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 Joseph Williams, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In April of 2008, a healing revival dubbed the “Florida Healing Outpouring” broke out at a pentecostal Assemblies of God church in Lakeland, FL.  Led by Todd Bentley, a heavily tattooed 32 year-old Canadian evangelist known for his unconventional (and on occasion physically aggressive) style, the nightly meetings quickly outgrew the host church, attracting crowds upwards of 10,000 people on the weekends.(1) Much of the revival's success hinged on the use of mass-communication technologies, in particular the Internet, that allowed for live broadcasts of the services around the world. Viewers were frequently instructed to reach their hands toward their televisions or computer screens in order to receive God's power over the airwaves. Cell phones served a similar purpose. After three months, the pastor of the Lakeland church indicated that individuals used 1.2 million unique computers to log on and view the meetings via outlets such as God.tv. Moreover, people from a range of countries including Argentina, Norway, Germany, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria, to name a few, traveled to Lakeland to catch the "fresh fire" and take it home.(2)

As it happens, the meetings in Lakeland recapitulated well-established patterns identified by historian Randall Stephens that fueled the movement's success since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century. With consistently clear prose and an engaging style, Stephens chronicles the impact of holiness missionaries from the North who spread their teaching among southern believers during the late nineteenth century. Catalyzed by an astute use of mass-produced periodicals and by a countercultural ethos that challenged racial, class, and gender norms in the South, the movement thrived on the cultural margins, and many radical holiness adherents easily transitioned into the burgeoning pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Fast-forward one hundred years to the Lakeland revival and many of the same dynamics persisted. Bentley would have chafed against numerous aspects of the holiness code promoted by his predecessors, yet at the same time the nonconformist image he projected, the translocal dimension of the meetings, and the adroit use of mass-communication technology—all mimicked trends identified by Stephens that were present in the early days of the movement south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Ironically, Stephens's portrayal of the radical holiness movement and early pentecostalism in the South underscores just how un-southern the movement actually was, especially in its earliest manifestations. Holiness teachings first appeared as (unwelcome) imports from the North and were embraced by religious mavericks operating on the fringes of southern society. Likewise, when holiness believers embraced a premillennial expectation of Christ's soon return as well as practices of divine healing, they participated in trends born out of a transatlantic evangelical network that once again worked its way into the southern states from the North.

Similar dynamics characterized the emergence of distinctive pentecostal teachings among holiness adherents. The unique pentecostal emphasis on the importance of speaking in tongues derived largely from the spiritual innovations of figures in the Midwest such as Benjamin Hardin Irwin and Charles Parham. Southerners first heard of the pentecostal revival by reading about (or visiting) the famed Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, CA, that began in 1906 and was led by the African American leader William Seymour (who, as it happens, was born in the South).

"Holiness and pentecostal religion flourished among both black and white believers, and in the early days not a few saints defied convention by conducting interracial meetings ..."  


The type of spirituality that emerged out of these transplanted traditions frequently repudiated the unwritten code governing life in the southern states. Holiness and pentecostal religion flourished among both black and white believers, and in the early days not a few saints defied convention by conducting interracial meetings and publishing articles by both white and black ministers in the same periodicals. The democratic impulse at work in believers' claim that the Holy Spirit could use anyone for his purposes flew in the face of southern sensibilities and especially the clearly defined lines of authority within southern denominations such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Women, for example, never achieved full equality among holiness and pentecostal groups in the South, but they were afforded many more opportunities for leadership and ministry than their southern counterparts in most non-holiness, non-pentecostal churches.

One of the keys to holiness adherents and early pentecostals' ability to transcend the dictates of southern culture and create a vibrant "counterpublic" revolved around their use of mass-produced periodicals (120). Stephens's careful articulation of the role of print media in disseminating and sustaining the movement, in fact, serves as one of the foremost contributions of his work. Periodicals published by northern evangelicals proved crucial in the propagation of holiness ideals in the South, and soon indigenous publications arose, spreading holiness teachings more rapidly than individual ministers ever could through traditional meetings alone. Similarly, when the pentecostal revival broke out on the West Coast, numerous southern holiness folk eagerly followed the events by reading the Apostolic Faith, published out of Los Angeles, as well the growing number of pentecostal-friendly southern periodicals. Radical holiness and early pentecostal periodicals became an invaluable tool allowing believers to transcend regional boundaries and participate in a much broader "imagined community" that was translocal and transregional (126-27).

