Review: Pentecostals and Racial Reconciliation

We’ve Come This Far

We’ve Come This Far: Reflections on the Pentecostal Tradition and Racial Reconciliation, edited by Byron Klaus. Springfield, MO: Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2007.

The history of racial unity and division within the Pentecostal movement has been addressed in a recently-published book, We’ve Come This Far: Reflections on the Pentecostal Tradition and Racial Reconciliation, edited by Byron Klaus. The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary has been a leader within its denomination in its efforts to better include voices of ethnic and racial minorities. This has been evidenced by its increasingly multicultural and international student body, the dedication of the William J. Seymour Chapel, and — now — the publication of We’ve Come This Far.

We’ve Come This Far contains the proceedings of a 2006 lecture series at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary that encouraged reflection about the “missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential” for the Assemblies of God to be an agent of racial reconciliation. The volume notes that the Assemblies of God — like many predominantly-white Pentecostal denominations — “has experienced some challenges in acknowledging its multicultural roots,” as well as its “years of ambiguity about the inclusion of African-Americans in its ministerial ranks” (back cover).

We’ve Come This Far juxtaposes the lives of two notable 20th century American religious leaders — William J. Seymour and Martin Luther King, Jr. — while reflecting on the lessons that can be drawn from them concerning African-American preaching and leadership. The book also features a selection of historical materials — including an account of Assemblies of God minister Robert Harrison (who successfully challenged a policy denying ordination to African-Americans) and a history of the struggle to overcome racism within the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa.

Three essays, authored by David D. Daniels, III, Cecil M. Robeck, Jr, and Lois Olena, are of particular value in understanding the historical roots of racial unity and division in the early Pentecostal movement and in the Assemblies of God. Daniels, a leading Church of God in Christ historian, and Robeck, the foremost authority on the Azusa Street revival, explored possible lessons from the leadership legacies of Seymour and King.

On the surface, Seymour and King might not appear to have much in common. Seymour was a leader in the early Pentecostal movement, which in its infancy was known for its other-worldliness, while King helped to lead the modern Civil Rights movement, with its protest politics, campaigns for desegregation, and non-violent active resistance. Indeed, some African-American veterans of the Civil Rights movement view Pentecostal churches with suspicion, contending that their preoccupation with spiritual matters precluded them from correcting social injustices.

The African-American Pentecostal community did lend support to the Civil Right struggle, although the degree to which it did so is debatable. Notably, King’s final sermon — shortly before his assassination in 1968 — was delivered at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Mason Temple is the mother church of the Church of God in Christ, which is the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the world.

Daniels, significantly, identified King as a successor to Seymour’s interracial vision. Daniels lauded Seymour for “erasing the boundaries between black and white, challenging white supremacy as a cultural phenomenon through a new racial formation as well as interracial and multicultural worship.” He also cautioned against anachronistically measuring Seymour against the leaders of the modern Civil Rights movement — which occurred fifty years after the Azusa Street revival (p. 86).

Robeck noted that Seymour demonstrated leadership through becoming a vulnerable servant. He enumerated three ways in which Seymour did this. First, Seymour brought together a gifted, multiracial staff and did not try to make the revival a one-man show. Second, Seymour opened his pulpit to anyone who had a word to give, which empowered a variety of voices with the young Pentecostal movement. Third, Seymour acknowledged his personal debt to Charles Parham, the man who taught Seymour about the “Apostolic Faith.” This acknowledgement was at great personal cost to Seymour, as Parham condemned Seymour, in part for his interracial vision (pp. 51-55).

The Azusa Street mission has become a symbol for racial reconciliation. It can be tempting to hold up the Azusa Street revival as an ideal, but actual events are usually messier than later ideological interpretations of them. Most people do not realize that Seymour, in 1914, led the mission to limit leadership roles at Azusa and its daughter congregations to “people of Color.” Whites were still allowed to attend the mission, just not participate in mission business. This compromise, according to Robeck, was to keep the “peace” on an interim basis, since racial fighting in society had found its way into the Azusa Street mission as well (pp. 62-65).

William Seymour, in an apparent concession to human frailty, felt that he had to conform to the racial structures of his day in order to survive in the short-term. It should not be surprising, then, that the Assemblies of God also struggled with racial issues. Olena documented this struggle through the lens of Robert Harrison, one of the most prominent African-American Assemblies of God ministers.

