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 Charles A. Israel, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

This is a deceptively ambitious book. We have national and international accounts of Pentecostal and charismatic movements, biographies of important figures, and a wealth of theological, state-level, and denominational histories; how hard then, could it be to construct a regional synthesis? The problem, of course, is that in studying religious movements comprising scores of denominations and many individual believers who have many or no denominational affiliations, a would be historian cannot simply camp out at a handful of archives, read a series of denominational journals and periodicals, and hope to capture even a small piece of the great whirl of activity encompassed by these movements. Randall Stephens has located an amazing range of primary sources from across a continent and more than a century, analyzed them with a clear understanding of the historiography of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and produced an impressive synthesis of holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South.

The history Stephens tells of these movements that many casual observers associate with the South, reveals that, like the similarly misunderstood Fundamentalism, holiness and Pentecostalism are neither native nor confined to the southern United States. An opening chapter, appropriately titled “Angels from the North” describes the interplay between northern missionaries and the southern converts who would become critical to the spread of holiness doctrines in the South. It begins in the aftermath of the Civil War with a 1872 Knoxville, Tennessee, revival organized by the northern National Holiness Association, though Stephens will back up to provide a history of holiness’s development as a theological and social movement in the antebellum era.

Holiness had trouble attracting followers in the antebellum South for reasons Stephens categorizes as a lack of exposure, theological disagreement within the movement, a southern hostility to the strictures of piety, and an increasing suspicion of the reformist social tendencies of the northern holiness movement. Southern camp meeting revivalism, Stephens argues, preached conversion primarily and muted discussions of holiness and entire sanctification that were growing in currency in northern urban environments. Further, Stephens describes “an overarching theory of human depravity” (25) that pervaded the antebellum South, frustrating preachers with some holiness affinities. Southern culture proved inhospitable to holiness emphases on personal piety, as both the overbearing honor codes of the region and an increasing commitment to preserving slavery seemingly necessitated a rejection of a doctrine of “entire sanctification and abolitionism” that “often undergirded ecclesiastical abolitionism” (35). In all of these arguments, Stephens draws extensively on established scholarship, but perhaps misses an opportunity to explore religion in the antebellum urban South further to test to what degree holiness may have existed outside the view of previous interpreters.

"Stephens details the growth of what he terms 'holiness strangers in a southern Zion' (56ff) describing holiness converts as in but not always of the South."  


But obviously the story cannot end with the obstacles to holiness growth in the South. Stephens details the growth of what he terms “holiness strangers in a southern Zion” (56 ff.) describing southern holiness converts as in but not always of the South. Writing against interpretive traditions that shuffled holiness and Pentecostal advocates to the margins of society, Stephens locates the postbellum white holiness advocates economically in the southern middle class and geographically in the southern upcountry and regions that did not contain a large population of African Americans. Black converts, however, came from the old plantation belts and especially the new urban centers that became destinations during and soon after the war for migrating African Americans. By the turn of the century holiness advocates across the South were growing in number and self-identity, and found their marriage of “intense restorationist beliefs with perfectionist theology” (149) led them to increasingly acrimonious conflict with mainline denominations. Some chose to act on these controversies by striving for reform of the old bodies, while others—typically the younger and lately converted to holiness—struck out in new individual and ultimately denominational paths. Nearly all, Stephens asserts, turned away from the optimistic postmillennialism of an earlier perfectionist age and embraced a premillennial theology that guided their engagement with the world by the early twentieth century. He is perhaps too quick to generalize on this point, however, for not all holiness converts necessarily embraced premillennialism and even those who did were not necessarily cured of the belief that social engagement and reform were necessary.

Stephens recounts a similar story of the growth of Pentecostalism in the country. Like the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism was largely birthed outside the South though it would soon win many adherents in the region who would in turn go on to shape and spread the movement further. The holiness movement had in many ways prepared the ground for advocates of a new Pentecost, though as Stephens notes the relations between the movements were far from congenial. Still, the relation between the movements is not always clear, and it seems unfortunate that Stephens dismisses the remaining holiness adherents as he shifts his attention fully to Pentecostals in the last chapter and a half of his account.

The final chapter is dedicated to exploring how southern Pentecostalism grew and changed during the twentieth century. It is, of course, filled with the intriguing questions of how Pentecostals could move from a numerical minority and an apolitical posture as cultural critics on the margins of society to, by the end of the century, claiming some 11 million members, actively engaging electoral politics, approaching a status of religiously dominant, and, to a large degree embracing the “values and ideas of an affluent society” (233).  Stephens offers short accounts of changes in Pentecostal social attitudes and behaviors as the initial belief in an imminent second coming faded and denominational establishment and expansion came to dominate. His episodes include the dimming promises of racial and gendered equality and unity in the movements, the emergence of televangelists and rise of Pentecostal politicians like Pat Robertson, the continuation of theological splintering and the emergence of extreme forms of holiness belief such as snake handling signs-following believers, the emergence of the prosperity gospel, Pentecostalism’s curious relationship with popular musicians like Elvis and Johnny Cash, and the declining prominence of pacifism in Pentecostal theological and social teaching. One senses this chapter should be a separate book, not just an extended afterword to an already lengthy and detailed volume on the roots of the movement, for a reader is left with a clear sense of change but too little understanding of causality.

Stephens explicitly positions his work as an account of Holiness and Pentecostalism in the South, and he asks if there was “a distinctly ‘southern’ variety of either movement” (7). What seems to emerge from his narrative, however, is more a regional perspective on a national movement, with evidence that southern conditions at times impeded or at least shaped how and when holiness would grow in the South. Holiness and Pentecostalism came to and were in the South, but there does not seem to be a distinctive southern Holiness or southern Pentecostal movement.  Perhaps one pathway into this question would be to ask how southern Pentecostals look not in comparison with northerners of the same faith, but in a wider comparative scope of the rapidly globalizing movement. Missionary studies in recent decades have placed great importance on the power of local converts; what power in shaping the regional or global movement could we assign to those who Stephens refers to as “holiness scalawags” (51)?

Stephens paints a picture of holiness and Pentecostalism as movement cultures akin to the Populist upsurge near the end of the nineteenth century and demonstrates how they grew first in opposition to existing denominations and then, somewhat ironically, as organizations themselves. He offers little direct attention, however, to the leadership of these movements. This is not a call for more hagiographic biographies of key Pentecostals, but rather a desire to understand the dynamics of leadership in the new movements. In all of his attention to the role of newspapers in the spread of the movements, Stephens does not suggest the printers achieved the status of editor-bishops that newspapermen among the Churches of Christ enjoyed. But if they were not the authoritative voices, who were and how did they become so?

Stephens has brought a remarkable degree of order to a history of many different groups, individuals, and beliefs, presenting an account of growth, conflict, and change in a movement that seems now an integral component of the southern religious landscape. That he does so with such sensitivity to the cacophony of voices that still reverberate among such disparate bodies as the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, and dozens of others is cause for celebration.

Charles A. Israel
Associate Professor of History
Auburn University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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