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Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture

Amos Yong and Estrelda Y. Alexander
Published by NYU Press in 2011

Reviewed by Kenneth L. Waters, Sr., Theology, Azusa Pacific University

As a phenomenon of the African American church, Afro-Pentecostalism is expressive of an African heritage, a Holiness-liberationist perspective, the pivotal leadership of W. J. Seymour, and the enduring legacy of the Azusa Street Revival. Fourteen scholars come together in an edited volume to explore various aspects of this overarching theme.

Editors Alexander and Yong give overdue recognition to the African American contribution to the Pentecostal revival. Although emerging as multiracial fellowships in the West and South, subsequent migrations produced predominantly black congregations in the urban centers of the East and North. Four types of Afro-Pentecostal groups are described to illustrate the diversity of the movement. Diversity also characterizes the movement’s interface with social ethics, economic justice, gender equality, and other contemporary issues.

Cecil Robeck finds that the Azusa Street Mission and revival has never been studied as a distinct fellowship among ten African American congregations in Los Angeles or as a phenomenon within the larger African American community of that city. The core group was predominantly African American with an African American leader and continued to be so even after they moved to Azusa Street and began to attract a multiracial, multiethnic constituency. Denominations of the various African Methodist churches, the National Baptist Convention, and other traditional mainline African American churches represented a worship style, social life, and academic pedigree that closely resembled that of their white counterparts. In contrast, the Azusa Street Mission and other black Pentecostal and charismatic churches represented the informal style of the African American folk church tradition. The differences between these contrasting church forms profiled a class division among African Americans in Los Angeles. The dominance of the Afro-Pentecostal style of worship in Los Angeles would become established in the Great Migration of the 1920s when waves of non-affluent African Americans entered the city from the South and East. Robeck’s treat-ment of the Azusa Street Mission in the context of emerging African American congregations in Los Angeles is well grounded. However, Robeck’s account of class distinctions between African American denominations needs further qualification. There were class distinctions that existed within African American Baptist and Methodist denominations on a continuum from proletariat to bourgeoisie with their corresponding worship styles. Even prior to the turn of the century, there were black Baptist and Methodist churches that exhibited ecstatic worship. It is true, however, that the black Pentecostal churches were more consistently ecstatic in worship style.

David Daniels chooses the lens of black civil society to examine early Afro-Pentecostalism. Prior to 1942, the vast majority of African Americans were either Baptist or Methodist. In a few decades, Afro-Pentecostalism would be the third largest community of African American Christians. The trans-regional geographical reach of Afro-Pentecostalism would create a national base for its peculiar posture in black civil society. Drawing upon Robert Wuthnow and Jeffrey Alexander’s typology of institutions, Daniels describes the communica-tive, associative, educative, and expressive features of black civil society. Daniels maintains that the role of Afro-Pentecostalism as a partner in the construction of black civil society was both supportive and subversive. Unlike the mainline, traditional denominations, Afro-Pentecostals refused participation in secret lodges, fraternal organizations, electoral politics, as well as alliances with white protestant denominations and philanthropic foundations. By so doing it appeared to deprive black civil society of valuable resources. In various ways, Afro-Pentecostalism refused to adopt the norms of white genteel society, and instead chose to construct black civil society on the basis of a different set of values and responses. Daniels provides an insightful sociological reflection on Afro-Pentecostalism. However, Daniels understates the ways that mainline, traditional black churches also subverted white norms in the construction of black civil society.

Valerie Cooper highlights both the interracial and gender inclusive character of the leadership in the Azusa Street Revival, and especially focuses upon the leadership of women. Dramatic changes which had occurred in women’s public ministry in preceding Evangelical and Wesleyan Holiness movements on the one hand, and the African American community on the other, converged in the Azusa Street Mission. This convergence was further augmented by women’s contribution to theology, pneumatology, apocalyptic eschatology, and biblically-based arguments over the role of women in religious leadership. Azusa Street was characterized by a unique subversion of race, class, and gender categories partly because of the involvement of black Holiness women whose thought had been shaped by the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction. Cooper’s discussion of African American women in precursor Holiness and abolitionist movements acknowledges a significant tributary in the history of Afro-Pentecostalism. Future discussions should still include mention of Jenny Seymour, co-pastor of the Azusa Street Mission, who continued the ministry there after the death of her husband William.

