- Associated Press - Monday, April 17, 2017

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Standing on the steps of the Craighead County Courthouse, evangelist Joseph Jeffers ended a prayer asking God to strike Jonesboro’s mayor dead. Instead, there was a fistfight.

It was September 1931 and the Jonesboro church wars were just heating up. By the time it ended, the Army National Guard was called and a Jonesboro Baptist preacher was arrested on charges of murder.

This little-known aspect of Jonesboro’s history was the subject of a Thursday night presentation, “Holy War in the Delta: The Jonesboro Church Wars and American Fundamentalism in the Great Depression.”

“What is the significance of this story? I want to argue this is not just local eccentricity,” presenter Daniel Spillman, a history professor at Williams Baptist College, said. “I want to suggest this story connects to the larger pattern of the spread of fundamentalism in the American South in the 1920 and 1930s. Although this might be an extreme version, this kind of conflict existed all throughout communities in the American Southwest. This is not all that uncommon.”

Still, details of the Jonesboro church wars are not well known. For years, Lisa Ferrell of Jonesboro said she and her husband have been told it existed, which is why she attended the presentation for details.

Spillman’s research is an attempt to understand what happened and how it fit into the larger history of the American South and American religion. He said he respects the good people involved in this.

“I want to be sensitive to the fact that this is a story that has historical importance but still has some connections to today,” he said. “… I am not trying to denigrate anyone. I’m not trying to make anyone look bad.”

The Jonesboro Sun (https://bit.ly/2oanfZ3 ) reports that it began in 1930 when an extremely charismatic Jeffers was invited to speak at a revival hosted by the First Baptist Church. It was widely successful, but Spillman said he was not invited back to the 1931 revival because the church’s new pastor, Dow H. Heard, had heard of him and did not want him to speak.

Jeffers, irritated he was not invited, hosted his own revival in town where, on Aug. 31, he accused Heard, who was married, of having inappropriate relations with women. He also targeted city leaders.

It led to the church filing charges to remove 21 members who had been attending each night of Jeffers‘ revival using the argument they could not listen to Jeffers‘ accusations without being complicit.

A heated exchange between the 21 members and church leaders resulted in a fistfight Sept. 8, 1931, after a member made a comment to the pastor’s wife as he left the church auditorium.

“The fistfight spilled onto the street and the police were called. They arrested the three individuals involved in this fistfight,” Spillman said. “… Jeffers, who was conducting a revival at the time, heard about this, stopped the revival and marched the people in the revival tent - by various counts hundreds of people - to City Hall to demand the release of the Jeffers supporters, a doctor and his son.”

Jonesboro’s mayor and police chief refused. He said the crowd eventually dispersed, but it was a tense night as groups in support of both sides walked up and down the street.

Jeffers led a second group - which church leaders described in documents as a mob - the next morning to the courthouse steps where his request was denied once again. He was told to leave, but he instead began to pray.

“The mayor finally said, ‘OK, all right, that is enough. That is enough.’ Jeffers ended the prayer by essentially asking God to strike the mayor dead,” Spillman said. “A fistfight ensued in which some of Jeffers‘ supporters punched the mayor and punched the chief of police.”

The next day, Sept. 10, the mayor and police chief asked the state governor to declare martial law; the request was denied but he agreed to send the National Guard. Troops patrolled the street and the revival tent.

The church held hearings Sept. 30, 1931, for the 21 members on their status in the church, but the members refused to meet without their attorneys and stenographers present. They were expelled.

“It was incredibly, emotionally intense and dramatic,” Spillman said.

The expelled members became the founders of Jonesboro Baptist Church with Jeffers as its pastor.

In 1932, Jeffers left Jonesboro and selected Dale Crowley to replace him as pastor. Spillman said Crowley used the same tactics to grow membership, such as “uncovering the hell holes of Jonesboro.”

Crowley accused Heard of having an affair, which led to further tensions between the two churches. The two pastors would later run into other, begin a fistfight and get arrested.

Jeffers returned in June 1933, wanting to become pastor again. Crowley said no. It led to a split within Jonesboro Baptist that eventually led to both pastors leading simultaneous services within the church.

Each side began bringing loaded guns and knives to services, fistfights began and enough violence that Crowley’s side brought in a legal attorney and city officials. The mayor, who did not like Crowley or Jeffers because of their accusations about him, told them they needed to fight it out in court, Spillman said.

The courts ruled Oct. 9, 1933, that Crowley was pastor of Jonesboro Baptist. When he went to take possession of the church, Spillman said there was a shootout with a Jeffers‘ supporter who died.

Crowley faced murder charges, and there was even an assassination attempt at the local jail. He was moved. His trial was billed as the “trial of the century in Jonesboro.”

The three-day trial began Jan. 3, 1934. The jury took three minutes to decide it was self-defense. Crowley was acquitted. He smoothed over Jonesboro Baptist members and continued preaching.

“They continued to grow despite these challenges,” Spillman said. “I think it is important to note, there were good, well-meaning people - who generally wanted to act out their faith, live their faith and caught in the midst of some of these leadership struggles - who continued to be the backbone of this church, allowed it to continue to exist and to grow.

“It changed its name several times, changing eventually to Central Baptist in the late ‘30s,” Spillman said. “It is remarkable to look at its history because in the ‘40s, ‘50s and all the way to today, that church as well as First Baptist has done tremendous good in the community.”


Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com

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