Alice Belle Garrigus and the Bethesda Pentecostal Mission in St. John's

Alice Belle Garrigus (1858-1949), a native of New England and school teacher by profession, was born into an Episcopalian family.

Of her childhood years she remembers only the traumatic death of her mother. Professionally and religiously, she drifted from one place to another in response to invitations, without settling comfortably in any. She was brought into the orbit of holiness religion through a female companion and experienced a conversion, after which she joined the Congregational Church and assisted her friend in a mission for destitute children. With the departure of this friend for Africa, where she died a missionary martyr death, the lonely Garrigus, became from 1897-1903 an itinerant preacher with Joel Adam Wright's First Fruit Harvesters Association in Rumney, New Hampshire. In 1907 she met at a Christian Missionary Alliance camp meeting in Old Orchard, Maine, Frank Bartleman, the Pentecostal pioneer and chronicler of early Pentecostalism, who had been at Azuza Street, when American Pentecostalism was born. In the aftermath of the Bartleman preaching, she "met God graciously" in a barn, where Bartleman's followers assembled. A brief description of the religious intensity of the communal experience by ABG is less restrained than the account of her own spirit baptism. She writes:

Garrigus returned to preaching in New Hampshire but later joined a holiness mission in Bridgeport Connecticut. As she remembered later, while with missionary friends at Rumney, she received in October of 1908 through a mysterious stranger the message that she was to go to Newfoundland. But nearly two years passed before she complied with the Divine dictum. A further message in August of 1910, also in Rumney by another mystery lady, originally from St. John's, Newfoundland, established concrete connections. Upon meeting the Newfoundlander "the Spirit fell on us both and we staggered around the field, filled with the new wine, and praising God --literally drunk in the Spirit." A further divine call, this time directly to ABG, rendered more precise the location. God: "I want a Mission in St. John's." When a retired missionary couple received an equally unambiguous message "`I want you and your wife to go to Newfoundland with Sr. Garrigus,'" nothing could stop the trio, who arrived in St. John's on 1 December 1910.

Miss Garrigus and the Fowlers rented a downtown St. John's building, which as "Bethesda Mission" became the centre for the Pentecostal outreach. The growth of the congregation was rather humble, despite an early renovation to accommodate more people. The second Superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies in Newfoundland, Rev. Eugene Vaters, speaks cautiously about a "gradual but deepening influence in St. John's," but until the recruitment of an active native leadership drawn from the Methodist holiness fringes, the mission had few converts and remained strictly confined to St. John's. This had personal and social reasons.

Miss Garrigus arrived as a 52-year-old itinerant with limited leadership experience in the U.S. In the absence of any autobiographical account by the Fowlers, it is difficult to establish a hierarchy of charismatic authority in St. John's. Rev. Fowler is advertised in the local papers as the preacher of the Pentecostal mission, and in light of ABG's previously limited and later subservient and at the most conjoint missionary activity, one could well conjecture, that the leadership responsibilities for the new mission rested not with the now mythical "foundress" but with the retired missionary accompanying her. However, when the Fowlers left St. John's for health reasons after a stay of only one year, Miss Garrigus was the sole leader of her humble flock.

Garrigus' religious message was largely a "foursquare" christocentric faith in "Jesus as Saviour, Baptizer, Healer, and Coming King." It was bounded by four cardinal doctrines: religious conversion; adult baptism by immersion; spirit baptism with the demonstrative gift of tongue speaking; and a belief in an imminent eschatology. If one were to determine the two foci of recurrent theological interest in Miss Garrigus' writings and preaching, it would be a soteriologically oriented Christology and an apocalyptic eschatology with elaborate illustrations drawn from daily life in a wicked and decadent age. Even the endowment of the Spirit is merely instrumental to endure the eschatological present. This apocalyptic eschatology did not provide any significant impetus for a Newfoundland-wide mission. Rather, it resulted in a restrained and historicized vision of the near future, the religious energies of which were directed to the maintenance of the converted or those who came within the orbit of Bethesda mission in St. John's.

If we use the categories for sectarian religious organizations suggested by Bryan Wilson, we can speak of Miss Garrigus' mission as a hybrid type between the conversionist and introversionist sect. In fact, the institutional role conflict between the first type, which is intent on evangelizing, and the second one, which directs "the attention of its followers away from the world and to ... the members' possession of the Spirit ...," might be partially responsible for a lack of outreach and growth. It seems Miss Garrigus prepared her little flock morally and spiritually for the imminent return of Christ but did not initiate any decisive missionary activity beyond a well-defined urban radius. The group maintained itself financially with support from the U.S., and any evangelistic and pastoral endeavours beyond the regular congregational church life were carried out by evangelists and kindred missionary spirits visiting St. John's from the U.S. and Canada -- albeit without any lasting effect.

Further, the mission of Miss Garrigus responded to no demonstrated religious need that could not have been met locally. The rapid spread of the Pentecostal movement in American cities presupposed socially a thorough-going industrialization and rapid social change. The urban beneficiaries of the Pentecostal message were the powerless immigrants, whose high hopes had been shattered in the daily struggle for mere survival and whose striving for the good life had resulted in great losses: personal intimacy, community and traditional values. Pentecostalism, in the words of Bryan Wilson,

None of this applied unqualifiedly to Newfoundland. Industrialization with its rapid social change was minimal, massive immigration had stopped in the mid-nineteenth century, and the former immigrants lived stable lives in ethnically homogeneous or regulated communities, of which the largest, St. John's, was a small city compared with the urban centres of the American east. Only the migration of people form the outports and a certain measure of labour conflict caused minor ripples in this sea of stability. There was also a greater degree of social control in the city than in comparable North American urban centres.

In addition, the religious needs of the population could be adequately met. The Roman Catholics, recipients of civil rights and benefits, brought about by the clerically-dominated Liberal party and the episcopal leadership, remained largely unaffected by evangelical missionary efforts. The minority Protestants in St. John's were served by four Anglican and four Methodist churches as well as one Congregational, Presbyterian, and Adventist church for each denomination. Those fervent in seeking holiness or experiential religion could be accommodated in the revivalistic George Street Methodist Church or in one of the Salvation Army corps. These were explicitly revivalist in nature. An eventual Bethesda convert, who had grown up in Methodist St. John's, reminisces:

The Salvation Army provided a similar direct emotional relief and had appealed for this reason to Methodists across the island, who suffered under ecclesiastical formalism and a religious community increasingly devoid of experiential religion, personal intimacy and group support. The Salvation Army provided both, experience and fellowship, as the following account from Bay Roberts demonstrates:

Amidst such emotional need satisfaction, ABG's doctrinal heterodoxy and apocalyptic message represented no attractive religious alternative. Thus the combined force of a deficient leadership, an eschatologically-oriented introversionist religion without aggressive missionary impulse, the absence of rapid social change and alienated masses suffering from an industrial and urban trauma as well as adequate religious services catering to the religious needs of the population of St. John's -- all of this contributed to the lack of growth of the Pentecostal movement in the first 10 years of its stay in Newfoundland.

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