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Rise of Pentacostalism

From God's Peculiar People, by Elaine J. Lawless, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Pentecostalism, as a new religious denomination, did not emerge overnight. The various components recognized today as standard Pentecostal attributes-such as trance and charismatic behaviors, tongue-speaking, and shouting in the spirit-developed piecemeal over nearly a hundred years. The enthusiastic worshipping style that characterizes Pentecostal church services today is reminiscent of early nineteenth-century Methodist revivals and camp meetings. The strict fundamentalist taboos and regulations imposed upon Pentecostal believers stem largely from the strong “Holiness” tradition, which was itself an outgrowth of John Wesley's Methodist notions of sanctification. But the belief that salvation and sanctification could be had in a single experience of possession by the Holy Ghost and tongue-speaking is uniquely Pentecostal; it combined ideas that had prevailed in Christian tradition for decades.

Methodism and the Holiness movement preceded Pentecostalism historically and anticipated its doctrine; both, of course, continue to exist as religious movements today. Among these overlapping histories it is difficult to pinpoint a definite time and place for the birth of the Pentecostal denomination. Much of the confusion arises from the indiscriminate use of the words “Pentecostal” and “Holiness” by lay people and scholars, as well as the striking number of churches that are Pentecostal but whose names may not so indicate. Confusion also arises because “Pentecostal” is often linked merely with emotional church behavior or, more often with tongue-speaking.

It is important to note that the Pentecostal movement in the United States and the religion that came to be recognized as Pentecostalism began when the experience of tongue-speaking was accepted as evidence of the presence of the Holy Ghost, and when a small group of believers began to equate salvation with just such an experience of tongue-speaking. The entire story of the development of the Pentecostal movement and the various Assemblies of God that emerged from roots in Methodism and the Holiness movement need not be recounted here. The following discussion is presented primarily to aid in understanding the Pentecostals with whom this study is concerned and to chart their pilgrimage to southern Indiana.

John Wesley's eighteenth-century conception of Methodism caught on in the United States and has been one of the strongest religious traditions in this country. Wesley preached salvation by the “first blessing,” which was instant sanctification, or perfection attainable in this life. A sanctified believer, according to Wesley, could achieve “perfect love toward God and man.” The eighty-one page manifest, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection as Believed and Taught by the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, issued in 1739, served Methodist and perfectionist groups for two centuries. Early Methodism was largely a reaction against the extreme Calvinism that had dominated English social, religious, and political life during the seventeenth century. According to Vinson Synan, a scholar and a believer, the “creedal rigidity, liturgical strictness, and ironclad institutionalism that had depersonalized religion had rendered it incapable of serving the needs of the individual believer.” Methodism allowed any man, woman, or child the saving experience, rejecting the notion of the elected few. Methodists sought the personal experiences of conversion and sanctification. According to John Nichol, another believer, “sanctification or the 'second blessing' was seen as an experience subsequent and distinct from justification or conversion. Its effect is the eradication of natural depravity or inbred sin.”

As often happens in religious movements as they become more official and standardized, some of Wesley's followers came to find his Methodism staid and restricting. Eventually, many of his followers thought Wesley's leadership had lost sight of the importance of the search for sanctification or holiness. Thus the Holiness movement was born, composed primarily of disenchanted Methodists. In an effort to restore some of the enthusiasm of early Methodism, leaders of the schism called the first “National Camp Meeting Association for the promotion of Christian Holiness” and urged anyone sympathetic toward the search for “holiness” to attend, regardless of denominational ties. “Come, brothers and sisters of the various denominations, and let us, in this forest meeting, as in other meetings for the promotion of holiness, furnish an illustration of evangelical union, and make common supplication for the descent of the Spirit upon ourselves, the church, the nation, and the world.” Intended for the sole purpose of seeking the state of holiness, this camp meeting was held in Vineland, New Jersey, on July 17, 1867. This was just the beginning; Vineland was an unqualified success, and its fame spread quickly. Holiness cap meetings sprang up all over the country.

Camp meetings were largely characterized by what appeared to outsiders as wild evangelizing and came to be referred to as representative of the “old-time religion.” The instigators of this break with Methodism claimed that the Holiness movement adhered more closely to the basic tenets of Methodism than did Methodism itself, especially in its rigid compliance with doctrines of Christian perfection. Wesley's strict admonitions against all alcoholic drinking, dancing, theater-going, card-playing, and swearing, and his restrictions on women's dress were embraced fully and further elaborated by Holiness groups to prohibit, in time, Coca-Cola, chewing gum, rings, bracelets, earbobs, and neckties. The emphasis of the Holiness doctrine, which would later serve as the core of Pentecostalism, included the seeking of a blessing, which ought to be received subsequent to and distinct from conversion; a submission to the Spirit in all affairs of life; a lifetime effort to win converts and rejuvenate the spiritual lives of the faithful; a vibrant hope in the imminent return of Christ; and abandonment of the world and all manifestations of “worldliness.”

