Releasing the Spirit: the Pentecostals

OVER THE LAST TWO OR THREE GENERATIONS, a third major force has sprung up within Christianity. The Catholic and Orthodox have traditionally formed one strand of the Christian rope, with their stress on church and sacrament. Protestants have been a second strand, highlighting personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Now the Pentecostals, though originating from within Protestantism, have come to represent a third strand. Their emphasis is that we all need a liberating personal experience of the Holy Spirit. The name ‘Pentecostal’ refers to the apostles’ experience on the Day of Pentecost, when they began to ‘speak in other tongues’ in what some call a ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit.’

A 1982 survey put the number of Pentecostals worldwide at around 51 million — the largest distinct category of Protestants. Add to this around 11 million Protestants and Roman Catholics who follow Pentecostal practices (see Worldwide Renewal), plus the African Independent Churches (see An African Way) — most of which are Pentecostal in style — then the figure probably exceeds the 100 million mark; by the year 2000 their numbers may well top 200 million. In Christian terms, the twentieth century could certainly be called ‘the Pentecostal Century': from nil to 200 million in 100 years is prodigious growth by any standards!


But how did it all begin?

The traditional starting-point of the Pentecostal movement was as the clock struck twelve on 31 December 1900 — the last seconds of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. The setting was Bethel Bible College in Topeka, a small town in Kansas, USA. Towards the end of 1900 the college principal, a Methodist called Charles Parham, asked his students to find out the biblical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Just after Christmas he went to Kansas City for three days of meetings and returned on 31 December to find the college positively electric with excitement.

The students had come to the unanimous conclusion that the answer was ‘speaking in tongues as the Spirit gives utterance.’ Since none of them spoke in tongues they had to do something about it, so that very night they prayed for the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. At midnight a female student, Agnes Ozman, asked Charles Parham to lay hands on her. As he did so she began to speak in tongues. The Pentecostal Century had begun.

The effect of these events in Topeka was minimal at the time. By 1906 barely 1,000 people in the entire United States had received this experience. Of course, there are records of others speaking in tongues before 1900. But the significance of Topeka was that baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues were linked together for the first time.

But in 1906 in an old Methodist church at 312 Azusa Street in a poor area of Los Angeles, the Pentecostal movement burst into prominence. The catalyst for the Azusa Street revival was the outbreak of the Welsh Revival in 1904, and the man God chose to lead the Los Angeles revival was a black minister called W. T. Seymour. When he was thrown out of another church in Los Angeles for his Pentecostal beliefs, he moved to the old building in Azusa Street. It was here that a ‘weird sect’ became an international movement which sixty years later was to penetrate deeply into the Roman Catholic and other mainstream churches and transform millions of their members.

An eye-witness account of the events in Los Angeles is provided by the diary ofa man called Frank Bartleman. The revival lasted for about three years. During that period people came from all over the world to witness what was going on. Meetings at Azusa Street went on all night. Many thousands received their ‘Pentecostal experience’ and returned to their own cities and countries to share what had happened to them.

In the next few years the Pentecostal movement was to spread to every part of the world. One of those who heard about the Azusa Street revival was T. B. Barratt, a Methodist minister from Norway, who was in the USA on a fund—raising tour. Although he never visited Azusa Street, he was baptised in the Spirit in New York and returned to Europe determined to share the good news of this experience with everyone. He was to be the first pioneer of the movement in Europe and was used by God to introduce other Christian leaders into this experience — people such as Jonathan Paul (Germany), Lewi Pethrus (Sweden), A. N. Groves (India), Anna Larssen (Denmark) and Alexander Boddy (England).

It was in 1907 that Barratt visited England at the invitation of Alexander Boddy, vicar of an Anglican church in Sunderland. Soon Anglicans and others were having their Pentecostal experience, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the local press. Strange revivalist scenes, and Vicar’s child talks Chinese, said the headlines. But in spite of its beginnings in the Church of England and other denominations (Lewi Pethrus was a Baptist and Barratt a Methodist), its growth was to lie within a separate stream, and it was not until the 1960s that the movement gained a significant bridgehead in these major denominations.

Profit and loss

It is not difficult to see why this movement grew so rapidly. It was tailor—made for the twentieth century, anticipating many of the social and psychological developments that were to take place.

Pentecostalism has always been a movement which liberates people enslaved by customs, traditions and prejudices. The later part of the century was to see the setting free of blacks in many parts of the world from their customary role of inferiority. Was it a mere accident that the first Pentecostal leader (W. J. Seymour) was a black? In 1900 women had few rights; in fact it was not until 1928 that they were permitted to vote in Britain. Was it just a coincidence that the first ‘Pentecostal’ was a woman (Agnes Ozman)? Today there are far more black Pentecostals than white, and women have always played a significant part in their history. In Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostals had a pioneer of outstanding gifts (such as dance and drama) which she exercised long before they were adopted by other churches.

