on November 14, 2001
In "Heaven Below," Grant Wacker takes the reader on an exhilarating and informative romp through the early years (1900-1925) of American Pentecostalism. Through extensive research and superior storytelling, he demonstrates how these religious pioneers brought together the clashing impulses of the "primitive" and the "pragmatic" to "capture lightening in a bottle" and launch an explosive movement. Potential readers need to be warned in advance that the author is a social historian and academician. If you are looking for stories of romanticized heroes of the faith or glowing partisan historiography, you'll be disappointed. What you will get is a consistently fair, sometimes surprising, and always interesting account of the early Pentecostals.
In the book's fifteen chapters we get a glimpse into the character, temperament, and daily lives of these adventurous and hearty souls. You'll discover the keys to their effectiveness and the areas where they stumbled. Included among many subjects covered are the movement's leaders, the theology and practicality behind the prominence of women, their changing views on war, the persecutions they faced, and even the "gift of tongues" that helped make their faith distinctive. The stereotype of the poor, illiterate, and disinherited Pentecostals is dismantled. Instead you will meet a representative slice of early 20th century America. They were a people genuinely sincere, deeply committed to their beliefs, and fully convinced that they were instruments in the hands of Almighty God, empowered by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
"Heaven Below" is made up of 269 pages of fascinating reading, followed by an appendix, and 82 pages of footnotes. It also includes a valuable index. I had some difference of opinion with Wacker's conclusions and occasional qualms with his assumptions, but as a social history, I highly recommend "Heaven Below." Grant Wacker is Associate Professor of the History of Religion in America, Duke University.
on July 13, 2001
Grant Wacker has written a wonderful book. His scholarly treatment of early pentecostalism (1900-1925) is matched by his ability to write for a general audience with insight, sympathy for his subject, and a tremendous wit and appreciation. His views are balanced, his anecdotes are well-selected, and his writing is first-rate. He covers all aspects, races, and gender issues in early American pentecostalism. Anyone interested in American religion in general or penetcostalism in particular MUST read this book. A professor told me in grad school that the explosion of new books would only get worse. He advised me to buy only those books that would either change or advance my life: this is such a book.
on January 23, 2008
It would be unusual for a typical pentecostal to read this kind of book. I know because I teach at a Pentecostal university. But it is interesting that Pentecostals do not think that an outsider would see their life as heavenly, and this paricularly true of Pentecostals who maintain strong standards for holiness. It would enlighten these people to see how Grant Wacker sees it as such a joyful experience. Pentecostals who think that those Pentecostals who lived in the 10's and 20's were barely litterate and extremely poor might be suprised by this book's careful analysis of the economic condition of early tewentieth centruy Pentecostals and how they viewed edcuation.
The book is extremely careful and honest. Some Pentecostals will be taken back by the authors perspective which is very different from theirs, but that is exactly what makes the book reliable. The author has no stake in misreperestenting truth. Most people who would read this type of book are comfortable with established professors in major universities having a reputation for strong honesty, but I have to report that most Pentecostals are not, but broadening their perspective to include such ideas might be very valuable.
on August 4, 2008
With penetrating insight and colorful descriptions, Grant Wacker pierces the veil of history to give his readers a glimpse into the world of early Pentecostals in the United States. Heaven Below is a powerful and captivating sociological analysis of Pentecostals in the United States beginning around the turn of the century and following trends into the present day. Wacker is clear, fair, and- most importantly- interesting.
Wacker begins by telling the reader, "My main argument can be stated in a single sentence: The genius of the Pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in productive tension. I call the two impulses the primitive and the pragmatic" (10). The rest of the book goes on to defend and refine this statement. By the end of this book his main argument is both clear and persuasive; in everything Pentecostals found a balance between `thisworldliness' and `nextworldliness.' The conclusion restates the thesis this way: "saints seized a timeless formula, as old as the New Testament story of Mary and Martha, and brilliantly put it to modern use" (266).
Each chapter traces and expands this theme. "If authority grew from supernatural signs and wonders, it also grew from a life well lived, from a life that manifested the fruits of Christian grace in day-to-day affairs" (86). "However much saints aspired to worship the unseen creator God... in actual practice they worshiped a God with skin... for saints such mingling came as easily as breathing" (87). "(W)orship was something one did, not something one theorized about... Planned spontaneity, we might call it" (99). "Early Pentecostals knew as well as any that the Lord demanded a separated life. But they also knew as well as any that He appreciated good common sense" (140). "Holy Ghost meetings mirrored this doubleness, this tension between marginality one hand and respectability on the other" (198-99). "Pentecostals, in other words, not only knew how to play ball, but also knew that it was a good idea to befriend the umpire" (237). Quotes such as these sandwich every chapter. Wacker is very careful to show how each chapter's topic manifests this tension in the Pentecostal fabric.
