There has been an interesting development in several prominent U.S. seminaries in 2023. Religion News Service reporter, Rebekah Barber, notes that a number of Black, female, scholars have ascended to places of leadership in a male and white dominated field of theological education. This is certainly of note because Black women in the academy are truly a minority, with Barber noting only 5% of PhDs are Black women.
But even more astonishing is that several of women featured in the article are prominent scholars of Pentecostalism (a fact she overlooks). Barber highlights the recent promotions of Dr. Yolanda Pierce the Dean at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Dr. Marla Frederick the Dean at Harvard Divinity School, both who are well known for their work on various aspects of the Pentecostal tradition. To break the glass celing of leadership for women is difficult, even more so for Black women. But the addition of expertise in Pentecostalism for these scholars is truly remarkable and worth greater attention.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce was appointed Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School in March 2023, the first woman to hold this position. Previously she was Dean of Howard University Divinity School in Washington D.C. She is an alumna of Princeton University and Cornell University, and was the founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Her specialization is on African American Women and public life. In 2015, Pierce was named as one of The Root 100 Most Influential African Americans.
Dr. Pierce’s Pentecostal heritage in the Church of God in Christ is reflected in her book In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit where she talks about how her Black womanist theology was shaped by women that shared their faith and influence on her life. In 2011, Princeton Theological Seminary held a conference led by Pierce entitled “Woman-tology and the Future Face of Pentecostalism” where she was joined by fellow Pentecostal Scholars Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns, Dr. Estrelda Alexander, and Dr. Kimberly Alexander to discuss the role of women in leadership in Pentecostalism.
Dr. Marla Frederick was appointed Dean of Harvard Divinity School in 2023. Dr. Frederick is widely recognized for her scholarship in African American Religion and Culture Studies. She is best known for her work, Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global, where she notes how television was a medium that helped mainstream Black Pentecostal aesthetics to the American Public through the ministries of T.D. Jakes, Carlton Pearson, Juanita Bynum, and Creflo Dollar. Her book Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith discusses the faith of African American women in the South where she documented a number of experiences of Pentecostals.
In addition to these scholars being placed in new positions of leadership, a number of other notable black scholars of Pentecostalism are in some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. Dr. Kari Day, serves as Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. Day is a fourth generation member of the Church of God in Christ and the author of Azusa Reimagined. Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders, of Howard Divinity School, has been a leading female Black scholar on Pentecostalism for many years. Her book Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture is a seminal text on African American Holiness and Pentecostal ethos. In addition, Anthea Butler is professor American Social Thought at University of Pennsylvania and well known for her work Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World. Judith Casselberry of Bowdoin College is known for her book, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism which is a brilliant study of the role of women in the male dominated Black, Oneness denomination. Dr. Dara Colbey Delgado is a professor of Religion at Allegheny College and has done extensive work on African American women, Pentecostalism and culture.
Perhaps the best know Black Woman Scholar of Pentecostalism is Dr. Estrelda Alexander, the founder and president of Seymour College, founder of Seymour Press, and the prolific scholar who produced many Pentecostal texts including the Pan-African Dictionary of Pentecostalism and Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism.
The ascendancy of Pierce and Fredrick to places of leadership at prominent U.S. seminaries is a remarkable development. The fact that they are also scholars of Pentecostalism adds an additional layer of joy to this accomplishment. Each of these scholars I have learned from in my own work on Pentecostalism. They have enriched our understanding of this tradition by engaging in critical scholarship that has brought much needed attention to issues of race, culture, the roles of women, and how that plays out in the formation of Pentecostal spirituality and practices.
It is amazing to me that these prestigious universities made room for black women in leadership, especially as scholars of Pentecostalism. This makes me dream of the day when amazing Black women scholars like these would become a regular feature of the faculty and, more importantly, the leadership of the seminaries within the Pentecostal tradition they expertly represent.