The stereotype of pentecostals as libertines on the lam is almost as old as the revival itself. Saints themselves bore much of the blame, for they used charges of immoral sexual activities as a club for thumping each other in intramural power struggles. Charles Parham, often described as the movement's founder, claimed that lewd behavior had disgraced Holy Ghost missions in the Midwest and southern California. "The wild, weird prayer services in many of these fanatical meetings, where the contact of bodies in motion is as certain and damning as in the dance hall, leads to free-love, affinity-foolism and soul-mating." Parham asserted—without a trace of evidence, one might add—that some leading Chicago workers had found themselves in a "delicate condition" because unorthodox views of sanctification had eroded their moral standards. Word and Witness repudiated Parham himself for unspecified "sins." Still more damaging was the charge or implication by some factions that others espoused free love teachings and practices. This indictment cropped up in the early issues of the Azusa Apostolic Faith, reappeared in periodicals throughout the United States and in Britain, and troubled black as well as white fellowships.

Outsiders added fuel to the fire. Radical evangelicals perennially claimed that Holy Ghost folk engaged in sexual practices too vile to detail in polite company. Novelists and movie producers soon joined in, shrewdly sensing that pentecostals—who lacked the financial and legal resources to fight back—offered a lucrative source of sizzling plot lines. So it was that John Steinbeck would forever typecast apostolics as poor, illiterate, and licentious in his 1939 classic, The Grapes of Wrath. "I used to get the people jumpin' an' talkin' in tongues and glory-shoutin' till they just fell down an' passed out," said the Reverend Casy, a one-time Holy Ghost preacher. "An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time." So too the adultery, cruelty, and hypocrisy of a black "Fire Baptized" preacher formed one of the main narrative threads in James Baldwin's 1952 classic, Go Tell It on the Mountain. When the protagonist—significantly named Gabriel Grimes—finally found the strength to resist sexual temptation, dance hall women laughed at him. "[T]hey knew a long brown girl who could make him lay his Bible down. He fled from them; they frightened him." A pentecostal holy man, it seemed, never escaped vulnerability.

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By the 1990s Hollywood had gone to great lengths to avoid any hint of racial, ethnic, or sexual stereotyping. Yet in Cape FearRobert DeNiro played a cigar-smoking, pentecostal "cracker" turned psychopathic rapist-murderer. DeNiro's villainous character, tattooed with Bible verses and a cross, met his violent demise babbling in tongues. Reviewers, tasting a bit of blood themselves, rushed in for the kill on this overwrought remake of a 1962 thriller. Yet none intimated that the main character himself—described by one as a "homicidal genius … gone hillbilly and Pentecostal"—might have been wildly improbable. Admittedly Robert Duvall's The Apostle, released in 1998, offered a more textured portrait of a fireball preacher as a man of integrity struggling with his own demons. But even if Duvall's character was pentecostal, which may be debated, he still emerged as violent, poorly educated and, of course, a womanizer.

Fact or fiction? Common sense tells us surely some of both, but the preponderance of evidence supports the latter. First, hard proof of sexual misconduct by first-generation leaders is virtually impossible to come by. Unquestionably some notables were careless of appearances, but that is not the same as proof. Second, perceived strayers faced discipline in church tribunals or found themselves abandoned by the rank and file (with the notable exception of Aimee McPherson, whose alleged misconduct made great press copy but was never substantiated). Third, no measurable faction ever tried to redefine the boundaries of normative sexual behavior, as the Mormons and the Oneida Perfectionists had done. Those who said that pentecostals practiced free love invariably said it about someone else and, except for Charles Fox Parham, never seemed able to name actual sites.

Viewed from afar, then, the most reasonable explanation for the licentiousness stereotype was self-interest. Insiders' claims that other insiders had strayed into gross immorality helped establish the accusers' own doctrinal and moral purity. Likewise outsiders' claims helped establish the doctrinal and moral integrity of the outsiders—or lined their pockets with ready cash. Moreover pentecostals brought much of the problem on themselves in a way not yet noted. From the beginning they proved eager to flaunt their rectitude. When conversion, sanctification, and Holy Spirit baptism did not turn them into saints, but left them ordinary Christians subject to the same failings that bedeviled everyone else, the rest of the world noticed.

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Grant Wacker is Associate Professor of the History of Religion in America, Duke University. Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, by Grant Wacker, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2001 by Grant Wacker.

Related Elsewhere:

Christian History Corner's Elesha Coffman reviewedHeaven Below last week.

Christian History's issue 58 tells the story of Pentecostalism's beginnings and early years, and includes an article by Wacker on the reception pentecostalism received from evangelicals. The issue can be ordered here.

Peter Steinfels wrote about Wacker's book in The New York Times while Alan Wolfe reviewed it for The New Republic.

See Harvard University Press' Web page for Heaven Below:Early Pentacostals and American Culture.

Heaven Below can be ordered from and other book retailers.