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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Pentecostal Historical Perspectives

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Synan contextualized Pentecostalism (with a heavy bias to southern groups) within the social and economic conditions that gave it some proto populist edges.  Though other historians remained unconvinced by Synan's claims, he can be credited for attempting to place this movement outside of its sacred time constraints and addressing the influence of social location.  Synan is also credited with insisting that William J. Seymour be considered the co-founder, along with Charles Parham, of Pentecostalism. Taking a more realistic tone than Bartleman, Synan enlarged the scope of inquiry about the racial dynamics that fed the Azusa Street experiment.  He argued that, though nothing had been "washed away in the blood," clearly something was happening at Azusa Street if people of color and white people could worship together, effectively breaking the Jim Crow stronghold, if only for a brief moment. 

Synan's sympathies are obvious, and others, particularly Robert Anderson, a non-Pentecostal historian, seemed to relish the lack of critical engagement by Pentecostal historians. Anderson he sought to fill that vacuum with the most systematic and controversial critique of Pentecostalism published thus far.  Anderson's Vision of the Disinherited (1979) was the poke in the eye that had eluded Pentecostalism for decades.  Pentecostalism, he argued, arose out of the social dislocation and feelings of lack of control in the lives of its adherents.  Anderson wrote that the "radical social impulse inherent in the vision of the disinherited was transformed into social passivity, ecstatic escape, and finally, a most conservative conformity."  Basically, who cares where Pentecostalism started? Who cares that it is Holiness or Pietist inspired? These people are simply responding to oppression and the fear that lack of control over their social location will eventually crush them, so they escape to the safe harbors of zealous experience, theological certainty, and social-political insularity.  Nearly every history written since Anderson's has been, in one way or another, a retort or an expansion of his initial claims.

Biographies of Pentecostal leaders, chiefly James Goff's Fields White unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism (1989), Daniel Epstein's Sister Aimee (1994), and more importantly Matthew Sutton's recent work (Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (2007), have done much better at locating the leaders and Pentecostalism in general in the larger Christian stream and rigorously examining questions of gender inequality and social location.  

Of late, issues of race have also been treated much more effectively in terms of critical analysis; biographies of Charles Parham have dealt with his support of white superiority much more forcefully than focusing exclusively on his theological innovation of the initial evidence doctrine or his alleged homosexuality.  What has not been accomplished as yet is a synthesis of Pentecostal history that manages to effectively weave into these disparate analyses gender, race, and social location.  Recent works by scholars have focused on Latino/a Pentecostalism, African American women, and attempts to cohere the disparate themes of race, ethnicity, and gender.