Pentecostals have always stressed ‘experience’ rather than ‘doctrine’, and that has certainly slotted in with modern psychological ideas. It has proved attractive to people searching for experiences which can meet the demands of modern life rather than intellectual answers to questions. Above all in many parts of the world, particularly in the USA and Africa, Pentecostalism has become the form of Christianity most acceptable to the mass of ordinary people, nearest to their national aspirations, and most suited to be the expression of their faith. If it has not gone quite so well in the Old World, it has taken the New World by storm!

Its greatest weakness has been its tendency to divide rather than unite Christians. Pentecostalism began as a movement, not a new church, and it is still seen by many of its leaders in that light. In the early part of the century, the aspirations of most of its leaders were towards keeping it as a movement within the existing churches rather than starting a new church. But it was not long before Pentecostal churches were being formed — some as a result of persecution — and then the divisions began to take place. It was not until after the Second World War that the first World Pentecostal Conferences were held; before that all attempts to turn the Pentecostal movement into a world church were strongly opposed, especially by the Scandinavians, whose strongest spokesman was the Swedish leader Lewi Pethrus, then pastor of the largest church in Europe—the Filadelfia Church in Stockholm.

In England the two largest Pentecostal denominations came into existence in the early 1920s. When the movement came to Wales, two of the men influenced by it were brothers — George and Stephen Jeffreys. They were to become the best—known Pentecostal evangelists in Britain (George was probably the most successful evangelist Britain has produced since John Wesley) and were the chief influence in bringing into being the Pentecostal denominations in Britain. George founded the Elim Four Square Gospel Alliance in 1926 in the hope that it would become the umbrella organization for all British Pentecostals. The plan failed, foundering on the issue of church government. The denomination is now simply known as the Elim Pentecostal Church.

It was Donald Gee who played a leading part in the setting up of the Assemblies of God denomination in Britain, which predated Elim by two years. Whereas Elim adopted a centrally controlled organization (like the Methodist Church), the Assemblies of God were a federation of independent local churches (like the Congregationalists or Plymouth Brethren). Stephen, George Jeffreys’ brother, was involved in establishing this other major Pentecostal denomination in Britain.

Most of the countries of the world now have Pentecostal denominations — there are literally thousands of such churches, all with their different emphases or personalities. Another influential British Pentecostal church, for example, is the Apostolic Church, which still has its headquarters where it started at Penygroes in Wales. This has a different approach to church government and particularly emphasizes the importance of prophecy in matters of guidance and leadership in the church. Apostolic churches are stronger in Scotland than in England, while in Nigeria it has become one of the largest Protestant churches. According to the Apostolics, apostles and prophets share the role of leadership, and the apostles lay hands on people for the giving of the Holy Spirit and the ordination of elders.

Pentecostals are a strong grouping among Christians in the USSR. The ‘Siberian Seven’, persecuted Christians who sought asylum in the American Embassy in Moscow, are members of a Russian Pentecostal church. In the USA there are hundreds of Pentecostal denominations, many of which are black. One of the few areas of church growth in Britain in recent years has been the black Pentecostal churches, though a significant part of that growth has been blacks who have become disenchanted with the denominational churches which they joined when they first emigrated to Britain.

The largest single church in the world is Pentecostal. It is situated in Seoul, Korea and is pastored by Paul Yoggi Cho (with the help of 8,000 deacons). In May 1981 it had 177,489 adult members and 12,421 home cell-groups.

The largest Pentecostal church building is in Brazil. The pastor of that church is Manoel de Melo, and he has led his church into the World Council of Churches. This is a far cry from the early days of Pentecostalism and is still rare behaviour for a Pentecostal leader, since the WCC is regarded with the utmost suspicion. Latin America has been deeply penetrated by the Pentecostal movement, and it is also the area of the world where the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal is most in evidence.

What Pentecostals believe

Pentecostals have perhaps suffered more from being ignored and misrepresented than anything else, with the result that there is still widespread ignorance about who they are and what they stand for.

In some areas of Christian teaching Pentecostals are divided. But in two areas they more or less agree. They would be unanimous that the ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’, special abilities given to Christians to enrich and strengthen their corporate and individual spiritual lives, are meant to be experienced today. They all believe that Jesus still heals people, and that the Holy Spirit still speaks to people through the gift of prophecy. They believe in miracles. They believe that speaking in tongues is a genuine gift for today, and important in the life of Christian believers. They reject any view which would relegate these gifts and experiences to the apostolic age. It is this belief which has been their distinctive witness to the worldwide church.

