Randall J. Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 393pp. ISBN 0-674-02672-1. Reviewed by Lewis V. Baldwin, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

The Holiness and Pentecostal movements figure prominently among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in the United States today. Their growth and influence in the culture and in the larger sphere of public life are attracting the attention of scholars in history, sociology, theology, and a range of other disciplines. The Fire Spreads succeeds in adding to our scholarly appreciation of the rise, spread, and increasing impact of the Holiness and Pentecostal strands of Christianity. Written by Randall J. Stephens, an Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Nazarene College, this book provides a much-needed, fresh perspective on developing patterns and trends in Holiness-Pentecostal Christianity from the nineteenth century up to contemporary times.

Stephens is primarily concerned with the Holiness and Pentecostal movements as forces in the shaping and preservation of southern regional and cultural distinctiveness. Convinced that "The story of the origins of holiness theology and pentecostalism in the U.S. South from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century remains untold, as does that of the larger significance of these movements in ... the modern South" (pp. 4-5), Stephens carefully explains how Holiness-Pentecostal traditions gained a foothold in the region through revivals, charismatic preachers, and an impressive network of churches, conferences, schools, and publications. His tremendous emphasis on revivalism as the most powerful force in establishing Holiness-Pentecostal groups as a mass movement in the South is clearly suggested in the book's title, The Fire Spreads. At the same time, Stephens reminds us that these traditions were not native to the South—that they were in fact imported to the region from the North. In any case, by making the Holiness-Pentecostal movements crucial to the religious and cultural identity of the South, Stephens actually challenges the widespread tendency to equate "the Bible belt" phenomenon with Baptist-Methodist hegemony.

Stephens devotes considerable attention to those broader social, religious, and cultural factors that both impeded and enhanced the spread of Holiness-Pentecostal movements in the South. He holds that such factors led some southerners to identify with the movements and others to oppose them. Poverty, the lack of formal education, the harsh and violent nature of southern life, deepening beliefs in the signs of the last days, and a growing receptivity to the spread of perfectionist doctrines were, according to Stephens, critical to attracting southern supporters. Spurring southern opponents to Holiness and Pentecostal groups were the movements’ experimentation with interracialism, their advancement of transregionalism, and their relative gender equality, factors that clearly set them apart from the Baptists, Methodists, and other more established churches and denominations in the South.

Stephens is at his best when highlighting the tensions and difficulties that attended the origins, development, and expansion of Holiness-Pentecostal traditions in the southern United States. He labels the Holiness groups "Holiness Strangers in a Southern Zion" (p. 56), and is quite sensitive to the struggles of Pentecostals or "the tongues movement" (p. 186) to be at home in southern culture. In short, Stephens offers the fascinating portrait of Holiness-Pentecostal movements gradually emerging out of cultural isolation to ultimately achieve high levels of cultural and social acceptability in the context of the American South.

Stephens is equally perceptive when treating the contributions made by whites and blacks to the shaping of the Holiness-Pentecostal presence in southern culture. Holiness preachers such as Bud Robinson, Charles H. Mason, W. B. Godbey, William J. Seymour, and countless other male and female evangelists receive attention in this volume. Stephens' discussion of the interracial character of the Holiness-Pentecostal movements squares with claims and conclusions afforded in works by Arthur E. Paris, Walter J. Hollenweger, Douglas J. Nelson, and other scholars. Although Stephens provides nothing essentially new on the subject, his treatment of the southern responses to the phenomenon of interracialism in the Holiness-Pentecostal groups is probably the best on record.

"...Stephens suggests that class and wealth are not adequate to account for the attractiveness of the Holiness-Pentecostal ethos and worldview in the region."  


Stephens avoids the common tendency to ground his study of Pentecostal-Holiness traditions in the South in deprivation theory, or in the view that those associated with such traditions are the poor and/or disinherited who find in them a sense of power, fulfillment, and security. While sensitive to the fact that many southern Holiness and Pentecostal people came from the lower strata of society, or from poverty-stricken backgrounds, Stephens suggests that class and wealth are not adequate to account for the attractiveness of the Holiness-Pentecostal ethos and worldview in the region. Portraits of such southern celebrities and affluent figures as Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, John Hagee, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, T. D. Jakes, and John Ashcroft, all of whom have drunk from the wellsprings of the Holiness-Pentecostal traditions, help reinforce the author’s argument against class-based analyses of the movements.

Stephens tells us that the Holiness-Pentecostal groups had moved into the evangelical mainstream of southern and American culture by the 1980s. The old countercultural and apolitical posture of these groups faded as they became comfortable and secure in the culture, and as many in their ranks joined the active political conservatives on the religious and political right. In the view of this historian, Stephens says more about these recent trends in Holiness-Pentecostal life than any other scholar. Stephens' work prepares the ground for a more intensive study of how Holiness-Pentecostal groups are joining forces with other Christian conservatives of various denominations in a battle against abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other perceived threats to the culture.

The Fire Spreads is a well-organized, carefully-written, and highly provocative study. Moreover, Stephens is always sensitive to the intersections of religion, politics, and culture in the southern context. His work advances southern religious historiography to another level, and it should find a ready market among historians, religionists, theologians, sociologists, cultural theorists, political scientists, and scholars in other fields. The Fire Spreads should also appeal to a broader readership, such as adherents to the Holiness-Pentecostal traditions and those in the larger public square who have a deep interest in religion.

Lewis V. Baldwin
Professor of Religious Studies
Vanderbilt University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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