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Jonesboro Church Wars

The Jonesboro Church Wars were a series of early 1930s religious conflicts within the Baptist community of Jonesboro (Craighead County), comprising attacks on the mayor and the police chief, public gunfights, and the calling of the National Guard to restore order. The conflict attracted national attention and poisoned relations among some townspeople for generations.

At the center of the Jonesboro Church Wars was Joe Jeffers, an actor-comedian turned traveling evangelist who, at the invitation of the First Baptist Church and Jonesboro Bible College, began a series of tent revival meetings on June 29, 1930. Jeffers proved to be so popular as he preached through July that, when First Baptist pastor A. W. Reaves resigned in early August, the congregation elected Jeffers his replacement. But a large faction of the church body claimed not to have been represented at the election, and Jeffers took a leave of absence while the congregation worked on a compromise. They eventually chose as their pastor Dow H. Heard of Big Spring, Texas, and Jeffers left Jonesboro to continue his ministry elsewhere.

In August 1931, Jeffers announced that he would return to Jonesboro to inaugurate an ongoing revival meeting. His sermons included prophetic warnings that the Second Coming was to occur in May 1932, as well as charges of immoral conduct against Heard and Mayor Herbert J. Bosler. On September 9, a brawl occurred at First Baptist Church between supporters of Jeffers and Heard. George L. Cox Jr., a supporter of Jeffers, was arrested and charged with being the aggressor; he was scheduled to be tried the next day. The morning of the trial, Jeffers led a large group of followers to the courthouse in protest; during a prayer there, he asked God to strike the mayor dead, and his supporters physically attacked Bosler and Police Chief W. C. Craig.

To restore order, Governor Harvey Parnell authorized the use of troops stationed at Arkansas State College (now Arkansas State University), reinforced by other troops from around the state. Until they were withdrawn on September 14, the soldiers stationed themselves throughout town, mostly near Jeffers’s tent, which at times held 5,000 people. Two days after the soldiers left, someone dropped a tear-gas bomb outside Jeffers’s tent; each faction blamed the other. Tensions grew between the two Baptist factions until twenty-one followers of Jeffers were expelled from First Baptist and, on October 25, Jeffers’s revival tent was burned down. But the preacher had already planned to establish a tabernacle, named the Jonesboro Baptist Church, at Matthews and Cobb streets, and soon his congregation was meeting there.

Shortly after the church was built, Jeffers left again, and at his suggestion, the church hired as its pastor Dale Crowley of Denton, Texas. Eleven months later, Jeffers returned to Jonesboro and demanded his church back. He had veered from his fundamentalist beliefs, and he and Crowley fought as much over theology as over the control of the church. Sometimes, the two factions of this new church would hold services at the same time, with two sermons and two choirs going simultaneously. After an August 14, 1933, scuffle in which a fistfight occurred and shotguns were brandished, the two men decided to leave the matter to the courts. On October 9, 1933, the Chancery Court ruled in Crowley’s favor.

The next day, when Crowley went to claim possession of the tabernacle, he found himself in a shootout with J. W. McMurdo, whom the Jeffers faction had hired as a watchman and janitor. Crowley was unharmed, but his bodyguard, L. H. Kayre, was wounded; McMurdo was shot twice in the legs and once in the abdomen and died later. Crowley was arrested and, at his October 14 hearing, claimed to have acted in self-defense. On October 17, an unknown assailant tried to assassinate Crowley by thrusting the barrel of a machine gun through the bars of his cell at the Craighead County Jail and firing; Crowley was not harmed. His trial began on January 3, 1934, in Piggott (Clay County), the venue having been changed because of the emotional climate in Jonesboro. After four days, Crowley was acquitted on the murder charge and set free.

Jeffers left for Miami, Florida, shortly after the shooting and later renounced his Baptist ministry, becoming a leader of the Pyramid Power Yahweh group and a self-proclaimed prophet in Missouri. Heard and Crowley soon left Jonesboro, too, but the absence of the chief figures in the conflict did little to alleviate people’s strong opinions of them. Scholars and others have had difficulty researching the Church Wars, as few people through the years have been willing to talk about the events. The main treatment of the subject, written by Dusty Jordan, contains information from four individuals who, even fifty years after the fact, refused to be identified in print.

For additional information:
“Church Fight Brings Troops to Nip Riot.” New York Times. September 11, 1931, pp. 1–2.

Jordan, Dusty. “Baptists Bring War to Jonesboro.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 21 (Winter 1983): 1–9.

Guy Lancaster

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 11/28/2011

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