Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism. Edith L. Blumhofer, Russell P. Spittler, and Grant A. Wacker, eds. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), xiii, 273.


In the 1950s, a new Pentecostal historiography emerged that moved beyond the classical historical paradigm.  Historians of the first-generation generally viewed Pentecostalism through the prism of divine Providence. Led by writers such as Klaude Kendrick, John T. Nichol, and Vinson Synan, Pentecostal historiography quickly expanded to include the sociological or contextual approach of historians and social scientists as well as "neoclassical" Pentecostal scholars who sought to challenge the work of secular writers. The historiography reflects not only the search for the roots of Pentecostalism but also the desire to understand the socioeconomic and cultural context surrounding its birth, its beliefs and practices, and the actions taken to promote the movement's development and existence. The rise of Pentecostalism to the single largest Protestant tradition in the world at the end of the twentieth century only serves to illustrate the significance of these works.

As the Pentecostal movement approaches its second century of existence, scholars are presented with a unique vantage point for viewing the transformations that occurred within the movement. Editors Edith L. Blumhofer, Russell P. Spittler, and Grant A. Wacker make good use of that position in their new book Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism. In a series of essays, the editors examine the roots, styles, and beliefs of the "classical" Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in America and how the shape and structure of these movements altered in response to encounters with mainline Protestantism. The fact that mainstream Protestantism also changed in response to these encounters is implicit.


". . . the editors of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism succeed in documenting the interaction between Pentecostalism and mainline Protestantism and revealing how those encounters served as a catalyst for shaping and altering American religious identity."

In the introduction, editor Edith L. Blumhofer defines the two styles of American Pentecostalism, "classical" and charismatic, explaining both their distinguishing beliefs and their relationship with mainstream Protestantism. Blumhofer states that the "classical" Pentecostalism that emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century was a protest against dry denominationalism marked by the belief that all believers should experience baptism of the Holy Spirit. These early Pentecostals established boundaries between themselves and mainline denominations based on their expectations. The charismatic movement that emerged following World War II remained within mainline denominations, crossed the established boundaries, and kindled religious renewal within the churches.(ix-x)

Although the book is divided into four parts, it provides two major sections consisting of ten essays that are framed on each end by two supporting chapters. "Corinthian Spirituality: How a Flawed Anthropology Imperils Authentic Christian Experience," Russell P Spittler's opening chapter, examines the biblical foundations of Pentecostalism. Using Johannine and Pauline models, Spittler associates much of the Pentecostalism and charismatic movements with the Corinthian spirituality of the first century. According to him, the term Corinthian spirituality "postulates a misshapen notion of human nature that makes a principled exaggeration of the worth of spirit over body."(3-4) Just what Spittler is implying is, at times, unclear, especially when placed within the context of other comments within the essay. When referring to "classical" Pentecostalism, Spittler makes statements such as "despite its theological insufficiency, Pentecostal piety appeals particularly to persons at the edge of desperation" and "Pentecostalism at times seems better at bringing people to faith than carrying them on to Christian maturity."(15) Spittler appears more comfortable with the charismatic movement that "tamed the Pentecostal impulse, regularized it, and absorbed it into the mainstream."(15) Although the essay is thought provoking and well written, many readers may spend more time trying to figure out Spittler's religious affiliation and views on Pentecostalism than the relationship between Corinthian spirituality, Gnostism, and the Pentecostal movement.

Part two, consisting of chapters two through five, focuses on the initial encounters between "classical" Pentecostals and mainline Protestants. Essays include studies of the evangelical response to the emerging Pentecostal movement, the reaction of Protestant mission boards in China to Pentecostal missionaries, the social response of mainline Protestants to the First Fruit Harvesters of Canaan and Jefferson, New Hampshire, and an examination of the factors that shaped second generation Pentecostal theology. While all four essays demonstrate the shaping of American religious identities and how contact with other religious groups modified those identities or perceptions of those identities, two of the chapters are particularly interesting.

