The Labor of Faith

Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism

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Judith Casselberry
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , May
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822369035.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Judith Casselberry’s The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism is a beautifully written and formidable contribution to multiple disciplines, including but not limited to African American religious history, anthropology, and women’s studies. Within Casselberry’s ethnography on the women of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. [COOLJC], based in Harlem and Queens, New York, Casselberry tells an institutional history, while privileging the religious labor of the Black women she encountered, befriended, and studied. 

While the social, civic, and political activisms of Black churchgoing people have been significantly covered in scholarship on African American religious history, Casselberry argues that “when church work is analyzed under the rubric of civic and political work, the contours of spiritual labor can remain understudied” (5). From start to finish, Casselberry keeps spiritual labor at the heart of her analysis. This diverges from similar works that have only explored Black women’s roles, activisms, theological hermeneutics, subversion, and resistance in Black church communities. 

Building on and complicating historiography within Pentecostalism studies, Casselberry resists the dominant narrative of a monolithic Black Holiness-Pentecostalism, one that is more often than not solely related to the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), and instead attends to the nuances, complexities, and uniqueness of Black Oneness Apostolic Pentecostals, namely, the COOLJC. Indeed, as Casselberry states, “The Labor of Faith is the first sustained ethnographic study of Black American Apostolic Pentecostal women,” such that this book not only disrupts dominant narratives about Black Holiness-Pentecostalism, but also centers Black women’s religious labor in a larger ethnographic history of a longstanding denominational institution (10). For Casselberry, the wives of prominent male ministers are of chief importance, and her study deconstructs the ways “the role of Black women as ‘helpmeets’ in institution building” receives little attention (46). 

Divided into six chapters, Casselberry’s book begins with the death of Sister Louise Franklin, who passed away or “went to sleep” after battling a brain tumor. In this chapter, the women of COOLJC—Sister Ruth Holmes, Mother Joan Morris, Mother Geneva Reeves, Sister Kendra Clark and others—wrestle with the theological conundrum of believing in God’s promise for divine healing, only for Louise, who proclaimed that she was “healed,” to die just five weeks after publicly confessing her faith at a church building fundraising service she had planned, even in sickness. 

Chapter 2 contextualizes COOLJC within the early 20th century spread of Pentecostalism. This chapter explains how the fire spread from the Asuza Street revivals, which began in 1906 in Los Angeles, California, to the Midwest during the Indianapolis revivals from 1907-1909, to Harlem, New York in 1919. While historians have written extensively about the Great Migration from the American South to the urban North, Casselberry demonstrates how Black women made the founding of COOLJC possible by carrying the tradition, while migrating, from the South to the West to the Midwest to the Northeast. Casselberry also inserts Oneness Pentecostals into discourses about Black internationalism in the early 20th century, as Bishop Robert Lawson and others “looked to Africa to inform their historical, political, and racial identity” (56). 

Chapter 3 shifts from historical narrative to an ethnographic analysis of how women sustain the life of the church on an everyday, local level by way of three women’s auxiliaries: the International Missionary Department (IMD; founded in 1923), the International Women’s Council (IWC; founded in 1952), and the Ministers’ and Deacons’ Wives Guild (MDWG; founded in 1956), which as Casselberry contends, “serve as anchors within the horizontal webs of church operation” (103). She continues, “The male-headed hierarchy depends on the female majority’s spiritual-organizational acumen and labor for its very existence” (105). Appropriately, then, chapter 4 looks at how Black churchwomen in COOLJC navigate the “emotional labor” of religious, gendered, and racialized oppression using the scripturally based language of “submission” and “obedience,” thus encouraging male leadership at the top. Perhaps what is most striking about this chapter are the ways that male hierarchy shifts in the secular world as many of these same churchwomen “have advanced degrees and careers that place them in supervisory positions over male workers” (118). Thus, Casselberry teases out the interiority of Black women’s negotiations of power, theology, and what she calls, “the politics of righteousness.” 

Chapter 5 captures the beauty and intimacy of Black women’s altar work, otherwise known as “tarrying.” Casselberry writes, “Without women’s intimate labor, the social-spiritual reproduction of the church community is unimaginable. Operating across generations, navigating conflict and change, altar workers (re-)generate horizontal networks for training and spiritual upkeep” (151). The sixth and final chapter, “The Beauty of Holiness,” examines how COOLJC women perform aesthetic labor through the politics of respectability and the politics of dress. 

While Casselberry presents a rigorous commentary on what she terms “women-driven patriarchies” (105), a consideration of intergenerational contestations of the male hierarchy, gender roles, and the politics of righteousness could have been highlighted more, given that older and senior Black women’s stories are privileged as altar workers and teachers, while young women’s negotiations are not given the same attention. In light of the new work in the study of Black churchwomen, such as Monique Moultrie’s Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality (Duke University Press, 2017), how do both the church mothers and sisters of COOLJC engage such “taboo” topics as sexual desire, asexuality, same-sex attraction, and sexual violence? Indeed, while Casselberry studies Apostolic-Pentecostal women, one is left wondering how these women not only contradict, subvert, and challenge male authority, but also how they complicate gendered and sexual politics among themselves as the ones who both encourage and defy the patriarchy in their churches. To this end, it would have also been helpful to have a better sense of how queer, gender nonconforming, and transgender women (and men) engage and/or are a part of COOLJC despite the church’s teachings and doctrine, given the rich literature on the presence of LGBTQ+ Christians in heteronormative, conservative churches. Nonetheless, Casselberry’s work is sure to shift the field of Black Pentecostalism studies, as she encourages the field to take seriously the spiritual labor of 20th and 21st century holiness women.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University, pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender & Seuxality Studies.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Judith Casselberry is associate professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College. A vocalist and guitarist, Casselberry was a member of the award-winning reggae duo Casselberry-DuPreé and currently performs internationally with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely.

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