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Latino Pentecostalism, a review essay by Amos Yong

Gastón Espinosa, Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2014), xi + 505 pages.

Daniel Ramírez, Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), xix + 283 pages.

Why should readers of The Pneuma Review look up these books under review? Although the answers to this question may seem obvious, they nevertheless need to be reiterated: because the center of Christianity has now shifted from the Euro-American West to the global South; consistent with the foregoing, because of the so-called “browning” of the North American church such that the its vitality is currently being sustained, and is projected to be increasingly carried over the next few decades, by migration from the rest of Latin America; and because, for the North American Pentecostal movement in general and the Assemblies of God denomination specifically, one third of all adherents are non-white and one-fourth – and growing percentage-wise as well as in aggregate – are Latino (see, e.g., Pew Research Center demographics from July 2015). Beyond other rationales that might motivate the present constituency, the above ought to prompt curiosity at least, if not a sense of urgency about becoming more acquainted with what Espinosa and Ramírez have to say. To be as pointed as possible: despite their “Decade of Harvest” initiative in the 1990s, the Assemblies of God would be in no less severe of a decline compared to mainline Protestant denominations if not for growth in Latinos within its ranks over the last two decades!

Gastón Espinosa is Arthur V. Stoughton Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College.

The authors and their books covered in this review are quite distinct. Ramírez is a more recently established academic who is shifting, at the time of this writing, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (their Department of American Culture and Latino/a Studies) to Claremont School of Theology (Claremont, California). This is his first book, his Duke University PhD thesis, which has been substantially revised and extended, appearing after almost a decade. Espinosa, meanwhile, began his scholarly work on the origins of Latino Pentecostalism in the first half of the twentieth century (completing his PhD on this topic in 1999 at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and has become renowned as one of the foremost specialists on Latino religions with more than a half dozen books from Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press, and other prestigious scholarly publishers. From his post at Claremont McKenna College, since 2009 as the Arthur V. Stoughton Professor of Religious Studies, Espinosa’s Latino Pentecostals in America builds on his research trajectory going back more than two decades, carrying forward to the present the more historically focused coverage of his preceding monograph, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Duke University Press, 2014). Both have been participants at least in some respects of the histories they are narrating and thereby provide superb and complementary guidance to anyone interested in understanding further the Latino side of North American Pentecostal history.

Why read these books under review? The center of Christianity has shifted from the Euro-American West to the global South.

Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action proceeds via a case study – quite focused considering the extant over 225 Pentecostal groups – of the Latino Assemblies of God (AG) movement, even denominational tradition (as much as churches like the Assemblies of God resist the “denominational” appellation). Among its many fine qualities, scholars of Pentecostalism and aficionados of Pentecostal history especially will be engaged with Espinosa’s straightforward efforts to set the record straight, as it were, with regard to prior histories, analyses, or presentations that have either ignored or minimized and subordinated the agency of Latinos to that of white AG ministers, administrators, and ecclesial leaders. Each of the twelve chapters to the book thus clearly specifies how antecedent scholarship and ecclesial memories or narratives have marginalized or distorted what happened: from Mexican involvement at the Azusa Street revival to their role in the Texas region and at and around the Southwest borderlands areas, to Puerto Rican agency on the island and in the Eastern Spanish district from New York state down to Florida. The last two chapters also take up one-fifth of the book’s space to tell about the much more palpable – compared to their white counterparts – presence and activity of Latino AG ministers in the American political landscape particularly since the turn of the new millennium. Espinosa’s book is important here not just for countering stereotypes about apolitical Pentecostalism but also since it explicates the how of Latino leaders having had “direct access to national political leaders and American presidents” (p. 365) and the why of such prominence within the dynamics of Latino religiosity in the contemporary socio-historical context. This material will certainly be of interest to those within and those outside of North American Pentecostalism looking to understand the movement in relationship to the religious politics of the 2016 election year.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2016

About the Author: Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and over 30 books. Facebook

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