Being Black History Month, let me share some questions people are asking me concerning race relations. These questions come because of my recent book, Ethics in the Age of the Spirit: Race, Women, War, and the Assemblies of God.
Q. What compelled you to start the research in the first place?
While in my undergraduate studies, I developed a keen interest in ethics, particularly concerning how we are to live out our faith. It is another story why I chose ethics and how I wound up at Baylor University, but once in Texas I quickly discovered a side of my church world I’d never experienced before. And it was a real cultural shock. That people of color were definitely unwelcomed in white Pentecostal churches. Having grown up during the Civil Rights movement, I wasn’t totally ignorant on the subject, but I had never experienced it directly. And I just had to find out why such blatant racism was allowed. It turned into a study that lasted more than a decade.
Q. Had much research had already been done on race relations in the Pentecostal movement?
In a word, no. In fact, I was told there wasn’t much to be researched. There were people reflecting and writing on the subject, but very few, and they were writing almost concurrently with me. Leonard Lovett, Walter Hollenweger, James S. Tinney, Vinson Synan were four writers I could draw on by the late 1970s. Others whose works became available to me in the early 80s were Donald Pierce Weeks, Ithiel Clemmons, and, toward the end of my research, Charles Edwin Jones.
Q. What surprised you about race relations in the Pentecostal movement?
That the questions had never been asked. Why were there no blacks, to speak of, in the Assemblies of God as late as the 1980s? Why were there almost no examples of integrated Pentecostal denominations or churches in the US? Why had a movement that started off with one of the best examples of racial integration in the 20th century—Azusa Street—become almost completely segregated within 15 years?
Q. Was there some specific discovery that stands out most?
I was particularly surprised to discover how much, in the 1940s and 1950s, the American Assemblies of God had struggled at the highest levels with the issue of race relations (or to be more direct, struggled with the question of what was to be done about black people). The issue certainly came up because society was pressing it and white Pentecostals and evangelicals were completely unprepared. But even then, the information was kept under a tight lid until I was handed the records in the early 1980s, a generation later.
Q. How did church leaders respond to your investigation?
I would say most were unaware I was doing any research. I was just a low-level grad student poking around in files while a student at a school outside of the Assemblies of God. Being a fourth-generation Pentecostal, I guess I just didn’t look suspicious. And as a dissertation, it didn’t get much notice. As I wrote about in the new opening chapter of my book, there were a handful that definitely opposed me, one even warning me and then reporting to a family member that I was on dangerous ground. But I also found some very supportive people, most notably Joseph R. Flower, then General Secretary of the American Assemblies of God, and certain scholars such as Edith Blumhofer and Murray Dempster. The Assemblies of God Archives, now known as the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, was a goldmine of resource and encouragement under the leadership of Wayne Warner.
Q. How have people responded since the book was published?
I think it is too early yet to know. Those who have read the book have been very positive. I had several who gave strong endorsements, including Walter Harvey, Beth Grant, Tommy Reid, Paul Lewis, Cecil Robeck, and Darius Johnston. A few struggle with the question of “why bring this up now” as we are certainly far down the road from the 1950s.
Q. So, why do you bring it up now?
We have indeed come a long way since the 1950s, about the same some might say as the rest of society. The American Assemblies of God is poised to become, largely through immigration, a majority minority denomination within the next decade. In fact, that diversity is fueling its growth, unparalleled in the contemporary American church. However, I don’t think that transformation is coming because of heavy reflection on past sins. Sure the “Memphis Miracle” in the early 90s was huge, but there has been little other wrestling with why we behaved the way we did in the past and whether we have anything to learn from that for today. My sense is that there is some serious wrestling ahead of us in how we move forward as a majority minority denomination and we remain ill prepared for the task. It will be no easier a transition than the one we faced fifty years ago.
If you’d reflect on these issues more deeply, here is how you can get a copy of my book:
And I still have a few autographed copies at a very good value. Visit my website howardnkenyon.com.