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  • The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism by Judith Casselberry
  • Frederick Klaits
Judith Casselberry, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 232 pp.

This is a beautiful ethnography of women's religious labor in the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. (COOLJC), one of the largest US-based Black Pentecostal denominations. Judith Casselberry explores concepts of emotional labor, intimate labor, and aesthetic labor in documenting the work conducted by multiple generations of Christian women to "(re-)produce women-driven patriarchies" (105) in the denomination since its founding in Harlem in New York City in 1919. Through luminously evocative and accessible prose, Casselberry conveys the deeply felt significance that women in COOLJC attach to their work in its manifold forms and contexts. In so doing, she makes a key contribution to the literature on Pentecostalism that sheds new light on aspects of US labor history as well.

Casselberry's account of Black Pentecostal women's labor is geared to outlining "the circumstances of producing a holy Black female person-hood" (5). In taking this approach, Casselberry draws on scholarship documenting how African American women have advanced communal agendas within churches and political organizations dominated by men (Butler 2007, Collier-Thomas 2010, Gilkes 2001); yet she resists anchoring "the religious worlds of Black women [in] social, civic, and political activism" (5). Rather, she demonstrates that women understand the value of their labor in terms of the "spiritual authority" (10) it engenders. "Spiritual authority" is a capacious term, embracing (among much else) the "power to submit" to male pastors, winning converts for Jesus by praying with them at altar calls, invoking God's power to heal, and marking the self as holy through formal dress. Throughout, Casselberry demonstrates that "living [End Page 1143] in holiness is a process that requires religious labor" (21), and conversely that for these women, labor gives form and meaning to spiritual commitment in ways that crucially shape their understandings of personal value.

Chapter 1 provides an affecting account of women's bereavement and religious labor following the devastating passing of a beloved church sister. While they found it difficult to speak words that made sense of the death in light of God's previous promises for her recovery, Casselberry shows that there was healing power in the physical labor they devoted to preparing food and cleaning their sister's home, as well as in the aesthetic labor of hymn singing at the house. In Chapter 2, Casselberry turns to the history of COOLJC and its relationships to other movements associated with the Pentecostal Azusa Street revival of 1906. Bishop Robert Lawson, the founder of COOLJC, was a major figure in the denominational politics of the period. In 1925, Lawson presented a theological argument that "God had deliberately created a mixed bloodline in Jesus—Hamitic, Semitic, and Japhetic" (56) in a work strikingly entitled The Anthropology of Jesus Christ Our Kinsman (Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Help of Solving the Race Problem). Reworking "one drop of blood" ideologies of race and gender (Davis 1991), Lawson placed "Black women in the body of Christ. … Black women did not merely have access to salvation; rather, the blood Jesus shed on the cross was their blood" (57).1 While Lawson barred women from official preaching, many held prominent public speaking positions. His wife Carrie, known as "the Praying Mother of the Air" for her radio ministry, had great spiritual authority in her holy petitions. Women recalled her "keen insight into the problems and the needs of the saints… She could see things from her vantage point that he could not see" (59).

In Chapter 3, Casselberry explores how women in church auxiliary organizations have engaged in labor—including organizing prayer breakfasts, producing hymnals, establishing educational programs, and assembling directories—modeled upon mothers' and daughters' household responsibilities (Carothers 1990). Casselberry devotes attention to the special responsibilities of pastors' wives and their comparative isolation from laywomen, recounting how they have derived support from experienced older counterparts. Chapter 4 focuses on how women cultivate what they call the "power to submit...


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