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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Because Pentecostalism is a movement that builds on experience and revelation rather than creeds or confessions, schisms have been an intrinsic part of the larger community. Pentecostalism has been subject to many denominational splits. While remaining unified in the essential theology of salvation, many divisions have stemmed from different understandings of the relationship between conversion, sanctification, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostals with a Holiness background generally believed that sanctification was second defining work of grace in their lives, and that it happened after conversion.  Pentecostals from non-Holiness backgrounds such as Baptist William H. Durham believed that sanctification was a progressive process, and that it occurred at conversion.  In 1910, at a Chicago Pentecostal meeting, Durham preached on the idea that sanctification and conversion were synonymous based on the "finished work" of Jesus' death and resurrection. Therefore, one did not have to wait for a second work of sanctification in order to ask for and receive Spirit baptism. 

In 1911, the controversy flared when Durham's teaching became common knowledge among Pentecostals.   On a trip to Los Angeles, Durham was kept from preaching at one Pentecostal church (Upper Room), and as he was going to preach at Seymour's Azusa Street Mission, Durham found that he had been locked out of the church.  The controversy continued for another three years when in 1914, with the organizing of the first denominations to form out of Azusa Street, the Assemblies of God chose to be associated with the "Finished Work" theology, while most Southern Holiness-influenced Pentecostals (the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee; the Pentecostal Holiness Church; and the Church of God in Christ), chose to remain part of the group that retained sanctification as a second work of grace.

Other splits have occurred over issues of polity or were due to issues over the perceived liberalization of Holiness standards.   One of the oldest Pentecostal denominations, the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee (1886) split into several smaller Churches of God, the largest being the Church of God Prophecy.  All of those splits occurred over leadership issues.  One of the largest African American Oneness denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (1918), has split into several smaller bodies, such as the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, (1924), over leadership and holiness issues.  One church split-Congregational Holiness Church's split from the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1920-was over the use of medicine in addition to divine healing. 

The most significant schism was that of the Oneness split from the Trinitarian branch.  During a 1913 camp meeting in Los Angeles, where noted healing evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter was the main attraction, another well-known minister, Canadian Robert T. McAlister received a revelation about baptism.  McAlister said that the baptismal formula found in Acts 2:38 ("in the name of Jesus Christ") was the preferred method of baptism, not the traditional Christian formula ("in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit").  A group of ministers resonated with McAlister's words and accepted them as prophetic words; they soon began to preach this alternative baptismal formula and urged people to be re-baptized.  An Australian minister, Frank Ewart, took McAlister's prophetic words a couple of steps further.  Not only was the baptismal formula wrong, but also the entire idea of the Trinity was erroneous. God was Jesus; the rest of the names of God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-were titles and did not denote different people in the Godhead.  So many Pentecostals sought to be re-baptized that organizing these varied Oneness groups soon proved to be an urgent need. 

Between 1913 and 1914 the largest Pentecostal denomination at the time, the Assemblies of God (founded in 1913 in Hot Springs, Arkansas), lost nearly a quarter of its ministers when it decided to become part of the Oneness movement.  After an intense battle, the Assemblies of God codified its doctrine in the "Statement of Fundamental Truths" in 1916, and Oneness was deemed theology outside the mainstream of Pentecostalism.  In 1918, Oneness adherents, needing to develop their own organization after effectively being ousted from Pentecostalism, founded the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, headed by African American Garfield T. Haywood, in Indianapolis.  Oneness is the largest schism to emerge from dozens of early splits and schisms that affected Pentecostalism's nascent years.

Further out on the periphery of Pentecostal schisms and splits were the snake-handling churches that flourished in the Appalachian areas of the U.S.  These churches operated under the authority of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee and the Church of God Prophecy until they were officially ostracized in the 1940s.  One of the key figures of this movement was George Went Hensley.  Hensley was a minister with the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee in the early 20th century.  In response to intense times of prayer, he believed that he had received a revelation commanding him to "take up serpents" (a reference to Mark 16:18).

Though the practice of snake handling existed before Hensley, he popularized the practice by preaching it as a part of the full Pentecostal message.  Upon being ostracized from the Church of God, Hensley founded the non-denominational Church of the God with Signs Following.  Scholars such as Ralph Hood have posited that the lack of growth in these churches is not simply the danger one equates with snakes, but that the high risks associated with this movement simply do not offer enough tangible benefits (community, social networks, etc.) for people to make that risk.  As such, after 100 years, there are only about 50-100 churches that practice snake handling, located mostly in the Appalachia region of the United States.