Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Pentecostals are often skeptical regarding books written about them. And there is good reason for such skepticism. For the most part, the movement has been portrayed as existing on the emotional, theological, and economic fringe of Christianity. The common explanation for its existence has been a theory of social deprivation; the lives of its members are so harsh and deprived that they desire to escape this world for the glory of heaven above. On the other hand, books about Pentecostal history written by Pentecostals are often “romantic histories” that have a tendency to provide little critical reflection on the movement.

Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostalism and American Culture is a welcome exception to both extremes. Wacker, an American religious historian who grew up in a Pentecostal home, identifies himself as “a pilgrim with one leg still stuck in the tent.” As “50 percent outsider and 50 percent insider” he attempts to reveal the ethos of the Pentecostal movement during its infancy (1900“1925). This stance gives him both the critical distance needed to write an objective history and the ability to understand the distinct nuances and flavor of the movement. Above all, what makes this combination work is the apparent lack of hidden agendas or old grievances against the movement that was once his home.

What immediately strikes the reader is Wacker’s writing style, which could best be described as “poetic prose.” Heaven Below is filled with descriptions of everyday life that paint word pictures for the reader. His masterful use of extensive resources takes us into the world of early Pentecostals, eavesdropping on the conversations that took place around kitchen tables in order “to catch the multitudinous whispers of everyday life that . . . other studies have tended to overlook.”

Wacker describes the Pentecostal movement as a slice out of the American pie: its adherents have typically been “farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and service providers with the middle school education and honorable social standing characteristic of those groups.” Pentecostal religion for these folk was the opportunity to explore “new possibilities” and to bring the benefits of heaven above to earth below.

The book offers a multifaceted description of various aspects of Pentecostal life, including the movement’s temperament, its use of rhetoric and testimony, concepts of authority, customs, and leadership. There are fascinating chapters on women, race, and war. Each of these aspects is carefully researched, and Wacker’s copious use of endnotes demonstrates his fluency with an array of primary sources: periodicals, journals, letters, sermons, books, newspapers, tracts, and so on.

It is Wacker’s thesis that “the genius of the Pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold seemingly incompatible impulses in productive tension: the primitive and the pragmatic.” The primitive impulses were fueled by the movement’s attempts to restore “apostolic faith,” while the pragmatic stance helped the movement’s adherents navigate the thickets of the modern world in which they lived. Pentecostals saw themselves as aliens and pilgrims in this world. Yet they possessed a remarkable ability to “weave heavenly aspirations with everyday realities.”

Early Pentecostals embraced dialectical tensions. Their worship creatively united order and disorder, reason and unreason. Their rhetoric united Holy Ghost anointing with skilled pulpit oratory. Apostolics (a common name for early Pentecostals) were committed to living by faith, but they were also known for their frugal money management and hard work. They approached the holy life in the way they did not only for the purposes of escaping the entrapments of this world, but even more so because “such denials . . . afforded very tangible real“life benefits. Tobacco ruined health and wasted money. Alcohol destroyed jobs and families. Gambling wrecked savings. Immodest dress dehumanized both men and women. Circuses turned freaks into commodities.”

In some cases the tension between the primitive and the pragmatic caused the movement to fall short of the ideal vision of heaven. The earth below exerted a strong pull, especially when it came to the issues of women, race, and war. Hence, we hear of early Pentecostals making compromises that later generations may wish they hadn’t made. Pentecostals were among the first to grant women freedom to preach and to serve as leaders, but they were conflicted as to how much freedom should be allowed. Likewise, when it came to racial issues, Pentecostal worship was characterized by “a remarkable degree of interracial fraternity.” However, “on the whole, Pentecostal culture failed to provide a sustained theology of racial reconciliation for whites and blacks alike.” In time, the interracial quality of Pentecostal corporate life gave way to the demands of a segregated society. In regards to war, many of the early Pentecostals were committed to pacifism. However, as the years (and the world wars) went by, fewer and fewer were willing to uphold their principles.

Although Wacker does not attempt to offer theological interpretations of the Pentecostal movement, there are moments when he allows himself to engage in informal theological musing. As he writes, “In prostrate trance, which Pentecostals called being ‘slain in the Spirit,’ the entire torso became a holy emblem. In those situations Christ’s physical death and resurrections was re“embodied”night after night, before the very eyes of believers and nonbelievers alike.”

At other times, unfortunately, Wacker’s lack of theological reflection leads him to fall back on clichés regarding the movement. For instance, his treatment of the early Pentecostals’ view of Scripture follows the standard interpretation according to which the movement’s adherents were biblical literalists who had little use for allegory or forms of biblical criticism. While this may be true in part, there is much evidence to suggest that Pentecostals were attempting to work out yet another dialectical tension, this time between Spirit and Word. The Bible was literally the Word of God, but the Spirit was the author and present interpreter of the sacred text. This assumption allowed for considerable freedom in biblical interpretation and helped separate the movement from the emerging fundamentalism of the day.

And this is not the only problem with Wacker’s exposition. Take his choice to conceive of the central tension within Pentecostalism as a dialectic of “primitivism and pragmatism.” Would it not have been better to use the language with which Pentecostals would have been familiar, viewing themselves as they did as “the people of God on mission in this world”? For the Apostolics the real tension was between “the already and the not yet.”

As someone writing from inside the Pentecostal movement, I cannot help but wonder if the dialectical tension between heaven above and earth below that Wacker teases out in the lives of early Pentecostals is a mirror of his own continuing tension with the movement into which he was born. Would his assessments of Pentecostalism have been the same if he didn’t feel so divided between his head and his heart? In saying that his head has escaped the movement while his heart remains inside it, he fuels the unjust stereotype that denigrates Pentecostalism as the most emotive, and least intellectual, wing of Christianity.

Overall, Wacker’s treatment of early Pentecostalism is a valuable resource for those who wish to discover the primal dynamics of the movement. Readers will gain insight into how a fringe and oft“maligned group that threatened to consume itself in a “fury of charismatic fire” grew to include 500 million adherents worldwide.

Cheryl Bridges Johns is Professor of Christian Formation and Discipleship at Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.