This book is persuasive in its argument. The reader understands how Pentecostalism and the Holy Ghost movement functioned, and how this balance/tension was played out. Wacker gives helpful insight into worship: spontaneity was important as long as it fit within the loose undefined and unspoken structure that everyone knew was there. Leaders were important and necessary, as long as they didn't claim to be leaders but instead took the title of `vessel.' Gender and racial distinctions were obliterated, as long as certain limits were kept. Each chapter walks the reader through similar tensions, and at the end of the book it is understood exactly how practical the Pentecostal's impracticality was.
If there is a weakness of the book, it is in the diachronic nature necessary for the study. Some chapters spanned 100 years, but the recent material was used only to support the views of the earlier movement. However, most chapters meandered over spans of 30 or so years and the reader got a good idea for the general trends. But this was a problem in some chapter. Obviously the war altered the views of the pacifist segment of the denomination, but it was difficult to follow this shift. In fact, at times it seemed that Wacker was contradicting himself by presenting the Pentecostals in one chapter as anti-American, and then in the very next chapter as patriotic. A sermon that lamented the depraved nature of the land was followed in the next chapter by a narrative of a Pentecostal singing the Star - Spangled Banner at a port in Asia. The difference between these two events was surely World War I, but the diachronic nature of the study obscured this. Racial harmony was another example; Wacker showed the tension between the practical and the ideal, but did not show if the time elapsed between the shifting moods was important.
Heaven Below is fun to read, and very useful for understanding the early Pentecostal movement.
on November 30, 2007
The first generation of American Pentecostals is presented by Grant Wacker's "Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture" (2001, 367-page paper back). This well-documented (with 79 pages of endnotes) and somewhat technical book introduces Pentecostalism's originators while informing about their early Holy Ghost doctrine and theology.
Much of Wacker's engaging discussion documents long-held views appreciative and critical of Pentecostals. He speaks to the Pentecostal origins for Holy Spirit baptism, glossolalia, xenolalia, graphalalia, blood atonement, biblical literalism, fear of insulting the Spirit, primacy of Jesus, yieldedness, and much more. Founders' anathema for intellectualism, in particular their distrust of colleges and seminary learning, is also reviewed.
Of equal interest is Wacker's name list for themselves prior to the adoption of "Pentecostal": "saints", "believers", "Spirit-filled", "enthusiasts", "Trinity-filled", "Holy Ghost Movement", etc. Additional lists for various taboos are presented.
Earliest Pentecostals disapproved the usual sins (lying, swearing, smoking, dancing, drinking, etc.) and they constantly frowned on feminine short hair, eating too much, jesting with friends, chewing gum, using medicine, eating ice cream, and many more pleasurable activities taken for granted today. Wacker's is a fascinating discussion for the development of Pentecostal salvation process. His presentation is interesting and informative.
The author assumes reader Pentecostal fluency. This book is intended to analyze early Pentecostals for contemporary believers. Therefore, much of the book is anecdotal reviewing the personal development and lives of Pentecostal patriarchs and matriarchs. Portions of the text, however, require familiarity with early 20th century American religion and theology.
This book is recommended to those interested in early Pentecostalism, early 20th century American religion, Holy Ghost theology, and America's first "charismatics".
on June 25, 2015
“Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture” by Duke University historian Grant Wacker, is a treasure. A delightful, informative, thoughtful and useful read.
Before I get too far, let me note that this particular study has a deep personal connection for me. For though Wacker focuses chiefly upon the 1st generation of the American Pentecostal Movement, from the late 1890’s into the 1930’s – my own heritage emerges from this context in the very next generation. I say this, for it was in 1935 that my Grandfather, George Shea founded Faith Tabernacle in Rochester, NY – later to become the still thriving Faith Temple.
That being the case, when Wacker cites Elim Bible Institute, the Rochester Bible Institute, and names like Ivan Q. Spencer, Susan Duncan (of the Duncan sisters), Stanley Frodsam and John Alexander Dowie and others – these are places and personages that formed part of my own consciousness growing up in that tradition.
The Author skillfully and painstakingly traces the inception of the movement with Charles Parham’s probable first exposure to speaking in tongues in “1900 at Frank W. Sandford's Holy Ghost and Us divine healing compound in Maine.”
