords and the Walkers will be provided below. Interestingly, my sister Barbara had the rare distinction of dating on one occasion or another, all three of the Weaver boys.
The Gross family occupies a very important position in my memory because through my sister Barbara’s marriage to the youngest boy in the family, Daniel, the family became ever entwined in my own life. John Gross was the oldest, then David, then Joseph. The Gross family was finally blessed by the arrival of a little girl, Martha. The Gross’s loomed large in Pillar of Fire affairs. Mr. Gross was a prominent church member who not only oversaw the orchard and poultry operations at “Tabor” but also served as an accomplished church service leader and as an Alma White College professor. Bespectacled John played a prominent role in farm and school activities, as did David, Joe and Daniel. All of the Grosses were prominent musicians as well, playing instruments in the band on Sundays and participating in solo or choral singing. Daniel, my dear sister Barbara’s future husband, was also a virtuoso on the organ, often playing for church services. I remember many instances of Daniel practicing on the organ in the Ray B. White Memorial Chapel, beautiful melodies pouring out at various times during the day. The Gross boys, including Daniel, also played an important role in the church’s publishing efforts, operating the Linotype machine, typesetting, editing and so on. John Gross married Mary Ann Hager, of the Hager church family; Joe married Florence Tomlin, of the Tomlin church family.
Mrs. Gross was afflicted by some kind of arthritis, perhaps rheumatoid arthritis, and with severely limited mobility, was a semi-invalid for the latter years of her life, which accounted for the Gross family leading a movement toward a more healthy diet for church members. Mr. Gross led a successful effort to use stone ground whole wheat flour for Mr. Nolke’s baking activities and led a church movement to reduce sugar in the meals prepared in our kitchen. As I recount in my article about sugar, Mr. Gross coined the term “white poison” for this unfortunately ubiquitous substance needlessly included in so many of our processed foods. And Daniel showed me how he and the family made homemade mayonnaise in their Oster blender with eggs, vinegar, oil, and no sugar. I also remember mowing the front lawn at the Gross’s Tabor residence in exchange for piano lessons from Daniel.
Earlier in this article I touched several times upon another important family, the Bartletts. George Bartlett was the power and the energy behind the Pillar of Fire dairy, which, under his leadership, became the stellar dairy of central New Jersey. The dairy building complex, called “Rosedale”, consisted of a pleasant home housing the Bartlett family and three modern barns, two the same size and forming the legs of an “H” with one smaller barn, the “bull barn”, placed between the two larger ones forming the crosspiece of the H: – the milk barn and the calf barn, all in service of the prize Holstein herd which fed on seasonal grass in adjacent pastures and in other seasons the alfalfa and silage provided by the field farm operation of the church. There was also a reservoir on the property used I presume for watering the herd, but also for swimming because I remember a diving board on it as well. The milk barn was equipped with all the modern machinery for feeding and removal of waste, the milking process and immediate cooling and refrigerated storage of the milk, was a source of pride for the church.
The rest of the Bartlett family were memorable as well – oldest child, Jenora, later to become the wife of “Red” Crawford (more about the Crawford family below) and serve as one of the church’s finest math teachers; comely Doris, who left the church in her twenties, after breaking a few young men’s hearts; gregarious and charming Lorinda (“Lindy”), one of my sister Barbara’s best friends, later to marry Mandrup (Buddy) Skeie, and of course, Dwight, whom my friend Joe Wenger and I always envied and admired for his prowess and success with girls. Parenthetically, I should mention that Joe’s and my envy of Dwight, reached its apogee when Dwight and Mert Weaver both bought motorcycles. Yes, these two guys cruising up and down Canal Road and around Zarephath and its environs on their noisy big Harleys was the final nail in the coffin of our success with the local girls. I mean, how could we compete?
And since I mentioned Red Crawford, here’s something about the rest of them. Mr. Clifford Crawford, mentioned earlier in my discourse about the band, was the father of some uniquely talented people. Clifford junior left the church as a young man and became a successful writer and photographer in the advertising business. Joan (I seem to remember her as “Joanne”), the lone girl in the family also left the church as a young woman. I remember her especially since she performed the piano accompaniment on the recording my mother and father made of Barbara and me singing and reciting poetry at nine and five years old respectively. Frank Crawford, who married Ruth Dallenbach (more about the Dallenbachs below) and became a millionaire through his company “Princeton Microfilm Corporation” and later lost it all as he evidently failed to keep pace with the digital revolution, and, of course, one of my father’s best friends, Rea (“Red”) Crawford, who managed Zarephath’s garage, which maintained and repaired vehicles and also provided gasoline from a lone pump nearby. Red Crawford was known for his jokes and sometimes unseemly and distasteful ridicule of certain people through clever imitation of speech or physical characteristics. I remember specifically, his imitation of the walk of George Chambers, the brilliant and talented organist mentioned earlier, who was apparently afflicted by a chronic back condition. Red Crawford also played key roles in the management of our church radio station and exhibited extensive knowledge and skill in the electronic side of the broadcasting business. Red’s obituary is here.
However, to me the most memorable of the Crawfords was the senior Clifford Crawford, who was incredibly gregarious and friendly and always had a clever joke for the occasion. I still remember his mentioning of a “big wheel” in his hometown where he grew up by the name of Mr. Ferris. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford manned the Washington DC “missionary home” for the church, the place where we all stayed as a family during the several times we visited and toured the nation’s capital. Mr. Crawford was a superb musician on the trumpet and I used to look forward to seeing him and hearing him play when he and quiet and sedate Mrs. Crawford visited Zarephath for the annual “Camp Meeting” time in August. And I did mention him above as having advised me and straightened out my terrible drum playing.
I mentioned the Dallenbach family also somewhere above. This well to do family owned a sand company in East Brunswick, New Jersey. They were not church members but may have contributed financially to the church and did send their four children to our schools and served the church in various other ways. As I noted above, Robert Dallenbach stayed in the church, eventually marrying Pauline White, daughter of Bishop Arthur K. White, thus joining the royalty of the church, and later serving as bishop and superintendent. Martha and Ruth Dallenbach, the latter of whom I mentioned in my account of the Bound Brook school, attended and graduated from Pillar of Fire schools and served as teachers, Ruth later marrying Frank Crawford of the above mentioned Crawford family. Wally, the youngest of the Dallenbachs also graduated from our high school and went on to achieve national fame as an Indy race car driver with his son Wally Jr following in his footsteps. Martha Dallenbach Schlenk, the oldest of the siblings, just passed away in December 2021.
