JF: What led you to write the book
ASW: I wrote the book in order to break the historiographical logjam that afflicts writing about Pentecostalism in America. Most works are either focused on place: where did Pentecostalism start? That question animates Pentecostal historians and budding graduate students way too much in my opinion. The question for me was, who cares whether it started at Azusa Street or Chicago? I also wrote the book because the other logjam was the overemphasis on the “great men and women of history” motif, where the godly ministers received all the attention and all historians did was follow their pastoral appointments from pulpit to pulpit. Again, who cares? I wrote this book because Pentecostals tell great stories and those stories are what animate the movement. Historians should move beyond spiritual genealogy, and I think this book does that.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of the book?
ASW: Pentecostals tell great stories, those stories are bewildering, fascinating, unbelievable, shocking, and life-affirming, often all at the same time–historians ought to focus on that aspect of the movement–the power of narratives to shape the historical flow.
Pentecostalism has been viewed as a self-exculpatory triumph of what God is doing in the world or a distasteful backwater frenzy fit only for those willing to delude themselves; it is neither of those things, but it is a vibrant faith with great historical tensions among genders, races, and classes–that all deserves examination.
JF: Why do you need to read Pentecostals in America?
ASW: You need to read it because it’s the first book that looks thematically at the history of the movement, not through timelines, but through people–some lesser known than others. There is the well-known story of Sister Aimee McPherson and the lesser known story of Florence Crawford. There are events that are covered here that have not been covered elsewhere like A.A Allen’s Miracle Valley, Arizona compound that was the site of an outbreak of religious violence in the early 1980s that virtually no one knows about. Finally, if I might, I think readers will come away from this book as if they just read a page-turning novel…the stories are that good!
JF: When and why did I decide to become an American historian?
ASW: I decided while on my 3rd major in college (I floated in and out of a lot of majors). I was usually very good at the subject, and I loved my history classes. I took as many as I could with as many professors as I could. I knew that I could combine my love of U.S. history and religion when I took an undergrad class on slavery.
I decided to study U.S. history, specifically Latino/a history, because that is a history that is still on the periphery of U.S. history. I wanted in some way to contribute to compiling the stories of the religious lives of Latinos/as in the U.S. because so very few people were doing that when I started in 2000.
JF: What is your next project?
ASW: Well I actually have 2 projects. I need to step away from Pentecostalism for a bit, just because this book has taken 10 years of my life. So I hope to write a religious biography of Fr. Daniel Berrigan. After that, I’ll step back into my ethnographic fieldwork and complete a project on Latinos/as and the Prosperity Gospel.
JF: Thanks Arlene!