The other area of importance is that of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals unanimously believe (hence their name) that Pentecost is an experience for all believers: the Day of Pentecost (when the first disciples received the Holy Spirit so dramatically, as Jesus had promised) was not a single historical event — rather it was a pattern which all Christians can learn from and experience in their own lives. The promise of this Spirit baptism is for all God’s people.

However, Pentecostals do not all agree on details of teaching about the so-called baptism in the Spirit. A few regard it as actual conversion, which means that they only hold to be true Christians those who have received it. But the majority teach that it is an experience subsequent to conversion and doctrinal ly different. The majority of Pentecostals still hold the view that speaking in tongues is the ‘initial evidence’ of that baptism in the Holy Spirit. In other words — no speaking in tongues, no baptism in the Spirit. But this is by no means a unanimous view. The Elim Pentecostal Church, for example, has always kept this issue open, and does not come down on one side or the other. In Chile, ‘dancing in the Spirit’ is accorded a high place in spiritual experience — some even regard it as the ‘initial evidence’ that someone has received the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

But whatever differences there may be between Pentecostals on these kinds of issue, they would all agree that the experience of the Holy Spirit and his power promised by Jesus Christ and received by the early church at Pentecost ought to be part of the life of every Christian, and in this they have the backing of the New Testament.

All-round appeal

Some people believe that Pentecostals are just better at ‘stealing sheep’ than others, and that these ‘imports’ from other churches largely account for the incredible growth of the Pentecostals in the twentieth century. Of course, some of their members did once belong to the historic churches. But there is good evidence to show that they have also been highly successful in pioneer evangelism, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

The reasons for this are not hard to see. For one thing, Pentecostals have always stressed evangelism and regarded it as the primary task of all Christians —not of just a few keen church members. They encouraged lay leadership long before it became fashionable in the historic churches.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that they have always claimed to preach ‘the whole gospel.’ By this they mean that they believe and preach that Jesus Christ can bring physical healing and spiritual deliverance as well as salvation from sin. Pentecostals also represent a virile form of Christianity which has proved attractive to both men and women, young and old. They have not had to wrestle much with problems of belief (the ‘New Theology') or of behaviour (the ‘New Morality'). They have rejected altogether teaching which has undermined the historic faith and Christian standards of morality.

It would seem clear that the Pentecostals’ strong belief in the supernatural has been a powerful factor in their successes in evangelism. The healing ministry of men such as George Jeffreys, Smith Wigglesworth and Oral Roberts, and women such as Aimec Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kuhlman have drawn large crowds to evangelistic meetings. Although the proportion of sick people healed has never been high, the fact that healings have taken place and that many people have been prayed for, has been a potent reason for the success of the Pentecostal movement.

A new Pentecost

Many leaders in the historic churches have bemoaned the lack of concern about the person and activity of the Holy Spirit — he has often been neglected or even forgotten altogether. It was Pope John XXIII who coined the phrase ‘a new Pentecost’ in his official prayer for the Second Vatican Council. The Pentecostals have acted on the basis that the power of Pentecost is still with us. They have done or experienced what so many others have just .talked or written about.

During the nineteenth century there were many revivals both in the USA and in Europe. Gradually a view developed that Christians could experience a second ‘work of grace’ subsequent to conversion: a baptism in the Holy Spirit. This was the view of the well-known American Presbyterian revivalist, Charles Finney, who testified to having experienced this second ‘baptism.’ D. L. Moody, the Billy Graham of the nineteenth century, had similar views, though because he saw his role primarily as an evangelist, he did not enlarge too much on them. But R. A. Torrey and Andrew Murray, the most noted teachers in the next generation of evangelicals, did teach this ‘second blessing’, though Andrew Murray preferred to call it ‘the full blessing of Pentecost’ (the title of one of his books). The teaching was the basis of the original Keswick Convention Movement in the UK.

So what was original about the Pentecostals? Were they not simply continuing in the Finney-Torrey tradition?

It is important to see that where these former teachers differed from the Pentecostals was not so much in what they believed about the baptism in the Spirit, but rather what they believed it was for. The nineteenth-century teaching was clear: the baptism in the Spirit was to give victory over sin. The Keswick Convention has always stressed that, though they later moved away from second blessing teaching.

But Pentecostals introduced a new emphasis: the purpose of the baptism in the Spirit was ‘power for service’; with the stress on speaking in tongues, there was a shift in emphasis to worship. Power to worship and witness to others about Jesus has always been the hallmark of the Pentecostal movement and its emphasis in relationship to the baptism in the Holy Spirit, rather than personal holiness and victory over sin. CH

By Michael Harper

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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