The Stewart family was important in the Pillar of Fire Church. Mr. Ash Stewart, known to everyone as “A. R.”, was I believe a “deacon” in the church and I remember him quite well as a distinguished, dignified church official, one at the “nobility” level, a notch below the White family. Daughters Phyllis and Lois I remember well. Phyllis, red-haired, personable and pretty, attended our schools and eventually left the church. I remember Phyllis especially because she gave me violin lessons for awhile. Lois became a stalwart in our schools, serving as a teacher and later principal of our “Alma Preparatory School” high school. I remember also Lois going with us and driving our 1949 Chevy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the first leg of one of our summer trips to visit relatives in MIssouri and North Dakota. Sister Barbara and I were amazed at how fast she drove compared to Dad or Mom. Raindrops instead of going down the windshield went up, because of her speed. I believe that Lois went as far as the Pillar of Fire headquarters in Cincinnati, where we all must have stayed for the night before continuing west. Lois passed away in 2013. Her obituary is here.
The Hellyer family certainly deserves mention. Ezra Hellyer took over the Pillar of Fire dairy farm operation after George Bartlett was transferred to the nursery. Mr. Hellyer also occupied an informal position in the church as what perhaps could be termed our “constable”, a quasi law enforcement role. As I mention elsewhere in this article he patrolled our back roads often catching our teenaged lovers parking someplace in a car. He actually wore some sort of uniform festooned with a badge of some kind as well. Perhaps he did occupy a position of authority for Franklin Township or Somerset County.
The Hellyer children – Donald, Doris, Lillian, and Margaret – lived with the family at the Rosedale house, formerly occupied by the Bartlett family. The older children I remember by sight of course, but I did not deal with them in any significant way. Margaret, however, was my sister Barbara’s age so I saw much more of her. The “Children’s Hour” picture in another section of this article features a seated Margaret Hellyer and Anna May Snelling.
The Tomlin family occupies a special place in my recollections of church life. Wesley Tomlin and his wife Viola were stalwarts in the church, running missionary homes in various locations across the country. One of their daughters, Florence, married Joseph Gross, mentioned in my account of the Gross family. Second daughter Beatrice married another person prominent in the church schools in my youth, Richard Derbyshire. Both remained as workers in the church for most of their lives. There were three Tomlin sons – George, Luther and Mark. I know little about George; Luther I remember as a high school student much older than I, who was the best baseball player I had ever seen in the church. Apparently Luther was good enough to play professional minor league baseball for a number of years.
The son I knew best was Mark Tomlin. It was Mark who accompanied my father, his brother Gene and me to preside over my grandmother Friedly’s funeral in Missouri in 1957, as I noted in my article “Summer 1957” ). Mark was an incredibly talented man, a virtuoso on the trumpet, a wonderful singing voice, an eloquent speaker and gifted writer and publisher. It was Mark who greeted me, my wife Bobbie and son Conrad in the Publishing Building when brother in law Daniel Gross took us around a much-changed Zarephath during our visit in 1999 (see upcoming article “Summer of ’99”) and cordially chatted with us. Mark was a much loved and respected member of the Pillar of Fire church. He passed away in Landisberg, Pennsylvania a few years ago at the age of 86. Here is his obituary which includes a picture of Mark.
And the Walker family was very prominent in the Pillar of Fire. Mr. Walker, the head of the family, worked, I think, in the utility maintenance area on the campus involving perhaps, the powerhouse. Anyhow, the children remain more vividly in my memory and several played important role in my childhood: Dorothy, Rantz, Phyllis, Arnold and Marlene.
Phyllis was a contemporary of my sister Barbara although perhaps not in the same school grade. Arnold was a great athlete and I remember playing baseball and touch football with him many times. Marlene, several years younger than I, was personable, sociable and cute, eventually marrying the youngest of the “Weaver boys”, Richard. I’ve been told that they still live at Zarephath, in a house built next to our old house, “Lock Haven”. I remember Marlene particularly for her fashion statement – daring to wear a “sack dress” around Zarephath when they first became popular sometime in the 1950’s.
The Wolfram family occupied a lofty position in the church. I remember the two elder members of the family, Albert and Gertrude (related to church founder Alma White) and the two prominent sons, Donald and Orland. I recall Orland, the older of the two, as a stellar teacher and musician in the church. He never married to my knowledge, and eventually passed away in a central American country to which he had traveled as a missionary. Donald Wolfram was, I suppose, one of the church “nobility”, occupying positions of authority in our schools throughout his life. Dr. Wolfram married a lovely, charming woman with a radiant smile whom I remember well: Phyllis Hoffman, the only child of the Hoffman family, who ran one of our eastern missionary homes, perhaps in Philadelphia. Mr. Wolfram spent most of his church career in the Denver headquarters, where he preached regularly at Alma Temple in downtown Denver, ran Belleview College and anchored the band’s Sunday performances with his virtuoso trumpet playing (or was it trombone?). Later he also took over from Arlene Lawrence and served as general superintendent of the church from 1985 to 2000. As a youngster, I used to dread Dr. Wolfram’s sermons – although quite articulate and scholarly, his delivery was dry and professorial, lacking the feeling and passion necessary to hold my interest. I remember the two eldest Wolfram children, Suzanne and Phillip, fairly well and know that Suzanne continued working for the church for some years in varying capacities. I recall with pleasure the later encounters with Dr. Wolfram when I would attend Denver church services while visiting my parents. He was warm and cordial and always demonstrated great interest in my professional life.
And I should mention the Staats family that played such important roles in Pillar of Fire church affairs. Kathleen Staats was the wife of Bishop Arthur White, son the the founder, Alma White, so her stature in the church naturally guaranteed her siblings, Helen, Carolyn, Ruth and William, lofty perches as well. Ruth Staats I remember very well, since she was principal of Alma Preparatory School at Zarephath, the high school that I attended for three years. Sister Carolyn Staats occupied the corresponding position at Belleview Preparatory School in the Westminster, Colorado headquarters of the church. I don’t think Helen occupied any position in our schools but may have performed an important clerical and financial role in the church. While I remember Ruth as an energetic and competent leader of Alma Prep, Carolyn in contrast was a bit disorganized and flighty. While I’m not sure of her role in the church, Helen did present a somewhat somber and ponderous presence at our church services. Bill Staats ran the automotive shop, the “garage” at Belleview and was always affable, skilled and helpful in his head mechanic’s role in the church. Mr. Staats also demonstrated a wonderful singing voice in the “male quartet” performance and trombone playing skill in the band in Sunday church services. I knew Bill’s sons Edwin and Willard, both tall, good looking and older than I, from a distance, since they grew up on the Westminster, Colorado campus.
