Pentecostals in America

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Arlene Sánchez Walsh
Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , June
     2018.
     192 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231141833.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Pentecostals in America, Arlene M. Sánchez Walsh begins and ends her book with a striking, descriptive claim: “Pentecostals tell great stories” (xi, 103). Grounding her argument in a concise discussion of Pentecostal historiography and primary sources, Sánchez Walsh “asks questions about geography and how Pentecostalism works in various American spaces” (xv). Indeed, Sánchez Walsh provides a comparative religious history of Pentecostalism across the United States, with particular focus on what Pentecostals have said about themselves, each other, America, and the globe more broadly. In many ways, this book is a commentary on the state of the field of American Pentecostal studies. Sánchez Walsh joins a long genealogy of scholars who have told the stories of tongue-talkers, faith healers, and revivalists, in order to think about the contemporary life of “Pentecostalism” as both topic of study and a religious identity and experience that exists today in various formations.

In the field of religious history, as Gastón Espinosa has argued in William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism (Duke 2014), there are essentially three generations of Pentecostal historical studies. The first generation was during the 1920s, immediately following the Azusa Street Revival of 1906. These scholars, many self-taught, were Pentecostals who wanted to trace their own understandings of Pentecostalism back to an “authentic root.” The second generation commenced in the 1940s and carried into the 1960s as white Pentecostals joined the historians’ guild of the National Association of Evangelicals and narrated dominating histories about Pentecostalism that privileged white racists. The third generation emerged in the 1970s and continues to the present through the work of Vinson Synan, Cecil Robeck, Randall Stephans, Estrelda Alexander, James Tinney, David Daniels, Angela Tarango, Calvin White, Clarence Hardy, Grant Wacker, Anthea Butler, Wallace Best, and Judith Casselberry, among many others. Some of these historians have provided substantive critiques of the whitewashing of Pentecostal history and have moved towards more interrogative accounts about racialized, gendered, and classed differences for white, black, Indian, and other non-white Pentecostals.

Yet, what is most significant about these three phases of the historiography on American Pentecostalism, are the ways that many of the accounts of who founded Pentecostalism and where Pentecostalism was founded, do not offer a reflection on why the origin story matters or what significance said frameworks actually hold in American history. Sánchez Walsh contends, “history that is captive to chronology does not analyze why certain people were first. It could be that those who advocate for [insert name of any supposed founder] to hold the founder’s title are correct, but usually they do not say why this was important . . . If we look past timelines, the significance of [insert name of any supposed founder] lies in what [they] symbolized” (xxii). These narratives, then, as the author brilliantly captures throughout her book, are steeped in racialized, gendered, classed, and nationalistic imperatives. In Sánchez Walsh’s estimation, these historiographies, especially among the first and second generations, have all too often escaped analytical critique, given the scores of self-identified Pentecostals who have written Pentecostal history without critical and objective distance from their scholarship (see, for example, Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture [Harvard 2001]).

Sánchez Walsh’s book moves away from an overreliance on chronology and traditional historical narration. She weaves together an account that, of course, discusses Azusa in Los Angeles, but she also includes a discussion about the black sexual politics of late 20th- to early 21st-century televangelist Juanita Bynum in chapter 3, “Gender, Sexualities and Pentecostalism.” Her thematic approach then allows her to provide an astute reading of Elvis Presley’s “prodigal Pentecostalism,” alongside her attention to soul singer Marvin Gaye, white televangelist Joel Osteen, and blues singer Billie Holiday in chapter 4, “Pentecostalism and Popular Culture.” Sánchez Walsh’s concern lies not in the founding of Pentecostalism, but in the use of these origin stories across the 20th century in various racial, geographic, and gendered contexts. She discusses this, particularly, in chapter 1, “Pentecostal Faith and Practice”; chapter 2, “Pentecostal Innovators”; chapter 5, “Race, Ethnicity, and the Construction of an American Pentecostal Identity”; and chapter 6, “Outliers in American Pentecostalism.” These thematically organized chapters are most certainly in conversation with the extensive literature in and significant interventions of women’s religious history and African American, indigenous, and Latinx religious histories.

Although her analytical critiques and thematic framings are perhaps the most noteworthy contributions from Pentecostals in America, Sánchez Walsh’s attention to failed and fake healings in Pentecostalism offers an expansive counter-history to historians’ longstanding emphasis on healings that “work.” In this way, Sánchez Walsh encourages historians to consider what Pentecostals say, what Pentecostals actually do, and what actually happens in Pentecostal spaces across time and space.

Bearing these things in mind, Sánchez Walsh’s book will incite, perhaps, a fourth generation of Pentecostal studies, which will move away from the overemphasis on origins and sanitized narratives to more historically informed thematic approaches. Among its many attributes, Pentecostals in America is also a very readable text that should be of interest to both scholars in and outside of the field of Pentecostal studies, and it will be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate courses in religious studies, American studies, and more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
March 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arlene M. Sánchez Walsh is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of the award-winning Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society (Columbia, 2003).

Keywords: 

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