The Variety of Holy Spirit Possession

Considering Cohen’s Executive and Pathogenic Possession for the Pentecostal Context


  • Jonathan Burrow-Branine University of Kansas



possession, Pentecostal ritual, Holy Spirit baptism, cognitive anthropology


This article seeks to extend Emma Cohen’s cross-cultural categorization of spirit possession to the phenomena of Holy Spirit possession in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian communities. Cohen argues that cross-culturally recurring features of spirit possession can be explained by evolved patterns in human cognition, and identifies a typology of executive possession and pathogenic possession. I show the usefulness of Cohen’s categorization through an analysis of Holy Spirit possession phenomena as reported in ethnographic studies of Pentecostalism in Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and Ghana. By doing so, this article accomplishes several things. First, it draws the study of Pentecostal ritual into the wider study of the anthropology of religion. Second, since Cohen’s categorization offers a cognitive explanation for recurring patterns of spirit possession, this article may help explain patterned behaviors and beliefs concerning the activity of the Holy Spirit even in very diverse cultural contexts. Finally, Cohen’s concepts of executive and pathogenic possession broaden the discussion of Holy Spirit possession beyond moments of the initial baptism in the Holy Spirit to the continual presence and relationship that many Pentecostals maintain as the central focus of their religious experience.


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How to Cite

Burrow-Branine, J. (2013). The Variety of Holy Spirit Possession: Considering Cohen’s Executive and Pathogenic Possession for the Pentecostal Context. PentecoStudies, 12(1), 107–124.