The Schissler family was important in the church during the time I was there with my family. When we moved from California in 1947 our family of six – Mom, Dad, Barbara, Elaine, Robert and I – were assigned to live at a house about a half mile from Zarephath called Lock Haven, described in my afore- referenced article “Home Sweet Home”. Also living in a different section of the house was an elderly couple the Schisslers, parents of the heads of several other Schissler families. Fred and wife Hazel were the parents of Lynn, Elaine and Fred Jr. Talented, intelligent and reserved Lynn played important roles in the church until leaving and working for various tech companies in the Denver area. Comely Elaine, more a contemporary of my sister Barbara, remained in the church eventually marrying Giles Cather and after Giles passed away, marrying another long standing church member, widower Sunday Sharpe. The youngest, Fred, several years younger than I, became one of my brother Robert’s best friends. Another Schissler son, Paul, was the father of Lowell, about my age, whom I got to know as a friend at Camp Meeting time and as a classmate in the fall of 1958 when I attended high school at the Belleview Pillar of Fire facility. Everett, another son, was about sister Barbara’s age and Marilyn, the daughter, eventually married Edwin Staats, son of above-mentioned Bill Staats. And Margaret, the sole Schissler daughter of Grandpa and Grandma Schissler, was the wife of Professor Norman Fournier and mother of Shirley (Renee) and Ronald. Other Schissler sons Otto and Henry, according to my memory, I did not know. More details about all are below.
And there are so many other familiar names that readily resurrect images of faces, sounds of voices and performance in various roles, that I enjoyed when growing up in the Pillar of Fire church. After a quick scan of the Zarephath Cemetery I can’t help but list some of the many names, each of which conjures up an image, a voice, a role in the Pillar of Fire Church of my youth: Barkman, Bartlett, Blue, Bradford, Chambers, Crawford, Cruver, Fournier, Frenkiel, Gilfillan, Hardman, Hibler, Ingler, Kubitz, Leyland, Mancini, Mossburg, Murphy, Nolke, Oakes, Ross, Sillett, Slack, Snelling, Stewart, Summers, Truitt, Urso, Vorhees, Walker, Weaver, Wilson, Wittekind, Yoder. All of these names are very meaningful to me but I can only take the time and space to briefly elaborate on but a few. “Blue” was Clark Blue, or Paul, who became June Moore’s husband. I will always remember June’s humorous and clever personality, which served her well as a teacher in our schools and as later a missionary in Liberia. “Fournier” means a distinguished, brilliant, talented man who died in a tragic accident and upon whose headstone is carved the touching legend – “His life an unfinished symphony”. The Fournier children, Shirley and Ronald, I remember well. Shirley, a onetime close friend of my brother Robert, married an old friend from my brief Belleview school days, Ivan Parr, who recently passed away.
Claude Murphy was the farmer whose home was near ours at Moningside and whose children – Elmer, Lester, Bessie and Naomi, I remember very well as teenagers or young adults. Mr. Earl Hibler, who ran our greenhouses mostly and also worked in the Zarephath store; I remember him being a little stingy with the ice cream on cones he prepared so I always hoped that Mr. Schaeffer was there – always a generous double dip for the same five cents. Clifford Ingler – a thin man with a shock of white hair, almost always dressed in black, energetically pursuing his work editing and publishing Pillar of Fire periodicals and books. Mr. David Gilfillan, our local fire chief, who also performed in the role of our local Republican Party ombudsman. Mr. Gilfillan would preside over certain “Morning Class” meetings to inform our people about upcoming local and national elections and recommend our ballot choices. Elsworth and Juanita Bradford, parents of two notable daughters – pretty Sylvia who married James Snelling, and charming Jeannie, who married Mert Weaver, the latter serving their entire lives with Christian missionary organizations. Mert passed away several years ago; Jeannie, I believe, still lives at Zarephath.
And similar close look at the names in the Belleview Cemetery does the same thing. There’s an image, a voice and what they did in the church: Cartee, Cather, Croucher, Entz, Hardman, Heger, Hopkins, Horner, Knight, Konkel, Loyle, Mason, McCaslin, Natress, Ogden, Plank, Portune, Rogers, Ruby, Schissler, Sharpe, Staats, Stumpp, Tomlin, Wolfe, Wolfram and so many others. And some brief elaboration on a few of these names – Glenn Cartee was a passionate preacher whom I remember playing his banjo at Camp Meeting Sunday School sessions and, how frightful and guilt inducing, talking about a great black vacant hole in the sky where sinners ended up. Yes, and this great black hole was growing larger and larger. Their daughter Bonnie was a friend of my sister Barbara. And the Mason family, patriarch Arvey Mason and wife Faye, and all of his children – Rosalee, Arvey Jr, Faye Ann, also a friend of my sister Barbara, Dick (childhood friend, my age but passed away early) and my own sister-in-law Glenda, brother Charlie’s wife, made a deep impression on me over the years.
Marguerite Stumpp was famed for her teaching at Belleview. Anyone who had her for a teacher remembered her as a strict, dedicated educator who expected and received the very best in behavior and academic performance from her students. I could record my memories of so many others whose names appear here but space and time do not allow.
There were a number of notable families who were not really members of the church but supportive of its mission through contributions, church service attendance and/or sending their children to our schools that I should mention, since they played an important part in my early life in the Pillar of Fire church. The common term for such families, for better of worse, was “outsiders”. One such family was the Carfagno family, whose boys Wayne and Norman (known also for some reason as “Shorty”, perhaps because his brother was very tall for his age) attended our elementary schools. I don’t remember either boy in our high school. But the Carfagnos occupy a special place in my memory because they would occasionally invite my Dad to their home on Schoolhouse Road, beyond Van Chesky Nursery and the Scheufle home and business to watch boxing on television. As noted elsewhere in this article, the church generally frowned on TV and it was a prohibitively expensive luxury for my family so my Dad appreciated those opportunities. I was privileged to accompany him from time to time and have very precious and vivid memories of seeing Jersey Joe Wallcott, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and others ply their craft on the Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts on Wednesday nights or on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday evenings.
Another such family was the Skeie family. I do not remember Mr. or Mrs. Skeie ever attending our church services but all of their children, attractive and intelligent, attended our schools. Astrid, Margrethe, Mandrup (“Buddy”), Karen, are the names I remember. My brother Robert, I think, went out with Margrethe a few times, or perhaps it was Karen. I did go out with Astrid a time or two after I came back from Colorado in 1962 to resume my interrupted college attendance at Rutgers. As always, she was beautiful, dignified and sophisticated. As mentioned above, Buddy Skeie married Lorinda Bartlett and lives today in Amarillo, Texas and/or Garden City, Kansas. I know little to nothing about their lives – children and so on. But if google serves me right, both Buddy and Lindy are alive and well. Actually, today 11/23/21, I was joyfully reconnected with Buddy and Lindy, courtesy of an email I had sent to their church and Buddy’s persistence in responding. I look forward to sharing more with both of them as opportunities present themselves.
Also the Kaesler children from South Bound Brook, attended our schools. Al Kaesler was the oldest, then Billy, whom I remember well and Dickie, about my age, and a daughter, Ada Mae. There may have been one or two others that I am not remembering. I do remember that Billy Kaesler and Astrid Skeie were an item in our high school and that Billy played shortstop for our May Day high school baseball team, comparing his exploits to those of his hero, New York Yankee shortstop Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.
