Religion without the institution?

Pentecostalism is a religious current born of evangelical Protestantism. It is based on a literal reading of the Bible. Believers from this movement are distinguished in particular by their distrust of ecclesial institutions, preferring to value the personal experience of faith. They insist in particular on the importance of the awakening ” Where “ baptism by the Holy Spirit manifesting itself through speaking in tongues or glossolalia.

Faced with the abundance of work in human and social sciences on Pentecostalism in the world, Yannick Fer’s book offers a useful contribution. Resulting from his accreditation to direct research, the work of the sociologist synthesizes twenty years of work on the subject. It is therefore essential at a time when the sociology of religions is of greater interest to new generations of students, offering an overview capable of capturing the characteristics of a polymorphic current, based on a hundred research studies, including the main ones are conducted in the United States, Latin America and the Pacific, as well as on its own work [1]. We regret, however, that he barely mentioned the work on the Pentecostal presence in Muslim lands. [2]which nevertheless illustrate the vitality of this current.

From the introduction, the author explains that his approach consists in analyzing the religious fact from the tools of general sociology, refusing the opinion according to which there would be a irreducible specificity of the religious phenomenon » (p. 7). He effectively recalls that the sciences of religions, which began to emerge at the end of the XIXe century have experienced an unfinished process of deconfessionalization. For this reason, he insists on the importance for the sociologist to build his own tools, as well as on the need for the researcher to analyze his place in the academic field, which having its own stakes, also plays a role in his positioning.

The author has chosen to organize his book in the form of thematic sections. A choice which makes it possible to define the main characteristics of the movement, without limiting itself to an overly strict definition, which struggles in any case to describe a protean current. For this reason, he chooses a historical approach, defining as “ pentecostal » all the religious currents that originated at the origins of this movement.

Back to origins

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William J. Seymour

Yannick Fer begins by going back to the origins of this movement. A certain number of false ideas have indeed ended up infiltrating sociological literature, insisting on its revolutionary character or its anchoring in black culture. For the author, these are chimeras that come up against a more rigorous examination of socio-historical circumstances [de sa genèse] » (p. 19).

These confusions are no doubt due to the dissemination of a fantasized vision of Pentecostalism inherited from the Pentecostal studies. According to these authors, the black-American pastor William Joseph Seymour is at the origin of the movement, with the opening of one of the first Pentecostal churches in 1906, in Los Angeles, characterized by the temporary cohabitation of black, white, or Hispanics, making it a symbol of a movement transcending racial distinctions.

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Charles Fox Parham

Yannick Fer, however, offers a more detailed analysis of the different actors at the origin of this movement. He recalls in particular the role played by Charles Fox Parham, a supporter of segregation, who founded his own “ evangelism ministry » itinerant, and who notably trained William Joseph Seymour.

He also mentions the place of women in this history, who are likely to obtain social recognition proportional to the religious position granted to them. This is the case of believer Agnes Ozman, who was the first to show the signs of speak in tongues this demonstration which gave its name to this movement. Which leads him to conclude that the religious dynamics of awakening can therefore lead to granting […] legitimacy specifically spiritual to actors otherwise subject to racial or gender domination » (p.32).

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Agnes Ozman

Returning to the adequate definition of the Pentecostal current, he recalls that specialists in Protestantism have long come up against its characterization. A difficulty which is undoubtedly due to two elements.

On the one hand, the movement has evolved since the beginning of the XXe century and the rise of charismatic Pentecostal currents from the 1960s, characterized by an appreciation of individual autonomy and a diversification of the forms of experimentation of “ the action of the Holy Spirit », modes of operation favoring network dynamics more than ecclesial or denominational logics » (p. 51). On the other hand, Pentecostalism has integrated certain religious traditions of the societies to which it has been grafted, which leads certain authors, such as Jean-Pierre Bastian, to consider that Pentecostalism is indeed Christianity, but that it is not attached not Protestantism.

Yannick Fer, for his part, believes that denominational efforts are necessary in the social sciences. But he reminds us that we cannot reify general categories of analysis (Pentecostalism, Charismatism, Protestantism, etc.) in the form of essences or closed spaces » (p. 49).

