Explaining the Ineffable
"[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 ...