Another day student I remember well was a good friend, Johnny Scheufle, who attended elementary school at the Bound Brook Temple with me. Johnny’s family owned a goose farm on Schoolhouse Road which produced down for powder puffs, pillows, comforters and the like. The older brother of Johnny, Karl Scheufle, would appear at Zarephath from time to time but did not attend our schools. Karl was mentally or emotionally handicapped in some way and we had no facilities or programs to help him. In fifth or sixth grade or so, Johnny was sent to Germany by his family to attend school there. He came back for a visit and his father called our family so that the two of us could get together again. Johnny was dressed in a very European fashion – shorts and sandals, which weren’t generally worn at that time, certainly not by me. He had changed a great deal and had seemingly become much more sophisticated so we discovered we had little to talk about. That visit was sadly the last time I saw or heard of Johnny Scheufle, one my very best childhood friends. One more thing about Johnny – he had a fabulous comic book collection, which I got to share and enjoy during infrequent visits to his home. One of them, ”The Man from Planet X” made an indelible, fearful impression upon my young mind.
Another “outsider” day student that I remember very well was Lily Kate Hoagland, who attended elementary school with me from elementary school at Bound Brook, all the way through Junior High at Zarephath. I had a terrible crush on Lily Kate at different times back then and have often wondered what became of her. And also there was Wanda Nicholson, who came from the same Watchung hills area as the Skeie family, – a very pretty blond-haired young lady, who my good high school friend Joe Wenger, was crazy about for a long time. And then another good friend would bear mention – Malcolm Grout, who like many others, first boarded at Bethany with the Weaver family and then later in the Liberty Hall dormitory. Very personable and clever, Malcolm was a always a pleasure to pal around with. And a very pretty young lady, Sandra Renner, originally from New Brunswick, I think, attended Zarephath schools as an “outside” day student. Sandra later married Gerald Finlayson, from the Finlayson church family. And of course, quite notably, my own future wife, Elaine Ganska, mentioned earlier, was a day student at Bound Brook and Zarephath schools as well. One more “outside” student attending Bound Brook school was a youngster with an engaging smile and quiet, modest personality, Michael Kravcak (not sure of the spelling) from South Bound Brook. I believe that Michael had a younger sister who attended for awhile as well. I do not recall Michael going on to attend junior high or high school at Zarephath.
Many other names and faces come readily to mind as I reflect on my young life in the Pillar of Fire – students from New York City who boarded at Zarephath or Bethany, including David (Mambo) Rivera, Randolfo (Monkey) Mendez, Vincent Dellorto (who briefly had something going with charming Doris Bartlett (and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why), Albert Hamm and James Edgar, both from somewhere in Pennsylvania. Also two dark eyed and dark haired pretty young ladies, Jean and Roberta Rukkila, from Trenton, New Jersey, as I recall. Jean later married my good friend Kenneth Cope, mentioned elsewhere in this article. Also I remember Robert Dougood, nicknamed by my father as “Benny”, had come to Zarephath to attend high school from the Pillar of Fire grade school in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Before I close this account of childhood memories of the Pillar of Fire, Zarephath, Belleview and related places, I should mention a couple of highlights – Camp Meeting and ice skating. Every August, the church would hold its “camp meeting” event at the world headquarters of the church right there in Zarephath. It was always an exciting time because people would come from all over the country and the world to participate in worship and in conferences and planning. Church services would be held daily at the Assembly Hall and conferences would be held among the royalty and nobility and representatives from far flung missionary homes to plan future strategy for the church. Meals would be served to the regulars and the visitors in the Main Building dining hall. Many of us younger students put in extra time helping in the kitchen or running dishes through the dishwasher. People whom you had not seen since last year or the year before were there to partake of meals or help in preparation or serving. It was at Camp Meeting time that I met and had fun with a few other church children my age, among them Bobby Bradford and Lowell Schissler.
On several occasions during Camp Meeting, the morning Sunday service congregation was treated to a performance by the “Kentucky Orchestra”. This was a loose configuration of a few talented Pillar of Fire members who played guitar and perhaps banjo and gave spirited renditions of several country gospel songs. The group’s vocals were anchored by the prominent superb baritone voice of Rae Sharpe, primarily a Belleview resident but a Camp Meeting visitor. Others participating were Zarephath’s Theodor Volz who played guitar quite well, and multi-talented Nathaniel Wilson. Some recordings of the Kentucky Orchestra were made available to church members. Participants varied I guess but Rae Sharpe was a necessary constant to the melodic, rhythmic and enthusiastic performances of this group, which incidentally got its name doubtlessly from the Kentucky roots of the church’s founder, Alma White.
One of the most exciting Camp Meeting occasions was when Reverend Wilbur Konkel and his wife came to Camp Meeting from England, bringing with them some lovely young women, who remained in the US and in the church, enchanting all they met with their charming British accents. I quickly became enamored of their adopted daughter, Pamela, exactly my age, who became a student in our schools. My dreams were shattered a few years later when she married Mr. Ronald Aldstadt, a longtime student and worker in the church. Later when they lived at the Pillar of Fire headquarters in Colorado, Ron sadly met with a sudden and violent death at the young age of 40. Many years after that incident, Pam married Red Crawford, who had long been alone after his wife Jenora’s passing. Red passed away in 2013. As far as I know Pam still lives at Belleview near to Ron’s and her son, Curtis.
The other two young ladies, the charming sisters Olive and Marjorie Kirkham, whom were perhaps wards of Reverend and Mrs. Konkel – I never knew the exact relationship or how they came to be with the Konkels – remained at Zarephath as well. Olive eventually married Reverend Robert Cruver and lived with him and their children for many years in our old church residence, Morningside. Marjorie married a great friend, Jack Vorhees, who had spent most of his life in the church and who was a special friend and mentor of myself and other young students, including my close friend, Joe Wenger. Jack sadly passed away in 1983 at the young age of 49. I believe that Marjorie still lives at Zarephath.
I should mention as well, another yearly event which was the highlight of our springtimes at Alma Preparatory School – May Day. It is ironic surely that our conservative church allowed this celebration on a day also celebrated as a rite of spring in old pagan religions in many European countries and by the International Communist Party to celebrate workers. But nevertheless this day of competitions, games, team sports and a special outdoor lunch was celebrated every May 1 at Zarephath, culminating in the annual high school vs. college baseball game.
