Book Review: Wild & Weird

Wild & Weird: William J. Seymour, Azusa Street and Early Pentecostalism as Reported by the Los Angeles Secular Newspapers, edited by Larry E. Martin

First note – the title sounds pejorative but it’s not the author’s bias. The author is a Pentecostalist. Rather, the title summarizes (very aptly and somewhat generously) the gist of headlines and articles in the Los Angeles press about the erupting Apostolic/Pentecostal movement on Azusa Street and beyond.

Second note – I discovered after this book arrived that it’s the ninth book in a 12-volume (so far!) series of books by Martin on the start of Pentecostalism in America. Thankfully, this in no way compromises the reader’s ability to enter the material. The author provides occasional, very brief notes when additional explanation is helpful. He also at some points offers his opinions about whether the material presented is accurate or not. Such notes are indicated in italic soas not to be confused with the actual article reprints.

Mrs. Hutchinson was my AP American History teacher in high school. She was a strict but fantastic teacher, and one of two main influences in high school that directed me towards history for university studies. She made sure we understood the importance of evaluating information as closely to the actual events/persons as possible – primary source documentation was our mantra in that class and it remains something I look for whenever possible still. I’m far less interested in what someone else thinks about something that happened, and as much as possible I’d like to draw my own conclusions from accounts directly related to the events at hand (realizing that this does not remove bias completely!).

So when I decided to put together a seminar on the roots and teachings of Pentecostalism, I was naturally thrilled to find this book, which claims to simply duplicate ver batim Los Angeles press stories from 1906-1908 about the emergence of Pentecostalism in the city. A variety of papers are drawn from. I doubt the replication is comprehensive, and the author admits this as well, though indicating he tried to be as comprehensive as possible.

The result is curious and somewhat repetitive. Biases and prejudices racial, political and theological are all on display in these articles, but in parsing them it’s possible to start building a basic idea of the distinctive characteristics of Azusa Street and later Pentecostal movements. These rough sketches can then be compared to Scripture to begin evaluating the claims of the early movement that has gone on to deeply impact Christianity around the world.

My goal is first and foremost to understand not only how Pentecostalism started in the 20th century, but how it evolved theologically and doctrinally. Then I can better make sense of those evolutions and their current expressions in light of Scripture and the larger tradition of the Church throughout the last 2000 years. All of which should hopefully equip potential attendees with an awareness of what Pentecostalism is and a way of critiquing it’s teachings and practices. Which hopefully will in turn lead to some guidelines and suggestions on interacting with Pentecostals or their organizations. Considering the deep impact and spread of Pentecostal influence throughout much of the world this seems like a crucial undertaking, though by no means an easy one and hopefully one that recognizes both real and potential benefits as well as risks to the movement.

I may try to get further installments of this series on future trips back to the States, but for now this is a good start before moving on to more theological treatments of the movement.

This book is a great resource as a glimpse of both secular ideas and attitudes (which were perhaps not entirely secular in their source) in early 20th century Los Angeles, as well as getting close to specific, alleged actions, beliefs, and expressions of early leaders and followers in the movement. I appreciate the author’s restraint, since the articles are almost entirely negative in their treatment of the holy rollers, and the author’s own self-professed adherence to the Pentecostal tradition. I’m also grateful he kept poor-quality copies of articles and illustrations to a minimum, and I trust he faithfully reproduced the articles rather than altering them.

I like to think Mrs. Hutchinson would approve of my initial efforts, and I’m grateful for her own secular echoing of the Renassaince’s (and the Reformation’s) mantra of ad fontes – “(back) to the sources”.

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