Clarence Hardy mines the testimonies of two women to illustrate how Pentecostalism became a vehicle for the emergence of black women’s leadership in the public square. In his book, Black Gods of the Metropolis, Arthur Fauset featured a former Virginian Baptist turned Philadelphian Pentecostal identified as Mrs. W and a Philadelphian immigrant named Ida Robinson. In Pentecostalism, Mrs. W found support and authority for a campaign against gambling and other vices in Philadelphia. Ida Robinson found a platform for asserting the rights of women to ordination and public visibility in church ministry. Rosa Horn, Lucy Smith, and Mary Magdalena Tate also served as elders and bishops in Pentecostal circles. As founder of the Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of Truth, Mary Tate was the first woman to head an American denomination as its presiding bishop. Black Pentecostal women took advantage of radio evangelism and the anonymity and opportunity for self-reinvention provided by their urban setting to transform themselves into global voices for Pentecostal culture and rhetoric. With this study, Hardy illuminates an overlooked saga in black church history. He diplomatically does not acknowledge the sexism that continues in Pentecostal groups like the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which to this day denies ministerial ordination, pastoral opportunity, and episcopal office to women.

Craig Scandrett-Leatherman builds upon the recent scholarship of James Cone equating lynching and the cross of Christ to argue that Afro-Pentecostalism, particularly in the form known as COGIC, partly arose as a response to the white ritualistic system of lynch-ing black men. Forcibly deprived of traditional rites of passage from boyhood to manhood by the transatlantic slave trade, African males suffered further indignities, dehumanization, and emasculation in the Americas. Dedicated acts of suppression, punishment, and control revolved around the ritualized practice of violence toward black males known as lynching. Charles Harrison Mason, an alumnus of the Azusa Street revival and founder of COGIC, answered his call to ministry at the height of lynching attacks in Mississippi. He aspired to counter racist rituals of dehumanization by instituting rituals of rehabilitation for black men, among which were Pentecostal dance and ardent expression in worship and preaching. Scandrett-Leatherman’s disturbingly graphic depictions of lynching as a sordid undercurrent in American history are a courageous and much needed exposé. He tries to use inference and persuasion to overcome the absence of proofs and texts for his thesis characterizing the ministry of Mason as a specific response to lynching. Nevertheless, his argument would have been greatly helped by some direct citation of this connection either from Mason himself or a contemporary.

Louis Gallien briefly chronicles the conflicted lives and careers of Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye. Each artist was mentally and emotionally unable to reconcile his successful career and attendant lifestyle in secular music with the Pentecostal-Holiness doctrine and influence that shaped his earlier life. Their torment elicited an unheeded call from Michael Eric Dyson for an Afro-Pentecostal theology that integrated body and soul. Gallien’s fascinating bios provide a useful backdrop for delineating the African roots of Pentecostal worship and the performance traits that appeal to the secular entertainment industry. Was the imploding of these artists’ lives due to their willful break with Pentecostal discipline and doctrine or to mental illness? This is the question that haunts Gallien’s study, and in the end, it is the question that he leaves unanswered.

Cheryl Sanders criticizes contemporary Pentecostal preaching for a widespread tendency to promote a prosperity gospel at the neglect of prophetic preaching and social activism. She draws upon sources to recall the historic centrality of the social gospel in Pentecostalism, and she exposes the subsequent efforts to erase the evidence for this characteristic feature. She declares that the true task of black preaching and ministry has always been to build prophetic community and summon the society to social responsibility. Sanders recovers and illuminates an obfuscated feature of historic Pentecostalism. Sanders does not address the problem of some subversive themes in the social gospel. Its antipathy toward biblical authority, personal sanctification, traditional family values, and normative sexuality has left the door open for the prosperity gospel and its underlying social conservatism. A strength of historic Afro-Pentecostalism was its ability to embrace social activism and preach a social gospel without losing its soul.

Leonard Lovett uses an autobiographical narrative to illustrate the emergence of an Afrocentric perspective on Holiness-Pentecostal origins, history, and development. He arrived at a pivotal point when it became clear to him that Pentecostal origins are as closely tied to W. J. Seymour, if not more so, than to Charles Fox Parham. From various mentors and influences, Lovett has learned to synthesize theology and ethics, love and justice, the street and academics, and personal and social salvation. Lovett’s story is an unequivocal affirma-tion of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity and the contribution of Afro-Pentecostalism to the understanding of global religious experience. Lovett offers an atypical, but valuable, insider’s perspective. It would have been well if Lovett also offered some critique of Afro-Pentecostalism, but he does not even though he seems to be in good position to do so.

