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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Highways and Hedges Part 6 - The Fundamental and Free Holiness Movements


I was actually not planning on doing a sixth article in the series, but so much information necessitated its creation.  The groups in this article - with the exception of the first - are all interrelated; they all have fellowship with each other, have similar histories and convictions, and the one thing that really binds most of them together is an Oklahoma-based periodical that is published bi-monthly entitled The Holiness Messenger.  First, I want to give some introductory material, and then I want to get into these groups themselves.

As the 1970's dawned, many of the larger Pentecostal denominations began to strive for more respectability in the wider Christian spectrum, and when churches start to do that it usually means a shedding and eschewal of many aspects of their early heritage.  Therefore, many people who were members of congregations affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland) and other such groups began to take on the more worldly trappings of society around them, and in doing so they sought to be indistinguishable from the wider world by supposedly "becoming those to whom they minister."  Not only Pentecostals, but many groups considered as historically conservative Evangelical had similar transformations.   This naturally led to concerns among many more conservative members of these churches, concerns that grew to such a magnitude that in time many congregations of more conservative Pentecostals began withdrawing from fellowship with the large denominations.  Such things as the growing popularity of "Contemporary Christian" music, worldly dress, and even the acceptance of social drinking and the use of tobacco products were incomprehensible to many old-time Pentecostal folks, and it was often seen by them in an eschatological context as a "falling away" or a "deception of the elect."   Seeking to preserve what they believed were their core convictions as Spirit-filled Pentecostal Christians, the dissenting churches began to fellowship with one another, and a number of small new groups emerged that embodied old-time Pentecostalism as it once was.  Many of these groups were informal fellowships, but some in time did develop structural mechanisms for ordaining clergy, promoting missions, and also Bible schools came into existence.  With this new developing of a conservative Pentecostal/Holiness identity naturally gelling into a movement, it is estimated that close to 20% of all Assemblies of God, Church of God, and other larger Pentecostal denominations experienced an exodus of membership to these new fellowships.

I write much of this material because I in many ways sympathize with people who are part of these fellowships because in many ways I share their convictions, although not with 100% agreement necessarily.  Oftentimes, you have to wade through some legalism, anti-Catholicism, and other things to see the real assets of such fellowships, but they are there.  I have, for instance, been subscribed to The Holiness Messenger since sometime around 2003.  And, I am also interested in seeing much of the Pentecostalism I knew in my childhood preserved at its best, and these groups are doing that in an exemplary way. 

I am going to focus on first a group out of Palatka, FL, called the Pentecostal Revival Center Association, and then I will devote much more space to those groups and fellowships which in some way are associated with The Holiness Messenger, as there are many of them. 

The Pentecostal Revival Center Association

A Christmas tree vision birthed a church in early 1966.  A lady minister by the name of Dolly Harrell had a vision in the early 1960's of a large cedar tree that she really took to heart, and from the vision a church emerged in Palatka, FL, called the Pentecostal Revival Center.  First, I want to tell a little of Dolly's story, and then we will discuss the PRCA.

Dolly Baer was born in 1920 in Charlotte, NC, and at an early age her folks moved the family to the town of Branford, FL, where young Dolly grew up.  She married her husband of 54 years, James Harrell, at the age of 14 and the young couple moved to Palatka where James worked in a paper mill.  After their move, Dolly worked as a Sunday School teacher in a local Methodist church until 1958, when she became involved with a local Assembly of God doing evangelistic work.  In time, she would be educated at Southeastern College (the same school I got my degree from) and she held credentials with the Assemblies of God beginning in the mid-1950's.  In December 1965, she established the Pentecostal Revival Center, later moving it to its present location in 1976 after confirmation of the tree vision she had.  At close to the same time, she began a radio ministry which later culminated into a TV ministry in the early 1980's, known today as GospelVision TV.  She continued in active ministry until her passing on April 13, 2009.

Pastor Dolly Harrell (1920-2009) - founder of the Pentecostal Revival Center
 The official establishment of the Pentecostal Revival Center Association dates back to 1978, when it was formally incorporated with the State of Florida.  The church operates the TV station, a school, and other enterprises, as well as credentialing ministers.  I am not sure where other congregations of this fellowship exist, although there seems to be alluding of the fact that at least a couple of daughter churches exist in northeast Florida.  The original church in Palatka now has about a couple of hundred members, and hosts numerous revivals, concerts, and other events which are aired over its TV station.  

