- A Cloud of Witnesses:Family and Community in Early Twentieth Century Wiregrass Pentecostal Evangelism
A number of cultural, personal, and communal factors led the curious to join the Holy Ghost ranks. Some of these factors are lost in the silences of the historical record, but others remain detectable.–Randall Stephens, The Fire Spreads1
At the age of ninety, my grandmother, daisy snellgrove Tucker, told again the story she had heard and retold herself many times since childhood, with a child's collapsed concept of time and space: how Pentecost came to Alabama. Now she bequeathed it to her granddaughter as one would an heirloom:
It started–what they said, and what they still say: that after the Civil War, the United States had gotten into such a bad state and people were so discouraged, and they'd lost so many people, and churches were broken into, and torn up–that the Holy Spirit came in a new way and a lot of people got converted at some services, and it was like a fire spreading. It moved this way, all the way. And it moved—I don't know whether it moved up in the North, but it moved in the South, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, all across there, and the upper parts of Florida. And people began understanding the Bible, and understanding that the Lord was still here. And that he was still taking care of the people. And that is when the Snellgroves got involved in it…I remember Azusa Street because everybody talked about [End Page 50] it…The preachers that preach about it [they would say] 'on Azusa Street in California.'"2
Born in Dale County in 1912, six years after the beginning of the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, Daisy Tucker had heard this local version of the classic Pentecostal creation myth since early childhood from her namesake, Aunt Daisy Snellgrove Bryant, and Uncle Handy Washington Bryant, and other kinfolk in the Assemblies of God.3 Eighty–plus years later, she told the story to her granddaughter with the same dramatic tone. Her family was one of many in the Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama and northwest Florida who embraced Pentecostalism in its early twentieth-century form—part of the early groups that organized in the South and grew leaders who helped form and define the Assemblies of God in 1914, now the world's largest Pentecostal organization.4
Before and just after the pivotal Azusa Street revival, Alabama was a generative environment for several Pentecostal ministers who later participated in the founding meeting at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, or became regionally or nationally prominent in the Assemblies of God. Mack M. Pinson, Henry Greene Rodgers, William Files Hardwick, John Wade Ledbetter, Daniel J. Dubose, and others set down foundation stones early in the century for Pentecostal organizations in Alabama and especially in the southeastern part of the state. Several of these men went on to serve as regional and national leaders, recognized and remembered in official Assemblies of God histories, Pentecostal memoirs, histories, and a growing body of academic scholarship.5 [End Page 51]
Alongside these better-known religious leaders were local citizens—"relatively unknown men and women of conviction"—who contributed significantly to the founding and setting in order of churches in southeast Alabama in the early part of the twentieth century.6 These activists of the "tongues movement" in the Alabama Wiregrass exemplified characteristics of the southern Holiness and early Pentecostal movement that have only recently begun to be identified in scholarly research.7 White, literate, a mix of economic and social classes, they were raised with a strong premillennialist belief in the "Lord's soon return."8 Most were old enough to remember or to have experienced firsthand the economic and social chaos that followed the Civil War. They were farmers and laborers who were also traveling evangelists, pastors, lay workers, and home missionaries devoting already difficult lives in rural Alabama to spreading their beliefs about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in what they considered "the last days." Often with [End Page 52] little property but an independent or entrepreneurial spirit, many...