Born in 1918 in San Francisco, California, Harrison had a strong Assemblies of God pedigree. His grandmother, Cornelia Jones Robertson, was an Azusa Street participant and, in 1923, she became one of the earliest African-Americans ordained by the Assemblies of God. Upon Harrison’s 1951 graduation from Bethany Bible College — an Assemblies of God school in northern California — he applied for credentials with the Northern California-Nevada District, but his request was denied on the basis of his race.

Harrison’s rejection came in the midst of a lengthy soul-searching odyssey concerning the place of African-Americans in the Assemblies of God. In the first several decades of the Fellowship, no national policy existed regarding race in the credentialing process. Some districts issued credentials to African-Americans; others did not. However, concern that an African-American credentialed in one district would then move into a district that did not accept African-Americans caused the General Presbytery to consider the issue. In 1939, the body voted to:

“express disapproval of the ordaining of colored men to the ministry and recommend that when those of the colored race apply for ministerial recognition, license to preach only be granted to them with instructions that they operate within the bounds of the District in which they are licensed, and if they desire ordination, refer them to the colored organizations.”

This decision seemed to allow the licensure, but not ordination, of African-Americans. In practice, however, districts interpreted and applied this policy as each saw fit. Harrison’s application for a ministerial license was denied in 1951. However, one year later, another African-American minister, Bruce Gibson, was re-instated as an ordained minister in the New York-New Jersey District. He had been ordained by the Northwest District in 1933 before leaving in 1937 to work with an African-American group. In 1957, a new district superintendent in the Northern California-Nevada District apologized to Harrison for his past mistreatment and issued Harrison credentials as a licensed minister.

As civil rights activists agitated for equal rights and as racial tensions increased in the post-war years, Assemblies of God leaders found themselves torn between competing social visions for America. While some national leaders, such as Ralph Riggs, were eager to open the door to African-Americans to minister in the Assemblies of God, this idea was met with opposition in the South. Because of these tensions, the leadership of the Assemblies of God decided to prevent a split in the Fellowship by delaying ordination of African-Americans until it became more acceptable in society.

It was not until 1962 that the denomination finally began issuing ordinations without regard to race. This institutional paralysis on the issue of race came to an end in part because Harrison landed a high-visibility position on the Billy Graham ministry team. The Assemblies of God wanted to fully embrace Harrison as its own, so then-General Superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman helped to push through a change in official policy. Olena noted that Harrison’s ordeal was “a sad and shameful chapter of Pentecostal history.” She also observed that recognition of women ministers followed a similar trajectory: initial affirmation in the early years, followed by a reluctance to accept their contributions (possibly due to the influence of the National Association of Evangelicals), and most recently a measure of redress to more fully include women in ministry once again (pp. 150-151).

We’ve Come This Far is the second installment in the Pentecostal Ministry Series published by the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Like the first volume — a compendium of essays on apostolic ministry in the 21st century — We’ve Come This Far addresses an important topic not only in Pentecostal history and theology, but in practical ministry. This book should be in every university and seminary library, and it will also be of interest to pastors and people in the pew who want to better understand the history, theology, and future of racial reconciliation in the Pentecostal church.

Reviewed by Darrin J. Rodgers
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Table of Contents
Part One: Called First to Preach
The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. / Maurice Watson
African-American Preaching in the Context of American Christianity / Maurice Watson
A Minority Reflection / Merlyn Klaus

Part Two: The Leadership of King and Seymour
The Leadership Legacy of William J. Seymour / Cecil M. Robeck, Jr.
The Color of Charismatic Leadership: William J. Seymour and Martin Luther King, Jr. as Champions of Interracialism / David Daniels
Perspectives on Leadership / Charles McKinney

Part Three: Events, Examples and Future Steps Towards Reconciliation
Report to Commission on Ethnicity / various authors
“I’m Sorry, My Brother” / Lois Olena
Lessons from Our Struggle to Overcome Racial Segregation: A Brief History of the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa / Johan Mostert
One Body: God’s Design for a Diverse Church / Zollie Smith
Reconciliation Holds Key to King’s Dream / Byron Klaus
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Paperback, 190 pages. $5.00 plus postage. Order from: Assemblies of God Theological Seminary Bookstore, 1435 N. Glenstone Ave., Springfield, MO 65802. Ph. 417-268-1055.

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