Jun 10, 2014

A tough guy for the gospel

Robert Brown liked to think of himself as a tough guy. He was an Irish-born cop-turned-preacher in 1930s New York, and as he saw it, he wasn't supposed to be gentle.

"I don't put any sugar coating on my pills," he said in 1936. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, by this time he had been preaching in holiness and pentecostal circles for two decades. "I preach the gospel," he said. "Some people get mad and others receive it."

This stance is common to conservative Christians, especially 20th century evangelicals and pentecostals. Manliness is understood as something aggressive. Toughness is coded as honesty and fidelity. It's constructed as toughness with a purpose, toughness for the sake of -- and justified by -- the truth of the gospel.

To be a man is conceived, above all, as not caring about how others respond to your manly determination. While also still finding it important to let people know how tough you are.

There are some cultural politics in here. There is an attempt to reclaim or claim Christianity from over-refinement and middle class sentimentality -- from "over civilization." In Victorian-era America and after you see some economic transformations leaving people unsettled. Things that once seemed solid had transmogrified. Many men felt the need to declaim their manliness in the uncertainly of what exactly that meant in a changing world. Manliness and activity and virility were valued in how they were emphasized, encouraged. Besides that, as a counter-cultural movement, pentecostals had always used rhetoric that turned opposition into confirmation, taking the antagonism of the status quo, the condescension of their "betters," and rejection after rejection as evidence of their radical message. You had to be doing something right. They despised Jesus too. The "tough guy" stance just so happened to mirror that rhetoric of opposition. The two fit together easily, so that made it easy for pentecostals to take that stance.

Brown was not unique in imagining himself a tough guy, and describing his preaching as hyper-masculine. There are many examples of this rhetoric from then and now. Brown is one good one.

A newspaper article about a camp meeting where Brown preached described him as "taking his gloves off." People who belonged to his church, Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street, which was for many years the largest Assemblies of God church in America, remembered him as a tough guy too, especially in the pulpit.

One recalled that "Brown Brown used the hammer when he preached."

The aggressive approach was balanced somewhat by the fact he co-ministered with his wife, Marie Burgess Brown.

Burgess was one of the first generation of pentecostal converts. She was a member of Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois, in 1906, when people began to speak in tongues and take that as a sign of sanctification. Zion had been established as a theocratic city-state by the Scottish faith healer Alexander Dowie. Dowie had a stroke in 1905, though, and was deposed by his lieutenant, Wilber Glenn Viola. In that moment of turmoil, as Viola was trying to establish control, Charles Parham and his pentecostals came in with the new message that the infilling of the Holy Ghost was accompanied by the miracle of speaking in tongues.

Burgess recalled that there were wild rumors of the meetings of pentecostals in Zion. Some said the book of Acts was being reenacted at these meetings, the present-day believers given the same power the first apostles had. Others said it was the devil, dividing believers. She decided to pray and prayed for three days. After three days she had a vision.

"I was under the Holy Spirit's power," she said, "and it seemed I went from one foreign land to another, praying in the various languages of the lands visited. Great stone walls seemed to surround each foreign territory, but as the spirit prayed through me, the walls crumbled and fell."

Burgess first spoke in tongues on her 26th birthday, Oct. 18, 1906. She went out from Zion a pentecostal preacher.

It is curious, perhaps, that she was empowered to this in the context of conflicts between men, conflicts which were constructed as conflicts over true masculinity. Dowie was an authoritarian who had claimed complete control of Zion, both material and spiritual. He was the father. He was deposed in part over accusations he was promoting polygamy. His authority was questioned on the grounds his manliness was perverted. This happened with Parham, too. Parham named himself the "projector" of the pentecostal movement. He was pushed to the side by accusations of perversiont. The context of these kinds of clashes doesn't seem like a likely place for a 26-year-old woman in the first decade of the 20th century to have an experience of spiritual empowerment. But such are the mysteries of early pentecostalism.

She did. She was. Burgess left Zion with a mission and message, and the belief she could pray down the strongholds of Satan.

One of her converts in the early years of her ministry was the tough guy Robert Brown.

Brown was a holiness believer when he first met his future wife. He liked to preach the story of Zacchaeus, the tax-collected who climbs a tree to see Jesus. He liked to turn the phrase that Jesus says, "Zacchaeus, come down!," into an altar call. He was initially skeptical of Burgess' pentecostalism, but he listened to her preach and but then one day when he was preaching himself, he began to preach from her favorite text in Acts. He changed his mind mid-sermon.

Maybe even mid-sentece.

"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues," the scripture said, "as the Spirit gave them utterance." As Brown preached that, he repeated with word "all" with emphasis -- All! ALL! When he finished, he went to the altar himself and knelt down and prayed that he would speak in tongues.

For the man who hammered, and took his gloves off, and told it like it was, the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit was the experience of yielding his will. Brown said,
Abandoned to God, yielded to his will, it was no longer I but the precious Holy Spirit. He took charge of every part of my body and then spoke through me in languages which I had never learned. Thank God, I received the same Baptism as the apostles did in the beginning.
This is the other side of the hyper-masculinity of 20th century evangelicals and pentecostals. There is a sense of relief at being overcome and overpowered, of losing one's own will. Submission is sweet release. All the masculine claims to authority, power, unbending certainty and rightness, all the demands for recognition and respect, all disappears. At the same time, God is conceived in hyper-masculine terms. God is the one who overpowers and takes control. God is pure authority.

God, in this moment, is understood as a God who "just puts it out there" and "some people get mad and others receive it," but that's not his concern. God is going to be God, and you can respond however.

It has to be noted, though, that if you respond with surrender, submission, and by going against all the hyper-masculine values of what it means to be a man's man, that is portrayed as the way to receiving the greatest gift possible. Masculinity in this way is thus both affirmed and undercut. It's rejected and reenforced too.

Robert Brown imagined himself as a tough guy, and part of that was rhetoric to point to this moment where he wasn't tough and didn't resist, humbling himself.

Part of that tough rhetoric, too, was rhetoric to try to get others to surrender like he had. Brown thought that he could show how one could totally yield one's will to God and still be a man, and a manly man. Brown thought, too, that being tough and being an aggressive preacher could push others to that moment where they would yield their will, surrendering first to his words and then through that get to the point of surrendering even their own bodies to God.

"He didn't mince his word at all as he dealt with sin and the souls of men," a religious paper reported in 1936.

Brown died on February 11, 1948 at the age of 75. Marie Brown died in 1971 at the age of 90. The church they built on West 33rd Street in New York City is considered to be a critically important, historical hub of pentecostalism in the last 100 years.

Glad Tidings Tabernacle sends out missionaries in 1932. 
Robert and Marie Brown stand center, first row.