The Growth Of American Pentecostalism

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The origins of the Pentecostal movement are traditionally held to lie in the United States. Although the roots of the movement are particularly to be found in the holiness tradition, the movement took on its distinctive form in the first decade of the twentieth century, primarily through the influence of the African American preacher William J. Seymour.

Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana, in 1870, the son of former slaves, Simon and Phyllis Seymour. After a period working as a railroad porter in Indianapolis, he moved in 1900 to Cincinnati, where he joined the Evening Light Saints, a Christian group noted for its radical holiness theology, including the doctrine of "second blessing entire sanctification," premillennialism, and the promise of a worldwide revival through the Holy Spirit before the rapture. In 1903 Seymour moved to Houston, Texas, where he joined a small holiness church pas-

tored by a black woman, Lucy Farrow, who put him in touch with Charles Fox Parham. On hearing Parham's descriptions of speaking in tongues in 1905, Seymour set out to spread the word, based at the church he founded, the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.2

Primarily (though not exclusively) from this California base, Pente-costalism spread rapidly in America. It appealed particularly to the socially marginalized, especially through Seymour's important concept of an ecstatic egalitarian ecclesiology.3 Unusually, it seemed to appeal to and be embraced by both white and African American Christian groups. It was regarded as eccentric, even dangerous, by American culture at large, as newspaper headlines in Los Angeles in April 1906 made clear: "New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose," and "Wild Scene Last Night on Azusa Street."

Popular journalism around the time of the Azusa Street revival made clear the antipathy felt toward the movement, which aroused both racial and theological prejudices: "Colored people and a sprinkling of Whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication." The key role played by women in the revival was out of line with contemporary cultural norms and once more attracted negative media coverage.4 More significantly, the charismatic experiences reported seemed to many to represent a new outbreak of the "enthusiasm" that mainline Protestantism had regarded with intense suspicion, laced with not a little cultural disdain, since the eighteenth century.5

It is also important to appreciate that Charles Parham had no intention of adopting the racial inclusiveness proclaimed and practiced by Seymour and Azusa Street. In an abortive and counterproductive move, Parham, who was particularly disturbed by its commitment to interracial fellowship, attempted to take control of the Azusa phenomenon.6 Among other things, Parham later went on to teach that white AngloSaxon Protestants were the privileged descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and he spoke in glowing terms of the Ku Klux Klan. He was never reconciled with Seymour and eventually died in disgrace.7

Although Pentecostalism can be thought of as traditionalist in its Christian theology, it differs radically from other Christian groupings in its emphasis on speaking in tongues and its forms of worship. These are strongly experiential and involve prophesying, healings, and exorcisms. The Pentecostal worldview includes elements that relate easily and naturally to the folk religions of many regions of the world, especially in Africa and Latin America, such as the casting out of demons (a practice that tends to make Western academic theologians cringe with unease). The movement's populist worship style and apparent lack of intellectual sophistication have caused mainline denominations and the academy either to ridicule or ignore it. Yet Pentecostalism began a new phase of expansion after the Second World War, paving the way for its massive growth in the second half of the twentieth century. Even in the United States, Pentecostalism has overtaken most of the mainline denominations that dominated the American religious landscape from 1800 to 1950.8

Pentecostalism began to become respectable and accepted in white middle-class America through the neo-charismatic renewal of the 1960s. In part, this change in attitude can be put down to the upward social mobility, greater disposable income, and suburbanization that followed the Second World War. Yet the decisive factor was the emergence of charismatic phenomena typical of Pentecostalism—hitherto seen as a distinct Christian group—within the historic Protestant denominations. The incident that is traditionally identified as having brought Pentecostalism to wider public attention in the United States took place in Van Nuys, California, in 1960, when the rector of the local Episcopalian church, Dennis Bennett, told his congregation that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit and spoken in tongues. Reaction varied from bewilderment to outrage; the local Episcopalian bishop promptly banned speaking in tongues from his churches. However, it soon became clear that others in the mainline denominations had shared Bennett's experience. They came out of their closets and made it clear that they believed that they had experienced an authentic New Testament phenomenon that would lead to the renewal of the churches.

By the late 1960s, it was evident that some form of renewal based on charismatic gifts (such as speaking in tongues) was gaining hold within Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian circles. Through this development, Pentecostal themes and emphases became increasingly acceptable within American Protestantism, even if that acceptance took rather longer in some denominations than in others—the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has not been significantly affected by the charismatic movement. Of equal importance, a charismatic movement began to develop within the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1967 among students and faculty of Duquesne University.

