Transformation

The twentieth century witnessed many events in the history of Protestantism—some inspirational, some deeply disturbing, and others merely significant. One of those events was the inexorable rise of the economic, military, and cultural power of the United States of America, which has had incalculable consequences for Protestantism. The phenomenon now described as "globalization" was well under way by the middle of the century, with the result that Protestant ideas originating in the United States have been "subject to constant reappropriation, repackaging, and dissemination into the transnational realm."2

This can be seen at every level of Protestant identity—including ecumenism, theology, missionary activity, the forging of new models of ministry, and spirituality. In my own specialty—the discipline of "systematic theology"—the intellectual lead has passed decisively from its 1900 epicenter in Germany to the United States. Christian theology was dominated from 1900 to about 1970 by German-language writers, including Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Adolf von Harnack, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Yet since about 1980, the intellectual lead has passed to America.

Yet one development that played a critical role in the global shaping of twentieth-century Protestantism is too easily overlooked—as, indeed, it was

CHRISTIANITY S DANGEROUS IDEA

at the time. With hindsight, it is possible to see that a series of seemingly unimportant events in the early 1900s pointed the way to the changing of the Protestant world in the twentieth century. As might be expected, the most famous of these took place in the United States—not in any great city or university, but in a town in the rural state of Kansas that was still recovering from the economic depression of the 1890s, and in a run-down, near-derelict church in San Francisco where the congregation sat on planks to pray.

Late in the evening on the first day of the twentieth century—-January 1, 1901—an event took place at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas. The institution had been founded in the holiness tradition the previous October by Charles Fox Parham (1873—1929), a former pastor in the Methodist Episcopal church. Topeka had already attracted wide attention through the novels of its Congregationalistpastor Charles Sheldon, author of In His Steps. As an exercise, Parham asked his students to investigate the New Testament evidence for the continued activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.

It was seen as an empty, pointless question by many. The theological wisdom of the day took the form of "cessationism," which was widely taught by Protestant theological heavyweights. In this view, the active gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as "speaking in tongues," belonged to the age of the New Testament and were no longer available or operational? The New Testament was thus read from within a somewhat rationalist framework, reflecting the ideas of the Enlightenment, which had already determined that such spiritual phenomena were things of the past. Parham was not so sure. Within his own holiness tradition, reports were circulating of what seemed to be charismatic phenomena. He asked his students for their views.

Their response—-perhaps too easily dismissed as naive and simplistic— was that a straightforward reading of the biblical texts suggested that this charismatic gifting was still a possibility and that it could be identified by speaking in other tongues. Impressed by the clarity of this response, Parham joined his students for a prayer vigil that began on December 31,1900, in the hope that the gift might be renewed. At eleven o'clock the following evening, when the new century was less than a day old, one of Parham's students, Agnes Ozman, had such an experience. A few days later others, including Parham himself, followed suit.

Parham and his students began to tell others about this apparent recovery of the gift of tongues. One of those who heard Parham speak in 1905 was the African American preacher William J. Seymour (1870—1922), who was forced by the southern segregationist policies of that period to listen to Parhams lectures through a half-opened door. Sadly, Parham—noted for his white supremacist views—did nothing to break down this racial wall of separation. Inspired, Seymour went on to open the Apostolic Faith Mission in a dilapidated church, then used only for storage, at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles in April 1906.

Over the next two years, a major revival broke out at Azusa Street, characterized by speaking in tongues. The movement began to be characterized by the term "Pentecostalism," which came from "the Day of Pentecost"—the occasion, according to the New Testament, when the phenomenon was first experienced by the early Christian disciples (Acts 2:1—4). Significantly, at a time of ruthless racial segregation in American culture brought about by the notorious Jim Crow segregation laws, the Azusa Street mission pointedly ignored racial issues.4 A black man was leading a diverse ministry team comprising white people, black people, and Hispanics. As historian of Pentecostalism Frank Bartlemann put it, alluding to a great revivalist theological theme, "the color line was washed away with the blood."

Through events like this, not limited to the United States, a new Protestant movement was born in the first decade of the twentieth century. One hundred years after its birth, it is estimated that at least half a billion people are Pentecostals—the largest Christian group of any kind other than Catholicism. Its emergence and consolidation has transformed Protestantism and raised the possibility that the twenty-first century will be shaped decisively and permanently by this new, dynamic, populist form of Christianity. It forms the backdrop against which the story of Protestantism in the twentieth century must be told—and on which its future may well depend.

Yet we must begin our account of the remarkable reconfiguration of Protestantism in the twentieth century by considering its development in the nation that stamped its presence and influence on that era—the United States of America.

A nineteenth-century American camp meeting. Thousands of these took place, especially in the southern states, helping to shape the emergence of the '"Bible Belt." Lithograph by Hugh Bridport, c. 1829.

0 0

Post a comment