When we look at the world in the 21st century and ask, “What is the fastest growing and most dynamic group of Christians in the world?” The answer is simple: the Pentecostal churches. There are a half billion Pentecostals around the world, and their number is second only to the Roman Catholics.
According to Christian History magazine, Pentecostal churches are growing at a rate of 13 million worshippers a year. The largest church in the world is a Pentecostal church in South Korea, where, before Covid, they would have a weekly worship attendance of 240,000. Areas such as Latin America and Asia, which were Roman Catholic strongholds, are rapidly turning Pentecostal. As this series of reflections is about 20th century events and movements that deeply affected our understanding of the Christian faith, we must include Pentecostalism. In fact, The Dictionary of Christianity in America wrote that Pentecostalism is perhaps “the single-most-significant development in twentieth-century Christianity.”
The Feast of Pentecost
What is Pentecostalism? The word refers to a Jewish feast day called Pentecost, after the Greek word for “50th”. It took place fifty days after the Passover. It is important for the church because of what took place on that day in the year Jesus died (see Acts 2).
Jesus’ disciples, who were Jewish, gathered with Jews from around the world on this feast day. As they prayed, the room started shaking and they heard the sound of a great wind. Suddenly, there were flames of fire on the disciples’ heads and they started preaching the Gospel in languages they didn’t know. Hundreds heard them speak and converted. There were miracles and signs and transformed hearts.
They had encountered the fulfillment of a prophesy that God would send the Holy Spirit out on the world. This was the birthday of the church, and ever after, the Holy Spirit of God would always be associated with the great event at Pentecost. To be blessed by the Holy Spirit is to be “Pentecostal.”
The Beginning of the Pentecostal Movement
While Pentecostalism is a 20th Century movement, its roots go back to the Great Awakening revivals and the Holiness movement that followed. These movements attracted thousands. They would gather in camp meetings and sing songs with great enthusiasm, and preachers would preach with fire and power. People were overcome with the Spirit. There was great unity and love at the communion services. After the meetings, people went back to their “respectable” churches and felt that something was missing..
From the beginning, the power of the Holy Spirit was one of the main subjects of preaching. The great revivalist Charles Finney describes an experience of walking into the woods one day: “The Holy Spirit … seemed to go through me, body and soul…. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way.” For these Christians, heady preaching just wouldn’t do it; they wanted a direct experience of the living God.
Pentecostalism in the Early 20th Century
Pentecostalism as we know it today started at the turn of the century in Topeka, Kansas, with a young man named Charles Fox Parham. As a member of the Holiness movement, he was interested in supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues. For him, ‘speaking in tongues’ meant that God would give believers the special ability to speak in languages of people around the world so that the Gospel could be preached to everyone. Parham believed this would bring the age of the church to an end and usher in the return of Christ.
Because he felt that his own Methodist church was too bland, Parham started his own Bible school where they studied the work of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures. Parham’s conviction, which set him apart from other Holiness preachers, was that ‘speaking in tongues’ should be the main evidence that one had been baptized in the Holy Spirit.
On December 31, 1901, one of his students, Agnes Ozman, asked that they lay hands on her in prayer to receive the Holy Spirit so that she could preach the Gospel in foreign lands. As Parham prayed for her, “a glory fell upon her, a halo seemed to surround her head and face,” and she is reported to have spoken in Chinese. It sparked a wave of people being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit,’ including Parham.
Pentecostalism: Spreading Fire
Parham was on fire. He started traveling hundreds of miles on a preaching tour in which thousands came out to receive the Holy Spirit. At the same time, an even larger Pentecostal revival was happening in Wales.
One of the students who took Parham’s teachings to heart was a young black man named William Seymour. Because Parham was then teaching in Texas, which was in the Jim Crow South, Seymour wasn’t allowed in the classroom. He had to listen in while sitting in the hallway. After studying with Parham for several weeks, Seymour accepted a call to a church in California.
The Azusa Street Revival
Once there, Seymour was locked out of the church because of his teaching. But the owners of his boarding house felt he was onto something, so they allowed him to hold meetings there. On April 9, 1906, Edward Lee asked Seymour to pray for him to receive the gift of speaking in tongues. Lee spoke in tongues, followed by several others including Seymour. Soon crowds starting showing up to see what the fuss was, and many stayed. They rented an old abandoned church in Los Angeles at 312 Azusa Street. The Azusa Street Revival had begun.
This revival lasted for over three years. Drawn to the excitement and visible work of the Holy Spirit, people came from all over the world. Strikingly, the movement seemed to overcome racial barriers. Blacks, Whites and Latinos worshipped together. There was no liturgy, and meetings could go on for twelve hours at a time. People who came felt that the Holy Spirit was truly there.
“There were no hymnals, no liturgy, no order of services. Most of the time there were no musical instruments. But around the room, men jumped and shouted. Women danced and sang. People sang sometimes together, yet with completely different syllables, rhythms, and melodies.”Christian History Magazine, issue 58
However, there was also controversy. Sometimes, the spiritual displays were too much to take, even for true believers. When Parham came to visit, he was shocked at some of the spiritual manifestations. They became known as ‘Holly Rollers,’ ‘Holy Jumpers,’ and ‘Holy Ghosters.’ Eventually, the crowds fell off and the revival faded, but not before they had launched a revolution. Preachers on fire with the Spirit went out, and the Pentecostal tradition has shown no sign of slowing down over a hundred years later. In fact, it is only getting stronger.
Mainline Churches and the Pentecostal Movement
What does this have to do with the Mainline churches? Many members of the Mainline churches have been deeply affected by the Pentecostal experience. In Mainline churches, they are usually called Charismatics, which comes from the Greek word for ‘gift,’ as in ‘gift’ of the Holy Spirit.)
Even for those who have had nothing to do with speaking in tongues or other gifts of the Spirit, the Pentecostal movement has changed the church profoundly. Once upon a time, Mainliners were very suspicious of people talking about an experience of the Holy Spirit. They thought of the Christian life more as combination of proper belief and moral sobriety. The church was an important institution for the maintenance of a decent society. The Pentecostals have changed this view. Now, we talk often about the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Pentecostals have given us the gift of freely being able to love the wildness of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecostalism shows that there are millions of Christians for whom high-level intellectual preaching doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t touch the heart. People want to have a direct experience of the living God. Systematic theology just doesn’t speak the language of the soul as does song, story and testimony. While we may understand the experience of the Spirit slightly differently, I think this is a lesson that we need to learn from the Pentecostal church. When people are searching for God, they are not looking for our institutions. They are looking for God; they are looking for the Holy Spirit.