The Gift of Black Pentecostalism
A chance to renew the church and to heal the nations.
By Robert M. Franklin
As the former president of Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center, which includes a black Pentecostal seminary, I find it a bit odd that a national—indeed, international—conference on African American Pentecostalism should convene at Harvard Divinity School. But then I recall that Harvard has always provided safe harbor for traditions struggling against the religious status quo.
When I was a student here in the mid-1970s, the Dean, Krister Stendahl, lectured on the Book of Romans and upset everyone’s equilibrium by suggesting that the Apostle Paul never experienced a conversion but rather a special calling, and continued to operate within the sacred cosmology of Pharisaic Judaism. But when my classmate Samuel Hogan and I started a small Bible study group that rapidly evolved into a budding congregation, and I approached Krister about possibly renting Andover Chapel for summer services, I didn’t expect this apparent Lutheran heretic to be sympathetic to our request. Perhaps more surprising than his lectures on Paul was his reply that afternoon. “Of course,” he said, “this is the sort of thing that Harvard should support because the new energy in the churches is not coming from this chapel, it’s coming from churches like yours.” Then, staring off into the distance, as if to anticipate the response of the Harvard faculty, he smiled and added, “Yes, I think the chapel could use a bit of high-voltage religion.”
As my classmates returned the next fall, I was proud to announce that we had renamed the familiar space the Andover Chapel Pentecostal Holiness Church of God in Christ, and that Krister Stendahl was our first bishop.
I am not a professional historian, a systematic theologian, or a New Testament scholar, though I often play one on the radio or television (preferably for no more than 90 seconds). I identify myself most closely with the guild of Christian ethics, particularly with its strong commitment to enhancing Christianity as a practiced spiritual discipline. So, what is it that an ethicist reared and nurtured in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition wishes to say to such a luminous, perhaps even numinous, audience? I have one central claim: African American Pentecostalism has a gift to offer for the renewal of the Christian church and for the healing of the nations. W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard, wrote a classic text in 1924 titled The Gift of Black Folk. In that spirit, we should inquire, “What is the gift of black Pentecostalism?” I will briefly mention just four aspects of that gift. Among the practices, values, and early achievements of black Pentecostalism that merit greater study and critical recovery are the following:
First, black Pentecostals at the Azusa revival in Los Angeles in 1906 fostered a social and spiritual environment in which race and racism could be marginalized and relativized, if not altogether eradicated. Historian Walter Hollenweger records this account of the British Anglican A. A. Boddy, who for many years was the leader of British Pentecostalism: “It was something very extraordinary, that white pastors from the South were eagerly prepared to go to Los Angeles to the Negroes, to have fellowship with them and to receive through their prayers and intercessions the blessings of the Spirit. And it was still more wonderful that these white pastors went back to the South and reported to the members of their congregations that they had been together with Negroes, that they had prayed in the Spirit and received the same blessings as they.”1
As Gayraud Wilmore observes, “at first, [William J.] Seymour’s Pentecostalism could boast that ‘the color line was washed away in the blood’ of Christ, but that lasted only about two years.” It would be too easy to focus on the reassertion of white supremacist ideology that corrupted this nonracialist theological achievement. What else is new? I would prefer that we give due credit to those who resisted the hegemony of American racism while attempting to foster a “surrogate world” in which race was not the first and only significant social characteristic. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would later attempt to mobilize similar counterculture energies for racial inclusion, as his theology of “beloved community” evolved. It would have been encouraging to him to know that a nonracial religious movement under African American leadership was possible, albeit fragile.
Second, black Pentecostalism challenged conventional or mainline black churches to experience renewal by radically redirecting their energies away from assimilation into the religion of the slave master and toward assertion of their distinctive African Christian identity. Bishop Ithiel Clemmons said it best: Black Pentecostals were attempting to re-Africanize black Christianity. Meanwhile, white Pentecostal leaders and most black Baptist and Methodist leaders dismissed black Pentecostal practice as uncouth, “heathenish,” and contrary to New Testament Christianity. And these were the more polite forms of dismissal.
Neither side was innocent here—the disdain and name-calling were mutual and as ugly as the regrettable exchanges between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. But black Pentecostals boldly and proudly retrieved worship practices long associated with African traditional religions, including dancing, shouting, drumming, clapping, and the use of percussive instruments such as tambourines and washboards. Indeed, given the persistent and vigorous efforts of the black middle class to suppress manifestations of what Albert Raboteau has called “slave religion,” it is amazing that this same tradition has emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century to be the most influential spiritual and cultural force in contemporary black Christianity. Indeed, William J. Seymour must surely be laughing joyfully and proudly to see the children of Richard Allen, Elias Camp Morris, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Absalom Jones, and George Alexander McGuire now worship together with the children of Charles Harrison Mason and Bishop Ida Robinson.
