What 1916 can say to 2022 (On Abusive Leadership in the Church)

Yesterday, 8th January, was the 106th anniversary of what's often thought of as the beginning of the Apostolic Church. (In fact, everyone who lived through what happened 106 years ago placed the beginnings of the Apostolic Church at least 5 years earlier, but that's a story for another time.) A 106th anniversary might not seem like all that auspicious an occasion — after all, we had all our commemorations for the centenary a few years ago — but I think this year in particular the events of January 1916 have an important lesson for us. 

You see, the evangelical and Pentecostal worlds have been rocked by quite a few significant scandals this last year. It's not a particularly new thing, and many of these were a very long time in the making, but with so much (very high profile) abuse being revealed or reported on in such quick succession in the last year (both in this country and across the ocean), the danger (and reality) of abusive leadership is very much at the forefront of so much evangelical thought, as well as the ways (some good, but often, unfortunately, bad) that churches and organisations have responded to it. 

But we've been here before. In fact, we've been here many, many times throughout the history of the church (for such, alas, is the pervasiveness of human sin). And we shouldn't forget that. Because, when we forget the abuses of the past, we're much more likely to bury our heads in the sand and assume it could never happen among us! It can, and it has, and we need to be ever vigilant against it happening again in order to protect and care for those whom Christ loves. So let's remember what's happened and re-learn the lessons learnt by those who went before us. 

From the middle of the 1910s (and with repercussions that have to a greater or lesser extent endured ever since) the whole of British Pentecostalism was reacting to an abusive leader. It shaped the movement  — in terms of theology, practice, and even the emergence of the three old British Pentecostal denominations and how they viewed on another. At the centre of the scandal was one of the most prominent leaders of the emerging Pentecostal movement in the UK — William Oliver Hutchinson. 

Hutchinson was the pastor of the first purpose built Pentecostal church in the country and leader of Britain's first Pentecostal denomination: the Apostolic Faith Church (AFC). For some years, he ranked alongside Alexander Boddy and Cecil Polhill (both Anglicans) as the widely recognised leaders of Pentecostalism here. But then something happened. Hutchinson's name stopped appearing alongside Boddy and Polhill's in reports of Conventions. He's suddenly never mentioned again in Confidence, the earliest British Pentecostal magazine. 

Initially though, this silent split between Boddy and Polhill and Hutchinson didn't make much difference. Hutchinson was appointed 'Chief Apostle' of the growing AFC, which was still the country's only Pentecostal denomination. (Although, plenty of independent Pentecostal assemblies also existed outside the AFC.)

But, as Hutchinson accumulated more and more power and influence, his abuse of that power and influence began to emerge more and more. 

First, Hutchinson began to develop some strange new teachings, which were largely rejected by most other British Pentecostals. This began with his ideas about the Blood Cry — the rapid repetition of the word 'blood', which Hutchinson taught was an effective protection against human and demonic enemies. This was widely (and fiercely) rejected. But Hutchinson wasn't willing to accept any criticism of his strange new teaching. And he certainly wasn't willing to be corrected. Instead, he began to claim that any opposition to his teaching on the Blood Cry was itself demonic. He was basically saying, 'if you don't agree with me, it's proof that you're under the power of demons'!

Second, Hutchinson began to equate prophecy (and tongues and interpretation) with Scripture. He argued that both were the Word of the Lord, and so both were infallible. He also expected new teaching to come through prophecy which wasn't already revealed in Scripture. And he rejected judging prophecies, saying that to judge a prophecy was to judge the Holy Spirit and call God a liar. In fact, this got so bad that he began to teach that disobedience to the 'Spoken Word' (i.e. prophecy) was a greater sin than disobedience to Scripture. Prophecy was increasingly used to control people (sometimes with disastrous results).

Third, he began to see himself as essential to God's work. Hutchinson and a close circle around him began to reject any prophecy that didn't come from within the AFC. All gifts needed the authority of the apostle, they claimed, and so had to be under the direct authority of Hutchinson. Effectively this meant that Hutchinson was making himself the sole interpreter of prophecy (and as he placed prophecy now on a higher level than Scripture, he was making himself the sole interpreter of God's Word altogether). From this Hutchinson the Chief Apostle started to view himself as infallible. (This eventually led to him proclaiming some very strange — and very heretical — things as authoritative doctrines for the AFC after the withdrawal of the Welsh Apostolics in 1916.) Hutchinson increasingly saw himself as Christ's representative on earth. (In fact, by the mid-1920s people were talking about casting out demons 'in the name of Hutchinson'!) This also meant he could silence any criticism. And he regularly did so, forbidding any prophets with whom he disagreed from speaking. 

Finally, Hutchinson believed that as the infallible Chief Apostle, he should have sole control over all the AFC's money. Offerings were to be brought to the Chief Apostle's feet (not to the church), and so it was up to the Chief Apostle how to use that money. He vehemently rejected any calls for financial transparency. 

So, there you have it, one of the foremost leaders at the beginning of British Pentecostalism came to accuse anyone who disagreed with him of being controlled by demons, elevated prophecy (or at least the prophecies he happened to like) to a higher authority than Scripture and used it to control people, proclaimed himself infallible and used it to silence all criticism, and took personal control of all the offerings given to the church. 

As these things began to emerge, the Welsh Presbyteries knew that they could not let this be. As D.P. Williams put it, 'things came our way which forced me to take a stand against him [i.e. Hutchinson].' These weren't abstract 'things'; what forced Williams and Welsh Presbyteries to take a stand was in fact a specific case of abuse which came to light.

