The Silent Pentecostals

THE AZUSA STREET REVIVAL was noticeably “free of all nationalist feeling,” according to one observer. “If a Mexican or a German cannot speak English, he gets up and speaks in his own native tongue and feels quite at home, for the Spirit interprets through his face, and the people say ‘Amen.’ No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or education.”

It is no accident that this observer’s first example of varied ethnicity was “a Mexican,” for since the beginning of Pentecostalism, Latinos have played an important role in the movement.

Old-time religion

Abundio and Rosa López were among the first to be baptized with “Holy Ghost and fire,” at Azusa. “Thanks be to God for the Spirit which brought us to the Azusa Street Mission, the Apostolic Faith, old-time religion,” they exclaimed. “We cannot express our gratitude and thanksgiving which we feel moment by moment for what He has done for us, so we want to be used for the healing of both soul and body.”

From the very beginning, Latinos flocked to the Azusa Street Mission in search of a transcendent God and a better life. For reasons that are not entirely clear, their unbridled enthusiasm and desire to testify prompted the leader of the mission to “ruthlessly crush” the Latino contingent in 1909.

This conflict gave birth to the Latino Pentecostal movement as scores left the mission and began preaching the Pentecostal message throughout barrios and migrant farm labor camps in the U.S., Mexico, and Puerto Rico. As early as 1912, Latinos organized their own completely autonomous and independent churches in California, Texas, and Hawaii.

Trinitarian and Oneness

The Oneness controversy split the fledgling Latino Pentecostal movement asunder in 1913. Many rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as unbiblical and accepted the Oneness message.

Francisco Llorente and Antonio Nava organized the first Latino Oneness denomination in the U.S. in 1916. Their tremendous evangelistic work, along with that of their proétgés, has developed into a movement numbering 900 congregations and 100,000 followers throughout the United States.

These Apostolic Assembly and La Luz del Mundo Pentecostals differ from their Assemblies of God (AG)counterparts in practice as well as doctrine. They do not ordain women and require women to wear a head covering during worship. They also frown upon women wearing cosmetics, jewelry, pants or cutting their hair.

Schism and charisma

While the Oneness controversy was ripping apart the Pentecostal movement, a young, tall, and idealistic Anglo Methodist named Henry C. Ball converted to Pentecostalism. Although he didn’t speak a word of Spanish, Ball began preaching to Mexicans through a translator in Ricardo, Texas, (near Corpus Christi) in 1915. That same year he founded the Latin District Council of the Assemblies of God. Committed to establishing indigenous churches, his often headstrong and paternalistic attitudes towards Mexicans led to a major schism.

Affectionately known as the “Mighty Aztec,” the physically imposing Francisco Olazábal (who worked with Ball) left the AG in 1923 because “the gringos have control.”

The controversy with Ball behind him, Olazábal founded the Latin American Council of Christian Churches. Olazábal’s powerful evangelistic-healing crusades swept through the barrios of Los Angeles, El Paso, Chicago, New York, and Puerto Rico like a spiritual tidal wave.

While Olazábal’s evangelistic—healing crusades were sweeping the barrios, H. C. Ball and the Latin District Council was silently planting churches throughout the U.S. The energetic Ball and Alice Luce published La Luz Apostolica (Apostolic Light) and Himnos de Gloria (Hymns of Glory), set up Bible Schools in California and Texas, and aggressively recruited and trained their spiritual successors with Texas vigor. Today the movement Ball and Luce founded now numbers 290,000 Latinos and 1,700 churches.

Like a wax museum, the history of Latino Pentecostalism is full of dynamic characters like Chonita Morgan Howard who preached the Pentecostal message on horseback in northern Mexico and Arizona. Domingo Cruz, a fiery, illiterate one-legged was legendary for his persuasive preaching among the migrant farm labor camps of northern California. Still others like Robert Fierro, a.k.a. the “burned over Irishman,” and A.C. Valdez thrilled thousands of Latinos and Anglos with their powerful evangelistic services throughout the country.

The Silent Pentecostals 

The work that these silent Pentecostals (their story is rarely told) pioneered prior to World War II is spreading like wildfire throughout the U.S. and Latin America today. Although often only averaging 60 to 100 members, these Pentecostal templos and iglesias are attracting 30,000 to 40,000 Latinos annually from Roman Catholicism.

"Their minister,” one scholar of Latino Pentecostalism stated, “is likely to be a factory worker himself, secure in the Pentecostal belief that ‘a man of God with a Bible in his hand has had training enough.’ Many Pentecostals attend church every night for a two-hour service. Loud Bible readings and spontaneous testimonials are part of every service, punctuated by shouts of ‘Aleluyah’ and ‘Gracias a Dios [Thanks be to God].’ The hymns well up with rhythmic clapping, generally accompanied by a guitar, drums, tambourines, and bass fiddle, piano or small combo.”

Their call to a “born-again” Spirit-filled life has, unfortunately, resulted in tremendous conflict and persecution in their families and barrios, where they are derisively labeled the “Aleluyas.”

The Pentecostal movement, along with a host of other religions, is shattering the stereotype that to be Latino is to be Roman Catholic. Today an estimated 1 million Latinos have embraced the Pentecostal/ charismatic movement and attend one of the 10,000 congregations and prayer groups in 40 Latino Pentecostal/ charismatic traditions throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Links

Andrés Tapia is a Christian journalist specializing in Latino concerns, especially among Pentecostals and evangelicals. His work has appeared in Christianity Today, Harper’s, The Chicago Tribune, Salon, and other periodicals. 

By Gaston Espinosa

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

Gastón Espinosa is the 1997–1998 César Chávez Fellow at Dartmouth College.
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