How far back must journalists dig into the history of a given denomination or congregation, and how might a given founder, dead more than seven decades, be viewed in light of today's mores?
Do we really have to know everything about the earliest leaders of a denomination or movement? Just ask biographers of Martin Luther, the complicated ex-Catholic who sparked the Protestant Reformation but who also has been accused of virulent anti-Semitism.
Or how about Baptist or Presbyterian leaders in pre-Civil War America who supported, or tolerated, slavery? Shall we hold modern-day Lutherans, Baptists or Presbyterians responsible for the sins of their spiritual forefathers?
The New York Times raises the general issue in a rather lengthy profile of the Zarephath Christian Church in New Jersey's rural Somerset County.
We start out in conventional territory. This passage is long, but it's important to sense the tone of this piece right up front.
Hundreds of people each weekend drive up the hill to a newly built $12 million church surrounded by soccer fields in a New Jersey community named Zarephath. They worship by singing along with rock-ballad style prayer songs, following lyrics projected on three overhead screens. They sway and lift their arms high overhead, or say the words quietly with their eyes closed.
Drums, several guitars, keyboards and backup singers accompany the prayers. Spotlights shift from purple to blue to red as the mood builds.
“O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide,” about 300 congregants sang during a recent Sunday service, in a sanctuary that resembles a warehouse-style concert hall, save for two small crosses near the stage. “Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”
The worshipers at the central New Jersey church were of every description -- young, old, white, black, Asian, Hispanic. The friendly, name-tag-clad greeters at the entrance of the 70,000-square-foot space were there to help people find Bible study groups or inspirational cards in the gift shop.
In short, Zarephath Christian Church has become a dynamic evangelical congregation. It attracts newcomers via both a 50,000-watt contemporary Christian radio station -- Star 99.1 -- that can be heard from Pennsylvania to New York City, and a conservative, Jesus-focused message that encourages its 2,500 congregants to hew as closely as possible to the lifestyle of his disciples.
So far, so good. In fact, better than good, given the general tone the Times often takes -- especially in national coverage -- towards believers of an evangelical stripe, or those in whom their Roman Catholic "dogma lives loudly," to borrow a phrase.
But then we arrive at the heart of the story: Zarephath is an outgrowth of a Methodist-derived sect with an, ahem, interesting past:
The church in Zarephath is the flagship congregation of the Pillar of Fire, a Methodist offshoot founded in 1901 by a formidable female preacher, Alma Bridwell White, whose positive legacy of feminism was complicated in the 1920s by her ardent embrace of the Ku Klux Klan. Scholars believe that the Pillar of Fire was the only denomination in America to publicly endorse the Klan, even though individual ministers from other faiths were active in it.
The contradictions of the sect’s fiery founder create a kind of puzzle for the church’s modern leadership. Pillar of Fire long ago moved away from the hate of the Klan, and its leaders have issued statements denouncing and regretting the church’s historic involvement with it. In a sign of how different the modern church is, the local presiding elder of the denomination, Robert Saydee, is an African refugee.
Well, now. Some readers might question why it's important to bring Alma White's racism, given that White died in 1946.
By way of contrast, you rarely see the Times reporting on the allegedly racist and eugenicist views attributed to Margaret Sanger, the Planned Parenthood founder who died in 1966. (As the linked PolitiFact piece notes, supporters of Sanger dispute the claims.)
The journalism question here: Is rooting around Alma White's past relevant? I'd have to come down on the warts-and-all side of reporting in this case. I have no way of knowing what was in Alma White's heart or how her thinking may have changed from the 1920s to the late 1940s. But she was on record as having supported the Klan, and that's something readers should know about.
But here is the key: It is significant, too, that the Zarephath church of 2017 is an exemplar of racial and ethnic diversity in its present-day membership and leadership, and the Times does a good job of reporting this. Thus, there is the contrast with a KKK cloud in the past.
Sadly, the congregation is not immune to other problems that plague many modern groups. The Times account details the fall of senior pastor Rob Cruver, who grew up in the Zarephath fellowship:
In February, [Cruver] humbled himself before his burgeoning congregation, whose average weekend attendance is now around 1,400. In two Sunday services, he admitted he had been carrying on an adulterous affair and announced he was stepping down from church leadership to repair his family, church members said. (Mr. Cruver declined to comment for this article.)
Studying how other churches have weathered such scandals, Zarephath’s leaders said they decided to be as open as possible with their followers about it. The remaining pastors reminded the congregants that they are at church to follow God, not an individual. “And God is still here,” said the Rev. Al Shjarback, an assistant pastor.
It may be cynical to say about this Times piece, "Well, it could have been much worse." But in today's journalism milieu, the easy "hit piece" can guarantee tons of clicks without burdening readers to consider larger issues. This lengthy profile offers a nuanced, full portrait of the congregation. If I lived in the area, I'd perhaps be more inclined to visit the church than turned away.
No one can accuse The New York Times of issuing a puff piece about the Zarephath church, but it's not really a hit piece, either. For this and other small blessings, let us give thanks.
Icon image: Alma Bridwell White, founder of the Pillar of Fire movement and of what is now the Zarephath Christian Church in New Jersey, via Wikimedia Commons.