Pentecostals in particular would continue to make good use of mass-media technology, expanding beyond the medium of print to embrace the radio, television, and eventually the Internet. Their position within southern society, however, changed drastically over the course of the twentieth century. Once a marginal religious upstart, the southern holiness-pentecostal tradition began to look remarkably mainstream by southern standards. The interracial cooperation that appeared at times in the early movement gave way to segregated black and white pentecostal denominations. Many of these denominations significantly restricted the role of women within their churches by withholding ordination. The pacifism and apolitical sensibilities of early believers morphed for many into identification with the emerging Religious Right, especially among white southern pentecostals. Growing affluence led to blatant endorsements of American consumer culture in the form of prosperity teaching. In sum, adherents "had gone from being challengers of the social order to becoming its most ardent defenders" (281).(3)

* * * * *

Stephens's discussion of holiness and pentecostal adherents' skillful use of the printed word as well as his analysis of the progressive aspects of their spirituality builds on a growing body of literature dealing with the ways radical holiness and pentecostals' otherworldly spirituality often appropriated key features of American culture. Grant Wacker's pivotal work on early pentecostalism highlights the way in which a strong pragmatism characterized by "realism," "practicality," and accommodation to the "limits of everyday life" operated alongside the primitivist impulse within pentecostal spirituality.(4) In his study of black religion in Chicago during the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern United States to the North, Wallace Best discusses the way in which pentecostal figures such as Lucy Smith of All Nations Pentecostal Church helped create a "new sacred order" characterized by the merger of the otherworldly sensibilities prominent among southern migrants with very this-worldly sensibilities associated with technological innovations, business acumen, and social outreach.(5)

In the most sustained argument to date for "pentecostal modernism," R.G. Robins's biography of the early pentecostal leader A. J. Tomlinson explicitly characterizes Tomlinson's spirituality—and in the process radical holiness and early pentecostal spirituality as well—as explicitly modernist. The saints, according to Robins, shared with other Americans the "celebration of innovation and change; cultural optimism; the glorification of science, technology, and power; a dialectic relationship with urbanization, the blurring of regional boundaries; and a social ethic that undermined traditional assumptions about race and gender."(6)

"Most important, the author's focus on the southern holiness-pentecostal print culture and their creation of an imagined community illuminates in new ways just how crucial believers' mastery of mass communication technologies was to the success of the movement right from the start."  


Though Stephens largely avoids explicit discussion of modernization and modernism, at key points he reinforces the types of conclusions put forward by Wacker, Best, and Robins. Alongside his discussion of believers' desire for unadulterated experiences of the divine and their disillusionment with the world around them, Stephens repeatedly highlights the innovative nature of southern holiness-pentecostal spirituality. He hones in on early believers' progressive practices regarding race and gender. He stresses their "restless" mobility and fierce independence that resisted any confinement to the traditions of any particular time or place. Most important, the author's focus on the southern holiness-pentecostal print culture and their creation of an imagined community illuminates in new ways just how crucial believers' mastery of mass-communication technologies was to the success of the movement right from the start. "Followers were disparaged by their many detractors as ignorant and antimodern," Stephens observes. "Yet the faithful used the latest technologies and inventions to spread their old-time message" (101).(7)

All of this is not to say that Stephens depicts the holiness-pentecostal tradition as fundamentally in step with the modern world. Rather, he frequently references the pervasiveness of the saints' premillennial expectation regarding Christ's soon return, which, it is fair to say, he portrays as the central connective thread uniting the holiness-pentecostal tradition.(8) The "negative, apocalyptic, and otherworldly" qualities Stephens associates with premillennial theology corresponds with his focus on early pentecostals' ability to transcend southern culture. Disenchanted with trends in the mainstream churches, he argues, believers "lost hope in human progress, moral reform, and political activism," opting instead for a radically distinct spirituality divorced from the norms structuring life in the South (137-38).(9)

Stephens's persistent focus on premillennialism adds a distinctly ironic cast to his narrative. Southern pentecostals' move into the mainstream and their investment in the trappings of worldly power and wealth over the course of the twentieth century appear at odds with their core otherworldly commitment to Christ's immanent return—a commitment that for early adherents reflected even as it reinforced their separation from their neighbors. Holiness and early pentecostal believers may have taken advantage of modern technologies, Stephens seems to suggest, but unlike their successors, they did so to spread a message that consistently encouraged believers to detach from this world and expectantly look for the coming apocalypse.

