R. G. Robins. A.J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xii + 316 pp. Reviewed by Joseph Williams, Florida State University, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

R. G. Robins's work offers a thoroughly contextualized portrait of A.J. Tomlinson, the early Pentecostal leader and founder of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). The book is divided into two distinct sections. Robins first lays out a revisionist reading of the radical holiness and early Pentecostal worlds that shaped (and were shaped by) figures such as Tomlinson. Robins argues, as his title suggests, that these subcultures represented a form of “plainfolk modernism” that enthusiastically participated in the changes transforming American society at the turn of the twentieth century. The second half of the book then offers a more straightforward chronological narrative of Tomlinson's life and ministry.

“. . . Robins repudiates the tendency to characterize the radical holiness movement and early Pentecostalism as antimodern and out of touch with a rapidly modernizing American culture.”  


In part one, Robins repudiates the tendency to characterize the radical holiness movement and early Pentecostalism as antimodern and out of touch with a rapidly modernizing American culture. According to Robins, historians too often read these groups through the lens of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Whereas Mainstream Protestant Modernists receive the lion's share of attention in narratives of religious adaptation to modernity, such analyses shortchange other groups on the cultural margins who also adopted modern characteristics. Radical holiness and Pentecostal saints, like some of their more well-to-do neighbors, displayed a “fundamental optimism about human possibilities, an expectation of ever more grand discoveries, an admiration for efficiency, and a cheerful eagerness to discard the old and experiment with the new” (20). Believers also often exhibited progressive attitudes regarding racial and gender equality. In short, radical holiness and Pentecostal saints reflected a “plainfolk” style and mannerism, but this should not veil their affinities to modern American culture.

Robins acknowledges the strong primitivist impulse within the movement, but he downplays its antimodern implications. Instead, he emphasizes the way in which primitivism facilitated religious innovation. Similarly, he recognizes the antistructuralism inherent in many radical holiness and Pentecostal rituals. Drawing in part on Victor Turner's argument regarding communitas, however, he argues that the subversion of modern forms evident in adherents' emphasis on religious ecstasy ultimately gave way again to the structures of modernity that informed believers' day-to-day decisions. “There were 'antimodern' movements enough in late-Victorian America,” he concludes, “but radical holiness was not one of them” (24).

In part two of the book, Robins walks the reader through significant events in Tomlinson's life, focusing primarily on the formative stages of Tomlinson's spirituality and ministry. For example, Robins carefully describes the world of Quaker holiness that shaped Tomlinson's early experiences, and then traces his flirtation with Populist politics, his missionary efforts in rural North Carolina, his attraction to Pentecostal spirituality, and his dramatic experience of Pentecostal baptism. Robins also carefully delineates Tomlinson's role in the formation of the Church of God. In particular, he emphasizes the early Pentecostal leader's administrative acumen as well as his consolidation of power within the denomination. Throughout, Robins stresses practical concessions made by Tomlinson to facilitate the movement's growth, yet he is also careful to highlight the dramatic other-worldly miracles and theology that characterized Tomlinson's ministry. Though Robins infrequently makes explicit connections between Tomlinson's life and the book's larger thesis regarding “plainfolk modernism,” he successfully highlights Tomlinson's keen this-worldly sensibility and his openness to innovation.

Robins's claim that early Pentecostals' pragmatic adaptability overshadowed antimodern tendencies within the movement proves more problematic. Here he relies on careful definitions of modernization as a social-structural process as opposed to a symbolic-moral phenomenon, and of modernism as an “ideological aspect vis-à-vis these trends that valorizes them and self-consciously adapts to them” (20). Robins admits that Tomlinson and his fellow saints were antimodern in their rejection of materialism and in their resistance to a desacralized vision of the world around them, but he nevertheless argues that “the weight of [radical holiness and Pentecostal] habits and values were plainfolk modernist” (62). Some, however, may question the degree to which Pentecostals' “worldview in which the sacred suffused and governed every sphere of life”—a clearly antimodern stance as Robins admits—should be relegated to a secondary status in defining their attitudes toward modernity (60). Pentecostals' resistance to materialism played a crucial role in shaping their experiences and identity, and cannot be downplayed so easily. Here, many readers will likely find Grant Wacker's model of early Pentecostal primitivism and pragmatism (which in large part parallel Robins's antimodern and modern categories) more useful for making sense of Tomlinson's spirituality. Wacker depicts these tendencies as two more-or-less equally influential currents coexisting within the movement.(1)

In the end, Robins offers a thorough, carefully researched biography of Tomlinson's life and a provocative rereading of radical holiness and early Pentecostal culture. Those interested in the history of American Pentecostalism will find the book rewarding, as will students of the complicated relationship between religion and modernity.

Joseph Williams, Florida State University

1. For example, see Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).


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