Sanctified people got more fire: The Pentecostal Roots of Early Rock 'n' Roll

Randall James Stephens

Date: Thursday, Apr 13, 2023

Start time: 5:00 p.m.

Location: Virginia Museum of History and Culture

Audience: Open to the public

The annual Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity is pleased to present the 2023 lecture, "Sanctified people got more fire: The Pentecostal Roots of Early Rock 'n' Roll," presented by Professor Randall James Stephens of the University of Oslo. This event will be in person.

American church leaders and laypeople alike went on the defensive shortly after rock and roll became a national youth craze in 1955-56. Few of those religious critics would have known that rock and roll and rhythm and blues, in fact, had deep religious roots. Early performers, all southerners—like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and James Brown—grew up in or regularly attended pentecostal churches. Pentecostalism was a vibrant new religious movement that traced its origins to the early 20th century. Its adherents broke with many of the formalities of protestantism. Believers held mixed-race services during the height of Jim Crow segregation. The faithful spoke in tongues, practiced healing, and cultivated loud, revved-up music.

Looking back on his childhood religious experiences, James Brown said the saints “had the beat. . . . Sanctified people got more fire.” This talk will look at how the fire of Big Beat performers come from vibrant churches, charismatic pastors, and flashy singing itinerants. It will also focus on the intense negative reaction of clergy and church officials and consider what this tells us. In a region that novelist Flannery O’Connor called “Christ-haunted,” the line between secular and sacred, holy and profane was repeatedly crossed by rock and rollers.


Randall J. Stephens is Professor of American and British Studies at the University of Oslo. He is a historian of religion, conservatism, the South, environmentalism, and popular culture. His latest book is "The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll" (Harvard University Press, 2018). 

He is the author of "The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South" (Harvard University Press, 2008); "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," co-authored with physicist Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of "Recent Themes in American Religious History" (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). 

Stephens has also written for the Atlantic, Salon, the Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, Books & Culture, the Independent, History Today, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He has been interviewed for news and culture programs on the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera, KBYU-FM 89.1, Austrian Youth Radio, and NPR. In 2011-12, he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway. Stephens is also one of the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturers. 

Alumni Achievement Award

At this event we will also present the Department of History VCU Graduate Alumni Achievement Award. This award recognizes an alum of the M.A. program who has made distinguished contributions to their profession or chosen field of endeavor. It represents the department’s highest form of recognition bestowed exclusively on graduate alumni. Award winner to be announced in March 2023. 

Sponsor(s): Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity

Event contact: Andrea Wight,