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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

New book by UNCP historian tracks a modern religious movement

In the 1970s, the charismatic religious movement in America found strong leadership among women and African Americans.

Scott BillingsleyIn his new book, “It’s a New Day: Race and Gender in the Modern Charismatic Movement” (University of Alabama Press, April 2008), UNC Pembroke history professor Dr. Scott Billingsley chronicles this development and offers some interesting explanations.

“We think of the charismatic movement as basically conservative, but it was the influence of the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s that affected these changes,” Dr. Billingsley said. “The title ‘It’s a New Day’ seemed to capture what I wanted to say.”

In his book, Dr. Billingsley charts the careers of some of the nation’s most prominent charismatic leaders, who built televangelistic empires, built megachurches and refined the health-and-wealth gospel. A social historian, he teaches the “History of American Religion” and other classes in U.S. history at UNCP.

Religion, he tells his students, has had a profound effect on American society, and changes in society have had a profound effect on religion. That is the case with seemingly radical ideas infiltrating one the most conservative corners of society.

“The Pentecostals, who are at the origins of the wider charismatic movement, pride themselves on being egalitarian when it comes to women and race,” he said. “However, there was not a proliferation of women and African American religious leaders before the 1970s.

“Pentecostals have a very traditional view of women and their role in society and the church,” Dr. Billingsly said. “The women I write about hold those conservative views, but they say ‘God called me; who am I to resist God’s will?’

Book Cover: It's A New Day“They don’t subscribe to Ms. magazine or read feminist writers like Betty Friedan, but those ideas spread into their thinking,” he concludes.

Transformation is a hallmark of American religious movements from the founding of America, Dr. Billingsley said. By the 1960s, charismatics had set up camp inside mainstream churches including, and beginning with the Episcopalian Church.

So, what does this ubiquitous movement believe in, and how does an academic study them?

“The two defining characteristics that set charismatics apart at the turn of the 20th century are the practice of speaking in tongues and the belief in divine healing,” he said.

Studying the charismatic movement presented research challenges for Dr. Billingsley because it is “new” history that is ongoing. Most of its major players continue to preach, so traditional research was out of the question.

 “Because most of the people I wrote about are still active today, it affected the type of sources and information I was able to get,” Dr. Billingsley said. “The papers of T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer are not archived, but their books are available at Wal-Mart.” 

The son of a Church of Christ minister, he attended charismatic church services.

“I found the services to be very different,” he said. “It is not the traditional lecture from the pulpit; everybody is talking, sometimes at once, some in tongues and some not.”

These emotionally-charged Christians have captured Dr. Billingsley’s imagination. He has also studied other modern religious movements from megachurches to the gospel of wealth to resurgent primitivism.

For his next major project, he will research a biography on one or more religious leaders like the late Kenneth Hagin, who was a key figure in the health and wealth movement or Barton Stone, a key figure in the founding of the Church of Christ in the 19th century.

“It’s a New Day” will be available for purchase on March 31 and is available for pre-order online at Amazon books.

Here is what some prominent historians said about the book:

“Scott Billingsley does a good job of explaining who people are and how they relate in the modern charismatic movement. The world he describes is richly textured and enormously influential, and the biographical sketches point readers toward an understanding of the movement.”

 – Edith L. Blumhofer, professor and
director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
at Wheaton College

“‘It’s a New Day’ not only fills a gap in the historical literature of postwar American religion, it also ably tracks the growth, success and surprising social outlook of one of the most significant mass-religious movements to emerge in the late 20th century.”

- Randall S. Stephens,
History Department, Eastern Nazarene College

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