Heaven Below – A Review

    I began yesterday with a brief review of Rosemary Sullivan’s powerful biography of Svetlana Stalin. But there was a second book which occupied me during my recent vacation which I found also well worth a hearty recommendation. The book’s title is “Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.” It is by Duke University historian Grant Wacker, and it is a fascinating study to be sure.

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 continues: “From these inauspicious beginnings the Pentecostal message spread slowly but steadily, mainly among old-stock whites-hard-working, plain folk. Initially it made news in the Kansas press, then shriveled and nearly died. In 1903 Parham salvaged the revival by returning to a divine healing ministry. Two years later he took the Apostolic Faith-as he called it-to Houston. There a black evangelist named William J. Seymour embraced the message and carried it to Los Angeles, where his preaching sparked the now famous Azusa Street revival 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. 

As he says in his introduction: “By the end of the twentieth century more than 200 distinct pentecostal sects had established themselves on the American landscape.” 

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 more 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 “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.     

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