Rollin G. Grams. 2010. Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Missions Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962. Eugene: Wipf & Stock.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
One of the truly remarkable events of 20th century Christianity has been the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Pentecostal movement. It is also relatively undocumented. Rollin Grams’ book, Stewards of Grace, works to fill this gap. Rollin is the son of Pentecostal (Assembly of God) missionaries, Eugene and Phyllis Grams, who labored most of their careers in South Africa. He writes their story in their own words. The book is, however, more than an oral history or a travel diary. Rollin writes from the perspective of a biblical scholar who can interpret their experiences in terms of the biblical tradition.
Why might we, as Christians, read be interested in the lives of these quiet missionaries? Grams writes:
The Story of Eugene and Phyllis Grams is a story of one way to live justly amidst the social injustices of apartheid—the policy and practice of racial separation and inequality of South Africa. It is one way to live missionally before the needs of the world (x).
The words—live justly—and—live missionally—stand out here. Our lives in Christ are in tension with the world—how exactly do we deal with that and remain faithful to our calling as Christians?
Salted throughout the book are asides (he calls them capsules) to explain to a non-Pentecostal audience what is going on. For example, in an early capsule, Grams provides historical insight into the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism is often dated to begin with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 (www.AzusaStreet.org) in Los Angeles, California. However, the Azusa Street Revival was one of many offshoots of the Welch Revival of 1904 and 1905 (19). Pentecostalism builds also on the much earlier holiness and faith healing movements (18). The multi-ethnic, multi-racial context of the Azusa Street Revival is a Pentecostal distinctive and an important contributor to its rapid growth worldwide.
Not all his capsules focus on Pentecostalism. For example, Grams’ first capsule deals with Apartheid. What was Apartheid? Apartheid started in the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed Church whose General Synod ruled in 1857 that blacks should worship separately from whites. This doctrine pointed to God’s separation of the races at the time of the Tower of Babel–the whites viewed themselves as Israelites entering the promised land (3). This religious separation became law after the Nationalist Party gained control of the government in 1949. A series of laws were passed. The Mixed Marriage Act of 1949 made interracial marriage illegal. The Illegal Squatters Act of 1951 authorized the government to relocate into “homelands”. The Abolition of Passes Act required blacks to carry identity books at all times (4). It was in 1950 that Nelson Mandela was elected to the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC). After the abolition of Apartheid, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994 (5).
Other than the capsules, Grams primarily writes a series of short stories. The book consists of 21 chapters that frame these stories. These chapters are preceded with a forward and followed by short postscript. Far from dry, Rollin poses a sense of humor that makes the stories come alive.
Historians will likely want someday to understand the events and people that led up to the quiet revolution in South Africa. Apartheid is now history. I can tell you as someone who worked in international affairs that few people envisioned the changes that took place in South Africa. At some point, the role of Christians, such as the Grams, in these changes will need to be evaluated. Rollin’s book provides source material for that evaluation. A good screen writer could place this biography against a backdrop of the times and create a classic in Christian cinema.