The Dictionary of Pan-African Pentecostalism, Volume One

North America

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Estrelda Y. Alexander
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Estrelda Y. Alexander’s The Dictionary of Pan-African Pentecostalism, Volume I: North America, is the first of four edited collections of biographical sketches, archival sources, and relevant historical information about Black Pentecostal-Holiness churches, groups, seminaries, institutions, and leaders. Alexander rightly notes, “For much of its life, the tradition has been one that is largely oral. Except for its most visible members, its history has not been documented in academic volumes or published popular history. Rather it has been recorded through domestic vehicles that have rarely caught broad attention” (xi).

In many ways, Alexander reiterates a concern that has animated the scholarship in African American religious history on the problem of preserving Black denominational records. In her foundational book on one of the largest Pentecostal denominations, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (UNC Press, 2007), historian Anthea Butler writes, “I encourage you to take heed of the fact that much of African American religious history is crumbling before our eyes. Research materials on Pentecostalism and much of African American religion do not exist solely in pristinely organized archives but in the homes of many senior citizens whose papers are daily thrown out by heedless relatives” (8). Writing nearly a decade later, Alexander confirms Butler’s warning, and provides a blueprint for correcting this problem in the study of Black Pentecostalism. Indeed, Alexander shows us where the bones of the tradition are buried, and as any well-crafted anthology does, she invites readers to use her clues to dig deeper into Black Pentecostal people’s lives.

Alexander arranges each entry alphabetically, moves between time periods and geographical locations largely within the United States, and discusses both the past and present of the Black Pentecostal-Holiness tradition. To do so, she presents a diversity of sites and figures. Included in the volume are: Bishop Charles Edward Blake, the current presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ (43-44); the Rev. Leah Denyetta Daughtry, a third-generation Pentecostal pastor who served as the chief executive officer for the 2008 Democratic National Convention (133-34); Father Divine, founder of the International Peace Mission of the early twentieth century whom Alexander describes as a “quasi-Holiness preacher” (156-58); Bishop Yvette Flunder, a lesbian activist and the founding pastor of City of Refuge Church and the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (167-68); Mack E. Jonas, an early convert of the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 and a Church of God in Christ leader (241); Sallie Martin, “the mother of gospel music” who notably worked alongside Thomas A. Dorsey, marketing his songs and handling his finances (269-70); and Amanda Berry Smith, an African Methodist Episcopal lay preacher and the author of the 1893 text, An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist (379-80).

While insightfully assembled, Alexander’s edited volume raised many questions, though one stands out most prominently: What does it mean to include individuals in a volume entitled, The Dictionary of Pan-African Pentecostalism, if those individuals did not or do not identify as “Pan-Africanist”? In the volume’s introduction, Alexander writes, “These groups are found on every continent on the globe where African descendants are located” (xi). She later contends, “While Pentecostalism within the African Diaspora is different from the Pentecostalism of the majority world, Pentecostalisms within the Diaspora also show distinctive elements from each other” (xii). For Alexander, “Pan-African Pentecostalism” refers to “a movement within the Christian Church borne out of the loins of a son of Africa” (xii).

Pan-Africanism, as a historical and political movement, however, has largely referred to the unification of all people of African descent across the globe and the eventual return of Africa’s children back to the continent of Africa. Consider for example the Pan-African Congresses from 1900 to 1945 or the goals of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Alexander’s application of the term differs from these conceptions. It seems that she, as the series editor, embodies Pan-Africanism as she seeks to unify a collective African diasporic history of Black Holiness-Pentecostal traditions across geographies.

In this regard, Alexander should consider anthropologist of Black religion Zora Neale Hurston’s words from the 1930s, in which she wrote, “The Sanctified Church is a protest against the high-brow tendency in Negro Protestant congregations as the Negroes gain more education and wealth” (see The Sanctified Church, Turtle Island, 1983, p. 103). While Hurston was referring to Pentecostals’ worship styles and what she identified as their inherent Africanisms, Hurston when read through Alexander’s volume invites us to consider what Pan-Africanist politics and resistance movements are lodged deep within the Black Pentecostal-Holiness past, present, and future. Indeed, it is my hope that these questions are further explored in Alexander’s forthcoming volumes. Nonetheless, this series will undoubtedly inspire more extensive studies on the people and institutions Alexander calls us to know deeply and to study critically.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral candidate in Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Estrelda Alexander is Associate Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity and Executive Director of the Seymour Pan-African Pentecostal Project. She is author of The Women of Azusa Street (2006), Limited Liberty (2007), and Black Fire (2011).


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