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Randall Stephens: The Fire Spreads


Randall J. Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2008), 393 pages, ISBN 9780674026728.

Classical Pentecostalism has often been described as a religion of the American South. Much of the story of the origins of Pentecostalism, however, and the precise influences of the South that shaped the Pentecostal faith and praxis in North America, remains untold. Stephens closes much of this gap by retelling the story of Pentecostals in the South following the post-Civil War holiness revival. Stephens follows in the footsteps of recent works that have unearthed the origins and formation of Pentecostalism in the American South, such as Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture and Vinson Synan’s classic study, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition. In contrast to these broader survey’s, this book deals in particular with regional and chronological nuances that have shaped Pentecostalism in the southern culture, and as such it should make a fine addition to any library, personal or professional.

At the latest with Donald Dayton’s Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, the holiness movement has been established as the precursor of Classical Pentecostal faith and practice. Stephens, however, tells more of the socio-cultural history of Pentecostal origins in the South, using a rich array of sources that range from early Pentecostal publications to diaries, church records, and denominational histories. As a result, the book addresses the changing shape, growth, creativity, and arguments of the movement in the South over the last one hundred years. Stephens is not afraid to portray the frequent scandals and internal debates among Pentecostals, but he does so with the purpose of revealing the genuine enthusiasm as well as innovative and confrontational zeal that has often characterized Pentecostalism. The result is a highly readable book that is as informative as it is enjoyable.

The Fire Spreads is a solid contribution to an understanding of twentieth-century religions history in North America. In that regard, the reader gains at least two significant insights: first, that the South was fundamentally involved in the forming of American religion and, second, that Pentecostalism represents a major catalyst in that formation, ultimately beyond the confines of the American South and the heritage of the holiness revival. In six chapters, Stephens traces the story of Classical Pentecostalism from the roots of holiness revivalism to its entrance into the plain-folk, largely rural character of southern religion, the formation and organization of the Holiness Movement, the birth of Pentecostal fellowships and assemblies, and the institutionalization of Pentecostal churches. Readers find themselves in the company of G. B. Cashwell, L. L. Pickett, W. B. Godbey, William J. Seymour, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and John Ashcroft. That this eclectic company is not mismatched lies largely in the fact that Stephens traces a cultural history that has developed from its southern origins to a mass movement of global proportions.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2009

About the Author: Wolfgang Vondey, Ph.D. (Marquette University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), is Professor of Christian Theology 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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