Dr. Wacker contends that it is from these “inauspicious beginnings” the Pentecostalism and its unique made its slow and steady incursion into the American Evangelical scene. Rooted for the most part among salt-of-the-earth, rugged, hard working whites. It was the Kansas press who first took real notice of it, just before it almost petered out. But it didn’t die. Its candle sputtered but soon blazed with new heat. It was in 1903 that Charles Parham became the champion of the renewed revival and steered it back to majoring on its emphasis on divine healing ministry. A short time later, Parham took the new movement to Houston where William J. Seymore, a black evangelist caught the Holy Ghost fire, and carried it Los Angeles, kindling the the Azusa Street revival. That was in the spring of 1906.”
From there he investigates the formation of the Assemblies of God, its near demise over the “Oneness” issue, the founding of numerous Pentecostal denominations including the Foursquare Gospel Church under the aegis of the famous (or infamous – depending upon your view) Aimee Semple McPherson, and much much more.
Despites many fits, starts, controversies and controversial personalities, the Pentecostal fire never went out. The proof being that as the 20th century neared its end, Pentecostalism could claim more than 200 separate and distinct sects. The American religious landscape had forever changed.
I was made aware of the book after hearing an interview Grant Wacker did with Dr. Al Mohler about it. It grabbed my attention from the outset and I was rewarded with a rich, fascinating, rewarding and insightful study.
Dr. Wacker writes as neither a detractor nor supporter. This is no hit piece, nor is it hagiographa. He looks at the movement as a simple, matter of fact reality, comprising an important part of the Evangelical landscape in America.
Doing extensive research in as many of the primary sources he was able to comb, Dr. Wacker investigates not simply the formation and progress of the movement, but its varied manifestations, predominating demographics, unique features, prevailing attitudes toward things like war, the role of government, attitude toward non-Pentecostal denominations, race relations and the roles of men and women in leadership – to mention just a few. He truly strove to reconstruct as fully featured a portrait as might be possible. A portrait which I found hauntingly familiar to me, as well as one correcting some misnomers and presuppositions that may have been formed by myself, or in our little corner of the movement.
In analyzing his own research, Dr. Wacker arrives at a thesis. He brings it to us in the introduction, and then, very successfully sees it borne out in the study. He writes: “My main argument can be stated in a single sentence: The genius of the pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in productive tension. I call the two impulses the primitive and the pragmatic.”
By primitive, Dr. Wacker is not using that word as a pejorative, but as short hand for the Pentecostal’s desire to return to the “primitive” roots of the Church as exemplified in the “Pentecostal” outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. And by pragmatic, he is not asserting any failure to look to the immediacy of The Spirit in their worship and lives, but simply, that as much as they sought the everyday experience of the divine as they understood it, they also lived in the real world and still lived in regular neighborhoods, held down regular jobs and took practical steps in regulating their worship and lives as needed. They weren’t (with a few exceptions) so “heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.” In fact, they very much fell into the mainstream of middle America as it was then.
Before I close, let me cite one helpful quote from this important and fascinating book. It has to do with the Pentecostal self-identity. And I believe Dr. Wacker sums it up well when he writes: “So it was that just after the turn of the century one tiny band, meeting in a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, grew particularly interested in the miracles described in the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles. Led by an itinerant Methodist healer named Charles Fox Parham, the seekers read that on the Day of Pentecost Jesus' followers experienced Holy Ghost baptism and "began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." This simple story, which had fascinated Christians for nearly 1900 years, raised a question as disturbing ing as it was provocative. If speaking in tongues accompanied Holy Ghost baptism on the Day of Pentecost, why not now? Indeed, if then, why not always ways and everywhere? For the Kansas zealots the answer presented itself with the force of an epiphany: speaking in tongues always accompanied Holy Ghost baptism, first as an audible sign of the Holy Ghost's presence, second as a tool for evangelism. This claim, unique in the history of Christianity, defined a relatively rare, relatively difficult physical activity or skill as a nonnegotiable hallmark of a fully developed Christian life. Not incidentally, it also defined believers who did not speak in tongues as second-class Christians. By definition they had not received the coveted baptism experience.”
Be you a continuist (believing that all the gifts of the Spirit can and do function today) or a cessationist (one who holds that all of the so-called sign gifts ceased after the Apostolic generation) or somewhere along the continuum between the two, this book is important because of how much this movement impacted - and remains an influential aspect of - American Evangelicalism. For me personally, it helped frame much of my own familial and church milieu in far more cogent ways than I had previously understood.
And even if none of those things applies to you – it is a wonderfully engaging read. You’ll not be sorry you picked it up.
on January 17, 2007
My sister speaks in tongues and so does her husband; they make me nervous. I have vague recollections as an immature teenage Christian of being schooled to speak in tongues, failing the test, and then feeling guilty that I was not as spiritual, as closely in tune with God as my tutors. But considered globally, as a non tongue-speaker, I will soon be in the Christian minority, if I am not already.
