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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture by Grant Wacker (Harvard University Press) In this lively history of the rise of Pentecostalism in the United States, Grant Wacker gives an in-depth account of the beliefs and religious practices of Pentecostal churches as well as an engaging picture of the way these played out in daily life.

The core tenets of Pentecostal belief: ­personal salvation, Holy Ghost baptism, divine healing, and anticipation of the Lord's imminent return---took root in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Wacker examines, with remarkable sensitivity, the various aspects of Pentecostal culture, including rituals, peaking in tongues, the authority of the Bible, the central role of Jesus in everyday life, the gifts of prophecy and healing ideas about personal appearances and deportment, women's roles, race relations, and attitudes toward politics and the government. Tracking the daily lives of Pentecostals, and paying close attention to the voices of individual men and women, Wacker is able to identify the reason for the movements spectacular success: a demonstrated ability to balance idealistic and pragmatic impulses, to adapt distinct religious convictions to meet the expectations of modern life.

More than twenty million American adults today consider themselves Pentecostal. Given the movement's major place in American religious life, the history of its early years is of            l central importance. This is the history perceptively told in  Heaven Below.

This book seeks to explore a small but important slice of this vast-and vastly complicated-global religious phenomenon. My topic is the cultural terrain sculpted by first-generation Pentecostals in the United States. I harbor no illusions that the movement's founders were moral giants, nor do I sup­pose that their successors were moral midgets. Cranks and scoundrels along with many manifestly saintly souls turned up in all generations, and the first was no exception. But the founders sparked the effervescent period of rapid symbol formation. The ideas, practices, and institutions they set in motion persisted long after their deaths and, to a great extent, continued to define Pentecostal patterns in America at the end of the twentieth century. From them later adherents learned what questions to ask of life and, perhaps more important, what questions not to ask. By the 1930s the guiding lights of that first generation were dimming with the trials of old age. Energetic young leaders were surging forward, eager to take over. The fire from heaven would continue to fall, but never again, it seemed, with that same awesome power. Aims Sometimes it appears that the only thing growing faster than the worldwide Pentecostal-charismatic movement is the flow of scholarly books and articles about it. No wonder. The revival's size, angularity, and historical proximity have made it an attractive specimen for testing every conceivable theory about ecstatic experience, sect formation, and religious evolution. Charles Edwin Jones's multivolume bibliographic Guide(s) to the holiness, Pentecos­tal, black perfectionist, and charismatic movements contain literally thou­sands of entries. Most refer to primary sources written by partisans, but many hundreds record secondary treatments by theologians, historians, religion­ists, and social scientists."

Much the same can be said for the early history of pentecostals in the United States, the subject of this book. Generalists have mapped the broad contours of the story, and specialists have tracked the emergence of all of the major denominations and some of the smaller ones too. Missiologists have examined the revival's aggressive outreach programs. Biographers have traced the careers of prominent leaders, including Charles Fox Parham, Maria Woodworth-Etter, and Aimee Semple McPherson. Theologians have excavated the movement's ideational roots in the rich sectarian loam of the nineteenth century. Some of these scholars have moved beyond the early years and ably traced the narrative into the later decades of the twentieth cen­tury. Taken together, their work adds up to an impressive amount of scholarly attention

So why the present study? Remarkably, few have provided what early Pen­tecostals themselves surely would have considered most important: a close description of their everyday lives, and especially the religious aspects of their everyday lives. Once we start this line of inquiry, the questions tumble forth in dizzying profusion. How did believers interpret their religious experi­ences? Structure their worship? Choose their leaders? Regulate their leisure? Perceive other Christians? Function in the workplace? Relate to the nation? In brief, what did the world look and feel like in that first intense burst of en­thusiasm just before and after World War I?

In seeking answers to these questions I have listened less to formal theo­logical debates and more to the conversations that took place around the kitchen table. Literary critic Lionel Trilling once urged students of the past to pay particular attention to the "hum and buzz of implication," the part of culture that "never gets fully stated, coming in the tone of greetings and the tone of quarrels, in slang and humor and popular songs, in the way children play, in the gesture the waiter makes when he puts down the plate, in the very nature of the food we prefer." This book seeks to follow Trilling's advice. I try to catch the "hum and buzz of implication," the multitudinous whispers of everyday life that the other studies have tended to overlook.

Though the book's primary goal is simply to register the sounds of the Pentecostal past as fully as possible in a single volume, a closely related sec­ondary aim is to understand why the movement survived at all. In 1910 few outsiders believed that it would last another decade, let alone another cen­tury. Internal dissension met external ridicule every day of the week. So why did this new mix of old ingredients prove so viable? In brief, what made it work?

In the last twenty-five years scholars have offered numerous explanations for pentecostalism's persistence. Most fit into one of three categories. The first might be called the compensation model. In this perspective the move­ment is best understood as a substitute for the material comforts and social esteem that converts wanted but could not obtain. In the words of one thoughtful proponent of this position, enthusiasts sought to relieve their dis­tress by losing themselves in the "almost wholly otherworldly, symbolic, and psychotherapeutic" benefits of supernaturalist religion. The second expla­nation might be called the functional model. In this perspective the pentecos­tal revival seems less an effort to escape adversity than a creative resource for dealing with it. In the face of wrenching social changes, the argument runs, the Holy Ghost movement provided an island of stability in a sea of chaos. It offered respite from toil, release from loneliness, and comfort in the face of death. The third explanation might be called the mobilization model. In this perspective pentecostal leaders functioned as creative agents in their own right. They loomed large on the religious landscape when they established the institutional structures that made their emergence possible, and tumbled into obscurity when they failed to keep those structures intact. Simply stated, energetic leaders first created a need, then moved people and material re­sources to meet it.

All three of these explanations for pentecostalism's vitality have much to commend them, but all reveal two shortcomings. First, they tend to sidestep troublesome data that do not fit the scheme. Second, they tend to relegate religious motives to a secondary role. In this study, therefore, I try to address those needs by frankly acknowledging the angularity of the data and by giv­ing religious motives their proper due. I do not suppose that my interpreta­tion displaces the others, but I do think that it adds an enriching perspective.

My main argument can be stated in a single sentence: The genius of the Pen­tecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in productive tension. I call the two impulses the primitive and the pragmatic. The nuances of each will become apparent in due course, but for now we might simply think of them as idealism versus realism, or principle versus practicality. Sociologist James Mathisen once remarked that the main chal­lenge most religious movements face is figuring out how to capture lightning in a bottle. Pentecostals' distinctive understanding of the human encounter with the divine, which included both primitivist and pragmatic dimensions, enabled them to capture lightning in a bottle and, more important, to keep it there, decade after decade, without stilling the fire or cracking the vessel.

Because supporting this thesis constitutes the interpretive burden of the following chapters, it may be helpful briefly to explain how it arose in the course of my research, and why it seems a useful framework for understanding the movement’s remarkable tensile strength


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