This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On Sep. 8, 1902, a Washington, D.C. magazine acquainted readers with an unusual group of recent arrivals, the Sanctified Sisters from Belton, Texas.
Martha McWhirter came to Texas with her husband George in 1855, eight years after their wedding in Tennessee. Following the Civil War, the couple settled in the Bell County community of Belton, where the missus gave birth to the last of 12 children.
The God-fearing newcomers established a nondenominational Sunday school, and Mrs. McWhirter organized a Bible study class for women only. In spite of her many time-consuming activities, the busy housewife grew increasingly dissatisfied with her faith and her life.
Martha attended an all-day revival in August 1866 seeking solace for the loss of a brother and two children. Walking home from the tent meeting as grief-stricken as ever, she though she heard someone say, “Ask yourself if this is not the devil’s work.”
While washing the breakfast dishes the next morning, Martha experienced a pentecostal baptism or “speaking in tongues” which convinced her the voice she had heard was none other than God’s. From that moment on, she believed in dreams and personal revelations as the source of spiritual guidance, a doctrine she called Sanctification.
Most of the women in Martha’s study group embraced her radical new outlook, and together they developed a common theology as well as a method for discussing their dreams. The main topic of conversation was, as always, the difficulties of the daily grind with dictatorial and often abusive husbands.
Their decision that a sanctified believer should not share a bed with an unsanctified sinner strained several marriages to the breaking point. Defending herself against the charge of home-wrecking, Martha stated, “I have always advised wives to live with their husbands when they could, but there is no sense in a woman obeying a drunken husband.”
Martha gave her own spouse credit for not bending his elbow or beating her but complained he was “fond of wasting time reading novels.” Then in 1877 she accused George of making eyes at a servant girl, an allegation which forever ruined their relationship. They lived in separate rooms under the same roof for the next eight years, until the children were grown and George at last moved out.
From a practical point of view, he probably needed the space since the McWhirter residence was full of Sanctified Sisters who had walked out on their husbands. In fact, Martha had built four new houses on lots George owned to accommodate the new converts.
During George’s lengthy and ultimately fatal illness, Martha obeyed the rule strictly forbidding visits to the unsanctified. He did not take the deathbed boycott personally and bequeathed the bulk of his sizable estate to his estranged wife.
Although the Sanctificationists did not go out of their way to recruit members of the opposite sex, their ranks were open to males. Two young men intent on joining made the long journey from Scotland in 1879 only to be beaten viciously by a mob of irate husbands. When the battered boys refused to leave Belton, the local judge shipped them off to the lunatic asylum in Austin.
A Sister, who would not accept a $2,000 insurance payment upon the passing of her husband, wound up in the same state institution after a brother convinced the court she was out of her mind. The unjustly incarcerated woman languished in the asylum until Martha McWhirter, motivated by a member’s dream, won her freedom with a written appeal to Gov. John Ireland.
The Sisters understood very early on that economic independence was the key to their collective survival. They started out small peddling dairy products and hand-woven rag carpets and selling their services as $1.25-a-day domestics. Every penny of profit went into a “common fund.”
In 1886 the group converted a member’s boarding house into a hotel, which soon became the talk of Central Texas with its clean rooms and delicious food. The Sisters ran the inn and a steam laundry at peak efficiency while working only 24 hours a week.
Nothing, of course, succeeds like success. Hostility gradually gave way to respect and acceptance in the late 1880’s as the Sanctified Sisters showed themselves to be crackerjack businesswomen.
Most folks around Belton were sorry to see them go at the turn of the century. Selling their considerable holdings, which included three farms, for a rumored quarter of a million dollars, the Sisters moved to the Washington, D.C., area and renamed themselves the Woman’s Commonwealth.
Before her death on their communal farm in 1904, Martha McWhirter explained why the group had remained exclusively female through the years. “Oh, yes, we have had men among us, but they never stay very long. You see, it is in the nature of men to want to be boss, and they find they can’t.”
Commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial with “Secession & Civil War” from the “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today at twith.com or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.Email | Print