Jim Crow & Jesus Christ

I hope my longtime friend and colleague Terry Todd won’t mind my opening with a story. When Terry and I were filming the PBS version of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory during the summer of 1991, one of our most memorable stops was the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi. There, Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey presided over a congregation of African American Pentecostals who were, to say the least, lively. The service we filmed lasted several hours, punctuated with gospel singing, energetic call-and-response preaching, and ecstatic dancing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. One of those dancing was Sister Ramsey, the pastor’s wife, moving fluidly back and forth in front of the congregation, her eyes lifted rhapsodically toward the heavens.

I was still struggling somewhat to understand Pentecostalism in those days; my father, an evangelical minister, referred to Pentecostals as “holy rollers.” We evangelicals took a dim view of Pentecostals, and his voice reverberated in my head.

Following the service, the entire crew talked about what we had just witnessed. Most of the crew was British, and as you can imagine they were utterly dumbfounded by what they saw. But Terry talked about the beauty of the entire service, especially Sister Ramsey’s liquid dance, and I began to see—and to appreciate—Pentecostalism through new eyes.

And so, I am not entirely surprised to learn that Terry himself has gravitated to Pentecostalism, finding there, in his words, “a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.”

Transformative, indeed. As a historian of religion in North America, I often cite Pentecostalism as one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Here you have a movement of contested origins—Acts 2, to be sure, but also Charles Fox Parham’s Bethel Bible College, in Topeka, Kansas, on the first day of the twentieth century, or Chicago, depending on the narrative—that finds its fullest expression in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, beginning in 1906. This was, as Terry says, a place where Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asian-American Christians gathered in a movement inspired by an African American hotel waiter, William J. Seymour. Women held leadership positions at Azusa Street. As Frank Bartleman, a contemporary, said about Azusa Street, “the color line was washed away in the blood” of Jesus.

Sadly, as Pentecostalism began to institutionalize, Jim Crow outflanked Jesus Christ in the contestation between the “JC”s. As Pentecostal denominations formed—the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, and others—they stratified along racial lines. That is the great lost opportunity of Pentecostalism—although to be fair, other Christian denominations can similarly be classified by one race or another. What makes the Pentecostal story so poignant is that Pentecostals once were far more inclusive than they were by the end of the twentieth century.

I haven’t had the privilege of witnessing the “renewalists” at Terry’s Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, but I look forward to doing so. No organization is perfect, of course, and as I’ve argued before, institutions are remarkably poor vessels for piety. But the Holy Spirit-inspired inclusion at the heart of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries—on matters of race, ethnicity, and sexuality—may take us closer than ever to a recovery of the promise of early Pentecostalism.

Although Pentecostal enthusiasm is not my worship métier, I join Terry in awaiting the Third Pentecost, “grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.”

Hallelujah, indeed!