In time, the rural South and the Middle West emerged as the predominant areas of the Holiness movement, embracing the doctrines wholeheartedly. Traveling evangelists brought the Holiness message to the most isolated communities in these regions, and here the message took root. These preachers laid great emphasis on dress and denial of “worldly amusements,” as well as on denunciations of the coldness and formality of the Methodist church. In an attempt to understand why Holiness caught on in the rural South and Midwest, some scholars have suggested that rather than trying to reform society, which they knew they could not do, rural folk rejected it. Within Holiness the greatest “social sins” were not poverty, inequality, or unequal distribution of the wealth, but rather the effects of the theater, ball games, dancing lipstick, cigarettes, and liquor. The appeal of Holiness was inherent in the optimistic promise of attainable perfection for everyone. The Holiness Movement emphasized the warmth, feeling, emotional religious experience, and morality that began in Methodism and soon came to be known as “heart religion.”

The two largest Holiness denominations that resulted from the national Holiness movement were the Church of the Nazarene and the Pilgrim Holiness Church. Although many early Nazarene churches included the word “Pentecostal” in their names, they later dropped that word to publicly disassociate themselves from the Pentecostal movement of the 1900s, when they concluded that emotionalism and tongue-speaking had become more important in that movement than sanctification. The Pilgrim Holiness group was the forerunner of modern-day Pentecostalism, and the most important church in this regard was one that emerged in Iowa around 1894, called the “Fire-Baptized Holiness Church.” Its leader, John Fletcher, previously a Baptist minister who had been sanctified, began to call for a “third blessing” (to complement the first blessing of conversion and the second blessing of sanctification), which he called “the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire” or simply “The Fire.” His revivals in the Midwest gave rise once again to the emotional fervor of the early Methodist revivals; those receiving the fire would “shout, scream, speak in tongues, fall into trances, and even get the jerks.” Fletcher's new interpretation caused much concern and frequent rejection by many within the Holiness movement because the Holiness advocates had always associated the second blessing, of sanctification (holiness) with a baptism by the Holy Ghost and considered both to be aspects of the same experience. Note that no connection was being made at this time between the baptism of the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues. Both were occurring in the camp meetings; the baptism of the Holy Ghost was sought, and some people who “got into the spirit” often spoke in tongues, but there was no hint that this baptism and/or tongue-speaking were necessary prerequisites to salvation. The most radical of the preachers of this fire-baptized movement became more and more obsessed with the notion of repeated emotional experiences; the meetings became prolonged as members sought for yet another ecstatic encounter. Eventually, preachers were calling for not only a third blessing, but a fourth, a fifth, and even a sixth. One preacher praised God for the blood that cleans up, the Holy Ghost that fills up, the fire that burns up, and the dynamite that blows up!

By the late 1890s, several Holiness preachers had experienced tongue-speaking in Holiness churches and camp meetings and were beginning to search for this ecstatic third blessing. The early practice of tongue-speaking in American religious contexts received a great deal of attention, not all of it sympathetic. Revivals in Tennessee, where “praying through” was often accompanied by tongue-speaking, caused great excitement, and many nonbelievers blasted the tongue-speakers as practicing “heresy.” As more people experienced “the tongues” (including children), opposition became serious. Perhaps the opposition served to fire the spirit of the believers.

Although tongue-speaking among Holiness believers had occurred long before 1900, it was not linked to salvation until a group of religious students at Bethel College in Topeka, Kansas, found evidence for the connection in their Bibles. Directed by their teacher, Charles F. Parham, to seek the answer to the question, “What is the Bible evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Ghost?” this group of thirty to forty women and men sought the answer for days. Using only their Bibles as a guide, the students came up with the answer that the evidence of the Holy Ghost was speaking in tongues. The scriptural basis for their answer comes largely from the Book of Acts, although there are other biblical references that link tongue-speaking with the infilling of the Holy Ghost. The primary scripture that convinced them was Acts 2:1-4, which describes the descent of the Holy Ghost upon 120 believers who were in the Upper Room praying and fasting: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Parham's students sought to replicate this experience. In time, several of the students did receive the baptism and spoke in tongues; then the group received the baptism en masse. Practicing Pentecostals claim this as the birth of Pentecostalism because it most closely parallels the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the biblical Upper Room as described in the New Testament. This is the account they give for the adoption of the name “Pentecosts” as well, because the biblical episode occurred during Pentecost.

From Kansas the Pentecostal message spread all over the country. The single most important doctrinal issue that distinguished it from the Holiness movement was the belief that speaking in tongues was the evidence of the possession of the Holy Ghost and that this experience was as necessary for salvation as conversion and sanctification. Although tongue-speaking had occurred time and again in revivals and camp meetings, it had never before become the center of attention. With Pentecostalism came a unified effort to seek and experience this proof of the Holy Ghost in the converted.

