Charismatics and Race

charisma One of my main areas of academic research has been the Charismatic Movement (CM).  According to the strictest definition, the CM was a revival movement in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.  During that era and after, Christians who beforehand had historically very little connection with the Pentecostal way of faith came to desire the fire their Spirit-filled brothers and sisters had.  Many embraced these experiences, and in the process this “fresh fire” spread throughout Christendom.

What marks the Charismatic Movement off from traditional or classical Pentecostalism is that charismatics, rather than departing their parent denomination for groups like the Assemblies of God or Church of God (Cleveland, TN), would instead remain within their original ecclesiastical setting.  They would embrace a Pentecostal way of thinking about the Holy Spirit and the experience of God working in their lives, but all the same would not stop being Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian.  The movement represented a sea change for the way that traditional Pentecostals and outsiders alike understood the work of the Holy Spirit, and was to have important repercussions within Christianity.

One of the things that has been fairly absent in my research is evidence of any significant Neher_CCHARISCharismatic Movement inside the African-American religious community.  Though America’s largest Pentecostal denomination (the Church of God in Christ) is African-American and is counted by one list as the third largest denomination in America, blacks in this country hardly garner a mention in the historical record of the CM.  At least as usually retold, then, the story of the Charismatic Movement in the United States is a largely white tale.  I’ve considered at least three possibilities for this:  1) the historical record is racially tilted, i.e. what took place was not considered important enough to be recorded by the white hegemony, 2) I’ve missed some big things in my research and more work needs to be done, and/or 3) the general tendencies and approach of African-American Christianity was and is already Pentecostal-esque and experiential enough that whatever the Charismatic Movement offered to staid white folk had no real attraction for them.

As I consider these three answers, I am more convinced the further down the list we go.  The first, while possible, doesn’t make as much sense as it might sound.  We are, after all, not dealing here with the dim recesses of history, but a time period of only 40-50 years ago.  Modern records and the pervasive prCharismatic-Christiansesence of media even then means that the possibility of completely missing a Charismatic Movement in the black churches is unlikely.  I suppose it could have been ignored in favor of covering the civil rights movement, but this is still a somewhat hard sell.  While more research needs to be done, I suspect we’ll find at the end of the day that the CM was still a very “white” affair.

The second possibility demands some humility on may part, and I fully admit that I may have missed some important things thus far in my research.  It wouldn’t be the first time I or another historian has overlooked some key facts.  In recent weeks, for instance, I have read about the presence of the Charismatic Movement in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.  I’m interested in researching this further, even while admitting there are no doubt more stories like this that I’ll need to consider.  Yet even then they seem few and far between compared to the extensive source material documenting the CM in the white churches.

The third option is, simply, that African-Americans had little need for the Charismatic Movement.  They already had just about everything it offered.  This is the solution that I consider most appealing (please note that I borrow it from a scholar I read long ago, although I don’t remember who it was).  If we understand the historic African-American religious worldview through works like The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois or Slave Religion by Al Raboteau–not to mention Pentecostal scholar William Hollenweger‘s claim that one of the cornerstones of Pentecostalism itself was the “Black Oral Root”–this should come as no surprise.  African-American Christianity has often carried with it a deep pathos and sense of emotion, influenced powerfully by native African religious practices and the experiences of their lives in bondage, freedom, and struggle.  African-negro-spirituals-gospelconnoisseurAmerican Christianity has almost by default a deep respect for encounters with the Divine that transcend the bounded lines of dry academic theology.

Call and response, the Negro spiritual, black preaching–all are hallmarks of a tradition far different from anything in Western Christianity except Pentecostalism and its immediate antecedents.  While it is true that there are probably many black churches where traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic practices like speaking in tongues are not welcome, many of the other aspects of the revivalistic movement and its emphasis on the work of the Spirit are present.  If this is true, then truly what need would most African-American Christians feel they had for the Charismatic Movement?  In many ways, it was simply an embracing of aspects of faith that the black churches had long-held and valued.

They were there first, we might say.


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