The evidence certainly supports Stephens's inclination to see premillennialism as a key link uniting radical holiness and pentecostal adherents past and present, yet the question remains as to just how ironic southern pentecostals' eventual engagement in politics and American consumer culture actually was. Scholars such as Robins, for example, have argued that radical holiness and pentecostal believers espoused a form of "premillennial optimism" that "sometimes verged on realized eschatology." Unlike Stephens's emphasis on the connection between premillennialism and a profound disenchantment with this world, Robins insists that radical holiness and early pentecostals' end-times theology actually associated the last days with a promised "Latter Rain" that brought with it brighter and sweeter experiences "by the day."(10) Wacker is more careful to highlight the sense of impending doom that often accompanied pentecostals' eschatological emphases, yet he simultaneously points to the "exhilarating sense of hope" that these beliefs also engendered and the way they contributed to pentecostals' "invincible confidence in their own prospects for religious and perhaps even cultural victory in this present world."(11) Despite their desire to extricate themselves from the influence of "dead" churches and secular society, the particular brand of premillennialism promoted within holiness and pentecostal circles frequently invigorated adherents' engagement with the world around them as they looked for the Spirit to transform their lives and lives of those who accepted their message. Viewed from this perspective, southern pentecostals' wholehearted participation in politics and American consumer culture can be read as a radicalization of prominent themes in the early movement.

It is important to note that Stephens does not ignore the very this-worldly component pulsating throughout radical holiness and early pentecostal spirituality, yet he prioritizes their premillennial beliefs, which he associates with a preoccupation with another world. The following passage is typical in this regard, "Southern converts . . . found speaking in tongues, and ecstatic worship in general, to be liberating and fulfilling. They claimed to have direct contact with the divine. This, thought many, was surely the most convincing sign of the approaching apocalypse" (187).

Focusing more on the various ways in which the Spirit's activity energized believers' daily lives and fostered a positive vision of the possibilities inherent in this life may have led Stephens to pay more attention to an emphasis that pervaded the tradition in a manner similar to premillennialism, namely, divine healing. Stephens duly notes how healing played a key role in radicalizing holiness spirituality, but the subject largely disappears from his narrative as he traces twentieth century developments in southern pentecostalism.(12) The omission of divine healing from the story of twentieth-century southern pentecostalism represents more than just a missed opportunity to add more detail to the book. (To his credit, in the fifth and final chapter that addresses changes among second- and third-generation pentecostals, Stephens covers an impressive number of figures and topics.) Rather, divine healing offers a compelling example of the ways holiness and pentecostal teachings and practices spurred believers to make significant investments in this world. Such observations complicate—though they by no means overturn—Stephens's portrayal of holiness and pentecostal believers' transition from the margins to the mainstream. In important respects, the saints did become more culturally and politically conservative; but again, the process that got them there involved an intensification of themes present in the early days of the movement as much as it involved an abdication of prominent early holiness-pentecostal sensibilities.

* * * * *

If the Lakeland revival is any indication, Stephens's portrayal of the southern holiness-pentecostal tradition illuminates enduring themes that continue to shape the movement. Though the mass-produced periodicals utilized by early pentecostals gave way to live-streaming of services over the Internet, and visitors traveled from every continent instead of simply across state lines, the end result was remarkably similar: a translocal movement fueled by modern communication capabilities that resisted identification with any particular region. While the Lakeland meetings stressed this-worldly healings and miracles much more than premillennial expectations, revival fires transplanted in the South at the turn of the twentieth century continued to defy regional boundaries into the twenty-first century. As Stephens so clearly demonstrates, the fire spreads.

