From the Editor — One Dangerous Religion

BETWEEN the advertising industry and a handful of scholars, this issue has nearly come to ruin.

Let’s begin with advertisers, who have destroyed the very words that should litter this issue. What can you do with sensational after it’s been used to describe the results of facial cream, orphenomenal, when it’s been describing the ride of a new car. When I use such words to describe early Pentecostalism, they sound trite.

But they remain two of the best words to describe it. It was sensational: it created a sensation and (with tongues, laying on of hands, and slayings in the Spirit) touched the senses of its adherents. It was also phenomenal: it shocked America and was filled with spiritual phenomena. So we've decided to use these and other Madison Avenue adjectives—though sparingly. But when we do use them, please note we mean them. Really.

On the other hand, as we prepared the issue, we were warned by some scholars not to highlight the sensational but to remember that Pentecostalism is a maturing movement that now includes well-behaved, middle-class people, like, uh, scholars. The behavior of some Pentecostals seems to be an embarrassment to others.

I can understand this. Pentecostals have done a few strange things in their day: seeing 90—foot Jesuses, falling into trances, and, lately, barking like dogs. But they've also done pretty remarkable things, like reaching out to the poor, reintroducing many spiritual gifts to the church, and reinvigorating the faith of entire continents (Africa and South America). Not bad for a century.

As a liturgically minded, theologically educated, decidedly non-charismatic Episcopalian (I used to lift my hands in prayer, but then only waist high), I'm impressed with Pentecostals. Mainline Christians like myself have managed to so tame the Holy Spirit, one can hardly tell the difference between “the divine presence” and a well-oiled liturgical service.

When Pentecostals are accused of acting foolishly, I reply: So? If God were really to descend in power, wouldn’t some recipients of that power go crazy? (Moses said he’d die.) What do we expect when the Spirit of the Living God enters people: that they’ll form a committee to write a new set of church by-laws?

A number of Pentecostals have suggested that being filled with the Spirit is like touching a live electrical wire: it’s dangerous. Pentecostalism is dangerous, indeed, and as such produces some excesses. Then again, God is reported to be dangerous.

The only embarrassment to me is Pentecostalism’s embarrassment of riches: it is too dynamic a movement to do justice to in one issue, let alone one book. So in this issue, we narrow our focus to early, white (mostly), American Pentecostalism. Though this variety is a minority in worldwide Pentecostalism, it is the type of Pentecostalism we suspect you, our readers, have some acquaintance with.

It is also a variety that was sensational and phenomenal. Really.

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #58 in 1998]

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