Womanist Ways And Pentecostalism

Womanist Ways And Pentecostalism

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Pneuma 35 (2013) 24-34

Womanist Ways and Pentecostalism: The Work of Recovery and Critique

Yolanda Pierce

Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey



This essay questions the notion that a womanist identity and Pentecostal faith are mutually exclusive. Using major tenets of womanist theology, I argue for an honest recovery of all the personal and political influences on classical Pentecostalism as a way to move forward to a more egalitarian faith. Seeking to redress the lack of scholarship about women of color in early Pentecostalism, the essay raises questions that, I hope, will spur more research and interest in a womanist Pentecostal theology.


womanist theology, racism, sexism, Pentecostal identity, critique, historical recovery

Who Will Tell These Stories?

When writer Alice Walker coined the term womanist she gave a name to a con- struct adopted by black women theologians and scholars of religion as they sought to recover and critique theological conversations that excluded the voices and experiences of women of color. Her multifaceted concept includes these words as the very first definition:

Womanist: 1. From womanish. (Opp of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not seri- ous.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e. like a woman. Usually referring to outra- geous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “you trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.1

1 Walker’s third definition of womanism is also crucial for a womanist approach to pneumatol- ogy. She defines a womanist as one who “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI: 10.1163/15700747-12341266


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Womanist theology is an audacious, courageous, and willful act. It is a system that reveals that much of Christian theology has been written and centered around the experiences of white men. Womanist theology also critiques a fem- inist theology, largely produced in academia, that has excluded the voices of women of color. Womanist theology explicitly concerns itself with how issues of race, gender, and class intersect within religious systems; it also provides space for a historical reconstruction of the roles of women of color in faith communities.

The need for both critique and reconstruction of a theological system is essential for the Pentecostal faith community, now over a hundred years removed from its formal origins at Azusa Street in 1906. A womanist approach to understanding Pentecostalism helps provide a framework to identify the means by which women of color, specifically African American women, have engaged, studied, and experienced the work of the Holy Spirit, which is at the very core of the Pentecostal faith. And a womanist approach to Pentecostalism is critical for understanding both the origins and the future of a Pentecostal faith, a faith that owes much of its history and its present growth to the coura- geous work of women of color. Long before the formal use of womanist or fem- inist theology existed in academic settings, black women embodied “womanist ways” of interpreting, understanding, and participating in the work of the Holy Spirit. This term, “womanist ways,” points us to the historical and ecclesial antecedents of formal womanist theology; it points us to the long-standing his- tory of black women, in churches and in the larger world, declaring their racial and gender identity as rooted and grounded in their Christian identity. The life of Mother Ida B. Robinson (August 3, 1891-April 20, 1946) exemplifies these bold womanist ways as she sought to fulfill her vocational calling. She was the founder and first Senior Bishop and President of the Mount Sinai Holy Church of America, a Holiness Pentecostal denomination. It remains the only Pentecostal denomination founded by an African American woman. Mother Robinson created her own denomination in response to her divine calling to preach, but also as a critique of those churches which failed to welcome and encourage women preachers. Mother Robinson preached sanctification, holi- ness, and the power of the gifts of the Holy Spirit while serving as a minister within the United Holy Church of America. The congregation began to grow quickly and prosper under her leadership and biblical teaching. But it was in

Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regard- less.” See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xi-xiii.



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1924 that God called Mother Robinson to establish a church that would “loose the women” and allow full clergy rights to them. She founded a denomination that acted in accordance with the prophetic words of Joel 2:28: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (NRSV).

The United Holy Church of America wanted Mother Robinson to remain within its fold, as she was a “crowd gatherer and prime-time speaker,”2 but the male hierarchy refused to grant her full freedom or affirm the vocations to which she felt called: as preacher, pastor, and church planter. She secured a legal charter, granted in her name, from the state of Pennsylvania. The first Board of Elders in her new denomination reflected her commitment to women in every level of ministry; six of the nine members were women. She held services almost every night of the week, giving women missionaries and preach- ers the opportunities to exercise their gifts. Over the course of twenty-two years, Mother Robinson had built a denomination with eighty-four churches and one hundred sixty-three ordained ministers (one hundred twenty-five of them women).