The present Pentecostal Revival Center in Palatka, FL.
Fundamental Holiness/Pentecostal Fellowships Associated With The Holiness Messenger
The origins of many of these groups go back to 1953, when a group of conservative Holiness/Pentecostal pastors came to a consensus that the printed page would be a greater vehicle for fellowship among them.  Many of this group of ministers, coming primarily from Oklahoma, used the terms "Free Holiness," "Free Pentecostal Holiness," and similar terms to describe themselves, and many of them were originally affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Church of God.  With one of their own, Rev. Ira Roberts, chosen to edit the new periodical, the Holiness Messenger was launched on June 16, 1953.  70 years later, it is still published.
The flagship issue masthead
Rev. Ira Roberts
Rev. Roberts unfortunately passed on in 1950, and Rev. Ralph Cox succeeded him and as far as I can ascertain he still edits the paper today.  From that small group of ministers, The Holiness Messenger today has a circulation in the thousands, and on its website (, where much of the historical information was obtained) a Church Directory lists over 428 congregations which associate with the periodical.  Many of these congregations are either independent Pentecostal churches, or they are organized into at least 15 small fellowships, some of which we will be discussing momentarily.  Also included in the list are a number of conservative congregations who are affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland) and other denominations.  As mentioned, I have been receiving The Holiness Messenger myself for several years, and although informative, it has also piqued my interest regarding the roots of many of the churches that subscribe to it.  The paper itself is still published out of Sapulpa, OK, and Ralph Cox, although advanced in age, still edits and oversees its operation.  
Rev. Ralph Cox, current editor of The Holiness Messenger, and his wife Doreen.
The Messenger has also proven to be a valuable resource of various services - missionary agencies, evangelistic ministries, Bible schools, camps, music artists, and other such - and also publishes in each issue a listing of upcoming revivals, campmeetings, and crusades conducted by its subscribing churches and fellowships.  Occasionally, it also includes reviews and contact information for books, CD's and other material its subscribers produce.  

As mentioned, there are 428 churches listed that have some association with this paper, and many of them are loosely organized into fellowships.  Some fellowships - such as the Wesleyan Pentecostals, Holiness Baptists, and Calvary Holiness Association - we have already discussed in detail in other segments.  Others are congregations, as mentioned, which are part of the Assemblies or Church of God.  Still others are independent congregations.  However, from what I could gather from research, there are about 11 other groups outside the listed ones above represented in the readership, and I want to deal specifically with some of those in the next section.

The Fellowships
1. Free Pentecostal Church of God Fellowship - This particular fellowship is based out of Cincinatti, OH, and has a number of affiliated churches in Ohio, Kentucky, and other surrounding states.  They have a website ( as well as a vibrant youth organization, the Free Pentecostal Holiness Youth.  They also have a spring campmeeting and credential ministers.  

The mother church of this fellowship, the Pentecostal Holiness Tabernacle in Cincinatti, was founded in 1922 in the downtown area, but erected its current church building in the 1970's.   At present, according to the Free Pentecostal Holiness Youth website ( there are
  9 affiliated churches, with the majority being in southwestern Ohio.  
The Pentecostal Holiness Tabernacle in Cincinnati,HQ church of the Free Pentecostal Church of God Fellowship
2.  Free Holiness Churches - Richard Crayne, pastor of the Pentecostal Assembly in Morristown, TN, noted in his book Pentecostal Handbook (Morristown, TN: self-published, 1989) that there are six groups bearing the name "Free Holiness," and they vary according to faith and practice - four of them are conservative Holiness-Pentecostal, one embraces Oneness teachings, and one is not quite as strict on Holiness standards as the others.  Crayne also notes that some do practice serpent-handling, although this isn't a widespread thing among any of these groups.   A couple of the groups have a large concentration of members in the Midwest and Middle South regions (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, etc.) and played an instrumental role in the creation of The Holiness Messenger.  One group is well-established in southern Appalachia - centered in the Sand Mountain, AL, area - and also has a web presence at   Crayne counts this latter group as having about 40 churches, but their website documents 69 congregations ranging from Kentucky to Lake Wales, FL, although the majority are concentrated in Alabama and Tennessee.  This group is of interest due to extensive documentation, and they predate the arrival of Pentecostalism in the mountains by several years, as many of their churches were already established by 1908.  This fellowship was largely the work of two early evangelists from those days, Sam Bates and Tom Perry, the latter who according to Crayne had heard the Holiness message from a Tom Austin in Chattanooga (Crayne, p. 650).  Of the other Free Holiness groups, one can be traced back to the ministry of a Ruben Wayne Dillard (1890-1989) in Arkansas who came from a Freewill Baptist background but embraced the Holiness message in 1913 (Crayne, p. 68).  A second group claims the founder of The Holiness Messenger, Rev. Ira Roberts, among its membership.  A third group, Crayne documents, owes its origins to an "Uncle Mack" O'Neal (1850-1952) from North Carolina. 

