The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South, by Randall J. Stephens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Pentecostalism as Regional and Trans-Regional Religion
In 1906, a holiness preacher named G. B. Cashwell attended an interracial revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Convinced of William J. Seymour’s message of sanctification, the young and energetic southern preacher returned to his home in North Carolina and introduced black and white men and women to their own experience of “Pentecost” and “gifts of tongues.” Though exceptional for its high level of attendance and publicity, Cashwell’s popular revival, historian Randall J. Stephens quickly points out, was no accident, for the simple reason that the “roots of pentecostalism and holiness” had already reached deep into the fertile religious soil of southern culture during the nineteenth century (p. 7). The Fire Spreads tells the story of the process by which Wesleyan doctrines of holiness filtered through the Mason-Dixon Line and made it possible for many southerners to reject mainline Protestant denominationalism and embrace “the ecstatic new movement” of pentecostalism (p. 11). Issues of race, class, gender, and politics come into focus as Stephens eloquently, entertainingly, and engagingly situates the development of pentecostalism within the regional context of the American South from the nineteenth century to the present.
Stephens begins The Fire Spreads with an admission that the American South was not the birthplace of holiness and pentecostalism, despite the fact that today over fifty different pentecostal groups base their headquarters in the region. The basic purpose of the book, therefore, is to explain how an upstart evangelical sect imported from the North could become one of the most influential and pervasive forms of Protestantism in the contemporary South. In his introduction, Stephens carefully describes the basic tenets of holiness and early pentecostalism, which included conversion and salvation, entire sanctification, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and premillennialism. He also stresses the “conflict, dissent, and antagonism [that] marked both early movements,” due in large part to their association with perfectionist revivals in the North, interracial revivals in the West, and the first holiness adherents in the South, who Stephens describes as “anonymous zealots on the cultural fringes of society” (pp. 7, 4).
Chapter 1, “Angels from the North,” describes how the “intersectional and interdenominational” contours of the Second Great Awakening generated opposition to a prevalent strain of Calvinism in the South that “maintained a pessimism about humankind that seriously inhibited perfectionism” (pp. 18, 25). This sort of hyper-Calvinism, according to Stephens, existed largely because of the commitment of white southerners to slavery and a rigid code of honor. Not surprisingly, Continue reading