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Portrait of a community

by
16 January 2015

This US minority was a research challenge, says David Martin

Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and politics in action
Gastón Espinosa
Harvard University Press £25.95
(978-0-674-72887-5)
Church Times Bookshop £23.35 (Use code CT823 )

THIS magnificently researched book about the Latino contribution to the American Assemblies of God (AG) brings to public consciousness a minority whose history has been overlain by what Gastón Espinosa calls the European-American history of Pentecostalism in North America, including Puerto Rico.

The research has been difficult, because Latino Pentecostals were not interested in history, and the material was fragmentary. Moreover, Espinosa had to set the scene in the constant fissures within early Pentecostalism, beginning with its origins in variants of Methodist holiness traditions, and dealing with the black preacher William Seymour, as well as the segregationist and British Israelite Charles Parham.

Any movement with paradigmatic origins in California has to be more than a fusion of white and black revivalist traditions. It is bound to include Hispanics or Latinos among the early converts and carriers of the message, and Pentecostalism, especially faith healing, was always likely to resonate in Hispanic, especially Mexican, culture. Moreover, the AG has of recent years expanded among Hispanics rather than whites, and it reflects "the browning of America".

AG Hispanics pursue proper representation inside the denomination, and recollect "Gringo" leaders, such as Henry C. Ball, back in the inter-war period, who promised more recognition than they were willing to deliver. Nevertheless, Hispanics proved their competence, and Espinosa endorses the view that participation in the AG leads to empowerment and leadership.

In national politics, the AG is big enough, especially in the south-west, to be courted by both Democrats and Republicans. It resembles the black constituency in inclining to the Democrats, especially on migration issues, but differs from the black constituency in that a prevailing moral conservatism among AG members made significant numbers responsive to George Bush's overtures in 2000 and 2004. Barack Obama wooed them back, but they remain politically labile enough to warrant cosseting and conspicuous acts of public recognition.

The failure of John McCain and Mitt Romney to follow up President Bush's overtures cost them AG support, but President Obama wobbles between recognition and disappointing performance. The AG constituency rejects the liberal moral agenda, on, for example, gay marriage. But AG women, though unresponsive to middle-class feminism (in spite of facing gender marginalisation in Latino culture), have a sense of "liberation", and of some progress in the denomination. They were granted full ordination half a century before their sisters in mainstream Protestant denominations.

The Revd David Martin is a Fellow of the British Academy, emeritus professor of sociology at the LSE, and a non-stipendiary minister at Guildford Cathedral.

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