Third, black Pentecostalism has demonstrated a willingness to go on the offensive in confronting personal and social sin in ways that have enabled adherents to experience deliverance or a state of psychological and social liberation that defied their constricted social status and locations. Here, I am indebted to conversation partners such as Bishop O. T. Jones, Jr., Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, David Daniels, Alonzo Johnson, Cheryl Sanders, and Eugene Rivers, who have written and spoken eloquently about the kind of “in your face” ministry that Pentecostal churches have sponsored in the nation’s toughest neighborhoods.
I once asked Bishop Jones, a Philadelphia Church of God in Christ bishop who was a generation or two ahead of his time in ordaining women, why Pentecostal churches seemed to thrive in tough urban centers. He noted first that Pentecostal churches self-consciously transplanted their Southern patterns of care and discipline into Northern cities. Many alienated Northern blacks found Pentecostal culture to be a therapeutic intervention that aided in their reattachment to the extended family, the village, and to the land. But also, Pentecostal churches took seriously the New Testament’s messages about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that could actually subvert the sovereignty of evil in a person’s life. In the face of growing numbers of addicted and self-hating young people, Pentecostals were not content simply to organize social-service programs or to increase referrals to secular health care providers. Rather, they took charge of these situations and courageously confronted social sin in a direct manner.
We should not lose sight of the theological underpinning of this social ministry. People believed that God would be with them as they confronted evil, then they trusted God to empower them to reach the hardest-to-reach segments of the population. And as Bishop Jones put it, they actually believed there was no condition or situation that was beyond redemption. Consequently, they lived out a theology of resurrection hope.
Fourth, Black Pentecostalism has projected a bold Christian witness into all the world at a time when traditional Christian missions have fallen into disfavor. Although black Pentecostals should not claim excessive credit for the growth of Pentecostalism in the developing world, neither should their longstanding presence in the Caribbean, Africa, and South America be discounted.
Perhaps there are scholars who are aware of the direct influence of black Pentecostal leaders on the growth of global Pentecostalism—that is not my field, and I am prepared to be tutored on this. My own evidence is of a more anecdotal nature. During my own travels throughout Africa, Brazil, Asia, and the Caribbean in the last two years, I have observed that church leaders throughout the Third World listen to African American Pentecostals, especially T. D. Jakes, Gilbert Patterson, Charles Blake, and Creflo Dollar, who are easily accessible through television, radio, and the Internet. And this complement of preachers is balanced by several prominent white Pentecostal and evangelical leaders. For the record, during that entire period, I never saw anyone listening to a sermon by Billy Graham. Clearly, we are in a post-Graham era, in which Pentecostals own the microphone.
Amplifying this point, C. Eric Lincoln has noted that “internationally Pentecostalism is very much a Third World movement.” He goes on to suggest that by 1970, “there were estimated to be from 25 to 35 million Pentecostals worldwide, while the original Holiness movement could be credited with having given impetus to the founding of well over a hundred new denominations.”2
It is also worth noting that not only have respected African American scholars begun to pay more attention to black Pentecostalism, which many in the past dismissed as a lower-class cult phenomenon, some of the nation’s most prominent white sociologists are also attempting to understand it. This is how sociologist Peter Berger regards the social and economic consequence of this international Pentecostal presence: “I have long argued (and have not changed my mind) that evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version, is the most important popular movement serving (mostly inadvertently) as a vehicle of cultural globalization. It is a movement of astounding scope—in large areas of East and Southeast Asia, in the Pacific Islands, in sub-Saharan Africa, and most dramatically in Latin America.”3
Phillip Jenkins in his recent popular book, The Next Christendom, supports the point with a provocative thesis: “Over the past century, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”4 Jenkins then highlights the “countless implications for theology and religious practice” of this shift southward:
In countries where there is significant poverty, many Western scholars expected a greater embrace of liberation theology’s political analysis, but something else seems to have happened. “Southern Christians” are more conservative in belief and moral teaching with a strong supernatural orientation, reflect more interest in personal salvation than radical politics, and preach deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and Puritanism founded on clear scriptural authority. There is greater openness to faith healing, exorcism, dream, visions, and a conservative family ethic.5
Despite similarities in their social analysis, Berger highlights Weber’s theory about the “elective affinity” between certain forms of religious faith and success in a capitalist economy. He notes several characteristics of the new Third World manifestation of the “Protestant ethic”:
It does not typically use the English language, and its worship (especially in its music) takes over many indigenous forms. However, the “spirit” that is expressed here has unmistakably Anglo-Saxon traits, especially in its powerful combination of individualistic self-expression, egalitarianism (especially between men and women), and the capacity for creating voluntary associations. Thus, it . . . facilitates social mobility in developing market economies . . . [and] among the leaders of this movement there is a consciousness of being part of a global movement, with increasing cross-national contacts between them and with the centers of evangelicalism in the United States.6
This last point about contacts between Pentecostals and evangelicals in the United States and those throughout the Third World is pertinent to the point I wish to develop regarding the potential for greater global influence by black Pentecostals.