Mother Robinson’s courage and audacious behavior was extraordinary but not unique. As theologian Estrelda Alexander details in her work The Women of Azusa Street, Classical Pentecostalism owes a debt to the extraordinary vision of women who often demonstrated outrageous and “willful” behavior in defy- ing social convention.3 The early Pentecostal movement was a multiracial and multigenerational mixture of men and women, largely from poor and working- class communities. Before the founding of distinct Pentecostal denominations, women were intimately involved in every aspect of this revival movement, serving as pastors, missionaries, lay leaders, and editors of early Pentecostal newspapers. These women were descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, laundresses, immigrants, domestic workers, and household servants. In a Jim Crow culture, these unnamed and unsung black and Latino women were truly the “least of these.”

When we do the work of recovering these stories, we challenge the assump- tion that a feminist/womanist Pentecostal is an oxymoron. We need not ask if there is a contradiction between being a feminist and being a Pentecostal, as these two identities have been linked together since the origins of the faith.

2 Harold Dean Trulear, “Reshaping Black Pastoral Theology: The Vision of Bishop Ida B. Robin- son,” Journal of Religious Thought 46 (1989): 17-31.

3 See Estrelda Alexander, The Women of Azusa Street (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005), for one of the few book-length discussions of women and the foundations of Pentecostal faith in America.


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Rather, we should ask: “When did Pentecostalism stop affirming a feminist or womanist identity?” Early Pentecostal women boldly sought to be viewed as equally created in the image and likeness of God. They sought opportunities to exercise their gifts and callings, insisting that as God had called and ordained men for God’s service, God called and ordained women or children or the descendants of slaves or the descendants of former slave owners. God was truly no respecter of persons.

Womanist theology and Pentecostal theology have a great deal in common. Both theological systems emphasize personal revelation and the experiential in understanding God. Both employ a contextual understanding in reading and interpreting Scripture. Both insist that the work of the Holy Spirit is real, relevant, and available to believers today. Both affirm that the person of the Holy Spirit can equip, comfort, and empower “whosoever will.” Womanist the- ology, however, posits that theological work must also be grounded in the source material of the lived realities of everyday women. Womanist theology explicitly critiques white racism and sexism and other systems of patriarchy. And most importantly, womanist theology opposes all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preference, physical ability, and caste as contrary to the essence of the gospel message.4

What would a Pentecostal theology look like if it took the claims and prem- ises of womanist theology seriously? What set of questions would we ask about both the history and the future of Pentecostal identity? For example, as a wom- anist Pentecostal, I acknowledge the courage of the “Memphis Miracle,” the 1994 conclave in which representatives of Pentecostal and Charismatic denom- inations and churches came together to form the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America (PCCNA) to replace the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA), which had excluded African Americans. And yet, I must ask: Where is the statement of gender reconciliation, the call for forgive- ness concerning sexist and gender-based exclusionary practices in Pentecostal churches and denomination? And before the rush to a posture of racial reconciliation, where is the airing of grievances, the “truth-telling” that is essen- tial to reconciliation, concerning the organization’s forty-six-year exclusionary history?

4 For more information about womanist theology, see two texts that have defined the field: Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995); and Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989).



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These are the same types of questions that must be asked of the narrow pre- sentation of women’s history and influence within Pentecostalism. Aimee Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kulman are the names often cited as crucial to Classical Pentecostalism, sometimes supplemented with references to Maria B. Woodworth-Etter and Carrie Judd Montgomery. The names of women of color in the movement are virtually unknown, despite the powerful ministries, churches, denominations, and organizations that were founded or that thrived because of their presence. Within Holiness-Pentecostalism, the courageous and audacious work of women like Amanda Berry Smith, Lucy Farrow, Rosa de Lopez, Julia Hutchins, Neely Terry, Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, and Jennie Evans Moore laid the foundation for virtually every American Pentecostal/ Charismatic church still in existence. And as a womanist, I must note when white feminism has failed to take seriously the lives of women of color, and I must also contest the racial attitudes that unfortunately pervaded the think- ing of some white women in Classical Pentecostalism. In his work on racism and cultural insensitivity among Pentecostals, scholar Allan Anderson writes: “It is not surprising that Parham was guest speaker at Ku Klux Klan meetings; what is more astonishing is that socially active Aimee Semple McPherson was there too.”5 In other words, even as someone like McPherson had to negotiate gender norms that tried to keep her out of ministry, she failed to challenge racial norms that silenced her black and brown American sisters. This is not to detract from the enormous legacy that McPherson leaves us; it is to insist on a fuller story about the complicated intersection of race, class, and gender within a religious construct.

