A Look at Texas' History

 

 

The Sanctified Sisters,
An Early Socialistic and Communistic
Society in Central Texas

 

by: Bobby McDonald

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories that will periodically run about the history of the Lone Star State and will be preserved in the "Texas Our Texas" section, highlighting the formation of the state, with events, people, and places.

 

Most of us want to think that our history has always been a "democratic" society, based on the priciples of capitalism, that this nation was founded upon. But, are you aware of a successful socialistic-communistic society that flourished "deep in the heart of Texas" in Belton, during the 19th and 20th Century? Well, it was known as "The Sanctified Sisters," "Belton Woman's Commonwealth," and the "True Church Colony."

Group founder was Mrs. George (Martha) White McWhirter, the wife of George M. McWhiter, and the couple met and married in Tennessee, and moved to Bell County, in 1855, in what is now known as the Armstrong Community.  They settled in Belton, in about 1866, about the time that George returned from his Civil War service, and opened a flour mill and mercantile store. Major McWhirter had fought gallantly in the Civil War, but while he was gone, two of their children and Martha's brother had died. Martha underwent a "spiritual crisis," and interpreted the crisis as a "punishment from God."

Being a devout Methodist, Martha decided her faith was lacking and prayed fervently for a vision of what she was suppose to do with her life. Well, in her mental state, she declared that she had received that vision, and she had been "sanctified'" by the Holy Spirit, one morning as she washed dishes at the dishpan, following the attendance of a revival. And, quickly other members of her prayer group came to her with similar "visions" that they too had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Martha broke away from the Methodist Church in 1870, and she and her followers completely cut themselves off from all other organized religion, and became a separate religious group.

One of the founding principles, and completely against the mores of society at that time, was that the woman was "equal" to man. Martha McWhirter also revealed that in her vision, she had been instructed that she was no longer to be "subject" to her husband, and was not under his control. She "preached" that women were equal to men and being sanctified were asked to "lose their husbands and flourish as individuals."

The group began making plans to join and band together for the good of all members, creating an early Utopian Society, right there in the "heart of Texas, Bell County." The group organized into a commune and was considered an early "battered women's center," for women who were "abused" by their husbands. Of course, much of the "abuse" hinged on some of the women's newfound sanctity that came from the violent reaction by their husbands, when they proclaimed to be "set apart" from their duties as wives.

The Sanctified Sisters of Belton began their commune and subsisted mainly on selling fruits and vegetables, chickens, butter, and eggs to make a living for the sisters, who lived together. However, they quickly opened a laundry, a bakery, and a boarding house, to pay for the daily sustenance of the group. Then, they branched out" and opened hostelries in both Belton and Waco, to add to their income. The group gained respect in the business communities, as frugal business women, and prospered to the point that they had accumulated a large sum of money. Mrs. Martha McWhirter, because of the success of the colony, was afforded a position on the Belton Board of Trade.

 

 

Women of the society were termed "home wreckers" by some, because they believed that no sanctified woman could be married to a non-sanctified man. Most of the women had left their husbands to join the society. However, two men asked to join the society, as they were from Scotland, where they had been members of the Sanctification Church, in their native homeland. The men of Belton saw this as a certain affront, and took the men into the nearby woods, stripped them, and flogged them with whips. The two men were brought to court in Waco, but won their case, and then prudently decided not to return to the Sanctified Sisters commune.

Another noteable court case involved the divorce petition of B.W. Haymond, against his wife, Ada, who was the daughter of Martha McWhirter. Haymond accused his wife and mother-in-law of exposing the couples three children to "public prositutes that dwell, board, and appear as guests in the local hotel, that was operated by the Sancified Sisters." Haymond was seeking custody of the three children in the divorce suit. He further called "the Sisters," "....a band of religious fanatics...who blindly follow their business and domestic relations!"

In a hearing in Bell County, that ended on December 31, 1887, the district court granted Haymond a divorce from his wife, Ada, and custody of the three children, ages 14, 12, and 9. But, four years later, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the order and sought a retrial of the proceedings, as it upheld the fact that Mrs. Haymond had "maintained and protected the children for six years, while her husband lived in British Honduras." The Supreme Court decision in the "Haymond vs Haymond" case has been used numerous times, thereafter, as a precedent in arguing other cases, in courts, regarding choice of domicile and a husbands dissent from the religion of his wife.

One historian reported that in the years 1893, the Sanctified Sisters had commune treasury of approximately $50,000.00 and thirty-two members. In June of 1890, a corporation had been formed in the name of "The Central Hotel Company," that held the assets of the commune. The group owned houses, lots, business houses, and farms. Among the members were, two married men, whose faith had cut them off from their families, two unmarried young men, three boys, nine widows, and other unmarried women, as well as 23 young girls entrusted to the sisterhood for educational purposes.

In a summation of the group, the people of Belton described the sect as follows: "...Mrs. Martha McWhirter is the center and soul of the organization and its prolonged existence and success are due to her really extraordinary powers, and to her strange influence over her followers, and when she is gone, it will likely be the end of the religious body."

Shortly thereafter, the group leased a couple of hotels in Waco, for a number of years, and operated them successfully. And, it was in 1898, that the Sanctified Sisters moved on to Washington D.C., the nation's capitol, and established their commune there, with other commercial interests. But, by this time, they had accumulated enough wealth to be able to live independently on their income from various investments.

The Washington D.C. mansion and accompanying farm in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb of the city, housed some twenty-five women, six girls, and three children, and young negro man, who helped with the chores of milking and farm labor. The commune was reported to have an annual income of approximately $100,000.00 per year.

 

 

Martha McWhirter was reported to have told reporters in Washington, "We don't take the Lord's Supper, and we believe that baptism with water and the use of bread and wine as a sacrament, are the works of the devil, and should not be considered literally in the scriptures. We believe all this was to be considered spiritually and not literally. She continued to emphasize that it was not against the rules for a sanctified sister to live with an unsanctified husband, and that the commune was not just a refuge for women who had been estranged or divorced from their husbands, but a purely religious choice."

However, others heard Mrs. McWhirter state it was a cardinal rule, and inflexible law, as revealed to her, that a 'sanctified' woman could not be the true wife of an unsanctified man, and vice versa."

Martha McWhirter died in Washington D.C., on April 24, 1904, and many of her followers "disbanded" following her demise. However, the Sanctificationists still remained a group, and moved to a smaller farm in Maryland, and existed until its last woman died a natural death, and the organization faded into oblivion.

This was an early 19th and 20th century feminist organization, that was somewhat successful, from its birth in "the heart of Texas!"

The Bell County Historical Commission celebrated the installation of a Texas State Historical Marker, at the site of the Belton Woman's Commonwealth, on October 16, 2010.

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