Statistics are not available as to membership records of these various groups, but sufficive to say there may be a combined total of 3000 or more members in all of them, just by my estimate.  Richard Crayne's research on this has proven invaluable for finding out as much as I have, honestly!

Free Holiness Church, Higdon, AL
3. The Holy Church of God - The origins of this particular fellowship go back to the 1950's in Savannah, GA, when it was established by some dissident members of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).  The mother church of the movement - also the largest with a 700-seat sanctuary - is still located in Savannah, although they do have congregations in the Deep South in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.  
Having a very loose fellowship, each congregation has almost total autonomy.  Like many of the other groups discussed, the Holy Church of God is very conservative in doctrine, following a strict Holiness code.  Crayne notes however that the Savannah church tends to be more strict than the Alabama churches though (p. 130).   Their website is at
The Holy Church of God, Savannah, GA.

4.  The Bible Holiness Ministerial Fellowship - Recently, I obtained some good DVD teachings by a Pentecostal pastor in North Carolina by the name of Joseph Chambers (born 1936), and come to find out he is the overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship, which he organized in 1998 after withdrawing from the Church of God over modernism which he saw as a threat.  Several congregations of this fellowship - in particular in Elkton, VA - have a good relationship with The Holiness Messenger.  Pastor Chambers is the founder and overseer of this fellowship, and he also pastors Paw Creek Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as having an active parachurch ministry of his own in which he addresses things such as false revivalism, rock music, etc.  

Rev. Joseph Chambers, overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship and pastor of Paw Creek Ministries in Charlotte, NC.
This group is not to be confused with the non-Pentecostal Wesleyan Bible Holiness Church, which is headquartered in the Midwest, as the Chambers group is very much Pentecostal!  Rev. Chambers' website is at, and the Bible Holiness Fellowship's page can be found at  A second group with a similar name and emphasis is also found in Arkansas, and can be accessed at   Dr. Chambers also has several books and messages available.  The Elkton church, which pre-dates the Paw Creek one by several years, is listed by Crayne as a "Free Pentecostal Church."

5. Free Gospel Church - This is a group I have some familiarity with, due to their well-known Bible Institute located at their fellowship headquarters in Export, PA.  Their history goes back to 1916, when brothers Frank and William Casley left the Christian and Missionary Alliance after receiving the Pentecostal experience in 1907.  According to 1988 statistics in The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) the Free Gospel Church consisted of about a dozen American churches and around one thousand members (p. 315).  Much of this fellowship is centered around the Free Gospel Bible Institute, which has an influence that goes far beyond its membership - many Assemblies of God ministers back in West Virginia where I grew up graduated from there actually, which also led to many of them in the Potomac District of the Assemblies being somewhat more conservative than the rest of the denomination.  Although at one time the Free Gospel Church engaged in extensive fellowship with the wider Pentecostal community (it was a member of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America up until it was reorganized as the Pentecostal Charismatic Churches of North America in 1994, which the Free Gospel Church declined to join), in recent years it has engaged in fellowship with more conservative Holiness/Pentecostal groups like those represented by the Messenger.  As a body, the Free Gospel Church is fairly conservative, strictly Holiness and fundamental, and it hearkens back to an earlier era of the Assemblies of God interestingly enough, as it is much what the Assemblies used to be.  The Bible Institute still has a vibrant presence, although in recent years class size has decreased, but many ministers in these more conservative fellowships count FGBI as their alma mater.