The scholarly and theological work that Pentecostalism has done concern- ing racism has not been mirrored when sexism and gender prejudice in various churches’ denominations have been considered.6 With the exception of the issue of women’s ordination, there has been almost complete silence concern- ing the discrimination and degradation faced by women in both early and con- temporary Pentecostalism. As Pentecostal historian Edith Blumhofer notes:

5 Allan Anderson, “The Dubious Legacy of Charles Parham: Racism and Cultural Insensitivi- ties among Pentecostals,” Pentecostal Theology 27, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 51-64.

6 Groundbreaking work on race, racial attitudes, and racism can be seen in such early works as Iain MacRobert, The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988). But no such comparable work exists that explicitly examines the female roots and sexism/patriarchy of classical Pentecostalism.


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Pentecostals have always had reservations about women who departed from their “proper sphere.” Like their other evangelical contemporaries, Pentecostals authenti- cated the witness of “prophesying daughters.” They also usually denied women any institutional presence. Pentecostal women flourished as evangelists and missionaries, but not as pastors or denominational leaders. They enjoyed cultural authority but not institutional voice.7

With different denominations providing theological justification for or against women’s ordination, little attention has been paid to the treatment of women both inside and outside of leadership. How much of early Pentecostalism was shaped by attitudes like that voiced by Frank Bartleman, who asserted that “a female ministry is naturally a weak ministry”?8 Have we taken historical account, for example, of those Pentecostal leaders who opposed women’s suf- frage, even as women all around them were serving as missionaries to the ends of the earth but were unable to vote in their own home country?

For the womanist, the question of women’s ordination or women’s treat- ment within church bodies is not solely a theological question; rather, it is an issue of justice. Where is the divine justice in allowing a woman to preach, but confining her to the floor on the basis that women cannot ascend the pulpit? Where is the righteousness in ordaining women for some leadership roles, but then creating an even higher tier within a hierarchy in order to keep women from those positions? Where is the godliness in accepting the offerings, donations, and tithes of women — who constitute the majority of church membership — but allowing them neither voice nor vote in denominational policy changes? When will there be a “Memphis Miracle” to acknowledge and right these wrongs?

An Outline of Womanist Ways

I believe that there are at least four areas in which paying attention to “woman- ist ways” in the study of Pentecostalism can help us to recover the stories of the unsung, help us to critique exclusionary theological practices, and help us to creates space for womanist/feminist voices to sit as equals at the table of

7 Edith Blumhofer, “Women in Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism,” in Melanie May, ed., Women and Church: The Challenge of Ecumenical Solidarity in an Age of Alienation (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), 4.

8 For a more general discussion of this and sexism in Pentecostalism, see Lisa P. Stephenson, Dismantling the Dualisms for American Pentecostal Women in Ministry: A Feminist-Pneumatological Approach (Leiden: Brill, 2012).



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Christian communion. And perhaps by doing so, we help to build a more egal- itarian church.

A womanist approach to the study of early Pentecostalism critiques the mythic egalitarian origins of Pentecostal identity. Classical Pentecostalism is eager to tell the story of women’s participation in Azusa Street and beyond, but less eager to acknowledge the racism, sexism, and class prejudice faced by many of its adherents, including its very founders and earliest practitioners. William Seymour was not the only one who had literally and metaphorically to listen outside the door, excluded from theological discourse. It is not enough for the Pentecostal church to shrug its collective shoulders at these exclusionary prac- tices, merely pointing to social convention as a cause of race, class, and gender discrimination. A womanist way of interpreting early Pentecostalism both affirms those who allowed the Holy Spirit to break down barriers and acknowl- edges that there were many for whom racism or sexism remained a besetting sin. We must tell a full and complete story.

Acuity in memory entails self-critique before God. The tragic racism that followed the Azusa Street Revival stands as an evil contradiction to the embracive work of the Holy Spirit . . . for almost a century, North American Pentecostals perpetuated the evil of rac- ism. Though the history of Pentecostalism is tragically marked by the dark evil of racism, the courage to confront its history morally sets into motion something good — an attempt at justice.9

Does Pentecostalism lack “acuity in memory” when racism intersects with clas- sism and/or sexism? Are we willing to offer indictments to a movement that has consistently used biblical interpretation to silence and demean women? A womanist critique insists that a moral confrontation of history, however painful, is a necessary component for a life on earth, as it is in heaven.

