Essay — From the February 2017 issue

The Number That No Man Could Number

Black America’s civil war over gay rights

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Church has long presided over African-American culture as the one place where parishioners could “kick off their shoes and be real.” For intellectuals like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, it was the site of great art and wretched politics, a noisy quietism combined with provincial bad taste, all of which could be redeemed by the ritual. And in our era, when we talk about the black church, we’re mainly talking about Pentecostals.

This was not always the case. For a very long time, most working-class blacks were either Missionary Baptists or Methodists (which is to say, African Methodist Episcopals). But in the early twentieth century, the Pentecostal saints marched in and eventually swept all before them. Charles Fox Parham, a Kansas evangelist who made glossolalia — speaking in tongues — the centerpiece of a new faith, is usually identified as the movement’s father. In September 1900, Parham installed his congregation in a rambling house on the outskirts of Topeka, where they prayed incessantly for the Holy Spirit to descend and speak through them. A few months later, a breakthrough came. As a Chicago newspaper summed it up: occupants of topeka mansion talk in many queer jargons.

Parham and his followers were white. But the next great Pentecostal explosion, known as the Azusa Street Revival, originated in a black church in Los Angeles. The pastor of the ramshackle structure at 312 Azusa Street, William Joseph Seymour, had earlier been one of Parham’s acolytes, studying at his Bible school in Texas. His impact, however, far surpassed that of his mentor. The Azusa Street Revival began in 1906, and the ecstatic worship continued in waves for several years. Azusa drew believers from all over the globe, who proceeded to colonize the world for a Jesus who could heal the sick, raise the dead, and unmistakably signal his presence with the gift of tongues.

Glossolalia was not unknown in America: Quakers and Mormons had been speaking in tongues for years. Likewise, the old-time religion goes back much further than 1906. The term “holy rolling” dates from at least the 1840s, and during that century’s frontier revivals, pioneers frequently boasted of getting drunk in the spirit. Azusa’s distinction was its array of races and nationalities: its worshippers arrived from Memphis and Oslo, Alabama and Ukraine.1 Indeed, a 1906 article in the Los Angeles Times recoiled at the “disgraceful intermingling of the races” at Azusa, an extraordinary sight in America at the zenith of the Jim Crow era.

1 Little more than a century after the Azusa Street Revival, California’s antigay Proposition 8 united African-American fundamentalists with a colony of Ukrainian and Latvian Pentecostals who had settled uncomfortably in Sacramento, which they regarded as nothing less than the New World’s Sodom.
2 The phrase supposedly appears in a confession that Parham made, which has since been lost. The evidence is fragmentary, but a statement of Parham’s reprinted in the Zion Herald, a Pentecostal newspaper of the day, is enough to give contemporary readers pause: “I never committed this crime intentionally. What I might have done in my sleep I can not say, but it was never intended on my part.” Apparently the angels had not anointed his dreams.

But there were other objections as well. Parham went to his grave dogged by accusations of pederasty, mostly on the basis of his arrest in San Antonio, Texas, in 1907 for what appears to have been “the crime of Sodomy.”2 To this day, many black people also assume that he and Seymour were lovers, simply because no other such close association of black and white men was imaginable, then or for decades to come. To complicate matters further, Parham was a racist; he would later deplore Azusa’s spiritual miscegenation, complaining that

a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big “buck nigger,” and held tightly thus as she shivered and shook in freak imitation of the Pentecost. Horrible, awful shame!

Perhaps because of their extravagant piety, Pentecostals were seen as less than manly. For many years, Baptists and Methodists looked askance at them, even as they were unable to resist their music, the rollicking rhythms that would ultimately seduce the world. And eventually, rituals that were considered comical, if not half-mad, became commonplace in all the denominations. Long before the charismatic movement enabled white Anglicans and Catholics to speak in tongues and gyrate in the spirit, black Baptists and Methodists had gotten on board.

There is an additional reason for the special if often subterranean relationship between gay men and women and the Pentecostals. It was not only the drama, the spectacle, that drew them to the church: it was class. For generations, poor gay boys have flocked to Pentecostalism — the denomination of the working class, along with Roman Catholicism — because worship therein allowed an intensely expressive devotion that would be frowned on anywhere else. The outside world shamed or spurned them. In the church, they were welcomed, and their talents applauded. A boy could sing like a lyric soprano and not be dubbed a punk but informed that his rare voice denoted a special anointing. The pastors would praise and the mothers (especially the mothers) would rejoice.

“It’s always been that way,” says the Reverend Carl Bean, a former Motown and disco performer who founded the Unity Fellowship Church Movement in 1982. “The straight boys who play around with girls and make babies and break their mamas’ hearts, they live in the streets. The well-behaved boys, the sensitive, quiet kids, the ones we now call sissies and nerds — they’ve always landed in church. Church or street, take your pick.”

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’s most recent book is The Fan Who Knew Too Much. His article “Aretha: How She Got Over” appeared in the April 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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