Review: …And They Yet Speak

…And They Yet Speak : Historical Survey of African American Pentecostal-Holiness Churches in the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C., 1900-2006, by E. Myron Noble. Washington, DC: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, c2007.

Historians have long known that the character of American Pentecostalism has been deeply impacted by the African-American church. The storied interracial Azusa Street revival (1906-1909) in Los Angeles, one of the focal points of the emerging Pentecostal movement, was led by William Seymour, the mild-mannered black Holiness preacher. One of the earliest black Pentecostal organizations, the Church of God in Christ, has become one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States. Pentecostal spirituality, including its music, preaching style, and worship, reflect aspects of the African-American religious experience.

However, most histories of the Pentecostal movement pay only scant attention to the development of these African-American churches. Many histories purporting to tell the story of the broader movement in reality tell primarily the story of select white churches. The people, institutions, and themes of import in African-American Pentecostalism have been omitted from the history books, in part because historians have not had easy access to materials documenting these stories. Few archival collections of African-American Pentecostal materials exist, so the predominantly-white denominations that published histories and built archives figure most prominently in the historical record.

To remedy this historical bias, researchers must engage in the back-breaking work of reconstructing the grass-roots histories of African-American Pentecostalism. E. Myron Noble has done just that for the nation’s capital city. In his recently published book, …And They Yet Speak, he assembled histories of 90 African-American Pentecostal congregations in Washington, DC.

Noble’s work is organized chronologically, beginning with the earliest congregations and is divided into sections according to the decade that each congregation was formed. The breadth of the churches included in this work, both Trinitarian and Oneness, is impressive. The larger black denominations, such as the Church of God in Christ, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the United Holy Church of America, the Apostolic Faith Church of God, and the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are well-represented. But so are smaller denominations and independent congregations of all sizes. Surprising, perhaps, is the relatively strong presence of African-American churches affiliated with predominantly white organizations, such as the Assemblies of God, the Apostolic Faith Church (Portland, Oregon), and the Church of God of Prophecy.

Historians owe a debt to Noble, whose research identified a number of themes important in Pentecostal scholarship. For instance, he documented instances of tongues-speech in Washington, DC beginning in about 1897 (p. 6-9). Noble’s research adds to the growing body of scholarship challenging the historiographical assumption that the modern Pentecostal movement began with the revivals in Topeka, Kansas (1901) and Los Angeles (1906-1909). This book also provides evidence of multiple interracial congregations that existed in the city and recounts several visits of William Seymour (including one in which his sermon on “holy kissing” reportedly stirred dissension among the faithful) (p. 19). Noble also noted that two bishops — Samuel Kelsey (Trinitarian) and Smallwood Williams (Oneness) — actively crossed the denominational and doctrinal barriers in their ministries.

…And They Yet Speak will evoke memories for those who lived the history, and it will be warmly welcomed by scholars and church leaders. Noble, through his decades of labor to document stories that might otherwise have been forgotten, has crafted an invaluable interpretive guide to the understanding of African-American Pentecostalism in Washington, DC. Hopefully, this volume will inspire intrepid researchers to do similar work in other cities and regions.

Reviewed by Darrin J. Rodgers

Paperback, 437 pages, illustrated. $24.99 list price. Order from Barnes and Noble.

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