In an influential study of the development of charismatic movements in the United States during the twentieth century, church historian Peter Wagner distinguished three "waves" of the movement.9 The first such wave took the form of classic Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 1900s and was characterized by its emphasis on speaking in tongues. The second wave took place in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly within mainline denominations as they appropriated spiritual healing and other charismatic practices. This second wave transformed public perceptions of the movement and began its move away from the periphery of American religious life and toward the center.

The third wave, exemplified by John Wimber, emphasized "signs and wonders." Through the Spirit, he argued, a new wave of supernatural power had been unleashed upon the churches to enable healing, victorious living, and the defeat of evil spiritual powers. The idea of "spiritual warfare"—that is, the Christian's spiritual battle against evil spirits—played a particularly important role in Wimber's thought.10

This third wave caused considerable controversy during its early period in the 1980s. Wimber and Wagner taught a course popularly known as "Signs and Wonders" at Fuller Theological Seminary from 1982 to 1986, when faculty and trustee pressure closed it down for a year; it was reinstated, with a markedly lower profile, a year later. Wimber went on to lead the Vineyard Fellowship, which has proved one of the most significant global agencies in developing this approach to the Christian life.

Using the term "Pentecostal" to describe all these movements has now become problematic. The term is generally used today to refer to a family of churches—such as the Assemblies of God—that particularly emphasize speaking in tongues. The term "charismatic" is now used to refer to movements within the mainline churches based upon the ideas and experiences of the Pentecostal movement. Charismatic renewal within the mainline churches has led to new and informal worship styles, an explosion in "worship songs," a new concern for the dynamics of worship, and an increasing dislike of the traditionalism of formal liturgical worship.

The Pentecostal movement—which must now be taken to include charismatic groups within mainline churches—has changed considerably since the Second World War. The most obvious change is the massive surge in its numbers. It is now estimated that there are more than 500 million Pentecostals in the world, with a very wide geographical distribution. This movement that some argue has its origins primarily within African American culture has now taken root in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. But there have been other, more subtle changes in the movement that reflect its remarkable ability to adjust to the social dynamics and realities of its increasingly diverse environments. The absence of any centralized authority within Pente-costalism has removed the inflexibility that has so hampered mainline Protestant attempts to indigenize the gospel outside the West.

Some significant divergences have emerged within the movement, especially between charismatics working within mainline Protestant denominations and those in specifically Pentecostal contexts. The former, with the theologies and sacraments of their parent denominations on which to draw, often are more developed in these areas than their Pentecostal counterparts. Pentecostals, on the other hand, tend to adopt intuitive, pragmatic attitudes toward the church, believing that its structures and forms are capable of infinite adaptation through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The American origins of the movement have led some to suggest that its success is ultimately linked with American power and influence.11 There is some truth in this observation, in that American Pente-costalism has been immensely influential in beginning other movements worldwide. However, two cautionary comments are in order. First, American Pentecostals have not been close to their nation's government, power, or influence. Even until 1960—by which time the global "planting" of Pentecostalism was well under way—the movement was seen as lying on the margins of American society and was virtually devoid of cultural credibility, academic respectability, economic power, or political influence.

Second, Pentecostalism developed in ways adapted to its new global environments, with leadership rapidly passing to indigenous pastors. The case of Korea is instructive. In 1952 the American Assemblies of God sent Abner Chesnut to Korea as their first missionary. The Korean Assemblies of God was organized in 1953 and opened its first Bible school the following year. Paul Yonggi Cho—who went on to found the Yoido Full Gospel Church—was one of its first students. The form of Pentecostalism that Cho developed was clearly influenced by Pres-byterianism (the dominant form of Christianity in Korea) and by worship traditions originating from the revivalist and holiness traditions. Yet it was unquestionably Korean, having adapted to its local context rather than retained the forms of those who planted it.

The spread of Pentecostalism is not due primarily to the projection of American influence but to the capacity of what was projected to take root in new situations. The ministry of Carlos Alberto Annacondia, who was converted in Buenos Aires in 1979 through the ministry of the Panamanian evangelist Manuel A. Ruiz, indicates how an essentially Latin American Pentecostalism has developed by propagating and transforming itself through indigenous agencies. The revival that swept through Argentinean Protestant communities in 1982, primarily through Annacondia's ministry, was thoroughly homegrown, having supplanted the old missionary gospel with a new, culturally resonant package of beliefs and social outreach.

Yet there is another response that may be made to the charge that Pentecostalism is essentially an American export. This involves a more attentive study of its origins, which reveals that its history is far more complex than has been appreciated. In what follows, we note some insights emerging from the new quest for the origins of Pentecostalism.

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  • Lennox
    What is american pentecostalism?
    2 years ago

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