Author’s note: This post was originally an essay I wrote for an undergraduate-level religious studies class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013.
The Pentecostal Holiness Church is a Pentecostal Christian denomination that developed in the early 1900s. Influenced by the 19th century holiness movement and the 20th century Pentecostal revival, the church’s Christian beliefs are based on John Wesley’s teachings of sanctification. Wesley preached that two distinct events happen in the life of a Christian: a conversion, in which Christ is accepted in one’s life and one is freed from original sin, and entire sanctification, in which one accepts the Holy Spirit and is freed from earthly, voluntary sin. Holiness Pentecostals often look for a sign when they accept the Holy Spirit; something to let them know that they have reached this holy cleanliness. This sign is usually glossolalia, most commonly known as the practice of speaking in tongues.
Now an international denomination, the Holiness Pentecostals used to be found mainly in the southernmost United States. In the 1960s their practices to reach sanctification included potential bodily harm, such as handling deadly snakes and the consumption of poison. Peter Blair’s 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People sheds light on these practices, as it shows a service held by a Holiness Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. While French sociologist Emile Durkheim and German philosopher Karl Marx never watched Holy Ghost People, their strong opinions on religion and sociology make it fairly easy to determine what they would have thought about the practices of the Holiness Pentecostals at that time. In this essay, I will use the writings of Durkheim and Marx to analyze and interpret what’s seen in the documentary.
Emile Durkheim on Holy Ghost People
He argues that the definition of religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” This definition and its emphasis on the church, a community, leads into Durkheim’s concentrated idea of a corroboree. This is a holy gathering, a rite of passage, a summoning of those in a religious group or even a religious ceremony.
Durkheim would surely describe the church service seen in Holy Ghost People as a corroboree, and would call the events that took place “collective effervescence.” He wrote that just the act of gathering can trigger strong results. “The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant,” Durkheim wrote. “Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” When the Holiness Pentecostals gathered in their church to worship, as seen in the documentary, the results could certainly be described as electric. After listening to a sermon, the group started loudly praying together and asking for the Holy Spirit. The ones who had received this sanctification started colorfully speaking in tongues, convulsing and even dancing, something that was otherwise not permitted in their congregation. Eventually, members of the group began handling poisonous snakes, holding them and throwing them at each other, and started drinking poison. “The effervescence often becomes so intense that it leads to outlandish behavior,” wrote Durkheim.”The passions unleashed are so torrential that no one can hold them.” This is what he would have said about the unusual behavior of the Holiness Pentecostals as seen in the film.
Durkheim also wrote about a totem found in religions; something that represents the group and what they believe. “The totem is above all a symbol, a tangible expression of something else,” Durkheim said. “It is the flag of the clan, the sign by which each clan is distinguished from the others, the visible mark of its distinctiveness, and a mark that is borne by everything that in any way belongs to the clan: men, animals, and things.” While Durkheim might have been unclear of what the totem was to the Holiness Pentecostals seen in the film, he would have known what the totem was not. It was not the snakes or the speaking in tongues, because he would say those were merely props and practices involved in portraying that the congregation members were sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Those items do not represent the community or its beliefs. Durkheim would also probably discount the possibility of the Holy Spirit as the totem, as well, because the Holy Spirit is something they pray for and accept, and not something that represents the clan.
Karl Marx on Holy Ghost People
Marx’s sociological perspective had an influence on his views of religion, much like Durkheim, but in a very different way. Like Durkheim saw it, religion is still a communal practice in Marx’s eyes, but rather than needing a Church to constitute a belief, Marx wrote that religion is completely man-made; an invention, an illusion people have created to get through their lives.
Marx defines religion as a sign of the “oppressed creature,” one who is looking for a way out of a difficult situation, looking for help or for purpose. “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress,” wrote Marx. “Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” Marx would use this theory to argue that the beliefs of the Holiness Pentecostals in Holy Ghost People are false; that the congregation is praying to a man-made god, that they are using these false beliefs to justify their lives or even to give them something seemingly meaningful to live for. Marx would most likely say that the Holiness Pentecostals are practicing this kind of faith to make their lives bearable.
“The production of notions, ideas and consciousness is from the beginning directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of human beings, the language of real life,” wrote Marx. “The production of men’s ideas, thinking their spiritual intercourse, here appear as the direct efflux of their material condition.” He seems to be saying that the religious beliefs of man are influenced from the burdens of their reality, maybe their social class or their culture, and are then created in their minds as a way to cope with this reality.
Marx writes about religion in a psychological way, and always ties the belief in a religion with one’s material standing. Marx wrote, “It makes no difference what consciousness undertakes by itself: out of all this rubbish we retain only one result: that these three factors – the production forces, the social condition and consciousness – can and must enter into contradiction with one another, because the division of labour implies the possibility, nay, the reality, that spiritual and material activity – enjoyment and work; production and consumption fall to different individuals.” Marx delved further into consciousness, and said, “It’s not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.” By this he means that one’s consciousness is determined by one’s circumstances; that one’s economic and social standing can influence consciousness.
Marx would probably use these theories to classify the events that took place at the Holiness Pentecostal church service in the documentary as an illusion; that the congregation was not “sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, because there is not really a Holy Sprit, and that they created this being as a way to get through their lives. Marx uses words like the aforementioned “rubbish” to describe some of these religious and godly beliefs, and I would imagine that he would use a word like that to describe the outlandish behavior of the church members in the film. Their actions of speaking in tongues and convulsing are things he would probably say are being intentionally performed. He would also surely have a harsh opinion about their snake-handling and poison consumption.
To conclude, both Durkheim and Marx used their sociological and philosophical backgrounds to help mold their definitions and views of religion. While Durkheim stressed the communal nature of religion and argued that religions often have corroborees and a totem symbol, Marx argued that the belief in a religion or a god is the result of one’s altered state of consciousness caused by his or her material world. Both scholars would have a differing view of the events seen in Holy Ghost People, but both opinions about the Holiness Pentecostal practices in the 1960s would certainly be strong.
1 Sean McCloud 2600 Lecture (September 18, 2013)
2 Sean McCloud 2600 Lecture (September 25, 2013).
3 Peter Blair, director, Holy Ghost People, Thistle Films, 1967, Web Video.
4 Emile Durkheim, excerpts from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995. 44, 208, 217, 218.
5 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, excerpts from On Religion. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1982 (reprint 1964). 41-42, 73-81.