Response to Reviews

Randall J. Stephens
Associate Professor of History
Eastern Nazarene College

I’m honored that Bland Whitley, Art Remillard, and Lee Willis chose to highlight my book with a review forum. I would have been pleased if the Fire Spreads had received a review or two in Xeroxed departmental newsletters or in a paper company trade magazine.  (I did talk about the press and print culture, so some exposure in the Wernham Hogg Paper Merchants bulletin wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.) But the coverage has surpassed my wildest imagination.  And it’s especially gratifying that Lewis V. Baldwin, Charles Israel, and Joseph Williams—whose work I greatly admire—have offered insightful readings and engaging critiques. 

Baldwin, Israel, and Williams pick up on themes that I thought were most important.  The translocal aspect of the movement, the significance of premillennialism, and the restless visionary element of early followers all figured large for me.  Baldwin in particular notes the tensions that surrounded the movement.  Religious conflict was basic to the story I was trying to tell. As I read through denominational newspapers, church records, and diaries it seemed like the saints were always ready for a good fight.

I’ve long been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s ironic take on American history.  And, by extension, I learned much from C. Van Woodward’s similar perspective on southern history.  So, whereas journalists and critics liked to speak of pentecostalism and holiness as native southern species, they were, in fact, anything but.  Likewise, though detractors in mainline churches and at the offices of local newspapers sneered at the provincial conservatism of stalwarts, believers were in actuality tied into a national and international community and tended to challenge some peculiar traditions of Dixie. 

I’m intrigued by some of the criticisms offered by the three reviewers.  Don’t all authors think about what aspects of their book will receive special scrutiny?  I’ve thought quite a bit about some of the gaps in my narrative and some of the key elements that I might have underplayed.

On to some of the specific criticisms. Williams aptly points out that I downplay the role of healing in later eras.  I think he’s probably right.  In a sense, and this is not to excuse the oversight, I had limited space in which to thoroughly deal with that feature.  Williams astutely observes: “Rather, divine healing offers a compelling example of the ways holiness and pentecostal practices spurred believers to make significant investments in this world.”  For all of the otherworldy talk of adherents, healing was surprisingly this-worldly.  The sanctified could be free from infirmity and sin in the here and now.

Charles Israel wonders if I may have overgeneralized about the predominance of premillennialism and a turn away from reform in the South.  Certainly the existence of Salvation Army groups in the region shows an alternative path.  And it is true that there were quite a number of holiness orphanages, rescue homes, and the like south of the Mason Dixon.  But, from the evidence I looked at, in the years from roughly 1896 forward, southern holiness people were swept up into the premillennial camp.  Only a handful of dissenters raised any complaint about that shift. 

I think I agree with Israel’s remark that the final “chapter should be a separate book, not just an extended afterword . . .” I knew well that the last chapter—which flew over history from 26,000 feet and ranged from the early 20th to the beginning of the 21st century—would come under fire.  And in reviews elsewhere it has.  (I felt sympathy for John Goodman’s character on the HBO series Treme.  Long overdue on a book project dealing with the 1927 flood, he converses with his editor about seeing it to completion and making it more current.  Could you add an extended section on Katrina? she says.)

Israel also asks if it would have been useful to include more attention to the leadership and what gave them the kind of authority they held.  That’s an interesting point.  In one sense, so much biographical material has been written—including James R. Goff and Grant Wacker, eds., Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002) along with a variety of individual biographies and encyclopedia entries—that I thought much of that ground had been covered.  How did certain key leaders rise up as they did?  Israel asks: did “printers achieved the status of editor-bishops that newspapermen among the Churches of Christ enjoyed”? That is certainly a great question for others to now pursue.

I add here a couple additional points where I could have been taken to task.  Perhaps I could have been more suspicious about the degree of gender and racial equality in the first generation.  Since the window of opportunity closed rather early, was there really a significant degree of egalitarianism?  Did I overplay the pessimism of premillennialists?  Perhaps those individuals that Jarod Roll has chronicled— politically active working-class protesters—might have entered into my discussions in the last chapter.  (Though I didn’t find those same folk in the research that I did.)  The final chapter certainly could have also dealt in some fashion with the growth of Hispanic pentecostalism in the South.  Atlanta and other major cities across the region are dotted with Hispanic churches, relatively recent arrivals, which bring a new charismatic sensibility to the movement.  (This latter point might have worked in the theme of globalization, which Israel mentions.) Television might also have received more attention than it did.  That format, especially in the South since the 1970s, has proved critical to the movement.

Others will have to take up those questions and topics, and many more, in the future. In the end, I’ll count myself fortunate if the book has raised as many questions as it has answered. 

Lastly, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to Baldwin, Israel, and Williams for starting up an engaging conversation on the book.

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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