Pentecostal Historical Perspectives

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. 

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.

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