A mere observer of the game for many years, I enjoyed watching the athletic prowess of many people whom I knew in other roles, and looked forward to the day when my own baseball skills developed sufficiently to allow me to be chosen to participate in this highlight May Day competition. This is the event that allowed me to enjoy watching the baseball prowess of afore-mentioned Luther Tomlin, who eventually played baseball professionally. The high school team was composed of the best players we could field each year, selected by one of our perennial athletes, Kenny Cope, who was a grade or two ahead of me in school. Kenny, at least at the time I could participate, took the responsibility of organizing the game and choosing someone to play each position. The position of pitcher was of course, all important. I can recall Dwight Bartlett’s pitching success during one such game, as well as that of Joe Wenger and of Kenny himself. Tom Hucker, a student of ours who later married Violet Horner and spent his life working for the church, had lost a leg below the knee as a teenager in an unfortunate accident but nevertheless performed admirably as one of the “college” pitchers. I remember a line drive bouncing off his wooden leg with a resounding thud. Even my father occasionally played on the college side and was evidently a fearsome hitter, with high school outfielders stationing themselves deeper in the outfield when he approached the plate. I do not, however remember Dad ever occupying defensive positions, which he doubtless must have, nor do I remember ever seeing him catch or throw, certainly not with me as a youngster as I perhaps noted in my article about him.
I do remember finally achieving my own dreams of playing in the renowned High School vs. College Mayday game. My bouncing a ball against the side of the Morningside house and catching the grounders that came back to me in my new JC Higgins mitt, until I got better and better eventually paid off since I was chosen by our head High School athlete, Kenny Cope, to play second base in the infield, a dream come true. I don’t remember any muffed ground balls or errant throws on that memorable day but I do remember getting on base and eventually scoring. I think I got to first on someone’s error, not a hit. I don’t recall whether I played in any other May Day games.
And also important was ice skating time every winter when first the pond by the Assembly Hall froze, followed by the Delaware and Raritan Canal and finally, and much less often, the Millstone River. When we students went ice skating, we broke somewhat free of the straitened social circumstances limiting interactions between the sexes, mainly because few to none of the old biddies or uptight old men who made sure we stayed sufficiently apart, were on the ice. We felt free to skate holding hands or with an arm around a girl we had our eyes on or show off our latest skating moves to a girl we wanted to impress. And if you were daring enough you might steal a quick kiss. And always whispered among us was which boy was lacing up which girl’s skates. I remember pangs of jealousy when afore mentioned long-time acquaintance and sometime heartthrob of mine, Lily Kate Hoagland, flirted with someone on the ice. Especially galling was the attention she paid to the previously mentioned David “Mambo” Rivera, a guy a several years ahead of us in high school.
All students from when I attended Pillar of Fire schools back in the 1950’s have fond memories of those times. During the very cold days and even colder nights that froze the ice, you were kept warm by your exertions. When the canal froze you could skate straight down it for several miles if you wished. You had to carry your blade protectors to walk around the bridges on the pavement and bank because the water was usually was not frozen under the bridges. However, the narrower canal limited the acrobatics that the much wider pond allowed. I can remember how thrilled I was to finally master what we called “cutting the bar”, more properly called the “crossover” I guess – while skating backwards, crossing one foot over the other to gain more and more speed – always better on the wider pond than the canal. I first learned to skate on an old pair of hockey skates which, because of the lack of an insole and a few protruding metal staples, made my feet bleed until padded by makeshift insoles made of corn flakes boxtops. The highlight of my teenage ice skating years was finally buying a brand new pair of Brooks figure skates, fabulous for learning different moves and reliable backward skating stops with the marvelous serrated toe of the blade. Also these skates had normal, well padded and reliable insoles.
The church at Zarephath held annual springtime and fall recreational events which involved most of the church families and many of its students, including the day or “outside” students. I can remember church outings at “Echo Lake” when I was a child, a large New Jersey county park close to the community of Mountainside, east on Route 22 from Plainfield. The highlight at this location was the availability of rental rowboats, on which Dad would take us. Apparently one time Dad either did not wish to indulge us children or, more likely didn’t have or didn’t wish to spend the money for a boat rental because there is a picture of us on the dock at Echo Lake in which neither myself nor sister Barbara look very happy. The others, Elaine and Robert, devoid of frowns, were perhaps too young to feel as deprived or as disgruntled as Barbara and I obviously did.
Other locations for church outings that I remember well were Johnson Park in Highland Park, New Jersey, across the Raritan River from Rutgers University and New Brunswick. At these occasions, the food preparation people would bring the ingredients for a pleasant picnic lunch featuring perhaps potato salad, baked beans, sandwiches and for dessert, Dixie cup ice creams, brought to the location still frozen in dry ice. I remember especially that the bottom of the Dixie cup container lids featured pictures of movie stars and how exciting it was to find out which star was featured on your lid and comparing to what other children found on theirs. It seems that a wrapped flat wooden spoon to employ eating the ice cream was also attached to the Dixie Cup container somehow, maybe to the bottom.
Another favorite location for these spring or fall affairs was Washington Crossing State Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Perhaps these were more school trips than family outings, since I remember them mainly as perhaps an older elementary school, junior high or high school student. They were truly exciting and memorable occasions. One reason they were exciting is that the boys traveled to the location in the open back of a large truck on which you could climb and cling to the side of the truck and feel the wind as the truck moved, a mode of transportation certainly not legal today. As I recall, the girls used to travel in a more dignified manner in one of our school buses. Again, there would be the delicious picnic lunch served on paper plates with disposable wooden spoons or forks.
The highlight of these trips was hiking through the woods up to the top of a big hill to find “Bowman’s Tower”. Apparently the hill was Bowmans Hill so the proper name was “Bowman’s Hill Tower”, but no matter, after climbing what seemed like a couple hundred concrete stairs to the top of this 125 foot stone structure, you emerged onto a concrete platform from which you could enjoy an expansive view of the area, including the winding Delaware River and a few of its bridges. Quite vivid in my memory is the frightening feeling of looking straight down from the parapet of this structure. Perhaps that’s when I developed my intense fear of heights which I still wrestle with today. Especially frightening in a vicarious way was watching Daniel Gross actually hoisting himself onto the parapet and actually walking around the viewing platform, horrifying other observers with fear that he would fall. I know that Daniel was trying to impress the girls there, especially my sister Barbara. Evidently he was successful because Daniel eventually became my brother-in-law. From googling a few photos of the tower, it’s still there and still looks the same now, 60-70 years later, except that the interior stairway is now enclosed and the parapet is topped by a steel grate to prevent ascension, both good safety measures.
This would be as good a place as any to describe social interaction between the sexes at Pillar of Fire Zarephath schools. It is important to remember that we did not have what would normally be considered to be opportunities for healthy contact. There were no dances, dancing was viewed as sinful, and certainly there was not anything which could be termed “dating”. When you were still too young to drive and did not have a car, you perhaps met a girl “over the dike”, in a nice trysting place behind some trees or bushes, to embrace and indulge in a few daring kisses or some even more daring touches. Or you arranged a lunchtime meeting in some vacant basement in some of the buildings. One of these favorite locations I and some old friends can recall is the basement of the Publishing Building, entered from a loading dock on the side of the building. Yes, there you waited for her to come or maybe she was already there waiting in the darkness for you. But you met, talked, embraced, maybe kissed if you were lucky, or maybe felt some forbidden area of the body if you were even luckier.
