The faith-healing Followers of Christ is one of many churches that rose from the impoverished, energetic Pentecostal movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Many Followers preachers were healing evangelists whose churches frequently split about minute points of religious doctrine. The splits left Followers churches in Oklahoma, Idaho, and Oregon — Oregon City and Grants Pass.
The first Followers church is thought to have been founded in Chanute, Kan. One of its first members was Marion Reece, a plainsman,who fought Indians during the Civil War. Reece got his calling in Kansas before moving to Oklahoma, where he baptized many Followers.
His brother-in-law, Charlie Smith, also was preaching at that time. After an argument with other ministers, Smith moved west about 1920, first to Idaho and then to California.
In the early 1930s, Smith was on the circuit with a charismatic preacher named George White. White ordained five of his nephews to preach, including Walter White and Vern Baldwin.
Walter White and Baldwin preached about the miraculous intervention of God in the affairs of man. They used fear of God, tales of Armageddon and hardened showmanship to keep their flocks in line.
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But their personalities clashed. In the early 1940s, Walter White left Idaho and went to Oregon City after a fight about women cutting their hair and adultery in the church.
Former church members say White was a prophet with a tyrannical side. From his pulpit he would rebuke congregation members, often making them stand and confess their misdeeds to the entire group. He captivated his congregation with powerful sermons, often slamming his Bible to the floor, shaking and clapping, and speaking in tongues.
“Walter became a Christlike figure,” said one former member who asked not to be identified. “People believed the only way to get to God was through Walter White.”
He settled marital disputes and discord among families. They hung his picture in their homes, often above a photo of Jesus Christ. Some church members still have White’s picture up.
To become a preacher, a follower must be called by God.
Ernest Nichols heard a voice telling him to preach the Gospel in 1942, shortly after a life-threatening case of chicken pox. It wasn’t a voice in his head, said his son, Dean Nichols, 63, of Oregon City. “I’m talking a voice like a loudspeaker.”
But Ernest Nichols didn’t answer the call until three years later, when he was growing grapes near Modesto, Calif. He left the crop on the vine and packed his family off to Caldwell, Idaho, then the home of the largest Followers congregation.
Later, Nichols decided to move back and minister to Followers in California. In 1953, at White’s request, he moved his small congregation to Oregon City.
During the next 11 years, Ernest Nichols and White would argue about White’s strict religious doctrines and the way he treated people, according to Nichols’ relatives and other former members.
Ernest Nichols thought White and the congregation had lost the true message of God. In 1964, Nichols decided to leave the church. Five of his children remained and never spoke with him again.
Nichols moved to Idaho for a time, stayed with relatives in Montana, then returned to Oregon City. He conducted prayer meetings in his home but never returned to the pulpit. Ernest Nichols died in 1980; his wife died five years later.
“Dad was never bitter,” said Eileen Baldwin, Nichols’ daughter and a resident of Meridian, Idaho. “They never gave up their love of God or their faith in him.”
Today, a congregation of about 500 Followers lives in the Caldwell area west of Boise. Much like their Oregon City brethren, they gather Thursdays and Sundays to worship Christ at a small church bordered on two sides by freshly tilled fields. The building has no markings, cross or signs and looks like an old grange hall.
Russell Conger, 65, a retired carpenter and an elder for the Caldwell congregation, said the Followers believe in the power of divine healing, a tradition among his people that has been passed through the generations originating with Jesus Christ. He, another elder and two deacons use prayer meetings to teach the word of God. The Caldwell minister died many years ago, and no one there has received the calling. Occasionally, the preacher from the 200-member Grants Pass congregation visits.
In Oregon City, no one teaches the word of God because all the elders are dead and no one has received the calling. So services consist of hymns and silent prayers, former members said.
Followers in Grants Pass and Caldwell think the Oregon City congregation took a wrong turn sometime in the 1950s. Conger and other elders said they tried contacting Followers in Oregon City through the years to offer their services, but those offers have been politely declined.
Conger said he is always ready to anoint the sick and administer healing prayers. Through a trust in God, he said, faith healing works.
“It’s a choice that we have, and it’s a choice that we pass on to our children.”