A womanist approach to Pentecostalism examines the various outcomes, espe- cially for women, for a “movement” that transitioned to an “institution.” Like many of the mainline denominations, Pentecostal churches represent the full spectrum of theological positions, with some churches ordaining women for the pastoral role, others refusing to ordain women, and still others allowing for ordination at some, but not all, hierarchical ministry levels. Given the number of Pentecostal denominations with women as founders, and their active involvement in Azusa Street and beyond, it is disheartening to note that there

9 May Ling Tan-Chow, Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century: Engaging with Multi- Faith Singapore (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 85.


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is now a smaller percentage of ordained women in Pentecostal denominations than there was fifty years ago.10

As a grassroots movement, with a loose structure and lack of hierarchy, clas- sical Pentecostalism helped to transform the Christian Church; it was truly a counter-Reformation movement. Yet in the transition to an “institution,” with established churches, hierarchy, and institutional practices, Pentecostalism copies and mirrors other church structures, including the replication of sexist, racist, and classist practices.

The rejection of women’s ministerial leadership represents a worldly loss of focus upon the egalitarian spirit of the Christian gospel. Not surprisingly, the re-establishment of barriers to church leadership by most of the Holiness-Pentecostal groups on the basis of sex in the early decades of this century coincides with their increased complicity with prevailing mainstream practices of racial separation and segregation.11

A womanist reading recognizes that Pentecostalism’s radical break with estab- lished Christian worship practices and theology changed Christianity around the globe. The gifts of the Spirit, charismatic worship, increased attention to pneumatology, and insistence on divine revelation helped to make Pentecos- talism a standard bearer in world religion. Yet, a womanist way also critiques Pentecostalism for failing to break radically with the forces and structures of such institutional sins as racism and sexism. A womanist Pentecostal must ask: “Is the egalitarian nature of the Holy Spirit powerful enough to break the yoke of prevailing unjust practices?”

A womanist approach to Pentecostalism considers both the blessings and the costs of daring to claim a womanist identity. Formal theology is largely an aca- demic exercise for the privileged. Because womanist theology is committed to a theology “on the ground” using source material from everyday life, it seeks to create and expand the theological conversation. How are women, outside of the academy and outside of the Western world, experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit? How are their identities as women connected to their faith? This is the question of praxis that is so crucial in a womanist approach to the study of

10 See Estrelda Alexander, Limited Liberty: The Legacy of Four Pentecostal Women Pioneers (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2008). Alexander cites Charles Barfoot and Gerald Sheppard’s work on the decline of women in Pentecostal leadership after World War I, when Pentecostalism largely shifted to a denominational structure.

11 Cheryl Sanders, “History of Women in the Pentecostal Movement,” Cyberjournal for Pente- costal-Charismatic Research 2 (1996): 2, accessible at http://pctii.org/cyberj/cyber2.html.



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Pentecostalism: Are lives on this earth being transformed even as souls are being saved?

In her New Directions in Gender and Religion: The Changing Status of Women in African Independent Churches, anthropologist Brigid M. Sackey argues that interest in divine healing, a core tenet of Pentecostal faith, has led to more Ghanaian women pursuing education in science and medicine, professions that provide them with a higher quality of life.12 Using oral histories, ethnogra- phy, and case studies, Sackey interviewed women for whom the power of the Holy Spirit has led to spiritual and material changes, including leadership and full participation in Pentecostal churches. A womanist approach posits that the testimonies of these women are crucial to understanding the fullness of the scriptural text; these testimonies bear witness and are in conversation with the testimonies of named and unnamed biblical women.

In her study of women’s participation in the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida in La Paz, Bolivia, anthropologist Lesley Gill describes how Pentecostal church women are “building new ties to one another . . . ties that are economically use- fully and emotionally supportive,” even as these same women have to contend with a patriarchal culture that legitimizes and legalizes gender inequalities.13 Bolivian women are experiencing new forms of spiritual and economic power in Pentecostalism, “singing and directing hymns, receiving the Holy Spirit, tes- tifying . . . proselytizing on the streets, visiting needy church members in their homes, attending family services, and traveling to church meetings in other cities and foreign countries.”14 These women acknowledge that Pentecostalism has opened up doors and freedoms for them that their former belief system, namely, Catholicism, did not.