Black Pentecostalism has embraced an inclusive racial and cultural vision.
My short list here represents my perception of some of the achievements or gifts of black Pentecostalism. It has embraced an inclusive racial and cultural vision; it has experienced and suggested renewal through acceptance of its own African traditional roots; it has sponsored bold and transformative urban ministries; and it has reached into all the world to promote authentic, non-racist Christianity.
Not to romanticize the tradition, I should note that although some black Pentecostals made space for innovations such as women’s ordained leadership (Bishop Ida Robinson’s Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, Inc., 1924), this was not a uniform practice throughout the tradition and continues to be a point of controversy among some of the black Pentecostal denominations, especially the Church of God in Christ. The extraordinary work of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cheryl Sanders, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Daphne Wiggins, Katie Cannon, and many others underscores the genius of black church women who maneuvered within, and navigated around, patriarchalism in black church culture. Nevertheless, this continues to be among the great fault lines within black Pentecostalism, testing its capacity to live out a radically new order guided by the radically egalitarian spirit who pours out on all flesh, sons and daughters. Why is it taking so long to grasp this revelation?
I want to suggest that black Pentecostals have an opportunity and a moral obligation to offer new resources for the renewal of the church and the healing of the nations. And, as that process unfolds, Pentecostals will place themselves in a position to be transformed by other traditions in ways that could make us all more faithful disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, it’s already happening as the sons and daughters of Seymour matriculate in places like Harvard, Yale, Union, Howard, Princeton, Fuller, Notre Dame, Emory, and the ITC for critical and passionate theological formation.
Others have more effectively made the point of how Pentecostalism seeks to renew the church at large. I simply wish to advance an ethical analysis: that if Pentecostal Christians are to offer their gifts for the renewal of the church, they must engage or assist in developing new ecumenical venues where worship, dialogue, learning, and action can be undertaken.
In the past, Pentecostals have often been overlooked or devalued with respect to participation in mainline ecumenical dialogue. But as has been widely noted, the ecumenical movement is near or beyond the point of death at this time, and I suspect many of you are thinking that this would be a waste of valuable time. Yet, I see the work of ecumenism as rooted in the core of Jesus’ ministry. His final prayer calls us to regard ourselves, and to live as if we really are, one body of Christ. The Apostle Paul claims that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passing away and all things are being made new. This is linked to the new ministry of reconciliation to which all Christians are called. And reconciliation involves voluntarily reaching out and engaging those from whom we feel estranged.
I regard this as a litmus test for authentic Christian discipleship. Are you willing to waste time in dialogue, in worship, in collaborative work with other Christians who appear to be less passionate in their devotion to Christ? The secret may be that this “waste” of time is a quiet, faithful investment, a bit like visiting the site of a mustard seed you’ve planted and waiting for a tree to emerge. That is a waste of time. But perhaps you are preparing for a tree to explode from the ground after you are no longer present to see it.
Ecumenism needs resurrection. And that resurrection need not assume the familiar conciliar forms established by Anglo-European-American church leaders. It is a movement in desperate need of innovation, fresh thinking, and new moral agency. Renewing ecumenical interaction is a moral imperative in a world of church fragmentation and tension. Also, Pentecostals who have never participated in ecumenical dialogue would benefit from being exposed and held accountable to the larger church and its body of teaching, history of scriptural interpretation, and forms of public ministry. So, black Pentecostalism stands to give and gain much from a more vigorous engagement with global ecumenism. Our new voices could give rise to new movements that could advance the cause of peace and justice.
I would now like to devote more attention to the other half of my claim about the gifts of Pentecostalism.
