The Rise of Pentecostalism in Modern El Salvador

From the Blood of the Martyrs to the Baptism of the Spirit

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Timothy H. Wadkins
Studies in World Christianity
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Rise of Pentecostalism in Modern El Salvador forms part of a series that seeks to address the “seismic shift in Christianity’s location, vitality and expression” (vi). The author’s aim in this volume is to “examine the origins and cultural implications of a wide ranging religious resurgence that has taken place over the past half-century in El Salvador” (xi). Timothy H. Wadkins’s training, as a cultural and theological historian with an interest in the intersection between religion and modernization, is evident in achieving this specific aim. Of particular importance is the focus on Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement’s influence in modern El Salvador’s religious resurgence.

The introduction covers the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero on March 24, 1980, the violent civil war immediately following Romero’s death, contributing factors to the civil war (oppression by the aristocracy and military), the book’s research methodology (historical and cultural analysis), the context for the study (the modern history of Christianity in the southern hemisphere), and the research gap (a lack of serious scholarship concerning Evangelical spirituality). (El Salvador is grouped within the southern hemisphere from a global Christianity perspective, as it is indicative of the shift from a predominantly Christianized West to Africa and South America.)  Chapter 1 gives a brief description of the religious landscape throughout the southern hemisphere; the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence in El Salvador; the increase in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in modern El Salvador; descriptions of two mega-churches; and insights on attending an evangelical conference. Chapter 2 provides “a micro-example of the new kind of Christianity” taking place in El Salvador in the 1980s (31); the different approaches to biblical interpretation in the northern and southern hemispheres; and various worldviews operating at that time and up to today (including Pentecostalism’s Spirit and world binary approach). Chapter 3 describes the rise of a new world order, focusing on El Salvador’s religious history; secularization’s limited influence; and a detailed description of social and religious changes taking place during specific four periods: traditional social order (c. 1900), social unraveling (1930-1992), postwar rebuilding (1992-2016), and the new world order (c. 2017). Chapter 4 covers the “Spirit-filled ascendancy in the new world order” (69) starting from 1876 and includes Protestant beginnings (including contributions by the Assemblies of God church), apocalyptic warriors (via radio and campaigns), anticommunist crusaders (congregations and political allegiances), and the postwar fractured spirit-filled family.

Chapter 5 focuses on how Evangelical and Pentecostal El Salvadorians survive their daily challenges, including attending multiple services per week, a Pentecostal/Charismatic liturgy, a sense of belonging, and hopeful persistence evidenced by the changed lives of the interviewees. Chapter 6 describes the influence of consumerism on El Salvadorians; the conflict between religion and culture; the practices of selected megachurches, which focus on “worldly” (material) success in addition to the Holy Spirit; the effect of a personal relationship with God and the preaching of a prosperity gospel. Chapter 7 looks at how Evangelical and Pentecostal El Salvadorians engage with the world, namely considering evangelism as social engagement as well as examples of churches that consider the gospel to be a combination of both salvation and social action. Chapter 8 considers various aspects concerning the Holy Spirit, including the Roman Catholic Charismatic movement; the Latin American Charismatic movement; the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer, the reading of the Scriptures, services, and social action; and the role of the Spirit in renovating a declining El Salvadorian church. Finally, the conclusion wraps up with a review of the aim of the book and possible theoretical interpretations for what is occurring in El Salvador concerning Spirit-filled Christianity and modernization, namely, (1) that “Pentecostal fervor displayed in these poor congregations was largely a reaction to the alienation of these congregants experienced in the confusing and complex world of the megacity” (187); (2) that neoclassic economic theory known as “rational choice” explains the religious consumer behavior observed (188); and (3) that Max Weber’s sociological tradition that “focuses on the independent role of religious belief” explains the “vital connections between Calvinist ideas about predestination and a disciplined work ethic on the one hand and the formation of modern capitalism on the other” (190).

Wadkins’s detailed research and in-depth analysis is presented in an engaging format and is both refreshing and insightful. From a sociological and theological point of view, he describes the historical path of Pentecostalism in modern El Salvador with great skill, providing the reader with historical background, a literature review, transcribed interviews, and careful analysis along the way. The book succeeds in its aim, as Wadkins identifies the El Salvadorian religious and social landscape, describes the disruption caused by both Pentecostalism and the post civil war era’s modernization and consumerism, and offers theoretical insights that include the influence of increased autonomy, cultural diversity, literacy, free market economy, and an openness to democratic political structures. This book is recommended to scholars and lay readers alike who are interested in Pentecostalism and historical and ethnographic research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is Postdoctoral Fellow at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy H. Wadkins is professor of modern Christianity and director of the Institute for Global Study of Religion at Canisius College.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.