Sunday, October 2, 2011

American Pentecostalism Beginnings: An Overview

I grew up in a nondenominational, Charismatic church in small-town Nebraska.  Our church operated with little formal structure, partly, I believe, because structure was seen as a hindrance to the free working of the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues and other expressions of the gifts of the Spirit were not unusual, and the worship was often exuberant and expressive.  In short, my church was like many other 20th-century Pentecostal and charismatic churches in the United States.  Because of my background, I've always been fascinated by the Pentecostal strand of American Evangelical Protestantism, but until recently, I've never taken a serious look at the scholarly work done in the field of Pentecostal history.  My latest research project has fortuitously given me a great excuse to dive into the origins of American Pentecostalism, and what follows is a brief summary of what is, more or less, the current consensus story of Pentecostalism in its nascent stages.


(As a side note, if you are interested in looking into the history yourself, here are five books that might be helpful.  If you only read one of these, I highly recommend Wacker's book)
1) Grant Wacker - Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture
2) Vinson Synan - The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition   
3) Allan Anderson - An Introduction to Pentecostalism  
4) Douglas Jacobson - Thinking in the Spirit: Theologies of the Early Pentecostal Movement
5) James R. Goff Jr, Grant Wacker (ed.) - Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders

I. Context
Grant Wacker suggests that Pentecostalism can be best understood as arising out of a confluence of four streams that had been flowing across the American religious landscape in the 1800s.  The first stream - an emphasis on a conversion experience or "new birth" - dated back at least as far as the first Great Awakening of the mid-1700s.  The second stream, which came to be called Holy Ghost baptism, was actually made up of three distinct "tributaries":

1) Wesleyan "entire sanctification," first expressed by John Wesley as a post-conversion process towards Christian perfection, was understood by mid-1800 Methodists such as Phoebe Palmer to be more of an experience or state one could enter into called the "second blessing."  Christians who experienced the second blessing were then supernaturally enabled to live lives of purity.  By the late 1800s, this tributary was best expressed in the form of the burgeoning Holiness Movement.

2) Charles Finney and other mid-1800s Oberlin perfectionists of a broadly Reformed background also emphasized a life-changing experience that happened after conversion.  However, they thought of it as a process in which believers were increasingly empowered to consecrate their lives fully to Christ.

3) From the annual "higher-life" conferences in Keswick, England came the Keswick movement, which stressed that believers should seek a series of supernatural experiences after conversion that would empower them to continually defeat sin and be more effective witnesses.

Those three second-stream tributaries, which occasionally overlapped, all explained the powerful post-conversion experiences as "baptisms with the Holy Ghost."

The third stream was belief in divine healing.  Led by generally respected figures such as Charles Cullis (who established a Faith Cure House in Boston, MA) and A.B. Simpson (the founding figure of the Christian and Missionary Alliance) as well as more controversial figures like John Alexander Dowie (who established a theocratic utopian society near Chicago called Zion City), a sizable minority of American evangelicals in the 1880s and 1890s accepted the notion that through prayer and faith in Jesus, sicknesses and other infirmities could be healed.  They followed Simpson in stressing that Christ's death on the cross provided healing for both body and soul.

The fourth and final stream was belief in the Lord's immanent return.  By the late 1800s, this came to be increasingly understood in dispensational, premillennial terms. (As a brief aside, it should be noted that even though many Pentecostals and Fundamentalists embraced dispensational premillennialism, they were far apart in their understanding of the gifts of the Spirit.  For example, Fundamentalists believed that the miraculous gifts of the spirit, such as speaking in tongues, had ceased after Scripture was written.  Pentecostals, however, saw the resurgence of speaking in tongues as evidence of "latter rain" being poured out on the saints in the last days to equip them to spread the Gospel to the ends of the Earth.)

Those four streams became accepted as part of the same package, called the "Four-fold Gospel" or the "Full Gospel."  Wacker regards those Christians who accepted and propagated the Full Gospel as "radical evangelicals."   Undergirding the Full Gospel movement was a primitivist yearning to experience the supernatural power depicted in the Biblical accounts of the early church.  Radical evangelicals often spoke of the Full Gospel as completing the process of restoring the Church to its original theology and practice, a process which had been started by the Protestant Reformation.  If Luther and Calvin had gone back to the original texts to understand the true nature of conversion - through faith alone - and Wesley had helped lay the groundwork for post-conversion "second blessing" empowerment, then leaders such as A.B. Simpson were seen as completing the reformation by returning the church to reliance on God's supernatural healing power, and intense expectation that Christ could return at any moment.

II. The Pentecostal Revival


Despite the implications of the name "Full Gospel," some radical evangelicals in the 1890s and early 1900s began to seek something more.  They sought both a supernatural power to enable them to preach the Full Gospel with miraculous acts of witness, and they also sought a way to define and validate the variety of post-conversion experiences that were being regarded as "baptisms of the Holy Ghost."  On January 1, 1901, those desires were fulfilled by Charles Parahm's followers at a small Bible school in Topeka, Kansas.  Parham was a former Methodist and an itinerant healer-evangelist.  He founded a tiny Bible school that purported to use only the Bible as its textbook.  Before departing on a trip in late 1900, he told his students to search the Scriptures for a Biblical understanding of the evidence for Holy Ghost baptism.  By the time he returned, his students had determined that the Scriptures taught that the Baptism of the Holy Ghost was always accompanied by the gift of tongues.  One by one, after seeking the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, all of Parham's students, and eventually Parham himself, received the baptism of the Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Parham believed that the tongues being spoken were not a private prayer language but rather were foreign languages used by other cultures.  In fact, for a couple decades after the outbreak of the Pentecostal revival, a few in the movement believed that missionaries need only to identify the foreign language in which they spoke tongues in order to know in which country they should preach the gospel.  Hours of training and learning a new language were no longer required - or so some thought for a time.  Eventually, the idea of missionary tongues died off - mainly because, despite claims of some of the early adherents, there were no substantiated cases of it actually working.