Two years ago, Emilie Townes of Union Theological Seminary, now at Yale, brought to my attention an Internet exercise titled “Something to Think About.” It asks the reader to shrink the earth’s entire population to 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same. This is not what we might look like or could look like, but what there actually would be. Here is the result: 57 Asians; 21 Europeans; 14 from North and South America; 8 Africans; 52 would be female; 48 would be male; 70 would be darker-skinned people; 30 white people; 70 would be from a religious tradition other than Christianity; 30 would be Christian; 89 would be heterosexual; 11 would be homosexual; 59 percent of the entire world’s wealth would belong to only 6 people and all 6 would be citizens of the United States; 80 would live in substandard housing; 70 would be unable to read; 50 would suffer from malnutrition; 1 would be near death; 1 would be near birth; only 1 would have a college education; 99 of them would not see this message, because only 1 would have a computer.
The exercise ended with these words: “When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for both acceptance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent.”7
The work of healing the nations is not a new assignment. We have heard it before from one who also studied theology here in Boston. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. King was trying to point us into the future. And, here, the teacher in me comes out, because I’d like to assign some required reading. Every one of us should read the final chapter of that book, “The World House.” I think of it as King’s last testament. He opens with the story of a novelist who dies and leaves among his papers suggestions for future stories. One of the most prominently highlighted suggestions, King relates, is: “a widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.”
“This is the great new problem of humankind,” King continues. “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interest, who, be-cause we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”8
Then, in my favorite quote, he adds:
All people are interdependent . . . whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world. . . . All life is interrelated. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.9
As I develop the point, bear in mind my conversation with Bishop Jones about the efficacy of urban Pentecostal ministry. In the fascinating book Globalization and Survival in the Black Diaspora, Hunter College sociologist Charles Green has collected essays from scholars throughout Africa, Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean. He focuses on an interesting demographic development that is largely taken for granted, namely, that the “majority of the world’s population is urbanized and resides in mega cities, mid-size cities, and suburban areas.”10‚ The United Nations Population Growth projections indicate that the level of the urbanization for the world as a whole is expected to increase to 65 percent by 2025. But, in the less developed regions of the world, the growth factor will be 83 percent by 2025, up from 75 percent now. Today, 17 of the world’s 20 largest cities are in less developed countries, and of the 7 mega cities, with a population of 15 million or more, 5 are in developing countries (these include Mexico City and São Paulo).
Green also notes that as people are attracted to the cities, largely in search of jobs and a better standard of living, they abandon their land and many of their land-based rituals and traditions. And they arrive at a time when the global economy is rapidly be-coming an information economy that has little need for uneducated, low-skilled labor.
We are witnessing the emergence of an international underclass residing in overcrowded slums throughout major urban centers of the world. To be blunt about it, this is a Pentecostal demographic.
Given the Pentecostal advantage in urban ministry, the gift of black Pentecostalism if you will, should we not consider a more vigorous and strategic engagement with the masses, especially the youth of the world who are looking for better answers to their existential questions?
What is our message to the street children of Rio de Janeiro who are the victims of violent attacks by the police and armed citizens, or to the marginalized and self-conscious Afro-British youth in London’s Brixton neighborhood, or to the teenage Puerto Ricans on the margins of San Juan? They are all experimenting with a common rhetoric of rebellion and are in search of meaning. These are the young people who will not be hired by McDonald’s and who may be vulnerable to two terrible vocational options. They know that they are expendable; unemployed and unemployable.
These kids are vulnerable to what South African scholar Ann Bernstein calls a growing international criminal culture. It includes the new “Nigerian drug dealers” and the “Russian Mafia.” It engages in international money-laundering, weapons sales, kidnapping, and expanding the sex-tourism market. It offers a fast, intense life in which one can score big money and live like a great American gangster who dies young and in a blaze of glory.
How can we aid in the healing of this nation, this young, angry, alienated “rhythm nation”? Already, Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ is pointing the way with the initiative on aids orphans. We can convey our love and concern to these youth by demonstrating that we are willing to share the considerable political influence and prosperity of the black middle class by leveraging it with the White House and international organizations.
Let me be more prescriptive. I propose that a pan-Pentecostal group of leaders consider convening an international youth summit to include the most influential and dynamic youth leaders throughout the developing world, both Christian and non-Christian. This summit, or youth congress, might serve two purposes: church leaders could listen and learn from these young people as they present their pain, aspirations, and struggles; and church leaders could present current and proposed programs, strategies, and activities in the area of foreign mission and youth ministry, and allow these leaders to respond to them in an honest manner. Allow Gene Rivers to talk to them about the Ten Point Coalition; let Bishop Blake outline his strategy for healing the villages and saving the orphans of Africa.