Free Gospel Bible Institute, Export, PA
6. South Florida Holiness Fellowship -  This particular group sparked my interest as one of their congregations, God's Miracle Center, is located in nearby Plant City, FL.  The genesis of this group goes back to a group of Holiness Methodists who formed it in 1855, although it didn't become Pentecostal until the early 20th century (see for more on that).  Many of its current churches though were of more recent origin - God's Miracle Center, for instance, was founded in 1963.   The overseer of the six churches that are currently part of this fellowship is Rev. Rufus Caraway, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Arcadia, FL.  

God's Miracle Center, Dover, FL (established 1963), a congregation of the South Florida Holiness Fellowship
7. Pentecostal Christian Assemblies -  This little fellowship was organized in 1983 by Rev. Marvin R. Howell (1931-2008) a former Church of God minister in Goldsboro, NC.  Howell remained the superintendent of the Assemblies until his passing in 2009.  The stats of this group are not known, although they do have several congregations it appears in the Carolinas. (referenced from

Marvin Howell (1931-2008), founder and General Overseer of the Pentecostal Christian Assemblies
Pentecostal Christian Assemblies headquarters, Goldsboro, NC.
8. North Georgia Holiness Fellowship - The North Georgia Fellowship is headquartered in Nicholson, GA, where it also holds its youth camps, and consists of six churches.  They have a website at that gives more information about them, although little of their history is mentioned.

9.  Calvary Evangelistic Center Fellowship - This Independence, IA, based fellowship has its roots in the ministry of Rev. William F. Hill, who began evangelistic work in the area in 1965.  The Fellowship was incorporated in 1971, and now has an extensive missionary enterprise as well as a Christian school established in 1975.  More about them is available at their website -  

10. Shady Springs Holiness Fellowship - This southern Indiana-based Pentecostal/Holiness fellowship has its roots in a series of campmeetings that go back to 1958, initiated by evangelistic work of Rev. James Ray.  Today it encompasses a fellowship of 16 churches, primarily in Indiana but also in Kentucky as well.  Their website is  

11. Sunset Hill Campmeeting Fellowship - This Illinois-based fellowship originates back to 1915, when a local Pentecostal evangelist by the name of Ralph Cook (born 1888) first received the Pentecostal baptism and began a preaching ministry in 1917.  Bethel Chapel was later established in 1924, and became the "mother church" for the fellowship.

Rev. Ralph Cook, his wife Lena, and daughter Eula in 1919.
A campground is maintained near Bethel Church in Granite City, IL.  Although it is hard to determine how many churches are part of this fellowship, as no statistics are available, it seems to be fairly localized to Illinois and adjacent areas in Kentucky.  More about this group is available at their website,  

Concluding Observations
Documenting these small fellowships is a bit of a chore, but it is fun work as well.  You learn much, but it can also be frustrating as some stats are not readily available.  Among some other churches that could have been mentioned here but were not due to the fact many are single congregations are the Martinsville Church of Truth in Martinsville, VA, pastored by Rev. Bill Preskitt.  This congregation dates back many years, and is in regular fellowship with other local conservative Pentecostal/Holiness groups in the vicinity.  For many years, they also made their services available on CD, although I am not sure if they still do so or not.  There are many such independent churches like this that merit a separate study of their own.
Again, many of these fellowships resulted from a split within larger Pentecostal denominations when the latter sought to modernize themselves more, although several also predate the larger groups by years.  The purpose of the Highways and Hedges project is to attempt to document as accurately and thoroughly as possible the legacy of these fascinating groups, for in many of them one can find a living portrait of what early Pentecostals used to be like.  It is only too unfortunate that many scholars of the larger Pentecostal movements cannot appreciate them - perhaps it is because they present an atavistic image of Pentecostalism that maybe some scholars want to divorce themselves from.  

At any rate, if any errors in information are documented, please forgive those, as this whole project is still a work in progress and will be subject to revision as new information becomes available.  Due to scanty history records of some fellowships - some of them believe sincerely that their primary duty is the Lord's work, and therefore they have an eschatological drive that dictates historical documentation take a backseat to evangelism.  They may have a point, but on the other hand they may deprive themselves of their greatest witness - a historical record of their testimony - by ignoring and refusing to write things down and keep records.  Therefore, it is up to those like me who can see the significance of their movements to preserve them.

Thanks again for reading, and continue to check in for new insights.