Marion Eason Wakeman, an English nurse, did not intend to become a Pentecostal missionary to the Kentucky mountains. However, she followed her heart and God’s call and ultimately helped to pioneer Assemblies of God churches in the 1930s among some of the most impoverished people in America. Wakeman’s compelling story, which has now largely been forgotten, was published in the Feb. 20, 1932, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Wakeman expected to live in England, where she was born, for the rest of her life. In England, she was a nurse and administrator with the “District Nursing Work,” a healthcare system that worked primarily with poor and immigrant patients.
At the turn of the 20th century, New England was experimenting with this healthcare model, in an attempt to meet the needs of the many recent immigrants. Wakeman was asked to move temporarily to Bristol, Rhode Island, to establish a new “District Nursing Work,” patterned after the English model.
After living in Bristol for three years, Wakeman read a book about the extreme poverty in the mountains of Kentucky. She was particularly disturbed by the unhealthy conditions endured by mothers at childbirth. She wrote, “God laid that work right on my heart, I could not get away from it.” She struggled with whether to stay in her well-funded position in Bristol, or to follow God’s call to work with neglected mothers and children in Kentucky. In the end, she headed for the mountains and cast her lot with those whose future was bleakest.
She began her missionary work in Guerrant, Kentucky. Conditions were worse than she had imagined. Ten to 12 people lived in windowless one-room huts. Children were dressed in rags, and chickens wandered freely through the huts. The men, women, and children were addicted to alcohol and tobacco. Violence was common and education was uncommon.
Wakeman provided health services to people in the community. She also began teaching young people how to read. When she arrived, she was shocked that the children could not read and that their spoken English was very poor. She gathered children for regular English lessons, which she would give by reading from the Bible. She recounted that many adults had never heard about Jesus, never prayed, and had never attended church.
The physical, social, and spiritual needs in the Kentucky mountains were overwhelming to Wakeman. On one occasion she admitted, “My throat ached and I felt like breaking down and crying.” But she endured. She saved money and built a house in the mountains near Oakdale, Kentucky, which became her living quarters and ministry outpost. She later moved to another house near Holly Creek, Kentucky. From those houses, she nursed people to health, she taught Sunday School classes for children, and she led to people to Jesus.
Wakeman understood that spiritual poverty was the root of destructive cultural patterns. She preached against the consumption of drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, because they contributed to disease, addiction, and violence in the community. She encouraged people to turn from sin and to find new life in Christ.
Certain local residents regarded Wakeman’s presence as a threat. She was awakened night after night by hostile neighbors who tried to frighten her away. Guns were fired at her house, and one time dynamite was even exploded near her house. She recalled, “my nerves began to frail,” and that she was afraid to walk across the room when she entered her house, for fear of violence.
One night, Wakeman got on her knees and cried out to God. If He wanted her to stay in Kentucky, she prayed, He would have to remove her fear. God took away her fear that night. The fear “fell from me like an old garment,” she recalled. “I went through the little house singing at the top of my voice,” she wrote. “I haven’t felt any fear from that day to this.”
Wakeman’s early missions work was supported by the Presbyterian Mission Board and the Free Methodist Missionary Board. Wakeman’s study of the Bible ultimately led her to identify with the Pentecostal movement. She came to believe that God still heals, and prayer for healing became a prominent aspect of her ministry. As a Pentecostal, Wakeman worked in conjunction with the Kentucky mountain missions work supported by Christian Assembly (Cincinnati, Ohio), which was pastored by O. E. Nash. Wakeman wrote that the Cincinnati church had five outstations (small missions churches) located in her part of the Kentucky mountains.
Wakeman’s testimony illustrates the consecration of early Pentecostals. She spent her life spent working with the impoverished, at great personal cost, and helped to lay the foundation for the Assemblies of God in the mountains of Kentucky. Her story also demonstrates that early Pentecostalism did not emerge in a vacuum; it benefited from veteran ministers from mainline Protestant denominations who brought their wisdom, experiences, and connections into their new churches.
“Our hearts are burning with the zeal of the work,” Wakeman wrote in the conclusion of her article, “and we see great possibilities and responsibilities.” Early Pentecostal pioneers, such as Wakeman, were passionate, committed and visionary. Together, these often unheralded men and women helped to form the identity of the Assemblies of God.
Read the article, “Pentecostal Work in the Kentucky Mountains,” on pages 1, 8 and 9 of the Feb. 20, 1932, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “The Godhead,” by Ernest S. Williams
• “Pentecost Today,” by R. E. McAlister
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.