AHA Day 4 — Why are Pentecostal Studies Stuck on Race?

9 Jan

As my quarter begins I’m gad that the AHA recaps are almost done. I take pride in being pretty thorough in my session reviews. As Chris Cantwell said to me while sipping a bourbon at Arnaud’s French 75 in the French Quarter, “You take this conference thing pretty seriously.” I do! For graduate students the expense of the conference experience is very high–even when sharing hotel rooms and when travel costs are defrayed in some why by your university. From clothing to food, there is always one more thing that can tug at your purse strings. Since it costs me a lot to do this, I try to be really focused about why I’m there. [And since I won’t be writing about my networking, y’all get this.]

For the last session recap, though, I can say that taking conferences seriously paid huge dividends. [Even when I discovered in the morning that I’d forgotten to plug my netbook in and had a dead battery.]

Sunday 8:30-10:30 — The Science and Spirit of Race in Twentieth-Century American Protestantism

This panel, featuring Arlene Sanchez-Walsh (Azusa Pacific), Blaine Hamilton (graduate student at Rice), and a response by Anthea Butler (U Penn), perfectly fired all my intellectual curiosity in all the right ways. Panelist Irene Stroud was scheduled to attend, but fell ill and didn’t make it to New Orleans. Our loss turned into a kind of gain when there was an additional 20 minutes for conversation–something that is often in extremely short supply with the tightly scheduled AHA sessions.

First, Anthea proclaimed that the ASCH had it out for her. “Another early morning session?” she exclaimed as she strode in with her coffee. Everyone in the audience echoed her disapproval. It was *early* and some of us, ahem, had been out pretty late enjoying the city.

Next, Blain Hamilton gave a very fine paper comparing the racial disparity between revivals led by pentecostal pioneers William J. Seymour and Charles F. Parham. Parham, a white former Methodist with holiness credentials, helped lead the early revival of the spirit in Kansas and Texas. Seymour, on the other hand, was a black student of Parham’s who led the more famous Los Angeles revival on Azusa street. The contrast between the two figures is not simply one of race. Close attention to their ministry is an entry-point on issues of segregation, “respectability,” and racial differences in early Pentecostalism.

Hamilton focused on the media reception and representation of the two revivals. In Houston, for example, police were used to protect the upstanding propriety of the emerging revival and its white fairly middle-class members. In Los Angeles, the police were called in and physically restrained over-excited participants. Moreover, in LA the racial elements were a primary emphasis for the media, which scandalized readers with accounts of interracial touching and sexualized narratives about Seymour and other males preying on vulnerable white females.

Next, Arlene Sanchez-Walsh gave a very interesting paper that sketched the racial components of the Assemblies of God home mission on the American-Mexian borderlands in Texas under the direction of A.A. Allen in the 1930s and 1940s. Early efforts focused on the battle with Catholicism. Nativism in the form of papal fear-mongering became a reason to focus missions on Mexican-Ameiricans living on the border. Most were American citizens, but Allen thought of them almost like spies, capable of carrying his anti-papacy message deep into Mexico. Sanchez-Walsh notes that the emphasis on anti-Catholicism shifted as global events presented Communism as a significant threat. In that climate, the message shifted from anti-Catholicism to anti-Communism but continued to paint the threat in religious ways. The godless philosophy was, for Allen, a religious threat (and not merely a threat to religion).

Moreover, the entire home mission to Mexico carried vast connections to zionism, as Allen came to believe in Mexicans as the famed lost 12th tribe. The racism encoded within this perspective is particularly evident, Sanchez-Walsh says, in the language used to describe the mission movement such as the use of dark and light. Check out, as a rare AV example, this video of Gene Martin from Allen’s missionary team:

Anthea Butler responded, and, in her usual way, charmed the panelists as she gave pointed critiques of their work:

For Hamilton, she warned, absence of evidence of segregation in Parham’s Houston revival is troublesome evidence. Not only were there substantial differences in press coverage (LA had many more presses and there was some racial diversity to them), but the difference in location and time may have significantly shifted the kind of coverage the movement received. Furthermore, the very issue of “respectability” is fraught with danger for historians. Reading too much into that word and its significance may tempt us to racialize what was really about class or other issues.

Similarly, Butler said of Sanchez-Walsh’s paper that there was a strongly gendered element to this missionary work that was not yet sufficiently explained. Nearly all the missionaries to Mexico were men. How did that affect things? Moreover, the language of racism may be a partial red herring because this is at the end of the day about numbers, right? It’s a competition for souls and souls in the biggest numbers that can be gotten. Is race distracting us from these other gendered and theological concerns?

On both papers, Butler was raising a serious point, the one to which this post’s title refers, namely the focus of Pentecostal studies on race as the essential feature of analysis. Since class, having been dismissed by Wacker et al., is no longer a primary element of study about pentecostals, we have turned to race to explain these movements. Why is that? What is the effect? If we focus too much on race, the panel seemed to buzz, we can easily miss the bigger stories that our work belongs to. We lose the ability to say big things, and that’s a huge loss. (For Sanchez-Walsh that’s the globalism of the shift in message? For Hamilton it’s the larger geographical comparison of pentecostalism in LA and Houston.)

To a degree it is the insularity of a focused area of study, but this doesn’t excuse the ways in which it limits our vision. As an audience member it was clear that for both panelists  one alternative avenue to race is geography. Houston isn’t Los Angeles, but that difference is much more than race. It’s about the difference between two places, their cultural history, their urban development, and so on. When the issue emerged in the Q&A for Sanchez-Walsh that kind of shift meant looking at the differences in church planting (she used the example of the nearly exclusively rural/suburban Four Square church). For Hamilton it meant looking at the connections between ministry and railroads in Houston. For me, it was clear that geographical analysis still has a huge amount to offer to religious studies. (And echoes my concerns from Day 1 that there is not really much of a digital religious studies to compare with digital history.)

If you missed the panel and want more, you can read it in the American Society for Church History’s live blog, which covered this panel extensively. You’ll have to scroll quite a bit to find the panel, but it is worth it if this material is up your alley.

Tomorrow I should be able to post my roundup on the whole conference. See you then.

 

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One Response to “AHA Day 4 — Why are Pentecostal Studies Stuck on Race?”

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  1. American Historical Association 2013 Roundup « A Lively Experiment - January 11, 2013

    […] is with all this that I found on day four: When we discover our work has biases borne of the lenses through which we see our subjects, what […]

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