At the afore-mentioned school outings, especially remembered at Washington Crossing State Park, students might get away from the group to pair up, take a walk or hike together, or obtain a forbidden hug or a kiss when sufficiently distant from the main group. I was too young to remember any such activity at Echo Lake or Johnson Park, but I do remember many occasions at the Washington Crossing outings when student gossip buzzed with sightings of who was with whom, who was seen holding hands with whom or who was seen embracing and kissing with whom.
When older and armed with a drivers license and a car of your own or a borrowed family car, a young man could properly “date” a young Pillar of Fire lady: perhaps going out for a hamburger or going to the movies. But usually the car presented a more private and secure means for necking or something even more intimate while parked on one of the Zarephath area’s dirt back roads. These “dates” however, were not without risk. During a few of my years as a Zarephath teenager, a few of these memorable back road events were rudely interrupted and forever marred by our self proclaimed “law enforcement” officer, Mr. Ezra Hellyer, whose unnerving flashing lights and blinding flashlight would startle you back to reality. I really do think that Mr. Hellyer got some private satisfaction himself sneaking around late at night to interrupt these rare and wonderful events.
One other memory connected to relationships at Zarephath I should mention is “Central”. The church organization had a phone number that I will always remember – Eliot 6 – 0102, in today’s parlance, 356-0102, that connected to a switchboard, called “Central”, located in a room on the second floor of the “Main Building”. From this switchboard, the caller could request connection to “the Friedlys”, or other family name, or to the corresponding location, e.g. “Rosedale”, “the store”, “post office” or “garage”. And of course if trying to call a girl, the attempt could be thwarted by whomever was manning the switchboard. Or if fortune was smiling on you that day, the very girl you wanted to talk to was herself managing the switchboard. This system was of course open to all kinds of abuse. Calls could be interrupted or listened to, calls could be denied if the desired location was “busy”, and so on. But dealing with Central was a memorable experience.
Addendum: From my still unpublished article “Summer of 1999”
As noted in my article of the same name, part of that incredible “Summer of 1999” trip, I took wife Bobbie and son Conrad for a brief visit to the Rutgers University area in New Brunswick, New Jersey, changed so much from when I attended Rutgers but still there, its basics intact – the Raritan River, Johnson Park, Easton Avenue, College Avenue, Hamilton Street, Albany Street, Livingston Avenue and so on.
We then took some time for their first visit to Zarephath and my first in many decades. I couldn’t believe how much the whole area had changed – much was barely recognizable. However, we did get off of I-287 onto the old Canal Road and saw Lock Haven where we used to live when we first arrived from California in 1947. And there was the “bridge house” where the Nolke’s used to live, marking the location of the bridge over the Delaware and Raritan Canal into the little Zarephath community. We parked the car and began walking around and ran into, of all people, my brother in law, Barbara’s husband, Daniel Gross. I didn’t know that Daniel had returned to Zarephath but there he was, as talkative and as engaging as ever and quite eager to show us around. There were all the old familiar buildings, certainly in need of attention and repair. We visited the Publishing Building first and encountered another old friend and stalwart of the church, Mr. Mark Tomlin. And in the printing press room, there was Dad’s old barber chair, still there after all those years. I didn’t know if anyone was still using it, but there it was, so I took Conrad’s picture alongside it.
At Daniel’s suggestion we also visited Mrs. Weaver, the wonderful lady who used to take care of the Bethany house and the young boys who boarded there, now living in an apartment in what we used to know as the “Frame Building”. Very stooped with age now, she was nevertheless very happy to see me and to meet Bobbie and Conrad. We reminisced a bit about some of the boys she cared for, including my old teenage friend, Joe Wenger, whose memory for her was very positive. I think that Mrs. Weaver passed away the year after my visit, so I was very happy to have had the opportunity to visit with her.
After saying goodbye to Daniel, we toured a bit more of the Zarephath area, seeing our old home, Morningside and seeing the Millwood house where the Wilsons used to live and the apartment attached to the big garage near the house where the Crouchers had lived and where my sister Barbara occasionally babysat. After the Crouchers left this dwelling, it was occupied by the Marvin Sharpe family, with Rosalee Sharpe, the mother, being my brother Charlie’s wife Glenda’s oldest sister. We also visited the Assembly Hall, now in a bad state of repair and not presently used and made a quick trip to the church cemetery, where so many names familiar to me adorn the gravestones.
That late afternoon we visited also with old friend Kenny Cope and his wife Jean (Rukkila). There was obviously much to reminisce about with Kenny too, particularly playing baseball on the expansive mowed grass field that we knew so well. During our trip out to dinner with Ken and Jean, Ken told Conrad about a fabulous catch of a fly ball I had made running in full stride in left field with my back to home plate. I didn’t remember the catch but was happy to replant this memory in my brain to compliment my modest physical ability and coordination as a baseball player.
Addendum: Zarephath, Alma Preparatory School Reunion 2003
One of the biggest regrets in my life was not being able to attend a remarkable gathering of Pillar of Fire schools attendees, graduates, veterans or whatever you wish to call them, at Zarephath in August of 2003. I had accepted the position as Headmaster of Isikkent School in Izmir, Turkey, and had to report to my new job on August 1, the same day as the reunion. So this incredible opportunity to reconnect with so many people I had missed and wondered about for so many years, was lost. The founders and organizers of this event did a remarkable job of contacting hundreds of people, now living in many different locations across the US, who had attended school at Bound Brook, Zarephath or Belleview.
One of the founders of the event, Mary Ann Gross, wife of John Gross, did send me the loose leaf notebook containing reminiscences and updated personal information of many of those who were able to attend and it has been a pleasure to look through the book and remember so many of the people who had attended the reunion and who had contributed to the book.
Others with whom I am still in touch, like Joe Wenger, and who was able to attend have graciously shared much information with me about the many others attending. I regret so much not being able to shake hands and reminisce with old classmates like Malcolm Grout, who, as a “Bethany Boy” does appear in my photo above of Helen Wilson’s class at Bound Brook. Others, like Dickie and Ada Mae Kaesler from the old South Bound Brook Kaesler family were there, as were Dwight, Doris and Lorinda Bartlett, along with Lindy’s spouse, Buddy Skeie, from the Skeie family which I mentioned somewhere above as well. And my old brother in law, Daniel Gross, as well as his brothers Joseph and John (and David?) were in attendance. How I would have loved to see all these dear people and tour the old buildings and grounds that we once shared and knew so well.
Mr. Lynn Schissler, of the Schissler family, also apparently attended for, courtesy of Joe Wenger, who sent me a copy, I am in possession of a remarkable photo DVD that he put together featuring many pictures of students, teachers, missionaries and other notables from the old days at Zarephath, including the buildings, student groups, and even ice skating scenes. And he includes a section called “Creaks and Groans” featuring photos taken, apparently, at the 2003 reunion described above. It was initially difficult for me to identify many of the people, although eventually, many of the faces I once knew did emerge and become recognizable.