For both the Ghanaian women and the Bolivian women in the two examples above, participation in Pentecostal life also comes at a cost. Some are shunned because they have left indigenous forms of faith; others are envied because of their new standards of holiness and subsequent economic uplift; and many are mocked because the presence of women in religious leadership is still a cause for condemnation and ridicule. A Pentecostal identity has helped these women to love God, to love themselves, and to love their neighbors more fully, but it often falls short of challenging the gender norms that oppress and silence. By paying attention to these women, located far from the reaches of academic

12 Brigid Sackey, New Directions in Gender and Religion: The Changing Status of Women in African Independent Churches (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

13 Lesley Gill, “Like a Veil to Cover Them: Women and the Pentecostal Movement in La Paz,” American Ethnologist 17, no. 4 (1990): 718.

14 Ibid., 713.


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theology, a womanist approach would insist that these stories tell us far more about the possibilities and limitations of the Pentecostal phenomenon than any Western pneumatology.

A womanist approach to Pentecostalism is unafraid to examine other theologi- cal models for revelation of truth. A womanist theology seeks to understand the fullness of a God who loves women and calls women into God’s service. Ortho- dox understandings of theotokos and various Mariology doctrines from Eastern and Western Christian traditions are important source material for the wom- anist Pentecostal. They help reveal how Christian women through the ages have navigated their vocational callings and religious identities, often in hos- tile environments. Closer attention to the person of Mary creates space for Pentecostal women to claim an unbroken heritage to the Holy Spirit who brings comfort in times of joy, sorrow, and mystery.

Likewise, the lives of medieval women saints and their experiences of reli- gious ecstasy provide Pentecostalism with information about the wide variety of manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The deeply intimate, bodily, experiential nature of their faith — along with the theology produced by many of them both formally and informally — are major contributions not only to Catholi- cism but to the larger body of the Church.15

All forms of ecumenical dialogue are essential components for a womanist approach to Pentecostalism. Conversation with other theological models and other theological systems enrich a Pentecostal approach to the work of theol- ogy: we stand in communion with and on the shoulders of that great cloud of witnesses. With openness and intellectual rigor, we can pair liberatory theolo- gies and pneumatology, as we can pair ecumenism and Pentecostal history. A womanist approach — even a Pentecostal womanist theology — is a libera- tion theology, insisting that God is on the side of the oppressed and the mar- ginalized. For African American women, the claim that God cares for you and is on your side, along with the claim that the Holy Spirit equips and empowers you for service, serves to contest earthly forces that reify positions of inferiority and subjugation.

15 Here I am specifically thinking of someone like the sixteenth-century mystic, nun, poet, theologian, and founder of the Discalced Carmelites, Teresa of Ávila. She embodies Alice Walker’s third definition of a womanist as one who “appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength.” It is in her female-centered environment, under the care and leadership of other women, that Teresa of Ávila finds her theological voice.



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Dismantling Indifference

These four womanist approaches to Pentecostalism are by no means the only methods that “womanist ways” can adopt in order to critique and inform. Per- haps what womanist theology can do most powerfully is shake the spirits of indifference, complacency, and ignorance toward race, class, and gender that pervade much of formal theology, including Pentecostal theology. Women of color are particularly invisible in the academic study of Pentecostalism, from leadership roles in churches and in studies of the breadth and scope of the Pentecostal experience. And yet, more women than men are Pentecostal believers and the vast majority of these women are located outside of Europe and North America, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.16 Theologian Susan Frank Parsons writes: “To give attention to women’s expe- rience is to ask that women speak up for themselves and enter with full integ- rity into theological debates, and it is thereby to throw open to question the unchallenged assumption that men’s experiences speak for everyone and are thus, by default, normative for all.”17 A womanist approach to Pentecostalism insists that by (re)covering the stories of women of color, and critiquing the forces that silence(d) these stories in the first place, the truth-telling, revealing, sanctifying, and transforming power of the Holy Spirit will truly be poured out on all flesh.

16 “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: A Project of the Pew Research Center. The survey can only be accessed online at http:// pewforum.org/Christian/Evangelical-Protestant-Churches/Spirit-and-Power.aspx.

17 Susan Frank Parsons, “Feminist Theology as Dogmatic Theology,” in Susan Frank Parsons, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 116.


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