Sider, E. Morris. Fire in the Mountains: The Story of a Revival Movement in Central Pennsylvania. 2nd ed. Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2010. Pp. 144. $6.00.
In Fire in the Mountains: The Story of a Revival Movement in Central Pennsylvania, E. Morris Sider describes the impetus for and results of a Brethren in Christ revival movement that swept across parts of central Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century. The book, published originally in 1976, has been recently re-released by the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.
Sider’s book focuses on a series of “old-fashioned revival meetings” (p. 9) that occurred in Pennsylvania’s Blair and Bedford counties during the 1930s. Beginning with two chapters devoted to the genesis of this revivalism—the evangelistic work of Herman Miller, a Brethren in Christ minister and the founder of the church’s mission in Altoona, Pennsylvania—the author delves into the story of each revival. Sider devotes entire chapters to the telling of each regional revival story, describing how converts from the Altoona Mission “carried the gospel message up and down the mountains and valleys” (p. 9) of west-central Pennsylvania. The results of such efforts, contends the author, were considerable: “Hundreds of people flocked to [the] altar, miraculous healings occurred, and new congregations sprang up almost overnight” (p. 9).
Fire in the Mountains is more of a narrative history than “hard” history—a fact that does not escape the author. In his original preface to the book, Sider—then a professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Messiah College—notes that his
intention [is] . . . to capture the feel of a revival movement. Thus I have avoided a strictly scientific, historical analysis. That has been done for other revivals, at other times and places. For once, it will perhaps be profitable to look at revivals from the inside. (p. 5)
He reiterates that sentiment more succinctly in the preface to the new edition: “My role in producing this book is more that of a storyteller than a professional historian. The latter role would require me to offer proof of some of the claims made by people in this story, but such proof is beyond the work of this historian” (p. 7).
This “storyteller” approach makes his text eminently readable, especially for his target audience: lay readers. In treating each revival discretely, Sider manages to fit the events into the typical narrative arc of rising action, conflict, climax, resolution/denouement; this technique helps to keep up the pace of Sider’s story. At the same time, this narrative approach allows the author to quote extensively from revival participants, which gives the story much “local color.”
Reading the book as a historian, however, this writer felt that Sider missed two major opportunities: first, to situate these revivals within the economic, social, and cultural contexts of Great Depression-era Blair and Bedford Counties; and, second, to relate these revivals to developments in Brethren in Christ history during the 1930s and 1940s, a period of significant tumult within the denomination. This context, without distracting from the overall narrative, would have helped readers to understand the “big picture” into which this specific story fits.