In an excellent essay titled "Travail of a Broken Family: Radical Evangelical Responses to the Emergence of Pentecostalism in America, 1906-1916," Grant A. Wacker reveals the hostility between radical evangelicals and early Pentecostals. Although viewed by many as the spiritual parents of Pentecostalism, radical evangelicals were fearful of the extremist impulse among them and bitter over the divisions it was creating. Their attacks on the social origins and moral character of Pentecostals created lasting impressions of the movement that Pentecostals have found difficult to dispel.(31-32)

The essay "Social Variables and Community Response" is important because it reveals that negative attitudes toward Pentecostals were not always a response to Pentecostal beliefs and practices such as glossolalia or theological differences, but on the social dynamics of a community as well. Author Kurt O. Berends maintains that the Harvesters succeeded in the farming town of Canaan because they established ties with respectable community leaders and did not threaten established religious groups in the area. Jefferson, on the other hand, was an urban community with strong ties to mainline Protestant churches whose church membership tended to be more affluent and likely to participate in the numerous secret societies in the area. The Harvesters evoked a violent response from the church membership in Jefferson because the Harvesters challenged their social hierarchy as well as their moral standards or, in other words, their way of life. (84)

After examining the relationship between early Pentecostals and mainline denominations, the editors focus on the charismatic movement that occurred within mainline denominations in the latter half of the twentieth century. The first essay in this section, "The Spirit-Filled Movements in Contemporary America: A Survey Perspective," lays the foundation for the essays that follow. An appendix to the essay that cites denominational classifications, is significant in itself, illustrating both the strength and the diversity of the spirit-filled movement.

Other essays in this section examine specific elements of the charismatic movement. Marie Griffith focuses on the Women's Aglow Fellowship, an interdenominational fellowship for charismatic women, and its complex relationship with mainline Protestantism. Often viewed as anti-feminist, Griffith maintains the fellowship is progressive and reformist rather than a reaction to modernity.(133) Fredrick W. Jordon focuses on one particular woman in his investigation of the popular appeal of Kathryn Kuhlman. In an interesting study of her relationship with the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jordon reveals Kuhlman's struggle to obtain institutional stability while she remained on the periphery of mainline denominations.(188)

Three essays in this section are devoted to the relationship between neo-Pentecostals and mainline denominations. Nancy Eiesland uses the organizational crises that occurred within the Hinton Memorial United Methodist Church in Dacula, Georgia to illustrate the problems that mainline denominations often encountered when they attempted to accommodate Charismatics. The other two essays focus on the response of denominational Baptists to Charismatic renewals within their associations. Albert Fredrick Schenkel examines reactions within the American Baptist Convention (ABC) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and in "Pentecostal Currents in the SBC: Divine Intervention, Prophetic Preachers, and Charismatic Worship" Helen Lee Turner offers readers a fascinating study of the impact of Pentecostalism on the fundamentalist elements of the Southern Baptist Convention.

As a final essay, and in light of Spittler's earlier comment that the term Corinthian spirituality could also be used to describe "an ever-present peril threatening the twentieth-century Pentecostal and charismatic movements,(4) it would have been interesting to see an essay on the reaction of Pentecostals and mainline Protestants to the re-emergence of the Restoration or Latter Rain Movement (including the Word of Faith, Prophetic, Signs and Wonders, and Apostolic Movements) and "new" revival movements such as the Toronto Blessing and Pensacola Movements.

Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism closes with a comprehensive examination of the literature on American Pentecostalism written by Augustus Cerillo. Cerillo makes a valuable contribution to the study of American Pentecostalism in his analysis of the weaknesses and strengths found within the historiography. His essay is insightful and poses numerous questions for anyone interested in studying the history or patterns of the American Pentecostal movement.

Overall, the editors of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism succeed in documenting the interaction between Pentecostalism and mainline Protestantism and revealing how those encounters served as a catalyst for shaping and altering American religious identity. Well designed and well written, Pentecostal Currents provides an extensive view of American Pentecostalism over the last century.

Connie Park Rice, West Virginia University


homeReturn to the American Religious Experience Main Page