The New Quest For The Origins Of Pentecostalism

The traditional account of the origins of Pentecostalism, which we set out earlier in this chapter, tends to portray it as an American phenomenon that gradually spread throughout the world, partly by active transfer, partly by passive diffusion. On this view, Azusa Street was the Jerusalem from which the message of God's gift of the Spirit went out to the nations. There is certainly some truth in this account: twenty-six Pentecostal denominations trace their historical origins back to Azusa Street. Nevertheless, this hugely influential (especially in the United States) account is increasingly recognized to be incomplete in the light of a wealth of material now being uncovered by historians.

More significantly, the traditional theory demands a model of Pentecostal development that is essentially that of the adaptation of an American model to other contexts. The question that the historian is forced to consider is why and how an American model was changed to suit other locales. What if the phenomenon had multiple origins, most of which were outside the United States? What if Pentecostal-ism was already present in India (to give only one possibility) before Azusa Street and developed its own independent trajectory in that region?12

The explosion of scholarly interest in Pentecostalism that has arisen in the last twenty years has begun to cast light on the complex origins of the movement that forces revision of the traditional model.13 Major studies of the origins of the movement in Argentina, Chile, Ghana, Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, and South India have forced historians to make essential revisions to the earlier paradigms. The historical origins of Pentecostalism now seem as complex as those of the original Protestant Reformation itself. A number of roughly contemporary movements with recognizable shared beliefs and expectations emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century, but without any obvious indication of reciprocal causality.

The picture that is now becoming clear is that of a series of local "Pentecostalisms" emerging in the first decade of the twentieth century. The 1906 revival at Azusa Street was one of them. So was the 1903 revival in Pyongyang, Korea; the 1905-7 revival at Pandita Ramabai's Mukti Mission in Poona, India; the Manchurian revival of 1908; the revival in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1909; the revival that broke out in the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, and the Liberian Kru in 1914; and other revivals in Norway, China, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Each of these revivals demonstrated Pentecostal characteristics, though there was no clear connection between them. What we can now recognize as Pente-costalism was well established in India before anyone there had heard of Charles Parham, Azusa Street, or William Seymour.14

The parallel with the emerging scholarly understanding of the origins of Protestantism in the early sixteenth century is striking. Once more, multiple sources for the movement have had to be recognized as the historical evidence mounts for the fundamental historical and intellectual heterogeneity of the movement—whose manifestations nevertheless share enough common ground to allow collaboration, negotiation, and mutual support. And the same mechanisms that led to the consolidation and significant—but not total—convergence of individual reformations to yield "the Reformation" led to the collaboration and even convergence of these emergent Pentecostalisms. The American model may have been more influential than some in shaping the emerging movement's thought, structures, and expectations—but it cannot be said to be the cause or source of the movement.

As this more complex picture has emerged, Pentecostal historians have begun to interpret it in terms of the providential dispersal of essentially the same divine gift throughout the world in a relatively brief period of time.15 Yet for our purposes, this increasingly complex and nu-anced picture allows a critically important point to be made: the theme of "diversity within unity" was present from the origins of the movement. It was not a later development that resulted from an essentially American movement being forced to reconsider its strategies, objectives, and approaches in the light of its encounter with non-American situations. Rather, it was integral to the historical emergence of the phenomenon that we now call "Pentecostalism" but that had no shared name or sense of identity until people began to compare notes, often stimulated by the fame of events at Azusa Street.

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