In 1901, Agnes Ozman received the “baptism with tongues” in Charles Fox Parham’s school in Topeka, Kansas. Parham’s own baptism followed quickly. Two years later Parham took his school on the road to Houston where he taught William J. Seymour. Seymour took the message to California where the new movement exploded in 1906.
In Heaven Below, Grant Wacker tells the story of that first generation of American pentecostals. Since almost every new expression of pentecostalism had its corresponding magazine and mailing list, Wacker mined a mountain of primary material to arrive at his nuanced understanding of the pentecostal movement.
Wacker described his overall thesis in one sentence:
The genius of the pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in creative tension. (10)
Wacker shows how through a variety of topics (women, tongues, worship, war, testimony, etc.), pentecostals were able to be both primitivists (people who returned to what they considered the New Testament faith) and pragmatists (people who thrived in the world).
Context always influences research and Wacker is up-front with his. He was raised pentecostal but now identifies more broadly as an evangelical Christian. He confesses, however, that “in many ways my heart never left home” (x). He is neither a dispassionate sceptic nor a fawning hagiographer.
Now, a word about the context of this reviewer. I too was raised as a pentecostal and still identify as one—I pastor a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. Wacker’s research opened my eyes to the origin of many of the quirks I have encountered over the years.
While reading Heaven Below, I was alternately inspired by my spiritual ancestors who bragged that “the color line has been washed away in the blood,” and disgusted at Parham’s racist insistence that black evangelist William Seymour sit outside the school by the open window so he could get the teaching without mixing his race with the whites inside. The same feelings held true with many other issues: women in ministry, poverty v. wealth, and pacifism v. war to name a few.
That God did something world-shattering in the early pentecostal movement is beyond question—its effects are still resonating throughout the entire word. I hope pentecostals of our day can take inspiration from our mothers and fathers in the faith while at the same time repudiating the errors that have become clear with the benefit of hindsight.
Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.