093: Randall J. Stephens, 35


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

93: Randall J. Stephens, 9-15-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Eastern Nazarene College
Area of Research: American Religious History, United States South, American Popular Music, Historical Theology, Cultural History, Conservative Evangelicalism
Education: Ph.D., American History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 2003
Major Publications: Stephens is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South,Randall J. Stephens (Harvard University Press, 2008).  Stephens is working on The Anointed: American Evangelical Experts, with Karl Giberson (under contract, Harvard University Press); He is the editor of Recent Trends in American Religious History, part of the Historians in Conversation Series (under contract, University of South Carolina Press), and is the Bibliographic editor for The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, edited by Paul Harvey and Edward Blum (under contract, Columbia University Press). Stephens is also working on these projects, editing A Primary Source Reader in American Religious History, and a new manuscript I Hate Rock and Roll: Anti-Rock and American Christianity, 1955-1975.

Stephens is also the author of the following peer-reviewed articles and book chapters; “The Holiness/Pentecostal/Charismatic Extension of the Wesleyan Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley (under contract, Cambridge University Press); Sam Jones’ Own Book, 1886. With a New Introduction by Randall J. Stephens. Southern Classics Series (forthcoming, University of South Carolina Press); “‘Ohio villains’ and ‘pretenders to new revelations’: Wesleyan Abolitionists in North Carolina and Virginia, 1847-1857,” in Festschrift for Bertram Wyatt-Brown (forthcoming, University Press of Florida); “‘There is Magic in Print’: The Holiness Pentecostal Press and the Origins of Southern Pentecostalism,” in Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Southern Religion and Culture, (University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and the Journal of Southern Religion 5 (2002); “Interpreting American Pentecostal Origins: Retrospect and Prospect” in Interpreting Denominational History: Perspectives on the Past, Prospects for the Future (University of Alabama Press, 2008), and “The Convergence of Populism, Religion, and the Holiness-Pentecostal Movements: A Review of the Historical Literature,” Fides et Historia 32, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2000): 51-64.
Stephens has also authored numerous articles and interviews for The Journal of Southern Religion, Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, and Books & Culture, Christianity Today.
Awards: Stephens is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
John Templeton Foundation grant for The Anointed: American Evangelical Experts, co-authored with Karl Giberson, 2008;
The Fire Spreads nominated by Harvard University Press for the Francis Parkman Prize and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, 2008;
Young Scholars in American Religion Fellowship, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis, 2007-2009, 2007;
Professional Achievement Award, Eastern Nazarene College, 2007;
Religion in American History, Cliopatria’s best new blog, 2007;
One of fifteen semifinalists for the Allan Nevins Prize for the best dissertation in American history, Society of American Historians, 2004;
The St. George Tucker Society’s M. E. Bradford Prize for best dissertation in southern studies, 2004;
Richard J. Milbauer Dissertation Prize for best dissertation in history, University of Florida, 2004;
Journal of Southern Religion’s Sam Hill Award, 2003;
History Department Nominee for University-Wide Graduate Teaching Award, University of Florida, 2003;
Dissertation Fellowship, Louisville Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture (Funded by the Lilly Endowment), 2002-03;
Finalist, Newcombe Dissertation fellowship, Princeton University, 2001;
Participant in the Pew Younger Scholars Seminar on the Civil War and Reconstruction, University of Notre Dame, 2001;
Jack and Celia Proctor Award for best essay on Southern History, University of Florida, 2001;
Hanger Research Fellowship, University of Florida, 2001;
Graduate Student Travel Award, University of Florida, 2001;
Laurence C. Boylan Outstanding Masters Thesis Award, Emporia State University, 1998;
Art Student of the Year, Olivet Nazarene University, 1994-1995;
Elected to Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities, 1994.
Additional Info:
Formerly Adjunct Professor University of Florida, (Fall 2003-Summer 2004).
Stephens has designed and maintained the following websites Eastern Nazarene College, Journal of Southern Religion, The Historical Society, History Department, Eastern Nazarene College, The Polkinghorne Society Open Theology and Science, British Abolitionism, Moral Progress, & Big Questions in History, A conference jointly funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the Historical Society, 26-28 April 2007, Crowne Plaza St. James, London, David Brion Davis, “Slavery, Emancipation and Human Progress,” a free public lecture, 26 April 2007, Central Hall Westminster, London, and Tidal Wave Magazine.
Stephens is an editor of the Journal of Southern Religion and an associate editor of the review of the Historical Society, Historically Speaking.
From 2001-2004 Stephens was the editor for Tidal Wave Magazine (a music, film, and indie-culture publication); and from 1998-2002 he was a music writer for Skyscraper Magazine (NY), Harp Magazine (MD), Satellite Magazine (FL), Tidal Wave Magazine (FL), and Ink19 (FL).
Since 1996 Stephens has been a member of indie rock outfit Jetenderpaul, which released three full length cds, one e.p., and two 7″ records on Velvet Blue Music (Huntington Beach, CA), Burnt Toast Vinyl (Philadelphia, PA), and Hype City Records (Norway).