From obscure beginnings at Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas in 1901, and at 312 Azusa Street in an industrial section of downtown Los Angeles in 1905, what is broadly known as charismatic or pentecostal Christianity has grown today to include some 525 million believers from virtually every denomination and country the world over. Apart from Catholics (and many Catholics are charismatic), they constitute the single largest distinct group of Christians, and they are getting larger. Social scientists predict that in fifty years they will number one billion believers.
Grant Wacker, professor of history at Duke University, grew up in a Pentecostal family and so brings to this volume the critical detachment of a scholar but also the empathy of the consummate insider. Heaven Below focuses on the earliest years of the movement, from 1900 to 1925. Wacker's goal? "To rescue Pentecostals from the shadowy fate that EP Thompson once called (in another context), `the enormous condescension of posterity'" (p. 266).
Scholars have struggled to explain how such a wildly enthusiast, anti-intellectual, counter cultural and divisive movement could not only survive and flourish but explode. Wacker offers a very specific twofold thesis. Early Pentecostals did two things extremely well. They encouraged the primitive impulse of a deeply felt and experienced relationship with God, and then devised pragmatic ways to "bottle the lightening" without "stilling the fire or cracking the vessel." They held emotional prayer meetings and built hospitals. They begged God for healing and founded colleges. They could be both credulous and shrewd.
The pentecostal movement now enjoys a burgeoning scholarly literature. Charismatics have been good for the church, and this new literature should be good for the movement.
on October 29, 2015
Like Wacker, I speak Pentecostalism as I was raised in the tradition. My father is a pastor in the tradition and I am inescapably Pentecostal in my embedded theology. I will say that much of what is described in the book I could understand and recognize because my father's church is rather particularly on the primitive side of Pentecostalism. Wacker's storytelling is unmatched among contemporary Church historians and he is also very keenly aware of allowing the historical figures to interpret themselves as opposed to projecting his own views onto them. I have a much deeper understanding of the history of these early saints and why the movement has taken on some of its best and worst qualities. This is an excellent primer for Pentecostal studies.
on January 2, 2014
Good review of the social history of the beginnings of pentecostal churches and organizations.
Chapter on speaking in tongues was well documented and argued. The dichotomy of primitivism and pragmatism is an insightful view of the pentecostal tradition.
Pentecostals! From snake handlers in Appalachia to mega-watt speakers like Joyce Meyers,the Pentecostal tent is a big one and it has a very colorful history. In Heaven Below you will find pastors from the 1920s bemoaning the tight clothes, high heels and makeup women wore to church, sucking the poor innocent men in with their sexy wiles (p 174). You'll read of parents who believed only God could heal disease and watched their ill children die rather than take them to a doctor or give them any medicine (186). You'll see the remarkable tales of the dead risen again, the sick made healthy, the lame made to walk (chapter 3)! You'll gasp as tracts such as "Mormonism! A Survey of Its Blasphemous Pretensions and Evil Practices" show you how to stay away from heretical and apostate churches. Not even the Roman Catholic Church is treated with kid gloves as you read of a young woman's struggle to get out of convents beset with child sacrifice, tortured nuns , and stonings! (chapter 11).
Mr. Wacker's history is not only fun to read and packed with information, it opened my eyes as to how much the present Pentecostal world is like the early one. Every stereotype is here: self-righteous, clean living, quarrelsome, bombastic, down to earth, Bible-reading, Jesus-loving, heresy hating. It turns out that other than allowing medicines and surgery now, the average Pentecostal has a lot of in common with her salt-of-the-earth Holiness Apostolic Church-attending great-grandma.
Mr. Wacker takes the reader through the effect the movement had on individuals,families, neighborhoods, and cities. Giving up the evils of alcohol and meat brought health and stability to many families. Lives were changed for the better. On the other hand, many were frightened of a wife or child suddenly rolling around in seizures and babbling nonsensical words. Husbands dragged their wives from church services and parents threatened pastors with arson and death if they did not stop prosyletizing to their kids. Pentecostal preachers would preach through the night and keep the people in the neighborhood awake with their noise. When communities tried to get them to stop preaching before 9 or to keep it to the daytime, the Pentecostals would have none of it and seemed, as the author says, "constitutionally unable to empathize with other persons' point of view."
If you are from a Pentecostal background, are a Pentecostal, or have lost a family member to Pentecostalism (and if you have, you know what I mean by "lost") then you will probably enjoy this book. It helped me more than I thought it would because it showed me that Holy Rollers have been the way they are since the beginning and there is nothing special about the obnoxiousness of their present population. It made me feel better to know that.