Institution and conversion

Yannick Fer then recalls the role of the institution in conversion. Paradoxically, we are indeed witnessing an institution that denies itself as such, in order to reify the role of the individual alone in his relationship with God. This belief, even if it is a religious fiction, is nonetheless useful for believers. It makes it possible to make this new birth », which goes hand in hand with biographical invention, enabling him to acquire new dispositions. Moreover, the incorporated belief of this intimate relationship with the divine allows, at least theoretically, the individual to shed the old bonds of sociability. The Pentecostal institution is therefore the place of new specifically religious sociabilities allowing the reconfiguration of individual dispositions.

The author is then interested in the emotional, physical and cultural dimension of Pentecostalism. For Yannick Fer, the expression of emotional religiosity » (p. 97) has too often been seen in the world of research as a form of backtracking, from an evolutionary perspective. On the contrary, referring to the work of Cas Wouters, he believes that we are rather witnessing the emergence of a third nature : after a first historical phase authorizing the free expression of emotions and a second phase imposing their strict control, we would witness in the course of XXe century to a new phase characterized by the controlled expression of emotions.

In this sense, he does not consider the preponderant place of emotions as the sign of a return to a primitive state of forms of religiosity, but considers that they are religiously necessary » (p. 100) by strengthening the believer in his adherence to Christian dogma. Thus, if the “ speak in tongues is seen by Christians as pure communication with the divine free from the imperfections of language ; for the author, it is above all a matter of a socially learned emotion which is expressed in the form of a desired and controlled enunciation. Belief is therefore the prerequisite that allows the believer to allow himself certain emotions, which will nevertheless be subject to the control of the religious community. In the same way, the body is a privileged vector of adhesion to the Pentecostal dogma, since nothing like the personal experience of healing, to support the existence of a God capable of acting directly on believers.

This freer expression of affects and this incorporation of elements from local cultures is also made possible by an evolution of missionary doctrine, via its charismatic current, which now focuses on evangelizing cultures rather than isolated individuals. According to the rhetoric of the evangelical missionaries, there would exist ancient proofs of the Christian presence among the unreached peoples » (p. 143) that should be brought up to date. It also authorizes the reinterpretation of endogenous cultural elements and their attachment to Pentecostal dogma (as with the incorporation of dance among Hawaiian Pentecostals). The dynamics of spiritual combat also leads to the strengthening of the link between a people and its territory, which passes through a symbolic narrative in which a confrontation is played out between territories acquired by the Christian community and others that should be evangelized.

Religion and politics

Finally, Yannick Fer returns to the link that exists between Pentecostalism and politics. Indeed, we could believe by insisting on the importance of the individual commitment of the believer, that it was about an apolitical religious movement, even that it was factor of depoliticization. However, this is forgetting two essential elements according to the author, who reminds us that the intimate is also political. In reality, the political scope of Pentecostalism is in itself indefinite: a movement with a conservative tendency, it tightens around the religious community against the outside world. Yet in some contexts, Pentecostal actors are also likely to seize the belief as a political issue.

It is true that one could suppose that the political scope of Pentecostalism is limited by observing that in fact, it is often confined to a moralizing and spiritual discourse, mixing esotericism and bitterness about moral decline and the loss of authority in a society in the process of dechristianization. In the same way, if the current of spiritual combat carries a theocratic project, at first glance it does not seem to propose concrete means to make this project happen.

However, the political scope of the movement is sometimes more considerable. And on the strength of their network dynamics, the Pentecostals are also likely to take over the public space in order to impose their lobbying. This is encouraged by the delegation by the State, in many parts of the world, of social action to associative or religious organizations. The media also play a major role in spreading the Pentecostal Christian vision [3].

In conclusion, Yannick Fer’s book manages to give us an overview of the vast Pentecostal field. The choice of thematic axes is successful and makes it possible to answer the various questions at the start of the book. We regret, however, an overly theoretical approach, which probably makes the book less accessible to neophytes (knowing, moreover, the complex genealogy of the current).

In general, the book also sheds light on the religious reconfigurations that are taking place on a global level. Indeed, if the Pentecostal movement is in full expansion, it is probably because of its adaptation to the phenomenon of globalization. It derives its strength from a double movement, by accompanying individuals in a process of individuation on the one hand, while on the other hand, this involves the strengthening of ecclesial authority, which takes precedence over other forms of institutional authority.

Yannick Iron, Sociology of Pentecostalism, Paris, Karthala, coll. “ 4 Winds », 2022, 223 pages, €19.

Religion without the institution?