Personal Anecdote

The Past as a Foreign Country or another Planet

I grew up in Olathe, Kansas. It’s a pretty typical, sprawling bedroom community outside of Kansas City. Thomas Frank summed up our county pretty well in What’s the Matter with Kansas?. He called it cupcake land, where McMansions come in beige, darker beige, and gray, and where the Republican Party has a lock on the citizenry. Olathe and its environs also have very little of what easterners, southerners, or Europeans would count as “history.” No Colonial Williamsburg or ancient Boston is this. Minus the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm there’s little in Olathe worth a historic marker. Sure, we had an Old Settler’s Day parade, but no Jebediah Springfield, and no sense of what was “old” about it. My English brother-in-law likes to joke with his mates who come over from the west country about this fact, which must seem so very odd to people who live a few miles from Stonehenge. “I can show you a strip mall that dates back to the early 1980s,” he tells them. I do recall a Baskin Robbins on the main drag that was built in the mid-1970s. My family did make the occasional trip to the coasts. I peered over the glass in D.C. to look at a yellowing constitution, took in the ambience of ghost towns in the West, and walked the cobblestone streets of Boston’s north end. But that was like going to Universal Studios. These places seemed like sets to me. Back home in Olathe—watching television or movies—history was almost indistinguishable from science fiction or fantasy. Ewoks or cowboys, Revolutionary War soldiers or Cylons, it was all Greek to me. Whenever I did encounter the gritty, dusty, frightening realities of the past, it drew me like a moth to a flame. One summer, while I was still a teenager, I decided to investigate an overgrown cemetery where settlers buried their dead along the Santa Fe Trail. The crumbling mid-19th century graves, victims of the elements and indifference, fascinated me. Later, in some strange adolescent macabre twist (I think I was listening to too much Love and Rockets, Smiths, and Cure), I made clay impressions of the tombstone engravings. I worked these into hand built ceramic boxes, which I gave to friends. “Our Beloved Infant Son. Died August 6, 1855.” Inspiring. In college, the South—with its ironies, conflicts, and tragedies—captivated me. In what other region has history seemed to come alive in all its grotesque and beautiful glory? Faulkner’s oft-quoted line about south’rin history bears repeating: “The past is never dead,” Gavin Stevens remarks in Requiem for a Nun (1951). “It’s not even past.” So I went full throttle into that never-forgotten, thick history by studying with Bert Wyatt-Brown, a student of C. Vann Woodward, and carrier of W. J. Cash’s torch into the 21st century. I did not focus on duels, eye-gougings, suicides, nose tweaking, and the like. Yet Bert’s work had a significant impact on my own. My book, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008), helped me to recapture some of the foreignness and complexity of two eye-popping religious movements. I grew up in the holiness tradition. My grandpa was a fiery Wesleyan minister, who, like Robert Duvall in The Apostle, could thunder with the best of them. Yet the plush, carpeted, and extravagant mega-church of my youth was miles away from the sawdust trail and the moldy tents that shouting preachers once carted from one small town to another. Our domesticated Nazarene sanctuary was a sharp contrast to the “glory barns” and storefront tabernacles of one hundred years ago. That was a perfect problem for a historian to work with. As I made my way through the research and writing stages I wondered, How can I chart such changes over time? How do I recover and make sense of what’s been lost or altered? These and other questions have stayed with me on subsequent projects. My research took me into what Greil Marcus called the Old Weird America. White dirt farmers and small town merchants as well as black railroad porters and domestic servants came together in this new, rowdy religious movement. They brought with them their upcountry folkways, sacred harp songs, and Delta ballads. I poured over diaries, hymnals, and deteriorating newspapers that recounted wild and woolly scenes. In the holiness and pentecostal revivals of over 100 years ago initiates rolled on the floor, spoke in tongues, cast out demons, and banged away on upright pianos. That didn’t set well with many a southerner. I was most intrigued by the conflicts that enthusiasts rushed headlong into. Self-anointed street preachers squared off with their Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian cultured despisers. Pentecostals called attention to the boring meetings of the South’s frozen chosen. By contrast, pentecostal services were intense and emotional. Mill owners tried to shut down loud tent revivals that carried on into the night. And, occasionally, believers thumbed their noses at the local establishment by holding integrated services. Thanks to Harvard’s Widener Library and Proquest’s digitized newspaper collections, I stumbled onto some real gems. When the faithful held a mixed-race service in 1912 in the West End of Atlanta, the Atlanta Constitution headlined, “‘Rollers’ Have No Color Line.” It was scandalous: “white women mingled nightly until midnight with negroes in ‘Holy Roller’ meetings” and “joined the negroes in their wild demonstrations of ‘religious intoxication.'” Stalwarts retaliated to these and other challenges in their own way. They proclaimed that God was on their side whenever enemies fell dead in the middle of church services or were run over by freight trains. It’s enough to make even Flannery O’Connor blush. Sometimes I think it’s odd that I entered an area of history that is, in many ways, so incredibly removed from the manicured lawns and suburban calm of Olathe, KS. But like so much else in life, we’re often attracted to the things that are foreign/alien to our own experience.