Pentecostal preachers began to preach what they called the “full gospel,” a term still used today to identify a legitimate Pentecostal group. The full gospel is a combination of old doctrines and new emphases; the biblical emphasis on salvation and justification by faith; the stress on divine healing; the doctrine of the premillennial return of Christ; belief in a Holy Spirit whose baptism empowers a Christian to live victoriously and to witness effectively and enables the believer to perform the supernatural. According to Nichol, the Pentecostals were “almost rabid in their assertion that glossolalia always accompany an “infilling of the Holy Ghost.'”

Between 1901 and 1906, the fervor for the “Pentecostal experience” centered largely in Houston, Texas, where Charles Parham and other leaders had congregated to spread the message. By 1906, the Pentecostal movement took root in Los Angeles, where outpourings of the “Latter Rain,” or “The Fire,” occurred with regularity in meetings in Bonnie Brae Street, and then for three years was manifested in the now-famous church on Azusa Street. Although the location of the church in a poor black community created a standard stereotype that the movement was predominantly embraced by black Christians, the church on Azusa Street, as well as others that sprang up during these formative years, drew its congregation from both the black and the white communities. Once the press noticed all the noise over on Azusa Street, their negative and somewhat derisive illustrated accounts often served as advertisement and swelled the crowds even more. Block-Hoell notes that it was in the Seattle papers that the Pentecostals were first referred to as “Holy Rollers” and that their Methodist forerunners had been referred to as “Holy Jumpers.” He also notes that non-Pentecostals referred to the movement as the “Tongues Movement.” By September, 1906, the Pentecostal movement claims to have had 13,000 followers in the United States and by the end of the year Pentecostalism had reached Europe and Asia.

Again, preachers traveled the countryside preaching the Pentecostal message in Baptist and Methodist churches. Often one segment of the congregation would respond favorably to this new message and split off from the denominational church to form a separate group and call themselves “Pentecosts” or “Pennycosts.” From the beginning, Pentecostals have been inclined to refer to this new faith as the “Pentecostal experience,” rejecting such labels as Pentecostal religion, church, or denomination. In a fairly short time, minute differences about doctrine began to plague the new Pentecostals. Black Pentecostals formed their own official church, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee); white Pentecostals called for a “General Council of the Assemblies of God” in 1914 to formalize the doctrine that conversion and sanctification could be experienced at the same time and managed to alienate Holiness Pentecostals for good. Although Pentecostals talk about the “holiness” aspects of their religion, a clear distinction developed between Holiness sects and Pentecostal sects.

Another even more radical idea split the Pentecostals into two main camps-the Trinitarian and the Jesus Only or Oneness Pentecostals. In 1913, at a Pentecostal camp meeting in Los Angeles, evangelist R. E. McAlister declared from the pulpit that the biblical apostles only baptized their converts once in the name of “Jesus” and that the words “Father, Son and Holy Ghost were never used in early Christian baptism.” According to Synan, “Unknowingly, Evangelist McAlister had fired a shot that would resound throughout the Movement for a year.”

The idea caught on in some quarters. Adherents to this new doctrine were baptized in Jesus' name and an effort was made to convince and rebaptize the entire Pentecostal movement. But the response was not unanimously positive. The General Council of the Assemblies of God became alarmed by this development and at the meeting in October, 1916, denounced the “Oneness” sects as heretical and established the Assemblies of God as a trinitarian body. While the unitarian point of view is unacceptable to many Pentecostals it still attracts large numbers of believers. The largest recognized unitarian Pentecostal denomination in the United States today is the United Pentecostal Church, which was created by the merger of several independent unitarian Pentecostal groups. There are, however, literally thousands of Oneness Pentecostal churches in the Midwest that have no affiliation with any major, recognized organization. Contrary to the notion that Jesus Only or Oneness Pentecostals constitute an insignificant proportion of the Pentecostal population, in southern Indiana there are nearly three Oneness churches for every Pentecostal trinitarian church. Oneness believers are staunch about their “Jesus Only” views but are understandably cautious about flaunting their peculiar beliefs. For Oneness Pentecostals to assert that Jesus is God strikes many other Chrisitans as heretical and blasphemous. Many Oneness Pentecostals in southern Indiana relate stories of ostracism and persecution arising from their antitrinitarian beliefs.

Rather than being a religion based on official tenets determined by knowledgeable officials, Pentecostalism is based on things that happen to people. And the essence for the experiences, as well as their interpretation, must be communicated to the other members of the group. It is on that foundation that all doctrine rests. Pentecostalism is an oral religion. All members learn to speak a special religious language. It is within the context of the church service that the tenets of the faith are conveyed, interpreted, and stabilized. Stories passed down from grandparents about the early days of traveling preachers who brought the Pentecostal message lay a firm historical foundation for the beliefs of the modern church.

Acknowledgements to: From Godís Peculiar People, by Elaine J. Lawless, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

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