Addendum: October 2019 visit
I just concluded another, and perhaps my final, visit to Zarephath, this past fall, October 2019. And I found it, as the last, bittersweet – wonderful to see the old remnants of that childhood life so long ago but distressing to see how much everything had changed. Our old homes, Lock Haven and Morningside are still standing and look better than they did when the Friedly family occupied them. The Lock Haven barn is no longer there but in its place now stands an attractive house, presumably occupied by former Pillar of Fire workers. The “Morningside” house still stands all by itself among the farm fields of the Millstone River floodplain that my dad and Mr. Murphy used to till. And north of the house is still the same garage and next to it, believe it or not, was the chicken house I remember so well and wrote about in a recently published short story. Across the fields there was Millwood, where the Wilsons lived, still looking good and that garage and apartment across the drive from it, where the Crouchers and later the Sharpes used to live. We had driven to Millwood and then to Morningside on the old “back road”, past what may be the old “Frame Building” and the “Stewart House”, then over the dike and through the woods from Zarephath.
Zarephath itself looked alright – someone’s been keeping the grounds up but of course Liberty Hall is still boarded up and the Publishing building, totally repainted looks completely different. Something about a “Spanish Mission” was posted above the main door. But this former nerve center of the church, housing the entire publishing operation, the post office and the “store” was a shell of its former self. The ball field looked just like it used to, except the tennis courts and greenhouses beyond center and right field are no longer there. Red Crawford’s “garage” and gas pump are now missing, as are the twin tile block buildings, one of which housed Mr. Nolke’s “bakery”.
The “College Building” still stands majestically, greeting any visitors coming over the canal bridge, but reputedly having been severely inundated during the last Millstone River flooding, is no longer usable, as some broken and un-replaced windowpanes of the chapel indicate. The college library and classrooms, WAWZ recording studios are surely gone. It appears that some of the upper rooms that we knew as college dormitory rooms, may still be employed as dwellings for a few people but I could not tell.
Columbia Hall and the Main Building appeared to be still used for some purposes, but it was not clear for what. At least they were not boarded up. The “Wilson Gym” appeared to be unused as well but at least is, like the others, still standing. At my suggestion, Bobbie and I parked the car by the Main Building and strolled to the “Fountain”. Although much changed and apparently no longer functioning, it was not difficult to close my eyes and again see all of the familiar faces and forms lounging on the benches that used to be there and hear the conversation and laughter. There is another building now constructed adjacent to the Fountain that evidently serves a current purpose. That building, maybe a library, came after my time and perhaps is still usable, despite being subjected to the same disastrous flooding as all of the others.
The cemetery was as usual, very touching. Bobbie was patient with me recalling all the faces, voices and roles played by so many of the wonderful people interred there. That little tour consumed significant time. The Assembly Hall is still there but has some broken windows and appears to be full of stored junk. The pond where we used to ice skate still looks large and lovely.
I couldn’t believe the size of that new mega church that’s been built and I guess still carries a bit of the old P of F message to some quite large congregations. It and the grounds it occupies are quite impressive.
The Church Today
When growing up in the Pillar of Fire Church during the 1950’s and 60’s, it often seemed as though the church and its schools had become static and were not growing or thriving. I don’t have figures for school enrollment, church membership or service attendance over those years or the decades since, but I would certainly guess that the church had met its apex and had begun a downturn. There were many older people still manning the church and its activities but very few new young people to help out and no new energy or new ideas. Many of the children of church families, seeing no prospect for personal growth through recognition or utilization of their talents, left, creating a serious “brain drain” for the church. The only new members seemed to be a few random misfits and freeloaders. And there never seemed to be a long range plan or a vision for the future of the organization. Moreover, to my knowledge there was never an honest solicitation of opinion and ideas from the grassroots membership of the church. The family based management and leadership of the church was suffocating and stultifying and certainly not conducive to either change or growth.
The ruling family occasionally tried to inject energy and dynamism into the church organization, once by renaming it the Pillar of Fire “movement”, which did little more than inspire not a few derogatory comparisons with bodily functions. Obviously merely embellishing the name of this moribund organization was not enough to energize it. Personality cult at the top, a narrow, “one way” view of religion and lack of a financial structure to care for its workers and distribute resources fairly and equitably further retarded the development of the church.
The church always being run by the Whites or members of their extended family, was never conducive to growth and good health. New ideas were not welcomed, church service attendance shrank and school enrollment diminished. It ceased publishing its periodicals and books. The church began living off the proceeds of real estate sales and land leases, essentially cashing in its investments instead of accelerating its base of support or creating new sources of revenue.
And these investments had been considerable. At its apex the Pillar of Fire Church, in addition to the major properties at Zarephath, New Jersey and Westminster, Colorado, owned upwards of 50 substantial properties in major cities across the country, from Trenton, New Jersey to Detroit, Michigan, to Oakland, California. Most of these properties scattered across the country were described as “missionary homes” and were occupied by various families or individuals stationed there to “spread the gospel” and carry on the work of the church. But virtually all of these properties were sold off one by one, when no one could be found to staff them and the proceeds were required to sustain what remained of the church.
In addition the church had to deal with much of its history and background that violated precepts that most modern churches embraced – ecumenicalism, racial equality and economic justice. In its early days there was an unsavory association with the Ku Klux Klan which at that time, in the early 1920’s, was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. In fact the founder of the church had written several complimentary books about the Klan, illustrated by Branford Clark. So the church, to survive, had to reinvent itself, constrict its activities and divorce itself from much of its history.
Thus today the old Pillar of Fire organization is gone and now calls itself the “Pillar Ministries”. Upon googling this name and finding the new organization’s website, I was comforted to see some familiar names and faces among the board members. There was Joseph Gross of the old Gross family described above, still serving as president, having taken over from Robert Dallenbach in 2008. And there, of all people was my old flame, Pamela Crawford (nee Alstadt, Konkel), serving as secretary of the newly reconstituted organization. The White family and its progeny no longer control any aspect of the church, another necessary parting of the ways. I could find little about Pillar Ministry governance but hopefully the reconstituted church has embraced democratic management and has rejected any semblance of family rule. But interestingly, though renouncing much of its Pillar of Fire past, Pillar Ministries does note that its founding was in fact in 1901, the year Alma White founded the church, so the separation from its past is not quite complete. And apparently, the name “Aldstadt” has replaced that of the Whites in most of the decisions regarding the management and disposition of property and other church assets at the Belleview, Westminster, Colorado location causing a great deal of disillusionment among the few remaining church workers there.
