In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire, theologian Estrelda Y. Alexander shines a light on the African American roots of Pentecostalism. Here, she speaks to UrbanFaith News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller about the miracles and scandals of Black Pentecostal faith.
Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn't know much about the Black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she's spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement's most important founders.
Christine A. Scheller: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: I grew up Pentecostal but don't remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I'm sitting in class going, "I've never heard of him." I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn't Seymour's emphasis. So, even though he's at the forefront of this revival, he's out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he's Black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn't try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there's this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he's part of the uncovering of the story of early Black history in the country.
Christine A. Scheller: What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.
Christine A. Scheller: The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely Black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early 20th century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That's not just Azusa Street; that's a process that is pretty well documented.
Christine A. Scheller: Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There's what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It's been more or less successful. There's still quite a bit of division. It's not on paper. On paper, there's this idea that we've all come together, but the practicality of it doesn't always get worked out.
Christine A. Scheller: Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: They're not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout Black and White Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there were elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was White, then the second person in place would be Black. It would go back and forth. It's now predominantly a Black denomination, though.
Christine A. Scheller: Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn't hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I'm a theologian, so I've come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other's camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.
Christine A. Scheller: In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as "manifestations" of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes' success, so they don't even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You'll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I'm not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.
Christine A. Scheller: I recall that Christianity Today reported on criticism of Jakes' views on the Trinity.
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Especially for evangelical leaders, that is a very important issue. I think it's unfortunate, because there are so many larger problems. I've been in a room and I've heard people characterize Oneness people as not Christian, so that is an issue.
Christine A. Scheller: I imagine that wasn't something you took kindly to, having grown up in a Oneness denomination.
Estrelda Y. Alexander: I am Trinitarian, but I do understand the Oneness issue. Even in my classes at Regent, I've had to actually referee that kind of conversation because we'll talk about the Godhead in class and people will begin to make statements. But there will be people in the class who are Oneness, and so my question is: How do you have this conversation without vilifying a whole group of people who you disagree with?
Christine A. Scheller: What's the answer to that question?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Students tend to say very often, "It's clear that the Bible says ..." and I have to remind them that if it were clear, we wouldn't be having this conversation or this class. The fact that we're having the conversation means that at some point it's not clear, and so we have to take the time to hear other points of view, even if we don't agree with them. I'm not promoting anything, but I am promoting us hearing the other side at least, and giving some credence to it, and understanding that salvation doesn't hinge on us figuring out the mystery of the Godhead.
Christine A. Scheller: That brings me to a question about the distinctions you cite between Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals, and Charismatics. You say most of us wrongly group them all together. What are the differences?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Classical Pentecostals generally hold to the doctrine of initial evidence. They believe specifically that the initial evidence of Holy Spirit baptism is speaking in tongues. And coming out of the Wesleyan Holiness movement, classical Pentecostals also tend to have a more structured, strongly enforced sense of personal piety that is tied to the experience of sanctification -- living set apart from the world.
Christine A. Scheller: Do Wesleyans believe that Christians can achieve moral perfection in this life?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Thoughtful Wesleyans don't, but the doctrine is still there. Is it possible to live a completely sinless life? I would say no. But growing up, that was what one was told to shoot for, that one tried to live this life completely separate from sin. I think that as some of us have matured, we have come to the understanding that that's not possible and it's not even required in the same way that we were taught. Part of the reason Pentecostals wanted to be baptized in the Holy Spirit was so that they could live this life of perfection.
Christine A. Scheller: How do Pentecostals differ from the other groups?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Charismatics are open to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a part of the normal Christian life. There is no specific doctrinal claim for tongues being initial evidence. Tongues is seen as one of the many gifts of the Spirit, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit can be manifested in a number of ways. With the Charismatic movement, you see the Pentecostal experience coming into mainline churches with people pretty much remaining in those churches and incorporating the charismatic experience into their worship.
With neo-Pentecostalism, you have new non-denominational and interdenominational churches from which whole new theologies have grown. Word of Faith would be a good example of neo-Pentecostalism. It's a redefining of what it means to be Spirit-empowered, because now with the Holy Spirit comes this power to achieve wealth. That's a whole nuancing of Holy Spirit baptism that you would not hear in a Pentecostal church.
Christine A. Scheller: You write about the role of women in the Pentecostal movement. What stands out about it?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: It's been a mixed bag. I wrote a book called Limited Liberty. It's called that specifically because there's this promise held out to women within Pentecostalism that they can be totally included in whatever God is doing. Women were drawn to the Pentecostal movement in the early stages because there was this new openness to their involvement, but there were limitations. Women could pastor, they could plant churches, they could preach in a variety of settings, but often they couldn't be fully ordained and they couldn't be bishops. There were women who started denominations, which you generally will not have in any other other segment of the church, and where you do have it in other segments of the church, these movements are considered cults. But within 20 years of the movement, again this routinization of charisma begins to set in, and women are sidelined in a number of denominations, even among African American denominations.
