Pentecostalism’s Neglected Black History

Pentecostalism’s Neglected Black History

Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn’t know much about the black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she’s spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement’s most important founders. Our interview with Alexander has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?

ESTRELDA Y. ALEXANDER: I grew up Pentecostal but don’t remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I’m sitting in class going, “I’ve never heard of him.” I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn’t Seymour’s emphasis. So, even though he’s at the forefront of this revival, he’s out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he’s black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn’t try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there’s this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he’s part of the uncovering of the story of early black history in the country.

What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?

He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.

The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?

Estrelda Alexander

They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early twentieth century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That’s not just Azusa Street; that’s a process that is pretty well documented.

Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?

There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There’s what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It’s been more or less successful. There’s still quite a bit of division. It’s not on paper. On paper, there’s this idea that we’ve all come together, but the practicality of it doesn’t always get worked out.

Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?

They’re not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout black and white Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there was elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was white, then the second person in place would be black. It would go back and forth. It’s now predominantly a black denomination, though.

Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?

Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn’t hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I’m a theologian, so I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other’s camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.

In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as “manifestations” of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?

For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes’ success, so they don’t even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You’ll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I’m not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.

Continued on page 2.

Black History’s Heroes & Saints

Black History's Heroes & Saints for urban faith

As far as African American history books go, Heroes in Black History is unique. First of all, it was written by a white couple whose passion for their subject matter leaps off the page. Second, the book places the spiritual lives of its subjects front and center and shows how vital their Christian faith was to their historic accomplishments.

Authors Dave and Neta Jackson may be best known for their 40-title series of Trailblazer Books, novels for young readers about great Christian heroes that have sold over 1.7 million. But their prolific catalog features both fiction and nonfiction works that extend across genres and age groups. Neta’s bestselling series for women, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, features a multiethnic cast of women. Dave’s novels, Forty to Life, and his more recent, Harry Bentley’s Second Chance, show God’s dramatic redemption in the rough world of gangs, prison, and the Chicago streets. UrbanFaith spoke to Dave and Neta about their hopes for Heroes and why black history is so important to them personally.

URBANFAITH: A lot of people may be surprised to learn that this book on African American history was written by a white couple. Why did you write it?

DAVE: Several times we’ve shown up for a book signing or media interview and we get, “Wait a minute! You’re the wrong color!” We just laugh and say, “No, we’re the right color. It’s us white folks who need to learn more about these saints from different cultures!” Actually, we’ve written four Hero Tales volumes similar to this that included the stories of white and black saints as well as some from other ethnic groups, but we gathered these stories about black heroes and added a few more for Heroes in Black History because of our own desire to know more about them and share their stories with everyone. It’s especially important for white folks to hear these stories since they have usually been untold for too long in our isolated circles. It’s a way to bring us together in celebration of God’s work all across His body, the church. In some ways, this book shares the essence of what we have enjoyed learning with our African American brothers and sisters in church and small groups for years.

How did you select the individuals profiled in the book?

NETA: Several of the stories feature well-known heroes like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we wanted to mix in those heroes that many of us know little about, like William Seymour, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Festo Kevengere. There are also more recent heroes we’ve been privileged to know personally, like John Perkins and Ricky and Sherialyn Byrdsong.

Black History's Heroes & Saints for urban faithWho were the most interesting historical figures to you, and what was the most surprising thing you learned as you worked on the book?

NETA: I loved learning about Mary McLeod Bethune, a teacher who followed the railroad workers into Florida and established a school for their children. She began with just five little girls–but her school grew to become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Her philosophy was to educate the “head, the hands, and the heart”–meaning classical studies, practical skills, and spiritual values. We visited her school recently, and there over the door was the very motto she drilled into her students: On the outside of the door it says, “ENTER TO LEARN,” and on the inside of the door it says, “DEPART TO SERVE.” Wow, what a woman!

DAVE: I think learning about William Seymour was most interesting to me because of his pivotal role in founding the modern Pentecostal movement, to which almost every Pentecostal or charismatic church in the world can trace its roots. And to me, the most interesting discovery was that Seymour believed Jesus died to forgive our sins and wash away all divisions, including the “color line.” To him, this–above speaking in tongues or performing miracles–was the true proof of conversion and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that we all might be one.

The subtitle is “True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes.” One thing your book shows is just how integral Christian faith is in the history of African Americans. Your book suggests that it’s impossible to talk about Black history without also addressing the role of religion and faith.

DAVE: Definitely, and this was another reason for writing this book. Even those more well-known heroes in black history are seldom described as being primarily motivated and sustained by their faith. But most were. True faith was essential for many African Americans to endure slavery and discrimination over the centuries. Want to know how to “get through” when you are facing a heavy trial and feeling that you can’t take another step? Let an African American saint be your teacher, hold your hand, and show you how to focus on Jesus, the only One who can see you through!

NETA: We hope the book has a long and wide life, encouraging individuals and families and Sunday school classes with the godly character qualities of heroes. That’s what many people appreciate about this book–especially families trying something new for their family devotions–since it focuses on character qualities and provides questions for discussion. And we just hope it spreads.

Many today suggest that we’re in a post-racial era, and that things like Black History Month may no longer be necessary, especially with the election of an African American president. How do you respond to those types of arguments?

DAVE: We are grateful for the progress that has been made. There is a new generation rising up, and that’s hopeful. No doubt about it. However, there is a great deal more work to do, and racism still raises its ugly head all too often, usually in subtle ways we white people don’t even recognize. Even what we might think is in the past is not that far in the past for some of us.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of our dear and close friend, [college basketball coach] Ricky Byrdsong, who was slain by a white supremacist. Ricky was walking with his children just a block from his home, not far from us, when he was gunned down. That was only ten years ago. But God is still working, and the place where we should all desire and work to showcase God’s reconciliation is in the church. Let the world see what He can do, and let it begin in me.

Find out more about Dave and Neta Jackson at

Heroes and Saints

Heroes and Saints

Authors Dave and Neta Jackson.

As far as African American history books go, Heroes in Black History is unique. First of all, it was written by a white couple whose passion for their subject matter leaps off the page. Second, the book places the spiritual lives of its subjects front and center and shows how vital their Christian faith was to their historic accomplishments.