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Summer 2012, Vol. 9

Book Review

Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture (Religion, Race, and Ethnicity Series)

edited by Amos Yong and
Estrelda Y. Alexander
(New York, NY: NYU Press, 2012) 271 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn Tennant, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at North Central University and Adjunct Faculty at AGTS

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Although Pentecostals celebrated the centennial of Azusa Street in 2006 and much was written for this event, one large segment of Pentecostalism has been historically under-researched from the vantage-point of academia, viz. Afro-Pentecostals. This lack of scholarly perspective has left a vast hiatus in our understanding of this topic, and therefore the two editors and twelve authors of Afro-Pentecostalism: Black Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in History and Culture should be commended for their efforts in writing this seminal work.

A book of this type ought to have been completed long ago, and a critical mass of scholarly work should have followed it. Perhaps the latter will now take place. The influence of Afro-Pentecostalism across the globe is certainly undeniable, and the topics to explore, vast.

As one of the first scholarly volumes to cover the spectrum of African-American Pentecostalism, the book begins to address the major influences this group has brought to bear, not only upon other branches of Pentecostalism, but also upon the Christian Church as a whole. Its variety is refreshing and thought-provoking.

The editors, Amos Yong and Estrelda Y. Alexander, both professors at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia (and Alexander is currently establishing William Seymour College as its president), provide a sound orienting chapter to the book as well as introductory comments prior to each section. Giving thought to the great complexity within the Afro-Pentecostal tradition, the editors handle this reality in a variety of ways, beginning by the division of Afro-Pentecostals into four types.

Multiplicity and diversity rule in the selection of authors with four black Pentecostal scholars and four other black scholars who stand outside the Pentecostal tradition, but have interacted widely in Pentecostal circles through dialogue and critique. Furthermore, the authors include one white Pentecostal scholar and three other white scholars from outside classical Pentecostalism. Authors also include two women, and the age ranges of the authors are diverse.

The text is informed by the fact that these scholars are from a variety of fields including religious studies, ethics, history, theology, cultural anthropology, and missiology. This allows the reader to understand various facets and nuances of the movement. Additionally, some essays are personal or localized while others provide a broader perspective.

The first part, Origins, includes essays by Cecil Robeck Jr. and David Daniels III. Robeck’s chapter considers how the black churches in Los Angeles interacted with the Azusa Street Mission. Daniels’s essay reflects on early black Pentecostalism in relation to black civil society.

Gender and Culture, the second section, features perspectives from Valerie Cooper, Clarence Hardy III, Craig Scandrett-Leatherman, and Louis Gallien Jr. This set of articles enhances one’s understanding of how the Afro-Pentecostal church responded to gender, as distinctive from white Pentecostal and charismatic traditions’ handling of gender-related issues. Chapters in this section incorporate topics of black women and public ministry in the nineteenth century, the innovation of “church mothers,” and also a consideration of black manhood as related to lynchings and the liberating rite of dance.  The final essay in this section deals with three music “crossover artists” whose roots were in the Holiness-Pentecostal worship traditions.

In section three, Prophetic Ethics, two ethicists adeptly cover some hot button issues: Cheryl Sanders considers Pentecostal ethics and the prosperity gospel, and Leonard Lovett uses autobiographical narrative to heighten one’s understanding of the need for a prophetic Afro-Pentecostal voice in relation to the dominant white Pentecostal culture.

The fourth section, Pneumatology, considers the Holy Spirit’s working in relationship to black perspectives and culture. William Turner Jr. looks at contributions of African American Christian thought to the Pentecostal theological task. Frederick Ware reflects upon compatibility issues of Pentecostal premillennialism with black liberation theology. The authors contemplate the fact that dominant conceptions of power might be reversed under the work of the Spirit who may lead both the black church, in particular, and the larger ecumenical community into a more liberative future.

The last section, Afro-Pentecostalism in Global Context, highlights the intersection between charismatic Christianity and African American Pentecostalism, including the great explosion of Pentecostal spirituality throughout the Two-Thirds World. The late Ogbu U. Kalu (to whom this volume is dedicated) wrote about early African American charismatic missions and the Pentecostal-charismatic engagements with the African motherland. Dale Irvin then discusses black Pentecostalism, black theology, and the global context.

The exponential growth of Pentecostalism throughout Africa, as well as across wide areas of the “African diaspora” (South America, Caribbean, and Europe), have implications for a broader understanding of Pentecostalism in general, along with the revitalization of the Christian Church as a whole and the forging of new paths for social and political justice.

Overall, this is an indispensable academic work for the Pentecostal community and the larger Evangelical Church as well. Amidst its versatility and variety, it is commendable for its even quality of writing and presentation.

The book covers important topics and promises to engage the reader in critical thinking and greater understanding. As any seminal work should, it points the way to topics that can be explored more in depth in future scholarly writing on the topic of Afro-American Pentecostalism.

Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 10:13 AM