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Estrelda Alexander: Black Fire, reviewed by Wolfgang Vondey

Black FireEstrelda Y. Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 406 pages, ISBN 9780830825858.

At a time where books on the first one hundred years of modern-day Pentecostalism are published with frequency, Alexander reminds us of the important heritage of African American Pentecostals. African and African American origins of classical Pentecostalism remain a neglected topic of study, and even African American Pentecostals often know little of their own heritage. Despite the influence of the black preacher William J. Seymour and other African American leaders on the origins and development of Pentecostalism in North America, few scholars have traced the story of African American Pentecostal origins or developed a comprehensive account of the racial landscape of Pentecostals. The recovery of African American contributions was hindered for many decades by the dominance of two competing theories of Pentecostal beginnings that identified either white or black origins. Interracial origins and the diversity of influences within different racial traditions are only recently becoming a topic of study, and the much larger questions of the relationship of particular racial theories of Pentecostal origins to the racial composition of global Pentecostalism are only in their infancy. Black Fire closes this gap with a rich account of the untold story of African American Pentecostalism.

In ten lucid chapters, Alexander recounts Pentecostal retentions from African Spirituality, the legacy of the nineteenth-century Black Holiness Movement, the impact of William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street revival, the rise of African American trinitarian Pentecostal denominations, development of Black Oneness Pentecostalism, the presence of Black Pentecostals in predominantly white denominations, women’s leadership in African American churches, African American Neo-Pentecostals and Charismatic Movements, and the theological challenges of African American Pentecostalism. Two bibliographies of historical and contemporary sources complete the work.

While first impression might suggest that Black Fire is a historical work, Alexander’s study blends historical presentation with theological arguments. Never dispassionate in her writings, she has recently produced a number of works on African American Pentecostals, including a focus on Afro-Pentecostalism, in general, and women leaders in African American Pentecostalism, in particular, that confront the lack of attention given to African American Pentecostalism. At the core of Black Fire are the twin concerns of gender and race that characterize North American Pentecostal denominations. Interrogating the racial divide and gender paradox that affected the formation and ongoing development of African American Pentecostalism, Alexander explores the racist attitudes of black and white Pentecostals and attempts to repair the damaged relations. Similarly, the challenges of sexism and the suppression of women in positions of leadership are confronted in various accounts of black, Holiness, women evangelists, women as denominational leaders and organizational innovators woven throughout the historical and theological discussions. The black Pentecostal consciousness Alexander endeavors to instill is egalitarian and ecumenical, not without self-criticism, and always protecting the genuine validity of the variety of voices emerging from Pentecostals.

The book does not offer a continuous story, as one might expect, of one hundred years of African American Pentecostalism. Each chapter stands on its own, with some inevitable connections emerging from the historical and theological voices. This choice has its advantages, since the reader can follow the development selectively and with emphasis on the key themes of the century. Each chapter carries its own inherent argument, connected by the interwoven theme of African spirituality, Africanisms, and African American characteristics that influenced theological, practical, political, organizational, and denominational choices. The disadvantage of this approach is mostly evident on the macro-level historiography and felt most likely by those who look for a standard account of a century of Pentecostal history. Here, the reader will not be able to find quick references to events and figures or other historical markers without engaging the text itself. The name and subject indexes are surprisingly short and offer less direction than most historians desire. Alexander’s strengths are in the thematic presentation and analysis as well as the theological observations throughout the book.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2012

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Reader in Contemporary Christianity and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is an ordained minister with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). His research focuses on ecclesiology, pneumatology, theological method, and the intersection of theology and science.

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