A widow from Wales (Mrs Evans) had moved to Bournemouth to help in the work of the church there. And then something happened which caused Mrs Evans to leave Bournemouth and let the Welsh Presbyteries know. In response, D.P. Williams wrote to Hutchinson about whatever he had done, telling him plainly that 'such behaviour was not of God' and informing him that the Welsh Presbyteries could no longer receive any instruction from Hutchinson and Bournemouth. Hutchinson replied that it was of God, and asserted his authority as chief apostle. 

So, the Welsh Presbyteries met and the case was laid before them, along with the new things Hutchinson was suddenly beginning to teach about prophecy and his own authority. D.P. Williams warned the Presbyteries against making this a human fight, and told them what they needed was God's grace to listen and wait for him. This wasn't putting things off — they met several times over the next few days to pray and seek guidance for the situation, with D.P. Williams writing in his diary that 'this crisis is very important.' Hutchinson, in the meantime, started sending 'very unpleasant' letters and Williams was accused of 'great presumption' in not accepting the word and authority of Hutchinson. This was all in December 1915. (Interestingly, during this same time in the last few weeks of 1915, the Apostolic Church in Wales called and ordained an apostle, entirely independently of Hutchinson and Bournemouth, which is yet another piece of evidence that the beginnings of the Apostolic Church go back before 1916.)

On 8th January, 1916, Hutchinson himself came to Wales to meet with D.P. Williams and the other Welsh pastors. The meeting took place in the Ammanford church, and at the outset Hutchinson declared that as Chief Apostle he had all authority and no one else was permitted to open his mouth to speak or prophesy, as 'he and God spoke with one voice'. He then went on to speak for 3 1/2 hours, claiming that he personally owned all the money of the Welsh churches and that D.P. Williams was to fall down at his feet or loose the anointing of the Holy Spirit. After 3 1/2 hours of listening to Hutchinson, D.P. Williams asked if he might speak. Hutchinson refused, and as a result all the Welsh pastors walked out, and from then on made clear that they had no connection with the AFC in Bournemouth. 

Now, there is still some mystery to these events. Afterwards, the Apostolic Church leaders involved preferred not to talk about Hutchinson, Bournemouth, or 1916. Hutchinson, on the other hand, accused the Welsh of rejecting the will of God for the will of man and the spirit of independency. But, most intriguingly of all, D.P. Williams, when he did briefly write of the events of late 1915-early 1916 ended his account with the statement: 'The most important things have been hidden.' Combined with the agonising in his diary, the long meetings of the Welsh presbyteries, and the serious time spent in prayer by Williams and the other Welsh pastors, Williams speaking of it as a crisis, and the reticence to ever mention Hutchinson again, it seems likely that the few sources we have don't give us a full picture of how bad things really were. (Gordon Weeks, I should note, however, believed the 'most important things' which were hidden were doctrinal matters, due to the ongoing astonishing doctrinal issues which emerged in the AFC after 1916. And by 'hidden', I should stress, that I don't in any way think he means covered up — and I think I've got good reason for that interpretation from other things Williams did write — but simply that he didn't think they were helpful to write down now years after the fact for a much wider audience.)

But the parting of the ways between the Apostolic Church in Wales and Hutchinson wasn't the end of the matter. The Welsh pastors didn't respond simply by disassociating themselves; they also took precautions to make sure such things couldn't arise among them. 

For a start, they insisted that the church should always be governed collegially, and never by an individual. This applied both to the local assembly and to the church as a whole. Every assembly was to be governed by a local presbytery, assemblies in a geographical area would be governed by an area presbytery, elders and pastors from the whole of Wales would meet together to govern the Welsh church in a Welsh Consistory, and eventually the whole of the Apostolic Church would be governed by a General Council. Some people today might be tempted to think that all these levels of presbyteries, consistories, and council might have been burdensome or slowed things down, but the early Apostolics saw them as an important protection against abusive leadership. 

They also insisted that each local assembly have a fund to care for widows, orphans, and the poor. I don't know what happened to Mrs Evans in Bournemouth, but I do wonder if there is some connection to the emphasis placed on the care of widows in subsequent years in the Apostolic Church. (Of course, they might just have been paying attention to what the Bible says!)

When it came to prophecy, lots of precautions were taken to protect against abuses like Hutchinson's. The Apostolics strongly emphasised the authority of Scripture over prophecy and the need for all prophecy to be tested by Scripture. Rules were put in place, such as prophecy only being allowed if the elders of the church were present, to ensure people couldn't use prophecy in a controlling manner like had been happening in Bournemouth. 

Transparency was insisted on in all finances, and a finance committee was established rather than allowing any individual to try and control money (like Hutchinson). 

And Chief Apostles were banned. All apostles were seen as equal (D.P. Williams was never anything more than President of the General Council), and in the local presbytery an apostle or pastor was an elder among the other elders. 

8th January shouldn't be celebrated as a birthday. (I'll try and remember to write about the real birthday of the Apostolic Church next month — because it happened in February — as it was a much more positive occasion.) But 8th January shouldn't be forgotten either. It reminds us that our forefathers took abuse in the church very seriously indeed, and that they put in place structures to help guard against it happening again. They listened to Mrs Evans when she spoke out against whatever the powerful Chief Apostle had done, and they responded quickly and prayerfully, even when it had huge repercussions for the whole of the movement. Our solutions might not always be the same as a century ago, but we need to be just a diligent as they were in seeking healthy ways forward. 

May the Lord grant us always to listen and to act to protect those whom He loves and has entrusted to our care from such abuse. 

P.S. For a shorter (and somewhat more dispassionate piece) I wrote a few years ago on other issues involved in the 1916 parting of the ways, have a look here