By Randall J. Stephens

  • The story of the origins of holiness theology and pentecostalism in the U.S. South from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century remains untold, as does that of the larger significance of these movements in both the modern South and the nation as a whole. Yet they are hardly peripheral to modern American, and particularly southern, history. With millions of devotees in the South alone, holiness and pentecostalism now rank second only to Roman Catholicism among the world’s Christian denominations. Moreover, the U.S. South is home to the headquarters of fifty-seven different pentecostal churches and sects—including those of
    the Assemblies of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American SouthGod, the Church of God in Christ, and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). These groups, and born-again Christians in general, have experienced phenomenal growth since the 1970s. Their numbers soared as liberal Protestantism in the South and elsewhere waned. Some observers have even called this upsurge in religious enthusiasm the Fourth Great Awakening. Moreover, the recent politicization of conservative evangelicals, of whom southern pentecostals make up a significant proportion, deserves special scrutiny.6 Believers are now more visible than ever before. Devout southern pentecostals and those with roots in the tradition—including former attorney general John Ashcroft, conservative religious spokesmen Jim Bakker and John Hagee, country singers Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash, and rock and roll innovators Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley—are known throughout the world. — Randall J. Stephens in “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”

About Randall Stephens

  • In this careful and detailed study, Stephens chronicles the rise of Holiness and Pentecostal movements in the American South in the late 19th century, discusses their eventual split and quarrels about theology and culture, and then recounts the gradual mainstreaming of both movements in the late 20th century. — Publishers Weekly reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • Boisterous Pentecostal worship has excited the scorn of skeptics, while apocalyptic Pentecostal theology has scandalized the orthodox. But Stephens limns a pattern of phenomenal growth for this revolutionary faith, now curiously central to the conservatism of the Religious Right. A balanced work of cultural scholarship. — Bryce Christensen, Booklist reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • Stephens’s masterful account of how the South nurtured and altered a once-marginalized religious movement– and how that religion influenced the region–is the most fluent and authoritative synthesis of a complex and controversial subject. — The Atlantic reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • This study is an important addition to the growing field of pentecostal studies. Stephens’s emphasis on regional identity complements the previous works of historians like Grant Wacker and Edith Blumhofer. His ability to make sense of the complex theological features of pentecostalism makes The Fire Spreads accessible to a wide audience composed of lay adult readers, college students, pentecostal practitioners, and professional historians. Furthermore, there is something to be said for a book that is both deeply intelligent and highly readable…Anyone interested in the history of religion in the United States—and specifically as it relates to region, race, and politics—must read Stephens’s The Fire Spreads.Michael Pasquier, H-Pentecostalism reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • Crisply written, analytically clear, and full of colorful personalities, The Fire Spreads is the most significant study of Pentecostal origins since Grant Wacker‘s Heaven Below…Randall Stephens offers a rich portrait of Christians in the American South who embraced perfectionist teachings. Mining untapped pamphlets, periodicals, diaries, and church records, he presents a lucid chronological and regional study of the holiness and Pentecostal movements that eventually dominated the national perception of southern religion. Himself the grandson of a “barnstorming holiness preacher,” Stephens chronicles the many ironies that led to this unexpected triumph. — John G. Turner, Books & Culture reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • Stephens reveals the pentecostal and holiness movement’s ‘restless visionaries’ to be complicated religious figures pressing at the margins of southern society, undeterred by frequent scandals and internecine disputes, traveling constantly, delighting in acts of