William Turner calls for a Pentecostal theology of the Holy Spirit that moves beyond sectarian interests to global Christian relevance. He draws upon African American experi-ence as a source for pneumatology. A doctrine of the Holy Spirit has always been implicit in African American discourse on salvation and worship, and little or no distinction was made between the presence of Christ and the Spirit. In the Spirit, enslaved Africans experienced liberation from sin, and this by extension made the sin of slavery and slavemasters more intolerable. Black theology was an implicit rejection of the sociological view that the black church was an imitation of European models, and instead emphasized the African origins of black church worship. Yet there has been little correlation drawn between the role of the Spirit in indigenous African worship and the African American church. Pentecostal reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity and the role of the Spirit in both sanctification and political, social, and economic liberation remains underdeveloped. Afro-Pentecostal scholars have an opportunity to construct a theology of the Spirit for the twenty-first century, especially since the work of the Spirit is so central to Pentecostal worship and life. Turner makes a good call; however, it is a bit disconcerting that he is unable to cite a single Afro-Pentecostal scholar who is presently in process with a theology of the Holy Spirit.

Frederick Ware acknowledges an eschatological vision characteristic of Pentecostalism and black theology and especially focuses his attention on Pentecostal premillennialism. He criticizes this perspective as incompatible with black racial consciousness and empowerment. He advocates that black Pentecostals adopt black Christian millennialism with its American postmillennial orientation, a perspective that envisions a period of progress and improvement prior to a golden age. Black Christian millennialism is consistent with the eschatology implied in the oral and literary products of enslaved Africans in the Americas. The emergence of Pentecostalism from the Holiness movement was accompanied by a shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism, a perspective that despairs of human and social improvement apart from the visible and bodily return of Christ to the earth. Pentecostals like COGIC instead use demonology and Holiness doctrine to justify social and political engage-ment in the world. This spiritualization of social ills dissociates these problems from their root causes. Although Ware makes an incisive case for change in Pentecostal eschatology, a more or less wholesale change in Pentecostal eschatology is not likely. Moreover, there is a question whether such eschatology is really a hindrance to social activism. It may be more productive to show how Pentecostal doctrine can be augmented to address systemic causes of social evil in the earthly realm.

The late Ogbu Kalu describes the Afro-Pentecostal missionary enterprise in Africa within the larger framework of African American Christian missions. He gives particular attention to the Pentecostal-charismatic form of that endeavor and to the promise and problems that accompany it. Contemporary Pentecostal-charismatic missionaries see themselves as modern-day Josephs, reminiscent of the biblical story of the boy who became a savior for his brothers after they sold him into slavery. Kalu finds this to be a helpful hermeneutic for missionary epochs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as the twenty-first. The motivations and circumstances for African American mission activity in Africa were varied, but converged in the desire to preserve African identity and promote African progress. While the African American missionary enterprise sputtered in the years between World War I and World War II, the Afro-Pentecostal missionary movement flourished. One reason was the motivational shift from theodicy and human liberation to premillennial eschatology which did not preclude sensitivity to racial and social justice issues. The inherent materialism, individualism, and egotism of American culture remain a threat for African Pentecostalism. The yearning among African clergy for easily obtained doctoral degrees from unaccredited American schools is a case in point. However, it cannot be denied that American-based Afro-Pentecostal-charismatics play an essential role in African missions. Kalu gives us one of the most substantial chapters in the book. He does not directly critique the American propensity for empire-building as another unfortunate motive for missions in Africa, but such a critique is certainly implied.

Dale Irvin calls for greater dialogue between Afro-Pentecostalism and the black theology movement; however, he argues that such a dialogue can properly occur only after each movement has located itself within a global context. The Azusa Street Mission and revival was integral to the emergence of global Pentecostalism even though the Azusa Street phenomenon itself emerged out of a distinctively black Holiness church tradition. Recent scholarship has acknowledged the relationship of Azusa Street to both global Pentecostalism and the black church. Black theology has come to a fuller engagement with its own global context in the form of liberation theology beyond North American boundaries. Dialogue across these two global contexts has indeed taken place within academic circles, but with little impact on the life of black churches, especially black Pentecostal churches. There are some signs of rapprochement between Afro-Pentecostals and black liberation theology at the local church level, but for the most part the church has been swept by the prosperity gospel. Black liberation theology challenges Pentecostalism to move beyond the privation and individualizing of salvation to a more collective and political practice of liberation. Conversely, black liberation theology needs the spiritual revitalization that Afro-Pentecostalism provides. The two movements need each other. Irwin does not address serious stumbling blocks to the transnational interface between Afro-Pentecostalism and black liberation the-ology, for example, different stances on biblical authority and normative human sexuality, but it is clear that future discussions must involve these issues.

This book is a comprehensive introduction to a long neglected spiritual-cultural phe-nomenon. Although there is some unevenness in the quality of the chapters that comprise the work, it is a long overdue, groundbreaking exercise in interpreting one of the most important movements in African American religion, church history, and global Christianity.

Cite this article
Kenneth L. Waters Sr., “Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 300-305

Kenneth L. Waters Sr.

Azusa Pacific University
Dr. Kenneth L. Waters Sr. is Associate Dean of the School of Theology and Professor in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University.