"[H]ow does the scholar explain a behavior pattern that, quite literally, makes no sense in the halls of the mainline academy?" Historian Grant Wacker posed that question a few years ago, in an essay printed in the collection Religious Advocacy and American History. He tries to answer it in his rich new book on early Pentecostals, Heaven Below (Harvard), which argues that these "Holy Rollers" were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wished to seem.

Wacker is in a strong position to make this argument. He was raised as a Pentecostal and still calls Pentecostals "my people," though he now identifies himself "simply as an evangelical Christian." He's also a Stanford- and Harvard-educated scholar who teaches American religious history at Duke. His ear is trained for the concerns that both his subjects and his peers might raise.

For example, his chapter on worship begins with the acknowledgement that early Pentecostals would have had little to say on the topic, because "in their minds worship was something one did, not something one theorized about. After all, had not the Holy Spirit delivered them from all that Romish nonsense?" Anticipating the complaints of his colleagues, Wacker often introduces items of evidence with the phrase "chosen virtually at random" to blunt accusations of proof-texting—letting his conclusions rule the data, rather than the other way around.

Wacker should not be accused of slighting his data. He follows the scholarly convention of throwing heaps of evidence (and footnotes) at his topic, but rather than clogging up the book, this source material is its beating heart. Details introduce figures from Pentecostalism's early days (1900-1925) in all their colorful passion—evangelist Burt McCafferty, who cut through 14 inches of ice to baptize a convert; Canadian speaker B.L. Fitzpatrick, who got into a fistfight over a question regarding the nature of God; preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, who told Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to "order your minions of Satan to leave my [radio] station alone."

Yet Wacker asserts that early Pentecostals occupied space within the fringes as well. In fact, in most respects the movement's makeup closely matched the demographic profile of the United States. Where earlier scholars (specifically Robert Mapes Anderson, author of the 1979 book Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism) found a sect composed overwhelmingly of the poor, illiterate victims of rapid modernization, Wacker finds laborers with average schooling and average upward mobility. Certainly early Pentecostals differed from the general public in a number of ways; they were less rigid about race and gender, less patriotic, and much more restrictive regarding social activities, for example. But they weren't the exotic species their critics lampooned.

Once Wacker had retrieved early Pentecostals's stories—largely through meticulous analysis of their many periodicals—he had to decide what to make of them, what interpretive framework to impose. In the essay mentioned above, Wacker likens such endeavors to the work of missionaries, "for [historians], like missionaries, remain convinced that their schemes are somehow more true, or more useful, or more likely to produce further insight, than the actors' own." The task was complicated in this study by the fact that the actors stridently denied having a scheme at all.

Because the Holy Ghost was really in charge, early Pentecostals professed to have no human leaders, no creeds, no business plans, no need for academic training, and no history except the book of Acts. Wacker identifies this aspect of Pentecostal identity as primitivism, "a downward or even backward quest for the infinitely pure and powerful fount of being itself."

Primitivism explains a lot of Pentecostal attitudes and behaviors, but it leaves several key questions unanswered, starting with the question of how a solely backward-looking movement could survive, let alone explode. Wacker finds those answers in another aspect of Pentecostal character: pragmatism. People who claimed to have no leaders flocked to hear big-name evangelists—and touted those names on promotional posters. Believers with no creeds attacked believers who held different ideas about the Trinity or the necessity of speaking in tongues. Zealots with their eyes fixed on heaven managed to turn more than a few bucks on earth, and avowed anti-intellectuals founded Bible colleges. Cool heads clearly helped to keep revival fires burning.

One area of the Pentecostal experience that has remained largely in the grip of the primitivist impulse is the notion of history. In the 1997 revision of his 1971 book on Pentecostalism, Vinson Synan took time in the Preface to justify his addition of the word "tradition" to the title "despite the fact that most Pentecostals have disdained the word 'tradition' as belonging to the older and colder 'established' churches." "History" is not even a product category at Pentecostal Charisma House Books. Acknowledging their roots—which certainly extend through nineteenth-century holiness movements, back to early Methodists and John Wesley, further back to Pietists and Dissenters, and through many other stops on the way to the early church—is not something most Pentecostals have been eager to do. Their opinions on this book, if they publish any, should be interesting.

Quoting his colleague David Steinmetz, Wacker likes to say the historian's task is "to resurrect the dead and let them speak." Wacker accomplishes that goal in Heaven Below, for which both scholars and lay readers can be grateful. But Wacker goes beyond ventriloquism by reading between his subjects' lines to uncover traits the actors would not have recognized, and likely would have repudiated. The resulting sympathetic yet challenging account represents a crucial advance in Pentecostal scholarship.

* CH issue 58 focuses on Pentecostalism and can be found online: The Rise of Pentacostalism

* Books mentioned in this essay include:

  1. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, by Grant Wacker; Harvard, 2001; $35
  2. Religious Advocacy and American History, edited by Bruce Kuklick and D.G. Hart; Eerdmans, 1997
  3. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, by Vinson Synan; Eerdmans, 1997 [1971]
  4. Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism, by Robert Mapes Anderson; Oxford, 1979

For your convenience, Religious Advocacy and American History, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, and Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism are available in the ChristianityToday.com bookstore.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at cheditor@christiantytoday.com.

The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.