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Ida Bell Robinson

One interesting character you wrote about was Amy Semple McPherson, the founder of the Four Square denomination. She remained racially inclusive but was also close to members of the KKK. What was that contradiction about? 

I wouldn’t say she was close to members of the KKK, but she was open to reaching out to them. There was an earlier woman, Alma White, who was a Holiness pioneer who started a denomination and actually supported the Klu Klux Klan. McPherson didn’t do that. The thing about McPherson was that she wasn’t going to be told by anybody how she should operate, and so she did her own thing. She was one of the few women who was able to manipulate the system and use it to do what she felt she needed to do, but she paid a high price in terms of her own mental soundness. She was phenomenal in what she was able to achieve. She probably achieved more than any other woman in modern Christian times. She not only built a denomination, but she built a college, and she built one of the first megachurches in the country, Angeles Temple. She was the first woman to have a religious broadcast. Her radio station stayed in existence until late last century. Four Square actually sold that station for $250 million, so it wasn’t a small undertaking.

In the black church, you had women like McPherson. You had Ida Robinson, who founded Mount Sinai Holy Church of America. You had Mary Magdelina Lewis Tate. Of course they were operating on a smaller scale, because the African American population is a smaller population, but in relative size they were the McPhersons of the African American community. Robinson, who I think is one of the greatest role models for women today, left a position in which she already found some prominence because she wanted other women to have the opportunities that she had. She started Mount Sinai church specifically to allow other women to have the freedom that she had. She was just a wonderful example of how women’s leadership ought to empower other women.

What is the connection between Pentecostalism and African spirituality?

Because the early leaders of Pentecostalism were African American, they had been grounded in a spirituality. A lot of times, because you don’t understand your past, you don’t even know what it is that influences you. Seymour grew up in Lousiana and Lousiana was a place where there was a lot of African spirituality around him that he imbibed as a young person. So some of the ways that African people are open to God get incorporated into Pentecostal worship, and you can see this in the difference between white and black Pentecostals even today. There’s this real sense of openness to the Spirit, but not naming it as African religion.

So, it’s a cultural influence?

Right. They would never say that, but one of the people who specifically talked about embracing African roots as part of Pentecostalism was Charles Harrison Mason, the founder of the Church of God in Christ, which is the largest African American Pentecostal body in the world. He was unashamedly African in his approach to religion and incorporated things such as healing rituals that he not only found support for in the Bible, but also found support for in his African roots. He was not ashamed and he didn’t want black people to be ashamed of their Africanness, and so he did things like using herbs and healing roots. Even though he saw this as healing that was being offered by the Holy Spirit, he also saw a place for the African herbs and the things that he had known in his childhood in the ritual of healing in the black church.

There are elements of Africanism that no they are not named as that, but they get incorporated, such as the music. In the black Pentecostal church, music is a mainstay, and it’s music at a different level. I’ve heard a critique by a middle class black person who was appalled by the earthiness of the music in black Pentecostal worship, and almost saw it as soulish, and didn’t think it was appropriate, because not just music, but rhythm and drums are important to African American Pentecostal worship. When Pentecostalism first began, people who were around Pentecostals thought their worship was appalling. For example, when Rev. Charles Parham came to Azusa Street, he called what he saw at the revival “crude Africanisms.” He was appalled at the openness to the Spirit. It wasn’t just speaking in tongues, but it was the shaking, the quaking, which many people would see as related to Spirit possession in African worship. Pentecostals would say, yes, there’s a Spirit possession, but they would redefine it as possession by the Holy Spirit. If you go back to slave religion, you had things like the “ring shout.” The people who were early Pentecostals weren’t that far removed from slavery, so some of that was in their memory and gets translated into some of the worship that happens in the early movement.

So those things aren’t foreign to them culturally?

Those aren’t foreign to them, and so you would see a more free expression. I go to a black Pentecostal church, but have served in both white and black churches. When I first went back to a black church, it was very interesting to me to watch the worship, and to see Africanisms even now incorporated into the worship. For instance, my pastor often does this chant. You would never see a chant in a white Pentecostal church, but my pastor will get up on a Sunday morning and begin to chant, and people will chant with him. It’s not using words. I can’t even explain it, because I’m still trying to understand it. I hate to say this, but in some ways it’s foreign to me. They’re unabashedly African and will say, “This is who we are.”

The Grio recently published an article about African Americans abandoning Christianity for African faiths. Do you think Pentecostalism offers something that could appeal to these disaffected blacks?

One of the things about Pentecostalism is that it’s still considered, even by many middle-class blacks, a lower-class religion. Pentecostal worship does offer a way to relate back to our Africanness and the truth is all Christian faith is culturally defined. Evangelicalism and Mainline Christian faith go back to a Greek paradigm. And so, yes, if people were willing to seriously engage Pentecostalism, there could be something in that that would speak to some of those same issues.

Is it possible to overestimate the influence of Pentecostalism on Christianity given that there are 600 million adherents and the style of worship has influenced all kinds of denominations?

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate, but that influence has been filtered through a lot of other things. The worship will be very Pentecostal often, but the theology or the ethical system is less influential. What people are borrowing is what’s attractive to them, without understanding all that that means for Pentecostals.

Because for Pentecostals the empowerment of the Spirit goes back to the ability to lead a holy life?

Right, and that’s what makes classical Pentecostals still classical. They would specifically stand by the authority of Scripture. Their thing is, “We’re not Pentecostal people; we are Pentecostal Christians. We’re not trying to sell a religious system.” That’s the danger too, even in terms of what Pentecostalism could offer. It could offer something to the church, but it has to be taken seriously as an ethical system as well as a cultural expression.

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