“Pillar Ministries” presides over just a few of the former facilities, evidently an effort to shrink the church to a more manageable size and retain some of its more successful elements. It has retained its three radio stations – WAWZ FM in New Jersey, now renamed “Star 99.1”, WAKW FM in Cincinnati, Ohio, now called “STAR 93.3 and KPOF AM in Westminster, Colorado. All of these stations are quite successful, broadcasting a steady diet of typical Christian evangelical Protestant fare, not the Pillar of Fire church offerings typically provided during my childhood. However, the New Jersey station does evidently broadcast live services from Zarephath Christian Church.
Pillar Ministries has broken with its Pillar of Fire past also in its maintenance of schools. From the many schools maintained throughout its former holdings, there are now but two, both K-8 schools. One is located at the old Belleview location in Westminster, Colorado – Belleview Christian School, and one in its Pacifica, California location – Pacific Bay Christian School. All the schools mentioned so often earlier in this article – in Bound Brook and in Zarephath, simply are no more. The old church’s efforts at higher education – Alma While College and Zarephath Bible Seminary at Zarephath and Belleview College in Westminster, have been abandoned also. The new “Pillar College” in Newark, N. J. is not associated with Pillar Ministries, but does acknowledge its roots in the old Pillar of Fire Church and its Zarephath Bible Seminary located at Zarephath.
And where there were many Pillar of Fire church congregations throughout the country, there are now but five – the new Zarephath Christian Church, Invictus Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, Coastside Community Church in Pacifica, California, Highland Park Christian Church in Los Angeles, and Radiant Hill Church at the old Belleview, Westminster, Colorado location. So the church has reinvented itself, focusing on the three radio stations and the schools and churches mentioned above.
The history of the church seems to have been in three phases – first, the energy and growth momentum under dynamic founder Alma White which formed a nucleus of energetic and dedicated workers who built and manned churches, farms, schools and radio stations; second, stagnation, paralysis and constriction under Arthur White and various members of his family who led the church after he died; and, finally, renaming, restructuring, rejecting family control and maintaining and strengthening the few successful enterprises that remained. All of the superintendents who succeeded founder Bishop Alma White: her son Bishop Arthur K. White (from 1946 to 1981), his daughter, Arlene White Lawrence (1981-1984), Donald Justin Wolfram (1985-2000), Robert B. Dallenbach (2000-2008), presided over decline and disintegration of the church, without ever finding the means, formulating the vision and the plan and providing the leadership to turn it around again. The most recent superintendent, Joseph Gross (2008-present), at least has reformed and restructured what was left to give it the means necessary for future survival.
This paralysis and ennui that haunted the late church were certainly unfortunate. The Pillar of Fire church had a solid foundation – thousands of acres of land in New Jersey and Colorado, numerous other properties in cities across the country, three radio stations, numerous schools, campuses and buildings and hundreds of dedicated and energetic workers. Though perhaps even starting out ahead long ago in 1901, it was overtaken by and could not keep up with other evangelical organizations which quickly learned how to use television and the internet to their advantage. With progressive leadership and forward thinking the Pillar of Fire could have competed successfully, perhaps even exceeded the rapid growth of other evangelical organizations like those of Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and many others. This to me is the ultimate irony – the failure of the Pillar of Fire church during a boom of Christian evangelical growth and influence: Falwell’s Liberty University and Robertson’s Regent University thriving while Alma White College, Zarephath Bible Seminary and Belleview College slowly died.
I need to add some final thoughts about this article and its subject. Any reader can no doubt perceive a note of bitterness that flavors much of the narrative. Indeed, bitterness, envy, dissatisfaction, frustration, sadness, resignation and more, describe the church and its people, especially in its later years – those with which I was acquainted. And all because of one family ruling the enterprise. Dozens of ambitious young people left the church after realizing that their talents and energy would never be utilized adequately. Others who remained chafed under the ruling family, finally realizing that their personal ambitions would never be realized. Thus the church spawned a host of very emotionally stunted and incomplete people, whether they stayed or left. Many who joined the church young never felt that they could succeed on their own outside the church. One example was likely my father, who left home to join the church at age 14 and never knew any other kind of life.
And finally, I wonder how much anger, resentment, dysfunction, relationship and marital trauma was caused by the Pillar of Fire Church’s denial of the need for healthy relationships between the boys and girls in its charge. There was never an admission of the need for such relationships but instead much denial – total blindness to the needs of young people to learn how to relate to one another in a healthy and wholesome way. And of course, having declared so many aspects of normal living “sinful”, I wonder about how much guilt Pillar of Fire youngsters were induced to feel as they encountered these through their adolescence and young lives maturing both in and outside of the church.
Yet growing up in the Pillar of Fire was a rare and wonderful experience. How can I explain the continued influence in my life of a childhood there now at almost 80 years old. How can I explain the value of the precious shared experiences of students, so many named above, attending its schools or growing up in its families. All of us shared something unique and valuable – the warm embrace of the limited world and the closeted existence defined by the church and its people. Whoever walks through the Zarephath or Belleview cemeteries cannot but be deeply affected by the names and the recollected images and sounds they provoke. The joy at so many “veterans” of life in the Pillar of Fire meeting again and sharing those experiences at the Zarephath Reunion back in 2003 must have been something to behold and experience.
And who can explain why so many Pillar of Fire alumni have gravitated toward each other in relationships and marriage. Time and space do not allow me to list all the former Pillar of Fire members who have married others, even when forging lives and careers outside of the church and having social contacts with many other people. The reason has to simply be that those shared experiences have formed a unique and durable bond among all who spent their youth in the Pillar of Fire church, almost like a shared DNA. My parents, Ralph and Ida, met as high school students in the church and, sharing so many common experiences, married in the church. And although my parents spent their entire lives in the church, it was not easy. Dad struggled with money and security in the church yet never summoned sufficient courage to leave, while Mom suffered silently wishing often that she was not there and was free of the church and its stresses like her sister Alma and several of her brothers who, despite attending the church’s schools in Colorado as did my mother, chose to leave and forge a life in the real world.
Thus this massive, confused, detailed and I am sure occasionally redundant and sometimes contradictory collection of memories from my childhood draws to a close. It will engender little interest from those not acquainted with my family members or the church in which they grew up except as a curiosity. But I am hoping that reading it will be enjoyable and meaningful to any remaining potential readers who did work for the Pillar of Fire or attend its schools and church services.
I have compiled a list of additional resources about the church which may be of interest to the reader:
Zarephath Cemetery with all the memorable names along with photographs of headstones:
And the Belleview College Cemetery list of names and headstone photos:
Wikipedia and Britannica entries about Alma White:
Article about the periodic flooding at Zarephath and poignant photos of some of the buildings:
And a comment on the above article
Latest iteration of the Pillar of Fire Church:
And the Wikipedia entry about the church:
Local article about the church from 1977:
1907 NYTimes article about the church and its “jumpers”:
50th anniversary of plane crash that destroyed Brooklyn Pillar of Fire church.
And four pages of photos from a church publication circa 1960 provided by Jim Piersall. See anyone you recognize?