Chas Barfoot teaches philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926 (Routledge, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.
CB: It began as a thesis on Women in Pentecostalism for a ThM degree under Harvey Cox. When I arrived in Berkeley in the spring of 1978 I submitted an outline to Harper San Francisco. I didn’t type back then so Richard Quebedeaux, a dear friend and a Harper author typed the outline for me dispensing tips as he typed. One of the editors, the only woman, liked the chapter title and summary on Aimee Semple McPherson. Roy Carlisle from Fuller Seminary had also just come on board to be in charge of Evangelical books and authors. I was all of a 20 something ex-Pentecostal preacher boy who hadn’t published a thing. Clayton Carlson, the founder and publisher was aware of the sensational books on Aimee by Lately Thomas and was very supportive of the project. When I discovered that Aimee’s third husband was alive, and that I had access to his memoirs, Clayton made the decision to go with two volumes, since the research indicated there really were two Aimee’s.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.
CB: My new publisher and editor at Equinox, Janet Joyce, came up with the sub-title after reading the manuscript and was spot on. Aimee Semple McPherson set the tone for modern Pentecostalism with her secular-spirituality and megachurch empire in Los Angeles which also included the founding of an international denomination that is still growing.
JF: Why do we need to read Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.
CB: Today we recognize that there are Pentecostalisms. Thankfully, Aimee wasn’t written as a dissertation. I let the events unfold and the secrets reveal themselves. The research demanded that I discard the deprivation model I had so prized in my Princeton thesis. It didn’t fit Aimee’s particular brand of Pentecostalism nor the one I grew up in. Eldon Ernst helped me uncover some Baptist clergy correspondence and immediately you could see from the letters that fundamentalism and Pentecostalism were viewed as two separate, competing movements. Both books contain valuable oral histories from people who knew and worked with Aimee. Finally, it is a work on healing, women in religion, religion in the west, and the differences between what Albanese calls extraordinary vs. ordinary religion or mainline vs. marginal religion.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CB: When I was under contract with Harper’s Clayton Carlson asked, “What will we call you, a historian?” I said, “That sounds right.” Author, writer would have worked, but In the Biblical tradition one becomes what they are called! I had specialized in the sociology of religion, and now I was working in history and biography and attempting to combine the two disciplines. My affair with history began with a course with Oscar Handlin and I later met his protege William McLoughlin who had written the biography of Billy Sunday. Bill was a wonderful nurturing person who after a lunch with several Heinekens encouraged me to apply to the PhD program in American Civilization at Brown. I could continue to work with Harvey Cox at Harvard he said and with him in History at Brown. I never applied since I had settled back in California but Bill opened the door for me to meet with Roberta Semple Salter, Aimee’s daughter. I’ve often regretted not working with Bill. He, also, viewed my “ministerial training,” as he called it, as a virtue and not a hindrance for a historian of religion. Jim Washington was also very supportive when I was accepted for doctoral work at Union Seminary. “You have,” he said, “a flair for narrative history.” That meant a lot since I was going through a divorce at the time and Jim later published a book on Martin Luther King, Jr. with my editor at Harper’s.
Along with Harvey Cox, whose PhD degree was in the history and philosophy of religion, it was the historians who inspired me the most and opened doors along the way. I sat in on Samuel Haber’s history class at Cal and read the new (at the time) California historians, Al Raboteau and Catherine Albanese. Henry F. May, recently retired, loomed large in Berkeley lore. Kathryn Kish Sklar at UCLA gave me several student papers that turned up a forgotten PR man of Aimee’s.
When I returned to academic life after a twenty year stint as a mainline minister, a vanishing occupation if ever there was, two historians working in the southwest became new mentors: the late Ferenc Szasz at the University of New Mexico and Bob Trennert former head of the History department at Arizona State University. I quickly realized that the history of religions in the southwest was virgin territory.
JF: What is your next project?
CB: I have two projects going on simultaneously: Aimee Semple McPherson, Among the Savage Branches, 1926-1944 (Equinox, 2016) and A.A. Allen’s Miracle Valley and the Search for the Fabulous in the Southwest.
Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner