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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal


Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Pentecostalism's beginnings are rooted in the description of "tongues of fire" that fell upon the heads of Jesus' followers who gathered to pray in Jerusalem around the time of the Jewish Festival of Weeks (Pentecost).  The Book of Acts (2:4) continues, "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them."  The Book of Acts, along with Paul's commentary and instructions regarding the other nine gifts of the Holy Spirit, form the central tenets of Pentecostalism.

From this description, what Pentecostalism is, where it began, and how or if it still continues into the present are all issues up for theological and historical debate.  What can be described as Pentecostal beginnings might better be framed as "charismatic" activity, which was attested to hundreds and hundreds of times over the span of the formative years of the Church.  This is important to note, since one of contemporary Pentecostalism's key arguments for its validity as a core part of Christian history is its existence as part of an unbroken stream of supernatural activity spurred by the direct experience of the Holy Spirit, thus tying all Pentecostals back to the Book of Acts.

Most of this Pentecostal activity in the early Church followed familiar biblical patterns focusing on prophecy, visions, healing, and exorcisms (casting out of demons).  Specific descriptions of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) are often nuanced, inferred, but there are some descriptions of speaking and singing in languages that were not known to the speakers (xenoglossia).  Since glossolalia and xenoglossia are both a part of Pentecostalism's contentious history, it should be noted that both phenomena were described in early Church circles.  Suffice to say, historically there have been detractors who have doubted that either of these phenomena is possible, and they often posited that Church leaders who had experienced such phenomena were either deluded or deceived, and that most were theologically very dangerous.

Montanus, a 2nd-century Church leader, was considered a heretic because of his claims to receive direct revelations from the Holy Spirit.  Montanus, and his female companions, Priscilla and Maxmilia, preached throughout Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), that direct revelations from the Holy Spirit had given them the ability to prophesy and to receive visions, and a renewed zeal for prayer and fasting.  Challenging the notion that one did not need the authority of the Church to be a faithful Christian, Montanus and other leaders who believed that the Holy Spirit could lead them to the truth without the guidance of the Church's authority were simply too dangerous for the Church to accept.  Most, if not all, of Montanus's followers were branded as heretics, including noted Church leader Tertullian.