Pentecostal Historical Perspectives
Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh
Pentecostalism is a movement that has rarely been subjected to sustained critical analysis beyond decades-old arguments over origins and theological roots. In reviewing the historical literature on Pentecostalism from the beginnings in 1906, (or 1901 if one takes Parham as founder), one will find that there are no attempts to place the Pentecostal movement in any social, economic, cultural, or political context until the middle of the 20th century.
This does not mean that early Pentecostal history is unimportant. In fact, the contributions of amateur historian and Pentecostal evangelist Frank Bartleman are significant because these reports from Azusa Street have often been read as having the same gravity as scripture. Bartleman described the Azusa Street Mission as the "American Jerusalem." So impressed with what transpired, Bartleman's exercise in hyperbole fanned out to include such claims that because white people and people of color worshiped together at the Mission, "the color line had been washed away in the blood."
It may seem incredulous to many outside Pentecostalism, but that sentence in Bartleman's Azusa Street memoir seemed, for some, to paint the entire Azusa Street Mission as a racial utopia from which Pentecostalism stepped away over the course of the 20th century. If there is a "myth of Azusa Street," as historian Edith Blumhofer posits, Frank Bartleman is largely responsible for the mythic quality of the story behind William Seymour's church. So, one might wonder, why would anyone take Bartleman at his word? Why did it take Pentecostalism so long to produce scholarship that displayed the appropriate amount of scholarly analysis?
First-generation historians of Pentecostalism, largely religious insiders who were or sympathized with Pentecostals, had much to lose by being overly critical, and even more to lose if they suggested that not all of the events surrounding the origins of the movement and its theological roots were providentially inspired. To be fair, secular and non-Pentecostal scholars in the social sciences (chiefly sociology and anthropology) were not terribly interested in a movement that they knew little about and probably had little sympathy for. After all, if all one knew about Pentecostalism emanated from the popular press and from Hollywood (Elmer Gantry in particular), then the movement never really stood a chance in the less-than-receptive halls of academia. Suffice to say that Pentecostal historical scholarship in the first half of the 20th century suffered from bouts of intellectual lethargy from its biggest supporters and from ignorant disdain from its detractors.
Pentecostal scholarship would have to wait till the late 1960s and early 1970s for Pentecostal graduate students to finish their Ph.D.'s to uncover the varied histories that comprise Pentecostalism. Of note is Vinson Synan, a southerner affiliated with the Pentecostal Holiness Church, who attempted to move the discussion of Pentecostalism beyond the origins and theological roots arguments.