Scorned, ridiculed, and later admired, they operated the only known woman’s commune in the U.S., and they were serious capitalists in an age when women enjoyed few rights. The Sanctificationists owed their beginning to Martha McWhirter, who with her husband George and their twelve children moved into Belton in Central Texas after the Civil War. George opened a mercantile business, they built a large limestone house, and the couple, active Methodists, founded the nondenominational Union Sunday School.
Martha organized a weekly women’s Bible study and prayer group. In August 1866, after two of her children and a brother died, a revival Martha attended failed to offer comfort for her losses. Afterward, she reported hearing God speak to her and then experienced a “Pentecostal baptism,” which may have included speaking in tongues. The events led her to believe she had been sanctified, set apart by God for a special purpose.
With the zeal of the newly converted, she emphasized the importance of dreams and revelations as the source of spiritual guidance rather than the sacraments and baptism. She encouraged the women in her Bible study to pray for sanctification and to seek guidance by sharing their dreams and revelations to arrive at a group consensus. The new theology led to the removal of five Baptists from their church rolls and several others being elbowed out of their denominations.
The women prayed about trials of everyday life such as authoritarian husbands involved in dishonorable business dealings, drunkenness, and physical abuse. They resented not being allowed to own property even when they brought property into the marriage, and they felt galled at having to beg husbands for money to buy food. Arriving at one of their early group decisions—the sanctified should not have sexual or social contact with the unsanctified—may have resulted from already having more children than they wanted. Whatever led to the decision, it spelled the beginning of some high-profile divorces and angry outbursts from townspeople.
In addition to refusing to sleep with their husbands, the women refused monetary support except as payment for work. In the beginning, they sold eggs, butter, and hooked rugs, placing the money into a common pot, enabling them to help a sister in need of support, make real estate investments, and gradually become financially independent.
Distraught women came with their children to Martha’s house, escaping angry and often abusive husbands, filling the house beyond capacity. George McWhirter, believing in Martha’s sincerity, never understood her behavior, but never publically criticized her. Eventually he moved into a room above his downtown store.
One woman inherited a large house, which they turned into a boarding house for lodging members and the public. Townspeople watched in amazement as wives of prominent men showed determination to make their way by taking in laundry, a chore traditionally relegated to black women of the community. Recognizing they were no longer accepted in polite society, the women took any work offering financial gain. Two women chopped wood and delivered it to homes. Others worked as domestic servants, seamstresses, home nurses, and even as a cobbler.
Hard work paid off, and the group prospered, allowing members to rotate working four-hour shifts, and taking turns caring for and teaching their children.
The Sanctificationist code did not exclude men. In later years the women told an interviewer no man ever stayed with the group longer than nine months because “they want to boss,” but “they find they can’t.” In 1879, two young men from Scotland, who belonged to a similar group at home, came to Belton seeking membership. It was one thing for the men of the town to put up with women being “Sancties,” but quite another for males to join. A group of men took the newly arrived gentlemen from their home at midnight and whipped them severely. When they still refused to leave town, they were declared insane in a District Court hearing and sent to the asylum in Austin. They quickly gained release by agreeing to stay away from Belton.
A hotel operator in nearby Waco hired some of the women in 1884 for one dollar a day. In addition to a good income, the women learned the hotel business. They built rent houses on the McWhirter property, and opened the Central Hotel across from the railroad depot. At first townspeople boycotted the place, but after George McWhirter died, and it became obvious the hotel was the finest in town and offered the best food of any establishment, it became popular quarters for locals.
Perhaps being a widow, no longer separated from her husband, or perhaps Martha’s donation of $500 to bring in the railroad spur, or contributing to the fund for building an opera house, caused a change of heart in the community. She won election as the first woman to serve on the Belton Board of Trade—a precursor of the Chamber of Commerce.
Believing the women should see more of the world, led to Martha renting a house in the summer of 1880 near New York’s Central Park. She divided the membership of fifty women into three groups, each staying for six weeks. They traveled to the city by rail and returned by ship to Galveston. Martha estimated the total cost at $3,000.
By 1891 when the group incorporated as the Central Hotel Company, they owned several pieces of local real estate, three farms providing food for hotel guests and feed for their livestock. Their net income reached $800 a month.
One of the women became a self-taught dentist charging only the cost of the material because she did not have a license. One member moved to New York, setting up a business selling pianos. By the 1890s, they traveled extensively to New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City, subscribed to many magazines, hired tutors for their children, and no longer held prayer meetings. Instead, they continued gathering, discussing dreams, and arriving at group decisions.
Although Martha served as the leader, the group operated on feelings and consensus, often sensing when something was wrong, and relying on dreams to tell them what to do. The answer might be selling one of the farms or encouraging a “disloyal” member to get married.
In 1899 the group decided to leave Belton for a locale with a more stimulating environment. Group consensus settled on Washington, D.C. as the best place for pursuing their cultural interests.
It’s unclear how much the group received from the sale and lease of their Belton property. Some estimates claim $250,000. They paid $23,000 cash for a house at 1437 Kenesaw Avenue, Mount Pleasant, Maryland, and spent another $10,000 renovating the property.
Martha died in 1904 and contrary to predictions, the group of aging women continued living in the house until at least 1918. Another account says a descendant of one of the members lived there until 1983.
By the time the women settled in the Washington area, newspapers and magazines from around the country started taking note of the unusual group of religious women who established a successful commune, wore no identifying habit, lived a Spartan existence, and made “A Happy Home Without Husbands.”