Parham Opened Bethel Bible School
ON THIS DAY, 15 October 1900, Charles Fox Parham opened Bethel Bible Institute in Topeka, Kansas. The institute was housed in a mansion known as Stone’s Folly, whose builder had run out of funds before it was complete. The school was faith-based, and funds soon dried up. It survived only one year, but its influence survived much longer.
Having contracted rheumatic fever, Parham was a sickly boy until around age 18, when he claimed a miraculous healing. Not surprisingly then, his theology focused on charismatic gifts—especially healing and tongues-speaking. He taught that being filled with the Holy Spirit would always be accompanied by speaking in tongues—which he thought would be actual foreign languages such as the disciples spoke at Pentecost.
Bethel’s students planned a New Year’s Eve “watch night” service to pray for the Holy Spirit. In the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 1901, student Agnes Ozman asked Parham to lay hands on her so she might be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in another tongue as evidence.
Soon she was speaking a language which other students identified as Chinese. More students began speaking in tongues and so did Parham. He claimed they spoke and wrote in several known languages. The writings, however, proved indecipherable to linguists. Even so, Parham claimed that missionaries need no longer study foreign languages: the Holy Spirit would endow them with linguistic ability.
Five years after Bethel folded, Parham taught in Houston, where an African-American man named William Seymour attended his classes, sitting in the hallway because of discrimination laws. Seymour went on to lead the Azusa Street Revival, which, even more than Bethel Bible School, ignited the Pentecostal movement. Parham repudiated Azusa, partly because he was shocked to see blacks and whites mingling and partly because he thought he observed spiritism and hypnosis in use.
Before Parham died in 1929, he had welded together the distinctive elements that characterize Pentecostal theology: speaking in tongues, faith healing, and a belief that modern-day believers can experience the same spiritual gifts that were available in the apostolic age. However, his legacy was controversial. He raised money to locate the Ark of the Covenant in Israel, but never sailed, saying he was robbed. Once he was arrested on charges of engaging in a homosexual act; conflicting testimony led to the case’s dismissal. Another time a treatable child died because of his teaching on faith healing. He was also connected with two controversial communal sects—Alexander Dowie’s faith healing group at Zion City and Frank Sanford’s disciples at Shiloh—and subscribed to Sanford’s belief in “British Israelism” (that Anglo-Saxons are the ten lost tribes of Israel).
Though Parnham disapproved of the move, his followers would one day become part of the Assemblies of God, now the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination.