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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Petecostalism's focus as an eschatological missions movement has not changed that much from its inception in the early 20th century; its global breadth is staggering when one considered where it began. Within Pentecostalism's first twenty years, Azusa Street missionaries had developed churches in China, India, Japan, Egypt, Liberia, Angola, Brazil, and Mexico.  It should be noted that in many of these places, Pentecostal-style revivals where spiritual experiences such as healing, prophecy, and tongues were the norm had already begun; there were noted revivals, independent of American Pentecostalism, in India (1905), Pyongyang, (1907), Oslo (1907), Chile (1909).

To return briefly to Azusa Street and its significance as a missions sending area, the accounts of people receiving the Spirit baptism there and promptly leaving the U.S. to spread the message globally is quite impressive, especially considering that many of those early missionaries were women who traveled alone to places such as China, India, and various countries in Africa and Latin America.  There they often founded churches and orphanages, and were the de facto leaders of the Pentecostal movement's early foray as a world religion. By October 1906, thirty-eight missionaries had left the Azusa Street Mission to go overseas. Pentecostal missionaries were in fifty nations by 1908.  John G. Lake began Pentecostal missions in South Africa. Juan Navarro (re-baptized in the name of Jesus in Los Angeles by Mexican Oneness pioneer Romanita Carbajal de Valenzuela), returned to Mexico and began to spread the Oneness-inspired Pentecostalism he was exposed to in Los Angeles, baptizing future leaders of the oldest Latino Pentecostal group, Apostolic Assemblies of Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus.  Lucy Farrow, a black Holiness preacher who had first invited Seymour to preach in Los Angeles, became a missionary to Liberia.

Other missions-sending centers for Pentecostalism included the Chicago area where Durham's church, the North Avenue Mission, became a place where Luigi Francescon and Gioacomo Lombardi, Italian immigrants who settled in Chicago, are credited with starting missions in Italy, Argentina, and Brazil.  Gunnar Vingren and Daniel Berg left the midwest to start the Assemblies of God in Brazil. These missions trips helped refine one of the essential doctrines of Pentecostalism-xenoglossia. When missionaries realized that they were not able to speak the language of their host country, the Parham-inspired idea of xenoglossia waned in favor of today's present understanding that speaking in tongues is speaking in an unknown language.

The missions story of Africa and China are too complex to replay here, but it is worth noting that these are two areas where earlier Pentecostal-like revivals and movements helped usher in the American missionaries; Pentecostalism established deep roots and flourished after the end of colonialism.  Some scholars have posited that Pentecostalism flourished in Africa not because American missionaries succeeded in destroying the African popular religious worldview, but because Pentecostalism made sense out of their worldview.  Pentecostalism assumes that there is a supernatural connection to God who acts through dreams, visions, healing, and other divine interventions.  Unlike some other Christian missions that discredited African supernaturalism, Pentecostalism took it seriously.

In China, after the initial American Pentecostal missions efforts of the Assemblies of God and Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee, their impact waned. It was largely absent from the Shandong Revival of the 1930s-a major movement that helped spread Pentecostalism throughout China through the work of indigenous groups like the Spiritual Gifts Society.  This revival is particularly interesting since in addition to traditional spiritual gifts being reported, there were "raptures" of people who claimed to have ascended to heaven, tasted food, and had beatific visions of Jesus.  Of note here is the conflating of such "ascensions" with spirit possession prevalent in the popular religions of China.  

These Chinese Pentecostal movements sprung up while other American missions organizations spent their time developing institutions such as schools and medical clinics. In the midst of the political chaos in China during the 1930s, American Pentecostals focused on an eschatological message that read the signs of chaos as millennial harbingers of the coming end.  Their experience in China, along with other international events, encouraged American Pentecostals to move away from a postmillennial view of bringing the Kingdom of God on earth, to a more pessimistic view that hunger, poverty, disease, and natural disasters all pointed toward a culmination of the end of time and the return of Jesus.

Today, regional adaptations are largely based on the existing social and cultural conditions surrounding Pentecostalism. In the United States, the more Holiness-oriented groups tend to be in the midwest and south.  In some contexts, the desire to be separate from what some have viewed as the liberalizing tendencies of urban centers has contributed to a more conservative, piety-centered faith. Denominations such as the Assemblies of God and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (founded in 1924) have historically found more stability and cultural similarities with suburban and rural areas, opening churches in those areas far more frequently than in the urban centers.  Foursquare, for example, has seven churches in the Chicago area, and another fifty in the rest of Illinois.  

Church of God historian Mickey Crews surmises that the Pentecostal affinity for rural and suburban areas stems from their own insecurity.  Crews believed that his denomination, for example, found solace in starting churches in places that they understood-rural and largely white.  Feeling that they would not be accepted in cities and among diverse populations, Pentecostals internalized these inferior feelings and have continued their insularity from their early days through today. Today, however, there are many representations of Pentecostalism in urban settings; those churches are overwhelmingly either African American or Latino.

 
     
     
     
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