Christine A. Scheller: One interesting character you wrote about was Amy Semple McPherson, the founder of the Four Square denomination. She remained racially inclusive but was also close to members of the KKK. What was that contradiction about?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: I wouldn't say she was close to members of the KKK, but she was open to reaching out to them. There was an earlier woman, Alma White, who was a Holiness pioneer who started a denomination and actually supported the Klu Klux Klan. McPherson didn't do that. The thing about McPherson was that she wasn't going to be told by anybody how she should operate, and so she did her own thing. She was one of the few women who was able to manipulate the system and use it to do what she felt she needed to do, but she paid a high price in terms of her own mental soundness. She was phenomenal in what she was able to achieve. She probably achieved more than any other woman in modern Christian times. She not only built a denomination, but she built a college, and she built one of the first megachurches in the country, Angeles Temple. She was the first woman to have a religious broadcast. Her radio station stayed in existence until late last century. Four Square actually sold that station for $250 million, so it wasn't a small undertaking.
In the Black church, you had women like McPherson. You had Ida Robinson, who founded Mount Sinai Holy Church of America. You had Mary Magdelina Lewis Tate. Of course they were operating on a smaller scale, because the African American population is a smaller population, but in relative size they were the McPhersons of the African American community. Robinson, who I think is one of the greatest role models for women today, left a position in which she already found some prominence because she wanted other women to have the opportunities that she had. She started Mount Sinai church specifically to allow other women to have the freedom that she had. She was just a wonderful example of how women's leadership ought to empower other women.
Christine A. Scheller: What is the connection between Pentecostalism and African spirituality?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Because the early leaders of Pentecostalism were African American, they had been grounded in a spirituality. A lot of times, because you don't understand your past, you don't even know what it is that influences you. Seymour grew up in Lousiana and Lousiana was a place where there was a lot of African spirituality around him that he imbibed as a young person. So some of the ways that African people are open to God get incorporated into Pentecostal worship, and you can see this in the difference between white and black Pentecostals even today. There's this real sense of openness to the Spirit, but not naming it as African religion.
Christine A. Scheller: So, it's a cultural influence?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Right. They would never say that, but one of the people who specifically talked about embracing African roots as part of Pentecostalism was Charles Harrison Mason, the founder of the Church of God in Christ, which is the largest African American Pentecostal body in the world. He was unashamedly African in his approach to religion and incorporated things such as healing rituals that he not only found support for in the Bible, but also found support for in his African roots. He was not ashamed and he didn't want Black people to be ashamed of their Africanness, and so he did things like using herbs and healing roots. Even though he saw this as healing that was being offered by the Holy Spirit, he also saw a place for the African herbs and the things that he had known in his childhood in the ritual of healing in the Black church.
There are elements of Africanism that no they are not named as that, but they get incorporated, such as the music. In the Black Pentecostal church, music is a mainstay, and it's music at a different level. I've heard a critique by a middle class Black person who was appalled by the earthiness of the music in Black Pentecostal worship, and almost saw it as soulish, and didn't think it was appropriate, because not just music, but rhythm and drums are important to African American Pentecostal worship. When Pentecostalism first began, people who were around Pentecostals thought their worship was appalling. For example, when Rev. Charles Parham came to Azusa Street, he called what he saw at the revival "crude Africanisms." He was appalled at the openness to the Spirit. It wasn't just speaking in tongues, but it was the shaking, the quaking, which many people would see as related to Spirit possession in African worship. Pentecostals would say, yes, there's a Spirit possession, but they would redefine it as possession by the Holy Spirit. If you go back to slave religion, you had things like the "ring shout." The people who were early Pentecostals weren't that far removed from slavery, so some of that was in their memory and gets translated into some of the worship that happens in the early movement.
Christine A. Scheller: So those things aren't foreign to them culturally?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Those aren't foreign to them, and so you would see a more free expression. I go to a Black Pentecostal church, but have served in both White and Black churches. When I first went back to a Black church, it was very interesting to me to watch the worship, and to see Africanisms even now incorporated into the worship. For instance, my pastor often does this chant. You would never see a chant in a White Pentecostal church, but my pastor will get up on a Sunday morning and begin to chant, and people will chant with him. It's not using words. I can't even explain it, because I'm still trying to understand it. I hate to say this, but in some ways it's foreign to me. They're unabashedly African and will say, "This is who we are."
Christine A. Scheller: The Grio published an article about African Americans abandoning Christianity for African faiths. Do you think Pentecostalism offers something that could appeal to these disaffected Blacks?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: One of the things about Pentecostalism is that it's still considered, even by many middle-class Blacks, a lower-class religion. Pentecostal worship does offer a way to relate back to our Africanness and the truth is all Christian faith is culturally defined. Evangelicalism and Mainline Christian faith go back to a Greek paradigm. And so, yes, if people were willing to seriously engage Pentecostalism, there could be something in that that would speak to some of those same issues.
Christine A. Scheller: Is it possible to overestimate the influence of Pentecostalism on Christianity given that there are 600 million adherents and the style of worship has influenced all kinds of denominations?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: I don't think it's possible to overestimate, but that influence has been filtered through a lot of other things. The worship will be very Pentecostal often, but the theology or the ethical system is less influential. What people are borrowing is what's attractive to them, without understanding all that that means for Pentecostals.
Christine A. Scheller: Because for Pentecostals the empowerment of the Spirit goes back to the ability to lead a holy life?
Estrelda Y. Alexander: Right, and that's what makes classical Pentecostals still classical. They would specifically stand by the authority of Scripture. Their thing is, "We're not Pentecostal people; we are Pentecostal Christians. We're not trying to sell a religious system." That's the danger too, even in terms of what Pentecostalism could offer. It could offer something to the church, but it has to be taken seriously as an ethical system as well as a cultural expression.
*This interview is republished with permission from UrbanFaith.com. It has been edited for length and clarity