We know who these leaders are. We know that they would respond favorably to an invitation to visit Los Angeles and Hollywood. Perhaps a group of Los Angeles mega-churches could sponsor the effort.
I’m tired of safe conferences and routine convocations that lack spiritual transcendence and political risk-taking in the cause of justice.
This is only one idea, and it may not be the right one. But, it would move us beyond business as usual in a world dashing toward destruction and death. I’m tired of safe conferences and routine convocations that lack spiritual transcendence and political risk-taking in the cause of justice. Is this the best that we can do with the power that has been poured? Will the world benefit from yet another navel-gazing conference on philosophical pneumatology and comparative glossalalia?
Let me offer a final observation about the increasing political capital of black Pentecostals.
In a recent email to the Afropentecostal listserv, a senior staff person from a prominent historically black university observed that the public prominence of the AME Church during the nineteenth century, which shifted to black Baptists in the twentieth century, now early in the twenty-first century belongs to black Pentecostals.
Clearly some prominent black Pentecostals now enjoy high social visibility, significant financial prosperity, media appeal, and access to the most powerful leader in the world. This is extraordinary when one considers the place of black Pentecostals less than 100 years ago. One might say that we’ve “holy rolled” our way up to the White House in stretch limousines. But, what is to be done with this exceptional opportunity? This is a stewardship question.
Are Pentecostal leaders willing to challenge the empire to do the right thing for the over 45 million Americans who lack health coverage and live in fear that a medical catastrophe could devastate their families? We cannot allow others to talk about faith and family while ignoring the condition of the working poor. Are Pentecostal leaders willing to challenge the government to revisit the alternatives to war in Iraq? Even if it earns them a place on the FBI’s watch list, as it did Bishop Charles Mason? Are Pentecostal leaders willing to declare that even if they do not affirm the life-style of gay and lesbian people, we will not align ourselves with reactionary groups that wish to do harm to God’s children or to build a political movement on the backs of the most vulnerable groups in society?
The German social critic Jürgen Habermas has said that every social system needs a “legitimating myth,” a system of ideas and stories that help to legitimize the political and economic status quo. Schools, churches, corporations, and marketing are all in the business of legitimizing the system from which they all benefit. But, when the myths no longer mystify, when they no longer persuade people to live with widening disparities in wealth and power, then, he says, something interesting happens. He calls this a “legitimation crisis.”
This is one of those WWJD moments. What would Jesus do if he had access to the portals of power? If black Pentecostals would be loyal to the poor, Palestinian Jew who upset the equilibrium of the Hebrew-Greco-Roman power structure, then we must ensure that the political and economic power structure does not assume that we agree or accept this arrangement of power.
The temptation when you are the beneficiary of a system that does great harm but was kind enough to grant you access and membership is to keep silent. But consider again how Dr. King reflected on this challenge. The day was April 4, 1967, one year before his assassination; the venue, Riverside Church, in New York City:
A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom, and in the surrounding world.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.11
Just as Dr. King had to reckon with the call of history and the call of conscience, contemporary black Pentecostal leaders must reckon with the dilemmas, the compromises, and the nonnegotiable conscience points that accompany our newfound visibility and potential influence.
Let us take heart from Reinhold Niebuhr, who observed: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate con-text of history. Therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”12
- Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Orbis Books, 2004; first published 1978), 182.
- Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Duke University Press, 1990), 79.
- Peter L. Berger, “Introduction: The Cultural Dynamics of Globalizations,” in Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, ed. Peter L. Berger and Samuel P. Huntington (Oxford University Press, 2002), 8.
- Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002), 8.
- Berger, “Introduction,” 8.
- “Something to Think About,” www.bornfree.org/TheWorld.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967), 195.
- Ibid., 211.
- Globalization and Survival in the Black Diaspora: The New Urban Challenge, ed. Charles Green (SUNY Press, 1997), 2.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Breaking Silence: Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, sermon manuscript.
- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Scribner, 1952).
Robert M. Franklin is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University. This article is adapted from his keynote address for “Into All the World: Black Pentecostalism in Global Contexts,” a conference held at Harvard Divinity School in March 2005. Franklin received the master of divinity degree from HDS in 1978, before his doctoral work at the University of Chicago.