persecution, and testing the boundaries of religious ecstasies. An essential book for anyone interested in twentieth-century religious history. — Paul Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Spring reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • Randall Stephens’ book represents sedulous research, balanced judgment, and impressive imagination. It stands as a work of exceptional importance in the rapidly developing fields of holiness, pentecostal, and southern cultural and religious history. — Grant Wacker, Duke University reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • One of the few essential books about American holiness and pentecostal religion. Randall Stephens explains the nineteenth-century northern roots of southern pentecostalism and displays the growth, creativity, and arguments of the various pentecostal groups in the twentieth-century south. — Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • A classic study of the first region in the world where Pentecostalism took root as a mass movement. Excellent and readable. I highly recommend it. — Vinson Synan, author of “The Holiness/Pentecostal Movement in the United States” reviewing “The Fire Spreads Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South”
  • When he was in graduate school, I considered him the ablest in my many years of teaching on the graduate level. Needless to say, he was the recipient of the best scholarship, the Richard J. Milbauer fellowship, that the department could offer. His dissertation, now an acclaimed book,”The Fire Spreads: The Origins of Southern Pentecostalism,” takes him into the twentieth century but covers the period back to the beginnings of the 19th Century. The topic has been recently treated in a book by Grant Wacker of Duke University’s Religion Department and with whom we had arranged to serve on Randall Stephens’s Ph.D. committee. At the conference call oral exam, Wacker remarked that Randall’s dissertation was the best he had ever read. Wacker’s _Heavens Below_ is largely theological, whereas Randall is taking a more historical approach, tracing the Pentecostal movement back to the Arminian Sanctification in the Present Life and the Holiness doctrines of the antebellum period. There are approximately 400 million Pentecostals in the world, but the movement, never studied on a regional basis before, was and remains especially strong in the Southern states. Very little has ever appeared in academic literature on the Pentecostals. Randall demonstrates in his Harvard publication that he has a firm grasp of how to organize and write in a fluent and persuasive style.This young man is a very accomplished instructor, who has very much impressed his colleagues and administration authorities with his abilities. I believe as a result has a lower teaching load at ENC so that he can pursue his research interests. When in graduate school at Florida, he wisely turned down an opportunity to teach at the Associate level, an honor in itself, in order to speed his progress toward the dissertation’s completion. He was awarded a Lilly Foundation Fellowship which of course precluded this instructional opportunity and was a most significant honor and acknowledgment of the importance and quality of his project. At that time his student evaluations had matched and overmatched those of other TAs, with high ratings on “Enthusiasm for the Subject” (4.59), “Respect and Concern for Students” (4.71), and “Stimulation of Interest in Course” (4.71). Some of the students wrote out their assessments in this fashion, “Seems very interested in the topic, which helps. He cares about if we are learning (if the class isn’t participating he’ll prompt us with questions). Accepts everyone’s opinion, whether he agrees” with it or not…. In fact, he evaluations ere an incredible 4.90, a positive reading that few of us in the profession reach.There is no question that in the Southern history field and the realm of American Religious History, he is fast becoming one of the leading authorities. He easily deserves this recognition of his talents and his continuing promise. — Berthram Wyatt Brown, Chaired Stephens’ Dissertation committee at the University of Florida

Posted on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 10:50 PM

Leave a comment


  1. Vickey Silvers

     /  June 4, 2010

    I am an editor for Christian.com which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I’m sure our Pentecostal audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

    Vicky Silvers

  2. Johnd92

     /  May 18, 2014

    I appreciate, cause I found just what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye fafekcdbdcce


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