Joseph Williams
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Rutgers University

Volume XII, Table of Contents

1. With his arms and neck covered with tattoos, and metal studs in his ears and left eyebrow, Bentley hardly fit the description of a typical healing evangelist. Among other things, individuals who visited Bentley's MySpace.com page learned of his love of Harley Davidson motorcycles, his desire to meet Hulk Hogan, and his interest in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a sport featuring mixed martial arts fights usually relegated to pay-per-view due to their violent, no-holds-barred style. Bentley attracted no small amount of criticism for his claim that at times God instructed him to use physically aggressive tactics to pray for individuals. [Bentley's MySpace.com page is no longer active, http://www.myspace.com/tdbentley (accessed July 23, 2008), though he does maintain a page on facebook.com, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pineville-NC/Fresh-Fire-USA/239189580883 (accessed August 11, 2010), as well as his ministry website, http://freshfireusa.com/ (accessed August 11, 2010). Also see J. Lee Grady, "A Holy Ghost Outbreak in Florida," April 23, 2008, (accessed August 11, 2010); J. Lee Grady, "Bam! Pow! When Prayer Ministry Gets Violent," (accessed August 11, 2010).]

The controversy swirling around Bentley and his ministry reached a fevered pitch when he abruptly severed his invovlement with the healing revival four months after it began. Rumors circulated regarding Bentley's deteriorating marriage and his relationship with a ministry intern, and in March 2009 he publicly acknowledged his divorce and remarriage. See Rick Joyner, "Restoration Process," March 10, 2009 (accessed August 11, 2010); and Cary McMullen, "A Year Later, the Lakeland Outpouring Still Stirs Emotions," August 15, 2009 (accessed August 11, 2010). It is important to note that even before the controversy surrounding Bentley's divorce and remarriage became public knowledge, the Lakeland revival by no means received enthusiastic endorsement by all pentecostals or by the Assemblies of God leadership. See Cary McMullen, "Florida Outpouring Revival Concerns Pentecostal Leaders," June 22, 2008 (accessed July 23, 2008). Also see J. Lee Grady, "Honest Questions About the Lakeland Revival," May 14, 2008 (accessed August 11, 2010).
2. See for example Cary McMullen, "Florida Outpouring: Internet Draws Thousands to Lakeland Revival," May 18, 2008 (accessed July 23, 2008); Cary McMullen, "Faith-Healing ‘Outpouring' Overflows Venue," April 25, 2008 (accessed July 23, 2008); Paul Steven Ghiringhelli, "Lakeland Outpouring Reaches 50-Day Milestone," May 22, 2008 (accessed August 11, 2010).
3. For discussion of a strikingly similar process among American evangelicals in the South during the nineteenth century, see Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
4. Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 13.
5. Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), esp. 147-80.
6. R.G. Robins, A.J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 37.
7. Here Stephens's work complements Edward Gitre's study of the 1904-5 Welsh Revival (a precursor to pentecostal revivals in the U.S.) that highlights the way in which adherents often sacralized the technologies of modernity, including mass-communication and mass-transit technologies associated with newspapers and the railways. See Edward J. Gitre, "The 1904-05 Welsh Revival: Modernization, Technologies, and Techniques of the Self," Church History 73, no. 4 (2004): 818-25.
8. Stephens's emphasis on premillennialism as the primary emphasis in the spirituality of radical holiness adherents and first-generation pentecostals is especially clear (161-85, 195-96). At several points he highlights the continued importance of premillennialism among second- and third-generation pentecostals, though he acknowledges that the doctrine was not as "central as it once had been" (235). Stephens's argument coincides with the views of historians of pentecostalism such as Robert Mapes Anderson and William Faupel who likewise see pentecostals' eschatological beliefs as the key to their spirituality. See Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); David W. Faupel, The Everlasting Gospel: The Significance of Eschatology in the Development of Pentecostal Thought (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
9. Also see 167-70.
10. Robins, A.J. Tomlinson, 38-39.
11. Wacker, Heaven Below, 250-65, quotation 51-52.
12. Stephens for example never mentions the impact of the mid-century healing revivals that exerted a profound influence throughout the South, or the continued emphasis on healing among prosperity teachers, or the way in which healing testimonies (and products) pervade pentecostal television and literature. Oral Roberts appears simply as a "television pitchman" (230).

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