The outbreak of tongues at Parham's school was not the first recorded expression of the phenomenon since the Bible.  In the 1800s, followers of Edward Irving in London, a few Mormons, and even a tiny fraction of the radical evangelicals (such as followers of Frank Sandford's Shiloh community) had claimed to speak in tongues.  However, none before Parham assigned any specific theological significance to the act.  For Parham, speaking in tongues was nothing less than the only evidence of the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit on His people.  It constituted the sign-post that a third distinct event or "blessing" had happened in a Christian's life.  The first blessing was conversion, followed by the "second-blessing" of sanctification, and speaking in tongues was evidence of the third blessing, the true Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Parham did not gain a wide following at first (or ever, for that matter).  However, his teachings about the third blessing shaped the thinking of William Seymour, who eventually made his way to Los Angeles to lead a mission church on Azusa Street.  In 1906, Seymour and others (such as Lucy Farrow) led the revival that created the Pentecostal movement we know today.  The revival lasted for a couple years, and as reports of the miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit spread through newspaper accounts and through word-of-mouth, a variety of radical evangelicals and other curious-minded people made a pilgrimage to Azusa to find out for themselves what the new blessing was all about.  Not all were convinced of the validity of the manifestations of the Spirit at Azusa, but many were - and when they were baptized in the Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, they were likewise baptized into the teaching that tongues was the only evidence of the Baptism of the Spirit.

As the Azusa revival spread, those who accepted the teachings first propagated by Parham and Seymour began to consider themselves "Pentecostals."  By the 1910s, it was understood that radical evangelicals of the of the "Four-fold Gospel" type were different from those Pentecostals who saw tongues as the only evidence of Holy Ghost baptism.  Eventually, Pentecostals began to organize themselves into denominations.  However, official denominations, with their structure and formality, were not created overnight.  This was because, as Grant Wacker has written, for Pentecostals, "Conversion, sanctification and Holy Spirit baptism started with the individual, skirted the institutional church, downplayed the ordinances, and ended with the individual."  The institutional church no longer was the way in which the Holy Spirit's gifts were dispensed.  Rather, any believer, at any time, could experience for themselves the true outpouring of the Spirit.

The fiercely independent character of the Pentecostal movement led to bitter divisions over what might seem like small points of theology (of course, Christian history shows that such divisions are not unique to Pentecostals).  The first major split in the movement happened between those who were from a Wesleyan tradition (Methodists) and those who entered the movement from a more Reformed background (Baptists and Presbyterians).  Those from the Wesleyan tradition generally insisted that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by tongues, was a third distinct step in the Christian life.  Those from the Reformed background argued instead that the Baptism of the Spirit was the second step - the first step included both conversion and sanctification.   The Wesleyan-brand of Pentecostalism eventually came to be denominationally represented by the Church of God in Christ, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and the Pentecostal Holiness Church. The more reformed brand of Pentecostalism came to be represented in 1914 by the largest and most influential of Pentecostal denominations - the Assemblies of God.  Within the Assemblies of God, one more division happened in 1916, when a movement called "Jesus-only" or "Oneness" Pentecostalism split from the Assemblies of God to form the United Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. (The story of that split is long and complex, but it began when a speaker at a Pentecostal conference received a new revelation from the Holy Spirit that people should be baptized only in the name of Jesus, not in the historically orthodox Trinitarian way).

III. Pentecostalism Today    


The impact of the Pentecostal movement on the religious landscape of today is immense.  Along with the formation of denominations such as the Assemblies of God (which in 2000 had 5.5 million followers), it has also become the fastest-growing Christian movement worldwide.  Books such as Harvey Cox' Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century help illustrate just how prevalent the movement has become on a global scale.  Beyond simply forming new denominations and spreading influence worldwide, Pentecostalism also has influenced the accepted practices of many other Christian denominations.  In particular, it helped spawn the Charismatic Movement, a movement which like Pentecostalism stressed the importance of expressing the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, but unlike Pentecostals, Charismatics often stayed within their home denominations and did not necessarily teach that speaking in tongues must always accompany the baptism of the Spirit.  By 1980, nearly 20% of adult Americans identified themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic Christians. Of those 29 million people, only 1/3 came from the traditional "Pentecostal" denominations.  The rest were from independent or mainstream denominations.  Despite its excess and error (of which much more could be written), the fact that Christians today, from the Catholic Church to neo-Calvinist denominations, can openly consider themselves "charismatic" is evidence that the Pentecostal movement helped re-legitimize an expression of Christian spirituality that, for most of the 2000 year history of the church, had lain either dormant or on the fringes of acceptability.