The Rise of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity | Dale M. Coulter

Oe recently celebrated the centenary of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon “Will Fundamentalists Win? Delivered on May 21, 1922, the sermon was a call to arms for progressives among Baptists, Presbyterians and Northern Congregationalists. The fundamentalist movement had taken off with the publication of the twelve volumes The fundamentals between 1910 and 1915. Fosdick saw skirmishes begin between fundamentalists and modernists and decided it was time to wake up the troops. Lambasting fundamentalists for their illiberalism, Fosdick argued for “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant and freedom-loving church.” He wanted a church that fused modern science with biblical witness in service of social issues. If fundamentalists won, then Christians would be driven out of Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the name of a literalist approach to Scripture that condones only one vision of the second coming and the virgin birth.

The ensuing fundamentalist-modernist debate tore Northern Protestantism apart; the modernists came to dominate northern institutions while the fundamentalists created new ones.

American Protestantism comes to be defined by this debate. In general, mainstream Protestantism has become a big tent for modernists and evangelicalism a big tent for fundamentalists. Of course, the details are much more complex. You cannot reduce evangelicalism to fundamentalism or mainstream Protestantism to modernism. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy set the tone for American religion for much of the 20th century.

Or did he? Over the past two months, no less than a dozen essays have appeared reflecting on Fosdick’s question and attempting to answer it. Historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Diana Butler Bass, and Thomas S. Kidd have all written about it, with Bass and Kidd agreeing that the fundamentalists won. What unites all of these pieces is a consensus that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy has shaped American religious life. In Bass’s words, the controversy “is a long shadow that hangs over the last century and . . . we feel its continued influence every day in our churches and in our politics.

What if this consensus is wrong? What if this is the wrong historical paradigm with which to view American religion in the 20th century? This paradigm overlooks the rise of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement in the decade between 1900 and 1910, which brought sweeping changes to American religion. The history of American religion looks different if one considers the rise of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity rather than seeing American Protestantism in the 20th century as primarily concerned with a debate for cultural and political power.

A better story might recognize how Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity captured the impulses of first-wave feminism and translated those impulses into a rhetoric of holiness that spawned women leaders such as Bishop Ida B. Robinson, Mother Rosa Horn, Florence Crawford, and Aimee Semple McPherson. Long before most Protestant denominations began debating the ordination of women, Pentecostals had women as pastors, bishops, and founders of new denominations.

Second, this new story would explore how early black Pentecostalism contributed to the development of blues, jazz, and gospel. The efforts of musicians like blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson; the pianist Arizona Dranes who played the barrel; and singer Rosetta Tharpe would be interviewed to determine how they contributed to these new musical forms. Zora Neale Hurston called this musical expression “Protestantism”, leading to a renaissance in songwriting. James Baldwin (Go say it on the mountain) and Langston Hughes (Tambourines to Glory) sought to capture it in literary form.

A better paradigm would also examine how early rock history was influenced by Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity. Many artists like Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye came out of Pentecostal churches, translating fast music into a new form. Both the rock concert and the Pentecostal worship were very participatory events with singing, shouting and dancing.

Third, it would examine the efforts of some Pentecostals, such as William J. Seymour and Charles H. Mason, to change the social fabric of American life by arranging meetings with male and female preachers and mingling different ethnic groups in the congregation, around the front of the altar and on the platform. These early efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful in overcoming Jim Crow laws and culture as other Pentecostals capitulated. Nonetheless, they set the tone for healing evangelists such as Oral Roberts and AA Allen, who sought to reclaim and implement this interracial view in the 1950s.

They also set the tone for the shockwave that hit black Pentecostalism when Emmett Till was brutally murdered. His mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, was a member of the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where Emmett’s body was taken to the world. In 1963, Bishop AA Childs opened the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ for the funeral of Malcolm X when no other congregation in Harlem would. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech was at Mason Temple in Memphis.

Finally, a better story would need to reframe the major events of American Christianity in the 20th century, starting with the rise of the Pentecostals and exploring its rapid growth. Evangelicals wanted to bring white Pentecostalism under the umbrella of the National Association of Evangelicals just before the start of World War II. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, viewed the Pentecostals as little better than heretics and tried to make behind-the-scenes deals to have them removed from the newly formed NAE.

This new historiography would then examine the emergence of the divine healing movement in the 1950s. Oral Roberts, not Billy Graham, would be the main evangelist. This would look to the emergence of the charismatic movement in the 1960s and 1970s as mainstream Catholics and Protestants began to experiment with Pentecostal spirituality. This movement occurred simultaneously with the turning point in immigration and the influx of Hispanics in the 1970s and 80s. Since Pentecostalism had taken off in Central and South America, many of these immigrants were either Pentecostal-charismatic, or Catholic. This explains why most Hispanics in the United States belong to one of these two forms of Christianity.

What if we rewrite the history of Protestantism in the 20th century in terms of the rise of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity rather than in terms of the debate between fundamentalists and modernists? The history of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity is not simply a Protestant history. It’s a story about American religion rooted in a spirituality rather than an institution. It is the story of a spirituality that pleases both Catholics and Protestants. It is a story about American musical forms and ongoing efforts at racial integration on a populist level. It is the story of the demise of white European Christianity (whether fundamentalist or mainstream) and the rise of a new, multi-ethnic Christianity that celebrates popular culture.

Dale M. Coulter is Professor of Historical Theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary.

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