Any account of the modern expansion of Christianity worldwide must pay respectful attention to Pentecostal and charismatic forms of worship. In Latin America, and most conspicuously in Brazil, this tradition accounts for virtually all of the vast growth of Protestant churches in the past 30 years.
But here is a riddle. If, as all the histories tell us, the Pentecostal movement began with a revival in California in 1906, why is it that some of the shrewdest and most historically informed commentary on the phenomenon appears in a Brazilian book written several years before that date? Historical curiosity apart, reading Os Sertoes, or Rebellion in the Backlands (1902), by Euclides da Cunha, forces us to rethink the modern Pentecostal movement.
The story begins in 1893 with the emergence of yet another would-be messiah in Brazil, a prophet who foretold the imminent end of the worldly order. The man, Antonio, claimed to be the Counselor promised by Christ in his farewell discourses; alternatively, he was the vastly popular St. Anthony come again in the flesh. As Antonio Conselheiro, he attracted a mass following among marginal people, many of whom were freed slaves or people of mixed race. He led his faithful to Canudos, which became a mighty fortress in Brazil's vast undeveloped hinterland, the Sertoes. Da Cunha accompanied the government forces sent against the movement, which crumbled following a dreadful slaughter in 1897.
Trying to understand this vast and baffling phenomenon, da Cunha wrote an encyclopedic account of the movement, the region and the landscape, which is regarded as the monumental work of Brazilian literature. And much of what he says concerns Antonio's religion--which he places firmly in the history of Brazil, of Catholicism and, more strikingly, of Christianity itself.
For da Cunha, nobody should be surprised at the eruption of charismatic or apocalyptic movements among a people so deeply imbued with Catholic mysticism. Brazil was heir to "a multitude of extravagant superstitions." The first Catholic settlers were themselves fascinated by miracles and "mysterious tongues of flame." Reinforcing these ideas were the beliefs of various immigrant communities, especially those of African former slaves.
But far from placing Antonio on the far fringes of Christianity, of consigning him to syncretism, da Cunha knew history well enough to understand just how closely the prophet stood to Christians of the first centuries of the faith, and to those prophets in Asia Minor who followed Montanus and his band of inspired women. …