A History Lesson in the Pentecostal Roots of Early Rock ‘n’ Roll: Annual Blake Lecture Recap

April 27, 2023

Author: Nyah Graham

It was a full house on April 13 to hear the 2023 Blake lecturer, Professor Randall Stephens of the University of Oslo, present “Sanctified people got more fire: The Pentecostal Roots of Early Rock 'n' Roll.”

Randall Stephens speaking at a podium

For 2023’s annual Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity, we had the honor of welcoming Randall James Stephens, Professor of American and British studies at the University of Oslo, for his lecture, “Sanctified people got more fire: The Pentecostal Roots of Early Rock 'n' Roll.” Stephens delightfully illuminated how Pentecostal spirituality affected the genre as well as its pioneering artists. In his lecture, Stephens included the careers of Rock “n’ Roll giants like Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

Professor Stephens’ colorful narration provided context to explain how the religious roots of all these icons ended up being influential in each of these artists’ lives, such as Elvis having been turned down from join a Pentecostal quartet in his youth, or Little Richard who had sung in Church as a youth. Each of these artists later were ironically met with heavy criticism by the very communities they had belonged to, leading to a tortured sort of artistic existence. The genre itself had taken shape from the Pentecostal style, which often included speaking in tongues and ecstatic healing, along with cultivating a loud, revved-up music in church services. Even the look of early Rock ‘n’ Roll stars took from the flashy appearances of many of these Pentecostal preachers. 

However, the backlash of these communities was just as passionate as their worship. They deemed the genre ‘the devil’s music’ which contrasted with their sanctified music played in every church. It caused stars to find their way either away from or back to their religious roots, in search of salvation. 

The lecture, held on April 13, was attended by over 80 people at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Our sincere thanks to all the people who attended and to William E. Blake and family for their continued support.